For some time now, Natalie’s been telling me to bring my shoulder blades back and together. I understand what she’s saying and I try. It works temporarily, and then I forget. It feels forced and I tense up. It hasn’t stuck.
This week, Natalie tried a different approach.
“Open your chest,” she said. And what a difference it made.
Opening the chest achieves a similar result to “bring your shoulder blades back” but, for whatever reason, the image works better for me.
While it takes effort for me to open my chest, it doesn’t feel forced. I can feel my shoulders going back, my elbows sitting more naturally at my sides, and my pelvis opening up. I can breathe more deeply.
“Open up” makes me realize how much I tend to curl up, when I’m trying hard, which is most of the time.
A large part of riding Skipper, my* new horse, is that I need to ride with more relaxation. When I relax, he relaxes. When I tense up, he assumes I’m going to ask something from him. He’s an excellent communicator.
‘Open the chest’ is a subtle thing but the results are noticeable. My position is better and Skipper relaxes in response, moving his back and hips more freely. He’s more comfortable to ride and that creates a positive biofeedback loop — he’s relaxed, I relax, and so on. It’s pretty wonderful.
What amazes me is how important subtle changes can be. And, how the words we use can shape the images that influence us. Lots of lessons learned today.
Skipper is new to me and I really want to be a positive influence in his life. If I want him to be relaxed and responsive to me, I have to open up to him. Breathe deep and show him everything is ok. If I curl up my body in a defensive posture, how can I possibly convince Skipper to relax and trust me?
When I turned Skipper out to pasture today, he stopped to hang out with me. I scratched his neck, he sniffed my hair. He was in no hurry to run off with his friends. These are the moments I cherish. You can’t force a horse to like you. When you open yourself up to them — and you’re lucky — they open themselves up to you in response.
*I am co-leasing Skipper. I don’t own him but he is in my care … which makes him ‘mine’ figuratively. In short, I care for him as if I own him.
Pfifer and I had been training together for just over four months and things were going great. I loved her laid-back temperament — she was fun to ride and I was really happy with how things were going.
Feeling confident, I signed up for First Level, Tests, One and Two when the Central Oregon Chapter of the Oregon Dressage Society offered their Swing Into Spring league show. Both tests were well within Pfifer’s capabilities, as she’s schooling Third Level with trainer Natalie Perry.
Six days before the show, Pfifer came into heat in a big way. She was flirting and showing her stuff to anyone and everyone. Oh, dear.
She gave a big kick at the first canter depart I asked for in our Tuesday lesson, but otherwise settled in. No big deal.
Likewise, on Thursday, just days from the show, she was a bit grumpy and didn’t really want to bend, but no big deal.
The weekend of the show arrived and the weather was predicted to be great. What could be better? I had visions of respectable scores and a couple of nice ribbons.
We arrived at the show grounds early enough for me to walk Pfifer around and let her take in the sights. She’d been to the venue the previous summer, so I was a surprised when she got nervous and spooked a couple of times on our walkabout. Oh, well. She’ll settle in, right?
Natalie coached our warm up, and while it wasn’t fantastic, it was respectable. Pfifer still felt resistant to bending and while it wasn’t as apparent that she was in heat, she was still a bit edgy.
Our time to ride came up and we entered the ring, ready to show our stuff. Pfifer balked a little at the judge’s stand, but without conviction. The bell rang, and off we went!
First Level, Test One rides nicely. I felt good about our trot work and got a fairly prompt canter depart. We started down the long side for an extended canter and, without warning, Pfifer started to buck. And buck. And buck some more.
My survival skills kicked in and I sat back, held tight to the reins so she couldn’t get her head down any further, and rode it out. My head was spinning, wondering “What????”
“If this gets any worse, I’m coming off,” went through my mind.
But the big issue was this: “Wait! I can’t fall off in front of mom!!”
Yes, of all the shows I’ve competed in, this was the first one my mom came to watch. My husband and two friends from out of town also stopped by. (Undoubtedly the cause of the bucking.)
