What is Living in that Rat’s Nest?

It is always amazing to me how a horse who has his own paddock with secure board fencing, a roomy stall where he prefers to spend 80% of his time, and a relatively simple lifestyle can turn his tail into the horribly knotted ball of hair in a 24 hour period.  How is this possible??  Why does he engage in such madness?  A primitive form of owner torture?  So I spent my barn time on Tuesday trying to work the rat’s nest out of Ike’s tail.  I used an ungodly amount of Cowboy Magic Detangler trying to preserve as much of the tail as possible.  I cringed as long strands drifted to the ground.  Ike casually observed my efforts with a bored look on his face.  His tail is fairly thick with coarse strands of hair, so just as I would finish working on one spot, I’d spy another.  I think I was successful, but work kept me away from the barn on Wednesday, so all I could do was cross my fingers and hope that there was enough Cowboy Magic to prohibit any re-formation in my absence…

Success! I am happy to report that Ike’s tail was tangle-free today.  Of course since I could now turn my attention to other parts of Ike’s body, I noticed that his whiskers have gone way beyond five-o’clock shadow and are approaching unkempt status.  Bad, bad horsey mom.  Should I feel shame?  [I don’t]  We aren’t going anywhere any time soon, so is it really a crime to let Ike go au naturale?  Dare I tell you that his mane is also getting rather long and desperately needs thinning?

Once the thought of mane and whisker maintenance passed and bare minimum grooming was completed, I tacked up for a ride.  As soon as we emerged from the barn, the buzzing terrorists mounted their attack.  What fresh hell is this?  I’m betting that the only pesticide that was effective against these evil creatures is now banned by the EPA for the toxic effects on an endangered species.  We made a mad dash for the mounting block and trotted off hoping to outrun the horse flies long enough to break a sweat.

Ike was a bit braced to start – he usually is after a few days off.  So this meant many walk-halt and walk-trot transitions, some half halts to get is attention, and when they failed, I resorted to knuckling down while squeezing and releasing repeatedly until I felt Ike soften in my hands.  Not something I’d do in the show ring, but decided that it was what I needed to do in that moment.  Moved on to our trot work and tried the Training Level Test 3 shallow loop.  We need to work on the bend to start and end the loop.  It is a bit abrupt at this point and I can see a judge hitting us hard for the lack of flow.  Also continued to school leg yield.  I have to be very careful that I don’t get too aggressive at this point in Ike’s work; he is narrow behind and can interfere when he gets off balance.  I am trying my best to give the correct aids and keep the correct bend so that he doesn’t lose confidence in his lateral work.

After 30 minutes, the flies starting landing on Ike and the sweat in my eyes started burning, so we opted to be weenies and be done.  Got Ike hosed down and left him munching hay in the comfort of his stall.  Got a good look at my hair in the rear view mirror as I got in the car…talk about a rat’s nest!  Where is that detangler?

Brotherly Love and other such Nonsense

Do you ever wonder what your horses talk about when you are not around?  Heck, I worry about what Cigar tells Ike when I’m standing right in front of them.  I have tried to tell Ike that it is in his best interest to NOT listen to anything Cigar tells him, but I’m pretty sure that goes in one ear and out the other.  Don’t younger siblings always want to be as cool as their older ones?

Today was dewormer day.  And at least thus far, Ike is more cooperative when it is time to administer dewormer.  Getting medication into Cigar is always an argument – much like getting carrots into my younger brother when we were little, “if you make me eat them, I will spit them out.”  I have developed a relatively successful method after many failed attempts.  I hook my right hand over Cigar’s nose while hiding what is in my left hand.  There is usually some backing up, the raising of the head and nose, and a feeble attempt to bite me.  The left hand then swiftly inserts the tube into the side of Cigar’s mouth and I plunge in the paste.  Typically I end up wearing a good third of the contents of the tube or see it fly into the shavings.  At least the dewormer paste is inexpensive.  I watched about $25 worth of Ulcergard hit the stall wall years ago.

I then received the evil eye.  I tried to make peace with a treat, but Cigar spit it out at my feet.  Awesome.  He then tried to bite Ike.  I’m feeling the love.

