Cloud's Honor Racing

Cloud's Honor Racing
www.GoodHorse.org

Cloud's Honor Riding

Cloud's Honor Riding
www.LeightonFarm.com

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Training Guide Additions

I wrote a book about how racehorses live at the track and how to transition them to other disciplines. Click here to see it.

It's a work in progress since people regularly contact me and ask questions about their retired/retiring racehorse. When I answer them I also get a new addition for the book. I learn something new from the horses themselves, practically every day so that contributes even more topics for the book. I decided to start posting the new additions here. We create revised editions of the book at least once a year and we make dvd's to distribute at events where Thoroughbred Placement and Rescue appears.

One of my latest entries is about teaching the racehorse to jump. I haven't added it yet as I'm still tweaking it. It follows:

When you bring your horse home to your farm remember that he is still a racehorse. He may be a racehorse that’s on the farm resting, but he has been bred, raised and trained up to this point to do one thing and that is to race. You now must show him that he is going to become something different. If you plan to jump your horse here are a few things to consider.

There are trainers who take horses directly from the track and begin jump training immediately. I was in a Jimmy Wofford gymnastics clinic a few years ago where there was a rider who had gotten a horse from the track only the week before. He was a steeplechase trainer/rider and planned to run the horse in steeplechase races. This works well because steeplechase and hurdle horses are racehorses that run over fences.

If you want to event, do jumpers, hunt or just recreational jump, that approach is going to give you less than desirable results. You must first teach your new horse to be a riding horse and when he understands that, introduce jumping. This is not to say that some horses come off the track that never really were racehorses. It can be because of inadequate training but most of the time they just never embraced racing. You still must give them the basics.

Each horse is ready to learn to jump at a different time. Many times I introduce walking and then trotting over poles very soon after they come to the farm. If the poles elicit any excitement for the horse, I know that we’ll be walking over poles for a while before I show them a jump. One clue that the horse is not ready is if the he becomes excited when you start to jump him. If this happens you need to back track. Also be careful that you aren’t making a “big deal” out of it. If you are tense or excited, he will sense that and mirror it. Calm, easy going introductions work best. Many people just casually pop them over logs and natural obstacles while trail riding. I often wonder if horses take to this so much easier because most of the time the riders are more relaxed too. This is a good way to start.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Old Hilltop

Vet Imaging was in town this past week and they invited me to come and speak to a room full of veterinarians on both Friday morning for breakfast and then again on Monday night at dinner. They also raised donations for TPR and I am very thankful for their kindness and support.

This event was held at Pimlico Racecourse. Pimlico was the first place I galloped racehorses and I still remember the magical feeling I had the first day I walked onto the backstretch. There's a lot of history there. When you walk onto any backstretch there is an energy there that can't be experienced anywhere else. It comes from not only the people who work with the horses, but from the horses themselves.

I galloped horses around that oval for nearly twenty-five years. I knew the people there. Many of the backstretch workers there were generational. Their father's had worked there as had their fathers before them.

If you went there in the afternoon the horsemen could all be found in certain places. Even after I moved to southern Maryland, if I went back there for the races, those guys were standing leaning against a wall as you walked out onto the apron near the entrance to the paddock. Bernie Bond's ashes were spread at the wire. I guess Bernie is the only one who is still there.

I haven't been back to Pimlico since they closed it for training until last Friday morning. It was appropriate that I arrived during what would have been training hours. It was a ghost town. It was clean and quiet. There were a few security guards around, but not the ones who I had known for years. They were nice, but they weren't my people. As I walked into the grandstand past the paddock and up the stairs, I felt an emptiness. Something was missing - no everything was missing. Pimlico had been living in my mind as it had been, alive and full of energy. With horses, people and excitement. Trainers were on the apron watching their horses gallop. I had never thought about what it was like after they closed it.

I got up to the dining room and walked to the front windows that overlook the racetrack. I galloped around that track thousands of times. It was sealed and the grandstand was empty, even the benches were gone. Most of the monitors were gone from the dining room. There were electrical hookups hanging where they had once been.

I was glad to be home, but home was gone and that made me sad. I wondered if Pimlico would ever live again, but I already knew the answer. I had been one of the last to experience the majesty and presence of Old Hilltop. From now on it would only be a shadow of it's former self. Shining for one day a year on Preakness day and making those of us who knew her long for what had been.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Beautiful Girl

I've gotten my beautiful girl back in training - finally. It's been a very long haul, but she was weaned from her baby a month ago and came back home to Leighton Farm. I was worried about her reaction to being separated from Z but she basically told me she'd gladly trade that baby for her turn out blanket. Graycie gets colder than any horse I've ever met and Jerry looked at me like I had six heads when I asked him about blanketing her at his place. I decided to wait until she got home. To be honest she did cry about the separation, but the blanket helped.

I know much more about training horses from racing to riding horse now than I knew when I had her in training before. Graycie spent her entire race career as the Queen of the World and I thought she could have that when she became a riding horse too. Not so much! She needs to learn to listen to me and have at least a shred of obedience. She basically looks as me as a convenience, not a boss. This made for some exciting rides on this incredibly athletic horse.

I made a plan to retrain her with all of my new knowledge starting with the behavior modification and I had visions of her being really mad and nasty. I expected this to be a very long haul, but I made a pact with myself that I would not move on in her training until we establish our new relationship. This was a real opportunity to start over. This time I want to do it right.

About a week ago I put her in the grooming stall on cross ties which was her first time with no problem. I groomed her, which she loves and saddled her without issue. It was the first time she'd had a saddle in over a year and a half. As we walked down the drive to the arena we did walk halts and after the third one she willingly walked when I spoke the words "walk on" and halted when I said "ho". She is very, very smart. Wow, I thought, this is going to be easier than I thought, but in the back of my mind I knew, this was Graycie. She wasn't going to give up her power that easy.

We proceeded into the arena where I planned to longe her. Now in the past, longeing was considered by Graycie to be the most heinous activity a human could dream up. To say she hated it would be an understatement. Add to that the fact that I did not understand longeing when I taught her how to do it and you have a recipe for failure. She basically knew how to run around in a circle on the longe line. Not much control there.

I know have tools in my tool box. I knew I had to start from the beginning with complete control and I also knew she expected complete chaos. She went out on the line uptight and on the verge of cutting and running. I asked her said "ho", she walked a bit faster and her head came up. I said "Graycie, I'm going to shank you." She said "so what" and started to trot. I shanked her and said "ho, walking". She did the downward transition to walk as she looked at me with the expression of I can't believe you did that. I did not want to trot until I had the walk. We did walk, halt transitions and in true Graycie style, she understood quickly and began to respond to my voice commands. "This is fun, Human, aren't you cute." When she would tighten her frame and lift her head, I would halt her because I knew she was thinking trot.

It was going well. Much better than I expected, but I also knew it couldn't be this easy, could it? She was becoming more obedient with each passing moment. I changed directions. To the right is a little more difficult for her, but she managed well. After about the fourth walk/halt transition, a disgusted look came over her face. As if to express "Wait a minute here, you're taking my power away, forget it human" and with that she was Airborne One. That's a little expression I use to describe what she does when she's not happy. It's not pretty and did I mention she is the most athletic horse I have ever encountered? I kept my composure and we "conferred" on who really was in control, out of the arena and up to the side of the barn. I never left my goal of the walk/halts. Graycie eventually gave in and went back to responding when I asked. It was a good day.

Now over the past ten days, I have worked her every day. She is now doing walk/halt, walk/trot, and most recently trot/canter transitions. Aside from a few disagreements, she has been doing as asked. This is good.

Yesterday I did not get to her until late. I normally do her as the first horse in the morning, but we've just changed her turn out time so I did her around 5 p.m. Last horse of the day. She seemed really grateful and it occurred to me that she probably thought I wasn't going to work with her. Graycie has always loved training, except when she had the foot problem. She enjoys a routine. I am starting to see a softer side to her. I think she is happy that I am taking more control. The responsibility is off of her and she seems to be relaxing.

I know she will always be Graycie and she will always have that athletic ability to manufacture exciting resistance, but this new foundation I am laying with her is exciting because I think she is embracing it.

