Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Leaps & Bounds

The day before yesterday, I rode Shazaam in the round pen like I do every Sunday while my husband rides Maximus. I have been trotting him around and feeling very balanced and confident so I asked him for a canter and...we did it!! It wasn't very pretty at first but as I forced myself to relax it got much, much better. So I decided that I needed mileage at the canter and rode again yesterday. My transitions were smooth and my butt didn't come out of the saddle even a single inch.

Shazaam may be my horsey soul mate and while I believe my little fugly pony is as perfect as they come I'd be lying if I said he didn't feel like riding a jack hammer. To me this is a plus! My lower back has to be super elastic and that actually eliminates my back pain.

I've also started riding him around the ranch which really brings his energy up. I'm starting to be comfortable with this being his "normal" state of mind and have much less trouble keeping him thinking and staying relaxed myself. I don't kid myself, he is still the kind of horse who will invent reasons to explode and bolt but I'm becoming confident in my ability to manage him and I'm sticking to my plan gradually increasing the area where I ride him. This whole journey from mind numbing fear to confident competance is now 3 1/2 years in the making.

I know the entire thing is my fault for owning a horse I couldn't even get near with a brush or he'd mentally unravel instead of a steady old trail horse but to be honest, I'm getting an invaluable education through this and I would not trade what horses have taught me for all the peaceful trail walkie rides in the world.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Alright so this is laughable...

This week I rode Danielle's horse "Busta Move" AKA Buster. He was a very good boy for me.

Today I went on a trail ride on a 2 1/2 year old mustang filly who is not exactly balanced yet and trips quite a bit. We crossed a major ROAD!!! She did green baby stuff like not know how to get off the road by going up and over a berm. I helped her along with her balance and with the berm thing.

I need to just ride my own darned horses and learn to trust them.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Woo Hoo!

Yesterday I was offered an opportunity to ride a lovely well trained 20 year old Arabian gelding. He was so balanced and easy to ride that I was cantering him around in no time at all. I don't think I was on him longer than 20 minutes total.

It was an amazing gift. My first canter in 13 years where my fear was absent. I feel that my first canter on Shazzaam is no longer a far away goal or an unrealistic dream. I CAN ride versus that wierd place where I had to actually say that "I can't ride-yet".

Today I'm filled with hope, joy, gratitude, and humility.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Why do I Procrastinate?

It's been a long time since I've blogged anything and there is probably too much to update here. I haven't stopped riding. In fact, I'm getting to the point I am confident enough to handle myself horseback under more conditions than I thought possible in so short a time. My leg is becoming solid and strong and I feel that because of this, I'm no longer operating from a position of just keeping myself alive. I still procrastinate when it comes to riding and this I simply don't understand. Every time I get on Shazaam lately, the ride ends with me feeling like I could stay on him forever and yet I still put off getting back on. The closest thing I've had to any kind of a scare was when I was riding Maximus in the arena and he decided to squirt forward. I shut him down in one stride and my butt never left the saddle. I was unsettled for a half a second but it wasn't all that scary.

In fact the more these little things happen and I stay in control and on the horse, the more my confidence grows. Or so I believe.

My biggest concern lately has been handling Maximus on the ground, not so much riding him. You see, Maximus is a bottle raised thoroughbred so he is a bold and brave horse who lacks fear. This is something of a double edged sword though. He has to be constantly reminded that I'm not a horse and not his playmate or his play toy. I've totally accepted that he cannot be allowed to sniff or put his nose on me and that he must follow all the rules for leading and longing precisely and that he has to have a job standing in the corner at feeding time until he is released with a verbal cue to eat.

When I got him last year, he had food aggression issues that I worked though. As long as I fed him and isolated him at feeding time, he showed no aggression. I got him to where I could feed him oustide an arena during lessons and as long as I stayed with him, he did not attack the horse and rider in the arena.

