Good Time Charlie

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Who Rescued Who

It's no secret that horses cost a lot of money. Equestrian sports aren't just for the elite like popular culture might make it seem, and for the average adult amateur, equestrianism is rarely as lavish as portrayed in the media, but horses are far from inexpensive no matter which way you look at them. As a student with significant loans, car payments, rent, insurance payments, etcetera etcetera, I know that many people question why I add another burden as great as horses to my already-significant financial struggles. And the answer to that is blatantly obvious to me, and a very small group of people who are close to me - but difficult for me to explain to the vast majority of people. It's not difficult because my reasoning is convoluted, as if trying to justify my "addiction", but rather because it's a very personal, sensitive reason. Something I don't like to talk about, something that is going to be very difficult for me to put to "paper" publicly - something I struggled to even admit to myself - but something that I think needs to be said.

People ask me why I got Charlie. Why I got a standardbred. And why, over two years ago, I decided to buy a horse 1200km away from a picture off Facebook, I don't know. I had decided the previous year that I wanted to casually - very casually - start looking for a new horse, one that I wanted to compete with, eventually, ideally in eventing. I wanted a green-broke gelding and I wanted anything but a bay with as much chrome as possible (ha). Over the year, I had inquired about and looked at a small number of well-bred local horses, but for whatever reason - sometimes it was cost, sometimes I just didn't feel the connection was right - none of them fit the bill. But then one day, I saw this face on my news feed, and the rest, as they say, is history. (I did get him vetted first, though, and he came with a trial period. So I did my homework. Kind of.)

The first picture I saw of Charlie (J&M Acres Horse Rescue)

And then people ask me why I brought Charlie - a $500 standardbred - across the country with me, another 4000km, when I moved, when it would have been significantly cheaper to sell him and buy a "better" horse here (yes, I've actually been told that). A year ago, if you asked me, I would have given you answers that, though honest and heartfelt, were somewhat generic: he's my horse and I love him, he's young and it wouldn't be right to let him sit, and leaving or selling him never even crossed my mind (leaving Hal, my golden oldie, was one of my hardest goodbyes, and definitely the most tearful).

Since I got Charlie, I've seen him, on average, 5 days a week. Not always riding, but Hal requires daily medication, so I'd go give Charlie his grain, too. The first time I went on holidays after I got Charlie, before I left I promised him that I'd be back. Perhaps this was silly, but at least in the first year, I figured Charlie had been so used to being moved around that he could use a little reassurance. And so it became a kind of tradition - before I left for more than a day or two, I'd tell Charlie that "I'll be back, I promise I'll always come back". I did the same on my last visit to the barn before I moved, 3 weeks before Charlie was expected to arrive at our new destination.

Charlie's arrival in Sherbrooke

The general circumstances surrounding my move to Quebec were stressful, as any move is - but, over the previous 14 months I had another opportunity that I was working towards that ultimately fell through, due solely to a timing issue. Going back to school was only supposed to be my "back up plan", and it was more than a little tough for me to face the reality that I had decided to move on from my main goal. In retrospect, I had only needed to wait for another month. But - and this is one of my least-favourite sayings - it is what it is, and I have to live with my decision. It's gotten easier, but for the first several months, it was horrible. Every day, I recited to myself the reasons why my decision was the right one. I practically had a speech memorized that I'd repeat to myself, countless times a day, to try and lift my spirits. Those close to me often reiterated these same reasons when I expressed my lingering disappointment to them. But it just didn't matter. No matter what I did, no matter how sound my justifications were, no matter how many times I tried or others tried to make me feel better, I sank into what I can truthfully say was the darkest times of my life. In the past, I'd struggled a little through my bachelor degree with depression and anxiety, but this was incomparable despair. I'd let myself down, I'd sold myself short, and I was stuck somewhere, both literally and figuratively, I didn't want to be. I felt as if I was a prisoner to myself. I was sinking deeper and deeper into a hole and the harder I tried to fight my way out of it, the further I sank.

The only light in my life was Charlie. Without a doubt, the only thing that took my mind off of how horrible I felt 23 hours a day was the one hour I spent in the saddle. The only thing that got me out of my house and interacting with people in the evenings and on weekends when all I wanted to do was hide under my blankets. And the only thing that kept me going in my most unspeakably horrible moments was the promise that I made Charlie. That I'd always come back. Those four words, a simple, silly promise, ridiculously whispered into a horse's ears, saved me.

And I know, now, why Charlie came into my life.

