Monday, December 31, 2018

2018: A Year in Review + Goals Analysis


✔ Stay happy, healthy, sound
✔ Build strength, power, and finesse within dressage and jumping
✔ Take > 3 dressage lessons (and become more confirmed/comfortable with shoulder-in and lateral movements)
✘ Take > 1 jumping lesson
✘ Feel confirmed at beginner novice
✘ + Compete in the novice division at one HT
✘ + Compete in either a dressage or jumping show
✔ + Put Grif on cattle to see if he works them as he does the dogs around the barn

Far from clean with the amount of mud and highly organic soil we encountered on the way up,
but a favorite photo nonetheless because it was a very successful ride following quite an
acrobatic outburst from Grif when he refused to go over an 11" wide, 4" deep ditch. He hadn't
given me so much push back on something in ages and to work through it successfully was
the biggest reward for our relationship. 

It wasn't the year I'd hoped for competitively with eventing, but it wasn't a bad year by any stretch!

3 of 5 goals accomplished and 1 of 3 stretch goals met.

Between Kenai's vet bills (more on this below) and my truck mysteriously leaking oil and needing loads of diagnostics and labor hours to resolve (2-3 days labor to find a significant crack in the oil pan - oof), money that was intended for competitions was spent elsewhere. C'est la vie!

This doesn't mean we sat completely idle though! The biggest win of the year - beyond health and soundness! - was finally taking lessons. I haven't had steady riding lessons since I was a child. By and large, those lessons were more "time and miles" than any remarkable education about riding. Seriously, the vast majority of what I learned in those lessons can be summarized in 6 words, "eyes up, heels down, toes in". Not winning any prizes with that!

A shot from our second lesson in May

In my two lessons with centered riding instructor C in May, Griffin and I built upon our understanding of proper bend, cut our teeth on some introductory lateral work, and began piecing together the stepping stones for flying lead changes. It was my intention to make it back for another lesson or two that summer, but the truck issues heated up and money got tight.

Fortunately though, I was able to just barely meet my goal of a minimum of 3 lessons this calendar year by taking a third on December 5 when the Federal government had a surprise holiday to mourn GHW Bush. After months of conditioning rides with new local trainer LC, I was finally able to setup a lesson with her. Never mind the winter weather advisory in full effect during my lesson!

Griffin's "Woman, are you kidding me?!" face re: our snowy lesson day.

Snow, schmow, it was a great first lesson focused on some of the most basics of basics to retrain my body and mind around riding. Admittedly, the way she taught me to think about my body and aids was a bit of a blow to my ego because I felt like those were things I actually understood but, uh, didn't. I rebounded very quickly from this and had a really great lesson on Griffin focused on very basic building blocks that are critical for us to develop to move forward. Following the lesson, I put all of my new understanding and drills to use with Q and had one of the best rides of that kind on her ever. I'm really psyched to have homework to motivate me through the winter months and plan to have a lesson with LC every 4-6 weeks going forward. She's a really awesome fit for me as a trainer and I'm so very excited to finally have some quality training on a regular basis for the first time in my adult life.

Late April jump school at home.

Jumping and becoming confirmed at BN this year obviously didn't happen. Though just because I didn't compete doesn't mean we didn't jump. We actually schooled jumps at home quite a bit this summer (though I didn't document a single time). Griffin is so very solid compared to where we once were. The main thing I incorporated into our jump schooling this summer that I hadn't done previously was to school several jumps on a slight downhill. Of all the XC jumps Grif and I tackled at our Loch Moy outings, the ones on a slight downhill were the toughest for me. I'd never jumped something on a downhill slope before! Easily remedied with practice though, and now I feel a lot more comfortable about it. Crazy what practice does.


Impressively I got to fulfill the one stretch goal I thought would be the hardest to do this year - put Grif on some cows! Now, admittedly I didn't fulfill this goal in the format I anticipated. But it was so much better. It was real life application with purpose, not some staged setup in a controlled environment. I still hope to give things a go in a controlled environment eventually to really see if he'll cut and work the cows the way he does dogs, but getting to experience working cattle in a practical application for the first time was pretty damn sweet.