My beautiful girl is back and this is very good for me.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Hanging on the bit and dropping his head

I got the video of my ride on Willie at Morven before his last competition which was at Rubicon. As I watched it, it occurred to me that I over reacted to the fact that I couldn't keep hold of the left rein. This made Willie pull harder. I could clearly see that what I should have done is just dropped him. If I hadn't given him something to pull on, he couldn't have pulled. He would have been responsible for carrying the both of us and I wouldn't have had to imitate Gumby. My mistake, but I think the fact that I didn't have much use of the left rein made this pulling situation very clear to me.

So, fast forward to Rubicon. I was tired and looking forward to the end of competitions for the year. I had backed off of Willie considerably because I felt he needed a break. He had done a lot this year. The day before the event, I didn't gallop him as usual. I was still on the take it easy thing. Oh, boy, that was a mistake.

I arrived at Morven with a completely fit, feeling good, ex racehorse. He was sharp. That's how we describe a horse that's in need of a race. He was.

It was blustery and cold and that made Willie feel all the better. One good thing I can note is that he was very happy to be there. So happy that when I got on him, he was a bear! He was ready. Ready for anything but dressage. "Are you kidding, Human? You want to do circle, circle now? I came here to run and jump!!"

Needless to say, warm up for dressage was exciting, but not fun. I dreaded the test. I knew it was going to be a stinker. Willie basically dragged me around the dressage arena with me hanging on his face to keep him in the dressage arena. I tried to soften when I could, but it was a horrible test that was horribly ridden. So much for all my dressage work. The score reflected that and I owned it. I haven't learned how to ride a horse that "high" in the dressage. I know I'm missing something and plan to work on it this winter.

So show jumping. Willie was less than cooperative at first, but in his defense, I was not riding him assertively. He needs that. He took the first rail and I started riding him assertively and he started jumping great. No worries in show jumping. The answer is ride him assertively throughout the entire round. Relatively easy to fix.

I went to cross country nursing a grudge against Willie for the lack of cooperation in dressage. I had also made up my mind there would be no hanging on me today. I'm not here for you buddy. It's your turn to be here for me!

I left the start box sending him. It wasn't working out that well because he came up to fence 1 slowing with each stride and then bounded over it. I hate it when he does that. The second fence was the same. Then we went into a strip of woods where a galloping brush fence awaited. "You've got to get going, fella." I did my Ned the Coachman imitation and he started picking it up. As we came out of the woods he searched for me to hang on and I dropped him. There was nothing there to hang on. The more he reached for me, the more I dropped him and I kicked.

I kicked him along and he was going. My goal was to come as close to minimum time as possible without going under. My other goal, NO Hanging on the reins. We never did a bank so easy. Up, u-turn, down. Willie started listening to me because I wasn't there to hang on. When he's hanging on me he's not that responsive, I suppose because he has me where he wants me.

I was mad. I don't lose my temper when I'm mad at my horses, but I was mad. As we galloped through the woods to make another u-turn, the footing was greasy. Again, Willie searched for me and he found me. I kicked him and told him to stand up. He grappled through the woods with no help from me, although I think it helped him more that he didn't have me to hang on.

As we galloped along his head was about a foot from the ground. I told him I bet he was one of those racehorses that galloped with their head on the ground, which is fine at the track - there are no jumps to look out for. I told him he was going to be sorry because I knew there was a left turn coming to a good size log and then the dreaded water. He should be looking for these things, but he kept his head down.

As we turned left, Willie said Oh sh**, but he jumped the log. At that point I said, go ahead stop at the water. Then I can beat you for the horrible dressage test you gave me today. Willie wasted no time galloping through the water. I never even lifted the stick. Funny, sometimes I think they do understand our language.

We finished up four seconds over the minimum time. I left there a better rider than when I came. My most important thought was, how can I drop his head and ride him like that going cross country, but I hang all over his face in dressage? The one thing I do really well while galloping is relax. I mean totally relax. When the horse is being a jerk in dressage, I tense up. This is the thing I need to master over the winter. Ride show jumping and dressage with the same suppleness in my body I have in galloping.

Oh, the other lesson - I already knew - I dropped his head and he didn't run off. To the contrary, he was much more receptive and easier to ride.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

More on Galloping

I competed quite a bit in my first eventing season and it was generally all good. The bad spots led me to a greater understanding of this sport and what skills are needed to be a better competitor. It was an advantage to have two completely opposite horses. I was able to expand my riding skills and at the same time get to quite a few venues. I'll be writing about some of our exploits later on, but I want to write about a lesson I learned on galloping for eventing before my mind moves on.

I have two retired racehorses and they already know how to gallop. Horses are taught to gallop. I know they do "gallop" in the field, but that is usually just running. Sometimes you'll see them extend their strides and grab up the ground for a few strides - that's galloping. If you don't know much about galloping and you have an ottb, he can teach you - if you let him. Exercise riders communicate with the horse with subtle changes in our position. With Birdie I can tighten my abs and he will shorten his stride. I can relax my shoulders a bit and he will extend his stride. That's all it takes to "control" him. If I start pulling, he'll pull back and it will get unpleasant awfully quick. With most retired racehorses, the more you "ride" them, the harder it is to "control" them. My advice in general is to try less, you'll probably find out it's more.

When I was competing Willie at Beginner Novice, I had an awful time keeping a rhythm cross country at that speed. He was heavy throughout and not a willing partner. It was slow and it irritated Willie. I never did find a way to make the time and relax him. I finally decided to try a new approach at Seneca and I let him gallop. He went the same pace for the entire ride. He was comfortable, easy and relaxed. He was willing. Best ride I'd had on him, but alas, we got what I lovingly refer to as a speeding ticket. We came in under minimum time. I decided the thing to do was move up to Novice rather than try to hold him to BN speed.

Right about this time I started to compete Birdie. What I found from the onset is that yes, he's a handful in dressage and a little quirky in show jumping, but if every horse went cross country the way he does, everyone in the world would event. He is so responsive and willing. He's light as a feather and nimble as cat. Yes this is the same crazy horse you see warming up for dressage with his head in the air and his eyes popping out. I did one BN with him and moved up to Novice immediately. Too slow to relax him properly. By this time I had a goal. To get as close to minimum time without going under. We are not running, we are completely in control (well except for a few moments at Morven, but I had an excuse that day). We are galloping and relaxed. The horse is very responsive. Why?

When you ride at the track you are given instructions on what to do with each horse, each day. One of the most common is "back him up to the wire and gallop him (insert distance here). Notice there is no speed discussed.

Each horse has a comfortable gallop. Some faster, some slower, but most fall into an area. So when you are told to gallop, that's the normal everyday gallop. That speed falls into the fast Novice/regular Training Level speed. So what I'm saying is most racehorses are most comfortable going Training Level pace. It's the pace they go most days. We keep a rhythm you can set a metronome to. We don't speed up and slow down. If the horse wants to accelerate, say a horse is coming by, we stay the same and hold the pace. It probably annoys and upsets most ex racers if you are galloping cross country and speeding up and slowing down a lot. They know it's wrong and it makes their job harder. It also makes it almost impossible to relax.

When a trainer tells us to gallop easy, it's rarely ever easy. This would mean a Beginner Novice type of pace. The horse is usually frustrated and we have to hold them the entire way. They're usually a jerk going home too.

I have more to write on galloping for future posts. I have learned enough about eventing this year to start applying what I already knew about some of it's aspects.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Be Careful What You Wish For, Human, You Just Might Get It

I do not write my blog as a diary. I try to use it to share lessons I learn from my experiences. Once in a while I do succumb to venting or the occasional brag, like about my perfect little baby horse.

This entry is based on my experience of the past weeks and how great things can come together at the wrong time.

Willie and I competed at the Marlborough Horse Trials a couple weeks ago. We wound up fifth when we should have been third because we had a rail in show jumping. David had been working with me on maintaining impulsion with Willie. Willie even told me two fences before that he wasn’t happy and started losing impulsion. I sat there fat, dumb and happy until he finally took the rail and then I lit him up. After that, he began to jump beautifully. He took that beautiful style right over to cross country and was fantastic. I made up my mind I was going to get him in front of my leg at Morven from the start and keep him there.