Scoff, if you wish; I will understand. I know I sound foolish, and if I had read something like this a year ago, I would have thought it romantic and immature. Maybe I am daft for spending more money on my horse every month, especially during show season, than I do on myself. Maybe it wasn't the best use of $500 ($1500 after the vet check and transport) to buy a pacer from a province away with an ultimate goal of competition. Maybe I'd have blue and red ribbons to show for this season so far instead of brown and white if I'd chosen to buy a new horse here. And I'd definitely have chalked up fewer hungry days if I didn't have a horse at all. But, if you ask me, those things all pale in comparison to what Charlie has done for me.

And I can't help but wonder who rescued who.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Unharness the Potential (Realistically)

Unharness the potential! Raise your standards! Change the stigma!

These are all catch phrases used passionately to advocate for Standardbreds in equestrian disciplines off the track. Those that have standardbreds love them, and we know the harsh stereotypes that these wonderful horses face to be exaggerated and unfair. An increasing number of off-the-track standardbred advocates have been coming forward recently, speaking openly and proudly of their own talented horses who have seen success in a variety of sports, while encouraging others to ignore the myths and give these misunderstood horses a chance. And, slowly, one horse at a time, it seems to be working.

Charlie at the Concours Equi-D, in his first show jumping class. 
Photo credit: Tom von Kapherr and Gabrièle Roy Photography

And that is truly wonderful.

But. There is always a "but".

Those of us with standardbreds, those of us who know them for what they are, are so passionate about them. It's difficult not to think and act solely with emotion when we hear some of the ignorant comments and questions that we do about our horses: "he's pretty, for a standardbred", "what do you mean you ride your standardbred?", "does he canter?" or "does he jump?" or even "does he trot?" being just a few of the most common and most ridiculous. We take our horses places and show off their brands proudly, answering "yes, he is", with an ever-so-slightly cocky smile, to the question "wait, is your horse a standardbred?" until we become known as "the girl (or guy) with the standardbred". And we wear that label with confidence and honour and pride. But - and here it is - in matters where there is such passion involved, it is important to execute a certain amount of caution, so as not to overpower other important aspects of the issue at hand, such as logic and reason. Passion is wonderful, and necessary, and it is where many great movements start, but as these movements start to gain momentum, we must take a moment to step back and look at the object of our passion without rose-coloured glasses.

Our third round (of three) at the Concours Equi-D, our first show jumping show. It took us three rounds to go (double) clear - and that's absolutely okay.

Thinking logically about our passion is absolutely crucial. If we want our "movement", for simplicity's sake, to continue to gain ground, it must also gain - and maintain - credibility. And if we want credibility, we must be realistic. In this movement of ours - to change the stigma that exists against standardbreds in non-racing sports - we have to think about the most effective, most efficient, and most plausible way to convince nay-(neigh?-)sayers that we are not just up on our soapbox, crying about our plight to Save the Standardbreds(!) from the horrible, unjust world of equine stereotypes and politics. There is already enough of that amongst equestrians that isn't taken seriously. We have to show that there is substance to what we are saying.

I'm not going to sit here, from behind my computer screen, having owned a grand total of 2 horses - only 1 of which a standardbred - and tell you that standardbreds are the best horses in the world. I'm not going to tell you that if you get a standardbred, your horse will be easy to trailer, and brave, and patient, and a pro at handling stressful situations, and, and, and, just because he's a standardbred. That's simply not realistic. Quite frankly, if I had been told these things about standardbreds, and thus had been expecting them, I would have been severely disappointed in Charlie.  I will, however, tell you my own version of the truth about my own standardbred, and let you form your own opinions about whether a standardbred is right for you - and, at the very least, open your mind to the possibility that they do have the potential to be something other than harness horses.

Where we started, two years ago.
Photo credit: Franziska Laue.

Speaking out about and broadcasting how wonderful standardbreds are, saying that they should be given a chance off the track, is great - truly, it is. But, there's the potential to do their reputation more harm than good if they find their way into the hands of the wrong people. By the "wrong hands", I do not mean abusive owners or bad homes (although of course that applies); I mean, more specifically, people that, despite what may be the best intentions, aren't willing, or able, to provide them the support that they need to be successful in their second careers. For that very reason, you won't ever hear me make a sweeping statement like, "Make YOUR next horse a standardbred!". That kind of attitude can do more to promote stereotypes than combat them. The "wrong person" is the university equine sciences professor I had who taught, as part of his curriculum, that standardbreds are entirely useless for anything other than pulling a sulky on the track, because he had one once that, supposedly, wasn't even good enough to be a pack horse. The "wrong person" is also the coach who wouldn't let a girl ride her standardbred in pony club because she said that standardbreds, in general, are too dangerous.

