Thursday, March 29, 2012

Adventures in Bureaucracy!

This month, I became the newest Member at Large for the Wisconsin dressage and combined training association. The reason I was tapped is that for the last 10 years or so, the "combined training" has been less than an afterthought.

What we have is a problem of the chicken and the egg: We need things that eventers want to get members, but we need members to justify doing things eventers want. You can't convince eventers (or anyone) to join an organization that doesn't cater to their needs, but you can't convince an organization to spend a bunch of money on people that aren't their members.

So my goal is to go big or go home. I have two years to make a positive difference in the eventing community of Wisconsin as I try to bring back the "CT" to WDCTA. I'll keep the blogoshpere posted on any major developments, and PLEASE, send me any suggestions or feedback you might have!!

Visit the website:

Monday, March 26, 2012

The blind leading the blind

Zahra turned 4 on Saturday, so she that means she can officially compete at USEA recognized events. She's becoming a grown-up!! Still, she makes sure to remind me occasionally that she's still a baby. Sometimes its as simple as looking at me with that sweet baby face, with an expression that seems to say "Did I do it ok??" Other times its a bit more obvious, like the time this last week when she suddenly exited the outdoor arena and went galloping full tilt towards the round pen (presumably with the intention of jumping it?? Who knows what that crazy girl was thinking!)

But then other times she will be so wise and mature beyond her 4 years that it is just staggering. A perfect example is trying to hit the trails with her and my 9 month old puppy. Sophie doesn't know much about running around horses. She can guess she doesn't want them to step on her, but that is as much as she knows!! I took Zahra out for her first trailride with a couple of trustworthy horses, and she was exceptional! So I took her out again a few days later. Alone. With my puppy.

Suicidal? Perhaps a bit. But even though Zahra hated when Sophie would come out of nowhere and zoom up behind her, she really basically took it all in stride!

Check out the helmet cam videos from one of our first trailrides out together!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Zahra's First Clinic!

Well, Zahra continues to be amazing. Thanks to the fabulous weather we've been having lately, she got to school her very first water complex last week. She was pretty skeptical at first, but after she had the chance to have a good drink and paw violently at the water, she hopped right in, and never looked back. She marched right in a second, third, and (tried to trot in) a fourth time! Since it was a brand new water complex, we were supposed to be gentle with the footing. Zahra didn't get the memo as she pawed at the edges and then tried to trot through! I wish I'd had my helmet cam on to capture this "big moment," partly so I could show you all how high she was picking up her front leg to splash the water!!

But getting into the water was only one of TWO great accomplishments this past week! Over the weekend, Zahra and I hit the road for the first time. We went down to Versailles Equestrian for a Jon Holling clinic. Jon is one of the trainers who really helped me establish myself as a rider, so getting a chance to ride with him, and show off my New Hotness was very exciting!

As the first shin dig of the 2012 season, I was obviously completely disorganized a little frantic in my packing. The important thing was that I got myself and Zahra there in one piece, with all our accouterments strewn about the trailer. Nothing was clean, and of course, I had the 8AM ride time. D'oh.

So after a spit and a promise to my tack, I went to bed, with dreams of jumping running through my head.

The 8AM ride time ended up being a blessing in disguise-- neither horses nor riders were really used to this heat (80 degrees in March??), so Zahra and I lucked out by not needing to worry about heat stroke!

Saturday we started with a trot grid. This was Zahra's second grid ever, but she acted as though she'd done them her whole life! Same with the canter grid. Absolutely no question. Even though it must have looked like a sea of rails to her, she flew threw it!

The second day was course work with a little flair of cross country. Again, Zahra stepped up to the plate. Never jumped a fence on an angle, or a corner, or a 3' oxer... but in what I'm beginning to realize is "typical Zahra fashion," she did it all! The last two run throughs, all the jumps were set at 3', and she got it done!

Now, of course, it was not all wine and roses... She struggled with her right lead all weekend, and she was exhausted by the end and started ticking rails. We really pushed her this weekend, much harder and further then we had so far at home, so while there is definitely room for improvement on her fitness, the attitude was an A+.

Jon can be pretty sparing with his compliments, so when he said she was the nicest horse I'd owned, I knew I'd found something special.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Riding in France, or How I Learned to Train the Greenies.

