The stalling point

 

So the arena has been stalled at an unusable point for a month due to the construction crews moving to a cow/calf operation project that had to get done before calving. Um, arg.    This has effectively eliminated any chance of riding to days when the footing happens to be perfect in the pasture or on the gravel roads, which doesn’t happen with frequency in February in Iowa.  Of course, before the indoor arena project I had an outdoor arena which I could use with some regularity in winter, but the location of the indoor is where the outdoor was, so I am now effectively hamstrung for riding, until construction begins again in mid-March.

So I’ve been reading.  The latest book is “Dressage Masters, Techniques and Philosophies of Four Legendary Trainers”.  It is an interview book, simply written and it is really wonderful.  I bought it because it has my dressage hero, Klaus Balkenhol, as one of the four, but I’ve found also that the other trainers – Ernst Hoyos, Dr. Uwe Schulten-Baumer and George Theodorescu are equally admirable.  It makes me feel good every time I realize that all good trainers sound fundamentally the same.  They all have first a love of the horse.  That seems obvious, until you meet a trainer who doesn’t love horses.   I bought this book for my Kindle for like $15 or something.

 

Ellen Schulten-Baumer

The quote from it that I want to share with you was spoken by Ellen Schulten-Baumer, whose father, Dr. Uwe Schulten-Baumer, trained her.  She currently has 5 Grand Prix dressage horses in her barn that she and her dad trained from 3 year olds.  I’m just going to share this quote and get out, because I can add nothing to it.  Rock on, people.

 

“I learned something very important from my father.  When a horse doesn’t perform a lesson as expected, I first have to ask myself whether the horse is capable.  If the answer is yes, then I must think about how I apply my aids.  I must use them better so the horse understands exactly what I want.  This may involve riding more preparatory exercises.  If I can’t get it right fairly quickly, then I go to something else.  It is unfair and unproductive to drill a horse; this causes too much physical and mental stress.  I tell my students this also.  If they just can’t get it right, they can think about their aids overnight and try again tomorrow.  Then the horse and rider get a fresh star together.”

Lots of things going on today.   First I rode Bino for his daily Cowboy Song walk hack around our little valley.  The song that popped into my head today is, “I know where love lives.”  I don’t know where these songs come from, but I go with it.  If you’ve been reading, you know that he has navicular and we are taking it very easy with him and enjoying what we can do together.  Taking him on these hacks has a whole other dimension of enjoyment that I’d forgotten about–riding just to ride.  Since I train horses, I had gotten into the habit of correcting any behaviour that could potentially get the horse in trouble with me or his owner in the future.  Bino is in a different situation, though, so I get to let the little things slide.  When I brought him to the mounting block today and swung a leg over, he didn’t wait until I’d entirely picked up my outside stirrup before he walked off.  Usually I would correct this.  Today, I just let it slide.  When we were walking through some tall grass on the ride, he grabbed a mouthful on the way by.  So what?  No worries.  I let him munch away.  This must be what it is like when a mom realizes her kid is an adult, that she doesn’t have to, nay, shouldn’t, correct every last faux pas, but rather let the child live his life as he would like.  Some moms never get to that point, to the constant annoyance of their adult children.  Today I got to be the mature parent with the grown child.  I got to enjoy his personality, strengths and faults, with no judgement, and totally enjoyable for both of us.  I didn’t see that coming.  Sometimes, on these beautiful autumn days, in the soft footing of the soybean fields, I think, “oh, he’s alright, maybe we are making the wrong decision.”  But then, almost immediately when I think that, he trips as he often does.  Since his feet hurt, he doesn’t pick them up very high, and therefore often trips.  I also think of the radiographs and the coming frozen ground and the painful prognosis.  I pull my mind away from that and I let him munch grass, and pat his thick black neck.