While I would never want to discourage the right person from getting a standardbred as a sport horse, the simple truth of the matter is that these horses are not, by any means, for "just anyone". Please don't misinterpret my meaning, here; I do not mean that only those with exceptional horsemanship can be successful with a standardbred. That could not be farther from what I mean. I mean - and this is vital - that in order to be "successful" in the quintessential meaning of the word, all the pieces of the puzzle truly have to be firmly in place.

The individual who is doing the riding and training has to be entirely committed to the horse: committed to bonding, in and out of the saddle, and dedicated to training, no matter how long it may take to grasp a "simple" concept, such as rhythm or relaxation. Standardbreds are athletic, and talented, and are more than capable of becoming excellent riding horses, and yes, even sport horses, but we have to appreciate that they are built, and trained on the track, differently than any other horse. Even compared to other horses whose "intended" purpose was not riding - off the track thoroughbreds, for example - it can take a standardbred longer to understand basic principles of riding, and this can be discouraging. Standardbreds are not a horse you can realistically expect to be ready for the show ring, for example, in a matter of a couple months (although, of course, you may be pleasantly surprised). And, let's not forget, the success of any given standardbred in disciplines off the track is just as individual as their success on the track - just as the success of any horse in any discipline is individual.

Be patient with your standardbred. Be realistic with your expectations and appreciate what they give you. 
Photo credit: Tom von Kapherr and Gabrièle Roy Photography

Further to that, but absolutely just as critical, the other people involved in the horse's life - the owner's/rider's coach, their family and friends, even the barn staff - have to, at the very least, be entirely supportive of the rider in their pursuit of riding/training/competing a non-traditional sport horse. This doesn't mean they have to understand why the rider has chosen a standardbred, or even that they have to believe in the horse's abilities, but it does mean that they cannot let their own opinions about off the track standardbreds get in the way of the rider's ambitions. Hearing "why don't you just get a nicer horse?" or "you paid HOW MUCH to ship a STANDARDBRED across the country?" enough times from important people in a person's life can detrimentally affect the rider's attitude towards their horse, whether they realize it or not. And, from my own experience, I can say with absolute certainty that a coach's attitude towards a student riding a standardbred is a huge factor in the progression and development of that particular horse/rider team. If the coach thinks it's a waste of time to try and train a standardbred, it will be; but, even if the coach isn't entirely convinced, being positive and treating that horse/rider team like any other can make the world of difference. Once again, this can be said about any coach's attitude towards their students, regardless of the horse. Support from "the top" is crucial.

A supportive coach is another important piece of the puzzle. 

So, what I mean to say in all of this - yes, please unharness the potential. Go out there and raise your standards and change the stigma. It's time for that to be done. But do so realistically.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Go and Play Ambassador Update 2

On May 7, Charlie and I had our first show of the season: the Printanier de Bromont, where we competed Pre-Entry and Entry level Combined classes. I was so proud of Charlie that weekend - words cannot even express it. If anyone who had seen Charlie at a show - or even at home, sometimes - last season, they would have been convinced that I was not riding the same horse. Last season, at our first show - a small schooling show - we spent more time on two feet than four in the ring. Each show got better, but he was still spooky, looking at everything, and paying less attention to me than virtually anything else. This show, even I could hardly believe the difference in Charlie between then and now. The environment at Bromont Olympic Equestrian Park is entirely unlike anything Charlie - or even myself - had ever experienced.

How we spent most of our first test at our first show, in March 2015.

First of all, when we arrived on Friday for our schooling round, we were rushed and running late, adding to my normal level of show stress; as soon as we got off the trailer we had to tack up and head straight to the warm-up ring. Sure, we'd been to shows before, but they had all been local circuit schooling dressage shows. This warmup ring was nothing like those we had experienced before: this was a jumping warm up ring, with three different lines of jumps and three different coaches screaming at who-knows-how-many riders. And then, our schooling round: the first time Charlie had seen such bright, colourful jumps with such loud wings (such as clouds and red maple leaves) - not to mention that the oxers were wider than we had practiced at home. Charlie took every jump like a total pro! It was obvious that our training and the development of our working relationship had paid off; with all the distractions, Charlie stayed tuned in with me the entire time, and jumped everything I pointed him at, no questions asked. This in itself was a victory at the show, ribbons or no.

Our schooling round at the Printanier de Bromont.

