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Riding a new horse

If you’ve followed this blog for a time, you know that Tristan has been slowly evolving over the last ~2 years into a different kind of ride.

I’ve owned him for 15 years, and actually ridden him for a smidge longer than that. I put the very first rides on him in the summer of 2005, right after I graduated from college. He became my horse in January 2006. So – I know him pretty darn well. And for 75% of those years, he has been darn well unflappable.

here, have the first picture I ever took of Tristan from that summer

I really do mean unflappable. His fifth and sixth rides were in an open field in a hackamore. (God, to be 22 and stupid and fearless again!)

Which is not to say he could not be an ass at times. He spent weeks and weeks bolting and rearing on the longe line. He had a bolt in him that took me for many an adrenaline-pumping ride. But generally speaking he was a kick ride, observed everything but reacted to hardly any of it, steady good citizen. He just did not really have a spook in him. When he spooked, it was calculated – he would pick a spot in the indoor halfway through winter, just to spice things up. He would get pissy when I asked him to go more forward, so he’d seek out something and fake-spook at it.

(Please note that generally I think horses are honest when they spook. I have known this horse intimately for many, many years. He watches, he does his mental calculus, and he goes through the motions of a spook.)

Well, joke’s on me. We’ve been doing such good work over the last few months that two things have happened: even on a lighter schedule, he’s as fit as he has been in years, and he has learned whole new ways for his body to work and move.

what 95% of our rides look like right now: bareback, quarter sheet, big thick coat, insulated Dublin boots

After so many years of knowing what I’d get every time I swing a leg over the saddle, I suddenly have a reactive horse.

Let’s be clear: “reactive” Tristan is still pretty darn chill. I’ve ridden nuttier horses. But there’s a reason I enjoyed my kick ride straightforward horse! I don’t love riding hot horses. But I do love Tristan. So, I’m working on it.

An example: when I got on him again after 3 months off from his surgery, it was a non-event. I was back out hacking him on roads within a week. Last night, after 10 days off from weather, I got on bareback and I swear to you his ears were so pricked forward and focused at everything that I thought he would sprain something. Everything was pretext for a high-headed snort, or a scoot sideways, or a little bit of striking out with his front legs. Someone sweeping in the back aisle. The hay cart in the main aisle. The door to the hay shed opening. The door to the hay shed closing. The velcro on my gloves.

When we’re actually schooling, it means I’m constantly riding a fine line between forward and out of control. I get a lovely, big, powerful trot, he’s sitting more and more, and it’s 50/50 whether I can count on a nice light soft rein or whether two seconds later I’ll be hauling his head up out of a crow hop. And of course, a few weeks ago he dumped me fast and hard and dirty. So I’ve got that in my brain.

I’m ashamed to admit that for little things – like last night’s ride – my reaction is to mostly get pissed off. The snotty little leap and buck when we got closer to the person sweeping earned him a hauling around on the reins and a couple of harsh words. I’m sure that’s not ideal. My instinct at least is to go hard, fast, and then release just as fast, and as soon as he gave even the slightest hint of easing up he got a ton of praise and pets.

I’m working on it. It doesn’t make me terribly inclined to ride during my usual time, at night after everyone else is gone. It does, however, make me a little more keen on riding, because I can’t resist a challenge.

Has anyone else had their horse change under them? Especially after so many years?

(I do want to clarify up front that this is not pain. He is regularly, obsessively examined and is sound as a bell and in great condition.)

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Hoof update, winter 2020

I bet you thought you would never have to read an update about Tristan’s feet again, huh? Joke’s on you, Tristan’s hoof saga will never end.

Quick recap for those who might be new: in the summer of 2012, Tristan sustained a stress fracture of the coffin bone in his right front. A piece of the bone separated and became badly infected. In March 2013, he had surgery to remover dead bone and clear out the infection. (You can search for “hoofgate” or “surgery” or “coffin” in the side of my blog, since apparently all my tags did not transfer from Blogger, a thing that I only just noticed now, several years later. I’ll work on that someday.)

Since then, he has gone through a variety of permutations to keep that hoof stable. For a while it was glue-ons; then he went back to barefoot for a while. For a few years now, he’s been in front shoes with pads because the last, lingering problem is that the spot on his sole, near his toe, where the surgeon went in to clean out the coffin bone has never quite been the same. Our best running theory is that the scar tissue grew back just a smidge more porous and less stable. If he goes barefoot for too long – two or three cycles – it invites bacteria and things go downhill from there. Basically, guaranteed white line in that spot with no real way to stop it except covering it up.