Then it was on for a ride on Elliot.  You may recall a few weeks ago, that I found my sitting trot after it had left me for a short hiatus.  (Ok, 6 weeks doesn’t seem short at the time…)  Well, it turns out I didn’t really have it back yet.  I had it back for working trot, and I had it back for Eddie’s trot, but I didn’t have it back for Elliot’s extravagant warmblood trot.  I could only sit that well for about 5 strides, after which I would be left unceremoniously behind like some turnip off the wagon, and I would have to resort to posting to not be too much of an annoyance to Mr. Floaty Trot!  But there is no crying in baseball or dressage (ok, there probably has been plenty of crying in dressage, but a lot of it is hidden behind post-ride wine and cheese clutches) so I had to figure out what the real problem was.

So I pulled out pictures of my riding to see what was going on.

I have no ego about my riding.  I am only as good as my horses say I am, and they are pretty clear communicators.  I’m not trying to be better than anybody and I know I am not as good as some.  So, when I look at pictures of my riding, I am pretty ruthless, and it doesn’t bother me in the least because my heart is in the right place.  Intent is everything.  I had to explain that because when I look at this picture I think, “Overall, not a bad pictures, but 1) more inside leg, less inside hand, and 2) let go in your back, let your pelvis come forward and everything would straighten out, silly.  ;-)

Ok, so the first comment is fairly self-evident.  If you’ve ridden with a dressage instructor and not heard “Let go of the inside rein!” either you are a riding savant or your instructor is busy texting in an Ebay bid on Totalis tail hair during your lesson.

The second comment is more subtle.  “let go in your back, let your pelvis come forward and everything would straighten out.”  When we ride, we should sit on the tripod of our two seat bones and our pubic bone.  In the picture above, I am sitting almost solely on my seat bones, because my back is slightly braced.  If I would let go on my back, which is to allow the lower back to come forward (and the belly button to come forward), the pubic bone would come down to support my weight, much like the front wheels of a landing airplane come down after the back wheels touch down.  When all three sets of wheels are on the ground, things are very stable (and the passengers are much happier!).  When the rider is properly balanced on the tripod everything else “straightens out”.  By that I mean that the legs and the upper body may become correct.

Landing gear down. Why George William is my riding hero.

Here is a picture of George Williams who always has the landing gear down.  You might remember that I ran into him at the WEG.  He’s a very kind person too.   Most excellent.  In this picture and a million others, he has beautiful position in his upper and lower body because the center is correct.  Now, I am not saying I am a bad rider, but I’m saying George is a great rider.  If you compare my photo with Geo.’s, you’ll see that he is better able to stretch down in his leg and his upper body is much more solid than mine in that picture above.  Because I am not elastically  following the motion of the horse’s back in my lower back above, I am forced to bring my upper body forward to compensate.  Because Geo. has allowed the natural curve of his lower back to act like a natural spring to keep him wholly connected in his seat to the horse, his upper body stays nicely aligned over his pelvis.  My leg isn’t bad, but it appears jammed up into my hip socket.  My stirrups aren’t too short, my pelvis is at the wrong angle.  Geo’s leg seems to have an elastic connection to his hip.  All these differences are pelvis angle.  Front landing gear up vs. front landing gear down.

So I was playing around with that the last few weeks trying to regain the ability to sit Elliot’s fancy lengthened trot.  When I focus on relaxing (this is an oxymoron.  One can no more focus on relaxing than one can turn their head to test their peripheral vision.) my pelvis and to let my lower back move with the horse rather than sitting against it, I can fairly easily sit his lengthened trot for long periods of time.  The trick is in not resisting — in reminding myself to flow with the horse in my lower back.  So I channel George a lot.

Piaffe

When Jay and I were watching dressage at the WEG, we were using the headsets in which a commentator was, well, commentating.  I don’t know if this happens to you, but sometimes a particular turn of phrase will have such an undeniable “truthiness” (oh how I love that word) to it that I find myself putting everything else immediately aside to think about it.  The commentator was acknowledging a particularly beautiful piaffe in an afternoon of piaffing excellence.  She said,

“When you train a horse you have to do two things:  You have to teach him the mechanics of what you wish him to do, and then you have to teach him that he is good at it.”