The next day, our first class wasn't until after lunch - something I wasn't used to. We spent the morning walking around the stables of the show grounds to get Charlie used to his new environment. The biggest struggle we faced all weekend was the first time we went down to the dressage warm up ring; it was in the Olympic stadium, with huge flags flapping incessantly in the wind, and the music for the freestyle blaring over the loudspeaker. All of these new stimuli at once seemed, at first, to be a bit much for Charlie, and I was worried for a second that we would have a flashback to 2015 Charlie - but, once again, he surprised, and impressed me, with his focus on me. We were schooling perfectly in no time. Our dressage rides went very well, much better than any test we rode last season; the critical errors were essentially all my fault, and there was minimal spooking at the Charlie-eating monsters at the judge's booth.

Riding the Entry level dressage test. Photo credit: Back Home in Bromont Equestrian Photography. 

The weekend of the show was the first hot weekend of the year, so that took a toll on Charlie, combined with the stress of a show. He was very tired after our dressage rides, but we still had two Combined jumping/cross country rounds to go. Our first round went better than I could have hoped; while we struggled, but successfully made it, over some of the scarier cross-country jumps, including a terrifying skinny (which thankfully had wings), the stadium jumps proved to not even be worth a look. Charlie came alive in the ring; I could tell he was truly enjoying his job in that moment, and he was fuelled by our faithful supporters cheering us on in the crowd. I came out of that round just laughing, grinning ear to ear like I had slept with a hanger in my mouth. 

Unfortunately, due to fatigue in both horse and rider and largely rider error - it was 7pm by this time - the line to the skinny came up faster than I had anticipated and I let him look at the jump just a little too hard, resulting in our elimination. But that did not bring me down from my high from the previous round. Charlie had done me so proud that day; my baby chicken Charlie, out there at an Olympic park, competing like that is what he was born to do. He had given me a glimpse of what I know he is capable of; he'd shown me how much he has grown in such a short period of time, giving me so much hope as to how much farther we can go. He tried his heart out for me that weekend, and I could not ask for more from him than that. And, to top it all off, we went home with a fancy 3rd place Bromont ribbon! But that's just bonus. 

The terrifying skinny - no scope, no hope, right Charlie?! Photo credit: Back Home in Bromont Equestrian Photography. 

Photo credit: Back Home in Bromont Equestrian Photography. 

A shiny 3rd-place ribbon for Charlie!

Since the show, Charlie and I have been quite dedicated in our training, working on becoming more confident over jumps and through a course. With Charlie, I have really learned that I have to be absolutely 100% focused on our task, on my aids, and on the course. 99.9% is not good enough with Charlie. He's becoming increasingly honest over jumps, as he grows to enjoy jumping more and more, and as he strengthens and becomes increasingly fit (and boy, is he fit!). Even so, I still have to remember that he is a young horse who hasn't even been jumping for 6 months yet, and I can't let my focus or the sharpness of my aids slip; this is what got us into trouble in our last round at the show. Everything is a learning experience, and it is my job as a rider, and as Charlie's leader, to make the most of them.

We had originally planned for a show jumping show on May 28, however unfortunately, due to lack of entries, the show was cancelled; as such, our next show will, again, be a show jumping show, on June 25, where we will compete at 0.75m. We will be that much more prepared for our next show - we've even started to work on flying changes and changing leads over jumps, a big step for Charlie! 

Monday, 2 May 2016

Go and Play Ambassador Update 1

The Charlie that left Alberta nearly six months ago was very much a baby. He was terrified of everything, reactive, and could be quite obstinate from time to time. In the last six months, though, Charlie has had a world of new experiences - and, now, I have a horse who, though still only 5 years old and still very young, is beginning to mature into a respectable young man.
Charlie, just after getting on the trailer in Edmonton last November to head to Quebec.

From the day that Charlie got on that trailer in Edmonton, his life went from predictable and perhaps somewhat mundane, to quite the contrary. He spent 8 days travelling across the country, being transferred from trailer to stall and back again countless times, travelling through the prairies' first winter storm and making me, on the other side of the country, already lonely and sad, worried sick (I'm sure the hauling company didn't miss my daily phone calls after they dropped him off). Then, when he finally got off the trailer, Charlie became an indoor horse. I'm sure, although not certain, that in his brief stint as a track horse, Charlie spent a lot of time in a stall; but, from the little knowledge I have of that period of his life, he was turned out to pasture quite quickly after his first attempt at training failed. In the 20 months that I had owned him at that point, though, he had been a strictly, 24/7/365 outdoor horse. So, after being plucked from his field and spending 8 days trekking across the country, Charlie became an indoor horse. That took some getting used to, and was just one of the new experiences he was faced with.

