Monday, November 11, 2013

Why do we do this?

Photo: Lauren Edzenga
It is no secret that horses are humbling creatures, whether to simply be around, ride, compete, or do all of these as a career. They offer us our greatest dreams, but also deliver devastating heartbreak. Onlookers often consider horse people "crazy" for what we choose to do and endure for the sake of our passion, but to us passion is not even a grand enough word. There simply aren't words to describe the feelings of someone immersed in these animals. 

          Going through the ups and downs of this passion, and following this dream, takes a great toll on the emotions and body, but it also brings great rewards. These rewards may be large or small, and are different for every equestrian. Some of these great rewards are large victories, but many are small moments that fill your heart and bring you to life. Winning events is fabulous and encouraging, but the smaller moments leading up to that victory are what is truly important. Nailing that perfect lead change, finally getting a true extension, discovering lightness in the bridle, finding that perfect spot to every jump in your course, getting over that ditch, or through that sunken road.... these moments fuel the spark that keeps us entrenched in this dream.

Photo: Lauren Edzenga
           Despite the many setbacks we must endure to follow our dreams with horses, we become better people and better horsemen because of the nature of this lifestyle. The most important part of this lifestyle is the care and compassion for our animals. They are as much a part of who we are as family members and dearest friends. They mold and change our lives as we live them, and remind us constantly how fragile life and emotions are. So to answer the title question of why do we do it, if it is so taxing, exhausting and heart breaking? The answer is that if equestrian life is who you are, then you do it because you must. You do it because there is no other way to live than with your horses closest to your heart and first on your mind.

Photo: Lauren Edzenga

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Picking up your Pieces

Well, here I am again surprisingly close to my last blog. I have a bad habit of abandoning my blogging duties when things get so busy that my computer gathers dust in the wake. Anyhow, I find it quite ironic that my last post was about getting your "ducks in a row," as there is a vital piece missing from that blog entry. It is the nature of our sport and our horses that despite all the preparations, sometimes things can and WILL go wrong. The important thing is how to bounce back from these inevitable setbacks. If you missed the excitement of Plantation CIC last weekend, there was a large collection of horses and riders that unfortunately got to taste the footing on the cross country. I was one of those riders. After having a brilliant ride through the tough water complex in the CIC** on Sunday, Zara and I had a miscommunication that lead to a major spill on the table at #21. Luckily for both of us, as she went down I was catapulted in one direction and she rolled in the other, and neither of us faced any very major injuries. With a well planned fall season for my horses, a now separated shoulder, and question of how Zara and I will tackle our next big table, I am left with the tough work of picking up my pieces.

First on my list, and should be on anyone's, will be to let myself heal! This sounds easy... who doesn't want a few days of being a couch potato, and resting up a bum shoulder. To answer.... ME! I cannot stand being still, seeing my horses have to take vacation when they are so ready to go, and I feel so fit and game. Days off from riding are the very last thing that I want as I hope to do Fairhill International in 3 weeks. I realize that this goal seems unrealistic with my shoulder, but that is my goal none-the-less.

Next, keep the horses going without micro-managing their rides TOO much. All my horses, whether mine or a clients are on very particular programs, and to deviate from this program is like missing your only TV show that doesn't get re-aired or go online. Disastrous, to anyone that watches a TV show. I have no TV shows. Therefore, my horses must be on their programs! Unfortunately for my needs, my horses' and exerciser's welfare must be a priority, so in order to at least maintain their current situations, I will have to make due with modification.

Another difficult step in picking up my pieces will be being flexible. As much as I love my horses, when I get to be back in the tack, there's a good chance the day that I planned to jump, my arm will be trying to escape from the containment of my shoulder, as it feels it is right now. Sadly those days may fall on an important day, but I will have to stay flexible to allow myself and my horses the best possible schooling and healing.

Along with being flexible, to pick up the pieces I will have to rebuild confidence with patience. I know that I am a strong cross country rider, and that I have conquered some of the toughest advanced tracks around America. But, I also must accept that I am not super-human, and am not immune to the possibility of my own guts being shaken up from our dirt-eating party at Plantation. We will have to start small, and minimize negative experiences AND minimize mistakes if I am to accomplish my goal this fall.