The most recent problem started after I moved my horses to a barn close to home. Unlike other stables here, this barn does not allow any two paddocks to share a fence. There are alleys between every pen which works great for a horse like Maximus because no other horse can put their head in his corral at feeding time. This is a self care facility and my neighbors come to feed their horses twice a day like I do. Maximus started a game with them where he would rush the fence with his ears pinned when they walked by with feed for their horses. Well, these people are newbies with 3 green mares who are always trying to kill them so guess how they thought they could get Maximus to stop making ugly faces at them? They gave him some of whatever they had when he rushed them with his ears pinned!

Less than a month later I had a bonafide monster on my hands who reared at me if I passed him without feeding him or if heaven forbid, I dare to enter his paddock without food. So I got to the bottom of what the neighbors were doing and nicely asked them to ignore my horse altogether and started my strict rules about feeding. I seriously thought about making pony BBQ... Well, not really but I was not happy about the severity of the situation or the steps I'd have to take to rectify it.

He is doing much better although he still has some ideas about trying to be dominant with me. For instance today I did a little longing with him through a ditch and when he didn't want to do as I asked (go forward) he shakes his head and shows me his hip. So we'll be working on that this week.

Funny thing though,I'm not afraid of him. Maybe should be and I'm just not smart enough to know it.

I came to a realization with my horses today: The mustangs finally trust me now that I'm much more emotionally fit with them- the calm in the storm for them so to speak. Maximus never really trusted me per se. He simply had enough self confidence coupled with no innate fear of humans that my lack of emotional fitness didn't figure into the equation for him. So I suppose the only question that remains is: can I be enough of a leader to win the respect of such a bold and fearless horse? This is a new one for me.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Starting over and over again.

So I was off of my lessons for almost 3 weeks because the arena got washed out. I did go on 2 trail rides, on Trickster, during that time. Like everything else, the more I do it, the less anxious I am about it.

Also as usual,after 3 weeks off of not working at what I'm weak on, it took all lesson for me to finally get things going well on my good side. My bad side never did come together.

So I've put off riding Shazaam long enough. Now that Maximus is on stall rest for a good long while, I'm forced to ride Shazaam.

In a way, this is a good thing because Shazaam needs consistent work with the same rider to be all that he can be. That rider may as well be me since that is ultimately my goal.

The thing about Shazaam is that he has a ton of energy or spirit (whatever you want to call it) and he spooks (um flips out) in novel situations and cannot take any kind of mental pressure or he explodes.

So if Shazaam has never seen a particular saddle on a new fence, it's a problem for him. Even if he has seen me carry that saddle everywhere- and as long as I present a familiar visual profile for him then he is fine. Why bother with such an animal? I don't have any other reason than that it will make me better with horses in general. With consistent work,experience,and age, he is settling down but it's taking years.

The thing about Shazaam is that he's the one that has hurt me in the past so when he gets his blood up, it's a challenge for me not to get my adrenaline/fear up as well. If I let it happen, his monster and mine feed off each other. This is the intangible thing in me that I have to conquer to be successful.

So here's the story that goes with this part of my journey:

The day before yesterday, I decided that he had plenty of time to settle into his new barn and to saddle him up and see just how far we got with riding. I put my saddle on the round pen fence and started free longing Shazaam and he immediately started cutting through the pen to avoid getting too close to the saddle on the fence. I thought my normal thoughts about my overly dramatic horse and put him on line and longed him between me and the saddle when someone approached me and asked me if I was going to be using the pen for a while to which I replied "yes". Then this person proceeded to make remarks about my horse "playing games" with me to which I replied "Nope. This is an honest response." Then they proceeded with "Well, I respect your opinion but". I stopped to look over and see his mare tied and setting back for all she was worth. I tuned out everything else they had to say and thought, "Dude, you should go teach your poor mare about giving to pressure" and refocused myself on Shazaam.

