Thursday, April 21, 2016


I wasn't sure if I was going to talk about this on the blog, but as with most topics I wasn't sure whether to address, I'm going to do it anyway. I can't explain the story without context.  I've spent the past week in various hospitals, visiting my uncle who had a massive heart attack, and three open heart surgeries in the span of 36 hours.  Been a stressful, exhausting, anxiety-ridden seven days. He's still critical, and we are not out of the woods, but he's steadily improving, and I'm very thankful for the people in the cardiac unit at RWJ who have done such a great job coming up with a plan to make all that improvement happen.  

One particular late night, the night nurse (a man I've grown to love over the past week) was telling me about "nurse's intuition," which comes from years of experience with patients, and knowing in your gut what medication to reduce or increase, or what to try next, or when to do any of the numerous tasks nurses are given on any particular day or night.  He explained that's why nurses can't attend to family, because they lose their objectivity and don't trust their intuition like they would with another patient.

So it occurred to me, one another very late night as I was driving home (actually, it could have been the same night, the days of the past week are completely blending together) that maybe I should spend a little less time beating myself up for being a terrible mother and a little more time coming up with a game plan and trying to figure out how to improve things.  

I thought about his behavior, which includes not wanting to go forward, spookiness and tension, reluctance to bend left and sensitivity to my left leg, and the report from my barn managers that he was restless and "looking for something to do" all week.  Although I had originally thought this was all due to the abscess he blew last week in his right hind, it's not a perfect fit.  He still felt NQR on Saturday, after the abscess was excavated, but I had more pressing issues and couldn't really give it my full attention.

After more time to think, it occurred to me that in addition to the abscess, his ulcers could be acting up, what with the change of seasons, change of barns, my schedule being a little sporadic, etc.  I decided to go with my gut and order 30 tubes of Abgard.  (Yup, I buy the Canadian stuff.  It's not approved by the FDA. However, what I read on the subject from the FDA reported that this company's product had slightly higher doses of omeprazole in their product than advertised.  I figure that compensates for whatever portion of the product ends up on my shirt or in my hair.  YMMV.)

Last night I took a break from hospital visiting hours and went to the barn, with the goal of a light, easy hack.  I put our hunter tack on, which was kind of fun in and of itself, because I haven't dressed him up in brown tack in a while.  It felt sort of good zipping up my old field boots.

I said hunter, not conformation hunter.
I went out to the outdoor ring and Tucker balked at the in-gate, which is not like him.  I let him stand for a while and stroked his neck and talked to him, but it took me a few tries to get him in the ring. Since my goal was to tread lightly I didn't make an issue out of it, and he eventually walked in on his own accord.

The ride was lovely.  I floated the reins at him and he poked his nose like a hunter, when I asked him to canter and stretched up into my half seat he gave me a big, loose, happy loping stride, and he walked back to the barn on the buckle.  I left my spurs off, and I was extra gentle with my left leg.  It was nice to be back on my hunter.  Felt like riding a horse I haven't been on in a while, actually.  Like seeing an old friend.

Dancin' in the moonlight
When we got back to the barn and I had him on the cross-ties, I was in the middle of sending an over-analyzing text to my barn friend about him, that he was sound and managed to relax during our ride, and had no sensitivity in his back or anywhere else.  As I typed, he started violently swishing his tail like he was being bothered by flies.  Only there were no flies.  And then he turned himself sideways in the cross-ties and pressed his butt into the wall (incidentally, it's also time to worm him, but now I'm going to wait because wormer can upset the stomach).

He ate all his dinner and gut sounds are loud and normal, so I don't feel like he's in immediate danger or anything.  But, it does sort of feel like there was a giant neon sign hanging over my horse's head saying his tummy hurts.  Glad I ordered all that Abgard (bye bye money!), which should be here soon.

I guess there's such a thing as horsewoman's intuition too?  If you can be objective, that is.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Ramble On...

This is gonna be a little bit rambling.  Just hang on for the ride.  Without going into too much detail, life is throwing curve balls at me, and I'm writing this as much for me as I am for you guys.

So...  after my little fender bender (trailer hitch bender? towing incident?) I was feeling a bit sore in my shoulder.  Nothing a few hot baths and some sore-no-more didn't fix, but I didn't ride for a couple of days.

true story
I was feeling better by Saturday. But as my fellow East Coasters know it was cold, windy, and rainy all day. I had been outside for the morning at a memorial service, and I was frozen to the bone. One of my BFFs (barn friends forever) tried to motivate me:

This is what good barn friends are for.  Can you tell by the unspoken completely disheartened and unmotivated tone of my last text (you can tell cause I used punctuation) what happened next?  I went upstairs to change, faced with two options: breeches and pajamas. Yup, you guessed it.  The couch and the blanket won out over the horse and the cold rain.  I knew I was going to feel guilty, and I knew Tucker was going to be even more fresh with yet another day off (this would be his fourth in a row), but I just couldn't make it happen.  Please tell me you've been there?

Sunday came and I headed off to the barn in much sunnier, albeit still chilly, weather.  Tucker was happy to see me and I tacked him up and took him outside - on a lunge line of course, I'm not that stupid.  We lunged all over our outdoor dressage ring, doing 15m circles and 10m circles all up and down and back and forth to try to keep him focused.  He started off as a horse kite, flagged tail and all, but eventually started looking more earthbound.

