Making a Switch

Hi blog readers! I am going to switch this here blog over to a different (free!) platform (Wordpress). Although I love Squarespace, it is costing me money every month to keep this site up. I'm going to leave it up for another month but then will be shutting it down. 

Please head on over to Peace Love Horses and subscribe, so you don't miss any future posts! Thanks so much for reading my dribble. And now here's a cute picture of the Claymaker. ;) 

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In the Bleak Midwinter

Can I just whine a little bit for a second? Ok I'm gonna. 

Picture this: You've cleared your schedule for winter. You're feeling motivated! Optimistic! You're going to ride 3-5 times a week, weather permitting of course, and you're going to be the most ready for show season you've been in three years as a result! Awesome! Great plan, you.

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Here's what. It's an arctic tundra outside, but you doggedly exit your iced-over car and trudge through blowing snow in the dusky evening light towards your horse's pasture. It's the first day above 0º in weeks. You're going to ride, dammit!  

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Except, your pony doesn't particularly want to be caught today. You try to move your body swiftly in your 900 layers of clothing but your legs feel like petrified tree trunks, you're slipping on ice, you're saying bad words, you're 90% sure you're going to sell your pony.

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But, you finally catch up to pony, and feed him enough bribes for him to stand still long enough for you to halter him with your ruddy, stiff fingers. You decide not to sell him after all, this week.

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You make it into the barn, where it's just as cold as outside but mercifully out of the wind. You now have to somehow talk yourself into relinquishing a couple layers of clothing so that you can actually move enough to ride your horse. 

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This is just a typical Thursday here in Northern WI for yours truly. And all this is just for a ride! I'm not even talking about barn chores here, which, actually, as miserable as they can be, at least tend to keep your heart-rate high enough to keep your blood from freezing in your veins. But anyway. I just needed all my pals in other parts of the country to understand what us northerners go through to get a ride in on any given day in the winter.

Any time someone from The North is looking even remotely put together at an early spring show, know that it took mountains of determination, a fair amount of pure insanity, and gritted-teeth for them to make regular rides happen for the four months preceding that show. That, or they're one of the lucky bastards boarding at a heated barn. 

But just to balance out the whining here, I will add that there are some things I actually love about the winter. It's a short list, but it exists.

1. No mud
2. No bugs
3. I usually get the arena completely to myself on any given day
4. My horse likes cold weather better than warm, and is more forward and fun to ride
5. Living where it gets really cold means we don't deal with superhot summers...thank God because I melt in anything over 85 and my pony completely ceases to function. 

So, shout out to everyone soldering through winter in a cold-climate location...Mad props to you for making it work! Summer will come again someday, I promise. Until then you're allowed some whine with your cheese. ;) 

Clinic Recap: Martin Kuhn – Day Two

On Sunday my ride was the last one of the day, around 1:30, so again I got to kick back and watch all the other rides first. I had been planning on asking the barn manager about turn-out for Clay, so that he wouldn't be stuck in a stall all weekend, but it was bitter cold that day, and he looked perfectly content to stand drowsily and wait our turn, so I let him be. I shared my muffin with him for breakfast....He was not subtle about his dislike. 

"What is this? This is not a Mrs. Pasture's Cookie! How dare you feed me your gross healthy muffinthing??" 

"What is this? This is not a Mrs. Pasture's Cookie! How dare you feed me your gross healthy muffinthing??" 

Isn't he majestic, ladies and gentlemen? He did this for five minutes straight after having the TINIEST bite of the offensive muffin.

Isn't he majestic, ladies and gentlemen? He did this for five minutes straight after having the TINIEST bite of the offensive muffin.

I had a nice long warm-up walk before my lesson, and was thankful for it. Clay felt forward and relaxed over his back in stretchy-walk, but once I started putting him together I could tell he was a little stiff and sore in places. He is not a tail-swisher typically, but there was a lot of sneezing and swishing when we started getting to work. Understandable.

Even so, my lesson was excellent, challenging, and really got to the heart of what Clay and I are struggling with right now. One of the challenges was that there was a mean echo in the arena from the mic/speaker system that Martin was using, which made it really hard to hear him clearly, unless you were down at the end where he was sitting. That, coupled with my slight dyslexia with right and left, and the epic "mom brain" I have going on (which has been scientifically proven, by the way. We process information 9x slower than the average human, I swear), made for a couple instances of complete confusion on my part. I didn't know what I was doing or where I was going, but Martin was extremely forgiving and patient as I got my bearings and worked through my mini brain-meltdown....

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Amid the fumbling around, I did manage to learn something, and to have some real nice moments of straightness and thoroughness. There were a few upward transitions I really liked, where Clay didn't push into my inside leg but rather stayed upright and straight. I could actually feel his hind legs coming through, and pushing off, and it was a totally different feeling than we usually have in our transitions. Ah-ha! There it is. Hold onto that feeling!