Then he asks if Shazaam has ever been saddled before and I answer "yes, he's been ridden quite a bit". So he asks how Shazaam would react if I walked up to him holding the saddle and I answer, well he'll move around some but he pretty much stands for saddling. So I saddle him and he doesn't even bother to take the token half sidestep away before deciding to stand. Meanwhile, the guy is telling my horse, "Good Boy!" Which, to my horse, "Good Boy!" is a secondary re-enforcer to a clicker (which is a secondary re-enforcer to a TREAT) so thank GOD, Shazaam ignored it because I don't really use clicker training to teach behaviors that have to do with riding.

So I thought, "Dear God, rip my tongue out of my head if I EVER give anyone any unsolicited advise ever again!" because I have indeed said to 2 people unsolicited advise like "Slamming the bit in your horse's face is just teaching her to throw her head" and to my best friend, "Your horse needs to gain about 150 lbs so you might actually want to feed your horse instead of letting your non-horsey boyfriend do it."

While I can't promise to hold my tongue with my best friend, I do promise to mind my own business with everybody else- even if they are in imminent danger. I can call 911after the fact. This is my first experience at a public boarding facility so I'm learning about barn life more quickly than I want to.

Back to the issue of my fear:

So I put my foot in the stirrup and stood up in it. Shazaam started hopping up in the front and I thought he might settle for a second but then started running sideways so I stepped off but held my inside rein lightly and went with him. He stopped and followed me back to the center of the pen so I stood there with him, putting weight in the stirrup with my hand, then foot, then up and down. He was fine with it so I got on and rode him at a walk doing circles and patterns and then we were done.

The victory was that he got upset but I held it together and made good decisions instead of freezing up. That opens up opportunities for more progress!

A word on animal behavior and humans relationships with animals: (even though nobody will likely read this)

Every day in my work I find "pet parents" who anthropomorphize their animals. That is: give human attributes to animals. They allow their dogs to own chairs or even whole rooms by biting the humans to establish territory. This gentleman who was so nice to offer me advise claiming that his horse and mine "play games" with us is attributing to the horse, the human attributes of being false and having the capacity for subterfuge. While I believe that horses can learn to offer specific behaviors to make people go away, they don't plot our demise over breakfast. Deal with the specific behavior offered but don't give your horse villainous attributes or you will feel negative emotions about your horse while you deal with them and likely act emotionally. Which is about as unfair to the animal as it gets.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Ok, So I'm a Control Freak.

My last lesson was awesome and so was the one the week before that. Two weeks ago I had a lesson riding bareback and at the walk. By the end of it, I felt solid and comfortable enough to trot. But! I didn't. I know enough to save that for another day and to learn to manage it a couple of strides at a time until I can feel comfortable expanding the time I can post the trot bareback.

Last week was forward seat work at the trot and over ground poles! I started out with my mind freezing up because I felt totally out of control in 2 point performing a crest release. OK I was totally not in control. Trickster in his wise way let me know that if I quit thinking and directing him that he was just going to find the rail and wait until I told him which way to go. Ok so that started my brain again. Well, I found that I started freezing up when he started rushing the poles (event horse gets happy when presented with an obstacle) and my instructor slapped me with a "why aren't you changing directions every lap?" "Uh, I did change once!" "Hey! that means my brain worked once!".

So what that really means to me is that a loss of control (or the feeling thereof) is a major trigger of fear for me. By the end of the lesson, I felt great! I felt better about allowing him to do his job and staying out of the way and that it is still a part of the dialogue between horse and rider and not a drop in communication (rendering me powerless and held hostage).

I have to say that my instructor is amazing about pushing me, but not losing her mind if I just can't do it. She softens and asks again. Likely the best way to work with a horse as well. She doesn't give up on me as long as I'm giving it all I've got too. That is saying something because I'm not the kind of student who is ever going to make her famous. I try my guts out every lesson. I want to ride well/competantly and with as little fear as necessary more than I've ever wanted anything in my life but at my age I'll never be Grand Prix material. Yet, it seems like she's as committed to my goals as I am and even if it's a fairly long road.