Based on some things I've learned in Guy McLean's training videos (which I very loosely apply with Tucker, based on what I think will work with him and what I'm capable of doing properly) I tried to focus on his inside hind leg and pay attention to whether his focus was on me or elsewhere.  While focusing on his inside hind leg, I had a few glimpses where I thought, "is he off in his right hind?" But then it would go away, so I decided he was just wild and not paying attention to all his feet.  And then I'd wonder if maybe he needs his hocks done?  Is he?  Isn't he?  I started mentally doing financial gymnastics to figure out how soon I can afford injections.  I know you've all been there.

I got on and tried to remember what Guy says, which is to have your ground work carry over to your ridden work by focusing on controlling the inside hind leg the same way you did on the ground.  I don't know that this was particularly that successful but I did my best.  It was only our second ride in the outdoor, so my goal wasn't greatness, more like "just keep your shit together." Which he did. Even when other horses left the ring, and even when they brought the horses in turnout back to the barn (which can sometimes lead to an explosion) he kept right on working.  He was actually pretty great, not that I asked for anything too complicated from him.

I rode back to the barn thinking that I can't believe how good he was after four days off, and I really don't deserve this horse.  I thought that even if I opened an orphanage for underprivileged special needs children who lost their families through tragic acts of god, I probably still wouldn't deserve this horse.  Then he spooked and went pronking off into the sunset while I desperately tried to gather my reins and not drop the lunge line I was carrying and not fall off.  And I realized the orphanage thing was a bit much.  Maybe just try to ride more and leave it at that.

When I got back to the barn, our barn manager told me, "I'm glad you're here, he's so much happier.  When you're not here he's always looking for something to do.  He really wants to work."  Which is the nicest possible way of saying, "Your horse drove us absolutely NUTS this week." Cue feelings of deep regret, inadequacy as a horse parent, laziness and general worthlessness as a human being, and intense guilt.  Anyone been there?

Tuesday he was WILD in the indoor, so I decided to let him run around and get some of the crazies out.  He trotted away from us and Alyssa and I both said he looked like a pregnant mare - all wide and waddling behind.  And I thought maybe he needs his SI's done?  And now I was doing mental acrobatics to figure out how I would be able to afford those injections (which typically require an ultrasound, and x-rays, and selling a kidney).

But then it went away again, so I thought nothing of it because he was sound under tack, albeit really tense.  I figured four days off, he was entitled to some tension, plus Goose was in the outdoor ring and he could see him but he could also hear voices which was kind of scary... which meant couldn't decide whether he was afraid of outside or desperately wanted to be outside.

And a Tucker divided against itself cannot horse.
Yesterday morning our farrier came out for new shoes and immediately uncovered a frog abscess in his right hind. So that would explain the random funny steps I was seeing.  Really odd, because last time he had an abscess (years ago) he was really dramatic about it and non-weight-bearing. Still, I'm kind of concerned that I didn't see it when I picked his feet or follow up on my mini-hunches that something was NQR. I guess the moral of that story is don't ever use me as your vet. I'll inject your horses hocks and SI's when he's really got a small simple abscess. Once again, cue thoughts of, "I'm a terrible mother and probably shouldn't even own this horse. Maybe I should switch to raising goldfish."

Last night I jogged him for soundness, whilst mentally questioning whether I'd even be able to tell the difference given that I didn't notice an abscess, and then got on and rode.  He was, again, tense and tight.  Last week when I had a tight, tense ride, I started moving his haunches around and it loosened him up and got him to relax and flex.

This time lateral work did not do anything for the tension, in fact whenever I tried to move him around he got all "NO TOUCHIE I WILL REAR" so I scrapped that idea entirely.  Instead, I did a lot of transitions within the gait, tiny little trot and big extended trot, on a nice big circle.  He didn't want to extend his trot, he wanted to canter and leap, but I kept at it and eventually he moved out in the trot without flailing, and then magically took a big deep breath and softened within this big lengthened trot.  

So apparently pushing him forward, which is the last thing I usually want to do while riding a ball of tension, was what he needed.  Completely counter-intuitive, but it worked.  We moved on to a loose interpretation of First-2, which is an easy test for us, just as a barometer.  And he ended really nicely with some lovely canter work (after a moment of leaping and flailing which I chose to ignore).  At the very least, after a solid hour of work, I think I tired him out.

So tired pls put my pajamas back on I beg you
We have our first show coming up on Sunday.  I'm hoping I get a couple of more relaxed rides in so I start feeling a little better about it.  I'm giving him his ulcer meds for a few consecutive days in case his tummy is bothering him.  Lots going on this past week - multiple days off, abscess, fluctuating weather - so there's just too many variables for me to narrow down any kind of plan.  

So, just going to go with what has worked in the past and hope for the best?  Cause that's pretty much what we always do when it comes to horses anyway?

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Seriously. Only Me.

In this week's installment of "How Is This My Life," last night, halfway through my long drive from work to the barn, I was sitting in stop-and-go traffic (because Jersey) and I heard a loud crash, and promptly ceased moving forward.  For a second I thought I was losing my mind and had hit an invisible car.  Open road in front of me.  Did I miss something in the road?  Then I looked in my rear view to confirm that someone had in fact hit me.  

When I stepped on the gas it was clear to me what had happened.  She was stuck on my hitch.  I hopped out, told her to put her car in neutral, and towed her to the shoulder.  She was kind of scared and very apologetic (spoiler alert: she was from Canada) and just nodded her head in agreement at the crazy little girl in the big truck.

Pictured: not the recommended way to tow a vehicle
File this in the subcategories of "Truck Problems," "Horse Girl Problems," and "Sh*t that Only Happens to Me."

