Friday, April 26, 2013

Improvement via Adversity (or rather: Embarrassing Confessions)

So the week didn't start off all that well, what with Sherm's dramatic adventures in shoeing and all.  But I'm a firm believer in learning from your mistakes, and every day being a new opportunity to start again and get it right.

Okay, really, I'm not a firm believer in either one of those things, but I am experienced enough to know that I'm going to screw things up on a regular basis, and if I don't dust off, pick up, and start all over again, then I'll just curl up on the couch and die, so I get on with things.  And I've spent the week getting on with things, two things in particular.

First thing, groundwork with Sherman.  I heard myself, and I heard how it sounded, when I wrote the following on Monday after our shoeing adventure:
I've not instilled in Sherman impeccable, unshakable ground manners, having relied on his general good will and strategic avoidance of situations that push his tolerance and patience beyond demonstrated limits 

Ick.  I heard that, and I didn't like how it sounded one bit.  That's a whole 950 pounds of disaster waiting to happen, sister, so you best get on it.

And I have.  I sat myself down and decided what lines I wanted drawn for him, behavior-wise, and where, exactly those lines would be.  And we got started on them.  There's a crop in my hand, a bellow in my voice, and a resolve in my heart.  He's better already.  The general things-- not chewing the rope (or grabbing for it) when leading or standing, standing still in the crossties, and not nudging/nuzzling/nibbling me-- were already half-way established in his bag of manners.  (Half-way, because I am, I admit, half-attentive to correcting them... half the time.)  So these have again made it to the top of my focus list, and he's improving already.  He can do it; I just have to do it.  

For the farrier, I've started a daily training campaign regarding Sherm's tolerance for hammering on the bottoms of his feet.  Starting slowly, but three sessions have already improved his behavior from irritated/semi-panicky pulling and dancing away from metallic tapping on his shoes to a quiet acceptance.  I'm increasing the intensity of the tapping slowly, and changing the name of his game to how long and still can I stand in order to please my person?  Pleasing the person involves both avoidance of shouting/walloping and delivery of the occasional tic-tac to reinforce good behaviors.  It's working.  By next shoeing, I think we'll have a much, much better horse.

The other lesson that I've finally learned, and this is really embarrassing to admit, is about my rein hands.  I've never been good at keeping them as closed as they need to be; it's a fault and a bad habit, and I've been trying, but it's been a struggle.  After I injured my left ring finger back in November (probably torn tendons; x-rays were negative for a break, and time was prescribed) it took months for the swelling and pain to subside.  Getting back on Sherm the past several weeks has irritated it again, pulling on it exactly the same way the original injury did.  For a few days, I tried riding with the reins across my middle fingers, but that didn't feel like enough grip, and riding with them across the pinkies made a whole fist that was too rigid and unresponsive.  Knowing I had this clinic coming up, and that contact will be a huge part of our work, I was struggling to figure out what to do.

Finally I gave up and went back to proper rein position, using the damaged ring finger.  But out of self-preservation, I closed my hand.  Um, hey, it doesn't hurt when I do that.  Open hands= injured fingers.  Closed hands= safe fingers.  Um, duh.  Another brilliant, oh shit, I get it now! moment here for me.  I've been riding all week with closed hands, and my contact is better at the same time that my finger is holding its own.  Fantastic little built-in reminder there-- if I open my hands, the rein pressure re-injures the finger.  Amazing what we learn out of pain-avoidance.

So there you have it.  Idiot report for the week.  But the forecast calls for localized lessening of idiocy, so I'm optimistic...

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Shoeing the BBW

Monday the farrier came and put shoes on all four of Sherman's feet.  That's the short version.  The long version involves more drama than I care to admit.  But admitting is what this is all about, so here I go.

The farrier arrived right on time for our 9:30 appointment.  He's wonderful; I like him both as a person and as a professional, and his consistent arrival right on time is one of the things I like about him.  Knowing he'd be right on time, I had taken Sherm out for our usual morning ride to burn off some excess kid-energy since the farrier would have to be dealing with a youngster who'd had no turnout yet.. and on a day when the grass is so, so green, and everyone else was turned out eating it all without him.

