Wednesday, November 30, 2011

My business is casual

You know those people who can't use a public restroom? I used to be one of them.

And I shouldn't say that I couldn't altogether. Given enough time—and complete solitude—I could do the deed. My specific problem was that I couldn't actually "go" unless I was alone. I was embarrassed to have others hear me tinkle. This was the usual order of events:
  1. Realize I needed the restroom.
  2. Arrive in the restroom (our office has three stalls).
  3. Sit on the toilet.
  4. Hold it in until everyone else was gone.
  5. If someone came in while I was mid-business, I'd clench until I was alone again.
Yeah, typing it out makes it seem even more loony. And what's more, this had been going on a long time. Think of all the elementary school stalls, the college dorms, the highway rest-stops. If you add it all up, I've probably devoted entire days to "holding it." 

Days. Of. My. Life.

I don't know where this self-conscious, irrational phobia came from. The idea of making a sound—any sound—in the potty is deeply embarrassing and unpleasant for some people. It forces us to acknowledge that sometimes we aren't meeting the imaginary ladylike ideals. Or maybe it’s just gross. I don’t know for sure.

But I have found the cure in endurance riding.

Since I started doing the distance thing, I have peed next to the trail, only somewhat obscured by sagebrush, as a dozen riders go by. I have peed behind boulders and trees while someone else held my horse and knew exactly what I was doing. I have peed next to my truck and trailer out in the middle of nowhere, and also within sight of farmhouses. I have peed in foul porta-potties, on the shoulders of well-traveled gravel roads, and while holding the reins of one or more bewildered horses.

In the immortal words of Johnny Cash, I've peed everywhere.

For a time, I was on a diet that required me to drink 60 to 100 ounces of water a day in addition to any non-water liquids I was consuming. With my walnut-size bladder, that means sitting at my desk desperately needing a potty break every 10 minutes or so. 

And because of endurance, I could do it. If I can go out in nature where anyone can see me, I can certainly go into a three-stall bathroom and shamelessly use it for the purpose for which it was designed. 

And I don't care who hears me.

Sitting there now, I sometimes just want to exclaim, "Hello, world! Yes, that's me you're hearing! Go with the flow, my sisters!" But then I remember that not everyone is an endurance rider… yet.

Monday, November 21, 2011

How do you break the cycle?

Does anyone have a good routine to break the cycle of emotional escalation between horse and rider?

Scenario (cobbled together from various incidents): On a cool day, you take your horse to an unfamiliar place. He's a little "up" from the cold and a little "up" from being away from his buddies. There's unfamiliar debris next to the road or arena, and your horse seems more worried about than he should be. You mount up and can feel the high-headed tension of the coiled spring beneath you. He walks out short and tight, looking everywhere but forward. You catch yourself subconsciously gripping with knees and taking up the reins. His reaction is to be evasive and above the bit. Even the slightest leg aid gets an exaggerated reaction (i.e., silly sideways scooting that leaves you off-center). By now, your spine is rigid and your posture defensive. So is your horse's.

We've all been there. What is your strategy for dealing with it?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Hey, what's that?

What is that? Do you see it? Look closely.

Did you spot it yet?

Still don't see it?

I'll tell you: That is our mountain loop disappearing for the season.

You know what else it is?

It's a great excuse to get out the blanket. Isn't he cute in his winter coat?

Yep. We live in a beautiful place.

[Note: these photos are about a week old. Today the mountains are even whiter—but you can't tell because we are socked in with the should-be-famous "Walla Walla Stinking Fog." It slides over from the paper mill on the Columbia and settles into every nook and cranny in the valley. If you've never smelled a paper mill, you're lucky.]

Monday, November 14, 2011

Bluster and bobble

Two very good rides this weekend, despite the pre-winter bluster.

It is now well and truly dark at 4:30, which means I had about an hour of daylight in which to ride after work on Friday. When I drove up, Heather was tacking Bunny to do the short road loop. She invited me along, but you know I'm kind of anti-road-loop since our last experience.

I had been wanting to try the arena exercises from Heather's lesson last Sunday. I did my best to listen to the instructions while I was taking pictures, but I have not had a moment to ride in between. This was a week of chaos and overtime on the work front (especially disappointing since Heather's husband just added some stadium lighting to the arena so we could use it at night).

I've been reading one of my TTEAM books again too, and had decided to try some bridleless work with the neck ring if there was time for that. I made time by multitasking—I decided to use the neck ring for warm-up. So we toodled around the arena at a decent walk with me not touching the reins at all. Blue did fine. It wasn't the miracle of human-horse synchronicity that Linda makes it sound like in her book, but it was good to know that I have another exercise in the toolbox.

