The Halfway Point

I’ve now owned Champagne for four months, which is the halfway marker for RRP. I’m supposed to have him ready to go to the Thoroughbred Makeover in Kentucky in October, and barring any unforeseen accidents (knock on wood), I think we can make it.

In terms of physical rehabilitation, I’m down to two final battles: his back and his hooves. Champagne’s lumbar region, particularly on the right side, is still pretty tight and sore. His hooves are soft and grow in unforeseen ways. The tricky part is that his back and his hooves are affecting each other. When the angle of his hooves change (aka, when his toe gets too long), the strain it places on the tendons in his legs (particularly the deep digital flexor tendon) runs all the way up his legs and into his back. And until he develops the strength, flexibility, and muscle memory in his back to move the way that nature intended, his hooves won’t grind down at the angles that they should, so I have to attack them both simultaneously.

So, here’s a quick idea of what we’ve been doing this month to battle those two issues.

  1. Booting consultation and trim: His hooves are probably too soft to hold a shoe, and they need protection, so Miss Sybille was kind enough to come do this for me and get me set up with a pair of good boots.
  2. IMAG1438[1]Hashing out nutrition: First time I’ve done this for a horse, and there was definitely a lot of math involved. It was sort of terrible. Necessary, but terrible. Now I know what I’m missing so I can fix it.
  3. Ordering supplements: I’m still waiting for some of them to come in so I can get Champagne’s nutrition balanced. I’m going to be adding in Lysine and Methionine, which, funnily enough, both have to do with hoof health. I’m also going to be adding in some flax seed as well, as per Miss Sybille’s suggestion.
  4. IMAG1451[1]Lots of rice bags: I built some new ones to wrap around legs, because it looks like Champagne might have an old injury in his right front pastern that flares up from time to time, especially after a lot of hard work. Turns out, they’re pretty great for ice wraps, because the rice gets cold enough to help bring down any swelling and pain, but not so cold that it burns the skin. He looks a little silly with a cold ice bag on his leg and a hot one on his back, but you know what? It’s another tool to help keep him comfortable while we keep working.
  5. Staying in work: Essentially, what I’m doing is physical therapy. There’s a lot of bending and lateral work to strengthen his back and return some mobility to his lumbar and hips. As much as I would love to let him take a year to be in turnout and be a horse and hopefully undo some of the damage that was done, a) I don’t have enough time for that before the Thoroughbred Makeover comes around, and b) his muscle memory and development is all messed up. I think the only way to fix it is by doing what we’re doing: Physical Therapy and Massage Therapy and more pampering than I’ve ever given a horse in my life.
  6. Canter departs: It’s definitely a gamble, but I’ve started adding them in during the last week or two. I have to be careful, because his back is only just strong enough to handle it, so I can’t overdo it, and I’m having to very carefully monitor how it’s affecting him. The reason I’m taking the gamble is because the canter is a gait that naturally requires a lot flexion in the lumbosacral joint. That’s exactly where Champagne is most tight and weak right now, so if I can get him working in a nice, relaxed, rhythmical canter, that should do a lot for him.
    horse canter gif
    Movement in lumbosacral joint

    I feel like I have done a lot of what I can do in walk and trot (doesn’t mean that I’m not still doing it), and it was time to push the boundaries a little bit more.  We’ve been getting the departs over the last week without bucking, and he’s always significantly looser afterwards, so I’m taking those as signs that it’s helping him get stronger in the right ways. But I am being very cautious about it.

There are still training and behavioral issues that I have to confront. For example, Champagne definitely had me in angry tears after he pulled back about thirteen times in two days, snapping a leadrope, flipping on his back, and giving himself rope burns. I was angry because the thing that scared him so much while tied is that I was trying to brush his mane. Which I have done before. About a million times. So I’m having to go back and start over and reteach him that tying is not scary and no one is actually trying to eat him. Which is exhausting and heartbreaking, because if he’s that scared of standing tied, someone really screwed up.

It’s also time for us to travel more. Number one, he needs to learn how to back out of a trailer, because he squashed me when he tried to turn around, and it was uncomfortable. Number two, he’s still pretty much convinced that at every new place he must run and race the other horses, because that’s what he was taught. Unfortunately, I can’t teach him that he’s not going to be eaten in new places when I don’t take him to new places. This is mostly frustrating because I don’t have my own trailer, and it’s not fair to ask everyone else to go out of their way to help me transport my horse once a week to different places. I need to ask people if I can bum rides off of them to different events, just for the exposure, but… I haven’t done that yet. And I don’t know who is going to which events, and whether said events will be regulated to stop the spread of diseases (because Louisiana has a lot of them). And finding out requires talking to people, which I don’t like doing. So yeah. Either I have to suck it up and be an adult and learn to talk to people, or I have to look at finding a little one or two horse trailer that I can haul with my husband’s twenty year old V6 truck.

Basically, being an adult sucks.

When I first got him, I thought that Champagne’s main issue was that he had tight hamstrings. The last four months have been frustrating because once we worked through one issue, another two would pop up in its place. It’s a bit like taking the top off of an anthill, only to realize that the anthill actually runs four feet underground and you just opened a very angry nest. Buuuut, all in all, I’m pretty pleased with the progress we made this month. I feel like we’re at a point where we’ve confronted a lot of his issues, both physical and emotional, and the ones that are left no longer seem totally insurmountable. I think as long as we keep taking things day by day, we just might make it.

The School of Recreation

The year is 1684, and the Age of Enlightenment has begun. The Americas have been colonized, but have about 100 years until they start taking steps towards independence. Shakespeare has been dead for 81 years; Rembrandt for 15. Bach will be born in the next year. Guns have long since made armor and heavy cavalry obsolete, but gentlemen still carry sabers and daggers, just in case they need to duel. A gentleman wears stockings and heels, and occasionally white, powdery makeup, but poofy white wigs are not yet the height of fashion. Vertical stripes and bright, rich colors are highly fashionable (particularly when combined). In the midst of all of all of this, a book called “The School of Recreation” is written by Robert Howlett and printed in Fleet Street for Henry Rodes.

Fast forward 333 years, and I’ve downloaded a free copy from Amazon onto my cell phone. How times have changed.

If you are in the habit of looking for books about horsemanship on Amazon (as I am), this book may pop up as a suggested purchase. Thus far, it has only a single review (one star) which reads “The book has nothing but outdated useless information. Reading it is a waste of time. I found nothing of significance in the book.”

Generally speaking, there is not much to recommend this book, besides the price. Frankly, the title is not what I would call “catchy.” “The School of Recreation: Or, The Gentlemans Tutor, To those Most Ingenious Exercises of Hunting. Racing. Hawking. Riding. Cock-Fighting. Fowling. Fishing. Shooting. Bowling. Tennis. Ringing. Billiards.” does not exactly feed the imagination. However, because I did have the opportunity to study history and literature in college, I suppose I have a stronger stomach when it comes to books like this. Most people (very wisely) find it dull. I think it’s hysterical. Do I recommend it to the casual reader? No. But that’s why I’m giving you the highlights: so that you don’t have to endure it yourself.

The trick to reading books like this is to approach it as a historian, not an equestrian. The information is 333 years old, and it’s not really written to be about good horsemanship that will last through the ages. For that, consider reading Xenophon’s “On Horsemanship.” At its core, this is really a book about how to be a fashionable gentleman, and fashion has the approximate lifespan of a mayfly. So instead of asking “How can this improve my horsemanship,” we have to ask something a little different. How did these “ancient” people think? What is a load of bologna? (My favorite part.) What carried over? And of course, is there anything that we can take from it that actually might still benefit horsemen and women today?

How did these people think?

Within the first sentence of the book, Robert Howlett describes man as “the Abridgement of the Creation” and “the Compendium of all God’s Works.” He then goes on a rant about how even though mankind is inherently sinful because of the fall of Adam and Eve and is therefore doomed to labor for their daily bread by the sweat of their brow (etc, etc), God also made man the “Lord of the Creatures” with a “Superior Authority and Dominion over the Beast of the Feild, the Fowl of the Air, and the Fish of the Sea.” (And yes, that is how he spelled “field.”) He goes on to say that therefore every creature should become submissive, tame, and “court favor” from man.

You read right. This guy basically just described man as “God’s Gift to Animals.

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As far as I can tell, women aren’t mentioned anywhere. I’d say that this is because the book is about Gentlemen’s sports, but aristocratic women went hunting and hawking and riding too. But there’s still no mention of them: not even about how you might catch a glimpse of a lady’s ankle when helping her to mount a horse or climb into a carriage. BORING.

Historical artwork of the four humoursThe rest of the introduction is spent talking about how all of these pursuits are natural, necessary, useful, and commendable, in that order. It’s healthy because “brisk and violent Exercises” (I get a kick out of them being described as “violent”) cause you to sweat and “exhale those black and fuliginous Vapours which too much oppress some men.” It keeps the humors from stagnating and helps men keep from becoming dull and numb from idleness. Strangely enough, Howlett correctly talks about equine therapy, and I quote “Riding was used by the great Drusus for the Strengthening his weak and small Thighs and Legs.” Of course, then he goes on to say that riding is a good thing to do especially after dinner, and that shooting bows helps with squinting. He places an emphasis on the sports that can be learned and practiced, not just those that happen because you’re wealthy. He says that some of these activities “acquaint a man with Numbring, and quicken the Fancy and Memory, and recreate the Mind.” Which I suppose is true enough. When you play billiards or pool, you do learn something about geometry and physics, and any kind of music (in this case, Ringing) will teach you some math, whether you like it or not. But what on earth cock-fighting has to do with any of this is still beyond me.

What is a load of bologna?

Oh, this is my favorite part, and where to begin?