I know there aren't alot of instructors with the time of day for approaching middle aged (read "old") chicken pony riders but the ones that will invest their time in us are worth their weight in gold.

Here are pictures of my ponies doing silly useless things: The first is Shazaam. I know he doesn't tuck his legs enough to have any decent form jumping. This was about obedience and just a little something different to do. The second picture is Phantom bowing. The guy is my trainer, Rick Bates.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Easy Does It, I Suppose

I've made steady progress this past month. I haven't really been able to blog it because my husband is home from Iraq and I don't get much time on the computer anymore. Between riding, working and doing things like cooking and cleaning after more than just myself- there isn't any time left over.

I've been trying to ride at least twice a week with at least one of those rides on my instructor's horse (a lovely, flashy bay OTTB named Trickster who prefers to Hunt or Event when he isn't bringing home the bacon teaching wee people or old chicken pony riders). Trickster is a pretty amazing horse to have as a teacher. He always knows when to fill in for you and when to make you work.

As a consequence, working with my instructor and Trickster is an ebb and flow of taking me outside my comfort zone and bringing me right back in it. All of this really makes a difference in conquoring fear. My lessons are increasing my strength, most importantly in my core, but also my legs and back. I also follow a work out routine that focuses on core and back strength as well as overall flexibility. I found that when I started loosening up some tightness in my hips and legs that posting at the trot became easier.

I'm reading a book titled Balance In Movement by Suzanne Von Dietze and it's quite good! I now understand that I naturally manage my body differently now than as an adolescent because my body was proportionately very different and therefore my ability to balance has changed. So level of fitness aside, I need to learn how to manage a different body today from an athletic standpoint. I was extremely athletic until my early twenties but I continued to grow and change until about age 27 (for one thing my bust gained 2 cup sizes as is normal in my family). If I tried to take up any of the sports I played daily like volleyball or softball or track, I'd have to relearn how to manage my body. This means that I actually have to think about how my body works and how my thorax lines up in order to develop the motor skills necessary for successful riding. This to me is a fascinating concept that I wish I'd known more about before I tried to start back riding again.

So where am I? I feel comfortable at the rising trot and my body braces up less and less often. My walk/trot,trot/walk transitions are getting better and all these transitions will have me riding the sitting trot in no time. I am becoming comfortable with the process of losing and regaining my balance. I am actually capable of maintaining impulsion at the rising trot, at least for a little while.

Make no mistake I still feel fear, but I don't allow myself to feel kernels of fear for so long that they grow. For example, when I started trot work, I might only trot (jog really) for 3 strides and then walk again. When 3 strides got boring, I found myself going 5 strides at the trot then walk again. It's fine to procrastinate between asking for trot as long as you want because starting and stopping is hard on the horse I think. I am also fine going to the left and really bad going to the right as far as physical weakness/strength goes so I make sure that however many repetitions I go to the left, I go to the right. This forces me to work my bad side to become more symmetrical. It's better for the horse too.
My fear is kicking in at the faster, working trot now and the jog doesn't phase me any more. Pretty soon, the working trot will be a piece of cake too. It's just a matter of riding it long enough to feel mildly uncomfortable and then back off that stimulus.

My instructor laughs when I stop trotting right in the middle of her "big push" and tell her, "wait! I'm having an adreneline rush!" -but what a gem she is that she understands that even if she can't concieve of having an adreneline rush herself at the trot. I'm guessing that she doesn't realize that my adreneline rushes are born out of fear that teeters on panic. Maybe she does. I have found that some "rush seekers" don't understand that for some people, the "rush" isn't a great feeling but instead is a very bad feeling.

I have to say that riding a few weeks in a forward seat has really improved my dressage seat! I can see the benefits of riding in a forward seat on a regular basis now.

