Update… small steps

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Training a horse is insulting to the horse. Don’t be a horse trainer- be a horseman. A horseman educates the horse without the horse ever knowing its being trained…. Training a horse is absolutely finite. If you get the horse to operate as to be your legs you have exceeded the notion of training. — Buck Brannaman

I’ve been visiting my horses lately even if I only have a few minutes to do a few back ups or circles. Something I love to see is that for the past couple months whenever I drive up to the barn, any time of day, the girls come from wherever they are in the field to the corner of the fence to look for me.

Yesterday when I came to feed and squeeze 15 minutes of groundwork before a morning meeting I was surprised to see Khaleesi waiting for me half way down the fence. Faygo had come over and Khaleesi was just standing back. I started to pour the feed into the pans and still she refused to come over.

Little miss independent?

When I opened the gate and Faygo came for breakfast and she still didn’t move closer I wondered if something might be wrong.

True enough she started pedaling her front feet up and down in place and then it made sense: she was caught.

I took my halter and lead over with me to her to find she had a high tensile wire from the top of the fence that had gotten pulled slack and caught somehow so that her front legs were wrapped loosely. Pretty impressive actually!

How did you possibly do this to yourself?

IMG_4688
She had this top wire down around two of her legs

I have no idea how long she was caught there, but the ground had gone bare from some struggling. I was glad to see that she hadn’t panicked and  hadn’t hurt herself either.

She seemed to get frustrated me as I put the halter on:

MOM! can’t you see I’m STUCK!? I can’t go with you!

I know girl- but I think whatever we need to do to get you free will work better if I can help you stay in control with your halter… just hold up ok?

Thankfully the one wire was pretty loose and I was able to step it down and walk her one leg at a time over the wire. I was relieved it was so easy and she was excited to be free but did lead nicely with me over to find breakfast.

IMG_4685
Khaleesi eating breakfast after being freed from the fence.

I decided to forego the training- poor thing had been stuck in the fence, I doubted she would be in a mindset to work calmly. That would be setting us both up for failure. But I was so thankful I decided to run over there before my meeting that day!

Our dancing is improving albeit slowly. Our walking circles are getting more balanced and she isn’t falling to the inside as much as she did the first few times. I’m beginning to get her to start and turn around without quite so much crazy animation on my part.

I am really pleased with our leading. She is beginning to take at least one step back without me having to reach up and take her halter! Also she is moving out of my way if I walk into her space and following me in a circle the other direction. This small thing already feel so wonderful as she is paying a little more attention to me every time we do it. She stays just an eyelash behind my shoulder to be able to be ready for whatever move I might make.

Meanwhile (contrary to what my last post might have seemed to suggest) we are still riding.

Over the weekend Khaleesi started a new thing where she’d try to turn a half circle at random points along the trail to turn us toward home. No matter how strongly I did not give she still could turn her head- so in the end I changed approach and let her- only we kept going 360 so we were still going forward in the end. Tuesday she didn’t do this- nor did she try to pick up the pace to get home.

On Tuesday, not only were the girls waiting at the gate to come in and play, but they both led beautifully and we now use that leading from the field to get to their brains engaged to work with us.

Both girls are also getting better at sending on the trailer without us, and I was pleased to have them both walk on without any fuss without a human leading the way.

We did my all time favorite ride along the Jackson River Valley and I paid even more attention to what I was asking and how I released. Khaleesi likes to be a trail hog and not let another horse come up and ride next to us. We are getting better at me asking her to stay on her side of the trail even at a trot and she’ll step over pretty well. I paid close attention to how and when I asked with my leg, and as soon as she gave me some movement over I released the leg.

We are improving on minimal hands for communication as well. I am still working on an independent seat and using my body to communicate speed and direction as much as I can.  If we have to make a choice on the trail I am careful to look exactly where I want to be and she has done well choosing that direction (around a gate, log, rock…). I noticed that I had to use very little rein for steering and that pleased me.

She also kept a very steady slow trot pace for a good amount of the ride no matter who got ahead or behind- we did a good job at finding a rhythm and holding to it on loose rein and no leg action.

IMG_4725
Crossing Muddy Run at Hidden Valley with Nancy & Mireyah. This ride the two mares were really beginning to tolerate each other- almost in a friendly way. Such a big improvement over our rides in the Spring when at least one all out kicking match ensued (while we were riding them!)

One challenge I have is control over her walk.

She has a nice forward walk- I’ve felt it. However she also has a death plod that has very little use out on a trail ride. I do not have control over which walk she uses right now.

I can move her forward when she choses the death plod- but every time she chooses to trot up instead of animate her walk. My plan of action for this is I need to ask her with my legs for more energy, and when she choses the trot we stop or downward transition into the walk (which generally becomes the death plod again) and I ask again. This could take a lot of trying.

I noticed Buck via video footage encouraging people to realize what a first try looks like and to reward it. At one point a student in a group asked if she should release even if she just got one or two faster steps and he said “Of course- that is what it will look like at first.” So I will be trying to figure out how to reward a few good walk steps even if it’s not a sustained energetic walk. I do realize that is harder for her and she’ll have to work into it over some time.

A good thing to work in the arena or on a solo ride as if we fall too far behind in the process she is going to be set up to fail (no one likes to be left way behind) so then we have to trot to catch up once in a while.

Susan was on our ride and I have enjoyed introducing her to trail riding (and possibly endurance riding too!). She has a positive attitude, is an accomplished and fine rider, has a learning spirit and loves Faygo- who is teaching her tons each week.

Each ride Susan gleefully shares her “firsts” with us and I enjoy hearing them as we go…

My first time to ride in the woods… My first time on a gaited horse… My first time to cross a river… My first time to ride over 2 hours… My first time to open a gate on a horse… My first time to cross a bridge.. My first time (um, ok I promised not to share that one…)

IMG_4701
Susan coming out of one of our deeper water crossings

Today we got “My first time to go that fast… well, that fast still under control!

Then I got home to hear another Buck quote:

You do need to get a horse to where you can open him up and run. A horse is pretty incomplete if you can open him up and not have him loose his mind. You gotta practice dialing up and dialing back down again.

Nothing groundbreaking there, but something to think about- and we did it today.

There’s a beautiful hill that is a prefect spot to really run, and Faygo has an amazing “open up” gear. She is fast.

Developing Khaleesi’s canter has been fascinating to me. A year ago it felt funny, and she would twist out her back legs to get started and it was not very fast. Having never started a horse before I assumed that she just had a strange canter (too bad- I do like a nice canter sometimes). Over the year that canter has changed and improved and occasionally she would run up after Faygo as fast as she could and though she could never quite catch up, she was developing a nice canter.

Today I told Susan this was the one place she could feel safe giving Faygo as much room as she wanted- the footing was good and there’s a pipe gate at the top that would stop us even if somehow she felt out of control (though Faygo has not in my knowledge run away with anyone since Nancy worked on that with her years ago).

Susan and Faygo got going- but Khaleesi was ready for more and at the final stretch we passed Faygo and she might have hit what felt like her top speed. We only got to about 15MPH, and I can’t remember what her top speed was in the past, but she felt great and was balanced! (Susan had held Faygo back- this was the fastest she’d ever gone and she did a great job of staying in control and only as fast as she felt confident)

We walked around the pipe gate- heading home of course- and the girls both dialed back down the energy to a walk for a while.

Faygo can get so hot on her way home- one thing I may do more with her is trying to amp her up then dial her back to see if she can begin to control her own adrenaline level more. We saw some fun exercises that pushed the horse to sprint, then stop, back up 5 or 10 steps, then sprint, and sometimes just stand still in between. That will be a good Faygo routine this winter.

It’s boot season and in 13 miles we only had to stop twice to fix a boot for Faygo. One time we lost a boot in a deep mud suck coming out of the river- thankfully I watched it happen. The second time the boot twisted up onto her leg and we had to adjust. Not too bad all told. Khaleesi had all 4 stay on 100%!

