Should you go to a clinic?

Star and I have struggled a little with finding a steady connection with the bit. Star’s automatic reflex is to raise her neck and brace herself, especially if she is a bit tense or nervous, becoming quick in her gait and keeping her back hollow. Ick.

Of course I would like to slow her tempo, adding cadence and push from her hindquarters, engaging her back, and getting a nice, steady connection with the bit. It’s a work in progress.

Right now I’m in the midst of a three day clinic with Corinne Dorrepaal, a wise and experienced trainer from Holland who comes to the USA for clinics occasionally. Lucky me!

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Much improved connection, thanks to Corinne’s help at the clinic

Clinics are expensive – each lesson usually  two to four times what you normally spend on a lesson – and I found myself thinking about that cost. Is it worth it?

It depends. In Corinne’s case, Yes! Here’s my metric for deciding whether to spend the money on a clinician:

  1. Is he or she an effective teacher?  Many clinicians offer years of experience, having seen literally thousands of horses and riders of all sorts. They draw on that vast resource of knowledge to quickly solve your riding problems.
  2. Does this person treat the students and horses with respect?  A positive attitude with respect for horse and rider is nonnegotiable. They must not drive the horse into the ground with too much work during the clinic (and if you feel the work is too hard, Speak Up!), or use their authority to abuse horse or rider.
  3. Does this clinician offer something different from my current teacher, but not conflicting with her general methods? If it’s just more of what your teacher offers (without further depth), why bother? If it conflicts with what you do at home…you will have a problem continuing the work and either lose all you gained at the clinic, or have conflict with your trainer. Don’t do it.
  4. Do I finish the lessons with practical exercises to take home and a clear understanding of what I need to do, practice, work on, aim for?

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    Starlight in a nice uphill collected canter. She can’t maintain this very long yet, just a few strides and then we let her go bigger for a few strides, then collect again..

  5. Is the clinician open to questions and discussion when I need more clarification?
  6. How did I feel about the lesson(s)? I always try to have my clinics videotaped, as many of the sessions as I can. I’m a visual learner, not auditory, so watching video helps me understand what happened and reinforces what I felt. It also helps me decide if it is worth going back to the clinician because the real question is…
  7. Does this clinician make a positive difference in my horse and me quickly and effectively? 

Day one of the Corinne Dorrepaal clinic, within 15 minutes she had my horse looking so much better! Of course, in my lessons at home, this happens too. A little warmup and some coaching does a lot of good. But I felt we made some important strides forward in the area of getting a good connection over the top.

What I took away from my first day:

  • The gray areas matter: always pay attention to the little things, don’t be sloppy. Every transition, every moment.
  • Keep asking Star to lower her neck (from the base of the neck) all the time. Be wary because she starts to bring it back up and you don’t realize it. Especially in the transitions, lower the neck, it improves them and also makes her stronger.
  • Slow the tempo down in trot and canter. Keep the energy through frequent transitions within the gait (“almost walk, trot on”), but keep the tempo fairly slow.

More insights in a few days! And here is a small portion of the lesson video, focusing on collecting for a few strides, then lengthening for a few strides exercise, all while keeping the neck low to engage the back. We begin with a little walk work and proceed to trot.

 

 

 

Take care of your equipment

Horse equipment is EXPENSIVE.

Most likely, if you own or care for a horse, I don’t need to tell YOU that. As my husband has long said, “it’s not the buying (of the horse), it’s the keeping.”

How then should we care for this expensive equipment so it lasts as long as possible and functions as it should?

First, Store it Properly.

Saddles generally run in the thousands of dollars, and while they can last for decades if properly maintained, they need to be stored carefully. Whether that saddle fits you or the horse for decades is unlikely, but hey, there’s always resale value.

Best way to store a saddle? Like this:

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This saddle is on a “Saddle Mattress” (yes, nicely personalized) so that the rack underneath will not damage the wool flocking of the saddle (http://www.saddlemattress.com). The padded saddle mattress can be made in almost any color with custom piping and name or initials, and it slips over the saddle rack to protect your saddle. You can also easily take it with you if you move to another tack room.

