Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Programming

Once the holidays are over, don't you breathe a sigh of relief that things can go back to normal?  I always do.  Not quite there yet since we still have New Year's to get through (my least favorite holiday, to be sure), but at least Tucker is getting back to his regularly scheduled programming and back into a better riding routine after my hiaitus, which I spent doing a lot of sneezing, coughing, sleeping, and cat-warming:

Lilly

Sterling

Yes those are the world's two most adorable cats.  I completely agree.  Terrible nurses, though.  Always asleep on the job.

Anyway, now that I am back, so is Tucker.  He came back to work feeling a little stiff and weak behind.  I noticed that at the walk, he was really twisting his hind feet as he placed them on the ground, and looked stiff through his stifle and lower back.  Once on his back, he just felt tight underneath me, like he was walking with his hind legs way out behind him, which I noticed went away by the end of the ride.  So, we have been doing lots of long and low trotting, making him push forward instead of just plunk along, trying to get his back looser and hind end stronger (wish I could do hill work, but unfortunately not this time of year).  He doesn't seem to mind the work at all and has been better with each ride, so I think the stiffness was due to time off, particularly in the cold weather and with less turnout that he'd usually have in the summer, and so far doesn't seem to be anything that concerns me.

Last week I got an early Christmas present, a visit with Nicku, who did me the honor of riding my lovely beast while she was here.  She did a fabulous job with him and it was awesome for me to get to see my horse go, which is a very rare occasion for me since I'm always on board.  Once Tucker got over his disappointment that this would not be just a pony ride, and Nicku figured out that Tucker's "go" button is more like a hair trigger (especially for someone with super strong dressage legs!), they made a really great pair.  She also made a couple of observations that have really helped me in my last few rides.  Another reason I love having someone else sit on my horse -- there is always something to learn from a fresh perspective, and I love when amateurs can help fellow amateurs. 

First, Nicku noticed that Tucker doesn't want to take the outside rein.  I think I have been working so hard on keeping my hands steady and keeping an even contact on both reins that I've gone too far and started letting him rely on the inside rein too much, to the exclusion of the outside rein.  Which of course encourages him to lean in, and gives him the opportunity to bulge through his outside shoulder, two tricks that he finds very useful to avoid working too hard depending on what's being asked of him.  So we have been working on that.  I still want him to be balanced on both reins, but I don't want him to avoid/resist contact on the outside rein, which he's doing now.

Second, Nicku echoed Eric's advice, which is to do transitions within the gaits.  We've been working on this... Tucker generally finds this completely stupid ("You said trot and I am trotting. What do you want now?  Make up your mind lady.  Sheesh.").  The extensions are easier for him, mostly because of the way he is built and because he naturally has an 18-foot canter stride.  But he can be a bit lazy, so the first couple are always sort of... pathetic.  So we are working on getting him to be a bit more... responsive.  I am trying to hear Eric's voice in my head yelling at me to GALLOP.  I actually had some great hand gallops down the long sides of the arena on Saturday, so things are improving.

The collections are another story.  His answer to the collected trot is to walk, and the collected canter to trot.  I'm getting better about catching him with my leg before he actually breaks, but it's a fine line and he tends to get frustrated and confused easily (or at least feigns confusion well enough to disrupt the exercise).  For now, since he is still building up his strength, I am only asking for a few collected strides at a time, but eventually I want him to be able (and willing) to hold a collected trot or canter for as long as I ask, and then go forward again when I ask, etc.  Preferably, without making any executive decisions to change gaits entirely (which is both counter-productive and humiliating, since it makes me feel like a little girl who can't make her pony go). 

I doubt he will ever enjoy this work, but I am hoping that in time he will tolerate it.  I may go back to collecting and extending between poles on the ground, since he at least believes there is a point to this exercise, as it relates somewhat to jumping.  If all else fails, I'm not above bribing him with stud muffins and canada mints, a fact of which he is well aware.   

Sunday, December 18, 2011

As to be Expected....

... when you have to give your horse two weeks off in the middle of winter (stupid flu)... This pretty much sums up the ride yesterday:


It began with dancing and prancing in place on the cross-ties, and pawing dramatically whenever I left his side.  Charming, absolutely charming.  Delightful, in fact.  At least he gives you fair warning though.  Sort of a  "mount at your own risk" signal.

Down to the ring we went, where I kept a firm grip on the reins (I can be taught), and hand-walked him around for a while, so the cute kid on her palomino pony could finish her lesson in peace.  As soon as she left the ring, I let Tucker run around for a few minutes ... and run he did.  Absolute mayhem, though he seemed to be having a ball.  

