The Tough Good Call

Lemme tell you a little story about something that happened recently.

First, the cast of characters: a 12yo girl at my barn, and her pony. Devyn is a total kickass barn rat (she’s my go-to rider for Francis and her equitation is out of this world), and she’s had Sadie Pony for 6 years. They qualified and competed at Pony Finals this year where they finished top 20 in their division and top 10 over fences. So clearly both Kiddo and Pony are really talented.

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The pony jumps like this literally every single time, she’s incredible

But Sadie is also starting to get a little older, so Devyn and her family decided to step down her workload after Finals. They’re looking for someone to lease her for the lower levels so that she can keep sharing the joy with another kid, without stressing her body by continuing to compete at full division height. So while she’s been in work since Finals, it’s been fairly light and she hasn’t jumped at that height in several months.

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Instead, Devyn has been preparing to move up to the Highs and totally CREAM me and Francis with her lease mare.

Fast forward to last weekend: Devyn got a notification that she and Sadie Pony had unexpectedly qualified for the WIHS Pony Eq, to be held 3 days from that notification. She was elated to hear this, but also shocked to hear so last minute.

So she and her mom- both a bit overwhelmed- immediately reached out to Trainer to talk about pros and cons. After going back and forth for a little while, Trainer stepped back and said: “I trust your judgement as a horsewoman. What do you think you should do?”

Without hesitation, Devyn said that she felt it would be unfair to ask her pony to go compete at that level without giving her the fitness and stamina needed to perform. She said it wasn’t worth risking her health.

So to recap: this 12 year old got a chance to compete at one of the biggest shows of the year, and turned it down because she put her pony’s health first.

I certainly don’t think I had that level of maturity at that age.

In the face of so much controversy in different disciplines about the next generation of horsemen and horsewomen, I am so incredibly proud to ride with such an excellent young horsewoman. One who works her butt off and seeks out opportunities to learn, and always loves her horse more than she loves competing. I’m proud of her family, for nurturing that love of learning and supporting her decisions. And I’m proud of my trainer for giving her students the education to make tough calls, then trusting her students to make healthy choices.

Next time I’m faced with a difficult decision, I hope that I can see as clearly as Devyn did.

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Horse First

I really liked Lauren’s post the other day about putting the horse first, and I’d like to chime in on that.

I’ve said several times how fortunate it is that I have a trainer/barn owner who is such a strong advocate for good horsemanship. But that’s not quite right. Calling it “fortunate” implies that I randomly picked a trainer and *phew* lucky me, they’re a good egg. It implies that good horsemanship is a nice perk rather than the reason I chose my trainer.

In reality, choosing my trainer was based almost entirely on her demonstrated dedication to the welfare of all horses in her barn. I certainly have competitive goals and am constantly striving to be the best rider I can be, but I knew that I wanted a trainer who puts her horses first every time.

It’s not just the basics: of course she makes sure all the horses have proper nutrition, and will adjust their feed based on workload, show schedule, turnout time, etc. She ensures they all have clean stalls, free access to water, plenty to eat, warm blankets, and gentle handling. She emphasizes proper grooming, cool downs, and tack fitting to her students.

More than that though, she has a stable full of happy horses who genuinely like their jobs. That’s no accident. That’s the result of careful, consistent training.

Under her guidance, we offer lots of praise when the horses offer good work. We take lots of breaks when horse and rider need a mental break. We gently but firmly correct bad behavior the first time so we don’t create bad habits. We push our abilities slowly and methodically, not rushing up the levels just to qualify for something. We focus on creating a good experience for the horse, THEN a good experience for the rider, and THEN getting the ribbons. We do lots of homework at home, so at the shows we’re not worried about schooling our horses.

Based on her guidance, we do not drug our horses. We do not punish them when they are confused or frightened. We do not overwork them into submission to make them too tired to misbehave. We do not use extreme bits or tack to substitute for gaps in training.

There is a reason that my trainer has my patronage. I trust her to always put Frankie’s needs first and to demand that same dedication from her staff and riders. This is not a fortunate benefit to riding and boarding with her, it is the REASON I ride and board with her.

So I’ll echo what Lauren said: there are plenty of shady characters out there, but my way of battling that is by choosing to give my business to the people who share the philosophy of “horse first.” Always.