In Edmonton, Charlie and I had only trained in walk-trot and training level dressage. I do believe that dressage is key to a good foundation for any riding horse, regardless of the intended discipline; as my goal with Charlie has always been eventing, however, it was a natural starting point. Charlie had been over little 18" raised poles and cross rails before, mostly as training exercises to help with his gaits, but he had never truly jumped.  In January of this year, the start of Charlie's 5-year-old year, I felt Charlie was mature enough, physically, and mentally, to start jumping, so we began taking jumping lessons.

The transformation in Charlie since we began to jump has been astounding. I began to see improvements in all of his gaits, but most predominately in his canter, almost immediately. As his muscles began to develop, it became easier for him to hold himself in proper frame for longer and longer, and with that his ability to relax under saddle has also improved; I can now successfully cue for a more connected frame and switch to a long, loose rein - something that was severely lacking in our repertoire previously.
 Dressage schooling, nice and relaxed: April 30, 2016

When we first started jumping, though, Charlie still lacked a lot of confidence. He would still balk at almost every jump if it was just a little different than the last one he'd seen. In early April, we did a "mini clinic" to introduce some cross-country jumps into a Combined course. Charlie was all over the place that day - everything was brand new and terrifying. But, we worked through it. He saw other horses do it, and after some discussion - not really arguing, anymore, like it might have been just a few weeks earlier - he tried everything.

Combined Clinic: April 3, 2016

And that clinic turned a new page for Charlie. After those rides, we no longer had to work so much on the approach to the jump - 9 times out of 10, we got there ok, whereas before, it was a win if we just got to the jump well enough to clamber over it. Now, we could work on the landing, on the ride after the jump, and eventually, on the ride to the next jump. It's still very much piecemeal, but slowly, we are softening up the edges and blending one phase of a jump into the next, and one element of a course into the next. Now, when we get to a jump, or a combination, it still isn't pretty all the time, but between the two of us, we figure out a way through it. Sometimes, Charlie is 100% in my hands, and he listens to all my aids, and we glide over it beautifully; other times, I goof, and Charlie problems solves, on his own; he figures out his own way over it - something, again, that wouldn't have happened just a few weeks ago. I had a moment a week or so ago, during a jumping lesson, where Charlie gave me a glimpse of the horse I know he can be; the horse that, when he's older and more mature still, and has a few more miles on him, will be a solid mount, one whom I can take anywhere. This moment, though fleeting and brief, gave me the encouragement I needed to keep chipping away at this young man to find the horse and athlete I know he is capable of being.

Schooling a mini course: April 26, 2016

Charlie's jumping transformation, in pictures:
 March 14, 2016
 April 3, 2016
April 26, 2016

Taking Charlie on his first trail rides were another new experience for him. His first one, he was excellent, but the one after that, for some reason, was just too much for him, and we had some kinks to work out. A few days in a row of trail rides - one of which had more distractions than I could ever have imagined possible in a 1 hour ride - and we were so comfortable on the trails that we went for our first gallop in a matter of days. We even go on little hacks around the back of the property by ourselves to cool down after a ride, now.

Looking out over the Mines de Capelton on one of our trail rides

All of these changes in Charlie have one common denominator: we are finding our groove. We are building our relationship. We're strengthening our bond. And by this, I don't mean just that Charlie greats me with a nicker when he hears me coming down the barn aisle. I don't mean that he looks forward to spending some time with me, or even that he looks forward to our rides (all of which, I really believe, he does, and has for a while). I mean, more specifically, developing our working relationship. This is a very different relationship than the one which we have on the ground together. On the ground, we are best friends, we enjoy each other's company, and that is wonderful and important. But in the saddle, it's a different kind of relationship. We are working on trusting each other a little more. Charlie needs a confident leader, as he is not inherently brave; sometimes, I don't feel that I am particularly fit to be that leader, as I am not always brave, either, in the saddle or in life - but I have no choice, sometimes, but to be brave for the both of us. Charlie has to learn, and is learning, slowly, that, wherever I take him, if he sticks "with" me, we will be fine. Similarly, I have to gain a little more confidence in Charlie's ability to take the reins, quite literally, in the event that I am not the leader he needs me to be. We're getting there. Slowly, but surely. Every ride is a new set of challenges, and there's always something new to learn; but, at the same time, every time I get in the saddle, I notice something - even if it's something small - that encourages me, that tells me, yes, what we're doing is working. Slowly, but surely.

Love the Brand!

Next Saturday, May 7, is our first show of the season! It is also our first non-dressage show; it's a Combined show, a condensed form of Eventing designed to introduce green horses (or riders) to the sport of eventing, and the Stadium Jumping and Cross Country phases are combined into one phase - cross country jumps are placed in the course with stadium jumps. We are competing at the two lowest levels: Pre-Entry (Walk-Trot and 2'0" obstacles), and Entry (Entry dressage test and 2'6" obstacles). 

