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

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Charles's Riding Lesson

On Monday Charles was off from work and I didn't have to go in until 4:00 pm, so I asked Charles if he wanted to help me do hill sets with the girls. There were multiple reasons for this:

1. Give Gracie her first formal hill workout.
2. Ride Lily a 3rd time. She had had Saturday off when Kathy and I went to Little Bennett. I like to get 3 rides on her a week.
3. Check Lily's fitness on hills. We hadn't done any kind of hill sprints in almost 2 months, since before starting her taper prior to the endurance ride that wasn't.
4. Working on the hill side by side would allow me to see what Charles is doing with his form, correct him, and demonstrate if necessary.
5. Evaluate Gracie's fitness on hills.

We arrived at the barn early, grabbed the mares and tacked up. This was Charles's first time riding on the bridle path. We walked all the way up the hill and back down once, then trotted up and walked down twice to warm up. We then started the official canter sets: we would canter up the hill and alternately walk and trot down.

It was a great exercise. I was able to correct Charles's posture while riding next to him and after a few minor corrections (he has a tendency to slouch a bit and let his shoulders creep up towards his ears) he had Gracie gaiting 100% of the time when Lily and I were trotting. Once he was getting results, the corrections in his position stuck. He's a good student. We'd then canter up the hill side-by-side, which also allowed me to check what he was doing. He was trying to do a sort of two-point but his leg is not strong enough nor solid enough to be able to stabilize him while attempting this, which inevitably meant that he was bouncing in the saddle. Not a lot, but enough that if Gracie had accelerated he would have had a hard time staying with her. Gracie has the smoothest canter I've ever ridden: it's actually better if you sit back on her. Once he relaxed and sat, he realized how easy to ride her canter is. I wish I'd gotten a video!

We cantered up the hill 6 times, walked down 3 times and trotted down 3 times (alternating). We then walked up and down once to cool off the mares.

Lily's respiratory rate never went up during this exercise. I'm amazed at how well she's retained her fitness. Gracie however was still breathing fast by the time we got back to the barn so she was handwalked a little longer and she had first dibs on getting hosed off. Her respiratory rate returned to normal while handwalking.

Lily was bathed after Gracie and both were tied to the arena fence side by side so they could have their beet pulp mashes. They both had their electrolyte syringes too. The mares are hilarious in their reactions. I mix a serving of the electrolyte powder (I use Perfect Balance) with a tablespoon of molasses to form a paste, then make a parfait inside a 60 ml syringe, alternating applesauce with the electrolyte/molasses paste. Gracie loves the applesauce and will lick the syringe for it, but as soon as she reaches the electrolyte paste, she starts making horrendous faces and sticking her tongue out. Lily is lackadaisical about applesauce and also hates the electrolyte paste (believe me, the paste with molasses is an improvement over just the plain powder! And they still hate it. They won't eat it mixed with their beet pulp) but after having to syringe her AbGard every day during her stall rest last year, she has become highly tolerant of being syringed stuff via syringe...as long as it's me syringing her. She's nowhere near that good when it's the vet!

They each get one syringe of this after riding. Gracie is a great drinker regardless, but Lily has been drinking much better since starting this new routine.

They were turned out in their field afterwards.

Shiny. Andrea's girls win the shine award :), but I'm happy with this.
Love the mohawk on her.
Gracie is getting very shiny too. And this was after rolling!

It was an awesome session. Charles enjoyed the outside-of-the-arena lesson format!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Riding With the Endurance Vet's Wife

On Sunday, it was Lily's turn to trailer. Another great adventure under our belts! Read on and find out. ;)

I met Carol, our newest boarder, at the barn at 10:00 am. She is also a vet tech and is married to a research veterinarian who loves endurance and often volunteers as a ride vet. They are both a wealth of knowledge about the sport and I was really excited when I heard they were moving to the current barn. I know them from our previous barn. Carol's QH mare Katie was in the stall next to Lily's when they were both on stall rest, Lily from her ligament injury and Katie from a bum knee. Carol is a lovely, quiet rider and Katie is a solid all-arounder horse.

Lily rushed up to the fence when I walked into the field. "Me, me, me!" she said. I laughed at her and saw when her eye softened in relief when I put the rope halter on her. Such a huge change in the mare who used to turn away when she saw me with a look of, "Ugh, it's you again."

Gracie poked her head around the corner of the shed and came and stood next to us while I tied the knot in Lily's halter. G-mare got a neck scratch and a kiss. I was planning on doing an arena session with her when we returned from our adventure.

Lily had a beet pulp meal and a hay snack while grooming her and packing up the trailer. Both mares loaded uneventfully. Katie can be snarky with other horses next to her, but she was absolutely fine with Lily: they still remember and adore one another.

It was a short drive to the trail area: Annapolis Rock (not to be confused with Annapolis Rocks, which is part of the Appalachian Trail and is much farther north of us), which is part of the Patuxent State Park. Patuxent, aka Redneck Park, is one of my favorite places to ride basically because it is so wild: the park is ENORMOUS (6700 acres to be exact!) so trails get minimal maintenance, are not marked and have no names, and you will come across all sorts of obstacles without warning: deep bogs, mud, rock, fallen trees blocking the trail, river crossings of all kinds. Get lost in that vast enormousness and good luck explaining to someone where exactly you are. Thankfully though, all that acreage is surrounded by city so phones do have a signal in there. I get a secret thrill every time I ride into any part of the Patuxent. To me, it's like riding into a cross between the Thieves' Forest and the Fire Swamp in The Princess Bride: you never know what you're going to come across in your explorations. I honestly would not be surprised to find R.O.U.S. in there. Bonus points if you know what that is!

I was SO bummed when the backwoods were closed to us because it cut off the ride access to Patuxent from our barn.

Here was an opportunity for us to ride in there again!

Annapolis Rock has ample trailer parking for equestrians. There were at least 4 other trailers when we pulled up. Lily unloaded like a champ, looked around at the other trailers and horses, then got to work alternately eating her hay and attacking the grass. This is the same mare that would turn into a total spazz in any new environment she was trailered to.

