dancing horses

dancing horses

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Half-Truths and Other Dangers

"It's always the rider's fault"
"That horse can't be trusted"
"emotions have no place in the saddle"
"just relax and your horse will be fine"
"he doesn't like dressage'

Full Warning: this post is likely going to get a little rambly. 
I have recently discovered podcasts.

I know, I know- I'm old. To be honest I didn't realize that there were horse-themed podcasts out there. Now that I've discovered them a whole new world of learning has opened up. I started with Nikki Porter's Podcast "Take the Reins".  I knew Nikki from the Ultimate Trail clinics. She is branching out into other areas and it's so cool. From these I am finding others. What has been interesting is that a lot of trainers that I admire (Warwick Schiller, Nikki Porter, Johanna Batista, Karen Pyra) talk a lot about the internal state of the person and how it interacts with their horse.

To a certain extent I've always understood this but only on a basic shallow level. As I delve deeper into my riding and being a partner for Carmen I am finding that this is real key for both of us.

oops I've bored the dogs to sleep. Good job on the Farm Security guys! 
Which brings me to the half-truths I am talking about. I think that there is a tendency to reduce things to a very simple, black and white level. 

We blame the rider or the horse. 

And often the truth is much more nuanced than that. We've all seen wonderful horses seem to fall backwards in behaviour with new owners. Or someone else rides our horse and the angels sing. To figure out what is going on we fall to blaming the rider, or that the horse was drugged. 

Carmen: why would you blame me? I'm so innocent
We think that the answer is more: 
-more skills
-more training
-different tack/equipment

And that is not wrong. Which is why it can be dangerous. 

Because a horse and rider is a relationship. Insecurities in a horse can feed the insecurities in a rider and vice versa.  There is this really interesting video of Warwick's. If you don't want to watch it here's a brief summary: In it there's a very anxious horse who is quite keyed up in a new arena. Warwick take the lead rope and does almost nothing. Yet the horse immediately goes 'phew' and relaxes. 

This is when despair can set in because it looks like magic. And we know in our souls that we are not magical. What I do admire about Warwick (and others) is that they are clear to point out that it is not magic. And most point to the work they've done outside of the ring on themselves. 

But that a rider may need more skills (either in the saddle or out of it) or that a horse may need more training with a person with more experience is also not wrong. Your bit/saddle etc may not be comfortable for the horse. 

Irish: You know you really are good at complicating things
Okay, okay Irish. Let me try to simplify it. 

Think of us and our horses as a teeter totter. 
To quote Karen 'it's about the balance'.  Working on one part of the teeter totter won't fix the balance. We need to look at what is causing the imbalance and figure out how to adjust ourselves and the horse. 

What really helped me to think about things this way have been related to my riding lately. I've actually managed to ride more times this January than I have in the past few years. Most of these rides can only be at a walk and, occasionally, some trot. Past me wouldn't have dreamed about taking Carmen out and just walking. I would have had the belief that things would go wrong pretty quickly. But we're not in that place anymore. When I have been riding I've been really thinking about my seat and hands and working on eliminating any tension.  At an easy walk it's easier to locate my tense spots. 

The other day Julia came out and we took the horses up to the ring to ride. I didn't lunge but I did do some light groundwork before swinging a leg over. Carmen expressed some worry about some areas in the ring but I refused to grab the reins (although I did shorten them a few times), made sure my legs/seat were relaxed and carried on. It was going pretty good. We picked up a slow trot and as we we were going around she spooked and spun away from 'Troll corner'. I turned the spin into a circle, walked her to the corner where I dropped the reins and released all pressure (although I did hold my grab strap). 