Last Saturday I was jumping the Bird with David and he stopped at a fence. I jammed my hand into his neck breaking my pinkie finger. Many of you don’t know I lost my ring finger so it doesn’t take much to damage the pinkie – it’s just out there. We put a splint on it and I had no intention of going to the doctors for a pinkie finger until I started riding on Sunday. The splint wasn’t good enough. With no ring finger the pinkie was out there so I needed more protection if I was going to ride at all, let alone compete at Morven.

Monday morning I went to Kaiser and basically spent the day getting a new, “rudy kazoo” fiberglass cast which I proceeded to remodel less than two hours after it was put on. Now I could ride and the finger was protected. I made some calls to be sure I would be allowed to ride in a cast at Morven, and it was a go.

Fiberglass is really nice, but it’s abrasive and at night I was sanding myself and my husband with the cast. I proceeded to wrap it in vetrap which also helped protect it from moisture.

On Friday I went to David’s for a lesson on Willie to be sure we were ready. I wanted to be sure I could jump him safely in the cast. It was the absolute most fabulous lesson and Willie was amazing. This was exciting.

Saturday I went to Morven to walk the course. I had schooled Birdie with Jimmy there last year and I really wanted to compete there. It is the toughest Novice course I’ve ever walked, but I knew Willie and I were prepared, so I was really looking forward to it. There was a forward galloping jump which preceded a downhill descent to the water which was not wide and the exit was a jump out over a log. I knew Willie would not like this so my approach needed to be at a pace that was forward/in front of my leg, but slow enough that he would have time to understand the question. Willie had never jumped out of water before. I knew his first impression would be that there was no way out of there, until he recognized the log was a jump, not a barrier. ( I always try to see it from their point of view ) I liked the challenge of the course and I looked forward to riding it.

I told a friend I was competing on Sunday and she looked at me and said “How are you going to get the dressage jacket on?”

Oh, hadn’t thought of that.

Saturday night I struggled and got the jacket on, but it was very uncomfortable because I couldn’t get it far enough up my arm, making it tight in the shoulder. It was also really hard to get off.

Sunday morning everything was running on time. Bernadette came over at 5 and put the braids in – that’s a good friend. When I got to Morven, Willie settled right in and I went to get my packet. I decided not to walk the course again because I was comfortable with it. Instead I went back to the trailer and called Elizabeth to talk about the dressage jacket. I wanted to know if she thought they would excuse me from wearing it under the circumstances. She said no, but suggested I spray the cast with Show Sheen to get the jacket on.

Wait a minute, how could I be such a noodle head? The vetrap is grippy and added size to the cast. I removed it and presto, the jacket went right on!

Thank you Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Madlener arrived to spend the day at Morven with me. She coached Willie and I to the best dressage score to date. It would have been a winning test but he became distracted during the test and our performance eroded. He’s still quite green and with each competition, his performance is improving, so overall I was thrilled. Improvement is a good thing.

As I walked the show jumping course, I realized it was going to be more difficult to keep Willie in front of my leg than I had anticipated. The ground was chewed up and there was a pit on the landing side of each jump. It was this way at Seneca and Willie had attempted to see what was on the other side of each fence and pick a spot to land. It’s really quite intelligent when you think about it, but it was going to make him want to suck back before each jump. Basically I was going to have correct him by convincing him not to look before he leaped. Now who’s the dummy? -- Willie thought.

My strategy during show jumping warm up went like this. I galloped him around the warm up area both directions to get him in front of the leg and forward. Then a couple trots over the cross rail. Then forward canter to vertical. “Nope, not falling for it human, I am going to look before I leap, what do you think I’m stupid?” So I had to gig him over the fence, but he went. Oxer, same thing. I come round again, put both reins in the left hand ( the hand with the cast ) and I hit him as he starts to suck back. Willie launches into the air and jumps beautifully. I come back once more and he gets it, he sails over the jump with the greatest of ease.

We’re ready.

I decide to make a wide circle to the first jump and get our momentum going. “Gernk, gig,” over he goes. Damn it Willie. Fence two same thing. Then we roll back to fence three and I take the reins into my left hand ( cast hand) and hit him, he sails over the fence and lands bucking. “Damn it human. If you want to see in front of the leg, I’ll show you in front of the leg like you’ve never seen it!!”

Now Willie is running off.

In the show jumping.

I summon my inner exercise rider and work on getting him back, but I can’t keep the left rein, it keeps slipping out of my hand, because Willie is pulling. Basically each time he jumps he pulls the rein long because I can’t grasp it enough with the cast on. So I have to get it back, then navigate to the next fence, which is hard because this is a course with lots of turns. I fail to get it back soon enough before fence 7 and he takes a rail, but we make it through all ten jumps without going off course. Willie takes off after the tenth fence. I had to stand up on him to take him back and people were looking at me. I wish I had video of that ride.

Elizabeth told me once Willie got going he was jumping beautifully. I told her he was running off! However I knew if I had had both hands, I would have been able to package all that power and unleash it at the fence. I was sure Willie wondered why I kept giving him the left rein and holding him straight with my legs. “Stupid Human”.

My original strategy for cross country was to send him out of the start box. Okay, better rethink that. The first fence is your usual log, beside a bigger Training log, beside a bigger Prelim log. As we depart the start box, Willie is dragging me and he’s veering toward the Prelim log. “Which one human? I like the big one.” Please understand Willie has never dragged me to any fence ever. It's been me who did the dragging.

Who are you and what did you do with Willie? Fence two is out there alone, and I had plenty of time to get the left rein back. Fence three, another multiple choice in Willie’s mind. He starts veering toward Prelim land. No, Willie, the little one.

I am now settling into riding the new, “drag you to the fence” Willie. I cope by gathering the rein back after each jump and again two strides before the next. As we gallop, I can’t keep hold of it and it slips longer and longer. I can’t squeeze my fingers tight enough because the cast is in the way.

We come to the first big question for Willie. He’s never done a bank, one stride to a jump. He sails up the bank and of course now the left rein is loopy. Thank you Lucinda Green for your “keep him in the tunnel with your legs and open your arms to keep contact with the reins technique.”

The next fence is the ramp, it’s a galloping fence so I don’t even bother to take up the left rein, I already know I’ll lose it over the fence and have to take it back anyway. Besides, Willie is in a very nice rhythm and he’s forward and relaxed. I want to inject here that although this is particularly challenging for me, Willie is having the time of his life!

My plan was to gallop straight until I got him back ( and now until I got my rein back and got him back) and then turn left down the hill toward the water ( that I know Willie is going to question/hate ). I get the rein back and Willie comes back to me and then I turn left down the hill. Willie grabs the reins, pulling the left long and takes off down the hill. “Slow down Willie, water you’re going to hate is coming!” I see the fence judges laughing at what I’m saying. GERNK!! “Why the hell didn’t you tell me there was water??” Have I mentioned how athletic Willie is? He goes from running off to running backwards with ease. I’m hitting him but he doesn’t care. He’s now backed up at least fifty feet, no joking, we get near this truck that’s parked on the course and he starts going forward, gallops into the water and jumps out over the log. Thank you truck – I think.

Through the woods, jump. Out of the woods, left turn, stone wall that Willie doesn’t like the looks of but jumps anyway and now we’re heading down hill again. Willie is starting to really like down hill – A LOT. We are heading to a rather substantial brush fence. Oh Hell, we might do a Classic Three Day some day. Willie jumps it steeplechase style. Another right turn and down the hill more. We’re headed to a ditch to a log. WILLIE, something is coming! This time Willie responds, I guess he learned from the water jump I was trying to warn him about. Easy, peasy, now right turn to Trakehner. No problem, but my left hand is getting really tired and useless. I am getting really good at getting the reins back and when necessary galloping with a loopy left rein.

Up the hill, over the road and down the hill to a barn, easy. I’ve got my eye on the last fence now and I go directly to it. My hand is tired, but I cross the finish patting Willie and telling him how great he is. He was in front of my leg for the entire trip, (well he took a brief intermission at the water ), but today Willie had become an eventer!

“Kim Clark!!” Some one is calling my name. Oh no, it’s an official. He’s going to yell at me for wreckless riding.

Crap.

“You missed fence 16, did you know that?”

Well, no it hadn’t occurred to me, but now that you mention it...

Crap.

A stupid little cabin/barn thing and I went right by it on purpose because all I could think about was making it to the last fence. I had managed to guide Willie to every fence in show jumping and cross country with a bum hand and my brain had let me down by forgetting about Fence 16.