I am a terrible blogger: this is the only photo I took of the whole adventure! I REALLY wanted to keep track of the mileage: Katie is conditioned for up to 6 miles and her knee can flare up sometimes. I did not want to overdo it. Since all apps including the GPS apps shut down every time I open the camera phone, I simply didn't take photos.
Carol and I tacked up and rode off onto the first trail that seemed inviting. She had ridden here once before and some of the trails were familiar while others weren't so much. She had me lead: she often rides alone and she liked being able to just follow for once. (Again I thought of Funder's sled dog reference! Riders need mental breaks too.) You could clearly tell what was Annapolis Rock and what wasn't: the AR trails are wide two track and are obviously meticulously maintained, taking you through gorgeous pine forest, around wooded areas, and finally a meadow. We walked and trotted to warm up.  I figured out that the meadow trail was a circle with paths cutting through the middle of it. We cantered around the meadow and then trotted around it. There were a couple of skinny trails leading away from the meadow into the unknown forest surrounding us. I recognized these trails for what they were: routes into the Patuxent itself. I saw a particularly steep and challenging one, and checked with Carol: she was game. We took the trail, winding down the side of the mountain with tree roots serving as ledges on the path. The mares sat on their haunches and negotiated it like no one's business.

The trail took us through a boggy section with black mud and pools of stagnant water covered in arrow arum plants. Thankfully there was an alternate route around this section and we were able to avoid the worst of the mud entirely. I made sure to check Lily's feet afterwards to confirm that all 4 boots were still on. They were. The trail then abruptly started climbing, taking us up the side of another hill and away from the muddy valleys of these woods.

Arrow arum plants
The trees soared above us, thick brush lining the trails. It was a wild, green world in there with patches of light filtering through the forest canopy, dappling the trails and the greenery around us. At times it felt like we were riding in the middle of the jungle and I'd look up almost expecting to see Tarzan swinging through the trees. Again the Northeast in the summer reminds me of my island on any given day, except without the suffocating humidity. It truly is a temperate rainforest.

Not my photo, but this is exactly what the sections of the Patuxent that we traversed looked like. This type of forest is called Piedmont forest. Photo is from the blog Wild Maryland 101, from this post. (If you're from around this area, check out that blog. It has a ton of information!)
We followed the skinny trails, through more fetlock deep mud at times and around fallen logs that had been there long enough that riders and hikers had created alternate well-worn paths around them.

I was surprised to find I have a pretty good sense of direction even in the middle of nowhere, as long as there are hills! We rode deep into the forest for the first 3 miles. Every time we turned away, I kept in mind the direction we would have to go to return. It felt like I was leaving an invisible silver string behind us to take us back later.

At the 3 mile mark, I turned Lily at the first fork in the direction I felt we needed to go to return home. We soon found ourselves going downhill again and through a bog covered in arrow arum plants. I thought it was the same bog we had first encountered but it wasn't: the only option we had here was to go through a very large stagnant pool of water covering what turned out to be thick fetlock-deep mud. It was disgusting. 

We made it onto the other side and had walked 3 strides when I looked down at Lily's feet. I groaned: she had lost one of her hind boots. Goddamn it. Both Carol and I started laughing. Carol suggested us getting off and going wading in the mud on foot to try to scoop out the boot with our feet, like clamdiggers do. I looked down at my sneakered feet and half chaps. I did NOT want to dismount to go looking in that bog for the boot. I would have sunk to my calves in the muck. I HATE wet socks. I am willing to pay $80 for a new boot just to not have to ride for 3+ miles in sneakers full of mud! Carol was happy to get off and go look for it herself but I didn't want her to do that. It was my boot: I should be the one to get muddy.

I suggested we just ride back through the pool of water and see if we couldn't spot it. Carol was afraid the horses would squish the boot even deeper into the mud, but we tried anyway, turning around with Carol leading.

Of course, you couldn't see the bottom of the pool now as the horses had stirred it up when they went through the first time. I was thinking this was going to be a futile attempt when Carol suddenly stopped. "Found it!" she exclaimed triumphantly, pointing at a spot of orange in the water. I stared at it in amazement. I honestly did not think we would find the boot. And then right before our eyes, the orange blob completely disappeared under the surface.

Carol had been standing on a small island of dry clay right next to the specific spot where we had just seen the boot. She moved aside, turning around to head back out of the pool, giving me enough room to park Lily where Katie had been standing. It was solid ground: Lily's feet created shallow hoofprints but didn't sink. I slid off Lily in such a way that my feet were actually under her belly, on the drier ground. I unclipped one side of Lily's reins so I could step on it with one shoe in case she decided to walk off, freeing up both hands so I could reach into the pool of water for the boot.

My right arm was almost up to my elbow in the muck when it finally touched the boot. I steadied myself by holding onto Lily's left front leg (yes, I was crouched under her belly. This is how much our relationship has evolved) and pulled on the boot. And pulled. And pulled...

It was a mud trap. You know quicksand? Yeah. The same thing, except mud. It was mud quicksand and the boot was sinking further as I was trying to pull it out. I cursed out loud, looking at Lily's 4 feet to make sure she really was safe on the island where we were standing. She was. And she must have known because she did not move a muscle. She didn't even try to eat. She just stood patiently, watching me.

Have I mentioned before how awesome she is? She is. Lily is pure awesomeness.

The mud did not want to let go. I was finally able to yank the boot out. I scrambled back onto Lily's back, who for once stood stock still for me to get on. I had the boot still in one hand, effectively covering Lily's mane, shoulders, and my saddle and saddle bags in the wet clay.

I swung her around and we got the heck out of there. Carol and I burst out laughing in relief.

We moved on up the trail to higher ground, where I dismounted again and put the boot back on Lily. You know Vipers, like your regular Renegades, have a pastern strap with Velcro, right? That Velcro is such high quality that even covered in mud it still stuck.

So you guys can see the Velcro of the Viper's pastern strap.
I'm still shaking my head in disbelief. See? What did I tell you about this being wild, untamed territory? The Patuxent forest is just like a cross between the Thieves' Forest and the Fire Swamp! Right around that moment, I would have expected to see a fire spout. Seriously.

