All Atwitter

I feel like a giant jangling bundle of nerves today. Because…

I’m getting a horse vetted tomorrow afternoon. It’s not one of the ones I’ve already written about on here.

I don’t want to say much more about it in case he fails, as I will be mucho sad in that case and am convinced I will jinx it by being too excited.

Oh my god.

That is all.

Horse I Have Loved: Lucky

I spent Saturday in Montreal trying horses at my former trainer’s barn (more on that soon) and stayed the night at my parents’, where I decided to do some decluttering of my old bedroom. I came across this:

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A plaque I won for at the 2010 award banquet for our regional show circuit, for being Adult Hunter Champion for the season with Lucky Penny, a horse I campaigned for his adult-beginner owner. Digging further into the box, I found my 3rd-place plaque for that year’s open working hunter division, as well as the prize for a Medal I had won that year, and my qualification certificate for the 2010 provincial finals and a 3rd-place ribbon from finals. On paper, Lucky definitely brought me my most successful show season ever – however, he also left me with some deep-seated fears and accompanying bad habits that remain with me to this day. Suffice it to say, it was a year of highs and lows.

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Lucky’s owner had bought him to be her 2’9 horse; he had been around the circuit for a while, both on the regionals and at the As. He was the kind of horse that broke your heart: equally capable of being the winner, or getting stopped out on the first jump. He cycled through a few different riders, and I suspect found himself in a some rough situations, as by the time he got to our barn he was deeply suspicious of people. He was quite simply too much horse for his current owner, who doted on him but needed a confidence-builder, which he emphatically was not.

One day she came to me and asked me to try him. When my trainer heard about this, she told me bluntly that he wasn’t my type of ride. I had had issues with a stopper the previous summer, and Lucky needed a very accurate but light touch. Determined to prove her wrong, I took a lesson on him, and to everyone’s surprise, he went quite well. His owner suggested I take him to a horse show so she could come watch him go.

Although my trainer tried to convince me to do Lucky in the Modified 2’9, my pride wouldn’t let me so I entered him in the Adults (ahh, the folly of youth.) He had schooled well the day before, but my trainer warned me that that was often the case; it didn’t mean he wouldn’t shut down the minute he entered the ring for his class. I stayed awake for hours the night before visualizing my courses, and trying to ingrain in my body the precise feel that Lucky needed in order to feel confident.

I still have a really vivid memory of cantering down to the first jump – him backing off – and then me having the exact right instinct at the right time, for once in my life, and finding that perfect combination of supporting leg into hand. He jumped the first fence beautifully, and the rest of my rounds passed in a wonderful blur. Suddenly I was jogging into the ring to be presented with the Champion ribbon.

All of Lucky’s connections and I were shocked but pleased – even more so when he repeated his good behaviour at the next show, and the next, and the next. Suddenly there was talk of qualifying for provincial finals (we needed to be top four in the final standings). Then, as weekend after weekend brought successive tricolours, his owner (who came to every horse show to spectate accompanied by her two Shelties, Gucci and Chanel) told me firmly she would pay for him to go to as many shows as it took to win the year-end gold medal for the division. Show after show, Lucky and I laid it down. We won every hack and even some adult equitation classes, including a Medal class I’d dreamt of winning for years.

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More importantly, Lucky’s and my personalities really clicked. He went from standoffish and skittish to trusting and hammy. He loved watermelon and chewing on plastic water bottles, and ate up the most difficult eq courses my trainer could think of, with the greatest of ease. I obsessed over keeping to a pre-show routine with military precision so as to keep him in good humour. And I gained the confidence that can only come with being a real contender: all of a sudden, we were the threat that other competitors hoped to best. All my previous horses had either been green or somehow problematic, so a good show day was one where we jumped every fence with minimal meltdowns. Now, I walked in the ring believing I could win, and I rode accordingly.

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Lucky and my mom kind of loved each other.

Alas, it was not to be forever. I left on a family vacation and a barnmate was enlisted to show Lucky in a few classes to keep racking up those points; he stopped a couple of times and they didn’t have the best day. I chalked it up to inexperience together. When I returned the next show for Lucky and me was the regional final, our penultimate show together, where my goal was to come top three in the finals of the 3′ medal. I had even bought a new show jacket and was eager to bust it out! (First mistake…) It all came to a literal screeching halt at the last line of the first course, however, when despite my perfect distance in, Lucky said an emphatic NO, dumped me directly in the jump, and wheeled away galloping. So much for the shiny new jacket. We entered me in every division possible, only to get stopped out round after round, culminating in my being excused for two refusals at the first jump of the Medal final. It was one of the worst days of my horsey life – it’s hard to remember another time I felt so inadequate.

Of course, the next show was provincial finals, the Quebec Equestrian Games, held at the beautiful Bromont Olympic site. Qualifying for the Games had been a dream of mine for years, and it really was a wonderful experience to represent our region with my teammates. Downside: over three rounds, Lucky consented to jump four jumps. Total. Yep. We were eliminated for refusals everywhere, despite him jumping the snot out of all the massive scary oxers we built him in the schooling ring, at which he didn’t bat an eye. He had well and truly decided to throw down his toys and go home, and there was nothing I could do about it. (We came third in the hack out of 30, though. Small mercies.)

It truly was a terrible ending to a wonderful season. I shake my head a bit today looking at all the prizes he won me, when we ended on such a sour note.  Lucky left me with some serious baggage related to riding stoppers that I have yet to shake. But he taught me how to win – and helped me a little further along the road towards the intersection of compassion and determination, where all good riders of difficult horses must reside.

