Wednesday, May 30, 2007

How to piss off your trainer: Part 1 of Gumby Horse

Except for about two years in the middle of my horse career, I've always had a trainer to give me lessons. It started out with me riding in a weekly group riding lesson, and eventually morphed into a working student relationship where I groomed, cleaned, mucked, and rode for no pay. However, the experience I gained was invaluable.

In this kind of relationship you get very close to your trainer on a personal level - at least I did. Blair, whom I worked with for about seven years, was very easy to talk to. In fact, I think most of the time she crossed the line into oversharing of details. Let's just say I know more than I need to know about some of her ex-boyfriend's man equipment. Anyway, we always had loads of interesting conversation on trail rides, driving to shows, or just hanging around the barn. We became friends, even though I was ten years younger than she was.

However, at the base of the relationship was the undertone of don't forget who's the boss here. It's nothing she ever threw in my face, and something that I always respected. She was in charge, she had the experience, she brought in the clients, and by her generosity I was given an equestrian education. I'll be forever in her debt for that.

Over those seven years, we had three incidents where I just really pissed her off. They weren't mistakes that I made with the horses, because she knew that I was only human and that mistakes would happen (like the
clipping incident - I'm not saying she wasn't annoyed, but it really wasn't so bad.) And come to think of it, all three happened at horse shows. Maybe it was the stress of the show situation on both of us...I don't know for sure. I'm just glad that we were able to come to terms later and forgive and forget.

For awhile Blair had this purebred arabian gelding in training named Azul Nardin. His barn name was Synbad, but that morphed into Stinky because of his love for rolling in his poop and urine. Sometimes this animal would stink even before he got sweaty from work. And after he got hot? Whoo! You could almost see the fumes coming off of him. His owner didn't really like that we called him Stinky, but it was better than what Blair called him sometimes - Asshole Nardin.

Really, he wasn't a bad little horse. But he was small and Blair was really too big to show him. She did show him a few times, I think, and the owner tried to show him too, but mostly the owner was afraid of him. Of course I volunteered to show him, since I'd ride and show anything. I started riding him regularly and took lessons on him too.

This was the bendiest horse that I've ever ridden. It's like he was made out of taffy or something. Sometimes he'd spook, then bolt forward, and be heading right towards the fence, so I'd pull hard on one rein to turn him. Instead of turning, he'd just keep barreling forward with his nose turned back on my knee. He could also do the "drop, spin, and bolt" move like a champ. One day I handed him off to Blair to ride, and as I was walking back down the barn aisle I hear THUMP and then "Synbad, you ASSHOLE!" I turn back to see Blair sitting in the dirt, laughing. She went to get on him, and as soon as her butt touched the saddle he dropped, spun and bucked her right off. She made a very impressive butt-print in the sand - we could even see the stitching from the pockets of her jeans.

I forget what show it was, or even what year, but after riding him for a few months I was entered to show him English Pleasure and Native Costume. We arrived at the show with no problems, and on the morning of the day of his first class Synbad needed a bath. Cheryl offered to go with me to bathe him, so we grabbed the bath bucket (complete with shampoo, sponge, scraper, Showsheen) and hose and headed to the wash racks.

In case you aren't a horse person, a wash rack is a place to tie your horse while you give him a bath. Sometimes this is just a spigot and a tie post on gravel or dirt next to a building, but at bigger show venues the wash racks are very nice. Usually they are cement with some kind of tie rail or ring, and a drain of some kind. So you walk your horse into the wash rack, tie him up, and proceed with the bath. Sounds easy, right?

The wash racks at this show had a drain that the horses had to step over in order to enter the wash rack. It was a long trough that extended the entire row of spigots, and there was a large circular drain at the end that handled all the water. When we got there the drain had clogged with hay and gunk, so there was standing water in the trough. Cheryl was carrying all the bath supplies, and I was leading Synbad. We walked up and was contemplating going to try and unclog the drain. However, before I could stop him, Synbad geared up to jump over the water.

I said "Watch it! He's gonna jump!" as he sailed through the air. He hit the pavement, and to my horror, slid forward and smacked into the cement wall. Because he was wearing four shoes at the time and the concrete was wet he slid across as if on ice. He pulled his head up at the last minute and his chest smacked into the wall.

He still had speed going, and his front end had stopped dead. His rear end kept going in the only direction it could.

Synbad did the splits with his rear legs on the concrete washrack. He had each leg completely extended out to either side absolutely straight out from his hips.

To be continued...