By the end, thanks to Martin's excellent teaching skills and a certain forgiving pony, I felt clear about what the goal was in everything we were doing, and confident that I could go home and not only recreate it but build upon it. That is a great feeling to leave a clinic with, especially when it's the most expensive horse-related thing you've pretty much ever done. It was a risk, but there was big reward this time. 

Speaking of gaining confidence.....Confidence is so fleeting, isn't it? I don't get to have lessons very often, so in between them I have to muddle along on my own for long periods of time, and when things are hard I tend to think, "It must be because I am doing it wrong." And then I do it the wrong/easy way, because that's what feels less labored, lighter (fake lightness, mind you), or there is less resistance from Clay. One of the things Martin said to me this weekend was that it's OK if you can only get two steps of perfection right now. Reward the effort. Be patient and dilligent. It's going to be hard for Clay at this point, and that's OK. And when it feels hard, it's because I am doing something RIGHT. Don't back away from that. 

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Another nugget I don't want to forget: Go forward to reward. Nice leg-yield without too much bend in the neck? Go forward! Refresh that trot through the short side, and then get back to your lateral work. Lateral work slows them down, so it’s really important to go forward again afterwards. Whatever gait you’re working in, go forward to reward and refresh after doing something hard. Walk breaks are for when you are changing the subject, or if you’ve taken your horse’s muscles to failure and they just can’t give you one more rep, so to speak–which happens, and that's OK. I am SURE that Gina has said this to me many times, but sometimes I have to hear things many times before they sink it. ;) And sometimes it takes someone else saying it just slightly differently for your brain to go, "Ahhhh I get it." I tell ya what, Clay felt so much more forward than he has felt in a while, even though he was working hard through a thick coat in a heated arena...That little engine just kept cranking without me needing to remind him.

So would I recommend Martin as a clinician? Well, if you can teach a sleep-deprived mom the difference between haunches in along the wall, head-to-wall-leg-yield, haunches-in-across-the-diagonal and ranvers, then by golly you can teach anyone anything. Honestly most of that stuff was new to me (we practice shoulder-fore/shoulder-in a lot, but had only just begun playing with haunches-in before this weekend, and always just along the wall) so I guess I can forgive myself some mistakes. I really appreciate the way Martin worked me through the hiccups and got us back on track without making me feel dumb. He is a very eloquent speaker, and he somehow  makes you want to sit up and really ride, and at the same time puts you at ease. It's a great affect to have. Yes–as if my humble Second Level and Struggling option matters–I would recommend him.

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I hope Spring Hill will have Martin back again in the future...it was certainly a positive experience in my book! Big thanks everyone there for being excellent hosts and organizing this. Huge thanks as well to Julie for getting our ponies there and back, in very cold weather and with snow coming down! And to Mike and my mom for keeping the toddler happy and out-numbered so that I could have this time to really immerse myself in horses. Ya'll are great. I love you. 

Clinic Recap: Martin Kuhn – Day One

Clay and I attended a two-day clinic with Martin Kuhn this past weekend at the beautiful Spring Hill Farm in Duluth, MN. It was another super cold weekend here, so it felt extra luxurious to be inside a heated barn (although, poor Clay is sporting a Fjord-level winter coat right now.)

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I was a little nervous to attend a clinic in the dead of winter, both because trailering in winter makes my blood-pressure go through the roof and because Clay isn't in great shape due to the cold temps keeping me from riding regularly. But opportunities like this don't come around every day. I decided to go for it.

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Thankfully, my friend Julie who was also attending the clinic offered to bring Clay in her trailer with her horse. She hauls a lot and has a gooseneck, which is more stable on questionable roads than my bumper-pull. I was very grateful–not having to drive the trailer made my weekend overall a lot less stressful.

We got to Spring Hill on Friday evening, settled the ponies in, unloaded our stuff, and acquainted them with the indoor arena (which is huge, well-lit, mirrored on three walls, and has the most amazing, springy footing). Shockingly, Clay–who lives outside 24/7 at home–has pretty damn decent stall manners, considering. It helped to have Julie's horse Gus right next to him, too. 

On Saturday, my ride wasn't until the evening, so I was able to relax all day and watch everyone else ride first. Right away I knew I was a fan of Mr. Kuhn's teaching style. He is obviously massively intelligent, and lessoning with him is like riding through his mind. He talks non-stop, making corrections, telling you what to do and where to go next in between lecturing you on the whys and hows and the big-picture of it all. It's a lot to take in, but man do you ever get your money's worth out of that 45 mins! He didn't let anyone get away with anything, but I also found him to be kind about mistakes; A light-hearted stickler.

It was a long day of back-to-back lessons. I think he was getting a little punchy by the time my ride finally rolled around, and had me cracking up with some of the things he said (at one point he told me my 20m circle had a goiter. "Do it again, without the polyp in it this time.") Dressage hurts sometimes for lack of a sense of humor. It's a serious sport, full of serious people. And that's all right and good...except that it's hard to learn when you feel belittled or scared shitless. I never felt either of those things this weekend, and I really appreciate how Mr. Kuhn met each rider and horse where they were, no matter where that was, and worked to bring out the best in everyone. You get the feeling that he believes in you. Or at least, believes in Dressage as a system that–when done well, and not rushed or faked or cheated–will benefit each and every horse and rider who put their noses to it.

