Having Fun Bareback Riding

Tonight was a fabulously playful ride.  It was later in the day and I really wasn’t feeling like “training”. I went through my usual grooming routine and then moved on to  a light lunge session. Lunging lately has become so boring. Athena is so good at it. She picks up each new gait on cue, drops down to a lower gait with an exhale and you can just see it all over her face… are we done yet? I got this. LOL 

So after a few circles, mostly to be sure the sassy wiggles were out. I decided to  bridle her up and go for a bareback ride. This was Athena’s, 6th bareback ride. I couldn’t be more proud. I got on with no issues and we walked off calmly. I had Nick hold her bridle so she didn’t trot off… but honestly I think it added more tension. We would have been just fine walking off on our own. 

We walked around the arena first. I was definitely stiff and unsure, my legs off Athena’s side so not to provoke a faster speed. My uneasiness,  made Athena a little stiff, but after a few laps  we both were relaxing. In hindsight, out of a lack of trust I had my reins a little shorter than I probably should have… note to self… just relax. Trust her. She knows her role.  Once I was feeling a little more comfortable we ventured out of the arena and over to the paddock. We wandered up and down and all around. I loosened a bit… and could very consciously tell when I was tipping forward with my pelvis. I could also feel Athena tense up when I tipped forward. Hmmm… I think this bareback riding is actually a really good thing that we should do more of.

It felt so good to play. To not be serious. To wander around feeling Athena’s movement… to feel us come together as a riding pair. To start tense, and to relax as we walked. To feel my own balance, in tune with Athena’s and then shift to the side and bring myself back to center. As we rode I found myself loosing my reins… but still unsure that was safe.  I’m so proud of how far we have come.  Tonights ride gave me the idea to do 100days of stirrupless riding, bareback riding. To work towards cantering bareback.  Maybe we won’t do 100days consecutively… but I will be doing  a lot more riding like this. It’s fun. It’s different and it’s brining Athena and I together in a totally different way.

I remember the first time I got on her bareback. She was so tense and stiff it was like trying to balance  on a round ball, rolling back and forth. I could hardly touch her with my legs as she would scoot forward. Tonights ride was so far from that… and it’s only ride 6. I can’t wait to see how far we go in 100 days of bareback riding! 

Easter Party With Your Horse

The holidays are a great break in the routine. They are a time to celebrate, to do something out of the norm and to get a little silly. I love holidays and I especially love it when I get to bring my horse to the party too! 

What better way to kick off spring than with a mounted Easter Egg hunt, a spring time bonnet and of course lots of laugher and big smiles.

Bonus! Planning holiday activities with your horse provides a great platform for working on desensitizing, encouraging curiosity and promoting trust with your equine friend.

Some things to consider when planning your party:

1.) All of your festive decorations and costume items, while they look pretty and are just for fun, may be scary to your horse. Introduce your horse to these items slowly and with patience. Give them a chance to look at the decorations and sniff things if they desire. Allow them time to process the new things they are seeing. 

2.) If you decide to carry a bucket for collecting eggs on your Easter hunt show it to your horse first. Rattle the eggs inside the bucket and give your horse the opportunity to become familiar with the sound before setting out on your hunt. The sound of plastic eggs rolling around a bucket can be unsettling, especially if it’s coming from above as it will be when you carry it while riding. 

3.) If you haven’t put things on your horses head previously, go slowly. Allow them to sniff, nibble, and look at the hat before you go straight to putting it on. 

Most of all… have fun and laugh! Fun times with our horses are really what it’s all about!

Lessons I’ve learned from riding in imperfect conditions

1.) The horse can do it. When I first started riding on uneven surfaces such as in grass fields and out on the trail my horse would trip and stumble. I would get so frustrated, often complaining ” this is never going to work… we can’t do our “dressage” training with such crappy footing. I can’t ask my horse to be round and collected in the grassy, uneven field. But, we kept riding and it wasn’t long before I started to realize our rides were improving. Athena was tripping and stumbling less and over time hardly ever if at all stumbled. With soft persistent requests and lots of grace Athena started to learn how to find her own balance and to pick up her feet to avoid stumbling. Before long, we were in fact able to find moments of collection, soft contact and roundness in our rides… even on uneven terrain.

