An Unexpectedly Good Season

This past weekend was the last competition of the season. Saturday morning after I’d packed the trailer I went out to get Diego. And, pretty much as expected, I found that he was caked with dried on mud. Clods of it hung from his forelock and mane. His back was covered. He’d obviously rolled in mud thoroughly and gleefully. At least it was dry. So I scrubbed the worst of it loose with a currycomb and then pulled out the vaccuum cleaner. He quite likes the vaccuum, so I was able to get some of the grime off him. But it was ground in, and I definitely didn’t get it all.

Originally I had planned to do the 31 mile set speed on Sunday. But when I looked at Diego’s record, I saw that he was at 464 OCTRA competition miles. So a 31 mile ride (assuming he finished) would put him at 495 miles. Just a little shy of 500 miles. There was an 8 mile ride n tie on Saturday. So I checked with Doug to see if he wanted to do a ride n tie. He’s not really a runner. But he is a very good sport. I am sure I could have sponsored one of the teams and just ridden along for the mileage. But I kind of like Ride n Tie. And it’s good for Diego (neurotic little coward that he is) to learn to cope with new things.

Doug is pretty relaxed and doesn’t panic about stuff. So I figured he’d be good with Diego. And he was. Diego accepted him easily. For the first loop, we just took turns riding, but stayed together. It’s a poor strategy for making time. But it allowed Diego to settle into the idea of changing riders constantly. With a mile left in the first loop, I sent Doug ahead into camp. He tied Diego, and went out on the second loop.

Once I got Diego vetted through, and caught Doug on the second loop, we started practicing very short range ties. So Doug rode ahead and tied within sight of me. Diego began to get the idea, and coped surprisingly well. The only problem was, on the last change, the saddle (a treeless) turned when I tried to mount. Undoubtedly I was getting tired and put too much weight in the stirrup. But I could not get that saddle to hold steady, even trying to mount from a stump. It had really loosened up. It tends to do that once the heat from his body warms the pad up. It took me a few minutes to get that sorted out and get back on him. So poor Doug ended up doing the last mile without a change. I caught up to him just before the finish.

We ended up 5th out of 6 teams. The 6th being a six year old girl, her dad, and her elderly pony. I guess I don’t have a future as a marathon runner. But it was fun 🙂

It rained off and on all afternoon, and through the night as well. The temperature dropped sharply overnight. Diego wore his winter blanket, and I buried myself in a comforter, a sleeping bag, and three thick fleecy blankets up in the gooseneck of my horse trailer. It was warm enough once I’d been snuggled in for a while. But I sure did NOT want to get up on Sunday morning. The moment I moved though, Diego nickered at me. He was listening for signs of life. “Breakfast time! Hungry horse here!”

Rob brought me a tea and a breakfast sandwich from Timmie’s, and even though both were barely lukewarm, they were wonderful. Then Sandy arrived to crew for me, volunteering even though she didn’t feel well enough to ride (her horse is Benson, the world’s cutest Arab). I spent quite a few years competing with no crew. But lately… having crew… I am totally spoiled. It is vastly easier to have someone to help.

I rode with Amber the farrier and her lovely Tennessee Walker, Shallako. He’s steady and forward on trail. The first loop was 7 miles. We headed out, following Shallako. Diego was being good and obviously liked following a big calm horse (that could be eaten first by any bears or alligators we might encounter).

A couple of miles into the loop, there were some faster horses coming up behind us as we wound around the edge of a field. The riders called out to let us know they were there. But apparently Diego didn’t notice until they came cantering around a curve right behind us. He spun hard to see them. I tilted slightly to the outside. My treeless saddle (yes, the same one that turned during the ride n tie) slowly started to go with me. Yikes. Slowly… slowly… damn. I finally let go when I faced the inevitable inverted dismount. I managed to hold on to the reins as I rolled gracelessly off in front of at least four riders. Lovely. It’s hard to pretend it never happened with that many witnesses. The sand was soft though, and it was much too slow a fall to do me any harm.

Diego was a bit rattled by the incident, and for the next couple of miles he was sort of rushy and difficult. I’m always amazed at how upset horses get when you fall off them. But he did relax after a while and got back into his usual groove. We made good time. Shallako moves right along and likes to lead.

There was no vet check at the end of the first loop. Just a water stop in camp and check in with the timer as we went through. Sandy was waiting with some electrolytes at the water trough, which he was happy to get (he loves his electrolytes!), and then we went right out on the 12 mile loop. Both horses settled in and went very well through most of the loop.

On one corner, I got a raspberry cane (with thorns) caught in my elbow. It stung slightly but was just a couple of tiny scratches. A few minutes later I looked down and was startled to see a stream of blood dripping down my arm. Five minutes later it had covered the forearm completely, was dripping under the watchband of my gps watch, and was streaming down my little finger and dripping on the ground. It didn’t hurt at all. But it looked dramatic.

Going through some pines on that same loop, Amber and Shallako didn’t quite bend enough and Amber’s knee caught. One of those bad ones that lifted her partway out of the saddle. She didn’t complain, but I could see that she was in pain.

Shallako had been going really well, but partway through the loop he lost momentum. Diego would pass and go out front for a while and Shallako would get enthused and pass him. But then he’d slow down again. He looked fine, just not too enthusiastic. Still, we came into the check in pretty good time.

We must have looked quite the disreputable pair… me, covered in blood and Diego, with his fleabitten grey coat covered in streaks of sweaty mud (all the dirt that the vaccuum did NOT remove).

Diego vetted through fine. All A’s. But Shallako had a distinct hike behind. I don’t know if maybe he’d been developing a muscle cramp in his hind end through the latter part of the loop? So he didn’t pass the check.

