"And, when you want something, the entire Universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." -The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Swap

Today I was going to ride both horses. Charles was off but he had already ridden 3 days in a row (!! a first for him) so I was thinking I'd do a bareback ride with G-Mare in the arena and a proper dressage school with Lily and hopefully have Charles get some photos of it all, because it is him that has taken pretty much every photo of me riding in this blog.

Except on the way out the door he asked if it wouldn't be better if he just rode so we wouldn't have to be at the barn so long. I told him of course, but he didn't have to. He said he didn't mind, even if it was just going to be an arena ride. (Both him and Gracie agree that arena sessions are dull as rocks. Which is why when I do arena sessions with G-Mare I now usually complicate it by either riding her saddleless and/or in the rope halter because it makes her really focus on me.)

The girls had their mashes and we tacked up, then walked off towards the arena, of which I took photos so you guys could get a feel for the lay of the land at the barn.

Riding up the driveway towards the arena. We make a right over where that beige run-in shed is towards the right. It's kind of small in this photo. This all looks very flat but it actually isn't: BO's house in the distance is at the top of a hill from where you can see the entire property, and beyond it, hiding behind the house hill, you can see Sugarloaf Mountain.
See the arena? It's over by the barn with the grain silo. That's what they call "the old barn" and where BO keeps her personal horses. 
Off to the left here are the round pen and the small jump/gymnastics field. You can see it better if you embiggen.
And on the far, far left is one of the cross country jumps! :) Tiny yes. But still!
Since this was just an arena ride, G-Mare did not get drugged for this outing. She was SUPER happy and relaxed. No fussing at the beginning of the ride.

We warmed up at the walk and then I picked up a trot and Charles picked up a gait and we worked around. He hates arena work and did not know what to do. He wanted to just let Gracie follow Lily or have her ride next to us, but that meant I couldn't do figures when I wanted without crashing into them. I suggested he do circles and figure-8s, and so he tried it. He was struggling a bit with G-Mare wanting to just be where Lily was, which is something that Gracie classically does in arenas with other horses. I had actually forgotten that about her. So I gave him an exercise to do: spiral in and spiral out. A deceptively difficult exercise to do correctly, but one that would get both his and Gracie's attention on the job at hand (hopefully). I demonstrated at a walk with Lily, and how you are supposed to keep the horse's nose gently turned into the circle, maintaining an even arc through their body with your legs as they spiral in from a large circle to a smaller circle and back again. Lily did a stellar job of demonstrating this, maintaining a beautiful bend with upright shoulders (no leaning in) and making it look effortless while I explained to Charles how to apply the aids to achieve it.

Spiral out. Diagram from here

I told Charles to start with Gracie at the walk and then move up to the trot/gait if he felt like she was doing well.

Of course, I tend to assume that he can figure things out riding-wise better than he sometimes actually can. On the trail and just figuring out a horse he is turning out to be amazing because he has a fabulous ability for reading both animals and people. (He originally wanted to be a vet.) But this is also because he enjoys exploring the trails so much. Part of the problem here is that he saw no purpose to the exercise and I could tell he felt this way by reading his expression (him and I have been together almost 11 years now! I can read him pretty well after all this time. ;) ) Not his fault: I thoroughly enjoy the precision required by dressage because it caters to my perfectionism. Charles is literally the opposite in this respect. Not that he is wishy-washy at things, but things have to be fun for him to feel the need to excel at them. Plus we joke about it, but he really does have ADD. Which is why he is so fantastic at emergency work, and dealing with crazy people (literally), and riding outside the limits of an arena. All fast-paced stuff that keeps him on his toes and stimulates his mind in the best way possible.

I didn't want to drill him because it would frustrate him. I did point out that him and Gracie were doing figures that resembled something more like eyeballs than circles. "What do you mean?" he asked. And then I realized that he did not know how to "see" the track of the circle in the arena while performing it. Whoops - that was my bad. Again I assumed.