Willie and I headed off the course so I could get off him and walk him home. He was beaming. So happy and he loved it!! I can’t be disappointed, I just can’t.

I rode his hair off. This was a tough course and I rode it without a left rein, while Willie was half running off and somehow managed to have fun. I got him honestly in front of my leg. I can’t be disappointed.

During my fabulous lesson with David, I had the vetrap on the cast and it has a tacky nature, making it easy to keep the left rein in position. Without it the fiberglass is quite slick even though it is rough.

Strategy is a key component in eventing. When you have a cast on your hand, don’t try to put the horse in front of your leg. Instead gig him over fences for one more competition.

If you do decide to get him in front of your leg. Take the vetrap off to get the dressage jacket on, but put it back on for the jumping, so you can keep hold of the reins and capture the power you've generated until you unleash it at the fence.

If you always walk the course in the morning. Walk the course in the morning.

Rubicon, here we come!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

On Galloping

Galloping is something I know a bit about. When I compete at a horse trial I feel awkward up until the countdown ends and I leave the start box at the gallop. Well actually at the level I am competing at it's really a big canter, but it's close enough to get me into my comfort zone.

I've noticed that lots of eventers - at all the levels, have difficulty with the galloping involved in cross country. It's not the fences that bother most of them, it's the perceived loss of control in the gallop. When you gallop, you are no longer in control of each stride the horse takes. This is not because he takes over, it is because the physics of motion come into play and the horse really can't stop or turn immediately, you have to plan ahead.

If you galloped racehorses as I did - and loved it - galloping is your old friend and you and the horse get to relax. This is probably the reason Jimmy says all eventers should ride at the track. You learn to leave them alone and relax for the ride or you'll never make it through the day. It's one thing if you are going to gallop one horse, it's another if you have ten to go. If you don't learn to relax yourself and the horse, you'll never have the energy to make it through the day. The oldtimer's tell you this right away when you come on the scene. Relax, baby, let him gallop!

Each horse takes his own "hold" when galloping. Some pull hard and others take a light hold. We don't try to develop the connection the horse has with the bit at the track, we let the horse develop his own. Basically we put our hands down and he finds the bit. You can develop a horse's mouth while galloping and that's what eventers seek to do. They want the horse to be able to get off the forehand for the jumping, so they don't want the pulling. Your dressage and show jumping work develop the aids to ask the horse to get off the forehand.

At the racetrack and anywhere else for that matter, the faster a horse is allowed to go, the lighter the contact becomes. If the horse pulls harder upon acceleration, it is the rider, not the horse that is creating the pulling. Either the rider has not relaxed and let the horse gallop, or worse, he is pulling against the forward motion of the gallop. At the track you learn quickly not to pull because you get run off with.

The job of the rider while galloping is to relax into it and stay balanced. This relaxes the horse. All of the joints of the rider assume the function of shock absorber. This keeps the rider in the center of the gravity of the motion. If the horse does make a sudden move, the rider is thrown into the center of the horse, not out of it, if he is relaxed.

There are always periods of time on the XC course where you can relax the horse and let him gallop. Don't try to prepare for a fence when you are thirty strides from it. Very few horses will run out of control at a fence and if you have one of them you should get rid of him. However, if you're pulling and stiffening, don't be surprised if he pulls against you and accelerates. If you are pulling the whole way, you'll be very tired at the end of the gallop and your horse will know you don't trust him. A very wise jockey told me once, "Kim, you gotta trust them." He was riding in races, where you really are going fast.

If you relax and let the horse gallop, he will soften. Upon approach to the fence you employ the same aids and knowledge you use in the stadium, just from the galloping seat. You can extend or shorten the stride or turn or straighten. The half halt is applied by shifting the weight behind the vertical and then moving back into the center of the motion. Never pull back, it's an accelerator in galloping just as it is in dressage and show jumping.

Galloping is a natural gait for the horse. It is as comfortable as walking, only most horses love to do it more. Most horses, Thoroughbreds in particular, do not have to try to gallop. They are waiting to do it. Now it is true, they have to learn to gallop correctly with a human on board, just like everything else.

My experience has been that when you and the horse gallop, he does not seek to take advantage of you. If anything he wants to share the joy of it with you. If you embrace it and relax into it you will find you have a very receptive partner. Too many eventers fail to make the XC time because they fail to embrace the gallop the way most horses do.

Galloping is a perfect time to develop the trust and confidence in yourself and your partner.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Balance

My brain functions much like the scene in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy is caught in a tornado. Consequently, sometimes it takes awhile before I can grab a thought and build on it, but there is a lot of good stuff flying around in there. There has been a lot of talk about balance around here lately so it's been on my mind. It's actually been rocketing around in my head for a couple of months, but it's been very crowded in there.

Everyone has strengths and weaknesses in their riding. Every instructor I’ve ever worked with has commented on my good balance. This probably developed to a higher degree from galloping racehorses for so many years. Your balance is tested regularly. Although I also think I was a good hand on a horse at the track for so many years because I had good natural balance.

I wasn’t able to work with Jim as much last winter. Remember the snows? No driving down the road to Berryville for many months. In the spring I took both boys to a clinic at AOPF. It wasn’t that fun, frankly, Jim yelled at me. He told me I needed to find my balance. Huh? My balance, that’s something I’ve always had. I don’t even know where I lost it. I would later conclude that he was looking for improvement. No matter how good you are at something, you can always be better.

I had never had to think about balance. Heels down, yes, sit up, of course, don’t lean, keep your hands quiet – these are things I have to work on, but staying in the center, that’s always come natural. Now it was at the fore of my self criticism. I began to notice how many instances there were that I deviated from the center of the motion. I still think most people would consider me a particularly balanced rider, but Jimmy Wofford is not most people. Early in his instruction of me he too had commented on my strong sense of balance, but he was right, there was definitely room for improvement.

About a month later there was an incident on the farm that really fueled the balance topic that was building in my brain. JK, all four foot ten inches of him walked out of the barn on a filly who had arrived recently. I was sitting on The Punk waiting for him at the front of the barn. They walked out and for whatever reason she went airborn. I mean four hooves launched into the air about three feet off the ground. She covered about fifteen feet, came down on all four feet and launched again. I would call it crow hopping, but it definitely was not hopping. It was jumping or leaping.

Now you have to understand a guy that’s four foot ten inches has short arms and legs and that filly was moving at a high rate of speed by repeated launching and landing. She went down my driveway, around the dressage arena, through my front yard and back to where Punkie and I were waiting in no time flat. JK stayed in the center of that motion the entire time. He was standing on her, not sitting in the tack – he’d have probably bounced off if he had tried to sit. He never pulled on her mouth either. It was truly a masterful ride. I don’t know why that filly did it, but at the conclusion she settled and we went on our hack around the farm without further incident. That’s just the kind of rider JK Adams is. I wish I had a video of it. It was the perfect study of balance. JK was perfectly balanced in the center of the motion of that filly and the force of gravity that could have shot him off, held him on.

I started to mull this over. This isn't only how people who ride racehorses stay on. I think it's more obvious because we basically have no appendages around the horse. No matter what position/discipline you ride in, you stay on through balance or in other words, by staying in the middle of the motion of the horse. The greatest riders do this the best, but this also explains why you see some people that don't have great riding skills but horses like them and they seem to be able to get the job done, they are probably in the middle most of the time.

As I see it there are two main reasons we correct our position. One is to get us in the center of the motion and the other is to affect the horse in some way. You can move your parts and stay in the center of the motion. In fact that is how you should move on a horse. If you use your left seat bone to turn left, you should move it forward, while balancing in the center of the motion of the gait you are working in.

How do you know if you are balanced in the center of the motion? You feel it, you feel more stable. I think less experienced riders feel vulnerable when they are out of the center, but they don't understand why they feel that way. Most people can feel when they are balanced if you ask them to start paying attention to it. Balance is stability. If you are ahead of the motion, you will feel very unstable, particularly in transitions and if the horse stumbles or bucks you'll likely come off. The only time I think it might be useful to be ahead is when the horse rears, but even then if you're in the center, you can turn him and prevent him from rearing in the first place. We rarely if ever ride ahead of the motion at the track. Jockeys do it sometimes when breaking from the gate, to try to get the quickest departure and it works. However, if the horse stumbles or baubles, the jockey buys real estate.