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The First Shopping Trip

This weekend, I travelled to the Toronto area to meet up with by BFF, KPT, and check out two horses I’m interested in. Apologies, as I’m going to use this blog as a log of my horse-hunting thoughts, so this will likely get quite long!

My trainers were at a horse show this weekend, so I decided to bite the bullet and go alone, with KPT as trusted advisor and videographer. It was a bit scary – we North Americans are so accustomed to shopping with trainers and I felt like a bit of a fraud at times, as I’m clearly an amateur rider who makes lots of mistakes – but I’m really glad we went and got the ball rolling. I must say, going from riding Schmoodle, a well-trained idiot horse with lots of buttons, almost exclusively for over 18 months, to riding these two green beans, was quite the adjustment, and I think the first horse I tried was kind of like “Whaaa?” until I remembered to drastically simplify all my aids. Ah well, ya live and learn.

Horse 1 (“Chunky Mare” for future reference)

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Stats: 7 y/o WB mare, 16.1 and chunky, black, under saddle for one year, for sale by trainer, upper end of budget, not been actively marketed

First impression: We arrived in the middle of a monsoon-style downpour and got absolutely soaked sprinting into the barn! I hadn’t seen a video of this horse; I was interested in one of the seller’s other horses who sold right before our trip, so she suggested we come see this one. First thought: flats in a slow-twist snaffle. She is a really cute mover, great balance look through the bridle, trots better than she canters, though she has a big step. Sensible-seeming (especially as we were riding as a torrential rainstorm poured down outside the indoor), a bit looky but not reactive. Seems like a kick ride (seriously, like pony kicks, the trainer had neither stick nor spurs.) She wasn’t terribly impressed by the jumps, looked cute but hard to judge her form over teeny stuff. No lead changes although she apparently does them with her 12-year-old half-leaser, of her own accord.

Under saddle: She felt like riding a barrel! I felt perched on top of her and my stirrups look way short in the videos. Great feeling in the mouth at the trot. Not very responsive to the leg. Doesn’t seem to have any idea of how to move sideways from the leg, though she bends well. I had trouble getting her to canter the first direction, but that was pilot error: too many conflicting aids! Canter was a weird mix of feeling like I was going nowhere, and feeling like I was barrelling along on the forehand. Was a bit behind the leg to the jumps, but willing. I really struggled to find a good canter, and thus good distances on this horse. My instinct was always to wait out of the corner but it didn’t really work. Also, she was very stiff and heavy in the downward transitions – I can see why they have her in something other than a plain snaffle, but I don’t love that on such a green horse.

Upon video review: I needed to get her SO much for forward in canter, especially to jump. It was kind of painful to watch the videos of us jumping (because of my mistakes – she didn’t care one way or the other!). She looks waaaay more balanced in canter than she felt.

In short: I would like to go back and try her again, knowing what I know about her canter and needing to feel like I’m galloping. Love her look, her apparently sensible nature, and her connection to the bridle…except when she dives downward. Didn’t like the feeling that she hadn’t really been introduced to yielding sideways to the leg, and that, combined with her good natural balance, might make the lead changes difficult to teach. Overall, I liked watching the horse on video more than I liked riding her, if that makes sense… I didn’t really click with her, despite her being quite lovely. I mean, she’s a green 7-year-old who’s apparently the barn favourite and has a 12-year-old half-leaser. She must be a pretty good girl.

Horse 2 (“Older Chestnut”)

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Stats: 9 y/o TB gelding, 16.2, chestnut, OTTB under saddle for a couple of years, for sale by amateur owner, significantly below my budget, for sale for a few months

First impression: I sent a bunch of sales videos to my trainer in Montreal, who found me my last (wonderful) horse in someone’s backyard for a song, and this is the one she liked best (though she hasn’t seen Chunky Mare yet.) The facility where this horse lives was kind of ramshackle, and their outdoor ring footing was disastrously hard following the previous day’s rain. The horse seemed a little “up”, and the seller also seemed a bit anxious about the whole thing (understandable, who likes to ride around two strangers who are literally judging your every move?) KPT and I suggested we move into the indoor as the trot we were seeing looked NOTHING like what we had seen on the videos. Once we got inside to better footing, he looked better, though still a bit stabby…that’s when we noticed his TERRIBLE looking foot angles. Ugh. He had absolutely no heel and very long pointy toes…ouch.

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Not the best shot (I’m an awful photographer) but check out that left foot…those do not look like happy angles.

He’s an attractive guy and settled into his work quickly, and looked better and better the more relaxed he got. He had a nice balanced canter and evidently was looking to please. The seller emphasized the work she had been putting in to get him relaxed to the jump, and it’s obviously worked, as he seemed quite chill. He took a couple of misses quite cheerfully.

Under saddle: The seller wouldn’t let me ride in my own saddle so I had to ride in her Wintec (“It’s custom fitted – also, most people put their saddles way too far forward, we don’t do that here!” That’s cool, I’m all for well-fitting saddles, but I don’t know, that saddle seemed way too far back to me.) In short, I felt SO off balance and like I was sitting right on the poor guy’s loins. (These people were hard-core Bates/Wintec proselytizers…and definitely judged me hard when I said no, my beautifully-balanced wool-flocked leather saddle doesn’t have adjustable gullets…moving right along.) Despite this, I really liked the feel this guy gave me. He had really adjustable gaits and a great feeling in the connection. Though he’s clearly not too schooled, he tried to do what I asked every time. I got the sense he can be a bit hot and so the seller hasn’t really worked on getting him to come off the leg because he has a motor, but once I got him moving a little bigger, he felt great. He was uber-quiet to the jumps (he felt reeeally tired by that point!), and I tried to get him to the base to see how he balanced (it looked like he preferred to leave from the gap). The first time he barfed it; the second time was better; and the third time, we put it up a bit, and he jumped in his best balance yet.

