Monthly Archives: February 2014

Bits

Bits are a funny thing. Ralph Hill is well known for his “bit wall” and knowledge of each one’s purpose and how it will affect various horses. I’ve been told he brings along a big box of bits to clinics and isn’t afraid to experiment with them. Phillip Dutton rides nearly all of his horses cross-country in a snaffle bit. Other riders, more often professionals (strangely), put the most complicated and frightening looking gadgets on their poor horse’s heads. Alternatively, you’ll see plenty of amateurs and juniors clearly out of control and never changing their equipment OR their training. Bits and bridles are just another huge component of horsemanship and an often overlooked topic of education.

I rode briefly as a child at a saddle seat barn. They used these big honkin’ long-shanked bits with two reins (I was also an 8-year-old on a flighty saddlebred without a helmet, so I really don’t even feel the need to discuss horsemanship in terms of bits here). At Mrs. Gosch’s, most of the school horses went in a fat eggbutt snaffle, and a couple took a pelham when we jumped. Many of my horses growing up went in whatever bit they came with or made do with something from our small box (not a wall) of simple bits and pieced together head wear.

Breezy went up to Training level and competed all three phases in a skinny, loose-ring snaffle. And she chomped away at it, leaving a trail of foam everywhere we went. (below: Breezy and me going Novice at Poplar Place. Such a girl! Shannon Brinkman photo)

Breezy

Bailey did pretty well in a boucher on the flat, but I don’t think it would have mattered what he had in his mouth. He still hates flatwork. He jumped in a three-ring. If I remember correctly, he also shared a bridle with Sam for a while, so they both went in a three-ring. Truthfully, this was a terrible bit to use on both of these horses, and these days I fairly dislike it altogether, but it’s a really popular bit and works fine for a lot of people.

His AQHA registered name is Bailey Slice. I evented him under the name Bailiwick.

Looking so serious! Bailey and me – Novice at Poplar Place riding in the three-ring. Mom hunts him now in a wonder bit, and apparently it works…wonders? Shannon Brinkman photo

Sam was not a puller at Novice, but he was could stop and spin like a cat (he went through a naughty phase), and the three-ring did give me some control. Later I switched him to a regular gag, which was the total wrong thing to do because while he had a great canter and gallop, he was lazy, and the faster we galloped on course, the more downhill and heavy he would get until I was furiously trying to get his attention so he would rock back again before a fence. He was athletic enough he could make it work, but the move from Training to Preliminary really showed where we lacked in our communication and education, and I certainly didn’t need a bit that brought his head down more. I picked up a refusal at one event because I couldn’t get him off the forehand to make a turn to a big ditch and wall, and we were getting too close to too many fences.

After a particularly frightening Prelim round at Pine Top I knew we had to make a change. Instead of galloping up and across the maxed out tables, he charged down to the base of them. I was pretty strong in my prime, but he was so heavy by the time we hit the first long gallop, I had to come to a complete stop and regroup before I continued on. He got the point and finished quite well and jumped clear, but with lots of time. He was very fit and very strong, but at Prelim, I needed him to gallop and be adjustable without us both having to work so hard.

Sam was pretty freaking talented though! That’s the polo gag there. We had a stop later. My fault. I lost my stirrup when he slipped around a corner. He should of kept going and just let my dumb ass fall. Xpress Foto Photo

Jennifer had been having great success riding Sam’s half-brother Chasse in a polo gag. The ring is at least twice as big as a regular gag, but the main difference was there were two jointed snaffle pieces, which prevented the horse from taking hold of the bit and leaning. I tried it once and was sold. I only used it when schooling XC or in competition, and when Sam realized he couldn’t lean on this one he got back to work and galloped beautifully. Cross-country became fun again. He galloped right up to the fences in a perfect stride, jumped incredibly, and started finishing closer to optimum time. The polo gag was probably more brakes than I really needed, but once he found his balance, I never needed to touch the reins. He was such a talented bugger. I’ve discovered since that there are full cheek bits with the same double snaffles, and had we spent more than two seasons at Preliminary, I probably would have switched him to that.

