dancing horses

dancing horses

Sunday, August 9, 2020


 August 8 was our 33rd anniversary. In the grand scheme of things it doesn't really signify much in terms of special anniversaries.  Although 33 is a 'master' number in numerology it is a highly spiritual number. Regardless, being with one person for 33 years is nothing to dismiss lightly. Typically we don't get each other presents for our anniversaries but we will often go out for dinner. 

This year we made plans for dinner with Karen and Jim and I had a special surprise planned. 

from 2 years ago when we were in Prague

For this story to make sense I need to back up a bit. You may remember that our good friends, Andrew and Cynthia moved out to the Yukon for a couple years. Every summer they would come home for a visit and Andrew would get his little red sports car out to drive around. Except this year they couldn't come home (because of C-19) so Andrew asked Ed if he'd like to 'exercise' his car for a few weeks. I was hesitant- being responsible for someone's fancy car is a bit daunting. But Ed was excited and who was I to argue. 

Ed has been having a blast with this little red car. And it was clear to me that he was falling in love. He started looking at ads and talking it over with me about buying one. But, unless you want to buy new, finding the perfect car is not easy. So I started messaging Andrew and he agreed to sell me his car. In the meantime Ed started asking Andrew if he'd consider selling it and Andrew kept saying no no no. I was encouraging Ed to just keep working on him while inside I was laughing maniacally. 

It seemed like Saturday would never come. I made a special card for Ed and my plan was to wait for him to go to the bathroom at dinner and put it by his plate. But as dinner went on he sat and sat and sat there. So just as we were ordering dessert I got up and went to the washroom. I nabbed our waitress and asked her to give him the card with dessert. 

When his coffee arrived he saw the card and gave me a quizzical look. Open it!  I said. Later he said. No! DO IT NOW! So he did. As you can see it's a chintzy home made and cut out little booklet: 

So corny

Now he's looking at me thinking I must have been drunk to write this

getting really confused 

Now he's sure that I've lost it. What is this all about? he asked me. 

On the next page was a photo of the car: 

she's a 2013 Mazda MX5 hard top convertible

Ed stops at this point and says, what the hell is this all about? 

Turn the page! I say, grinning like a fool. And on the last page is a photo of the transfer papers. 

Ed puts it down stunned. What? he asks. 

I bought you a car!!!!  I say. And he's speechless. Absolutely speechless. And overwhelmed. 

And I'm so happy. All these years and Ed has never complained about the money I spend on horses (well not much). He helps me take care of them and supports me to do what I want to do. His dream had always been to have a red 2 seater convertible and I decided he should have it. 

that smile says it all

Besides, since there's no horse shows this year maybe I can win 'wife of the year'. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Unplugging and Recharging

I just finished a glorious two week vacation. We had planned a big vacation in September but that ended up having to be cancelled. That left me we some time I wanted to use up so I decided to take vacation over the summer.  Before I started I was definitely feeling the stress of work so  I used it as a time to unplug and unwind. 

I basically got up every  morning, went outside, and didn't come back in until supper time. My plan was to take each day as it came. I even went out to the pasture and sat to see how the horses would react.  
what are you doing down there? do you have carrots? 

It started off great with the obstacle clinic. Not only was Carmen an angel but I had so much fun hanging out with Karen and Paula. There was much laughter. As a bonus, a young girl was offering to clean out our stalls at the end of the clinic for a small fee. We all jumped on that one! 

fun was had by all and it got me off to a good start for riding at home

I rode almost every day and squeezed in a couple lessons. 

I got some projects done, like painting poles that had almost all the paint worn off. 

Ed: why are the tips of Guinness' ears red
Me: ummmm

When I wasn't riding or puttering I sat on the deck and read. I think I read 3 books while I was off. It was glorious. 

The little women are providing lots of entertainment. They 
come running every time they see me FOOD!!!!

Ed and I took a day and drove over to the valley to tour around and have lunch in a lovely little restaurant. It was a fun day. 

The last two weeks were exactly what I needed. I returned to work Tuesday (Monday was a holiday) feeling rested and recharged.  And the best part? After this week I am also off next week. But don't tell Carmen! 

Carmen: Vacations are hard work. Somebody save me

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Being Cut by Occam's Razor

A few weeks ago I was contemplating calling the vet to do an evaluation on Carmen. Our rides were deteriorating and bolting/ resisting was becoming more frequent. I couldn't figure out why. 

Then I headed to the Obstacle clinic and she was absolutely perfect. For example, on sunday we were standing beside another horse when a loud and strange noise happened outside the arena. The horse beside her began to freak out, she looked at him, blinked and then went back to standing with one leg cocked. 