I met the farrier at the truck, and his first question to me was how was I feeling about this.  I admitted that I was nervous because 1.) shoeing is not something I know enough about to be confident and 2.) this is Sherman's first time, and first times always make me nervous.  Mr. Farrier was fantastic about discussing my nerves, his plan, our work together, the horse's needs, etc. We talked for probably 15 minutes about generalities, and then he wanted me to walk Sherm out for him.  He knows Sherm's conformation and the wear patterns on his feet, but he wanted to round out the picture with the beast in motion.

I got Sherm and walked him up and down the driveway, and then mentioned that another concern I had about him and shoes was his degree of overstride; he does have quite a bit-- would he be pulling his front shoes off with his hind feet?  Mr. Farrier had me put him on the lunge line and trot him around a bit in the lunge ring.  Mr. Farrier assessed that Sherm clears his front feet out of the way in plenty of time to avoid forging, so we should be good to go there.  He also commented that he moves a lot better than he expected of the BBW, having only ever seen him at a walk or standing in his ridiculous, teenage-slouchy, never-square, bored stance in the crossties.  Sherm is a sack of potatoes standing still, and he does it on purpose.  But put him in motion, and he's a pretty thing most of the time.  It was nice to have Mr. Farrier recognize this.

So after the brief lungeing session, Mr. Farrier said to put him in the crossties.  I did, and that was probably my first mistake.  Or maybe my second mistake, my first mistake being my failure to present the vet's recommended shoeing approach before I got Sherm out of his stall.  As Mr. Farrier began to look in his supply for the right shoes for the BBW, I said, "Okay, I know you're about to do your job, but I do have to report what the vet recommended, and then you can make decisions from there."  Mr. Farrier agreed, and asked for Dr. Vet's notes.

I reported Dr. Vet's notes, and could see that things were going to get sticky... Dr. Vet (who is amazing and awesome, by the way) presented a plan involving breakover changes that Mr. Farrier felt was too much, too soon.  He would rather go slow, with a significantly more conservative approach to Sherm's first set of shoes. What followed was 30 minutes of explanation, along with show-and-tell of the supply of unused and used shoes in Mr. Farrier's truck.  All the while Sherm is standing alone in the crossties.

I was afraid I'd be here-- stuck between the vet's recommendations and the farrier's opinions.  Both of them are professionals (and people) I respect, admire, and whose judgment I trust deeply.  And I'm there in the middle, without a confident, firm understanding of the engineering mechanics of shoeing a horse with conformational challenges, and I'm supposed to make a decision.  All the while Sherm is standing alone in the crossties.

What in the heck is taking so long?!
I digest what the farrier has to say, question him about the differences between his approach and the vet's, and come to agreement that his slower, more conservative, small-steps approach is okay with me. And then I have to spend 15 minutes convincing him that he has not just talked me into something that I don't want to do, but that he has made his case, and that I am comfortable going with his judgment.  All the while Sherm is standing alone in the crossties.

Finally we get to Sherm, and after dry fitting for size, a small bit of cleaning, brushing, and slight rasping of the foot, significant shaping of the shoe for optimum fit, the first nails go into the first foot at around 11:30.  Mr. Farrier has been here two hours, and Sherm has been in the crossties, not doing much of anything, for over an hour, closing on an hour and a half.  He's actually been amazingly good and quiet for Sherm, for any of our horses, really.  He has stood and waited with a minimum of attention-seeking behaviors, and I was really quite impressed with his patience.

Aside here: we decided to shoe Sherm based on the conformational issues that predispose him to suspensory strain/damage, but the farrier pointed out that he's also wearing down his hooves pretty heavily now that he's in daily work.  So it appears that shoes are a good idea for the boy on all fronts.

The farrier predicted that Sherm would be good for this first shoeing, but would be difficult to manage the next time-- this first time would be new and surprising, and the young horse is usually too busy digesting what is going on to object to anything.  The second shoeing, however, is when he'll likely object because he already knows what's coming and has decided that he can express an opinion about that.

