dancing horses

dancing horses

Friday, December 14, 2018


A few days ago Dom wrote a beautiful post sharing her heartbreak about having to leave her home. It struck a chord with me and I wanted to reach across the internet and give her a hug.

It took me a long time to find my home. I don't remember a lot about my early childhood but I do remember living with my Grandparents in the country for a while. I loved it. When my mom was able to get a job and an apartment she took us back to live with her in a small apartment on the outer part of  the city. I hated it. The noise, asphalt and buildings blocking the sun were an assault on the senses. People yelled if you went on their yard and there was only one park- a 3 acre patch of grass with a small hill that had a grave on it. I used to sneak away a few blocks to a forest that was a few streets over. I spent a lot of time there. Thinking back I realize how dangerous it was a for a  7 year old to be wondering the woods in the city. I was lucky.

I know it's weird, but I have loved trees my whole life. 

I have lived in a few places since that apartment and, while I have enjoyed all of them, I have not felt that it was home. But I didn't know that I didn't feel that until I found the place that we live now.  I knew it from the first time I looked at it. 

Why this little farmhouse? I don't know. It would be like me describing why I love Ed. I just know. 

I feel that I know every inch of this property. In all weathers. 

Sometimes I am sitting in an all day meeting and I find myself feeling frazzled and drained. When I get into the car to head home I am impatient and anxious. Sometimes I worry that I am getting agoraphobic. But when I turn onto my road I can feel my heart start to ease.  I change my clothes and Guinness and I hit the woods. 

Guinness and his BFF Ripley (my son's dog)

As I walk my trails, throwing a ball periodically for Guinness I feel the trappings of the day fall away.  

hearts ease

This place is my dream but it hasn't stopped me from feeling heartbreak. Far from it. Sometimes it seems harder here. Maybe because I have opened my heart more than I thought possible. 

Martin, Belle and d'tracy are gone but it seems like only yesterday that we were all having fun exploring our new home. I do not know where Martin is but Belle and d'Arcy are here. 

I love when the swallows return to the barn. I cried this year when the babies died during the heat wave. We have a grouse that lives in my woods. It makes me jump all the time when I'm walking because it flies off in such a noisy flap. Lately I haven't heard it and I worry that the coyotes have gotten it. 

It took me 47 years but I now have a place that owns me as much as I own it. How could I leave? Pieces of my heart are buried here. 

4 years today I said goodbye

Monday, December 10, 2018

Hold My Hand

When I'm not having lessons I try to continue to work on building Carmen's confidence in me. I'm not one to worry about riding alone,  but I will confess that  these days I do worry about not having  a person on the ground making sure that I don't fall into a death spiral.
Hello. We see that you are walking the dog. You wouldn't
happen to have any apples in your pockets would you?
(who could resist those faces?)

I'm not worrying about leg yields or the perfect 10 metre circle. All I want is to replicate the work we're doing from the ground. I want her to reach for the contact and seek to relax. I want her to look to hold my hand and that there are different answers to being worried and tense then running away.

Some rides I just walk. A couple rides ago, once I got on I simply worked on a stretchy 20 metre circle at the walk. When I got a few of those I hopped off.

I do insist on a couple things though:
#1. that she stay under me - she's not allowed to fling her front and back around so that she's off center below me (or that I'm off-center above). I use my legs, reins and even my knees on her shoulder to keep her there.

Which relates completely to
#2: she stay straight. So, if she starts to fall away from the scary corner I don't really argue that (yes I know but trust me, fighting to keep her in the corner is a fools game) but I do make sure that she's straight. This usually means that I insist that we do a half-decent leg yield rather than just flail around.

I also insist on a couple things on myself:
#1: stay calm- in my mind and my body. I try to be aware of when I tense and consciously relax my seat, arms, etc. I clearly have a lot of work to do in this regard but I am making progress.

#2: stay balanced on top of her. Me getting off-centre makes her worry more and gets her more reactive.

#3: (okay I lied, there's more than a couple) Try to figure out what she needs and how to give it to her. It might be my voice, or a quick correction, or turning before she's going to want to so that it's my idea. I need to be okay with making a mistake, shrug it off and try again.

After my lesson on saturday it began to snow. Julia came out and rode Irish. He was feeling pretty fresh but settled in to work after a bit of silliness (love that at his age he can still be silly)
the most perfect of orange ponies
We decided to ride together the next day. After Julia's ride I dragged the ring to get any ruts out of it. It was supposed to freeze so I figured we'd just be able to hack but I like to keep it dragged so that if there is snow it has a smooth surface to sit on. This allows for riding in the snow (which I love).