If I store a saddle on a tubular metal saddle rack with no padding, the metal will compress the flocking that I have paid a saddle fitter to adjust to my horse and the saddle will become lumpy and uncomfortable for my horse; the rack may also stretch the leather, compromising the saddle.

Wooden racks that are curved and shaped to fit saddles with no hard edges can be fine if you can find them. They are usually quite expensive but they are an elegant solution; however, you cannot easily take them with you so I prefer the portable saddle mattress.

Bridles should be hung on rounded bridle hooks, NEVER ON NAILS, which will weaken the leather. Here’s a lovely example:

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Note that these bridles are hung on proper hooks, but many of the saddles in this backroom are right on the metal racks. Alas. Some saddles have covers but others have the sweaty pad placed over them to dry. Even upside down, that pad will get some dampness on the saddle, not good (see below).

Second, Cover Your Saddle. If your saddle did not come with a dust cover, buy one. All tack rooms are dusty (barns are dusty!). A dust cover helps reduce the dust on your saddle. NEVER store your sweaty, damp girth directly on top of the saddle. Preferably wipe it clean after use (o.k., I admit I don’t always do this), and then place it on top of the dust cover so the dampness does not contact the seat of the saddle. A dust cover also protects your saddle from UV rays if the tack room has a window. UV (sunlight) will fade and dry out tack badly. We’ve all seen those formerly black saddles, now blotchy brown…

Damp and sweat are the enemies of leather: remember that. Metal saddle racks are bad, too.

Third, Clean and Condition Your Tack regularly. I did not grow up in Pony Club and I’m not British so I do not do this daily. God bless you if you do. But when it gets dry and crusty it is uncomfortable for the horse and bad for the tack. Don’t go there.

Find a schedule you can live with and make it work. I get it done by simplifying it this way:

  1. Don’t try to do all the tack on the same day. Too tiring. Don’t take bridles apart except maybe once or twice a year. Otherwise the task becomes overwhelming (especially when you have a double bridle!).
  2. Use warm water only to clean the tack and remove dust and sweat. Most experts believe that soap just adds gunk and is another thing to get off.
  3. Allow tack to dry slightly, then condition well with a good conditioner like Passier Lederbalsam or Effax Lederbalsam. Apply generously with a small tack sponge. Let soak in while you are finishing the rest of the tack.
  4. Take a cleanish dry towel (small one) and wipe the excess off, polishing the tack.
  5. Wash the bit off every single day. I just run it under the faucet quickly. If you don’t have running water, dunk it in the horse’s water bucket or wipe it with a cloth. Leaving it with spit or chewed carrot on it will make it crusty and uncomfortable for  20160708_Edie and Starlight__DSC7539.jpghim to put in his mouth. Keep it clean.
  6. Voila! Clean, soft, beautiful tack. Not my bridle at right, but a nice one.

Love affair with a mare

My dear friend, Velda Ruddock, professional photographer extraordinaire, captured something special in her lens…

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Oh yeah, THAT’s the itchy spot, mom. Keep currying there please…ahhhhhh…..

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What are we going to do today, mom? Something fun I hope? How about a nice trail ride?

 

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Starlight, today you’re going to learn Tempi Changes, Piaffe, and Passage!

Ha ha, just kidding. It will be the usual walk, trot, canter.

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That was a good day’s work, mom. I like being with you.

 

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Let’s just snuggle. You wouldn’t happen to have any sugar, would you? I do love that stuff.

Saddle fitting lessons

After many, many saddles and endless experiences over many years with countless saddle fitters, I’ve learned some lessons the hard way, through experience and often expensive mistakes.DSC03470

Lesson Number One: Your saddle is only as good as your fitter. Find a good fitter.

A beautiful saddle that doesn’t fit is like a designer shoes (bought on sale!) that just don’t fit. They stay in the closet because you’re not gonna wear them. Although in this case you might put that saddle on your poor horse, who pays the price with a sore back. Just. Don’t. Do. It.

Do everything you can do get it right. Get professional help. No, not therapy – a saddle fitter!

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Kristen of Saddle Solutions measures Starlight’s withers

But HOW do I find a good saddle fitter? Get recommendations from savvy (experienced) friends or trainers you trust. Beware that many people are very blind in this area  or have limited expertise. Ask around widely. If you keep hearing a certain name repeated as a good Fitter, then that’s probably your person. Check out their training and give them a try.

