Sunday, May 29, 2011

Tim's Second Ride - Reins For Conversation

Yesterday I opted to put Tim on Saxony, who's a better size for him and doesn't need the urging to move that Gambler sometimes requires, especially when a beginner is riding him. I didn't want my thespian student distracted by constantly having to push Gambler forward, and I was also curious to see how Saxony would do as a "school" horse.

One of the (embarrassing to confess) things I knew nothing about when I returned to riding was the indirect, or outside, rein. When taking English riding lessons in my late teens and early 20s, my instructors taught me plain steering by direct rein, simply bending the horse's head in the direction you wanted to go. It's a wonder my hands remained light.

Inside leg to outside rein to help contain, shape and direct the energy of the horse while moving forward, on a circle or not.  That's what I was thinking about while I warmed Saxony up, bending her through figure eights, turning her on the haunches, turning her on the forehand. I wanted Tim to learn about it if only because I hadn't.

I'd already explained to Tim that horses are ridden from the seat and the legs to the reins, not the other way around. The concept of "seat" is daunting for a newcomer, I think, and leg aids can be as well, but almost everybody has seen reins in use with a horse and it's natural to think their function is obvious. It's not, and that's why I elected to begin with the rein aids. "There are two reins and both are used to converse with the horse," I told Tim. It makes sense to say it in so few words, but teaching it in a way that enables a beginner to feel the actual mechanics of it takes some thought.

I won't, but I could stop walking, couldn't I?

This picture is not illustrative of what I'm talking about, I just love the sly look in Saxony's eye. She proved herself to be a perfectly adequate school horse for a beginner, with all that that entails, including making fun of her rider by feigning ignorance from time to time.

I know I'm lucky to be helping someone who is so willing and excited to learn about horses and riding. Because I'm not an advanced rider (I'm really thin on canter work), I can only give Tim what comes from my experience, and from the holes in it as well. My struggles with confidence keep me wanting him to always feel safe and open. That's why I put Tim in shorter stirrups, to give him a sense of security in our early going.

After Tim was aboard Saxony, we walked a couple laps of the round pen. As we walked, I asked him to tell me how he felt Saxony differed from Gambler. We talked about her height, her stride, her swinging back and long, low headset, all very different from what he'd experienced aboard Gambler, a shortbacked, upright little Arab, dawdler or not.

Then we spent a half hour working on the rein aids. We began with contact and how to find and maintain it softly, so softly, and consistently. To get there meant Tim learning to take up the reins and learning to release them, sometimes just in the fingertips, sometimes through the wrists and up fluid arms. Saxony likes to look at her environment, and the movement of her head and neck created a natural opportunity for Tim to learn about following hands. He did really well, and I enjoyed seeing him comprehend how little pressure is required to stay connected to the horse. 

Once I felt Tim had begun to find a sense of the reins, I asked him to bring Saxony in off the fence and cross to the other side of the round pen. I pointed out a specific route. Focused on following my instructions, he spoke to Saxony through the reins, and even with his body, but he didn't notice because he was concentrating so intently on the route. It's wonderful what can be taught when the student isn't looking.

We worked on simple changes of direction in wide, gentle turns. We worked on halting and walking, walking and halting, worked on opening the inside rein, worked on maintaining the outside rein. There's a light that comes into a person's eyes when suddenly they understand something in their own way, after just a little guidance and practice. That's what I saw happen for Tim when Saxony began gently chewing in the bridle. Their conversation had begun.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

In Pairs

I just love how they bend in unison toward the sun. Whatever spring has been this year, it has not offered much more than wind, cold and rain. Leaving for work yesterday morning, I walked to the garage, past our chaotic raspberry thickets, and saw this pair of interlopers. Who knows where they came from? Hackneyed metaphor or not, they seemed to me to symbolize where I am with the horses: in pairs.

This pair offers the premise and the promise. Scout and I will come back together through Special K, who brings out the best in her. It will be fun to ride her because I don't ever have to ride her. There's release in that freedom. Saxony and I will ride and ride and ride. Perhaps best of all, Special K and I will support each others' growth and adventure forward together. Nature's springtime may continue to elude us, but I think we are in an equine spring, paired in horses, friendship and opportunity.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Horse Boot Camp - Tim Mounts Up

Yesterday it was time to put my thespian student in the saddle, and I knew how I wanted to approach his introduction to riding. In the years since I returned to horses, I've learned enough to know now just how much I was not taught during my previous horse life, an array of things both minor and major. Those gaps in my education might not have caused my anxieties, but they certainly didn't help me overcome it. One day soon I'll post an embarrassing list of the things I didn't know, had never been taught, when I came back to horses in 2004.