Carmen stood there for maybe a minute before going 'nope' and turning away to leave. I kept myself soft with a 'no big deal' vibe and asked her to pick up our slow trot again. When we came back to the corner we stopped and I dropped the reins. This time I focussed in on my breathing- making it long and slow (like in yoga). Carmen began to sync her breathing and body tension to mine and then relaxed. We stayed there for a bit, then I picked up the reins and we went back to work. When we came back to this area she dropped to a walk, marched into the corner and stopped. 'this is where we breathe' While this is not what I had planned I went with it. Getting after her for doing what I had asked before would have created confusion.  Our ride carried on and we finished on a good note. 

relaxed after the ride

The big success of the ride was troll corner. I've done similar things to this before and not really had success. What I think helped this time was that I made sure that I was totally relaxed and breathing rather than wait expectantly for her to bolt. Or I've been returning to work with a punitive mind set (okay, if you want to work we work). I've been working on both sides of our equation- teaching her that dropping the reins means she's to chill out and on my own body awareness and beliefs- in myself and in Carmen.  I've been doing a lot of thinking of why Carmen and I do so well on the trail or when I'm wearing a flamenco dress? 

can we see these costumes too many times? I think not! 
I think it's because those are times when I am feeling pure joy. I am having fun and that translates into my posture, breathing and attitude. Carmen is of course affected by this.

Have we conquered troll corner? Probably not. This worked this time because that is what she needed. We'll see about next time.  

In the meantime I'm enjoying listening to the podcasts and thinking about myself. 

Carmen and I may never get to the point where we are in sync enough to do great in the show ring. But you know what? She has taught me so much about myself and forced me to be better- both in skills and in myself. And that feels like a better outcome to me.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Slow Feed Hay Net Review

Last time I looked out the window it was still winter. *sigh*

And I've been dealing with some vertigo. *double sigh* So maybe it's a good thing that riding is off the table right now.

This post has been juggling a bit around in my head for a while and now seems like a good time to write it.

Haynets- the struggle is real folks.

When Carmen first arrived she was a bit thin and a bit fussy in her eating.

Hindsight being 20/20 I realize she probably had ulcers but I'm not beating myself up about it now.  Then she began to *ahem* thrive and it became clear that I needed to control her intake. Add in that Carmen was a fast eater I realized a slow feed hay net had to be the way to go.

definitely not underweight

Since that time I have been through a few and I spent some time to find the magical net that would meet my needs and not be destroyed.  Here are the ones I have tried and how I found them to hold up:

1. Tough 1 Hay Hoop & Net.
Cost: $75

I love the hoop- it's easy to load and locks nicely on the wall. It's much easier then trying to stuff a haynet.

The net though didn't last more than 2 months. Pro-tip: I bought a crochet hook and it works well to remove the old net.

Recommended: hay hoop yes (5/5 stars) . Hay net no (1/5 stars).

2. Generic Slow Feed net: sold by your local tack store.
Cost: $15-20

They have knotted holes. I find that they last about 4-6 months with daily use. Replacing them in the hay hoop is a pain the butt but they work well if you are travelling. I use these for shows and clinics and they have held up well.  Stuffing them is a pain (like most hay nets).  Most of these are 2" which is not great for a horse like Carmen. She needs 1.5" or 1". 

Recommended: 3/5 stars. If you have a gentle horse they probably will work well for you. If you have a shredder like Carmen you will get frustrated with how often you have to replace it. Like I said for short term events like shows/clinics they are great to have in your trailer.

3. Handy Hay Nets
Cost: $35-75 depending on size. $35 for my hay hoop.

These are made without knots which is easier on the horse's muzzle. For Carmen in the hay hoop it was about 6 months before the first hole appeared. After that she began to put holes in them more frequently. I have gotten good repairing them with baling twine. The website is full of great information and they are made in Canada.

Recommended: 4/5 stars. I would give 5 if it was more durable.

4. Derby Web Nets
Cost: $75

With Carmen being so hard on nets I decided to try a web net. I bought a small (generic) one to try and I liked it.