We really missed them going out on the last loop. There was no one behind us, so we had to do the whole loop alone with no horses in sight. Diego, who is totally herdbound and afraid to be alone, was a good boy. Slow. But good. He’s always a little spookier alone, but he didn’t do anything dramatic. Just some zigzagging. It was exhausting for me though. I had to encourage him for about 10 miles of the loop. I knew that he was just anxious about being alone. But I always have a niggling worry that maybe he’s tired when he gets balky and slow. It was really nice trail though, there was still a lot of autumn colour left, and the weather ended up being just beautiful. So it gave me a chance to enjoy the scenery.

The last bit was on the ride n tie trail of the day before. So as soon as we hit that, he perked up. Started trotting faster. Cantering here and there. Then we hit the Girl Guide camp and we cantered across that. Then the little twisty trail leading into the back of the ride camp. He got up a good head of steam through there. Came up the steep hill at a somewhat controlled gallop. And cantered through the camp to the finish line under wraps. No. Not tired.

His final pulse was 42. Average speed 6.1 mph. Considering we probably walked a third of that last loop… not bad.

Best of all, he passed the final vetting and got his 500 miles.

I started out this year just hoping to finish a few 12 mile rides safely with my rebuilt elbow, unfit body, and a horse with a bad reputation. Diego improved steadily through the season and we have gradually gone faster and farther. He’s learned to go out on trail alone (calmly), and has learned to stand like a gentleman in the vet checks (I’ve had compliments on his behaviour at most of the rides). At the previous ride (Oktoberfest) he did 39 miles in two days which gave me 1000 miles. He finished his first ride n tie. And he ends up in 9th place overall in the Set Speed rankings.

He seems calmer, more confident, and generally happier than he was at the beginning of the year. He’s put on weight, and he eats better than he did.

He’s come a long way. I’m very proud of him 🙂



Autumn Colours

On Sunday Veronica came to ride. We took Diego and Ella out, ambled around our home trails for a couple of hours, and just enjoyed a beautiful day.  Considering it was just my cellphone camera, the pics came out better than I expected 🙂







On the Buckle

I don’t seem to have had too much to write about lately. But I did have a nice moment with Diego on Sunday. Was riding in the Vivian with friends. One of the horses was green. Really very green. He bounced around on the trail like a pinball, careening from side to side.  So we tucked him in behind Diego, and Diego just ambled along the trail on a loose rein. Whenever Indy (the wild child behind us) got too ambitious and tried to careen past us, I asked Diego to step over and block. Which he did with perfect aplomb.

Diego really doesn’t have confidence in the lead. But he also walks really fast. So he slows down until the horse behind passes, then gets impatient and passes again when he discovers that horse is too slow.  I ask everyone who rides with me to tell me when they want to pass, so that I can ask Diego to slow up… as opposed to allowing Diego to make his own decisions about it all. On Sunday he only tried it a couple of times and then just marched along out front the rest of the day. So I think his confidence is coming along nicely.

Riding Diego in the Vivian Forest
Riding Diego in the Vivian Forest… Veronica and Ella ahead of me.

Veronica and Ella spent most of the day riding drag (at the back of the line). It’s safer that way, since Ella has not yet learned the “no kicking other horses” rule (actually, I think she knows it… she just hasn’t accepted it quite yet). But it’s really her only flaw. She is rock steady on trail. Veronica’s confidence has blossomed this summer, riding that mare. They are becoming a very good team. 

At one point we let Indy lead for a while to see how he coped. I think that little gelding would’ve gone off alone perfectly happily. One of these days, he’s going to make a terrific little endurance horse.  Unfortunately though, going down a very steep downhill, in deep sand, with quite a bit of erosion, there was a tack incident. Stirrup and breast collar somehow tangled, and the resulting chaos sent Indy off trail… cartwheeling downhill. Indy got loose and galloped off, with his buddy, Zoe, following a bit too fast for her rider’s comfort. 

Diego and I watched all this in wide-eyed horror. I decided that a cavalry charge down a steep sandy hill was not in anyone’s best interest, and asked Diego to walk. He tucked his behind under him, and carefully walked down. No fussing or rushing. Ella was following safely behind us (Ella never thinks rushing is a good idea). He stopped at the bottom and stood calmly on a loose rein while Indy galloped off in all directions for a few minutes before his brain re-engaged and he elected to return to his rider.  

During all this chaos, a large, obnoxious woman on a Percheron bellowed unhelpful instructions to slow down and demanded to know where our trailers were (my friend finally lost her temper and told the woman to mind her own business). It turned out that Zoe’s bridle had come partially undone, so that’s why her brakes stopped working. And both Indy and his rider were fine.  In fact I think the rest of us were a lot more shaken up than either of them. The large woman went off in a huff, informing us that we should not call her if we ever needed help. Sigh.

I really do not enjoy that sort of craziness. It’s not good for the horses or the riders’ confidence. But it was a bit of a test, and Diego (and Ella) passed with flying colours. He’s getting steadily more confident, quieter, and much more responsive to leg and rein. It is nice to feel like you are riding the most reliable horse in the crowd 🙂

Coates Creek

I’ve really been struggling with the saddle fitting thing. The australian saddle does not fit Diego. I knew that from the start. It’s too wide and has to be padded to keep it off his withers. But my confidence was a bit shaky when we started out in the spring (my elbow is still only about half useful), and that saddle is very very secure for the human passenger. Diego though, is proving to be a very reliable guy. He’s never come close to lawn darting me out of my seat (as Dressy was always prone to do, bless her terrified little pea-brain…). Diego’s biggest reaction is either to slither sideways with big eyes past scary objects, or to drift to a halt and stare before tip-toeing past. Neither of which unseats me at all. So I’ve built up a lot of confidence, and feel myself riding much more tension-free as we go along.

Last weekend, I took him to Coates Creek ride. I had switched over to a therapeutic saddle pad to address the back soreness issues. It’s a Grandeur pad that I used with my Barefoot London (treeless) saddle. It is a nice pad, with a lot of support. And it really seemed to set the saddle up nicely.

