Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Jelly Legs

I spent this week practicing my two point and then not being able to walk up and down stairs properly.  Hmmm.  Something isn't right there.  The good news about having my knee get all tweaked and being in pain, was that it gave us something to look at when I showed up for last night's lesson.

Laura came over and looked at my leg position.  Now that I'm not shoving with my seat, I have graduated to gripping with my legs!  She put her hand between my leg and the horse and told me to relax.  Nothing happened.  Still too much pressure.  We tried again.  I am strung tight as a bow and couldn't get my legs to relax.  So we went for dramatic difference.

I rode my entire lesson focusing on keeping my knees and legs entirely off the saddle.  I put all my weight into my stirrup irons and rode two point that way.  I tried to point my knees out like a frog.  It's a scary position to be in when you're not quite sure if you trust your horse or your riding.  It's a drastic difference from the clamped down riding I've been doing.

In one lap of the arena with my legs open, Tessa was moving better.  We then worked on asking her to go forward without clamping down right after.  Yes, we always knew it was me but FINALLY we're starting to actually make headway.  I would ask for forward and then clamp my whole body down in preparation for it, which effectively told Tessa to stop going forward.  Mixed messages much?  Sorry pony!  She's actually been a pretty good sport considering that I've been told to tap her to get her to go forward.  Kicking a leg out because I'm saying Go! Stop! Go! Stop! is actually a pretty nice way of saying "WTF are you doing up there mom?".

I actually had to jump this way too, which was also a little scary.  But we're sticking with nice little cross rails and courses of cross rails so we can work on these basics.  And by the end of my lesson we had good flow and a forward trot and canter.

My legs were like jelly when I got off which is also a sign that I'm actually using the right muscles.  I'm really looking forward to working on this and seeing what happens.  Keeping my fingers crossed that this is the missing puzzle piece that I've wanted to find.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Patience, Grasshopper

My practice rides continue to be of the 'meh' sort.  They're not bad, they're not great.  They just are.  After about twenty minutes, I feel like I don't know what I'm doing so I quit.  I think it might be time to get one of those 101 arena exercise books or something so we can do more than circle, circle, serpentine, direction change.

I did find it interesting that on my last ride, I didn't worry at all about how much of the arena we were using.  I just worked on getting her forward and maintaining my position.  And sure enough, when I quit worrying about it we ended up down at the other end with no fussing at all.

Sunday, we got to follow two other horses down the driveway.  I had already dismounted so I ended up just leading Tessa but she went down with no problem.  She was a little pushy on the way back and was definitely on high alert, but didn't do anything naughty.

Tuesday was my jump lesson.  I normally ride at eight, but got a text at six thirty asking if I could ride at seven.  I live twenty minutes away from the barn.  So I hopped in my car, zoomed out there, gave the pony a perfunctory brush and tacked up.  I was the first one on my horse at seven o clock sharp.  Go me!  The great thing about having to go so quickly, was that I didn't have time to over think it.  I just got on and off we went.

Our forward still sucks.  Laura said she might put a ride on Tessa to try and figure out what I'm doing.  But I know what the problem is.  I just don't know how to fix it.  The problem is that I'm afraid of 'forward'.  I'm afraid of her running away.  I'm afraid of big trots and galloping and speed.  NONE of this is because my pony has EVER done anything that would cause this.  It's all totally me.  And it's mostly irrational since I think I've only had one horse actually run away with me and it was in an arena.  But it's there.  I'm not sure how to get rid of it.  It's not that I don't want to do these things.  I remember the feeling from when I was younger  of galloping across a field, jumping ditches.  I remember the power beneath me.

Rationally, I know that I am a good enough rider to stop my horse if she runs away.  Hello one rein stop!  I also know that I am a good enough rider to handle forward.  So how do I get over this?  Horses are sensitive enough to pick up on non verbal cues and my pony has drilled right into mine.  I'm afraid of forward.  Now that I've said it I'm hoping that the answer will come to me.

Not us...but some day soon, I hope it is.

Also, this summer we have plans to try to get out and do a 'grasshopper' course.  You can just call me Mona Sterling EVENTER.  We just won't mention the 'grasshopper' part to anyone who knows anything about horses.  I'll simply point to pictures of the Olympics when my friends ask what kind of riding I do.  "You know, like that...but a little smaller."

