Thursday, March 29, 2012

Breakthrough #1

I think I may have stumbled upon the secret to conquering the right canter lead from hell on the longe line today!

We worked on walk-trot and trot-walk transitions tracking left, and Finn picked up the canter right away. He kept the canter for two laps, and then we practiced trot-canter and canter-trot transitions for a minute or so. Then we switched sides. Same deal with walk-trot transitions, and then I asked for the canter. He quickened his pace at the trot, took a few canter strides and broke back into the trot. Not exactly what I wanted, but at least he didn't pitch a fit.

The next time I asked, I positioned myself slightly behind his shoulder and drove him forward as I asked for the canter. To my surprise, he picked up a nice canter and kept it for an entire lap around the round pen.

I praised him and asked him to come back to the trot. I asked once more in the same way, and whaddaya know? I let him walk, made a big fuss over him, and we headed back to the barn.

Who would have thought - doing what you're supposed to do actually works ;-)

On another note, how the heck do you spell the word "longe?" I've seen both "longe" and "lunge." I think"longe" looks more sophisticated, so that's what I'm sticking with until otherwise corrected ;-)


Wednesday, March 28, 2012

What's in a Name?

Frosty (as he was called back then) and I spent the next couple of weeks hand walking, grazing, grooming, and experimenting with treats. Apples, carrots, peppermints, and sugar cubes were a no go. I  found some peppermint flavored treats he gobbled up eagerly so we finally had a winner!

Around the third week, I decided to go for our first ride. He was a bit nervous initially but settled right in - we had a nice little ride! The next day I decided to start work in the round pen on the lunge line. JK agreed to work with us both since Frosty had never been lunged before. The poor guy thought she was trying to kill him for the first five minutes or so, but he eventually figured out what we wanted him to do. After that initial lesson, I worked with him about five times a week on the lunge. He picked up the commands for walk, trot, and whoa in the first week of training, and by the second week was working very well at the walk and trot. I decided to incorporate some canter work into our routine in the third week, and Mr. Frosty Man once again thought I was trying to kill him. Eventually he managed a complete canter circle tracking left. I was ecstatic and figured we ought to quit while we were ahead.

We practiced the canter tracking left for the next couple of sessions, and then I asked him to canter tracking right. I figured he would be a bit stiff in this direction since racehorses are typically worked tracking left, but I definitely was not prepared for what happened next. Frosty spun around, reared, and stopped dead in his tracks, shaking. After a few more lessons with JK, the rearing and honest-to-goodness fear was put to rest, but we still continue to struggle with that direction. We'll keep working on that.

Next came more consistent work under saddle. I had ridden Frosty a few times before, and our last ride was a bit more eventful than the previous rides. All of a sudden if I asked him to trot, he would pin his ears in distaste and move forward with reluctance. If I insisted he move forward, he would kick out, and he would even throw in a mini-rear from time to time. TOTES WHATEVEN!?!?! Confused and unsure if I had an ill-fitting saddle/bridle problem, a physical problem, or a nasty attitude problem, I turned, once again to JK for help. After our lesson, I decided to put Frosty into a month of training with JK.

At this point, our month is almost up, and I have definitely seen some improvement. Frosty is moving forward (most of the time) with ears pointed forward, moving away from leg pressure, and stretching into contact. When I ride, he still throws little fits every now and again, but with some encouragement from JK, we are able to ride through them. I'm still planning to have his teeth checked again and an appointment with a saddle fitter is definitely on the horizon, but it's an improvement. I try to remind myself every time we have a hiccup that I've only had Mr. Man for about 3 months, and all of this is new to him.

And that about brings us up to date. Except for one last thing. The name Frosty definitely wasn't doing anything for me, so I decided to change it. Anyone who knows me at all knows my obsession with Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and Henry Mancini's "Moon River," hence new show name "Huckleberry Friend" and new barn name "Finn." How did you decide on a name for your new horse?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

This is the start of something good!

I've always loved horses, and it's weird because I'm the only person in my entire family tree with horsey inclinations. Mom loves to tell the story about the time she and Dad took me to a farm for my first ride. I guess it was one of those places that you just rent a horse for an hour or whatever. So Dad ends up leading me around on this black horse and ends up getting his foot stepped on. Mom also likes to talk about the time I ended up in the hospital from a bout of food poisoning. Apparently the first thing I wanted to do when I got out was to go ride the horsey (which meant the merry-go-round at K-mart). I've seen the video footage from the pony ride and petting zoo birthday party I had in our backyard when I was 3, and I refused to go to Girl Scout Camp unless it involved horses and riding. Mom signed me up for riding lessons when I was in fifth grade, and I was hooked!

After my first year of lessons I started cleaning water buckets in exchange for an additional lesson each week. Man that was hard work- that barn had like 50 stalls! It was totally worth it :-) When my favorite instructor left, my two barn buddies and I switched barns. I met Mary while volunteering at a summer camp at the farm, and she invited us out to her Aunt Fran's farm. This little farm became my home away from home. Fran let us take our pick of her 4 horses, and it was here that I really learned the joys of galloping in a field, splashing around in a creek on trail rides, and JUMPING! Now I had taken hunter jumper lessons for about 4 years at this point, but the farm's fields still had some cross country jumps set up from Fran's son's riding days, and boy did I have a blast! Fran and her husband even surprised us one day with an awesome wishing well jump they built and painted one weekend. Don't you just love (the good kind of) horse people? I think Fran and her husband really enjoyed watching two middle schoolers fall in love with horses and riding, and they were always willing and eager to teach us everything they knew.