✔ Stay happy, healthy, sound
✔ Build more trust and confidence in our partnership
✘ Take > 1 dressage or centered riding lesson
✔✔ Build better balance and abolish her sidedness, especially with trot diagonals
~ Hone lateral movements under saddle
✔ Complete a conditioning ride >20 miles over mountainous terrain (rail trail does not count)
✘ + Compete in a dressage show
✘ + Return to endurance competition

She was the most confident little mare on this ride and I was SO Freaking Proud.

What a great year for this little mare! We didn't return to competition as I hoped, but I'm confident when we do make a return it will go well. My relationship with her under saddle is better than it's ever been, her body is just as strong and stronger than it was pre-suspensory injury, and she's really given me some great rides lately when I asked her to think more and use her body in novel ways.

Regaining and improving trust and confidence for Q is the biggest win of the year, hands down. I've written ad nauseam about this though, and won't continue to wax and wane poetically here. It's been really awesome and I'm so excited to see where things go from here now that we have such a solid foundation together.

LC and Q watching deer in the distance

The second biggest win of the year is my success in abolishing Q's sidedness. LC rode Q during a conditioning ride back in November and about a mile into the ride she remarked, "Wow. This is the first horse I've ridden since coming to West Virginia that is even through her body." Cue massive fist pump to the sky on my part. Best. Compliment. Ever. I have worked SO hard over the past year on this with Q. Having someone who is only just meeting me and the horses, and who has such extensive training with high-caliber horses and riders, compliment her in this way meant so much.

Summer Canaan vistas when the shrubby St John's wort was in bloom.

While I didn't get to ride Q for a lesson this year, she's absolutely benefited from what I have learned in my lessons on Griffin. Most recently, I put my new knowledge to the test with her immediately after my lesson with LC; I learned just as much from this ride as I did from my lesson. Having the opportunity to cement my new knowledge and find great success was really great. My goal is to build Q up with my learning through the next couple months and then ride her for my third lesson with LC.
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Into 2019 we go!
Finally, while we didn't return to endurance competition, we absolutely put in the miles as if we were. I got oodles of great conditioning miles in on this little mare in 2018. I rode her and numerous friends rode her. She excelled throughout every ride and was a star for our longest one of nearly 30 miles. I have no doubt of her ability to find success on the endurance trail next year.


✔ Stay happy, healthy, sound
✔ Keep up conditioning levels to a degree where striking out on a 20+ mile conditioning ride over mountainous terrain is a walk-in-the-park
✘ + Compete in a 50-mile ride

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Pretty boy - wish he'd been standing on 100% level ground for this!

Stan had a pretty good year. Nothing crazy, but still lots of miles tackled. I imagine this is going to be pretty par for the course for him going forward. He's 17 and I don't have huge goals to fulfill with him through the last half of his life. He's done so much for me and is such a steady eddy no matter how much time he has off. He has become the horse I hop on to just meander around without a care in the world and the horse I can trust with any rider.


I decided this year that competing him in a 50 mile competition is not something I care to pursue. He's got nothing to prove to me and I've got nothing to prove to myself. I wasn't super sold on the goal when I wrote it down at the beginning of the year, but I figured I'd jot it down just in case we managed to absolutely slay some conditioning miles this year. Which we did. Just not anything crazy. And that is completely fine and awesome. All I want for Stan is good health and lots of fun, carefree miles in the saddle to keep him limber and relatively fit.

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Probably the best photo ever of his cheek freckle.

He is the best horse. I always know that, but it really strikes home when I ride him. He just feels like home. I am looking forward to many more years in the saddle just enjoying the world with him.


✔ Stay happy, healthy, sound
✔ Get some answers to his hair loss
✔ Maintain a healthy weight and diet with whatever supplements keep him moving well

Ferns make my heart go pitter patter - and so does this dog.

Finally, a solid 100% completion! Haha. My goals are never set thinking I will complete them all, but rather to keep me on track as I travel through the calendar year because I've got squirrel-brain a lot. It's good to keep things reined in to those I'd most like to achieve instead of picking up new hobbies and goals left and right. Having said that, it still feels good to have 100% success in one realm!

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He tackled her right after this.

Kenai is at an ideal weight, down 5 pounds from where he was at the beginning of the year. He's moving better than he has in ages and seems to only improve as time goes on. He's on a routine injection schedule to help his arthritis which has made such a huge difference! It's been awesome to watch him feel better and better the past 6 months. Taiga appreciates it, too, because she's got a much more playful friend to roughhouse with.

