Thursday, August 30, 2012

What's Best for You or Best for Your Horse?

I have a blog post with pictures about my meetup with fellow blogger from, but I need to upload my pictures still so that post will have to wait.  In the meantime, I need some advice.

I'm afraid I've turned into a bit of a barn snob.  Either that, or I am insisting on perfection.  Or maybe I have well founded fears.  Please help me think about this in a calm, ration way.  I've tried bouncing this off my non-horse friends but they don't know enough about horses to really participate.

My question is about barns.  Again.  My barn has been fantastic, but it's a little bit like jumping into the serious lap swim session at the pool and then thinking maybe you'd like to try synchronized diving or water polo.  Or maybe you just want to float around contemplating life.

I will try not to go on and on and on and to be as clear as possible.  Let's start with Barn A, the barn I'm currently at.

Barn A

  • Impeccable barn.  Barn aisle is always swept.  Wash rack clean.  Buckets clean.  Stalls clean.  Not so impeccable that you wonder if horses live there, but a pretty tight ship.
  • Good footing in the arena.  Watered regularly.  Raked regularly.
  • Almost everyone there is a better rider than I am and the instruction is top notch.  They went to a show last weekend and took Champion or Reserve Champion in all the divisions they entered.  This was a dressage show.  
  • Great care for the horses.  From the food to regular chiropractic adjustments as needed to vitamins, supplements and knowing when your horse is off, the care is top notch.  I have never had to schedule a vet visit, a dentist visit and now even Tessa's feet are trimmed regularly.  They know what the horses need and they take care of it.  I trust them implicitly when it comes to my horse.  If they think she needs supplements or a vet visit or anything, they let me know right away.
  • Turnouts are good sized and have grass in the summer.  Yes, for a solid six months they are muddy but this is the Pacific Northwest.  That's how we roll.  Horses go out in pairs and have access to a shelter.  They are turned out every other day for 8-10 hours and they come in if the weather is super miserable.  If the horses are kept in, they put them on a rotating schedule of arena time.
  • The people are all nice.  Most of them are serious riders, but everyone has been pleasant.
  • It's only 20 minutes from my house.


  • Only one small indoor arena that is often busy in the evenings with lessons.  Since lessons are serious business, it can be intimidating to ride when this is happening.
  • Nobody rides anything except dressage and jumping.  
  • The community is somewhat tight knit, but I think a lot of it revolves around shows.  There are no children.
  • No place for non-horsey people to hang out if they come to the barn with you.

Barn B


  • Everyone there is super mellow.  Western.  English.  Bareback.  Trail.  They do a little bit of everything.
  • The people there are more into their relationship with their horse than they are the training.  I would likely be one of the 'better' riders or at least one of the more 'serious' ones.  I mean, my first lesson there today she had me ride her horse in a Kimberwicke.  Uh....I have never taken a dressage lesson using a Kimberwicke.  However, she also put me on the longe line and then made me ride bareback!  I learned a lot, even if I was riding in a non-dressage bit.  
  • They do fun things like bonfires, Halloween dress up parties, they have a 4-h group, they go to some local shows.  Lots of community it seems.
  • Their indoor arena was bigger and even with a few other horses in there, didn't feel crowded at all.
  • They have an outdoor riding space.  They call it an arena but it's a grass/sand mixture and it looks like it might be slick when the weather changes.  However, it's outside.  OUTSIDE! 
  • Viewing room with heat and a couch.  And toys for kids.  And kids ride there!  Kids who could hang out with my kid!


  • The barn is not as clean.  I'm not talking about perfection, I just mean it wasn't as clean.  It was totally functional though and not gross at all, just a little less deep on the shavings and a little messier here and there.
  • The turnouts are tiny, gravel turnouts with no shelter and no trees.  They are turned out for about three to four hours a day, but there isn't enough room to take more than about ten steps each direction.  A horse couldn't actually canter out there.  Turnout wouldn't mean much in terms of getting exercise, it would be more about fresh air.
  • I wouldn't be getting the same level of perfection in my instruction.  I might pick up bad habits.  I might decide to screw it all and ride in a Kimberwicke and a hunt seat saddle and show Arab circuit.  I think I might be okay with this because...I might be happier there.
  • Thirty minute drive.  That's an extra twenty minutes each time I go to the barn.  
  • I would have to schedule all my own vet and farrier visits. 
  • The school horse I rode had thrush in his front feet and it's summer.  I could smell it while I was picking out his front feet.  I don't know if that means anything, but I would be concerned if my horse had thrush in August.  In March, not so much, but it's been dry enough around here....but again, maybe I'm being too anal.