In the lesson last Sunday, Anna had Heather ride Bunny toward the corners and concentrate on stopping her straight by lifting the reins straight up (rather than pulling). Anna's on a real "independent seat" kick right now, so her focus is very much on helping her students fight the urge to brace against the horse's mouth.

Blue and I have been working transitions the last couple of weeks, and I have found him heavy and awkward on the forehand. He never stops neatly on the first try, and when I release, he practically falls flat on his face. So imagine my surprise when he stopped neat and straight every time I lifted instead of pulling. It is a lesson in humility that he was more than happy to whoa when I stayed out of his mouth. That means I am the problem in this case. Sigh.

This is going to be an extremely hard habit to break. "Pull back for whoa" is pretty much the first thing you learn about riding. They tell you that one at the pony rides at the zoo, for heaven's sake!

This is more a trust issue for me than anything else. The idea that I could safely stop my horse on the trail with just a lift of the reins and no additional contact goes against every self-preservation instinct I have.

For now, I'll keep working it in the arena until it feels natural for both of us.

The second exercise from Heather's lesson was a bit more involved. The idea was to walk the horse straight down the long side of the arena with his nose tipped to the outside. While I have read a lot about using the different parts of the horse independently, I haven't had a ton of luck with it in real life. The idea here, as I understand it, is to begin introducing the idea to the horse in a very logical way. Yes, I can face one way and walk another.

Going clockwise, nose tipped left, he got it pretty quickly. He was soft and not too crooked. He was moving off my leg and seat. I felt optimistic that this was an exercise we could master. And then I turned him around.

Counter-clockwise was a fiasco. "Stiff" doesn't even begin to describe his reaction. I kid you not, he could barely walk. He pulled and fussed, stumbled, swished his tail… and then grudgingly took a couple steps. The only time he really did it well was as Heather and Bunny were coming back up the driveway. Then he bent and looked right at them as I drove him down the arena. Of course, when we got to the other side and he had to face away from them, the whole thing fell apart again.

<Note: Heather told me Bunny was trotting a solid 14mph, and actually passed a slow tractor out on the road. This jives with my internal clock. It seemed like she was back almost before she left. I have a feeling Heather will be a force in LD in the coming year, but I think Blue is going to need another year of nutritional recovery and conditioning before we consider getting competitive, let alone trying for tractor-passing speed.>

Anyway, the fact that Blue was able to do the exercise counter-clockwise when there was something he wanted to see off to the right makes me believe that there is a mental component to the stiffness. I will try a combination of TTEAM and April Battles' methods to release any lingering tension, but then it might just come down to insisting.

We went back around the "good way" to end the training session on a high note.

On Saturday, I woke up late to roaring wind and ominous skies. I discovered that I had slept through the first half of the crucial/stressful college football game (Go Huskers!—eventually!). Laying there on pins and needles at the thought of another embarrassing Big 10 loss, I imagined riding at Madame Dorion—the howling wind sandblasting my eyes while I desperately tried to make myself as visible as possible to the hunters—and I was overwhelmed with laziness. Brian and I spent most of the day sprawled on the couch. He played xbox. I watched.


But I regrouped 24 hours later. Heather and I had planned a lake ride for Sunday afternoon and no amount of wind was going to keep me from doing at least a little conditioning. So although it was still very gray and blustery, we decided to brave it. It seemed like a safe assumption that the wind would be less offensive down in the woods near the lake. That was 100% true. It was almost—dare I say—a pleasant day out of the wind. Plus the lake was nearly deserted because of the iffy weather, so we could keep up a good pace without worrying too much about trampling pedestrians.

Blue forged the entire time. And I mean literally every stride was clack, clack, clack, stumble, clack. I shifted my weight. I two-pointed. I dropped the reins so he could find his own equilibrium. Nothing was working. Coming down the switchbacks on the far side of the dam he stumbled so hard that I was sure he was going down and taking me with him. He crumpled forward on the downhill, half righted himself, but tripped again as gravity and momentum threw him forward. I threw him the reins and sat still to give him every chance to recover (and give me every chance to bail if I had to). It took a momentous effort, but he hauled himself back up and continued as if nothing had happened. Disappointingly, our little brush with mortality didn't seem to make him more careful. Clack, clack, clack, stumble, for another 6 miles.