Well, Sherm is, of course, a bit of a prodigy.  He was fantastically patient for the first two feet.  Front shoes went on with no problems, and he seemed intrigued by both the process and the product.
Front Feet-- No Problem!

Unfortunately, however, he decided that he understood both and was no longer interested in participating when Mr. Farrier got to the hind feet.  With the left hind, the first to be done, he began to resist, pulling the foot away, then pushing the farrier, then dancing around out of reach, then repeating all these maneuvers in a variety of combinations that had Mr. Farrier sweating and swearing, with me not too far behind.  We got out the stallion chain and tried correcting Sherm with that on his nose, to no improvement in his attitude.  We used the chain as a gum twitch, with just enough success to make some progress on the shoeing, but leaving Sherm with a bloody gum and me with a bruised hand.  Several anxious moments and adrenaline-filled approaches finally found us with all but one nail in the first hind foot, and Sherman having just kicked for the first time.  Mr. Farrier said, okay, he just kicked backward to tell us he's mad; next he'll start aiming, so let's take a break and rethink this.  Mr. Farrier intelligently placed a quick call to see where Dr. Amazing Vet was, just in case she was in the area and could bring a little mellow-juice for Sherm to sample so we could get through the hind feet safely.

God loves Sherman, I'm just sure of it, because at the moment he called, Dr. Amazing Vet was 4 miles away, finishing a routine call at a friend's farm down the road.  She could be here in 15 minutes.

So I put Sherm back in his stall to cool out, and I made Mr. Farrier a cup of coffee to sit with and cool himself out while I drank water with shaking hands and tried to breathe and lower my blood pressure.  I was keyed up because it's a scary situation when your young horse is responding poorly to a new situation, particularly scary when your farrier is under your young horse's immense and powerful hind legs right at that moment.

But I was keyed up as well because I feel deeply my responsibility for the entire situation.  I'm feeling

  • bad that I decided to shoe my horse; maybe this was an avoidable situation, and I made a bad call
  • bad that I've not instilled in Sherman impeccable, unshakable ground manners, having relied on his general good will and strategic avoidance of situations that push his tolerance and patience beyond demonstrated limits
  • bad that I let him stand in the crossties so long before we really got to him
  • bad that he's being bad (in terms of his personality rather than his incomplete training)
All in all, I'm feeling pretty bad.  Bad in a size that (in the moment) felt much bigger than the need for shoes, than the need to ask this horse to perform for me in any way that might require protective/corrective shoeing.  Bad.

But after a bit of coffee, a sit-down, and some time away from a cranky horse, Mr. Farrier begins to  chat lightly again, and he assures me that this isn't that far out of the ordinary for young horses at their first shoeing. Mr. Farrier is just going to be safe, and make sure the experience ends comfortably for everyone involved, particularly the horse, who needs to come out of this first time quiet and unscarred.

Dr. Amazing Vet arrives, zips a little happy juice in Sherm, and offers to hold him for Mr. Farrier through the last shoe. I'm perfectly happy to let the professionals do their jobs, and had no problem with Dr. Vet using her rope twitch on the big boy, just to keep him in line.  The last shoe went on in five minutes, without any leaning, resistance, kicking, or other argument from a happy, docile, dopey Sherm.
Doped and Happy.  (The horse, not the vet.)

Dr. Vet assures me that I should not be embarrassed or upset about this, that Sherm did his best for his first shoeing, and that she's got clients whose horses are much more experienced and much worse patients for this. She confesses that her own horse sometimes needs a little push in the mellow direction to get through this process properly.  All of which is nice of her to say; none of which makes me feel any less bad about the whole thing.  And she leaves me an oral dose of the happy juice to take the edge off the next time.  Off Sherm, not me, though I'll probably need a shot of courage in about 7 weeks...

One nice aside to needing to call the vet in for assistance-- she got a look at the shoes Mr. Farrier chose, and at the approach he campaigned for, and she agreed that his conservative approach is perfectly reasonable and in keeping with his interest in the long-term soundness of the horse.  She confesses that she sometimes approaches things from a veterinarian's "fix this now" perspective, and that the slow-and-steady path has absolute legitimacy here.  We're going to the same place; we're just going more slowly, and that's fine.  So everyone is on the same page and feeling good about the plan.