For the first time in a very long time, a week or so ago I was at the barn at the same time as the farrier, and Tristan was on the list. So I got to see his foot naked, which I haven’t seen in over a year.

If you look just to the right of the notch (an unrelated carve out of a spot of white line), you can see a patch near the toe that’s a subtly different color and texture. That’s the spot I’m talking about.

Overall: the farrier is quite happy with it! We did talk briefly about a possibly future solution for when Tristan retires: he’s been experimenting with doing a deeper carve out and then filling the hole with sturdy wax. He’s had success with that in horses with keratoma scar tissue, which is a very similar profile to what happened to Tristan. I opted against that because Tris is going so darn well right now; I don’t want to upset the apple cart. It’s definitely something we’ll experiment with in the future if he needs to step down in work, though.

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Future plans, or, questions without answers

I’m currently in the incredibly fortunate position of having some mental and financial space to make plans for the future that aren’t purely reactive.

The Etsy shop has let me backfill emergency savings to my personal comfort level, and to be a little more generous in other purchases so that I don’t have to plan them months in advance. (One example: I have to re-order Tristan’s Pentosan and Prascend in the next 3-4 weeks, a $500 hit, but not one I’m freaking out about. That is a welcome change!)

I’m trying to devote some energy every week to introspection that can help me define goals and plans. There are a lot of things on my mind right now, some of them horse-related.

Probably the biggest is the sequence of events for After Tristan. He is right now what I would describe as semi-retired; three or four rides a week with the focus squarely on keeping him comfortable in body and mind. That means we’re making good progress, certainly, but it also means that where progress and ease come into conflict I’m generally going to choose ease. He’s 26 this year, and quite fit and healthy, but right now I see dressage less as a competitive and improvement-driven pursuit and more as a way to keep good muscle tone and flexibility.

Younger, braver, faster (schooling at Scarlet Hill Farm in 2010)

I know a couple of things for sure:

  • I can’t afford a second horse, whether Tristan is in active work or fully retired. That means that if he does have to step down to being a pasture puff (whether from injury or just age) I’ll be back to a lesson rider for an indeterminate length of time. That will be a sad moment, but not necessarily a bad thing; I’ve ridden one horse for fifteen years now, and getting broader experience will be useful.
  • I do want to own another horse in the future. Right now, I want that to be a sport-bred old style Morgan gelding, something 15.2 – 16hh, not totally green but ideally younger than 12. Yes, I know that’s specific, and I know that making a specific horse-shopping list often backfires. I’m willing to wait. (I actually have a few farms here in Vermont that I’m keeping an eye on.) (though, honestly, there’s like a 15% chance I get talked into another mustang, we’ll see…)
  • I’d like to get back into low-level eventing, up through Novice or so, and to take a crack at some higher-level dressage than I’m currently working on; Third level would be good. I’m not overly ambitious but I do like forward progress.
  • I’d like to do more than I did with Tristan, to take advantage of the incredible horse landscape that Vermont offers. By the time we moved here he had broken his coffin bone and was at the waning end of his career. There’s still so much to explore with a horse. Some competitive trail? Camping? Fox hunting? Who knows!
About our current speed (summer 2018)

What I don’t know is much broader. I don’t know anything about timing. I don’t know anything about finances. For the purposes of medium-term future planning: do I want to buy another truck and trailer? I was a nervous hauler and don’t regret for a second selling my truck and trailer a few years ago, but some of the things I want are only possible with my own rig. If I want that rig, I have to start making at least some small plans now. My current car hopefully has 3-5 years left, which is my window of decision about whether to replace it with a truck.

Do I want land? I thought I did. My heart still does. Having a small farm would mean I could in fact get a second horse. It would mean some other things that I want could happen – like taking on some small rescue/rehab projects. But I love my house, and I’m just not sure I’m up for the commitment of living on a small farm. (Husband has already made it very clear that any farm work would be 100% my responsibility, so that is a factor in planning.)

How big do I want to go? I’ve never been much on showing, mostly because I’ve never been anything close to competitive in my horse life, but would that change with a new, more talented horse? I don’t know!