  • I’m pretty sure there is no scientifically or genetically sound reason to choose hounds based on their color. Build, yes. Color, no.
  • Breeding dogs in January, February, or March is all fine and good, but I’m pretty sure that having the parents conceive a litter while the moon is Aquarius or Gemini will not actually increase the size of the litter or keep the pups from ever getting rabies.
  • I seriously question any treatment for sore eyes that involves chewing up ivy and spitting the juice in your dog’s eyes. Even if it’s not poison ivy, it still sounds awful.
  • When your dog gets bit by another dog with rabies, the answer is not to wash the wound with Sea-Water or strong Brine and feed the dog some wine with hazelnut mixed in. The proper remedy, in fact, is to have your dog already vaccinated for rabies and give him/her a booster vaccine when bitten by questionable animals.
  • Please, for goodness sake, do not EVER pee in your horse’s mouth for any reason.
  • Cock-fighting is in no way noble, delightful, or simple. The proper way to take revenge on a chicken that has attacked you is to eat it for dinner, not to pit it against another chicken in a death match. (Yes, I’m being a bit facetious. But there’s really nothing nice about cock-fighting.)
  • Don’t feed any animal bread, corn, or anything else that has been steeped in human urine. That’s disgusting.

Aren’t you glad science has advanced in the last few hundred years?

What carried over?

Actually, quite a few things, but I’m only picking a few. Let’s start with martingales.

I imagine that the shape of the martingale might have changed somewhat, but the author describes it as “the best guide to a Horse for setting his Head in due place, forming the Rein, and appearing Gracefull and Comely; it corrects the yerking out his Head, or Nose, and prevents his running away with his Rider.”

Well, that’s what it still tends to get used for. I wouldn’t say that it’s the best use for a martingale (or training fork or tie down), but it definitely gets used for that. (Hint: Good training for any discipline does not make headset the primary focus. My understanding is that martingales are used in jumping as an extra aid to help balance the horse going over the jump. Tie downs are meant to do the same thing for roping horses when they have to jerk the calf or steer to a halt. Which means that they really should only be used on occasion, not every single ride. If you’re using it to change the horse’s headset or keep the horse from running away, it’s no longer a training aid: it’s a Band-Aid that may not be helping to correct the actual issue but to merely disguise it, and it’s time to address that instead.)

Howlett actually seems to describe a pretty good serpentine. The problem is (and this is where being a historian gets a little tricky sometimes) that I’m not entirely certain what kind of a serpentine he’s talking about, because I can’t be sure which direction he’s actually going. “Now walk about it (the arena or ring) on the right seven or eight times, then by a little straightning your right Rein, and laying your left Leg Calf to his side, make a half Circle within the Ring upon your right down to its Center; then by straightning a little your left Rein, and laying your right Leg Calf to his side, make a half Circle to your left hand, from the Center to the outmost Verge, and these you see contrary turned make a Roman S.”

When he says “walk about the arena on the right side” is he saying “track right” (so the right hand is to the inside of the arena) or “have the wall of the arena on your right” (which means he’d be tracking left)? If it’s the first, it could be a counter-bent serpentine. If it’s the second, it’s a normal serpentine. The rider is only holding the reins with one hand, so does that impact how he “straightens” the reins? Is he actually straightening the rein, or just using it to apply pressure to the neck, as in neck reining? And just where on the horse’s side is the rider applying the leg? Is it at the girth or further back?

But hey, guess what? We’ve been practicing serpentines for at least 333 years now. I guess that’s what you could call a legacy.

The next concept Howlett calls “Stop Fair, Comely, and without Danger.” Essentially what he describes is trotting the horse for about fifty paces, then drawing back on the reins, and then “ease a little your hand to make him give backward, and in so doing, give him liberty, and cherish him; then drawing in your Bridle hand, make him retire, and go back… and thus he may Learn these Two Lessons at once.”

Sound familiar? It should. Basically everyone in every discipline ends up using some variation of this exercise at some point. Think of some of the horses that get so obsessed with what they’re doing that they forget to listen to the rider. What do we do? Trot, stop, back. Ask him/her to give through the poll. Walk, stop, back. Canter, stop, back. Transitions, transitions, transitions.

There are some other exercises that he puts out there, like “To Advance before” (Rearing on command) and “To Yerk out behind” (kick out on command). Obviously those two we don’t use very much anymore (because horsemanship is dangerous enough as it is, thank you kindly), and the way Howlett suggests training for them involves a lot of spurring in the flanks and flailing whips while yelling. I’m hoping we’ve developed some other methods in the last 300 years, because those sound… messy. But what he does write about “To go aside” (Side pass), and to “Carreere” (Sliding stop) is pretty much dead on. Oh, and by the way, “To go aside” and “Carreere” are both military maneuvers. So to the Reiners and Trail Riders, I salute your combat prowess.

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Is there anything that we can take from this book that still benefits horsemen and women today?

Surprisingly enough, yes.

First, let’s talk a little bit about whips and spurs.

According to Faith Meredith, there are two main categories of aids. The first is natural aids, which is anything that comes directly from the rider’s body. These (generally speaking) consist of seat aids, leg aids, and hand aids. The second category is artificial aids: whips and spurs. I think that these are historically some of the most poorly used aids in all of riding history. If you read Black Beauty as a child, you may have developed some serious distrust of whips and spurs because of how many descriptions there are of harsh riders who use them to abuse their horses. Essentially, whips and spurs have a tendency to become extensions of our own frustration and anger, and that is not their purpose.

If this book is anything to judge by, these guys relied pretty heavily on whips and spurs. But what I find impressive is how they’re using their whips and spurs. And no, I don’t mean the stuff about spurring your horse in the flanks to get a literal rise out of him/her to teach rearing and kicking. Please, for the love of all that smells like horse, don’t do that. We tend to be somewhat more timid riders in this day and age, and I think we should keep it that way. It saves us from lawsuits. What I mean is that as far as I can tell, nowhere in this book does it say anything like “And if the horse, by refusing thine aids, pisseth you off, beat his butt with your whip so he knows what he did is unbecoming and that he should be more submissive in the future.” Instead, every touch of the whip or spur has a distinct purpose, and none of them have to do with the anger of the rider.

The correct use of whips and spurs is as an extension of the natural aids; a reinforcement for the natural aids. If you are asking your horse to side pass and he/she ignores your leg aids, you can reinforce the aid by gently applying a spur or lightly tapping behind your leg with a whip. I say “gently” and “lightly” for a reason, which is that you should expect them to respond. A gentle reminder is like clapping or snapping to get someone’s attention: it asks them to respond appropriately to normal, everyday requests, like moving quietly away from the pressure of your leg. If we want our horses to be quiet and responsive, we have to set the tone with our aids. If you wind up and smack your horse with every ounce of strength in your body, well, you better be able to ride what you dish out.

Is it better to never have to use whips or spurs? Yeah, generally speaking, I would say so. I certainly wouldn’t recommend handing them to every inexperienced or untried rider who comes to the barn. But the reality is that we may not be able to always ride or train without them, because every horse is an individual and has to be trained and ridden with that in mind. But here’s the thing: if fashionable men from 333 years ago could use their artificial aids correctly, I think we should at least strive to do the same.

The last piece of advice I could really glean from this book is actually rather cynical, although I doubt the author meant it to be. Howlett actually tells the readers that he “would not have them (the sports) made a trade, instead of a Divertisement.” Now, I’m guessing that he mostly says it because at the time doing anything to excess was considered a type of gluttony or lust, and that was sinful. And of course, it’s also probably a social standing thing as well: young men of good breeding should not spend their whole lives hunting or playing tennis or cricket or pool. They should be taking on adult responsibilities and building the family fortune and finding wives to produce well-bred worthy heirs. Pomp and circumstance aside, Howlett actually might have a point.

So, here’s the cynical advice that I now must (sadly) give to the new generation of the equine industry: Don’t set your heart on becoming an equine professional.

Bear in mind that I am giving this advice while at least partially ignoring it myself. But becoming an equine professional is a bit like moving in with your best friend: Starting out, it seems like a great idea, and you’re sure it will be super fun. But the odds of it actually working out and you still liking your friend afterwards are pretty slim. When it comes to the horse industry, there aren’t actually that many jobs that put food on the table: most of us are lucky if our horses manage to pay for themselves, and paying for your next meal really isn’t a guarantee. And to be a successful businessman or businesswoman in this industry means putting in way more time and effort than a 9 to 5 job. 18882286_10211730281306954_2361515969697798052_nIt means 12 or 18 hour days in the heat and cold and constantly putting the physical and emotional wellbeing of thousand pound animals above your own. Your horses will need visits from the farrier every six weeks, visits from the vet and dentist every six months to a year, days off when they’re sick or tired, balanced nutrition, and constant monitoring for injuries, illness, unexplained grumpiness, etc. That’s without adding in all of the extra stuff, like visits from massage therapists, chiropractors, or acupuncturists. I generally spend anywhere from 3 to 6 hours on one horse per day. When you’re giving it all you have, this job is mentally and emotionally exhausting, and it could be very easy to start hating it.

So here’s what I suggest doing instead: Get a job that pays the bills. Not a job that you hate and you only do because it pays the bills: try for something that doesn’t make you want to drown all of your sorrows when you come home every day. At least have a stable source of income that can cover the cost of owning horses. If you need it to be a job that allows you to work with horses, try going to veterinary school or working at a veterinary clinic. Consider going to school to become a farrier or equine dentist. If you want to be an instructor or trainer or exercise rider, try to always use or ride someone else’s horse: then you’re not having to take on the costs of care, and sometimes you even get paid to work with other people’s horses. And above all else, never, never, never get a horse job for the money. It will make you angry, bitter, and unwilling to learn anything new. Instead, learn to be an amateur: do it because you love it and you care about the horses. I will take an eager amateur over a sour professional any day of the week, because in the end, we all know which one will do the job right.