Don't get me wrong. His behavior was sensible and forward overall. He even seemed downright cheerful on the single track through the tall grass (Hello, HOTR!). He didn't do anything ridiculous all day other than being a little "looky" when we went by Dean's horses. But his forging made me cautious when I probably should have been more encouraging. He went roaring down a couple of hills in what would have been an exhilarating trot minus the forging. The speed and rhythm were there. The grace was not. So I was checking him and trying to get him to rock back and use his butt. No dice.

Jeff the farrier is coming tomorrow, but Blue's feet aren't particularly long or too far out of whack to the naked eye. I suppose he could be a little thrushy from the sudden change of weather. Everything else seems normal. Is thrush all it would take to disconnect him so completely from is own hooves?

I guess we'll just have to see what Jeff has to say about it.

PS: If you haven't been following Aarene's Endurance 101 online clinic, go now.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Treat-seeking missile

Blue has what Heather and I call the "mustang metabolism." Her mustang Quincy gets fat just looking at grass. And if there is no grass, he will eat whatever there is.

Blue must have a mouth of steel too. I have seen him dig in and eat star thistles. He's eaten all the puncture vine and ragweed out of his pen. He will pick up a whole tumbleweed as it tumbles by.

But just because he'll eat anything that can't outrun him doesn't mean he lacks taste.

Oooh, is that a cucumber? Don't mind if I do.

Nom nom nom nom

Is that watermelon I see?

(He even spits out the seeds.)

Hmmmm... cantaloupe rind. Well, if you insist.

Since he's shown such a penchant for treats, I don't know why it took me so long to try the Amazing Graze toy with him. It has just been sitting around the basement at my house or in the scrub behind the trailer at Heather's since last winter. Maybe longer.

And it took Blue about two seconds to figure out that rolling the toy made the treats come out.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Curse of the Road Ride

Anytime my friends in Western Washington complain about the rain, or friends in Central Oregon complain about the cold, I have two words for them: Road Ride. 

You guys may be suffering from the weather, but it appears that you are riding on actual (somewhat) maintained trails and dirt roads. At most, you might come upon logging equipment or the occasional mountain biker. 

We are riding on the shoulders and in the ditches of paved, two-lane country roads—roads that lead to popular wineries visited by inebriated tourists in sports cars year-round. 

Semis are roaring by mere feet away as strange horses (or worse—cows and llamas) charge at the fence lines just a few feet in the other direction. 

Walla Walla is a cycling mecca. Bikes silently appear from behind out of nowhere. 

Lifted trucks driven by adolescent boy-men rev their engines and honk. Crotch rockets roar past without giving a thought to my fragile body, carefully poised on a living, breathing, fight-or-flight animal.

And before you remind me that I should at least be grateful that it was 65 degrees outside at the end of October, let's be clear. It was 65 and overcast when we started our 10-mile road loop. Five miles out, literally as far from the house as we could possibly get, it began to rain. Not sprinkle, not drizzle. Rain. Heather and I were both soaked. I wrung water out of my short-sleeve shirt. My seat saver was swampy. Our horses were out of sorts, trying to turn away from the rain. Every car, truck and farm implement that went by splashed and sprayed. I could barely see out of my glasses. Blue very nearly lost his cool more than once, including an out-of-control hand-gallop uphill on wet pavement. I didn't try to one-rein stop him because I prefer not to die.

Every road ride is a little adventure like this. And I'm starting to think that the amount of solid "work" that we are able to do is not worth the risk to life and limb. 

On the other hand, a road ride costs me much less fuel than a trip to Madame Dorian, Bennington Lake, Harris Park, Cache Hollow, or Ernie's loops up at Biscuit Ridge. 

But now that I've actually typed out the pros and cons and am reading them, the idiocy of what I'm doing is pretty obvious. I can always free up enough money for more gasoline. It is harder to scrape up money for a helicopter ride, emergency surgery, a lifetime of physical therapy and the amount of counseling that would make me forget what it felt like to live that scene at the beginning of The Horse Whisperer. You know the one.

The urge to condition my horse might—literally—kill me. How am I only just realizing this?!

Two steps forward, a long walk back

Saturday I intended to go to the lake, but got caught up formatting the endless stream of ride results and standings for the November PNER newsletter. I looked up from InDesign at 3:30 and realized I'd better get it in gear if I wanted to ride in the daylight.

