Back To Riding

a monthly web column

Coda

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All done here.
When I started daily blogging Rodney’s Saga in December, I intended to keep this Back To Riding as a monthly column. I fabricated an elaborate scenario wherein the two blogs reinforced each other. The word synergy was probably involved. OTOH, there is no reason I can’t throw the occasional longer post into the daily blog and consolidate the two. Occam’s razor wins again.

One of my goals in starting the second blog was to hear voices other than my own. I invite you over to say hi. Then as you see fit, please follow, comment, & forward to friends who might be interested.

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Written by Virtual Brush Box

January 11, 2012 at 11:12 pm

Posted in Horses

Livin’ Large: December 2011

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By Katherine Walcott, Illustration by Jean Abernethy

“Go big or go home.”
Anonymous

Rodney is my first skyscraper horse.

Initially, we were told he was 17 hands and 2 inches, or 5′ 10′ at the shoulder. I had seen him ridden years before, so I knew he was large, but not that large. I am not a fan of excessive size in horses, particularly in Thoroughbreds. I am not a fan of anything built so far outside design specifications. The prepurchase vet measured him at 17 hands and 1/2 inch. Engineering practice holds that a measurement exactly halfway between is rounded toward the even number. Over time, the up-rounds and down-rounds average out. That means I should say 17h 0″. I try to avoid hyperbole, but I can’t resist. Rodney is 17h 1″.

When I was a tall but scrawny college student, I aced equitation classes on a 15h 3″ Thoroughbred. I evented a friend’s 13h 2″ pony. I looked like Ichabod Crane, but I wasn’t too heavy for her. Twenty-plus years of marriage to an outstanding amateur chef have added much-needed poundage. I finally have a figure that would have filled out a toga. But I no longer look good on the little ones. On Rodney, I look good. We fit.

Our first adjustment was to add a third rail to the wooden post and rail sections of pasture fencing. After construction but before horse arrival, it looked like overkill. Who could possibly need a 5′ high fence? Then he arrived. Yup, he really is that big.

As reported earlier, I’ve taught him to lower his head for halter/bridle management. I wouldn’t bother with a smaller horse. Besides, it’s good for his psyche to get his head down out of the clouds whenever possible.

I keep a small plastic stool nearby when I groom. He dislikes brushes near his face. When he giraffes, I can reach but have to strain, which does not contribute to an atmosphere of harmony. Instead, I hook the stool over with a foot and step up without missing a stroke. He gives up fast.

Or so I thought.

Between drafting this in October and posting it in December, we hit yet another low point. When the sniveling was done, we reorganized his feed and put him back on gastric medication. As a result, he is relaxing in places we didn’t even know he was tense. He is now able to raise his snoot completely out of my reach. I’m so pleased with the increasing flexibility in his back and neck that I just laugh as he waves his nose about and I flail ineffectually for purchase. That’ll teach me to be cocky.

When people hear his height, they say it’s a long way to the ground. I find that when falling off, it’s always a long way to the ground, no matter the size of the horse.

We bought larger blankets. However, we would have needed new blankets for any horse. During her intervening singles phase, Mathilda laid claim to every blanket in the barn. When she was young and sassy, she sneered at blankets. As she grew older, she grew more comfort lovin’. Now, on cold nights/warm days, she has talked us into swapping out intermediate blankets/sheets between her heavy night blanket and the full frontal of mid-day. On super cold nights, she gets double blanketed. In my next life, I want to come back as one of my horses.

Written by Virtual Brush Box

December 22, 2011 at 12:41 pm

November 2011: Weekend with Wofford

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By Katherine Walcott, Illustration by Jean Abernethy

“It’s simple. It’s just not easy.”
James C. Wofford, Training the Three-Day Event Horse and Rider [Doubleday 1995]

You gotta respect an instructor who can start a sentence with, “When I was teaching [Olympic Silver Medalist] Kim Severson……” At the end of October, I spent two days at Foxwood Farm auditing a clinic by Jimmy Wofford.

Wofford’s Words of Wisdom
(As interpreted by me. Mr. Wofford should be held harmless from however I chose to butcher his ideas.)

Horse and rider need to jump the same jump at the same time.

It’s not against the law to be green.

When reapproaching a jump after a problem, don’t ride faster, ride stronger.

To steer around a stadium course, point your chin at the jump.

Flat jumping comes from increasing speed.

Perfect doesn’t happen. Aim for really good.

The difference between bad riding and good riding? I can‘t see good riding.

The horse hears the aids he wants to hear. Quick horses ignore your hand and overreact to a touch of leg.
Sedate souls, vice versa. Therefore, you may have to unbalance your aids to balance your horse.

Punish immediately and reward immediately. Make a fuss over him. Pat him a lot. Tell him he’s wonderful. He’ll start to believe you.

