Monday, July 30, 2012

My Two Favorite Girls

One was born on May 20th, 2006 - the other was born on May 2, 2006.  One has dark chestnut hair with blonde highlights - the other has grey and white hair with red highlights (and sometimes yellow and green in there as well).  They both have impossibly long eyelashes.  They both are good at pouting.  They are both strong willed.  They are both entertaining and sensitive and sweet.

My ride on Sunday was perfect.  Tessa was forward and balanced and light.  Our turns were gorgeous, our leg yields sometimes actually looked like leg yields.  Canter departs were crisp and balanced.  The whole ride was fantastic.

But my favorite part was after my ride, where I put Favorite Girl #1 up on Favorite Girl #2.  And my pony was super.   My child squeezed with her leg and attempted a clicking noise (it sounded more like a weird duck).  Tessa ambled off into a slow walk.  I stayed at Tessa's head and my husband stayed next to the saddle just in case, but Tessa was an old pro.  She patiently walked in circles while my kidlet did arm circles, toe touches, airplane wings and leg circles.

My child is not the bravest of children.  Growing up with me has rubbed off on her and she is cautious.  She was never reckless while riding, but watching her timidly take first one hand off the saddle and then the other and then put them in the air was nothing short of amazing.  Her smile went from shaky, to solid, to ear splitting.  I am so proud of both my girls.

My husband went to the tack store with me and ended up picking out gloves for her too.  If I've learned one thing about being married to a non-horse person, it's to NEVER say no when they suggest buying something horsey.  Even if it's not necessary....hence the hot pink gloves for the kidlet.

Her eyes might have been closed, but she was still talking about how amazing her ride was.

Doing the victory dance with the pony.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Long Range Goals

Even though I'm no longer debating my pony, I still struggle with our limitations.  I was perusing (yes, I still do that.  It's an obsession.  I can't help it.) and I came across the world's most adorable bay Arabian gelding.  He was the bright bay with splashy white markings that I dreamt about as a kid.  He's done trails, shows, dressage and they even have a video of him at the ocean, splashing around in the water.  He seems like the perfect horse for me.  So, for 24 hours I obsessed about this horse and how maybe HE is the perfect horse for me.

Then I went out to the barn with my six year old, who is finally showing a little interest in horses.  There was all sorts of construction happening at the barn, so I was worried that Tessa might be a little nervous.  I wasn't there to ride, just to let my daughter get used to the idea of the barn a bit.  So I opened the stall door.  Tessa pushed her head into me, as usual and fussed and fiddled.  Then my daughter reached up to pet her.  Tessa didn't know what to make of her.  She snuffled at her.  She looked to see if she had a carrot and then she put her head down and sighed, while my child petted her head.  My heart melted.

So I went home and thought some more about what my long range goals are.  And here's what I've come up with.  I really want to experience a lot with my horse, including riding her Western, jumping her, taking her on trails, taking her to the ocean, maybe a little local showing.  I want to have the kind of horse that has done it all and is happy.  I may decide as I go down this road that Tessa isn't right, but maybe what she really needs is a solid investment.

So, for the next year my plan is to try and get a jump saddle and take some jump lessons.  I also may send her off to a local trainer who works with horses on the trails.  That way she gains some experience getting off the farm and on the trails.  Sure, I'll be spending some money doing these things but it will allow me to evaluate my horse as we go along.  I think she's going to be spectacular and she just needs a little time and a little confidence.  When we get to next spring/summer, I will evaluate if the barn I'm at is the right barn.  It's chock full of awesome people and awesome trainers, but without a truck and trailer I have no way of ever getting outside the arena.  There is only one arena and it's indoors.  And with my big plans, I'm not sure it will be the right place for us long term.  Of course, I may change my mind in a year, but this is the plan I've got and it feels like a good one.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Shouldering the Load

The worst part of trying to write a blog is the stupid title.  It pains me when I write titles like the one above.  This post is not about carrying things or being burdened, it's just about shoulders. But I wanted to keep my titles somewhat interesting and not too dry.  I have no idea why.  I mean, we're all horse people.  And horse people would mostly know what I meant when I titled it "Controlling the Shoulders"  or "Bulging the Shoulder" and they might even read it anyway.  Well, at least I'm not writing poems about my experiences....oh wait, that would make things even more interesting, wouldn't it?  So today, I give you my new poem.  It also may explain why I'm not a professional poet.....