Month 3 Check-up

Month 3 was moderately disastrous.

Just before the last week of April Champagne had his first creek crossing, which really went surprisingly well. His second creek crossing (back over the same creek) did not go so well. He banged up his leg and pulled his back, which wasn’t particularly strong in the first place.  I spent a week stretching him back out and getting smooth motion again, thinking that I could go back to riding gently.

Those hopes and dreams were crushed when the farrier came out and holding up his feet restrained his back. So we spent a week on muscle relaxants, bute, turnout time or light lunging, and massages. This was then followed up by a week of normal lunge work, including work in walk, trot, canter, up and down hills, over poles, lengthening and shortening strides, etc.

During that time, I saw some of the hoof peeling away on the lateral side of the left front heel and saw that there was some thrush underneath. I pulled out my hoof knife and decided to open it up to help deter the thrush and make it easier to treat. I didn’t quite comprehend how deep the thrush really went though, so opening it up landed me with a mostly open, thrushy wound. Confused about whether to treat it as an open wound or thrush, I called Amanda. We didn’t cover it, which was actually a wise decision (two or three hours of bandaging made it pretty soft and thrushy and icky), and treated it with a funky combination of:

  • Tomorrow- technically meant for cow udders, but handy for treating thrush when it’s found in tight or deep spots, such as split bulbs
  • Iodine- good for sterilizing both thrush and open wounds, which was nice
  • Scarlet Oil- a pretty good antiseptic that also keeps the flesh supple enough to keep from cracking and bleeding in order to promote even healing of open wounds

I’ve dropped the Scarlet Oil from the treatment routine as the open wound part of the equation has healed well. The thrush part I’m still treating with Tomorrow and Iodine, but it’s actually healing remarkably fast and well. Once the last of the thrushy split tissue heals, I think I can drop the Tomorrow from the treatment routine and only use the Iodine for a few more days after that before allowing it to heal up the rest of the way on its own. Thank goodness Champagne has remained sound on that hoof and has been healing quickly so that we could keep working. I’m not sure how much more time off I could handle.

This week we’re kicking it up another notch and adding in more canter work, more stretching, higher poles, more transitions, changes in the size of the lunge circles, and so on. I’m still giving him massages to keep him comfortable so that he can get stronger faster. Theoretically by the end of this week he should be strong enough to take my weight again, and we can go back to riding. I can’t wait: a month of not riding is giving me the jitters.

The optimistic side of me says that this has all been a great learning experience and I will definitely benefit from it further down the road. The pessimistic side of me says that I would have preferred fewer life lessons and more ride time.

By my calculations, I have now owned Champagne for 91 days. During that time I have recorded 96 hours of work, making an average of 1 hour 3 minutes 18 seconds of training per day. In reality, I have actually only recorded training  for 63 days out of those 91, which means that on average training sessions go for 1 hour 31 minutes 26 seconds.

Has all of the lunging, riding, massaging, hot rice bags, muscle relaxants, vet consultations, extra feed, farrier appointments, dental visits, physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion been worth it?

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Month 0
IMAG1401
Month 3

I don’t think he’ll ever bulk out the way a quarter horse would: his build is just a little too refined for that. But he looks and feels much better, so yes, I’d say this has been worth it.

13 Weeks Down. Approximately 20 to go. I think we can make it.

Small Changes

A little while ago I was bragging to someone about how much progress my little RRP horse was making and how proud I was of him. And then this person asked what I’ve done with him so far, and my answer was so spectacularly profound, thoughtful, and clearly inspired by that moment that it is burned into my memory.

“Eeeeerrrrgh.”

Fortunately, we changed the subject right after that.

But this bothered me. After a month of work I knew that Champagne had made a lot of positive changes, but trying to put them into words made them seem absolutely insignificant. Unlike many of the RRP trainers I see who are already taking their horses to competitions; my successes seemed so small in comparison. What was I supposed to say? “I taught my horse how to trot!” “He let me touch his ears!” “We walked around the arena today and didn’t die!” I’m not doing flying lead changes or half passes or jumping or cutting cattle or anything so big and flashy and praiseworthy. There are plenty of days when I’m lucky to work with Champagne at all. But after a few weeks of feeling ridiculous, I finally remembered something.

This is my journey. I’m not a professional with a $4000 horse training a world class jumper. I’m an amateur taking a $500 Rescued OTTB with all kinds of physical and emotional baggage and rehabilitating him. I’m using whatever knowledge and skills I’ve managed to acquire to give Champagne a life that doesn’t end at the kill pen. Champagne and I are genuinely doing our best, and to pretend that we should somehow be giving more would be doing us both a disservice.

So now we’re at about week 10 of our training (22 weeks to go!), and I can give a much clearer answer about the changes that we’ve made.

Training

In terms of traditional training, I started with a horse that could be groomed and saddled and bridled and walk and gallop in a straight line. In all fairness, it’s not a bad place to start. Now I have a horse who can:

  • Quietly allow a rider to mount (not his strong suit starting out)
  • Walk, trot, canter, and halt calmly according to my aids on the lunge line
  • Walk, trot, sidepass, back, do turns on the forehand and haunches, and perform some beginning lateral work
  • Hack out solo
  • Ride in groups without being absolutely convinced that he must race the rest of the horses

Physical Fitness

Teaching a horse a particular set of movements is easy. Teaching a horse to perform those movements athletically and correctly is an entirely different story. The movements can be learned in a pretty short time. Athleticism can take years to develop, and training a horse to carry him/herself correctly is a work of art. This has been a lot of the emphasis of our training (which is why Champagne and I haven’t even started cantering under saddle- he’s not quite strong enough yet). Coupled with good nutrition, a much needed visit from the equine dentist, and massage therapy (just what I can do myself- I dream on a budget, remember), the changes in just two months have been phenomenal.

When I first got him, Champagne had horribly tight hamstrings and his poll was essentially locked into one position. Trying to ride him was like trying to maneuver box springs up three flights of stairs and through two narrow doorways before realizing the room you were going to put it in is too small. He would be heavy on the forehand and yank you forward with the reins, which was impressive considering how high he usually carried his head. On the rare occasion that he did bend his neck, it wasn’t pretty. It mostly resembled three jagged lines dispersed somewhere between his head and his shoulders. Sure, he could run for a good long while (not because I asked, mind you), but a half hour walk/trot lunge session over poles would be absolutely exhausting. I had to focus on stretching and strengthening and developing his musculoskeletal structure if I wanted to even have a rideable horse, let alone one I could ever hope to take to a competition.

Now Champagne

  • listens first to my seat, not my hands
  • moves quietly off of my legs
  • seeks contact, but no longer braces
  • is supple
  • is quick on the aids
  • can stretch
  • is starting to lift his back
  • can lengthen or shorten his gaits somewhat
  • is significantly more balanced
  • has developed flexibility in the poll and hamstrings

And of course, in terms of what it’s done for him physically, well, the lighting isn’t good, but take a look.

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Week 1
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Week 8

I think that Champagne looks much less like a stick horse and much more like the real thing, and my boss no longer cringes when she looks at him. I think he might even be slightly less cowhocked than before, but that might be wishful thinking.

There’s still plenty to be done (another 50 pounds would be a nice addition), but I think we’re off to a pretty good start.

Emotional Health

One of the most common things I hear about horses is that they have about the mentalities of two year old children. They’re brutally honest, they poop everywhere, everything goes into their mouth, and when there’s something they want, they can be surprisingly creative about how to get it. And just like two year old children, I’m learning that it’s important to nurture healthy relationship skills with our training horses.

Champagne is a bit of a timid soul and not particularly inclined to express himself. As a matter of fact, when he first came in, I’m not entirely certain that he actually knew how to express himself. One of the first days I had him I brought him inside and had him in the cross ties for grooming. We had some kids around the barn, and as soon as a new horse appeared, they were instantly fascinated and everyone wanted to come and pet his face and be his friend. Champagne was still for a few minutes, and I thought he was okay. Then suddenly he freaked out, pulled backwards, and slipped right out of the halter and ran to the back of the barn to hide. Amanda herded all of the kids away and I herded my horse back to his stall, shaking my head at this disaster and thanking the powers that be that it wasn’t worse.

Fortunately, I at least knew that he wasn’t trying to be naughty or mean. All of those kids with all of their crazy kid energy freaked him out, and he was suffering from what I can only describe as “Stranger Danger.” He had never learned to express his discomfort quietly, like a toddler turning his head away from a new person and hiding behind his mom. Champagne had learned to bottle it up until it was too much for him, and then when he had passed his stress threshold, he exploded and ran. Essentially, he skipped right past “I can’t see you, you can’t see me” straight to screaming “Stop, Stranger, Stay AWAY!” and there wasn’t much I could do about it.

So essentially, I had to start this whole “human interaction” thing all over. For about a week or two, I just groomed him. That was it. I groomed him and I watched very carefully for any social cues telling me what he was feeling, and as soon as I saw them, I responded. It was extraordinary, because I don’t think that he was even aware of the signals he had been sending. Obviously I don’t know for certain, but I can only guess that no one had ever really listened to those signals, so he stopped using them. (Just to be clear, I’m not accusing anyone of abuse: I think that someone was probably a little too goal oriented about getting him on the racetrack. It’s an easy enough mistake to make, and one I am inclined to make myself.) But here I was, retraining him to know that I was hearing him, and I would do my best to do right by him. Basically, my goal was to remind him that he had a voice in this conversation too.

