Thursday, March 28, 2013

Herd Dynamics Versus Human Dynamic

Tessa is low on the herd totem pole.  Not that we have herds at our barn, but if we did she would rank low.  Every horse that she has been turned out with, she has been lower than.  I've never seen her offer to kick.  The most she's done is pin her ears and swish her tail at one mare that insisted on pushing her around the pasture constantly.  But she kept going....

Now, when it comes to human interactions, Tessa is not so low.  She's more middle of the road.  She swishes her tail and occasionally stamps her foot while I'm brushing her in places she doesn't want me to.  She bites the air if I brush her chest.  She pins her ear and snaps at the crossties when I girth her up.

This translates to the same attitude under saddle, unfortunately.  I ask for canter and she stops and kicks out.  Then she bucks and takes off.  Then she kicks at the leg and throws her head in my face.

We worked on that today and after having a huge pony meltdown, the rest of our ride was pretty awesome.  My trainer suggested I wear 'real spurs' rather than the little plastic ball ones I have on.  She said that having a spur will stop me from nagging Tessa constantly.  I see her point, sort of.  She's saying that we have GOT to quit having the same argument over and over.  That putting on spurs that are more uncomfortable (we're still talking bitty english spurs here people, not big scary spurs) will do two things.  One, they will make the pony really unhappy because it will be really uncomfortable when she gets a spur in her side.  Two, they will force the pony and I to have it out.  Most likely, the pony will react with some super anger and I'll have to deal with it and then maybe we can move on from this argument.

It's not just about forward, it's that I put my leg on and ask her hindquarters to move over and she completely ignores me.  I use my spur (my little plastic round ones) and she ignores that too.  I tap with the whip and she ignores that.  I tap harder and she stops and kicks out.  I keep tapping, she keeps kicking.  Then she'll buck hard and take off, basically giving me the pony finger.  But she STILL doesn't want to move off that damn leg!

My trainer said she's just a b*tch.  Is she really?  She's not super bitchy on the ground and she's certainly not bitchy around other horses.  But is how a horse is in the herd even relevant to how they are under saddle?

Right.  So, I had a good ride.  I love my crabby pony.  And I'm going to ponder this some.  I welcome your ponderings on this as well.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Pony and Parenting Parallels

It's not just the letter 'p' that ponies and parenting have in common.  It's kind of....everything.  I was wallowing in some guilt/shame/frustration last night after a not-so-fabulous ride with my horse.

I read a LOT.  I read books, articles, blogs, comments...anything that I think might have a nugget of usefulness gets devoured.  Lately, I've been reading a lot of classical dressage theory on forward and lightness.   And have come to the conclusion that I am not a tactful rider.  Or a soft rider.  Or a fair rider.  Not because I don't want to be, but because I'm a work in progress.

How is this like parenting, you ask?  Well, for those of you that have kids I am sure this will sound familiar.  While your baby is in the womb, you spend days, hours, months dreaming about your perfect child and your perfect family and your perfect motherhood.  You see yourself in your perfect mother role (whatever that may be).  You are fair and just and even tempered.  You play silly games with your children and then you all go cook dinner together.  You romp at the park and stop to look at bugs and make them lunches without any processed foods.

Nowhere in your perfect family vision is the gritting of teeth while you wait for your child to tie their shoes at snail speed when you're running late, the raising of your voice as you ask your child for the fourth time to get in the bath and they yell back "Just one sec".   What you don't know before you actually have children is that you that you will be gloriously imperfect.  You will lose your temper.  You will make bad decisions.  You will punish your child when you should hug them.  Sometimes you will hug them when you should punish them.  You will give them too much stuff and then agonize over how to teach them to be less entitled.  It will be ugly and messy and some days you will remember how you thought your life would look like the parenting magazines, full of cute crafts and Mommy/Daughter moments.  You will laugh a kind of crazed, I-haven't-had-a-day-off-since-this-baby-was-born laugh  because your life looks more like the before version of Clean House and the last time you did crafts, you had glitter glue in your hair for a week.

