Monday, March 31, 2008

Progress on multiple fronts

Yesterday evening, with fingers and toes crossed, I reattached the browband on Willow's bridle and attempted to bridle her from the off side. Easy-peasy! No protest from Willow. Almost one year after the development of the ear phobia, we're back to almost-normal. See ya, twist ties!

Now that Willow's teeth are happier, I started up work in hand again, after several weeks' hiatus. Yesterday I got two true steps of piaffe, left-hind then right-hind, where she sat way down behind and stepped well under her center. Yay, Willow!

I think left-lead canter is finally starting to break out of the first-level plateau we've been stuck at. I'm finally feeling glimmers of pushing from my seat rather than being pulled along. Right-lead canter still has echoes of its giant, galumphing past. What fun would dressage be if everything came easy?

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Finding the connection

Good things are happening with Willow! Although as I predicted, my stomach muscles are complaining bitterly. I've increased the contact in front, and doubled the driving from my seat to compensate. I thought I might get some real resistance from Willow, but she actually felt more content rather than less. I'm getting some great, definite half halts, too.

Before I bought Willow, I had the great fortune to lease a PSG schoolmaster named Aron for eighteen months. Aron rocked my world!

I learned so much from this lovely old guy. To get a left lead canter pirouette, you did the following: 1) half halt, 2) look over your left shoulder. That's it! That's how fantastic Aron is. He doesn't just give you a connection, though. It took eight months for me to really find it, and even then it would come and go. He liked to float just a little behind the bit and say, "If you don't bother me, I won't bother you." He lulls you into thinking the bridge is there, when it isn't. And he can do the tricks even when he isn't through, but he generally goes above the bit.

My point, and I do have one, is that Willow is the exact opposite kind of feeling. She never curls behind the bit, and she likes to have a strong contact. I can get a light feeling from her if I let her carry her neck low, and I've been letting her lull me into thinking that this light contact is a good thing. Well, sure, if we want to stay at first level forever!

So my epiphany came in the past week: Aron is at one end of the spectrum, Willow is at the other, but the end goal is the same: a strong, breathing contact. And even though their issues are opposite, the fix is the same: drive more to get that engine going in back. How is it that dressage can be so ridiculously complicated and yet so simple, all at the same time?

The past two nights I've felt some really thrilling moments in trot and canter, and Willow is more focused and seems to be enjoying the work. Next challenge: learning to sit this monster trot I've created . . .

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Body of horse, neck of giraffe

Willow's teeth issues seem to have resolved. She has gone from whole-hearted bucking in the canter, to half-hearted bucking, to no bucking at all last night. This is a good thing, because she's pretty good at bucking. I think she finally realizes the poky places in her mouth are gone.

Her mouth issues were also causing her to suck back (often as a prelude to bucking!) and that hasn't entirely disappeared. I've been patient with the sucking back long enough; last night I did a little butt-kicking. Our first real quarrel! Willow would rather go along to get along, though, so she gave in pretty readily.

Now we're going to get serious about shortening her frame. Willow has a lovely, long neck.

Now she needs to learn to carry it higher and not drop into a horizontal balance whenever she feels like it. Which means I have to get serious about not letting her. Look out, stomach muscles.

Ear phobia update: Willow let me put the bridle on from the off side again last night, although this time she was ready for me and it took a little longer. New carrot therapy exercise: folding her ears forward.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

A million sugar cubes for Willow

I took a notion tonight to try bridling Willow the old-fashioned way, but from the off side. Lo and behold, she let me do it! She was slightly concerned about her ears, but nothing like she had been. In about five seconds, the bridle was on. I didn't actually give her a million sugar cubes; it was more like eight. Now we'll have to see if she lets me do it again tomorrow--it's possible I surprised her into compliance tonight.

Maybe I'll be able to ditch the twist ties and reattach the browband before long.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

More on Obama

Here's a video somebody took on the soccer field. I actually had a much better view of the senator than this person did, but at least this gives you an idea of the size of the crowd and our enthusiasm!

Friday, March 21, 2008

Obama in Eugene

Barack Obama spoke at Mac Court in Eugene this evening at 9 p.m. I got in line at 5 p.m. There were already two insanely long lines wrapping around both sides of the arena and on down past the track and field center.

I made friends with a nice lady named Joyce. I had also brought along a book to read, but Joyce and I passed the time chatting. We were lucky to get an evening with no rain. At 7 p.m. the doors opened and the line started moving slowly. We were four or five blocks from the entrance, and there was another line, just as long as ours, off in the other direction. But everyone was hopeful we'd get in. There were at least as many people in line behind us as in front of us.

The line kept moving, and we were a block and a half from the entrance. I called a friend whom I knew had gotten in and asked, how many seats are still open? Maybe 10%, he said. Uh oh. About ten minutes later volunteers came by and told us the arena was full. BUT . . . Obama would make a brief appearance on the soccer field behind the arena before the rally. Off we trooped to the soccer field!

Can you see the hope?

No one had a clue where the senator would appear, so Joyce and I just chose a spot randomly. We were in the middle of a crowd and couldn't see much of anything. People started to cheer, and we could hear Obama speaking. Suddenly I realized he was right in front of us!