When I studied abroad in 2008, I was given the very unique opportunity to ride horses for college credit. It had been my goal to try to find somewhere to take a few lessons while I was there—what I found far exceeded those expectations!!

Almost as soon as I set foot in Montpellier, France, I started trolling the internet looking for somewhere to ride. This is actually pretty hard to do when you really think about it. If you google the town you are in, and horseback riding, all the results will be horse-for-hire trail riding tourist-trap places! Not quite what I had in mind, but if I really got desperate for a horse fix, the option was there. Finally I found someone! It was an eventer married to a dressage rider dynamic duo, just a few miles out of town. Perfect! So I e-mail them, saying in my most perfect French that I am a student here for a few months, I've competed at the CCI* level, and could I please come take some lessons? The dressage riding wife writes me back and says that they are no longer together, I would have to call her ex directly to discuss the plan, and here's his number. Gulp. My first phone call with a native French speaker??? It took me two days to pull together enough chutzpah to make the call, but I did. And the first words out of his mouth? "How did you get this number??" I explained, now even more out of my element, that his ex-wife gave me the number. He then informed me, quite curtly, he had moved away from the area and he couldn't help me. As a last beacon of hope, I asked if he knew if there was anyone he could recommend in the area that could help me. "Non. Il n'y a personne." And then he hung up. How French. How devastating.

I completely gave up for a few days. I tried to come to terms with the fact that I would not get to see any horses, let alone ride, for the next few months. Of course, I quickly realized that that was just not an option! I started looking again, and the way I finally found Nadia (and here is your pro-tip): I searched the name of the city in COTH archives!!

Nadia, on her horse Pimlico
So, that is how I found this CCI*** eventer, Nadia DeBuck located just outside of town who agreed to let me come out and do a trial ride. When I called her, I was ready to do anything-- grooming, barn chores, anything-- I would have happily swept the barn every day, just for a chance to be around horses! But she had a groom, and she was pleased with my background (the benefit of having done a CCI is that its has international street cred!), so she wanted me to come out and try riding a horse.

Getting out to the barn for my first "trial ride" was an adventure all in itself! I lived right downtown, near the opera house, so I had to wake up in the pre-dawn to catch the very first train of the morning, take the light rail to the furthest stop, where Nadia's groom, Ann-Marie would pick me up in her "camion blanc" (pro-tip #2: should have looked up the word "camion" before hand-- then I would have at least known to look for the white van!); that first day, we had a hell of a time finding each other, seeing as neither of us knew what the other looked like (plus I was scrutinizing every single white, gray or silver vehicle, instead of just looking for a white van). Once we found each other, off we went, for the last 10 minutes of the trip out to "L'écurie de propiétaires dans l'Hérault." There I met Nadia, and she had me ride three horses that first day: an older, sweet horse named Harold, a crazy spunky gray pony, and one of the youngsters. I hadn't realized it was a test, but it absolutely was. First, can this girl actually ride? Let's put her on a safe horse and find out. OK, she can ride. Can she be useful? Put her on the crazy pony. He bucks. Hmm. That went well. Let's see if she can ride babies. Wow. Ok, let's keep her! 

For Nadia and I, it was a win-win. She had more horses in training than she had time for in a day, and I just wanted to ride!

But wait! There's more!!

This is Neno. I'm 5'11" WOW.
There was a class offered by my study abroad program whereby if you wanted to do learn about French business in the real world, they would find you an unpaid internship, and you would also have a one-hour-per-week class to learn about French business practices. So I approached the teacher of the class and said "Hey! Why not an internship at a stable?" They said sure, have Nadia fill out these couple of forms and have her give us a call.

…And that’s how I got college credit for being a horse bum!!

I went out to the barn 3 days a week in the morning, from 8-12, and rode anywhere from 2-4 horses, went out occasionally on the weekends, got to tag along to a few shows, and generally had an awesome time! The only thing I couldn't do was jump the horses, because their owners would come out on the weekends for jumping lessons, so no jumping for me. Of course, with all the money I saved by not paying for lessons, I did a week of cross country schooling in Ireland over my Spring Break. But that's another story...
Exercising the hounds in Ireland

Nadia was pretty spare with her corrections with me-- partly the language barrier, I'm sure, but I also always felt that she trusted me enough to know what to do, and to do it correctly. At the end of the day, we would always talk about all the rides of the day-- what went well, what needed work, and how to fix it for next time. This hands off approach really gave me a lot of confidence that I was truly a "good rider" and hadn't just gotten lucky with one good horse!