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Lesson Recap 4: Part Two - On the Bit

Continued from Lesson Recap 4: Part One - On the Trails

Dressage Lesson: On the Bit

After four consecutive days of both mentally- and physically-intense workouts, our lesson on Sunday was relatively low-key, however nonetheless very important. While we ran through one of our tests for our upcoming combined show (now less than 3 weeks away...double eek!), we spent the majority of the hour working on getting Charlie on the bit. At this point, even though our lesson was outside, we were back to our double-jointed snaffle.

Previously, to encourage Charlie into the contact, I asked for it rather gently. It worked, well enough - taught him where I want him to be - but now it is a matter of asking him to stay there. This involves a little bit more active riding on my part. On one exercise, we worked on a circle, yielding in and out between 10 and 20 meters. For this exercise, I had to, above all, keep a conscious effort of maintaining my outside rein contact steady and firm, and using my outside leg in concert, to prevent him from drifting or becoming crooked. At same time, I have to encourage a bend to the inside with my inside rein, be to be giving within my contact and follow his mouth. My coach walked beside Charlie on the ground to help fine-tune my rein aids at the start of the lesson, to help more accurately communicate with Charlie what I wanted before I quite got the hang of it myself. It was tough for both of us; I would work on my inside rein and forget my outside, or I'd remember both my hands but forget my legs; and Charlie, though we were just at the walk, was working hard both physically and mentally to try and figure out just where I wanted each part of his body to be.

On the next exercise, we worked between the halt and walk. Charlie knows the position I would like his head at the halt, yet he does not keep it there, and when I ask him to walk on, he pulls his head up and out of the contact. To discourage this, I would ask a few times for him to be on the bit at the halt, and release in between. After repeating this 2 or 3 times to my satisfaction, I would ask him to walk on, but if he tried to pull the reins out of my hand, I would ask for more forward. This will be our homework for the week; he improved after repeating this many times in the course of our lesson, alternating it with the previously described exercise, but he still prefers to walk on with his nose above the vertical.

While I will be the first to attest to the versatility of this breed, these horses are not natural dressage horses. You simply cannot expect them to "get it" as quickly as dressage-bred horses do; it does not come natural to them, at all. What might take only a few weeks to communicate to a horse who is naturally more inclined to dressage, could take a standardbred double the time, if not longer. And, even within standardbreds, some are more inclined to dressage than others. The importance in this is that you must have time, patience, and dedication to make a dressage horse out of these guys. They certainly have the work ethic, determination, and dedication themselves to give it their best shot, but in fairness to them, you need to be realistic with your expectations in terms of both their innate ability, and a timeline of your goals.

Birthday Boy

Charlie also celebrated his 5th birthday last week, on April 14. Happy birthday handsome man!

Happy trails!

Lesson Recap 4: Part One - On the Trails

Lesson Recap 4 is, once again, a bit of a summary of all of our learnings from last week, not just in our lesson on Sunday. All of last week was one big lesson for Charlie and me. Our rides were mostly spent on the trails, for a number of reasons, rather than in the arena, and this provided a few different learning opportunities. On Sunday, we turned it down a notch in our lesson and worked on a less-exciting, however just as, if not more, important aspect of our riding.

This blog is long, so I have separated it into two parts: Part One - On the Trails, and Part Two - On the Bit.

On the Trails: Troubleshooting

I mentioned in my blog post Lesson Recap 3 that, following our lesson last Sunday, Charlie decided to ad-lib a little on our trail ride last week. Even though he misbehaved on the trail, I managed to work him nicely in the outdoor ring when we got back, ending our ride on a positive note. The next time I went to ride him outside, though, he tried his bolting maneuvers in the ring, as well, and - spring fever or no - this is simply not acceptable. So, seeing as our show was, at that point, in a little over 3 weeks (eek!), I realized we had some work to do before he became too comfortable with this pattern.