I know that looks like a smear, but I swear, that's Obama. He spoke for about five minutes, then shook as many hands as he could, and off to the rally he went. As we were walking back to the car, we could hear Mac Court rocking and rolling. Oh well, at least I can honestly say I got to hear him speak in person.

Woozy Willow

Willow had her teeth floated today and was an excellent patient. She even tolerated the power tool the vet used in her mouth. She had a few sharp points and ridges, so I bet she'll be a much happier camper now.

She was still pretty stoned when I left; the vet said she'll wake up in a couple hours.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Crayon Physics

I just spent an embarrassing amount of time playing a freeware game called Crayon Physics. You draw rectangles with your mouse, and when you finish drawing gravity takes over and they drop. The goal is to use the rectangles you draw to move a ball towards a star. It sounds kind of stupid, but I swear, once you start it's hard to stop!

After I got through all the levels, I kept playing, drawing levers and seesaws and making rectangles go flying. I'll probably dream about it tonight. Download it here:

The game's developer is working on Crayon Physics Deluxe, where you can draw wheels and axles in addition to rectangles. I signed up to be notified when the game goes live.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Monday, March 17, 2008

Free lungeing Willow

Even with the bit riding a little higher in her mouth, Willow has continued to give me some signs that something isn't quite right in there, so I have an appointment to have her teeth checked and possibly floated on Friday. In the meantime, I'm giving her and me the week off (no bit in her mouth 'til we get this figured out). Because it's supposed to rain all week (quelle surprise!), she probably won't get much turnout, so I'm still heading to the barn every night to free lunge her.

It's been forever since I've free lunged Willow off the halter, with no other tack. We had fun! It was great to see her naked, so to speak -- I could really tell how much she has muscled up recently. I can also tell that she has built a lot of strength over her topline. She used to like to drag around on her forehand, head to the ground, when I free lunged; now she carries herself in front. She was showing off her newly discovered trot extension, too. I sent her down the long side a few times, tearing alongside her as fast as I could, and she quickly picked up on the game and got very fancy.

She also popped a few flying changes in the canter. Whee!

I'm anxious to get back to riding, but we're both enjoying this change in the routine, too. Maybe tomorrow I'll set out some cavaletti.

The miracle of slipcovers

I've had this black chair for about six years. It's in kind of sad shape, visually, but it's still very comfortable. The dogs' toenails have done a number on the seat, as you can see.

Last week I purchased a slipcover from It's stretch suede in a lovely cocoa brown. It was a little tricky to put on, but the result looks great! It's like a new chair! A new, suede chair!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

So that's what schwung feels like

It's rides like tonight's that keep me at this crazy sport. I started the evening by raising the bit one hole. I've noticed Willow trying to snatch at it once in awhile lately; I think it was riding too low in her mouth. I know it was adjusted correctly at one point: I imagine the leather in the bridle has stretched out some in the two years since I bought it. Anyway, up went the bit just a tad.

Then I lunged Willow with the side reins about two inches shorter than I've ever had them before. I've been working at keeping Willow more up in front for several weeks now, so I figured she could handle a bit less freedom in front on the lunge. I got some spectacular work out of her! Twelve meter canter circles in self-carriage, and a few trot extensions where you almost see her shift down a gear. So cool.

And then, the ride. Lately I've been realizing that even though I think I have Willow on the outside rein, I really don't. She's popping the outside shoulder just enough to drag me to the outside, especially in canter. So I started on twenty meter circles, counter-flexing for a quarter circle every so often, then spiraling in and out. First in rising trot, then sitting. After about twenty minutes I got a magnificent sitting trot with huge swing through the back and a lovely even feeling between both reins. From that I asked for canter and got her best canter under saddle ever. No pulling, no hanging, and a big uphill depart. This is what a balanced canter feels like. Hurray!

I only worked her for half an hour under saddle because everything came together so well, and she was really giving me her all. After a final canter, I got a successful canter-walk transition (the first ever, actually) and called it a night. When I dismounted, I noticed Willow had foam absolutely running from her mouth. I guess I was right about the bit!

Ear phobia report: on the off side, it's all good. I can hold her ear even sans carrot. On the near side, carrots are still required, and there are intermittent brain freezes. One of these days I'm going to try to bridle her from the off side and see what happens.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Don't touch my ears

When I first had Willow shipped up to Oregon, I hadn't yet found a dressage barn, so I moved her into a general boarding barn that was recommended to me. It was a decently clean and well-run outfit, and best of all, Willow got all-day turnout on 15 acres.

She stayed at that barn for three months, and I really had no problems until the last two weeks of her stay. Suddenly she became very afraid of me putting on the bridle. In fact, she didn't want me touching her ears at all. I'm 99% certain that one of the barn help tried to ear her down, probably when bringing her in from the pasture. I won't get into the raging fury I feel whenever I think of someone abusing Willow; let's just say I would like to put a giant, pointy, metaphorical pine cone on that person's chair.