And the thing with parenting and the thing with ponies, they're both the same path.  The same terrible, lovely, awful and beautiful contradiction of love and hope and effort and despair.  You throw your leg over the saddle and you envision your perfect ride, your soft hands, your horse rounding up through it's back. Some days you will insist on the fantasy and you will muscle your horse into a frame with steely arms, unforgiving legs and the crack of a whip.  And at the end, you and your horse are sweaty and disillusioned and you don't look anything how you thought you would.  Other days, you try to make up for your harshness by being overly soft. You throw the reins away, you think glowing happy thoughts while your horse ignores you and tries to buck you off when you 'whisper' a cue on her side.

The real truth is that there is no such thing as a perfect rider or a perfect mom. And though knowledge is power, some days you have to put down the books, stop worrying about what is right and just be who you are and where you're at.

Our children grow up to be adults, most of them leaving the nest and flying off to live their good life.  Our parenting will have shaped them, molded them, helped them learn and grow.  Even the bad parts.  Sometimes what we learn from our parents is what not to do and that's okay too.  People are perfectly imperfect and I wouldn't want it any other way.  Our children will learn, our horses will compensate.  Despite our stumbling and falling, we will get back up, we will forgive, we will love, we will try to do better next time.

Yesterday,  I got on my horse in the scary corner.  We had to circle the mounting block a few times, but I stayed with her.  I stayed focused and continued to ask and we had success.  And even though I have hands that aren't steady enough, even though I have a back that braces and legs that are on more than they are off, even though I am inconsistent on so many levels, I was there in that small moment with my horse.  We are growing together and in the end, we'll both be better for it and we'll both be alright.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Pony Hair Doesn't Lie

It might have snowed a few days ago, but that hasn't stopped the shedding so spring is coming even if it's a cold one.

I haven't been able to ride much and it had been almost two weeks since I visited the pony.  I remembered the animal communicator's advice that my pony wanted more attention from me, so I made sure to go straight to Tessa's stall.  She turned to look at me when I called her name and she resembled a giant, white cotton ball.  There was fuzz everywhere.

She buried her face in my hands and when I took my hands away, they came away with handfuls of hair in them.  Well, she wanted more attention didn't she?  So we had a pony spa day.  It was too cold to wash, so I curried and combed and brushed and curried and combed and brushed.  I clipped her face a bit, trimmed her legs up and then curried and brushed some more.

I took my time.  I talked to Tessa.  I scratched her in her favorite places.  I did notice she was less pissy.  Probably because I remained relaxed and focused on her.  My energy wasn't worrying about our ride or how much time I had (which is unusual because usually I really do have to be focused on the clock.).  I was simply being there, stripping as much hair off as I could, spitting it out of my mouth occasionally and trying not to rub my eyes.

This is about half the hair I actually got off but it was kind of windy so I was cleaning it up as I went.  I got enough hair to knit a large man a sweater.  I also ended up needing to go up one hole on my girth.  No joke.

There was a lot going on in the arena with five horses and people practicing tests with half passes and leg yields and extensions, so our ride wasn't super long or super hard.  I had two goals.  One was to remain sensitive and light, while still asking Tessa to lift and use her back.  The other was to get her working at the one end of the arena where someone outside was power washing their motor home.  She only had one whirl and spook but was very distracted and tense.

It was sunny out, so we ended our ride by going outside.  I hopped on for another ten minutes and we sort of wandered back and forth and then just sat in the sunshine.  Tessa was ready to be done and despite my nerves telling me to not get on, I rode outside and felt good about that.

I really would like to work on her spooking issue though.  I know her personality is such that she may always be a 'looky' horse, but she freezes up entirely AND tunes me out.  So far, the only thing I've been able to do is to kind of haul her around and put her back to work.  It will work as long as we aren't near the spooky thing.  So, for example, if we're headed straight for the scary object and I feel her body tense I can turn her sort of sideways and push her off my leg.  But it requires a lot of 'muscling around' and then we lose all sense of togetherness and lightness.  I've been playing around with wrapping my leg around her and that does seem to help, but when she's worried she just wants to freeze up and stare at the scary thing.  Then she wants to whirl and bolt (though usually I catch her before this).  I have tried small circles, disengaging hindquarters, shoulder in.  They all work to some extent but it means we have to change course.  If I'm riding in a dressage test or on a narrow trail, I can't change my course.

