Thursday, May 31, 2012

Rise and Shine

Night-time turnout means this is how Sherm greets me when it's time to work at 8am:

Too bad I didn't have the camera rolling when I walked in the barn.  The noise was deafening.  All five horses in that aisle were down, out, and snoring.  

After this rude interruption of his nap, Sherm worked like a champ in the brisk morning air.  Today was a light day, focusing on steering and suppling.  Tomorrow will be his hard workout day, followed, probably by a day off.... maybe... 

Sunday, May 27, 2012

...and we're back!

Yes, that's right.  Stella's got her groove back.  Apparently, all that was needed was a little education and that magical Morgan cure-all-- night-time turnout.

After auditing last week's clinic with Intrepid Amy, I felt some groove coming on, and got back in the saddle at least.  Following that success, I-Amy and I managed to slip up to the Stuart Horse Trials grounds to audit the XC portion of the clinic given by Leslie Law.  While I am drawn to XC work and believe these Morgans have a lot to show the world in terms of how much ground they can eat up without tiring, I have no idea how to actually negotiate a jump at all, much less scary banks, coffins, and water jumps.  So I was thrilled that we could find the time and make the trip.

The opportunity for me to stand 15 feet away from a scary jump and listen as Mr. Law gave instruction to riders before starting their approach, to watch riders and horses attempt the obstacle, hear the follow-up instruction/correction/suggestion, and then watch them take it again was invaluable. Still photographs and even video of riders on XC courses have always made it look so difficult/foreign and haven't shown me how it works.  At the clinic, we watched horses and quickly got to know their personalities and comfort levels with this work, and it became clearer and clearer as rider after rider went through, then circled to repeat a jump at least once, that the horse does the work.  He takes the jump; his athleticism, instinct, and intellect get him over.

That may sound stupid to anyone who already jumps or who understands it, but this was the first time I really saw how it worked.  The rider can help, and she can most certainly hurt the horse's effort, but she ultimately ain't the one jumping.  He is, and I saw that with my own eyes, up close and personal, and I get it now.

Maybe some of my not-understanding of this principle comes from only having exposure to jumping in lessons I was in, or in competitions I was not in-- where all the focus is on what the rider did right or wrong to mess things up.  There was not a lot of discussion, except peripherally, that the horse is the one who does it.  The one book I've read that considers this principle is Pippa Funnell's, but she only says it once and doesn't dig very deeply into it.

For me, this is a lightning bolt of fundamental understanding.

As I bring Sherm along, I have been concerned from the start about screwing him up because I don't have enough experience.  The XC clinic put in very clear terms what parts are my job, and what parts are his job, and how much of his job comes naturally to him.  While I have to be in the right place at the right time with the right seat to let him do his job, I only have to worry about getting my job right, not both of our jobs.  I'm not jumping that; he is.  He's bright, bold, and talented enough to get his job done.

So, we got back together yesterday, and again today, and we're back.  Working together, me on my job, he on his, and while we're not flying over obstacles yet, we're getting work done without fear.  He helped again by being Sherman, charging right for the newly-delivered park bench on the property, rather than shying away from it like every other horse on the place.  Bold, bright, talented, inquisitive.  Just sit up and do your job, girl, and he's going to do his naturally.

We also switched to night-time turnout Friday night, so he's sleepy as hell and totally relaxed when I go out to ride first thing in the morning, which is my best time.  I can't overstate the value of having a good bit of that excess Morgan go siphoned off by a night of galavanting around... a focused, not-a-rocket horse is a whole lot easier to work with while we're still learning, and his quiet helps my confidence greatly.

We're good.  We're back.  We're going places.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Not Pretty, But a First Step

So I sort of took this winter off with Sherman.  Knowing somewhere in my heart that his saddle wasn't making him totally happy, and dealing with a significant change of profession, I allowed myself to not do too much work with the BBW from October to...oh, last week.

As someone who only started riding about six years ago, and who has only gotten as far as she has by doing it, working it, practicing it every day, this lapse in training was not a good idea.  The physical fitness and muscle memory deterioration was one thing.  But the mental boogeymen who took advantage of the lapse in training by taking up residence in my brain-- they were certainly the worst side effect of time off.