Tucker's favorite moves:  
1.  The Chicken:  Gallop as fast as you can straight toward mom, dive left as soon as you see the whites of her eyes.  Best to wait until she puts her arms up in alarm.  Freaks her out every time.
2.  The Squeaky Toy:  Gallop as fast as you can down the length of the arena, and when you get to the end, toss your head as hard as you can, spin in place, and squeak repeatedly.
3.  The Hover Craft:  Come to a complete halt.  Turn to be sure that mom is looking.  Jump straight up into the air with all four feet.  Land bucking.  Bonus points added for extra hang time.
4.  The Wild Stallion:  Extended trot across the arena, nose to ground, tail flagged, snorting as you go.  Stop short.  Raise your head as high as it will go so you appear at least 18hh tall.  Snort some more.  Take off at full gallop, pretending to hear/see something terrifying.
5.  The My Little Pony:  Without warning, decide to be done playing.  Calmly trot or walk to mom.  Place forehead against mom's chest.  Wait for ear rubs.  Snuffle pockets for treats.  

Friday, December 16, 2011

What Not to Wear: Hunter Ring Edition

The Chronicle ran an article this week called "Hunter Fashion Dos and Don'ts."  I usually love the COTH articles, but I have to be honest, I thought this one missed the mark.  First off...  what do I really want to see in the hunter ring?  A beautiful, healthy, well-muscled (read, not obese) horse with a balanced uphill canter, a round athletic jump, and a rider who maintains her own center of gravity between, over, and after the fences.  Those are the rounds that take my breath away.  I have never had my breath taken away because I noticed that someone is wearing "the right breeches."  But just for a moment, let's put aside the fact that we should be concentrating on performance, not fashion.  This is hard for me to do, because I have defended the hunters more times than I can count as "more than just a beauty contest." 

In a way, though, performance and rider attire do go hand-in-hand.  The one point the article made, with which I did wholeheartedly agree, is that the rider's attire should never distract from the horse, who should be the main focus in the hunter ring (same goes for the rider's equitation, but again, off topic for today).  One of my favorite hunter riders to watch is Amanda Steege, and what I love about her riding is that I don't even notice her. 

Other than this point, though, I thought the article otherwise missed the boat.  First, because it ignored some majorly glaring fashion faux pas that are rampant in the hunter ring, and second, because the article seemed to focus too much on the expensive parts of the hunter look, rather than what is necessary and appropriate.  So here we go... "What Not to Wear: Hunter Ring Edition," by Tucker the Wunderkind.  In order of importance, here is what I think is absolutely necessary to look your best in the hunter ring -- and ways to make it happen even on a shoe-string budget.

1.  A sparkling clean, neatly clipped horse.  You're there to show the horse off... so why on earth would you let him walk in not looking his very best?  There is nothing less attractive to me than a horse going into the ring with a brown tint to his gray dapples, or a layer of dust visible form 100 yards.  It takes nothing more than a lot of elbow grease and a willingness to rise at o'dark hundred to get a horse's coat looking nice for the show ring.  (Hint: daily currying, and a swig of corn oil in their dinner, goes a long way to making them shine.)  I also think it is imperative that hunters have whiskers, ears, a bridle path, white socks, and coronet bands clipped.  I don't care if Pookie doesn't like it.  Find a way (I prefer bribery).  White socks just won't get white if the hair is too long, and if you think no one notices that her muzzle isn't shaved...  well, I do.

2.  Shiny tall boots.  Note, I did not say expensive, custom, or embelished with alligator skin and tiny little rhinestones.  No one can tell what brand you are wearing when they are on your feet.  So long as they fit well, and you take really good care of them, they will do just fine.  The boots I show in are the same ones I bought myself when I was 13, with my babysitting money.  It pains me to add up exactly how old they are, but apart from having them resoled because the tread was getting slick, they are still in great shape and give us that polished ready-for-success look -- for the hefty investment of under $5 per year.

3.  Clean, well-oiled tack.  You'd think this would be a no-brainer.  But you'd also be amazed to see how many people cut corners in this department.  Tack should be a rich brown color, which means it needs to be cleaned regularly and oiled properly (once again, there are lots of inexpensive, good quality bridles out there.  If you take good care of it, no one will know it didn't cost you half a paycheck).  Clean tack includes a clean bit, a clean saddle pad, and a clean saddle.  Giving the reins and the nose band a once-over doesn't cut it, in my book. 