You'll know what I'm talking about if you've seen this before. :)

I mean, dude...we survived quicksand!

After that we stayed away from the lowlands of the forest.

And after that, I let Lily choose the way. She was funny: she'd arrive at a fork in the trail and pause for a second, waiting for a cue from me. I dropped the reins on her neck each time and waited. When no cue came, she'd look at one fork and then the other, then make a decision. I was happy to see that she was choosing the routes I would have chosen. And then I started to wonder: we were close enough to home...what if Lily took us back to the barn instead of the trailer? I shared this question with Carol and she laughed. She wasn't worried. We could just get a ride back to the trailer if that ended up being the case, but at the same time, it was going to be a good 8+ miles in one direction to ride all the way back to the barn! We had been alternately doing walk/trot up until this point, but once this thought entered my head, we stayed at a walk for the next mile: I was worried if we overdid the mileage that Katie would be sore if we continued trotting.

Lily took us onto a path that bordered a huge wheat field and out to a clearing that was right next to the road. Here she stopped, pointing at the road and looking quite proud of herself.

Wheat fields just like this one.
Not my photo - it's from this blog.
Carol recognized it as the road that led to the trailer parking lot, and also as a route she had ridden last time she had come to this park. Lily was praised and patted. Since we still had 2 more miles we could traverse and there were no trails leading off of this clearing, we turned around and backtracked until we found a side trail.

Since now I knew for sure that Lily was taking us back to the trailer, we picked up a trot again. This would be my favorite section of the ground we covered: we were riding on ridgelines, cutting back and forth up and down them but never going back down into the valleys of the forest. Throughout all of this, we encountered many, many fallen trees and cut logs. Sometimes we'd jump them, sometimes we'd skirt around them. One particularly memorable obstacle involved 3 downed trees laying in a cluster across the trail, forming a 3' high "jump" that was also a good 4'-5' wide. I found a side trail going around it just as Carol called out behind me: "Look! I found a handsaw." Lily and I stopped. Carol and I looked at the hand saw hanging from a branch at shoulder height next to her and at the humongous pile of trees in front of us, and burst out laughing. "Yup, that someone got here with their hand saw, said 'F this shit' and turned around to go get their chainsaw!" I think they just never came back...that side trail was well-worn!

We crossed a street and took a trail that led us towards the river. The Patuxent River, for which this park is named. Carol ended up in front for this section and she found the path that led down into the water. Katie however did not want to go down into the river. The bank was steep and rocky but I could see two different routes down so I gave Lily her head and told her, "You got this." She pricked her ears and chose the first route, stepping down into the cool clear water of the river. I continue to be so ridiculously proud of her. She was sweaty but not overly so and I'd been monitoring her breathing throughout this adventure: she hadn't even breathed hard once despite the humidity. So I was pleasantly surprised and very happy when she dropped her head and took several good drinks of water. Normally she needs to go for 18 miles before she'll really start drinking.

Carol convinced Katie to follow us in and practiced dunking her sponge-on-a-leash into the water and squeezing it over Katie. Katie was not thrilled about this, and Carol pointed out that Katie hates the water. Hates it. The bay QH mare turned around in the river and got out as soon as she was given the opportunity. Lily lingered for a bit, drinking and looking around at the river surroundings, then followed Katie out of the water.

We rode past two girls and their pitbull (on a leash!) who were enjoying swimming in one of the pools of the river, and through a patch of sticky mud.

I looked down after the mud and Lily had lost her other hind boot. Carol dismounted before I could and got if for me. I swung off and strapped it back onto the hoof while again Lily waited patiently.

We started climbing, climbing, climbing, up and up through the forest. All the trails went upwards. And then the forest thinned and up ahead I could see where the trail widened, taking us through a clearing that I recognized as part of Annapolis Rock!

We had covered exactly 6 miles by this time and Katie was still going strong. Carol wanted to ride longer and I had no problem with that. We walked, trotted and cantered around the beautiful double track Annapolis Rock trails, going around the meadow and through the gorgeous, thick pine forest. The trees were so dense at their tops in this section that the trail underneath them was completely overshadowed, covered in dry pine needles. So, so beautiful. We added another mile and a half to our total for the day.

Back at the trailer, we untacked and packed up. A large group of riders (maybe 5 or 6 of them?) emerged from the woods as we were finishing up, all of them riding mules! They owned the trailer parked next to us.

Katie and Lily loaded up without issue and we headed back to the barn.

Later on the way home, we would indeed drive past the roadside clearing Lily had taken us to. It was just 1/4 of a mile from the trailer parking lot!

After helping Carol unload and unpack the trailer back at the barn, Lily received a bath and I put her in an empty stall to enjoy the breeze of a fan while she finished her beet pulp dinner and a couple of flakes of hay.

I fetched Gracie from the field. I had originally decided to do an arena ride with her on this day so we could work on suppling exercises, but the horses had been brought in for the evening so we went into one of the larger paddocks instead.

Gracie was on fire the second I was up.  She is getting more and more fit: the walk ride the day before at Little Bennett really had done its job as a day of active rest. One thing I've learned from exercising myself is that if you're sore, the best thing you can do the next day is move, not sit around. Active rest done right makes your blood pump through your body, flushing out all of that lactic acid and loosening tight muscles.

My horses only get ridden 3 to 4 days a week (which is far less than most hunter/jumper and dressage riders ride. Not that that is a bad thing, it's just different: we're doing longer workouts over less days, so more rest is required for this particular sport) and active rest is incorporated in there. I don't expect my horses to do anything that I can't do myself in my own rider fitness. As most of my readers know, I am hyper vigilant of any changes in my horses' disposition, quality of movement, work ethic and even their attitudes towards me, as a way of monitoring their reactions and happiness with the work they are placed in. It's why there are so many ears photos on here, and why I write so much detail about things that seem trivial, like their behavior towards me in the field. It's a way of keeping track of all of these things.