I waited to administer Ike’s dose until after we rode.  Call it self preservation.  [Our ride was decent.  I attempted some leg yields, but could not tell you whether or not they were acceptable for this point in our training.  I don’t have the “feel” for the correct angle and motion for the lateral movements on a green horse.  What can I say?  I’m a novice.  I’d rather admit my ignorance that flit along thinking I know it all.]  It was then Ike’s turn for his dose.  Phew, Ike chose to ignore Cigar’s advice.  He quietly stood and let me squirt the paste into his mouth.  Not a drop in the shavings or in my hair.  Score 1 for horsey mom and 0 for big brother.  I’d better enjoy the lead while I have it.

Wet Weekend Riding

The weekend is winding down.  Virginia has finally received some much-needed rain and the grass in the paddocks is attempting to make a late summer comeback.  The horses are very busy trying to eat the green shoots as soon as they emerge;  we give them hay, but you can tell that they believe that fresh grass is so much better.  Can you blame them?

When I arrived at the barn on Saturday, there was a smattering of raindrops on my windshield.  It was my hope that I would get my ride in before the rain began in earnest.  Ha!  What is it they say about the best laid plans?  Wouldn’t you know that as soon as I swung my leg over Ike that the rain became more steady.  Well I was already in the saddle, so we continued on for as long as I could see through my glasses.  The high point of the rain was that it kept the wicked horse flies away – there was much rejoicing on my part as well as Ike’s.  The rain also seemed to encourage Ike to keep his head down and steady.  We quickly worked through walk, trot, and canter.  Played a bit with leg yield.  Ike has a loooong back, so I find that my whip is a necessary tool while teaching the lateral movements.  My leg is a decent length, but sometimes not long enough to speak effectively to the hind end.  I’m finding that I have to use my whip judiciously or Ike’s response is a tad more than I expect or want.  After 30 minutes we threw in the towel.  No need to rinse the sweat off Ike, the rain already took care of that chore.

No rain while I rode this morning, but Ike and I were wet none-the-less due to the nearly 100% humidity.  I was the first one to use the arena after the rain, so it was a great opportunity to work on straight lines, circles and square turns.  We worked at the walk and trot since the footing was slick – why take a chance when there really isn’t a pressing reason to do so?  We are straighter than we used to be but you can still see where we fall to the right just before we turn left…#&$#%, hmm, the rider still needs to gain control of that outside shoulder…I bet a half halt would help that.  I bet if I did half halt, it would be a bit too late and we’d still manage to fall right.  Grr…one of these days I will master the half halt and escape half halt hell or hopefully at least end up in purgatory.

Analytical Geek and GAIGs

So, I declared to Ms. C today that my goal for 2013 is to qualify for and compete at the USDF Region 1 Great American Insurance Group Championships at Training Level.  The GAIGs are about as lofty a goal that I will set.  National acclaim or the Olympics are just not in the cards.  Countries study the war tactics of their enemy.  In business, you must know your competition in order to establish what your market share will be.  So the science geek in me decided to analyze the Region 1 GAIG results at Training Level for the past 11 years.  [For full disclosure, I have a background in biochemistry, analytical chemistry and environmental science and engineering…yeah, science geek about sums it up.]  This analysis will have no bearing on our performance, but at least I know what I’m up against as I head down this road to Lexington, VA in October 2013.

When you look at the home state of the eight top riders from 2001-2010 (I couldn’t easily find the 2011 information), 22.5% of the riders were from Virginia.  Only North Carolina had a higher percentage at 25%; New Jersey tied with Virginia and the rest were from Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Tennessee, and Florida.  Virginia riders fair well, so we have that in our favor.

From the online results from 2001-2007, I determined that the average age of the Champion horse was just shy of 9 years and the Reserve Champion horse was almost 6 years old.  The oldest horse’s age was 12 and the youngest was 4. Ike will be 5 on April 30th next year, so he will be “of age.”  Thank goodness there is no mention of the age of the rider.

I also did some calculations for the scores for the first through eighth places; I looked at the average score for each placing as well as the maximum and minimum.  Here are the averages for each of the placements:

Champion – 69.4%          Reserve Champion – 67.6%          Third – 66.5%          Fourth – 65.8%

Fifth – 65.3%                    Sixth – 64.6%                                    Seventh – 64.1%     Eighth – 63.8%

I’m sure we all look at those scores and think, “Hmm, no big deal.  I can do that in my sleep.”  But then you remember that the final score is the average of two judges who see two different angles.  That straight halt might get you an 8.5 from the judge at C, but then that pesky judge at B/E sees that trailing hind leg and nails you with a 5.0.  Drat, there goes that average plummeting downward.