Here’s how I know that we made progress. Fast forward to week 9, and once again, he and I are working together while there are some kids nearby. Some of them ask me if they can pet him, and I say “Sure, fine by me.” Instantly, he’s swarmed by three at once. He pulls his face away and looks at me, feeling a little bit panicked. I stop the girls and start again. “If you want to pet him, you can try, but you should probably go one at a time and ask his permission first. Try holding out your hand and letting him smell you. If he doesn’t pull away, you can pet him. If he does, respect his space and maybe ask him again later.” (He’s pretty timid about even putting his nose near people, so I trust him to not nip anyone. If he was mouthy, I wouldn’t suggest holding out hands.)

It was wonderful to watch, for two reasons. The first was that he used a quieter behavior to display his discomfort. The second was that after I told them to ask for his permission first, the way the girls approached him changed instantly. He was no longer a curiosity to pet and snuggle, like a new stuffed animal. These girls suddenly approached him as an individual being with his own unique personality that needed to be respected. Looking back on it, I can’t help but cheer a little bit for that small, seemingly insignificant moment. Three girls started to learn how important it can be to listen when it would be easier to speak, and a horse learned that someone else besides his trainer was going to be listening too.

 

IMAG1095 Altered
Learning About Cuddles

 

Of course, with all of these areas, Champagne and I have a long way to go. Obviously there is more to learn (like canter departs, for one), more ways to strengthen and improve (more lateral work and pole work wouldn’t go amiss), and more things to talk about (he’s starting to tell me what he doesn’t like; now I’d like to find out more about what he does like). But if he improves at even half the rate that he has, I’ll be ecstatic. Meanwhile, I think I’ll learn to savor the small changes. They are pretty sweet.

The Hay Bag

Captain’s Log, Week 6: At this point, I think Champagne is exceeding my expectations.

Don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have our bad days. We had two kind of rough days this last week. One day I asked him to work in the arena while another horse was there, and he’s still convinced that his job is to race any other horses around, so it took the whole training session to just get him to walk and trot in a straight line. The other day he tried using the other horses being turned out nearby as an excuse for not paying attention, but when he tried to rub his head on me and knocked me flying, that was pretty much the indicator that the other horses weren’t a good enough excuse; he was just being disrespectful. We had ourselves a little “Come to Jesus” that day. Thankfully, he cleaned up his act beautifully after that.

Overall though, he’s doing great things. He doesn’t always get quite what I’m asking for, since this whole “ride from the seat and legs” thing is definitely new to him, but as long as I give him clear aids, he responds beautifully. He actually side passed for me when I was demonstrating the importance of balanced seatbones when giving leg aids, and I really didn’t expect him to. We’re not really that far into our training for me to demand that. And while he doesn’t always understand exactly what I’m asking for, and he definitely doesn’t always have the strength or flexibility to do what I ask, he’s actually caught on beautifully to the WHY behind what I ask. He’s starting to figure out that I don’t ask him to do random crap just for the fun of it; I’m actually giving him exercises to help him stretch and give him some relief from his sore, tight muscles. In the same vein of thought, he’s starting to enjoy having his hamstrings massaged after every ride, even though it can be a little bit uncomfortable. He’s figuring out that he magically feels a little less sore afterwards. And on top of all of that, as he becomes more aware of what’s been going on in his body, he’s also starting to release a little bit of the tension on his own: yawning and stretching and so on.

IMAG0983 Crop
Pretty sure this picture describes our whole relationship so far.

We definitely have a long way to go before he’s strong enough and supple enough and understands all of my aids perfectly (the way that I’m hoping for), but he’s so smart and has so much try, and I can’t help but be super proud of how far he’s come in such a short time.

And of course, he definitely made me proud this week when he overcame one of the biggest, scariest challenges that man has ever conceived.

THE DENTIST.

Now, we have a lot of fun when the dentist comes. We probably shouldn’t, because this can be pretty traumatic for the horses, but… well, there’s so many good photo opportunities! Here are some of my favorites from this weekend.

I didn’t get any pictures of Champagne while his teeth were being done, because I was handling for the dentists, but let me tell you, I’m really glad that they came this weekend and took care of him, because this is what they ended up taking out of his mouth.

Now, Champagne was a champ about this whole thing. Even though they had given him a shot of sedation, he was still awake enough and miserable enough that he could have made our lives very, very difficult if he had wanted to. As it was, even though it was awful for him, he stood there like a perfect gentleman and let us do what needed to be done.

“Hey, LWR, I get that you’re trying to take care of your horse, but seriously? Those are some big teeth to take out of his mouth. Wasn’t that a little bit excessive?”

Not one bit, no. And to understand why, here’s a quick crash course in equine dentistry.

Horse Skull Teeth TypeThis is your horse’s skull. Well, loosely speaking, at least. In an adult horse with a fully developed mouth, you have 12 incisors (The purple ones; 6 on top, 6 on bottom), up to 4 canines (Marked in orange and often dependent on the sex of the horse), 12 premolars (The blue ones; 3 on top and 3 on bottom per side), and 12 molars (marked in red). In general, horse teeth follow the same rules as any other animal: Incisors are for ripping and tearing up grass, canines are used to show dominance (aka, nipping at other animals, horse and predator alike), and premolars and molars are for grinding up food before swallowing. So far so good. Probably the biggest difference is how their teeth grow.

Humans, dogs, cats, and I’m sure other animals all have their baby teeth, and then as they mature and their skull reaches full size, those fall out and our adult teeth come in, and they’re deeply rooted in our skulls and we’re stuck with brushing our teeth regularly to prevent cavities and tartar and plaque and whatever else, because once we get those adult teeth, that’s it, we’re done. Horses have baby teeth as well, and they do fall out before their adult teeth come in, but once their adult teeth come in, they keep “growing”. Actually, they’re not growing: the way a lot of dentists and veterinarians will describe it is as “Erupting.” Basically, the teeth keep descending (or ascending) until they meet an opposing force (which we hope is another tooth).  As they get older, they may look like they have the same size tooth in their mouth, but the tooth as a whole is getting shorter as it’s worn down on the surface.

In these pictures you can see a four year old’s tooth (it abscessed and had to be extracted, that’s why it’s so red and gooey looking), then in the second picture you will see (moving left to right) half of a three year old’s tooth (it fell and broke on the concrete), followed by the teeth of a 9 year old, an 18 year old, and a 30 year old. As a horse spends 30 years grazing and grinding away on those teeth, they don’t wear down quite so soon as if they were to have teeth built like ours. They keep on erupting, simply providing a fresh grinding surface.

horse grazingNow, because horses naturally spend most of their time eating grass and have their noses down, their teeth evolved to suit that fact. As their head is stretched down and their faces are about vertical, their teeth are pretty much aligned, and consequently their teeth wear down fairly evenly. This isn’t always the case, as horses have a lot of the same issues as us (overbites, underbites, etc.), but this is pretty much the optimal way for their teeth to grow. I think the average rate of growth for a horse’s tooth when it has a proper opposing force (aka, another tooth) is about 1/8 inch per year. But of course, being humans, we did something terrible that messed with that optimal growth rate.

We domesticated horses and put them into stalls.

Hay feederJust because I say that, please don’t take that as an insult or assume that you must now free all of the horses. We actually have a fairly symbiotic relationship going now. And the stalls aren’t really the problem (even though pasture space is much better). The problem is that we started feeding horses out of hay bags and feeders: specifically hay feeders that force the horse to eat at chest height or higher. I know that we all do it (I am guilty) to try to save hay to keep it all from being pooped and peed on, but when we invented this marvelous hay saving device, we failed to calculate the effect it would have on our horses’ teeth.

We always think that the jaw is just a hinged joint: that it just opens and closes like a door. If you ever play with a skull (human or horse), you’ll find that the jaw doesn’t “click” into place. There’s actually a lot of wiggle room, and if it wasn’t for the ligaments, muscles, and tendons holding it in place, we would have some serious problems. Come to think of it, I guess that’s pretty much true of most joints in our bodies, but the point is that the Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) actually allows for a surprisingly wide range of motion.

Here’s a quick experiment for you. Drop your head to your chest, and relax your jaw. Do you feel where your teeth and jaw are sitting? Now roll your head upright and even back. What just happened? Did you feel how much your jaw shifted, just by moving your head up and down? Guess what? Horse’s heads do the exact same thing.

When we feed our horses with their heads up high, we throw off the alignment of their jaws, and consequently, their teeth no longer grind down evenly. Remember, when a horse’s tooth meets the opposite tooth, it grows at about a rate of 1/8 inch per year. When a tooth lacks the proper opposing force, its growth rate jumps to 3/4 inch per year. When a whole tooth, or even a part of a tooth, is growing 6 times faster than it should, you can bet there’s going to be some problems. The main ones you’ll usually hear about are hooks, ramps, and waves.

Hooks

hooks ramps redHooks occur when the top, front premolar is sitting slightly in front of the bottom premolar and starts erupting faster. They do also occur on other teeth, but this is where you will see hooks the most. Obviously this will be extremely painful if the horse bites his check or gum, and if it goes on long enough, that sharp point is going to drive its way right down into the bottom gum. If for some reason that doesn’t concern you, please note that it will also probably interfere with the bit, and you will wonder why your horse is always so grumpy when you try to go for a ride.

Waves

I don’t understand waves as well as I probably should, but my main impression is that this mostly occurs when the main bulk of the premolars and molars aren’t grinding evenly against each other. If there’s not a flat surface to grind against, your horse will probably have a lot of problems chewing and digesting his/her feed properly, and the odds of choking or colic are greatly increased. Also, with all those sharp points along the edge, that horse is going to be miserable every time he tries to chew and catches his cheek instead.