Oceane with her owner, Thom
It also helped that I could really see the horses progressing in the months I was there. I remember one horse, Oceane, an 18HH 5 year old Selle Francaise monster of a mare, was extremely difficult to work with when I first arrived. She was stubborn with a bad work ethic-- she was bigger than you and she knew it!!  She had figured out that if she planted her feet on your way to the mounting block, you couldn’t get on! But I was almost a foot taller than everyone else at the barn, so my long legs came along and just started getting on from the ground, and she quickly learned to just quit her whining and go to the mounting block. Although there was one time she refused to leave her pasture-- it took Nadia, Ann-Marie and myself all working together to bring her in! Her stubbornness made her very difficult on the flat, but with patience and persistence, by the end of the semester, her dressage was competitive enough that she was winning the 5 year old classes with her young rider!
Neno, doing the 6 year old class.

Nadia was a great believer in “éthologie” for young horses. Ethologie is basically the French equivalent of natural horsemanship, practiced at the celebrated Cadre Noir long before Pat Parelli or his ilk were even born.  She insisted on all the babies beginning their ring work in a halter, putting pressure on them so they learned to cope with this level of stress before a rider ever sat on their backs. And it worked! The two horses we broke out while I was there never set a foot wrong, and we were trail riding them within the month. The core belief that I took away from éthologie is that the horse is looking for a leader, and you need to show him that YOU are that leader!

Working with Nadia and her horses gave me the confidence to return to the States and say “Yes! I know how to start a young horse!” And that’s just what I did for many local breeders and trainers, and I am looking forward to taking all that knowledge I've amassed since helping Nadia and breaking out my own homebred, Puck, this fall!

As a parting thought, I'd just like to add that a lot of my other American friends spent their study abroad time going out to discotheques and meeting French boys, and at the time I felt like I was missing out on some of those experiences. But then I remember the time I groomed at the CIC* at Nimes, and slept in the back of the camion with Ann-Marie and her daughter Audrey, and I think maybe my French experience was the most authentic of all.
La paysage autours de l' écurie: La France, Authentique.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Intro to Teaching

Teaching horses is easy. Make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard. Expect little, praise often. I love the progression of teaching horses... even if its not always the lateral progression we hoped for! I absolutely live for the moment when you feel the horse underneath you "get it."

Teaching people is a completely different ball of wax, and one that I have given a wide berth to all these years. Recently I've had occasion to trade a couple lessons for favors to a couple different victims volunteers and it has been an education for me! I rarely talk about riding-- either I'm busy doing the riding, or I'm hanging out with friends or co-workers who haven't the slightest idea so I try to talk about other things. So now to switch gears completely and to try and talk non-stop about riding is tough! I think many people get the introduction to teaching through Pony Club, but since I was never really involved in a Pony Club, I missed the gradual, regimented introduction, and just dove in head first!

So here are some initial lessons I learned while giving my first "lessons."

1.) The easiest way to diagnose the problem is to watch the horse. Maybe the riders heels go up a bit over the fence, or she pinches with her knees a bit, but if the horse is flipping his head because she forgets to release, that's where you should start. Working your way back to the rider is much easier after you have a happy horse.
2.) No exercise is too simple. Its easy to want to "go big or go home" with the exercises like the big time clinicians, but instead it is important to "teach the rider in front of you," just like you must always "ride the horse underneath you." You can teach a lot with just two poles on the ground!
3.) Imagining you are the one riding can help diagnose the problem, but its also a crutch. By imagining its you up there, you can imagine what you might do different, but by the time your brain has connected to your muscle memories and then back to your brain, the moment has probably passed when you need to tell the rider to do that thing that you would have done if it were you!
4.) So, knowing that, what do you do? Go with your gut instinct. But then make sure you explain your gut instinct as you go-- as you're articulating your idea, you might just say something worth saying!
5.) There's an expression that I love in French, "la conaissance des escaliers." Literally it means "the knowledge of the stairs," but it is expressing that moment when you walk away from someone and come up with the perfect comeback as soon as you leave their presence. Similarly, there are many moments of 'Ah ha!!' about 40 minutes after the lesson is over. Best thing to do is to write it down and plan to work on it next time. (There will be a next time, right?!)
6.) The more you do it, the better you get. Duh, right? ...So, who wants a free lesson?