And of course, I plotted the scores from each year to look for trends (to expedite insertion to the post, I took a photo of the graph rather than trying to figure out how to insert the graph from Excel):

It is interesting to note how the scores fluctuate each year – my “clever” hypothesis is that it is all based on the judges.  In 2006 the year with the lowest overall scores, Janet Brown-Foy and Anne Gribbons were two of the judges at the championship.  You’d better bring your A+++ game if you are riding centerline with them presiding.  Some years, there is a clear Champion with the champion’s score 3-4% higher than the reserve.  In other years, it is fractions of a percent that separate the placings.  There were also an amazing number of identical scores in the placings, but only in 2009 was there a tie noted for third place.  In other years, there must have been a certain score that differentiated the placings for the identical scores.

The years analyzed represent 4 different tests used to determine the champion.  Last year was the first year that Test 3 was used.  Test 4 was used for the other years, but remember that the tests are rewritten every four years.  There did not appear to be any bias from the test year.  While it might appear that the change in 2011 to Test 3 lowered scores, the average of the top 8 scores in 2011 was 64.525% which was higher than 2002 (62.525%), 2006 (62.476%), and 2008 (63.525%).   The year 2005 had the highest average for the top 8 scores at 68.99% with eighth place achieving a 67.885%.  Now that was a tough year and hopefully all those horses and riders have moved up the levels.

So there is it.  I now know what the numbers tell me, but that is really just part of the equation.  There is my health, Ike’s health, weather, time, traveling to shows, truck and trailer issues, more time, money, more money, and even more money, and a dash of good luck.  Those factors are harder to quantify and express in charts.  I guess I could chart the money spent, but let’s face it, I really don’t want to.  Guess we will just have to take that first step down the road and see where it takes us!

p.s. Ike and I attempted a ride today, but we were both so distracted by the constant buzzing of the horse flies that we abandoned our efforts after 20 minutes and fled to the safety of the barn.

The Elusive Half Halt

If you Google the term half halt, you will get 98,700,000 results.  Is that all?  One of the basic riding skills we should all master, but that is easier said than done for people like me.  Let me explain – I’m not the most coordinated person.  I did not participate in sports that required balls, unless it was necessary to pass gym class, since I lacked even rudimentary eye/hand coordination.  My mother enrolled me in ballet class hoping that it would help instill some degree of grace in my movement, but ended up calling me Grace because I had none.  The half halt requires a certain degree of coordination in order for it to be given effectively.  Squeeze legs, engage core, squeeze fingers with the correct amount of pressure, release, repeat as necessary.  Yeah, sure, just that easy.

Well as I predicted yesterday, I failed with my half halt timing today in my lesson.  We were working on square turns at the trot.  I rode three corners when I hear Ms. C ask, “How was your timing on that turn?”  Hmm, I could have tried fudging it and saying that I thought it was spot on, but I knew better.  “It was late.”  So I try again, this time with Ms. C’s direction.  It is always so easy when you have someone telling you when to do it.  Then the only thing you have to figure out is how loud that half halt needs to be for your horse to respond.  Ike and I are still working on the half halt scale.  Sometimes I have to be VERY LOUD with the half halt to affect any change – typically on Ike’s “lalalala, I can’t hear you” days.  Other times when I am that loud, Ike hears walk or halt.  Honest mistake.  We are a work in progress.

Worked on some lateral work after my half halt debacle.  Attempted shoulder fore and shoulder in.  We wavered between the two as well as being over bent and showing no bend or flexion whatsoever.  Ah, training a young horse with a big body.  While we are not confirmed in either shoulder in or shoulder fore, I am happy to report that Ike can hold the bend longer than he could 4 months ago.  Forward progress!  We then spent a short time with leg yield.  I have to report that the rider needs to be better coordinated with leg, seat, and hands to help Ike achieve better sideways movement.  When I do achieve the proper aid sequence, surprise, Ike’s movement improves.  I know, it is a shocking revelation.