The brief guide to jumping: Canter in a rhythm. If they jump, you kiss ‘em. If they don’t, you kick ‘em.

Clinic Theory
I believe in undershooting when entering a clinic. If I rode at X level, I’d sign up for the X-minus-one group.
I’d want to be at a level where I was rock-bottom certain. That way, when the clinician told me to jump a funky gymnastic line at least I wouldn’t be worried about the height of the fences. This weekend, for example, one young lady kept sticking her tongue out when jumping. Wofford warned her and then made her jump with her glove stuffed in her mouth.

Moi
How was life over in my little angst-ridden corner of the universe? I first proposed this clinic back in March (blog posted in June). So I’ve had half a year to adjust to the idea that I wasn’t riding in it. Come the day, I knew I wouldn’t enjoy watching without riding but if I stayed home, I’d sulk. Mostly, at least publicly, I did okay. However, each of the clinic days I did disappear for a quick snivel. Both occasions were after lunch, so blood sugar may have been involved. I subdued my disgruntlement by taking notes as if the clinic were an event to be covered. Occasionally I was pulled out of writer mode by an attendee’s horse misbehaving. At that point, I’d have an anxiety attack in sympathy by imagining the Technicolor fits Rodney would have thrown. That’s the point. I did NOT ride because I was NOT ready. If I ever DO ride in this or any other clinic, it will be when I AM ready. But try telling that to my stomach.

In keeping with my promise of looking on the bright side:
1) I was way more relaxed than had I been riding. Annoyed, frustrated, and depressed, yes. But more relaxed.
2) I was spared the sight of my oversized giraffe in the Beginner Novice group with the pony brigade.
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Blog frequency – monthly.
Links to past WordPress & USEA columns, plus weekly commentary, on Facebook at Rodney aka Perpetual Motion. Note, I occasionally forget to switch identities before posting there, so please select “Everyone (Most Recent)” under the photo strip to see all entries.

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Written by Virtual Brush Box

November 18, 2011 at 9:48 am

Posted in Uncategorized

October 2011: Aftermath of an Explosion

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By Katherine Walcott, Illustration by Jean Abernethy

 

Sherlock Holmes: [extremely irritated] Oh, hell! What does that matter?! So we go around the sun! If we went around the moon or round and round the garden like a teddy bear, it wouldn’t make any difference!
Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Great Game” Sherlock [BBC 2010]. Courtesy of Wikiquote.

 

Rodney has added separation anxiety to his repertoire.

Monday: In the morning, as usual, he had a session with his heating pad to loosen a back scar from a foalhood injury. He stands. I do daily crossword puzzles. Fifty minutes is the longest either of us can go before terminal boredom.

For the afternoon groundwork session, I wanted to restart hillwork. To be as simple as possible, I chose a short, gentle slope within sight of the barn the entire way. He was nervous but in a different way than going towards the ring. Garden-variety separation anxiety. More than I cared to see, but nothing unusual.

Tuesday: Hubby goes out each morning before work to count noses and feed carrots. This morning, he used the daily treat to lead Rodney up the hill sans halter. They got 75% of the way before any stress occurred. During our heating pad session, I pondered how to play off this. Rodney is too much of a carrot mooch to use carrots regularly. Instead, I would put a hay pile at the top of the hill as goal and reward. To be even easier, I would put a second pile for the mare so that he would be walking toward company, thereby easing his separation anxiety.

That evening, we led both horses up and Rodney followed reasonably well. Hubby stayed at the top with Mathilda while Rodney and I turned around and came back down. He wasn’t relaxed but, again, did reasonably well. Then I turned to go back up the hill and

KA-BOOM

Hooves and horse everywhere. I let go of the leadrope. He tore up the hill (?!) bucking and kicking. Upon arriving, he didn’t stop (?!?!). Instead, he flew around the pasture (?!?!?!) finally fetching up in the barn/run-in shed where I caught him easily.

After one of these outbursts, he calms right down. If I may project, he looks as if even he doesn’t understand why he does this and is a little ashamed by his behavior. He comes over and puts his head down to my chest to be reassured and loved on. After that, he walked up the hill a few more times. Not serenely but obediently. Still, the cloud of despair had already engulfed me.

Perhaps it was time I faced facts? Perhaps, despite two wonderful rides when I tried him out, he would always be too unpredictable? Perhaps, I would never ride, much less show him? It was a dark night.

After mourning the death of my riding career (I don’t see going through this again) and lamenting the loss of the embarrassingly large number of blue ribbons we were going to win, I began to wonder, does it matter? If my darkest dread is realized, how will that change what I do tomorrow?

In 23 years, hubby and I have shared our household with 14 cats, 5 dogs, and 3 horses. The only animals we relocated were one overly-sensitive kitten who needed a quieter lifestyle and another kitten to a friend. One reason we took so long to find a horse was that we knew we would have him or her for the next 20 years.

