Monday, November 29, 2021

DIY Santa Mash

Last year, at about this time, I came across a company called Emerald Valley Equine.  The website offered a variety of horse feeds and supplements, but what really caught my eye were the mashes.  They didn't include any bran, and were instead based on one of two products manufactured by British Horse Feeds: Speedi-Beet and Fibre-Beet.  I am a sucker for feeds and supplements and have tried dozens and dozens over the years.  And if I'm going to feed beet pulp, Speedi-Beet is what I now use, because it soaks crazy fast (it's usually ready in 5 minutes!).  But back then, I was still learning about the products, and I wanted to give the mashes a try.  So I ordered several different kinds, including one called Santa Mash.

I tested it out on Donut, who loved it, along with the other kinds I ordered.  The one thing about the mashes, though, was that I couldn't get them locally, so the price of the mash plus shipping was cost-prohibitive for any kind of frequent use.  The mash costs either $6.95 for a single serving (13 oz) or $59.95 for 10 pounds.  And with shipping costs now - I just discovered the small flat rate box through USPS is now $9.20!!! - I was struggling with the economics.

But there aren't many ingredients in the mash, and it occurred to me that I might be able to deconstruct it and make my own.  So that is what I did one evening.  The mash basically has 4 ingredients: Fibre-Beet (beet pulp and alfalfa meal), rolled oats, shredded coconut, and dried cranberries.  (The ingredient list does include a few other things that are probably for flavor: cane molasses, vegetable oil, calcium carbonate, biotin, and peppermint flavor.)

When I deconstructed the mash, I was able to approximate how much of each thing was in the mash.  Here are the weights that I got:

  •      Fibre-Beet: 10.16 oz
  •      Dried Cranberries: 1.16 oz
  •      Shredded Coconut: 0.25 oz
  •      Rolled Oats: 1.2 oz

(I know it is just short of 13 oz, so probably I had some measurement errors on my scale.)

I don't have access to Fibre-Beet at my local feed stores, but I can get Speedi-Beet, and I feed it daily to Freya.  So I already have it.  We eat oatmeal occasionally, so rolled oats is easy to have on hand.  And I already feed shredded coconut to Freya every day.  So really, the only out-of-the ordinary thing was dried cranberries.  And it would be fun to add peppermints or candy canes.

The next thing I did was price it out the ingredients.  If I replaced the Fibre-Beet with Speedi-Beet, I could get everything either from local stores or through Amazon.

  • Speedi-Beet (44 pound bag): $44.00
  • Dried Cranberries (2 pound bag): $18.95
  • Shredded Coconut (2 pound bag): $13.99
  • Rolled Oats (3 pound bag): $13.99
  • Candy Canes (35 individually wrapped): $I have no idea because I forgot to save the receipt, but maybe $5?)

Based on the above amounts, I decided it was worth it to make my own and see how it went.  And then I had a bright idea.  What if I made Santa Mashes for all the horses at the barn for Christmas?  I always want to do something for everyone, and then I run out of time and never do.  But if I got started early, maybe I could manage this.  

So I ordered everything or bought it locally, and this past weekend, Gemma and I made 30 Santa Mashes.  I used 5x8 inch Mylar bags as packaging, and we experimented with how much of each thing should go in the bags.  Despite the fact that the bags appeared to be the exact same size as the ones the Emerald Valley Santa Mash came it, Gemma and I were only able to get about 8 oz per bag.  I suspect that is because we don't have manufacturing equipment to compact and vacuum seal the bags, although we did discover that the Speedi-Beet will settle quite a bit if the bag is shaken, so the amount below is based on some compacting to get everything to fit.

Here are the approximate amounts per bag of the ingredients:

  • Speedi-Beet: 5.5 oz (a little under 1 1/2 cups)
  • Rolled Oats: 1.4 oz (a little under 1/3 cup)
  • Shredded Coconut: 0.5 oz (about 1/8 cup)
  • Dried Cranberries: 0.75 oz (about 1/8 cup)
  • 1 candy cane
These aren't the right amounts to add, just a picture so you can see what everything looks like.