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In the case of Clay and me, meeting us where we are meant taking our lousy fitness level into account. I was a little worried about Clay working hard with a full winter coat in that heated arena, but Mr. Kuhn allowed for walk breaks and encouraged lots of rewarding. Clay pulled out a big effort for me, as usual, despite it all. 

We worked primarily on straightness, balance and an honest connection in the outside rein...which is what we have been working on for at least the past year. But instead of feeling discouraged that we still don't have this (hugely important) piece of the puzzle nailed down, it was reassuring to me that this is indeed where we are and what we should be focusing on.

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Mr. Kuhn reiterated what Gina has said many times to me–that this is the key to unlocking all  future levels, and once we have it, our progress will skyrocket. Until then...I need to be diligently plugging away at getting my pony consistently straight and honest in that fugging outside rein...and strong enough to maintain that correct, and more difficult, balance. I left Saturday's lesson with a sense of clarity and a couple new exercises to challenge us and keep life interesting while we plug away at this dressage thing.

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Boy was it ever a treat to ride in that awesome arena on that bouncy rubber footing. And the mirrors! I always knew mirrors were helpful, but I got to really experience their full benefit this weekend, because with all the focus on straightness it was so helpful to be able to look up and actually see whether we were or not. Plus, Clay and I are doing a lot of shoulder-in, haunches in, head-to-wall-leg-yield, etc. and the mirrors make a world of difference when you're fumbling around with new lateral work, trying to find your angles. 

Day Two recap coming right up!.....

#RiderProblems: Hips Don't Lie

I don't know about you, but my hips are a mess. I guess that's what 20 years of pretty regular riding + not a whole lot of cross-training, stretching, or other consistant forms of physical activity will do to ya (and I have no excuse...my mom is a yoga instructor! She tries to help me, and does help, but I've historically been horrible about sticking to a regular program.) Let me be your cautionary tale, so you can do better than I've done. 

What do I mean by "mess"? When I ride, I usually get one or two painful cramps in my hips during the course of my warmup. Having my legs spread wide (even though Clay is not very wide at all as far as horses go!) is just painful for me, which is a bummer, seeing as you can't very well sit on a horse at all without spreading your legs (I guess I could take up side-saddle...) But of course, like most equestrians, I thought of this pain and discomfort as a minor nuisance, not a serious issue, and did nothing for a long time to address it (luckily for me, I believe my issue primarily stems from an unbalance between the strength of my abductors/adductors, and therefore is fixable with stretching/strengthening exercises.) But it was high-time to address it, since this issue isn't only a detriment to riding but to other activities as well...like giving birth.

This might be going full TMI on you (perhaps skip to the next paragraph if the mention of childbirth and the notion of how that happens makes you queasy), but the painful cramping I had going on in my hips when I was birthing my daughter was almost worse than pushing the baby out. And there was nothing I could do to relieve it, since I had two midwives and my husband literally prying my legs apart with all their strength (and having a hard time, thank you very much riding-muscles) because it's impossible to get a baby out without opening your legs, but of course, my legs being spread wide is exactly what causes my hips to cramp and I cannot un-cramp them once they're cramping without bringing them back together for a minute to let them release. I'll leave that little story right there, but it was NOT fun for anyone involved–least of all me–and I vowed in that moment to get to the bottom of this before I have my next child, and for the sake of my riding career as well.

So, what can be done? Well, sticking to a g-dang regular yoga routine is pretty key, in my case. Yoga is magic. It is the remedy to several other funsie issues I have as well...a sacrum that doesn't like to stay in alignment, chromic neck and back pain, and is just a way to check in with and connect to my body, breathe and emotions. Yoga's foundational principals are strikingly similar to the foundational principals of Dressage, so they go hand in hand very seamlessly. The issue for me has been finding time every day, amidst the needs of the household and my family (not to mention a clean place on the floor to stretch out, amidst the toys...), to do even a short yoga sequence on a regular basis.

But pain, when you stop ignoring it, is a great motivator. So is the horrifying prospect of not being able to ride comfortably for years to come. So for the past month I've been using 15-60 mins (depending on the day) of baby's nap time every day to do a yoga routine. Sometimes it's a very gentle one, aimed at just focusing my mind and connecting with myself. Sometimes, when I know I'm going to be riding that day or the next, it's more focused on mobilizing my hips. Sometimes it's a sacral-alignment routine. It's less about what I "do" and more about just taking time to check in with my body and ask what it needs today. We ask a lot from our bodies all the time, and it's pretty rare that we give back to ourselves in nourishing ways.

