Wednesday, June 29, 2016

No, You Are Not Retired

If Ben had his way, he would request immediate retirement. As much as he loves his people, he loves his long days of doing absolutely nothing even more. If I were to put him to pasture now, at the ripe old age of 8, he would not bat an eye.

Unfortunately, for Ben, I am not independently wealthy and therefore cannot finance his dream of a life unfettered. So imagine his surprise when I show up to the barn after a 5 day absence, expecting him to, gasp, go back to work.

Now, the return-to-work ride is one I dread, as readers of this blog may know. Even the first ride after a 2 day absence can be rough. I had been giving it a lot of thought, trying to pinpoint why it feels so terrible, and therefore how I can make it better. I've also been thinking of our next show, the annual benefit show(last year I took my mare). I've decided to take Ben, just to get him off the farm - and have a crack at the 1st level dressage tests again. Because he is the Rescue Horse Champion of 2013, I also decided to put him in a few more classes to see if we can amass enough points to defend the title. Which means we need to practice a few things - like side-passing over a know, just in case we need to do that in the trail course.

So I decided to take a different approach to our first day back to work. Perhaps a bit gentler on the both of us. There were raised poles set out, and a single pole on the ground. I decided to use those and do a lot of walk work, getting ben to lift his legs up rather than the ground cover-out. Re-introduce the side-pass. Shoulder in. Small circles. Large circles. Turns on the haunches, turns on the forehand. Transitions to halt. Back up straight. I then began to mix in transitions to trot. And when it felt icky, transition down. Halt. Sometimes back up, then trot out or walk out. Basically, I focused on sharpening responses vs physical limbering like long sets of trot and canter. I did let him do some stretchy trot. We did some canter transitions. But everything was very fragmented, the focus of the ride was purely on quality of transition, softness and straightness.

And what do you know, it was a relatively nice ride. No, not perfect, but much better than we've had. Easier on both of our bodies. I certainly felt more centered, and strangely more accomplished. Ben felt limbered up and much more responsive, too. Afterwards he got some nice carrot stretches in, and we called it a night.

Thursday, June 16, 2016


Ben has taken the last week pretty easy- standard protocol post-hock injections. He had the rest of last week off, and then we picked back up on Saturday for a quick ride. Sunday off, back at it on Monday.

The Saturday ride was okay. But we didn't do much, I intentionally left it very very light. The thing that stuck out the most was that the left canter felt loads better than it has.

The Monday ride, on the other hand: ICK BLECH BARF GROSS. Ben was just not on his game. Everything felt pretty icky. I began to question if the hock injections did anything, because it sure didn't cure our ills. Ben was sluggish, stiff through his topline, heavy on the bridle, and really just blew off every.single.aid.

I decided to focus just on our transitions, and mainly the down-transition. Boy was it hard. Ben decided my outside rein was not something he needed to care about. Leg aids? Nah. I actually had to get quite strong on the down transitions a couple of times, just so he would at least register them. And he did, and they got lighter. I was very careful not to drill anything, but I was just going for a decent response. And once I got it, we ended it, because what happens next is never any fun to deal with.

There have been a handful of these rides in my history with Ben. For whatever reason, he is in checked-out mode. And it sometimes takes strong aids to wake him up - where I am asking him to respond to an aid - go up, come down, turn, whichever. And then from there, he usually goes into tension mode - drops the bridle,  over-reacts to my leg, gets antsy. Its like he is sleeping and then I startle him awake, and then he is overly sensitive the entire time. These rides are not pretty, they feel horrible, and they are disheartening. I wish I knew why and thus having a better way to address it. Thankfully they are rare, and I suspect lots of riders go through something like this, but I always walk away feeling pretty awful about everything.

So then on Tuesday we had our lesson - lo and behold he was better, like the day prior never happened. The transitions clicked, the outside rein was there. We worked on a lot of trot without having the do much warm up in canter and my trainer thought his trot quality looked much improved. We kept it short and sweet knowing this was to be a light riding week.