For those of who don't event, Grasshopper comes before Hopeful which comes before Beginner....Grasshopper is basically trotting around a field and trotting over logs 18 inches or less.  Yes!  I can totally get behind that.  And...though I'm apprehensive about doing it I'm also excited.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Expectations and Suffering

First of all, thank you to all of you who took the time to offer sage advice in the comments of my last blog.  I think you are all correct and I'm planning on adding in more groundwork to bolster my confidence and her confidence in my leadership.  I thought long and hard about selling her this week and what that would mean.  I looked at other horses on DreamHorse and contemplated what it would be like if I owned that horse.  How would my goals change?  What would I do differently?  I wasn't sure a different horse was the answer.

I hadn't come to any conclusions when I showed up at the barn on Tuesday for my weekly lesson.  I felt like I was going to cry and I really didn't want to jump.  In fact, I just didn't want to ride at all.  But I was there and my pony was tacked up, so into the arena I went.

We had the usual fight.  Tessa didn't want to go forward.  I wanted her to go forward.  I nagged.  She resisted.  She wanted to look out the arena and balk/spook at one end and I could feel myself getting frustrated.  We couldn't get the right lead.  We tried over and over and over and we fell apart.

We took a break and I headed over to Laura.

"This isn't working."  I slumped in the saddle.  "It's been a year and a half of working on this and Tessa still won't go forward enough and I still can't ride her in half of the arena.  And when I ride her by myself, she just stops and won't go down there at all.  At what point do I give up on her and on me?  I know that everyone else can ride her better and make her go forward and I just feel like this isn't working."  I didn't cry, but I felt like a little kid whining at their mom.

Laura leaned back in her chair thoughtfully.

"Most people that own a horse like Tessa and are amateur owners, put their horse in training.  If this horse was in training, she'd be a different horse."

I could feel myself starting to get tense.  I can't afford full time training.  I felt guilty for not being able to.  Maybe this was another sign I had the wrong horse.  Laura continued, "If this horse was in full time training, she'd get ridden five to six days a week.  You'd ride her your usual two times a week and then she'd be getting four more rides from me.  How often do you come out?"

"I try to come out three times a week, but sometimes it's only two or one day.  And some weeks it's zero."

Laura nodded "Right.  So let's just put this in perspective, shall we?  You ride one to two days a week on average.  And though you've been doing that for a year and a half, it doesn't really add up to a year and a half of solid training or riding.  It's more like a few months if you actually look at days, right.  So, if you think about what this horse would be like with you just riding for a few months, how do you feel about where you're at?"

A few months?  "I feel pretty good about it.  We've ridden outside a few times, we've ridden all the way around the arena a few times.  We're doing pretty good for just a few months."

"Exactly."  Laura sat back, satisfied.

"But...but...she still won't go in the corner!"

"Okay, so let's look at that.  You could make a 'thing' out of that if you want.  You could put all your energy and focus on riding her in that corner."

Um, yes.  That's what I've been doing.  Measuring our success by that corner.

"So, you decide that it's about the corner.  And Tessa, having been un-trained when she got here to think that corner was scary (poor training moment from previous trainer who punished the pony when she was genuinely nervous) would continue to not want to go into that corner.  And maybe you'd work through it.  Or maybe you'd get more frustrated and tense and Tessa would feel that and would be even less inclined to go through that corner.  And all your rides might focus on that corner and before you know it, your horse is 15 and still hates that corner.  And so you do.  And every ride, all the two of you can think about is that corner. let go of that corner.  You have a really good ride at the other end of the arena and you don't worry about the corner.  And one day you might find yourself closer to the corner...or you might not.  But that corner doesn't dictate Tessa's behavior in the world.  If you go to ride a dressage test, their arena isn't going to have that corner.  If you go to a show up the street, their arena won't have that corner.  See, you've made that corner into something and the only arena with that corner is right here.  So, why not come out and have a great ride that just doesn't involve that corner?"

I laughed.  Of course it was that easy.

A dear friend of mine who was very wise once told me that expectations are the root of all suffering.  Last night Laura echoed this sentiment.

"You've got to let go of your expectations about where you should be at and what you should be doing."

I let that sink in for a moment.  And then she sent us off to jump a cross rail.  And another and another and another.  And at the end, we jumped an entire course and we were sweaty and happy and Tessa was cantering happily away on the correct lead.