2.) My own balance and seat has improved. With the uneven ground I’ve had to really focus on being independent of my mare’s movements. Whether she slowed down, sped up, over jumped a pole, tripped or even stumbled, being able to keep my own flow and not be rattled by the mistakes has made me a far quieter and more balanced rider. 

3.) We’ve learned to work through distractions. The leaves on the tree rustled, the pheasant flew up from the tall grass, the dog came running up from down the hill, the giant backhoe in the yard… No problem… we are used to all of that now. Staying focused, or regaining composure quickly after a disruption is a fantastic skill to learn and has tremendous benefits, especially if you have plans to show. Very few environments are void of distraction and scary things for our horses. Teaching them to cope with these moments is one of the best tools we can teach them. 

4.) I learned to celebrate the tiniest of improvement. Most rides in imperfect conditions and/or uneven surfaces are a blend of good moments and frustrating moments. Rather than focusing exclusively on what isn’t right or how the horse isn’t moving, find the little victories; The 3 steps in a row where you and your horse are in harmony, the two strides where your horse is “round” with a nice even contact, the moment your horse didn’t spoke at something or recovered quickly when you asked. Reward to try ALWAYS. This becomes especially important when you are out “in the world” doing your training. This build trust and your partnership will grow deeper.

5.) Training in the real world builds trust and I believe a deeper connection with your horse. I’ll be honest, I would love to ride more regularly in freshly groomed white sand arenas. But, that’s not my reality, so I’m making lemonade out of lemons and you know what I’ve learned…. all the imperfectness creates a deeper level of connection and a stronger level of trust between my horse and I. For example riding on a loose rein, for long and low stretchy trot out in a field takes courage and trust. As a rider you are giving your horse the choice to decide to work with you, or take off for the barn. I’ve found myself pleasantly surprised on more than one occasion at my horses desire to really try for me, to work with me and be with me, given all of her choices. Likewise, she is learning to trust me; if I say the path is ok, it’s ok. If I am not phased by the pheasant then she shouldn’t be either. It works both ways. 

6.) Training outside can be a lot of fun! The views are spectacular, the sound of the birds chirping is super relaxing and no two days are every the same! A huge bonus for my easily bored mare who often gets sour when we train in an arena for more than two days in a row! 

7.) I’m a more confident rider. I used to always walk down hills because well, trotting was far too scary, and I felt that I could only do a 20 meter circle if the area was perfectly flat or ask for a canter when coming around the corner. Now, I ride whatever is in front of me. If we are trotting and she gets quick and doesn’t respond to my half halt, we do a circle, it doesn’t matter if there is a small rise in the ground, or a stump we have to go around, we just do it and continue on with our ride. I call it all terrain dressage. After-all the word in it’s self means to train and that’s what we do whether inside, outside on level ground or hilly fields… we train in it all and grow with every ride! 

Love the Fenwick LT Calming Mask and Stable Sheet!

I’m always exploring products that can help my horse perform better. For Athena, this means reducing stress, helping her focus more and soothe her tight and sore muscles from a good ride. 

Through my research, I discovered Fenwick Equestrian and in particular, their LT Calming Mask and LT Stable Sheet. Both are amazing and have been a game changer in our training. 

The LT Mask as described on the Fenwick website is “ The first and only therapeutic mask which can help your horses relax and focus naturally.” The mask is drug free, has 4 way stretch and is designed using Fenwick’s Liquid Titanium Far Infrared fabric that is both breathable and wicking. This makes it very comfortable for your horse to wear.  For more information about the technology, you can check out the Fenwick website here.

As an owner, I’ve seen first hand the positive effects the LT calming mask can have. Athena is easily distracted during our training and is often spooky and nervous in new environments and situations. Over the years, I have tried a variety of supplements and while some may have worked, the results where hard to quantify. Others did nothing. I continued to search for a better product that I could use situationally that I could really see and feel an improvement in her behavior. The LT Mask was it! From the very first time I put it on,  I immediately noticed a difference in her behavior. After fastening the Velcro straps, while still standing in the cross ties, she immediately licked and chewed, a sign of relaxation. During our ride, she got right down to business… it was as if the mask had helped her put her “work hat”  on or mask as in this case. She was all business, focused and ready for my cues. She was less distracted and the spooky corner wasn’t nearly as scary as it has been. I was thrilled. 