Has anyone else faced an upcoming pivot in your horse life? Do you plan for it or do you just see how you feel when it arrives?

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Reading Update

Earlier this month, I set out some reading goals: general categories that I wanted to use to guide some of my reading for the year. January has been a great month for reading – spurred, paradoxically, by all the chaos. One of my best ways to escape was to walk away from computer and phone and read a physical book.

In my categories, this month, I’ve read:

One book about horses: I reviewed The Age of the Horse by Susanna Forrester. I really loved it and would recommend it to anyone who wants a more contemplative horse read.

One book nominated for a Nebula award: Hild by Nicola Griffiths. I had complicated feelings about this; it was incredibly dense and complicated and immersive, and that felt both good and bad by turns. I also picked it up thinking it was YA fantasy and boy was I wrong about that. It took me a little while to get over that whiplash and into the narrative.

One memoir: Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? by Alyssa Mastromonaco. I did not like this quite as much as I wanted to. I really enjoy Alyssa Mastromonaco’s perspective as a commenter in the Crooked Media universe of podcasts, but this book felt just a smidge too light for me. It had some really great moments, mostly when you got glimpses of how absolutely hyper-competent and observant she is, but too often she sacrificed sharing those moments for light, breezy stories meant to entertain. It was still a thoroughly enjoyable read.

I read one book by an author of color: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi. I wanted so badly to like this! I loved many things about it. Ultimately, it stayed too much within the confines of traditional fantasy, its main characters were too often irredeemably stupid (in plot-driven ways, not character-driven ways), and the style of constantly switching first-person perspective (sometimes only a page or two per chapter) meant I never entirely settled in.

I also read three other books that don’t fit into my categories, all fantasy, all varying degrees of enjoyable.

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House Post: Sleeping Porch Problems

The sleeping porch, a small three-season room off our second floor hallway, is one of my favorite spaces in the house. In the summer, we put in screens and I spend hours and hours reading and relaxing in the hammock.

It is, however, one of the more troubled rooms in the house. I’ve largely been putting off dealing with it, but with the progression of work on the rest of the house having reached a good spot, it’s time to start thinking about the sleeping porch work for this summer.

There are, loosely, two main areas of concern and a third small piece.

The first and largest concern is the roof. Our house has three different kinds of roof in different areas: asphalt shingles on the main part of the roof; a kind of non-shingled single-sheet asphalt over the sun room; and standing seam on some accent pieces and the sleeping porch.

Above is a very poor quality Google Maps satellite photo of our house. The sleeping porch is largely obscured by a tree but you can see where I’ve pointed at it with the red arrow and you can also see our problem. The roof is quite rusted. That doesn’t automatically mean it’s bad, but…

Look at what happens in winter.

I took this photograph a short while ago. If you look just behind the chimney, you can see the problem immediately. Yes: those are icicles coming down behind the trim. It’s not great. It’s hard to tell what the problem is, exactly. Is the roof actually failing – perhaps at the top, where it connects to the main roof of the house – and the water is getting in up there, traveling underneath the roof, and then out behind the trim? Or is the water hugging the edge of the roof and wicking up and behind the trim because the paint flaked a little bit?

The good news is that we should have the beginning of an answer soon. I’ve finally found a contractor who will work with me to take a look at this – as well as two other spots of flaking paint & siding rot that are less worrying but still need to be addressed. I’m bracing myself for a new roof at the least, and possibly a more complicated rebuilding of the underneath parts of the roof as well.

The second major area of concern is the windows.

The windows have some problems both inside and out. In no particular order:

  • several of them are cracked and need panes replaced
  • even windows with intact panes need reglazing
  • the system for opening them, by sliding them sideways along tracks, is terrible and needs to be either dismantled and cleaned out or replaced entirely
  • the blinds are godawful and need to just be removed, that’s an easy one at least
  • the trim needs a thorough going-over with some replacements, and then repainting

Being able to open the windows all the way up and essentially replace them with screens over the summer is a big appeal, so I’d like to keep that concept in whatever we do going forward.

It’s not clear whether it will make the most sense for this to happen before, during, or after the roof work.

Finally, the easiest problem: some cosmetic upgrades. Right now, the entire interior is painted white. Because of its weather and temperature exposure, that paint is done. There is some evidence that the original wood was stained and covered with poly, based on this water stain in the ceiling.