Here’s the thing: Mom is terrified of horses, even when they are on best behavior. This was supposed to be a fun outing for her.
Fortunately, I’d asked Pfifer’s owner, Claudia, to sit with mom and explain to her what our dressage test was all about. I’d imagined a conversation along the lines of, “That was a nice trot lengthening.” Instead, mom was gripping Claudia’s arm, asking, “Is Lauren ok?!”
Claudia is a retired medical professional, skilled at remaining calm in stressful situations.
“Of course she is,” Claudia said in her most soothing voice.
“Is the horse trying to buck her off?” Mom asked. A reasonable question, applicable to other equestrian sports in addition to dressage.
“Of course not,” Claudia said, bending the truth.
Mom gasped a few times and Claudia patted her arm.
Pfifer bucked down the long side, settled into a trot, and kicked up a few more bucks as I asked for the canter again to make a circle at ‘P’. She actually cantered enough of the circle that the judge remarked: Good recovery.
Alas, there was more canter yet to come and more bucking. Our score reflected this but it was a small enough class that I got the most hard-earned fifth place of my life.
I ended the test with our highest score of the test — an 8 on our halt! I saluted the judge, relieved it was over, and raised an imaginary cowboy hat to the onlookers. I got applause for courage.
My poor mother had lost all color in her face and looked very unhappy.
“I didn’t like that,” she said.
“Neither did I,” I replied, but I was laughing now, because it was over and I’d stayed on.
Mom stuck around for my second ride, which was better but included a buck at the end of our second canter, right in front of mom. I doubt we’ll see mom at dressage shows in the future.
My horsey friends will be wondering if I had Pfifer checked out by a chiropractor. Yes, and she’s fine. I can only assume she wanted me to practice my staying on skills. Clearly she wasn’t out to get a ribbon.
Once again, I am humbled by a horse. Disappointed? Yes, dammit, we’d worked hard.
And, of course, in our next lesson she showed none of weekend’s predilection for drama … so there was really not much to school other than some minor resistance.
I did get some nice photos of Pfifer looking innocent at the show!
I’ve never been a big fan of the saying that ‘When one door closes, another one opens.’
While it can be true that change is for the better, when you’re in the midst of a loss, sometimes you just need to embrace the sadness before looking for the bright side.
In my case, letting Micah go to the retirement he deserves was painful. I loved him to pieces and losing him as my riding partner left a hole in my heart.
However, a door truly did open at just the right time and I have been graced with the opportunity to ride Pfifer, a wonderful Friesian/Quarter Horse-cross mare, for the next few months. The transition helped ease the pain of letting go and has proven to be a way for me to improve my riding, while giving Pfifer some exercise as her mom recovers from an injury.
Pfifer on a winter’s day
The timing has been so perfect, it’s a little scary.
I have long admired Miss Pfifer. Why? Because she’s strikingly beautiful — jet black with the tiniest of stars on her forehead. She has a gorgeous hind end and well-developed neck, put together in a package that is a just-right 16 hands. While she feels litle, after riding Micah, she really is a great size.
Thanks to regular training by Natalie Perry, Pfifer’s matured into a trustworthy girl who is rarely rattled by the ups and downs of barn life. (She does — for reasons no one understands – hate fly spray, but that’s a minor quirk that’s easy to live with.)
Much as I miss Micah, Pfifer is good for me and my affection for her grows with each ride. I have to keep my hands quiet and am sitting more upright. This leaves me time to focus on my New Year’s resolution: quieting my lower legs.
As I struggle with improving my position, Pfifer is tolerant of my failings and remains good-natured even when I confuse her. I love that.
2018 was my year to acknowledge how little control I have over things. In addition, it gave me the chance to embrace the things I am grateful for in my life.
As I ride into 2019, I am begin the new year with hopes of improving my riding and a sense of gratitude for my support team: my trainer, Natalie Perry; the Pfabulous Miss Pfifer; and her generous owner, Claudia.