So by 12:45 both the vet and the farrier have left the farm, and I come into the house and have myself a good cry over the events of the morning.  Then I call an old friend and tell her the whole story.  She kindly listens, offers consolation and feedback, and I feel a bit better as I head back down to the barn to complete my "morning" chores.

My homework, of course, is to work with Sherman every day on handling his feet, or rather on hammering his feet. He's been fine for cleaning and trimming, but now he needs to be desensitized to the hammering so that Mr. Farrier can do his job quickly and safely.  The happy juice will help, but our goal, of course, is to have him grow up and accept the work with maturity and calm grace.  

Monday, April 15, 2013


Well, apparently my repeated associations of Sherman and Clip Clop, the young horse in the children's book of the same name, have proven prophetic.  Just like the dancing bay horse in the book, Sherm is awaiting the appointment to get his first set of shoes.

The vet was out on Friday for spring shots for the BBW, and after inoculations were administered, evaluation and discussion turned to Sherm's current condition.  After last summer's grass-induced Morganpotomus weight gain, Sherm isn't looking too bad, actually.  But the pastures have just now turned green and started growing, so fat is on its way.  We discussed dry lot turnout and grazing muzzles and proper management of the calories going in, and then moved on to the work we've been doing to burn up the calories.  She turned her attention to Sherm's feet-- hoof wear, pastern & fetlock angles, and hindquarter muscling.  She's said it before, but said it on Friday with greater emphasis, "He's really going to need shoes."

She's right; I know she's right.  She's not the only one who has said it.  The trainer we're clinic-ing with next month has said it.  The farrier has said it; the other vet in the practice has said it.  We've avoided it being, if not urgent, then at least seriously necessary, to this point because we've not ever before been working this hard.  But now we are, and before we set him up for injury, we've really got to do the right thing.

You see, Sherm's lower leg conformation is...well... crap.  He's got his dam's long pasterns and upright hooves, particularly bad in the hind legs.  She suffered for a long time with overtaxed suspensories, and was ultimately euthanized because they were giving out on her, and she could not stand on one for the farrier to trim the other.  Sherm's hinds look just like hers, and he is big (even when not overweight), bigger than she was, so the strain on those suspensories is great.  In addition, his left fore is toed-in significantly, enough to affect the breakover on that foot.  His feet alone are nice-- hard, solid, well-suited to work, holding their shape nicely between trims-- no chipping, splitting, or any sort of consistency issues.  But the surrounding skeletal issues put too much strain on the ligaments holding it all together.  He is actually wearing down the toes of his hind hooves as he drags them and is currently landing rather toe-first.  According to everyone who has ever had a serious look at his conformation, he needs orthopedic sneakers!

So, he's got issues at the front and rear, issues which need addressing.  The vet wants to do a "natural balance/eventing" shoe, set back from the toe on the hind feet, which would leave a portion of shoe trailing out behind the heel 1/4-1/2".  This would, effectively, move his base of support back slightly to underneath that over-extended fetlock joint and offer some support to the suspensory.  The shoe also has a more square toe in the front, which combined with being set back from the toe of the hoof is supposed to allow the foot to break over "naturally" in a supported fashion.  Similar setback plan for the front feet, without the trailers, in order to facilitate proper breakover, particularly of that toed-in LF.  

We discussed the tradeoffs of having him shod before the clinic in three weeks, which will ask him to do a lot of hard work, harder than we've been doing thus far this spring, and in deeper footing than he normally works.  Do we try to get him shod and used to his new feet before the clinic, in order to head off any injury that stress-load will cause?  The entire point of the clinic will likely be to get him to begin to carry his weight more conscinentiously on those hind legs, so if they need protecting, they need shoes.  But do we have enough time to get him shod and used to new feet between now and then, or are we just asking for injury by rushing into it?

And I, of course, am having a panic attack about this.