The nice part of working on controlling Ike’s shoulders for the lateral movements is the improvement in his canter.  Wow, his transitions were lovely today.  We also could manage round circles…r-o-u-n-d.  It is amazing what you can do when you can control that outside shoulder.

Now if I can just duplicate the feeling on my own…

Time for Reflection

Time to take a breather from showing and spend some time just training and riding.  Well, yes, there are shows around in September, but they are either way too far away for a schooling show or they just don’t work with my schedule.  We will take this time to study our scores and try to finesse my skills to earn that extra 0.5 or 1.0 keeping us from crossing the 70th percentile at Training Level.  If all goes well, we will head back out in October ready, willing, and able to Wow the judges with our improved skill set.

Improvement will only come when Ike matures and strengthens AND the rider becomes more effective at timing her aids and remembering to half halt/half halt/half halt.  It always seems to come back to the effective half halt.  I found a post on Facebook that said, “If at first you don’t succeed…try doing what your TRAINER told you to do the first time.”  And can you guess what Ms. C tells me to do more than anything else?  You guessed it, the half halt.  We are getting ready for a circle, slight half halt to get Ike’s attention, another half halt a step before the letter and I attempt to squeeze the fingers on the inside hand just a bit more, now step in the direction of the circle, and “you were too late with your half halt!!!”  What?  Sigh.  So, again, Ike cannot be blamed for not properly bending as we feed off onto that circle.  His rider seems to be a day late and a dollar short on a regular basis.

Ms. C tells me that learning the timing of the aids is a process.  It comes with practice, practice and more practice.  You can be told when to do it and read every book on when to give the half halt, but you only become proficient in the timing with riding and repetition.  The true test comes when you try to do it without your trainer shouting what aids you should be giving.  It is obvious that I still have some practicing to do.  Can I put some of the blame on Ike since he is still learning?  That would be a cop-out on my part, so I shall not do that to my boy.  He is such a good sport and except for those rare occasions when he is testing the waters, he really does try to understand what I am asking.

Tomorrow afternoon is my weekly lesson and in the back of my mind will be the words, “Half halt.”

Pretty in Pink

Another schooling show is behind us and Ike again continues to try his best.  We came home with two 5th place ribbons for our Training 1 and Training 2 tests.  This was a unique show because all the riders showing were grouped by their Virginia Dressage Association Chapter affiliation, their scores averaged, and then the chapters were placed.  I’m happy to report that my chapter placed second.  We have a small but talented group of riders and we all work hard to get the best out of ourselves and our horses.

Some might say that Ike and I should have done the Intro tests to pull higher scores to help the chapter, but I was wooed by our Training Levels scores at our last show.  I know good and well that we are still not confirmed with our canter transitions and our connection is not always solid.  The only way to improve is to go out there and try and try again.

Warm up was challenging.  Ms. C noted that Ike demonstrated his Hackney genes as he fired up in the warm up arena.  To try to achieve some focus and relaxation, Ike walked a circle around Ms. C for a good 20 minutes.  I finally whispered for a trot transition.  Ike attempted to listen, but again I had to down transition to dial down the energy.  We were lucky that a young rider friend was in warm up with her 20+ year old mount who had the “been there done that” attitude.  She kindly let Ike walk around the arena with Tyrone as a buddy.  We might have to hire them to come to all shows with us.  Ike was finally able to focus and warm up could proceed to trot and canter.

Our first test was Training 1.  This was the test where I wish we could drop our highest and lowest scores and average what remains…everything was spot on until it was time for our right lead canter.  Just as we started our circle at A, Ike was distracted by something/someone/a swallowtail butterfly.  That distraction caused him to shift his weight to the outside.  Try as I might I could not get him refocused or rebalanced.  The wrong lead.  Drat!  Down transition and try again.  Cross cantering.  %@##. One more down transition.  We got the right lead for maybe 3 strides.  Too little, too late.  We did recover enough to nail our centerline.  When we got our test back, there in print was our “2” for the transition and a “3” for the half circle.  Sigh, that hurt our bottom line.  61.667%.  If we try to focus on the good, Ike was spot on with everything else.  Even the judge made a final comment that things will get better once he develops more strength and can better engage the hind legs.