4.  Good braids.  I've heard the debate about doing away with braiding altogether because it's "so expensive."  Guess how much I spend on braiding every year?  About $10 in yarn, sharp scissors, a pull-through and a seam ripper.  Braiding stinks, it hurts my back and makes my fingers cramp, but you have to admit, there is nothing more elegant than a well-braided horse.  Braids should be tiny, lay flat against the neck, not twist, and be relatively uniform.  If you're not braiding, make sure the mane is neatly pulled, laying flat (I spray with Quic Braid for this), and the tail is brushed out thoroughly.  Tucker uses a fake tail, because he's not naturally blessed in that department, though I disagree with the suggestion in the COTH article that a fake is de rigeur.

5.  Well-fitting breeches.  I don't know what "the right breeches" are, Mr. Dignelli, but I do know what wrong breeches look like.  Bad breeches are either skin tight (visible panty lines, is that really what you want people to notice over that two-stride?) or too baggy (sure, I almost pee a little if the jumps get big, but do I really want people thinking I'm wearing an adult diaper?).  Try on lots of different brands at different price points, figure out which ones flatter you the most, and if they are going to break the bank, search for an online sale, stalk the consignment racks at your local tack store, or comb e-bay and the COTH classifieds until you find a pair in your size (you will eventually, I promise).  I personally love the way the RJ Classics Ocala sidezip breeches fit me, but they are pretty pricey (IMO), so I only have two pairs (that only come out for clinics and shows) and I waited for a sale to buy them.  I also seriously dislike super low rise breeches -- particularly with shadbellies.  It's a no-no in my book.

6.  A classic coat and showshirt.  If you really want to get the look just right, you can never go wrong with a navy jacket and white show shirt.  Here's another insider's tip for you:  show coats go on sale all the time!  Don't ever buy one at full price!  I have purchased all my show coats (and I have a pretty decent selection at this point) either on consignment (one of my favorites, a classic hunter green one, was $25), or on at least 50% sale.  My navy coat was free... someone at one of my former barns gave it to me because it didn't fit her anymore.  All I had to do was hem the sleeves.  Moral of the story?  If you find a really good deal on a coat that fits okay, it's worth taking to a tailor to get it just right.  Just make sure you show them that you need full range of motion in your arms.  And of course, you can always try your luck at winning a gorgeous new hunt coat from Get My Fix, who is currently offering a gorgeous custom Hayward coat (and frequently offers lots of good giveaways).  I'd absolutely love a wool one in navy, though I'd opt to skip the piping on the collar.

7.  Black gloves.  Non-negotiable in my opinion.  You have to wear gloves in the hunters, and they should be dark, otherwise attention is drawn away from the horse and to your hands.  Personally, this is one area where I think form meets function, because the right gloves, ones with a tackified grip, will help you keep a good feel on the reins.  These Roeckl gloves are my favorite for summer, and these SSG gloves are my favorite for winter.

8.  Hunter hair.  I know, hair nets are stupid and you hate putting your hair up.  But snoods are out of fashion in the hunter ring, and ponytails are out of the question if you're over age 8 (and even then, there should be two braids. With appropriately sized bows, people).  I personally love the One Knot Hairnets, because they avoid the painful bump in the middle of your forehead from that second knot.  If you need help, go here and type "hunter hair" into the search box.  You'll find several threads where people will go on endlessly about how they do it.  Just make sure the sides and the back are neat and tidy and your hairnet isn't showing below the brim of your hat and across your face.  And while we're on the subject of your face, it doesn't hurt to run a baby wipe over it to remove the really obvious grime, but a full face of makeup while on a horse just seems wrong to me. 

9.  A conservative belt.  Keep the bling for your Sunday hacks, a night out line-dancing, and maybe the jumper ring.  Your belt should never, ever, be something someone notices in the hunter ring.  I have a nice brown one with a brass buckle that I like, but black works too.  Just keep the buckle small and be sure the width of the belt matches your belt loops. 

10.  The finishing touches.  These are the last minute things you do (when time allows) at the in-gate to give you and your horse the extra little wow factor.  Here is what I recommend.  Wipe the horse over with a towel spritzed with rubbing alcohol, which will lift any dust that's landed on him during schooling.  Wipe the eyes, nose, and mouth with a wet towel.  It will darken these areas, which makes their faces shine, and remove gook.  I also only feed him Canada Mints as treats on show days, so we never have green/brown/orange/pink lipstick. I don't use hoof oil (personal preference), but I do use a hoof brush to make sure his hooves don't have any caked dirt on them.  Brush the ends of the tail so it flows nicely.  Baby powder the white socks.  Lint roll your show coat (if necessary).  Wipe off your boots, or if possible, hop on the horse and then have a friend wipe them off.  Now just breathe.