Shouldering the Load
by Mona Sterling

Down the long side, the pony sucks back
Sometimes she spooks and gives me a heart attack
I push her forward, I'm wearing spurs
When her rhythm is right, it's like magic occurs.

She's learning to come right into my hand
I'm learning to give when she yields to demands
We've come really far, of that there's no doubt
But she keeps on bulging her shoulder out!

The outside rein?  What's that you say?
Push her too hard and she just runs away.
Inside leg to outside rein
My arms are starting to feel some pain

Her neck goes upside down
As we go round and round
Our shoulder in turns into a fight
At this rate we'll be doing this all night

She wiggles and throws her shoulder out
My outside rein does not have much clout
And now I"m riding too much with my hands
And I'm not even sure the pony understands

So round and round and round we go
Drifting out, falling in, sometimes going too slow
My aching arms are a telltale sign
that I'm doing it wrong, the problem is mine

The pony and I don't have a clue
about exactly what we're supposed to do
But we kept on trying, at least we stayed
and Mona Sterling was not afraid.

Drop inside shoulder?  Yes please!  Bulge through outside shoulder?  Sure, try to turn, suckah!

Now that you've had to scrub out your retinas from having to read that, I have a quick question for all of you.  It may turn into a long discussion....bits.  I'm currently riding in a super cheap, plain jane, O ring snaffle.  The pony alternates between too heavy and too light and she's awful about moving her shoulders.  Would a different bit (NOT a harsher bit, just a DIFFERENT one) have an effect on this?  Please discuss so I can learn something!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Rules of Engagement

Today my little sister came out to see my horse for the first time.  My sister has been getting her PhD in Scotland for the last few years, so this was the first time she's been home for any extended time for the last three years.  She has a background in Appaloosa horses, having won numerous World Titles showing in AphC.  It was fun watching her mount up on this tiny little Arab pony.  Oh yeah, did I mention that my little sister is 5'11".  Yep, she's super tall and most of her height is in her torso. Which meant she looked a little ridiculous.  Also, she didn't have riding boots so she rode in Black Wellies (fancy rainboots basically) and jeans.

I learned a few things today.  As my little sis' coaxed the pony into a trot and was rewarded with the heinous tranter, I was glad to know that my pony would try those tricks on everyone and not just me.  But in a few minutes my sister had found her rhythm and since she doesn't lack confidence, she soon had Tessa going in a nice steady trot all the way around the arena.  It was a good reminder that what I need is to have that quiet steady confidence more than anything.  My little sister hadn't ridden in three years, so I know it wasn't her rock solid seat and legs but her leadership that helped Tessa adjust so quickly.

The other thing I learned was a bit of showmanship.  Showing at Appaloosa Nationals (or World's or whatever the eff they're called), my sister showed her horse in multiple events, including showmanship.  She showed me today how to fit the chain under the chin.  How to ask the horse to move forward when you tip your shoulders forward and back when you walk backwards.  In a very short time, she had Tessa trotting nicely beside her and backing up quickly when she walked backward.  She explained that the chain was not there as a punishment, but more of a reminder that we are working on something.  She said that way the pony will know when it's important to watch me super close.  Tessa being the smart pony that she is, caught on to this concept quickly.

It was nice to do something different.  Both the pony and I appreciate variety and adding showmanship to our bag of things to do is a nice change.  It also really helped with Tessa's ground manners (much like ANY ground work can).  I feel more confident doing the showmanship groundwork that my sister showed me than I do trying out some of the natural horsemanship groundwork.  I think it's because the rules are simple and it's easy for me to tell if she's following them.

Rule 1:  The pony must stay in line with me no matter how fast or slow I'm walking.  I should be next to the pony's throatlatch.  Always BEHIND the head but IN FRONT of the shoulder.  If she's too far ahead, give her a quick reminder using the chain.  A quick reminder can be a gentle jiggle for a sensitive horse or a sharp reprimand for a not so sensitive horse.  If she's too far behind, use your whip (oh did I mention you carry a whip to do this) and reach around with your hand to tap her forward.

