Runtastic and the Horse Who Doesn’t Run

I tried running for a while. It was the barefoot running craze time, everybody lusted after a pair of Vibram Fivefingers – I tried those too and hated them. I even ran a few “Extreme Trail” races. I hated those too. Well, I hated the running part. I didn’t mind the mud and the camaraderie at all.

A friend of mine has been using Runtastic to track all of her rides on her three horses for the year. Facebook will pop up with her stats, which she simply labels with the name of whichever horse she was riding. Some days she rides more than one of them. I spend a few minutes staring at the time she has put in, wondering how on earth she manages it, and then I remember something important about her. Continue reading

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The importance of groundwork: lessons learned from a western horseman

Before I met Cowboy, I was the typical English riding school rider. I had owned my own pony and had been through the rigours of Pony Club stable management classes, and I had a solid understanding of maintaining a contact and kicking. Eventually, as I got older and found different instructors, my riding style became more subtle and refined, and rather more sensitive, but the basic principles remained: keep a contact with the horse’s mouth, and enclose the horse with the legs.

There were a few things that I always assumed were just mysteries of the equestrian world. Starting a horse was a misty and obscure process best left to somebody else and I would never know what went into it. Leading a horse required extreme vigilance for my own safety, because the horse might spook or ignore me or barge about. That was just how a horse would behave. I should also give horses a wide berth when walking around the hindquarters, to avoid being kicked. I never thought to question these things.

Then I met Cowboy. I watched, as he goes about his work on the ground, how his horses attend to his every move. They give him their whole attention for as long as he asks for it. He would just pick up a lead rope, lift the very end of it, and the horse would move, respectfully and quietly, where directed by this subtle cue. This groundwork goes into the very start of the horse’s training. As I understand it, if he doesn’t have complete control of the horse’s feet and body from the ground, he doesn’t move on to the saddle.

It was like seeing a magician rehearsing his tricks. This is knowledge that I’ve never had access to before, and it is happening in front of me every day.

I follow Horse & Hound magazine on Facebook, which is probably the leading publication in Britain for the equestrian community. I am shocked by the number of stories of people being killed in situations involving horses on the ground. The latest story that I saw this morning was about a lady who was killed while moving horses from one field to another with the help of a friend. Her friend didn’t see what happened. Another story earlier this year was a lady killed whilst clipping her horse. There was another headline, that I couldn’t read without paying, about fatal head injuries being just as likely on the ground as in the saddle.

I remember describing the clipping accident story to Cowboy. He was mystified as to why such a thing would happen. He found it hard to fathom why a well-trained horse would not behave quietly and respectfully on the ground. Having spent time immersed in his horse world, and having learned some new skills of my own, I find it hard to fathom too.

The answer is coming to me, having spent time in both horse worlds now. There is little to no information in British riding schools about how to handle a horse from the ground. At several riding schools where I have taken lessons, I’ve found the horses to be well-behaved from the saddle, and pushy and rude from the ground. Horses didn’t lead well, either rushing ahead with no concern about me, or dragging behind me. Some were rude about food, rushing to grab a mouthful of grass from the verge; another responded to being touched on a particular spot on his back by pinning his ears and kicking out. Nobody had any advice or strategy in place to deal with this problem. The solution was to simply not touch that horse on that part of his back, or to pull the greedy horse’s head out of the grass – all horse fans know how futile that battle is… I’ve encountered plenty of horses in Britain, and hardly any preventative information about bad behaviour from horses on the ground. The horses weren’t being taught that their actions were not appropriate, so it just continued.

Some aggressive behaviour can be attributed to pain, so I can’t pretend to have an answer to every situation, but I have heard people laugh about how pushy their horse is on the ground. “Oh, he just loves to race out to the field, he usually runs me over!” Making an excuse for dangerous behaviour, and accepting it as part and parcel of horsemanship, is not the way to deal with it. One comment in response to the lady killed while moving horses between fields described injuries such as “a kick or a squashed foot” as “part and parcel” of being around horses. This kind of disregard from a horse for a person on the ground would not be acceptable in my barn now. There is no part and parcel where kicking or running somebody over is concerned.