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Good news, and more good news

I've been afraid to write this, but Kaswyn has been feeling really good lately.

Every time I ride him he feels a little bit stronger. I guess it's more like he's steadier, and is moving forward with less hesitation and more purpose. I've been riding him a little bit more into the corners - not really deep in the corners like we used to do but a little more squared off than a circle. He seems to be handling this pretty well, and is improving the balance throughout. He's had no swelling or heat in his leg either.

I added two more laps of trot and he seems to be physically okay with that. I really think the canter work has helped with everything from his flexibility to his stamina. When I sit his trot at the end of our workouts he feels (dare I say it) like the horse I used to ride three years ago.

On the subject of little girls, I must say that Lily is a super duper champ with the potty training. She is only in a pull-up at night to sleep, and during the day she uses the bathroom all by herself. We have the occasional accident, and that's mostly because she's playing and waits too long to go and ends up with a soggy butt. For the majority of the time, however, she's doing great.

Her next assignment - potty train her little sister.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

As heard from the back seat

Lily, Macey and I were driving home tonight and we passed construction which, judging from the smell, must have been on a sewer line.

ME: Whew! Lily, doesn't that stink?

LILY: Yeah, that's probably me.

ME: Why do you say that?

LILY: Because I touched Daddy, and he is stinky. So it made me stink too.

Ah well. They were getting baths anyway.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

A little improvement goes a long way

I'm afraid to be too optimistic, but things appear to be slowing improving with Kaswyn's recovery.

It was much warmer today than it was yesterday, so I wasn't all that surprised to see that Kaswyn's back legs were puffy. He had a little puffiness in his front legs too, but no heat anywhere. Fortunately, all the puffiness was gone after our ride. During our ride I could tell that he wasn't really into working, and had to get on his case a little bit about picking up the canter. After I asked for the third time and he blew me off I had to spank him, which made me feel bad afterwards. But I can't let him pick up bad habits now. He did a very nice canter transition the next time I asked, so I guess he heard me loud and clear.

Despite a tiny bit a disciplining and a little laziness, we had a nice ride. He still feels weak behind, but I can't expect that to come back very quickly. It took years to build his back and haunches, so I imagine it will take some time to get them strong again. Anyway, my trainer watched us and she said that he is reaching more up front and behind when he trots; that his range of motion seems to have improved. This was very nice to hear.

He also seems to give a much more even and cadenced trot when I sit the trot rather than post. This just tells me that I'm getting in his way when I post. However, I don't want to sit the trot for very long because his back is not used to it and I don't want to make him sore. I must say that it felt nice to sit the trot again. Little steps . . . little steps.

Saturday, May 19, 2007


Dr. B called me back. When I described the situation with the swelling returning this week after cantering, he said "Just roll with it. Keep going. That x-ray looked too good for me to be worried about a little fluid. Keep rollin', but go slow." He said using anti-inflammatory cream was a good idea, and to go with that if I get more fluid in the area. He also said to let him know if the swelling doesn't go away after work, and to keep him informed regardless.

Okay, I'll keep going. We'll see how Kaswyn is tomorrow. I'm hoping for less fluid and no lameness.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Tacky and swelly

For the last few days I have felt like a bad horse mom. I remedied that today, somewhat.

I rode Tuesday and Thursday, but both days I decided to skip the tack cleaning so I could run home and have dinner with my husband and the girls. I know, I know... I didn't clean my tack! *GASP!* I know most people don't clean their tack after every ride, and I didn't used to either. But now that I've been doing it every day it seems wrong somehow not to clean it. My trainer says it feels to her like putting on dirty underwear. I don't think it's that gross, but it's so much nicer to grab clean tack out of the locker than to see reins with dirty sweat marks or bits with nasty grime on them.

So today after my ride I scrubbed my tack clean while I thought about what I was going to do with my horse. You see, his leg had some filling in it today. It went down after the ride like it usually does, but this is exactly what happened last time I started cantering him again after time off. I've only cantered him twice before today, and only two laps in each direction.

Despite the swelling I decided to ride today, but I decreased the number of trot laps from 6 to 4 in each direction and cantered 2 laps each direction. We're still not doing any circles, lateral work, or anything hard. Just lots of straight lines and no tight turns. You wouldn't think that cantering would put that much more stress on the knee, but apparently it does. It must or I wouldn't get swelling every time I try and canter.

Maybe it's the way he's landing on it. I'm thinking maybe if I do canter I should just canter to the right for awhile. That way he won't ever be putting all his weight on the left front, because in the canter to the right the left front and right hind share the weight much like they do in the trot. However in the turns cantering to the right will increase the pressure on the inside of the left knee where the injury is, and I don't really want to do that. What to do, what to do.