Eye shape

Circle shape

I demonstrated again and tried to explain the shape of the circle better, but he still struggled. In-between attempts at spiraling at a walk, Gracie was zooming around in a gait that was just a notch down from a canter speed and I wasn't sure if he was cueing that deliberately or unintentionally, or if it was all her, and it was making everything that much more difficult. They weren't out of control, but I could see that they were both getting more frustrated with one another and with the exercise, and G-Mare isn't supposed to be working quite that fast yet: she can work at trot or gait for 30 minutes but not quite at that speed.

So I finally asked him, "Can I get on her and try?"

Somewhat reluctantly, he said yes. "I just want to see if I can get her to do the exercise," I explained. I was fairly certain she could do it, as it was something that I had practiced with her before, but it had been a while.

Charles held Lily while I mounted up on Gracie. I didn't adjust Gracie's stirrups because it's a huge PITA to get them as short as I need them for me (think hand-punched holes through nylon-backed stirrup leathers: you have to shove the buckle through ill-defined holes every time) and I knew Charles would be on her again so I didn't even bother. The mare is comfortable to ride and I knew I wouldn't have an issue stirrupless.

Spiraling. Listening mare is listening.
Really nice, soft bend here.
This was around the point that I realized that all of the eyeballs her and Charles had been doing figure-wise were her and not him. He didn't know how to correct what she was offering. We didn't do the circle any smaller than this because of her hocks, and we only spiraled in and out once in each direction at the walk.
I worked her at the gait a bit to see what she was doing at her regular gait.
This is what she gave me. This is her big rack.

I mean seriously...can you say HIND LEG REACH??!!!
Any questions about those hock injections? Because DAMN.
But because we're not supposed to be doing that sort of engagement at the moment just yet, I asked her to come back down to her singlefoot (medium) gait.
Really nice slow gait here. Check out the bend in her hock. She couldn't do that before.
After confirming with Charles that it was more Gracie and not so much him, and that Gracie needs a tune-up on correct arena work, I sat on Gracie for a second and just looked at Charles standing next to a sleepy Lily.

For a long time, I've played with the thought of having him hop on Lily but I had never felt he was ready for that quite yet. 

Lily was terrified of men when I first got her. But never Charles. She has always liked him. She would nuzzle him right from the get-go. She will walk up to him in the field, stand quietly for him to halter her, and walk next to him willingly. She treats him as if he were an extension of myself, like all of my animals have always done with him.

Sure, this had not been a stellar arena ride for him, but the arena has always been Lily's safe zone and he has done a truly fabulous job getting the hang of Gracie and even working through her shenanigans on his own with no issue while on the trails, which I consider to be much harder in a way. Yes, doing arena figures correctly can be tough but when it comes to actually sticking a horse and working her properly through her issues and insecurities on trail in a manner that inspires to her trust him...I think that is far more difficult. And he has succeeded at this with minimal guidance from me. I gave him the pieces of the puzzle and he put them together all on his own.

He has gotten the hang of posting all on his own and has no problems riding the canter on Gracie with a correct and balanced seat and soft hands. He makes it look easy. 

All of this flashed through my mind in a second, pouring into this one singular thought: "It is time."

So I told him, "You should get on Lily." 

It's hard to surprise him, but I think that was the last thing he expected me to say. He stuttered something about the hassle of adjusting stirrups. "Hers are easy, " I said. I have Wintec Webbers on her. So I dismounted, adjusted my dressage saddle's stirrups to the very lowest hole, and had him mount up. 

Lily widened her eyes for a second. "It's just Charles," I told her. "He's not going to hurt you."

And she must have understood because she immediately relaxed. Like, "Oh, it's just him. I can take care of him."

And she did. 