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If Sunshine isn’t mindful of where I am when I am on the ground around her, whether she is distracted by another horse, or by food, or simply being a brat, she gets a firm reminder that her job is to pay attention to me. The first reminder is quiet and subtle, usually just a little shake of the lead rope, or I’ll just say “Hey.” If she ignores that too, the follow up is a bigger gesture, such as raising the lead rope in my hand, and if that doesn’t get through to her, she gets a swift smack with the end of it. We rarely get to the smack these days. She knows where my personal space is, and she knows she is not supposed to be in it unless she is invited.

She usually does a wonderful job of being polite. She stays out of my personal space. She stops when I stop. She comes with me when I go again. She will slow down when I slow down, never mind how quickly everybody else is walking off without her. She has to be with me. If I have to get past her, she will move out of my way, moving her shoulders or her hips. She will wait in the trailer while I fuss with the dividers until I tell her she can get out. She will stand still without me holding her while I faff about with reins and my phone. She knows when to move, and she knows when not to move.

Cowboy taught her these things, and we continue to reinforce these things, because they make her safe. She has one job in life: be the safest horse we own. She will be taking care of our children one day, minding beginners, and educating unruly young colts in how to be polite. I continue to be amazed at how respectful and careful she is when I am around her. After years of bolshy ponies in Britain, her attentiveness is constantly surprising, and wonderful.

I would love it if Britain woke up to the fact that many horses are badly behaved, and that training and education methods need to change if we want to enjoy our animals without the threat of being mown down on the way to the field, or being kicked while clipping. Teach our young horsemen and women how to build respect with their horses. Teach our horses that they are not the boss, however big and strong they are. Equestrians, please educate yourselves. Study up on different methods – there is more to riding than a grackle noseband and a martingale, just as there is more to natural horsemanship than Pat Parelli. Accidents like the ones I have seen in recent months do not need to be, and should not be the norm.

Please consult with a reputable trainer if you have a horse with issues on the ground. Youtube videos are great educational tools, but do not replace the knowledge and experience of a trainer who can assess your horse in person.

Friday Night Feeling

It’s Friday night! I’m on the sofa with the cat and Cowboy has gone out to play poker with the boys. Living the dream.

Earlier this week, I came down with a strange headache thing that meant I missed a day of school. This is very sad to me, because school is much more fun than it used to be when I was eleven.

I finally got our thank you notes for our wedding gifts in to the post and they are on their way to the lovely people who showered us with kindness several weeks ago.

Sir Richard found a new cubby hole today.Sir Richard is getting ridiculously big, and now when he sleeps on my chest in the mornings, it’s less adorable and more suffocating. I still can’t help being utterly besotted with him. I am powerless in the presence of his little face.

He continues to tear things up, climb on things he shouldn’t, and shove his paws under the bathroom door and cry every time I go for a wee.

Occasionally he pushes a toy mouse under the door and we play instead. We have that kind of relationship.

Today, Cowboy pestered me into riding Sunshine for the first time in over week. We’ve had a lot on our plate, and I hadn’t felt up to doing much in recent days. Sunshine has been out in the pasture with Beau, getting as much good grass as possible as the winter closes in.

Well, I brushed her off and saddled her today (ok, Cowboy threw the saddle for me… I’m puny…), and we went out to the round pen to see how we would do.

Bill Dorrance writes about feeling for the horse; true horsemanship comes through feel. I’ve been working hard to put aside my frustrations at my lacking horsemanship, and to leave behind my annoyance when I step into the barn. I’ve been focusing on putting out a good feeling whenever I am around Sunshine, and keeping in mind that she is my partner in this work.

We’ve worked on little things on the ground as I’ve brought her in and out from the pasture – she’s stopped being pushy and impatient and has begun to feel for me when I’m leading her. When I’m brushing her down, I try not to be brusque about it, but to feel for her response to the work and to give her the sense that I’m there to help. She has stopped dancing about while I’m grooming now. She watches me with one eye.

Today, the weather was cold and damp, and both of us were feeling a little stiff and sore. I made an effort to tack her up quietly and gently, and to invite her with me to the round pen. We both stretched out a little bit. We both heaved a sigh as if to say “Goodness, I am out of shape for this sort of thing.” That’s entirely true…

We stretched out, we moved, we got as loose as we could, and I thought all the time about how she felt. She felt stiff, tight, unfit, but willing enough. She did everything that I asked without a fight, but she couldn’t offer me the flexible, pretty thing. That was ok. I could feel her trying. I could feel her feeling for me.

I love it when a plan comes together. She and I are finally starting to get each other figured out.

“OK,” she said, dropping her head and trying to round, “I hear what you want. I’ll give it a shot. This is all I can manage today. Is that OK?”
It was more than OK. She and I have got ourselves into battles before. Finally we’re learning to talk to each other without yelling. We’re learning to meet in the middle.

It was possibly the best ride we’ve ever had together.

I’m going to go and throw hay at her now.

Things that happened today

I lay in bed for over an hour after the alarm went off and asked Cowboy if I could stay and hide in bed all day. He said no. He’s cruel sometimes.

The cat managed to lick me right on the eyelid, even though I’ve been trying to make him understand that I don’t like it when he licks my face. The licky little ninja.

I went outside and discovered Sunshine being the perfect horse for a two year old girl. She really is pretty special to let a small child lead her all over the field without batting an eyelid.

We went to the ocean and I collected sea glass for some unknown reason. What will I do with sea glass?

I finally met a number of Cowboy’s family members whose names I know but whose faces were brand new to me. They were full of kind and positive things.

Enough people came to my house at one time that they used all of my mugs. My house is not big enough for this many people, but it happened somehow.

We switched the heating on. Winter is coming.

My brother and sister arrived in town and we embarrassed my brother at a Mexican restaurant. It involved a sombrero and singing Happy Birthday, loudly.

My good friend from Minneapolis arrived in town and we realised we haven’t really spoken in about two years, and it was so awesome to see each other again.

The cat got in to a tin that I hadn’t washed out yet and now his face smells like food.

I think Cowboy has been abducted.

13 days in

I’ve been in the US for 13 days. I have finally got a US phone number, and waved a sad goodbye to the phone number that I have had since my very first phone, the trusty Nokia 5110 with the changeable covers…

I’ve cleaned all the things – most things more than once, and the dirt keeps coming. It doesn’t help that we have a juvenile feline who likes to shred anything he can get his adorable little paws on. We invested in a laser pointer in the last few days, just to keep him busy.

Cowboy and kitten ❤️Sometimes we can wear him out, just for a moment.

I’ve started to learn where everything lives in the supermarkets. I’ve learned that you can’t get anything for a good price without giving up your personal information and getting the store club card.

I have a pile of recycling in my kitchen and my shed because I haven’t yet deciphered the recycling system. It involves crates with very similar contents listed on them. How exactly do “scrap paper” and “newspaper” differ in any significant way? Why is there no crate for plastic? It is mystifying.

I have fed Cowboy some real food and he has repaid me with some manual labour, heavy lifting and getting up early to get the horses in while I snooze for another hour or two.

The horses have been a joyous challenge to me. Sunshine is teaching me about how to say “I mean it!” and our new addition, Beau, is teaching me about lightness. Sunshine has been so desensitised that you could do just about anything with her and she barely blinks, which is wonderful for keeping people safe, but it also means she needs a louder cue. Beau is so light and responsive to anything and everything that just thinking something seems to be enough for him.

His little quirk is that he has spent so much of his 4 years in the arena, he has no idea how to pick up his feet. So we spent some time teaching him the other night.

After a good ride on Sunshine this evening, I got to sit and watch the sunset, and look at Mount Baker, the moon, and these two figuring things out.It took him a few goes to catch on.

There is something magical about watching this little horse think something through for the first time. He tries so hard. He wants the right answer, and when he understands the question properly, he is ready for anything.

It was a beautiful evening, and it reminded me why I came here. Me, the cowboy, horses and the fresh air. I am so lucky.

On climbing back on.

“Get straight back on!” my instructor would shrill, marching over to wherever I was picking myself up out of the dirt. “Up you get! Get back on!”

That’s the first rule that I remember learning about horses, apart from never using a mane comb on the tail. If you come off, get straight back on.