On a very sad note, almost 3 weeks ago, Maximus came up lame on his right hind. The farrier said he felt some sensitivity in the superficial flexor tendon. So after about 10 days of light bute and rest I cannot detect any lameness at the walk and I'll probably wait another week before I ask for a trot. So I've been working Shazaam primarily and Maximus works himself up into a full snit when he isn't the one to go work. I mean a snit as in, bucking, farting, head tossing, etc. So yes he throws a fit but I won't ask for a trot while free-longing to check for lameness. I can't hand walk Maximus either because he wants to act like an idiot and spook at bunnies- ie. he's hot from being cooped up in his 30 X 72 paddock.

On a very happy note, I bought a used Frank Baines Enduro saddle! It has lovely WIDE panels and I'm so excited that I have a nice piece of equipment that will take great care of my horses' backs, especially paired with my Thinline sheepskin 1/2 pad.

I have no new pictures to share so how about a Maximus baby pic?

Monday, May 19, 2008

My Happy Place?

So...here is how I've handled my fear. Starting 2 years ago, I began with baby steps. If I started feeling nervous while tacking up, I just tacked up and untacked my horse. I did that over and over again until tacking up brought no sensation to me. Then I put my foot in the stirrup and if that made me feel anxious, I took out my foot and I then spent however long it took tacking up and puting my foot in the stirrup until I felt nothing. Then I got up and down off the horse for as long as that took.

Believe it or not, I did that on my rather spooky horse, Shazaam. Then we'd go for a sedate walk around the round pen. I already knew that this particular horse had a horrible trot and my new Quiet TB Maximus had a decent trot so when it came time for me to re-learn to trot, I chose him for the job. I did do some trotting on Shazaam and found that I immediately tensed up and while Shazaam put up with my tense body, Maximus has the quality of being naturally tolerant of people and their blunders.

So I progressed to trotting in a larger arena on Maximus and becoming relaxed about it. It's important to understand that I have always had the ability to ride the trot from about age 6 but I find fear paralyzes a person and nullifies training.

I found that when I got on a horse, it took me between 10-20 minutes to relax and the more a rode, the less time it took.

On the last day that I had my horses at the training barn, the trainer insisted I get on Phantom in the round pen before I took my horses home. I had some minor apprehension about this but it went away as I walked my little guy around at the walk. He was a bit stiff necked but the trainer was of the opinion that if I ignored the behavior, that it would go away with time. Then the trainer instructed me to trot my horse. I squeezed gently and I don't think anyone really knows what I did wrong but Phantom took off in a blind panic in the round pen.

I tried within the first couple of strides to turn him but no luck. I heard the trainer tell me to sit up and not think about anything but riding the horse. So I did. He tripped at speed and I leaned back a bit to help him recover his feet. He ran another 2 laps around before he calmed enough to realize that I was giving him a rein cue- he tipped his nose and stepped under himself in the rear and my wild ride came to an end.

I *think* I squeezed him too long. I was waiting for a trot, preparing to go with him and it never came. I think I was a little apprehensive and when he took off, the fear overrode my body and I had to wait longer than anyone would like for my brain to kick in so I could breathe and relax my seat. After I relaxed, I sat fine and could easily pick up lost stirrups.

There was a BBQ going on at the barn (right outside the round pen!)so I had many many spectators! They all applauded me and said I sat that ride like a Pro! Then I was offered a stiff drink. I was mortified, and went off to ride my trusty calm TB Maximus. I trotted him in the arena and thought for sure that cantering him might even be fun...but I didn't.

So I moved all my horses closer to home after training. Now I have to ride alone- which is scary. I have 3 days a week off to work them and I can work one horse a day during the work week which means they get worked 4 days a week on average.

Since I moved my horses and gave them time to acclimate to their new place and new routine, I find I have regressed in some of my fears. They get less work and less turnout (although I really try to make sure they get as much as I can give them) and so they are a tad hotter than I like. Well, not the TB, hot for him is looking half animated at the trot. If he is excited to leave his corral and actually picks up his feet, that's something.