After adding a gift tag, here is what the finished product looks like:

Note that I didn't heat seal the bag.  My understanding is that it can be done with a flat iron (like for straightening hair), which I have, but I felt like the Ziplock seal was sufficient.

The gift tag is printed using digital paper from Ali Edwards' December Daily 2020 Main Kit, and I added the text in Photoshop.  I was going to cleverly print the instructions for the mash on the reverse of the tag, but that is easier said then done, so to preserve my sanity, I printed the instructions on a different sheet of paper, cut them out, and adhered them to the back of the tag.  Then I punched a hole in the tag and the bag and used a piece of twine to tie everything together.

When I calculated the cost per bag of my version of the Santa Mash, it came out to $1.92 per bag (not including the gift tags and twine).  So that is a huge savings over buying the bags individually, and well worth it if I'm going to make them in bulk.

I think these little mashes would make great stocking stuffers for friends and family with horses (not to mention your own horses would probably love them!).  And they would make fun additions to prizes for shows too!  Plus, you can easily customize the mix to exclude ingredients that aren't the best for your horse or to provide some variety.

Overall, I'm super happy with this particular DIY, and it might be the only one in my history to actually cost less than the thing I was trying to imitate!:)

Monday, November 22, 2021

Conditioning Star

Gemma is planning to move up a level in her hunter shows for next year (even though, based on her age, she could stay at the current level for two more years).  So she'll be going from Pre-Short Stirrup to Short Stirrup.  Pre-Short Stirrup has one division with three flat (i.e. no jumps) classes.  One class is walk only, one class is walk/trot, and one class is walk/trot with fancy stuff like jump position and sitting trot.  

Short Stirrup has two divisions, one focused more on the rider (Equitation) and one focused more on the horse (Hunter).  I'm still trying to figure this level out, but here is what I think I know so far.  In Short Stirrup Equitation, there are three classes.  One class is walk/trot on the flat, one class is walk/trot/canter on the flat, and one class is over fences not to exceed 18" (with the option to trot the course instead of canter).  I think the maximum is five jumps for the course.  This division is not VHSA-sanctioned, which means the Virginia Horse Show Association doesn't offer the option to compete in it for finals.  (That may or may not matter, depending on how the year goes.)

Short Stirrup Hunter, which is VHSA-sanctioned, also has three classes.  One is walk/trot/canter on the flat, and the other two are over fences (with the option to trot the courses instead of canter).  The courses are simply the reverse of each other, and I think there are five jumps, with the possibility of one change of direction (so the horse needs to be able to do a simple or flying change if cantering).

What all this means is that Gemma needs quite a few more skills to show in Short Stirrup than she did to show in Pre-Short.  She has already been practicing full courses of 7-8 jumps of 15-18" at the canter, and really the only skill she needs there is learning simple or flying changes.  She also needs a horse that is fit enough to canter at least one course for equitation, at least 2 courses for hunter, and up to three courses if she wants to do both divisions, plus walk/trot/canter flat work.

Freya is coming along, but we had a little set back.  I'll write more about that in another post.  Essentially, though, we had to pull her out of work for a few weeks.  We are gradually putting her back in work now.  I don't have any concerns that she would have the fitness level to do both divisions in Short Stirrup, but my big goal for her is that she learns how to move correctly and in balance while she does it, so that she stays sound and happy for Gemma for many, many years to come.  That means I'm willing to take the time it takes on that front.

Star is also coming along and continues to amaze me.  But the reality is that she is 24 years old, and that we don't have full access to her.  Gemma can ride her 2-3 times a week, and if she does, I can't ride her at all.  Which means I can't work Star like I would prefer and give her the kind of work that would be most beneficial to building her strength.  (Although even with me only riding her occasionally, she wowed everyone during our last lesson with my instructor.  She was doing a fantastic shoulder-in at the trot and we even started shallow half-pass at the trot.  I wish I could ride her more!)

But Star is currently not fit enough to handle two divisions with three jump courses.  I'm positive that she can do the Equitation division with just a little more conditioning, though.  So I've talked to Gemma about it, and we've agreed that our goal for Star next year is to get her fit enough for Equitation and we'll leave the Hunter division for Freya when she is ready.  