Upon video review: I was still under-pace in some places (…guilty) but there were no big surprises from the video; he looked like he felt: green but balanced and fluid, and a trier. I thought I would look really floppy on him given the saddle issue, but I liked the way I fit him.

In short: I really liked this guy. He seemed like a people-pleaser, and his owner obviously dotes on him and has done well by him. He’s got some blood and I’m sure would need a few minutes to settle in and catch his breath when faced with a new situation, but I liked his expression and how quickly he learned. He has apparently done lead changes in the past but she hasn’t worked on them. He’s under-muscled in the neck and back – not to mention those feet! – and I think he would fancy up even more with consistent work. Of course, he’s already nine years old and still green – a definite downside.

So, what now?

Now I need to show these videos to some professionals! KPT and I did our best – we’ve seen a lot of horses go and we tend to like the same things – but neither of us have lots of horse shopping experience (me=none, my one and only horse showed up at our farm when I wasn’t even shopping; her=bought the second one she tried and he is her forever horse.) I’m beating myself up a bit for how I rode Chunky Mare, so I’d be willing to go back and try her again with a trainer in tow, if M&L as well as my ex-trainer like her.

Most of all, I’m feeling conflicted because Chunky Mare is no doubt the nicer horse on paper: better bred, younger, a more traditional hunter type, probably quieter. I just didn’t connect with her immediately, whereas Older Chestnut felt like my type of ride straightaway.

What do you guys think? Did you click with “the one” right away, or did you have to convince your heart to catch up with your head? I’m dying to know.

I’m going to try another one (a bay TB mare) at my ex-trainer’s in Montreal on the weekend, so more updates to come.

PS: Schmoodle was basically perfect last night, as well as very lovey-dovey. I think someone told him I’m cheating on him!

Blog Hop: Four Facts Survey

I like this four facts survey that L. at Viva Carlos and several others completed last week. While I’m gathering my thoughts from my horse-shopping trip this weekend, I thought I’d indulge my latent narcissism, herewith:

Four names that people call me or have called me in the past other than my real name:

  1. Luly (my family calls me this, I don’t really know why)
  2. Genius Cougar (before the days of the iPhone we had walkie-talkies for communicating on the horse show grounds. This was my call sign)
  3. Lies (like Liz, but for when I’m feeling devious)
  4. Lizo

Four jobs I’ve had:

  1. Border Services Officer (i.e. passport and immigration control and the person who searches your luggage to determine whether or not you’re trying to sneak twelve bottles of rum into the country undeclared on your way back from the Dominican Republic)cbsa-watch-list
  2. Page in the House of Commons: every year forty first-year university students are selected from across Canada to work in the House of Commons (like Congress), supporting our Members of Parliament in their daily work. I was one of them – very cool except for our hideous polyester uniforms.
  3. Assistant to a Director General (i.e. powerful person) at the ministry of Foreign Affairs: like in The Devil Wears Prada, only with fewer cool clothes and more Excel spreadsheets
  4. Sales assistant at Liz Claiborne (now-defunct frumpy store for moms [no offense to moms, you know what I mean]): luckily, my one and only retail job. I picked up this job for eight miserable weeks ‘cause I needed some extra cash to go to an A show. Quit right after the show, but not before being named Employee of the Week!

Four movies I’ve watched more than once:

  1.  Pirates of the Caribbean (the first one, obviously)
  2. The Lord of the Rings trilogy
  3. Zero Dark Thirty (and The Hurt Locker – love me some Kathryn Bigelow)
  4. The Place Beyond the Pines

Four books/series I’d recommend: (OH GOD ONLY FOUR WELL OBVIOUSLY HARRY POTTER AND THE COLLECTED WORKS OF MARGARET ATWOOD ARE IMPLICIT RIGHT?)

  1. Americanah by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie
  2. Submergence by J.M. Ledgard
  3. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
  4. The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper (this is a YA series and you can ignore the first of the five books. The second, also called The Dark is Rising, is my go-to book for when I have nothing else to read or just need to be outside my own head. It’s like a talisman – just holding it in my hands makes me feel better.)

Four places I’ve lived:

  1. Montreal, QC: born and raised. Forever my idea of what a city should be (OK, minus the crazy corruption and infrastructure deficit and toxic identity politics…)
  2. Ottawa, ON: currently, and during my undergrad. It’s not bad.
  3. Egham, UK: I did an exchange at Royal Holloway, University of London in 2009 in this teeny town down the road from Windsor Great Park.

    And this, Founders Hall, was the building I lived in!

    And this, Founders Hall, was the building I lived in!

  4. Oxford, UK: I lived here from 2011-12 for grad school. Loved Oxford to pieces.

Four places I’ve visited:

  1. Barcelona: my favourite city to visit. Gaudi architecture everywhere, Catalan food, crazy nightlife, naps encouraged. Win.wow
  2. Belfast, Northern Ireland and surrounding area: spent a few days here in grad school and didn’t realize how raw the history would still feel. Highly recommended.
  3. San Francisco: visited with my family in 2009, a city I would love to revisit at my own pace
  4. Frisco, TX (an exurb of Dallas): We have family friends who moved here from Montreal about fifteen years ago and I spent a couple of weeks there one summer as a teenager. It’s the only time I’ve ever been immersed in that suburban ‘American-dream’ kind of life and it was…eye-opening.