We were entered in the 16 mile set speed on Saturday, and then again on Sunday. Saturday morning, I rode out with Sandy and Marion. We went out at a walk. Marion’s horse, Jet, is an off-track Arab and can get a bit competitive, so it was a big change for her to be able to go out slow and calm like that. Jet settled down nicely and eventually she was able to trot with us for a while and then go off on her own.

Sandy’s little chestnut Arab, Benson, has been a recurring character here on the blog. He’s possibly the cutest, and best-behaved little Arab I’ve ever met. But Saturday, he seemed to think there were monsters hiding behind every log and rock on the trail. On that first loop, Sandy was mostly out in front. But sometimes she was hanging off Benson’s side from one heel. She sat some tremendous spooks. I was boggled that she stayed with a couple of them. I’d have been splatted on the ground. But Sandy was determined to stick them. I think part of the problem was her saddle pad which was a very thick western pad. The saddle kept going sideways, so that couldn’t have helped.

Diego was really not at his best through that first loop. Anytime we cantered, he was dropping his head right down. Not bucking. But cantering on a horse with a head between their knees is an unsettling feeling. His trot didn’t feel quite right either. And he seemed a bit grumpy. So when we got to the mid-check I pulled the saddle with trepidation… expecting problems. Sure enough, he had a couple of bumps on his spine, right along the centerline. But he wasn’t obviously sore, and passed the vet check.

During the check, I opened up the Grandeur pad and pulled out the inserts. I put those inserts into my Christ sheepskin pad and put that on him instead. They didn’t fit the pocket exactly right, but were not too bad. And at least the Christ pad doesn’t cause those bumps. Marg suggested to me later that maybe Diego is reacting to synthetics, and it kind of makes sense, because the bumps are not from pressure. They can’t be, because they are nowhere near any spot that takes weight from the saddle. Nor have I ever seen them when I was using the aussie saddle with the Christ pad. Only with the Grandeur pad (synthetic fleece and sympanova), or with the Reactor Panel with synthetic fleece booties. I also checked with Misha, and she was using her synthetic fleece booties for the last year that she rode him in her RP (and he was getting those bumps sometimes then too).

Anyway, we went off with the hacked saddle pad for the second loop, and my good boy was back. He was perfect again. Sandy and Benson led for the first mile or so. Then Benson took a HUGE leap to the left and dropped Sandy hard. It was one of those awful Arab teleports that are pretty much against the laws of physics. Luckily, she was wearing a crash vest, and of course her helmet. So although it took her quite a while to get back up, she was okay. And she managed to hang onto Benson’s reins, so he didn’t get loose. We walked for quite a while to make sure she was okay. But it was just bruises, and we eventually carried on. But this time with Diego in front.

Diego trotted out in front for most of that loop. He was very steady and trotted along with the occasional short canter on a loose rein with his head at a normal level. No more head-down cantering. He even crossed the scary bridge first on both loops. And it really was quite a scary bridge. Solid enough, but built from a couple of logs with boards nailed across… so it bounced noticeably. I don’t think he liked it, but he only hesitated momentarily before steeling himself and marching across.

The weather was lovely, and despite Lesley’s paranoia about the mud on her trails from all the rain we’ve had, the footing was really quite good. There was only one very short section after the scary bridge that had some deep mud going up a little grade. It was only maybe 8-10 steps to get through.

Because I forgot to turn my gps watch off at the start of our hold, I lost track of my average speed. I wasn’t really thinking much about it anyway, since I’m only riding for completions this season. Diego always has good heart rates. Not super low, but he drops to baseline incredibly fast (Dressy’s baseline was much lower – usually in the 30s – but it took a dedicated team to get her cooled and pulsed down in time). His final heart rate was 43. I figured we might get a grade 3 or thereabouts, since we were not hurrying at all, and spent quite a while walking after Benson’s attempt on Sandy’s life. But at the awards, Diego and Benson both got a grade 1 (the top grade). We were moving faster than I thought and ended up with 6.1 mph. [Set speed is scored using a combination of average speed and final pulse at 30 minutes from finish.]

We vetted through at the finish with all A’s. I had the vet double check his back, and with a bit of hunting around, she found a very slight flinch on his left side in the loin area. But the next morning when I checked, he was really sore. So we went over to the vet and pulled him from Sunday’s set speed ride. I volunteered to do the set speed scoring for the day instead. Diego spent the day working his way through half of a twenty kg bag of carrots. I told him he was going to turn orange. But he just kept munching.

The weather for both days was fabulous, and all of the horses were moving fast. There were some very good times in all distances (ranging from 16 to 75 miles). Only two pulls, neither serious. And lots of happy faces on horses and riders at the end!

Yesterday, I pulled out the Barefoot London and dusted it off. I’ve really gotten to the point now that I do not need extra security to ride Diego. So we are going to try riding in that for a while and see if it works any better than the Aussie. Lynda is going to try to find me a second-hand endurance-model Reactor Panel. Diego needs a 12.75 inch, and I need a narrow twist. So that may take a while to track down. In the meantime, I hope that the Barefoot will work. I can’t use the Grandeur pad with it though, so I have to get the Christ pad working with it. It needs a good spine channel, so I may have to order in some inserts from Christ.

Yesterday’s session was good. We’ve set up some cavaletti, a little jump, and some tires in patterns in the riding ring as a play area. Diego seemed quite relaxed and cheerful in the Barefoot, and we even jumped a little bit (it’s TINY jump). He was not at all tense, and was bending nicely for me. No soreness afterwards, though it was only an hour. It’s a good first step anyway. We’ll see how that goes.

Moonlight Madness

I took Diego to the Summer Solstice Competitive Trail Ride this past weekend. I was judging, so although he’s a lot fitter than he was, we still only did the 12 mile Moonlight Madness ride. That’s a mileage ride that started just before dark on Saturday night. I’ve done it before, and I always have a ton of fun.