20180728 Pups_4

Surprisingly, - or maybe not surprisingly because why the fuck not we've already had such bad luck after all - Kenai had ANOTHER knee surgery this year. For those keeping count of the times his stifles have been cut open, the count is now at one time for the left stifle (2013) and 5 times for the right stifle (2013, the 2015 saga, and now 2018.)

Fortunately for everyone involved, this 2018 surgery was the quickest, easiest, and shortest rehab yet! His body rejected part of the hardware installed in the third surgery of 2015. We tried to correct this with antibiotics for a time but to no avail. And so now he's an ounce or two lighter in that stifle and much happier overall.

And while I worried we wouldn't find an answer earlier this year, we have actually resolved much of Kenai's hair loss over the past 4 months, too! So much so that my vet is absolutely flabbergasted in the change.

kenai august
Early August when he was looking pretty damn haggard - his coat was in absolute shambles.
kenai sept 2
Labor Day weekend showed some improvements from the fungal meds already.
The inflammation of his skin had disappeared and new hair was sprouting everywhere (though the tips were black so you can't tell what's hair and bald for sure in these photos.)
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Sunset on Christmas Day - lighting isn't the same as the prior photos, but you can see how much of his coat has returned
and I think should be able to see how the quality is much improved.
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Excusing the sunset lighting again in comparison to the other photos, you can also see how the darker guard hairs haven't
come back with as much gusto. We'll see what one more month on the anti-fungal drug does, but regardless, he's a much
happier guy with a MUCH healthier coat!

And rightly so! What a change! It was hard won, too, trying basically every avenue possible before arriving at an answer. After consulting multiple vets, running multiple blood panels (which were always normal), bathing with three different medicated shampoos 2x a week for literal months, doing a 6 week treatment with a medication for a systemic bacterial infection, adding vitamin E and omega 3 supplements to his diet, and switching to a homemade diet for 5ish months, I finally demanded of my regular vet to try a systemic fungal treatment. And lo and behold! Immediate cessation of the lesions and hotspots coupled with amazing hair regrowth!

Oh, and we can't forget this get up. I tried this, too, to help his skin issues.

In fact, Kenai has a healthier coat than he has in literal YEARS. It's amazing. He's still absent of hair in some places (notably the sides of his neck, his caudal thighs, and pathetic tail), but there has been so much regrowth and change. His coat is no longer brittle and crisp, but healthy, rich, and soft.

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Relaxing in the wilds of West Virginia
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Moody Kenai.

We're trying one more month of the fungal medication to see if we can get any more regrowth and will then see where we're at before doing anything else. Honestly, I'm not sure there is much more to do at this point. The change is so freaking huge. I'm happy to accept that he may just have some alopecia. My husband does, why not have a dog with the same affliction? Haha.


✔ Stay happy, healthy, sound
✔ Hone recall and obedience training
~ + Begin pursuing training necessary to become a therapy dog

20180901 Golden Light at Home
Definitely one of my all-time favorite photos of her at sunset one evening.

This little dog had a pretty great first year with us. She's such an attention-seeking, people-pleasing little thing. Throughout the days I've slowly drafted this post, she sits by whatever chair I'm in as close as she can be. The only time she doesn't feel the need to be near me is at night when she chooses to remain downstairs on her dog bed.

20181225 Sunset Dog Play_44
But also a favorite sunset photo from Christmas Day...

She's got a fraction of the prey drive Kenai has and has been infinitely easier to train for recall in that regard. It doesn't mean she won't chase something, it just means that she is easily called off of that something or if she does "catch" it she wants to play with it as a friend not a foe/meal. This contrasts Kenai who is very motivated to maim and kill. The only thing Taiga is kind of "vicious" about killing are fish that are handed to her after we catch them. She swiftly dispatches them and consumes them head to tail!

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Watching birds...

She has yet to "run away" during any of our outings. Kenai had run off at least 3 times in my first 18 months with him! If Taiga doesn't come when I call on a hike, it isn't because she is trying to misbehave, she's just lost track of where exactly I am on the landscape because she's distracted chasing butterflies or leaves. Seriously. It's both adorable and incredibly frustrating.

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Looking out on her world.

