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Thursday, July 30, 2015

...On Tiny Tortures

Dear Reader:  Thank you for visiting.  Due to the distress that the above photo of me not wearing a helmet while sitting idly in my arena on my retired gelding has caused many readers, I decided that I should post a short caveat at the beginning of this blog for any future visitors.  (Spoiler alert!)  The moral of the blog below is that sometimes imperfect horsemanship inadvertently teaches a horse to be a better partner.  When choosing the photo, I looked for one of me performing very poor horsemanship as an attempt at humor, and evidently I struck a nerve. I assure you that I am an advocate of wearing a helmet and do so daily, but I also believe in the freedom of choice and helmet or not, everyone is welcome here. Thank you for being so concerned for my safety, and please enjoy what is meant to be a fun, noncontroversial read! 

I’ve always said that the coolest cats are raised by kids.  They are used to loud noises, being touched all over, keeping their claws to themselves, wearing clothes, being walked on a leash, giving Barbie a ride…they’re just way better than the prissy, self-centered cats that are raised by adults.  I would argue that a tiny amount of torture does a kitten some good.  I think the same can be said for horses.  Is there anything better than a horse that will pack a kid around the farm, a show ring, the trails?  One that gets jumped bareback and dressed up on Halloween?  One that will stand tied for hours upon hours while being slathered in gold glitter hoof polish and bound in pink ribboned braids?  No.  Not a thing.

So in early 2014, when I brought Megatron into my barn, I did my best to give him the kid treatment.  As a result he’s gotten pretty good about most things, and I get a huge kick out of intentionally performing poor horsemanship and then announcing, “Safety first!” to any mortified passers by.  However, because he was so difficult to start (see below), I’ve always treated him with kid-gloves when it comes to riding.  Don’t scare him.  Don’t upset him.  Don’t do anything sudden… (see below again)

When it came to jumping, I was pretty worried that I was going to create a dirty stopper.  I started training Megatron to navigate ground poles pretty much immediately after he [finally] allowed me onto his back.  Because this horse was started a year late and then had a grueling and painfully slow start, he was well behind the curve for his age.  We had some catching up to do.  Plus, he was always so focused on his rider that having to pick up his feet to go over poles was a welcome distraction for him.  Most importantly, I surmised that if I started trotting him over poles as soon as he could physically carry me over them, he would always just think poles were part of his job.  This is what we do - we go over striped poles, and it’s no big deal.

Still, when we started approaching those first ground poles Megatron was slightly less than what I would call "under control."  Additionally, I’m an amateur and am in no way a perfect rider, so I knew that as jump training progressed we would find ourselves in some sticky situations.  I was just praying that he wouldn’t hold a grudge, and was relying on his gorgeous trot in the event that we had to fall back on a dressage career (still am, by the way).  

When I initially raised the poles to small jumps I still had a very green horse that didn’t have much adjustability.  He’s a naturally lazy animal who was perfectly satisfied cruising around in first gear.  Thus, I found myself crawling to every fence, seeing a distance and always moving up to it because there was no option to take momentum away from our snail’s pace (note: I no longer endorse this particular strategy for a multitude of reasons).  It was my only choice, but it wasn’t always the right choice.  Thus Megatron learned to miss.  He learned to leave a little long if he could or throw in a chip if he must, but he never really got upset about it.  Tiny tortures.  

Even once his adjustability developed and we started jumping fences higher than a foot, he had to be okay with a miss.  As I said, I’m an amateur and he’s a greenie.  Imperfection is inevitable, and simply became part of his job.

Most recently, in my effort to get this now fairly well-trained greenie out to some shows, I started taking Megatron on field trips to local farms.  I wanted him to see all kinds of unfamiliar jumps, keep his focus in new environments, be around new horses, etc.  One day last month I took him to a farm down the street and hopped on, warmed up, and then jumped all the jumps in an effort to simulate a horse show.  Megatron was great and I was impressed.  We jumped some scary things for a youngster with no experience, including a large vertical with a wide liverpool beneath it.  Megatron took it in stride.  I came around to it again a few minutes later off of a short turn, saw a wait, requested one, didn’t get it, then asked more firmly at which point he slowed down to a near-stop and jumped with no impulsion or momentum.  He relied on sheer power and will.  I relied on him.  I’m an amateur and he’s green - shit happens.  