 I figured out a way to hang it on my hoop. For the summer it was great. I loved it so much that I bought the larger one to go outside for both horses and I love it. It's easy to fill and holds 3/4 of a bale. I take the remainder of the bale and put it outside for them to walk to get the food.
I bought purple because it was cheaper. :) 
Recommended: 4.5/5 stars. If it came with smaller hole version I would give it 5/5. It is durable and easy to fill/handle.

However, this winter the holes (2") for the one in Carmen's stall were too easy for her to empty fast. I looked around and decided to try another version of a hay net.

5. Nag Bags
Cost: $35-65 depending on size (fyi shipping is costly)

These are advertised as 'the safest, most durable on the market'. I have friends who have good luck for them.  Shipping seemed expensive so I dithered. After Christmas there was a sale 3 trailer bags for $115 so I decided to pull the trigger and bought 1.5" size holes. With delivery and taxes I paid $150 for three nets. They arrived early January and I installed one early January.

I was really annoyed when I went out last Friday to see that there was a hole chewed in it:

So the most expensive net I bought didn't even last a month. I posted this photo on Instagram with a disgruntled comment. Someone from Nag Bags reached out to me and said that this was unusual and that they should last 2-3 years. I was advised to fill out a damage form. Which I did. A couple questions came to me via email to show where I had it hung and what was the distance of the hole from the bottom. All of which I responded to.

I then got an email saying that this hole was where she was feeding from (no kidding). And that I should add an extra net and/or put hay on the floor. Sure. Carmen would love that. And she would be fat and be at risk of founder. So no to an extra net. I do put a little on the floor at night but not much more than half a flake. The final comment was to see how the net held up over the next few days.

Sure. It's been 5 days and as of this morning there were no holes. Now that it's been hung for 3 weeks. Clearly it must be fine.

That is all sarcasm as you can tell. Anyone, I have these nets and will keep them for shows. I will keep this net on the hanger until it's too annoying to repair anymore and will put the Derby back up.

Recommendation: 0/5 stars. No. Not worth it. Even my cheapest net lasted 3 months.

This is my experiences with various hay nets. Clearly yours may vary. I will also add that I am not receiving any compensation for these reviews. But if there are any hay net manufacturers who want to challenge Carmen to try their nets let me know.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Two Birds, One Stone

I've started working on my goals for 2020. Particularly the one on supporting horse events.

 I live in an area with quite a few horses but all of the events I attend require me to travel at least an hour by trailer. For me, a dressage person, it doesn't feel that there's a real community in my, well, community. But I know that they are out there. Some I even know personally.
Riding with friends is fun

I really enjoyed attending Karen's clinic last year. I was hoping that there would be one this year. And then I realized that I could just try to host one. I reached out to a fellow rider who takes lessons from Shanea and she was quite interested. I spoke to Karen and she was game.
screen shot from last year's clinic

After a bit of back and forth we settled on a date and a format. It will be a little different because it will be split between mine and Krista's stable. But I think it's completely doable. Right now we have 3 people signed up and more interested.

It's been years since I planned a clinic. I'm not really sure what I'm doing but I'm sure that we'll figure it out.

It also helps me to target my other goal of working on my seat.

I'm quite excited to see if we can get this going. And it will be fun to have something happening here.  If you're interested check out the event page on FB or drop me a line. I'll send you the info.

2020 here we come.

Friday, January 17, 2020


Not much is going on here. As is the case with January. I have a few things to write about but my motivation also seems to be frozen. 

I did manage to squeeze in a ride with Julia earlier this week. The stars aligned with the combination of mild weather and no ice so we were able to hit the trails first. I hadn't ridden for a number of days and normally I would have concerns about how Carmen would behave. But this year I want to be different, so I decided to start with the assumption that she would be fine rather then have a plan to 'manage her'. 