I don't know anything about shoeing, about owning and managing a horse with shoes.  And you know what?  The internet is not exactly the place to try to educate yourself about shoeing horses.  There's a holy war going on out there regarding horseshoeing, and it's very, very difficult to sort out fair and honest sources of information from the hyperbolic anecdotes on both sides of the issue.  

So I spent a confused Saturday reading a lot of stuff.  As I tried to narrow down the searches to address just the needs we're trying to meet-- poor conformation and suspensory support-- I of course found out all about DSLD-- Degenerative Suspensory Ligament Desmitis, which I then immediately diagnosed in Sherman.  I know better than this, but once you start "web-MDing" your horse, well, he's got everything, you know.  Of course that's what happened to his dam; that's why we lost her, and now it's going to happen to him, but before he even turns 7!

I literally broke down in tears at the thought of losing him before he lives to the ripe old age I'm planning for him.  At that point, I got off the internet and texted the vet, asking her to call me back at her convenience to talk further about shoeing.  And then just felt sick all the rest of the weekend.

Still waiting for the vet this morning, I called a friend who has been a lifelong horse owner, and whose working horses have been shod for much of the time she's owned them.  She mentioned last week that she just put shoes on her senior horse again, after 2 years without, because the rocky, hilly terrain at her new farm was giving him some trouble.  The instant improvement in his carriage was demonstrable, and she'd said last week that she was quite happy with the return to shoes.  She gave me the lowdown on her life with shod horses, and made me feel much better.  The fact that the farrier she used for many of these years was the farrier I'm currently using allowed her to give relevant advice and reassurance.

While I was on the phone with her, the vet called on my cell phone (isn't that always how it goes?), and we got to have the thorough follow-up conversation I needed.  First and foremost, she reassured me that  while Sherm has skeletal conformation issues that predisposes him to suspensory ligament stresses, he is not of a breed that likely carries the DSLD genetics that will allow his tissues to "turn to goo" and give up on him.  His is a mechanical issue that can be assisted and improved with mechanical and nutritional support.  So, okay, his legs are not going to fall off.  That was good.  

She went on to assure me that the farriery will be working on changing the shape and structure of his feet to improve them for the job they need to do; this is not a fixed situation that we can only hope to maintain from here on in.  Corrective farriery to help Sherm build and develop hoof where he needs it while I'm allegedly building strength and balance throughout his body to help him use it most efficiently.  So it's not the end-of-the-world, last-ditch effort to save him/keep him sound that it might have seemed like at first glance.  He needs assistance, but not a wheelchair just yet.

Finally, I spoke with the farrier, who agreed that this horse's conformation has those issues, and that we can work to improve him.  He was on the road when I called, so I'm waiting for him to call back when he's got his book and we can set up our appointment for Sherm's new shoes.

Wish us luck.  Let's hope Clip Clop is dancing around on happy feet very soon!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Schleese Testimonial

It's taken a few months, but I finally got around to writing the thank you note / testimonial I've wanted to send to Schleese about our saddle and saddle-fitting experience. On the page, it's clearly way too long, but still it doesn't feel like it says enough about how happy I am to have my BBW back in the tack and happy. Clearly, words (no matter how many) cannot express the wonder of working with a great, happy horse.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Rite of Passage

Sherm went through his equine bar mitzvah yesterday, at least the one we mark here on the farm-- he took his first journey "up the hill to the power line." A horse who willingly and safely makes the journey to the power lines is considered by our standards to have passed his first real trailworthiness test.  Sherm, of course, not only passed, but re-wrote some of the test standards.

The farm here consists of about 25 acres of flat pastureland and hay meadows, bordered at the rear by the old railbed.  Beyond that rails-to-trails segment, there is one more flat field at the bottom of the hill. This two-acre field is the last section of flat, cleared land on the property.  The rest of the 90 acres goes up, up, uphill through the woods to the top of the hill out back.  About 1/3rd of the way up, the hill is bisected by a set of power lines, where the foliage is kept cut and/or chemically defoliated by the two state power authorities that share the lines.  The way up is pretty steep, and the main trail, an old logging road, has been in a state of disrepair since the last time the acreage was logged in 2007.  The loggers dragged trees down the steep hill, wiping out the water diversion channels, and did not replace them, which has allowed several successive spring runoff seasons to carve out a pretty deep gully in one half of the road, leaving a narrow and treacherous path to the top.  With other priorities absorbing our time and finances, we haven't had much of a chance to get the road repaired, so the road surface has gone unmended and lack of use has allowed the undergrowth to begin reducing the clearing to a less-passable width.  Dear hubby worked at the lower end of the road last fall, but is really just beginning that process.  There are myriad other trails to the top, but over the same number of years, the number of riders and horses who are ready for trail work has diminished, in the cyclical way these things do, and so those other, smaller trails are in similarly narrow and deadfall-clogged condition.