Taiga has endless energy and is the perfect trail riding partner both on horseback and mountain biking.  To date, her longest ride/run was 17 miles! I don't take her on longer rides/bikes with a lot of elevation gain/loss or super gnarly trail conditions yet, choosing instead to stick to those that are super easy going if we're going to log a bunch of miles so that she isn't taxing herself as much. These days, any venture less than 12 miles means I will still have a rambunctious dog by evening after she's had a nap. I miss the days where our normal 7-mile loop made her sleep until the next morning!

20181225 Sunset Dog Play_89
Sunset ballet dancer

I still plan to take her through some testing that will give us the necessary paperwork to be allowed to be at my new office (same job, new building) by the end of next year. The same paperwork will give her added credence when she's on the ski mountain with me and enable her to come on accidents or enter the aid room. Right now, I keep her away from those situations unless the patient is a local who knows her. She's got the perfect temperament for that kind of work, and I look forward to doing more of it with her. The biggest thing we need to work on between now and whenever we test is exposure to more people/dogs. Unlike when Kenai was a puppy with me my senior year at university, there aren't as many times Taiga has been large groups of people and/or lots of strange dogs. As a result, when she is in those situations she's overjoyed and over-stimulated. I'm very confident that time and miles will resolve this and look forward to getting her out and about more in the coming year.


✔ Stay happy and healthy physically and mentally
✔ Build a stronger and more flexible body
✔ Build/maintain my photography skillset and business
✘ Lead climb above 5.9
✔ Bike Canaan Mountain without hike-a-biking
✔ Really push forward with finding a living situation for the horses that is closer to my home
~✔ + Be able to do a split & feel comfortable with inversion poses

A wee little crow pose on top of Seneca - I love this photo because you get a sense of the exposure. 800-900 foot drop to the
valley floor to my front - you know, right where my eyes are looking - and only a 4-5 foot wide fin of rock to stand on!

Climbing took a major backseat this year. Mostly, it rained a LOT. Rain isn't great for climbing. But I'm okay with totally biffing on my annual climbing goal. The two times I climbed this year were enjoyable - especially the trip up Seneca with one of my good friends who is an AMGA guide. We laughed SO much and I've never felt so relaxed on top of Seneca amidst that kind of exposure before. It was a really fantastic day.


Shy of the climbing goal, I blew the rest of the goals out of the park. Physically, I feel better in my body than I have in years. The 53-mile bike race in July was a great way to get there and I've done nothing but maintain ever since. I will absolutely be pursuing that same race again in 2019!

Also on the biking front, I learned about several new-to-me trails on Canaan Mountain this year. The very large majority of times I headed out on group rides this year, we biked up that mountain. I actually kind of loved it. Far cry from how I felt about that mountain at the start of the year!

A small selection of client images for the year.

My photography side hustle did well again this year. I am really pleased with how my skillset is advancing both behind the lens and post-processing. I'm having a ton of fun with it and learning more every day, which is all I can ask for! It leaves me wishing I'd taken a few courses in college. The fact that I can make some additional income from it is a huge bonus.

Finally looking like a split! In the past week or so I've been able to lift my arms like this and not support myself with them.
It takes me a good 10 minutes of stretching and prep to get to this point - which is fine! It's amazing the change stretching affords.
Now to work on squaring my hips more and developing more freedom of movement within them which will bring more
depth and comfort to the pose.

I finally got consistent with my yoga practice this past year. It still isn't anything crazy, but my body and my body awareness have evolved so much in the past year thanks to it. I'm increasingly comfortable in inversion poses and I can practically taste the success from achieving my first full front-back split! The latter has helped my riding immensely by opening my hip angle up so much. Another bonus of yoga is that it has really helped my anxiety; whenever my headspace is particularly fussy, I quite literally stop, drop, and yoga for a few minutes wherever I am. The breath work and routine flow of my body gets me back in the present moment and really calms my mind.

One of my absolute most favorite photos I took this summer and my hands-down favorite photo of the 3 of them together.

And finally, through the summer months I enjoyed having the horses closer to home, achieving a big goal for a good chunk of the year. It was so very enjoyable to have them nearby again AND get to be largely in charge of their care. Unfortunately, the winter situation didn't workout as I'd hoped, but I'm very much at peace with my decision to move them back to their old barn for the winter.