This is a good week.

I haven’t seen any teenage tantrum flare ups (though I am sure they are not far beneath the surface) and we’ve had some nice small successes and good riding. Even our neighbor (who helped pull her back shoes on one of her worst days lately) saw us walking in yesterday and commented:

Boy, look at her… she’s such a different horse when you’re on her back!

And I said:

…not really, she just has her good moments and her not so good ones… like any young horse. She’s doing great today!

And then I thought… probably most of that difference is actually in me. She does her job really well: her job is to be a horse.

I have a long way to go to go from a “man” to a “horseman” and I hope I’ve made some more progress recently.

IMG_4724

Epilogue:

My saddle should be en route soon, but I asked for some pictures of the tree this time because I love watching the progress, and this tree is very slightly different than her standard one. So though I am dying to ride in it, it’s at least fun for the moment to get to see some pictures as it’s developing.

Down Time

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Khaleesi is now on a full week of rest. It seems like a really long time to me. It’s been actually one week plus one day.

IMG_4212
This is what Khaleesi’s rest break looks like… a lot of me riding Faygo!

She is now completely barefoot. The first missing shoe was that corroboration I felt (coincidence, depending on your worldview) the next shoe was my first experience in pulling a shoe that was never meant to come off without a professional (I did pretty well… with some help!) The last back two came off Sunday morning with a neighbor friend (D) who shoes his own horses and had the right tools and some experience (and a lot of patience).

We did it in the field and Khaleesi was good for the first back shoe- before she realized what we were doing. The last remaining shoe was another story. She decided she did NOT trust that guy and was not letting her near her white foot. She reared up on the line, pushed into me and acted like a monster.

I did not accept this behavior- but I’ve been doing my best to train her with calm energy and never to assume she’s “being bad”- but that this is something she is struggling with for whatever reason, and we will get through it. The bad behavior was not going to make us go away (until the job was done) but I have also made a commitment not to lose my temper in the process.

I backed her, called her in to me, worked her feet and then would put her back in place. It seemed like she knew it was wrong but she’d walk into me anyway to get away from D.

Repeat process. As many times as it takes.

My neighbor has lots of horse sense, I don’t believe he has bad horse energy- he’s not afraid or a high adrenaline kind of guy. Calm and matter of fact. Old school but also respectful. He was kind to keep patience with me for this favor. He would rub her on her front end and gave her time to accept him going back around to the foot. Worked slowly with her.

It’s cold today Jaime… they get all amped up when it’s cold… Maybe she’s not used to being worked on in the field… maybe she doesn’t trust me… there’s always one leg they don’t like- maybe that’s her leg…

It was nice he was looking for reasons. There was probably one somewhere- but I told him in the end it didn’t matter the reason.

Honestly I don’t really care.

The shoe is coming off, and we’re doing it in the field on the bad leg she doesn’t like when it’s cold. And she’ll have to learn she will also live through this.

Sometimes I think as humans we want to explain things and put too much energy into finding reasons for behavior (animal and human). Occasionally it helps because we can find a better angle to work through if we understand a problem. But sometimes that thinking can get in the way and put up road blocks instead of solutions. Often I believe letting go of the reasons helps open up the flow for the change in behavior.

He wondered if tying her to the post would be more effective? (It wasn’t – I was willing to try) Other options were leave the shoe and the work he already did to cut the nailheads would make it likely to come off on its own [I don’t like that one] or we could also basically hog-tie her to get it done. [Nope, we weren’t doing that either]

Gotta be smarter than the problem… wasn’t it Einstein that said imagination is more important than knowledge? We needed to outsmart the issue not force it. If this didn’t work the failure would be mine- not hers. She’s just a horse acting like a horse. Use that somehow.

I was curious- could I pick up and work with that back foot?

I asked D to hold her lead and I walked around her and picked up the “good” back foot, thumped the tools on it, set it down. No problem.

Walked around to the white foot. Picked it up, she pulled it in a little- but gave it to me. I grabbed the shoe tool and played with the shoe (it wasn’t ready to come off- he still had one nail really holding on) but she let me.

I don’t think you’re gonna be strong enough to pull that shoe Jaime…

I knew that, but I needed to see if it was the leg, the process, the tools or the person.

D (still holding the lead) came over and we traded- I took the lead, he took the foot. She stayed put. I walked slowly in front of her and he got to work.

How much is that dooggggy in the window….. the one with the waggin’ tail…….. how much is that doooooooogy in the window….. I sure hope that doggie’s for sale….

I sang that tune about 25 times. I don’t know where that song came from, but when I had my first puppy I’d sing that little song around the house to my little doggie (it was a rescue pit bull, so we didn’t buy her and she wasn’t in a pet store window, but it’s a catchy tune). It has become my go-to song when I don’t have more time to be creative.

[James Taylor songs tend to be the ones when I’m riding and not sure what my horse is going to do about something in our environment or they are acting squirrely. Fire and Rain is the standard there.]

I always sing when I may not be controlling my physiological stress response well. I don’t want my energy to make her worries worse- and that happens SO fast with a sensitive horse. The singing regulates my breathing and heart rate, and distracts us both.

I also gently grabbed a bit of skin on her shoulder- not hard, but if she began to dance while D was getting that shoe off- and had the potential to hurt him with nails and tools in a bad spot, I would have grabbed harder in hopes of distracting her brain from choosing badly to buy him enough time to finish or get out of the way.

I didn’t need to. She stood for the time he needed to finish clipping off a tough nail end and pulling off the shoe.

Success.

I rubbed her head and told her that was all we needed today and she was a good girl to let us finish. D rubbed her and told her she was a good horse and I untied her halter. She walked off, bucked around and danced for us to show us she was still a little wild and she was probably happy to be barefoot again- but she quickly calmed down and grazed next to us and I rubbed her neck.

Monty Roberts says you can see how your work is going with your horse by how they act when you release them in the field. If they run away from you right off it is not a good sign. Considering how she was uncomfortable with what we asked her to do just minutes earlier I was glad to see her stay close and relax around us as we picked up the tools and chatted a few more minutes there. I think that means we ended positive.

Her leg already felt much better before we started the shoe removal Sunday (almost one week of rest). D had felt her leg on a visit through the barn over a week ago when it was worse and he said now there was no sign of swelling. I still felt a small bit but maybe that’s because I’m looking for it.

I have some pictures to share of Khaleesi on pasture rest… As you can see they are of me riding Faygo who seems to enjoy being the chosen one again for a while.

 

 

Faygo and I on a visit to Pocahontas State Park with friends

With cold temperatures Faygo has been doing well. She still has a harder time breathing than other horses we are with, but she recovers better now. I love riding her and I love her personality. I took her to the Richmond area to have some easy quick riding with friends in the “flat-lands” Faygo’s specialty- no mountains to climb. She loves to go and go-go we did.

This week is Thanksgiving so they are both on a break now until I get back from some family time.

The more I am exposed to the endurance community the more I learn about horses, riding, and conditioning and the more I’ve been hearing about the importance of rest.

I also heard a podcast tip from an eventer who talked about how important it is for athletic horses to have time off. Not just physical rest, but mental rest as well. He suggested ideally 4-6 weeks between seasons for a horse in hard work.

 

Endurance folks also talk about young horses needing time for their tendons and skeletal structure to harden. She is 5 years old- but only really started in work this year. Thankfully she came from a life where she roamed hundreds of acres in a horse herd- so she had been developing some of that base before she came to me. I certainly don’t want her to be over-ridden early on to put us in danger of stress injuries too young in her career.

If you are interested in what others say on the subject- I enjoyed this article: Down Time for the Sport Horse. I have seen the cycle of time off turn a horse that was getting sour on too much work improve our time together.