So, Rodney is here for the duration.
Will I leave him in the field to rot? No.
Will I stop grooming and socializing him? No.
Will I stop working with him – to whatever extent he allows? No.
Many things matter in theory. In practical terms, not so much.
———-
Blog frequency – monthly.
Links to past WordPress & USEA columns, plus weekly commentary, on Facebook at Rodney aka Perpetual Motion. Note, I occasionally forget to switch identities before posting there, so please select “Everyone (Most Recent)” under the photo strip to see all entries.
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Written by Virtual Brush Box

October 18, 2011 at 2:15 pm

September 2011: My Two Horses

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By Katherine Walcott, Illustration by Jean Abernethy

“It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”
J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone [Scholastic 1998]

They are the best of horses. They are the worst of horses. I don’t know which is which.

Each morning, the mare and I don our Red Hats and go for a stroll around the pasture. Mathilda is my husband’s 27-year-old Quarter Horse cross. Over the last 20 years, she’s had a brief career as a driving horse, a briefer career as an event horse, and long, successful career as a grass converter. She even tried backyard dressage with me. Despite her lack of overall talent, she was better at dressage than I was. She has the mind for it. Our story made USDF Connection as “Square Horses and Round Holes” [November 2008]. Now retired and arthritic, Mathilda benefits from regular walks to loosen her joints, plus it’s good for both sets of bones.

We are not building towards anything. Best case scenario is that she lives for another 10 years and we go for another 3,000+ walks. Far from resenting the chore, I look forward to the time to amble and ponder. I talk to myself. I swat flies. I rewrite troublesome text. Mathilda trundles along behind, snorting, stretching, and occasionally hocking bits of chewed carrot against the backs of my legs. Our only goal is to make it four times around. On days when one or the other of us isn’t up for it, we end early and try again the next day.

On the other hand, I had hoped to ride Rodney in the AEC this month. As I write this, horses are pulling into Chattahoochee Hills. Instead of dwelling, I grit my teeth and focus on our gains:

  • Rodney stands quietly ground-tied during grooming. Since he adores being fussed over, this was easy. He is getting the message that whichever side I am working on, the feet on that side stay firmly on the ground.
  • Rodney drops his head below my eye level to have a bridle or halter put on or taken off. He’s better about remembering during the off than the on.
  • Rodney accepts funny objects. When I rolled our blue exercise ball into the field, he put up his ears and trotted towards it. When I led him up to the ball, he put his nose on it and thought, Big, squishy, rubber thing. So? I kicked it around the field. I rolled it gently against his legs. I rolled it underneath his belly. I finally terminated the exercise as it was having so little impact.
  • Rodney is starting to jump sedately. In his former life, they claim he jumped 5’2″. I do not doubt it. Nor do I doubt that he would fly over anything at which I pointed him. However, he will not walk quietly over a crossrail. I am working on convincing him to use only the amount of energy required for the task at hand. There are times when you want afterburners: a mini-prix jumpoff, a Preliminary cross-country, a Second-level extended trot across the diagonal. Until then, he needs to learn to ration his energy.

In sum, I think Mathilda is a waste of time and space (don’t worry, the feeling is mutual), yet I have a lovely time with her each day. Rodney is everything I was looking for in a horse, yet everything about working with him makes me crazy.
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Blog frequency – monthly.
Links to past WordPress & USEA columns, plus weekly commentary, on Facebook at Rodney aka Perpetual Motion. Note, I occasionally forget to switch identities before posting there, so please select “Everyone (Most Recent)” under the photo strip to see all entries.
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Written by Virtual Brush Box

October 8, 2011 at 9:43 pm

August 2011: SIT[uation]REP[ort] II – The Horse

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By Katherine Walcott, Illustration by Jean Abernethy

“He’s not going to start thinking like a human being, not now, not next week, not ever.
It’s up to you to try and understand the way his mind works.”
Bombproof Your Horse
Sgt. Rick Pelicano with Lauren Tjaden [Trafalgar 2004]

Rodney gets his knickers in a twist about work. Whether he’s channelling his past lives or objecting to his current one, the fact remains that he tenses up as soon as we head toward the ring. If he is sufficiently wound up and sees an opening, he will fly back to the barn as fast as his long legs will carry him, bucking and kicking the entire way. This is an issue I prefer to address from the ground before I get back in the saddle.

The good news is that he doesn’t appear to mind work outside the ring. He’s more likely to hop quietly over a log in the field than a crossrail in the ring. If we are ever to go Eventing, better a horse happy on cross-country and nervous for dressage/stadium than vice versa. Plus, it’s hard to blame him. When you are on the losing end of the food chain, running away is never the wrong answer to a crisis. Granted he hasn’t encountered many pumas in his life, but that is only due to constant vigilance on his part.