The next morning was freezing cold and I was shocked to see that my ring was actually pretty darn good for riding:
it was in fantastic shape
Carmen started off good with the ground work and when I mounted she was again looking for an argument. I just breathed and kept us walking. I used Irish to help us walk around the ring. It didn't take long before she was starting to get in the groove of things. We were able to work on bend and serpentines and changes of bend. I was Ms. Mellow and just didn't let anything get me flustered.

this picture makes me giggle. We're resting while Irish trots on by and
 look at those grumpy mare ears. 
I even dropped the reins and let her wander where she wanted. I tried to take a bit of video from her back (sorry for the poor quality). She actually wanted to head to the 'scary' part of the ring. I know it was because she wanted to follow Irish but I don't care- I had a completely loose rein and she was totally relaxed in her body. 

After we headed into the woods for a hack. It was beautiful and I only got snow down my neck once. Carmen led for a bit and when she became really worried we let Irish lead again. 

It was a a good ride and I still think that I'm on the right path. Carmen is becoming quite affectionate with me these days and that is not her normal behaviour. 
Love this view. 

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Discretion is the Better Part of Valour

The posts I want to write are sort of colliding with each other so I'm going to mix up the chronology a bit so I can make my posts semi-coherent.

Friday I had a lesson booked with Shanea and, miracle of miracles, the stars aligned that it wasn't cancelled (weather or lack of critical mass to make it worthwhile for her to come here).

The morning dawned sunny and frosty. Our whole farm was sparkly (seems to be a theme these days. Carmen was quite mellow and I spent some time grooming her and enjoying our time. I spent some time doing ground work as well. Our focus is on learning to relax when she's tense. That has been an interesting process and changed what I do with her. By the time Shanea arrived we were quite relaxed and ready to start.

There was a transformation when I mounted and we walked off. Carmen became tense and appeared to be looking for a fight. My theory is that she was anticipating that we would argue about things (like where we go) and that she was going to evade to the best of her ability.

My new approach is to avoid a fight while not also giving in and letting her call the shots. This is really hard.


First of all I rarely back down from a fight. With anyone.

Second of all what I'm asking doesn't seem that difficult. You know things like trotting, straight lines etc.

Third, neither of us win a fight. I might get her to go where I want but then she is so tight and tense and miserable that neither of us is happy.

I have had to push all my drive and goals to the side and work on us achieving harmony and relaxation. So when Carmen starts off appearing to spoiling for a fight (yes I know that she's really not, it's just history) everything I do needs to say 'hey, no need to argue. I'm not arguing'. 

We started off just walking forward with me keeping  my reins at a length for her to reach but to give me control if I needed it.

see- tight, braced neck, short back, stiff gaits
We walked with me keeping a following seat. When she tightened I would make a decision- do I encourage her forward or do I make a decision to turn before it becomes a battle? It all depended on the moment.

The first trot transition was terrible. She shook her head, threw her haunches around and I worked really hard to keep the ask the same rather than increasing the pressure. Finally she went forward and we were riding.

She clearly had some issues with the far side. Shanea had me pick up a circle. When Carmen wanted to bend to keep her eye on the side we decided to make it a gymnastic: circle at trot, as I cross the center line ask for the counter bend and ride it around, then ask for the right bend and carry on. As we did it I was able to make the counter bend strides fewer and fewer.

Go ahead and roll your eyes at me. I honest to god am not scared but I don't want 30 minutes of her arguing with me about bend and me hauling on the inside rein and spurring her guts out. The spooked a few times, I simply rolled my eyes and kept going.

Here's a really good example of what we were doing (also really boring so if you have insomnia I've got you covered):

See how when we change direction she is unsure about the gate (well the halter and lunge line) and then really unsure about the opposite side. I am riding her with support. I wish my elbows were less stiff. It would really help a lot. It's a vestige of my defensive riding. But the third round she has more confidence in what I'm asking and realizes that she's fine.

We then started going down the far side. I like this clip because you can see that she's with me and on the aids, until she's not. I wish that Shanea had kept filming because what you will see is that I just roll my eyes (well you can't see that but it's in my body language) and ride forward. You can see how quick she can be. But I'm happy that she's not spinning and bolting. The jumps I can handle.

And it's worth it because she's starting to trust me again. The ears are on constant swizzle. Which is way better than locked ears.

Honestly, we're doing nothing spectacular and yet it all feels like new territory. I've gone from 'please behave' to 'by god you're going to behave' to 'it's all fine but hey run away if you feel you must'.
so much better- stretching through the base of her neck, relaxed
backand reaching for contact and her stride is free. 

And neither of us feel exhausted and drained at the end of our rides.

That has to be a good thing.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Crown Jewels

I had an amazing lesson to blog about but that will have to wait.

You see I had a number of factors coalesced into making me helpless in the face of temptation.

#1: Carmen broke her turquoise browband

#2: Riding has been near impossible with the weather.