We warmed up with bareback arena exercises, then I went and got the saddle. Oh boy, did my stirrups feel short after all that bareback work! I took them down a notch, and we started out to ride the perimeter of the pasture, which encompasses a mix of steep and rolling hills, a bit of gravel, and a slightly obstructed view of neighbors gardening, mowing and just generally being as spook-inducing as possible. 

The circle in the ground where the round pen used to be is still pretty visible. It will probably be visible to archaeologists 1,000 years from now, with or without satellite imaging. I thought it would be a good challenge for Blue to be trotting the pasture at a good clip, then to take that circle like a volte and continue back to the perimeter. It turned out to be a very good exercise, as he tried to run out of the circle about ten times. We'd start in a relaxed trot, but as he reached the far end of the circle (closest to the trailer and hitching rail), he'd speed up, put his nose in the air, and drift outwards with no regard for my seat or legs.

He's an opinionated beast, and I suppose his opinion was that it was time to quit. He was wrong of course. By the second attempt, I was ready for him, with a more aggressive seat and leg. No dice. He fell out of the circle in a stiff, fast, hollow, angry, head-tossing trot. I one-reined him to my knee and gave him a taste of the spurs (both actions being punishment and not aids—yes, he can tell the difference) until he was turned back into the circle. Then I proceeded as if nothing had happened. Five strides later, back in the same spot, he did the same thing again. So I did the same thing again. 

We went around like this more times than I'd like to admit. This kind of testing behavior does not reflect well on Blue. Trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result doesn't say much for his intelligence, either.

We got through it, though, and returned to the perimeter. When we hit the gate, I turned him out of the pasture and headed for the trees.

The nice thing about riding in this kind of tree farm is that everything is in neat rows, providing a nice visual cue for where to go. So we did a 300-yard straightaway, then cut between two trees and did the same thing in the other direction. Lather, rinse, repeat. When that got boring, I started slaloming the trees two-by-two. All of this was going very well. Blue was light and interested. Then The Bad Thing happened. Physics conspired against me.

I reached up to push a long, leafy branch out the way, as I had a hundred times before. I released it, and, unlike the hundreds of times before, it came aback at just the right speed and angle to smack Blue right in the butt. He gave an almighty kick. I landed up on his neck with him still pitching, and I had a decision to make. I wasn't having much luck with stopping him or getting back down into the saddle, so I decided to slide off to the side.

That worked out fine except that I let go of the reins. So Blue energetically trotted toward home without me. I keep meaning to teach him to come when he's called. Times like this, I wish I'd done more of that training with him when he was confined to The Pen.
"BooooooBoooooo!" I called in my sweetest singsong. "Come here, Boooo!"
He stopped a couple football fields away, flicked an ear at me, took a moment to consider, then turned back toward home at nice, smart trot. He looked much too proud of himself.

Luckily there was an alfalfa field between me and home, so I didn't have to walk the entire way. We got back to the driveway, did the perimeter again, did the circle again, and called it good. It was getting a bit dim out anyway.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Lopsided, and some thoughts on saddles

Work gets out early on Fridays, so there was still enough daylight to do some riding. I went in with a plan to work on my own balance. Something I never would have done with the unpredictable Otto: bareback arena work.

Obviously I started at the walk. I haven't ridden bareback a whole lot, and it shows in my complete lack of ability to sit a horse. I remember when I got Gazab, way back in Nebraska, my dad rode him bareback around the pasture at a canter. I wouldn't even canter in a saddle at that stage. 

I still can't canter bareback, but after a lot of initial wobbling, I got to be pretty comfortable in the trot on Friday. I felt a real sense of teamwork with Blue. It seemed like he was working just as hard to stay under me as I was working to stay on top of him. 

I have been contemplating getting some sort of deep-seat "Englishy" saddle as an alternative to the Specialized. I feel like swapping periodically might be better for Blue's back and my riding. Part of this contemplation has been looking at Blue's back. Sitting on it bare gave me a better sense of how he's using it now, and what the overall silhouette is. The next step was to stand on something tall behind him and look at symmetry (or the complete lack thereof).

My poor track record of staying in the saddle attracts me to something like this: 
Short of someone turning the horse upside-down and shaking him, I'd pretty much be glued in. The trouble with poleys (i.e., those leg-holder-inners on the front of the saddle) in endurance is pretty obvious: You might end up with bruised legs from posting into them for hours at a time. I also have heard from many people that the fit on Aussie saddles can be iffy at best, and that the good ones cost a fortune. Plus, I really love the dressage-style rigging on my Specialized. I'd hate to go back to a bulky western knot or a fat English buckle under my leg.
So what are my other options?
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
I flirted with the treeless thing for a while with Otto. I bought a very pretty used Torsion to use as a backup saddle. It was so light and cushy… like a leather easy-chair. Unfortunately, it was amazingly slick, and the lack of twist made it feel like I was a living in a Thelwell comic. 
Needless to say, this is not a particularly secure way to sit, especially for Otto's "sideways teleportation" style of movement. 