I'm going to focus on the things that Tessa and I do well together and try to set us up for success.  Because if I can let go of the idea of 'the perfect horse' than she is the horse I have.  And the more we work together, the better we will get.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Splitting Hairs

Tessa and I have come a long way, no doubt about that.  On May 2nd, she turned 7.  I forgot her birthday, but made it up to her today with extra carrots.  Today did not go as well as I had hoped.  There are two things bugging me.  To some of you, this may seem a bit OCD or like I'm splitting hairs and to others I'm probably still missing the whole damn point.  But this is where we're at.

Thing One That Is Bugging Me:  When Tessa spooks I get frustrated.  It comes on almost instantly.  I know that it's related to fear, but I am not longer reacting in fear.  Instead, every spook and every refusal to move forward makes me angry.  It still brings up feelings of 'this horse will never be the right horse for me'.  It still brings up tears.  Yes, I know how to cope with it now.  Yes, I give myself and Tessa grace for this and I get off if I need to.  Sure, I often end up working it out and feeling positively at the end, but it keeps coming back up.  Obviously I need to address something more.  Or I need to have a horse that doesn't spook like she does.

Part of the problem is that it's not just a spook.  A spook I can handle.  Something where she jumps suddenly and then you just keep going.  She doesn't do that very often.  Her 'spook' is that she stops.  DEAD.  No matter what gait.  And then is a rock.  I can get her moving by changing her direction, but it's super frustrating when your goal is to ride forward and you can't.  And though we work and work and work, we still get to that spot and she stops.  Or she refuses to go in the 'scary area'.

Thing Two That Is Bugging Me has some similarities to Thing One.  Thing Two is that I tried to walk Tessa down the driveway today.  I gave myself the time and set out with good intentions and good energy.  She would take one step and freeze.  The only way I could get her unstuck was to turn her towards home.  Then she would take one more step after our circle.  We did this for an hour.  We made it halfway down the driveway.

Yes, we had some good moments where she went through the gate quietly, but what is it that I'm doing wrong or differently that is keeping her from going down that driveway?  I was not afraid AT ALL and was quiet in my body language.  I know you guys can't really tell me 'cause you weren't there but man, it gets frustrating when you can't get your horse to walk down a driveway.  I didn't get tense, angry or frustrated while trying to go down the driveway.  I just stayed calm and focused and gave her tons of praise and carrots whenever she went forward.

So, it seems to me the answer is that I'm not a leader that Tessa trusts.  But at this point, after two years and weekly lessons and thinking "I've got it now!" will I ever be?  I'm not old (41) but I'm not getting any younger either.  My confidence is not likely to ever be huge.  Has it gotten better?  Definitely.  Do I feel like Tessa and I have a growing relationship?  Sure.  But how can I be a better leader when I don't think I'm feeling fear in these moments.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Staying in the Moment

It's funny that I published my blog about last Sundays ride this morning and then went out and struggled to hold that thought.

I lunged Tessa before getting on since I hadn't been out since Sunday.  She seemed fine and mostly relaxed, so I decided to get on.

I am a Facebook Fan of Mark Rashid's page Considering The Horse and he posted this status this morning:

Offering a horse productive guidance before or during times when a horse becomes distracted (or worried) can be a fairly easy way to not only get a troubled situation under control, but also build trust and confidence in both horse and rider. It is a matter of the rider staying focused on what they would like to achieve and helping the horse get there, instead of focusing on the horse's worried or distracted behavior and trying to stop it.

So my goal for the day was the same as on Sunday.  Ride Tessa all the way around the arena on a loose rein.  Go deep into EVERY corner and stay on the rail.  Since it was so easy on Sunday, I had a good mind set.  We set off down the long side.  Halfway down, she stopped.  I asked her to go forward.  Nothing.  Sideways.  Nothing.  I took a hold of one rein and moved her head around.  She spun quickly around and skittered to the side.  We did a small circle and went back to the rail.  Same thing.  Again and again and again.

I felt anger rising inside of me.  My body felt tense and I grabbed the inside rein and pulled her head to my knee, kicking with my inside leg.  She fell into a tight circle.  I released and sent her forward.  Her head shot up. She stopped.  She ducked her inside shoulder and scooted away.  I wish I could say that I remained calm and relaxed, but I didn't.  I was frustrated and angry.  My one goal had been to ride down the long side and we couldn't even do that.  Sure, stay focused on what you want to achieve and help the horse get there but she wouldn't go forward!  I was mad at Mark Rashid.  I was mad at Tessa.  Mostly I was mad at myself and how I couldn't ride my horse and I wanted to MAKE HER DO THIS THING.