My mission for this summer is to get her out and expose her, but I want to have a game plan for how to handle her spooks both for my confidence and for hers.  Since she told the animal communicator that she wants to go out on trail rides, I told her that if she wants to do that she has to get a handle on her spooking.  That's all I need to do right?  Just tell her that it's her problem and if she wants to stop doing dressage, she better knuckle down and power through it.  Haha.  Yeah....we'll see how that goes.....

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A Good Lesson and an Interesting Phone Call

I had my dressage lesson last night and since Linda is out of town, Laura taught it.  She has a different style than Linda, so it was a nice change.  Linda focuses a lot on exercises and patterns, which then bring out the holes in your training.  Laura's approach was centered more on getting them going correctly and less on where you were going.  At one point, the pony broke into a canter and Laura just had me keep cantering while still working on getting her off my inside leg.

We had some of our most correct moments, with Tessa reaching into the bridle.

We also had a hilarious moment where I asked her to canter and she was so frustrated that she kicked her leg up and kicked my boot OUT of the stirrup.  Did I mention my pony is flexible?

So, ready for the interesting phone call?  I had a chance to speak with an animal communicator.  He's pretty well known and an article was written about him in COTH.  His name is Bill Northern.  He was a riot.  He made a point of telling me he calls it like it is so I was prepared for the worst.  He didn't sugar coat anything, he gave me a few specifics to verify that it was MY horse he was talking to and then he told me what Tessa had to 'say'.

Are you guys ready for this?  My horse said she was frustrated because I didn't come out every day and when I did come out I spent too much time socializing and not enough time with her.  Yep, my horse wants more of my attention.  She's totally right, of course.  I do tend to socialize when I'm at the barn.  It's my only chance to talk horses with people!  He also said that my horse wants me to give her more of the credit when we look good.  That she's very concerned about looking good.  (I can feel some of you rolling your eyes here.  But I would also like to point out I have the only grey horse I have EVER met who DOES NOT GET DIRTY and prefers a clean stall to a muddy field!)

He also did go on and on about how I was beautiful and my horse was beautiful and how my horse wanted herself to be the center of attention instead of me.  I looked at the picture I sent him and I'm wearing a baseball hat, a t-shirt and sunglasses.  Huh.  I mean, not that I don't clean up well but 'beautiful' isn't a description I'd use for me in that picture.  So, whatever.  I guess to my horse I'm the popular girl in middle school and she's the 'second' popular and wants to be in.  I'll just have to make sure we don't go all 'Heathers' on each other (sorry, awesomely bad cult movie reference there).

He said she wasn't unhappy where she was, but that she doesn't like dressage.  She feels like it puts her in a box.  He also said she doesn't like it because I'm not good at it either.  Well played, pony.  Well played.  He said she'd rather jump (but nothing over 2-3 feet) and that she really wants to trail ride.  He then described a trail that is right off our boarding barns property.  Of course, that would be easy since probably most trails go 'down a dirt road off the property', but he did also know that there aren't any trails or fields at her barn.

He mentioned she also had a vertebrae out in her back.  I am going to confirm this with my chiro/trainer if I can.

The main thing he said is that she wants me to bond more with her.  That she's like a little kid who wants more attention and that when I come to the barn she wants me to hang out and talk to her instead of other people.

I only had a ten minute session because though I was interested, I'm also totally cheap when it comes to this.  Also, since we weren't having some sort of major, unsolvable problems it was more curiosity.

Now to the action part - if all of this information is true, then I should be able to take a break from dressage, do jump lessons instead, and spend more time hanging with the pony and she should develop a better attitude.  None of this is bad stuff and it's all worth trying.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Working Nine to Five

C'mon, sing it.  You know you want to.  And if you're too young to know this song, please google it.  It was an insanely hilariously bad film with Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda.