These ears belong to two mares that are quite happy with their jobs and work load:

In the paddock, Gracie wanted to gait forever. So we worked on gaiting, especially gait-halt-gait transitions, shoulder-in on a circle, and serpentines. She doesn't have the best steering yet - she is very good at turning her head in the direction you want her to go and then continuing to move in the direction she wants to go! So we worked on correcting that tendency. The short loop serpentines we did at the end of the paddock turned out to be an excellent way of getting her mind on bending and turning. She was the most "up" she has ever been while riding, but not in a nervous way at all - she just wanted to move! Just another testament to her increasing fitness. I offered walk breaks but she just wanted to go. However, she nailed those halts: "Whoa" and she'd stop from my seat. I'd drop the reins on her neck and pat her, and she would stand as long as I wanted her to, until I picked up the reins again and asked her to continue.

I paid special attention to what I was doing with my cues in the saddle because I wanted to be able to relay all of this information to Charles later, since he was having trouble getting Gracie to maintain her gait. Riding gaited horses is so very instinctive to me that it is often very hard for me to explain exactly what I'm doing to someone who wants to learn. The techniques you use for getting the best gait are subtle and will vary from one horse to another, involving little details like minuscule tweaks of leg and seat position, core engagement, and adjustments of upper body posture. Gracie's best gait is achieved by sitting up straight and proud in the saddle with shoulders back, engaging your core and placing your weight in the stirrups. Seated in this manner, she goes into self-carriage where it is easier for her to maintain her gait, and it also allows you to stop, speed up, slow down and turn her with the tiniest of touches on the reins or her sides.

Not Gracie. :) I haven't shared this guy's story with y'all. This is Ricky Bobby. He was a Paso Fino from the horse rescue I volunteered at as a horse trainer back in Florida. He was somewhere in his late 20's; he'd been found starved and abandoned by the side of a road in Davie, FL. He was a grumpy opinionated old man with a horse-sized head on a small cob-sized body, and awful ground manners: he'd plow right through you to get to any yummy patch of grass within sight. He also required advanced stunt skills to get in the saddle: the second you put your left foot in the stirrup, he TOOK OFF. There was no curbing the behavior: someone had ingrained it in him for years and years and years. So I learned to hop on with a running start! It was totally worth it: once you were in the saddle, he was an absolute dream to ride. He was completely and 100% bombproof, spirited yet completely manageable, had no trot, could gait for days, and had the smoothest canter...he could do flying lead changes without any kind of cue from the rider. He was best ridden with your weight towards the back of your seat and abs engaged hard, very much like the way show Pasos are ridden in the arena. Ridden in this manner, he could turn on a dime at any gait from your seat alone. I felt that he must have been a show horse previously.
We rode for 40 minutes. Gracie finally let me cool her out at a walk on a loose-ish rein. She too received a bath and then I led both her and Lily down to their field. They cracked me up because Gracie was pulling me and I was pulling a reluctant Lily: Lilybird wanted to stay with her new buddies in the dry lot. I laughed at her and she gave up and trotted to catch up.

I removed their halters in the field and both of them lingered, saying good-bye. They both got thanked for great rides, but especially Lily: she had taken care of all of us during one of our best adventures to date!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Little Bennett Park Adventure

On Saturday, Kathy and I had planned to go to Little Bennett Regional Park in Clarksburg to ride the trails. TROT is hosting a Thursday ride every week and last Thursday they had gone to this particular park. Kathy had fallen in love with its trails and had come back excited about the idea of returning.

We met at the barn in the early afternoon. Lily had been turned out back in the mare field for the first time since her hoof bruising event. She had become used to her old routine of drylot with Kara + paddock with Angel + a boyfriend in each of two neighboring fields. So of course she was pacing the fence line because of her routine being changed. What was interesting though was that Gracie was pacing the fence line with her. Not to chase her or to share her anxiety. She seemed confused about Lily's pacing but she was doing her best to keep her company. It was so sweet to see.

I had decided to take Gracie along for this adventure as a sort of active rest day for her: covering ground at a walk to keep her loose and limber after a day of harder work with a heavier rider (Charles). I also wanted to make sure that Gracie didn't need a tune-up, since she had been weird about leading with Charles the day before.

Lily and Gracie both came to me when I walked out into the field and Lily tried to squeeze through the gate behind Gracie as I was pulling her out. She was annoyed at being left behind but I knew the main reason why she wanted to go out was to go back to the paddock next to her boyfriends. She's been in heat for the past week.

Our resident natural horsemanship trainer, Bob, was the one who started Gracie under saddle. On this day he was at the barn giving lessons and his wife, who loves Gracie too, was around. She came to say hi and asked about Gracie and trailer loading. I made the mistake of saying how good she'd been on our last 2 adventures.


It took about 10 minutes to get Gracie on the trailer at the barn. I ended up doing a lot more lunging than I would have liked, but she did get on. Queenie pretty much self-loaded and off we went!

About a mile from the barn, Kathy realized her trailer lights weren't working. We stopped, got out and tried messing with the connection. We couldn't figure out why the lights weren't working. Kathy managed to turn the trailer around, which was an adventure in and of itself, as we were in an area of narrow back roads and we had to pull into the driveway of a neighboring horse farm so Kathy would have enough room to turn the rig.

We made it back to the barn. Rolando used to work in Mexico professionally hauling rigs and knows the ins and outs of trucks and trailers. Kathy asked if he could take a look to see if he might know what might be the problem. He literally looked at the connection then went around to the back of the trailer and said, "The lights are working."

Kathy and I burst out laughing and said, "Rolando, you're so good that all you have to do is wave your hands over the trailer and the lights start working again!" He was chuckling too.

So we left the barn for a second time and headed out.

This was just Kathy's second time going to Little Bennett. It's about a 30 minute drive if you don't get lost. It takes you through rolling Maryland countryside, full of farms with acres and acres of land. It was a gorgeous drive. Kathy was piecing together the route as we went along. And then she wasn't sure where we were supposed to go, so I turned the GPS app on my phone on.