Moving forward, it is my hope to bring them home late-summer, early-autumn of 2019 for good. I'm still moving through the lengthy processes involved in this endeavor and can't wait to share details (hopefully soon!), but until then, just cross all of your digits for me!

: : : : :

All-in-all, the year wasn't quite what I'd planned for, but it was still a great year. I did my best to roll with the changes as they came and make the most out of every situation. By and large, it was a bit of a "transition" year, and honestly, next year is shaping up to be one of those, too. I'm okay with it though because despite this year being what it was, I don't feel as if I lost ground anywhere. I either stagnated, maintained, or improved - which is a net positive! But also, this transition period is coming with some really big life changes like marriage and hopefully owning my own little farmette. These changes are worth "sitting still" for a time while they manifest into my wildest dreams.

Cheers to you and yours - I hope 2019 brings you many smiles and fond memories.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Learned Helplessness

On November 13, mugwump posted about learned helplessness. I read it and it really blew my mind. I suddenly viewed so many horses and so many of my horse (and general animal) experiences through a lens I'd never known. Two weeks later, T also shared the article in her post of November Resources. I read it again. The second time I read it, now from a place that I could think more critically about it all, I really started to piece my thoughts together. Now, I want to put digital pen to paper about it all.

Griffin and Stan have never experienced learned helplessness. Stan was brought along slowly after he entered his former owners' lives as a 4 year old. I was the one who rode him the most; we figured the world out together. It was easy and full of options to make mistakes and learn from them. Additionally, Griffin has most certainly never experienced learned helplessness. He had a rough start after weaning, but was within care of those who knew how to properly care for him in a short couple of months. He entered my life in January 2012 as a long-yearling. From there he and I learned the ins and outs of groundwork and finding a common ground for communication based on body language and, later, vocal cues. He had, and continues to have, every opportunity to make mistakes, learn from them, and move forward.

I always forget she used to have this horrible habit of spinning and screaming when tied until I look back and find this photo.

Q though? Q has absolutely experienced learned helplessness. The cowboy who "trained" her was the kind that pushed a horse to exhaustion. Pushed them to a point where they gave up. As an Arabian x Morgan, Q had more "fight" to her than the usual quarter horses he was accustomed to, so I anticipate he really ramped up his typical round penning, flag waving, and exhaustive tying techniques (head tied so she couldn't move about and a hind leg trussed up so she had to stand for long periods on three legs). He forced her to comply with his wishes and, largely, she did.

He told me during our clinic that she would be really good. She was. She didn't put a single hoof out of line. When it came time to do some backing exercises, he told me she'd be one of the best there. She was. He told me she didn't come to him that way. He told me she hated backing up and used to fight him over it. You'd have never guessed. She lowered her head and backed up as fast as a reining horse in competition. And when we enjoyed trail time the next day? She didn't spook a single time. She did everything asked of her on cue. She was a dream!

Totally chill and completely relaxed with the task of "learning to jump" a week or two after coming home with me.

The only thing that cowboy did right by her was not stalling her (or any of his horses). She at least had some time to interact with others in a healthy way, which I imagine saved her from the worst of things. However, what this turnout situation did do for her was ingrain herd boundness - and for some very justified reasons! Overall, it wasn't a great situation.

In hindsight, she was rather listless about the world during that clinic. In hindsight, she was, as mugs put it in her post, shut down. She had learned helplessness. It wasn't until I brought her home, into a situation where she had choices and could make mistakes without a huge drag-out, beat-down fight that she slowly "woke up" out of it.

Ugh, I remember having THE WORST TIME with her leading up to this day. On this day, she was AMAZING.

It totally makes sense now why I struggled for so very long to get a good "feel" for her temperament and personality. She had shut herself off to people. It also explains why I began to struggle with her when I did. I complained that she hadn't "been this way" when I brought her home. And she wasn't. She was waking up out of the dark place she had been. But I didn't know that then. All I knew was that I was increasingly encountering a completely different horse than I'd had and it confused me to no end.

Unfortunately for us both, I didn't know about learned helplessness at the time nor did I have the tools in my toolkit at that point to help her through that transition period in a graceful, kind way. We fought a lot. Especially after I ruled out medical reasons for her behavior time and time again. I'm not proud of how I handled things, but I am grateful that I continued to explore many options for working through our issues instead of becoming stagnated in a bad place.