Lesson Number Two: An Independent saddle fitter is usually better for your purposes than one whose main agenda is selling a certain brand of saddles. Unless you are certain that you only ever want that one brand of saddle.

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Kristen from Saddle Solutions educates me about saddle fit.

Experience, Expertise, and Integrity are the most important qualities you want in a saddle fitter. Professionalism and reliability are nice to have, too! If the only one that fits those criteria who will come  to your area is the rep for a certain brand, you may have to use them. They will most likely be willing to work on other brands (ask); just be aware that their agenda is often to sell you one of their saddles, but it may not be the best fitting saddle for you or your horse because their product line is limited. This is why an independent fitter, whose only agenda is to fit you and your horse, is a better bet. He or she can recommend saddles/brands and/or objectively assess and fit what you already have.

Today Starlight and I enjoyed a fitting with Kristen Vliestra of Saddlery Solutions (www.saddlerysolutions.com). Kristen is an independent saddle fitter with many years in the business and her deep knowledge and expertise were very helpful in finding a good fit for me and Star.DSC03482

Below, Kristen demonstrates with chalk the proper weight bearing surface on Star’s back. She helped me to understand WHY this is all so important. If we don’t get this right, we will cause our horses pain and possible long-term damage to the musculature and spine. It also causes discomfort (back or fork pain) for the rider as the saddle is off-balance and we’re put out of position.DSC03490

In the video below, Kristen explains this clearly…

And here you see us trying a saddle that turned out to be a good fit for both of us. It has not yet been flocked to Star, so the balance is not quite right yet: It is a little low behind.  Later, Kristen took care of that. If you felt under the panels, you would feel nice smooth contact (no bridging!), no pressure points, which makes Star happy. As for me: I sat down in it and said, “ah, nice comfy saddle,” which is exactly what it ought to be.

Life is too short for your saddle to hurt you…or your horse! Invest in building a relationship with a good fitter!*

*If you’re within driving distance of San Jose, I recommend Saddlery Solutions (www.saddlerysolutions.com).

At last! Bill is accepted into Star’s herd

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Who is this interloper? Perhaps that carrot is poisoned.

It took only took a few weeks before Star began to relax with me, but it was about four months before she fully accepted my husband, Bill, as one of her herd. We could not figure it out. Bill is wonderful with animals and is my right hand man at shows, helping with trailering, horse handling, and so on. He is show and clinic photographer, horse holder, and giver of treats. He worked so hard to woo her – gentle pats, carrots, helping me brush her… but the suspicious look remained.

What does this strange man want from me? Why is he here with my mom? He’s going to make me go in the trailer, I just know it.

Actually, I think that might have been the problem: almost every time Bill showed up, Starlight had to get in the trailer and go somewhere. While she was willing to go in the trailer, it did worry her at first. That was THEN; NOW she happily LEAPS into the trailer (“Oh boy, free food, let me at it! And let’s go on an adventure!”).

Instead of greeting Bill with wary suspicion, Starlight now looks at him with soft eyes of anticipation: treat for me, my friend? Surely you have something for your best mare buddy?

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Picture this recent scene: I am braiding Star, while Bill stands at her head, stroking her and murmuring to her. Soon I hear him softly singing her lullabies while her eyes drift closed. Is that a snore I hear? Not quite, but clearly she is entranced.

Somehow, her relationship with Bill has turned a corner: now she loves him. I smile: all’s well with the world.JD_DwanHorse_160708_0102

Ah, the memories of Golden Ponies…

Trail riding is one of my very favorite things to do – assuming, that is, that I have a good, trustworthy and fun horse to ride. We all know that riding a spooky or dangerous horse is not much fun at all.

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Snuggling with Ellie, the most amazing trail pony.

Fortunately, most every horse I’ve owned has been good on the trail and we try to get out there when we can. It renews the soul and keep us both from going crazy.

There’s nothing like being out in nature and relaxing with your horse. It’s such a bonding thing! You have to trust each other.

The horse trusts its rider to provide leadership. He asks, “should I pass that scary looking fallen log? Will that dog (horse sees it as possible WOLF) attack me? Do I need to worry about that rustling in the bushes?” The rider has to radiate relaxed unconcern. It’s all cool, we can do this, horsie. You are big and brave. I will take care of you.