My preference is for Gemma to get the hang of the Short Stirrup level (particularly the walk/trot/canter class) with Star, whose only fault is likely to be going too slow, before she uses Freya.  Freya has shown herself to be very good in a number of situations, including one where Gemma was riding in the arena and another person got bucked off of their horse and said horse went cantering around like a loon.  Gemma knew to halt Freya and wait for the loose horse to be caught, and Freya was perfect at standing still.  I've also seen her stand completely still near a jump while another horse cantered behind her and over the jump.  She can spook, but if she does, she typically moves sideways for a couple of strides and then stops and looks at the thing that is worrying her.  So Gemma can easily sit that.  The one unknown is how she does if she is in a large group of horses all cantering around the arena with riders of different skill levels.  

I admit to a full-on panic attack when I think about Gemma cantering around an arena with 15 other horses whose riders have no clue and that look on the verge of being out of control.  Not every show is like that, but some of them are.  As of this writing, I've not seen anyone get hurt, but it isn't safe, in my motherly opinion.  (One of my friends - who has raised a horse-riding daughter - recently pointed out to me that it's possible that I might be overprotective, before admitting that she was pretty cautious when her daughter was younger too.  The problem is that I know exactly what can go wrong and how significant the damage can be, so even though the likelihood of something going wrong is small, the amount of damage that can be done is huge, so I continue to err on the side of safety, and I refuse to apologize for it.  I want Gemma to have a long life with horses.  And yes, at some point, she will probably have an accident that injures her, but the more skills she gets, the easier it will be for her to handle the situations that could lead to an accident.  Which means my focus is on building those skills as safely as I can, and not worrying about chasing points and getting ribbons.)

Anyway, this whole long explanation is the backstory for why we are now being more diligent about conditioning Star.  The biggest thing she needs help with is cantering for longer periods of time.  So out to the fields we go for some trot and canter work on hills and over jumps.  Cross-training is our friend:)

Luckily we are blessed with two things out at the farm where I board.  One is a field with a low hill that is perfect for strengthening exercises.  The other is the very recent addition of cross-country jumps that are low enough for Star to jump. 

The plan right now is to get Star out in the field for (short) trot and canter sets once a week.  Twice would be better, but it will be hard with the other lessons that she has going on.  Although, I am contemplating whether we can get away with doing field work on the same day she has a beginner lesson.  The lessons typically aren't physically challenging for her, so it is possible that we could add 20 minutes of hill work on those days.  Even just walking up and down the hill a few times could be helpful.  And I'm even wondering if that work would help warm her up for her lessons.  Right now, she really needs about 20 minutes to warm up and even then, the longer she moves, the better she moves, up to the point of getting tired, which typically doesn't happen for about an hour.

One of the things I want to work on is helping Star move more "uphill."  This was our first time cantering her up a hill, and it was hard for her.  I expect that with more conditioning, she will be able to keep her balance better.  But we have to start somewhere!

The other thing is to get Star out over the cross-country jumps once a week as part of Gemma's regular lesson.  She surprised me by jumping them with ease for the first time last week.  I don't know if she has ever jumped cross-country jumps in her life, but if she has, it has been at least 10 years.  And she acted like she had been doing it for years.


Then, of course, Gemma will continue to work on dressage/flat work, ground pole exercises, and regular jumps in the arena.  My hope is that both the variety of work as well as the focus on increasing Star's endurance at the trot and canter will be what she needs to help her feel comfortable doing the higher level division.

I would love to hear from you if you've had experience bringing an older horse back into condition.  Were there any exercises that seemed to help more than others?  I know we need to go slowly and pay careful attention to make sure she doesn't lose weight or strain herself.  And if, in the end, she isn't up for it, we will stop the work.  She is an amazing horse, and neither Gemma nor I want to see her injured.  On the other hand, she continues to surprise me with her willingness to work and her ability to improve both her endurance and her skills.