Finally, and possibly most importantly, to make sure my pieces come back together in perfect order I will have to LISTEN TO MY HORSE. If we begin getting back to dressage scores and we don't feel we are together, we will have to take a step back and make sure I'm riding as well as I can be for Zara's sake. If we begin jumping and something seems majorly different in her style or mine, again, we will need to step back and evaluate what's going on. We will need to practice with super mentor Sally to help decide where the issues may be and what can fix them. And lastly, I will have to listen to Zara if we are even on those last few days schooling for Fairhill and she gives me an indication that we are not ready.

I do not undervalue how lucky I am to have a horse quick enough on her feet to at least try and land from our disaster jump. And I will not take for granted that this time our mistake was forgiven, but next time our problems may be much more serious at such a miscommunication.

These are my thoughts for the day my shoulder hurt enough that I am just getting out to the barn at 4:30pm. Resting is like torture, but I know I need it if I want my shoulder to be strong enough. Keep thinking healing thoughts fans, and we will be at Fairhill to root on my fellow riders at our tailgate spot whether or not Zara and I are running.

Check out these awesome photos of Zara from Plantation!

Stay ON!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Getting your "Ducks in a Row"

As a way to review the happenings of the last few months, I'd like to share some thoughts about training, lessoning and preparing for events and shows. Getting your ducks in a row is how we all work, train, and prepare every single day for our goals.
In your daily training for your next competition, a consistent program helps you and your horse stay on target for your upcoming goals, and keep track of previous training sessions and how to move forward in the work.  If you only manage to do a real dressage school once a week on your schedule, it is difficult a week later to keep a steady build of confidence and practice going. As for jumping, exercises need to be focused and to the point to maintain your horse's health and joints. If you jump twice a week for example, and you do grids once and course lines the other: on grid day, exercises would build upon the previous course lines school on portions that were weak. Building distances for yourself and your horse to work through with ground poles and cavaletti allow you to work together every time. For course work, you must recall what kind of canter work it took to most successfully work through the grids. This consistency and building blocks style of work keeps you on track for improvement, and also makes it fairly easy to take it back a step if things feel a little off. Remember in addition to consistent work, horses also need to understand that sometimes they are allowed to relax and enjoy. Whether this means cooling out on a nice walk outside the arena or spending a fitness day on some good winding trails instead of hills.

As many professionals do, I maintain a consistent lesson program for my own horses. This Spring and Summer, I pretty much focused on exclusively dressage lessons at Hassler Dressage since the chaos of my schedule didn't allow the time to haul up to Sally Cousins for our jump tune-ups. Since Zara wasn't competing yet anyways, this wasn't a huge issue. Anyways, every week, my actively training horses would lesson at Hassler - Skogen the dressage pony, Zara, and baby thoroughbred Geoni. Keeping in regular lessons is a vital part your competition preparations. A mentor that sees you and your horses on a consistent basis allows you to keep track of the odds and ends that may become bad habits if let go. They help to establish a plan for your ride, whether it's how to nail that leg yield, enhance the cadence and elasticity in your gaits, or stay STRAIGHT on a center-line. In addition to these points, your instructor is someone who gets to see how you and your horse flow from the ground regularly, and can help identify little gaps in not only training but also soundness. A subtle favoring of a direction, lead or balance may not translate to you on top as a possible health issue, but could be noticeable to your trainer.

When it comes to competition prep, all of the above are very important elements, but also keep your routine, your mental health, and your time management in mind. A well planned preparation night must include a pointed ride to feel ready and not over-faced or overwhelmed for the next day, plus braiding and bathing, careful packing, and a good meal before the end of the evening. Some of us also have superstitious rituals, but to each their own on that front! Your pre competing ride often depends on your horse; for example, Zara does best on a 2-a-day schedule, with the day before including dressage and a light gallop ride. I try to complete her rides earlier in the day, so she has some downtime, and I don't feel stressed with her preparations. Typically an early finish to the day of riding, followed by a dinner adventure with some friends, then a return to the barn to put in braids for the night before going home to relax. Your packing should be done without rushing to assure you don't forget anything, and leave time to double check! Your evening plans should be relaxing but stimulating -- if it's too relaxing it may allow you to dwell on the day to come. Know and practice your test, but (easier said than done, I know) don't obsess over it. If you've gotten all your ducks together and marching this far, knowing the test should not be of worry.