Monday Tidbits

Fun little updates to start your week:

  • Saddle Updates: I talked to my local saddle rep that I bought my lovely glorious saddle from and had her take a look at Frankie. We tried a couple different saddles on and found one that fit him wonderfully….and had a flap that was way too short for me. But riding him in it was lovely- I could really feel the difference in his freedom of movement. We talked and debated the pros and cons of different options, and came up with a beyond ideal outcome: they are re-paneling my saddle! The tree was already fine, it was just the paneling that didn’t sit quite right on him. The saddle already fits me like it’s custom (it’s a 17.5 seat with a 5A flap, meaning it is a regular sized seat with the longest flap they make, forward. Not a common combo.), and now it’ll fit Frankie like it’s custom! Basically I’ll have a close-to-custom buffalo-leather Antares saddle for a small fraction of the price of a new one. This is why I love my saddle rep. She’s the bomb dot com.
  • Addy Updates: we haven’t found a new leaser for Addy yet, but her owners are just concerned with keeping her in consistent work when they travel for work. So during the weeks that they’re gone, I still get to hop on twice a week! It’s just a few times a month, but I’m incredibly grateful that they’re still letting me play an active role in Addy’s life. Even better: they understand that my finances are tied up with Francis and we’ve agreed that this arrangement is mutually beneficial with no need for money to change hands. Addy gets consistency with a rider who knows and loves her, her owners have the reassurance that someone who adores their horse is keeping an eye on things, and I get to have more saddle time with my favorite mare.
  • Other Horse Updates: I was chatting with a woman at the barn whose horse was getting spooky and naughty, and ended up hopping on and helping get her horse settled down. Her reaction was to ask my favorite wine and tell me her horse may need some conditioning rides, would I possibly be interested? I don’t anticipate it being a regular thing, but MOAR PONIES! OBVIOUSLY Francis is my priority at all times, but I will never turn down another ride. Danny Emerson said something about gaining mastery by spending the hours and days and weeks and years putting in the time- I really really really want to be a good rider, so I’m going to get as many hours in the saddle as I can.
  • Cool Barn Updates: my trainer is hosting a study group for our younger riders to prep for the USHJA Horsemanship Quiz Challenge. How cool is that?! They’re meeting every week to learn both theory and practical skills. I’m incredibly proud to ride at a barn that values horsemanship just as much as competition, and makes it a priority for our young riders. Can she host a study group for her ammies too??? I’ll bring the wine!

Hope all of you are having a FANTASTIC start to your week!!

How to Groom Your Gray Horse

Friends, we’ve all heard George Morris explain how to groom your horse properly: curry, hard brush, soft brush, damp rag. As our High King, we must listen to his wisdom.

I humbly submit this slightly altered version- with few differences!- that has been optimized for you and the gray horse in your life.

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A 22 STEP GUIDE ON PROPER GRAY-HORSE GROOMING:

  1. Assess the damage. There are stains, you just have to identify them. If your gray horse doesn’t have stains, then go away. But first tell us all how you did it.
  2. Marvel at the extent of said damage. How did she manage to get a poop stain INSIDE her ear?!
  3. Decide to pick hooves first. At least there’s a pretty solid guarantee that if nothing else, her hooves will be clean by the end of this.
  4. Curry all over until your arms are sore. Focus on the butt. Congratulate yourself on taking such good care of your pet unicorn.
  5. Grab the hard brush. Swish and flick motion, people. Levi-O-sa, not Levio-SA.
  6. Breathe in all the hair and dust you’ve just stirred up into a delicious dander-tornado and hack up a lung.
  7. Re-inspect for stains. They’re all still there. Seriously all of them. How did all that currying do absolutely nothing?
  8. Re-attack with gusto, fueled by rage. Arm starts to hurt as the anger fades. Start to loathe the curry comb. Ow my arm.
  9. Take a break to comb her mane. Did she actually manage to pee on her own neck???
  10. Maybe we could at least get her face clean?
  11. No dice, she rubbed her face into the clay mud and now she’s a Navajo war pony.
  12. Frantically search for options and catch sight of a sponge.
  13. Sponge and scrub at all the gross spots.
  14. Realize that somehow this is turning the dirt on her coat into mud that’s sticking just as tenaciously. Why is this mud so sticky? Is there secretly glue in the soil here?
  15. Give up entirely and hose your horse off. Use copious amounts of purple shampoo so your pet unicorn can be a beautiful glowing white. Find out that your horse has a sock on their hind leg that you never knew about.
  16. Wipe the tear from your-awestruck eye as you watch your stunningly gorgeous snow-white pony canter gracefully up a hill, framed by the setting sun.
  17. Wipe more tears as your stunningly gorgeous snow-white pony rolls around in a poop-mud slurry, taking special care to rub it deep into her mane.
  18. Get into staring contest with your horse, the smug bastard.
  19. Your horse wins the staring contest.
  20. Sigh and go home covered in white hair, dirt, mud, and Mystery Substance F.
  21. Try not to cry. Cry a lot.
  22. Repeat as needed.