One of many failed (rightly fucking so!) attempts to resolve her issues? Add a kimberwicke and martingale.
My crash vest also speaks volumes as to the magnitude of our problems and my distrust in her. Sigh.
Regardless, it's reassuring to me now to know that the start of those behaviors probably wasn't my fault; however, they absolutely escalated due to how I handled them! But I honestly can't [continue to] beat myself up over that any more. At that time, it seemed to me that I had one horse one year and a completely different one by the next. The horse who hardly spooked or noticed things on trail had suddenly escalated to reactions for every tiny little thing, and oftentimes over nothing at all. It turns out, to an extent, that's just her true temperament and she was finally "waking up" into it for the first time since I brought her home.

Slowing down and starting again. The western saddle gave me the security I needed in those beginning days.

When Q sustained her suspensory injury in late-August 2016, all work halted for nearly a year. We were forced to slow the fuck down, and it was the best thing that ever happened to our relationship. Bringing her back slowly following that injury has allowed us both to meet in the middle and come to a better understanding. Slowing down helped me to better understand the horse she was, for better or worse, and find a common understanding within that knowledge. It allowed her to realize that the monkey on her back could really be trusted and allowed her to build confidence.

Slowing down and starting again helped me to finally learn what kind of temperament and personality Q had. She's a sensitive, smart, quick-thinking horse. She is often suspicious of the world around her and has a hard time focusing on work until she feels secure and safe, some of which is absolutely due to humans but not all of it. She reacts quickly and instinctually when she is afraid. When she wants to get out of work she won't rear or buck (she has never executed either of these behaviors in my 6½ years of owning her), but she will initiate her horizontal teleport maneuver to express her opinion. Additionally, she loves her herd mates very much.

Q and I led the first half of the ride this day without a care in the world and no spook at all!

Understanding all of this has helped me build trust with her that I didn't have before. Now we don't fight, we banter. And 95% of the time it's absolutely comical. On the ground, when she's a shit, she knows it and she knows I know it. So when I shout at her and wave a finger or knock her on her shoulder and tell her to cut it out, she doesn't freak out and take offense. She stands there, as only a mare can, and grumps at me with her body language. And I laugh. Under saddle, I'm more forgiving of her "spooking" and use that behavior to recognize when she's struggling with an exercise. I can then break the exercise down more for her to digest or, if I know damn well it's something she knows damn well, I can continue to push her forward and ask again.

Beating Grif and Stan to the gate to greet me. And this was after a gnarly 30-mile ride the day before!

Her herd boundness is a tougher nut to crack, especially under saddle, but I'm seeing some progress. The more I work with her and provide positive experiences and fair leadership, the more interested she is in the work. Toward the end of her time in Canaan this summer, she was often the first horse to approach and greet me - even before Griffin who has made it his trademark to be the first to say "hi". It's a small step, but for her it's a big one. Working her in areas adjacent to the herd at home is still a feat, but maybe it won't be forever.

Beyond the increased quiet moments of understanding we have though, the biggest evidence of the increased trust we've built in one another shows up in those times when her instincts override her mind/body and she reacts with a startle/spook. Now, instead of running from the perceived danger and ditching me to do so, she does so in a way that is infinitely easier to ride - she essentially picks me up and takes me with her. Instead of reacting in a, "YIKES! Fuck this and you, I'm gone!" she reacts in more of a, "NOPE! Let's get out of here! Come ON!"

Another of many rides Q led this past summer. And one of my favorite photos of the place I get to call home.

Q has been the biggest struggle for me these past few years. Even though we have made so much progress this summer, there was something niggling the back of my mind asking questions and wondering why the train went off the tracks to begin with. The realization that she experienced learned helplessness feels like the final puzzle piece to understanding her; everything fits so neatly into place in my mind now.

I hate that Q had to be pushed to a point of learned helplessness before she entered my life. I am sad that I didn't handle things better with her as she "woke up" from it. But I am so very grateful that I now understand more and that we have had success moving past it. While I have every intention of bringing all of my future horses along in the way I did with Griffin, being aware of learned helplessness will help me in my journey with horses into the future whether the horses are mine or not.

: : : : :

I'm curious - have any of you had experiences with learned helplessness in your horses or horses you've worked closely with?