On the way up to the ride, we picked up Sandy’s horse, Benson. Pretty much the world’s cutest Arab. He is a very mellow little guy, but does not think trailering should be part of his life plan. He’s not afraid, just sort of declines to load up. However, Sandy managed to get him loaded in just a few minutes this time, so he’s improving.

The ride manager, Sue Downing, had a spot picked out for me right behind the vet check so I could keep an eye on Diego. I’m using my electric paddock for him, which is a bit risky. If he gets upset enough about being alone, he’s been known to pull out the posts with his teeth to make a break for it. He knows he’ll get a shock and goes for it anyway… diving at the posts and spitting them out as quick as he can. So, given that history, I was very happy to have him close by so that I could watch him while I was vetting CTR horses.

When I took Diego over to get him vetted, he was a bit off. Not much… grade I lame, which is “inconsistent and difficult to observe”. The vet checked him over and finally decided that he was a bit sore in his back. Saddle fit for sure. I knew that was coming. I’ve been using the same saddle as I used on Dressy and King. It’s a bit wide for him, and I’d been padding it to get it to work. But I gave the shim to Ana to use on Ares (who has a bigger fit issue than Diego) and had taken Diego over to the Vivian Forest for slightly longer rides last week. Marginal saddle fit + more miles is a recipe for a sore back.

The vet thought that since it was only 12 miles, Diego would likely be okay. I put the shim back on him and got the saddle fitting a little better. We went out a few minutes after 8pm with three other horses. Sue S. and her darling Arab mare, Peach, Caroline on Freddy, and Emma on her Morab mare.

Peach was not keen on letting anyone pass her, and was quite excited at the beginning. So we went slow, with Peach bouncing a bit in front. Nothing bad, just jigging and fussing a bit. Diego was perfectly calm and happy to follow Peach. He jogged along behind her with his head down, mostly on a loose rein. Nice, because I was able to ride just with my good arm and neck rein him for the most part. I tried taking Diego out in front once or twice, but he was not too keen on that. He really wanted to follow Peach. She had settled down a lot towards the middle of the loop. It was her first ride of the year, and she’s still pretty green, so it was just a bit of excitement at the beginning.

It was very humid, didn’t cool down at all as it got dark. The horses did get fairly warm. But Diego loves the heat. Veronica and Sandy crewed for us, and with all the help, he pulsed down fast and was at 48 within a minute or two, and was down to 40 by the time we got to the vet. He was perfectly sound to trot out. His back was no longer sore. So the shim probably helped some.

I considered keeping him in the crewing area for the hold, but thought it would be nicer to let him relax in his paddock. That would be the paddock with somewhat sparser grass in one corner and SAND. Great. At the end of the hold, we discovered that he was CAKED with sand. His head, his legs, his neck, back, sides, chest…. EVERYWHERE. He looked smug under his sand-caked forelock. Veronica, Sandy, and I had to bathe him completely before tacking him up. Pretty much by feel, since it was dark by then. So we were a little bit late leaving again.

On the second loop we caught up to the farrier (Amber-Rose) on her big Tennessee Walker and her friend who was riding for the first time (and was afraid of the dark… she managed very well despite that!) The big horse (Shallako) led for the whole loop. He was really great. Very confident guy. He moved right out and we did the loop much faster. Passed some horses.

Shallako moves right along, even when he’s walking. So his easy jog (whatever his gait is) was a good speed and suited Diego very well. We had a couple of wild uphill gallops with Sue whooping behind me. Almost lost Caroline in one of those when she lost her stirrups. But she hung in there.

The moon was really bright, keeping the trail visible in all but the really narrow trails. I gave Amber-Rose my flashlight, which I’d covered in the red plastic sheet that came in my ride package (so the light didn’t interfere with the horses’ vision). It’s one of those cheap, tiny LED flashlights. I think I bought 6 of them for about $8 at Walmart one day. I love them.

The forest was absolutely magical. The moon was bright, so everything was silvery pale, especially Diego and Peach who are both greys. There were fireflies, lots of bird calls, glow sticks, reflective safety vests, and coloured lights on the horses. We made jokes about unicorns and Lord of the Rings and cavalry charges in the dark. Giggling madly… Moon-mad riders 🙂

Diego never stumbled or took any missteps, despite moving right along in the dark and galloping a couple of big hills. That’s been another of his issues. I’ve been working on his feet, trying to get his toes back and a better breakover (he’s actually gone down from a 1.5 EasyBoot to a size 1). So I was really happy with that. I didn’t boot him for this ride though. The footing is pretty good in the Dufferin Forest. Mostly sand, with very few rocks.

The last half mile or so was a bit less relaxed. Diego knew he was almost finished and got a little ramped up. Luckily the two horses in front of us blocked the trail, and all he could do was canter at walk/trot speed, bouncing back and forth across the trail, snorting. He was frustrated, but not particularly difficult to ride. No bucking or rearing.

It was very humid/hot, even at that time of night. The horses all came in steaming and hot at the finish. Took some of them a long time to come down. Diego, who is one of those thin-skinned fleabitten greys who love hot weather, cooled off fast and pulsed down in about 2 minutes. Final CRI… 40/40.

Rose brought me a saddle to try. It’s a Schleese. She had it custom built for herself years ago. Adjustable gullet, cutback, dressage/endurance style. Thigh and knee rolls with a deep seat. I will try it on him this week.