My first goal for Tim: Don't put him in a position to feel tension or uneasiness, put him in a position to feel the horse and feel himself. Riding, with all its component parts, can come later.

We did a sheddy, speedy grooming of Gambler, who screamed all the while for Scout and Saxony. During tack up, we reviewed the parts of the saddle and bridle. Next time, Tim will tack Gambler himself. After grabbing gloves and helmets, we went to the farm's large round pen. I rode Gambler through a 10-minute warm up, de-noodling and stretching him. While I rode, I talked to Tim about what I was doing, showing him the three gaits, the position of my hands, legs, seat, just describing things in basic, straightforward language.

Then it was Tim's turn. After adjusting the stirrups, we spent a few minutes at the mounting block talking about etiquette for both horse and rider. Wise Gambler stood statue-like and impervious, offering no challenge at all. Once Tim was up, I led Gambler off at an easy walk. "You don't need to do anything," I told Tim. "Just feel the horse moving under you. Feel his back swinging, his legs lifting, his efforts to balance your weight." We walked for 15 minutes, much of it in silence.

"Now it's your turn, Tim, to feel your own body, how it finds balance, how it adjusts, how it moves with the horse." From time to time as we circled in the wide round pen, I asked him to raise one arm to his side, then the other, put one arm behind his back, then the other, look at the sky, look right, look left. We talked about how when you're driving a car over rough roads your head corrects for the impacts of potholes so constantly and fluidly, you're not even aware of it. It can be the same on horseback: your body always seeks balance if you let it.

In all, we worked for 45 minutes. I showed Tim how to hold the reins correctly, thumbs up. I kept a finger hooked under Gambler's noseband for a lap around the round pen, then let go and walked beside him, and then drifted farther and farther until I was standing in the center of the circle, watching Tim ride by. My thespian student has a naturally straight posture, easy legs, and an instinctive interest in horses. In the end, he might make me feel like a real teacher. We're having a blast.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Hands on Horse Bodies

Figuring that, since the end times were to occur today, or some such hoohah, there was no place I'd rather be than with the horses and the person of my life, H.G. and I drove through the rain to the barn.

Among things I'll have to adjust to there, protocol at the new barn keeps horses indoors during heavy rain. I'm not yet comfortable with that, but nevertheless, it meant Saxony and Scout were loitering in their stalls, dry and ready for a diversion. It's been a long time since I gave Scout an epic grooming, and I've really missed it. So has H.G., or perhaps I should say that Scout has really missed him. He's very tall and early on formed the habit of placing one hand on her back, withers, neck, wherever, while brushing her with the other. Scout loves this; she relaxes completely into her inner horse. I have the notion that H.G.'s resting hand, coupled with his height, takes her back to a body memory of being a foal kept close by her mother, bumping along her side, ducking under her neck. I never see Scout so peaceful as when H.G. and I groom her together. We polished her dusty red up to a fiery auburn.

H.G. does not know Saxony well yet. I told him how she loves to have her face groomed. He spent a lot of time shedding her whole head with a soft rubber curry, whisking the loosened hairs away with a soft body brush, and this was magical to her. She stretched her neck long and low, extending her face flat beneath his long hands. I heard him talking to her softly, murmuring praise. Saxony shifts in cross ties, always wanting to be in direct visual contact with her person, but eventually she surrendered completely to the face massage and forgot about me. In time, we had her burnished to a dark liquid chocolate.

I wonder if they know how good it feels to me to groom them. I wonder if it matters to them to be put away clean and cared for, contented; I wonder if such concepts can exist somewhere in their awareness. Maybe it's just the time and attention that matters, for all of us. I owe them.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Moving Day Two - Saxony Joins Scout

There was a moment when I laughed out loud, giddy with happiness and relief, my heart lifting at seeing them together. Scout asserted her supremacy through a quick show of squealing and striking. Saxony consented and that was the end of it. I stayed for hours, watching them and reflecting on the presence of horses in my life. I feel fortunate and rich for having my mares, each so different, each so strong, each connected to such different parts of me. The future has finally begun.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

During the Tempest

We will be denied spring, it seems. I think the planet is irritated, restless and impatient with the hive of lives that squirm over her endlessly. Yesterday's weather was unseasonably harsh, all aggression and turbulence, gnashing and blowing. Not so long ago, this would have severely limited what I could do with my horses, but not now. I spent an easy five hours in the barn, where time moved naturally, invisible and never intruding.

There stood Scout, slimming fast on a new diet, relaxed and bright eyed, happy to be involved with her people. She likes her new home, and it's bringing out a side of her I haven't seen in some time, the curious open-eyed red mare who charms. Freshly groomed and calm in the cross ties, she watched me filling water buckets. The wind skidded meanly over the roof of the barn, but we were snug far below.