In closing, the horse all looked fine at Barn B.  There were about five of them that pinned their ears and lunged at other horses as they passed their stalls, but they also had open windows and I know some horses can be territorial that way.  They all were friendly when I walked by without a horse.

Would you board at a place that didn't have great turnout?  How big of a deal breaker is that for you?  I have looked at barn after barn after barn and this one has come the closest to having the right sense of community and mixture of disciplines and is actually a reasonable distance from me.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012


I missed two weeks of lessons and was huffing and puffing last night.  Sometimes, taking an extended break is helpful though.  Last night we identified a key problem area for me.  It's been a problem from the get go, but now that it's not mixed with anxiety and fear, I hadn't noticed it as much.  It's my Superman arms.

Arms of Steel.  From my shoulder blades to my fists, any time things aren't working my arms turn into steel rods of tension.  Here comes the scary corner.  Tight reins, arms of steel!  Canter transition where she might throw her head at my nose?  Arms of steel!  The dreaded tranter?  Arms of steel!

Linda gently chastised me because Tessa was cranky and sucking back again.  She said "It's time to look at what you're doing to prevent her forward motion."  I know, I'm a little late to this party.  But now that my tension is not fear related, it's time to let it go.

We worked on keeping my legs beneath me and my muscles somewhat relaxed.  Letting the motion of the horse carry me forward and being soft and supple.  Keeping Tessa's ears pointed the direction I'm going.  Oh, she's looking to the outside?  Arms of Steel!  No, wait, relax.  Relax.  I started muttering it under my breath.  Relax.  Hands down.  Relax.  Legs beneath you.  Relax.  Keep your rein length.  Relax.  Following hands.

The arena was super busy (six horses in a 70 x 120 covered arena) so it was more of a challenge than usual. We didn't have a whole lot of great moments, but I started to recognize when I was tensing up.  My goal for this week is not to worry too much about changing it to something effective, but to notice it EVERY time.  If I can then relax, great.  But I want to know every time I do it.  Including in my non-pony life.  My shoulders have long since shouldered (hahahaha.  this made me happy) the burden of my stresses.  Sitting at my desk.  Problem solving.  The tension starts in the middle of my shoulder blades, draws them together and eventually travels down the length of my arms.  It's time to recognize those moments.  Just by identifying them, I will start to change my behavior.

I'm excited that though I have tension in my body, there isn't the same tension in my brain.  Tessa bucked and kicked and threw her head to nose breaking heights last night (thank GOD for the martingale!!!!) and I was frustrated with myself but not afraid.  And in the end we had lovely forward motion and one ear flicked back on me all the way around the arena.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Breaking Promises

Heavy title isn't it?  Really, I'm just admitting that I broke my promise about more pictures.  I went out to the barn for two days in a row and don't have a single picture to show for it.  I'm sorry.  Especially since there some good things to take pictures of!

Saturday, I got reacquainted with my pony.  She's still rubbing out her tail, but it's not as bad.  Her butt gets incredibly dirty.  More than any other horse I've ever known!  Probably because she spends most of her time walking around with her tail held up or to one side.  So I'm thinking most of her tail rubbing is from a dirty butt at this point.  I'm going to clean her butt daily and try and check her udders once a week.  At this point, I'm still farming out the work on checking her udders because she's really nervous about it, but I can see that changing in the future.