Friday, March 2, 2012

Website is LIVE!!!

I am so proud of my beautiful new website, and would just like to take a moment to thank everyone who made it possible.

First and foremost, my geeky tech-y boyfriend who speaks code, love you!! Adam did the lion's share of the work, occasionally having to badger me until I wrote something nice about myself! :)

A huge thank you also to my amazingly talented friend Scott Neperud for designing a beautiful logo. Thank you for being patient with me as I critiqued the horses until they were just how I wanted them-- I know they all looked about the same to you!

Thank you Heather McManamy of ShortHorse Studios for letting me bounce all my creative ideas off of you, and THANK YOU for talking me out of that ugly other color scheme!

And finally, I must always thank my number one fan, and number one biggest critic, thanks Dad for telling me like it is and keeping me honest!

Please enjoy the new site! And check back often for new updates!

Why I hate the Doctor (or, why I love my vet)

I have a confession. I hate going to the doctor. I know a lot of people hate going to the doctor, but usually it has something to do with fear. I'm not afraid of my doctor, she seems really nice. I just wish going to the doctor was a little bit more like going to the vet.

I'm an eventing rider, so I'm no stranger to pain. If I fall off a horse, I'm not going to go running to the ER-- I'm going to get back on and finish my ride! So when I finally decide a pain is troublesome enough to call the doctor, I expect results, not a run around.

The set up to this story is I tweaked my knee out polka dancing last December (don't look at me like that--polka dancing is awesome). When I called in December, the nurse told me R.I.C.E: rest, ice, compression, elevation. It still hurts. So here I am, 3 months later, finally saying "Ok. Time to go see the doctor."

So, here's how I see the differences between my doctor and my vet:

1.) I have to tell the doctor what is wrong with me. I'm not a doctor, so I don't know what's wrong. You're the doctor, you tell me. When my horse is acting funny, my vet figures out what the hell is going on, going to great lengths, up to and occasionally including ultrasound, MRI, and designer drugs.

2.) I am not in a lot of pain. On the frowny face scale, I'm maybe a 4. On the Hyperbole and a Half pain scale, I'm only a 1. Nonetheless, it is a very inconvenient pain. My knee clicks when I go up stairs, and it freaks me out, so I walk up the stairs awkwardly to avoid the click, which is now making my OTHER knee sore! It also clicks when I post the trot, but I ignore that, because I'm not going to stop riding even for a day for the sake of this wussy knee injury. When an injury is not life changing, the advice is to take 2 ibuprofen and call her in a month. But I want to make this injury to actually be dealt with! In order to be my best, I must be sound! If I tell my vet "I don't know what is wrong, but something is wrong." We will find it and we will fix it!

3.) I'm in my mid 20s, that means I'm like an 8 year old horse who is fully trained in its sport of choice (eventing, for me). It's time to inject my hocks! Get me on a maintenance program of Adequan! At least tell me to throw some glucosamine in my oats! My vet would never say to a sore hock "Oh, give it some bute and wait a month. We'll see how it looks then."

4.) Doctors seem very afraid of alternative medicine. I asked a doctor once about chiropractic and he basically said it was just a bunch of voodoo. Given how much acupuncture, massage, and chiropractic help the most elite equine athletes, why are we still thinking its a bunch of phooey for people? Horses don't understand the placebo effect!

5.) Of course, to give my doctor some credit, she did assign me to some Physical Therapy to strengthen that knee, and I will try really hard to follow the therapist's advice, but if they say "No riding in the jumping length stirrups" or worse "No riding" that would be really tough for me to listen to! When a vet says "3 months stall rest, then hand walking, then light riding, etc..." I follow it to the letter of the law!! It is hard sometimes to treat ourselves as well as we treat our horses, isn't it?

And, finally,
6.) My vet bills are going to give me ulcers, sending me back to see the doctor. (Unless GastroGaurd will do the trick??)