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Ride a Reiner

As a New Englander, I have had rather minimal exposure to the western discipline;  as they say, I know just enough to be dangerous. In fact, it is mostly through my experience as a board member of the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association (IHSA), which offers both hunt seat and western competition, that I have acquired my limited knowledge. It is also through the IHSA that I had the opportunity to meet the talented and hard working Kelli Wainscott, coach for the Mt. Holyoke western IHSA team.

This past March, Kelli organized a benefit clinic at Clark Performance Horses in Winchendon, Mass. in which participants got to “ride a reiner”. Instruction was provided by Karen Clark, who grew up riding English but transitioned over to the western disciplines as a young adult. I have not so secretly wanted to try out reining moves but had always figured that it would be rude to just call up a reining trainer and be like, “hey, so I want to come ride one of your highly trained horses.  I don’t want to do this full time, I just want to ride a spin and a slide.  Is that cool?”  Well, this sounded like my chance to do just that!  As an added bonus, I could help the Mt. Holyoke IHSA western team fundraise for their trip to the semi finals at the same time.

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Karen is explaining something to us with great animation. Also, taking cell phone photos while on horseback in the cold is not easy.

I have been intrigued by reining since first watching it in person at IHSA Nationals in 2011. Seeing the reining there was like listening to someone speak a foreign language; the rules were undecipherable to my English-trained mind and I watched intently for any discernible pattern or predictability to the scoring. To me, all of the riders and horses looked great, and I didn’t understand why sometimes a team would receive a “zero” score after doing what looked like the same thing as everyone else. Cheering is encouraged, but I could tell that the cheers were intentionally timed, and when we tried to get into the “wooping”, we never managed to do it when everyone else did.

So I packed up my English paddock boots, half chaps and Charles Owen helmet and made the drive out to western Massachusetts under cloudy gray skies. As the miles on my GPS ticked down, I felt a pit of nervous energy grow in my belly. I suspected I would be the only full time English rider there (I think I was right in that), I knew no one other than Kelli, and I began to worry about upsetting the owner or the horses with my lack of experience.

But I needn’t have worried.  Karen set me at ease with her cheerful personality and positive attitude. She was so extremely patient and answered the groups’ numerous questions with a smile, despite the fact that we were the second three hour group on a chilly March afternoon.

Karen assigned me to a sweet chestnut Quarter Horse mare named Whiz; her delicate ears and sculpted face are extremely feminine…I do love a good mare! As Karen’s assistant handed the reins to me, she mentioned I would probably need to take the cinch up a hole. A rider from the MHC IHSA team was kind enough to show me the mechanics of a western cinch. So began the afternoon—foreign tack, foreign aids, and foreign language. Who knew that after thirty plus years of tack time, it was still possible to feel so completely beginner?

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Whiz

Once the group was mounted up, Karen gave us a few moments to get acquainted with our mounts. Whiz is sensitive and “well broke”; she certainly knows her job. After watching a few moments, Karen called me over. “I think you’ll like her in some spurs,” she said.

I don’t know if Karen had been watching to see how well I rode before offering the spurs, and I don’t know if I was given them because I had positively impressed her (in the sense of having good control) or negatively (in the sense of, gosh, she is hopeless and without these spurs she’ll never get anything done.) She came over and affixed to my Dublin paddock boots the largest set of spurs that I have ever worn in my entire life—they were full on western horseback riding spurs: thick, engraved, spangly, roweled. The kind that jangle when you walk.

This is getting serious.

Disclaimer: What I write here I share with the intent of introducing other unfamiliar English riders to reining, but it is colored through my fairly inexperienced lens. Any mistakes or misunderstandings are wholly my own!

Reining patterns are comprised of a set of movements: big fast circles, slow small circles, spins, lead changes and sliding stops. These movements can be combined in various sequences, and for some movements, there are extremely specific requirements. For example, spins must rotate for an exact number of turns, and a spin which is under or over rotated will result in a penalty or elimination. Cheers can be used to help a rider know when they are approaching the end of a specific maneuver or pattern element.