He probably should have waited when I asked, but barring that, he probably should have given me the middle hoof instead of balling up and jumping 5 feet in an effort to clear the thing.  But to him, we simply went over a striped pole, and it was no big deal.  We landed and moved on.  Tiny tortures.  

I’ve said before how important it is to have a horse that can handle a big ugly miss, but it wasn’t until that moment that I realized how to create one.  I was suddenly thankful for all the times that my eye didn’t work or that he didn’t respond the way I’d anticipated, and we got to a fence at an awkward distance and he had to figure it out.  It’s made him a better horse.

There are many other ways to turn a horse into a dirty stopper and I’m certainly not out of the woods, but today I’m actually thankful for some of my imperfections.  Next stop: gold glitter hoof polish...and possibly dressage. 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

...On Teaching Swagger

The other day, in a rare moment of what people that don't own horse farms call “sitting down” between morning chores and afternoon hacks, I perused some of my favorite online equine-centric forums.  As I’ve said before, I’m always interested in becoming a better horseman, and there is a wealth of knowledge out there that I am happy to absorb without bothering with trial and error myself.  Often there is news of a sale on breeches, or a discussion of the veterinary treatment du jour, or some horse care issue that is debated to the point of the equestrian equivalent of a Twitter war.  

Sometimes I come away with useful knowledge.  Very rarely do I come away with an epiphany, but the other day I did just that.  In a thread about absorbing knowledge from many riding disciplines, “NancyM” wrote:

“I apply a lot of what I learned in thirty years of working with racehorses to my basic horsemanship…Keeping things fun for the horse. Letting a horse be himself, express himself, have opinions. Working with the horse you have, not trying to force a horse into a cookie cutter mould.”

I nodded along as I read.  This is how I’ve approached my horses as well.  

I continued reading:

“An old friend of mine from many years ago slapped her racehorse on the neck affectionately as he squealed at her in play... ‘He likes himself’ she told me with satisfaction. I like my horses to like themselves too. I like them to think that they are the fanciest horse they have seen all day.”

This was the epiphany.  I’ve never cared if a horse liked himself - I’ve never even thought about it in that context.  I’ve cared if he’s happy; if he’s healthy and comfortable.  I’ve cared if he likes me, or his job.  It never occurred to me to want him to like…himself.  What an epic fail on my part.

I am usually not a froofroo, anthropomorphizing, whispering horse guru.  Still, I have learned over the past few years that overall health and performance are strongly correlated to a horse’s general happiness and state of mind.  When I acquired my four-year-old, 17.1HH, mostly-unbacked, freshly-imported warmblood last year it took about two days for me to realize that if he wasn’t pleased I was either going to figure out how to make him happy, or I was going to the hospital.  Although he had been largely untouched, a couple of attempts had been made to ride him in Europe, and judging by the first several times I got on him, they didn’t go well.  Although I technically ordered a horse that had been lightly started, he simply didn’t take to the cookie-cutter training routine like most other horses do, and I realized that I didn’t just have to train this horse - I had to retrain it.  

Little known fact for those of you that have been following the Megatron saga from afar:  I got on him the third day I had him, and I didn’t get back on for two-and-a-half months.  This horse had a level of fear that made him dangerous, and he internalized it in a way that made it impossible to predict.  Throughout those terrifying fledgling weeks of training, I had incredible support from my husband who never once made me feel bad about importing a Decepticon sight-unseen, along with a bit of help from professionals and a lot of help from a really wise team-roper.  The photos have yet to surface, but my first thirty rides were in a roping saddle in a small medical turnout.  Surprise!!!

And you thought he was named Megatron because he’s big…

Once the riding became safe-ish, my trainer and I started working on trying to get Megatron to enjoy his job.  While sensible, he is also sensitive.  He will tolerate being pushed too hard, but he will remember it the next day.  Sometimes this is good and we’ve taught him something.  Sometimes it’s bad and we've scared him, but the more we work together and the more he trusts me, the less I see of this fearful horse.  

My trainer and I have spent months trying to figure out how hard to push him.  The first three lessons I had with Greg were literally trying to get Megatron to trot with his ears forward so that he wasn't always so focused on his rider.  That’s it.  My friend, Alia, acquired her young horse around the same time I got Megatron, and that same week that I was trotting oddly shaped “circles” and celebrating every time his ears flicked forward for a stride, she was jumping small courses on hers.