Remember how frustrated I have been with my relationship and what am I doing and all that whining?  First of all, thanks for hanging in there and reading, even if you are rolling your eyes and sighing dramatically and saying to your computer monitor "Really, Mona Sterling?  How many stupid posts are you going to write about this?"  'Cause I totally do that to myself.  But I'm one of those people who work out problems by talking (or typing) it out.  I go on and on and on and on and just works itself out.  You'd think after having things ALWAYS work out that I would relax a bit more.  But relaxing makes me a bit uncomfortable.  A good example of this is that my six year old is going away with my parents for five days.  FIVE DAYS!!  This is my chance to relax, right?  Ohhhhhhh no.  I have two extra work meetings, an extra riding lesson, a meetup with another blogger, a dinner party and I'm painting the living room, dining room, entryway and all of our trim including the fireplace.  Also, I am going to clean up the garage and clean up our guest room.  Somewhere in there, I will relax.  Ha!

Anyway, I was perusing the internets for some answers to my life problems.  Oh, you don't do that?  Really?  I can't afford a counselor AND a horse, so when the horse is the problem and not my solution, I turn to the internet.  I stumbled across a video about clicker training for spooky horses.  In my former life, I was a dog trainer and have used clicker training for dogs with some success.  I thought it would be fun to see what Tessa did.

Rather than using a clicker, I chose to use the word "Right" to reinforce.  I won't explain the process in detail (the videos on the website above do a better job of that) but within five times, Tessa was looking for food every time I said "Right".  I used tiny cut up carrots, but it would have been better with grain or something less crunchy I think.  The first thing I worked on was not mugging me for treats.  We were loose in the arena and she learned very quickly to turn her head forward if she wanted a treat.  Within ten minutes, I had her touching her nose to a cone to get treats.  I then brought in an umbrella and opened it.  Tessa's eyes went wide.  I held still, umbrella in one hand and carrots in the other.  Tessa looked at me, then looked at the umbrella.  'Right!" I exclaimed loudly and handed her some carrots.  I shook the umbrella.  Tessa took stock on the situation.  Scary umbrella?  Carrots?  She knew what I wanted.  She stretched her neck out and nosed the umbrella.  "Right! Right!"  I gave her a whole handful of carrots.

Then I walked around with the umbrella, Tessa following and touching it with her nose at every opportunity.  That day she also touched a coffee mug, my sweatshirt and learned that if she kept her head forward and her attitude in check while I was girthing her, she got lots of praise and carrots.  After my ride on Sunday, I did some more work with her and within ten minutes had her following me around, stopping when I stopped and backing up when I backed up.  At one point, she moved her body away from me and tried to come around front for a treat.  I just held still and she circled all the way around me and PUT HERSELF BACK IN POSITION!  I'm not even making this up!  She came back and put her shoulder even with my shoulder.

I will try to take pictures or even a video next time I have time to do this.  Probably not until next weekend, but I should be able to get something by then.

In other news, Tessa will be going for her first official trail ride on Saturday Sept. 9th.  A trainer at the barn who gives beginner lessons, Sarah, is going to take Tessa and her horse BeBe.  I will ride BeBe and Sarah will ride Tessa.  So exciting!

So my relationship with Tessa is improving as we try new things AND we're getting out of the arena.  Things are, as usual, just working themselves right out.

Friday, August 24, 2012

A Quick Update on.....Nothing

I've been out of town.  And though I got back two days early, I chose not to go see my horse.  What does this mean?  The balance of family, work and horse is so damn challenging.  How do you fit in family, work and horse time?  How long is your average trip to the barn?  How many times a week do you see your horse?  Do you pay for someone else to work your horse when you can't?

Sometimes it just feels like I'm juggling.  I know, the saying is juggling too many balls, but I can't juggle.  At all.  So it just feels like juggling where every time I think I've got it, that damn third ball gets added in and everything goes flying every which way.

I have plans to see my pony tomorrow.  Though I'm excited to see her, I'm kind of tired of doing 20 meter circles.

I did, however, just get some of the stuffing moved around in my saddle so it should fit even better.  We took a bunch out of the back of the seat so it should feel less like I'm falling off the front of her.

Next week, I have an exciting play date (do grown ups call them play dates??) with Laura from Red Horse Farm.    Yeah for meeting fellow bloggers and fellow horse people!  We're gonna do some ground work and then maybe a little Western riding.  I'm gonna rock my Cruel Girl jeans (and you thought I was only english.  ha!  I even have some Western spurs with rowels!!) and I'm gonna bring my camera!  Is it a sign of things not working for me that I'm more excited about doing this than I am about going out to ride my own horse?