Yeah, I spent the winter realizing that I've only been riding horses 18 months longer than Sherman has been alive.  And thinking about that every day.  Some days, it was a pat on the back-- look how far you've come!  Only riding for 5 years, and you started your young horse last season, well done!  Sometimes it was an excuse-- come on, I've only been riding for 5 years; how can I be expected to be that good?  But sometimes it became a nagging chant of ridicule-- You've only been riding for five years.  What the hell do you think you're doing on that green horse?!  Green on green = black & blue.  You got lucky last year when it was all new to him; now that he's got it under his belt, he's going to kill you.

And, of course, it was that last voice I gave credence.

So, I got myself freaked out.  Not a good place to be.

Thought I could shake it off as bad saddle fit.  Once he's comfortable, I'll put those gremlins out of my head, and we'll be fine.  Well, the saddle needed fitting, and it's now awesome and he's comfortable, but, um, the gremlins were still there.  Rode badly through the fitting process because I was so freaked out (and his little ya-ya buck didn't help!).  Rode badly again last week on my own and came out of it feeling completely demoralized.

Now, it doesn't help that riding Sherm the Worm, Squirmin' Sherman is, while he is green and noodly, a lot like riding a unicycle while juggling-- there's a lot to manage.  He has a host of evasions and a wicked sense of humor, and enough balance and panache to be absolutely ridiculous while I chase him through the tack.  He does not make it easy, particularly not when I've worked myself into a pretty good state of zero-confidence fear.  Certain that I am not nearly good enough to manage the bowling pins and the pedals at the same time, I got twitchy.

But late last week two things happened.  One, we had some disruptions to the farm schedule, including strange horse on a trailer right at coming-down-the-driveway-for-evening-turn-in-time.  Two senior horses got ditzy and worried, silly and ruffled by the disruption.  Sherman, of course, headed straight for the trailer and the two trucks, insisting that these people, too, would want to know him.  That's what he's all about-- you want to know me!  I'm fun!  I'm fearless! I can do anything!

This was good for my confidence because I was reminded that he isn't going to flake out / freak out / blindly panic / run off without me.  He might run off with me because there's something fun to investigate, but he most certainly won't try to dump me and head for the hills.  That's not his nature, and I'm ashamed to admit I had lost sight of that in my own dark night of the soul.  I can trust him, and if he trusts me, I must be doing something right, sometimes...

The second thing that happened was that I had the opportunity to go groom for my friend Amy at a clinic she rode in yesterday afternoon.  This is my intrepid adventurer friend, the one who made my first horse possible, and with whom I had what still ranks as my favorite riding day ever, a blissful hunter pace in 2010.  She thinks I went with her and volunteered to groom for her yesterday out of the goodness of my own heart; truth is, I needed to siphon off a little of her just do it energy.  In true fearless fashion, she decided to take this clinic at the last minute and just did it.  So I went along.

And as I watched her and the other student in the lesson with her, I rode along like we all do.  I sat up, shifted my weight, managed the reins, pressed into one stirrup or the other, all from the comfort of my observer's chair at the end of the arena.  I sat and rode and listened and watched and kept hearing in my head well, okay, Sherm and I could do this.... yeah, we could do that... uh-huh...yep...okay... and there we were, at the end of the lesson, hearing the voices in my head speaking positively for the first time in quite a while.  Amy and her fabulous pony were sweaty and satisfied, and I was feeling myself coming out of the funk.

So I got on Sherm today, though my ride was prefaced by some jitters and hesitation, and a moment when I nearly talked myself out of it (oh, it's kind of windy out there; might be too spooky to ride...).  But I just did it.  It wasn't pretty, and we have a long way to go, but yes, we trotted our circles (um, not so round, but we'll get there) and our figure-8s and the like.  He tossed his head in the air (juggling bowling pins) and ran ahead (pedal that unicycle faster!) and cut in to the middle of the ring (that one wheel sure can corner!) but I worked on through, on past all the silliness.  And he didn't run away with me, didn't buck me off (though he gave me a tentative hop right at the start-- I know that was about testing whether I'd get off or not; when I didn't, that disappeared), and he gave me his best honest try once I stopped thinking about me and just pushed him to go with some rhythm and the beginnings of straightness.

I'm probably not done entirely with the mental heebie-jeebies, but I most assuredly am ready to chase them off while mounted on my trustworthy steed, rather than placating them by staying inside on the couch watching another rerun of Friends.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Saddle Fitter

Hooray!  Amen, hallelujah!  The saddle, she do fit!

Katie Gussenhofen of County Saddlery came last night and worked her magic to make Sherm's ProFit fit like it should.