There was a time I wouldn’t have gotten a second horse except that Faygo was just not going to be able to handle the workload physically much longer- now I am very glad to have two great horses to share my love for riding because Faygo is much happier not being ridden so hard so often, and Khaleesi really needs some breaks especially as she’s still young and developing physically AND mentally. I hope they both WANT to work for me for years to come. Sharing the load is a big component in that process.

I am certain I will not put Khaleesi out to pasture for 4-6 weeks (unless injury mandated), but I can say that this winter is our off season and we will be walking around the mountains at a slower pace in mud and snow for shorter rides and she will have many more days off than in good weather.

So as I close our latest blog: Happy Thanksgiving to you all.

In the spirit of the season I’ve thought about things I am thankful for and one big thing is you- my blog family! I am often touched and surprised to find how many people enjoy keeping up with our story and I love that our journey is fun for others to share.

Thank you for reading!

Faygo and Tex… enjoying a ride in the marshes in evening light

 

 

Indian Summer

Sunday, November 8, 2015

As I said in my last post… Winter is coming.

But apparently not quite yet.

I asked my husband one particularly warm late September day… do you think this is Indian Summer?

No. This is just still summer.

Now we are in November- have had frosty cold nights, some days with highs barely reaching 50, and areas around us have had a snow flurry or two. Dogs and horses have begun to get wooly. Yet this past week we had sunny days with highs in the upper 70s.

Oh.. THIS is Indian Summer!

IMG_3951

After feeling too hot in long sleeves, by Friday I am back in my summer ice-fill tights and a t-shirt. If my horses weren’t struggling- unable to take their newest protective layer off it would be a joyful celebration of one last chance to feel warm in the sun. Faygo is miserable, and Khaleesi just doesn’t seem right.

We rode Tuesday and my friend’s horse hasn’t been kept in great shape this season and he is normally in shoes- but they’d been pulled for the winter so we planned to take it easy. That wasn’t hard- her horse was still leaving Khleesi behind. I found it odd that it was so hard to keep her moving at a good pace.

Levi leads the way home as we lag in the rear.
Levi leads the way home as we lag in the rear. Looks like winter, feels like summer.

Maybe she read my last post and is trying to challenge my new goals… make things just a little harder for me. Sometimes I wonder if she can read! They are hiding an iPad out there somewhere I’m sure of it!

Maybe it’s the saddle.

I chalked it up to a warm day, and that everyone is off once in a while.

We rode again Friday with temps back up in the 70s and Faygo came along too- so again- we’d planned to take it easy. Yet again Faygo with heaves and substantial winter coat growing in… Levi with no shoes and the least conditioned… were leaving us in the dust.

At one point I let her walk as the others gaited/trotted a part of trail on out of sight to see what she would do. We were on our way home (she’s not seriously barn sour, but she does pick up a little on the way home), and she doesn’t generally like the herd to get out of her sight. She continued at her walk until a few minutes later we caught up to them waiting on us wondering where we were. She was breathing the easiest and sweating the least (though she did sweat under her pad and in a few spots- so she didn’t appear to have an issue with Anhidrosis). The other two were wet entirely with sweat. She is the youngest and most conditioned this year in that trio. I then tried pushing her forward and used my leather popper to get her moving… she did… but I knew she didn’t feel it.

IMG_3893

Was she sick? Was it the saddle?

Back at the barn I took her temperature. Good horse owners take their horses temperature on occasion and establish a normal base line.

I had not been doing that.

The digital thermometer read 103.8F.

That’s high… I took Faygo’s 102.7F.

Not high enough for me to call a vet yet. [also I read somewhere that digital thermometers can be slightly off]. We had just come in from a hot ride. She didn’t seem lethargic in general. I decided to check in on her the next day and see if it was more normal. But also I had gone back this week to riding in her wintec saddle with better pads to help offset the hard spot. There were once again dry places on her back and she might have been uncomfortable and that’s why she was not moving well.

THE SADDLE!

In the end it became clear the choice for us was going to be the Imus (Phoenix Rising) saddle that I so love to ride Faygo in.

The owner of the company has gone above and beyond to work with me both on price as a returning customer and slight customizations to make the saddle slightly better for us. The saddle will have a lower profile pommel, english style leathers instead of the bulky fenders, and she is moving the place the leathers attach more underneath my seat for posting (the normal Imus saddle is set up for gaiting horses with your feet slightly in front of your seat). The stirrups are free swinging which is a nice feature and you can really put your legs wherever you need them- but in the Imus saddles I rode in I ended up posting into the pommel as I balanced above the stirrups too far forward. They are going to discount slightly more not to send me their standard stirrups (which are comfortable, but leather wrapped and heavier than the lightweight composite stirrups I plan to use instead).

The saddle is on order! But it will not arrive until mid-December. So for now I’m making due with whatever I can.

IMG_3907
Saddle with thick wool pad, protective thin line shock absorbing pad and baby pad underneath it all… Of course a bad fit can’t be fixed with pads, but our issue with this saddle isn’t a bad fit. it’s a hard spot which can be dispersed at least a bit if it isn’t too serious.

I thought with a good enough pad the wintec would be ok for some short rides, but now I’m not so sure. From some research I believe the CAIR system has failed (which can happen after some years of use- normal saddles often need to be reflocked, so it’s not out of the question to assume these panels also might need attention over time) and where the two “balloon” sections meet is right under the seat where my hard spots are. I think that seam/connection is what is causing the problem and possibly the more riding I do it in, the more deflated and pronounced the bad spot will get. I hope to get the CAIR system removed and have it wool flocked this year so I can use it for our lessons next summer. I would also consider a new CAIR system if that were cheaper/easier. I think with light use it would probably last us a while.

Saturday I brought the girls in to check them over and Khaleesi’s temperature was 99.8. A tad low, but within a normal range (horses can range from 99-101F). I plan to take it again today and see what it is.

Today the high is expected to return to the cool 50s. I am going to switch saddles and have a new riding friend coming up from the land of the hunt and eventing to ride our mountain trails. I will be curious to see if Khaleesi becomes her usual self again or if I need to dig a little deeper into why she seems to be in a funk.

IMG_3891

PS — Monday November 9, 2015

I had a visit yesterday from Susan who also works in my building at Washington & Lee (I teach violin and chamber music there). We had a chat on Wednesday that ended with us learning we both ride- she was intrigued about endurance riding (she hunts & does eventing and has never really gone on a trail ride in the mountains) so I invited her up Sunday. She is a really nice rider who enjoyed Faygo and what fun to introduce someone to the beauty of trail riding!

IMG_3952

She had never crossed a river before (we did that twice- not including all the small streams we pass). Khaleesi and I opened almost all the gates and closed them without dismounting and she was quite impressed. We went off trail for a segment that I prefer where the trail is steep and often washed out and rode through the open woods “obstacle course.” We rode the horses through two sets of cows each having young bulls romping about without incident. We took the dogs along too (of course!). She thought the woods and trails were beautiful and said she’d never done anything like it before and fell in love. She promised to come back anytime she could!

IMG_3976

I went back to my paragon saddle (the english style gaited trail saddle that works pretty well for her, but is harder for me to post balanced in). It was also a cooler morning. Khaleesi was much more back to herself and though the girls meandered a bit in the first mile they picked up their game and we did mostly trot/gait canter through the ride. She was comfortable at any pace even though Faygo’s saddle stirrups don’t have enough holes for shorter legs (her feet would come out when we cantered!). I actually fixed that by adding a hole when we got back in hopes she will return soon!

As for the saddle, the paragon left a few dry spots still, but I’m going to try a better pad and see if it helps. So far no soreness has developed and she seemed to move better in it. Now that I’m getting more confident in my riding I seem to do a little better in it than I did earlier in the season. I think it’s going to work as I need it to until the Phoenix arrives next month.

And for the last bit of exciting news… Team Green has officially moved into our new barn!