Now, you need to understand a little bit about my truck, whose name is Beastie, before I continue. Beastie has been through a lot.  She's been hit a few times and lived to tell the tale and has numerous dents and dings from lord only knows what at this point.  She was hit going in a straight line on the highway up at HITS one year for no apparent reason at all.  She rear ended a Lexus who decided to slam on the brakes at a yellow light (she was just trying to get it out of my way).  She once killed a deer (RIP) although that one wasn't on purpose.  At various points in her life, she's sported duct tape for way longer than would be appropriate while I spent money on horses instead of fixing her saved up to get her fixed. Long story short, she's SEEN THINGS.

The Beast, in all her glory.
(She is casually dating Ethan's big red work truck.)
I love this truck.  I have anthropomorphized her to the point that I view her as my tough as nails best friend, that girl who has your back and kind of scares you a little because you're pretty sure she'd kill for you.  She's gotten me through so much.  She saved Tucker and his friends the night we escaped from Riverview.  She's the toughest broad I know.  It has literally become part of my personality that I am a little girl with a big truck.  I love when I walk out of court and other lawyers get into their BMWs and I hike up my skirt and climb up in my big-ass pick up.  Preferably it's splattered in mud. The paradox suits me.

Which is why, when the first cop showed up, I was in the middle of gently patting the tail gate and assuring her that everything was going to be alright.  (I'm quite sure he made a mental note that I was potentially unstable.)

Cop #1's first question was what we were doing on the shoulder.  I explained that she hit me in the left lane, and then I towed her to the shoulder.

"You . . . towed her?" He asks, unable to hide his smirk.  

"Yup!" I cheerfully replied.  (I was very proud of the Beast.)

That would be my trailer hitch, inside a Mazda 3.  Zoom zoom.
I told him I didn't want to cause a massive pile up.  He thanked me for saving him the paperwork. Sitting in the left lane after an accident in Jersey pretty much means you're going to die.  Or at least get hit by the next 3 cars that come around the curve going 85.  (Not exaggerating.)  

I explained that I had tried having her put her car in park and putting her e-brake on, but my truck pulled her right along anyway (there was a bar in front of her radiator, which was over the ball on my hitch).  The Beast is strong.  She just dragged the Mazda behind her kicking and screaming. I explained I had also tried unlocking the hitch pin so we could just remove the hitch, but that because of the tension on the hitch, was unable to get the pin out.  I also wasn't about to go on the side of my truck and stand inches from the left lane and try to hammer it out.

At this point, Cop #2 showed up, explaining in a very matter-of-fact way that we were going to have to call a tow truck, who would hook up to the back of the Mazda and forcibly remove it from my truck.  Realizing that this plan would (a) destroy the front end of the Mazda, and (b) possibly mess up my hitch and frame, I suggested we put the Mazda on a jack and see if I could drive off that way.  

We tried that, but the Beast is too beastly and she just pulled the Mazda off its jack.  So, I explained about hammering the hitch pin, given that Cop #2's vehicle was now safely blocking the left lane.  At which point Cop #1 improvised, using my lug wrench and his retractable nightstick (no, NOT kidding) as a hammer.  This worked, and I was able to wiggle the pin out from the other side and safely drive off, the hitch slipping out of the receiver, and then out of the grill of the Mazda.  Cop #2 remarked at how heavy my hitch was.  Well, yes of course, nothing but the best for Tucker.  DUH.

I then reassembled my hitch, all the while speaking soothingly to Beastie that she was almost done and then patting her tailgate and telling her what a good, strong, brave girl she was.  (Oh yeah, I totally did that.  In front of three strangers.  I'm surprised the cops didn't make me do a drug test, now that I think about it.)  I talked to the Beast the whole way home.  She did great.  No shame.

The cops were actually really nice about the whole thing, and super helpful (which surprised the hell out of me because I represent cops and let's just say I don't have the best opinion of them) and since there was literally zero damage to the Beast because she is the toughest truck in the world and this didn't phase her one bit, I just gave my number to the deeply apologetic Canadian in case she needed it for her insurance claim, and was on my merry way.  

And that is the story of how Tucker got an extra night off this week because I was busy towing a Mazda 3 down the highway.

Only.  Me. 

Monday, April 4, 2016

Bonus Lesson with Amy (In Which I Almost Fell Off)

(I promise I'm going to do better than once-a-week.  At some point soon.  Please don't leave me because I'm so inconsistent.  Needy blogger over here.)

So, since I did a lot of responsible adulting and didn't spend any money last month because I had to get my truck fixed (again WHY are there not merit badges for adulting?), and since the truck ended up costing less than I thought, and since I had Good Friday off of work, I treated myself to a second lesson last month.  

It was a GORGEOUS day out (even though they had predicted rain), so I got to the barn early, body clipped the beast, and had a couple of leisurely hours of tack cleaning and trailer organizing before my lesson.  I just want to note that I am thoroughly and completely a crazy horse person, given that I find tack cleaning and trailer organizing to be leisure activities.  Anyway, Gorgeous Boy looked gorgeous all freshly clipped, and for once I had more than my racing-from-work, stuck-in-traffic, barely-made-my-lesson, let's-hope-no-one-notices-the-random-bits-of-mud kind of preparation for my lesson.

So handsome you must give him all the snacks
I showed Amy the new warm-up I've been doing since our last lesson, which involves the same lateral and bending work, with stretching and opening up the trot mixed in.  I also showed her our new "starter canter," which is intentionally a little flat.  I'm working on our warm-up canter being aimed toward getting him to just loosen up his back, so I'm staying lighter in my seat, not asking for roundness, just trying to keep it connected and forward.  Amy liked the warm-up a lot. 

We worked on the shoulder-in, getting Tucker to bend through his rib cage instead of through his neck (he fakes me out all the time).  She had me go from shoulder-in to renverse, to get him bending in both directions (this is deceptively hard). I threw in some quarter walk-pirouettes, which were good.  I've been adding those in here and there in my rides, whenever I am walking and get to a corner, to try to make them "no big deal."