I put some anti-inflammatory cream on his knee and called the vet, who hasn't called me back. So, while I might have clean tack, but I also might have broken my horse again by cantering him too soon. Or the wrong direction. Or, something else.

Well, crap.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Canter at A

Trotting is nice. It beats walking (and, of course, hand walking) any day. Cantering, however, is fantastic.

Dr. B came out today to x-ray Kaswyn's knee again to see how the injury was doing. I had to work, but I got a report from my trainer. She said that there was new bone growth in the area, which means that it's filling in and healing like it should. I was given the green light to canter, but only two laps in each direction.

Our work at the trot has been pretty good the last few rides. My horse is harder to ride than I remember... either that or I'm just really out of shape. It's not as tiring physically as it is mentally. With Kaswyn, any unblanced moments in my seat translate into his uneven strides. So I have to concentrate on being balanced and even in my riding at all times. Which is not easy at all, espeically since I've been out of serious riding and training for longer than he's been out of work due to the birth of my second daughter. Last week I had a terrible ride on Kaswyn and my trainer was trying to help me by telling me that I was collapsing my left side. Try as I might, I couldn't fix it that day. But since then I've added "stretch left side longer" and "left leg long and down" to my constant mental soundtrack while riding. Some of the others are "loosen the poll", "slow the posting", "more push from behind", and the list goes on.

Kaswyn has always had problems with an unblanced trot. We discovered early on that the balance issues, along with stiffness through the left side and longitudinal suppleness issues, were improved greatly by cantering. It seemed to help my horse loosen areas of his pelvis and neck, and also built his body up without having to struggle with balance issues in the trot. Suffice it to say I was looking forward to cantering for many reasons.

Even though it was only four laps of the arena, it was wonderful. Nice canter departs both directions, steady rhythm, plus a bonus of Kaswyn sitting and carrying a little bit on his own without being asked. He tired quickly, but I don't think it was too much.

Now starts the slow uphill climb of adding more work each week. What will stay the same is going into Kaswyn's stall before grooming him and checking that left front for swelling. And holding my breath those first few trot strides of the day, anxious about the lameness returning.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007


Tuesday's ride elicited some strange advice from my trainer. Well, it wasn't all that weird when taken in context, but if a dressage rider who didn't know our situation had overheard they would have thought it was unorthodox (if not plain incorrect). After watching Kaswyn and I trot around for a few laps, my trainer asked how I thought Kaswyn felt. I said I thought he felt great on the long side, but he felt tentative and unbalanced in the corners. She suggested that I don't ride into the corners of the arena at the ends, but rather turn earlier and make the end of the arena more like a circle.

When I first started riding, the riding arenas were not rectangular - they were big ovals. Most people tend to stay close to the rail when riding, which is partly a security thing on the part of both horse and rider and partly habit. When riding next to the rail neither partner need worry about making a straight line. All both need to do is follow the continuous line of the fence. In a giant oval arena I never encountered corners.

Eventually I moved to a barn that had a covered arena which was a big rectangle, and I was introduced for the first time to corners. I was forever being told to "ride into the corner", which means basically don't treat the short side of the arena like it was oval, but treat it as it's constructed - as a rectangle. So I learned to ride the long side of the arena straight, and then bend my horse around the corner and ride into the short side.

Dressage reinforced the corner concept even more. Dressage arenas are rectangles. Unless the movement in the test specifically calls for a circle at the end of the arena, the rider is always expected to ride the horse well into the corner. This demonstrates the balance, flexibility, and rideability of the horse as well as the skill and knowledge of the rider. Corners also serve as training aids by giving the horse and rider a place to prepare for a movement upon exiting the corner. Depending on the desired result the corner can be used to collect, bend, increase suspension, increase drive, etc, all of which can potentially turn a mediocre movement into a great one. So Kaswyn and I learned how to ride corners.

Tuesday was the first time that I purposely avoided riding into the corners. And Kaswyn felt much much better. My trainer commented that it looked smoother and that it appeared he was able to maintain balance and flow throughout the short side. A few times I rode into the corner mistakenly, out of habit. But I'll do my best to keep out of those corners until my horse gets stronger.

It's hard not to think of this as a step backwards. I just keep reminding myself that I don't have to re-teach him how to do corners, but rather remind his body how to do them, and then build those muscles and make him strong.

Header Image from Bangbouh @ Flickr