Following these incidents, I mentioned Charlie's behaviour to the coaches at my barn; although I have done all the physical work to train Charlie myself, I am not a horse trainer, and I know when to ask for extra help. The spin-and-bolt is Charlie's signature bad behaviour, so it is something I am familiar with, but it is clearly not an issue that I had successfully resolved in prior attempts to do so. Both coaches suggested that the next time I take him on a trail, I swap my simple double-jointed loose ring snaffle for a leverage bit. While I am not one to condone the use of tools, including stronger bits, as a crutch, I can appreciate that there is a time and place to use them as a training aid to get past a particularly difficult bump in the road. This is not unlike last summer, when we were still in Edmonton, and Charlie went through a phase of spinning-and-bolting while I was leading him to/from his paddock; to correct this behaviour, one of the coaches at my barn, an experienced trainer, suggested I use a chifney bit to correct this behaviour. She showed me how to use it properly and safely, and sure enough, after only a handful of uses - I think it was 3? - he has not repeated this behaviour on the ground, and my chifney is lost somewhere in the black hole that is the bottom of my tack locker.

Trail One (AKA The World's Scariest Trail Ride)

Keeping this instant in Charlie's training in mind, I changed Charlie to a ported-mouth Pelham before our next trail ride the following day. I admit, I was very uncomfortable with it at first; I don't want to be the person that can only take their horse out on a strong bit, but I knew that the resurrection of the spin-and-bolt had to be corrected in a time-sensitive manner. On the trail, we were accompanied by 4 others: one of the coaches on an excitable yet brave thoroughbred, an 8 year old girl on a steady-Eddy school horse, and two fellow boarders, one on his own brave gelding and the other on her reactive mare. As per the coach's instructions, I placed myself between/behind her horse and the other brave gelding up front, with the reactive mare behind me and the school horse taking up the end.

It was within a minute or two of being off the property that I appreciated having the bit that I did. On the neighbouring property, someone had a large fire going, and directly across the street, someone else was using a power drill, out of sight behind some thick bushes. Charlie immediately tried the spin-and-bolt, but realized just as quickly that that was no longer an option - he managed to spin, but thought twice before bolting. With the encouragement from two horses coming forward from behind, and the two ahead of him continuing on down the road, I was able to correct his behaviour and, after the better part of a minute of having a discussion with him, we continued forward. The manner in which I corrected his behaviour was simple: whenever he spun, instead of stopping him mid-spin, I just completed the spin 360 degrees, kept my legs on, and - and this is key - my hands low, calm, and gentle. Following this incident, Charlie became a little reactive to the first passing car, trying briefly to spin-and-bolt once again, but this time stopping himself before he committed to the spin.

Each "scary" we passed following that, Charlie's decision to look to me for guidance, rather than panicking, became a quicker and more natural reaction - and he had plenty of opportunities to hone this skill on that ride. All in all, on that ride we encountered 2 explosions from the nearby quarry, 1 fire, 1 power drill, 3 cars, 1 truck, 1 dirt bike, 1 grader resurfacing the road (which passed us twice), 2 school busses, and 1 nail gun from a house being reshingled. And, keep in mind that this was only Charlie's 3rd trail ride, period.
The end of the World's Scariest Trail Ride, as indicated by the freshly-graded road.

Trail Two

This time we went a little farther, down a big hill to an old mine site, accompanied by the coach and two others. There is not much of significance to be said about our trail ride the following day, other than this: Charlie was excellent. Previously-terrifying vehicles were barely worth an ear flick and we had 0 spin-and-bolt attempts.
Looking out over the Mines de Capelton.

Trail Three

On our third trail ride, accompanied by just the coach, we upped the anti a little: since Charlie had been so excellent the previous day, and even, really, the day before that, we decided to try him on his first gallop. We went down another big hill - near the mine, but a different location - and walked all the way down, then asked for a canter on the way up. And it was incredible. Charlie absolutely loved it - I don't think he has ever enjoyed something quite so much - and it was so liberating for me. I have wanted to "open Charlie up" since the day I got him, but, as I'm sure you have gathered, he was simply not ready. And, once again, on the trails, Charlie was great, his reaction to scaries being to look to me for guidance rather than to simply panic.
A happy me and even happier Charlie at the barn following our very first gallop.

Interval Training

The next day, Charlie and I stayed off the trails, and instead worked on trot and canter sets in the outdoor ring. Not wanting to spend too long in the bit he was in, I switched out the ported Pelham for a jointed Pelham and used a rein converter. He was excitable on the lunge that day, that's for sure - but under saddle, he gave me no indication of misbehaviour, whatsoever, and we schooled very nicely. We even went for a little hack down the bridle path - alone - along the back of the property following our ride, and he was looky, but attentive to me, first and foremost.
On our hack following our interval training.

Continued in Lesson Recap 4: Part Two - On the Bit

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Lesson Recap 3 - Exercises, Oxers, and a Bonus

Long time no post! It's been a busy few weeks, with the long weekend, the clinic, I had a visitor from Edmonton (my dad), plus my school. Sorry for the lapse in posts. But, without further adieu - here is Lesson Recap 3 from today!