Karen started us off with riding big fast circles. One at a time, we tracked left at the end of the ring, practicing keeping the inside leg off the horse (which is incredibly hard to do when you are used to having it on all the time) and encouraging our horses to fly around the circle. As it turned out, many of the riders in my group, while experienced at western riding, were also reining rookies. As pleasure or equitation riders, they were more accustomed to slower paces and staying fairly “poised” in the saddle, while reining encourages looseness (not sloppiness) and speed. When it was our turn to try, Whiz was, well, a whiz. She clearly loves to run and it was quite freeing to just zoom around the circle. I trusted Whiz from the get go, so much so that when someone suddenly opened a small door on the side of the ring, I didn’t tense in anticipation of a spook, as I would have with my own horse. When on the job, Whiz is all business. She was so comfortable to ride, and I was having so much fun, that I hardly noticed when the left stirrup came unclipped and fell off my saddle. It was another lap before I recognized that it was missing and stopped Whiz so it could be reattached.

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Whiz and I are watching a group mate practice their circles.

“Big fasts” are usually followed by “slow smalls”, and the transition from one to the other is done by stepping hard into the outside stirrup, not by using the rein. We practiced this transition several times, and I was really blown away by how readily responsive Whiz was to the shift in my weight.  “Hmm…” I thought. “Perhaps my dressage horse should be responsive like this? And what do I do with my outside leg in my own downward transitions?”

Part of the criteria for these movements is that the circles should actually be round, and trainer Karen frequently had to remind us to keep our eyes up and frame the circle evenly. I guess riding a round circle is a challenge no matter what discipline you ride!

Once each rider had a chance to practice the circles, Karen taught us about spinning. The spins and sliding stops are, in my opinion, the two most dramatic reining movements, and the Quarter Horse’s genetic ability to sit down on their hindquarters and coil their body like a cat is just one more example of the physical manifestation of the term “horse power”. In reining, a horse should spin a set number of times (as specified by the pattern), and like a dancer, the rider needs to keep their head spinning in order to stay centered and “spot” their starting point. If the spin is over or underrotated, there are point penalties up until ¼ of a turn; if the rider misses the mark by this amount or more, then the pair is eliminated.

 

Karen had us start from a halt, choosing a point out in front of our horse’s ears to use for focus.  To go left, you just had to step into the left stirrup, slide the right leg back a touch, then shift the rein left, giving a bump with the right leg. To go right, the rider reverses all those aids.  To stop, the rider brings the rein back to center. The entire movement is done with forward intention but the horse should be pivoting in place around one hind leg.

When I asked Whiz to initiate the first spin, I thought for a moment I was going to tip right off her side! She lowered her neck and shoulders and sunk into the movement in a manner which I both expected but was somehow not ready for. Then it felt like we were going about a million miles an hour—but when I watched the video afterwards, Whiz is clearly spinning with a “oh boy got a rookie here” level of energy. There is clearly much more power available in this creature!

 

After most of us were left feeling “well spun”, Karen allowed us to try out that most iconic of reining moves—the sliding stop. This was definitely the movement I was most excited about! We came down the quarter line on the left rein; just like my dressage horse might anticipate a leg yield, Whiz knew instantly what this turn meant. The key to a good sliding stop is to build the energy in the hindquarter, holding the horse back from their full run at first so that they don’t fall onto their forehand, then releasing all of that stored power. A good slide requires that the horse is thinking uphill.

Karen coached us to hold the horse until we were about half way down the long side, and then let them RUN. Whiz sure knew how to take this cue and the feeling of her haunches dropping down and driving into the surface was a form of horse power I’m not sure I have felt before. The fact that we were running at top speed directly towards the wall, on purpose, made it slightly disconcerting; this is the type of situation I am usually trying to avoid. And the especially hard part is you are supposed to actually let your hand go forward (which I can see in the video I failed to do, and in addition, I was holding the horn). The slide happens when the rider sits back and says “whoa”. When I gave the cue, Whiz’s hindquarters dropped away while her withers lifted up. It feels like the ultimate “throw down.” It is supremely cool.