Here is a link to a photo gallery of our last event together. Oo! Ahh!

Our best ever Prelim run was our last show together. It was at Poplar Place and he was perfect the whole way around the course. The next day, I learned two things: 1) the polo gag was far too much bit for show jumping 2) he did not like pads in his shoes. He was very foot sore and ended up blowing a bunch of abscesses soon after. (The pad thing was perpetual. Naomi came up with some pretty creative shoeing as his feet adjusted to Virginia, and we went through a padding phase where we discovered just a skoshe too much padding and he would instantly be off. Just enough and he was never sounder. Weirdo.)

Anyway, for a time all our horses were doing flat work in a french link snaffle and responded really nicely to it. Somehow in my trek north, I ended up with a loose ring french link snaffle I’d never seen before, but we were just hacking around so whatever. When Willow came, I put that same loose ring french link on her. I don’t remember what sort of bit I broke her in all those years ago, but I discovered very quickly that she did not like a fat eggbutt in her little mouth and she definitely did not like a straight bar happy mouth. In the end, I learned the connection problems we had and her apprehensive behavior were not related to the bit, but in part to her teeth and the rest in muscle. We sorted her teeth out and then started working on building strength. The horses work hard for us, and coming back into work makes them sore, just like us. Willow had a couple nice massages, spent all fall and winter getting fit, and now she’s a totally different pony. Naomi describes her as “svelt.” She’s certainly elegant, and she knows it. She’s starting to get really comfortable with lifting her back and stretching over her topline now that she has the strength and flexibility to do so.

I kept her in the french link for quite a while, but she was still fairly inconsistent in the bridle, and Kate and I agreed that maybe the french link is distracting for her. With a young or green horse, you want the simplest bit for the simplest conversation. And while the bit was very soft, the loose ring with a link in the middle is a lot to pay attention to. As I started asking for more contact, I started considering changing her bit, and I had a better idea now what might work for her. I took a trip to Middleburg Tack, and while standing in front of the wall of bits, examining various thin eggbutts and full cheeks, I sent my mom a text.

A few days later, a package containing a full cheek plain snaffle arrived in the mail. It’s a bit I rode both Sam and Bailey in when they were young. The full cheek gives me some turning control, which she needs sometimes due simply to strength, and the plain snaffle offered a non-distracting connection. She’s taken to it just as I hoped she would. She likes taking a soft hold and having an elastic feel of my hands. She’s responsive without being overly sensitive, and we are better able to continue working on the basics of flatwork and building all the right muscles the right way.

Sometimes we change bits for the wrong reasons or when we don’t really need to. With this switch, I made a calculated decision and so far it’s working out just as I’d hoped. I continue to be so proud and thrilled with Willow. We have so much fun and get along simply swimmingly. She’s such a sweet girl, and I can’t wait to go on more fun adventures with her… as soon as the weather improves.

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High Notes

My mom is really into “taking the high road” (with people) and “ending it on a high note” (with horses). She’s completely right about both. With people, sometimes we have to take the moral high ground to better the outcome rather than causing a deeper rift by stooping to another person’s level, however low it may be. Often times while riding, you have to choose to stop when things are going well rather than pushing past the animal’s capacity for the day and ending on a bad note. That’s not good education for either horse or rider.

Willow is generally the quiet one. The one that calms all the other horses, bravely approaches all scary objects, stands up to foes, and is generally awesome. I’ve ridden her bareback on the roads in 20 degree weather, herded cows over the river and through the woods, took her foxhunting in one of the biggest fields in the county without ever having taken her cubbing first. Only very special horses can compose themselves so well.

Yesterday the wind is absolutely brutal, with 30mph gusts and chilly temperatures to boot. At least the sun was out. I figured we’d go for a quiet ride, take it easy, have a walk about.