Initially she was a bit tight but when I didn't answer with my own tension she relaxed and began to enjoy herself. The trail is short so we went around it three times. Irish was having a ball too. Carmen started to be interested in the trees and whether they were edible. After your third trip around, Carmen came to a stop. She wasn't balking nor was she grumpy. She just, well, stopped. I had to laugh because she reminded me of me. When I'm walking in the woods I often stop and just breathe in the air and absorb the woods. It felt like that was what she was doing. 

Irish was less patient about this, he wanted to go! 
After a few minutes I said 'ok, can we carry on now?' She gave a sigh and kept going.  We headed up to the ring. The footing wasn't great but it was fine for walking.  

I used to view walking as the gait that we started with until the real work could start. But now I find that there's a lot you can do at the walk. It's a great way to work on my goal of softness and bend. We did some leg yields and circles. At one point she came to a grinding halt- I followed her gaze and she was staring hard at a patch of snow. 
Carmen: What is that? It looks dangerous.
Me: Ah, it's a pile of snow
Carmen: But what if it's not? 
Me: Pretty sure that we don't have albino trolls here. 

After letting Carmen look at it for a brief minute and then walked forward by it. I was very proud of her for doing it and for me to let her have a long rein. 

We practiced a few half-passes at the walk and she was so good- really bending and lifting herself with her hind. It felt really good.  I played with having her follow the bit as I loosened the reins and she did well. Instead of grabbing or inverting she lengthened down and low. 

Honestly, she looks like a Thelwell here. I'm going with it's the angle 
that Julia took it from 

It was about 40 minutes all told but that seemed good to me. 

Two days later we had a snow storm and today the temperatures have plummeted to -12. Add in 60-70 km winds and you get pretty f-ing cold. I let the horses out to move around but they were not interested in leaving the hay. So I opened the gate to the back field. That created some excitement. 

Carmen: how's this for using my hind end? 
Irish looks great for a guy going to be 20 this year. 

Guinness ran up and down the fence with them. 
I hope that the temperatures rise a bit because the snow is a great texture to ride in but I'm not riding in these temps! 

Sunday, January 12, 2020

2020 Visioning

Two days ago we had so much snow that I had to strap on snowshoes to take the dogs on their walk. Then the temperatures became unseasonably warm and today it's pouring rain.
Irish really enjoyed the snow- 

so did Ripley
and Guiness.
It's hard to believe but this snow is all gone now (3 days later)

I guess it's time to wrote out my goals for this upcoming year. Last year I had a lot of success focussing on the process rather than the outcome that I'm going to do the same this year. It's not an easy thing to develop goals. I will be building on what I did last year and, yet, there is this urge to think of 'new and exciting' goals. I also spent some time really thinking about myself, about Carmen and about what I want from our partnership (honestly, maybe I should do this about my marriage...).

Here are the goals I have set for 2020, with the caveat that I may pivot on some of them if it makes sense.

1. Increase our confidence and trust in one another

A.  Increase Carmen's tolerance and confidence in dealing with the unexpected.

This won't be because I've thrown everything at her and she's shut down- I want her to be engaged and curious. I have seen real growth in this area with her- anything new in the barn requires her full inspection and she is not worried. I'm going to continue to use the TRT Method stuff- it really does help. And there are other things out there.

B. Increase my confidence and trust that Carmen can deal with the unexpected.

Again we're getting there. Doing the groundwork of releasing pressure when she found the answer has translated really well to the under saddle cue of me dropping the reins and letting her stand. It works. When I feel less confident that it will work my hand reaches out and holds the grab strap.

here's an example of me dropping the rein

2. Actively choose my emotion when I'm working with the horses. 

We've all heard the comment that 'emotions have no place when you're in the saddle' (or similar). I have spent a great deal of time squashing my fear or worry or frustration into a little box and sitting on it. 

The problem is that the horses always know when you do that. Animals that evolved to be constantly responding to environmental cues to avoid predators are very aware of not only their surroundings but of the emotions of the herd. You can see it out in the pasture, all are grazing and then when one alerts to something they all do the same (with some variations).  