Four places I’d rather be right now:

  1. Back at Oxford doing another degree, reunited with all my MSc friends (…but minus all the hours in the library?)

    Basically, I'd just like to relive the copious amounts of partying

    Basically, I’d just like to relive the copious amounts of partying

  2. Being a working student for a big name trainer at a horse show (basically I’d like to be 16 and working for Missy Clark)
  3. On the beach in the Maldives
  4. At our family cottage with my girlfriends

Four things I prefer not to eat:

  1. Strawberries
  2. Feta cheese
  3. Rich creamy things
  4. DURIAN FRUIT (oh my god my colleague from China gave me some to try last week. Go read the Wikipedia article about them right now, then spend the rest of your life trying to avoid ever smelling or tasting them.)

Four of my favourite foods:

  1. Chocolate (dark, especially mint)
  2. Thai food, especially pad thai, pad see ew, and chicken red curry
  3. My mother’s ‘special macaroni’ casserole (pasta, béchamel, cheddar, parsley, ground beef, YUM)
  4. Fettucine alla gigi

Four TV shows I watch: [none currently but these are some I Netflix]

  1. The West Wing
  2. Friday Night Lights
  3. The Good Wife
  4. Mad Men

Four things I’m looking forward to in the next 365 days:

  1. Buying a horse
  2. Christmas with my family
  3. My best friend moving to Ottawa
  4. Travel of some kind with the BF next summer

Four things I’m always saying:

  1. Bitch! (…sorry, bad feminist, it’s not directed towards a person, it’s just my epithet of choice)
  2. Suboptimal (as in “Schmoodle, your constant spooking is suboptimal”)
  3. Booboo, fatty, bud, silly (my nicknames for all animals)
  4. “Up to you!” [person suggests something] “Sure! Or maybe x?” (Because I’m that person who is initially indecisive then judges your choices hard.)

In Which the Flatwork is Getting Really Hard…and I Have News

So…the problem with Trainer M is that his attention span is pretty short and in fact could charitably be described as “magpie-like”. (It’s his girlfriend, Trainer L, who is the detail-oriented perfectionist of our barn.) Beware of when things start to get too easy for you and your horse, because M finds that particularly boring. Before you know it he’ll either have raised all the jumps five holes while you’re not looking, or set an exercise with so many striding options and changes of direction that your brain is liable to explode while trying to learn it. He likes big jumps, tough courses, and a lot of adrenaline in his life.

A while ago I told him that, although I’m all for fun jumping times, Schmoodle and I are alone, doing flatwork, 95% of the time, so we should probably do some flat lessons. I just kind of meant getting some feedback on Schmoodle’s connection and shape, bouncing around some ideas for dealing with his tension, and having someone on the ground to yell at me about my hunchy shoulders and wonky left leg.

M acquiesced (“…but are you sure you don’t want to jump the course in the grass ring instead?” You mean the one set for the 1m40 horses, complete with open water? Yeah, no.) and we had a good lesson last week, addressing all those things. Then during yesterday’s lesson, Schmoodle came out feeling great – relaxed, forward, good shape, respectful of my leg. So naturally M upped the ante by taking away my stirrups. That’s cool, I’m all about no-stirrup September. Then he added that excellent exercise, posting while standing for two or three beats, sitting for one. “He looks great,” M said. “This is getting boring, though,” he continued under his breath.

“So just shoulder-in in trot on the long side, haunches-in on the short side, canter an eight-metre volte still in haunches-in out of the second corner, back to trot and repeat,” he said casually. Keep in mind we are riding in the indoor, one-third of which is cordoned off for hay storage, so the rideable space (i.e. the free arena space minus the requisite 5-metre perimeter from all spooky things that Schmoodle contractually requires) is about 20x35m. This was really hard, not least because I struggle mightily in the transitions to keep Schmoodle’s shape, and because haunches-in on a tiny volte is…not something I practice enough. Once we mastered that, we did serpentines with simple changes though walk (“You’re not allowed to touch the reins during the downward transition! Keep the activity in the first walk step!”), then serpentines with flying changes (“Hey, that was front to back! Needs to be more uphill! First step of the new lead should be in leg yield!”). Then: “Canter half pass from F to X, flying change, continue in leg yield to H.”

OK SERIOUSLY NOW. When did M become the Dressage Queen of Synergy Farm? What happened to “flatwork is boring albeit necessary”?!

That last exercise was SO HARD, I never really ended up doing it properly. In the time it took me to get the half-pass without the hindquarters trailing; straighten the horse; perform a lead change; then keep moving laterally the same direction but with the opposite bend, we were basically bouncing off the end wall of the arena. I can’t wait to try it again during my next ride (I had an epiphany in the shower later about how to better visualize and ride it.)

The power of positive thinking, eh Schmoodle?

The power of positive thinking, eh Schmoodle?

Anyways, Schmoodle’s and my minds were blown. BLOWN, I say. And I’d wager he is as muscle-sore as I am today. Poor Schmoodle, I think he would like his life of single-outside-diagonal-outside back, please. I, for one, thought that lesson was kind of awesome.

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Schmoodle is on his own this weekend. Because I’ll be on the road trying to find his replacement.