Well we started out on the road between the trees, where the wind wasn’t too bad, but it was loud and there were weird shadows and Willow was a little spooky. I figured a road traveled by vehicles is not a place to ride a spooky pony, so we slipped through a gap in the fencing and into a field. As we climbed the hill towards drier land (it’s very sloppy in low ground), the wind got worse. Then we tried to cross a dam and it was like we had gone through a vortex to a horror film, with high winds, noise, and the chill. The drain (or something) in the pond was making a hollow thumping noise over and over, and we both spooked. This time we didn’t recover. We jigged all the way home, with me trying to stay relaxed (with one hand on the neck strap) so as not to make it worse, and the pony trying very hard to hold it together as we charged headlong into increasing winds.

I knew that once we made it to the path between the fencing on our property, she would relax. That would be where I asked for some semblance of obedience so that the ride wasn’t a total wash. As we hit the straightaway, I felt her back loosen up and her stride lengthen. With a soft feel of the reins, I asked her to leg yield right, left, right, and left again, and I was pleasantly surprised that she was perfect! I wrote before about trying to give equal aids on the right and left side so as to better our lateral work, and it has worked! She was soft and crossed over nicely while maintaining forward motion, and I didn’t get all crooked. Hooray! High notes!


Balance

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Sweet Willow snoozing in the sunshine on a recent rare warm day. She’s so cute!

We all seek to find balance in our lives. Between work, school, family, friends, significant others, and time to ourselves, which for many of us means “barn time.”

I’ve transitioned into working mostly at home, which can be a challenge in that when all your work is at home, it is really easy to work all the time. And if you don’t have a designated “work area,” like an office with a desk and supplies, it is especially difficult. Having worked for several years from home as a freelancer, I know that this upsets the balance if you allow it to get out of control.

As a writer, I have found that keeping a blog, even if not many people read it, gives me the opportunity to find balance in my creative life. I spend so much of my time editing other people’s work or writing for the magazine, which is a specific genre and style. Here, on this blog, I can write however I like. It improves the balance and keeps me more interested in my work.

This winter has been fairly unbalanced, with strange weather patterns, severe cold, and more precipitation than in recent years. Forget about riding consistently, much less with a targeted goal in mind. I really want to enter a jumping derby in Maryland for the end of March, but with the weather and footing still as it is, I don’t know if I’ll be able to have Willow properly prepared.

This is not to say we haven’t done great work this winter. I’ve written several times about the benefits of roadwork – and I’m very lucky to have the quiet roads in my neighborhood to ride on – and all the progress you can make focusing on the basics of straightness, rhythm, and position at the walk and trot. Riding a pony requires a slightly different type of balance than riding a horse, and I’m pleased that mine has improved in the last few months.

Yesterday I took Ms. Willow out for a four-mile ride down the road in beautiful weather. We trotted for much of it, and I didn’t ask her to come into any sort of frame. Nevertheless, she was balanced. It is such a glorious feeling when a horse (or pony!) finds his or her own natural balance. When you can work on a long rein and they maintain a steady rhythm, responding to your legs and seat when necessary, without throwing their head in the air or rooting down to the ground. Just nice, happy, relaxed movement.

I feel like many riders today spend so much time trying to control every step their horses take, on the flat and over fences, and as a result, fewer horses have a natural balance and a “fifth leg.” In riding, just like in life, sometimes you have to surrender some control in order to find the balance.


Horse of the Year Cover

I’m delighted to have one of my photos used for the USEA Horse of the Year cover two years in a row! Hannah and I love this picture of RF Demeter at The Fork last year and had it picked out for the cover well in advance. You can see a bigger selection of my Published Images by clicking the “Photography” link at the top of the page.

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Blood in the Snow

Sixteen inches of snowfall made it impossible to open the gate to the pasture. Snagging a shovel, I started digging a trench so I could at least get the hay-filled sled through. As I tossed snow to the side, I noticed a distinct shade of red dotting the area. Furiously, I dug further, cursing the red splotches as they increased in size and saturation. Someone’s bleeding.