Monday, November 8, 2021

Product Review: Blanket Tags

It's that time of year when the sheets and blankets come out of storage (or in my case, come out from under the seat in the truck where I wadded them up from the spring with the expectation that I would wash them before fall).  I'm not actually a huge fan of blanketing, but I do always try to have a waterproof sheet and a mid-weight blanket on hand, just in case.

Star's blankets from last year needed to be replaced, and I bought Freya a set as well.  Donut does fine without any blankets, so I'm waiting until she is done growing before getting her any.  But with two horses that share a blanket bar, I figured it might be a good idea to label the blankets both for us and for the barn staff.

I turned to one of my favorite resources for customized horse stuff - Etsy - and it didn't take me long to find some good candidates.  I ended up choosing a shop called CarolsStitchery for my first order.  Gemma's favorite color is definitively yellow at the moment, but she is always a fan of rainbows, so we ordered two tags for Freya with yellow and rainbow embroidery.  The tags were shipped within a few days and were clearly well-made.  We got one on a sheet for Freya which you can see below:

I have to admit, the rainbow version of the tag is pretty cool.

For my next order, I got a purple tag for Star.  The shop has an option for either a snap or a split ring as an attachment for the tag.  I had gotten the snaps for my first order, but decided to try the split ring next.

I like the split ring option a lot.  Gemma likes to move things around, so having the snaps on the tags she uses for Freya makes sense, but the split rings seem a bit more permanent and less likely to come off with a lot of handling.

I ended up placing a third order for a tag for Star because we didn't have her mid-weight blanket at the time of my second order, and Gemma wanted to make sure the tag would coordinate.  What was really great was that I forgot to add a note stating that I wanted the split ring for the tag (the default is the snap), and the seller promptly messaged me and asked if I wanted the split ring because she knew I had gotten it on my previous order.  I consider that to be impressive customer service!

In total, I ordered four tags for Freya and Star plus a couple as gifts for a friend, and all of the tags looked like they were well-made and all orders shipped quickly.  Here is the link for the tags that I ordered:

There is also a second product that has two lines on the tag, which is a great idea if you need to note the weight of the blanket or add some other short piece of information to help keep your blankets organized and used properly.  Here is the link for those tags:

If you are looking for blanket tags to help keep your blankets straight, I think these are a great option.  They cost $9 per tag ($10 for the two-line tags), and they are available in a multitude of colors and fonts, with two attachment options (a snap and a split ring).  They ship quickly and are well-made.  Plus, they would work great as stocking stuffers for Christmas:) 

Monday, October 25, 2021

Being a Horse Show Mom

I have to admit that when I got pregnant and found out I was having a girl, I did fantasize a lot about her loving horses.  I hoped she would follow in my footsteps, but I also reminded myself that everyone has to find their own path in life.  I know plenty of moms who love to ride but have kids who do not, so I tried not to get too excited about having a horse-crazy kid.

And for the first few years of Gemma's life, I wasn't quite sure how things would go.  She definitely loved horses and visiting the barn every once in awhile.  But it wasn't an obsession.  She loved lots of things back then, particularly climbing, so I didn't push the horses.  And honestly, I needed my time alone at the barn to decompress and be myself every day.

But over the past few years, her horse-loving genes expressed themselves more and more, and now it is rare for there to be more than one day a week that she doesn't go to the barn with me.  (The one day is at my insistence - I still need alone time with horses!)

When she was 6, I started her in a lesson program.  I wasn't quite sure I should - riding lessons can come with their own set of challenges.  But Gemma ended up loving them, and it gave her regular time with a horse and helped her build skills in a way that I couldn't.  My only equine resource back then was a 17-hand Friesian who could not, under any perspective, be considered "beginner-friendly."  I could lunge her on him and he was fantastic, but he wouldn't have been a good horse for her to learn independent riding on.

Almost a year after she started taking lessons, she asked me about showing.  She wanted to try it.  The barn where I board and she takes lessons also hosts dressage and hunter shows, so I figured that if we could find a horse for her to ride, she could give it a try.  There were only two hunter shows left that season and she did both.  She had an absolute blast and the smile on her face was epic.  I still remember her excitement after the first show.  She'd gotten sixth place in all three of her classes and she asked, "Mom, how did I get so lucky to win THREE green ribbons!" 