We did what the phone told us to do, going onto this long and very narrow gravel road. And then suddenly the phone said, "Proceed to the route." When I looked down, it was showing us travelling next to the road we were supposed to be on, in the middle of nowhere.


The road was so narrow that the truck and trailer occupied its entirety. I started praying that we wouldn't come across another car coming in the opposite direction, as there would be nowhere for us to go except backwards, uphill and around bends.

The GPS showed that we would be arriving back at a real road in 2 more miles. Relieved, we continued on our way, going around a corner and yet another dip in the road.

"OH SHIT!" both Kathy and I said in unison, as the truck came to a halt.

A freaking river ran across the dirt road!

We couldn't turn around. I could have maybe turned my Corolla around, but there was not enough room for a truck by itself, let alone a truck and trailer.

I took a closer look at the river. It had a pebbly bottom and the water appeared to be about a foot deep at most. The current was gentle, and it was maybe 10' wide max. "You can do it." I told Kathy. "You think?" she asked. "Yes" I said. Kathy took the plunge, driving the rig slowly through the water. As we came onto the opposite bank, I realized there was a deeper pool on the right that we were going to drive through. Yup, the trailer did end up taking some water, but we made it!

A mile later, we were back on a main (paved!) road and we started laughing and laughing. We couldn't stop laughing. It was ridiculous: what on earth?...a road that takes you through a river?? We had no idea how we'd ended up where we'd ended up. We lamented not having taken a picture of the river. I jokingly told Kathy we needed to go back so we could get a photograph for our blogs! Kathy said there was no way on earth she was going back to that spot, even if she could remember how to get there!

After that, we made it uneventfully to the park.

The equestrian parking area is a large meadow with trail maps and a porta-potty (that was one of the cleanest porta-potties I've seen in a long time!) We unloaded the girls and tied them to the trailer so they could graze while we tacked up.

And we were off!

The trails at Little Bennett were stunning. Kathy was not kidding when she said it was gorgeous. I told her she had the best taste in trails! This is my new favorite park to ride in so far.

We were gaiting along. Funny how motion gives a slight fisheye lens impression.

Riding along the trail, we came to this bridge. You can see Gracie's typical reaction to something she's not too sure about: she stops and stares at it carefully.  The second I turned off the phone camera, she took a step forward and crossed the bridge all by herself!

The trails wind through forest, over hills and bridges, through a river and across open meadows. The forest is impressive itself. Clarksburg is close to the mountains: you can even see Sugarloaf Mountain from the park. So pretty much no part of the trails in the woods is flat - it constantly undulates. But the trails themselves are so well-maintained: no fallen trees in the way and the brush had been trimmed back throughout. There were some steep hills, but they had steps made of 2'x4's anchored into the trail.  The footing was smooth dirt for the most part with some minor rocky areas. Queenie and Gracie did fine barefoot.

When we arrived at the first meadow. This was part of the Tobacco Barn Trail.

We cantered this stretch, Gracie and Queenie going side by side. :)
The tobacco barn for which this trail is named.

Kathy and Queenie
We covered about 8 miles in 2 hours at a walk, Gracie leading the entire way without any kind of issue. It was an easy ride for both horses: they barely broke a sweat, even despite all the ups and downs of the trails.

This section with the "steps" going downhill was one of my favorites!
On the way back, I let Gracie choose whenever we arrived at a fork in the trail, as we weren't 100% sure of the correct route. She got us safely back to the trailer. I'm always astounded by horses' ability to always find their way "home" even in places they've never been to before.

Back at the trailer, the field looked so inviting in the golden light of the late afternoon sun that I couldn't resist taking Gracie for a quick spin around it.

Afterwards, we let both mares eat beet pulp mashes while untacking.

I sadly can't add electrolytes to that beet pulp. She won't touch it with e-lytes in it. I've been syringing them to her after our rides at home.
Queenie has a true talent for getting tangled up in lead ropes and lunge lines. Thankfully she is eternally patient and doesn't freak out when she gets stuck: she simply stands and waits until someone notices and untangles her. Kathy found this grazing surcingle on clearance for 1/3 of the original price and decided to see if it would work.
We soon realized why it had been reduced to 1/3 of the price...it was a truly epic fail. We couldn't believe how much Schneider's had originally been charging for this thing...
And then it was time to load up. I led Gracie up to the trailer and she said, "No!"

After the 3rd attempt, I started lunging Gracie. She got surprisingly worked up about it and actually reared and struck out with her front feet! That is completely unacceptable behavior. I got after her by increasing the intensity of the exercise and forcing her to stay in her "box." She didn't try that stunt again.

After the 3rd attempt at getting her on while lunging, we switched tactics: I had Kathy hold the lead rope in the trailer while I lightly tapped Gracie's hind legs with my dressage whip. Gracie hopped on the trailer on the first attempt, immediately getting a Stud Muffin from Kathy as a reward. We locked her in and laughed when Queenie practically self-loaded without any command at all. "Don't forget me!" she said. Adorable!

So what was up with Gracie? I think she may have been tired. The only time Lily has truly balked at trailer loading was immediately after a 3-day dressage clinic where she had had to use her body in all sorts of new ways. That trailer had a really high step-up, and I remember her hind legs trembling every time she tried to get on. This time around, Gracie's hinds didn't quiver and Kathy's step-up is maybe 18" maximum, but she had had a big day on Friday and we had just done a respectable distance. At a walk mostly, but it had still been a significant distance. We'll practice trailer loading again at home.

We made it back to the barn uneventfully on the first try. I hosed Gracie off and fed her her dinner, then turned her out in the field. Lily seemed thrilled to see both of us return and came up to the gate to greet us happily.

The sun had already set and night was fast approaching when I got in my car to go home. I drove down the pea gravel driveway that runs in front of the mare field to check on the girls one more time and was touched when both of them started following my car along their side of the fence. I parked the car and got out, walking into the field to say good-bye. They both seemed surprised that I had gotten out, but they both came over for pets. They stayed with me for a minute, then both of them turned around simultaneously and walked away in opposite directions, one blonde tail and one black tail disappearing into the darkness. I had been dismissed.