And there you have it... my suggestions for looking your very best in the hunter ring.  It won't stop you from missing on that long approach diagonal oxer, but at least you'll do it in style.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Give Your Dreams a Chance

First, a Quick Tucker Update:  He's been pretty great since his little runaway episode (probably feeling guilty), but I've had the flu (ugh) and haven't seen the poor beast in over a week.  I texted my barn manager today to request that she let him know he's not orphaned.  I intend to see him soon.  On to the blog post....

*  *  *

So today, as per usual, I dropped off my dollar contributing to my office pool's chance at winning the Mega Millions... since I sure don't want to be one of the few employees left who didn't become an overnight millionaire... you never know.

As I ate my lunch, I got to thinking.... what would be on my millionaire's shopping list?

Well, first and foremost, I'd buy a super fancy A/O Hunter.  Something along these lines:

Lumiere and Jane Gaston (photo from Bigeq.com)
Could you just die for this horse?  So beautiful...

No don't worry, of course I'd never get rid of Tucker.  He'd just become a jumper and I'd play in both rings.  Which, of course, would require a new wardrobe for him.  No more fancy stitched padded nosebands for him, no sir.  I'll take a figure-8 and some brass clinchers, please.  And defnitely a set of these Veredus open-front boots.  Given the size of our ears, we probably need a custom bonnet, too.  Not to mention that all the horses would need coordinating winter wardrobes (like these, and these).  Looks like I better put Smartpak on speed dial as soon as I win....

Then I'd need a pony for my niece (well, we'll say it's for her, but really I just want a pony), and obviously the pony would need a friend, so I think a mini donkey is in order. 


Of course, I have a European vacation I'd like to take too....  And let's not forget that when I'm in Holland, I'll probably want to bring a nice young prospect home with me...  (You see where this is going.  Can you imagine how many animals I would end up with?)



And then of course I'll need something to transport my noble steeds in, since I plan to travel up and down the East Coast depositing at least some of my millions to the good folks at HITS.  My current pickup and two-horse trailer just won't do.  Nope, I'm definitely going to need something more like this:


Naturally, I'll need something to pull it with.  I think this F-450 King Ranch ought to do the trick.  Have you ever been in one of those things?  Oh boy would I love having one to call my own....

As for a home base?  I'm not asking for much.  Twenty or so acres, big enough for a nice barn, rings, plenty of turnout, and some little trails.  Oh and I guess I'll need a place to live.  How about a pretty little cottage overlooking the turnout fields?  Maybe something with a stone fireplace, big picture windows, and a nice front porch?  Just something warm and cozy for me and the beagles and the jack russells....


And then there's the barn....  let's spare no expense here.  Give me all the ameneties.  A big wide center aisle, plenty of cross-ventilation, those gorgeous Euro stalls with brass finials.  These would suit me quite nicely:

(Go ahead and click that link. You know you want to see more pretty barns.)

Then we'll need some super fancy grooming bays, and big, well draining wash stalls.  Including one heated and enclosed wash stall.  I'd venture a guess that something like this would make me happy:


I'm thinking about 8 stalls would be just right.  And all the stalls would have custom-designed automatic waterers with built-in heaters, and slide-out feed bins for quick feeding, and a drop down from the hayloft for hay, and a recessed ceiling fan, and a trunk in front of each stall just for their blankets, and a dutch door that led outside, with an overhang to keep the hot sun and the rain out of their faces. 

Outside, I'd have big turnout pastures with run-ins and four-board fencing, and smaller stone dust paddocks for the really wet weather, and a trail around the perimeter of the paddocks with stone dust footing for hacking.  And of course, a nice indoor ring close to the barn with crushed leather footing, big mirrors, and a heated viewing room, an outdoor ring with sand and stone dust footing and a watering system, and a grass jumping field.  And lots and lots of pretty jumps.

Let's see... and for the humans... a nice lounge (with a well stocked bar please!), and a big feed room with a fridge and a sink, and a tack room full of brass hardware and wooden trunks and gorgeous leather....  Can you picture it?  I'd invite all my favorite horsey friends to come and board with me in horse heaven.

Whew... now that was fun!

So tell me, what would be on your list?  And what am I forgetting?