I told Amy that I wanted to pick up where we left off, so to speak, on our canter-walk and collected canter work.  We started off to the left.  In this direction I have to work on not letting his right shoulder pop to the outside, which is his cheat.  I am also finding that in the collected work to the left I need lots of leg - he wants to get slower instead of more collected.

So much slower in fact that Amy handed me a whip (long time readers may know where this is headed).  He initially thought about just dolphin-flailing off into the sunset, but I ignored him.  So he did a lot of groaning and grunting and calling for his union rep, but eventually we did make some progress.

Then we went right, and he got super tense because you know, today could be the day.  This could be the moment where the next thing he's asked to do is way beyond his skill set and he just can't do it and we decide to beat him into submission.  So, we did some stretchy trot until he decided to just chill, bro.

Once his brain returned to its usual resting place in his skull, Amy actually said she liked our right lead collected canter better than the left.  Which is awesome.  I have been really working on strengthening his right hind and getting the right lead canter more adjustable, and it seems to be paying off.  He was collecting without changing his rhythm and without bracing.  With the exception of the fact that I really need to learn to do upward transitions without standing in my stirrups like it's a hunter under saddle, right lead was really good.

For the canter-walk transition, Amy had me go directly into a walk-pirouette.  So, I'd start cuing the walk-pirouette while we were still cantering in the last moments before the transition, and then immediately upon walking turn to the inside for a few steps of walk-pirouette.  Well, I mean that was the goal.  I can promise you it didn't go as smoothly as that every time.  We still don't exactly have a canter-walk transition, but we are making progress.

We also talked a lot about weighting the inside seat bone, and pulling the inside leg down toward the ground, to get him to turn in.  Amy suggested I watch videos of Lisa Wilcox because she really emphasizes this when she sets up for her canter pirouettes (which I did, and you should too).  So, this is the point where I realized that I have a really hard time using leg without weighting my seat bone on that side.  Applying left leg while weighting right seat is like patting my head and rubbing my stomach at the same time.  I have to think really hard about it and possibly stick my tongue out the corner of the mouth.  

Of course, since the right lead was so much better than the left, we had to go back to the left again. Tucker definitely called shenanigans.  In my effort to get him more collected, all I really ended up doing was over-bending him left.  Which meant his right shoulder was stuck out even more, and probably because I was putting him in this pretzel shape, he was not responding to my right leg. Sorry, nobody home.

So Amy told me to use my whip on his right shoulder.  I gently pressed the whip on his shoulder. Nope nobody here by that name, so sorry, maybe come back tomorrow.

Given the lack of response, I ever so slightly less gently tapped the whip on his shoulder.  And he reacted like a hysterical teenage girl.


He went broncing and leaping across the diagonal like someone opened the rodeo shoot, which I was not necessarily expecting given how lightly I tapped him.  It was one of those *this close* to falling off moments.  There was enough daylight between me and my saddle that I ended up with a big ugly bruise on my right knee from where it smacked the pommel on my way down.  Somehow I managed to look for my saddle and get myself back in its general hemisphere, while simultaneously pulling the left rein, and somehow he was at a full stop by the time my butt was back in the tack.

Amy very nonchalantly responded with "... okay so just give me your whip and when you're ready let's go back to the renverse exercise."  You've seen this meme right?

In all seriousness though, we did go back to our renverse exercise at the trot, and eventually back to our left lead canter, and we were able to move it in and out of collection without any drama.  I'm pleased to say that after a minute or two of tension he actually let it go and went back to work without having a total nervous breakdown.  So, all in all a good teachable moment for both of us.

Of course, I completely tweaked my right knee and he got his Spring shots this week, so we haven't done much other than walk work.  But I think we are both fully recovered so it's back to full work this week... where I will work on consciously weighting my seat bones as an aid (apparently that's a thing you should do?) and be diligent about not over-bending.  Tucker the Wunderkind, not Tucker the Pretzel.  Got it.

Amy and I also discussed a plan for this show season.  I have been waffling between whether to move up to second level or stay at first for another year.  Amy gave me good advice, that you never really feel "ready" to move up.  So she suggested that I do my first few shows at first level, get qualified for whatever championships I'm aiming for (ESDCTA and ECRDA, and maybe USDF Regionals), and then do some shows at Second to see how it goes.  That way I'll feel more ready to be competitive at Second Level next year.  Which, of course, makes perfect sense.  As does most of what Amy tells me.

Monday, March 28, 2016

An Afternoon at Evergreen

I have been trying to write this post for a week, and it hasn't been coming out right.  A week ago, Ethan and I had kind of an amazing day, you could even say a once-in-a-lifetime kind of day, and I haven't figured out quite how to describe it to you.  I have deleted a couple of attempts that sounded like name-dropping or bragging, and the ramblings of a silly, starry-eyed fangirl.  So, now I've decided to just write this from the heart, and trust that all of you, my cherished blog followers, will know that I'm not being boastful or ridiculous.  

One of the most wonderful things about being Ethan's girlfriend is that, where I can be a little socially awkward and lacking in self-confidence, he is incredibly self-assured and makes friends really easily. I have to force myself to introduce myself to someone I want to meet, whereas Ethan is naturally outgoing and easy to talk to, and people seem to remember him (obviously, I couldn't forget him when I met him).  Ethan seems to not have the running commentary in his head that I do, constantly trying to decide if I'm saying or doing the right thing. Which means, in general, he takes more chances than I do.  And sometimes I'm lucky enough to tag along.