On Sunday, I was judging all day. I started the morning by falling out of my bed in the gooseneck (we were in a slightly uphill parking spot) and crashing into the back wall. Managed to wake both Sandy and Veronica who were sleeping in cots in the horse section of the trailer. I make an excellent alarm clock 🙂

Since we’d vetted most of the horses through on Saturday afternoon there weren’t many to do in the morning. Sandy was going out just after 8, so I pulled Diego out of his electric paddock and took him away so he couldn’t watch Benson leave. We ambled around and he made friends with some of the volunteers. He grazed, nibbled at the stopwatch around me neck, and watched everything quite placidly. All of which is an improvement on past behaviour.

After Benson went out, I took Diego back to his pen. He looked around for Ben but didn’t stress. A little later he actually lay down and took a nap. Better and better! No fussing, no worrying, no deconstruction efforts.

The day just got steadily hotter, and by noon I was starting to lose focus and felt a little nauseated. I had to go and stick my head in the water trough a couple of times. I really do NOT like heat, and although I drank a lot through the day, I am pretty sure I was verging on heatstroke by the end of it. There was a new vet at the ride, just observing. I think he was a bit shocked at my cooling efforts. He commented “you really ARE a country girl aren’t you?” I pointed out that although I certainly am a country girl, what he was seeing was sheer desperation since my brain was cooking.

There were no serious problems with any of the horses. We did have quite a few horses that either did not start or did not finish. But mostly it was minor stuff. Considering the heat, that was a very good result. Riders were taking care of their horses.

The air conditioning in my truck was a huge relief on the way home. I was so tired that Veronica rode in the truck with me to keep me awake and functioning. Pit crew have many duties 🙂

Despite my overheating and exhaustion, I had a wonderful time. I absolutely LOVE that Moonlight ride.

Boring is a Very Good Thing

Yesterday the weather was a little less bone-chilling, so I went out for a short ride. The goal at this point is to have lots and lots of short, successful, and completely uneventful rides. And this one turned out to be exactly according to plan.

I’ve been working a bit on getting Diego to stand nicely when asked. So when I brought him out, I asked him to stand while I got on. Then stand while I put my feet in the stirrups and flapped them around a bit. And then stand for a minute more. I am using positive reinforcement (clicker training) to reward him for not moving. The video shows how very calmly he waited for his cue to move.

Anastasija was riding Ares, and she again carried the dressage whip. This time though, she accidentally touched him with it during a moment of disharmony. She handled it perfectly, not panicking when he spooked forward. She dropped the whip and eased him up without clutching and he settled down quickly. So that was very nicely done on her part.

Diego watched the spook with no concern at all. Nor did he react when Taz the cat bolted across in front of us. I was pretty impressed. The only bad thing he did was when we started looping out into the front field. He wanted to go off and explore the entire field and I had to really insist that we keep turning back towards home. But I wanted to make sure that we in no way pushed the envelope. I am trying to guarantee easy, relaxed rides. So he practices being good and develops confidence in himself and in me. It’s what Ares needs too. Ana has been trying to ride him out alone while my elbow has been healing, and he’s really not confident enough for that. So these easy, boring rides are good for both horses.

Today we had freezing rain, so no riding. Probably not for the next few days either. But at least it gave me time to edit so you are now faced with a short boring video instead of a long boring video 🙂

Lessons from the Dressage World

I happened upon some dressage videos on Youtube the other day. I am not a dressage rider, and make no representations of expertise. So this post is not a critique or an expression of any opinion classical vs. competition dressage, rollkur, or any of those other controversies that I have no business commenting upon.

However, I really learned some interesting things about riding skills watching these videos. I am just going to present them in the order that I watched them first of all.

A series of clips of Totilas and Edward Gal in competition, set to Lady Gaga’s Born This Way.

A stallion show presentation of Totilas ridden by Matthias Rath a year or two after the clips in the first video.

A critique of the riding styles of Edward Gal and Matthias Rath by a Alex Gerding, a German dressage coach and Russ Edgington, an American biomechanics specialist. There’s more info about them on their website at Professional Horse Services. This video is really long (over an hour), but well worth it.

There are a number of controversies involved in this story. Totilas was unexpectedly sold by his Dutch owners after the 2010 World Equestrian Games to new German owners and was assigned to Matthias Rath, a much younger and less experienced rider than Gal. Edward Gal rode for some time with Anky Van Grunsven in Holland. She apparently uses Rollkur, which is a highly controversial method of hyperflexing a horse’s neck during training. And that is a whole separate topic on its own which I am not going into here. But look it up if you are interested. Matthias Rath has rather obviously started using Rollkur methods since the disaster of that second video. So neither rider is free of those accusations.

If you watch the third video, these two coaches give a very detailed breakdown of the riding styles of Gal and Rath. This is not about the basic skills of “heels down” etc. This is about how a rider tunes themself to a particular horse. And how they use the aids to support the horse through various movements. The two riders are very different in their styles, and Totilas who is a World Champion dressage horse (three gold medals at the 2010 WEG and the world record highest dressage score of 92.50%), responds very differently to each of them.

Matthias Rath is a strong rider (and I sure hope he has healthy self-esteem, because this video has been seen by a LOT of people!). When the horse spooks, the commentators note that he sits deep, takes a strong hold, and frames with his leg. Which they call a “triple confinement”. Which the horse reacts badly to because he’s used to a totally different riding style. Alex Gerding points out at one point that Rath is riding the horse that he wants, not the horse that he’s actually on. That’s an interesting thing to reflect on. Horses are individuals, so there is not one correct way to ride.

This is something I went through with King in the early days of conflict that I had with him. I am physically quite a strong rider. I used a lot of leg, and my hands have always been too strong. So I was using exactly that “triple confinement” method with King, who is a powerful, light-moving, and very emotional horse, causing highly explosive situations. Over time I did relax and learn to go with the movement more and be lighter in my response. As I lightened up, King did too. It took a long time to get that through to me though. Even when I knew what I was doing wrong, I couldn’t (and occasionally still can’t) overcome that innate response to stress of clamping down hard.