Which leads to me spending more time on the internet. Which leads to:

#3. I stumbled across Canadian Custom Bling Browbands. She makes them herself and will do custom orders/colours.

Carmen, as a grey horse, can wear anything. She is my first mare. And I find myself being drawn to pretty things for her. I especially like her in purple.

I saw this on her FB page and was smitten:
I mean, can you even resist this? 

I sent a message to see how much it was. Turns out that it was $105 CAD delivered. That seemed reasonable. So I sent her a e-transfer and within 3 weeks this arrived.

I knew it was going to be pretty but the quality of it was even better than I anticipated. It came with extra jewels and care instructions. She will even repair it if you mail it back to her. 

Of course I wanted to try it out on her. I put it on her bridle and tried to take some photos in the barn. 

Me: C'mon, Carmen put your ears forward so I can take a photo. 
Carmen:  I don't want to. 
Me:  Fine. Let me get a close up. 

ignore grumpy mare ears
I decided to get Shanea to help. I figured she could take a photo when I was riding. 

At least now her ears are forward. I have to say that she looks great in her new tiara. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Clinic Adventures: So Much Learning (and food)

When I wasn't catching up with old friends, meeting new friends and eating a ton of food (really, so very much eating), I actually sat and watched Cindy Ishoy teach a bunch of riders. And I tried to absorb all the knowledge I could. Now I'm going to try to write it out to help me rember and have something to refer back to.

Standard Disclaimer: as always, these are my interpretations of what I saw and heard. If you think it's brilliant then Cindy gets the credit. If you think it's incredibly wrong then it's my fault- I probably misunderstood.
from back in August when the weather was hot

There were a variety of horse breeds and levels. Cindy gave every single one her undivided attention. It seems to me that Cindy does not care if you have a fancy horse or not or if you are the best rider in the universe. She cares if you are willing to work.

The lessons were 45 minutes and each minute was fully used. It's not that there were not breaks, there were. But they were short and then back at it. The work built over the course of the ride as the horse and rider warmed up. I am not sure, given where Carmen and I are right now, whether that would have been good for us or not.  Either way, we were not ready for the clinic and I was happy to audit.

Each ride I watched had the same principles of targeting straightness, forward, rhtyhm etc (i.e., the dressage pyramid). How these were targeted depended on the horse and rider. So one rider might be working on straightness through a serpentine while another through tempi changes. Cindy is so full of little wisdomes that struck a chord with me that I started writing them down. I think that they apply to pretty much any level:

  • don't micro-manage. Nothing pretty comes out of it. In other words, don't try to control every single part of the horse, let them figure it out.
  • Give and let him figure out his balance.  This was said to riders doing legnthens, half passes etc. I interpreted this to mean that we shouldn't use the reins (or heaven forbid the curb, she said a few times to get off of it) to hold them in a frame. The frame comes from self-carriage, which comes from balance. 
  • Don't worry about mistakes. Every GP rider and horse team has made thousands of mistakes. This probably relates to the micro managing above. 
  • There's a gymnastic correction for every mistake. I really liked this idea. Cindy would use shapes and patterns to fix if the horse was losing their balance or contact. Rather than pull or be sharp. Use the exercise to help the horse understand. 
  • It's not strength, it's timing: I think I heard this the first time with a rider working on changes. But it also came up with other maneuvers. It helped me to think that when an aid is not successful is it resistance? confusion? my timing? I suspect that it's often the last one. 
  • Bend - if I heard that once I heard it 1000 times. Along with Outside rein. 
  • Soften inside rein. I'm glad that I'm not the only one who struggles with this. Circle going to crap? Pull on the inside rein, it will fix everything! It was also helpful to me to see how letting go made things so much better. 
  • Use shoulder not arm to take back. Using the arm creates too much tension.  It has no give and horses pull against it. Using the shoulder is softer and more fluid. While I don't claim to understand the mechanics of it, I could see the difference. 
  • Don't give away contact when you ask for forward.  This I know and understand. Yet still it's hard to avoid. The idea is to soften but not throw the contact away. 

me, not throwing the contact away.
Evidence that sometimes I can get it right 

Other things I noticed:
  • Cindy made great use of bending exercises: circles, trot loops, serpentines. Many of the horses would try to not engage their hind end and the riders were to keep it together so that the horses pushed from behind. 
  • If the rider struggled in the half-pass she would have them half-pass a few strides then leg yield and then back again. Or vice versa. I don't know why she chose which sequence but it worked- I could see it. 
  • If the horse was escaping through the outside shoulder Cindy had riders move their hands to the 'inside' (Not really inside, they didn't cross the withers). It worked to keep them straight. 
  • A lot of transitions were to be ridden through bend. Which was really really hard. Again it was nice to see that it wasn't just me. 
  • If the half-pass is going wonky, slow the shoulder don't try to speed up the haunches. That upsets the balance. 