Evergreen Farm
So, last year at the Horse World Expo, Ethan made friends with Peg and Terry Helder, the owners of Evergreen Farm.  They breed paint horses, and have the stallion Paint Me Hobby, who is somewhat of a celebrity in the paint horse world and has sired a whole slew of world champion barrel racers and performance horses.  Some of Paint Me Hobby's progeny have gained some fame in the ring with Guy McLean, including Lightning and Champion.  Pennsylvania Equestrian did a very cute story on how the Helders and the McLeans met, which, in case you don't click that link, involves a blizzard and an Australian couple unfamiliar with Pennsylvania in February and the need for four wheel drive.

Back to my story.  My wonderful boyfriend made friends with the Helders, who for all their success in the horse industry are just kind-hearted, down to earth horse people like you and me.  Ethan told Terry that he'd love to see their farm sometime, and Terry told him, in that good-natured cowboy way of his, to "come on by" anytime.  Now, if that were said to me, I would have assumed he was just being polite and I would have thought I'd be imposing to take him up on it.

Denny giving me the side-eye at the Expo.
This horse sees right through me.
Thankfully, Ethan is nothing like that.  He had hoped we'd run into the Helders again at the Expo this year, but since we didn't have a horse with us, we weren't back in the barns at all.  We did see Terry win the trail champion class, but didn't actually get to chat with him.  But, when Guy and Emily mentioned that they'd be at Evergreen for a bit after the Expo, Ethan grabbed one of the Evergreen Farm cards from Guy's booth, and sent Peg Helder an email.  Ethan told them how much we have enjoyed watching Guy work their young horses, and would love to come out and see the farm and maybe see Guy work a little bit.  Ethan had asked Guy, who said it was okay with him, as long as it was okay with Peg and Terry.

We didn't hear back for about a week, and I kind of figured it wasn't going to happen.  But then one evening I was in bed reading my book, and Ethan came in and said, "I just got an email."  The grin on his face told me exactly who it was from.  So, last Saturday morning, we dropped Taz off at Ethan's parents for the day and headed out to Pennsylvania.  I don't think I even need to describe to you how excited we were that morning, but if you think back to your best Christmas ever, when you knew you were getting something that was at the very tippy-top of your list, that would just about cover it.

When we got to the farm, we headed down to the indoor ring, since someone told us "Guy's down in the indoor."  You know, like it's just an every day thing for us to be showing up somewhere for a private visit with Guy McLean.  No big deal.  

"You really don't get out much, do you?"
When we came in, Denny was tied just outside the ring, and gave me the old side-eye again. I tried to contain my excitement at realizing I was standing in a barn just feet away from one of Guy's horses. If ever a horse has rolled his eyes at someone, I am fairly certain that Denny rolled his eyes at me, grinning like a fool at him. When we came around the corner, Guy saw us and gave us that thousand watt smile of his and I honestly could not believe that he was greeting us like old friends. The whole thing felt so surreal.  Here was our hero, up on his horse, and here we were, just standing around like we belonged there.

Guy was on Ash when we got there and Lightning was tied in the corner of the ring. I must confess, I didn't take notes or snap a bunch of photos while I watched him work.  I usually try really hard to document his work for you guys, but this one was for me.  I will tell you, however, that five minutes after our arrival, I saw Guy do something I have never seen before - a line of three tempis followed immediately by laying the horse down while mounted.  His work ended with his famous move, side-passing Ash and Denny overtop of Lightning (something I've never seen him do with Lightning before).  To say that Guy is uniquely talented is such a bland understatement.  It's sometimes hard to believe your eyes.

All in a day's work
I will also tell you that what you see Guy do in the ring during his demos is exactly what he does at home. He is not hiding a thing from his audience. He worked with Ash on his own, then brought Lightning and Denny into the ring to work at liberty. I saw him work on many of the same things he worked on at the Expo: getting Lightning and Denny to work as a team with Ash, sharpening Ash's skills as a ridden horse when Lightning and Denny ran off, working with the horses' instincts, staying calm, staying focused, being patient and understanding. I still can't quite wrap my head around the fact that I had a private audience with one of the world's greatest horsemen that day. He let us ask questions, he explained some of what was going on, and I tried to soak up each moment. One of those times when you can feel memories being made as they are happening.

Denny, Lightning, and Ash
Guy showed us this absolutely beautiful colt, who he purchased from the Helders and plans to have with him at the Expo next year, the last of the line of horses the Helders intend to breed.  This horse is stunning, the kind of baby that is full of so much talent that he could definitely get himself into trouble in the wrong hands.  You should see him trot, he absolutely floats on air.  I watched Guy do a short, productive ground work session with him and was amazed at how both Guy and this young horse moved so fluidly and gracefully around the ring.  I always feel so uncoordinated when I work in hand with Tucker, and yet there is Guy with this golden bundle of energy on the end of his lead, working with him as calmly as if he was just walking down the sidewalk, and the colt just as easily stepping sideways and reaching under himself, yielding to pressure, his little ears flicking back and forth showing the wheels turning within.  They already look like a strong team.

Happy after his work
Terry introduced me to Paint Me Hobby, who has the air of a satisfied gentleman, content in the knowledge that he will be leaving behind an impressive legacy.  He came to the fence to greet his public, and I asked if I could give him a mint (because when you own a Tucker, you never leave home without mints in your pockets).  Terry said, "if he'll eat it," with a smirk that unquestionably said that cowboys do not give treats, and their horses most certainly do not eat mints.  But Hobby took my offering, and sucked on it for a while, trying to figure out if he liked it.  He eventually got around to chomping on it, and had that look on his face of being surprised to discover something new and enjoyable after all these years.