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There you have it, folks! A simple, easy to follow guide on how to keep your pet unicorn shining brightly in the warmer weather!

Sorry George, but a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.

What Does Trainer Say?

Recently I had a lengthy discussion with my trainer about horse care, and I was so happy to hear that we have very similar philosophies on how to keep horses happy and healthy. She also had some new perspectives for me, so here’s the rundown on what we talked about:

  • Memory foam saddle pads- Not a huge fan. She made an interesting point that when the rider is posting or landing from jumping, the foam doesn’t spring back that quickly, so it’s not truly absorbing much shock. She’s a big fan of the classic sheepskin pads, because those move with the horse and are more breathable. I’ve been lusting after an Ogilvy pad, but now I’m going to consider it more. Readers with a memory foam pad- I’d love to hear your perspective on this!
  • Turnout- horses need it. End of story. She talked about how she worked in a professional dressage barn for a while after college, and one top mare received absolutely no turnout because it would throw out her back. Read that: this horse was stalled indefinitely because they thought any movement not under saddle would hurt her, and they couldn’t risk her career. Horses are made to wander and move around all day, not stand and wait for their rider! I feel so very strongly about this. It’s one thing to stall your horse when injured to keep them from getting hurt further, but horses are simply not made to stand still all day. The more outside time, the better. Addy is a case in point: when she had very limited turnout, she was a devil pony. Now she is so level-headed. I attribute that almost entirely to increased turnout.
  • Bits- better a softer hand with a stronger bit than a heavy hand with a gentler bit. Even the mildest bit can deaden a horse’s mouth if it’s being pulled on non-stop. If the horse is not responding to the simple snaffle, try a french link. If they’re heavy on the french link, try a slow twist. My trainer’s philosophy is this: if the rider has independent hands and can be trusted to release more once the bit is changed, that’s probably the right way to go. That’s why we moved up to a slow-twist with Addy recently- I’m able to be lighter with my hands than I was with the french-link and she respects my aids more. If the rider is still going to cling to the mouth, do not make the bit harsher. It has to be a conversation.
  • Regular saddle pads- probably not causing your horse to go lame/move better. This may be a little controversial; I’ve read quite a few product reviews by fellow bloggers that feel very strongly that certain pads make their horse feel better, and I don’t want to step on any toes. Maybe I just haven’t found that magic pad yet. But I use different pads all the time with Addy, and it had never affected how she goes. Whether or not she had turnout that day, how cold it is, how hard the footing is, how floppy-potato I am, all these things definitely make a big difference. But swapping out one all-purpose pad for another hasn’t done a goshdarn thing. Trainer is in agreement- equipment absolutely changes how a horse moves, but it’s not at the top of the list of factors she checks for. The first is always the rider.
  • Showing up for work- we actually chatted about this for quite a long time, because it’s so nuanced. If a horse really hates his job, then it’s probably not the right fit. Addy loves jumping, so we jump. Some horses hate jumping, so they don’t. There’s always the give and take to figure out what a horse’s “calling” is- the discipline that allows them to shine and be happy in their work. But there are always going to moments/days/stretches when a horse does not want to do their job (humans have those moments. Dogs have those moments. Every creature has those moments where they say “won’t.”). Or they want to do their job, but they want to do it their own way instead of listening. Case example: Addy loves jumping. Addy occasionally ducks out of jumps that she finds scary. In these cases, it’s my job to give her support and encouragement that the jump won’t eat her, but in the end she is going over that jump whether she wants to or not. She knows her job quite well; she needs to show up and do it. This is a rather rambling bullet, but here’s the TL;DR version: the horse needs to like their job overall, but the rider needs to push the horse through those off days.
  • Expectations- horses will generally feed back to you what you expect. Whether that’s expecting and enforcing personal space on the ground or expecting a spook in the scary dark corner. By anticipating a spook, the horse senses that there’s something to be scared about. By not enforcing boundaries on the ground, the horse knows he can get away with being pushy. While not always the case, if we expect better from our horses then we often receive it.

Readers, please share your perspectives on any and all of these topics! We all have different approaches to horsemanship and I’d love to hear yours!