 

After spending my three hours masquerading as a western rider, I made several observations which I would like to share, for what it’s worth:

  • Despite some of the similarities, I don’t quite agree with the notion that “reining is dressage in western tack”. It is its own “thing”. The similarities are the kinds of things which I believe all horse sports share, concepts like “the horse needs to be well balanced” and “the horse needs to engage the hindquarter”. Karen told us that good reining horses have a short career because they get too smart and start to anticipate all of the moves, leading to the kinds of mistakes which cause elimination. There are no “levels” in reining—from the beginning, all tests include all of the movements. English dressage is a progressive system of training with the goal of enhancing the natural gaits of the horse. While a dressage horse can certainly start to learn a specific test, ideally there is enough variety and change in the movements that it is possible for them to have a long, progressive career.
  • During our session, Karen rode a client’s green horse, who was working in a snaffle. Most of our “finished” horses were in a curb, though one was in a bosal/hackamore. In western riding, the use of a curb bit is the mark of an experienced, well-educated horse. I guess this is similar to the way in which an upper level dressage horse is able to be ridden in a double bridle for greater clarity of the aids and improved engagement. Probably in both disciplines, there are trainers who use the curb fairly and those who only use it to achieve forced submission. But when either of these tools is used fairly, the communication between horse and rider can be lighter and softer.
  • Most eventers are familiar with the concept of a “combined test”, in which the same horse and rider do dressage and show jumping, or a derby cross, which is a fusion of the jumping phases. At this clinic, I learned about a competition called “working cow horse”, which Karen said was a great outlet for a horse which understands the requirements of reining but lacks some of the necessary pizazz to be a real reining specialist. In this competition, riders first complete a reining pattern, and then when they indicate they are ready, a cow is released which the horse and rider must then “box”, meaning they move the cow along the fence and hold them there. At more advanced levels, the horse must also “work” the cow by making them move in a circle, with the horse on the outside. I thought it was interesting to learn that western riders have their own version of “combined test” in the working cow horse competition.

Overall, my “ride a reiner” experience was just what I had hoped it would be—a fun afternoon exploring an aspect of the equestrian world which I previously had known little about, and a chance to check off one of my “equine bucket list” items. I also have to think that those of us in other disciplines could be smart to take a page out of Karen’s notebook and offer introductory clinics to our discipline. How else are riders without access to horses trained for specific disciplines ever going to have the opportunity to try out something new? Who knows how many riders have gotten the “reining bug” after doing a clinic like this one? It is so easy to pigeonhole riders into one discipline and make assumptions about what and how they must ride and in so doing we create divisions in our equestrian community which do not need to exist.   I am so grateful to organizer Kellie and our patient teachers Karen and Whiz for offering us this opportunity.

 

The De-Feralization of Spring

In late April, my friend Bethany shared a quote from Vonnegut which really resonated with me.  I will loosely paraphrase here; Vonnegut contends that the reason we are often so frustrated with the weather in March and April is because we are falsely under the impression that it is spring. Instead, Vonnegut identifies six seasons, not four:  January and February are still winter, but as nature wakes back up in March and April, this is not actually spring, but rather “unlocking”. Spring doesn’t actually happen until May and June, while summer hits in July and August and autumn in September and October. Then in November and December, another transition–“locking”, when nature and all of its creatures shut down, store up and settle in for the depths of winter.

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The barn cats took over one of the horse stalls. They are not impressed with winter either.

This is sheer genius.

Inspired by Vonnegut, I would like to propose the Seasons of the New England Equestrian for the first third of the year: FREEZE, HOPE, DESPAIR, SPRING and DE-FERALIZATION.  Here, I present an example of the inner monologue of an avid equestrian as she cycles through each of these seasons, inspired by my own experience:

January-February (FREEZE). “It is SO cold. The wind can’t blow any harder. Oh wait– it can.” [Pause to widen stance and reset wool hat]. “The water spigot froze and I have to carry water from the bathtub upstairs. My breath has frozen on my glasses. And the gate latch froze.”  [Removes glove, exposing bare skin, in order to use body heat to thaw the latch]. “I am so lucky to have horses. I am so lucky to have horses. Repeat. WHY didn’t I go south like all my friends on Facebook?!?!”

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Lee is making sure that I am aware that I have neglected to hang her hay bag.

March 1 (HOPE).  “I see the bare earth!  Just a small patch, and it is all mud, but I saw it.  It still exists!  I will start hacking and legging the horses up soon, maybe mid-month.  We are going to get an early start on the season!  It is going to be brilliant!  We will be so fit and ready and it will be wonderful!”

March 10 (DESPAIR). In the background, the meteorologist is happily announcing the largest named blizzard of the season. There are three feet of snow out of my window and it is still snowing. This is never going to melt.  Ever.  And even if it does, it will be mud for the next six months.  I will never ride again.”