That could have been the end of our visit and it would have been an amazing day.  But there was more in store.  When Guy was done working the horses, he blanketed them and led the three of them to turnout.  As we got to the driveway, Emily (Guy's wife) pulled up in their big truck with lunch. Ethan and I were then treated to sharing a meal with Guy, Emily, and Terry Helder.  (Peg was off the farm that day.)  I don't need to tell you, when I went to wash my hands I had to steel myself to not allow my giddy excitement to take over.  

But once we settled in, turns out we were just five horse people, sharing a meal, talking horses, telling funny stories.  I learned that Emily has a dressage background, and used to perform as a trick rider.  I learned that Guy also worked with Percherons back home, training them for police work.  I also learned that if you can make Guy McLean truly and genuinely laugh, it is an uproarious, joyful noise that comes with loudly slapping his palm on the table, and it will feel like the greatest thing you've ever done in your whole life.  

We spent a lovely couple of hours around the Helders' kitchen, and then took a walk up the hill to say goodbye to Guy's amazing team, who were contentedly munching grass in a happy herd.  Ethan and I shared a sigh, arm-in-arm, watching them graze.  

Superstars, just being horses.
We have been casually reminding each other for the past week that we went to Evergreen and had lunch with the McLeans.  "Where did we go for lunch last Saturday, I can't remember?"  "Honey do you remember the name of that nice Australian couple we had pizza with last weekend?"  "Hey, remember that time the Helders invited us to Evergreen?"  

The Helders and the McLeans both had nothing to gain from letting us come and visit, but it meant so much to us.  I suppose they didn't exactly lose anything, either, since they were just going about their day, but I think you know what I mean. There's a saying about how you can judge the character of a man by how he treats someone who can do absolutely nothing for him.  This felt a lot like that.  

I'm still not sure if I explained it well enough, and I don't know if it's really sunk in for either of us. It was a very special day, and I'm still so very grateful to have spent the time with such incredible horses and amazing horsemen.

Friday, March 11, 2016

March Lesson with Amy: Opening and Collecting

Since my last lesson (which I didn't blog about because I'm a terrible blogger and I took a winter break), my homework was to get the whole horse bending, and work on collecting the canter more in preparation for the canter-walk transition.

We've definitely made progress in both areas.  I went through our current warm-up.  Leg yields, shoulder-in, haunches in at the walk, and then at the trot, concentrating on getting the whole horse to bend.  Other than a minor adjustment of getting his shoulders pointed a little more facing forward instead of toward the wall in the haunches-in, Amy was happy with this work and the progress we've made, especially with the left bend.  She even thought he was getting a little overbent - which I'm fine with.  Since our left bend was basically non-existent before, now that I have it I can just dial it back a little bit.

Amy then had me do a fun exercise, which Tucker seemed to really enjoy.  She said she was happy with how he was bending but now we needed to open him up.  We came across the diagonal and lengthened, working first on keeping his hind legs together through the turn (not stepping out with the outside hind).  When they keep their hind legs closer together, you can get a better lengthening. So outside leg and hands close together through the turn off the rail. 

Then right around X, we'd convert the diagonal line to a leg yield.  So if you're on a diagonal going right to left, the shoulders have to swing left so he's facing the short side instead of the corner, and then he has to step sideways back toward the rail.  Once we got the hang of it, doing this out of a lengthening created these big, swingy, cross-over steps.  Pretty fun to watch in the mirror.  And of course my little boy genius figured the exercise out just as quickly as I did and by the last time we did it, he started shifting his body before I even asked him to.  Smart cookie.

We moved on to the canter and Amy got to see some of the issues I've been having (I had a very tough ride the night before my lesson).  To the left he is now picking up this super collected canter and I have to work to ride him out of it, so Amy helped me get out of this by keeping my hands forward and still, and using my seat to control the size of his canter stride.  She warned me to be careful about not overbending him in the transition which might be creating that super collected canter that I don't mean to be asking for.

When we went right, she got to see where things unraveled the night before.  On Wednesday night I was on him for an hour and a half, because after I cantered right he absolutely lost it.  Amy saw the problem right away - he was twisting (and I was letting him) in a way that was taking him out of the contact on the inside rein completely, and then I'd use too much left rein, cause it felt like he was hanging on it, and then when I'd go to pick up the right rein he felt boxed in and trapped. 

Amy saw the moment when he hit panic mode - his head went straight in the air and she said "okay he's got that huge eyeball, let's come back to the trot and regroup."  So we went back to a stretchy trot and got him to take a deep breath.  Once he relaxed, we started working on getting him to take the right rein again.  Leg yields from the rail to the quarter line (left to right), my right hand steady to "catch" him, and not pulling back on the left or counter-flexing.  Amy said sometimes you have to just hit the reset button.  We went back to the right lead canter, and Amy told me when he gets tense to flatten the canter out before I try to collect it again.  Makes sense.

Taz is a fan of Amy's footing
(She and Ethan watch all my lessons, such dedicated cheerleaders!)
On a walk break we discussed that now I'm starting to actually get somewhere in our collection work, which is good, but also means it's possible for me to get myself into trouble.  He's sensitive, and I need to make sure that he's not just doing the work, but also staying relaxed.  I think I've created some issues that weren't there before because he's been fresh, and I've been working too much on collecting him without enough opening him up (because no one wants to open a horse up when you feel like he's going to explode).

So when we went back to work, we did some of the numbers exercise in the trot, and did some trot-walk transitions.  Here there was an obvious weakness - he wants to root and/or tighten up in his neck in that last step trot to walk.  So I need to be really, really patient through these and not snatch him up when he roots, and just go right back to trot if he inverts/tightens.  It was a little tedious, but we did get there.