 

Sometimes I sing to my horse which seems to comfort her,  and singing distracts me, too. CAUTION: You need to pick a soothing song, nothing with screechy notes. You’ll feel pretty quickly whether your horse likes the song…or not.

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Eliana, the very best haflinger ever, ponies a young haflinger friend at Wunderlich County Park.

On a trail ride, I have to trust the horse. She will not bolt. She will not take me over the cliff. She will not jump off the bridge plunging me to certain death. She will not suddenly whirl causing me to fall off and be impaled on that stake over there…

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Yes, you see how my mind sometimes works, this is why it’s a good idea for me to sing. Or talk, if I have a friend with me. And so, we all relax and enjoy the ride and I stop thinking, “what if…”

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Not my horse, but a horse is the best way to see the country around Jackson Hole, WY.

Trail riding builds our relationship because we have an adventure together and trust each other more deeply. We come back from the trail feeling even better friends, refreshed, relaxed, and happy.

Below is a 30 second trail video from several years ago. At the time, I was lucky enough to own TWO gorgeous haflinger trail horses. My husband was riding behind on Ellie, taking a trail movie with his iPhone when he should have been minding the horse. I’m in the front on Amadeo.  At the time I was annoyed at him for fooling with his iPhone, but I’m glad now to have the memory of a ride on such gorgeous golden ponies. Look at that Haflinger tail in the video! We are in Carmel Valley, California, for this ride, at Jack’s Peak County Park.

A lovely day at the show

Third show yesterday: Starlight and I have been together just 3.5 months and our partnership and enjoyment of each other is growing by leaps and bounds. I love this mare! and she seems to love me, too, bless her generous heart.

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Enter at A. See all the nice shady trees they have at Osierlea! So pretty there.

Yesterday we showed at Osierlea in San Juan Bautista, California, one of the nicest places to show in Northern California. Osierlea has been a dressage facility since the very early days of dressage in California. In fact, I think I may have showed there as a teenager many, many, many decades ago….

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Practicing in the arena the day before…

Nowadays it is a jewel of a place, a quiet retreat of many trees, flowers,  nice arenas, with friendly and helpful show personnel and volunteers. Some of the lovely touches (let show organizers take note of how much this matters):

  • A check-in packet containing a schedule of riders (“day sheet”), information about the facility (a map!),  some free sample size horse products, and some cookies for your horse.
  • A cool cup of water offered to hot, sweaty competitors as we exited the competition arena. Oh, thank you, thank you!
  • A big bowl of carrots for the horses sitting on the show secretary’s table all day. Take as many as you want, it was renewed all day long…
  • Free (good) coffee, nice fresh muffins, and fresh fruit in the morning.
  • Delicious and very reasonably priced fresh grilled hamburgers for lunch. My show
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    Coats were waived, it was HOT

    helper husband can’t stop talking about the hamburgers and what a deal they were (especially compared to the lunch offerings we’ve seen at other shows).

  • Pleasant and helpful staff and volunteers, well dragged arenas, and NO FLIES! Plenty of room to warm up, with a large separate area for lunging. Immaculate facility.
  • Reasonably priced overnight accommodations for the horses in well maintained stalls.
  • Fresh flowers and a softly tinkling water fountain on the show secretary’s desk gave an atmosphere of calm.
  • Lots of shade and many places to sit down and relax. Shady seats to watch the rides.

The little things matter and they make a big difference in a show experience that feels relaxed and pleasant, or unpleasantly struggling.

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Like air travel, we have a choice in show venues (sometimes)...I will always choose a pleasant and helpful show management over one that is surly and/or unorganized, both of which I’ve run into occasionally, although many shows are well run. Just few are as lovely as Osierlea.

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With an inexperienced horse, the chance to go a day early and school in the arena: is priceless.

Starlight showed very well and we had a lovely time together. She is starting to be able to focus on me at shows rather than everything outside the ring, and so the feeling of relaxation and harmony is coming together as you can see in some of these photos. I apologize for the quality, most of them are screen shots taken from the video, and it was almost noon, so the camera had trouble with the lighting as we went in and out of shadow.

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Across the diagonal at training level