I kind of love the look of a stained wood ceiling on a porch. The rest of it can stay white; it keeps the space feeling open. The floor right now is a sort of bland brown. It might be fun to paint that (it’s sort of wide baseboards, boring but practical, and should stay painted because of exposure) in a sort of pattern, to mimic a carpet. Probably at the same time we’ll also add an outlet, and if we do have to open up the ceiling to address the roof, we might add a fan as well. (For sure a new fixture is in order.)

That definitely comes last, after all the other work is done.

So: the sleeping porch. It’s complicated, and it’s going to cost a chunk of money, hence the delays.

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Book Review: The Age of the Horse: An Equine Journey through Human History

The Age of the Horse: An Equine Journey Through Human History: Forrest,  Susanna: 9780802126511: Amazon.com: Books

The Age of the Horse: An Equine Journey through Human History
by Susanna Forrest

I’ve seen some reviews of this book criticizing it for what it is not, so let me tackle that first. Forrest’s narrative is not a history of horses, or of the relationship between horses and humans. It’s not trying to be. (The first line of the introduction is “this is not a history of the horse.”) If you pick this book up expecting to begin at point A and end at point B, and along the way learn a complete history, you will be frustrated.

With that out of the way: this is an incredible book. Reading it was like eating rich dark chocolate slowly and with savor. Forrest’s language is dense and lyrical but also highly readable. Her descriptions move from sweeping to intimate within the same paragraph, and she has a knack for integrating specific examples from history within the larger picture. She’s also a horsewoman herself, with an incredible empathy for the animals she meets over the course of the book, whether wild or half-trained or highly-trained.

The Age of the Horse is structured in eight parts. The first two, evolution and domestication, are a little bit like a history, but what they really do is set the stage for the rest of the book by trying to capture a sense of the early days of the relationship between humans and horses.

The remaining six parts are themed: wildness, culture, power, meat, wealth, and war. Each chapter explores a complex patchwork of ideas grouped together within the theme by venturing back and forth in history and the current day. The chapter on meat, for example, begins at a modern auction in which a number of horses are destined for slaughter, and then journeys through the religious, philosophical, cultural, and economic aspects of eating horsemeat (“chevaline”) around the world, in different centuries, seemingly at random – but ultimately cohesively.

Forrest doesn’t shy away from difficult things. It’s hard to read about the ways that humans have treated horses over the years, whether using them to prop up Nazi ideology, working them to death in cities and fields, riding them into war to be horrifically injured, or simply using them as props in human life.

I opened the book to find a passage to quote to show you a bit of Forrest’s language, and here’s a moment when she watches riders with a performance troupe at the Equestrian Academy of Versailles schooling:

Dressage is a duet between tension and relaxation, and the curves of the figures traced in the sand were echoed in the curves of the horses themselves as they gathered their bulk and energy into collection: the back arched up slightly to support the rider, the rump and hind legs rounding under the barrel of the body in piaffe. The lower reins of the double bridles hung in loose semi-circles in mirror reflection of the horse’s neck arch.

The Age of the Horse is not a light read, or a quick one, but it is an engrossing one. I loved having the physical copy, to sit down with and fully immerse myself even when concentration was difficult. I slowed down a bit in reading in the “horses as food” chapter largely because I had been reading it at breakfast and lunch while working from home, but when I picked it up again I was quickly caught up again.

If you want to think deeply about the role of horses in human life, if you enjoy when history provides emotional as well as factual context, and if you just want something absorbing to read about horses, I highly recommend this book.

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Lesson Notes

A few quick Friday lesson notes.

One thing that I had flirted with in a ride earlier this week paid off in spades in my lesson: rather than a full long rein walk break I incorporated a few minutes at a time of deep stretchy walk and trot. It was easier to keep him marching forward through the hind end, and he really loved taking the bit out as far as he could. The catch is to keep him from just falling on his forehand, but he wasn’t actually too bad. Then when I picked him up again he felt like he’d gotten a respite and was soft and lifting again without nearly as much fuss.

I also had some real lightbulb moments with my canter. In short: I had been thinking too much of my position as one circle of energy that helped Tristan lift from his hind end and cycle through to the bit. That meant that my seat and my hands were working together a bit too much. In other words, when my seat f S. showed me what she was seeing and how that was blocking Tristan from coming through, and I picked up the canter again, I focused clearly on breaking up that loop. The visualization that sprang to mind almost immediately was of two circles. One for my hands/elbows and one for my hips/seat. Both circles followed the canter motion in slightly different ways, with slightly different rhythms and were really more ovals than circles in the way they moved in space.