IMG_3950
barn cleaning/organizing weekend… bucket cleaning!

It’s not a big move as we spent last winter here, and have been squatting there since late summer. Most of the pictures of us around the barn, or in the field are taken from here. It is just next door to our old place and belongs to a good friend who I ride with whenever she’s here. Now we’ve made it official and are very happy in our new digs- we have our own room and love the space. It’s a beautiful barn, well equipped with anything you would need. The girls are happy there and have a run in shed and really nice field. The barn is large and provides indoor space for vet and farrier visits especially important for the cold seasons when there is inclement weather. We are grateful to call it our home base!

our new room!
our new room!

IMG_3984

The Seasons Change… Pacing and Barn Sour Horses

Monday, November 2, 2015

I love the change of seasons.

That doesn’t just mean I like to see the earth go through rebirth over the year-  I really love the changes of life’s pace.

Summer is not only lush and warm… humid and green… but it is full of life. The days are long and exhausting but we revel in the activity and drink up as much sunlight as we can squeeze out of each day. The woods are noisy with birds and animals. As a teacher my work slows down leaving me able to spend lots of hours outside – my heart is in the barn and the woods, but also the yard is in bloom and things grown in the garden. We stay outside into the night with friends drinking wine, or margaritas… or mojitos… and laugh easily and often. It’s also the height of ride season and next year I hope to do at least an event each month with Khaleesi through late spring to fall… summer!

Summer gets exhausting after a while. And the heat gets tiring… humidity draining… tack and boots seem to mold overnight. Our horses are always sweating and we worry about dehydration and overheating at rides and in trailers. You dream of a shower if you are camped out without one but on the other hand get sick of wondering if there will be a thunderstorm every single afternoon for the rest of your life.

Fall comes along and brings pretty colors and trails and tack begin to dry out. The woods are stunning and the cooler temps are a godsend to your exhausted horses- though they are fantastic shape right now. This is why fall riding is “the best” – in shape horses, beautiful views, dry trails and cooler temperatures.

As the days get shorter and the leaves disappear this perfect riding gives way to winter which means parties must be held indoor, thus are usually smaller and cozy. You begin to talk in depth with your friends again over scotch or bourbon and the wood stove. It gets dark earlier and you begin to ride 2 hours or less in the warmest part of the day or risk loosing a toe to frostbite. The trails are often soggy and slick and half frozen. You worry about the storm that’s predicted and promises to dump 36 inches of snow and freezing rain… do my horses have enough hay until I’ll be able to dig a path back to the pasture? Will the water freeze? To blanket or not to blanket?

Work gets busy for me, but as riding hours are fewer it’s a good time for tradeoff. Also it’s quiet, the nights are clear and the stars blaze in the darkness. The stillness is good for the soul and there are a few perfect clear days after a snow when you can ride in the powder sugar forest and see the coyote and turkey tracks as clear as your dogs can usually smell them — nothing else has come through except you.

Just as you think you will go stir crazy from being inside as much as possible and sick of slippery footing and short rides everything begins to melt and the cycle begins again with spring. Probably my least favorite time of year the trails go from frozen to slushy and refrozen ice rinks, your horse is not only covered in mud but also shedding out a thick winter coat and you look like either bigfoot or the abominable snowman every time you try to clean one up enough to ride. Raining ruins your riding plans the most in spring- and it’s usually a COLD rain. The only saving grace is those few days that are JUST RIGHT and the sun shines warming you enough through the window that 50 degrees feels like you might just pull out your tank top for this ride (then go outside to realize you actually have lost your mind through the winter).

At least in spring you know what is coming, and winter helped you rest up for the busy riding season ahead!

Now that daylight savings time has ended and November is here the writing is on the wall. As my husband reminds me often:

Winter is coming.

cutting some downs to get through on a new trail
cutting some downs to get through on a new trail

That’s ok. The woods that were ablaze last week in color are now looking sparse with a few leaves floating along on the breeze. I took Faygo out for a really nice ride and enjoyed the time with her scoping out some new trails with my GPS- this is something I don’t do often with Khaleesi as I usually have riding mileage/speed goals with her and have been enjoying that process. Faygo however continues to struggle with hard riding so this was a great way to enjoy the first November afternoon of riding together.

Also since I have been able to dial back my riding program without feeling guilty this year (a rest season is good for the horses too!), I’ve been able to spend some time helping friends with their equine life as well.  I’ve been given a lot in my horse journey and if I can pass anything along and give some of my time to other people it’s the least I can do. My girlfriend lost her horse recently and had already been looking for another for the family so she ended up taking on two rescue walking horses to see how they’ll do this fall.

the two rescues on their trail trail ride
the two rescues on their trail trail ride

They are nice horses but will be projects to refresh their training and get them on the trails again. They have good foundations and I think have good potential and are not beyond the capability of my friend and her family, but it will take some work, and nothing is guaranteed. I found this year there is a difference when you have to put some work into your horse than if you get one fully trained and ready to go by someone else- it’s a good process to undertake, and for her teenage son who wants to ride one of these geldings I believe having to invest some time into the horse is important to understanding it’s an animal and not a motorcycle. I hope to help them out in any way I can along the journey.

An issue they will be dealing with in one horse is “barn sour”. This is something I’ve had to work through with Faygo since I began riding her. It’s gone through many phases from minor and slightly annoying to, at it’s worst (brought on by the lymes and back pain) downright dangerous and scary. We took out both geldings to see if they were even worth considering, and traded horses on the way back so we could get the experience of riding both. We did the switch after barn sour gelding started his push for home. I was glad to see when my friend dismounted and I got on he stood quietly even though he wanted to go. I believe is somewhere mid range on the barn sour scale but certainly needing improvement for a rider to enjoy him. He was never dangerous or out of control but he was pushy and hard to hold back.

[Also good to remember this was their first ride in …. who knows how long. They haven’t even been handled much by people recently. They are rescue horses without a lot of known history. They both really did fantastic for the circumstances, and the other horse- the paint horse wasn’t phased by Mr. Barn Sour and he walked calmly even when left behind at times by Mr. Barn Sour.]

Nice exploring ride with trail dogs getting a quick drink in the woods
Nice exploring ride with trail dogs getting a quick drink in the woods

Today I found Faygo to be more pushy than usual (she goes in cycles and we hadn’t ridden alone in a while); since I knew I’d be helping my friend I was very thoughtful in our training as we headed home.

Through the years I went through lots of trial and error with her from a harsher bit to jerking her and trying to slow her down by force to finally realizing I was not going to ever force that horse to do anything. I had to get to her mind. When she was at her worst is when I was forced to be at my best and I got serious about the barn sour habit.

I don’t know if you can ever make a horse NOT barn sour at all (though I won’t argue this point, anything is possible). Most horses to some extent like to hurry home- but you CAN have a horse that respects you and doesn’t become dangerous, out of control, or pulls your shoulders out of joint. For Faygo I tried lots of approaches- once I followed advice to make the work harder… circle your horse and get her to see that it’s much harder to push home than to walk nicely. In our case (and I believe most horses) this only made the energy go UP UP UP and she got more fired up the more circles I did. I had to get off her to lunge her without feeling like we were in the rodeo then get back on… It was more dangerous because now she was barn sour, intent to run home, and adrenaline UP.

I thought this over and decided in her case we needed to bring the energy down. Instead I began to turn her around- one rein U turn (not facing home) and then ask her to side pass.. back up… forward two steps… anything I could ask that wasn’t walk home but that made her think about what I wanted her to do and get her focus off of running me home. If she was bad enough I’d get off and do groundwork right there. Calm deliberate groundwork, not fast animated circles.

This helped. She’s naturally a hot headed horse though over time I find her to be softening more and more. I am always interested in keeping her adrenaline down when we’re working through something.