Then we applied that numbers exercise to the canter work.  "6" being a forward canter, "1" being almost cantering in place, etc.  If he got tense we'd send him forward again until he softened, and only collected when he could do it without getting tight.  It was exactly what was missing from our collection work.  Once we got him sitting but in a relaxed way, the transition from canter-walk and walk-canter were much better.  I have to focus on collecting from my seat more, without changing anything in my hand.

From there I was able to show Amy our best collected canter at the moment, and I explained I knew it was overbent and was having trouble fixing that.  Once Amy pointed out that I was actually putting him there with my left hand/left side, so my right leg was fighting against my own left aids (it felt like I was kicking against a brick wall on the right side), I was able to get it straighter and he came rounder and softer.  Basically, I had to get out of my own way.

We did three pretty awesome canter-walk transitions from here, going left.  Amy said for the short amount of time we've been working on these (a little less than a month since our last lesson), she was very impressed with where they were at.  I was able to watch one in the mirror because of the point in the circle we were on, and I was shocked to see a real dressage horse looking back at us.  I hardly recognized us.  Felt pretty damn good.

Going right, which is his weaker direction, we didn't get the canter-walk transition perfected but we did get some really good moments where he was able to sit down without getting tense.  And - huge personal victory for me - he thought about leaping and I sat down harder and rode through it, but didn't tense up myself, and he just went back to work.  First time I've successfully prevented it from happening.  Huge win.

For the next few weeks, Amy wants me to work on collecting the canter to the right just to the point where I'd be almost ready to walk, and then move him back out again.  Play the numbers game.  So (a) he gains the strength he needs to do the transition properly, and (b) he learns that he's not always going to be asked to walk, which seems to be worrying him.  

Overall, really productive lesson. Amy pinpointed the moment he was about to unravel, and helped me regroup and get him working in a positive way again.  Homework is to work on both opening up and collecting the canter, and in the collected canter be able to add leg without increasing speed or stride length, so we "increase the RPM's" as Amy puts it.

Good boys get candy canes!
Guy said something in his last ride on Sunday - about taking a mental image, like a photograph in his mind's eye, of the best parts of his rides, and focusing on those images in his head, not any of the things that didn't go well.  I've got a few snapshots in my head of Tucker in the mirror that I'm going to focus on going forward.  So proud of this horse right now.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Guy McLean at the PA Horse World Expo: Staying in the Moment

Since today is his birthday, I figured this would be the perfect day to post this.  (Happy birthday Guy!)

As my readers know, I am a huge fan of Guy McLean.  In fact at this point I jokingly refer to myself as a Guy McLean Superfan, but I'm more like a devotee, a true believer, a follower.  Every time I see him work with his horses I feel renewed in my beliefs about what horses can do for us, and in my passion for this sport, and the strength of the relationship we can build with these animals.

The whole 2016 team. Aussie, Denny, Mate, Lightning, Guy & Ash
This year Ethan and I didn't bring his horse to the PA Horse World Expo, so we got to play tourist for a couple of days.  I'll do a blog post next about the Expo generally, but first we have to talk about Guy.  On Saturday, while we were perusing the vendors, Ethan and I ran into Guy and stopped to chat for a bit.  Well, Ethan did most of the chatting.  I mostly smiled and nodded along because I couldn't make conversation over the squeaky voice in my head going "Guy McLean knows who we are! Guy McLean knows my name! Guy McLean said he likes my writing! Wait until I get home and tell Tucker..."  

Major. Fangirl. Moment.

But let's move on to something of a little more substance.  This year Guy's performances left me with a different take home message than previous years, and I honestly don't know whether that's because it was what he intended for us, or whether it's what I needed to hear.  Things didn't go "perfectly" in some of his performances and demos, but that didn't stop Guy from being inspiring.  This year, Guy taught me not just about getting the best out of a horse, but also about how to respond when you don't get the best from your horse.  

As you know from last week's post, things didn't go very well in my last ride.  But after watching Guy work for two days, I know it wasn't karma.  Tucker didn't do what I wanted him to do when I asked him for a walk-canter transition.  He locked up, and instead of staying in the moment and thinking "how can I get his feet moving again," or "how can I get him working with me again," I kicked him.  And the thoughts in my head were "He needs to do this now, because what if this happened during a test?  We need to master this transition!"

After listening to Guy, it's clear to me that I wasn't staying in the moment, my mind was off in some hypothetical future situation where things were going wrong.  That's just not how horses work.

On Saturday, Guy brought his team into the arena for a demo.  He wanted to work with Denny and Lightning on some liberty work because during the performance the night before, Denny had trouble with the lay down, and Lightning in general is green and needs experience at liberty.  (Lightning is my favorite. He's beautiful, he knows it, and it's his striking presence that first drew me in and made me grab a seat at Harrisburg two years ago, where I learned how Guy works.  Lightning changed everything.)
L to R: Aussie, Lightning, Mate, Denny, Ash & Guy
Well, Denny and Lightning gave me a lot to write about.  One of the things I love to see Guy do with his liberty horses is gently touch them on the forehead, which is his signal to them to stay put, and then ride away.  It amazes me that they just stand where he left them, like wind-up toys who are waiting to be played with again.  Except Denny and Lightning didn't stay put this time.  Denny and Lightning ran off each and every time.