There was a high rider reconnoitering the rafters. "Cow Pie," I call her. She's a bit lardy, but no less of an acrobat for it. She kept us distant company, exploring the heights, stopping every now and then to watch and be near, but not too near.

There was the little filly, almost two weeks old, shy of humans right now, squealy and petulant when handled, but obviously irresistible. I went in and gave her overlooked mom some straight-on TLC with my curry comb and body brush.

And there was Horse Boot Camp 101, conducted in the wide aisle of the barn. Lessons in picking the hoof and leading the horse, saddling the horse and sitting on the horse. My thespian student is eager and happy. I spent some time teaching him the finer nuances of picking stalls. Ha!

Throughout, the sound outside was amazing, built of powerful clashes of rain and roaring wind, but in the barn I felt like I was idling on a lovely island, surrounded by  peaceful, dozy horses and fat barn cats. I thought of how life can sometimes assault and intrude, prevent, complicate and exhaust, and it was as if the weather was mirroring exactly that, only in vain, truly in vain, for yesterday the peace and richness of being with horses would not be disturbed, could not be disturbed.

Tomorrow, Saxony moves in. It will be a wonderful thing, long overdue.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Impossible Green

Someone who never before groomed a horse polished one of this pair.

Yesterday evening I was at the new barn for the first session of Horse Boot Camp 101, Muddy K style. My friend Tim has been cast in a film shooting in July, a wild, post-nuclear, apocalyptic Western of yet-to-be-revealed storyline. It seems that horses must have survived whatever calamity befell the country, however, because he'll be expected to ride in the film, something which he hasn't done since the proverbial mechanical pony circle of childhood. He asked me to teach him about horses. Twist my arm, why don't you? Longtime readers of my horse journal know I love sharing my horses with people, love it maybe more than any other thing I do.

My six-week boot camp is going to fun for Timmy, but not nearly so much fun as it's going to be for me. Sometimes you don't have a clue what you know until you're asked to share it. I'm curious to see where I run aground, hoping that I don't.

We started at the beginning: Here is a barn. In it is a horse. I combined basic anatomy study with a lesson in grooming. We began at the feet and ended at the face. As I showed him how to lift and pick a hoof, Tim also learned about the frog, bars, sole and heel, laminitis and founder. Then we groomed rough to fine, shedding blade to body brush, following the curves of the horse with discussion layovers at withers, croup, poll, eyes, nostrils, jaw. It was wonderful for Tim, wonderful for me, but wonderful most of all for Gambler, a once-muddy mess who went into an impossibly green pasture clean, bright and white.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Whoosh . . . Crash

If I'd had time this week, I would have groomed both of my mares deeply, thoroughly and slowly, with ungloved hands. If I'd had time, I would have whiled away hours in Scout's paddock, being with her while she reconnoitered her new environment. Sometime, I would have cleaned and shined Saxony's bridle and saddle and run my fingers through her silly fat forelock.

If I'd had time, I would have spent more than 20 minutes in turnout with that new foal and her kindly first-time mom. I would have lingered in the squealy joy of seeing a newborn filly discover she can buck and run, I would have photographed her impossible attempts to mimic her mother at the water trough and hay feeder.

If I'd had time, I would not have felt the rash of passing seconds searing across my mind, my skin, irretrievable. Sometimes it really cuts me not to get to the horses when I need them. I know the days will come, but oh, did I need them now. All I could steal were the moments for this crabby bleating, which is only like looking at a picture of a picture of a picture.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Backblogged: Realizations and Revelations

On Monday, I moved Scout to a new barn and Special K moved her adorable little Arab with us. It was a long and wonderful day, one in which revelations and realization occurred throughout.

Philosophical revelation: Go to a place where life is new.

Born at the new barn, not even 24 hours old.

Logistics realization: Where possible, move your horses together.

You'll be just fine here, you'll see. You've got Gambler.

Practical realization: Some horses know hay feeders, others, not.

I don't get it. I am hungry. How is he eating?

We rode to our new barn in spirit-lifting weather, dawdling and looping for 90 minutes, engineering to arrive with the horses a little worn out. Scout and Gambler went into a paddock together, and it became clear that for all her posturing and bossing, Scout is entirely dependent on Gambler. Nose pressed against his withers, she clung to him throughout their exploration of the new yard.

Emotional revelation: Wary Scout is so attached to her people.

You guys are coming back, aren't you? Can you come back now?

It was the best of days, it really was. As the sun moved west and shadows fell over the east side of the big barn, K and I sat together on an old park bench, bagging Equi-Shine and watching our horses reading pee-mails and patrolling their new perimeter. Next chapters are inspiring and exciting when begun together, for the horses and for their humans, too.