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April (SPRING) “I mean, it is pouring sideways, and the mud is now almost over the tops of my wellies, but the calendar says spring, right?  So maybe I can start to ride?” It should be noted here that roughly 75% of the arena is still covered in snow and ice.

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The riding arena in late April.

 

April 15 (SPRING, continued, after attempting to begin riding despite the conditions). “My horses have become completely, 100% feral.  They scream when I separate them.  They dance on the crossties like they have never been in the barn. Their girths don’t fit. One bridle was eaten by mice. I can’t find one glove. And now we have pulled a shoe.”

 

Oh spring.  All winter, I yearn for it, for the return of fair weather, better footing, all my horses at home, and longer days with sunlight from the earliest hours of the morning until late evening. But somehow the initial reality never quite lives up to my ideal. Spring arrives with excess packaging: mud, tons of winter hair, lost muscling, and dust on all my gear despite efforts to keep up with cleanliness during the off season. And the worst part, for me, is the equine behavior.  In order to get to the blissful days of summer, without fail, this next phase cannot be skipped. I call it DE-FERALIZATION. Like children who have been on summer vacation for too long, I find the first few weeks of transition from winter break to being working animals brings out some of the worst characteristics in my favorite equines.

I started the de-feralization in mid-March by bringing in each of the three horses which lived at Cold Moon Farm all winter for individual grooming sessions. Other than a few little whinnies (“I am in here…are you still out there?”), their attitudes stayed mostly calm and I was able to start shedding out the winter coats. I untangled tails and pulled manes, doing the youngster’s in small chunks since she is still not so sure about it and Lee’s during the late March blizzard when we were all stuck inside anyway. I began to see the horses under the hair. I thought, ‘wow, maybe de-feralization won’t be that bad this year.’

Insert diabolical laughter now.

I brought Anna home from the indoor on April 1. While I am SO grateful for having the ability to keep her close to home at a well maintained facility, I was also SO ready to bring her back. I knew that the first few weeks of April would be dicey as far as serious work went, so I was prepared to give Anna a few weeks’ light work upon her return home; hacking, light ring riding as the footing permitted, maybe some work in hand.

Here is a video of what happened when I turned her back out with Lee:

Anna’s first hack at home was with Marquesa; it was the older Morgan’s first ride since last year. Now 22, Marquesa has always been an old soul. Spooking just isn’t her thing; high necked Morgan alertness, yes, but spinning, wheeling, bucking, etc., nope. We thought we would take them for about twenty minutes across the power lines and around the back field, just a short walk to stretch legs.

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Spring is at least good for some stunning sun rises.  This is Izzy.

We didn’t make it out of the backyard. I mean, everyone stayed on, but between the squealing and jigging from Anna and the snorting and blowing from Quesa…well, we considered the safe return to the barn after about ten minutes to be a success.

In early April, I bought a round pen. My ring is only partially fenced and given that Izzy is turning three this year and we might want to THINK about backing her at some point, I figured that a more complete perimeter was a good idea. We set it up mid-ring, straddling the snow which still covered half the arena.

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Rabbit, the polydactyl/slacker barn cat who did NOT catch the mouse who ate my bridle.

I took Lee out to the round pen on the longe line to start her back into some sort of work.  Last year, I was able to hack her out with Marquesa and another rider, which worked really well.  But with Anna home a whole month earlier, I could only hack one horse at a time and Lee was relegated to second string status. Even at 19, Lee can be really reluctant to leave the farm by herself when she is out of practice and be cheeky in the ring, and so as a former trainer used to say, “the longe line is your friend.”

To my surprise and delight, Lee was completely civilized in the round pen. I started by just walking her—forced marching for 20-30 minutes with frequent direction changes—and she was so compliant and calm that I ended up just unclipping the line and practiced moving her around with my body language. Compared to the others, I think she has lost the most condition this winter. But at the same time, she is mostly Thoroughbred, and once she gets into work, she tends to come back to fitness fairly quickly.

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Lee’s first ride of 2018, sporting her stylish new biothane bridle.