I know how to move forward again from here with my fear and it probably won't take me as long to get back to where I was as long as I don't do anything stupid to wreck my confidence.

My riding instructor gets back from her month off on vacation in another week or so and then I'll have an appointment with a person to ride and home work which will give me the motivation I need to push and expand my confort zones.

Here is me riding Phantom just before he bolted blindly:


Here is me riding Maximus afterward- I look ok even though I never took that drink!:

Fear Itself

I've been reading Fugly Horse of the Day's blog on starting her Very Large Colt and the personal fears and anxieties she is dealing with and while I'd love to participate in the discussion, I think I have some pretty big problems myself that need to be journaled- for my own records. If somewhere along the way, my experiences help someone else or just let them know they aren't alone then that's good too.

I've loved horses since I was a small child and I rode fearlessly from about age 6 to about age 25. I took lessons at age 6 in New Orleans and then again at age 14 in Madrid Spain. Of course in Europe is where I had my stirrups and reins taken away from me to focus on my seat.

I'd never consider myself any kind of expert but I seemed to get along with most horses well. As a kid, I'd had my share of coming off and riding horses who would shy hard or bolt. I mention this because the point is that I knew before I bought my first horse at age 35 the things that horses can do. Falling off didn't scare me much more than diving to the floor to get a volley ball up in the air did. Riding a bolting horse is scary to me but intellectually I know that any horse can bolt and maintaining control and being proactive is the best bet when handling a bolter.

I hadn't ridden nearly as many horses as Fugly though so I got help from a knowledgable horse person when I got my first horse. I ended up with a wild mustang who was supposedly tame and greenbroke. With some work, he should be perfect for me within 4 months. (Are you laughing your ass off yet?)

Turns out he was fairly wild with very little handling, just enough to mess him up but good. So I bargained on a year's worth of professional training but I couldn't find any reputable trainer to take my rank mustang on. So I learned to train my own horse and when he was tame, quiet beautifully light, and responsive on the ground, I successfully hired someone to start him. After he had about 20 rides, I got on, experienced equipment failure, and didn't make it for 8 seconds. I found out that my horse KNOWS how to buck. I got back on and rode him for a few minutes and then went to the ER because I could not bear weight on my left leg after landing on my lower back.

I tell about this accident because this is the one that messed me up as a rider and instilled the deep fear I have. The kind of fear that overrides my body and curls me into a fetal position and stiffens my back and seat. The kind of fear that makes me hold my breath when I'm tacking up my horse.

My fear has become irrational in ways. I have never had a problem with picking up back feet and now for some reason I do.

I've been living with this fear and working daily to over come it for the past 2 years and I've made alot of progress (for me). I own 3 horses now- my original horse, Shazaam- another mustang I adopted as a yearling, Phantom- and a super quiet TB named Maximus.

Phantom is pretty quiet and now at age 3, he has 90 days pro training on him but I've decided that he needs to have time off and just be a horse. 6 days a week for 90 days was good for him but I don't feel he is mentally mature enough for the work. What's done is done, but I wish I'd waited another year to start him because by the end of his training time, he was enjoying trail riding but was becoming burnt out on work.

When I got the Super Quiet TB, Maximus, I sent him off for 2 months just to make sure he got the trail miles he needed to be experienced over the unique desert terrain I live in, complete with all the dead cars and kitchen sinks that scare horses out on the trail.

I did all this at the advise of the pros and I have never spared any expense when it came to good training. I looked high an low for dead broke, easy horses and I test rode horses advertised as such and rode through spooking and bolting through a residential neighborhood on one of them. I came to the conclusion that true blue good horses just aren't sold so I went about finding 2 horses with the right even psychological make-ups that with training and experience would become the horses I needed.

These are the characters in my own personal play: