It’s great to get out of your comfort zone

Finn collecting the canter

Finn collecting the canter

Going to a clinic with a new instructor is for me always fraught with some nerves and excitement. I’m excited to have the opportunity to learn, but nervous that I will not understand them, be too slow/stupid/uncoordinated/annoying for them, and that they will yell at me and I will cry. Yes, ridiculous, I know. But these are the things I worry about some times. Among many other things that I won’t go into today.

However, Finn and I are in the midst of a three day dressage clinic, and after Day One, I’m delighted and having a great time!  I thought it would be useful to share a couple of things I’ve learned so far with a few screen caps from the video my husband took. Of course there are many not so pretty moments, but I have editorial license to leave most of those out :-).

Our first ride was great and I loved how my horse felt (and I so appreciate how good he is in new venues). He was cooperative, forward, and we were able to do most of the things the clinician asked us to do – not always perfectly, of course, but we felt like we made progress as the lesson progressed. But when I watched the video, I, my own worst critic, cringed at first. Who is the horrible sack of potatoes bouncing on top of Finn? I had no idea I bounced THAT much at the sitting trot. Finn does have a very springy trot (unfortunately), and I’ve worked very hard to learn to sit it. I just thought I was further along and was rather horrified to see it was pretty ugly at times. Poor Finn, he’s very tolerant of me, but he deserves someone who can sit his trot. Sigh. Still working on it.

But as the video progressed the clinician helped me get him rounder in his top line, in front of my leg (which means responsive to light seat aids instead of needing a lot of leg), and then she gently but firmly insisted that I stop using my legs constantly. I have a terrible habit of nagging. Here, I’ll include one ugly shot to show you what THAT looks like:

See that braced position with heels up? Yuck. Working on eradicating that from my life.

See that braced position with heels up? Yuck. Working on eradicating that from my life.

Her insistence that I drape my leg, allowing it to relax and hang, and get it away from his sides, balancing on my seat bones and allowing my seat to rest on his back…made a HUGE difference. Finn went more smoothly, I sat more elegantly (I felt it, and the video showed it), my hands became more steady, our connection became better, and EVERYTHING was better. When I bend my knees and bring my heel up (as in the picture above), it pops my seat out of the saddle and I bounce. Yep. So, lengthening my leg and using my seat rather than my leg for most aids allows me to sit even a BOUNCY trot. Yahoo!

Now I just have to be consistent about this, because Finn is very happy to lure me back into doing all the work…More clinic reporting after the next Two Days. I can’t wait to see what Finn and I learn next! And how we perfect the draped, relaxed leg, and the “go from the seat and stay in front of the leg” feeling!

More canter! Go Finn, from the haunches! I should be looking more straight ahead, not to the side, even though we were on a 20 meter circle.

More canter! Go Finn, from the haunches! I should be looking more straight ahead, not to the side, even though we were on a 20 meter circle.

Beginning to dance with my horse

All my life I’ve dreamed of being able to ride Piaffe and Passage. Dancing with my horse, in perfect harmony, one in body and spirit.

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I can’t quite say that we can do that…not yet…but almost! We only look like Charlotte and Valegro in our dreams, but Finn the Wonder Pony is learning and does steps of both piaffe and passage with the help of a ground person (videos at the bottom of this post). It’s fun! It’s bouncy and super springy! It’s exciting! A little too exciting sometimes, as Finn occasionally WAY overreacts to the sight of the piaffe stick, throwing himself about histrionically. Alfredo calls him “A little Napoleon.” The little diva has to throw a little tizzy fit before he gets down to work, and then he’s just fine and I think he enjoys the challenge and variety from his usual work.

Fortunately, we have been working on this with the help of Alfredo Hernandez, who does occasional clinics in our area and has been teaching piaffe/passage (and other facets of dressage) to horses and riders of all shapes and sizes for decades. Finn and I were introduced to Alfredo and  P/P in October and have schooled a little piaffe with our trainer at home since then. You can read about our earlier clinics with Alfredo here:

We returned to do some more work on collection and P/P with Alfredo recently at American Sporthorse in Watsonville, CA. The videos below show Finn doing some baby piaffe and then passage with the help of the bamboo. Use of the piaffe stick or the bamboo requires perfect timing and care as it can be dangerous to the handler – you can get kicked! In other words: don’t do this at home unless you REALLY know what you are doing. It’s easy to mess up the horse mentally or get yourself hurt, so please: go to a clinic with someone really experienced like Alfredo, and learn to do it correctly.

Piaffe and Passage require several years (perhaps as many as four, according to some experts) and careful training, strength development, and repetition before they are really confirmed. Finn and I are just beginning, but we are enjoying the lessons and the work benefits our other work. As an example, notice how beautifully Finn walks out after he does the Piaffe work, with a long overstep and a stretched neck.