There was more. Also lots of food. Sue makes the best baked beans I have ever had. Between the learning and the eating (and thievery) it was money well spent. If you have a chance to audit or ride in one, do  it.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Clinic Adventures: That Time I Tried to Steal a Trailer

This weekend I was off auditing a Cindy Ishoy clinic. I was really looking forward to it. Not only was I going to hang out with my horse friends and learn a lot but I was getting a weekend away. I really needed a break after the last 3 weeks of endless rain and crazy work.

Shanea had signed up to bring her mare and I was excited to see them go. I didn't arrive until noon on Saturday (I wanted to ride first). When I got there I found out that Shanea was having trouble getting here. The trailer that she had lined up had been damaged in a recent wind storm. People were trying to figure out a solution but it sounded confusing.

So I called Shanea and she said that she had found a trailer but needed a truck. Paula and I spoke and she got a truck (Susan volunteered her dually). Next was to get a ball. Paula got that and we jumped into the trailer on our rescue mission.

When we got to the farm where the trailer was we saw two trailers but no one was there. I called Shanea and she thought that it was the white one. I looked at both and the gray one had a lock on it.
So Paula and I decided to risk taking the white one.

Paula was nervous to back up so I backed the truck up while waved her hand to direct me. Paula is small and the truck was tall so all I saw was her arm. Clearly she trusts me.

Alas, when we got everything aligned it turned out that the ball was too large.

So that's how I ended up NOT stealing a trailer.

Fortunately though Shanea still got her lesson. Cindy agreed to travel to Julia's arena (who kindly offered it up for Shanea).

The moral of the story? How about:

  • I'm clearly not meant for a life of crime?
  • There is no way to stop really determined horse women? 

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Sensitivity and Presence

On my last blog post N recommended Tristan Tucker on Youtube. Since then I have become obsessed. I am not all they way through his videos but he has a set on 'The Vertical Mare". When I watched it I was all THAT'S CARMEN!
The rider talks about being passionate about dressage. Her horse went for training and came back unrideable. The video clip of her riding reminded me so much of Carmen and I too. I loved watching his teaching style and nature with the horse.

In this he talks about how 'high and sensitive horses' do not always know how to control their body and relax. That the mare will need to learn how to control her body when she goes into tension. Watching this mare was like watching a bay warmblood version of Carmen. Looking at the owner really wanting to do the right thing and working really hard reminded me of me (but alas I am not that thin or pretty).

I know the danger of watching a video and thinking that you know how to do it. However, a lot of his things are very familiar.  Slightly different variations but it all the good quality groundwork. On sunday. My goal was simply to have her stand relaxed, then walk behind me maintaining the same direction and then, if all went well, to have her bend and relax (turn on the forehand/haunches).

 Carmen moseyed up to me in the field and I put on her rope halter. We headed up to the ring and I asked her stand. She was curious as to what we were doing but the standing and walking is pretty familiar to her. The bending around me she knows but me keeping the ask until I felt the tension ease is knew. It was easier on the left than the right. Which is fascinating because she is also far more spooky on the right rein.

The idea, as I understand it, is to help the horse to figure out how to control their body and learn that they have the tools they need to relax. A few things he said stood out to me:
'she has a lot of feeling in her body. When it doesn't feel good it's not going to look good and it's not going to feel good for you (the rider).
'it's not the thing- it's that knowledge of what to do with herself when she's faced with that kind of pressure'. 
'it's not that we look to wave a magic wand. it's a restart to help her trust the process of receiving and accepting knowledge.'

It was fascinating. As we worked slowly and calmly I could feel the tension leaving her body as we worked. It honestly wasn't long at all. I think we worked maybe 15 minutes and then headed back to the barn.  I made sure I was totally in the moment with her and pushed away those stray thoughts that intrude at the best of times.

Likely this is resonating because it's pretty much where I landed with Carmen- that I need to help her understand and seek to relax. I'm thinking this will help me make the connection.
totally relaxed getting her tail brushed
(not from sunday but how she was)

Carmen is a sensitive mare and I'm just beginning to truly learn what that means.

After our session, I was puttering in the barn and Carmen was hanging out in her stall munching hay and by all appearances she was focussed on the highly important job of eating hay. I was definitely in my own little world, and while I had been relaxed I began to think about my week.  I walked down the alley thinking of something work related. I moved my hands in a slight gesture and she immediately reacted- her head came up and she came to the door to look at me. I thought she wasn't paying attention but she was clearly aware of me. I took a deep breath and relaxed the tension out of my body and she relaxed right away.
you okay mom?
yes', sorry to startle you
It's okay. But you wouldn't have a carrot on you would you? 

Clearly I need a reminder to park my distractions at the barn door and focus on being truly present.