I've been holding off panic over whether this new-to-me County was really going to be wide enough for this boy, who just seems to keep growing, without ever getting obviously fat.  He's carrying a few extra pounds in strategic places after the long winter off, but, truly, he's not fat like many in his family.  So when he came out this spring, taller, longer, and, yeah, wider, than he went into the winter, I thought oh no... is he really beyond an XW to an XXW?  Please, Lord, no.  

I'm on a budget, a serious one, and it doesn't make a ton of sense to me to purchase a new saddle for this ever-changing youngster.  He's likely to continue to grow, up and out, until he is nearly 8-- most of the horses in his line have taken this long.  And we're not 100% sure what, exactly, our discipline will be.  So, used it must be for now.  Easier said than done...

While I could find used dressage saddles in that size with no problem (thank you Warmbloods!), the market for used XXW close contact saddles is  Those 12 people who are riding XXW horses over fences had those saddles custom-made for their mounts, and they're not giving them up.  (And, no, we're not over fences yet, but I like the freedom of the "less is more" approach of cc or a/p saddles.)  The rest of the jumping world is riding TBs and TB crosses, and they describe their saddle size using a term ("narrow?"-- have you heard of this?)  with which I am unfamiliar.  Those  saddles are pretty readily available on the used market, along with the size-7 shoes I see on the other side of the shoe store when I am shopping for myself.  It took months to find this ProFit, and it was my only hope...

Katie G came and had a moment's trepidation, too, when she saw the ProFit on the Germ-- miles of wither clearance, and a seat hovering about a foot over his spine.  Uh-oh... is this thing too narrow?  

But further inspection revealed a good bit of flocking in the front panels, so it was worth pulling some out to give it a try.  And pull she did... for about 45 minutes... and about a sheep's-worth:

Once all that fluffy stuff was out of there, and with plenty left inside to make for some comfy padding, we gave it a go.  Sherm, who had stood in the cross ties quietly for 45 minutes-- so not his style, was a bit too exuberant when we got to the ring, throwing me the first buck of our riding relationship.  Wow! And, whoops!  I landed on his neck, in front of the saddle, only because it was probably about a 30% of his capability buck.  Surprised me, and concerned me that something was seriously wrong with his saddle now-- he's never bucked me before!  Hop off, lunge him some, and come to understand that the buck was a 50-degree, blustery-day, been-standing-here-for-45-minutes, and I-feel-good buck.  Gave several more happy ya-yas on the lunge, and then a good bit of canter, and then he stood there and gave me the "Yeah!  I am James Brown, and I Feel Good!" look.  And, the better news was that the saddle actually stayed in place through all that-- none of this sliding forward on to his shoulders crap, not even with all that ya-ya!  Got back on and found that the saddle followed his now happy, relaxed (all the bucks were out) back.  Amen!

As good as that was, it was even better to have the nagging, can't-find-the-sweet-spot sensation I've had with this saddle disappear.  I love-love-loved my first Pro-Fit, like that best-ever pair of jeans that you keep wearing long past decency.  But I've been struggling to find balance and comfort in the sweet spot with this one... disappointed and afraid that something had changed in the design of it between the two models, I've been wrestling with wanting to sit forward, but having the saddle slide me back towards the cantle.  Adjust, settle, slide.  Adjust, settle, slide.  Testing it with tried and true Celby in order to eliminate the variable of a wily 5-year old, I found that the damn saddle just didn't feel right to me...

Well, ripping out all that over-stuffing (probably for some skinny TB with withers!) from the front, lowered the pommel, and voila!  Sweet spot, directly over the stirrups, exactly where I want it.  Yum, yum, yum-- happy bum!

A few more laps around, and a second stuffing adjustment to raise the left rear panel just a bit, and we got rid of the feeling that I was fighting the right front (diagonal pairs are not just for legs, it seems), and we was done, girlfriend!  An hour and a half and money well spent.  We get back to work to get that little bit of winter fat Sherm is carrying melted away through muscle development.  

We'll have to adjust and re-stuff after we re-build this horse, but that's part of the process.

Katie took wither tracings for Sherm's records, and almost had to label them because the wither and the cantle-area arcs were virtually the same... aaaahhhhh, Morgans...

A slightly over-padded Sherm considers the stuffing from his saddle.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Light Reading

While waiting for his Thursday afternoon appointment with the saddle fitter, Sherman shops for the boat that will put him in a Lyle Lovett song.

 And then he comes across this interesting article...