I would be lying if I said I had my heart in my throat. I didn't. I have never had less qualms about putting anyone else on her back. I don't let other people ride Lily. Only Liz, my friend Diana, and my FL trainer Judy have ever been on Lily in all of 4 years owning her. Liz has ridden her twice, and Diana and Judy only rode her one time each. Why? Because Lily is the other half of the centaur we are together. She is nowhere near as easy to ride as people tend to think she is. She is very technical, very sensitive, and quite the overachiever herself. She is incredibly tuned into me and it took a lot of work to get her to where we are now, and I don't want to overwhelm her by frequently putting other people on her. This was an exception though: this was a short ride, with a person she knows and trusts that I knew she would take care of, and while Charles doesn't have an advanced riding skill set, he knows how to control his body in the saddle enough to not upset her. Plus I was right there watching them and giving instructions. :)

I told Charles, "Ride her like she is a tiny baby bird that can break at the lightest touch."

And he did.

It was probably one of the most incredible things I've seen in a long time, and proof that all of the hard work I've put into Lily is paying off in dividends. It is proof that she has finally forgotten her awful past and is happy being with me and the life I've given her. 

She did have her moments of tension, of course:
"He's giving way too many signals, Mom, and I know he doesn't know it!"
Requesting the trot.
He struggled with my dressage saddle: it's a 17.5 and he would have needed something like an 18 or 18.5 because of the huge knee blocks. It took him a few laps to get the hang of posting to Lily's trot while fighting against the saddle. Lily has a pretty smooth trot at this speed but it is still slightly bumpier than Gracie's. If he seemed to be having a hard time with posting, she would simply come back down to a walk to help him out. She was SO careful about not making him unbalanced.

Lily would totally told on him if he wasn't being clear with his directions. He got her to unknowingly shoulder-in, sidepass and turn on the haunches because that's what she thought he wanted. 
Starting to really relax.

Working trot.
Look at them!!!
Cruising. Once he found his seat in the unfamiliar saddle, they were golden.
The biggest contributor to their success, I think, was him being as quiet as possible with his seat and keeping very soft hands on the reins. Lily does not like to have a rider that snatches at her face, which is why German-type (aka modern) dressage was a huge fail for her. Classical dressage, which focuses on lightness of aids, was a whole different ballgame.
She even offered to stretch down a few times. She was completely at ease with him up. He wanted to canter so I gave him directions (shorten the reins, outside heel behind the girth, sit up straight, and cluck or say "Up!" which is her voice command for canter) Lily has a more rocking horse kind of canter than Gracie's smooth glide but it is not hard to sit to, so I figured he should be fine. But Lily absolutely refused. She didn't even speed up her trot. She said, "He is not ready for cantering so I am not going to canter."

Good mare. Good, good mare!

I had mounted back up on Gracie and worked with keeping her in the center of the arena (even with me up she was still trying to head towards Lily when Lily went by) while snagging photos and giving directions. 

This was just EPIC, guys. I don't know if you can comprehend. This mare used to not let anyone else ride her and she was not only okay with Charles up, she both tried to please him while taking care of him and made her own (sound) judgement calls. 

I don't have any plans of permanently swapping or anything remotely of the sort, but I may put him on Lily every so often with the Alta simply because it is a good experience for him, especially given how Lily both tattles on him and takes care of him. :) It will make his riding on Gracie that much more precise and effective.

After about 10 minutes, I asked him if he wanted to ride Lily some more, get back on Gracie and be done, or take Gracie out of the arena for a spin. I wanted Lily worked a little longer. 

He was surprised by how different the two mares are to ride, but decided without even having to think about it that he much prefers Gracie. She's less technical and she knows by now exactly what to tune out. I had to laugh at such an honest response.

We re-swapped horses and he took G-Mare for a ride outside of the arena while I worked on canter-walk-canter transitions in the arena for the next 10 minutes or so. Gracie and Charles zoomed up and down the driveway verge at a rack a couple of times. Lily would prick her ears when they were close by, but she stayed calm and attentive to me. G-Mare had no issue whatsoever about leaving her buddy in the arena. It's good for them to be left by the other periodically so we can make sure they don't lose their minds when that happens.