I got back into my car grinning at how similar yet how different they are. They are two good horses.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Friday Ride Day

On Friday Charles and I went for another ride together.

We did more exploring, following the same new trails we had last Sunday, and I also took him on some other trails that I hadn't done since last fall and I wanted to show them to Charles.

Gracie is so sweet

I had been wanting to go wading in the river since first laying eyes on it last fall!

The awesome new trail up the super steep hill

There is a creek flowing next to fallen fence in the distance. You can see it clearly in person but not so much in the photo. :/
Lily says, "Why are we taking pictures? Let's go!"
Yes, he wore the same shirt as last Sunday.
Yes, it had been washed! Lol
End of the trail. This is where we turned around and backtracked.
Lots of logs means...
...jumping! And yes, my form is awful (elbows! Ugh) but we were just having fun.

And  more jumping
I took Charles over to the Bumpass's Crossing. We found the trail that Kathy and I had tried to find when we went this way but it was just another trail that eventually dead ended on private property. So we turned around and took the mares into the river.

She was wearing all 4 Vipers again. Yup, they stayed on!
Charles was main photographer for this ride. I was tracking our distance with my phone and right now every time I open the camera, whatever apps are running get shut down. Including Runmeter! We did 10 miles in 2 hours.
We had a really awesome time. Both mares were very forward, especially Gracie. Gracie seemed to be in a weird mood: she was riding up Lily's rear end (thankfully Lily doesn't mind this), but when we let her go in front, she'd take 3 strides then stop. At one point, her and Charles cantered ahead while Lily and I stayed behind, maintaining a trot. As the distance between the two mares increased, Gracie suddenly stopped. It was a beautifully executed canter-halt transition and I thought Charles had requested it. He hadn't. Gracie had done it on her own. She didn't want to move on until Lily and I had caught up, which I thought was adorable but at the same time, she really should do as her rider says. I think she was testing Charles and I think she may have been in heat as well. You know that first photo at the beginning of this post? That was originally me separating them because Gracie was squealing every time Lily touched her nose. Silly mare. She hadn't done that before. We ended up just letting her follow Lily for the first hour of the ride and then we started alternating who was in front again. Gracie was fine then. I figured I'd take Gracie out on the trails with company on Saturday and have her lead with me in case she needed a tune-up. As it turned out, Gracie really was just testing Charles... More to follow!

Friday, May 23, 2014

VC Blog Hop: Bit It Up

Another awesome blog hop from L. Williams over at Viva Carlos!

"It is not important whether or not the bit is mild or harsh; what's important is the way the rider uses her hands. The mildest bit in the wrong hands can be harsh and the harshest bit in the right hands can be mild."
- Julie Goodnight

There. I said it. I used to be a big snaffle person and have a big collection of them: a waterford loose ring (before anyone goes screaming about that bit, I urge you to go to a tack shop and hold one of these bits in your hand. Even better: put it in your mouth! It feels like a string of marbles. It doesn't pinch, poke or bind because each link is round and the bit itself is completely flexible. I've ridden several horses that LOVED that type of mouthpiece and a few others that liked to bolt over fences would not do so with this bit because, being flexible, they can't brace against it), an eggbutt copper single joint, a rubber mouth single joint loose ring, a Happy Mouth French link Pessoa gag, a Dr. Bristol D-ring, an oval link eggbutt, a fat oval link loose ring, a French link loose ring, a French link eggbutt, and a Myler Comfort Snaffle loose ring with an MB 02 mouthpiece. I've picked these up over the course of several years of riding and training horses. I worked for two different trainers who had bit buckets with all the variants in all the possible sizes to play with. If a particular bit worked really well for a horse I was training and it was something I'd never heard of and liked, I'd go on eBay and find said bit to add to my personal collection. Later when I was training on my own, if I didn't like the response I was getting to the bit a horse owner had for the horse I was training, I had a whole arsenal of other bits I could play with to see if the horse would be happier in another option. Across the board, I can tell you a lot of horses will like those double jointed snaffles much better than a single joint.

However, you can't say that EVERY horse is going to ALWAYS respond well and be happy in a double jointed snaffle. It's like saying EVERY horse will respond the same way to the Parelli method. It's like shoeing every horse the same way regardless of anatomy or hoof shape. It's like riding a string of horses with different body shapes in the same saddle and expecting every single one to be happy in that saddle. Each horse is an individual with different conformation, different body types, different personalities, and yes, different personal preferences.

The horse can be trained to Grand Prix dressage level, have a mouth of butter and be ridden with feather-light hands. But if he has a low palate, hates bar pressure, has a fat tongue, has a narrow bit seat, or any other particular oral anatomical peculiarities, that double jointed snaffle might not make him a happy camper.

If a horse's training is up to speed for the expectations we have of him, if he is light and responsive to the style of riding and handling we are using, if he has no pain anywhere in his body, if his tack fits and his teeth have been examined thoroughly, and he is still evading the bit he's going in, I'm going to switch bits and let him tell me what he prefers, what works best for him.

Lily has been the hardest horse I've ever had to figure out when it comes to bits.

When she first became mine, I toyed around with all of my double jointed snaffles trying to find something she was happy with. She did NOT like any kind of bit pressure, even after I had her teeth floated, her wolf teeth pulled, she was adjusted by a chiropractor and we found a saddle that fit her correctly.

Her default way of going in a double-jointed snaffle. Yes, it's an awful blurry picture stolen from one of my old blog posts. I have an ARSENAL of photos of her looking like this that I never posted on the blog because she didn't look pretty. They're just stuck in the laptop that needs to be fixed. :/
I found the Myler Comfort Snaffle on sale and we tried it. This is the happiest she's ever gone in a snaffle and we started getting mixed but inconsistent results.

Myler Comfort Snaffle loose ring. We were using this exact same bit.
She looked pretty and would reach for the contact. The problem was she wouldn't stay like this, no matter how I tweaked my riding. Plus she was tipping on the forehand when she did this.