Over time I came up with a new game: the tree maze. This is what I used today as we got closer to home and she was pushing me. In the tree maze- every time she went from her fast walk (which I allow) to a foxtrot gait (too fast) I would practice going off the path and winding through and around trees. I work on our communication – I look first where I want to go, then use my shoulders and eventually rein if she doesn’t “hear” me. For us this works great and connects our communication better as well. She is so good that eventually the softest ‘voice’ of just looking through random trees will snake us around the woods on a diverted path home.

I could feel her dial her pace back just a touch to avoid having to go off trail without a rein cue from me. To top it off, she is so smart that she would only start to push into a gait when the sides of the trail were either so dense or so steep she KNEW I wouldn’t make her do it. Then immediately pull back a few steps later when the trail opened back up again.

Love this horse, she always ups my game

Again I had to outsmart her- so I decided in those sections I would just turn her around and do side passes and back ups then turn back around and continue. Eventually she realized this and we walked home. Loose rein. Granted we walked fast- but my rule was as long as it’s a walk I’ll take it.

I always start by asking myself what I am doing to contribute to the problem. I believe all great riders start here and hopefully it’s the easiest thing to change first (our own behavior or energy)! I think many of us are just a step ahead of our horses. We anticipate what they have done in the past and I wondered if I might be telegraphing her speeding up in places she’s done it before to basically create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As we ride the familiar trail home I know I think to myself “here is where she always speeds up that little hill…” or “this is the spot she always tries to run past where the other trail meets” and in doing so am I creating some of this energy? Like another friend who has occasional trailer loading issues… does she sometimes worry to herself “I know he’s not going to load” and send out that energy to the horse who feels there must be a reason to be worried about this? How about another friend who has been working on getting her horse to not drag on the lead and move with her when she jogs out- she said her horse is starting to jog sideways with it’s hind end out to the side… we figured out she had gotten too used to popping the lead rope behind her to ask him to move out without even giving him the chance to move correctly (or incorrectly) first.

I tried to get control of my brain and really think the slower footfall rhythm and energy and using my Jedi training assume she would NOT try to speed up in those known areas, but instead keep my energy down and the rhythm and energy dialed back. I believe it made a difference. In riding this way more and more there are moments when I can feel her energy in a split second ask my energy a question “can we canter up this hill please?” or “I’m tired and hope to slow down.. can we?” and often my energy answers with a “yes lets go!” or “I was just thinking we should slow down for a bit”. And I’m working on stopping my horse without rein if at all possible- and not really with my seat either, but as Pam and I talked about I try putting my energy to “Zero”. I have literally stopped saying “Whoa” sometimes and actually say out loud (though it’s mostly to myself to try to help my energy as much as possible since I’m not a Jedi quite yet) “zero”. When we did make it home and were approaching the  barn I did this and bam. “zero.” She stopped.

At some point in riding Faygo, I decided that I will not pull on her face to get her to listen- I expect her to go the speed I ask and not faster (or slower) until I change the speed, and hopefully someday stop when my energy says “zero” every time. This isn’t easy- with Faygo going home the challenge was to keep her from trotting me in, and we did it today.

the go-go-Faygo
the go-go-Faygo

With Khaleesi it’s mainly keeping her moving – my energy needs work too. I have found that sometimes I’m asking her to move forward, but I haven’t changed my own energy into a trot. When I do it’s more effective. Also I’ve ridden in a group where the energy is forward and away we go- 6mph easy with a forward friend, but in a group with a lower energy level I might put her out front and try to set a slow trot and it’s pulling teeth- the other horses are lagging behind and she feels the group energy stronger than mine. She can speed up or slow down without me asking- and most of us as casual riders let the horse choose the speed often. I’d like us to be more fine tuned than that. The one thing that I don’t like about group riding (more than 3 people) is that I find the speed changes ALL THE TIME. A horse gets in front and goes out a few steps, then lags back to a walk- then fast walk- then slow walk-trot/gait a short distance…  the pace never seems to find a groove (except sometimes in the case of walking along for stretches).

I have ideas for barn sour Faygo, but I tried to think about how to encourage Khaleesi to keep moving. In the arena when she’d slow down in a corner I’d use a dressage whip (just a tap) to answer the question for her “Can I slow down now?” I may experiment riding her alone on the trail and work on my energy forward and bring the dressage whip as a tool to help us communicate without me having to kick and push her from my legs- I want her to be more responsive and not dull there.

I know she can move out, and she’s in plenty good enough shape. It’s kind of nice to know I have a horse in her that is capable of a mellow ride and a fast one depending on what we’re doing. Ironically with Faygo, who needs to mellow out due to breathing limitations, is always pushing on hot and fast. Dialing her back is always a struggle.

All of this seems to come back to energy and pace to me the more I think about them. Faygo needs to slow down sometimes, and Khaleesi needs to keep moving at a steady trot. Both of these we work on more effectively alone- then hope our work and energy translates into group riding.

That is one of my winter goals- to find some groove in our pace… and to help my friend’s new barn sour rescue learn to walk in under control.

IMG_3802

Mountaintop Riding

Tuesday, October 26, 2015

The white patches and sore spots on Khaleesi were a nightmare when they were happening, but now I am thankful they pushed me to reevaluate our saddle situation. This is a good time to get on top of that and if our saddle had been working ok, I may not have bothered addressing it until we were in the middle of next season and then it becomes a frantic scramble for anything that works.

Trying the Synergist again
Trying the Synergist again

I rode in the Synergist for the second time on an alone ride last week and though I still loved it, the honeymoon was over and the real test was starting. She was not as naturally forward without buddies to ride with and we went through tougher terrain- through berry briars I had to reach down and cut from in saddle, and my “mountain laurel” trail is beautiful but thick with laurel that I always clip as much as possible on the walk up the mountain. She did great as I climbed around her back like a monkey at times trying to do as much as I could without getting off her. The saddle still held me in place and didn’t move around on her back either.

I mentioned in my last blog that the only thing that concerned me was a slight discomfort in one knee when I got off. As soon as we started out I began to feel that same knee was bothering me. I shifted my weight wondering if I wasn’t riding centered- one leg longer, more weighted than the other. Nothing seemed to quite fix it so I got off and checked. Sure enough one stirrup was longer than the other. Once I corrected this my knee immediately felt better and we were good to go.

I hadn’t ridden in this area since the “run through the jungle” post as you have to cross the clearing that had grown up with briars and that is where we saw the rattlesnake in the summer. Since this is mid-Fall I decided to take a chance: the snakes should have gone away as we’ve had some frosts overnight and the jungle should have died back at least enough to manage.

It was as stunning- the colors are gorgeous and the weather was perfect. Once we climbed to the top of the mountain and got on the ridge trail I asked Khaleesi to move it on out and she chose a collected canter that was really nice.

Beautiful ridge road on top of the mountain
Beautiful ridge road on top of the mountain

On the way back down the roads are wide and easy to ride but we slowed down due to the downhill incline. There was a mess of downed trees along the path at one point that we couldn’t get through. Of course this is the one spot where the woods were very steep on either side of the road and I got off to see if I could pick our way through and maybe cut a branch or two. No way. It was a thick mess and some of the branches were too high to walk over.

I look up one side.

Way too steep. Big boulders.

Down?

Um… I think that’s do-able. (I hope……..)

This area is rocky, and the rocks are piled on each side of the road. The footing was loose and leaves made it tough to know for sure what we were getting into, but this was the way home.

Definitely safer on the horse than off, so I get back on.

Ok… let’s do this. [point horse down the hill off the road]

Khaleesi: Nope. That is a bad idea. Let’s just turn around here and go back the way we came.

Me: That’s like 10 miles back instead of 4 miles home. We can do this!

Khaleesi: I don’t really want to go down there. It’s steep… Cut the trees with your saw!

Me: We’d be here all night. I KNOW you can do this girl. I believe in you. [kicks harder]

Khaleesi: Ok, but for the record, I don’t agree with this option.