Today's ride was a HUGE WIN, from every angle you look at it!

And since this was both Charles's first time riding 4 days in a row AND riding Lily, he got a reward afterwards:



  1. Ahh riding Lily. I hope Charles had as much fun as I did!

    Feelings on riding Lily summarized in this photo with grin:


    And this smirk here:


    But mostly, it was really like this....



    ...And then there's just this random unrelated shot I re-encountered trying to find the above:


    I caption it: "The problem with green horses." We're SO SERIOUS! lolololol

    But srsly, that mare of yours is so funnnnnn. I'm so very happy she took care of C so well. <3

    1. I laughed going through all of those photos and videos all over again! And yes, we're so serious while contemplating Griffin...and his expression is like, "Can you guys just stop analyzing me already?" lol

      I tried showing him lateral cues and for once Lily was all, "Nope. That's not it. Try again." Though then she did the movements when he didn't realize he was cueing them. Haha Sometime in the future, we'll try again with him in the Alta so his legs aren't as constricted. :)

  2. Charles sounds a lot like Dusty. Dusty rocks at trail riding and is fearless when it comes to obstacles. He would make an amazing eventer if it weren't for the dressage. Put him in an arena and make him focus on minutia and he gets bored and frustrated real quick.

    I've had the little kiddos up on Gem while I led her around, but aside from that the only time someone other than me has officially been on Gem was once with Dusty and once with my friend Sheree during R&T events. I have a plan to have Dom ride her in a 50 in September as a trade off for sitting Wyatt at ride camp for the R&T and I won't lie I am a little nervous for them both!

    1. Agreed: Dusty and Charles do sound a lot alike! That's exactly it, and I've had the same thought about my guy: he would make a great eventer if it weren't for the dressage.

      I have no doubt that Gem and Dom will do fabulously together. Dom has a wonderful feel for horses; they try for her and she watches out for them. I would trust her with either of my two without a second thought. :)

  3. aww good for Charles!!! and good for Lily too!! sounds like a great experience for both of them! also glad to see that so far the hock injections appear to be really working!

    1. Oh God yes! She's so much more comfortable. This was a 30-minute session for her total and afterwards I watch her move off in the field, after releasing her, and did a sort of double take: something looked different. And I realized it was her hind end movement. It was so fluid and swinging.

      Best decision ever.

  4. Yeah for both mares!! And way to go Charles. Guess you should keep him.

    Circles, spirals and other feats of riding geometry are hard! Just saying.

    1. Oh don't tell me; tell him! Haha Riding geometry is very tough, and it's why I find dressage entertaining. I used to *hate* spirals with a vengeance. I think it was one of the exercises that I hated the absolute most. It took 2 years of practicing to get to the execution Lily gave me on this day while demonstrating . And of course there's no video or photos as evidence.

      I was just surprised that he couldn't tell he wasn't anywhere near completing a circle. Even when I was greener at dressage concepts, I could tell we were bobbling or doing eggs or eyes instead of circles. Actually *achieving* the perfect circle was another matter altogether (haha), but I knew when it wasn't coming out like it was supposed to. It was interesting to me to see how differently his brain works from mine when it comes to stuff like that. :) We'll revisit all of this later, after I've worked with Gracie in the arena a couple of times to review so all he has to do is concentrate on getting the cues right.

  5. Gold stars all around on this post!! Love that the hock injections worked so well for Gracie. Excellent job Charles and Lily...a great experience for both of them! And a reflection on all of the work and heart you've poured into Lily. Love it!!

  6. If you ever need tangible evidence of how the work you put into Lily is paying off, you've got it right here and lots to be proud of (: I still think back to earlier this year when Quest quietly packed my non-rider sister in the arena with not a foot out of line the entire 45 minutes. Mares are truly something else <3