A family friend of Fran's agreed to give me and my little crew dressage lessons. When it became clear I wasn't going to learn much on the little Appaloosa mare I typically rode, my parents said those magic words that every little girl longs to hear, "I think it's time you had a horse of your own." WHAT?!?!?! My dressage instructor pointed us in the direction of another student with a horse for sale, and the next week Jasper was waiting in the paddock for me to try on for size. All it took was one jump over that wishing well, and that horse was MINE. ALL MINE. Jasper was an 11 year-old OTTB. He was super thin and had absolutely no dressage training. But man could that horse jump!

Over the next couple of years, Jasper and I struggled to grasp dressage, and thanks to the endless patience of Jessica and another instructor, we finally managed some decent scores at local dressage shows, combined tests, and HTs.

We didn't show a lot, but I really enjoyed competing.

And then the unthinkable happened. I answered the phone one day after school, and the girl who was in charge of evening feeding said Jasper wasn't moving in his stall. Mom rushed her sobbing, hysterical daughter to the farm. My beautiful boy, my first horse, was gone. I was devastated. High school got hard, I got really good at playing the french horn, college applications were due, and I just didn't ride anymore.

I think perhaps most of us horse people lose our horsey way at some point, but we're never lost for too long. I was in the student rec center one day (I don't do gyms, so this really was fate), and I noticed a flyer advertising tryouts for our IHSA team. I hadn't ridden in two years, but I figured it wouldn't hurt to go to the meeting. Apparently I lost my mind because I ended up at the tryouts that Saturday. I remember standing at the arena rail waiting for the coach to call my tryout group. My heart jumped into my throat as I tried to remember how to check my diagonal, how to make sure I was on the correct canter lead, etc. What was wrong with me? Why couldn't I remember ANYTHING? This was a REALLY bad idea. She put me on a big grey horse, and I honestly don't remember much of anything else past that point about that ride. I guess it wasn't too terrible because, to my surprise, I got a call from the coach a couple days later inviting me to join the team. AWESOME! I'm BAAACCCK!

My first team lesson was a nightmare. I hadn't ridden hunt seat since I was in middle school, my stirrups felt like they were up to my armpits, and my legs felt like Jell-o ten minutes into the lesson. I definitely improved over the next couple of lessons. One day the coach said she wanted to see me in her office after my lesson. Oh crap- well I guess she's kicking me off the team. It was fun while it lasted. Apparently there is only space for about 10 girls to compete, and she wanted me to ride! WOW! But there was a catch. I was on a music scholarship (I wasn't kidding about getting good at playing the french horn), and I was required to play at every football game (which, if you're not a college football fan, are on Saturdays). I wrote an email to the band director as soon as I got home to see if there was any way for me to be excused on show days. I was able to finagle my way out of a couple of games, but in the end, money or the lack-there-of forced me to quit the team.

I refused to get lost again, and I began looking for alternatives. I stumbled upon a therapeutic riding program nearby. I began volunteering with the program, and the director, bless her heart, let me ride all of the little problem ponies. I just love ponies. Graduation came, and thankfully, I landed a job. I found a similar therapeutic riding program and volunteered for a while, but I decided I wanted to ride. I mean really ride. So I Googled and a week later ended up atop one of the farm's thoroughbred school horses. By the end of the lesson, we were jumping a small course. That's what I'm TALKING about!

This went on for about 5 months and was all fine and well, but I wanted to ride all the time. I thought about riding when I wasn't riding, and I had this insane urge to pull a mane on rainy days. I decided I would look into leasing a horse at my lesson barn. After a horrific near-lease experience, I decided it was high time I had a horse of my own. HAH! That was funny. Or was it? After looking at farm websites in my area to figure out how much it would cost to board a horse in a pretty big city, I broke out my Excel spreadsheet budget and moved things around. Over. And over. And over again. Well, technically I could afford it. I kept playing around with the idea in my head, and I finally decided to allow myself to look at Craigslist and some Thoroughbred adoption websites. I knew I wanted another Thoroughbred, particularly an OTTB. Of course I didn't have the experience to retrain an OTTB myself, but I certainly wasn't in any hurry to be in the show ring any time soon, and I definitely wasn't too proud to enlist the help of a professional. Good, so that was settled. I looked, and I looked. I came across a thoroughbred adoption group in my area. I called and explained that I was an amateur rider looking for a SANE event prospect. Oh, and the horse must enjoying grooming and oodles and oodles of attention. She gave me the rundown of the guys and gals, but no one really caught my eye. One day I came across a sweet looking chesnut on her site. I immediately called to inquire, and he had glowing ride reviews. And he likes attention. This guy could definitely be a possibility. I scheduled an appointment to visit him the following week.

I loved him. Frosty was a little thin, but he had a nice animated trot and an awesome rocking chair canter. He was a dream to ride, and I'm sure I had a big dumb smile on my face when I hopped off. The staff let me mess around with him after our ride, and when I turned him out for the night he walked away, turned around, and walked right back over to me. I knew I wanted this guy to come home with me. And so he did. A week later Frosty (or Finn as I had decided to call him) rolled up to my new farm. I was waiting to greet him with my shiny new halter and lead rope (I went a little nuts on

As I drove home that night, I couldn't help thinking, "what did I just do?" Fran and crew had always been there helping me along the way with Jasper. I was new to the horse scene in my new town and hadn't developed one of those relationships yet. I didn't know what I should be feeding him, if and what kind of supplements he needed, how he should be shod. Oh dear. Maybe I was in over my head. Time to panic. WAIT wait wait a minute. I'm a scientist. I didn't jump into this without ironing out every detail. I had searched high and low to find this farm- the farm with no drama and an owner/trainer willing to work with me and my new boy on everything from training to nutrition. I already had a dressage/jumping instructor lined up for when the time came. I crunched my numbers over and over again. Here goes nothing, so time to be excited! Stay tuned, share your thoughts, advice, stories- Finn and I need all the help we can get!