Two days before she lost her shit over a sparrow outside the ring. I was sure it was something physical and I had numerous theories:
  •  ulcers, even though treating for these wasn't working
  • sore stifles- even though she wasn't lame and was able to spin on a dime
  • tumour on her ovaries
But her behaviour that weekend put all these theories out of my head. 

Clearly the issue was me. 

I was so worried that she was hurting that I was too tentative in my asks and backed down when she protested. From this she learned to use her behaviour to get out of work. For the past two weeks I've been making sure that I'm very clear on what I'm asking and reward when she's trying. When she engages in her  negative behaviour I increase the pressure and don't back down until she softens. 

That lead to ride we had, frankly, a brawl. It was not pretty. 

But since that time we've been steadily improving. 

Nice and soft here, no sign of the brawling Carmen

Our rides consist of me being super clear and honest and having expectations that she will respond. In stead of worrying about her  tension I use it as a 'tell' and ask her to do something (usually bend). If she spooks we work hard in that area and, when she softens we move on. 

When things are good we stop and have a break. But even the break has a rule- we stay in the same spot until I pick up the reins and ask her to move. If she moves on her own I put her back, however many times it takes to get her to stand. 

You can't tell here but we're standing on a long rein. Last week she could no more stand here than I could stand on my head. Of course the heat wave has helped her to enjoy the shade. 

Shanea is very supportive of this and doesn't object when I stop and drop the rein as a reward. She's seeing how well Carmen is responding to this. 

We can now work on actual dressage things. Like trot to square halt transition.

and half-pass

The change in bit is helping too. She's more responsive and less likely to lean. 

She's becoming more focussed on what is happening inside the ring and less worried about outside. 
It's not perfect but it's much better. 

I should probably bummed that I was so wrong and made this so complicated. But I'm not. In fact I'm relieved. I've learned some important things about myself and Carmen. I've changed my mind set of Carmen being a 'spooky' horse to one of her being a sensitive and somewhat dominant mare. I've learned that I can actually sit her antics and make her work through them. I definitely couldn't do that before. 

Unless I'm completely wrong again. But what are the odds of that? 

Carmen: don't worry, I'll let you know when you're wrong. 
Me: Thanks. I think......

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Summer Lovin': Lesson Recap

I had a lesson booked for early Saturday morning. Shanea came for dinner Friday night and and stayed over so we could have an early start.  It was nice to have time to chat and catch up. I brought her up to speed on the clinic and what we'd been working on. She was in agreement that I needed to be more clear and that Carmen's issues were behavioural and not physical.

Saturday dawned with blue skies and warm sun with the promise of heat later in the day. I was happy to be riding early. Truth be told, morning rides are my favourite anyway.

Carmen was pretty chill in the barn getting ready. This has been the case since we were away- she's quiet and not being at all pushy. I went through my groundwork checklist and then did some lunging. The task is simple- she's to stay in the gait I set for her and I leave her alone unless she breaks. Carmen has caught on to this pretty quickly. This time, at the canter she started to break and then was 'oh right, keep going' and then self-corrected. That made me happy.

I mounted and, you guys, she was so soft and easy.

screen shot from video
Shanea even commented that she'd never seen her start so soft before. I have to say that Carmen seems to be really liking this new bit. I find I can be a lot more refined in my cues. Also, interestingly, she's not opening her mouth or gaping. Look at how soft and happy she is here.

The lesson itself was nothing earth shattering but it was soooo nice to be working with a forward, happy horse rather than a bolting, spooking mess. Not that she wasn't tense at times- she was, but everything was so much easier.

remember when Carmen couldn't go in this corner without bolting or rearing?
yeah, me neither. Carmen has no idea what I'm talking about....

We made sure to give her breaks and rewards for when she was really good and kept working when she was resistant. She's definitely figuring that out. 

Shanea focussed on me keeping her underneath of me and stepping from behind. She definitely
felt less heavy. And she wasn't leaning on my hands and trying to steamroll around the ring. 

so could I stop leaning forward? but at least my hands are soft....
We did lots of trotting and walking. I didn't hear a lot of Shanea telling me to let go of the inside rein, so that's good. I also found that I was able to not be so heavy in the stirrups. 

yup, this corner is good too
It is amazing how much better you can ride when you are not worrying about being lawn darted into the ground.  

I just love this photo, everything looks so soft and happy. 
We worked on some leg yields with me keeping her on the outside rein. It was fun, even though it was starting to get hot. 

We finished up with some canter work. Carmen was starting to tire and began to demonstrate it by being a bit spooky at B. I know that this means she wants a break but I can't give her one for this behaviour. So we worked through it and then gave her a break. 

I was so happy with this lesson. It was awesome to be able to go to work and learn things without arguments. I know Shanea was happy and I'm pretty sure that Carmen is too. 