The hip routines I do are not "hip openers" (a popular term you hear a lot in some yoga classes). Why not? Because hip openers are typically destabilizing for the sacrum (more info on that can be found here, if you care), and I don't need any help in the destabilized sacrum department. Instead, I am focusing on increasing blood-blow and mobility in my hips by doing slow, careful full-range-of-motion movements that are isolated to the hip socket/joint. Some people might not even consider this type of exercise "yoga" as it almost crosses over into the physical therapy umbrella. But whatever you want to call it, it's working for me. I haven't had a hip cramp while mounted in about a month, and I just feel generally more relaxed and less defensive in the saddle (you subconsiously hold yourself tensely when you're expecting a stab of pain at any moment...Not exactly conducive to Dressage, since tension in the rider blocks the flow of energy in the horse.) 

Here are some of the things I've been doing on "hip days":

1. The stretches in the two videos here–but carefully, as some of these can be considered "hip openers". I don't do these on days when my sacrum is feeling misaligned or "crunchy".
2. The stretches in the video here– ditto the warning above.
3. This hip sequence, which is warming and focused on strengthening rather than stretching.
4. This hip sequence, which is gentle and provides a release and stretch for my hips but doesn't irritate my sacrum/low back.
5. This more demanding hip sequence, for when I am feeling up to a stronger routine that challenges my hips' specific issues and weaknesses. 

If you're experiencing something similar, I hope my story helps you to know you're not alone out there dealing with this, and that there are ways to fix it! Of course, as always, nothing mentioned on this blog is supposed to replace the advice of your medical practitioner or an expert in the fields of yoga therapy/physical therapy. This is simply my experience, and I am sharing it in hopes of opening up discussion on this issue and perhaps prompting others dealing with this to give yoga a try, because it has been working for me. I'd love to hear from you if you're in a similar boat...what have you tried that has worked for you?

Cold Snap

This is the third week of what has felt like a gazillion-year-long cold snap. Nothing but gray skies and at-zero and below-zero and, when we're lucky, barely-above-zero temps. With a delightful wind-chill to boot! There's really no riding when it's this cold. You just have to hunker down, watch your horse's water consumption, make sure they have shelter and hay at all times, and wait.

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But yesterday the thermometer climbed to a whopping ONE degree! And the sun came out! And the sky was blue! So I decided it was warm enough to ride. Well, not RIDE ride. A short lunge-line session just to get the blood flowing to the muscles, and then a bareback walk through the snowy field to shake the cobwebs and ice crystals off the ol' pony-brain. It was peaceful and quiet...Only the squeak of hooves on snow. We watched the sun set on the first day of the new year. Clay seemed to enjoy the outing as much as I did.

My frozen fingers allowed for about a 4-second video clip...

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I was excited to embrace my break from teaching by riding as much as possible and really focusing on prepping for the clinic we're attending in a couple weeks, but Mother Nature had different plans I guess. Oh well...This is the reality of living where we do, I suppose. We don't have to deal with fires and draught like the poor folks in CA. And we don't have poisonous snakes and spiders, hurricanes, or earthquakes. Even tornados are rare. The cold is our blight. Well, the cold, and mosquitos. ;) 

Stay warm out there, friends! And Happy New Year!

Transitions

Well, it's really winter! In fact, tomorrow is the Winter Solstice, when we'll begin our long ascent out of darkness. A hopeful thought, especially on a night like tonight...It was fully dark by 5 PM, and the icy wind was rattling the barn like crazy during Abby and Calypso's lesson (but not one single spook or indication of nervousness on Calypso's part. So much for "wild and crazy Thoroughbred"!) Even though it is the deepest, darkest part of winter, the Solstice is a transition I look forward to every year...We have a lot of winter ahead of us still, up here in the frozen tundra of Northern Wisconsin, but the Solstice is a promise of light and of spring returning. It gets better from here on out. 

Another transition...It was Abby's last ride on the sweet mare she has leased for the past year. Her lease is ending, and she is taking a working student position at another great barn. They have learned so much together and were a super match. We did a fun gymnastic jumping exercise for their last ride together...a challenging one that showed just how much confidence and skill Abby has gained in the past year on this horse. She is ready for the next step in her journey, and I am excited for what she will gain from this opportunity at the other barn. I think this girl is hooked for life! 

Clay was also a focused, grown-up pony during our ride, despite the wind and the cold temps. I guess when you throw everything at your horse on a regular basis (loudly-mooing cows stalled next to the arena, rabbits running in and out of the arena, three huge German Shepherds chasing said bunnies around the barn while your horse is in the cross-ties, wind making it sound like the arena is about to fall down, snow sliding off the roof every time the sun comes out, etc.) they end up being pretty dang bombproof. 😜 

I have only been able to ride once a week this winter, despite my very best efforts to make it happen more often. But soon that will be changing and I will have much more time for my own riding.....Yet another transition. As I have mentioned before, I vastly reduced the number of students I had when my daughter was born (almost two years ago now, can ya believe it?? I can't!), to accommodate the fact that I would have to bring her with me to the barn for every lesson. It was a difficult but necessary decision, and as a result I ended up with a small but very dedicated group of students who were SO much fun to teach. I loved every minute of our time together, because they were so into it. 