I continued to experiment with different situations. I’ve used the mask for trailering, on trail rides, and when riding in new places.  While it isn’t a cure all for spookiness, Athena still has her jumpy moments on trail rides and still gets distracted from time to time, overall she has a much calmer demeanor and a much more focused attitude when wearing her mask. 

The fabric is super stretchy and cool. We’ve finished some pretty intense rides and other than a little sweat behind her ears, she isn’t any more sweaty under her mask than she would be normally…. And we live in Hawaii! 

I’m a huge believer.  This mask is now fully integrated into our regular riding. We call it her “Zorro super hero mask”.  It gives her that extra edge of confidence and poise to conquer new situations and be her best self, bringing her “home personality” on adventures where ever we go.  

Post ride, Athena loves her Fenwick LT Therapy sheet. After her bath or hose down, she nudges me as if to ask for her “blankey”. It’s pretty cute. She always stands still, not a common occurrence for miss busy body, as I drape it over her. Almost immediately I get a sigh of relaxation and usually a yawn too. I often feed her a small snack or let her hand graze for a bit while wearing her sheet. The fabric is light weight. Even if I leave it on overnight or longer during the day, I’ve never found her to get sweaty. As an added bonus in the evenings, post bath the wicking properties of the blanket act as a cooler to help her dry off more quickly, which is fantastic. The stretchy fabric, hugs her body, and broad Friesian shoulders without being restrictive.  I’ve even used this sheet before our rides on cooler mornings to help warm her muscles up before we get to work. It’s been another fantastic and multipurpose product in Athena’s wardrobe. 

For more information or to purchase check out the Fenwick website: 

Fenwick LT Calming Mask

Fenwick LT Blanket/Stable Sheet

Hoof Treatment for White Line Disease: Therazone

Nail holes, hoof cracks, white line oh my! 

Thankfully, Athena has great hooves. She has been barefoot most of her life and we’ve never had any issues. In January, it became apparent that her barefoot hooves couldn’t take the beating of every day riding, rocky trail rides and gravel around the barn. A groove was starting to form along her white line and I decided it was time to put shoes on her. I’m not going to lie… I really obsessed about whether to move from barefoot to shoes. It turned out to be the right decision.But I did feel sort of like a proud Mom… my Athena is all grown up and wearing big girl shoes! Ahhhh, Sigh. 

We had 7 months of everything going great. At our regular farrier appointment in July, our Farrier was trimming away the hoof as usual to prep it for the new shoe and he found a soft spot. As he investigated further, he discovered a white powdery substance. That powder was the hoof wall crumbling from the bacteria/fungus eating the laminae and the hoof wall separating from the laminae and coffin bone.  As he continued to dig out the deteriorated hoof, wall the hole just kept getting bigger and going deeper. The bacteria/fungus must have started in a small crack in her hoof along the white line and it just spread up the laminae. It had now progressed to the point where we ended up resecting half of her hoof wall and applying a bar shoe to project the hoof.

I am hyper aware of her feet and always treat any cracks, chips, etc I pick her hooves daily and she is on a great diet and in all other ways is very healthy. This just happened to be a fluke incident and with our warm tropical climate it’s the perfect environment for bacteria and fungus to flourish in a closed hoof environment. I was shocked, and devastated but my Farrier assured me this is the best way to get ahead of the problem and insure I can treat the entire area.

 I’m grateful Athena has remained sound even while missing half her hoof. It looks terrible! With her hoof wall resected, the majority of the problem had been exposed and cut away. However, I still needed to come up with a treatment protocol that would insure all the bacteria and fungus was truly eliminated. I needed a plan that was easy to do everyday, and manageable without the full structure of a barn environment and the treatments needed to actually work. 