Beginning the clearing at the bottom
 With Sherm's new-found love of work outside the ring, I've been thinking that we need to get safe trails to the top re-established, so hubby and I took advantage of a warm, but way-too-windy-to-work horses kind of day on Sunday to have a hike up and scout our options.  Finding a lovely trail right on the property line, we set to work widening and clearing.  Two hours of hacking and sawing, stacking and dragging deadfall, and we felt we'd made good headway.  I wandered farther on up the hill to see how long it would take for this trail to connect to one through a stand of hemlock and pines, which is clear and lovely riding.  When I discovered it was a much longer trek than I'd planned, I generously called our trail-clearing to an end for the day because it was obvious we wouldn't get to the stopping point we'd been seeking any time soon, so as far as we got would have to be good enough for Sunday.  Two more days of similar sessions would see us to the connector trail.

On Monday, I took Sherm to the bottom of this new trail to show it to him and see what he thought.  He thought we should go up.  This was our first real experience with hills, with slippery oak-leaf-covered terrain, with exposed roots and other footing hazards, but he was game.  So I let him have as much of his head as seemed prudent, and he delightedly marched right up through the section we'd cleared.  When we got to some tighter undergrowth, I turned him around and had him stand for a moment to see where we were and catch his breath, and then we headed downhill.  Downhill in such conditions was enough challenge to occupy his mind for a minute, and we made it halfway down before he realized we were going back the way we'd already come, and he said no, let's go back up; I haven't been there before.

Cleared about 1/3rd of the way to the hemlock trail
It took a little firmness to convince him that we really were going to go back where we'd come from, but he acquiesced the way he always does when I really do insist.  He came down out of the woods clearly happy to have been there, but obviously wanting more.  He had lots to think about for the rest of our ride and through his day.

So yesterday morning when we headed out, he made a beeline for the same trail opening at the corner of the far field.  Up, up, and up he went, and when we got to the end of the cleared section, I said hey, why not, and guided him through the narrower portions, then off-trail into some piney turf, which (though full of dead limbs at rider-height) was clear of undergrowth at his feet.  Sherm was fine with the claustrophobic territory, not at all bothered to be pinned in by the close branches.  He also very quickly demonstrated that the breaking of these dead limbs, the snapping, popping sounds they made as I pushed them out of our way was not a problem to him, nor was the whomping sound they made as they fell behind us.  Accidentally, I discovered that he didn't even care if these branches snapped off and fell across his neck in front of me on the saddle, nor did he pay much attention to me dragging them off and dropping them next to him as he pushed forward through the dense forest.  So surprised was I that I found myself struggling to keep up with him as he squished and bent, wriggled and pushed, and generally billy-goated his way up and through, up and through.

His not being afraid of these sensations of sight (narrow passages, surrounded by shadowy hazards), sound (stomping, swooshing, snapping, popping), and touch (the tangles of deadfall and undergrowth around his feet, the branches dropping on him in front and behind me, and the snagging of his mane and tail in the shrubbery) impressed me.  But more than that cool-character level-headedness, his demonstration of utter partnership on this journey knocked my socks off.  When it was clear where the best path was, he and I chose it together.  When I hesitated and asked him if he thought he could get through that skinny spot, he stepped up and did it.  When he got to a spot where he wasn't sure he could negotiate the complicated footing, he answered when I asked him to try here or go over there.
Who needs cleared trail? Sherm at the power line opening.
Never before in my riding have I shared such an experience of trust and mutual responsibility for the other half of the partnership flowing back and forth.  Such organic give and take was pretty freakin' amazing.