Monday, December 3, 2018

Thoroughbred Thrills

A few weekends ago, I made my biannual pilgrimage to DC to visit Austen, the floofs, and the horses. It was well-timed, too, because while sun was prescribed for my home forecast, warm temperatures certainly were not! I was eager to trade in my Canaan-Valley-cold-weather card for a weekend in DC's forecast that was a good 20-30°F higher! While we didn't get the sun we thought we'd get, it was infinitely better than windy and 30°F that home had.

In past trips, I have felt ill-prepared for the weekend's adventures. Many folks think I cram a lot into a day/weekend/week so far as activities go, but my abilities pale compared to Austen. Good gracious can she jam-pack a day! My dogs and I always come home tired (and sometimes cursing under our breath.)

Fortunately, this go-around, I asked Austen what she foresaw for the weekend. The answer? Copious horse time with a healthy side of PHOTOS. In fact, she informed me she had a brand new 64GB memory card ready and was clearing off a second as we spoke.

Challenge accepted.

Aside from taking copious photos, the plan was for me to ride not only Pig, whom I've ridden a time or two before, but also Bast!

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October 2017, a lesson on Pig I never wrote about or shared. Thanks to some observations Austen shared with me after this
ride, I began really focusing on more yoga in my life. What a difference it has made!

I'm an adept rider. I've got pretty fair balance and proper mechanics. I'm still learning, as we all are, but something about riding someone else's horse these days isn't as easy as it once was! I imagine that's just life when you have your own horses. I catch rode exclusively for the first two decades of my life. But that isn't something I do much any more! In fact, after hitting the dirt hard about 4 years ago, I swore off riding other people's horses unless they were ones I knew well or were horses I could learn something from. Read: their training supersedes my own.

Pig's training far supersede's my own and Bast is trending that direction quickly under Austen's expert guidance. And hot damn are they both SO FUN to ride. I dream of the day I am able to have my horses so tuned into riding off my seat alone. Sadly, my resources and education for learning and training that is in its early stages still. But that's why opportunities like those Austen offers me (full of fun and free of charge), are so very valuable.

Firstly, she worked Bast.


He's come so damn far from the last time I saw them ride earlier this year. Such a little adult!

As such, when the moment came and Austen, grinning, told me, "Get your helmet!" I didn't feel any apprehension. And from the moment I climbed aboard, Bast was a complete gentleman.

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He's just the cutest

It was so very cool to ride Bast and compare him to past experiences on Pig. My education within dressage has grown leaps and bounds since my last ride on Pig in October 2017. Comparing and contrasting the stage of Bast's training to Pig's 4th level abilities was really cool. I understood the building blocks that made up Bast's foundation and could see how the rest of the training would build neatly upon it.

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What a good boy!

Overall, riding Bast was as similar as it gets to riding Grif. They're at a similar-ish place training-wise which lent me a lot of comfort as I rode him around. There weren't a million different buttons or heightened sensitivity to my micro movements in the saddle to worry about at all. Communication was much clearer, which is always a plus! He's just such a cool freaking horse and such a good boy.

After short time, I turned the reins back over to Austen to nab some more fun photos of her and Bast galloping. This one is my favorite.

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The epitome of an autumn color palette!

With Bast thoroughly exercised for the day, it was Pig's turn!

Austen gave me an inquiring look that asked if I wanted to just go ahead and jump on to which I rapidly shook my head, "Nope! You!" She laughed and climbed aboard.

Austen knows I know what Pig's shenanigans look like and knows they intimidate me. See, not unreasonably, Pig isn't fond of a handsy rider. And when he throws his little fits, I get handsy in my attempt to simultaneously pull the horse up and curl into the fetal position. Which, of course, causes him to escalate his opinion. And I'll give him that. Totally fair.

No hands necessary!

But my baggage isn't unfounded. I grew up riding a LOT of horses with a bucking problem. The first horse who really bucked - and I mean really bucked to the point where the whole audience of judges, instructors, parents, and riders at our 4-H shows would gasp and gape (ironically, this horse's registered name was Buck Destiny) - could easily be brought out of it if I pulled his head up. Thus, from a young age I've learned to pull heads up as opposed to giving more leg when a horse bucks. But I'm still learning, I'm improving, and I'm moving forward, but shit ain't quick or easy.