If you are balanced in the center of the horse and he stumbles, the force created by the motion throws you back into the saddle, if you are forward, the force created by the motion throws you forward. If you are behind, you are whip lashed. Riding behind the motion is defensive and in galloping used to stop/slow the horse or when you feel impending doom. It creates a drag or makes it harder for the horse to work under you so he slows or stops. If you relax into getting behind the center, that is how you pull up the racehorse. Sometimes it's good to ride defensively, but a horse will get sick of you if you do it all the time. Simply because it makes it harder for him.

Position - What is the reason for a particular position in each discipline? Why don't we ride in the same position for every type of riding? The reason is, in order to stay in the center of the horse's motion during jumping, we have to mold ourselves to stay in balance during the jump. If we gallop a racehorse in the dressage position it is much harder on the horse - and ourselves. That position puts us behind the motion while galloping. The same with jumping.

There is also a little out of balance and a lot out of balance. There's riding out of balance all the time and being out of balance momentarily. There is coming out of balance consistently during a transition or particular movement. For instance if you lean your body while you ask for canter, you are simultaneously coming out of the center of gravity and asking the horse to change his gait. You are making it harder and then the force of the motion will send you back into the center - or worse behind the motion. This makes picking up the canter tough for the horse. Ever see a horse buck every time the rider asks for the canter? Then the rider complaining that the horse always does this? Maybe the horse is trying to communticate! This is just one example.

During a normal ride how many times do you come of of the center of the motion? It's easy to feel when it's a lot out, but what about that shoulder? One of my problems is my shoulders. If my shoulder is not aligned and in the center it is either behind or ahead of the motion. Yes, the horse feels this and it makes a difference. It also makes me less stable than I could be and interferes with the communtication with the horse.

Combined balance of the horse and rider is what we seek. That is how we become one. It is most stable, comfortable and easiest on both. I know this is basic knowledge, but too often the basics get buried in all of the detail work.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Mr. Z Update

I've tried very hard to refrain from posting too much about the  Baby Horse, but I can't resist.  He's the most perfect baby horse ever!  He's leading in front of mom, going in the wash stall for baths and gets fly spray each morning.  He still finds time to be a bad baby though.  I've also included a video of him doing the trot poles.  I get asked a lot how a horse is over poles, so I thought I would introduce them early to Z.










I never thought I'd say "poor Graycie".



















Saturday, July 31, 2010

Kim, it is possible to love a horse too much!

And I do.

That was the theme of my ride with Jim Wofford on Friday.  I was privileged to participate in a clinic at beautiful Greystone Farm.  The weather was wondeful and I was finally able to get Elizabeth Madlener to come with The Bird and me.  I've been experiencing difficulty integrating our progress on the flat into the jumping and I was sure she would be able to help me with Bird if she saw us working with Jim.  How lucky am I to have my Grand Prix dressage coach accompany me to watch me ride with Jim Wofford?  Of course, she came because of That Bird.

So a short background on Bird - as if you haven't heard enough.  Bird was a horse that jumped out of fear when I got him.  He rarely quit a fence because he was afraid to.  He did not jump out of joy or willingness.  I didn't know how to jump, but was good at staying out of the way, so all the responsibility fell on him.  In a weird way I think it helped build the tight relationship we now have because he made all the decisions and had to take care of me.  That is a lot of pressure for a horse, but he came through each and every time.

As time marched on, Jim and Elizabeth worked hard to improve my riding skills, but also to build the fragile confidence in The Bird.  This Bird now jumps from joy, he jumps because he wants to and he is not afraid.  Enter the new, ugly problem.  Well, if it's Bird's responsibilty to take care of the jumping and he's not afraid to voice his opinion - and he doesn't like the look of the jump - he stops.  Kim Clark loves That Bird, she loves him when he's good, she loves him when he's bad, she loves him when he's ugly. Besides, being far from a perfect rider. I take responsibilty.  I make mistakes. 

This stopping started happening several Jimmy lessons ago.  Jimmy has been telling me that I love that horse too much.  He's been telling me to correct him for stopping.  Yesterday, Jimmy went off.  Of course it may have had something to do with the fact that Bird sort of almost ran into Jimmy.  Not a great thing to do during a lesson.  Jimmy told me to punish him if he stops.  He said I know exactly what you are thinking.  "I made a mistake".  "Of course you did, but he must jump anyway.  If he makes the decision to stop he has to pay the price.   If you don't start correcting him, I will and you won't like it one bit if that happens." 

Well I think Jimmy feels passionate about this issue. 

That man is in my head and everything he says is exactly right.  I don't know how he does it, but that man knows me like a book.  So......

I hit Bird and Bird went off.  I held my position and stayed focused on the fence instead of letting Bird change the subject to "I'm crazy now because you hit me."  Jump the damn fence.  He jumps.  Bird did try stopping a few more times throughout the lesson.  He couldn't believe I was correcting him but our relationship began to change.  Suddenly I was responsible.  Suddenly Bird was a normal horse. 

Now it is true that not that long ago, I would never have hit The Bird.  Jimmy would never have told me to hit him either.  He was a frightened horse and would have been horrified had I hit him.  He had no confidence.  That was then.  He isn't afraid any longer and has started to assert himself like a normal horse.  I have to respond like he's a normal horse and discourage the bad behavior, because that is what it is.

I believe yesterday was a huge day for Birdie and me.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

My First Show Season etc.

This is my first "show season".  I did do a few horse trials last year, but only sporadically.  This year I started late, but it turned into a one after another sort of thing and I have become exhausted and decided to back way off for August - heat, hard ground and so much to catch up on, but the main reason is I am tired.

Willie has been doing horse trials and we elected to go Recognized early in the year, The Bird and I have been sticking to Unrec Dressage shows and both boys are showing real promise.  Things I knew, but have now experienced is Eventing has the added difficulty of a marathon length day, and you have to get all three phases right.  So far, Willie and I have the show jumping and the cross country down, and the dressage is the cross to bear but it is coming.  It's frustrating because his dressage is superb at home, but Willie just hasn't brought it with him yet.  Everyone tells me this is very common with the Event horse so I am confident it is coming and when Willie finally packs a full suitcase to bring to the show, they better watch out because magnificent is an accurate description of his dressage ability - when he applies himself.  Ughhhhh......

Bird has been easier.  Did I just say that??  He's nervous and anxiety filled, but with each show he has become more sure of himself and his environment.  He's relaxed more and improved with each outing.  There's not much to do but work on myself and get him out to continue the process.  It's amazing really that we've even made it this far, but I'm very optimistic about our future and plan to do some combined tests and maybe even a horse trial or two this fall. 

I love to talk/write about my horses and their progress, but things have been hectic around here.  I think we're moving a record number of horses this year which is wonderful, but more work.  We've been covered in the Washington Post, Fox 5 News and Willie and I were in Horse Talk Magazine.  We are developing a Foster Home program, Dvd and one of my favorite new projects starts on August 21.  We will be inviting people who have off track Thoroughbreds or those interested in having one to the apron of the Laurel Park Grandstand at 8 am.  We will watch horses being exercised and talk about how they are ridden and trained.  Trainers and riders will stop by for a chat and Q & A.  All this to help people understand how the horse is ridden and trained at the track.  My theory is that if you understand the horse you get, the retraining and transitioning will be much easier thereby creating many more happy owners and horses.  I'm working on an announcement now with the details.  I actually should be doing that instead of writing this.

This is a rambling post.  The baby horse is turning gray.  I sorely need to do more pictures and video and promise to do that soon.  He leads in front of him mom to the back field each day, gets a bath when he comes in - going into the wash stall and has had the blacksmith "do" his feet twice.  Oh and he stands for fly spray each morning.  No bad baby at Leighton Farm.