Through my research, I found Therazone. This stuff is amazing!!!! It’s a clay mixed with copper sulfate, and vinegar.  I store it in the fridge at home and bring it to the pasture with me in a cooler. Pretty easy so far. After I ride and hose Athena down, I take my fingers and scoop out a clump of the semi hardened clay and pack it into the resected part of her hoof. I squish the clay into any crack or hole and smear it around to cover her exposed coffin bone. Because she is in a pasture, I take Equi-tape which is a Kinesiology tape and place a strip of tape over her hoof so that the clay doesn’t get scuffed off by the grass. Equi tape is both breathable and durable so it doesn’t block air flow to the hoof and it stays on.Tada! All done. It stays in place, treating the area all day and night, until I return the next day to treat again. 

In just two weeks, I could already see a marked improvement her hoof. The coffin bone looks  less dry and more nourished and the hoof wall is growing down quite quickly. It’s been 8 weeks now and the hoof is regrowing nicely.  I also apply the clay to the old nail holes and any other cracks, or groves that I find, just as a precaution to keep any potential bacteria from getting into her hoof. 

Therazone has been amazing. Easy to use, stays put and works!  I’m so glad I found it! 

Shoo Fly Don’t Bother Me: Abrazo Hug Fly Sheet Review

On the Hunt! Hunting for the perfect fly sheet! Living in Hawaii, and owning a baroque build Friesian sport horse has created quite the conundrum for finding the perfect fly sheet. With hot and humid weather year round, the fly sheet must be light weight and highly breathable. But, it still needs to provide good protection from those pesky flies and annoying “no seeums” and mosquitos. Since my mare will be wearing her sheet ALOT, it must also offer plenty of shoulder room so it doesn’t rub or become restrictive with daily wear. So many fly sheets look great when you first put them on, but after a full day of grazing, rolling and just being a horse, you return to find the fly sheet slid to one side, or so far back off the wither and neck, their shoulders are restricted and the blank is rubbing the shiny fur off your beautiful horse. 

I’ve tried so many different fly sheets,  I’ve started to feel like Goldilocks and the 3 little bears…. This one is too heavy, this one is too narrow, this one won’t stay in place and the list goes on…. But, I can say with satisfaction that the Hug Fly Sheet is fantastic and fits juuuuusst right. 

When I first unfolded the fly sheet from its packaging, I was slightly concerned as it felt heavy and the fabric didn’t look like it had enough of an open weave to allow airflow. But, I was willing to give it a try. 

It took a few moments to get all the straps on, adjusted correctly and the sheet positioned appropriately. With everything now fastened, the sheet draped perfectly.

I stood back to analyze the fit. It sure looked good. The hug closure neck opening is cut higher and rides above her shoulder allowing more freedom to move. With the clasp up around the wither, there is nothing to restrict the shoulder movement, which is fantastic. The neck also has elastic so it stretches with the horses up and down grazing movement. What a great idea! 

Now, for the best part, the fabric. It’s like magic. Just looking at the fabric and holding it, I thought it would be too heavy for our Hawaii climate. It’s a tight weave, and a durable fabric. But, it’s not too heavy. Even on the hottest days she has only had a little sweat along the seam that is double overlapped and most days no sweat at all. The slightly shiny grey fabric must be reflective some how. As I said, it’s like magic!

Now for the true test… all day pasture turnout. I turned Athena out and watched her happily graze, uninhibited by her new Hug Fly sheet. Satisfied with how it seemed to be fitting, I left for the day. Returning the next day I was pleased to see the Hug Fly Sheet hadn’t moved at all.. not one inch. Success! I think Athena and I may have found the fly sheet for us! 

Happy Horse, Happy Owner! 

Subtle Signs of a Tired horse

How do I know when my horse is tired? 

This is a common question that is often answered in some variation of…

“When you feel you don’t have any horse left.” 

Well, that’s great, but what if you have a horse that just seems to keep going no matter what???

I hear you. I have this exact issue. Athena has so much heart and so much stamina that it’s hard to tell when she is tired.  In the 5 years of working with her, I’ve never had a moment where I didn’t feel like I had any horse left. She just keeps going. That’s saying something, especially for a 3/4 Friesian, living in Hawaii with warm and humid weather to boot! 

To add complexity, Athena is a quick leaner and likes to be challenged. But, she also gets bored easily with repetition. So each week it’s a delicate dance to create a training plan that includes enough review and practice of the steps we know so we can continue to perfect them, but also introducing new material to challenge her mentally and physically.  It mist include new material but so much that she gets frustrated and gives up mentally because she isn’t physically able to do the new steps that I’m asking. As her rider and owner, it’s up to me to observe her behavior and find the line of just right. Talk about pressure! 