If I didn't let her reach forward, this is how she would look.  However, note how much pull there had to be on the reins: it doesn't look like it, but she was leaning on the bit, which is why my position looks the way it does. I was getting an upper body workout. While this is perfectly fine for modern dressage purposes and I would have gotten good scores on a dressage test riding like this, I did not like it. I don't like feeling like I'm hauling on my horse's face to get them to look a certain way. This is where I started having problems with the entire concept of modern competitive dressage.
Medium trot. This is what we looked like when I pushed her forward into the contact.  Again, this is correct per modern competitive dressage rules and I would have gotten good scores for this too.
I can tell you she's not on the forehand here, but I'm still holding her head up. Note the pull on the bit and the tension in the reins.
We stuck with this bit for a good 9 months. I was riding 4-5 days a week and taking weekly lessons. I was not getting the consistent results I had been hoping for. Until we went to the dressage clinic in Stuart, FL, where, at the recommendation of the trainer giving the clinic, we tried a Spanish curb for the first time.

I won't deny it: I was terrified when I got in the saddle our first time we used that bit. I thought Lily, who is notorious for being the most sensitive mare in the Universe, would flip her shit when that curb chain engaged, when the leverage action of the bit was put into effect by the shanks of the bit, placing pressure on her poll.

Spanish curb with a sweet iron mouth piece. Low to moderate port depending on who you ask, especially if someone considers this a high port (ugh. No no no no. I have never ever ever used bits like that on my Pasos or any gaited horses I've trained, for that matter!)
Per my standards, I consider this a moderate port. Shanks are 6" and it is used with a curb chain. You can attach reins to the rings at the ends of the shanks and/or to the small "D" holes directly next to the bit ends. We used double reins for this bit at the trainer's suggestion.

You know what? She liked it. My jaw dropped from the difference in my horse caused by simply changing the mode of action of the bit in her mouth. All those issues with the snaffles? She just didn't like the focused action of that style of bit on her bars and tongue: she preferred the way the curb distributed the pressure across her face and mouth and the tongue relief provided by the port. Huh...

Completely different horse. And there is slack in the reins.
We were doing a counted walk exercise, which is why she looks pissed off: she has always been impatient with that exercise.
We rode in that for a while.

Love the way she looked here.
Effective use of her body.
While I loved that I didn't have to carry her head anymore and it made Lily super light and responsive with barely a touch on the reins, I didn't like using that much bit. She is a sensitive horse and anything more than a feather touch on the reins did cause some head tossing with the Spanish curb.

So I started playing with other options, especially when the Spanish bit started to rust and the sweet iron began flaking off. :( It was an "economy" version that even then had been more than I normally spend on bits. Note: if you're interested in trying a Spanish or Portuguese bit, get a stainless steel version.

I discovered that a low ported pelham with 6" shanks would give me the exact same results as the Spanish curb, except she was much happier in this than she had been in the Spanish curb, either because of the angles of the bottom rings (less "noise" from the reins at this angle. Yes she is that sensitive!) or the lower port or both. It was our bit for a good 6 months. I rode her with a single set of reins on the shank rings.

Low port pelham with 6" shanks
Light, light contact. Note her happy, relaxed demeanor. And note the changes in her body! Beefcake Lily.
Reaching lightly for the contact.
We deviated briefly, playing with a low port kimberwick in which she seemed happy as well, and later with a mullen mouth snaffle: I wanted to be able to have a "dressage legal" bit that she would like. You know, in case I ever changed my mind again and decided to show her in dressage after all. I was happy with her in the mullen mouth snaffle until the day she had a huge bucking fit on the trail. I could NOT get her head up from between her knees with that bit and she got me off, then proceeded to gallop out of the park, onto the street and all the way home.

I almost vomited my heart up that day, I'd been so terrified she'd get hit by a car.

That was the last time she wore a snaffle of ANY kind outside of the arena.

We stayed in the low port pelham for a long time after that.

Until I again decided I really, really wanted to bit her down. We were already living in Maryland at this point. She went very well with the low port pelham in the arena but was fussy with it on the trail: the second that chain and shanks engaged when she was being a pill, she tossed her head furiously about not being able to get her way. So we played with other options. Our first experiment was a flexible rubber mullen mouth pelham with 5" shanks. She did okay in it. And I can't find a picture of her working in it, so you'll have to believe me. On the trails with Tina, however, Lily wouldn't fling her head but she would gnash her teeth so hard against that bit in the anxiety I was trying to figure out, that I became afraid that she would bite right through the bit. It was just a soft flexible rubber mouth piece, no metal core to it.

Pelham with soft rubber mullen mouth piece
So we switched to a mullen mouth stainless steel pelham with baby 3" shanks. Note the shanks getting shorter and shorter on each new bit we tried: the longer the shank, the more leverage action this type of bit will have. The shorter the shanks, the milder the bit. She also did okay in the baby pelham but at this point it was the dead of winter and I didn't really get to test it out on the trails. When we first moved to MD, Lily was nowhere near as confident on trails in general as she is now. At the time, matters were complicated by the fact that to get to the trails at that barn, you had to ride through deep mud and/or two very deep ditches, which often involved a lot of spinning, half rears and threats to buck on Lily's part when pushed to go through. You can understand why I chose to avoid this altogether during a time of the year when the footing would be bad no matter what.

Baby mullen mouth pelham with 3" shanks
In the stainless steel mullen mouth pelham with 3" shanks
I figured since she was doing so well in this bit, maybe we could switch back to the mullen mouth snaffle within the confines of the arena. She did very well in it. She did lean on it somewhat but not as much as she had with other snaffles. And then one day she got her tongue over the bit. I had never ever had a horse do this before, but it is an indication that the horse is not comfortable with tongue pressure. See? (And yes, her teeth did get checked around this time too. They were fine.)