Gemma and a pony named Clever.  He passed away not that long after this picture was taken, and his passing was mourned by all who met him.

I knew that if she stuck with it, her attitude about the color of ribbons would probably change, but I was thankful for her enthusiasm and decided that we as adults could probably benefit from adopting the same attitude.

Then the pandemic hit in early 2020 and all the horse shows were cancelled.  A few bigger ones started up in late summer/fall but the requirements were so burdensome that smaller shows like the ones my barn hosted simply could not comply.  Gemma was disappointed, but she kept riding and learning and practicing.

This year, the horse shows were back in full swing, and we attended all of the ones that we could hosted at our barn as well as a few hosted by another barn nearby.  I think Gemma showed at about 15 shows between April and October.  Her last one was this past weekend.  It was an epic finish to a season full of accomplishments, and I'm so proud of her.

A lovely expression on Star's face in the second class of the day in the Pre-Short Stirrup Division.

Star's trot at this show was simply gorgeous and just kept getting better with every class.

Gemma's goal for the show was to get a blue ribbon on Star.  While she has won a couple of blue ribbons in dressage this year as well as a blue ribbon on Olaf in a hunter show, she hadn't gotten one on Star in the hunter shows.  So when she won the third class of the day, beating out a rider on a horse that typically wins every class he is in, she was thrilled!

Showing should never be about the ribbons, but Gemma and Star have worked hard this year and the first, second, and third place ribbons in the individual classes, plus the Reserve Champion for the Pre-Short Stirrup Division, and the Reserve Champion for the show series were earned.

I have been stunned on more than one occasion as I watched Gemma handle situations that would have thrown some adults (like me) for a loop.  There was the time Freya got bitten by a horse fly during a dressage test and Gemma kept Freya on track even though she was periodically crow-hopping to try to get rid of the fly.  And the time Olaf was going through his "drifting" phase and he drifted himself right out of the dressage arena during a test.  Gemma turned him right back into the arena and finished both her circle and the test.  She didn't cry or fuss or get mad at either horse, like I've seen so many kids (and adults) do.  She laughed it off and vowed to try to avoid the situation again in the future.  Freya gets loaded with fly spray now, and Gemma is learning about the usefulness of an effective outside rein.

I've also seen her get stuck in a pack of no less than seven horses with no way to get out, and she and her saint of a pony just kept trotting and showing, like there was no problem at all.  And this past weekend, I saw her execute a very nice reverse in the hunter ring, only to have her pony come face to face with another pony, whose young rider forgot that the horses need to turn to the inside.  The rider had turned her pony to the outside and right into Gemma and Star.  Both Gemma and Star acted like nothing happened.  They finished their turn and went right on showing.

I've said many times that there is a difference between being good at riding and being good at showing.  A person can be a very effective rider, but be anxious in the show ring or lack some of the polish or nuanced skills that judges look for.  Likewise, a person can be good at show strategies (like how to keep the horse positioned so the judge has the best opportunity to see her) and have a pretty position as long as the horse they are riding never gets into trouble or needs a correction or help with a jump.  It takes a lot of work to be good at both, and I think Gemma is well on her way.  

Despite Gemma's successes, there can be no doubt that the last six months have been hard for me.  My husband knows nothing about horses, so there is only so much he can do to help out.  Which means the burden falls on me to make sure everything is in order and that Gemma gets lots of riding time and good coaching in between lessons as well as at shows.  There have been lots of early mornings, snack runs to Target, late night laundry sessions, frantic trips to the tack store for lost or outgrown items, last minute touch-ups before the show starts, sacrificing my alone time or time to ride, long days, hot days, cold days, windy days, and watching endless classes that all look the same but for their names.  Sometimes I wasn't sure if I was going to make it, especially when I had to explain that sometimes judging doesn't make sense and sometimes no matter how hard you work, things go wrong or the judge doesn't see your shining moment.  I was irritable, grumpy, exhausted, stressed, and wondering if it was really worth paying $45-$75 per show for entry fees.  And I definitely thought that parents who love horses but have kids who don't may be the lucky ones.