So here are some signs to look for to help you notice the other “behaviors” your horse may be giving you that could indicate tiredness, even if he/she isn’t slowing down!

1.) The quality of your training has diminished.     

Example: I’ve been working on a more collected canter with Athena. There were days or moments in our ride when her canter was round and slow with a nice rocking horse feel and then times when it was flat, fast and she was leaning on my hands horribly.  I started to pay close attention to when the canter was good and when it wasn’t. Turns out the canter was always really nice early on in our rides, and then it would slowly degrade. So I decided to do shorter riders, with a higher expectation for her to be round, slow, balanced and not leaning on my hands. I tuned into how she felt through our ride and if she gave me what I wanted once, I praised and we ended on that note. There were some rides that were only 20 minutes long. It felt like I had just tacked up!  Athena felt so proud of herself for knowing exactly when she had executed the canter at the moment when I was asking.  We started with just a single  20 meter circle in the frame I was seeking. That was enough for her. Over the course of the next few weeks, we continued to build from that single 20 meter circle to completing two and three 20 meter circles in a row. Next we progressed to half the arena, and now we can do a lap around the entire arena. Athena is physically able to maintain a slower more collected canter with a nice soft contact in my hands. Mentally she is excited again to go to work and is so proud of herself that she is “Doing it, just like I asked!” 

2.) The gait gets faster, lacks rhythm with shorter strides and your horse loses roundness 

Example: I see this a lot in my trot work with Athena. At the beginning of our rides, she goes right to work; head down, back up and a nice even rhythm. Her trot stride feels smooth and has a heavy solid feel to it. When she is tired, she drops her back and her head comes up.  Even if those two things don’t happen, her stride gets short, choppy and she feels really fast. It also takes a lot more effort for me to keep her attention. 

3.) Lack of sensitivity If you normally have a very sensitive horse and suddenly they aren’t responding to your aids, it could be an indication that they simply can’t. I find this with Athena. Most of the time, I just think about what I’m going to ask and she does it with the softest of cues. If she stops responding, it’s usually because she is tired.  

Example: Athena is acutely  “tuned in” to my breathing  and my seat. If I exhale, she slows or stops. If I tighten my abs and slow y seat, she slows or stops. When she stops responding or her response starts to become selective, I know she has gone into “auto pilot” or is heading into z’check out” mode because she is tired. It’s a lot of work to slow her speed and stay round and collected so she defaults to ignoring me and remaining fast.  Worse yet, if I apply leg to ask her to be more round, she shoots forward and gets faster!  If I ask for more bend with my leg, the request being “stepping over” or “stepping under” rather than “move over and bend” she uses my leg cue to avoid moving differently.  Instead she will just go faster as if she could talk she would be saying, “Can’t do it Mom, but I’ll go faster so I can give you something… See, I’m trying.

4.) Irritability & tension 

Example: Suppleness and collection take work for your horse,especially the heavier breeds like Friesians. Keep in mind that new steps and tasks are also mentally and physically challenging.  Your horse needs to develop the muscles and the understanding forwhat you are asking.  If you push too hard or ask for too much and they either can’t do it physically or don’t understand, the response from your horse can often be attitude. This may be more of a mare thing, but “attitude” can present itself as tail swishing, bracing against you, being overly argumentative and holding tension in their body.  Athena likes to work with me but when it starts to feel like she is working against me, that’s my cue that we are teetering on the brink of a melt down and it’s time to find a good place to end for the day.  It’s obvious to say, but we try our best to avoid this final straw. 😃 

5.) Sore body  

It’s good to note that our horses get sore just like we do.  A regular massage and body work routine can be very beneficial in helping elevate or minimize sore muscles for your horse. To help Athena stay in peak form, she gets a massage once a week. I also use the Liquid Titanium Therapeutic sheet by Fenwick. It promotes circulation and increased blood flow with our compression and aids in the healing process for sore and tired muscles. It’s the perfect way to end our training session; Bath, Fenwick cooler and some quality hand grazing time.