Ramps

received_1911424982477707Ramps usually occur under the same circumstances as hooks: the top layer of teeth are sitting forward of the bottom layer, and that back, lower molar starts to erupt at a quicker rate than the rest of the teeth and starts to slope upward. Just like with hooks, it will eventually grow into the upper gum. However (as I learned from our dentists this time around), ramps can actually kill a horse. As the ramp grows upward and eventually wears away whatever opposing tooth there may be, it will actually pierce through the roof of the mouth and puncture the palatine artery, and the horse will bleed out and die. On the right is a picture of the skull of a horse who actually died this way.

“Okay LWR, that’s scary. But still, taking that much tooth out of the mouth seems really aggressive. Couldn’t the dentist have just filed them down and made him feel better?”

Most of the time, yes, you can do that and be okay. But Champagne’s ramps were too far gone: they couldn’t even fit a file between his upper and bottom molars in the back. Even if they could have, can you imagine how long it would take to file those down to size? And I don’t think that this was a job that could have been done halfway, because let’s go back and take a look at those teeth. Bear in mind, they were cut to sit flush with the rest of his molars and premolars. The red circles show the chewing area, and the yellow lines show the back of the teeth.

See what I mean? He had had ramps for so long that as his teeth continued to erupt, they could no longer erupt upward, the way that they were supposed to. The back continued to erupt faster than the front, and the front had nowhere to go, and eventually, it actually changed how those back teeth were sitting in his skull. That’s gotta be excruciating. Cutting it down and relieving that pressure was about the only way to start the healing process. They said that if he had gone untreated, in about another year, he would have been absolutely miserable and it would have been almost impossible to save his mouth. If it had gone on for another 4 years, he would be dead. As it is, with dental appointments every 6 months for the next year or so (probably longer), they said they can fix all of this and get it healthy again.

The thing is, I don’t think that his teeth would have naturally grown in this way. Granted, I didn’t get to stick my hand in his mouth this time around to feel, but I think if he had grown up grazing in a pasture or eating hay off the ground, or heck, having the opportunity to eat below chest level, this wouldn’t have happened. Or if it had, it wouldn’t have been nearly so extreme. Think about that. At least 50% of this whole nightmare is because some humans decided to feed their horses too high, just to try to save a few bucks on hay.

 

horse eating hay on ground
Feeding hay on the ground isn’t as big of a deal as we think.

 

One final thing before I can get off my soap box.

There are a lot of old school trainers out there who may be saying “I feed my horses off the ground, and my horses eat well and maintain a good weight and ride well: I don’t need a dentist to come out.” And to you, I must say… That’s wonderful! I’m so glad that your horses are doing well! But please do call a good vet or dentist out anyhow to at least evaluate their teeth and clean up some sharp edges. Champagne was actually gaining weight and riding fairly well, but I think that’s because he’s a fairly easy keeper and because he’s just a really good boy with a really sweet personality. But even if your horse is fat and happy and willing to do whatever you ask, do at least let a dentist do their job, and see what happens. I guarantee you’ll get better work than before, and here’s why.

Imagine that your horse has waves or hooks or ramps, and their teeth have been grinding in the same pattern for years and years. As time goes on, their teeth and jaw sort of get “locked” into that pattern and position. It’s sort of like a key, but with a lot less mobility and proper function.

Now having the TMJ locked in one position is bad enough, but imagine that it’s locked with the jaw sitting too far back. This is going to cause all kinds of problems. You might see the effects with your horse’s head stuck in the air or with excessive chewing, dry mouth, etc.: all of these behaviors that we often think of as “naughty” but usually tend to speak more to “discomfort.” Even if they are not showing any of these signs, you may see it as a failure to perform: an inability to form a connection or contact, a sliding stop that bounces along on the forehand, a tightness in the back as the horse tries to jump, or a stop that is never quite square in the dressage ring. The horse is doing their best, but they just can’t quite get it. Here’s why.

One of the main things that the horse uses his head and neck for (especially when he has a rider on his back) is balance. This 100 pound head swinging along in front of you helps to counteract all of the crazy motion that is going on in the other 900 pounds. The best way that a horse can use his head to balance requires that his head be free to hang from the first cervical vertebrae, rather like a chandelier. It’s actually the kind of physics that sometimes gets used in architecture to balance a building that is inclined to sway in high wind. Essentially, that free hanging weight is able to “center” the rest of the body. This is (partially) why we always talk about the importance of “bending” or “breaking” at the poll.

A good portion of bending at the poll depends on the TMJ being soft and the jaw being able to hang loose. I’m not entirely certain, but my educated guess is that when the jaw is locked back, it actually creates an internal tension that is similar to what happens when we force a horse into Rollkur. I’m not sure how it would affect the muscles, tendons, and ligaments of the neck, but I’m fairly certain that like Rollkur, it would put additional and very unnecessary strain on the horse’s airway and spit glands, both of which would be (politely put) quite uncomfortable. As much as your horse is willing to try for you, they’re in pain. Ever tried playing basketball on a sprained knee? No one performs well when they’re in pain. Don’t expect them to “walk it off,” because they can’t.

Basically, here’s what this whole blog post comes down to: it’s easy to neglect getting a horse’s teeth done. It sometimes seems too expensive or too much of a hassle or just plain unnecessary. Maybe your horses do have incredible teeth and they never have problems chewing and they’re soft and flexible and supple and quick on your aids. Matter of fact, I think my first horse was one of those. 30 years old and I hadn’t gotten his teeth done in 5 years (I didn’t know any better), and when the vet checked them, he said they were great. It does happen.

But get them checked anyhow.

Getting your horse’s teeth checked regularly is just like getting hooves trimmed or having them vaccinated or getting an annual Coggins test done. It’s one of those acts of maintenance that does great things. It could save you money, because your horse will drop less feed when he/she can chew correctly. It could save your performance, because your horse will no longer be in unnecessary pain. And most importantly, it could save your horse’s life.

Month 1 Check-up

So we returned from the More Miles with Mimi Clinic, and we got the horses unloaded and put away and fed and all of that good jazz, and as I was starting the ten minute drive home, something absolutely terrible happened.

I started sneezing.

My husband had come home from training for less than 24 hours and had managed to give me his cold. It stayed away through the clinic weekend, but as soon as we were done traveling, my body said “Great! We have time to take care of this now,” and my week was essentially kind of ruined. Many decongestants and Kleenexes died to bring you this post.

Rather than go out to the barn every day and stress my body out and run the risk of passing a cold to Amanda as well (I think she would shoot me: she doesn’t have time for colds), I went out on Monday (to clean out the trailer and make sure horses were all happy) and on Friday (to clean out the barn). Outside of some mounting work on Friday (Champagne isn’t sure whether to run from the mounting block or eat it), Champagne essentially got week 2 1/2 to 3 off.

We’re now solidly into week 4, and I still haven’t gotten to do as much work with Champagne this week as I would like to, because my oldest brother and his girlfriend came out to visit, and spending time with my brother who I haven’t seen in almost 3 years kind of takes priority. I gave up some training time in favor of social visits and taking them to eat some true Louisiana BBQ and Crawfish. However, I also got to take them out to work and show them a little bit of what I do (I’m slowly debunking the myth that I don’t do anything productive with my life), and they even got to have a bit of a lunge lesson from Amanda. They were both super brave, because they were both willing to groom and saddle by themselves (we taught them how, but they did all the work) and to climb into dressage saddles, which neither had done before. My brother made all kinds of funny faces as he was concentrating on what he was doing (it’s a family trait: I totally do it too), and his girlfriend actually seemed to have a bit of a knack for it; but she does have that tall, athletic build that always makes me jealous. My brother has officially set a record for the biggest head that Amanda has tried to shove into a helmet, and we had some great help from one of our Horse Team girls during their lesson, as well as the lesson afterward. They said that they had fun and that it was really interesting, so I like to think that we did something right.

I’m a little irritated with how little work Champagne and I have done so far: We only have about seven rides under our belts (but the two weeks of ground work leading up to those seven rides was totally worth it), and I’m starting to stress about how much we have to get done before October. I’m starting to have funky dreams where I think it’s September and we still only have a few rides and we’re just not ready for RRP. I’m really having to remember to not demand perfection right now: Champagne is still too weak and too new to this whole “not racing thing” to cope with the weight of those expectations. I’m really trying to focus on the smallest, almost insignificant victories, like 1) Sighing, grunting, licking and chewing, 2) relaxed stretches forward into contact, 3) The slightest correct positioning of the head, 4) NOT bracing on my hands, 5) practicing and setting a rhythmical gait, particularly in the trot.

However, training anxiety aside, one of the things that I am planning on doing through this whole process is to take a picture of Champagne every month for the 8 months that I have him, and essentially try to document any changes that we make through feed or training. I don’t see a whole lot of changes so far, except that he’s (hopefully) put a little weight back on, and that he’s almost done shedding from the constant grooming, but it’s only been a month so far, so I don’t expect miracles. Hopefully we see some really positive changes by about month 6.

In other news, I’m starting to follow Amanda around to some of her Equine Massage appointments and trying to pick up whatever little tidbits of knowledge that I can. I need to steal some of her massage therapy papers from Meredith Manor and study them, because in spite of how much I do already know, there are a lot of complexities that are beyond me without some very active studying. That said, I did purchase some essential oils in order to make a massage liniment for Champagne’s tight hamstrings. I sat down at the dinner table to make a nice, oily concoction, and it was… underwhelming. I’m not sure why I thought mixing smelly stuff together would be satisfying, but still… I guess I had hoped for inspirational music or angelic voices to be heard when I got the proportions just where I wanted them.

This evening after I finished with my ride with Champagne, I slathered some of my new concoction all over his hamstrings and rubbed them out a little bit. He doesn’t quite seem to know whether he likes the smell of the liniment or not, and he’s definitely not sure what to think about me trying to massage it into his butt, but there seemed to be some things that he did like about it. From here on out, I’m hoping to not postpone any more training, and I’m planning on rubbing on his sore muscles, even for five minutes, after every work out, so… Well, best case scenario, it will work wonders and I’ll somehow magically get a superb performance horse. Worst case scenario, I think I’ll at least have a very happy, spoiled pony.