I will try to take more pictures this next week so that even though my posts might be full of musings and critical questions, they will at least have pictures.  Because we all love pictures!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Trust and Training

I took Tessa in the to wash rack again yesterday.  I washed her tail while she clamped it down, every muscle quivering.  She stood mostly still, lifting a hind leg in protest now and then.  The water was warm and I was careful not to spray her too hard.  Still, she was tense and unhappy.  The minute I unclipped the cross ties, she tried to bolt out.

She has been at the same barn for over a year.  She has been in the wash rack every week for the last year, sometimes more often.  The last two weeks, she has had her tail washed every day.  She has been praised profusely when she stands still, she has had carrots in the wash rack.  She has been tacked, untacked, groomed and fed treats in the wash rack.  We have moved slowly from spraying water nearby, to hosing off feet.  She has never had water sprayed in her face or ears (at least not with me...I can't say what her previous owners did).  But her fear of the wash rack persists.

So is it trust?  How can you build trust?  I get that it takes time, but how MUCH time?  Will she EVER trust me or will my lack of confidence erode any foundation we start to build.  How can I set us up for situations where she will look to me as a leader, without accidentally setting us up for failure?  I have read every natural horsemanship book out there and though I love them, sometimes it's hard to put in practice when you don't really know what you're doing or how to apply it to your particular situation.

With no trailer and no access to outside trainers (not allowed at our barn), I'm really starting to feel frustrated.  Thanks for listening to me vent and for offering so many good ideas in the comments.

On a good note though, we did secure a trailer ride for August 25th to a nearby jumper barn where we will be having a jumping lesson at a new arena.  Big day!!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Opening the Door

I really appreciate all the comments/advice on my last post.  I have been thinking a lot about the comment about Arabians going a bit stir crazy only having arena time.  Tessa has been a bit hot and cranky lately and I'm wondering if this is a big part of it.  She's been in the same arena for a year now.

The one time she did go to a show was about a month after I bought her.  She was amazing.  She was quiet and walked around the property like an old pro.  It helped that it was all outdoors and there were lots of other horses.  Other horses give her confidence.

So, I have been researching other barns and had found a barn close to my house that intrigued me.  It seemed to have everything on my wish list.  Indoor arena, outdoor round pen, daily turnout and best of all, it was a short ride down a dead end road to a giant local park with outdoor arenas and trails.  They had three trainers working out of the barn.  A dressage trainer, a hunter jumper trainer and a woman who studies with Buck Brannaman.  Perfect!  My saddle fitter keeps her horse there and absolutely loves it.  This barn is also much closer to my home.  The only reason I hadn't looked into it before was the price tag.  My board would have gone up $200 a month and lessons were more expensive.  Would it really be worth it?  I have spent the summer discussing it with my husband (over and over and over and over....I solve problems by talking them out.  Luckily, my husband is a patient man.) and decided that I needed to try this barn.

My saddle fitter was out yesterday to take my saddle in for some adjustments.  We're removing some of the stuffing from the back so it doesn't feel so downhill.  It's hard to have a deep seat saddle on a downhill horse; it can feel like you're falling off the front.  I asked her about her barn again.  She was super excited and said I would be a perfect fit!  She told me they are letting the trainers go because they want a facility with people who aren't so driven by shows.  They are going to focus on having fun with their horses.  Perfect, right?

Then she let this little bomb drop.  They're raising the board.  Another $200.00.  Which brings board to a whopping $1,000 a month and puts it firmly out of my price range.  I was so disappointed.  She tried to convince me it was worth it because of the excellent care and everything, but my pony gets BEYOND excellent care at the barn I'm at.  The only reason I would be moving is for the access to trails and outdoor riding without needing a trailer and $400 extra dollars a month just isn't in my budget right now for that.  Especially when the barn across the street from them (it's full so I can't go there) charges only $450 a month.  Granted, they don't have an indoor arena or a wash rack, but $400 extra a month for those things?  No thanks.