These are just a few things I have noticed with my horse  when she is tired. Be observant and consider making a change if you notice some of these traits happening in your riding session.  This decision  can go a long way towards  maintaining a good relationship with your horse as well as keep your training program moving forward with consistent progress and success.

Welcome Home Athena!

In July of 2015, I welcomed Athena into our family. She had just turned 5 years old and was very green. To say I had no real idea what I was in for is an understatement. But, with excitement, a healthy dose of apprehension and a lot of logistical planning, Athena traveled from Washington State to Maui, Hawaii. Her journey included a 2 day trailer trip with a commercial horse transport company from Seattle, Washington to LAX International Airport. Arriving at midnight she hopped on a horse dedicated 747 Jet from LAX to Honolulu, HI to clear quarantine before proceeding on the last leg of her adventure, an overnight barge trip from Honolulu to Maui where she finally settled into her lush 2 acre pasture and our journey together began. 

During my pre purchase visits I could see that she had some basic ground schooling and had been lightly started under saddle. However, once settled in her new Maui home, it became very clear she was a handful. I had seen indications of this but now that it was just her and me, her true colors were  showing like a bright rainbow banner of spirited personality. Despite her sass, she had many endearing qualities and I saw loads of potential. To this day, I still believe we were meant for each other. 

To begin with, she had zero ground manners and would frequently take off, zipping the lead line out of my hand as she galloped off, clearly very proud of herself. I learned early on to ALWAYS wear gloves, or suffer the blistered, rope burn consequences. 

She was hard to catch. In her two acres of pasture I would spend hours chasing her around, just to put her halter on. I quickly decided we needed a “Catch pen” where I would lure her into the smaller space staked out with temporary hot wire fence, feed her a small bowl of Timothy pellets and close the gate behind her while she was eating. It was still a game of chase, but at least it was one I could win now. 

Grooming her was an ordeal. I couldn’t pick her back feet up without her kicking out at me. If I touched her chest, she would bare her teeth as if to bite. Although she never did “get me”, it was none the less unnerving. I would get through the currying as quickly as I could, doing my best to dodge her tossing head, tail swishing and overall pissy nature. When she was in a “good” mood, which was completely on her terms, should would approach me, looking for wither scratches.

It was endearing, in a way that made me think there might be hope that she might want to be with me. But, with a kicking habit it was also scary and I found myself  trying to push her away which ultimately lead to her spinning around, pinning her ears, pointing her hind end at me and giving a little bunny hop buck in my direction. Then trotted away tossing her head, satisfied that she had shown me who was boss. 

Tacking up was a wild dance. With saddle in hand I would approach her and proceed to chase her around the hitching pole until I could get close enough to throw my dressage saddle over her back. As I would tighten her girth, I had to jump back to avoid a nip as she reached around with her teeth. Installing cross ties, helped. Instead of going around and around in a circle at least it was just back and forth.

Getting on was an adventure at best. It was a solid 45 minute ordeal of asking her to stand next to the mounting block. Once I finally had her standing, usually crocked, I would put one foot in the stirrup, which always illicited a side ways and/or forward step away. Thinking I could still get on, I would begin hopping around on one leg as she circled around and around the mounting block, moving further and further away with each step. Eventually, she would step far enough away that I could no longer remain on the mounting block and keep a foot in the stirrup. In the last moment of tension, I would slide my foot out of the stirrup as she backed even further away pulling me completely off the block. On occasion the reins would rip out of my hands, leaving Athena “free”.  Sensing her new liberty she would run off, parading around the field in full tack, reins dangling around her neck and me hoping she didn’t get her leg caught.    

Once I finally managed to get on, the presence of my legs made her jump forward. To her my, leg always and only meant go forward and go faster, even to the slightest touch. She was always tense and unsure. Nothing I seemed to say or do helped to calm her down. 

With jazzy steps, her head held high like a giraffe, we would venture down towards my makeshift grass arena at the bottom of the field.

 If we were lucky, we didn’t encounter any flying pheasants which would inevitable send Athena into a spooking tizzy of whirling energy, trying to escape the “monster” from the grass. It was quite an ordeal. Many days, I found it was  “enough” to get on and go for a walk. 