She steps off and we slide down the 4 feet or so on her hind end, my feet could be on the ground if I  let them and she handles it like a champ until we find some decent footing. It’s rocky under the leaves but we can walk it slow and pick our way through along the side of the hill… now getting back up is harder. It’s only about 4 feet up- of loose ground with rocks and I’m not sure if we’ll be able to scale it- but we need to be back up on the road. Before I can think too hard about the best place to try for she makes the call and starts to scramble up. I help her as much as I can staying balanced and holding onto her mane and say a little prayer we don’t slide back down the mountain together and she miraculously gets us up onto the road on solid ground and all I can do is rub her neck and tell her she’s the best mountain horse I could hope for… I make much of her.

She says “alright already- can we get back to going HOME now?

Part of the rocky lined road- we came up on some downed trees ahead.
Part of the rocky lined road- we came up on some downed trees ahead- the incline on both sides was steeper there.

I was glad to be in that saddle and not a little english wintec for that detour, but also for the trail clipping and offroading. I like the wintec, but the more I’m trying other saddles the more convinced I am that a more substantial saddle is going to be good for both of us on long rides and off-trail rides.

As for the Synergist- it is still a leading choice. I have been in contact with the owners of the company (CJ) and after a wither tracing she told me the saddle I’ve been borrowing is built on a medium tree and we would be better suited to a wide. This makes sense because the fit is decent, but I thought there were a couple almost dry spots after riding. Not big patches, but enough to think it might not be perfect.

Imus 4beat saddle: getting tacked up near the airport
Imus 4beat saddle: getting tacked up near the airport

The next saddle on the list was an IMUS or Gaits of Gold or Phoenix Rising depending on when you got it and what you call those products. Brenda Imus is the person behind the line of bits and saddles, she has since passed and her daughter Jamie Evan is running the company and it is better than ever. The customer service is phenomenal and the products are high quality. I settled on a Phoenix Rising saddle for Faygo and absolutely love it. But would it work for Khaleesi- totally different horse with totally different movement?

I sent pictures to Jamie and a whither tracing and we decided that the standard tree is most likely the best choice for her. (Faygo has the wide tree- so her saddle wouldn’t fit as well). My friend Carrington is the one who first introduced me to the saddles and she happens to have an extra standard tree that I could ride with her in (it is one of her other horses’ saddles). We met to do a test run… and I do mean run.

We had been talking for a long time about doing a fast/flat ride with her Saddlebred (Ned) who loves to go go go and just hadn’t gotten serious about setting a date and making it happen. In fact- we hadn’t ridden just the two of us in over a year except for an hour or so during a camping trip at the end of a group ride (we went back out after the group ride for a few more miles). So we finally got serious and made a date to meet up at the local airport on top of the mountain and ride across and back, we figured it would be about 20 miles.

Pretty views from another ridge trail
Pretty views from another ridge trail

I brought a saddle of my own just in case, but the older Imus fit her perfectly and we were good to go. I wasn’t sure where the stirrups would be best and the first 2 miles they were too long and I felt uncomfortable and unable to balance. I stopped to shorten them and voila, it was perfect. Funny how stirrup length can make or break your knees, legs, and experience. Once I had myself adjusted the saddle was incredibly comfortable to ride and easy to balance in. The seat was slightly larger than mine, but didn’t bother me at all. The free swinging stirrups could go wherever I needed and posting was no problem.

We kept up an average moving speed close to 6mph and the horses seemed to have a great day. Ned really moves out and if he was in his fast rack Khaleesi does her collected canter to stay with him. She moved great in the saddle and trotted smooth and easy for me.

We tied off the horses for a short break and hiked up to the local look-out gazebo.

Horses tied as we climbed the last few feet up some rock stairs to the overlook gazebo.
Horses tied as we climbed the last few feet up some rock stairs to the overlook gazebo.

It has been years since I’d gone up there (used to hike it on foot every summer I visited) and it was as beautiful as ever. When I spent summers playing violin at Garth Newel Music Center, Flag Rock was a special place for me and the last year I came for that program I sat on that rock once and was certain I would never see that view or come back to Warm Springs again. I was at a pivotal place in my life and took me 4 years to return and climb out there once again- in 2007 it was as time a full time resident who doesn’t intend to move away any time soon. It was nice to spend a few minutes there- the first time I’d ridden a horse there.

Flag Rock- I've sat and looked out over the gaps many times over the years, more in the past than recently.
Flag Rock- I’ve sat and looked out over the gaps many times over the years, more in the past than recently.

On the ride home we found a few places that were just right and let the horses all out canter. One really pretty stretch we raced them and trusty 18 year old Ned pulled away from Khaleesi even as she tucked her head, bared down, and reached for her biggest stride. She was trying, but that Saddlebred kept his lead and we laughed out loud from the fun of a good run.

Khaleesi had a crazy off kilter canter when we first started riding (we don’t canter a lot) and I’ve felt her grow into the stride as we keep riding together. It was never very fast but recently once in a while, especially following Faygo up a little hill, or a pretty stretch heading toward home and she gets excited, I feel another gear engage and her nice collected canter downshifts for some extra speed. At first it was a mix of joy and fear…

hey there, this is new… is she out of control right now, could we stop!?

But she’s never run away with me and when I ask her to back down she always does.

I have been feeling her gaits change and grow as she develops her muscles and tendons and we balance together. I think her canter has taken some time to sort itself out with a rider up there and will continue to develop. I’ve also heard endurance riders talk about her trot gaining speed and efficiency slowly with practice and time. I believe she may eventually have a rack or running walk develop as well, but we are not in a hurry- it takes time to really build those muscles.

on the trail
on the trail

We enjoyed the ride, did almost 20 miles in about 3 1/2 hours and saw some beautiful views.

As for the saddle. I am not certain I will bother with a specialized trial. I have found two great options in Synergist and Imus and still have the Ansur to borrow next week. For now the top two have their pros and cons:

Synergist:

pros– love the customization (not just fitting the horse, but the options I can choose or forego to make it streamlined or build up anything I want), know I can have it refitted if the horse changes- or I change horses someday. Small company. Great customer service. Good potential for used saddles to pop up and good records of each saddle’s specifics- the owners of the company can tell me if it’s a decent fit for me and my horse or not from the serial #. I Like the English style rigging at an angle that pulls from the center of the saddle not just the front. Saddle holds me more in place making the ride easy on me, which is good for my horse. I like their look.

cons– if a used one doesn’t pop up- they are pricey. Saddle holds me in place, that is in both pro and con section because I’m not sure how I feel about it it. I like it but it doesn’t give me much room for my own balance/adjustment. Maybe a larger seat would change that.

Imus/Phoenix Rising 4beat:

pros– love the one I already have. Every time I ride in it I love it more. Small company. Amazing customer service. Comfortable balanced ride without holding me too much in place. I like the design that is not a flex tree but allows for lots of back movement and muscle development. I already have a relationship with the company and owner and they have been fantastic at every turn. Saddles are not cheap, but very reasonable and cost less than other options I’m considering. Might be better suited to her movement if she eventually picks up a rack or other smooth gait.

cons– bulky. The cantle is more substantial that I like and the stirrup fenders are more than I want. Even the light version is not truly lightweight. I’ve contacted the company to ask if there IS any room for adjustment in what they do to streamline it… the good news is there are a few custom things they can do for me to make the saddle closer to what I’m looking for (that might be back to a “pro”). There are almost never used ones for sale… I suppose that can be a pro too- it says people keep them.

As for riding… Training and the rest of it…

Something I’ve noticed that’s changed in my thinking about riding is how I quantify a ride. It used to be hours of a ride… a 3 hour ride… a 4 hour ride… an 8 hour ride… but now I tend to think in terms of miles. I don’t mind a slower ride for a short distance (5-8 miles), but now if I’m going to do 15 or 20 miles I’d prefer to move out and cover some ground.