So, time for a plan B.  The girl that rides my horse for me on Wednesdays (who is great with her) said that she can use a truck and trailer.  We would just need to fill up the tank.  I am going to email her today to talk about how much I could pay her to take my pony and I on field trips.  Knowing how Tessa does in new situations, new arenas, trails and outdoor arenas will help me figure out what the next step is....hopefully.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

One Nugget at a Time

You think this post is going to be about nuggets of wisdom, don't you?  C'mon, you totally do.  What else would it be about?  How about poop!?  Yes, poop.

Last night was my lesson and Tessa was hot.  She wasn't scary hot, but she was very distracted and nervous about every little thing.  We had some really good work, pushing her forward and into my hands, but we still can't make it all the way around the arena without being distracted and spooking.  I will admit that I spent a good portion of my lesson with my arms aching and my frustration building.  I kept shaking my arms out to try and loosen them, but every four strides Tessa would fling her head in the air and scoot sideways.  Down every long side she would speed up, despite my half halts.  Then she would fall to the inside.  I managed to get it where we could go almost all the way down the long side by using my spur vigorously.  But those last three strides, she didn't even feel the spur because it was the scary corner.  I felt like I was trying too muscle her into doing what I wanted and since she outweighs me by at least a couple hundred pounds, there's no way for that to be effective.

I really like both my trainers, but some days (like yesterday) I feel frustrated that I've been riding with them since October and I STILL can't consistently get my horse all the way around the arena and in every corner. I mean, I might be able to do it once or twice during a lesson going one direction, but how effing long is it going to take??  The trouble is that Tessa doesn't trust or believe me (or something along those lines) and that whatever is in the corner is scarier to her than whatever I'm doing.  I try turning her head, more inside leg, asking for shoulder in, change of gait.  These can sometimes distract her but never enough to *actually* ride through the corner properly and consistently.  How will I ever get out of the arena if we can't even manage riding *in* the arena after almost a YEAR of once a week lessons.  ARGH!

So, anyway, back to the poop.  Poor Tessa was just really worried last night and when my pony is worried, she poops.  So we get into the arena and she pooped right after I got on.  Someone came out and picked it up for me.  Ten minutes later, she poops again.  Again, someone comes out and picks it up.  At our arena, we try to pick up the poop immediately so it won't break down the arena footing.  There's usually someone on the ground who can do this, otherwise you just do it after your ride.  During busy lessons, the trainers will do it so we don't have to ride around the poop.

In the course of a one hour lesson, my pony pooped eight times.  EIGHT TIMES.  One tiny little poop nugget at a time.  It was like she was watching the people picking it up and as soon as they had picked it up, left the arena and gone back to what they were doing, Tessa would poop again.  Poor nervous pooping pony.

In the end we had a fine lesson.  We had some lovely canter to the right and even though she had a huge spook in the canter, I got her back under control after only two strides and we resumed our lovely canter.  Still, I need to figure out how to stop trying to be physically stronger than the pony.  It's not working and we both deserve better.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Five Steps of Bravery

Sunday was hot.  Probably not hot by rest of the country standards, but in the PNW it was a record breaking day of heat in the 90's.  I saddled up anyways but we ended up only riding for about ten minutes.  It was just too hot and neither one of us were motivated.

There was nobody around, so I took Tessa's saddle off in the arena.  I was about to take her bridle off when I had an idea.  I should check something off of my 'perfect horse' list that I've wanted to do.  Have a horse that I can ride bareback.  So I led her to the mounting block, removed my spurs (just in case) and slid on to her back.  It was slippery.  And her mane was short, having been recently pulled.  I asked her to walk.  She took a step.  My heart was pounding a million miles an hour.  She took another step.  On the fifth step, I heard the sound of the Blue Angels (jet fighter planes that were in town for a show that weekend) approaching.  So, I slid off.  My short bareback ride over.

But you know what?  It was five steps more bareback than I had ridden her before.  And now I can say I've ridden my pony bareback.  Of course there are no pictures.  How many pictures of Tessa in the crossties can I possibly take?  Even my camera is sick of Tessa in the crossties pictures.  So, sorry about that, but no pictures this time.  I promise I'll get better about that.