But now, one is leaving (Abby), and another is going to keep her horse at home for the winter, and the other two don't usually lesson consistently in the winter months because of the cold (one is 65 and the other is 7...I don't blame them at all!) So I find myself without any lessons on the schedule for the first time in about five years.

It's going to be strange and a little sad to not be actively teaching (at least for the next few months), but I am really grateful for the time I've had with each and every student that has come through Sioux River while I've been the instructor there. I learned so much from each of them, and from the experience of being in a teaching role. It was an honor to see each person have fun, work hard, achieve goals, and in some cases solidify a lifelong love of horses and riding. I would do this job for free because I love doing it so much, but that is not to say it is an easy one...

There's nothing easy about standing in a dusty, hot arena for hours every day. Nothing easy about standing in a FREEZING one all winter, either. Nothing easy about asking your spouse to practically be a single parent most nights, after they've worked a full day as well, because you have after-school lessons to give. Nothing easy about giving up summer weekends and missing family events for shows. Nothing easy about sacrificing your own time to ride, and subsequently not reaching goals in the timeline you'd hoped (or at all). And certainly nothing easy about doing it all with a 25 lb wiggly toddler strapped to your back!! Ha! 

Instructors give up a lot to do what they do, and while they wouldn't trade their lives for any other, most of the real sacrifices they make go completely unseen by their clients and most certainly aren't reflected in that $30 lesson fee they get paid–half of which they typically give to the barn owner. Having taught lessons myself now, I have nothing but the deepest respect and appreciation for everyone I have ever (and will ever) lessoned with. I know that even though you love teaching, it's anything but easy. Thank you, thank you, thank you. 

So, yes, I am looking forward to the slower schedule this winter, and having time to focus on my own riding. I am looking forward to evenings at home with my family. I have some personal goals I really want to reach and I am grateful to have this little window of time to focus on doing so. In fact, Clay and I are attending a clinic with Martin Kuhn next month (so excited!), and we have some work to do before then (not to overuse the "transitions" theme, but, in fact, we will be schooling a lot of them. Namely, walk-canter, canter-walk, and trot-halt-trot. They help balance us and they keep Clay nice and hot off the aids. I've made them a super big part of our rides these days.) Stay tuned! :) 

Christmas Wish List

Normally I do a few Gift Guides this time of year to help you shop for the horse-lover in your life, but I'm going to mix things up a bit and tell you what's on MY Christmas list. These are the goodies I've been eyeing lately:

1. LeMieux bell boots, in white of course to go with my white LeMieux sport boots, because my cheap plastic bell boots are starting to disintegrate. 

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2. A warm, sweat-whicking long-sleeve shirt for winter schooling and clinics. This one would look sharp!

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3. Have you heard about these brushes? They apparently get the horse SUPER shiny without the use of any products. I'd love a set!

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4. I've heard so many good things about Back on Track products, and these standing wraps would be great for stall-time at horse shows and for trailering.

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5. A pair of custom dressage boots (a girl can dream, right?) from Celeris UK. Gahhhh. Everything they make is gorgeous! I'm still riding in a 15-year old pair of field boots, and despite my best efforts to break them they continue to hold up. I have a hard time justifying replacing something I already have, so until they finally die I guess I'll continue to just drool over the photos on Celeris's Instagram account. ;) 

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Check out my Gift Guides from years past here:

1. The owner of the barn where you board (this list works for your trainer too)
2. Your horse-crazy kid, option one and two
3. Your horse-crazy friend or family member
4. That one guy who rides

Notes From My Lesson II

Clay and I had two lessons with our trainer Gina this past weekend–what a treat! I don’t get to be “seen” by my trainer very frequently–she travels from over 3 hrs away–so when she does come, there is usually some bad habit or another we’ve fallen into in her absence. She always gets right to work ironing out the problem. This time is was that my legs were tense and I was over-using them. As a result, Clay had become pretty shut-down to my leg/not hot off the aids anymore. 

I was feeling this happen slowly but surely (it was set off by our shows this summer…I was riding tensely at them, and he tends to be pretty quiet and a little shut down at shows as well), but my response was all wrong…I used my legs even more, getting the opposite reaction that I was going for.

Right off the bat my trainer had me collect and then lengthen the walk, over and over, with just my seat and core and the tiniest bit of leg aid if needed (reinforced by the whip) while really focusing on keeping my legs “at peace”. Sure enough, Clay would cut the engine whenever he would feel me relax and unclench. Hah. Yep, I had trained my horse to only keep going when I am working waaaay too hard. We did this collect–lengthen, collect–lengthen over and over until he could keep the same forward energy without any nagging or tensing up on my part, and the occasional reminder from the whip to not shut down or push into my right leg (his favorite evasion). 