Time for our second test.  Deep breath.  I opted to carry the whip in my left hand in hopes to help with the right lead, but also knowing that it might backfire and cause problems with the other parts of the test.  The bell rang, so off we went down centerline with whip in hand.  Was this a brilliant test?  No.  That test was ridden by the winner of the class who got a 77% – I saw part of the ride and they were that good. Did I push to get that “8” trot?  No.  But we did nail both our canter transitions and the judge rewarded those with 7’s.  Final score was a 66.4%.

So why aren’t there any photos from yesterday?  Welllll, that would be because we forgot the camera.  Luckily, Pics of You were present and have already posted their photos at http://www.picsofyou.com/store/index.php?do=photocart&viewGallery=18413#page=1.  They were kind enough to edit out the right lead canter fiasco.

Big man earned his day off today and enjoyed a handful of mints from his appreciative owner.  His newest ribbons are proudly hanging with all his others.

Dressage Rings, Stone Dust, and Straight Lines

Tomorrow is our next dressage schooling show, and that means that today was the day to set up the dressage ring and complete all the other last-minute details for the arrival of the competitors.  I volunteered to help with the ring set up.  Why?  Because I’m not right in the head.  I also fit in a stop at a local rescue to drop off donations, a last-minute tune up ride, some limited grooming, and trailer loading before it was time to convene at the show grounds.  There were six of us plus the show manager to get the task done.  It seems so deceptively simple.  It is after all just a rectangle constructed of pre-formed plastic pylons and pre-cut rails.  (Thank goodness the days of the chain rings have gone the way of the dodo bird.)

So I just have to ask, how come in this day and age when technology can remotely start cars and keep us connected with friends and family in an instant, setting up a dressage ring is still a royal PITA?  I mean really, it is a physical and dirty task completed using tools that were available to our ancestors.  A hammer and metal spike are driven into the ground, a premeasured wire is walked to the other end of the arena, and then a string is pulled down the length of the wire.  The process is repeated on diagonals and the other three sides to complete the measurements.  Where is the technology to make this all happen in an instant?  Where are the frickin’ laser beams?

Then the fun starts for unloading the arena off the trailer.  By this time the volunteers are all sweaty so the stone dust crust from the rails decides that it would rather stick to arms and clothing.  Nice.  You next walk behind the trailer unloading the pylons and rails, and then you walk around again fitting the pieces together.  The letters are placed (All King Edward’s Horses Can Move Big Fences and don’t forget to RSVP).  Phew, you think you are done, but you are wrong…using the very sophisticated “eye-ball method,” you look down the long sides to check for straightness.  Even with that piece of string as your guide, it is amazing how crooked that line can be.  You then walk down the side again while someone at the corner gives you hand signals directing which way to push the pylons.  Again, so very high-tech and exact.  Is this how it goes at big events like the Olympics or do they have a faster, cleaner way to accomplish the task?  I’d love to know any secrets to successful ring setup that folks want to share.

Time to head to bed – early day down centerline tomorrow.

Float Like a Butterfly, Run Like a Fool

So today I hauled my sorry butt back into the saddle after tending to family matters the past three days.  My dear mother-in-law fractured her wrist last week and required surgery;  she is an awesome lady who comes to the dressage shows to support Ike and I in our endeavors.  She also loves to listen to the crazy barn tales and gracefully allows me to tramp through her house in my dirty riding attire (she has the whitest carpets and I fear that someday I shall cause some non-removable stain).  My husband and I have been helping her with daily tasks made difficult by the cast on her dominant hand.  She could teach a lot of people how to be a gracious patient.

We also celebrated my husband’s birthday yesterday.  He is the unsung hero of my life.  He gets all the credit for reintroducing horses to my life; he gave me riding lessons for Christmas 2004 and it was all downhill from there.  My Thoroughbred joined the family the following Christmas.  Three trailers, countless riding lessons,thousands of dollars, a trip to Florida, and here we are.  A two-horse family.  None of this would be possible without the support and love from my husband.  The poor man has been bitten, dragged and pulled off his feet (thank you Cigar), but god help him, he still drives the truck and takes us to our dressage shows.  He patiently waits for our scores and is always the first to congratulate or console me when I see the score.  Luckily recent history has been more congratulatory…but I know the day will come again when he will be the shoulder I cry on, but I digress…