I am fine to spend 8 hours in the saddle, but if I can cover the same territory and see the same things in 5 hours, and moving out keeps my blood flowing and muscles moving so I’m less tired I find that more fun. In the future if I do 8-10 hours in the saddle I hope that means I’m on a 50 mile ride.

Since this season of our first LD (25-30 miles) rides I’ve noticed I’m less tired and feel better after 30 miles of moving at a faster pace than 15 miles of mostly walking with occasional spurts of trotting/gaiting.

IMG_3606

Carrington’s horses (both Ned and Abaco) are great training partners for Khaleesi. In riding only 2 of us there is less of a group dynamic to sort out and we can just get side-by-side and keep a steady pace which is really helpful for me in training. One thing I want to improve is sticking with a pace longer and getting into a rhythm.

I’ve read a lot about conditioning LSD (Long Slow Distance) but when you get into the specifics, “Slow” means 5-6mph. For my neck of the woods most trail rides are in the 3-4mph range if you’re in a group who will keep along- and they are considered the gaited horse- faster moving riders. The quarter horse folks are under 3mph as they walk along enjoying a stroll (nothing wrong with that if you enjoy it!). I don’t find it hard to enjoy the view at 5mph- and it encourages me to keep my eyes UP as we ride and not worrying the footing (she does great when I let her to it- I am so much better at NOT looking down anymore). It’s harder to get my solo horse to really focus on moving along at 6mph on our own for consistent stretches, but with Ned or Abaco she will perk up her ears and they get to business.

IMG_3583

I don’t worry about this. When I started ponying her last winter I called her the “anchor” and when I started riding her I thought she would fall over from lack inertia she walked so slow. In the spring she would move into the lead horse position and just stop altogether. This weekend she took the lead regularly and trotted along in front of Ned at a good clip as well as riding side-by-side and behind. I think she will continue to develop the discipline of riding longer stretches on her own at a faster pace and we will enjoy a good walk with friends sometimes as well. As winter approaches footing and weather make for slower and shorter riding but hopefully as spring emerges next year we can find a ride with Carrington here and there to help me and Khaleesi get back into stride for starting 50s this year. Who knows… maybe Carrington and Ned (or Abaco) will decide to join us at a ride for fun one day!

Mountain top ridge riding, river valleys, the slow and the fast, with friends and gone solo: enjoy the ride.

IMG_3591

The Search for a Saddle

Week of October 19th

…. continued saga of finding the right saddle….

I took a lovely ride with friends along the Jackson River borrowing my friend’s Synergist endurance saddle [this one not for sale]. Synergist saddles are all about the custom fit- for the person and the horse. They even will send you a mold and do their best to get their panels to fit as exactly as possible your horses’ back. They are specific about the angles and distances in a woman’s vs a man’s seat (it seems like overkill to me at first glance) and try to put you as the rider in the most balanced position possible on the horse.

pretty fall ride along the Jackson River
pretty fall ride along the Jackson River

I had ridden in this saddle before on a different horse and felt very uncomfortable in it. The horse was gaited and to me there is a difference in the position you use to encourage a nice gait vs. the position I use to post a trot. I had a hard time getting the horse a year ago to gait nicely in the saddle- and my own position was different from riding mostly gaited horses. My hips and knees bothered me once I got off. However this time- on Khaleesi I loved it.

From hopping into the saddle I felt like I was comfortably poised in exactly the right position without being stiff. Of course this also meant I felt like it was easy to sit balanced without having to work so hard at it. (is that cheating?) We moved together with ease and it really felt nice.

As for Khaleesi- she seemed to move great underneath me. I had no trouble communicating with her and she had a great trot and canter for the ride which was at least 15 miles. She also seemed happy and foreword and didn’t exhibit any signs of pain or stress. Her ears were forward and we went in all positions of the ride, front, middle and back without much fuss.

Synergist
Synergist

I got down to feel a little stiff in one knee, but basically great. The saddle isn’t (of course) custom made for Khalees or me, but the fit was ‘decent’ enough to try a ride or two. She had a pretty good sweat pattern with two spots that were a little dry but it wasn’t bad. It was enough for me to contact the company with a few questions of what I might look for in a used saddle if we decided to go that route. I am going to do a quick measurement or two and give them my friend’s saddle number to see how close that saddle would be to fitting her and me, and then the company can help steer me toward used saddles that are the closest fit off the rack- we may not have to go the whole mold-fitted routine.

Our next trial was to ride in a borrowed ortho-flex [this one is for sale]. I love the idea of the orthoflex tree and considering it is a saddle my friend would like to sell, it would be great if it was a match for us. Basically ortho-flex makes a saddle on panels that have the ability to give and flex with the movement of the horse’s back. Also, the rider is slightly suspended above the panels and the seat is connected at 4 points in front and back of the seat/panels which means not directly underneath the rider’s seat. This concept is great as it distributes the pressure along a large surface area. Basic physics dictates that the larger the surface area to distribute the pressure the less pressure in any one place there will be.

IMG_3413

I put it on and the fit seemed pretty good when it came to how it sat on her back. My concern was that the panels extend more forward at front than I liked to see for her. She has a lot of movement and though I realize the panels DO have the ability to flex, they were still there on her shoulders and are pretty stiff/hard- also the rear of the panels sat down on her back and I wondered if they would push in behind me at the place the seat is attached. But the concept of them being flexible was in my mind as we headed out to see how it worked for us.

The first thing I noticed was it was harder to get my leg cues in, either to move forward or side- I had a hard time getting my foot to her actual side past the english flaps and the sheepskin pad. To ask her to move I really had to give her a good kick. Next, I felt all my communication that we’d been getting so much better at was working through a filter. I was sitting off her back which I believe was probably good for not creating pressure points- but at the same time it was also taking away the contact altogether.

I felt like we were off in general but we kept going as I thought “Maybe we just need to get used to how this feels?”

Unfortunately in our case, I don’t think she felt great in the saddle either. Her stride was shorter in everything from walk to trot to canter. Her back legs didn’t seem to get underneath her like I’m used to and she tripped or slipped on her back feet more than usual.

She tried to turn me around as well (lately she’s been pretty good about going out happily with me- so though I can chalk part of that up to not wanting to leave her friends…) it was notable that at least once she REALLY tried to convince me to turn home. I didn’t let her and though we did cut the ride a little shorter than I’d planned, I wanted to get a decent amount of time in the saddle.

When I did turn her home at first she happily trotted off but though I was ready for her to try to push me home, she would trot a few steps then return to a walk. A couple of times I asked her to canter, one time she really decided to push with a fast pace up a hill, it was a short stride bunny hop feeling canter that just went really fast. As we neared home I tried to really put my finger on how we felt that day and the description I came up with was robotic- I felt slightly jerky and off kilter. I had a hard time keeping my feet underneath me but I chose the middle stirrup setting and probably would have been better with the one most under my seat.

After about 8 miles we returned the the barn and my final feel for the ortho-flex was that I love it in concept, it’s a lovely saddle, and I’ve known riders who really swear by them. I just don’t think it’s the right saddle for us. [If anyone out there is searching for an older ortho-flex in great condition, let me know and I’ll connect you to its owner!]

One thing that is for certain as I’m on this saddle choosing exploration- between reading other people’s thoughts and the saddles I’ve ridden in myself- it is an incredibly personal and individual journey. I have looked up posts and blogs and just about every saddle has people who sear by them as the only reasonable option and people who say they are terrible and no horse should ever be ridden in one.

I have already been quite amazed at the different feel for myself and for her depending on the saddle. I assumed saddles would make a difference- but I’m even surprised myself at how big of a difference in both of us it can make. Just the few I’ve started with have convinced me that this process is worthwhile to find the feel that I want on the long miles of trail of an endurance rider, and the saddle that helps Khaleesi move and feel her best as well. I am much more determined to beg, borrow and take on trial until we really find the right match- and hope that a couple of miles will give us the data we need to really know what will work long term.

what Khaleesi thinks about saddle fitting.
what Khaleesi thinks about saddle fitting.