Rath is a high-level dressage rider. He has skills that I will never have. So it’s rather intimidating to see how badly a horse can react to a rider of that skill level. And also to realize how far we ALL have to go to be truly great riders.

Edward Gal’s style is amazingly elegant and quiet. His shoulders barely move, but his hips follow the horse easily. I know that being stiff through my lower body is a weakness of mine (and it’s not improving with age!), and this last video, though very long was really worth watching to get an understanding of why that is important. They also go into quite a bit of detail on how Gal supports the horse’s balance with his reins and his seat. That sort of finesse is far beyond what I’m capable of. But it’s given me renewed motivation to work harder at it.

There is another Becky Hart Centered Riding Clinic in early April, which I will be going to. I learned a lot at last year’s clinic. So I am looking forward to this one even more. I’ll never be an Edward Gal, or even a Matthias Rath (and given the Rollkur issues, I am not exactly interested in that anyway). But I can be better than I am.

Centered Riding Clinic With Becky Hart

I was at a Centered Riding clinic taught by Becky Hart all weekend. Becky Hart is a three time Endurance World Champion, as well as being a level 3 Centered Riding coach. So I was pretty excited about this clinic.

Friday morning I was very relieved to see that both of the foals at work were doing much better. The clinic itself started on Saturday morning. But I had booked a semi-private lesson with Becky on Friday afternoon. With all the worries about the two remaining foals, I had been considering cancelling my lesson and just going Saturday. But it all worked out, and I went home after work, loaded up Dressy and headed out.

On the way, I picked up a passenger… Benson. He’s Sandy’s horse. A cute CUTE little chestnut Arab gelding. Benson wasn’t too keen on getting into a strange trailer. Especially a head-to-head, which meant he had to back into a stall. Eventually the barn owner came out to help, and we did get him loaded.

We arrived in good time to get Dressy tacked up for her lesson at 3pm. Marg and her horse Desmil were the other students. I was a bit worried that Dressy would be very bad in the arena. The last time I had her in an indoor arena was really quite embarrassing. I took her to a dressage lesson at Heather’s place, and she was appallingly bad. Head in the air… rampaging around… our circles were mostly lopsided triangles, stopping and starting. Pacing. Racking (or something vaguely resembling a rack anyway). Staggering around hither and yon. Yanking me out of the saddle. I kept telling Heather that she really was a good girl normally. So this time around I was quite worried that she’d be awful again.

Just to keep me guessing though, this time she was really quite good. I think it helped that we had that lesson first though. Marg’s Arab, Desmil, is really quite a nicely behaved and fairly low-energy horse. So I think that helped her relax in the first few minutes. The other good thing was that we really didn’t do much (or maybe any?) trotting in that first lesson. Becky went over each of our positions, making some adjustments, first standing still, then having us walk around the arena. Marg has some issues with stiffness due to old injuries (an artificial hip as well as some other fairly major bionic improvements… Marg is pretty amazing actually), so Becky helped her with ways to manage that.

My biggest concern was that I have been collapsing my left side. I’ve known it was happening for a long time. Several years at least. I’ve had to shift my saddle back to center more and more often. It has been making me completely crazy, since I can feel it happening but can’t prevent it. Becky gave me a couple of things to try at first. They didn’t seem to work. But then she had me visualize stretching a rubber band diagonally from my right hip to my left shoulder. And there it was. Magically I was straight. For the rest of that lesson, I didn’t have to shift the saddle even once. That was just a huge relief. I’d have gone to the clinic just for that one single visualization.

We had pizza that night, and Becky did a talk on endurance. This was not an endurace clinic, but of the 17? or so riders, only one was not a distance rider or wanting to be a distance rider. That was Lisa, whose first love is dressage. But Lisa was very interested in the topic anyway, so I don’t think she minded, and the rest of us were all ears. It was pretty interesting to hear exactly what the top riders are doing to condition their horses, and to hear the racing strategies. The big thing these days seems to be walking. She says that many of the top horses are walking two or three hours a day. Either under saddle or in exercise machines. Those are the walkers that leave the horses loose between the moving gates. They are pretty expensive and far beyond my means. But I thought about that a lot over the weekend, and have decided to try a lot more walking under saddle with Dressy. Not only will it be good conditioning for her, it might help to settle her brain a little bit. She’s been getting way too racy lately, and it’s been getting more and more stressful to ride her. A couple of days a week of strictly walking for two or three hours might relax both of us a great deal.

On Saturday, we started out with a discussion of the concepts of Centered Riding. I sort of knew a lot of it, since I’ve read the book and watched several of the videos. But the review was helpful. Then we moved to the arena.

We had two large group lessons first. I think this was where she did a basic assessment of what each of us needed. Dressy was quite excited by the number of horses in there with her. As well as all the people watching. She did a bit of jittering around at first. But settled down to walk fairly quickly.

Becky divided us up into groups of four to ride. A couple of people didn’t have a horse, but then some borrowed horses. It ended up being four groups of four horse/riders.

We watched and listened to the other lessons, which was actually pretty useful. It is good to practice stuff, but it’s also good to just absorb some of it and see the changes in both rider and horse. Becky is obviously a very experienced teacher. She’s patient and very observant. Takes her time and makes sure you understand what she’s trying to get you to do.

Although my crookedness problem now has a solution, there was one issue that I couldn’t immediately resolve. Becky wanted me to tilt my pelvis back a little bit so I’m on the flat part of my seatbones. But when I tried to ride like that, I had screaming pain in my SI joint on the right side. She had me return to the position that didn’t hurt. But I think if I do more stretching and continue with the Yoga work that Nancy is sending me, I can get my back to release enough to allow the position change.