We were back in the saddle again today as well as under the close scrutiny of the divine Ms. C.  Lesson day!  Boy did we need it after three days of rest.  Ike and I were lack luster to start.  There was no pop, no snap, no va-va-voom.  Were we awful?  No.  Did he run like a banshee for no apparent reason?  No.  Ike felt lazy.  Perhaps I was a bit lazy with my aids.  Ms. C fussed at my lack of preparation for circles, “Where was your half halt??  You were too little, too late.”  Ugh.  Maybe three days off is too much for both of us.  We started the lesson with no whip to see how Ike would act.  He was a perfect gentleman.  Ms. C then handed me the whip to see if there was a difference.  There was, but in a good way.  Ike perked up and we finally started clicking.  We rode elements of our Training Level tests.  Most of our errors were mine.  I know, big surprise there.  Centerlines were solid, but our halts were slightly crooked.  Ike was not through and over his back – that lack of connection was evident to Ms. C.  I bet no judge is going to miss that issue either.

Ike struggled a bit with his canter transitions.  Hmm, perhaps if his rider kept him straighter between the reins with the weight shifted to the correct hind leg we’d struggle less.  Ms. C had us down transition and work on moving Ike’s shoulders from side to side starting from the halt.  Ah, by doing so we also shifted the weight to the inside hind.  Light bulb moment for the rider!!  That better allows the outside hind to take that first step of the canter…The lightbulb might be on, but that doesn’t mean that I will be successful shifting Ike’s mass as we cruise along at the trot.

Our only big bobble today came at the end of our lesson.  We were on one of our final canter circles when I felt Ike’s right shoulder slam into my thigh.  We kept our wits about us and pressed on at the canter.  What the ___?!  Why did that happen?  It was then I heard Ms. C telling me that it was a butterfly on the summer phlox.  A what?  A swallowtail butterfly caused unmitigated panic in a 1200 pound horse?  Please let the show grounds be butterfly-free on Saturday.

Great ride times for Saturday – 9:01 and 10:12.  Keep fingers and hooves crossed that we bring our A game!

Why I Run and Where is Mom

                                                           Self Portrait by Ike

Hi Everyone,

I have yet again taken over Mom’s blog.  She has had a really busy week at work and with family obligations, so she hasn’t had a lot of spare time to ride.  It really doesn’t bother me all that much that she hasn’t been riding, but I do miss seeing her since she always takes the time to talk to me and scratch my neck.  She worries that we haven’t had time to practice our dressage tests for the show this weekend.  I already know what to do, so I don’t exactly know why she is all uptight.  Afterall, we are doing the same tests that we did at the Bayberry show.  I’m pretty sure that we did well since Mom had a big smile on her face when she saw my scores and the ribbons.  She is so easily pleased – makes my life easy as well.

While I have control of the blog, I also need to set the record straight on why I have been taking off while Mom is riding me.  I know what she told you, but Mom is wrong.  I have just been trying to show her my technique for running away from the big flies.  People call them horse flies, but I think that is a bit of a misnomer.  We horses do NOT like them at all.  Those flying tanks are not my friends.  They should be called anti-horse flies since they seem dead set against me enjoying my time outdoors.  Those flies know exactly where to land so that I can not swat them away with my tail or brush them off with my mouth.  I have 4 very itchy bites in the middle of my back that just won’t go away.  Mom puts medicine on them, but they still hurt like the dickens.  My friends and I try to buck them off, but those flies are pretty good riders and have the ability to hold on for dear life.  We also try rolling while they are clinging to us, but they are quick and always seem to avoid getting squished.  I have resorted to running as fast as I can to get away from them.  I’ve told Mom that if she can stay on my back that I will save her from the flies as well.  If she falls off, then she is on her own.

I did remind Mom that if she’d given me a screened in paddock for my one year anniversary present then I wouldn’t have to resort to running.  She mumbled something about money, but I’m not sure what money is or why it should matter.  My brother told me that he tried eating money one time (a flat, grass-green thing with the number 50 on it), but he was unimpressed with the texture and flavor.  I say isn’t my comfort and well being more important than money?  Perhaps I can start a petition to get my screens…anyone want to sign it?