I still have a few local options to borrow- then I may consider doing a loan-order from a couple reputable companies as well before making any real decision. I have a friend who swears by her Ansur saddle and has agreed to loan it to me for a ride. Honestly I hope I we don’t love that one because they cost a fortune! I love the Phoenix Rising (IMUS) saddle I chose for Faygo. Every time I ride her in it- it feels like “home”.  In talking to the company it appears Khaleesi is more likely a standard tree (Faygo is wide) so I plan to ride with a friend who has an extra hubby saddle the right fit to see how she does in that one. I have also heard lots of great reviews about Specialized so if I can’t borrow one I plan to do a loaner saddle in that brand just to see. I like the lighter weight of their Eurolight model. Once I get narrowed down to a couple top choices, I suppose that will be the time to visit some saddle fitting contacts and see what the pressure pad and the professionals think.

One thing I’ve been thinking about is the difference between an all-purpose english style saddle that we’ve been working in up till now and saddle more designed for long trails. I believe I’d like to always have something like my Wintec (hoping I can get the flocking or CAIR system fixed) for working on our balance, training (mine and hers!) and communication, then something built on a trail/endurance tree for our longer distances. I believe that the panels on most of the saddles I’m considering are slightly wider (meaning surface area, not a wider tree) and will distribute weight better for many hours in the saddle, and if a saddle helps me stay more balanced (cheating?) I think for long rides that could be good for both she and I as long as it doesn’t inhibit communication by being rigid.

I am starting to think that having a streamlined saddle for learning and a trail saddle for long rides might be a good choice for us.

Meanwhile, we’re still getting some nice fall rides in!

IMG_3346

Post Season

Monday, October 19, 2015

Our first season is now behind us and it’s a mix between the letdown of anticipation and activity and a more relaxed feeling of enjoying the ride without training goals in the forefront. I sometimes just go to the barn to bring apples and love and the girls must know because they come to me at the gate faster than they used to (though none of them are hard to catch).

Madison and I were fortunate to get one last ride in and get the girls to stretch their legs a bit before they headed back to FL. It was a lovely ride and we were in no hurry. The leaves are finally starting to change and drop and when fall gets serious it happens quickly.

IMG_3197

I am ok with our temporary saddle solution, but this winter I will have a goal to sort out a more long term answer to my saddle puzzle. For the moment I plan to borrow and ride her in as many saddles that are a “decent” fit as possible and see if I can discern how she moves in them and how I move in them. Yes- I have to start with the horse because that is the most important part, but as Garnet reminded me: If the saddle doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work. You won’t be balanced and ride comfortably, and you can’t do endurance miles like that.

I started with a Freeform that a friend loaned me. I’m not generally a fan (for myself) of treeless saddles as I don’t think I’m either a light enough or good enough rider to make it work for my horse without a better system to distribute my weight without pressure points on her back. But still for some shorter rides, it’s not bad to try it and see how we feel. The one bonus of treeless is the movement in the back it affords the horse. [side note, this saddle is for sale if you’re looking for a freeform send me a message and I’ll connect you to her]

Khaleesi in the freeform
Khaleesi in the freeform

The feel as a rider in a treeless saddle is a little uncomfortable for me because of the wider feel in my legs around the horse. It made posting a little different- and not particularly better or worse. I felt she moved pretty well in the saddle and honestly I wasn’t able to tell a big difference in her. I hope as I use more different saddles through the fall as I’m able I might start to notice things more.

One thing I did was try a few from the barn on her on a day I didn’t ride recently. One didn’t fit particularly well and she pinned her ears and a few times tried to nip at me while we were feeling under it. I got the message.

NOT THAT ONE!

Then we tried another one and she was already more relaxed and though she was still turning her head asking what we were doing she was not as intense about the message.

Also this winter our goals are to continue to work on our communication and relationship. I would like to improve riding intentionally and move her with my energy more and less with physical cues. When I ride alone we are already better at this and we move into the trot often without my legs but from a joint energy push. Transitioning down is getting better as well and we are smoother going back to a walk than we used to be. I start with eyes and shoulders for turns and going around trees and often she follows without much rein aid at all now.

IMG_3271

When we ride with others we are both more distracted- she by what the other horses are doing (speed up slow down as a herd) and me as well- chatting and enjoying the company of other humans takes some of my energy focus away. I think it’s ok. It’s a different ride and I enjoy them all.

It has made my solo riding more meaningful than it used to be. I used to enjoy a ride alone, but after a while get tired of my own company and wish for some friends on the trail. Now I find that if I ride with others too often I wish for the focus and connection of a solo ride. This is good because winter means lots of solo riding as we start to stay closer to home and trailer around less.

Around the barn I also hope to deepen our relationship and communication. This is tough to do with a ride schedule. My last ride with Khaleesi I spent more time at my stool asking her to stand quietly than I would have been comfortable had someone been waiting on me. She wants to walk off when I get on her- at least a step or two. With no agenda or anyone waiting on me I took the time she needed to come where I wanted her at the stool (the stool is smaller than a mounting block and I find it harder for us to coordinate). When we got that to my satisfaction I got on and she took a step. I got off and we started again- the whole process. Second time it was better. Still a work in progress here.

The following day I brought her in ONLY to work on standing at the stool with me. I think she was feeling obstinate because it took over 30 minutes to get her in position and standing quietly with lots of starting over when she’d push her butt out and stand facing me as if to say “I’d rather do this“. I planned to work on mounting her bareback and getting the whole stand still down- but we quit at standing in the right place at the stool as I didn’t have another hour to hope to get the next step successfully (be flexible in training what you can that day, and always end on a good note).

IMG_3219

I find this to be a fun challenge- problem solving. How can I communicate better what I want her to do in a way she’ll understand, and how can I be a little smarter than her when she doesn’t understand or tries to evade what I’m asking. In the words of Monty Roberts I heard in an interview recently:

When you do your work correctly, repetition is your best friend. When you do your work incorrectly, repetition is your worst enemy.

If something isn’t working- my challenge is to figure out a better way to ask. Horses do not lie, and they are not “false”. They may resist something, but there is always a reason. Horses want peace and comfort – my job is to show them the way and if I do it right they will choose the right answer.

Monty made a point to say one of the biggest mistakes in working with horses is not controlling our own emotional state (internally). If a horse isn’t doing what we ask we often have an elevated heart rate (due to either fear or frustration). Not being in control of our own heart rate and internal energy is one of the main factors in his opinion that hinder our work- that kind of repetition is our greatest enemy. They are so sensitive that I may look patient and calm to a human, but the horse senses heart rate change and energy change in an instant. So all these boring things like standing still, coming to the mounting block and leading properly (maybe this winter sending on the trailer?) turn into personal growth for me- can I control not only my outer reaction, but my inner emotional one?

Can I not get upset when she swings her butt out away from me when I want her to stand next to me at the stool?

Can I keep my heart from racing when she does those little bucks at the start of a race?

Can I not have a reaction when my work colleague does something that would normally make my head want to explode?

Can I slow down my emotional reaction when my husband makes the comment that needles me in just the right spot?

Is it possible that student is not just slow or refusing to try- but that it’s my responsibility to find a better way to approach the problem that allows them to open up and learn?

That is the Jedi training I started this year and I can’t say enough what kind of positive affect it’s had on my life.

IMG_3275
late afternoon fall light
IMG_3255
Favorite trails this fall

I love being on the trails in the fall, but I’ve noticed that I don’t miss a riding day as much anymore if I only have an hour or so available to bring in a horse and do a little mind work instead. It’s become a sort of addiction actually- hopefully a positive one!

IMG_3206
Fall on the farm