One last thought from this clinic: the value of an experienced and talented trainer cannot be overstated. Alfredo pushed us just enough but not too much, knowing when to ask for more and when to give the horse a break so that he does not become frustrated.

Because of his experience, we were able to achieve not only some steps of piaffe and passage, but also steps of canter collection far beyond what I thought Finn could do. Lesson learned: it’s good to get out of your comfort zone and go to a clinic occasionally and learn something new! We can do more than I thought we could and my instructor at home will be so happy to hear that I have finally begun to figure this out…

Here, Finn does a few steps of Passage: fun and bouncy!

In this video, you’ll see and hear Alfredo instruct Carol in how to help me work with Finn on Piaffe.

Three famous ponies (and small horses) you should know

It seems that many of us enjoy our “small but mighty” steeds. Perhas you might enjoy meeting a few of the Shining Stars both old and new who keep up with the big boys (and girls). 

Allow me to introduce just a few of my favorites:

1) Grand Prix Dressage: Seldom Seen, trained and ridden by Lendon Gray. This 14.2 hd Connemara/TB cross began with Ms. Gray in Eventing, but they soon switched careers to Dressage. Seldom Seen was the first horse she trained all the way to Grand Prix and he won nationally, then she took him to Europe where he acquitted himself well, too. In the USA he faced a fair amount of Pony Prejudice, especially earlier in his career, as people were not used to seeing smaller horses compete in dressage. Those of us with petite mounts say, “Thank you!” to Lendon and Seldom Seen for being ground breakers in the dressage pony movement here in this country!

Seldom Seen and Lendon Gray

Seldom Seen and Lendon Gray

Stories about him say that he was not a spectacular mover, could be a little lazy but he did have heart, and was trainable and kind. If you want to know more, here’s an interesting article from a couple of years ago:

And a wonderful video of his retirement dance with his rider, well worth watching.

2) Eventing Pony Forrest Nymph (aka Farrah) is not technically a pony at 14.3 hds, but as a

Forrest Nymph and Sinead Halpin

Forrest Nymph and Sinead Halpin

New Forest Pony, and half-sister to my own Finn, I have to put her on this list. She’s an eventing powerhouse, partnering with Sinead Halpin and currently competing at the Intermediate level in CIC2* events! Those jumps are BIG (3’9″ cross country, 3’11” stadium), especially when your horse is only 14.3 hds. Watch the red head fly over jumps in this video – the girl has Springs!

3) Grand Prix Dressage: North Forks Brenin Cardi, trained and ridden by Jessica Wisdom is a spectacular Welsh Cob stallion (14.3 hds) whose career I’ve followed with interest for quite some time. It’s a pleasure to watch him move.  In 2014 he won the National Dressage GP Freestyle Final with a score of 71.375%. Check out the ride, it’s wonderful!

Cardi the Champion!

Cardi the Champion!

And then there are all the unsung hero horses and ponies we know and love, the ones that may not have silver cups or ribbons ’round their necks,

but they have our love and gratitude for carrying us safely over the river and through the woods on the trail;Edie/Amadeo

round a course of jumps without error or pause; through a dressage test with style; into a crowded arena with patience and good manners. And most of all, for bringing a smile to our

Time never wasted.

Time never wasted.

faces each and every day that we get to be with them. Thank you, we are grateful!

Why my horses keep getting smaller

Ellie loves to jump!

Ellie loves to jump!

In the last some years, each horse I’ve bought has been smaller than the one before. I’ve owned, loved, and enjoyed horses as large as 17 hands, but my current horses are two wonderful and athletic 14.1 hand ponies.

Why would an (average size) adult choose to ride ponies? Because Ponies are the

                                    Sports Cars of the horse world!

They’re agile, athletic, generally sound and healthy, intelligent, trainable, adorable, have Personality Plus, and are fun, fun, fun! At 5’6″ my legs hang a little long on them, but as long as I keep my weight within bounds, they carry me very comfortably and competitively in dressage, over fences, and down the trail. Ponies can WIN against the big horses and will always have a fan club because they have such charm and panache.

Finn showing 3rd level dressage

Finn showing 3rd level dressage

They’re smaller and closer to the ground, which is good in every way.

  • Easier to get the saddle on and off.
  • Easier to mount/dismount.
  • You can see to brush the top of the horse.
  • You can get the halter/bridle on easily. No giraffes!
  • Less far to fall (although I try to avoid falling at all)
  • Spooks and antics tend to be less terrifying. However, be advised that some ponies can be very quick, athletic and catty in their movement, so take them seriously.
  • Usually easier to handle on the ground with some decent training (just smaller, so that makes it easier).
  • Require less feed – much less expensive to feed.
  • Many have great feet and can go barefoot, at least behind

Sometimes, riding my ponies or just being with them makes me feel like a little girl again (and a happy one, too).