Exercise 1

This morning, we started with an exercise which mimics the principles of navigating a jumping course, without any jumps, and at first without any poles. Once warmed up a little at the walk, we started the exercise first as our trot warmup. In each corner, we completed a 10m circle; in between each circle - both on long and short sides - we accelerated our speed, but slowing down before the next corner. This exercise mimics a course in that we vary our speeds, in a controlled manner, to get from point A to point B, but our approach to each point, and our work at each point, must be controlled. Charlie and I struggle most in our approach to jumps in that we are off on our timing; Charlie is inclined to take off too early, and I am inclined to jumping ahead of him, rather than riding him to the base of the jump; this exercise was a way to work on this aspect of jumping on the flat. It is important to remember to maintain contact throughout the entire exercise; asking for more forward along the long side is not asking him to throw away the connection and engagement we develop on the 10m circle. We repeated this exercise on both reins.

Following this exercise at the trot, we completed it at the canter. This proved a little more difficult for us, because, as we know, Charlie is weaker in the canter. The most important aspect of this exercise at the canter is to ensure he stays balanced in the 10m circles. He likes to bend his neck too much to the inside, and he gets too crooked. On the same note, to improve this with Charlie, I have to work on the interaction of my inside and outside reins - inside opens, outside closes, yet keeping the contact equal overall. Further to this, I have to encourage him to keep his body straight - that is, his hips in line with his shoulders - on the 10m circle with my legs, using the outside leg to counter his tendency to bulge outward, while at the same time using both legs to encourage him forward if he starts to lose his canter. If this sounds complicated - well, you're right. It is. This is definitely on my "homework list" this week.

Exercise 2

Next, we switched the pattern to a figure 8, with poles along one diagonal, but using the same principles - forward down the sides, but riding deep, connected, and controlled into the corners. We did this pattern at the trot and canter as well, with the added element of lead changes - definitely with a lot of room for improvement there.


Finally, we replaced the poles in the figure 8 pattern with an oxer. I was very proud of how Charlie handled himself over the jumps today. As far as true oxers go, we've only ever jumped a little 18 inch baby one a few weeks ago; this time, they were bigger, and therefore scarier - but Charlie barely so much as looked at them. Today, there was not one refusal or run-out - a big accomplishment for us. This means that I am improving in my ability to ride him confidently to the jump, and wait for him, and that Charlie's confidence is improving as well as his ability to, himself, wait for the jump. Again, with the jump in the figure 8 pattern, it was important that I rode him in a connected, forward canter into the corner to set myself up for a straight line to the jump, and then ride him to the base and wait for him to go first.

Overall, I saw lots of improvements in Charlie today during our lesson, even since the clinic last week. He is more confident, and more excited, about the jumps, but he is able to contain his excitement enough such that he can approach the jump in a controlled manner. This means that, now, we can start focusing on after the jump - something we were unable to really do before, because there was so much work to do on just getting to the jump.

Bonus Ride

This evening, I decided to take Charlie out on the trails because it was such a gorgeous day, and I figured he had worked so hard he would be pooped. Well - I figured wrong. He was naughty on the trail and reminded me twice that he was bred to be a racehorse (with horses - two steps forward, one step back, right?). I always, always end on a good note - a horse never gets out of work by being naughty if I have anything to say about it. So, when we got back, we schooled in the large outdoor sand ring - a ring he'd never been in, and something I probably should have done before going on the trail (not-so-rookie mistake on my part). He did end up going very nicely in the ring, though, and I managed to put together a little video of his canter transformation, comparing where we started nearly 2 years ago, to where we are today: 
The first clip is from May 2014, only the third time I cantered him at all, and the first time I was able to get him to canter on the righthand lead. It may not really look like much of a difference, but it has been two years of hard work and dedication for both of us (and our coaches). If anyone ever says that it would be a waste of time to try to improve the gaits, especially the canter, of a standardbred, please show them this video. I also want to post this video to show that Charlie did not start with the canter he has now; it isn't luck that makes this standardbred canter better than another one. We still have a long way to go, no doubt, and plenty of room for improvement, and no, we may never have that grand prix canter - but improvements, and significant ones at that, are more than possible, if you're willing to put in the time and effort. 

That concludes Lesson Recap 3! On a completely non-horse-related topic, I just want to comment that I've been feeling pretty down and lonely since moving; but this weekend was just fantastic, by far the best since I moved. Thank you to the wonderful people in my barn for showing me such kindness and being so welcoming to me. I may start to feel at home here yet. 

Happy trails everyone!