The career and life-stage stars have finally aligned such that I feel comfortable with assuming the financial responsibility for a horse of my own. As much as I love Schmoodle, and thought hard about pulling the trigger and buying him from his current owners, I’ve decided to start with a clean slate and try to find a young prospect.

Schmoodle is a wonderful horse – so much more horse than I’m able to afford to own. He’s imported, super scopey, careful, sound, and fancy, not to mention sweet and personality-plus. Unfortunately his inherent tension and spookiness will never go away, I don’t think – that’s why he’s mine to ride despite having been actively for sale for years. Although he trusts me and we work well together, there is always a bit of anxiety present at the back of my mind with him, especially when faced with a new situation, because you can’t tell if he’s going to have an explosive reaction. I don’t want to own a horse I have to longe and ride down for hours at the horse shows in order to jump around the Adults safely. And I really don’t want to own that horse and be unable to sell him when I’ve decided it’s time to move on. Jackie describes her horse as “[making] me both insanely happy and entirely furious, usually within the same day.” That’s how I feel about Schmoodle, but with a bonus dose of anxiety thrown in, and honestly, that I could do without.

I want a horse that might be able to do a bit of everything: bop around the hunters at a low level, for one, but maybe also school cross-country or even – dabble in eventing? I’d like to be able dip my toe in the waters of dressage showing, as well. Basically, I’m looking for something reasonably athletic, with a good brain, that wants to come to work cheerfully and play ball every day – not the world-beater, and not a bombproof deadhead – just a good citizen.

So if you have one of those in your back pocket, let me know!

And if anyone has any good/ridiculous horse-shopping experiences to share…please do!

Class Action

Fall is officially almost here, as the uOttawa Equestrian Team has arrived back at our farm to begin their 2015-16 season! They are short on lesson horses right now so Schmoodle was pulled into service yesterday. The team captain is a lovely rider and they had a good lesson together. I’ll admit I was flattered when I came into the barn where Schmoodle was chilling post-lesson and he immediately perked up and looked for a cuddle. Aww, he does love me. (I am an anthropomorphic sap, yes.) Poor Schmoodle, he isn’t getting much face time on the blog this week.

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Helloooo, I’m still here!

Our last ride, on the weekend, was really good despite the conditions being windy, rainy and spooky. He was as rideable as could be expected and gave me a really good feel – no more mouth of iron. I took a new tack and decided to halt and chill out for a few minutes when I first got on in order to let him wrap his brain around the spooky stuff in the ring, then concentrated on really sending him forward, ignoring any body contortions, and using lots of small figures and changes of direction to get the bend though his ribcage – no lateral work at all except spiral in and out and canter, in which I also incorporated last lesson’s counter flexions. I just kind of ignored any tension in his topline as long as he went forward. Lo and behold, I got a lovely round horse, still on edge, but working with me instead of against me.

Anyways, since Schmoodle was pulling double duty yesterday, Trainer M asked me to ride Classy, the barn’s oldest and grumpiest going Grand Prix horse. Classy must be about 20 now but still jumps around the 1m40s and small GPs, albeit with some protests. He was a breeding stallion for many years and maintains many vestiges of his studdish personality, including a huuuge cresty neck. He has a wild eye and breathes louder than any horse I know. Before I got on, M, who currently does him in the big classes at the horse shows, said, “He is terrible off the right leg and will probably be a huge asshole. After about half an hour he’s really fun, though!”

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Classy a couple of years back. He’s quite the horse.

Basically, it was like sitting on a cross between a rocking horse and a dragon. Once I got the hang of him and realized the snorting and crow-hopping were more bark than bite, he was indeed extremely fun to ride, although he couldn’t be more different from Schmoodle. He’s super well-schooled on the flat (…when he decides to cooperate), and once I figured out what to do with all that horse under me and realized he really wasn’t going to just charge away when I put my leg on, he gave the most amazing feeling – his canter is like butter. We did some lovely lateral work and lead changes, and then called it a day. When I gave him his apple snack before putting him away, his whole demeanor changed and suddenly he was a droopy-lipped, kind-eyed old man. Poor old Classy. I don’t think he gets a lot of cuddles, probably because he always looks so threatening, so I tried to make a fuss out of him. He’s a pretty special guy, who’s done national standard Grand Prixs, taken his previous rider (who is actually also Schmoodle’s owner) to Young Riders and her first World Cup qualifier a couple of years ago, and jumped around the high A/Os on the West Coast as a pinch-hitter for a client whose own horses were injured last summer. Suffice it to say he’s been there, done that, got the t-shirt.

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Post-ride chilling. (Somehow, I have managed not to have to wrap legs for a couple of years, so I was pretty impressed at how these ones turned out.)

The Internet was on the fritz when I got home, so we amused ourselves by staring adoringly at the new kitty. He is perfect. I have become an obsessive cat lady basically overnight. Google has started suggesting cat-related searches for me. SEND HELP.

Anyone else get a kick out of riding a different horse, especially one you’ve known for a long time?

In Which There is a New Addition to the Family

It’s been the kind of grey, rainy weekend that invites staying indoors and watching horses jumping on TV, rather than having to go actually jump a horse oneself. Luckily that’s what’s on the agenda for the afternoon: the CP International starts at Spruce Meadows in an hour and all three hours are being webcast by CBC! This is one of my favourite horse show days of the year, not least because the quality of the CBC’s coverage is so good:  the vibrant colours of the International Ring and the footfalls and breath sounds captured by the jump microphones really add to the drama.