Feeling overly ambitious, I also signed Izzy up to go to an in hand/ground work clinic with Tik Maynard in early May. I have heard Tik speak and read his articles, which all have impressed me, and I thought the opportunity was too good to pass up. But I knew that Izzy may have forgotten some of her lessons from last year after a winter off, and we had to be diligent about reviewing the basics.  In addition, she taught herself a new skill this winter—how to buck—and though the bucks are without any malice and are performed with just the sheer joy of being young and agile and quick, I was less pleased with this addition to her repertoire. My helmet became constantly planted to my head and Izzy tested my determination to prep her for the clinic on an almost daily basis.

Then on April 15, it snowed. Again.

In order to get through the De-Feralization, what is needed is consistency.  And between the weather, the footing, and my work schedule, what I didn’t seem to be finding was the one thing most necessary for success.

So this year, instead of getting overly frustrated during this time of transition, I tried to practice a different mantra: We’ve been through this before. We take baby steps. We always get through it, and once we do, the reward is worth the few weeks of challenge. This is perhaps the time of year beyond all other where we must simply acknowledge that patience is also a skill which requires practice. All you can ever do is your best, take small steps, and reward any forward progress.

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Julia and I try a mounted selfie.  Yes it is May.  Yes I am still wearing a down vest.

Instead of being upset with myself that my work schedule wouldn’t permit me to give 110% attention to each horse, I divided my time. I recruited some helpers, who came to hack with me (thanks Julia and Nikki!), allowing two horses to get attention at once. I became satisfied with shorter work sets—even just 15 minutes for Izzy—knowing that a little was better than nothing and in time, we would build on this small foundation.

Now, on the cusp of June, I am finally enjoying truly glorious spring weather, with mostly compliant horses who have a baseline of fitness.  De-feralization is complete, and true spring has officially arrived.

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Rabbit and Smokey are back in their usual “spring spot”.

 

 

Keeping Up With the Jones’

I think every other photo or post on my social media stream is of someone’s baby horse doing some amazing accomplishment.  Whether they are winning on the line, learning to wear tack, or being taught groundwork basics, these youngsters just seem to be high achieving go-getters.

For one example, here is an excerpt from a recent sales post for a 2 year old Connemara cross (same age and cross as my Izzy):

“…Training so far has included all ground manners (cross ties, clips, loads on trailer and trailers well, leads, lunges, stands for farrier and vet, bathes, free jumps).  She has had a lot of saddle work as well as bridled (and longed in tack with no drama)…”

The mare looks lovely and has obviously had a busy spring.  But as I read the ad in early July, I have to admit that I felt, well, inadequate, in terms of my own work with Izzy.   At that time, Izzy’s resume was nowhere near so robust.

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Look, we cross tie like a grown up horse.

It’s not because she lacks the aptitude or temperament.  Izzy is simply the sweetest youngster I have ever interacted with. She is friendly, inquisitive and confident.  She arrived from Wisconsin the day before an authentic winter blizzard, and she settled right in. “No drama”, to use a recent quote.

Izzy is by the Connemara stallion Skyview’s Triton and out of a Thoroughbred mare named Honest Wit.  She was foaled on May 30, 2015, and so by my thinking she is a “young” two year old—when she arrived here in March, she wasn’t even quite two by the calendar.

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Fresh off the trailer on a very cold March morning in NH!

I spent time this spring just getting to know her better.   In working with Izzy, I want to make sure that each step of the process is taken as it comes, without hurry and with as much clarity of expectation as possible.  Izzy’s breeder, Janet M. Johnson of Dayton Ridge Farm, spends time with all of her youngsters and they work on learning “age appropriate” skills.  Izzy was already familiar with leading, grooming and having her feet handled when she arrived.  But even so, certain things were new.  The first time my farrier worked with her, Izzy regarded the foot stand with quite a look of horror and wanted nothing to do with it.  She is always a little funny with her right front hoof and sometimes pulls it away.  We just kept patiently handling her feet daily until it became routine.

One day in April, I was grooming Izzy in the barn aisle, holding her lead.  She was a little fussy and almost before I knew it, the lead had slid through my hands and Izzy was galloping down the driveway.  After a (terrifying for me) gallivant all about the front side of the property, and with the help of my housemate Lisa and a bucket of grain, she was back in hand.  But clearly we needed a better system.