One thing that has bothered/concerned me about the horse trials is the hardship on the horses.  It's been very hot this year and I've made some observations that cause me quite a bit of concern.  Coming from a racing background, the comfort and  health of the horse is paramount.  In the summer, I have never walked into a receiving barn and seen a horse that wasn't behind a fan.  In fact, I've never seen one without one at his "house" either.  I go to these events and see horses tied to the trailer all day, hot sun beating down on them, no fan.  Or standing in the trailer without a fan all day.  A trailer is a metal box.  The same people bring an awning to sit under, but nothing for the horse.  I've even seen two horses shoved onto a tag along standing there all day.  Two horses in that small an area generates a ton of heat!  Everyone operates without concern as this is normal, but I can't tell you how much it bothers me.  I went to a few horse trials with a friend before I ever competed.  The first thing I bought was a small generator, to run fans and I do. Let me tell you, if you see the look on Willie's face when the fan goes on, you'll know it's the right thing to do.   I don't think I would event if I couldn't provide what I consider the minimum of comfort to the horse who I expect to do dressage, show jumping and cross country - all in one day!  Now granted I have not seen any horses die or get sick and I'm sure the people there love and adore their horses, but if it's hot enough that one feels the need to bring an awning to sit under, isn't it hot enough that your horse needs some air?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Bird and the Turks

I'll warn you, this is a stupid post.  Unless you have seen The Bird and know him, you may not grasp the gravity of this.

The Turks are here on Leighton Farm.  There are nine in total and they are not concerned about our presence, nor are they concerned about the horses.  They hate Star, my German Shepherd, but just about everyone hates her.  So, who are The Turks?  They're the turkeys that live in our woods and hang out in the corn and wheat fields that border our property.  I call them The Turks for some reason that I can't explain, but I think it's funny.

Today The Bird and I were jumping.  Jimmy wants me to jump him regularly and I'm trying to fit it in.  It was a great session and I followed it by a hack on the buckle about the farm.  For any other horse this would be no big deal, but for The Bird, this is a gift from the Angels.  I can't tell you how many times we walked around the farm and I prayed that he would reach, just once.  I had to keep my face to the side so his ears wouldn't poke my eyes out.  I never dreamt that he would stroll around the farm on the buckle.

So here we are, strolling.  I'm feeling fine after our jumping session.  Without warning (Henk, Henk, Henk), that's the sound you hear in a horror movie before something bad happens.  Out of the woods come The Turks with all the grace of flying elephants.  They are only about ten feet from me and That Bird.  That Bird on the buckle.  He shies, I sit into him and he puts his head back down and continues strolling.  You can only realize the miracle of this if you know The Bird.

It was a good day in Bird Land.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Greatness

I believe there is greatness in every being on earth.  Realizing that greatness is another matter.  Finding someone to support the effort is rare.  Finding someone to help you produce and nurture it is even harder.  I believe many people who pursue riding are on a quest to find their  own inner greatness.  These magnificent creatures we ride definitely have this quality of greatness in them.  Some are more equipped to handle it than others and yes it seems to exist in varying degrees.

From the first time I sat on a horse I was on a quest to improve my riding.  I came to the party late, starting my riding career when I turned twenty.  Consequently I have always felt wayyyy behind everyone else in the world of riding.  When at 25, I decided to exercise horses at the track, the consensus was I was too old.  You need a lot of heart to do that work.  I had heart, a lot of passion and I never met a horse I didn't like.  Those tools served me well and I became very good at my craft.  This was against all odds, but even at the track, I never sat on a horse without learning something. One of the great things about horses is each of them has a story to tell.  They will tell it to you, if you listen.

So, when I turned 45 and decided I was going to learn to jump and eventually event, it was no surprise to anyone who knew me.  Here I was, late to the party again.  This time it's winding down.  Most people I know are not starting new endeavors at this age, particularly athletic ones that involve risk.  Once again my passion for horses has led the way. One horse in particular, My Bird ignited this latest flame.  I did not set out to event, I set out to learn to ride that horse.  When I first met Jim and got over my fear of talking to him, I told him my sole goal was to learn to ride that horse.  I was not naive, I knew I was biting off perhaps more than I could chew.  I told Elizabeth Madlener the same thing.  Neither said much of anything.  I would love to know what they thought, but both have never waivered in their support of my goal.  They have taken me seriously and guided me to improving my riding and learning about that beautiful Bird.

I am sure it will take a great rider to ride the Bird correctly.  I am not sure I will ever achieve the goal of riding him perfectly. This brings up the greatness in us.  I have come to the conclusion that bringing it to the surface is in many ways a brutal process.  It requires suffering and the ability to endure humilation, not the glamour and ease you see on the top riders at the shows.  They too have buried their face in their hands and wondered "why am I putting myself through this?"  While most of the time this greatness must be nurtured out of our horses, digging it out of us can be both demeaning and tough.  This process seems to require stripping our riding down to expose our very fiber.  I have experienced this with the great trainers I work with.

It seems to me, the great riders we see today were able to handle the systematic stripping down and rebuilding of their riding to new and better forms each time.  With every improvement comes some bad habits or tendency which must be dealt with immediately before it becomes a part of our riding.  Hence the fact that you are never there.  The great trainers rarely let you "rest on your laurels" when you have a breakthrough.  They never seem to see how far you've come.  They see only where you are in relation to where they can take you and proceed to take you there immediately.

This can be hard to take because it leaves you in a perpetual feeling of ineptitude.  The question arising, do you want a trainer that will make you feel great at the end of each session or do you want to be brought as far as possible?  I'm not saying I haven't left lessons feeling great, but I always see my deficiencies too and they are what stands out to me.  If you are led as far as possible, you will always end up in the place where you need to work harder.  If you rest on your laurels, you will have a euphoric feeling, but probably won't be much better a rider than when you arrived.  For me, lessons are not a place to display what I've learned, they are a place to be purified.  Shows are the place where you show your achievement - and find your deepest weaknesses too.  That's why they call them shows, don't you think?

The reality of my riding is I want to be good, but I will never be good enough.  This is the only way to continue the quest to be a better rider.  The only way my mentors can get me there is to work on my faults and weaknesses.  Congratulating me on my improvement and strengths will not lead me ahead, it will cement me where I am presently. 

There are many roads to cultivate our inner strengths and "greatness".  The pursuit of being a rider and horsman requires all of the elements needed to find it in ourselves.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Daddy, Mommy and ME!

Unbridled Mate - aka. Dad


Cloud's Honor aka Graycie or Mom

Mr. Z aka Bad Baby

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Maybe a new blog is in order?

I realize this blog is supposed to be about riding, but I just can't resist posting Z's latest pictures.  If you think about it, technically, I will be riding him someday so........








Yes, he is biting her leg.  He bit her ear too.


Monday, May 24, 2010

I May Be Mentally Ill

It's been a couple months since Bird jumped.  We hit a few pot holes on the training road.  He had a corn, created by one of his studs that made him really lame and at that time we discovered he had some additional soreness, so I gave him a rest period.  I then started out with hacking, flatwork and finally jumped him with Sharon White two weeks ago.  It was a very good lesson and I look forward to more with her.  She really "gets" the Bird.  That is important because I have learned that a few great trainers "get" him and many more just don't.  A lesson on Bird with a trainer that doesn't understand him is pure Hell for both of us.  Elizabeth says they must have had experience with a horse like him to understand him.  I agree because the trainers that "get" him also love him.  The trainers who don't, don't seem to like him much either.

I need to preface this entry with something.  When I drive to Virginia for a lesson with Jimmy, I always leave really early.  There are several reasons.  The first being I do not want to be late for a Jimmy lesson.  I've seen his face when people arrive late and I don't ever want to be that guy.  Second, I don't like to have a rushed feeling, especially on the Bird.  More than that, if you arrive at Last Frontier Farm early, the worst thing that can happen to you is you will learn by watching others.  I've been lucky to see quite a few coaching sessions between Jimmy and Sharon, which I can tell you is awesome.

Since I first saw Sharon ride, I admired the way her horses canter.  She has perfected the canter on each and every horse she rides.  Her balance is perfect.  She is in the center of the horse with a light, perfect contact.  The horse is balanced, light and happy.  This is regular and consistant during the time she is riding and jumping.  I have always wished to experience this.  I've seen lots of riders at Sharon's and I have never seen anyone come close to producing this perfection.  I don't know if you have to have the horse that can do it or if you have to be able to ride/train the horse to go in this manner.  I suspect a bit of both.

When I arrived at Sharon's last week, I was excited.  Usually not a good thing, because I am an overachiever and excited means uptight.  The good news is I am now aware of it.  Since I got Bird he has wanted to run at fences.  I have been told by all of the people I train with that he is the hardest type of horse to ride and fix.  I don't care because I love that horse.  So my goal for the lesson was that Jimmy would not tell me "don't pull back", even once on this day.