In searching for groundwork exercises, I found that in-hand work falls into two categories: Austrian and Western. The first is dressage on your feet, typified by the work between the pillars of the Spanish Riding School. The latter is about mental agility, typified by Trail Classes, whether mounted for older horses or in-hand for youngsters. There is nothing physically difficult about picking up a crinkly raincoat or backing through an L. It’s all about confidence and awareness of one’s hooves. That’s us.

So far, Rodney has learned that a touch on the chest means reverse, that a tarp has acceptable footing and that a fly whisk is not a puma tail. He earned high marks for the tarp exercises but was deeply unsure about my hand-made fly-whisk of neon-orange plastic construction ribbon. Since I’m looking at his eyes rather than at the back of his head, I’m learning the difference between when he accepts an idea and when he’s about to take his brain off the hook.

Plus, I’m a much better alpha-mare on the ground than in the saddle. When I’m holding a leadrope, I believe in the justness of my cause. I can insist, gently but firmly, that we do it my way. Blacksmiths and barn managers love me because my horses have barn manners. However, when I’m holding the reins, I grow tentative and second-guess my next move. Instead of insisting, I waffle. Previous Horse loved this because he could use his enormous ego to bully me. Growing as an assertive rider will be an issue for the future.  For now, being grounded is playing to my strengths.

Over the last year, I have talked almost as much about Previous Horse as I have about Current Horse. This is not doing Rodney any justice. Time to look forward. Also, a kind comment from a reader has gifted me with reassurance that I am not alone in my angst. Time to look to the positive. From now on, Eyes Front, looking to what is and what could be rather than what was and what might have been.
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Blog frequency – monthly.
Links to past WordPress & USEA columns, plus weekly commentary, on Facebook at Rodney aka Perpetual Motion.
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Written by Virtual Brush Box

August 24, 2011 at 5:00 pm

Posted in English Riding, Eventing, Horses

Tagged with

July 2011: SITREP

with 4 comments

SITREP
Written by Katherine Walcott, Illustration by Jean Abernethy

“All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves.” Anatole France (The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard 1881)

FORM: New Home, New Directions
The first nine installments appeared as a monthly commission for the US Eventing Association’s website. I wrote about my new horse and our goal of getting back into eventing. Then, a change in editorial emphasis left my column as a heap of electrons on the digital cutting room floor.

Meanwhile, I have grown intrigued by the challenges of documenting a process without a known endpoint. As an adventure in writing, I will continue by self, without benefit of market. In 22 years of equestrian journalism, writing has meant interviewing experts and arranging their opinions. It’s time to see if I have anything to say in my own right.

CONTENT: The Journey Continues
The story is simple. I have a fantastic horse. I can’t ride him. The reasons behind the story are myriad. Is this the slow beginning to a beautiful friendship or a classic amateur mistake of buying too much horse? My answer changes daily. Horse and Rider both have the physical skills required to show tomorrow. The problem lies between the collective ears. I’ll talk about his mindset at a later date, perhaps when I have a better handle on the subject. My issues form a layer cake of dysfunction.

My most obvious problem is simple nerves. Hyped up on a high-energy feed, Rodney shook me off a while back [see January column]. The feed problem has been corrected but the memory lingers. Counter to expectation, when he gets tense, I don’t have flashbacks to the fall. Instead, I channel the numerous near-misses when he would spook, jump, spin or perform an exciting mixture of all three. Even though I didn’t come off, the fits he pitched were mindbendingly irrational, athletic, and sudden. The sense I had of impending doom is what knots my stomach. By the time I was actually airborne, I was too busy bouncing and grunting to fret.

Before the rodeo act, I had what I’ll call the Ferrari Complex. I deliberately found a quality horse to step up to a new level. When I sit on his back, however, I wonder who I am kidding. My rides are accompanied by a litany of voices in my head telling me that I have no business driving a Ferrari.

Even if I were to become sane overnight, my body requires retraining. As I’ve said elsewhere, I had Previous Horse for 20 years. That’s the majority of my adult riding life on the same horse. All those tiny, automatic muscles that keep a rider centered above her horse are set to one pattern. Previous Horse was an ill-tempered, barely 16-hand Thoroughbred who moved like a collection of rusty sewing machine parts. Rodney is willing and 17+ hands, 15 of which are leg. He tacks like a stilt walker in a high wind. I get thrown back to front and side to side. While my mind knows that a lovely way of going = high dressage scores, my muscle-memory signals an ongoing state of imminent collapse.

The final layer lurks down where reason ends. I think that I am angry at Rodney for not being Previous Horse.

There’s no solution but work and time. So, I need patience. And I need it now.
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P.S. Links to back columns on Facebook at Rodney aka Perpetual Motion.

Written by Virtual Brush Box

July 30, 2011 at 7:45 am