One of the blessings about getting older is self realization.  It didn't take more than thirty seconds for all of this to go down.  I felt that anger and frustration in my body and I made the call right there.  Get off the horse.  I was not going to destroy what I've been working on by letting that frustration come out in tense, angry riding.

However, I have actually managed to learn some things lately.  I was not going to let Tessa finish the conversation.  I had not achieved my goal and it was important that I achieve my goal, no matter how long it took.  So, out came the lunge line.  On the lunge line, she could spin and duck and bolt and I could quietly push her forward.  If she fell in with her shoulder, I would wave the whip at her shoulder.  At the scary spot, I pushed her through.  She went through bucking the first time, at a crazed gallop.  The second time it was just galloping.  The third time it was a frantic canter.  The fourth and fifth times it was a canter.  And the sixth time it was a trot, with a dropped inside shoulder.  By the tenth time she was trotting through with her head down and relaxed and I was praising her.  We did this in every corner of the arena and down every long side (thank goodness we had the arena to ourselves).  I was able to give her that relaxed leadership she was looking for.  I stayed focused on what I wanted (for her to stay on the rail) and then allowed it to happen by creating energy from behind her and leaving an open space in front of her.  Once she went through an area completely relaxed, we'd move on.

Twenty minutes later and she was going around the entire arena, both directions with no fuss.  I could have stopped there, but my goal wasn't to lunge her it was to ride her.

So I got on and we walked around the arena on the rail.  Perfect.  We changed direction.  Halfway around the arena, she pricked her ears and dropped her shoulder.  I picked up the inside rein and asked her to move over with my inside leg.  We did a small circle and started over, quietly and calmly. She sighed and walked on.  We finished the entire lap around the arena on a loose rein.  At which point, I rode her deep into the scary corner and stopped her.  We sat there for a few minutes, until she licked her lips and sighed.  I hopped off and smothered her with praise and kisses and called it a day.

Today was a good reminder to stay in the moment you're in, not the one you had last week and not the one you might have tomorrow.  It was also a good reminder that there are many roads to the temple.  I just needed to use a different road today.

One Thing At A Time

One of the things that struck me about hanging out with my pony and my friend Marie, was how focused Marie was with Tessa.  And yet, she wasn't hyper focused the way I get (yeah, okay, this could also be called anxious or overcontrolling, but isn't hyper focused a bit nicer?).

Let's take the walk down the driveway and road as our example.  Marie and I decided to walk Tessa down the driveway and down the road.  It's about a five minute walk.  It took us about half an hour to go one way, with lots of stops and re-directions and praise and grazing.  The way back also took about half an hour because there was turning around, stops for praise and more re-directions.  The whole time, Marie stayed calm and focused on the end goal of making it down the road and then back.  She kept this in mind as we chatted and as Tessa spooked and as we were letting her hand graze next to the road.  All of this was fine, but the end goal was still going down the road and back.

Had she been hyper focused, she might have gotten lost in that goal.  She might have pushed Tessa to move faster.  She might have not stopped and let her graze.  She might have been so aware of Tessa that she was unable to talk to me or enjoy the beautiful sunny day.  But she wasn't and so we had a very pleasant hour of ambling in the sunshine and heading down the road.  And when we got back to the barn, we were all relaxed and happy.

I took that same initiative with my ride on Sunday.  I didn't have a huge amount of time, so I set one goal for myself.  To get on Tessa and immediately insist on going the entire way around the arena on the rail, both ways at the walk.  That's all I wanted to do and I would be patient and relaxed, but insist all the same that we follow this path.  I also wanted to do this without tension, anger or a tight rein.

When we got to the scary end, I could feel myself tense up and want to grab the reins.  Instead, I grabbed my bucking strap and took a deep breath.  I changed my position so I wasn't shoving down into her back.  I asked her to continue to go forward with my legs and then tapped her shoulder with the whip to remind her forward.  The minute she stepped forward, I gave her lots of praise and pets.  We made it all the way around with no spooks.  Same thing going the other direction.  Brilliant.

We ended our ride still on a loose rein and just doing some easy transitions.  I focused on staying out of her way and allowing her to go forward, but keeping her on the rail.  Then I gave her a big hug and took her out to graze.

I'm on way now to go buy a clicker.  We'll see what I can get done with it!