I rode on Thursday and was having an average, not so fun ride.  I felt like I was forcing Tessa into a frame and that to try to get our canter forward was an exercise in futility.  I would ask, she would ignore.  I would spur, she would kick.  I would tap with whip, she would kick and wring tail.  Eventually she would pick up a hollowed out, slow canter for five strides before dropping into the trot. Even when I did get her to maintain the canter, it required constant leg and frequent taps with the whip.

The arena was empty and nobody was in the barn, so I decided to chuck my training out the window and do something I learned on Western horses.  I threw the reins away.  I didn't care AT ALL what her head was doing.  Then we went to one side of the arena and I asked her to canter from one side to the other.  She sassed, she trotted, she unwillingly picked up an awful strung out canter.  At the other side, I aimed her at the wall and said whoa.  I had to pick up the reins a bit, but I let them go as soon as she stopped.

Then we turned and I asked for canter right away.  She fussed, she kicked, she finally cantered.  Whoa at the wall and as soon as she was stopped, we turned and I asked for canter again.

She trotted a few steps, then broke into a slow canter.  Rinse and repeat.  This time, she still fussed but she cantered right away.  Again, turn and ask for canter.  I used less leg and her tail swished, but she picked up the canter right away and kept it until the wall.  We turned again.  With each turn and each canter she got lighter and lighter.  After about eight times, I would turn and just think canter and she would gracefully step off into a forward canter.  If we had a bigger indoor, we might have even been able to do a small hand gallop.  Her head was neither down nor up, but carried in a balanced way.  She was no longer grouching at my leg and resisting going forward.

It was lovely and I was so pleased, that I laughed out loud.

Later, when I got home, my thinking brain got a hold of this moment and started chewing it up and spitting out questions.  Google hasn't helped much, so I'm turning to you guys.  I know it's hard when you haven't seen me or my horse but please share your experiences.  Here are my question.

 How do you tell if your horse likes their job?  Maybe Tessa just really hates dressage and her lack of forward and her attitude are because she'd rather do something different.  It's not that she's a jerk for the whole lesson, but there are almost always moments of it.  She seems to like jumping, but I still struggle with getting her forward consistently.  It's like she's NEVER just zooming around having a good time.  Have you ever had a horse that didn't like it's job?  Tessa's crabbiness has been chalked up to being a mare so far (don't worry, she's been thoroughly checked for pain and continues to be evaluated and adjusted) but I'm starting to wonder if maybe she just doesn't want to go around in circles.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A Giant B

Here's a blurry picture from our jump clinic a while back.  I'm not falling off, I'm hugging my pony (when I first typed hugging, I hit the 'l' and it came out 'huggling' which made me giggle.  Like it was a cross between a hug and a snuggle.  I think I need more coffee....)

Last night I would have also hugged my pony.  Except that she was so fiercely crabby, she probably would have tried to bite me.

The good news is that we had forward.  It was a crabby, angry forward with a lot of bucking and kicking but it was forward.  I'll be curious to see if she ends up going into heat this week for her first strong heat of the season.  She was ANGRY about my leg yesterday, especially when I moved it back.  She threatened and kicked and tried to break my nose with her head.  I wasn't intimidated at all though and we worked through it and got a few strides of awesome, straight, belly lifted canter.

I do wish that I could remain more organized when she has a hissy fit.  I throw my elbows out to use the whip, my legs come up and off as she bucks and kicks.  It's not pretty and I'm trying to remain calm and keep steady, but I know I'm throwing the reins away while I try to organize my body. 

I'm working a lot on keeping my legs back underneath me and pushing down.  I tend to raise them when I sit, which then takes them off her side.  So she's getting on and off leg contact, which I think is part of what makes her less confident.

I played around with this on Sunday, by riding her towards the spooky end and focusing on keeping my legs long and wrapped around her.  I felt her tense up, her head came up but we kept going forward.  She was hesitant, but she didn't stop and spin this time.  So, I think giving her a steadier feel of my legs will really increase her confidence.

She's also still shedding like crazy.  I go home covered in horse hair and sneezing my head off.  It's so bad I have to take a shower right when I get home or my eyes will itch all night.  Ugh.  I can't wait until the shedding is over.