Next we did it at the trot. Then at the canter. My biggest take-away from this exercise? Nature keeps the horse going, not the leg. Clay, poor thing, had gotten very used to the new (wrong) way of doing things and now here I was, changing it all up on him. But he is a smart cookie. After a bit of this, WOW, was he ever hot off the aids and I had some of the best lengthening steps and steps of true collection we’ve had in a long while. A quick tap of the leg, and he’d suck his little booty under himself!

I don't have any photos from the lesson, so here is one from the June horse show this year. 

I don't have any photos from the lesson, so here is one from the June horse show this year. 

No surprise, my seat bones felt bruised for a few days after these rides. With a more relaxed leg, I was able to ride with a deeper, more connected seat and wasn't pitching forward like I tend to do when overusing my legs (see the above show photo where I am too forward, working way too hard in my groin muscles). Ah-ha! 

Obviously, I teach riding lessons (mostly hunter/jumper, but my own journey with dressage influences a lot about how I teach) and I am always telling my students not to nag with their legs or hold them clenched against their horse, but here I was tooling around on my pony, more or less oblivious to the fact that I was doing exactly that. How easily we fall into bad habits, especially when we ride alone most of the time, that may seem inconsequential but have a HUGE impact on everything else! I was really thankful for this lesson and what came out of it.

It was also a reminder that no matter where you are with your overall training, the basics are so vastly important and you're never too "advanced" for them. "The basics" shouldn't even be called the basics...they should be called The Foundation of Everything, because without them you have diddly-squat!

Thanks to Gina for traveling to us and standing out in the cold for us, and for her priceless guidance and encouragement.

Read the previous "Notes from my Lesson" post here

Bad Advice

I don't pretend to know everything. I have a lot to learn. I am constantly modifying and improving the way I do things, but I also have some pretty strongly-held beliefs about how horses should be treated and handled (namely, I believe in earning a horse's trust and respect...not making them fear me in order to get my way with them.) 

Being relatively new on the scene in the riding-instructor world, some people like to assume I don't know much and will offer up nuggets of advice. A lot of the time, these nuggets are helpful, and the advice-giver was well-meaning. In these instances I am very grateful for the help and insight. Sometimes, though, I have to bite my tongue and find the strength within to politely let the advice-giver know that I do things differently.

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My favorite is when someone thinks they know how I should be handling my pony after observing us together for five seconds. 

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Yes, once in a while Clay gives some resistance when I am asking him to do something that he'd really rather not. Yes, this can be frustrating, especially when I am in a hurry and he's pretending he's never seen a trailer before let alone ridden in one. But guess what–if you're not a naturally stubborn/patient person with a good sense of humor, you shouldn't own a pony. A pony is never really "broke". You may have trained them to stand still for baths last summer, but now it is this summer, and this summer is completely different from last summer, and YOU AREN'T THE BOSS OF ME LADY.

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Anyway. Clay would really rather not get in a trailer by himself, or stand like a gentleman for a bath, and the same for being clipped, but he will do these things for me, when I slow my roll and go through the steps in a patient and calm way, giving him a chance to take everything in and decide for himself that he is in fact not going to die. No, hitting him with your lunge-whip will not talk him into behaving, it will piss him off ROYALLY and you now have an actual problem on your hands. Two problems. Him, and me.

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What's the worst horse-related advice you've ever gotten? 

What do you Feed?

Feed, amiright? It's a whole can of worms, and I'm gonna go ahead and open it. I want to know what you feed your horses (or what the barn where you board feeds them), and why. It's a topic I want to be better educated on, because to be perfectly honest I am a long-time boarder who has been lucky enough to keep my horses at barns over the years where the BO was very knowledgable and on-top-of-it when it came to feed, so I just relied on their expertise and never really did my own research.

I have also always had the luxury of owning relatively easy keepers, so while we had other things to worry about (like how my old TB's feet would literally crumble beneath him without shoes...), maintaining healthy weight was never a problem. Clay is no exception–being Morgan and Welsh basically means he stays round on air–but I have noticed other feed-related things about him...

Sass. I love me a little sass, which is why I own a pony, but too much sugar in his feed seems to bring out the inner Mother (Father? Uenuch?) of Dragons, and we don't need that. 

Skin issues. I don't totally know if it was environmental or if it was feed related, but for about a year Clay had the worst dry-skin and was very prone to scratches, sweat-itch and rain-rot. His mane and tail were so dry and itchy that he was rubbing them relentlessly in turnout. I tried just about every skin/coat topical product and supplement out there and nothing fixed the issue. Then I switched feeds (from Smartpaks + oats to Crypto Aero), and put him on a heavy-duty live probiotic (Equibrew) for a few months. His mane grew back, he stopped itching, the huge dandruff flakes disappeared, and we had ZERO issue with sweat-itch and rain rot this summer even though it has been one of the wettest summers I can remember! 