I've been working around Willow's phobia by putting the snaffle bridle on in pieces, sort of like a halter. To do that I had to take off the browband, so I've been using twist-ties where the browband would go. Very high tech! This has all been working just fine, and Willow is once again relaxed about bridling. However, I'm going to be introducing the double bridle sometime in the next six months or so, and the idea of putting THAT on in pieces is a little overwhelming.

So, for the past couple of weeks I've been working on the ear phobia intensively. Carrots are playing a key role! I break up a couple carrots into many little bits, and then I let Willow know there's a carrot, and the price she has to pay is my hand on her ear. She's coming around quite quickly, but during every session there's a moment where her hierarchy of needs causes a momentary brain freeze, usually with her nose stuck straight up in the air in a sideways fashion: Don't touch my ears! I really want that carrot! And so on. Horses are uncomplicated creatures.

Last night I was able to cup her ear in my hand as I fed her carrot bits, and no brain freeze occurred. Progress! Next we'll be shooting for three or four ear touches for every carrot bit. Then, I'll need to fashion a piece of leather to drag across her ears much as a bridle would. Maybe by summer we'll be back to putting the bridle on the old-fashioned way.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Tough start in life

My friend Courtney in West Texas is finishing up her pre-vet degree and working an internship at a large-animal clinic. A couple days ago they had to put down a mare who was colicking severely. Left behind was her two-week-old colt. Poor little guy! Courtney spent all day trying to calm him down as he looked for his mother. Here she is comforting him after he finally crashed.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Heads across America

Good friends, former colleagues, and all-around nifty people Mike and Diane have finally launched their epic journey across the U.S. They're taking a half-year to drive their minibus all over this great country. Jealous? Yeah, me too.

I've linked to their two blogs, Get in the Bus and Heads across America.

Heads across America is especially genius: roadside attractions from the neck up!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Willow the Guinea Pig

Over the many years I had the good fortune to work with clinician Wolfgang May, I watched him do work in hand with dozens of horses. He always made it look pretty easy, even with horses who had never experienced it before. I guess there were a couple who tried to kick his teeth out, but his impeccable timing kept almost all of them reasonably content with the work.

In the past month I decided to introduce Willow to work in hand. She's a big girl with a long back, and I felt like work under saddle just wasn't strengthening her hind end enough. I'm especially looking for her to start carrying herself more in canter. I've never actually attempted work in hand before, so Willow got to be my Guinea pig.

I started off simply asking her to walk and stop, letting her get used to having the wall on one side and me on the other. She was a little claustrophobic at first, but within the first session she relaxed and behaved perfectly.

During the next session I started touching her lightly on her inside hind to ask for a bigger walk. She wasn't crazy about that. She kicked out a couple times, and then tried to run through a couple times. I broke out the sugar to ease the tension. After about ten minutes she accepted the whip, and I sent her out on a big circle as a reward and to let off some steam. I could already see results: a BIG trot with good suspension. 'Nuff work in hand; we moved on to something else.

After a week of similar sessions, for the first time I lightly asked for a collected trot with the whip. Zoom! went Willow (see, Willow, you CAN canter from walk). I let her out on a big circle for thirty seconds, then brought her back to a halt along the wall. Walk, halt, walk, halt. Now, trot. Zoom! went Willow again. Another big circle, and back to the wall. This time I was more emphatic with my half halt before I asked for trot. Success! Five or six steps of trot, then back to halt. Pats, sugar, and back out on the big circle. Call it a day.

For the next couple of weeks we worked on trot, getting Willow much more comfortable with the whip. I started using the big circle as a reward, sending her out onto it directly from collected trot on the wall (a mistake, as it turns out -- more on that in a second). I loved seeing her launch herself into a giant, suspended trot on the large circle. This work in hand stuff is great! Willow is really using herself, and I'm starting to feel a difference in the canter under saddle.

Sunday night I suddenly realized that Willow was no longer working straight along the wall. Instead, she was doing everything in shoulder in. What's going on? I thought to myself. Then I realized that she was anticipating her release onto the large circle out of collected trot. I remembered that Wolfgang always stopped the horse straight, patted, maybe gave sugar, and THEN sent the horse out. D'oh. So Sunday night and last night I worked on halting her straight first, before sending her out. Problem solved! Last night I think she even offered me a few half steps. Willow, is there piaffe in your future?

Also last night: suspension in the canter like I've never felt before.

A big shout out to Wolfgang, for serving as my most excellent role model. And a big thanks to Willow, for letting me make mistakes and not kicking my teeth out.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Dressage goes viral

The kür has gone viral!

In the past six months, I've had more than one non-dressage person forward me this video, asking "Is this what you do?" (Oh, how I wish . . . Maybe someday . . .) A couple of them asked me if it was real. Apparently there's a rumor going around that this video is completely faked to match Matine's footfalls with the music. One person forwarded a comment that the whole thing had been created in photoshop. I assured my friends that the video is entirely unfaked. This sort of magic is why we dressage weirdos keep at it.

I've probably watched this thirty times, and it still gives me chills. (Also, take that! everyone who says mares aren't talented dressage mounts.)