When you're down to the wire, and preparing to "enter at A," it is the time to show off how well you have prepared. A carefully calculated warmup, following a well planned arrival and tack up are your final steps to bringing your very best into the ring. Always remember to consider how far it is to get to the warm up, that it will take a few minutes to do bit check, and that the chaotic warm up may distract your horse. Stay focused on what you need to accomplish in your warm up to give yourself the best chance at a stellar test. Find your own area, and keep your work focused. Keep yourself breathing deep, and show off the hours, days, weeks, months, years or whatever excessive, insane amount of time you devote to your competition. Smile at that judge like you know you've got it, and make a positive impact.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Dreams do Come True, One Jump at a Time

        One of the most important traits we gain as not only horsemen, but competing horsemen, is patience and understanding that time devoted is directly related to the successes you will achieve. I have been working with a special student of mine for quite a while now, and enjoyed watching her develop as a rider and horseman. It is a great pleasure to a trainer and instructor to see a student's hard work paying off. When I met Erin and her horse Joe, they were a pair that enjoyed playing around the farm, but often feuded over a wide variety of training issues. When I say wide variety, I mean anything and everything can set this pony off, whether it was the rattle of the indoor, the wind in the corn, the look of something scary, the look of something not really scary, butterflies, a patch of grass..... well, you get the picture. Joe is spooky, bossy, and in general a bit of a jerk. He is an arabian cross pony, with a bit of a little guy complex, which means a big guy attitude. Erin was not discouraged by his behavior, small stature, and occasional distaste for work, and has stuck with him for years now. When I came upon their partnership, and took an interest in improving them, we learned a few things: this pony can JUMP... AND he can flat fancy. But he will never make either very simple to accomplish. He rides among legends in the area of spin-out refusals, and holds good status in the area of run-outs and big spooks as well. He usually prefers to carry his head as if it is a flag pole rather than a normal horse's neck.

        With a slight background on these two, their recent accomplishments would come as very impressive to anyone who met them a year or two ago. After beginning work with me, Erin set out with the goal of taking Joe to an event at some point. She spent hours in the saddle, as well as a couple spills out of the saddle, worked independently outside of lessons as well as in lessons, and used plenty of watching others to learn as much as possible. Our first goals towards her main goal were to show at some local shows and get out cross country schooling through fall and winter of 2012-2013. We got out cross country schooling a few times, and learned about how Joe would handle the atmosphere. Through the winter, she attended her first jumper shows with him at Breezy Run, winning most of her classes and earning high point award for the season. She also participated in some schooling dressage shows, both on her horse and on another horse from the barn. Come the spring, we felt ready to venture out to their first event, and chose the Fairhill Starter Trials to give it a shot.

        Last Sunday, Erin and Joe completed their first of many exciting events to come. Although dressage is not Joe's or Erin's favorite, they cooperated very well together to earn a 40.6 starting them off 3rd in their division. In the jumping, they made their first outing look easy breezing through the stadium smoothly. Erin took her time with Joe on the cross country, successfully navigating the course to end on her dressage score and hold 3rd place. More importantly than the placing, was the pure happiness and team work that took place that day, where Erin and Joe believed in each other and were both smiling throughout the day. I bet they can't wait to give their second event a try soon!!

Monday, April 8, 2013

THE SEQUEL: Controlling the Uncontrollable: What to and NOT to do when Re-starting Light Work with the Stall Rested Advanced Horse.....

Well, as you might have guessed as time has passed, Zara's workload in her rehab has started to build up! We began adding jogs, trots and even some canters as we approach her re-check date on April 15th to slowly strengthen the tendon and make sure it becomes flexible for her to start real work. I even decided to take up regular tack-walks, since my running "skillz" in the cushy indoor sand footing proved inadequate to keep pace with the big red monster. SO, without delay, here are my latest tips for how to handle a 1300lb Big Red Mare (sometimes mistaken for an orangutang, as she swings from the rafters of the barn/indoor).


1. Tack slowly, to avoid explosion...... As if she is SHOCKED that now she must wear a saddle again. Poor poor mare.

2. Bridle carefully..... because that's an excellent time to reach over to the shelf with the cookies on it.......or spin around and flee.

3. Groom in small intervals..... because Big Red horses are so itchy from blanket season, when you brush them for an extended period of time they may:
A) lean back on the cross ties into you to help you curry harder, and then "accidentally" break the cross ties;
B) lean sideways and/or move over towards you (again, to help you get that extra strength to curry adequately), and squish you into the wall;
C) fall down from ecstasy (and then discover you are not tied and flee).

4. Ride in the indoor until conditions outside are acceptable enough that there is good footing in case of sudden decision to flee or bounce or spin, good weather so no small items such as papers, ribbons, pieces of hay, etc. will fly by and terrify the advanced horse, and ideally there are no other horses outside to make things more exciting than you would like.