Dapples/gut heath. He has dapples, mostly on his midsection right where the saddle pad goes, but they seem to disappear after I deworm him. This indicates that his dappling is connected to gut-health, rather than being a coat "pattern" he was born with.

It's no secret that dewormers wreak havoc on the good bacteria in the digestive track, so to help him rebuild his flora after a deworming, I give him a month of Equibrew. There are tons of powdered probiotic options out there, but the benefit of Equibrew is that the cultures are alive, not freeze-dried, and therefore more potent. And if you're wondering if horses like the taste of the fizzy liquid, Clay freaking gobbles his dinner up when it's soaked in Equibrew. It probably tastes similar to hard cider, and who doesn't like that?! So far I have been happy with the changes I made. I'm saving money since I cancelled my Smartpaks subscription, and the new feed seems to be working great for Clay.

A little fluffy after a winter of reduced work...Enjoying a treat of early spring grass.

A little fluffy after a winter of reduced work...Enjoying a treat of early spring grass.

Then there's the very important factor of forage/hay...The barn where I board makes all their own hay, and feeds mostly round-bales. I like the round-bale system for my horse–it seems more natural for horses to be able to eat hay at will rather than on a feeding schedule, and here in the north where the winters are bitter cold, eating constantly helps keep them warm.

We have horses of all breeds and ages and on various work-loads (from none at all to Prelim-level eventing condition) at this barn and none of them are obese from eating off a round-bale (there is one plump TB mare, but she tends to sneak some of her pregnant pasture mate's preggo feed...) Even though they have 24/7 access to hay, they also live outside and are moving around a lot, keeping away from flies in the summer, burning major calories staying warm in the winter, etc. So I don't know that I buy into the idea of limiting forage in order to manage weight, but I suppose there are some extreme easy-keepers out there that you might need to be careful with, or perhaps your hay is really nutrient dense and rich, in which case you might need to ration it. 

The one thing I don't like much about round-bales is the horses tend to stand with their heads down inside the bale, breathing in the hay particles. This is bad news for horses with any respiratory issues or sensitivities, especially if the bales are at all musty/moldy. We have a couple horses on the farm who can't handle it, and they get fed square bales exclusively. 

Clay showing off some winter dapples.

Clay showing off some winter dapples.

While I've been very happy with the round-bale system at my barn, I haven't been quite as impressed with the quality of the hay. Hay quality varies so much, from region to region, field to field and season to season. The fields around here have been taken from for many, many years and the landowners don't do much if anything to add nutrients back into the soil, let alone re-seed every so often with new grass. The result is a pretty weedy mixture, which the horses pick through, not rich in essential minerals and vitamins because it's coming from depleted soil. It takes thousands of dollars to lime and reseed a field, so I think we're stuck with mediocre hay for now.

However, my husband and I recently purchased one of the fields that my BO hays, with the hope to one day build a small farm out there. I'm on a mission now to figure out what the ideal hay mixture would be for most horses, and what the soil in our area needs in order to be the right Ph, supply the right minerals, etc. so that I can hopefully someday grow AWESOME hay.

Our field, right after it was hayed this summer. Pehr loved climbing on the bales. 

Our field, right after it was hayed this summer. Pehr loved climbing on the bales. 

Our local Ag Extension has been a huge help in this department. They came out and did a soil sample on our land and gave me a rundown of exactly what we need to do over time to rejuvenate the soil in that field. Unfortunately, there is a very robust weed seed-bank already established, so we cannot simply till the field and plant new grasses...the weeds would absolutely take over if we did that.

What most people would do is to use a glyphosate product, like RoundUp, to knock back the weeds at a couple key times a year. I need to do more research, but my initial reaction is a pretty strong NO to using that stuff. Then again, without it, it will take at least five years to really rehab the soil and start growing better hay, and even then it will still be very weedy. Our field is very close to a contributing watershed to Lake Superior, the Sioux River, and I'm also not keen on my horse eating trace amounts of a pretty heavy-hitting poison, or my kid running around in it. So, I have work to do in the form of research, talking to other local hay farmers, etc. 

Future hay farmer?

Future hay farmer?

I'm curious–what type of forage do you provide your horses...Pasture? Grass hay? Alfalfa? Do you care if the fields your hay is coming from has been sprayed with RoundUp or the likes? What ration-balancers, supplements or feeds does your horse get?  

Clinic Recap: NWDA Jr/YR Clinic with Jodi Ely

I took two students, Abby (13) and Ciarra (11), to the NWDA Jr/YR Clinic a couple weeks ago over in the Duluth, MN area. It was a two-day clinic in the middle of the week, so their parents had to pull some major strings at work to get the time off, but I'm very glad that we were able to make it happen because the clinic was a great experience. And these two girls don't take their parents' support for granted. I am continually impressed by how appreciative and respectful they both are. 

Ciarra and Kismet, fresh off the trailer and ready to rock!

Ciarra and Kismet, fresh off the trailer and ready to rock!