But a friend reminded me that there are the small moments that really matter.  There are the giggles when something goes horribly wrong (like the glitter explosion of last weekend), the quiet moments at the end of the day, the shared inside jokes, the camaraderie with other moms and competitors, the taste of a hot dog fresh from the grill, the scent of a special horse, and bigger-than-life smiles when everything comes together.

So am I going to do it again next year?  Absolutely!  After I take a nap for about six months:)

Gemma and Star and I were taking a break between dressage tests.

Monday, October 18, 2021

The Making of a Rainbow Princess (and Her Pony)

I've often commented that I think the universe likes to challenge me, as if it knows that my internal mechanisms seem to believe that something isn't worth doing unless it is time consuming, expensive, frustrating, and/or potentially hazardous to my continued existence.  It turns out that making a Rainbow Princess (and her pony) is not as easy as it sounds...

It was just a regular day.  We were at the barn and Gemma was getting ready to tack up.  I forget which horse - it could have been Freya or Star.  She had gathered her tack and put the saddle and saddle pad on the saddle rack in front of Donut's stall.  I was around and doing something like getting brushes or feed bags or whatever.

Gemma got her horse from the cross ties in the wash stall to bring her over to the stall to tack up and exclaimed, "What happened to my saddle pad?"  That was a good question.  It had been there a minute ago.  I finally spotted something that looked like it could have been a dead animal in Donut's stall.  But it wasn't a dead animal.  It was the saddle pad, wadded up in a mess of shavings and hay.

I rescued the pad from the tangle, and shook it out, fully expecting that it would just need a good cleaning.  Regrettably, its state was closer to that of a dead animal.  The inner lining had been torn in about 10 places and the batting was starting to come out.  

Normally, that probably wouldn't have been a big deal.  Between Gemma and I, we have enough saddle pads to open our own tack store.  So we could have just pitched it and gotten a new one.  Except that this pad was special.  It was a RAINBOW pad.  And Gemma had decided that she wanted to dress up as a Rainbow Princess with her Rainbow Pony for the costume/dressage show coming up in a few days.

Oh, Donut...I'm not quite sure how she even managed to get the pad.  Gemma had deliberately used a saddle rack where Donut couldn't access the saddle by reaching through the cut-out in her stall door.  So what must have happened is that the horse in the next stall over grabbed the pad and was playing with it and Donut was able to reach through the tiny cut-out in the front of the stall that is just big enough for a small bucket to dump feed in her feed tub and grab it.  How all that happened with neither Gemma nor I noticing is a mystery, though.

There wasn't enough time for me to find another rainbow pad and order it in time for the show.  So Gemma resigned herself to using a different solid color pad.  It would be fine.

In the meantime, my brain sort of nudged me a few times, indicating that maybe I should figure out how to use the assorted Rainbow Pony-making products I had purchased.  I am giving myself huge credit for being on top of getting All The Things in plenty of time.  We got Gemma's costume from Target.  I ordered some glitter-type products for horses.  And I even got some mane and tail extensions from a shop on Etsy.  Everything except that pad was good to go.  And my knowledge about how to use said glitter products.

We did test the main and tail extensions a couple of days before the show, and they turned out to be easy to apply.  One thing I did realize, though, was that it was best if the mane and tail were dirty and not well-brushed so the small combs that attached the extensions to the existing hair had something to grip.

I did finally get around to finding a YouTube video about glitter products the night before the show.  And let me just say that it would have been super helpful to have seen that video before I even ordered the products.  So you don't make the same mistake, here is the video, if you feel compelled to learn about Twinkle Glitter products.

There wasn't much I could do with my newfound knowledge except do the best I could for show day.  I decided not to worry about it too much, and tried to get a decent night's sleep.