Upon hearing that, I didn’t really see the rest of the test, though I was looking.  It was like a lightning bolt hit me, and I sat there, stunned.  That one sentence encapsulated all that I do with horses.  A trainer has to know the correct mechanics of any skill she is trying to teach (what are the footfalls of canter?  How does half pass start?  How does a horse arrange his legs in all stages of a jump?).  The trainer also has to know when the work is correct, or even close while they are learning, and communicate that to the horse.  Congratulate him, even.  When the horse gets his paycheck in praise for doing a thing as we wish, pretty soon he likes to do that thing.  When he likes to do that thing, he performs it with increasing confidence, which, if nurtured, becomes brilliance.

So the horse piaffing with joyful brilliance in front of us that day had mastered the mechanics of the movement, and he clearly knew he was good at it.  It was a joy to see.  Now that’s training.

 

Bino

 

I took a client’s horse in to ISU Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital today to have radiographs on his front hooves.  He’d been pointing one front leg or the other intermittently over the last few weeks and finally we had to know what was going on.

The radiographs indicated moderate navicular and the prognosis is continuing deterioration and discomfort for the rest of his life.  I’ve had some second-hand experience with navicular disease and I know it isn’t fun for horse or human companion.  I’d suspected navicular and talked with my client yesterday about our options should that be the diagnosis.  We agreed that donating to the vet school for educational use for the students would be an option that at least would yield some benefit to society.  So when I got the news, alone with the vet in front of the glow of the radiographs on the lightbox, I considered a moment and told her of our wishes.  She agreed that navicular can be a difficult road and said she had to talk to administration to see if they were in need of horses right now.

She went off, and after I wiped the tears from my eyes after a sob, I went over to Bino’s stall and rubbed him in all the places he likes to be rubbed.  It isn’t fair, this business of good-minded, gentle souls being placed in bodies that hurt them.  But I didn’t cry around Bino.  I talked in my usual low voice and fed him cookies from my pocket.  He doesn’t need hysterics, he needs a friend to take his mind off his aching feet.  And a real friend to make the hard decision to take the pain away entirely for this lifetime.

The vet came back and said that there was a class starting in 2 weeks where the 4th year students would be learning catheterization and ultrasound techniques.  Since Bino is a good sort, he was a candidate.  They would administer pain killers so that he would not hurt in any way as a result of their occasional misfires in the learning process.  At the end of the term, they would euthanize him.  This wasn’t quite what I had envisioned.  I was thinking of them doing a practice colic surgery and just not reviving him at the end.  But I could get my mind around this plan too.

Difficult decision made, sniffles abated, but the class doesn’t start until October 27th, two and half weeks from now.  He could stay at the vet school or I could take him home and bring him back then.

I brought him home.  We’re going to have cookies.  We’re going to use bute.  We’re going to trail ride every day possible between here and October 26th, when I have to deliver him back to Ames.  I am going to continue to be his pal, even though he is really “only” a training horse to me.  His mom lives pretty far away and may come to see him, but she won’t be here daily.  I’m going to smile and notice butterflies and watch geese fly south from his back during the next two weeks.  I’m going to sing cowboy songs and let him be my hero horse.

And I won’t cry around him.  When my dad was terminal he seemed to really be uncomfortable when people would cry because of his situation.  Of course.  They were thinking of their loss, not really of him, or they’d have brought cookies or board games to cheer him up, even if only momentarily.  So I made him a funny fake news show about John Deere tractors at the television station I worked at during that time, and brought it to him.  He was a JD salesman.  He loved it.  He forgot his troubles for a moment.  It made him remember who he was and made him laugh.  There was time for crying after he was gone.

And the same is true for Bino.  We’re going to put on the big girl panties and enjoy these two weeks with walks in the soft ground of the harvested soybean fields, and I won’t cry in front of Bino.  There’s time for that later.

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