This was the first time both these girls had taken their horses anywhere. I really wanted them to have the practice before we head to their first horse show in August. Ciarra's little Arabian mare, Kismet, is green (as in, they pulled her out of a pasture a year ago and she was basically unbroken.) Abby's Thoroughbred mare, Calypso, used to frequent the local hunter/jumper shows, but hasn't been to a show in probably five years now. 

Everyone, including me, was a little nervous about how the horses would load on the trailer and behave away from home, but they were perfectly behaved from start to finish. I believe that this is due to the hours upon hours that these girls spend with their horses, bonding with them and building trust. Neither of these horses had been in a trailer in over a year, and the last time we tried to load Calypso (a couple years ago) she put up a major stink. That was before Abby came along and started leasing her, riding twice a week and spending many hours grooming, pampering, tooling around bareback, etc. When she asked Calypso to get in the trailer, the mare hesitated for a second and then followed her in calmly. Kismet also walked right in behind her devoted human (who feeds her an ungodly amount of delicious homemade treats.) 

Abby and Calypso, taking a stroll around the new farm.

Abby and Calypso, taking a stroll around the new farm.

Trainer and tiny co-trainer braiding Kismet's mane.

Trainer and tiny co-trainer braiding Kismet's mane.

Day One of the clinic was Dressage, and Day Two was jumping. This was a great format for my students, because it gave the girls a chance to get comfortable with Jodi Ely, their horses a chance to get in the new ring and settle in, and Jodi a chance to see the horses move and the students' equitation, skill level, and weak spots. Jodi was fantastic–full of energy, funny, complimentary but not too soft in her corrections. My girls responded great to her and took her corrections very well.

It can be nerve-racking as a trainer to watch your students lesson with another trainer, in front of their parents no less, but Jodi was very complimentary of how both girls are doing. Phew! ;) I saw the girls' confidence grow over the course of the clinic, and that was my main goal for them.

Of course, the jumping day was the girls' favorite part. Jodi had them start out with ground-poles, then a short gymnastic, then a longer gymnastic, and finally a whole course with the gymnastic as part of it. They did phenomenal, and their horses were good sports. Kismet even picked up her right lead canter multiple times, which has been a main challenge for her/Ciarra, and Calypso didn't turn into a race-horse mid-course but kept a steady hunter-y canter throughout! 

Abby and Calypso

Abby and Calypso

Ciarra and Kismet

Ciarra and Kismet

I'm working on uploading video from the clinic to our Youtube channel, and I'll post it here once that's done. 

I couldn't be more proud of how Abby and Ciarra rode, handled themselves, and took care of their horses at the clinic–from picking up manure to congratulating the other riders, they were great sports and very mature. A big thanks goes out to the girls' families for helping to make this clinic possible, to our wonderful host Jen at River Ranch Arena (it is a beautiful and comfortable farm), and Jodi for the great experience. 

Horse Show Here We Come

Clay and I are headed to our first show of the season this evening. We'll be attempting to beat our 1-3 score from last year and debuting Second Level...and apparently we'll be doing so in high heat, humidity, and possibly thunder storms. Goody!

I'm a little concerned because we haven't had any hot weather yet this summer, so Clay actually isn't fully shed out yet and hasn't had the chance to acclimate to working in heat. I'm giving him some electrolytes today in his feed, and bringing a fan, but the stalls at this particular show are small and stuffy, and my little northern-climate horse tends to wilt in the sun. Praying for a cool breeze and enough gas in his tank to get through 2-1 with an respectable amount of energy. Luckily, he's pretty good at sweating. 

We've been training through all of Second Level for a long time now, but I still feel a little unprepared to show at this level due to my inconsistent riding schedule over the past year and my infrequent lessons with trainers. We have some rides where it all feels easy, and other rides where even just a smooth, obedient transition while staying on the outside rein is a battle. I know it's related to how much tension I'm riding with (DON'T TENSE UP YOUR LEGS, TONIA!) Clay always demands my best, or else. It makes me a better rider, and also sometimes a frustrated one ("You know what I want–even though I'm asking for it poorly–just do it!!!!") 

I ran through our tests last night briefly (I try to keep our rides before a show pretty light), and there were some, um, interesting moments of embellishment on Clay's part...

Me: At C, halt and back-up three steps. 
Clay:

And a couple times I blanked on what the next movement was, even though I've had it memorized for weeks...

I'd really like to ride these tests from memory, because my friends at the show have *so* many people to read for already and I hate asking them to add me to their list at the last minute. I didn't even try to memorize them last summer because Baby Brain was full-on destroying all my brain cells at the time. I feel a little more with-it this year, at least. 

So, here we go! Plunging into the 2017 show season for better or worse! I have no idea how we'll score and no clear perspective on whether or not we've progressed a whole lot in the last year, with limited rides and lessons, but I do know that I will have fun on my handsome golden pony who always tries his best for me, as long as I ask the way he likes. ;)