Some serious patience (and physical therapy) was required on my part, but we got through those initial stages of training.  Because Megatron was so stressed by a rider, I spent a lot of time trying to make riding fun for him despite the fact that many of our adventures were terrifying for me.  We went on trail rides, we jumped stuff, we went on lots of field trips, and then we took the entire winter off to decompress.  I have spent hours upon hours of my life devising a tailor-made program to make this creature enjoy his.  He is allowed to have opinions.  He is allowed to say no.  He is allowed to dictate the pace of his training.  But never have I considered that he should like himself.  

And how does one teach swagger, anyway?

I’ve had horses that are proud of themselves, but to be candid, they’ve all come that way.  My husband’s horse has a distinctly cocksure way of carrying himself when he knows he’s done a good job.  He likes himself.  And no one is going to tell my retired gelding that he’s not the fanciest horse in the neighborhood.  No one.  But Megatron isn’t proud.  Even when praised (abundantly and often) his response is simply more of the desired behavior.  Please believe that I’m not complaining about that, but…he certainly doesn’t have any swagger.  In contrast, Alia’s five year old is the equine Kanye West.  They are both very talented despite being naturally inclined to be different so I rarely compare, but it does leave me wondering if I’ve missed an essential step in this process.  I’ve done a great job of making Megatron confident in me, but I’m just not sure I’ve done a very good job making him confident in himself.  

Am I anthropomorphizing?  Sure, but if you’re one of those people who thinks horses are organic robots that have no opinions you’re probably no longer reading this anyway.  So my new goal is to get this horse to like himself, and although he’s not the extroverted type to squeal in excitement, I am fairly certain that as he learns, becomes confident in his job, and saves me from my amateur self a few thousand times, some semblance of pride will develop.  

There were times last year when I thought this horse would never let me sit on him.  But then he did.  There were times when I thought he would simply never, ever have a right lead.  But then he did.  There were times when I thought he’d never be able to go out into a new ring and jump new fences cold, or change leads, or deal with the traffic at a horse show.  But then he did.  

So I have faith that someday Megatron will like himself as much as I like him, and I’ll look back on this blog and say, “But then he did.”

Monday, January 5, 2015

…On Burnout

Three years ago I spent an entire summer traveling around the country showing my horse and having a fantastic time.  However, at the end of the year my horse, Johnny, sustained an injury that sidelined us.  The injury was difficult to diagnose, so I frequently began to think he had recovered only to take him to a horse show and spend the entire time (and all of my money) in the vet tent.  Horse showing - once the highlight of my life - became a torturous endeavor, but I continued to believe that the fun was always just around the next turn.  The fun was on the other side of one more shockwave treatment; one more chiropractic appointment; one more corrective shoeing.  Before I knew it, a year had gone by; a year in which I’d planned a wedding and gotten married, and this awful, self-induced black cloud had shaded the whole thing. I had spent an entire year of my twenties agonizing about how to get my horse back in the show ring.

Then one day, in a sudden moment of clarity, I realized it was over.  My dream was dead and it was time to face the music. Additionally, I was suffering from a serious case of burnout. 

Driving an hour each way to the trainer’s barn five days a week only to stare at my frustrated horse and what-could-have-been was excruciating.  It wore me down, and I knew I was going to end up in a straight jacket if I kept it up.  I brought Johnny home, thinking I’d let him “be a horse” while simultaneously letting myself be a human.  A real one.  The kind that sleeps at night instead of laying awake wondering where she could come up with the money to do just one more MRI…just one more.  Once Johnny was home, it didn’t take long before magical things started happening.  I practiced jumping on my retired horse that had never really jumped anything in his life.  I started riding bareback like I had when I was a kid.  I rode the boys down the trail with my mom.  Johnny made a miraculous recovery, and I started jumping him again.  I sat under a tree in the pasture and watched my horses graze.  I fell back in love with my first love, the horses.

Fast forward a couple of years. I’ve now got four of these rascals.  I spend my days taking impeccable care of them.  I’ve spent the last two years waking up every day and rushing down to feed, drinking my tepid coffee in the cold barn, leading horses to turnouts, hovering over them for hours because they are semi-suicidal and not to be trusted, carting hay and water to paddocks, cleaning stalls, sweeping, scrubbing buckets, leading horses back from turnouts (in a very specific order!), grooming, riding, sweeping, clipping, sweeping, feeding, sweeping, stuffing hay nets, changing blankets, dragging the arena, mowing the paddocks, night checking…and, of course, sweeping.