Thinking about that also prompted some cooling out thinking about how we talk about an independent seat. Perhaps this isn’t the most original revelation ever, but: I think so often we talk about an independent seat in one specific way, as in, “can you sit on a horse without using your connection to the bit to brace or balance yourself?”

What I had been unconsciously blocking was a different level of independent seat: can you use your seat and your arms independently of each other, not just not depending on each other, but actually truly operating with different degrees of volume, different rhythms, different softness, and different ways of communicating at the same time?

Reader, I cannot. But I think that cracking that open inside my brain will help me get there. I had already been working very hard recently on not hardening my elbow for the second or two when I asked for bend (somehow, I cannot keep a soft, following elbow and turn my wrist for an indirect aid; one or the other only!), so this will be something to add to keep track of.

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Taking a deep breath

It’s after noon on January 20, 2021. Joe Biden is officially President of the United States, currently delivering an excellent inaugural address. I spent the morning cleaning my house and blitzing through various small tasks – and breathing.

There is a soft, thick snow coming down outside. The storm over the weekend stuck to the trees, and everything looks like a postcard.

Last night, I had a very good ride: just a bareback pad and a quarter sheet, mostly at the walk, but focusing on staying soft and marching in contact. My homework from my lesson was to work on soft flexion, lots of giving. During our walk break we worked on deep long stretching, and then when I picked him up again and asked for trot, sitting soft but deep, he just…flexed and stepped up through his withers, light and happy.

It was a good feeling. All of this is a good feeling.

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Quick Lesson Notes

Some really great stuff in today’s lesson, so a few quick bullet point notes from it.

  • I put Tristan’s Back on Track hock boots on him 30 minutes before and for about 8 minutes of the walk warmup, and am pleased with that decision. There was less stiff-legged flailing, I think.
  • I struggled a little bit with consistency in his forward response early on. Later, I got it down, but I need to establish it more firmly and earlier.
  • For maybe honestly the first time ever (?!) there were long stretches of work in the trot that went better when I was sitting the trot. I sat it as a bit of an experiment and while often that makes him suck back and get frustrated, today it meant that I was actually able to gather up that energy in my core and help him cycle it through and really deepen the connection. Tons of lift through the base of his neck and it felt effortless to keep my elbows soft and keep him upright through corners.
  • We’re knocking at the door of some canter breakthroughs, and at the very end of the lesson played a tiny bit with lateral work in the canter cued through my seat. The first time I thought “well, here we go” and shifted my seatbones I let out an involuntary yelp when he said “okay, sure” and just zipped sideways. All that work in keeping our leg yields straight and snappy has started to pay off!
  • Overall, I need to find a way to get more conditioning mileage without souring both of us. I did a nice 30 minute march with some flexion work last night, and that seems to have helped support today’s lesson, but I need to start adding wind to him so he we can actually have that canter breakthrough – so he can hold the canter for long enough to tinker with it more. (Not lost on me that he actually is decently fit for his age, the season, etc., so I also need to get better about using some of that fitness when it matters. Not all the time, obviously, but occasionally it’s okay to get him truly good and tired.)

Onward!

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Blog Hop: Horse Sponsorship

The $900 FB Pony asked: who would your horse be sponsored by?

I don’t know that I have an obvious or clever answer to this one, because Tristan’s favorite thing, the thing I buy more of than anything, is pretty straightforward.

Starlight Peppermint with Cinnamon Mints 5 Lb Bag for sale online | eBay

Yup. Easy call. From day 1, other treats just have not measured up. And from day 1, I mean, the first time I met him he was still so wild and headshy I spent a solid hour sitting in his turnout and talking to him with my hand outstretched holding a mint to start the trust process.

Contrast that with our ride last week when I halted him in the middle of the ring and took out my phone to stop the timer app. My hand brushed a dog poop bag in my pocket, which made a crinkle noise, and Tristan spent the next several minutes shuffling his feet around and whickering and craning his neck back to me because he was convinced there was a mint in my pocket. Sadly for him, there was not. (Probably I should have stopped him and made him stand still but it was hilarious and adorable, so there, I let it go.)