Last year was my favourite edition of the International that I’ve ever seen live, as Ian Millar took home an amazing victory on Dixson. I, like every other young horse-crazy Canadian, idolized Ian growing up, and read Lawrence Scanlan’s biography of Big Ben so many times that the book’s falling apart at the seams. Now, I know him less as a larger-than-life figure and more as my trainer’s trainer who passed his rigourous horsemanship standards down to her.

I audited the clinic Ian and his children, Amy and Jonathon, put on here a few months ago; it was the first time I had seen him train in person (though my trainer brings horses to Millar Brooke Farm, about half an hour down the road from us, for tune-ups with Ian quite frequently, Schmoodle and I have never made the cut, alas.) Ian is tough – not quite George Morris, but not the jolly Captain Canada who shows up in media interviews. He calls bad riding like he sees it, and he is merciless if your horse and you are uneducated on the flat. He doesn’t make excuses for less-than-talented horses. He sets exercises extremely precisely, and when horses make mistakes, he always has a particular exercise in his back pocket to fix it, whether it be offsetting a groundline by six inches, or laying down a single guide rail in the middle of a gymnastic: the rider’s job is simply to remain consistent and let the horse solve its own problems.

As a result of being trained in his system, his own horses, as well as Amy’s and Jonathon’s, are impeccably responsive and rideable beyond belief. The smallest adjustment in their rides inevitably translates to a significant improvement on the horse’s part. Watching Ian and Baranus, during a demonstration ride at the clinic, land from a 1m40 oxer on the quarter line off a forward seven strides, then land and turn towards the wall in perfect balance instead of continuing around the corner – probably a turning radius of about five metres – will stay with me forever. He is the real deal – no gimmicks, no tricks.

Anyway, last year he won the CP and several hundred thousand dollars, which was pretty freaking awesome, as I feel like we’re part of his camp by association, given my trainer and his longstanding friendship. Also, as much as he’s the perennial anchor rider for Team Canada etc., I can’t remember the last time he won a HUGE class like that – these days he seems to always be the bridesmaid. Anyways, IAN FOR THE WIN!

Honestly, I cried when he won #sorrynotsorry

Honestly, I cried when he won #sorrynotsorry

And guess who will be watching with me…?

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This guy!!! The cat my boyfriend J and I adopted from the Humane Society yesterday! He is a big middle-aged fluffer, super friendly and cuddly, perfect for a first-time cat owner like me. I have traditionally not been a cat fan, but J has worn me down gradually, and I must say, I love this sucker already. His name is Remus, and he enjoys being petted and sleeping at the foot of our bed.

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Maybe he wants to eat those birds on the bedspread?

Under a Black Cloud

I was going to write about my university riding team experiences today, and I still intend to, but I, like many others in the hunter-jumper world, have been caught up lately with some of the truly bad behaviour that’s been on display from some of the industry’s professionals.

First we had Inclusive, the stunning Betsee Parker-owned hunter who Tori Colvin, teenage prodigy, has piloted to countless hunter wins, and who tested positive for GABA, a banned calming agent, at last year’s USHJA International Hunter Derby Finals. Then news came out of the Hampton Classic that Devin Ryan had been evicted from the show grounds due to evidence of abuse clearly visible on several of his horses’ legs. Oh, let’s not forget Sophie Simpson, daughter of two Olympians, who has been set down by the FEI for a violation involving capsaicin at Young Riders earlier this summer.

This was all depressing enough until Brigid Colvin, who was originally made subject to a ban that would cause her to miss the last horse shows of her daughter’s storied junior career, sued the USEF, arguing that she should not be considered the ‘trainer’ (i.e. person responsible) for Inclusive and thus should not be punished for his infraction. This suit led to several documents, including the transcript of the USEF hearing on this case, to be released publically. Honestly, don’t read them if you want to maintain any sort of respect for the h/j show culture as a whole. It’s like going down a rabbit hole from the kind of common-sense horsemanship that I’ve grown up with, and ending up in a world where one of the top hunters in the country requires a longe, two morning hacks, and NINE – count em, nine – tubes of Perfect Prep and/or lactanase before being considered ready to go to the ring for this national championship competition over heights that reach 4’+.

NINE tubes of this. And that isn't even what they're being set down for!!!

NINE tubes of this. And that isn’t even what they’re being set down for!!! Because it’s legal!!!

Oh, and no one ever denies the widespread use of GABA in their program. They simply say that they didn’t dose Inclusive with GABA anymore because in their experience, it made him too quiet, and he hit rails. Yeah. They neither deny nor apologize for a widespread culture of cheating that goes against every principle of horse welfare and fair sport. And again, this is what it takes to get arguably one of the most recognizable and winning horse-rider combos in the country, to the ring. If Victoria Colvin can’t win a hunter round without drugging, what the hell are the rest of us supposed to be doing?! Oh and PS, the fact that neither the rider nor the owner of the horse have been given any penalty for this incident is ludicrous. In my view, our national governing bodies should abide by the same principles as the FEI with regards to punishment in these cases: the rider is the Person Responsible and will be the one set down, full stop. Maybe it’ll force all of us to look a little more closely into our trainers’ medicine cabinets.

That jump is insane. But at what cost?

Inclusive’s jump is insane. But at what cost is it manufactured?

Anyways. Molly Sorge of the Chronicle wrote an editorial on this subject that articulates my thoughts exactly, so I’ll let you read that rather than getting all mad trying to write a blog post about it. But suffice it to say that I often feel alienated from my chosen discipline, between the shocking amounts of money on display at the horse shows, and the questionable horsemanship that we all know is probably taking place on the other side of the tent stall walls. I don’t have the funds to campaign on the circuit anyway, but I can’t say I’m too sad about that today.