They make treeless, flex-tree and semi-treed saddles that are meant for a more secure ride.

Like this one, for instance.

I'm intrigued by the Kuda saddle above because it looks like it might offer a bit more security and grip. Maybe even a teeny bit of twist and lift so I don't feel like I'm sitting directly on Blue's spine. On the other hand, they aren't exactly cheap from the dealer, and they are new enough that the secondhand market is almost nonexistent. It would be an expensive experiment.

The other saddles I came across seem almost too good to be true. 
Kind of a dressage/endurance hybrid.

This one doubles as a mattress.

That seat is completely impractical for my needs, but look how pretty!

Imagine, no fenders or leathers under your leg, plus a front grip. And again, all that padding!

This one reminds me of my RL Watson, a saddle that made my butt very happy.

All of the saddle styles above come from the same maker, Sycamore Creek/CTK. And they have dozens more styles. I always check when I'm thinking about a piece of equipment or clothing. Sycamore Creek has no ratings lower than 4 out of 5. That's pretty much unheard of, even for some of the most upmarket commercial saddles. The reviews rave about the customer service, great price-to-quality ratio, super comfy construction… Did I mention the prices? I think the most expensive of the saddles above comes in under $700. You read that right.
The hardest part about Sycamore Creek would be choosing a style. I actually emailed Tony, the U.S. distributor, and asked for his opinion on my situation. I told him the four models that seemed closest to what I was looking for. He said any one of them would probably work for Blue's back conformation, so the choice was more about what worked for me as a rider. They will customize the saddle to fit us both.

What would fit me, dear reader, is a leather saddle with some grip, at least a 5-inch-deep seat, a high cantle, dressage rigging, leathers instead of fenders, and enough rings and straps to contain all my gear. I also need it to cost less than $1000, last forever, and fit my horse perfectly.

Is that so much to ask?! :)

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

They call it work for a reason

Arena work isn't exactly my favorite thing in the world. I appreciate the safety of the relatively controlled environment, but it also gets boring. 

Heather was supposed to have a lesson on Sunday, so we thought the prudent choice would be to take the horses to the arena on Wednesday evening and make sure they could handle it. Both have been in indoor arenas before, but this one is a 3/4 indoor with potentially scary mirrors and barn cats trotting around under foot. No sense taking chances with a nervous horse when you're paying a trainer $85 an hour—we'd get them used to the environment on our own time, thanks very much.

Bunny took only a few minutes to settle, but Blue was especially enchanted by the mirrors. He wasn't scared, exactly, but he felt it was necessary to puff himself up to impress the horse in the mirror. Then the horse in the mirror had the audacity to also puff himself up and prance around. They had a bit of a face-off, but Blue relaxed when he realized that the horse in the mirror was having to work just as hard as he was at his sidepassing. (And really I think he figured the whole thing out within a few minutes.)

Heather has been lending me her issues of Dressage Today as she finishes with them, so I have had some very specific exercises I've been wanting to work on. That night, we worked transitions between back, halt, walk and trot. Blue was game, but heavy on the forehand and not exactly "soft" in any sense. Before he had a chance to get resentful, we switched to spirals for awhile. He was good to the left but stiff to the right. Not a surprise to me. His nose is always tipped left, even just standing at liberty. We're working on this too.

Overall, the night ride at the arena was a good one. We made reasonable progress on a few things, and incremental progress is all I feel comfortable asking of any horse. What was really eye-opening was how sloppy I was. My seat was bouncing all over the place, and it seemed like every time I released the tension in one set of muscles, another set locked down.

I could feel it in my body, and worse I could see it in the mirrors.

Being weak and overweight is incredibly frustrating. I can see that if I were a more sedentary being, inertia would be my friend. Since I'm not, I'm constantly hoisting one or another heavy, unstable object (i.e., my thighs, arms, back, belly) onto the horse and trying to keep them coordinated. I think a lot of the reed-thin riders kind of take for granted that their center of gravity is basically stationary. Mine bounces and wobbles. Here's something I never thought I'd say: I'm fortunate to carry more weight in my belly and seat. I can't imagine being busty and riding effectively.