So maybe Ponies are the Fountain of Youth? I kind of think so.

My renewed love affair with ponies began at a dude ranch with Ruger, the Quarter Pony. Here we are about to cut some cows!

My renewed love affair with ponies began at a dude ranch with Ruger, the Quarter Pony. Here we are about to cut some cows!

Horse Shopping 103: Research and learn the market

Before we make a horse purchase, it’s a good idea to educate ourselves about the horse market so that we know how to find what we want – and how much to pay for it. 

Pick me!

Pick me!

Before I would consider a major purchase like a new refrigerator or a car, I always do some research! I read reviews, do price comparisons, reliability ratings, and so forth. Unfortunately, although most horses cost more than a refrigerator, they are not quite that standardized. Still, there are many resources out on the web and I encourage you to begin educating yourself before you start shopping. In other words: begin to understand the Horse Market.

  • Learn about breeds and their uses and traits. For example, an eventing horse needs stamina and a lot of agility, so a Friesian would be a poor choice if eventing is your dream. That beautiful Friesian would be happier doing some lower level dressage or taking you down the trail, while a thoroughbred or TB-cross would probably be great for eventing! Their endurance and desire to run would be terrific on the cross-country course. Many Quarter horses excel at western dressage, cutting cows, and ranch horse disciplines, yet because many are built slightly downhill, most would find it difficult to do FEI level dressage. On the other hand, that uphill Dutch Warmblood who could do FEI dressage beautifully, might be a total klutz and nut case if you asked him to play with cows.
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Horses have been bred for centuries for certain uses.

Along with educating ourselves about breed traits and what might be suitable for our needs, we can talk to experienced owners of the breeds you are interested in. Breeders, trainers, owners – most of them are happy to talk about “their breed.” Just know that they will be biased and you might not get the whole scoop, so be sure you do as much research as possible. Ask breeders specifically about any health issues in the breed. That doesn’t mean your horse will have that health issue, just that you need to be aware of a tendency in the breed. For example, many pony breeds tend to be Insulin Resistant, and so we must to be careful not to let them get overweight and feed appropriately lest they founder. Usually manageable, but something to know. Many breeds have something endemic to the breed but it’s just something to be aware of, especially for the vet check.

Certain temperaments are usually associated with each breed, too, although of course each horse is an individual. You may find as you research that you start narrowing down your choices to a few breeds that particularly interest you because they can do what you want, AND their temperament suits you.

  • Now start looking at online advertisements well before (3+ months if you can) you actually enter the market. Use national sites such as http://www.warmblood-sales.comhttp://www.dreamhorse.com (if you’re a dressage rider), or if you tend towards hunter/jumpers Find the sites that focus on your specialty (such as eventing, endurance, western, etc.) and peruse their ads. Often you can set up and save specialized searches  with your criteria (age 7-12, height 14.2-16 hds, etc.). I also look at local advertising sites (here in CA we have Watch lots videos of sales horses and make note of the ones that appeal to you. Keep good records! I make a file folder and keep notes in it on the horses I’ve looked at and what I think of them.

The time you invest NOW on the internet will save you time and money later. By looking at many horses now online, you will educate your eye and narrow down what you are REALLY looking for. 

You will also start getting an idea of what prices people are asking for horses, although you won’t know the selling price, which might be quite a bit lower. Still, it gives you an idea of what the horse of your dreams might cost.

Some of the horses you see advertised may still be for sale when you do enter the market, and you may want to go see them. The price may even have dropped by then, or be more negotiable! Many horses take quite some time to sell – months or even a year or more – while others sell in a few days. This isn’t always the horse’s fault if it takes some time. The rate at which horses sell depends on many factors, and a horse may be on the market for a long while and yet it’s still a really good horse. Maybe the horse is not located near a major city or airport (so no one bothers to go see it), or it is not well advertised, or it is a bit IMGP1118_2overpriced (but the seller might take an offer), or the video does not show the horse to good advantage. All these things can keep a horse on the market. Or it might be still on the market because…there’s a darn good reason and you would not want it either.

Looking at lots of ads for horses begins to educate your eye so that you can tell the difference (some times) between a horse who might be on the market a long time because he’s a little bit difficult to go see, or because he’s really not worth going to see. You also learn what you like and what you don’t like.

  • Refine your criteria as you go through the research and learning process. Keeping in mind the criteria you have decided on – age, training, temperament, price, etc. – see if you are finding it ANYWHERE in the country. Do this whether on not you plan to travel far to find your horse.