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So I began introducing her to the cross ties.  I did one tie at a time, clipping the lead to the opposite side of the halter and holding it while I worked on grooming.  She explored the boundaries, and the first day that she hit the end of her tie I held my breath, not sure of what to expect.  Izzy pulled for a moment, and then just stood there.  Once I knew her response to the pressure seemed reasonable, I added the second crosstie.  And just like that…we crosstied.

While I was dealing with my knee issues this spring, intern Kelly handled most of the “walk Izzy around the property” duties.  But after recovering from my surgery, I began doing more “walk abouts” myself, taking Izzy up and down the driveway, leading from both sides, practicing transitions between the halt, walk and eventually the trot.  I added voice commands and started carrying a short bat, then a dressage whip.

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Intern Kelly, with her canine assistant Fox, take Izzy for a walk about.

As the black flies emerged in April, Izzy learned to wear a fly hat.  Bug spray made her very nervous at first, but with calm repetition you can now spray her while she stands loose in the field.

In late spring/early summer, I introduced Izzy to wearing a saddle pad.  I let her smell it, rubbed it on her body, and let her see it come up and over her back from both sides.  “No drama”.  From there, it was an easy step to wearing the soft cotton surcingle, even if I have to adjust it to the absolute smallest setting. Izzy still isn’t a fan of having it tightened, but once it is set, she seems unconcerned.

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First time wearing a saddle pad. 

I set a few further goals for her for the summer.  When presented in hand, two year olds must wear a bridle with a bit, so I felt it was appropriate for her to learn how to do that.  I wanted her to load onto and off my straight load two horse trailer quietly, and then go for a few short rides.  And I wanted to introduce her to the basics of longeing; in hand, we had started with the voice commands, but I wanted her to understand the concept of moving in a circle, responding to the handler’s voice and body cues, and to be comfortable with the equipment on and around her body. I wanted to do all of this through a series of short playful sessions, so that she enjoyed interacting with humans and remained her confident, inquisitive self.

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First day in a bridle.  Still sorting out the bit.

I am pleased to say that we have achieved all of that and more.  On each step of the journey, Izzy has remained fairly willing and mostly obedient.  Like any youngster, she has her moments of silliness and lost focus, but more often than not she stays mentally on task.  Izzy calmly wears her bit and bridle, she does transitions in hand and on a longe circle, and has happily walked and trotted over low cavaletti in hand and on the longe.  She ate several meals on the trailer and went for four short rides, two with a friend and two on her own.  And as an added bonus activity, she has been ponied off her turn out buddy Marquesa around the farm.  Maybe if I get brave I will take the pair of them out on the trails to see more of the world!

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Learning to “pony”– all three of us together!

It is funny, though, because in spite of all this success, when I see a post about someone else’s overachieving baby horse, it is hard to not compare.  Izzy doesn’t free jump (I have no where to do that, anyway), and I can’t really say that she is confirmed on the longe (she certainly doesn’t canter), and what the heck is that contraption they are longeing that youngster in anyway?  Should I be using some contraption?  I haven’t taken her off property to any breed shows, young stock shows or in hand future intergalactic performance horse testings.  She has yet to wear a saddle.  Am I doing this right? My friend’s two year does [insert accomplishment here].  Is this what human parents feel like when they find out that little Susie down the road went to elite swim camp or Johnny across the street just won a ‘budding artist’ award, while their own child is playing in a puddle and eating dirt?

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When learning, it is important to have good role models.

But then I remind myself to take a step back.  Because it really doesn’t matter what all of those other youngsters are doing.  The journey we are on with our own animals is just that—ours.  Izzy has successfully stepped up to—and exceeded—my expectations for her learning and development this summer.  In spite of the transition into the school year, and available daylight growing shorter, I will still have the opportunity to play with her more before winter settles in, to confirm her basic longeing, and maybe even experiment with some basic long lining to learn about steering and pressure on the bit.  But there is no hurry, no rush.  If all Izzy does this fall is continues to mature and develop physically, the time which we already spent laying a foundation this summer will be like “money in the bank” next spring.

Horses do not progress on our schedule.  My mentor Denny Emerson says all the time that the day you come into the ring with an agenda is the day you are not going to get where you want to go.  There is a difference between making progress towards your set goals and making progress, no matter what.  So I guess I will try to worry less about what everyone else’s baby horses are doing and just listen to mine.

She is pretty darn persuasive.

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The “golden girl”.