Back at it yesterday, Wednesday. Initially, our first few minutes felt like we were going to go down the road of Monday. My heart began to sink. But then, just after a few minutes of warm up, POOF - magically he was with me. Right there. On the aids. Everything lightened, got sharper. His canter felt amazing - rocked back and powerful, on both leads. His trot had springs. We did some halt-trots. And at one point he kept trying to offer half-canter, and so I changed the plan and let him offer it to me for real. He nailed it on the first one, so we ended there.

What a nice ride that was, wasn't more than 25 minutes, but it restored hope in an otherwise miserable start to the week.

Its a reminder- progress is not linear. We all have good days and bad. Now to figure out how to best handle those bad days, because I do feel like I am doing a crappy job in that area.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

A Week of Surprises: Counter Canter, an Itty Bitty ___, and an Exam

Ahh horses. Sometimes it feels like progress is super slow, or even non existent. Sometimes it feels like when you are learning something new the things you knew how to do really well fall apart. And then come those moments of pure greatness- usually when you are least expecting them.

That was my ride on Ben on Monday. Having had 3 days off, I went to the barn preparing myself for a "back to work" ride which usually involves inspiring the young man to actually, you know, MOVE. My ride started out that way. I actually decided to use the beginning of my ride to do a bunch of walk and stretches - circles, shoulder in's, square turns. I've pretty much abandoned the idea of doing much trot work in the beginning - just enough to get the engine turned on - seriously probably a couple of laps in both directions and then straight to canter. The trot work is SO much better after the canter.

So I followed that plan. But what I wasn't expecting was Ben's canter to feel as good as it did - to the right anyway...which is funny because the left is the one always feeling more solid. But lately it has been the right. In the canter work, I've been playing with picking up counter canter - usually on the quarter or center line. Also doing shallow canter loops down the long side. I've also been doing lots of simple changes through walk. All pretty normal for our work lately.

What isn't normal, and totally surprising is that I got such a great quality and balanced counter canter that Ben was able to hold it along the short side...which is your standard 20m. WHOA. I was in heaven! And to make matters even more interesting, at one point he did get a little confused in our canter work and by golly, I got a change. Holy crap, yes, I got a change. On my horse. On my Standardbred. Totally not asked for, totally not dressagey- but it was a change none the less. And his legs didn't get tangled. And it felt like something he could totally reproduce. It's in is almost ready to come out.

In other news, yesterday a much respected lameness vet came out to our barn and I had him look at Ben - mainly wanted his take on the hind-end soundness. In the past, Ben has flexed unsoundly in both his stifles and hocks - the stifles being worse. And we've always taken the path of seeing if strength works, along with Pentosan or Adequan. Well - yesterday he flexed totally clean on his stifles. CLEAN. I was shocked. He did come up sore on his right hock (explains the left canter, eh?), and a bit sore on the lefty too. So we made the decision to do injections - given his level of overall soundness and his increasing abilities to do more seemed like the best course of action. I'll be interested to see how he goes in a few days when he can go back to light work.

I don't take direct injections lightly, or any injections lightly for that matter. But I am a firm believer of making sure of doing right by the horse - and if that means a little help here, that's what it means. This vet's opinion is that conformation (straightness of Ben's hind legs) is likely making it hard on his hocks. Given that he's in the best shape of his life, and that the work has done wonders in strengthening those weak stifles, I decided to go with the injections.  My goal is to make this not a regular thing - that perhaps we get over this hump and see if continued strengthening will alleviate the need for regular joint injections. But time will tell. It worked for my mare (so far), so I'm hoping this works for him too.

So there you have a it. Lots of big surprises packaged up and released in a matter of days. It makes all the slogging through the training seem like it is worth it. Even when you cannot see or feel the progress, you are likely still making it. I have a new found excitement around Ben, as he once again has proved to me that I simply cannot count him out or lower the bar - to date there has been nothing he flat out couldn't accomplish. It may take him longer than the average horse, and perhaps a bit of creative training and exercises- but he gets there, on his own time, when he's ready.