More Miles With Mimi

Week 2 has been fun.

IMAG0913_2Notable things that happened during the week:

  • I climbed on top of Champagne for the first time
  • He’s getting much stronger faster than I expected: he’s starting to really stretch into the side reins and really carry himself well over the poles (except for when he gets bored with lunging over poles and chooses to knock the poles flying instead).
  • He was so absolutely unimpressed with his birthday cake that rather than look at it or smell it in the feed bucket, he covered it with alfalfa so that he could eat his grain without having anything to do with the cake (I ended up feeding the whole mess to Einstein).
  • We went to a Centered Riding Clinic in Lake Charles this weekend, and Champagne came along for the ride and experience.

The Clinic

The clinic was wonderful. The Clinician was Mimi Pantelides, who was lucky enough to study Centered Riding directly under Sally Swift. Of course, she didn’t stop just with learning from Sally, but has continued learning everything she can, like natural horsemanship (not my favorite, but whatever), tai chi, yoga, Feldenkrais and Alexander Technique, and in the biography she gave us, she lists another 14 horse riding instructors she has studied under! In addition, she also was a professional dancer, studying in college and performing in New York, so she obviously had a lot of different techniques and experiences to draw on.

Now, a lot of what we learned was stuff that Amanda and I already study and teach- well, sort of. I’m afraid we often get caught up in the theory and anatomy and biomechanics of riding and training, because a) it’s cool, b) to us it’s very important that our students understand the absolute core of why we ride the way we do c) I think sometimes when we have students whose parents are paying us to teach their children, we feel very obligated to put out a ton of information so that we feel like we’re really teaching a lesson, not just giving the child an expensive pony ride. So this was a wonderful opportunity for us to go back and toss out all of the technicalities of riding theory, slow down our goal oriented brains, and simply return to feeling how our horses move.

While I’m sure that I should spend more time talking about the technical aspects of the clinic-the exercises that we did and so forth- there are plenty of books that have been written on the subject already. Honestly, the main thing that we worked on was the Four Basics from Centered Riding, which are:

  • Soft Eyes
  • Breathing
  • Centering
  • Building Blocks

For more information, you can either a) Buy a copy of Centered Riding and Centered Riding 2, or b) go to a Centered Riding Clinic. There is no possible way for me to explain all of it in one blog post. We only got a bit of an introduction in a full weekend, and I think an in depth study would last years, if not a lifetime.

My Challenge

Amanda and I both faced our own challenges during this clinic. In many ways, I had a great head start because I am naturally a pretty right-brained individual. The right hemisphere of the brain thinks in pictures and feelings and connects us to the rest of the world. It is responsible for art and music and dance and poetry and all of these incredible, very human things. With my history of singing and music and dance, I was already fairly well set up to understand and sink readily into this sort of Zen feeling of connecting with my horse and with other people through this undefinable language of centering and touch and feeling. It’s a feeling and an experience that I was used to chasing as I studied things like music and literature: to feel everything that the creator had wanted me to feel, rather than to analyze everything the author had written. My challenges were a little more left brained in nature, and I had a new one basically every day.

The first challenge was the hotel room. I had made a reservation for a semi-cheap room, thinking that I would be able to stay down there and feed our three clinic horses in the morning, cutting down on how early we all had to get up. That seemed like a good plan, until I discovered that the hotel tax in Lake Charles is 14.5%! My hotel bill, which I had expected to be maybe $160, ended up being over $200 for two nights. No more hotels in Lake Charles for me. Next time I’ll either just commute or I’ll bring a sleeping bag and sleep in the trailer or in the car.

The first night we all got to know each other and fill out paperwork and do some fun exercises (which is not something I say lightly about “getting to know you” exercises- I pretty much hate “getting to know you” games). Then afterwards we went out to collect our horses and ride for about an hour. Thinking that this would be a good time to take Champagne out and work with him so that I could ride Tidbit through the harder parts of the clinic, I saddled him up and walked him into the arena, thinking that I was going to hop into the saddle and just walk nicely on the rail.

He wouldn’t let me on. His racehorse training had kicked in. We were in a new place with lots of unknown horses and people, and what do racehorses do when they’re taken to new places with new horses? They race. I weigh a good fifty pounds more than most jockeys now, and as strong and athletic as I still am in my overweightness (I’m surprised that spell check accepts “overweightness” as a word), I am not in any condition to leap onto a galloping horse. So we just ended up doing ground work all night long.

Silver lining? Now Amanda and I know what Champagne’s biggest flaw is, and we can do something about it. We’re going to have to trailer to a lot of new places in the next few months.

The second day things were going pretty well. I was enjoying our exercises on the ground, learning a lot, I was planning to ride Tidbit through that day so that I could get as much out of the day’s exercises as possible, and then…

My half chaps broke. The left one had broken a while ago, and I had replaced the zipper. This time it was the right half chap, and by the time Miss Kelly and her brother had wrestled the darn thing off of my leg, I was frustrated enough that I wanted to take a knife to it and just chop it off, and it turned out some of the zipper teeth had ripped. So I ran to the English clothing store (fortunately there was one ten minutes away rather than the usual 2 or 3 hours that I would have dealt with at home), and I went in to try to buy a new pair of half chaps. All of their half chaps were Ariats or Tuffriders, and both are made for tall, skinny people with lovely, shapely legs. I am short and stocky and thirty pounds overweight, and so none of those were going to fit me. So I returned to the clinic, resigned to just riding in my paddock boots.

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That evening though, once the clinic was done, I brought Champagne into the arena and lunged him for a few minutes. After that, he actually did let me climb on, and while he did take off around the arena, I was happy that he had actually stood still long enough for me to climb into the saddle.

The third day I decided to try riding Champagne again. Now, we were able to coax him into letting me on, and he walked somewhat quietly for about five minutes, and then the obvious happened: he took off. Fortunately we were only in the arena with adults at that point, and they were all good enough to stop their horses and let me dodge them while I coped with Champagne. They were all very sweet about it, and later told me that they were impressed with how well I handled it and that I looked very calm and relaxed. One lady told me that if her horse had done that, she would have cried. I was mostly just embarrassed and glad that nobody had given me that look that said “Why is she bringing a horse to a clinic that she can’t even control? Doesn’t she know better?” They all took it in stride and accepted that this was a training horse and only my fourth ride on him to boot.

And actually, when everything was said and done, I was glad that I did ride him that day. He was willing to walk after that, and since a lot of what we were working on was breathing and relaxing and making things easier for our horses, the way he moved was a very good indicator of how I was doing. Also, while his motion is pretty flat (I’m comparing him to Luke), it still had this kind of funky, sloppy, big motion to it, so I could feel everything that was going on in his body. For the first time, I could feel his hind legs and haunches working: something that I hadn’t ever felt so clearly before. I could feel that the motion wasn’t a perfect forward, but a sort of swinging motion that picked up his back and my own weight from his hind foot to the opposite foreleg. I had never felt that before, and It. Was. Cool.

Amanda’s Challenge

Amanda had an entirely different set of challenges ahead of her. The first was obviously that she had to commute back and forth every day to feed the horses at home. The second was that she had some family problems come up, and so she had to work through that and fight off a migraine at the same time. I didn’t envy her that at all. But probably the most difficult challenge that I saw her overcome this weekend was this whole “feeling” and “centering” thing.

Amanda is an absolutely left-brained creature. I don’t think that she likes math or anything like that, but show her a line and she will let you know if it is straight or not. She has to have everything laid out in a logical sequence, and she has to know the WHY of everything we do. Dancing and singing are not her fortes. It’s only been recently that she’s been starting to learn to feel what do while on a horse instead of thinking about what to do. She came in wanting to learn more theory and exercises and biomechanics, and she had to learn to throw all of that away in favor of sitting quietly and feeling what was going on in her own body, rather than having something that she was supposed to do. I think not having a “right answer” laid out in front of her kind of killed her. Which is why I absolutely HAD to snap this picture in order to prove that this had happened.

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She. Relaxed.

This is particularly amazing because of all of the turmoil that was going on in her life this weekend. She managed to put all of it aside, and just FEEL. At the end, when we were wrapping up and being asked what we would take with us, she said something along the lines of how she needed to take more time to stop trying to do things perfectly, to just close her eyes, and to feel what was going on in the horse’s body.

Which is why from here on out, I think I may be forcing her into what I call “Feeling Friday,” where I put her on the lunge line or lead her around and make her practice centering herself and practice self awareness. She’s probably going to hate me for interfering with her goal oriented riding time, but too bad. I’m pretty much okay with being mean and making her do something that’s good for her.

Final Thoughts

You know, we did all of this great stuff and learned new exercises and met new people, and I really loved it. But I think my favorite thing from that Clinic can be summed up in one word: John.

untitledJohn was the only man at the clinic- completely surrounded by women and girls and all of the estrogen they represented, riding a horse that he bought from the sale barn for a few hundred dollars, got into riding relatively late (age 21, and he basically had to figure most of it out on his own because most horse riding instructors wouldn’t teach him), and because he tends to ride horses that are cheap and that he is usually taking a chance on, he’s usually pretty tense; always waiting for the next buck. But as he came in to this touchy-feely clinic with all of these crazy horse women, he managed to be secure in himself and eager and willing to learn. Basically, he was the best kind of student any teacher could hope for (and yes, I did feel compelled to sneak a picture of him leading one of the girls on her little white pony. Because it was adorable and awesome).