I threw down the shovel and waded through the drifts around the corner to the shed, startling the three horses, who looked at me with confusion. Glancing first at the white stockinged legs, there were no obvious signs of trauma. I then examined each of them thoroughly, twice, searching for a cut coronet band or a scraped fetlock. I found none. I ran my hands under their blankets and peeked at their bellies. I picked up their feet. I checked under their tails, in the folds of their armpits, at their eyes, in their ears, up their noses. I found nothing but soft hair and small crystals of white snow.

There were no blood trails to be found between the gate and the shed, though I found a similarly dark section of snow nearby. Clearly, no one was in distress or injured. What was going on?

Back in the barn I did a quick Google search, deducing that someone must have blood in their urine (yes, I smelled it) – but why? They were all eating, drinking, and pooping normally. What could cause bloody urine in a horse? I’d never seen it before. And for now, no vet truck was getting down our drive. We wouldn’t have a plow here until tomorrow.

Thank you Google – because on the first page of search results was a post titled “My horse’s urine looks red in the snow! Is it bloody?” Thankfully, the answer is usually no.

Plant metabolites in a horse’s urine change color when mixed with oxygen. We normally don’t see this color change in stalls, against the light brown shavings and straw, or in the grass on a spring afternoon. But in the snow, the color change is all too obvious. They will pass yellow or clear urine, but after sitting for a while, it may turn any shade or orange, red, or brown.

When a horse actually passes blood in its urine, it is likely you’ll see signs of distress or discomfort. If you’re really concerned about the rust-colored snow, you can wait around and watch your horse pee or take a sample and send it to the vet. But more than likely, all is well. It’s no more alarming than forgetting you had beets for dinner.


Desensitizing

There are riders and horse trainers that spend hours “desensitizing” their horses, purposefully presenting the animal with scary things so that, hopefully, the garbage bag that blows into the dressage arena years down the road won’t completely ruin the test. There is not a thing wrong with this method. It has been reported that World, Olympic, and European champion Michael Jung has banners and flags and all sorts of potentially frightening objects set up at his training farm so that his horses get used to focusing on their work despite distractions that are inevitably present at competitions.

But one of the reasons I really love where I currently live, is that even though we don’t have a big ring with fancy footing and lots of perfectly painted fences, the horses get plenty of exposure and education in “desensitizing” on a daily basis. Just be sure you bring your neck strap.

On the farm itself, there are any number of activities happening routinely: dogs everywhere, walking between your legs in the barn and often times joining you on rides; tractors and mowers, which is to be expected; buzz saws, hammering, and the like in the workshop above the barn; the occasional four-in-hand drives through, complete with accompanying Dalmatians; and the hunt often comes down the drive or spends a significant amount of time within earshot, near once a week when the footing is good. With that comes dozens of horses, horns, whips, and what seems like hundreds of barking, excuse me, speaking dogs, I mean hounds.

But the horses get a real education off the farm, on hacks and fitness rides in the surrounding area, too. We are very fortunate to have a great expanse of places to ride, with fields, woods, creeks, jumps, and trails to enjoy. Due to the weather, we have been spending a fair amount of time on the roads lately, and the pony and I had a very spooky ride just the other day.

We start off through the trail behind the main house, which will spit us out about halfway up the driveway and allow us to circumvent the new tenant’s litter of Chihuahua/Terrier/Banshees. As we walk quietly up the drive, a very large vulture whose lunch we clearly disturbed, shoots like a vertical cannon up from behind the stone wall not 10 feet from us. It startles us both, and Willow is very good to shimmy sideways several steps, kindly taking me with her, before halting and looking to examine the offensive party. I think any rider would prefer this sort of reaction over a duck and run, which I don’t think she was outside her rights to do at that point.

We pull ourselves together and soldier on, politely passing the graveyard, which generally contains an American flag flapping furiously in the wind and clanging rudely against the metal pole. The field beyond the graveyard may hold spotted minis, ponies, or cows on any given day. On this day there is a very large bull crashing around within a downed tree adjacent to the road.