We soon found the cleared path in the hemlock grove and made our way to the power line clearing, where we had a nice jaunt through the (comparatively) easy going field.  The entire area up there is fed by natural streams, and we'd had rain the night before, so that field, all this way up a hillside, was a bit boggy, but Sherm has really mastered boggy terrain already, so it wasn't too bad, and he was quiet and happy enough for me to pull out my phone and take a couple of pictures to mark our accomplishment.

So great was my confidence in the BBW that on our return journey back down the hill, I allowed him to pick his way along the narrow side of the washed-out logging road.  Going out in the morning, I'd never have thought that's where we'd end up-- just an hour before I would have been full of fear and anxiety about his ability to navigate such difficult terrain.  But he'd demonstrated his skill, his cooperation and willingness to listen and work with me, and his innate natural abilities, so we did it.  He got a teeny bit too close with one foot, and the footing gave way on him, but he hadn't shifted weight to that foot, so he pulled back and found better purchase.  That was the only mis-step of the entire ride.

When we got back to the field at the bottom of the hill, he trotted out with the happiest, proudest Morgan trot he could muster, and I rode it, patting him on the neck and praising him all along.  We were tickled with our work.

Once we left the wooded area of the railbed and got back into the hay meadows, the 25mph winds that had almost caused me to abort my morning ride entirely, winds which were nowhere to be found on the hill, kicked up and were whipping us like mad.  Fortunately the winds were warm and pleasant, but still a force to be reckoned with.  Down the long side of the far hay meadow, Sherm gave a big, whooping spook and crow-hop as we passed something in the hedgerow.  I'm pretty sure he didn't see anything at all, but was just gleefully showing off his youthful exuberance and delight at his morning's accomplishments.

Just to top off his death-defying, super-brave ride, we had to ride down the driveway next to the clothesline, where our partner (not knowing we were coming back down this way) had hung out all her sheets and bedding to dry in the lovely spring wind.  Flapping wildly straight across the driveway, the sheets and blankets were a fanciful, popping display of horse-eating linens.  Still hanging things, my partner stopped and called out to let us know she was there, and suggested to me that he might be a little spooked by them... I said well, considering where we've been and how he did, I think he's going to be okay.  We walked right on by without a second glance at the dramatic green and white circus of flapping fabric.  The boy probably thought it was a ticker tape parade in his honor.

When we got back to the barn, he seemed genuinely disappointed that I got off.  I think he'd have turned around and gone again.

So the BBW has passed his trail test, and in more difficult conditions than probably any horse here in 15 years.  He knows his stuff.  He trusts himself and his rider.  I am so, so pleased with him.

Of course, this morning it's pouring, so I think he gets a day off to think about his accomplishments, but that's okay.  We'd have to figure out something harder for him to do, anyway, and I'm not sure I'm up to that today.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Trusty Trail Steed

It's probably not any big deal to readers who've had quiet, trustworthy horses in their lives.  It's probably kind of tedious and boring to folks who are really working their 20m circles or their coffins and skinnys.  It probably appears lazy, undisciplined and like the easy way out for riders who are really working hard at their craft.  But no matter how it looks to anyone else, riding Sherman out in the fields and woods is just amazing to me.

I didn't ride as a kid.  I took it up as a 36 year old working adult.  I have come to this sport with a hearty dose of middle-aged worry and fear, and I have heard louder every precautionary tale anyone has ever shared than the fun stories of glorious accomplishment.  I take to heart the dangers, and I sometimes still get nervous hours before I even start grooming-- what if today is the day something goes awry?

I have dealt with this fear by being very cautious, but limiting my activities to what I think I can handle, and then (sometimes) pushing that envelope a little wider, just to make sure I'm growing.  A little.