The change that John made was incredible. He started out tense, a little bit stuck in his seat, and about as goal oriented and driven as Amanda. By the end of the clinic, with all of these exercises and an instructor who was willing to take the time with him to adjust his body and help him find a good position and a comfortable feeling, just about everything about him had changed. He still wasn’t super flexible and limber like the 12 year old girls (because no 40 year old man is ever going to be as flexible and limber as a 12 year old girl, and no one in their right mind would expect them to be), but he was no longer stiff. His seat and aids had softened, he was allowing his joints to do their job, he no longer needed to manhandle his horse, and it all showed in how his horse moved. The horse no longer needed to have his head in the air, his gaits lengthened, he became more willing, and they both just looked a little more comfortable and a little more happy.

By the end, when all of these horses and riders were soft and listening to each other and focused completely on what the other one had to say, it was really beautiful to watch. There was no anger, no expectations, no frustrations: just pure horsemanship. This was Equine Zen. I guess if that’s not worth the $250 Clinic Fee, not much is.

 

Happy Birthday

Champagne’s first week has (more or less) been a success.

The first few days seemed a bit overwhelming for him, and he didn’t quite seem to know how to communicate that he was feeling distressed. Of course, this is not surprising. A lot of the horses I’ve had the honor of working with at HES have the biggest, wildest, funniest personalities. They all have spots that they love to have scratched, they all have pet peeves, and they have no fear in communicating what they’re thinking and feeling. It used to be that I couldn’t understand everything that they were saying, but that came with time and practice (same as any other language), and I’ve grown to really love having these kind of funny dialogues with them. One of my favorite hobbies is to narrate what the horses are saying when they’re being ridden or worked, especially with some of our Horse Team girls, who are still learning exactly what the horses are saying. But when Champagne came in, I felt like this is all I heard.

This really didn’t surprise me. There are many parts of the horse industry (and I would probably put the racing industry in this category) where the horse doesn’t really need a voice: there’s a job to do and money to earn and no one has time for this touchy feely crap. I get that, I really do, because in many ways that was my attitude even a year ago. And really, there is a place for that where we have to just work through whatever is going on, and eventually we’re all better for it. But the thing is, Champagne is actually very sensitive and easy to overwhelm, and I don’t think anyone had ever really acknowledged that fact. As a result, he never learned to express himself in a healthy way: all he could really manage seemed to be explosive outbursts. I would have moments where I’d be working with him and he would freak out and pull back and run away, and I had absolutely no warning.

So the first order of business in our training regimen was a lot of grooming. I feel like I have spent the vast majority of the week with a brush in my hand. Part of this is because shedding season has begun (actually I think it started about a month ago. Louisiana is weird like that), and part of it was just for us to start communicating. My main goal was to encourage him to talk to me, and it required being oh so very quiet and attentive. I don’t think I could have done it six months ago. Every tiny flick of the ear, every quiver of the nostril, every shudder of the skin, I had to respond to immediately and correctly, and sometimes they were signals that I’m not even sure Champagne really knew he was giving. Every time he pulled his head away when I wanted to groom his face and ears (apparently a lot of racehorses get their ears twisted in the starting gate to make them behave, so Champagne is a little head shy), I had to start over. Every time he started acting a little kicky with his hind feet when I was cleaning his hooves, I had to remember that his hamstrings are tight and stiff, so it was time to relax and encourage him to stretch. The whole point was to say “I hear you. Talk to me, and I’ll try to make it better. I got you.”

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Champagne is still timid, but he’s talking now. We really put it to the test this week when I had to clean his sheath, because it was clear from grooming him that it was bothering him. (By the by, sheath cleaning is one of those chores that could almost make me give up horses. I guess Amanda had a teacher who used to charge $50 per sheath, and she made a killing off of that business. NO ONE in their right mind wants to do it.) He kept raising his hind leg in the air to tell me that he was very uncomfortable with this and he would very much like to kick me, but since all he did was raise his leg and he never made even one kicking motion, I used his tail to pull him back onto all four feet, gave him lots of pets, took it slow, and scrubbed him clean. He was much happier by the end, which was both gratifying and totally disturbing. Now I can scrub his belly without him getting wiggly and upset, and for lack of a better way of putting it, I guess it served as a good trust exercise. He definitely showed a lot of growth today when he saw a hose being dragged next to him and didn’t freak out and jump fifteen feet in the air. If he’s willing to just look at me and ask me if it’s going to eat him or if I’m going to protect him, I call that some serious progress.

Now, I can’t say for sure yet, but Champagne is sensitive enough that I’m not convinced that he will ever make a good kids horse or lesson horse. How-ev-er, I think he’s got the makings of an incredible performance horse, and that is super exciting to me. We’ve just been doing ground work so far (we have another few days before I toss a saddle on him for the first time), but he is one athletic, quick learner. He responds to the lightest touches, he has a beautiful floaty trot, he’s already shown a talent for roll backs when free schooling in the arena, and he stops (almost) on a dime when you breathe. We’re only five or six free schooling/lunge sessions in, and I was confident enough with his progress to show him off to Amanda today. He is a smart cookie, and I am ecstatic to see where we go from here.

11882835_10201167335943100_2667874322426040251_oOf course, there is one problem with having my own horse, and it’s that it’s not great for my checkbook. I’m not talking about the cost of food and board and vet bills: you don’t get into horses without expecting those kinds of costs. The problem is that since he’s now MY HORSE, I tend to buy a lot of… accessories.

I have become the “nice amateur lady” in many respects. I’m like “How long is he gonna be skinny?” “Is he eating all of his hay and grain?” “Does he need a supplement to help him gain weight?” “Would a toy help him stop chewing apart the stall?” “What if we try this?” “What about this?” “I heard that this would help, should we try that?” And I’m pretty sure Amanda is either a) laughing at me or b) putting her head in her hands and going “It has begun.”

So here are my ridiculous purchases thus far (I think I have curbed the urge somewhat now, thank goodness):Image result for jolly ball horses

Jolly Ball

It was meant to help keep him from chewing on the barn wall, but thus far that has essentially failed. I’m leaving it hanging in his stall for the time being to see if he starts to take any interest.

Hoof Wraps

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Brandi’s farrier did a really good job of trimming down Champagne’s hooves and getting his feet at a good angle and shape instead of leaving him with some of the weird things that happen to horses’ feet in the racing industry; but to do that, he had to cut them pretty short. Champagne actually has pretty tough feet, and I am absolutely confident that he will be able to go barefoot without any difficulty, so I’m not getting him shod, but he is a little sore over gravel right now. So I bought him a pair of hoof wraps to help protect his feet while they grow out a little (they were basically the cheapest product available). And, well, the hoof wraps do make it so he can walk on rocks without any problems, and I guess that for their intended purpose (pasture time), they probably work very well. But I was trying to use them for lunging on damp ground, and under those circumstances, they have absolutely ZERO traction. I’ll probably give them another shot now that things have dried out a bit since the last rain, so maybe they’ll be better, but if your horse’s feet are a little too short, I would probably suggest either a) getting a more expensive product, or b) just wait for your horse’s feet to grow out for a few weeks before putting him/her into heavy work.

Birthday Cake

This one is my favorite so far. Turns out today is Champagne’s birthday, so guess what I decided to do?

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What? You can’t tell me you didn’t see that one coming.

Champagne was not impressed. Actually, none of the horses really were. Even Sugar didn’t want to eat the cake when we offered it to her, and she eats ANYTHING. Einstein kind of broke it apart and nibbled on some of the crumbs, but that was the best response we got.

I think my husband is now convinced that I really am insane or stupid, but you know what? For the first time in years, I have a horse. I have about seven or eight months to train him to go to a national training competition in Kentucky. I will probably never be able to take this much time to train a horse ever again, let alone for a big event like this. So dang it all, I’m going to do some things that are kind of silly. Even if it does mean that I might have to clean smooshed carrot cake out of some feed buckets in the morning. It’s all about enjoying the journey and having some fun.

Champagne

For the last few years, I’ve been eying horse sale postings on Facebook and Equinenow and Horseclicks and Dreamhorse and Equine.com and sighing because there were such beautiful horses and I couldn’t buy one (military life kind of murdered my chances at buying a horse and expecting to own it for a long period of time). Then I got accepted to RRP, and suddenly, I had to start searching for a horse to buy as soon as possible. I made my list of parameters, which were:

  • Thoroughbred
  • Registered with the Jockey Club with a lip tattoo or chip
  • Raced after July 1, 2015
  • Hadn’t started training in a new career prior to December 1, 2016
  • Retired Sound
  • Able to go barefoot
  • Preferably 16+ hh
  • Priced at $500 or less (I do dream on a budget, and most of my budget is going toward horse care, not the initial purchase)
  • Needed to be located relatively close

With all of that in mind, I got started.

What. A. Nightmare.

imag0805Because this years RRP is essentially my grad project, I decided to go about this as professionally as possible. I put together a BEAUTIFUL business letter, collected the names and addresses of every single facility across Louisiana and Texas that dealt in Thoroughbreds (and didn’t seem horribly shady or like the business had gone under years ago), addressed each business letter individually, wrote out every single address by hand on the envelopes, double checked honorifics on the letter headings and envelopes, fixed and reprinted several of the letters, and then mailed off (count ’em) TWENTY EIGHT beautiful business letters. And that consumed a full weekend of my life.

Twenty eight letters sent out. Guess how many responses I got?

Three. Initially only two, but a few days ago I got a call from someone else, which was lovely, albeit a little too late.

I guess in a lot of ways, a 7-10% response rate is actually pretty good when it comes to asking strangers for a horse, but still… it was a bit of a let down. Serious props to the people who were kind enough to call me and tell me that they’d keep an eye out for me, especially because they actually did keep an eye out for me. But unfortunately, nothing quite panned out there, so I returned to pay homage to the god of all marketing and sales; most commonly known as “The Internet.”