If I search for a few months and never see a horse that meets my criteria anywhere in the country…then I am being unrealistic and need to redefine my criteria.

I’ve seen this over and over again, where we want to get champagne horses on a beer budget. Can’t be done. 

There are lovely inexpensive horses out there – don’t get me wrong – but they will not have extensive and impressive show records, be young, super fancy, with absolutely no flaws or health issues and super amateur safe temperaments. This kind of horse is expensive. Every once in a blue moon you will run into a desperate seller who needs to sell a wonderful horse fast and you will get an incredible deal…but that is very unusual. Generally, if the horse is valuable, people know it and they will hold out for a good price. Or something close to it.

Be realistic about what you can afford and think carefully about where you might compromise juliete_02in order to find a horse that meets your budget AND your needs.

  • Ask: Is my search working well? Am I finding it? In my search, I should be seeing a number of horses that interest me, even if they are a little too expensive or a bit too far away. For example, if I’m shopping for a horse that is $10K or less, and I’m finding horses I like in the 12,500 range, that’s within negotiation range. But if everything I like is $25K, I’d better find more money or rethink my champagne tastes. I’m going to have to accept some kind of significant flaw (probably a health issue or past injury) in my dream horse in order for the seller to lower the price that much. If it’s a manageable issue or a cosmetic flaw, it may not matter so much. Alternatively, I may need to take a much older horse, who still has a lot to teach but whose price is lower because there is some risk associated with older horses. We have to consider trade offs in shopping unless we have a large budget. Remember the old adage in bargain hunting: if it doesn’t fit and doesn’t look good on me, then it’s no bargain. Hold out for a horse that “fits you.”

We begin the process of horse shopping with an “image” of what we think we want. It’s often quite unrealistic: the equivalent of looking for Mr. Tall, Dark, and Handsome (who of course is rich, charming, and adores us, too!). By the time we actually buy a horse, that image has become the flesh and blood horse who bonds with you (maybe Mr. short, funny, and cute?).

Finn and Edie: short, funny, and cute!

Finn and Edie: short, funny, and cute!

Next up: what to do when you go see a horse and how to evaluate the horse in the test ride.

Clipping – so many choices, so little time, so much hair, oh boy!

finn_02There may be people who enjoy clipping, but I am not numbered among them. C’mon – it is nitpicking, your arms get tired, within the first minute you are sweaty and covered with itchy hair that goes down your shirt and sticks to your sweat, and it’s so hard to get it right. This is fun? Sounds like dressage. No wait, we were talking about clipping.

There is a certain satisfaction to transforming your formerly hairy, shaggy beast into something relatively sleek. I say relatively because I usually end up with some track marks and a few little missed spots. Yes, the perfectionists among us are shuddering, but when I want a perfect job, I hire someone to do because I just can’t. For basic clipping when I’m not going to a big championship show, I save myself lots of money and do the dirty deed myself.

Choices! We have choices in clipping. Whole horse, of course, which looks gorgeous and sleek but requires blanketing and takes a long time to do. Head, legs, the whole thing.  At our barn, we pay extra for blanketing, so I don’t body clip until the winter show season starts. Meanwhile, though, if I don’t take some hair off my ponies they are drenched with sweat 10 minutes into their exercise and take forever to dry. Not going to work! Here’s where the Trace Clip is a good choice. You remove the hair from the lower half of the horse, leaving the top half covered. Most horses, in a reasonably mild climate, do not require additional blanketing even if it rains or gets chilly, since their top hair keeps them warm. Of course, those of you in really chilly climates may beg to disagree and I’m sure if you clip a horse and it’s 0 degrees, yeah, it needs some kind of blanket. Here in California a Trace Clipped horse can go all winter with no blanket, although I usually put a sheet on if it’s 45 degrees or lower.

Great article on body clipping, “how to”:

Illustrations of types of clips:

Finn after the somewhat disastrous Trace Clip

Finn after the somewhat disastrous Trace Clip

One last caution: be sure your clippers are up to the job – heavy duty, well maintained, blades sharp, and all the things you need ready such as Blade Lube, etc., etc. It’s an excellent idea to have a backup pair ready as well. Yesterday I got two thirds of the way through Trace Clipping my horse and the clippers just…stopped. Nothing. I have no idea why (yet). Fortunately a kind soul came by and offered me an old set of hers to finish the job. I finished sloppily (her clippers were not working quite right either, although they sort of functioned) and God knows what I’ll find when I take off his sheet today and look at it in the cold light of day, but at least the basic job is done. I can clean it up later. Lesson learned: have back up clippers ready at hand for any job bigger than small trimming.