I know I have to continue being diligent but it feels wonderful to be on this path. 

reaching under with her hind leg and I'm actually sitting up. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Intention, Expectation and the Road to Hell

It's been really warm the past few days with high humidity.
how to tell if it's humid out......

Carmen and I took Monday off. I used that day to catch up on a ton of chores: emptying the manure cart, cleaning tack, playing with Guinness (clearly the most important thing).

so much joy cannot be contained

I also spent time thinking about the clinic and my conversations with Nikki and Mike. My main take aways were that I needed to be really clear in what I was asking Carmen to do. I couldn't be distracted by other things. Which is easy when you are going over a narrow bridge. When I'm riding in the ring it's easy for my thoughts to wander. 

I also need to have expectations that Carmen listen to my aids and follow through. I'm pretty sure that I have been accepting of sloppy answers, which would make everything negotiable. 
also gardening- my hollyhocks have started blooming

Tuesday I wanted to ride early to beat the heat. It was still hot but not as much as it was going to be later.  I wanted to use some of the advice I had from the weekend. AS always, I started with groundwork and she was so soft and quiet in every spot of the ring. I mounted and she was fine again. We walked around and I made sure that I was being clear with my aids and to have a strong vision in my mind about what I wanted to do (walk the quarter line, bend through a 10 m circle etc). 

At the walk all was good. She had one spook in an area and I followed the advice to make that spot a work spot and when she began to try/listen reward and move on. Carmen was clearly a bit unsure about this but it went fine. Then I asked for a slow trot and the wheels began to come off. I won't bore you with the blow by blow but she began to ask me all sort of questions about my intent and whether it was reasonable. 

I stayed on task and she began to escalate. I found myself in a full on bolt. She was not scared, nor was she running from anything. I think she was doing what normally works to get me to back off except this time I didn't. It was actually a bit frightening- I had zero control and she was just leaning on the bit and going.  Since getting off was not an option I sat up and put my leg on steering her in a circle. I don't know how many circles we did (5? 10? 732?) but finally I pulled her up. I almost hopped off but didn't. 

I took a deep breath and went back to work.  It was, frankly, a bit of a shit show but I gritted my teeth and was clear that this was what I wanted and that was not the correct answer. The tricky part was to reward when did soften. And over the ride she began to soften again. When Ed asked me how my ride was I said 'great in the beginning, sucky in the middle and great at the end'. Which was accurate. 

That night I changed out the bit to one that is a bit thinner although still a broken snaffle with a peanut in the middle. I just need something with a bit more leverage because clearly she has no respect for the Stubben golden wing.  

Today I headed out early again. There was a plane circling around us for the whole ride (they were looking for an escaped fugitive but that's a different story. 2020 I am so fucking over you).  I started with groundwork, except this time instead of focussing on getting her relaxed I focussed on her working. I wondered if the groundwork was not translating to under saddle because the GW was all about relaxation and the riding was about work. So I asked her to work. Nothing major- just if I put you on a trot or canter on the lunge keep going until I say stop. 

tuesday's entertainment
This time mounted I felt much more focussed and aware of what I was doing. I made it crystal clear when it was what I wanted and when it wasn't. Listening led to a break (standing with a long rein). If she moved when I asked her to whoa I simply put her back. And then back. And back again until she would stand. 

Here's the interesting part- she spooked at nothing. I was paying particular attention to her signals that a spook might be coming and reacted immediately. I'm sure you wondering how I reacted? It depended- it usually starts with a stiffening so I asked her to bend and would not give up until she did. As soon as she bent a teeny bit I released. Timing of the release is so critical.  I visualized the straight line I wanted and made sure I got it. 

It was a completely different ride. I also noticed that she responded well to the new bit too. If I asked for a downward transition she was much more respectful of it. I was standing at G after doing a walk half-pass giving her a break on a long rein. We heard some children shouting next door and she tensed and lifted her head. I simply picked up the rein lightly and she immediately dropped her head and softened. With that I hopped off and gave her a pat. 

Clearly I have been too wishy-washy. Which I forgive myself for because I was worried that there was a physical issue. But now that I know that there is not I need to work on myself. 

I didn't take a photo during the ride but she could
have cared less bout the plane circling overhead- even
when it came quite low over top of us 

Monday, July 20, 2020

Clinic Report or Things That Make Me Go HMMMM

Last weekend I loaded up my trailer and Carmen and I headed off to a Trail Clinic with Mike and Nikki Porter. I've done one of these every year and LOVED them. Each time I go I leave with some new insights and confidence.

This time was going to be special because my two amazing friends, Paula and Karen, were also coming. I was looking forward to getting some insight into Carmen and what was going on. I was also worried that her behaviour would be off the charts. But I figured that it would be a great time to get their help.