Thousands and thousands of horse listings on the internet, but it felt like I couldn’t even find one that fit what I needed. I would find great sites, call the owners to see if they had any horses in my price range or my geographic area, and I would come up empty. There was even the lady that told me that at the price range I was looking at, my horse would break down before I ever got to the competition. Which was rude, because I try to leave my horses in better condition than when I started with them, so thanks for nothing, you evil cow. I contacted one rescue that had a horse that looked like he would be perfect, but I sent in the adoption paperwork and pictures of the facility and the twenty dollar application fee and whatever else they needed, and they never contacted me back. I kind of suspect that the lady has some issues letting go of horses, which I get, but dude. I was offering the horse a good home with training and rehabilitation and a chance at a new career and the best care in the area, and you couldn’t even be bothered to call me back and tell me “No?”

Eventually, I came across this group. The Gulf Coast Thoroughbred Network seems to be a fairly new, up and coming organization. They get horses of all kinds from people who don’t want their horses to end up at the kill pens (as well as pulling some of them from the kill pens) and do what they can to rehome them. Honestly, I think a lot of the horses never quite make it onto the website because the people working with the network by picking up and fostering these horses tend to fall in love with them and keep them for themselves. Which hey, mission accomplished!  I ended up going through several of their horses. The first one, someone else got to before me. The second one was sweet and curious and TALL and had a great ground covering stride that would have probably made him a great eventer or barrel racer, but he was not in great condition. When I came to see him, his coat was matted with poop, you could have probably gone hang gliding with his hips for a sail, and I’m still not quite sure what was going on with his feet. He was a sweet boy, and I think I could have done good things with him, but I also would have spent two months getting him back up to weight so that we could even start working. So in spite of how much I liked him, I decided it would be a good idea to look at some of the other horses from the Network and see if there was a better fit. And, well… there was.

Ladies and Gentlemen: Please make some noise and give a big welcome to Champali Lake!!

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It was a four and a half hour drive to go meet him and a four and a half hour drive back, which is always a bit nauseating to drive on my own, but whatever. The things we do for horses. When I got there, the first words out of Brandi’s mouth were “I’m so sorry, I just pulled him out of foster care this weekend, and he’s lost some weight from when I saw him last, so he doesn’t look as good as he should.” I looked at him and went “Oh, he’s still got a body condition of a four, so I can work with that.” Her facilities were small, clean, and well maintained, her own horses were friendly and well cared for, her equipment was up to date, and she had a pleasantly warped sense of humor very akin to my own, and that makes everything more fun.

And Champali Lake… well, he might be a bit shorter than I’d like (15.2 hh, approximately- SUCH TRAGEDY!), and he’s had some issues with his feet (what OTTB doesn’t?), but I think he’s gonna be great. He’s a bit timid right now, but really pretty quiet and willing, even when he doesn’t really know quite what’s going on. I don’t think he had any idea about what I was doing when I put a surcingle and side reins on him, and really had no clue what to do when I started asking him to lunge, but he did his best and didn’t freak out all over the place, and that was better than I could have hoped for. He seemed to have a fairly floaty motion, be somewhat inclined to use his haunches, and actually wasn’t sore in his back, which was amazing. Sscreenshot_20170212-095130o I took my lunging videos home for further analysis and showed them to Amanda. She declared that she liked the way that he moved, so I contacted Brandi and told her that I wanted him and when could I come get him? Apparently her boyfriend was really celebrating about this, because it meant that every once in a while she could bring a horse home and it wouldn’t stay there forever. Of course that makes me giggle, because really, that’s the plight of horse husbands everywhere. I think I told her to tell him that she only brings horses home hoping to find one that he’ll fall in love with. Something tells me that he didn’t buy that story; mostly because it’s the one that I keep trying to pull on my husband, and it never quite seems to work.

So then it came down to picking him up. We had to borrow a trailer from our lovely boarder, and we needed to pick up alfalfa and a bag of feed along the way, but we eventually got there. I signed two bills of sale (so both the GCTB Network and I have a copy), got his most recent Coggins test, wrote out a check, stabbed him with a vaccine, took some pictures, loaded him in the trailer, and started home.

We spent twelve hours on that trip, which was definitely longer than either Amanda or I enjoy on a regular basis.  I owe Amanda a very good dinner and superb back massage. Fortunately, when we got home, our husbands were both good enough to come help us unload the 120 pound bales of hay that we had picked up, as well as helping us get the trailer clean and so forth, which was great because it means we could get Champali Lake settled in to his stall and let him start munching on his buffet. And then we all went home to bed, because since the horse was in bed, we figured we should be too.

quarantineWe have him under quarantine for the next two weeks, just because there’s a lot of crappy diseases running through Louisiana right now (Equine Herpes and Strangles, for example), so we’re being super cautious; hence my bright orange sign on his stall. But it also gives him some time to settle in, gain some weight back (I like my horses a little bit on the fluffy side), and start on some light groundwork to start a foundation for when I do start climbing into the saddle. We had the vet come out today for a Coggins test and for a Strangles culture, so I think we’re off to a pretty good start.

This leaves only one final thing to clear up. “Champali Lake” is a bit of a mouthful to shout across fields when chasing a former racehorse who doesn’t want to be caught, and I believe it’s considered acceptable to give registered horses barn names. Brandi was calling him “Champ,” which is great, and totally an appropriate horse name, but it makes me think of an 80s high school coach calling over his star athlete for some private tutoring, and that freaks me out a little. I was going to just call him “Lake,” but Amanda tossed out another suggestion that seems like a complete and total Dressage name:

“Champagne.”

It kind of makes me think of a little Palomino Arabian mare, not a seven year old OTTB gelding, but then at the same time, he’s the first horse I’ve owned since high school. Now, I don’t drink, but I do feel like that’s something worth celebrating. So really, I think just this once, it might be okay to have a little Champagne.

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Millenium Continued

As you may recall, my job since Halloween has been to start prepping Luke for sale by getting him stretched out and strong again. At least, that’s what I was told, but we all know that Amanda has me figured out. She knows that if she gives me a task like “Train Batman” or “Start Sugar,” I’ll learn something along the way. Basically, she’s letting my arrogance do the teaching, which saves her time and effort and provides a constant stream of entertainment. And this last few weeks was magical: I was finally starting to understand and feel how to ride him best. I was learning to be soft in order to balance instead of relying solely on strength. Luke was getting strong enough to start lifting his back, and we were starting to get some really nice, soft contact and even some self carriage. I like to think that his topline was even starting to improve a little (although that might be my hubris talking). Then something super cool happened this week.

Amanda got this message.feb_11_2017_932

My husband doesn’t fully appreciate how awesome this message was. For one thing, it opened up a whole new can of worms, because we were suddenly flooded with a whole new pile of information about Luke that we never would have known before. For example, we learned that he had been trained to 4th level in Dressage, which explains why Amanda was able to ride half passes and canter pirouettes on him. And now, with the name of his former owner, I was able to do some research and find out even more: Like that he has a lifetime USDF membership and does have a show record in Dressage.

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This was probably the best possible thing that could happen for Luke. I don’t think Luke was going to be the easiest horse for Amanda to sell, at least not in these parts. He’s a sensitive, massive warmblood with enormous motion and the training to go with it. He has to always be shod, and he really does better when he’s kept in good physical condition and given a job. That pretty much eliminates a good portion of the horse buyers around here, because all of that means that he’s not gonna be a horse that you buy for your kid or for yourself to ride just for fun. He’d be miserable as a barrel horse or cutter, because he’s so big that making those tight turns would be murder on his joints, which are already suffering somewhat from his history as a jumper. That pretty much leaves just the Dressage riders, most of whom would likely pass him up in favor of a younger horse. I think we maybe could have (eventually) sold him to a schooling facility with some higher level students, but those are less common down here than you might suppose. And honestly, if we sold him to someone who realized too late that they couldn’t ride him and he ended up starving in a field with founder and parasites and so on, I would be…  “Furious” is an understatement.

That message is basically a dream come true. Luke will be able to go back to live with someone who already knows and loves him, and who will (hopefully) give him a home where he can maybe transition into loving retirement when the time is right. Because honestly, any horse who deals with the sort of foolishness that I have put him through (like the three hours of finger painting and costuming nonsense that he suffered at my hands), totally deserves it.

I’m really ecstatic about this, except for two things. 1) I don’t get to continue learning from him anymore, because I KNOW I haven’t learned everything that he had to teach. 2) I can no longer get a video of me riding him correctly and (halfway) the way he deserves, and as we all know, if it isn’t on camera, it didn’t happen. And if you’re wondering why I can’t get a video, it’s because the lady already signed the bill of sale and we’re just waiting for her to come pick him up and take him home, and I don’t ride other people’s horses without their permission.

On the other hand, I am more or less mollified by a few things, but the main one is that I DID get to ride him, and I DID learn from him. I’m riding Dazzle (who is stuck with me for physical therapy for another two or three days, at least) way differently than I did before, because Luke has taught me the value of riding softly. There was no way to force Luke into doing what I wanted: he’s just too dang big and strong, and any fight we had, he would win. I spent about a month testing that out; that’s how I know. The only way to ride him was to have a balanced, relaxed seat, and allow him to move correctly. Now I’ve come back to Dazzle, who is weak and stiff and sore from her time at pasture recovering from torn muscles, and I could easily overpower her and make her do whatever I wanted (I’m not saying it would be a pleasant experience, but I could do it). Frankly, riding with a strong seat is easier for me than riding with a soft seat. But forcing Dazzle to do something will end up hurting her, and that’s just not the point. I don’t think it’s just that anymore. I think I got a taste of that magical feeling of riding so gently that your horse can’t help but move at their best, and I think that’s a feeling worth chasing for the rest of my life.

… I’m gonna miss that old man though.

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