What’s so lovely about Willow – and a sign of a fantastic potential event horse – is that rather than running from or refusing to move closer to things that frighten her, she is inclined to walk right up to it, often with no prompting from me, and see what it’s all about. She is very courageous without being careless, and I love that about her.

But this time we are slightly shaken by the enormous bird that was clearly plotting to destroy us, plus it is cold and windy, and there is a very large bull in our path, and let’s just say that the fencing isn’t exactly going to keep him in if he has a mind to leave. I encourage Willow forward – because I can’t teach her retreat now – take hold of the neck strap, and as I praise her every step in the correct direction, I silently plead with the bull not make any noise or move a single muscle. Thankfully he listens, and the pony is feeling very good about herself.

Another thing I truly love about Willow is that she responds so well to praise. If you tell her she’s good, she puffs up with pride. “Count the ways! Say it again!” This isn’t necessarily a Willow trait, but a mare trait. They say that if you can learn to work with a mare well, she will do anything for you, and I believe that to be true.

Not seconds after we pass the bull, I hear the voices of children. When a child is not accustomed to horses or ponies, they have a tendency to get very excited about approaching them with the intention, I’m sure, to pet their noses and beg for a ride, but the perceived intention, is murder. There is something so utterly terrifying about a small, sticky creature hurtling itself towards you at top speed, with unknown intentions and a war cry that would convince the Spartans to retreat. And as you feel the animal underneath you considering its options as it coils its hindquarters tight as a spring, you’re lucky to have time to grab the neck strap and put your heels down a little harder. God love him, Sam was very good at escaping the clutches of wild children. I did not know how Willow would react.

As I envision a potential trip back towards the bull, the leader of the wild children shouts, “Hi! You’re on a horse! What’s your name? What’s it’s name?” I answer all of its questions quickly as I urge the pony forward, not wanting to appear interested in stopping to chat.

Next we cross a bridge with a very loud stream passing underneath it, and as we approach the gap in a stone wall that would take us into a field and back towards home, Willow arches her neck, searching for trolls, and marches smartly onward to meet her foe.


It Was Me…Again

Truthfully, it’s almost always me. By that I mean, it’s almost always the rider and rarely the horse. We know this, but sometimes we forget. I’ll explain.

Willow’s owner, Amy, did tons of ground work with the pony before I backed her. It’s very evident on the ground that she knows what “pressure” is. And it doesn’t take much. Not long after I took Willow to her first show, I had a nasty fall off another horse in training and it kept me out of the saddle for the remainder of the summer before school started again. And so since having Willow to ride again, I’ve been going at training kind of like I would a young horse, because I really don’t know how much she knows.

It’s been pretty easy to go about it nice and slow, feeling our way through our paces and never moving on to a harder question until we’re confident with where we are, especially since we were both out of shape at the start of this venture, so you kind of have to take it slow or you risk injury or a bad attitude – or both.

So for the first several months we just had a good time hacking and trotting on a loose rein with our nose out. We jumped little fences, took a few trips, and kept everything really confident and easy. We were out for fun anyway.

For the better part of November and December, we did road work. Walking miles and miles on the roads because that’s all we could do considering the weather/footing. I love road work. Nice long rides, just you and your pony, listening to the clip clop of her feet on the pavement, waving to the passers by, stopping by friends’ barns for a quick hello on the go. And the road work is so good for their tendons and ligaments and the general strength of their legs.

Road work is also a good opportunity to work on various basics, like straightness and connection, without the pressure of arena corners or terrain. So I spent a lot of time getting Willow to the point of thinking that taking a feel of the reins and holding an elastic connection is a good thing. I did this by keeping a consistent leg, encouraging her to move forward and straight, and then taking a feel without asking her to flex at the poll, just having a soft but following hand that was always “there” without being heavy. At first, I really over-exaggerated the following hand so she wouldn’t feel any pressure to change her way of going – just accept my hand. As the winter wore on, she started to gain confidence in the connection, started moving through her back and reaching through her neck, gaining more strength and muscle until eventually, she put herself on the bit, and she walks beautifully all over the Unison roads in a delightful, soft frame. Win!