I have a personal belief that happiness is a choice. This doesn't mean that large events/tragedies will not impact our emotions- of course they do. And I'm not talking about depression. 

I'm talking about the regular day to day emotions. In my day, if I feel grumpy I can find lots of things to justify that emotion. Same with happiness or sadness. I've been working on this in the barn a lot. Every morning I'm working on actively choosing to be cheerful and happy around the horses as opposed to tired, cranky and jonesing for coffee. It's amazing the difference it makes in them- now they check in with me in the morning rather than shutting me out while they eat. I'm so freaking fortunate to have my horses home with me and I need to let that inform my emotions. 

I want to also do that in the saddle. I want to choose to be happy/content rather than scared, worried or frustrated. 

I'm not 100% sure (or even 60%) how I will tackle this or how it will look. But I'm going to try. The little I've been able to do has had a positive impact on our rides so I'm pretty sure that this is the right track. I'm also pretty sure that I will wander off the path a bit too. 

3. Increase Carmen's adjustability
a) within gaits.

This leads to a totally 'product goal' of wanting to show Second Level this year. To really nail it I need to be able to adjust her stride. It's coming. But there's a lot more I can do in this area.

Carmen: isn't it enough that I've adjusted to living in the North? You want more?!

b) In her body: increase her softening and bending. She has a tendency to hold herself tight and straight. It's all related to her mental state of course but it is also a habit.

4. Improve my seat.

I want to be able to have my seat in the saddle and be able to sit these larger gaits that I'm asking of her. I want to be balanced with her so that I don't grip with my thighs.

see- thighs are tight and I'm popping out of the saddle, even if I am balanced

 My goal is to be able to ride a lengthen without being thrown out the saddle. I am going to work on a looser, more following hand. To that end,  I am going to continue to lesson with Shanea. I'm going to do clinics with Johanna and Karen. And other clinics as seem to be appropriate.

5.  Do things that are fun.

Carmen: snow is not fun- see Irish has fallen

I will continue to hack out and meet ups with friends as much as I can. I have also signed up for a one day Working Equitation clinic. I am sure that will be a blast. Jumping lessons for sure! I'm going to see what other things are out there for me to do. 

6. Support horse events by volunteering. 

I have volunteered a lot in the past. Then I withdrew into my farm and have not really given back for a while. I am going to show Carmen this year so volunteering there is likely not going to happen. But I am sure that there are other things I can do. I don't even necessarily mean a show. To be honest, this show is a little vague but I'm going to stick my head up and see what's going on out there that I can add value to. 

I could write about 20 more goals,  I am sure but they will all relate to these ones; so I'm going to leave it at six (well 10 if you count the ones with two parts but don't do that). If I make progress on these I'll be pretty happy. 

Now I just need the winter to be mild and short. 

even if my house does look pretty

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Hindsight: Looking Back on 2019

Carmen: what are we looking back at? Can we look for less snow? 

So, yeah, I am late with this. 

But that's okay. Winter is here and so I have more time (theoretically anyway). Last year I decided to focus on Process goals rather than specifics. After targeting these for a year I have to say that I am a fan. Basing goals on principles rather than specific outcomes allowed me the flexibility to target things as they arose without feeling like I was failing. 

I find that reviewing past goals helps me to develop smart goals for the upcoming year. So here's the recap along with some highs and lows of 2019. 

1. Build a foundation of relaxation with Carmen & Myself:   

We made a lot of progress in this. Joining the TRT website has help immeasurably with this. I took these tools with me to shows and clinics and I find that she's more curious at new locations now rather than highly suspicious. 
I also take advantage of toys where we go

 Carmen has learned to look for answers- at least from the ground. When she's tense and I draw her attention to her rigid neck she now drops and relaxes right away. 

Under saddle is still a work in progress. But I have come to realize that this is up to me to control myself, not Carmen.  I find that if she gets tense and starts to unravel simply stopping and dropping the reins allows her to take a breath and regroup. At some point I may be doing this at a clinic and I hope I can explain the why to the clinician. But it works so I will do it as needed. 