It’s decent enough advice, and intended to stop setbacks from sticking long enough to become issues and obstacles. See that crappy thing that just happened? You can get over it and move on and still have a great time, and that crappy thing becomes a great big nothing.

It’s been a strange time in life lately, and I fell off this blog. I fell off normal life. I fell into being somebody else for a little while, and realised it was no fun. Worst of all, I climbed off my horse. I climbed off, voluntarily, intentionally. Even though I landed on my feet like a regular dismount, I might as well have thrown myself face first into the dirt. My demons cackled with glee.

See these crappy things that happened? They’re huge and terrible and your life is over and you’ll never be happy again. You are a great big nothing.

It spiralled. I watched myself behave in a way that I hated. I listened to myself say things to Cowboy that were unfathomably horrible. I felt myself sliding like a poisoned body into a murky swamp, completely apathetic to stop it from happening.

It wasn’t quite what I wanted, given that I was making plans for my whole future at the time, and a murky swamp wasn’t what I really had in mind.

Shut up, the demons said. What you want doesn’t matter. You’ll never get it. You’re going to fail at everything you ever do, you’ll lose everything you’ve ever had, and you’ll never have anything again.

And then I finally saw the sunshine. I saw this Sunshine:

We played today. :)

I sat in the saddle in tears, about to climb off again (throw myself metaphorically face first in the metaphorical dirt). I had a violent meltdown. I was on the verge of quitting – quitting everything. I’d just go back to bed and never get up again.

Cowboy gripped my knee as I went to dismount, holding me still. He was unusually forceful. He almost shook me.

“Stay on the horse,” he said. I fought him feebly for a moment. He said it again, slower, more urgently. “Stay. On. The horse.”

“I can’t,” I protested, sobbing. “I’m just not in the right mood.” I’ll never be in the right mood again. Everything is worthless and useless and my life is already over.

“She doesn’t care,” he said. “Go ride.” He let go of us, and chased Sunshine off into the middle of the arena.

I sat there as she walked about, looking for a spot where she might be allowed to stop. I didn’t even pick up the reins. I watched her look back at me first with one brown eye, and then the other. She listened to me as I tried to catch my breath between the tears. She heaved a big sigh, and stepped onwards across the sand.

I finally came out of the haze. I emerged, squinting, from the toxic fog where the demons muttered at me, and I noticed the way she moved beneath me. I noticed her gentle, deliberate footfalls, and her patient breath. When we finally stopped, I felt her big heart pumping.

We had a big breakthrough that day. I say “we” did. I mean me. She has life all figured out already. I needed to hear it from her. She turned her head a little, looked up at me on her back. I like to think she was saying “Hey, human, what’s the big deal? I’ve got this.”

She became a safe place. That’s an amusing notion, given that just a few weeks earlier I had been frightened to be on her back. Now, I will climb on her fresh from the field, and we put the world to rights.

Except now I am back in England, thousands of miles from her, and looking into the fog once more. In searching for another safe place, I’m climbing back on to the blog. Let’s ride.

"She’s not doing well."

If he had meant to make me think that he was about to break up with me, Cowboy did a good job this afternoon. He sent me a few cryptic messages, and ended them with the dreaded “call me later and we can talk about it” phrase. I imagined all kinds of disasters, reasons for him to leave me, accusations and other awful relationship woes.

It was worse than that. It was news about Sunshine.

My girl is sick :( I hate that kind of news.

She had a cough and a runny nose when I was there, and we put it down to the cold weather. She has been this way for over a month now, and has lost weight. Cowboy sounded worried. That’s how I know that serious shit is going down.

He’s wormed her, and is giving her a course of antibiotics for a week. If she’s not looking up by then, it’ll be time to call the vet. I hope above all hopes that she bounces back and there is nothing more ominous that she has to endure. Here is more news that I am now waiting for…

It is telling that the thought of losing her makes me as emotional as it does. It might be just down to old memories of losing Domino so swiftly I didn’t even fully understand how sick he was, but part of it is definitely about her. For all her issues, I adore her spirit.

Be better, Sunshine. Please.

Back to the books

I’ve been back home in the UK for a couple of days now. I’m so jet-lagged, I could vomit. The weather was kind enough to be that glorious March sunshine that makes the rolling clouds look wonderful when I landed, but now it’s gone back to the dreary grey.