As I have pursued dressage, I have had a number of influences in my daily riding life who have, I'm kind of sad to say, only added to my fears.  As partner in a dressage-oriented boarding/training barn, I have encountered dozens of riders who have come to dressage because they've gotten too hurt or too frightened doing some other equine discipline, and they're looking for a change for safety's sake.  I have watched people take up dressage because they've assessed themselves as over-horsed, and they're looking for something simpler, gentler, to get them over the hump of the too-big, too-wild, too-powerful, too-dominant horse.  (I've watched many of them crash and burn with that plan.)  Outside the farm, I have a riding friend who is fearless and brilliant, talented and skilled, but to whom freak bone-breaking things seem to happen.  She is both model of the amazing things you can do when you just do them, and cautionary tale wrapped up in one.  And of course I read about accidents, injuries, freak occurrences of all sorts everywhere on the internet.  It's a dangerous sport, and there are lots of folks happy to show you graphic video of just how dangerous it can be.

On top of that, of course, the pursuit of dressage is not for the faint of ego.  It's a process of constantly exposing yourself to commentary from the trainer that you're not doing it right.  Now, I do believe this-- if the horse isn't doing what the rider wants him to do, then (barring physical limitations) the rider is  failing to do something that she needs to do to allow/instruct/help the horse to do that thing.  I get that.  But for a neurotic brain person like me, the constant admonition to be better at this thing, so the horse can be better, can begin to sound like you suck. You suck.  You suck.  You suck. You suck...

So all this emphasis and exposure to danger and hazards, added to the concern that every instructor I've ever asked to help me get better has (while helping me get better, yes) made me feel utterly incompetent, and the fear has not gone away.  It's probably gotten worse.

So what do I do?  Take on the training of a six-month old Morgan gelding.  Bring him along cautiously, but constantly pushed by his need to do more, to try more, to keep the brain working in order to keep him out of trouble.  And it has gone just fine.  Great, wonderful, excellent, really for five years now.  

But now that brilliant Morgan brain is bored in the arena, the arena where I feel safe, where I feel like I've put in the time to get what limited expertise I've developed.  The arena where I have had my coming-off-a-horse experiences and lived to tell about them, experiences which somehow, rather than quelling my anxieties about things going wrong, have only caused me to say, well, yeah, this time, but surely the next time will be worse... He wants to go out and do more, see more, explore more.  All of which I think is fantastic, because, truth be told, I'm bored in that "safe" arena myself.

But still everyday I think I can't do it.  I think yousuckyousuckyousuck and I'm really just looking for trouble.  But I get up and do it anyway because I love this horse, and he's teaching me things, and I am just so, so proud of him-- his bravery, his accomplishments, his goofy humor.  So out we go.

And then he's incredible.  He's brave, he's happy, he's forward, he's curious, he's confident.  He is afraid the first day of the boggy conditions in the far field, and by the third day, he's actively seeking out squishy areas in which to splash and show off.  He is honest and true, brave and wonderful.

And then sometimes he spooks.  Today he did his biggest spook to date, a gallop-from-a-dead-stop peel out when he saw something (I have no idea what) he didn't like in one corner of a field.  He was ripping for all he was worth, but the turf under his feet gave way, so he was sort of bolting in place-- a cartoon running and not getting anywhere.  His powerful undulations under my seat were quite dramatic.  It's possible (probable?) that if he'd found purchase, he'd have left town, and I'd have done the Wiley E. Coyote mid-air suspension trick-- hold up a sign that says Yikes! and then fall with a whistling Doppler effect until I splatted on the ground far below.

Or, maybe I wouldn't have...

The spook and scramble was scary in the moment, but I handled it.  And evidently I handled it without scaring Sherman.  He collected his wits and walked it off, and we went on about our business.  Nothing happened. Something almost happened, and it could have been a big mess, but it didn't, and it wasn't.  And once it was over, he was over it and on to new things.

Maybe I don't suck.  Maybe he's as amazing and unusually wonderful as I say he is, and his willingness to work so well for a rider who sucks is just proof of his amazingness.  I don't know how to explain it, and maybe I don't have to. Maybe I just have to keep trusting him, keep working at it, and just trust us to figure it out.  Whatever it is I'm supposed to be doing out there, I am so incredibly grateful that I'm doing it with him.  He's making me a better rider, and he never, ever says you suck.
There is no more beautiful perspective than that from atop a horse who wants to see it all.