For six months, August to January we continued to push through all the ground and mounting issues and persevered to get to the highlight of the week, our one hour Dressage riding lesson. But, that proved to be just as frustration and pointless. It would take a solid 30 minutes of walking and struggling to get Athena to be calm and focused. She fought every request. Pushing against my leg and shooting forward into a faster trot. She had no supple movement and no left or right lateral movement of any kind. She would get her tongue over the bit constantly and then toss her head vigorously, swishing her tail in even further protest. We mostly worked on walk and trot. In January we introduced a little  canter. That was another exercise in courage, as every canter started first with a bucking fit. Once the canter smoothed out, it was nice, unrefined and fast, but had elements of riding a rocking horse. A sign of good things to develop in time. But, by that point my nerves were shot, my heart pounding and my legs were Jello. I ended our rides exhausted and distraught. Athena ended our rides pissy and anxious. She didn’t understand what I was asking and I didn’t know how to explain my requests. There was a huge gap between us and it was growing bigger with every session together whether on the ground or in the saddle. 

Different Expectations for Different Situations

I pulled into the barn ready to for some much needed time with Athena. I love pulling into the barn and looking out to her pasture. She usually perks up, hearing me pull in. But, today she was happily grazing in her pasture. The sun’s rays were still warm, casting an afternoon glow across the barn. I planned on riding in the upper arena, to practice what I’ve been working on in my lessons.But the weather was so calm, so perfect that I decided to venture into the outdoor arena.

The outdoor arena has been spookyville. It seems that every time we’ve been out there lately there has been a scary noise or birds have flown up from the edge, startling Athena every time. To say it’s “rocked her confidence” would be an understatement. Every time we go out there she can hardly focus on me, being so worried out the scary monsters that lurk in the trees and bushes surrounding the arena. We’ve been doing long line and lunge sessions out there and it’s been getting better. So today, with the sun shinning, the air still and the farm workers quiet, I decided to brave a ride in the outdoor arena. 

Our upper arena lessons have been fantastic. Athena has been focused, calm, and ready to learn. She has really been trying for me in our lessons which has been super exciting. We’ve even been doing a lot of canter work and as of Monday, no bucking in the transition. Whohoo!  

The outdoor arena is almost the exact opposite. Our corner’s were non existent as she braced against my inside leg, her head bent to the outside in a complete counter to the circle as she stared out at the boogie monsters she was convinced were hidden in the grass. Her trot was hollow, short and tense. It was nothing like my indoor arena rides.

I had two options; be frustrated that I wasn’t getting the same focus and relaxation in the outdoor arena as I have been during our indoor rides, or revamp my expectations for the ride today and simply go back to the basics. Every time I ride I try to always do whats best for my horse and clearly what she was telling me today was “I’m uncomfortable, I’m nervous, and I need you to be my support.” So that’s just what I did. I focused on corners first. When she would counter bend I would circle her around and around until she gave me even the slightest bit more bend and then we would move on. I focused on the skills she was already comfortable with and already understood how to do. No reason to add new things to the ride. This was a confidence building ride, not a training something new ride today. I didn’t push her forward, if she felt that she needed to go a little slower I let her, as long as she was still going forward to some degree. Adding pressure to an already tense situation just creates more tension. If she wanted to look, I let her for the first few rounds around the arena, again as long as she was still going forward. At first I felt like a yo-yo, fast and then slow and then fast again. It was discouraging to feel like we had completely reverted to what our rides had been months ago. But, I kept consistent and even with my hands and my seat, not pushing, and not holding. By being consistent my hope was that Athena would start to normalize to me, my breath and my rhythm. 

About half way through our ride she started to relax. Our corners started to round out, the contact in my hand began to even out and her trot started to become round and rhythmic again. We had success! 

As riders we need to let go of our desire to  micro manage our horses. It’s hard to do… I know! But, it’s so  important to teach them how to respond when they are nervous and to teach them the the tools to unwind and relax with out constant restrictive control from us. That was what today’s lesson was all about. I didn’t chase Athena with long rein, short rein, circle circle circle. I rode the spooks forward, as if they didn’t exists. I would give subtle reminders with a wiggle of my fingers to drop her head when needed, but didn’t fight with her. It was like a caring hand on the shoulder saying “ we’ve got this. I’m here, you are ok.” Athena responded with lowering her head creating a posture for relaxation and calmness. As we went through our ride she began to seek this position more, and worry less about what was around the arena. It was an exciting lightbulb moment. 