Highlights for me occurred when I took her places and people commented on how calm she was (those who hadn't met her before) and those who remarked the change. Sometimes it can feel that progress is minimal. 
actually trying to stretch at the walk at a show. 

2. Create a work flow that makes sense to both of us and is fun. 

I really feel that we have made gains in this as well. This year I have done obstacles, a lot of trail riding and even some jumping. I am working hard on not drilling but to let us have success and then let it go. Carmen is good at letting me know when I'm pushing too hard. 
we jump now. sort of. 

group trail ride


3. Manage her diet and gut health-  I started the year with a plan and adjusted as we progressed. I now have a protocol that seems to really work for her. I have not seen any sign of ulcers, upset tummy in a few months (*runs off to knock on wood). What I find is that Carmen has really slowed down her eating. Before it used to seem frantic but now, even in the morning, she's relaxed. 

4. Improve the independence of seat, leg and hand. In addition to working on this when riding and in lessons I also directly targeted this with a Balance Clinic with Karen and two clinics with Johanna. Each time I had a mini breakthroughs in understanding that made a noticeable change in my riding.
Compare now(ish):  
October 2019
 To when I first started riding Carmen:

5. Keep learning: In 2019 I did two 3-day clinics with Johanna, one 3 day clinic with Karen, a 2 day clinic on Trail Obstacles with Nikki and Mike. I am grateful for the wonderful coaches I have found that encourage and help me to gain skills without getting frustrated with me. 

 In addition I audited a judging clinic and too too many lessons to count. It felt like a lot. And I would have even like to do more.  I continue to watch the videos on the TRT website and follow Warwick Schiller on YouTube. 

I will never be done learning. 

6. Spend more time with other horse people. I definitely was more concious of this for the year. I reached out and tried to connect with people at shows and clinics. I really enjoyed the camaraderie. I am fortunate to know so many supportive people- we are all different but joined by our love horses. 

such a fun gang to show with

7. Go to shows and stretch myself.  I planned to do three shows and ended up doing four. All felt like I was stretching myself and Carmen. We had some good rides (here too) and some bad ones

8. Teach Carmen to self-manage: rather than it all falling to me about how she feels and reacts, I want to give her the tools to manage herself. You can think of this as increasing her confidence. This means that it's okay if she makes a mistake and for me to help her find the answer rather than give it to her. It's interesting, she is really really trying now to figure things out. She still gets overwhelmed at times but it's so much less than before. 

Carmen: who me? 

Me: yes you
At the end of this year I find that I am not as wary or nervous riding her when she's up. Thanks to the Centered Riding coaching I'm able to keep my seat in the saddle and not tense so much that I pop out. It still happens at times but I can fix it much faster.

This year has had it's highs and lows. The lowest was not about Carmen- it had to do with the barn flooding. Which is probably a good thing. I spent the entire year waiting for the wheels to come off and they never did. Although we had a few flats (way to really push the analogy).  I think that's for a few reasons:
  • managing Carmen's gut health
  • doing a lot of very consistent ground work
  • improving my riding skills
There were so many highlights: being with friends, showing, learning, trail riding. Riding second level. 

The highlight of the year? 

It has to be this: 

I've always wanted to ride to music. I've always wanted to do a Pas de Deux. Being able to do this with Karen and Kalimo made it truly epic. 

no matter what Carmen thinks

Wearing the costume was the icing on the cake. 

PC Amanda Stright

Carmen was a star about the whole thing. I swear she enjoyed the costume and roses in her mane. Finally, here was a show worth caring about. I could not stop laughing throughout. 

2019 was great year for Carmen and I. It wasn't until I started to look back on it that I realize how much fun I truly had. It's so easy to get stuck focusing on what is not great that I lose sight of the gains we made. 

Here's to 2020!