My month in Washington went far too quickly for me to understand. We lost several days, snowed in, and a good deal more time travelling up and down the state. I spent a small fortune.

I spoiled Cowboy on Valentine’s Day, buying him a leather splitter and a pattern for him to make his own spur straps. I know, I can hear you thinking it. He’s the luckiest man alive, with romantic gestures like that. His gift to me was driving me to Seattle more times than he’d care to mention, and with only minimal complaining.

Who says romance is dead?

Now that I’m home, it’s time to get on with boring tasks like doing the company accounts, realising I need to stop spending so much money on Cowboy, and hoping like heck that I can get the right paperwork together for the school in Seattle to accept me into their programme as of May. I don’t particularly want to have to wait until September.

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Although Cowboy said it was a good thing I was leaving for a bit, as Sunshine was getting kind of smart-arse about things and he needs some time to put her back to work. I didn’t think we looked too bad.

You are my Sunshine, my only Sunshine…

You make me happy…

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… When you’re not being a snarky knot-head, that is.

Sunshine has transformed in the months that I’ve been back home in the UK. I left Washington in the summer, leaving behind a plump, young, bratty horse with a canter that had a different leading leg with each stride. She was a teenager in her mindset – pushy, easily bored, and occasionally resentful of work. I left her in Cowboy’s big, capable, gentle hands and he set out to sculpt her into a better horse.

She looks different in one obvious way: her honey-coloured summer coat has been overgrown with her winter coat, which is long and shaggy, and lighter in colour. We don’t clip her, as she’s well-adapted to the cold weather and I want her to live as naturally as a horse as possible. She’s also slimmed down a lot.

The biggest change is in her attitude. She used to paw and fidget when tied up, and now she stands quietly and patiently. She used to throw her head or barge through me, and now she’s respectful of my space and minds her manners.

We’ve worked her a few times now, and took her to ranch sorting yesterday. We had some “discussions” to establish just who was in charge, and after that we’ve had some great rides. She really is turning into a solid horse.

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She still has quite the attitude, though.

Starting somewhere

You have to start somewhere, don’t you? Julie Andrews would suggest starting at the very beginning (that’s a very good place to start).

When I lay in bed this morning, wondering how on earth to summon the energy to just roll off the mattress and fall into the bathroom, I felt a bleak despair wash over me. I have spent a week looking at websites of personal trainers, and then feeling too cowardly to email or call them. I’ve looked at my wasting quadriceps and gluteals and felt ashamed and terrified by the thoroughly poor state of my fitness and strength.

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On my recent trip to London, I wandered around the Natural History Museum, and had to sit down next to an elderly couple after I walked up a shallow flight of stairs and felt dizzy, light-headed, breathless, my heart pounding. In the words of Nicki Minaj: You outta work… I know it’s tough. But enough is enough.

Thinking about it, I’ve been out of work(ing out) for months. I tore my plantar fascia last June, which healed up in time for me to go to America, where I tore up most of the soft tissue in the medial aspect of my knee. That healed up just in time for Christmas, when I was struck down with various germs that have kept me laid low for a few weeks.

Cowboy told me last night that Sunshine is fat and out of shape, and huffed and puffed her way through the entire ride last night, grumpy about how bad she felt. I think I understand what she’s going through.

Here I am: over-sugared, under-sweated and acutely aware of my body’s tendency towards premature ventricular contractions at bedtime. My PVC gets worse when I’m unfit, I’ve learned.

I forced myself up, and made a start. This start, in fact:

I pinned this to a Pinterest board months and months ago. I did it today, and felt instantly better. The best part is that you don’t sweat doing this workout, so I didn’t have to change into workout clothes and then shower and change back into normal clothes – the hassle puts me off more than the workout itself. Four minutes is doable, then straight back to whatever else needs to be done in the day.

I intend to pursue more thorough and longer duration workouts, as well as this four minute tabata training. There are plenty of hills around here for building bum muscle and quads strength, and for stamina training. I just need to get out into the cold and the wet and the mud and get to it.

Today was just a start, and starting is often the hardest bit.