Lightning running off, Ash giving chase.
 (Denny, Aussie, Mate in the background)
Guy explained to us that the horses were acting based on what his instincts were telling him.  Horses are prey animals, and their responses are rooted in the prey-predator roles.  As Guy rode Ash back and forth chasing Denny like a cutting horse cornering a cow, he explained, "Denny's doing his best to upset me so I'll go away. But I need to not think about why he's doing it, just stay in the moment and try to make it better."  Ah, this.  Don't think about why your horse is doing this (I am so guilty on this one).  Stay in the moment.

Guy explained that he never lets himself get angry or upset. He kept a smile on his face, and cracked some jokes while he worked.  "Denny has his own Facebook page, he thinks he's smarter than I am." He also found something positive about it - while Denny wasn't acting like a great liberty horse in that moment, Ash was getting great experience as a ridden horse.  A horse who had trouble with his changes before Guy got him was now naturally swapping his leads in order to do his job, which in that moment was, "Catch Denny!"  (Guy explained that Denny was no longer a horse, but now an errant cow.)

Denny, laying down, rolling, rubbing his face in the dirt
(only one of these moves was on command)
Guy also gave us a little history about Denny, explaining that Denny wasn't always an easy horse to work with.  He explained that Denny only acts as educated as the most inexperienced horse in the ring.  At this point, that was Lightning (the horse I watched Guy start at the PA Expo in 2014, who has grown into an unbelievable athlete and could easily be an upper level dressage horse). As for Denny, he explained that "This is a horse it would never work for me to get angry at, I just need to keep working with him."  Does that sound familiar?

Denny, remembering he knows how to lay down,
and be side passed over.
As Denny and Lightning both played up, Guy muttered to the crowd, "Oh sure, I say nice things, I do nice things, and I get a little clap.  He carries on like a fool and you just eat it up.  You know, I used to not like when people laughed but now I understand you're just getting caught up in the moment."

And believe me, we were caught up in the moment. There are these moments in each of Guy's performances and demo's, where the horse he is working with steps sideways toward Guy's outstretched hand to line up next to the horse he's on. I've seen Guy perform about seven times now, sometimes multiple performances, so I figure I've seen this happen a few dozen times. It never ceases to mesmerize me. It feels like magic.

But it's not magic, really, and I don't think Guy would want me to say it's magic.  It's the product of patient, deliberate, focused but relaxed training.  It's Guy's ability to "stay in the moment," to not get upset, and to never let a horse feel that he's angry or frustrated with them.  And it's his innate ability to understand horses' instincts, how they think, how they'll react, how to get through to them, how to make them feel safe and get them trust him.  I think about half of what he does - the "staying in the moment" part, is something we can learn to do, with practice.  But the rest of it, well, that's what makes Guy so special.

Thanking the crowd.
On Sunday, I saw him work with a young mare who I believe he got on for the first time on Saturday morning.  He had told the audience on Thursday that by the end of the weekend, he was going to ride her and work his other horses at liberty off of her.  When the demo started, the little chestnut mare was in a very self-protective mode.

She started off really unsure about having horses she didn't know that close to her side.  She kicked out a couple of times, and not surprisingly, Mate and Aussie moved off.  Because, as Guy explained, that's what she "told" them to do.  I'm sitting there, wondering if this was the plan Guy had in mind?  It seemed, to my untrained eye, that things weren't going well.

Then something really interesting happened.  The little mare went from giving off this body language that was practically screaming that she was uncomfortable and uncertain about the whole situation, to working right with Guy as a team while he worked to get his two liberty horses back to resting.  You could see on her face that she went from "I don't like you on my back and I don't think I want to listen to you," to "Yeah let's go get those two horses!"  She started offering forward and soft transitions, even though she's not nearly broke enough to be expected to do so.

Here is a short video clip.  If I can, I'm going to edit this video and try to give you some subtitles so it's easier to catch what Guy's saying, but for now I just want you to see how this little (completely unbroke) mare went to work:

So my take away on Sunday was that sometimes when things seem like they're not going right, the end result can actually be better.  I have a bad habit of getting stuck in the mindset of "things aren't working," and start focusing on damage control, instead of thinking about what kind of (maybe unplanned, maybe better) results I could be getting. Again, staying in the moment, dropping expectations, letting go of worry and doubt, these are all things that Guy models for us so well.

One more thing I want to tell you about, the horse Guy was on for the first demo I watched, Ash,  is starting to look like the next Spinabbey, and I'm excited to see what he can do.  Guy showed us his abilities to canter sideways and canter backwards, as well as leap in the air (like he's jumping an imaginary jump).  He's learning to do his changes better, and just as Guy said he was "sure there's a tempi in there," sure enough, Ash did three one-tempi's in a row.  Just like a dressage rider, Guy explained that with this horse, he had to teach him to start lifting his shoulders. Don't let the cowboy hat and spurs fool you.  I am pretty sure we could stick Guy in a shadbelly tomorrow and send him up centerline.  We'll just have to take away his bridle....

Guy and Aussie
(from Guy's facebook page)
Guy is a man who exudes positive energy, I've never been around anyone else like him.  He is grateful, and genuine, and unendingly patient with fans like me who won't can't seem to drag themselves away from his booth.  To have the opportunity once a year at the Expo to talk to him about horses, and what he does, and to tell him a little bit about who we are, well it's something I'm just so grateful for.  (I'm going to sound a little nuts here, but...) When I talk to him, it feels like there are tiny broken pieces in me that are being mended.  He said something about me and Ethan - that we are already "married" - and I felt this little leftover shadow of a fracture in my heart just disappear. Guy and his wife Emily are such special people.

I know I've told you this before, but for my new readers - if you can get to an Expo or a Show where he will be - I promise you will not be disappointed.  Make the trip, watch him work, chat with him and Emily and tell them you read about him on my blog. You'll see for yourselves what I'm talking about.