The format of this clinic is pretty straightforward. We all meet early Saturday morning and talk about our horses and our goals. Then we are broken into the two groups. In the morning we all do groundwork. In the afternoon we practice the obstacles in hand and ride if we're ready. Sunday is a mix of in-hand and riding over the obstacles. Everyone gets attention from either Mike or Nikki. I have to say that it's totally worth the money. Not that it's expensive- it's not. Lunch is also provided.

Friday night I wanted to ride. I was a bit worried because the ring can be quite spooky. The far end is covered with a tarp and there is plastic covering windows that also have holes in them. Karen helped me and Carmen to stay on task but I was really tense which was not helping. I have to say that my self-confidence was at a low ebb.

Saturday morning and Carmen was feeling pretty

In the morning 'chat' I shared that I had been having some challenges with Carmen's behaviour and I was looking for insight. We then started our work in hand. I made sure to be at the far 'spooky' end. My groundwork skills are basically solid. Nikki gave me some good pointers to clean things up, which I really appreciated. We were asked to do this one exercise that I absolutely loved: 

Mike drew a rectangle about 8-10 feet away from each of us. The goal was to move the horse to that rectangle and have them stand there. Easy enough when you can lead the horse there. But we weren't allowed to change our position. It really made you focus on what you were asking and adjust the cues. It took a few minutes but then TA-DAH!

look at her- like butter wouldn't melt in her mouth
 (also you can see what  I mean about the far end being a spooky place) 
Carmen was soft and easy. Not completely but, really she was a doll. 

And that was how she was all weekend. Not a hoof out of place. No big explosions, no bolting, no balking. 


Standing in the water box:
Carmen: my toes are getting wet and this water is dirty
Me: just stand here, K?
Carmen: okay.
Mike: are you sure that this is the mare you described? 

celebrating a good day's work on Saturday. 

Sunday she was even better than Saturday. Perhaps I was too- definitely my confidence was up. 
Here's a video of us riding part of the pattern. 

Clearly her issues are not physical- if they were then it would also be present at the clinic. I spent some time over the weekend trying to explain what I was dealing with at home. They listened to me carefully. What they hypothesized is that Carmen is using this behaviour to escape work. And that I should make her work harder where she acts up. 

I also think that perhaps my intention is not always clear. 

Armed with this knowledge I feel that I can move forward. It's always a worry when you think you are making horse work when they are in pain. Now that that is off the list I can move ahead. I'm also on 2 weeks vacation so I can take as much time as it takes to work through our stuff. 

So, yay. 

I think. 

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

First of all I want to thank all of you who reached out to provide support.

And the reality check that things cannot always be unicorns and rainbows.

I've been riding since my last post and also, some days, just lunging. Goals for the rides have largely been:
1. working towards helping her relax while not backing down from my ask. Which is what I used to do. I would assume I was doing it 'wrong' and maybe I was but really it just taught her to be escalate (not that i did that all the time but should we talk about intermittent reinforcement schedules? Nah, let's just say we did).
2. Being careful with my aids so that I reward when she responds and that I don't nag with my aids or hang with my hands.
3. oh yeah, and work on adjustability in her stride and transitions off my seat.  You know, dressage sutff.

And it seems to be working. I am very black and white- this is acceptable. this is not. Some rides it takes a long time for to sigh and then just relax into the work. There is a lot of praise for that. Yesterday she was cranky from the get go and really wanted to hang on the rein and pull me along. We did a lot of  'follow the rein' and 'no, I'm not going to fight'. It becomes like a switch- one minute she's rampaging around and the next minute she gives this big sigh, drops her head and everything relaxes.

turns out you can order this on Amazon. Or buy it life size like I did.....
Sigh. Mares are hard.

The key is very similar to raising teenage girls. Don't get sucked into the drama and do not agree that that bush  is highly suspicious. Stay calm and relaxed. Which is easy to say but harder when you are riding 1100+ pounds of mare who's telegraphing that she's about to launch into the next county.  But doing so keeps the pot on a simmer and not a roiling boil. And training is often just putting in the miles and on task.

Today I rode and she started tight but was trying really hard to listen. We had some great work at teh walk so we headed out to hack. At first she was tight again but soon was on the buckle. Of course Irish led the whole way. For those who think I should hack more, I'd love to but I only do it with someone. I don't have wide open spaces to deal with a bolt- instead I would be in a tree or down a gully and I don't fancy that. 

I think I just need to persevere.  I suspect hormones are causing some problems. I don't think it's ulcers because A. I work hard on prevention and B. she gets better in the ride not worse.

Starting tomorrow I'm on 2 weeks vacation which will be wonderful. I am headed off to a trail clinic this weekend and I'm looking forward to getting Mike and Nikki's perspective too.