*Gets on soapbox* I refuse to use a noseband as a means to keep that tongue under that bit by squeezing my horse's jaws shut. If my horse gapes her mouth open from the bit or gets her tongue over it, there is a problem that needs to be addressed. She should be happy in her bit regardless of whether she is sporting a cavesson or not. I'm not faking bit acceptance with a tightened noseband. On a properly adjusted noseband, you should be able to easily slide a finger in between your horse's jaw and the leather strap. It's yet another reason why I have a problem with modern competitive dressage with its crank cavessons and flash nosebands. *Gets off soapbox.*

Around that time, Lily was diagnosed with her tendon injury (spring of 2013), during which she was placed on stall rest. Her rehab was a stressful process for both of us: she was a fireball and I never knew when she was going to explode, no matter how much ace she was given prior. Lily has one of the nastiest bucks I have EVER ridden in 20+ years spent in the saddle. She gets 3' of air easily if she is able get her head between her knees. She threw my trainer in FL. You ride that out in a freaking snaffle and then we'll talk.

Oh yeah. She can totally do that with a saddle, bridle and rider aboard.
I have witnesses: both Kathy and Charles!
During her rehab last summer it was EXTREMELY important that she stay calm, that she not explode, and that by no means she get me off and tear around the arena. It would have been a huge, huge setback with her ligament injury. You can understand my stress over having to ride her and stay in control.  And we had to ride 6 days a week per the vet's orders. Riding was the only time that she was allowed outside of her stall. We switched to a low port Weymouth bit with 5" shanks during the first part of her rehab because it gave me the kind of control I wanted.

Walking from the arena to the field with harder footing where the vet wanted us to work.
These rides were NOT fun. I was constantly tense, unsure of whether she would explode or not.
Sleepy mare on acepromazine last summer, wearing the Weymouth.
And yup, on 2 separate occasions she did explode despite the sedative.
As we got through the initial portion of her rehab and started adding short trot sets, we returned to the low port pelham with 6" shanks and added the double reins a la Spanish curb. Why? Because I was bored to tears with all of the walk work that we needed to do for the ligament rehab. The double reins allowed me to play more with her position and how she used her body, adding some sort of variety and difficulty to what were otherwise some very uninteresting workouts.

This photo was my blog header for a very long time
A very correct free walk where her withers were up and she was stepping underneath herself. Note the use of the reins. Pelhams, and Spanish curbs for that matter, allow you to use 2 sets of reins to mimic the function of a double bridle. The "snaffle" reins are attached to the rings directly adjacent the bit; the "curb" reins are at the ends of the shanks. In this photo I'm using the "snaffle" reins to encourage downward stretching, but the leverage action of this type of bit keeps Lily from leaning on the bit. Result: a horse stretching her topline while engaging her hindquarters, which was exactly what I wanted her to be doing, especially during this portion of her rehab.
And then one day I decided to try Lily in the low port kimberwick again: it was a way of eliminating shanks altogether while maintaining the low port that she seemed to prefer.

And that's the bit she has stayed in for the last 10 months. She likes it, she's soft in it when we're working whether in the arena or on the trail, she doesn't fuss in it if she gets worked up about something (no head flinging), and if she acts up it allows me to stay in control. Lily is an incredibly athletic and agile creature and while she is a very good girl most of the time, there have been enough bad moments in the past that I like to know I can stop the shenanigans before they escalate. Especially when we're riding in company.

Our first trail rides at the current barn
Our first canter sets out in the open
Haunches-in in the arena
Our first beach ride
Over the winter, I tried her in a Myler Combination Bit with an MB 03 Level 2 mouthpiece. I had this idea that I could eventually graduate her to a bitless bridle by transitioning her from the leverage function of this bit onto mostly nose pressure (when purchased with the 3-ring shanks, it is adjustable for varying degrees of pressure from poll, bars, and nose).

I stressed over which port to get. I felt the next size up in port was too high, while this one didn't seem to offer enough tongue relief. There was no inbetween option, so I settled for this port.
She seemed to like it about 50% of the time, which in the end made me lament not having gone for the higher port.

Stretching but using herself correctly with impulsion, without leaning on the bit: right hind landing before the left front.
The other 50% of the time, she'd go above it, very similar to the way she used to go in snaffle bits in general when I first started working with her, which made me think this bit was still placing too much pressure over her tongue. And then we had a couple of rides on the trail where Lily became very, very "up" (I did not elaborate on this in the blog) and I felt like I had NO brakes with the combination bit. She went above it, snatched it, and plowed her way home, getting Kathy's Queenie worked up in the process each time. We alternated leg yielding for the entire 4 mile ride home that day as a means of keeping Lily from rushing back to the barn in a straight line. This was NOT a safe situation, especially when another horse and rider were being affected by it, especially when busy streets had to be crossed to return home. You don't want your horse bolting across a busy road no way no how, and you certainly don't want to be responsible for your horse causing that sort of behavior in another rider's horse!

Back she went into the kimberwick.

Some day I'd like to get her a Myler ported kimberwick like this one.Why? Because it's a Myler, because the higher port offers greater tongue relief, and because of the individual play of each side of the bit. It would add an extra degree of softness to what we are already using.

But until then? In the current kimberwick she stays. She's happy, I'm happy, our communication is effortless without complaints from either one of us. Why fix something that's not broken?

And Gracie? When I first started riding Gracie I had no idea what she would be like. I had been told she could buck, was opinionated and liked to go fast on the trail. I wanted something mild that would give me brakes if I needed them in a hurry while also encouraging her to stay in self-carriage. My Pasos both went happily in Colombian Paso bits with rubber-covered mullen mouths. One bit had 6" shanks, the other had 4" shanks.

This is the Colombian bit with the longer shanks.
Indio in his rubber mullen mouth Colombian bit. He was assigned the bit with the longer shanks because he was a very spirited horse. Someone had trained him to bolt the second a rider mounted up.
Lucero had the one with the shorter shanks.  This is the bit I rode him in for the last 12 years of his life.
I tried Lucero's old bit on Gracie, but it was too small: he was a small horse at maybe 13.3 hh and took 4.75" bits. Gracie needs a 5" bit. I didn't want her in something with long shanks, so I tried her in the baby pelham. She has been quite happy in it so far, even foaming in it, so I think we may have found the right bit for her straight off the bat! Uncomplicated horses are awesome.