Now I wanted to start doing some flexing and bending at the walk to continue building her strength and flexibility so we can start incorporating lateral work into our training. This is where I hit a road block (no pun intended). I know this pony is flexible – she can reach practically back to her tail when we do carrot stretches. I also know this pony can move laterally – she does so obediently and easily on the ground. I also know the left side of my body is my good side.

My left leg hangs from my hip correctly with good angles and a nice flexed ankle. When giving aids, the top of my leg is independent of the bottom of my leg. My knee does not pinch. My hip can move without throwing off the balance of my upper body. Would you guess, then, that I’m right handed, and the “abilities” of the right side of my body are wretchedly poor compared to the left? I tend to be very heavy with my right hand and generally hold it further back than the left. It’s something I’ve improved (since I figured it out last year), but still have to remind myself of regularly. I can just feel that my right side is not as soft and connected and independent, and I can’t for the life of me get a good flex in my right ankle.

Now, when I moved to Virginia, I started taking Pilates classes and noticed a huge difference in the saddle as a result (I even wrote a story about it for the magazine). I also started seeing a massage therapist/chiropractor/body worker guy because I somehow pinched a nerve in my hip and went really lame for several months before I finally got help. Besides being expensive, far away, and mildly addicting, the pain has subsided such that I only go see the guy (his name is Chris) when I’m feeling ouchy and stiff in my right hip, which has only been a handful of times in two years. The key words there are “right” and “hip.”

In the last few weeks I’ve noticed that my right hip is really “stuck” in the saddle. I constantly feel like my stirrups are uneven and my circles and corners to the right are pretty stupid (by no fault of Willow’s, I just fall into the circle and totally fall apart). Katy suggested doing some hip flexion exercises before mounting, which has been helping a little. Combine this issue with attempting to do flexing work and simple shoulder-fore/shoulder-in with a very well behaved pony… I mean the problem here should be obvious.

I’m sitting there going “she’s so flexible to the left but really struggles to flex right!” I baby her along, only asking for a little to the right, giving high praise when she does it well. I focus really hard on not hanging on my right rein and asking with clear, concise aids on both sides, yet she still struggles to flex right.

Can you see where I’m going with this?

You’ve probably noticed the weather in January was pretty awful, and February isn’t promising to be much better, but we had a couple of nice days this weekend (temps in the 40s, wow!), and Willow is unbelievably bored of just walking around the perimeter of the farm (even the roads have been too icy to walk on). So I took Willow to some higher ground with decent footing and worked on some simple flatwork. That pony really loves to work! I want to work on our connection and balance at the trot, but we can’t until we get the walk right. And I’m just not convinced that she is that much less capable to the right than the left.

Okay, so we’re walking. Forward with purpose. Straight and connected. Ask for a left flexion. What am I doing? I’m asking for her to keep her haunches on the same track with my left leg while asking for flexion with the left rein. I bring my left hip ever so slightly back, twisting my upper body so as to align my shoulders with hers. Good.

Okay, so we’re walking. Forward with purpose. Straight and connected. Ask for a right flexion. What am I doing? I’m asking for her to keep her haunches on the same track with my right leg while asking for a flexion with the right rein. I jam my right hip forward, thereby pinching with my knee, contorting my upper body, and giving her a confusing aid with my leg.

Oh. I’ve been asking her to flex with my hand, but blocking her with my body. She tries, but she can’t do it because I won’t let her.

I spent the next 20 minutes walking and practicing moving my hips in the saddle, discovering that I do in fact have a right and left side, and that I can control them. And suddenly, shoulder-fore and shoulder-in are cakewalks. Willow does it as well to the right as she does to the left, and she’s very grateful that I finally got my shit together and decided to work with her instead of against her.

The following day, we were able to practice straightness and connection at the trot, and for the first time since we reconnected last August, we had several steps of balanced, connected, forward trot work, showing glimmers of Willow’s brilliance as she continues to get stronger and more confident, and her rider starts riding better. Go pony!