5. If you ride outside do it gradually..... Wind and birds and grass will need to be slowly re-introduced. Reaction will be as if never seen before.

6. Beware of hills...... because you may get stuck on them. They are an excellent reason to rear, buck, spin, or refuse to move feet in a positive direction.

7. Deer...... have become horse-eating monsters while your horse was in stall. If you see them before the Big Red, hold on, or allow a gentle turn away from the evil.

8. Walking/trotting partners..... make us less spooky, but more competitive, and result in angry ears and occasional kicks and strikes while trotting.

9. Always wear the neck strap....... ALWAYS!

Despite these highly limiting rules, I somehow look forward to getting to sit on the Monster every day, now especially that I get to ride outside in the warm weather, and get to trot for almost 20 whole minutes! (in intervals, on flat, of course)  Keep your fingers crossed for great news one week from today, maybe the Big Red will be out and about by this Fall!

Until next time, hold on to your strap!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

What NOT to do When a Big Red Advanced Horse is on Stall Rest.... A Guide for Controlling the Uncontrollable

So I hadn't really discussed it yet as public knowledge, but it's not too difficult to guess that Zara was scratched from Fairhill in October for an injury. She has a minor tendon injury that we are doing everything and anything to heal fully and get her back in action for next year. A vital step to this healing process is...... DUN Dun dun... Stall Rest and Hand Walks. Dreaded punishment to a horse that thrives on galloping and jumping out in the open. Throughout the past few months, I have gained a wealth of knowledge about the care and control of a wild trapped beast. Just in case anyone else needs to go through this, I thought I would share what I've learned so that if you must contain your wild beast, you can eliminate these mistakes from your experience.....
This list will grow as I learn more.

1. Do not walk without the chain.

 This is a fatal mistake for the wily contained beast. Even if your horse is an angel to lead most of the time, and they've never needed a chain in their life.... They do now! Fear the unchained monster, when you least expect it they will unleash their fury, and escape.

2. Master the Nose Chain, Lip Chain, and Various Wrap-Around Tactics.

Once you have made the mistake of trying to walk without the chain, you must learn which version of the chain works for well behaved horse, slightly excited horse, and wild beast. For Zara, as well behaved horse, she wears the nose chain wrapped under her chin, connected around to the same cheek as the lead is on. For excitable mare, the chain is lower on her nose. For beast of fury, lip chain with wrap under chin to opposite cheek.
          As a side note: Beware of the rage factor when you can finally control the beast - possible striking, biting and rearing.

3. Do not walk in the wind.

This mistake is especially applicable if you happen to have a barn/indoor that creaks, groans, blows, etc. Your formerly fearless cross country machine will think a small thump of something on the building is a dragon coming to take her away..... Or maybe as an excuse to fly away from your grip - either way, beware the wind!

4. In fact, do not walk in the rain... Or snow.. Or a storm of any sort.

Similar reasoning to above. The slightest noise, and the rearing, striking and bolting may commence.

5. Do not allow wind/rain/snow/storms to make noise in the barn.

If you thought your athlete was super impressive galloping out in the open, picture a similar level of impulsion and explosiveness, but in a 15 by 15 foot box. Duck and cover, preferably under the feed bucket or hay rack, if inside the stall. 

6. If you DARE tack walk, use drugs.

Or you will die.

7. Do not take your eyes off the stall door when inside.

Because super athletes are also successful Houdinis'. Apparently. You're probably better off latching the door while inside. (Beware of flying limbs at her distaste for the lack of escape opportunity.)

8. Do not take your eyes off of horse while she is on cross ties.

 Again, Houdini skills are honed with stall rest. Little-known side effect of confinement. If she doesn't know how to back out of ties, break ties, break halters, or other tactics of this nature, she probably does know how to chew through the tie. And escape.
          Side Note: Also, if you look away, she will paw, kick, spin, look behind her, and other erratic behaviors to make sure that either A, you will pay attention to her and only her, or B, she will escape.

9. Do not get distracted while wrapping legs.

They may start flying in every direction, one of which is towards your face. Surprisingly quietly.

10. Offer many rub downs, curries, brushings and head and neck scratches.

Or she will take any opportunity she finds to scratch, rub and lick you until you give in and appease her desire. Occasionally knocking you to the ground and practically rolling on you to scratch herself.