Rule 2:  Do not look at the horse.  This was hard for me.  I really wanted to check and see what she was doing.  But that ruins our straightness.  Do not look at the horse.  Expect the horse to be aware of YOU.

Rule 3:  When you stop, horse stops.  When you go backwards, horse goes backwards.  In the beginning it is okay to over exaggerate your shoulders and say "Whoa" to stop before moving backwards, but if your horse keeps going or hesitates, use the whip to tap, tap, tap them backwards.  Rapidly.  It's amazing how fast your horse can learn this when you adjust your expectations.  With only two corrections, I was able to stop and back up with Tessa right besides me.

Rule 4:  Until your horse has all of these down, stick to doing this next to a wall.  This way, your horse stays straight when they halt and back up.  Also, remember to NOT LOOK AT YOUR HORSE.

I'm definitely adding this to my toolbox since after we did all of this, Tessa was the most respectful she's been.  I also think it's not a bad idea for a horse to have lots of skills and showmanship makes a pony more marketable to 4-H kids.  Always a plus!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

What's the Fuss?

Last night was my lesson.  The arena was unusually quiet and one of my fellow students was stuck home with a lame horse.  Outside of the arena there were plenty of distractions.  A tent had been put up in the yard.  A car was being worked on in the back, complete with random banging noises.  Dinner had just been served and the princess was not happy about having to leave it.  She pinned her ears and snaked her head at me.  A year ago, this would have started my heart racing and I would have mentally put a for sale sign on her stall.  Last night?  I flicked the end of my lead rope at her (and by flicked, it was more of a whip) and pushed her away from her hay.  She still gave a little snarly face as she reached for the halter, but it was more of a teenager bratty face of "Ugh, do I have to?" then a demand for me to move.

Once in the arena, the pony was a giraffe.  Neck up and inverted, working that big under muscle that she STILL has, Tessa ignored my leg, ignored my hand, ignored the whip and proceeded to come to a crawl at every open end.  There was sunshine filtering in one corner, the tent could be seen in the other, a car being worked one and someone must have moved on the of jump standards in the corner because that corner was bad too.  By the time Linda showed up and asked "Is everyone warmed up?" we had accomplished nothing, except walking around like a drunk person.  Make that a paranoid drunk person.  I could feel the tension in Tessa's body.  I tried inside rein, outside rein, more leg, shoulder in.  Nothing was working.

Linda watched us go around for a few minutes and then said "She sure wants you to fuss with her, doesn't she?"

"Uhh..."  I grabbed my inside rein as Tessa's attention wandered towards the tent.  She tipped her nose in, but bulged her neck and shoulder out, one eye still on the scary tent.  I pulled back on the outside rein to try and capture her shoulder.  She slowed down.  I squeezed with both legs and she pushed a hindquarter randomly out and threw her head in the air.

Linda smiled.  "She gets fussy and she wants you to get fussy too."

"I'm trying to get her attention back on me and nothing's working."  My voice was a bit on the whiny side.  It was hot and I was frustrated and we hadn't even warmed up properly.

"Put your pinkies on the saddle.  There.  Now ask her to go forward.  Keep your hands down and ask her for more forward."

I set my hands and squeezed gently.  Tessa continued to stare at the tent outside.  A sharp kick resulted in a head toss, a side step and a few shuffling steps forward while keeping her head strained to the left to look at the tent.  My hands came up, grabbing the inside rein.  My seat shoved with frustration and my legs kicked repeatedly.  She threw her head again and stepped over with her hindquarters.

"Forward!"  Linda yelled.  "And put your hands down and keep them there.  Do NOT play this game with her!"

I set my hands back down and looked ahead.  I asked for forward.  We went sideways with headtossing.

"Stay right there!  Do not let her think that YOU need to fuss because she is.  You've set your boundaries, now let her figure that out."

I stayed still with my hands quietly resting on the saddle.  I asked for more forward.  I got tail swishing, head tossing, a half a step of canter.  Still, I stayed quiet and focused on forward.  I asked again and with a deep sigh, Tessa reached forward.

The rest of my lesson was just reminders about this concept.  To stay quiet when you move from straight to a leg yield.  To stay quiet and focused while crossing the diagonal.  To stay quiet when you do a serpentine.  To stay quiet when her head comes up and her attention wanders.  Staying quiet is my next 'aha' moment.  Our lesson was mostly full of lovely forward trot on the bit.

The other shining moment was when we were down in the corner by the goat and something spooked the princess.  She did a sideways Arab teleport and started towards the other end of the arena.  I lost my stirrup.  It took three steps for me to get her back under control and trotting on the bit again.  Then I rooted around for my stirrup, a little frustrated at at how long it took me to find it.  Then I circled in that corner until I could do a fifteen meter circle with me being quiet and her paying attention and moving off my leg.  At NO time was I afraid.  Cue the trumpets and the angel choir here while I repeat that sentence.  At NO time was I afraid.  That sentence looks so good to me.  That sentence feels so good to write.  My name is Mona Sterling and yesterday, I was not afraid.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Thundering Hooves

Actually, it was more just thunder.  In the Pacific Northwest, we experience our fair share of rain but it's usually annoying drippy constant rain and the ever present cloud cover.  This week though, the weather went all ex girlfriend psycho on us.  We had high winds, muggy days, thunderstorms and hail.  If Mother Nature could have, she would have slashed our tires and left notes written in lipstick on our car windshields.  It made for some good weather watching...from inside.

Friday I had an appointment with the saddle fitter because my saddle isn't fitting.  It slides forward during my ride.  This is what happens when you order a saddle in March and receive it in July.  The pony's shape has changed.  We had some thunderstorms earlier that morning, but the weather outside my window was pretty blue skies and sunshine.  At the barn, it was a bit muggier than at my house.  I brought Tessa in from the pasture and put her in the cross ties.  I could hear thunder rumbling in the distance. Outside, the wind picked up, sending a cool breeze through the aisle.  I looked outside.  Sunshine.  

I got to work brushing her.  I would like to mention, for the fourteen millionth time, how amazingly clean my grey pony is.  It's like she wears a bubble when she goes outside.  The only place she gets dirty is on her hind legs where she gets poop from her nervous pooping habit.  So, I'm doing a quick groom while waiting for the saddle fitter.  I look outside and notice that it's darker out.  Again, highly unusual for weather to change so quickly.  There is a sudden flash and before I can turn to the other woman out there to remark on it, it's followed by a huge crack of thunder.  Followed by hail.

Shockingly, my pony puts all four feet out and trembles for a moment.  Her head goes up and her eyes roll around a bit.  She's on full alert.  The hail is making crashing noises on the barn roof.  I put her lead rope on and take her out of the cross ties.  She's looking around a bit anxiously, but her feet are still.  There's an empty stall next to us so I put her in the empty stall.  Thunder shakes the barn again.  She looks around the stall for a moment.  "Oh!  Hay!"  And that was that.  She put her head down and got busy eating the hay and ignoring the weather.

The saddle fitter was running really, really late so I ended up cancelling my appointment.  Partly because I didn't want to wait and partly because I know my limits.  And riding in a thunderstorm is a limit for me.  What's cool though, is that I don't feel bad about that.  It's okay that I'm not brave enough to ride in a thunderstorm.  It's okay that I put my pony in a stall because I was worried and so was she.  I'm learning how to take care of BOTH of us in the best way possible.  Without shame, without guilt.  It feels good.  Really good.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Some Problems Are Not Problems At All

The latest problem?  Tessa wants to jump.  Tessa loves to jump.  The crabby pony that sucks back turns into a forward, rhythmical happy pony when you put down some ground poles and some cross rails.

At my barn, you don't jump outside of lessons.  I haven't asked why this is, but I think it has something to do with the arena not being very big and teenagers.  It doesn't bother me at all since I wouldn't jump without help right now anyways.  The only days that they do jump lessons are on Tuesdays and I can't ride on Tuesdays.  Argh!  So, I'm going to look for some books with good ground pole grids for us to work with.  Any recommendations?

The saddle fitter is coming out on Friday because my saddle isn't fitting the pony right.  This is probably because we ordered the saddle in March and then she went into full time training in April and May.  Her shape has definitely changed.  The saddle fitter is also going to bring out a jump saddle for us to try, just in case.  Then I will just need a Western saddle and I'll be set.  So much tack, so little money.....

Tessa also has a new buddy in the stall next to her.  There were three babies born last year at the farm (actually more than that, but only three of them belonged to our trainers).  Two colts and a filly.  Well, now that they're yearlings it's time to separate the herd.  So the geldings went off to grow up into little boys and the filly is stalled next to Tessa.  The filly is HUGE.  She's as big as Tessa already.  And Tessa loves her.  She keeps trying to stick her nose through the barns so she can touch the filly.  Poor Tessa will never get a baby of her own (at least not under my watch, she won't) but I think she'd make an excellent mother.  I have NEVER seen Tessa get angry with another horse.  She gets a little irritated at her current pasture mate, Prime, because he follows her around constantly.  But I can relate to that.  Nobody wants a needy boyfriend.

And finally, last night was my Monday lesson.  We did dressage and Tessa and I had one of our best rides yet.  I'm pretty sure it's because during the week we did mostly hunt seat and half seat riding.  I'm still on my quest to figure out where I'm gripping, so I'm doing a lot of half seat riding and then experimenting with being light in my posting and in my canter.  We worked on putting all my weight in the stirrups last night.  My thighs were burning, so I think that's a good thing.

When I went to hose Tessa off, she turned herself around in the wash rack again and backed out and got all flustered.  I have been using the wash rack on the opposite side of the barn the last two weeks and she's super good in that wash rack.  I don't know what it is about this other wash rack that freaks her out, but she's going to be spending a lot more supervised time in it now!

I'm so grateful that our problems this summer are not really problems at all.  I'm looking forward to seeing what we'll be doing this next year.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

How To Defy Your Doctor

No walking for two weeks, minimum.  Okay.  Use crutches and keep your foot elevated.  Okay.  I'm doing that.  But I'm also riding.  Because feet in the stirrups aren't the same as feet on the ground.  And if that fails, I'll drop my stirrups.  Even my husband agreed that I needed to get back out to the barn.  My mental state is just so much better when I do.

And guess what I did today?  Jumped!!  Me!  And the pony!  We even did a little three jump course.  It was awesome and amazing.  As it turns out, my form over jumps is way better than my dressage form.  Even though Tessa cleared a six inch cross rail like it was four feet (overjump much, pony?), I stayed in the saddle.  I just wish I had pictures.

Both of us enjoyed ourselves immensely.  I am braver than I think and so is my pony.  Next time I promise I will figure out a way to get pictures.

I would write more but my office is hot since summer arrived in Seattle and the temperature was actually in the high 70's instead of the usual mid 50's.  And since I used up all my energy in my jumping lesson (another thing I forgot was how exhausting it is.  This is especially true if you try to hold your breath and jump.  This was remedied by singing while I jumped, but that is also exhausting.) I'm ready to go put my foot up and enjoy a celebratory glass of chilled white wine.

Monday, July 2, 2012

No Foot, No...Human?

Saturday night, a large piece of wood fell on my foot and hit it just right.  By Sunday morning, my foot was swollen and I couldn't move my toes or have anything touch the top of it.  It hurt to walk, so I hobbled around on one heel with no shoes on.  I spent most of the day with my foot up, praying that I hadn't broken it.

The good news is, it's not broken.  The bad news is that it's very badly bruised on the top of the foot and I still can't even brush it with my fingertips, much less put a sock or shoe on it.  Which means no riding boots, which means no riding.

Noooooooooo!!!!  This is so frustrating.  Today is my lesson day.  Today I was going to work on the right lead canter.  This weekend was going to be the weekend where I spent more time bonding with my pony.  Of course, the injured foot is the right foot so I can't even drive.

The upside is that I definitely feel different since making my mental leap with Tessa.  If I could find a way to get a boot on and somebody to drive me, I'd hobble my ass out there and lunge her really, really good.  Then, when she was good and tired, I'd throw a saddle on and get a leg up and ride her with no stirrups.  Yes, yes I would.

So at this moment, I'm raring to go mentally but physically I have to wait a few days until I can at least wear shoes.  Barefoot around horses is asking for more than just a bruise on the top of your foot and I'm not THAT desperate yet.

If I don't post between now and then, I hope you all have a wonderful Fourth of July and that your horses survive it as well.  My barn does a lot of preparation for the fourth, including double checking all fences so that they make sure if a horse panics, they won't kill themselves.  I'm really grateful that they do all that and that I have such good people looking after my pony.