I guess all we can do is take responsibility for our own horses’ care, let our money do the talking when it comes to programs that undertake practices with which we’re uncomfortable, and speak out against bad horsemanship when we see it. Not that it’s impossible to produce a winning horse in a healthy program that abides by the rules. But when the hunter discipline’s standards seem to be a deck stacked against you as a responsible horseperson, it kind of blows.

[Oh also, Schmoodle was kind of terrible last night. WHATEVER. Fine. Keep spooking at the same pile of jumps by the side of the ring every day for the rest of your life for all I care.]

Lesson Time: In Which I End Up With Very Sore Leg Muscles

Honest question: Is there anything more terrifying than going to fetch your horse from his or her field, only to find it empty?!This is the situation that greeted me yesterday: gate closed, halters hung up neatly on the fence, horses AWOL.

Schmoodle?!” I called in a panicky voice. A tumbleweed blew across the empty paddock.*

[* Not really.]

FINALLY, after calling for him a couple more times, Schmoodle and his two friends poked their heads out from behind the little run-in shed at the very far end of the field, behind which they had all somehow been completely obscured, thank god. Then Schmoodle actually came galloping right up to me! Like Black Beauty! So tender.

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Juuust like this, only without the feathers

It was hot as blazes and buggy again, but I didn’t care, because it was flat lesson day! Like Erin, I have to say flat lessons are my jam. Schmoodle was kind of distracted, resistant, and tough in the mouth throughout. This always makes me feel like an idiot in front of my trainer, especially since last week and the week before, he’d been so lovely in the contact. But on the other hand, what better time to take a lesson than when your horse is giving you trouble, right? My ego will just have to take it.

We started with flexions in and out on a 20-metre circle (where Trainer M had me carry my inside hand much higher than I wanted to and really draw back the elbow while not getting rigid), then haunches-in to test my theory that he’s reluctant to load the right hind as much as the left (M’s conclusion: it’s possible, but it also may be an imbalance I’ve caused. See below!) We moved on to shoulder in, then half-pass in trot (which I never do when riding by myself; the pseudo-dressage rider in me feels like if we don’t have a reliable shoulder-in and some degree of legitimate collection, half-pass probably won’t work.) But M’s half-pass exercise really worked: we would move across the diagonal first in leg-yield, then change the bend while still moving laterally into half-pass. After a break, we moved into canter, changing the flexion on the circle, and spiraling in and out while maintaining first true flexion, then counter flexion. We added in a couple of counter-canter circles, then finished on a few lead changes, keeping them relaxed and forward. And then we laughed about how much fancy flatwork we were doing with our hunter whose “real” job should consist of bopping around on a loopy rein.

Man, did I need that lesson. M had a lot of corrections to make on my hand position and on my left leg. As I noted above, Schmoodle was being very yucky in terms of staying round and engaged. When taking and giving with the inside hand to help get the roundness, M wants me to resist for a few strides at a time before relaxing the hand and allowing Schmoodle to follow the contact down. I’ve always been taught to vibrate the wrist and “shake” the horse off the contact when they get heavy, but M thinks this is too unstable. I found this SO hard to implement so we definitely have homework to do in this regard.

My left leg is also apparently really weak, and tends to get drawn up under me, especially when asking for bend or lateral movement. This was painfully evident in our canter circle work, where we ended up with a beautiful quality to the right, and a horrible four-beat thing to the left when I tried to spiral in without letting Schmoodle lean on my leg. Apparently I need to use more of the front of my calf and less tension in my hamstring. Who knew! This is probably contributing to the unevenness I’ve been feeling. This is the problem when you’re the only one on your horse 99% of the time, especially when most of those rides are unsupervised, right? Your problems become their problems.

M also zeroed in quickly on the fact that, even though I can get Schmoodle’s neck and shoulders moving independently where I want them quite nicely, the resistance remains in his rib cage, especially going left. I will be able to fix this in part by rejigging the way I use my left leg, but the leg-yield-to-half-pass exercise will also help a lot. I also have to be careful not to let my shoulders and hips inadvertently interfere with getting the shape I want: they have to stay square with Schmoodle’s!

All in all, this lesson reminded me of how much riding is a game of inches: tiny adjustments lead to such big difference in the horse’s feel. I guess that’s why I love it!

We need to do a bit of an equipment switch-up, to wit:

  1. I need to find one of the multiple (sigh) dressage whips I’ve lost this summer. I tend to either accidently drop them, or get rid of them while cantering when Schmoodle gets strong. Two of them are somewhere out there in the grass ring. Anyway, I need to be able to instantly reinforce that left leg, especially, when Monsieur gets lean-y.
  2. Unfortunately, at M’s suggestion, we need to do a couple of draw rein sessions. Schmoodle is really getting away from me in the upward transitions and needs a refresher that he can’t just flip me off and evade the contact. I’ll try to do a long-and-low relaxing session with them on Saturday, then a real flat school with them on Tuesday. Hopefully that will put us on back on track. As I’ve said before, draw reins do feel like cheating to me, buuuut I think I’d rather throw them on for a couple of rides than continue to struggle with the same resistances. Amateurs are allowed to cheat, right? 😉
I want a little less of this

I want a little less of this (ok, maybe exaggerating a bit BUT STILL)

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And a little more of this. Yes, this is what I want my adult hunter to look like, why do you ask?