I was in a lesson with two other riders who I really like.  They are good and their horses are good.  This makes for a good lesson.  I took my time warming Bird up, spending a lot of time in the trot.  Jimmy likes to walk in, sit down quietly and observe us.  He asked me if I had cantered Bird and I said not yet.  He said, if he's going to be bad, we'll just deal with it, go on.  I responded that I really didn't think he was going to be bad and with that Bird was airborn.  The next thing I said was "Yes Jimmy, you are always right."  He smiled the big smile.

Things started off well and Jimmy was offering advice and criticisms as expected.  Birdie was being exceptional and maybe I was too.  About a quarter of the way through the lesson we jumped a line and there it was.  It was that canter.  I immediately responded to it with the most supple shoulders and arms I could offer.  It's a good thing Jimmy likes you to canter around once you jump a line, because I didn't want to stop.  It was balanced perfection.  It was beautiful.  The Angels were singing in Heaven.  I wanted to exclaim, "Do you guys see this??"  I wondered when I halted if we would ever produce such a canter again.

I don't know why Birdie picked this particular time to produce this canter, but it's a wonderful thing to have a breakthrough such as this in a Jimmy lesson.  I know what you're thinking.  He produced it because you were in a Jimmy lesson.  Maybe so, but Bird has also been improving in leaps and bounds lately and I've been doing really well myself.  It may have been a combination of things.  I don't know if we'll reproduce this, because I haven't cantered him since.  He had a day off and hacked yesterday.  Moving on.......

So, I haven't been jumping much.  It's been mostly flatwork for me, Willie and Bird.  Jimmy decided to put two oxers up as we were nearing the end of the lesson.  They were not big fences.  Bird and I have jumped bigger without incident many times.  I notice one is a bit bigger than the other.  It's also in the shade.  The other two gals jump beautifully with their horses.  Bird and I were doing well and we cleared the first without incident.  The second in the shade, he stops.  Comes around, stops again, I hit him - not hard of course.  He stops again and Jimmy has his helper put the ends down.  I want to inject that during all this time, I've got the beautiful canter, but the Angels have now stopped singing.  We get over it and Jimmy says to do the liverpool which is about two feet high.  That dirty dog, I mean Bird stops at that and Jimmy says "Now he's seen that a thousand times, hit him."  I did, he went, but not willingly.  He then stopped at the first big oxer that he'd already jumped, I had to hit him and they had to put it down.  We did manage to get through everything, but it was embarrassing and I ended up being the "class clown".  You know the one that couldn't do the lesson - and it was Jimmy, making it worse in my book.

At the conclusion, Jimmy asked if it had been a while since we jumped and I said yes.  He said you are both rusty.  Start off low, but put a few fences up and do something every third day.  It's actually been months since I jumped anything much over 2'6".  I'm still fairly new to this and I think this was my first experience with fences that aren't big, look big if you haven't been jumping that high.  I am sure that at least part of the problem at the second oxer was me.  It could not have been a coincidence that I thought to myself it was bigger than the other one and was the fence that started Birdie's stopping festival.

As always, I leave the lesson thinking about what happened.  I was the class clown.  I should be embarrassed, but instead I feel great!  I must be mentally ill.  All I can think about is That Canter.  It stayed even after he started stopping.  Even after I corrected him with the whip, which I'm here to tell you is unpleasant with Mr. OverReactor.  That incredible canter, that I was able to maintain.  If that isn't a gift, I've never gotten one.  Then it occurs to me that Jimmy never told me "Don't pull back.", even once.  He rarely says this to me on Willie, but on Birdie, I do it at least a few times during a lesson and Mr. Wofford calls me on it every time.  Here Bird was dirty dog stopping and I never pulled back approaching any fence.  I did get the "don't do your chicken imitation" once, but that was after he was stopping.  My friend Kathy and I saw Ollie Townend doing the chicken imitation at Rolex and she swears she's going to flap her arms going to a fence and tell Jimmy that Ollie does it too.  That will go over like a lead balloon, but if she ever really does it I want to be there.  It is good to know that even the best have flaws.

So, I call Elizabeth to tell her about my lesson with Jimmy.  I tell her about the stopping and then I talk about this canter.  The Angels start singing again.  I am light as a feather.  I'm on cloud nine.  I tell her I must be mentally ill because I should feel embarrassed.  I achieved that canter and that relaxed connection with Birdie.  I know he can jump, I'm not worried about that.  We can fix the stopping.  Elizabeth tells me that I am not crazy.  After all, she said, which horse do you want to have?  The one that runs at all his fences, throws himself over, but never stops or the one who approaches in rhythm and relaxed?  He has to learn to jump all over again and you have to learn to ride him all over again once more. 

Saturday, May 15, 2010

I never thought I'd be that guy.

It's embarrassing.  I've seen those mom's with their pictures and videos of their kids doing the most mundane things and you just have to see it.  I've never been a human mother, but now that Graycie has had this little whipper snapper I am taking on some of the characteristics.  I'm not certain if they're mother or grandmother, but I keep taking pictures and shooting video.  Here he is on his second day out.  This was done just as we took the halters off.


Isn't he precious?  Look how he comes up to the camera in curiosity.  Oh brother this is a huge time vampire.  I get around them and the world just stops.  I stand there starry eyed, looking and them with this complete feeling of joy.  I think this is the best therapy for the unending pressure I am under.  I feel better this week than I have in a long time.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Mr. Z

When Graycie's baby was born on Sunday, I stood in the field with them and called everyone I knew to tell them she had had a beautiful baby colt.  My husband stood there calling people too.  He called his mom in Florida to tell her and Orest her husband.  Orest has been sick - well he is dying.  He is in his nineties and for the past few months his heart has been slowly shutting down.  Orest has always been good to me.  He accepted me right away when Bill took me home to introduce me to his mom.  He made the best martini's in the world and used to make this heavenly cheese dip to go with at martini hour.  They were always served in the most beautiful, fine martini glasses.  I used to think what a test, serving kick a** martinis in these expensive glasses.  It was a risk worth taking.

Orest has been on my mind every day.  I can't leave the farm for long because of all we have going on here, but still I think of him and Sylvia each day.  When Bill asked me what I was going to name the baby I looked at him and said I think we should name him after Orest.  Bill was excited and wanted to call his mom right away.  I wanted to include her in the decision to choose the exact name.  Orest was quite a man, he was proud that he had been a Bombadier in the war.  He worked at the Pentagon most of his life and on the wall of one of his offices was plaque from his employees, given him upon his retirement.  They called him Mr. Z.  Sylvia thought that was perfect and she handed the phone to Orest so I could tell him.  He was so happy and honored.  It really picked their spirits up despite what they were facing.

Yesterday, Orest went to the doctors and Sylvia said he spent a half hour explaining that the baby horse had been named after him.  He has trouble breathing because of the heart thing so it's difficult for him to talk.  This must be very frustrating for such an intelligent vibrant man.  Last night I signed onto the Registry to submit the names.  I asked my husband if it should be Mr. Z or Mister Z.  I submitted them both in that order.

My husband called me this morning to tell me that Orest had passed away last night.  He had turned the light on in his room, sat down on his bed and died.

I'm glad Orest knew this little ball of fire would be named for him.  I'm glad I didn't wait to tell him.   I've always believed horses are healers, mystical, special beings.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The World Revolves Around Graycie

The world has always revolved around Graycie, until now.

Graycie has always been a consummate professional.  If there is a perfect way to do something, she does it.  She was a fantastic racehorse.  She built all the fences on my farm, bought JK his car, paid for the concrete work in my barn - tack room floor and wash stall.  She paid to save Charlie and Bear.  She's plastered all over both of my websites, Leighton Farm and HelpforTbs.  In her first dressage lesson with Elizabeth, she did an incredible lengthening.  So when she went out in the field yesterday morning on Mother's Day, laid down and had a perfect baby in less than twenty minutes, it could hardly be a surprise.  "What did you expect human?"

The perfect little colt stood up in an hour and was nursing in less than an hour and a half.  No mess to clean up in the stall.  Perfect background for taking pictures.  Punkie was there to witness.  I couldn't have staged a better scene.