For the most part, Becky left my riding position alone. I think that it’s not too bad when Dressy is just standing or walking in a straight line. But I definitely tend to fall apart on the corners. Dropping my inside shoulder. It’s a common error. I’m worse on the collapsing side, naturally. Dressy has trouble with corners, and needs quite a bit of help to maintain her balance and bend through them, and I’m not helping her enough. She’s pulling me out of the saddle a bit too, since she is so staunchly resistant to bending. If I’m not perfectly balanced coming into it (and I do tend to forget where I’m going and unexpectedly find myself IN the corner), then Dressy jams her nose out hard (unbalancing me further) and we slow down and stagger through it.

So Becky had me lift and shift my inside shoulder back through the turn (it’s exaggerated at first to retrain the movement). Step into the outside stirrup. Lengthen my inside leg. Open my inside rein to get more lateral flexion. And breathe. We learned to breathe out for every cue… up transitions, down transitions, etc.

Sandy and Benson practiced trailer loading both Saturday and Sunday when they had a few minutes and could play at going up and down the ramp with no pressure. And Benson, being basically good hearted and reliable was perfectly happy with the trailer after a couple of short sessions.

Sunday morning, Becky had us put saddles on a couple of those big exercise balls. They are kind of bouncy and responsive in a way that’s similar to horse’s back. So it allows you to feel how a horse’s back will raise with the correct movement of the seatbones.

We also did an exercise with a partner that demonstrated how the inside rein/outside rein affects the horse. Standing side by side, the “rider” reaches across the back of the “horse” and touches the outside of the rib cage, and with the other hand reaches across in front to guide the hand of the “horse”. It’s sort of hard to describe, but it mimics the action of the reins, and gives you a more visceral understanding of how it affects the horse.

We had another series of lessons with four horse/riders in each group. By this time we all could see quite a bit of difference in most of the horses. Deb’s Arab off the track was trotting nicely on a much softer rein. And when they stopped at the end of the lesson, he stretched his head down and relaxed quite a few times around the arena. Everyone was very impressed, because it would have been impossible to imagine him doing that the day before. Judy’s horse, Coquetta the Paso Fino was also much calmer (though Dressy still hated her for some unknown reason). Benson was still perfect and it’s hard to improve on perfect. But Sandy was looking more relaxed and happier riding him even when he did a few little zigzags at the baby raccoons chattering inside the kickboards. Lisa had a lovely big dapple grey Curly that had a ton of personality. His name was Sammy (which I believe was short for part of his registered name, Samurai something or other). Lisa said he could be a bit difficult sometimes, but he and Lisa looked pretty good out there.

I was a bit unhappy to see my darling little Foxy being a witchy mare though. Saturday she was rather obstinate and sticky about going forward. But Sunday. Wow. What a rude girl. She was pinning her ears and shaking her head. Stamping and kicking out. Her owner is a very nice rider, but has an ankle that was shattered a few years ago and is pinned together with a whole lot of hardware. So she really can’t use that leg and can’t afford to do battle with her horse. She finally had enough and got off. And then asked me if I wanted to get on her for a few minutes. And yes. You know I really DID want to get on that bad little horse. I reintroduced myself and some rules of etiquette to Foxy at the same time. I was mad enough that I did not care what my riding looked like and whether I was centered or not, so I’m sure it wasn’t pretty riding. Foxy WAS going forward when I asked, and was not allowed to have an opinion about that. When Sue got back on her later though, she told me that Foxy was much better for her. So that was a relief. I do not want to see Sue get hurt.

The final exercise of the day was a huge group lesson with all the remaining horses. A few people had gone home, so I think there were maybe 10 of us left by then. There was a bit of excitement at first. Mike’s horse, Easy, was coming apart at the seams when Dressy and I came in. I scooted her over to the far side and tried to stay clear of the rodeo. But Mike rode through it and got him sorted out and Easy figured out that he could cope with all those horses eventually. We did a sort of a drill team thing with all sorts of patterns. Dressy and Benson were the first pair, so that was a bit stressful. I get confused enough just following the other horses, never mind having to follow unexpected directions from a loudspeaker. But we did pretty well actually. And having to match Dressy’s stride (she’s 16hh and leggy) to Benson’s (who is perhaps 14.1hh and sturdy) was a bit of a trick, so I was proud of her.

All in all, Dressy was wonderful. Far FAR better than I expected in the arena. She handled horses milling around her without threatening to kill them. She tried hard to slow down her walk and trot to match all the little horses (mostly Arabs) around her. She worked with me almost the entire time, and not against me. A most co-operative boss mare. I was very proud of her.

Coates Creek Set Speed Ride

The weather forecast for yesterday`s ride looked pretty bad most of the week. And Saturday was a really awful day. But when I got up Sunday morning (well… when Misha called me from her car… already stressing about getting Diego on the trailer) the pre-dawn was reasonably bright from the moonlight, and the wind had died.  I would have been happy enough with cold and rain. But there would have been a lot of cranky volunteers for us to deal with. It turned out to be a cool, fresh October day with occasional bouts of sunshine, and absolutely gorgeous trails.

Diego was a little sticky about the trailer, and Misha was losing it a bit when I got out. Not falling apart, but starting to vibrate a little. She handed me the stock whip and I stood on Diego`s near side to prevent him from evading to that side. I don`t generally do much. Just stand there and make him nervous. But eventually, as usual with him, he allowed the unsettling person behind and the encouraging person in front to entice him on.  He`s a good little horse, but he wasn`t broke until he was 11 or thereabouts, and still thinks he should make his own decisions. Trailers have always been a problem for him.

Dressy, of course, loaded up directly. As always. She marches up, turns herself around and backs right in. “Do up that chest bar,  gimme my cookie and my hay bag, and let`s go“.