So, when it came time for me to ride Pig my mind and body hit a bit of a "block". I know I can ride a horse pretty well, but this horse is just so sensitive and well-trained that I worried I'd screw it all up and hit the dirt. Rational brain decided to take a vacation for a few minutes, what can I say?

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Austen is so helpful though. She knows me and the horse so well and put us through our paces appropriately to warm us both up.

Slowly my rational brain returned from it's momentary vacation and my body realized that, oh hey, I do know how to do this horse riding thing. And, in fact, the horse riding thing on this horse wasn't so hard after all. A year's worth of yoga with an emphasis on my hips has done wonders. Sitting with a more open hip angle and making micro-adjustments with my pelvis to cue and communicate with Pig was infinitely easier than it had been the year before. Crazy, I know.

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Take this human off of me immediately. - Pig, probably
Regardless, when it came time to canter the red fire engine, my rational brain went on strike again for a few moments. See, my stirrups were quite long and the sensation of having to constantly reach for them at the canter was quite unnerving!

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My white knuckled grip is my favorite and tells the story of my insecurity at this moment lol

Austen knew just how to get me to loosen up about it though, joking with me in a way that got me to goof off for the camera before I stopped to adjust them. Once they were adjusted to lend me a much more secure feeling, off we went again to give it a whirl. And I even started to relax a bit!

Except, then Pig decided the day was lost if he didn't express at least one opinion:

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I'm all smiles, starting to relax. Pig is about to express himself...
And no, I tried to not touch that curb rein at all. Also, my finger to brain connection about having
two sets of reins was something along the lines of, "?!!!??!"
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The appearance of my double-chin demonstrates my realization of how crap is about to go down.
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And now we've entered triple-chin territory where I believe death is imminent.
Meanwhile, Pig is like the girls in that Dane Cook skit about dancing, "I JUST WANNA DANCE!"
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"Throw my shoes on the floor, stand in a circle and just DANCE!"
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Uphill much?

And I mean, honestly, it wasn't so bad in hindsight. But it did intimidate me in the moment. But not so much that I couldn't immediately laugh about it. He's a good boy. Absurd, but good.

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Much more focused and relaxed.

From this moment, Austen started niggling me more about really galloping the little fire engine. I was still hesitant though. What exactly I was afraid of at this point, I don't know. It wasn't logical, that's for certain! Just one of those times a part of the brain overrides the logical part and says, "No," while the rational side tries to ask, "But why?" and is ignored.

Fortunately for my rational brain, Austen chose this moment to note, "Remember, my biggest fear with a horse is getting run away with. Pig is not going to run away with you. Sit up and he'll stop."

Cue singing unicorns and sparkling rainbows. My mind immediately clicked back into place in this moment and went, "YEAH! Okay. Let's DO THIS."

And so I did. And I think the photos tell the story from here...

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My face. I die.
But seriously, this is the same look all of us wear when we do something that simultaneously terrifies us and thrills us. 
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And this is the exact moment joy broke through the fear and decided to rule the day.
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Pure, unadulterated joy
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It was easy after that. 
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And it's funny how relaxation creates better riding. I mean, look! I can even manage to hold both sets of reins like something resembling an adult and not an inept child.
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I'm a step above stalker, I AM Austen. I've got the dog. The horse. The tack (the double!). A vest. In Maryland. At her barn.
Austen 2.0. ENGAGE.
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Pig clearly loves this job so, so very much. His ears are simply the happiest in every. single. photo.
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We conquer! And I didn't even grab mane with at least one hand...
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Oh, I'll GO. - Pig, probably
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And a true sign of my absolute relaxation at this point? One hand off the reins. 

It's an understatement to express how much freaking FUN I had. Damn. What a thrill!

And honestly, it isn't surprising. I used to gallop Stan around full bore all the time as a teen. I used to race my friends in their cars for Pete's sake. (As such, I know that a car speedometer clocked Stan and I rocketing along at 35mph for few hundred yards.) And I didn't wear a helmet then. What should I fear now?


And so, I'm really looking forward to springtime when I head back for another visit. Plans are already in the works for a full bore gallop session on both boys in a magically green landscape. I can't wait!

Thank you, Austen, for letting me experience the thrill and joy of galloping a thoroughbred. What a magical experience!