As I walked around the arena, cooling her out, I reflected on our ride. It wasn’t the ride I had planned, and we certainly didn’t “progress” in our flat work training, but we did make progress. It was a confidence building ride. We started tense and spooky and ended calm and relaxed. That’s improvement.  Our ride wasn’t perfect, but today we laid the foundation for further growth. Athena learned how to work through her anxieties and look to me. We struck a balance between allowing Athena to work through her own anxieties, and learning how to look to me for support. I practiced keeping my own emotions in check and staying steady and consistent with my hands, seat and legs and giving Athena something consistent to come back to and seek out in her moments of tension and spookiness. It was a very rewarding ride in a very different, but still successful ride. 

When you go out on your next ride remember to have an open mind and align your expecations with what your horse is telling you for that day. Every day is different, and every ride is different, especially when working with young horses. Sometimes taking a step back to fill in the “gap” in your horses training is more beneficial than plowing forward with your flat work training per the schedule you’ve set in your head. At the end of the day it’s all training, and all the pieces really do fit together to build a well rounded and happy horse who wants to advance through the levels.

Enjoy the journey, enjoy the ride and have fun!

Turning Rainy Days into Training Opportunities!

It’s been a week of rain, rain and more rain here in Hawaii. We’ve managed to sneak out between the showers to enjoy a few rides down the road to at least get out, but mostly it’s been a week in creative horse training.  

During one such break in the weather I looked out at our flooded round pen and sighed…. It’s going to be a while before that is usable.  I looked at Athena who was looking curiously at me. It was if she was asking, “Ok Mom, I’m ready for today’s adventure….what are we going to do today?”. 

The ground was really too wet to safely ride; the trails were saturated and the arena was being used by lessons. Hmmmm, what was I going to do today? As I stood there gazing out across the farm and in particular the flooded round pen,  an idea sparked.  I had never taken Athena through water and therefore I had no idea how she would react. Will she have fun in it? Will she avoid it? Will she be afraid of it? I had an Arab growing up who was petrified of the water. Not a great combo when hacking out.  

 I could feel my excitement brewing. We had a plan for our session today!  I quickly finished grooming Athena and put my rubber muck boots on. Excitedly and carefully we made our way down to the round pen to play in the puddle. 

As it turns out, Athena loves the water. I kept her on the lead line at first… you know, just in case.  She was curious at first, giving it a good long sniff to make sure it was safe. With a few encouraging words from me, she took one step and then two, three and four and before long she was splashing through the water with ease. I thought she might roll, but nope… or at least not this go around! Thank goodness! 

She seemed generally at ease in the water. In fact she wanted to drink it. Nothing like fresh mineral rain water I suppose. I wasn’t thrilled about that and we ended up playing a game of yo-yo  as I tried to keep her engaged in our activity together and Athena trying to drink the muddy water as she plodded along. Yuck! 

I eventually took her off the lead line and let her explore on her own and about 45minutes later we wrapped up. It had been a very productive session. Athena enjoyed her time out and about, working with me,  trying something new and expanding her confidence and trust in me.

So often as riders we get focused on just riding. We forget that there is so much more to training and creating a well balanced horse than what goes on in the saddle. We expect our horses to behave in the exact moment we need them to, whether it is at a horse show or just during a lesson or even for a free ride. But, have we put in the time to expose our horses to all the different elements in our human world?  You can’t predict or control the weather and one day you may have to ride a Dressage test in the rain. Have you ever worked in the rain before? Or on a trail ride, you just might encounter a puddle. Are you and your horse prepared?  

It’s important to always be safe and some days are just too rainy or snowy or whatever to safely do anything. Be cautious and always safe first! But, some days just aren’t good for riding, but there may be another activity you can do with your horse. Look for the rainbow amongst the clouds and be creative in your training. Remember, the things you often find normal and routine could be different, exciting or even scary for your horse and therefore a perfect training opportunity!