Today, Graycie is different because for the first time, since I've known her, her world is revolving around someone other than her.  She has always known if you came to Leighton Farm, you came to see her.  I think now she believes you have come to see her perfect baby.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Better Than a Riding Arena

What is better than having an all weather arena to ride in at your farm?

We've had a project going on since Novemeber 2009.  My brother started to level the land in front of my barn at that time and then, rain, snow storms and just rotten weather prevented any progress until last week.

I really needed to bring my horses home, we can't afford to have them boarded out, yet we needed a place to ride them.  I ended up spending much of the arena budget boarding them, but that was the way it had to be.  I hated to ask my brother if he could get to it soon because I knew he was also behind on paying work due to the horrible weather.  I finally broke down and the following week his son dropped off the heavy equipment to begin the work.  The day before Rolex, I had a 70 x 200 sand arena in front of my barn.  I left for Rolex without ever taking a ride on it.

Chaney Enterprises donated the sand and gave us a wonderful deal on the stone dust.  I can't afford the rubber at this time, but can make due with the sand for now.  Hopefully by winter I can earn the funds for the rubber.

I actually needed one more load of sand, and ordered it when I got back from Rolex.  This meant that my brother had to come back over to spread it and level everything out.  I called him and he came over the next day.  I had wonderful rides yesterday on the new arena.

My brother is the best brother in the world.  I have never felt like I was alone in the world because I know if I ever need anything, my brother will be there for me.  I have to be careful when I think of asking him for something because I know if it's humanly possible he will do it.  He's never let me down.  I did not know it until he was here, but he was not feeling well yesterday.  He came over and helped me anyway. 

Having a riding arena is a wonderful thing.  Having a brother like Garn means more than I can ever express in words.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Crankapuss, Lucinda and Me

Willie arrived at my farm in February 2009.  He had raced until he was well into his nineth year and a friend had seen him at Finger Lakes.  She followed him back to his barn and bought him.  She then turned him out until he turned eleven.  Not because there was anything wrong with him, but because that is what she does.  She sent him to me to retrain and sell.  Willie is by Wild Again, he is all class and a stunning horse.  He even has a silver tail.

Being older, Willie understood that he was for sale and he didn't like it.  As time went on it started to wear on me.  He knew he was for sale and he didn't want to be sold.  Last July as we loaded on the trailer to go to Fair Hill, his expression was that of "well, I guess this is it, I've been sold."  Anne kept telling me to keep him, and I kept responding that I couldn't have another horse.  Eventually, I couldn't take it anymore and I decided to keep him.  He knew almost immediately that he was mine.  His attitude changed for the better.

Everyone likes Willie.  Sam Allan told me for the longest time that I should keep him.  Elizabeth Madlener, said "this is your fourth level horse."  A lesson with Jimmy on him is Hell, because everything that goes wrong is my fault and everything that goes right is because Willie is so smashing.  Willie really is all that.

Last year we went to a few unrecognized horse trials with varied results.  One thing that became painfully clear was that he hated cross country - or so we thought.  It made sense if you think about it.   Willie raced until he was nine so he was accustomed to the same manicured footing and similar circumstances at each "event" or race.  Now everything was different each time and in his opinion, the footing was horrible.  Studs helped a bit, but they were not enough and at Waredaca last fall, he let me know I was just a stupid human.

He loved the dressage so I thought I should make him a dressage horse.  Elizabeth told me to continue jumping him and it would eventually become evident what I should do with him.  Samantha was a staunch Willie supporter and was adamant that if I gave him more time, he would come around.  I never asked Jimmy what I should do because I already figured he would tell me it was my fault.  By the way, it's not a bad thing when Jimmy Wofford likes your horse as much as he likes Willie.  It's a good thing.

During the winter, I didn't jump much, but when I did, Sam worked her butt off to get Willie over the hump.  He would always school at home like a champion so it was hard to trust what I was seeing.  What I was riding was a horse that could easily handle 3'6".  His dressage came steadily along and I looked forward to the spring, if for no other reason than to compete at dressage.

I hadn't jumped for a bit, but I went to the JW clinic at AOPF with both the Bird and Willie.  Willie was weird.  He can be sulky, but he was unpredictable, so much that during warm up he nearly ran into the wall.  He gave a very uneasy feeling when I sat on him.  As we started the gymnastics, Jimmy was really yelling at me for the way I was riding him, but Willie was really creepy to ride.  Nothing like he usually was.  He began to park out as if to urninate, but wouldn't go.  I wondered if that was the reason he was so uptight.  After five or six times at parking out, he started to nuzzle his front jumping boot.  I asked Ilkim to take them off and Presto, I got the old reliable Willie back.

Hmmm................could it be that all those miserable cross country excursions were because Willie hated the jumping boots?

Fast forward to the Unrecognized Horse Trials this past weekend.  I was ready.  His dressage was so good, we would at least have a great dressage round.  Could it be that without the jumping boots, he would want to jump? 

When we got there Willie was sharp, unbelievably sharp.  I could not get the supple, round Willie out of this uptight, crankapuss.  My heart ached as we tanked in the dressage.  We had worked so hard all winter and now I was letting everyone down, Willie, Elizabeth and myself.  We headed back to the trailer with our heads hung low.  Well, Bernadette and I had our heads hung low.  Willie's head was up and he was looking around like he expected Publisher's Clearing House to come over and tell us he had won.

On to the show jumping where he had let me down so many times before.  He didn't.  He was phenomenal as I guided him right by jump 7 and got us eliminated.  To say it was turning out to be a lousy day would be an understatement, except that the weather was really nice and he had done a showjumping course for once without being gigged over every single fence.

The cross country was really good.  He was a bit sticky at the water, but actually seemed to enjoy most of the ride.  This had never happened before.  I called Elizabeth to tell her of our failure and she said something very wise.  She told me we take Willie for granted because he's been so much easier than the Bird.  That it wasn't fair to expect him to arrive and produce without any wrinkles.  This was the first show of a new season and we needed to work out some things out.  Let's not make more of this than it really was.

I felt ashamed to admit that as much as I knew Willie was a special horse, I did not like him.  I don't even like the way that sounds, but it's true.  How stupid do you think I feel admitting that a horse everyone says is incredible, is a horse I don't like to ride?  I respect Willie and all of his accomplishments.  He has seen and done a lot.  He is talented and beautiful, but I just don't enjoy riding him.  He's a sulker and that annoys me.  Jimmy, Elizabeth, Samantha and the rest of the free world love Willie and I love him too.  I just don't like to ride him.

The previous week, my precious Bird had come up lame.  I had planned to work with Lucinda Green on Tuesday and Wednesday.  I reluctantly took Willie even though he had competed at Marlborough on Sunday.  I gave him off Monday and headed to Win Green at 6 a.m. Tuesday morning.

I guess things do happen for a reason.  Bird was lame and I really didn't feel like doing anything.  My vet wasn't coming until Wednesday.  If you've never seen Lucinda work, you should.  I don't think there is anyone else who does what she does and it really helps get the horse and rider together.

When it was my turn to tell Lucinda about my horse, I told her that everyone loves him - Jimmy, Elizabeth, Samantha - the free world, but they had all seen his other side too.  When he's happy, he's the  best horse in the world, when he's not, it's like riding a rock.  Sit on a rock and ask it to walk, you'll see what I mean.

As we went through the exercises a metamorphosis began.  Elizabeth's words resonated in my head.  We take Willie for granted. 

I do take him for granted.  I'm nice to him, and I respect him, but I do take him for granted.  I was riding well.  Willie was producing like never before.  He seemed to thrive on the fact that I had to pay strict attention to the job at hand.  There is no way you can execute these exercises without the horse and rider working closely together.  The lines of communication were opened between Willie and I.  We were excelling at this work.  I realized that it wasn't that I didn't like Willie.  It was that we had not developed a bond.  It's likely that Willie was not quick to open up to a human after what he had been through.  This was the day he decided to open up to me and evidently I opened up to him as well.  Suddenly we had a chemistry.

Day two of the clinic went even better, if that's possible and both Willie and I had a wonderful time.  He was happy for his pats and rewards and I was happy to give them.  It's a two way street and now Willie and I are finally developing that special connection that event horses and riders must have to excel.

picture by my good friend Cherie Chauvin

I thanked Lucinda for this unexpected gift.  It could not have come at a better time.