My magical vest is so good, I don’t even need to wear it to feel cooler.
To deal with the heat, several of my barnmates purchased cooling vests this summer. These are nifty vests you soak in water, wring out, and they retain just enough moisture to keep you cooler in the heat.
Clever friends, they purchased their vests while temps were tipping 100 degrees. They got lots of good use out of them. Me, I waited until the week before Adult Amateur Riding camp to order mine. Of course there were delays and my vest arrived the week after camp.
The good news is that my vest is Magical! While my friends brag that their vests reduce their body temperature by 10 degrees below the outside temperature, my vest dropped the outside temperature by 30 degrees — we went from daytime highs of 100 degrees to temps in the 70’s. My vest has brought about the end of Summer! I am not joking — Fall is in the air.
This vest is so good, I don’t even have to wear it to feel cooler. I keep the vest in my closet, tags still attached, and savor its magical powers. I actually wore a jacket to the barn this morning. It was wonderful.
I may try soaking the vest in water, to see if that helps to squelch the forest fires that are plaguing the Northwest. It’s worth a try!
That’s me. The woman in the trench coat and dark glasses trying not to be noticed.
I’m not proud of what I’m doing, but I’m trying to stay married.
Perhaps you’ll judge me. Or perhaps you’ve been there.
I know there are services that can provide what I need but it’s really not in my budget.
Sure, I could throw my barn laundry into the washer at home, but that’s where the ‘staying married’ part comes in. My husband cringes (and worse) at the sight of a saddle pad anywhere near our not-even-new washer/dryer.
I comb my dirty saddle pads with my dog’s slicker brush, taking out as much hair as possible. I spray them with Oxy Clean (who may want to sponsor me) and sometimes even hose them off before throwing them in the wash. But you know how bad saddle pads can get.
That’s why I’m sneaking into the laundromat, saddle pads hidden in a Kirkland Draw-String Trashbag (they may want to sponsor me, as well) , planning to wash them in one of the large, commercial washers.
I bring my own Kirkland laundry soap, Brawny paper towels, and some 409 All-Purpose Spray (sponsor, anyone?) to wipe out the washer after the deed is done. I do have a conscience. I think of the new mom washing her newborn’s clothes and hope she’ll choose a different washer.
In an ideal world, I’d have a commercial washer of my own, right next to my Grand Prix horse’s stall, just off my full-size indoor competition arena. In fact, my handsome stable boy would be loading it for me!
Please linger on that fantasy and look the other way as I commit a mild misuse of commercial equipment in the name of staying married.Thank you!
For reasons I’ll never understand, I was born with a fascination for horses.
I was the kid hanging her head out of the car window, admiring horses in pasture, dreaming of owning one. I remember the sense of longing and my pure adoration for them. I read horse stories, drew pictures, collected Breyer models, and convinced my mother to get me riding lessons as often as she could tolerate.
Where did this come from? I doubt we’ll ever know.
Some people speculate that those of us who are ‘horse crazy’ have a primal sense of connection to these animals, due to our ancestors’ early dependence on them. If this theory is correct, we have an innate understanding of how important horses have been to our species.
Bullshit? Or not? Who cares — it’s fun to ponder.
As I’ve started prepping for this year’s show season, I’ve noticed how much more critical I’ve become of horses and their way of going. Call it education if you will, but I’ve lost that innocent admiration for each and every horse.
As I watch YouTube videos of riders competing, as a way to learn my tests, I find myself ‘judging’ each horse’s gaits, conformation, and temperament.
Still, I find myself fall in love from afar quite frequently, thinking, “I’d love to own that one.” (I have a strong preference for those honest, forgiving, yet forward horses who look more like lovers than fighters.)
I also spot the ones I’d prefer not to own. “That one’s gorgeous but looks like a fire-breathing dragon!” (Death by dressage still doesn’t appeal to me.)
As I look at my history with horses, I admit that I still don’t understand it but I’m grateful to have them in my life. I struggle, I learn, and I love. My life is so much the richer for it.