M reminded me that the university team will be starting back up at the barn this week – so I think my next post will talk about my awesome university riding experience!

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[Commence real-world, politically charged topic here – stop reading if you must.]

Do you ever find it hard to reconcile your focus on riding with your other, more worldly concerns? I know I do. All summer, but particularly this week, I have been increasingly horrified and saddened by the ever-growing influx of refugees and migrants streaming towards Europe in search of a better life. I can only hope that this week’s images of three-year-old Alan Kurdi may have galvanized some sort of movement to find a solution to this crisis.

If anyone is interested in how we, so far away, can help, you can find a helpful list here.

And if you want to read a moving and arresting poem that sums up my feelings on the subjects better than I could ever do myself, here it is.

Small Trials and Tribulations

This week is just a humid, sweaty mess. The air pressure changes have left me with a low-grade headache every day – maybe Schmoodle is feeling the same, as he was desperate for a head rub when he came in last night. He was also a bit fussy about the fly bonnet when I bridled him – lots of head flailing, which is unlike him – so I elected to leave it off.

MISTAKE. The little biting bugs were out in force – good luck getting a steady connection when your horse is shaking his head furiously. He was a bit on the muscle in trot, but manageable – but as soon as I picked up my left lead canter, he basically spit out the bit and I lost any semblance of throughness. I tried lateral work, tried transitions, tried changing the flexion – all I had was tension. So instead of upping the ante and increasing the pressure – I’ve learned my lesson since last week! – I came back to walk and asked for a series of ten-metre figure-eights, keeping the neck long and the body in proper shape. Then I built back up to trot on a 20 metre circle – still good.

As soon as I picked up my canter to the right, though, I could tell that Schmoodle was DONE. He proceeded to throw a full-blown tantrum – rocking horse leaping, jigging, trantering, swinging the hindquarters willy-nilly, rooting against my hand. Again, instead of increasing the pressure, I sat as still as possible; kept a steady leg pressure and a solid but following contact; and waited him out. It took a few circles, but eventually I won – I lengthened and then shortened the canter a bit, then changed directions. I love the feeling I get when he is finally round and neither pulling nor ducking out from the contact – so much power. A bit more of the same shenanigans ensued to the left, but it took way less time to get through to him this direction, surprisingly, as this is usually his stiffer side. As soon as I got the feel and was able to keep it while lengthening and shortening a bit, I let Schmoodle trot and canter on a long rein to leave the idea of stretching as the last thing in his mind. Then I called it a day. Not the best ride – I wasn’t impressed by the tantrum – but it ended positively, and this time I’m pretty sure I had the right response. Plus, he felt good in his body at the end: tired, but supple, and his eye was super soft and relaxed.

I do think something might be going on in Schmoodle’s right hind – consistent heaviness on the left rein/shoulder, tantrum when asked to carry himself in canter on a circle going right, a bit of sensitivity in the right hindquarter when brushing. He also has quite a few bite marks from his pasture mates on that side, some under the saddle pad area. I’m going to see what my trainers think when I see them on Thursday.

After stopping for our mandatory apple under the trees lining the driveway, my very sweaty horse and I headed for the showers. Alas, the hose reel was not connected to the spigot, which I only realized after turning on the tap, thus causing a mini-flood of the barn aisle. Cheers to whoever detached the hose and didn’t write a note about it on the board. After struggling in vain to reattach everything while a hot Schmoodle waited patiently, I settled for a sponge bath (and very wet feet for me) instead. That’s just the kind of week I’m having: on Monday morning, my bicycle broke down on the ride to work; that evening, I put my laundry plus soap in my apartment building’s washer only to realize that it was out of order, forcing me to hand-wash the load in the bathtub.

Anyways, maybe I should stop complaining about being hot and sweaty. It’s September, the days are getting shorter, and any day know I’ll be knocking ice balls out of my horse’s feet while wearing Michelin-man style layers.

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IT’LL BE HERE BEFORE WE KNOW IT

In other news, my best friend KPT just booked our tickets to the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair (“the Royal”) in November! Woohoo! The Royal is basically all of American Indoors wrapped into one, plus a huge agricultural show, loads of vendors, and awesome food. We’re going for the final of the Canadian show jumping championships, which is also the finale of the indoor eventing (always controversial), and most importantly…SHETLAND PONY STEEPLECHASING! There also may or may not be a repeat of the time we snuck in bottles of Fanta spiked liberally with whiskey (…I know) and got drunk in the bathrooms between rounds. You just never know.

PS, I just received the Hunt Club belt I recently ordered – it’s rare that I a) order stuff online from the US due to shipping costs and b) order trendy riding stuff, but I reeeeally loved the look of these. I ordered the “On Deck” colour (all the names are great: Long Spot, Single Oxer, Lake Placid…) My review: it’s really well-made and spiffy looking! It’s pleasantly stretchy and I love the silver hardware, as well as the colour of the leather fixings.

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Two things to note: first, I would have liked the belt to be a half-inch wider, as I like that look with wide-waistband breeches (there was no measurement on the website). Second, when I adjust the belt to my optimal setting, the cute round silver finial gets bisected by the leather keeper, so I have to have it a bit looser or tighter than ideal to get a really clean look. (Yeah, #firstworldproblems.)

Overall, for about $35 CAD shipped, I like this belt a lot; it fancies up my barn look in a pleasantly preppy way, and makes me feel kinship with those cool juniors I stalk follow on Instagram. Win.

Anyone else have any upcoming horsey tourism planned? I’d love to go to Harrisburg to watch Medal Finals some day.