Hey, Thomas Edison, I’ll tell you what is often missed by people because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like work:  me.

I’m tired.

No.  I’m tired.  I’m aware that it’s an obnoxious first-world problem.  I know it’s absurd that poor Courtney’s show horses are exhausting her, but they are.  I am burnt out in a way that is reminiscent of the Johnny Injury Saga of 2012.  I’m losing it.  And by “it” I mean my sanity, any desire to ride, and if I’m being honest, that love of horses that drives me to do all of this in the first place.    

This expensive hobby has become a career…a career that I pay for!  A career that I pay for that, for two whole years, has kept me from even being in the general vicinity of my workaholic husband on the one or two days per week on which he is able.  It’s kept me from traveling, from seeing my family, from being a regular girl that has clean hair and painted nails, from keeping in touch with friends that I truly like.  I’ve missed bachelorette parties and baby showers and just regular old girls’ nights.

It was always worth it to me, and then one day this past November it just wasn’t anymore.  I missed my husband.  I missed my family.  I missed those carefree days of having one-too-many drinks and staying out a bit too late without the nagging voice in the back of my mind saying, “Careful, Courtney.  Even if you take the day off from riding, you’ve got 5 hours of manual labor starting at sunup tomorrow…and every day after that.”  I missed having a weekend!  TWO WHOLE DAYS OFF!!  What was that like?  Nate and I chose not to have kids so that we could always have the luxury of spontaneity, and quiet winter days by the fire, and sun-drenched vacations in exotic locations…and yet, we weren’t doing any of those things.

It took me a long time to admit it, but something had to give.  I love my boys and they aren’t going anywhere, but there are ways to take care of horses that don’t demand nearly the work that I am required to put in.  Things like stalls with attached turnouts…and hot wire…and automatic waterers…and dare I say, winter coats?  We did some research and happened upon a small farm that was available for rent in un-frozen, un-muddy South Carolina.  The setup was ideal, the flight from NYC was short, and I couldn’t sign the lease fast enough.  We shut down the farm in New York, and jammed the entire menagerie into the truck and trailer. 

It was a long, arduous drive with screaming cats, flatulent dogs, stir-crazy horses, and roosters crowing at every Truck Stop. Icy New York mornings and lugging 80 pounds of hot water to turnouts a quarter mile from the barn wasn’t looking so terrible at 3am, in the 14th hour of the drive.  Still, shortly after we arrived I turned my boys out in their big, grass paddocks.  They ran and played in good, solid footing, and the whole drive and weeks of planning were suddenly completely worth it. 

It’s only been a few days, and I’m still trying to devise the perfect system, but the boys are so happy.  It warms my cold, hard heart to see them so, and as if that’s not enough, I simply have to open the Dutch doors in the mornings and send them on their merry way to turnout.  “See y’all tonight!”  (Y’all see what I did there?  I’m trying hard to fit in.)  They run, but they don’t slip and fall in ice or mud.  They decide they want to go inside, and they just…do.  They don’t panic-run.  They don’t kick or scream or squeal or bang on the gates to force me to come running, halter in hand. They also don’t stand in stalls 20 hours per day.  They also don’t chew things out of boredom.

You know what else they don’t do?

They don’t care if they all have matching blankets.  They don’t care if their matching blankets match their water buckets that match the trim of the barn and the doormat and the damn haynets.  They don’t care.  As much as the horses have made life difficult for me by refusing to behave in turnout no matter how hard I try, I have made it difficult for myself by being a type-A, anal-retentive horse snob.  They must all be slick.  They must all be shiny.  They must all be fit, and clipped, and clean. And…and…and…

Burnout.  Complete burnout.  I even reached a point where I would occasionally have to consciously remind myself to breathe.  I think that’s pretty much a textbook anxiety disorder.  A self-induced anxiety disorder!!  So I find myself here in sunny South Carolina, all alone in a strange place that is very different from home, but I have happy horses, coffee with my husband on the mornings that he’s here, and multiple vacations to plan.  I’m already breathing involuntarily, and today, for the first time in two months, I patted Johnny affectionately on the rump and thought, “Maybe a ride would be fun.”