It’s about an hour and a half to Coates Creek ride site, and at 6am on a Sunday morning, traffic is near non-existent. So it was an easy trip. We arrived just as vetting started. Misha set up her electric paddock and split it down the middle to give Dressy half. It’s one of those Zareba EZEE corrals, and I have to say that although it looks nice, and the theory is good, in practice the damn thing never seems to work the way it should. Yesterday, it went up okay, but the power didn’t work. Turned out not to matter, as they were not  in it for long. But I prefer my homemade electric paddock with the cheap step in posts, a ground rod, a roll of wire, and a Zareba Yellow Jacket portable fencer. Cheap, easy, and it actually works.

There were 20 horses entered in the 31 mile Bronze level ride (which is between 4 and 7 miles per hour), and 6 horses in the Silver level ride (between 5 and 8 mph).  There were three loops, with a gate at the end of the first and a regular full vet check at the end of the second loop. A gate is where you ride in, get your horse down to a 64 heart rate, and trot for the vets to watch (for lameness) as you ride out. The clock continues to run through that type of hold. I haven’t done a gate before at a set speed ride, and I really underestimated how much it would slow us down. Towards the end of the first loop, my GPS was reading around 8.5mph average. By the time I rode out, it had dropped to around 7mph. It gradually climbed back up through that second loop. But we really never made up that time. The full vet check didn’t have as much of an impact, since the clock stopped when we reached parameter (56bpm) and we started our 40 minute hold.

Dressy really moved out on the first loop. It was unfortunate as it turned out, because she bonded to a group of horses that don’t pace well for her purposes. Dressy has a nice big trot, and she can go reasonably fast. But her forte is her steadiness. She goes out and trots fast and steady (12+ mph), and she can maintain that for a long time. But at 14-16mph the trot is much too extended. At 16mph she starts breaking to gallop, and definitely cannot maintain that for a long time. It takes way too much out of her.

I struggled with her quite a bit. I tried taking her back, but she’d decided that the big grey thoroughbred was her friend, and she wanted to catch him. She paced, and fought me, and kept catching up. So after the first ten miles when we went through the gate, I held back so they were long gone. But she power trotted until she caught them. If they’d maintained that 14-16mph speed, we never would have. But they were alternating between galloping fast and trotting slow. So overall she would have actually travelled faster… If I could have separated her from them. But there’s no way I could have passed, since I’m pretty sure those horses would have gone with her. I also find in the first few miles that Dressy can be very spooky in the lead. So I generally want her knowing there are horses ahead that she can focus on catching, instead of focusing on the monsters in the bushes.

At the 20 mile vet check, I held back and waited for Sue T. She’d lost her riding buddy (pulled) and wanted to ride with someone. That suited me, because she is a very experienced rider and rides a steady pace. Which is what Dressy needed to do as well. That loop was much better for Dressy. She was a little tired after all the shenanigans on the first two loops. But she trotted the whole thing without any issues. Chrystal and Grace passed us on that loop and Dressy went with her for quite a distance. But eventually we let her go, since her pace is a bit fast for Sue’s horse.

A look at my GPS track is quite enlightening. The first loop has radical up/down peaks from speeding up and slowing down. The second loop is steady and even through the first half (when we were alone and trotting) and then back to up/down peaks after we caught up again. Then the last loop is back to smooth steady trotting with Sue and her horse Trevor.

We did not make the target speed of 8mph. And in fact just missed the 7mph speed. Although my GPS shows a speed of 7.2mph. I was very pleased with her anyway. She had a good pulse at her final check, and easily reached parameter at the checks. Although we slowed down and let those three horses go ahead, Dressy still got 2nd place. So it paid off to manage her pace a little bit.

Chrystal’s horse, Grace won the Bronze level ride. By far. In fact Grace won the high score of the day… by miles. Her final pulse was 36. Chrystal took an extra long hold. Slowed her down as much as she could, and still finished in 6.99mph. The absolute maximum speed allowed for Bronze. If you watch that horse move, it doesn’t look like she’s working at all, and you can’t imagine that it’s fast. But try and follow on another horse and look at your gps…. Like a little streak of lightning, that mare.

Diego had a good ride. Placed third in the Set Speed, behind Wendy’s young horse Firefly. He looked good all day when I saw him. Although Misha always looked unhappy to see us… Diego had a meltdown every time he laid eyes on his boss mare. Tore up his (non-electrified) paddock at the mid-check when we went out just as he had come in. Had a hissy fit on the trail when we passed him going the other way on two way trail. Not pleasant for Misha that’s for sure.

However, after we loaded him in the trailer, Misha thought that he looked a little off colour. Wouldn’t take a treat from her hand. I loaded Dressy, gave her a cookie, and handed one to Diego. He didn’t take one from me either. We headed out, figuring that it was better just to get him home. The vet at that ride was Kathy, and she was going to stop by my place on her way home to look at King’s face (he still has a hard lump in his cheek where he was kicked). So we would have a vet available a few minutes after arriving at home anyway.

I stopped at Tim Horton’s to get an iced tea (I was desperately thirsty) and Misha checked on him again. By then he was shaking and sweating. She was quite alarmed, and we got right back on the road. She called Kathy, who was just a few minutes behind us. If you’re going to have a horse colic on a trailer, it sure feels better to have a vet right behind you.

We got him home and unloaded him. Stripped off the soaked cooler, and put him in a dry cooler and blanket. There was no manure in the trailer, so obviously he was a bit constipated. Misha walked him for a few minutes until Kathy got there. He had gut sounds but they were definitely reduced and gassy sounding. Kathy arrived, gave him some banamine, and got some mineral oil into him. It took about 45 minutes before he finally passed some manure. It was just a small amount and quite dry. But after that he got steadily better. This morning he’s his usual obnoxious self. Kathy said that there were a couple of other horses at the ride that were of concern too. She figured it was the colder weather bothering them. Diego is definitely a hot weather horse, so that makes sense.

Dressy of course, flourishes in the cold. She was bright-eyed and sassy while she tried to divert everyone’s attention away from Diego and onto her dietary needs. She wanted food, and she wanted as much of it as she could stuff into her greedy face.