The day of the show dawned with temperatures in the upper 40s, which was a huge change from the unseasonably warm weather we'd been having.  A cold front had come in the day before.  But I was thrilled to see something resembling fall after almost 6 months of summer-like temps.  And the death of the bugs.  I celebrated with as much enthusiasm as my exhausted self could manage.  In fact, I'm thinking we need a national holiday celebrating their demise.  National Bug Death Day.  Good riddance gnats, ear flies, green-heads, mosquitos, horse flies, and weird, tiny black flies that stick like glue to my horse and irritate the crap out of her.

Anyway, I was up early at a little after 6, so I could have a little quiet time before the tiny monster that is my daughter arose.  She is delightful, of course, but she gets a little crazy on horse show days, and I needed a half hour to prepare myself for her energy level.

Too soon, she was up and we were loading the truck, packing the snacks and cooler, double-checking to make sure we had the costume and accessories, and assuring the dog that just because we were leaving didn't mean that we were having fun without her (I mean, we kind of were, but I felt like it was unfair to tell her) .

We were on the road by 7:30, and we got to the barn a little after 8.  Gemma is actually quite self-sufficient on show days for the routine stuff.  So while she started getting her pony clean, I was out in the field explaining to Donut that she couldn't come in to eat today because we needed her stall for Star's makeover project.  Donut was horrified by this development even though I provided her with her breakfast.  I tried to explain that turnout would be changing soon anyway, and she would be out all the time (I only have her in the stall during the day during the summer because of the heat and bugs; otherwise, I like her outside all the time).  Eventually, Donut and Freya ate their breakfast, but I could feel Donut's accusing eyes on me as I walked back to the barn.  I figured she would forgive me in time...

In my head, I had imagined that we had plenty of time for the pony makeover we were attempting.  I mean, I had budgeted an hour for general cleaning, an hour for the rainbow makeover, a half hour for changing into a costume and tacking up, and a half hour to warm up before Gemma's first test.  (My boarding barn was hosting the show so no trailering needed.  This is the only way to show, in my opinion.  It takes out a huge part of the potential for stress, drama, injury, and general annoyance.)  I figured I would even have time to set in the chair I set up outside the stall and enjoy my coffee.  (I know, I'm a slow learner.)

I checked my watch when Gemma was finished with washing some mud off Star and grooming her, and we were ahead of schedule.  (Thank God for chestnuts who don't roll in the fresh mud from the previous night's rain.)  Star looked great, even though Gemma was traumatized that she couldn't give Star a full bath.  But I thought it was too cold for that and unnecessary.  See above about dirt-colored hair and lack of rolling in mud.

We put Star in the stall for her hooves to dry.  We needed them to be dry for the application of glitter hoof polish.  I figured we would wait about 15 minutes and then start the process of applying some kind of glitter gel using templates.  (That sounds totally simple, right?)

But first I decided it might be good if we put the mane and tail extensions in while we waited.  They were easy to do.  I put the ones in Star's mane, and Gemma did the one in her forelock and the ones for her tail.

I have never used extensions before, but I ordered from an Etsy shop called AHorseNamedPilot.  I was pleased with the color selection, the ordering process, the fast shipping, and the ease of use.  Here is a link to the extensions I ordered: Design Your Own Mane Hair Extensions.  All we did was move some of the hair on top, slide the comb from the extension onto some hair (not too much or the comb won't close), snap the comb closed, and then move the hair on top over the attachment point so you couldn't see the comb.  I ordered maybe 8 extensions for Star's tail and close to twice that for her mane.  In the future, I think the tail could hold a few more, and the mane probably could too, but it turned out pretty good (pictures coming below).

Feeling pretty please with our progress, I felt ready to move on to the glitter application.  I gathered my supplies, which I had thoughtfully made sure were all at the barn the day before so I wouldn't forget anything.  I went over the plan.  Put template on horse.  Apply glitter gel with sponge thing.  Admire my work.

Soooooo.  Just so we're clear.  You should definitely practice with this stuff ahead of time.  You should only work on a horse that stands completely still at all times, and is preferably flat.  And you need at least six hands plus a roll of paper towels, a bucket of water, an alcoholic beverage, maybe some chocolate, and an appointment for a massage immediately after application.  Multiply everything by 2 if you are working with a bossy nine-year-old.

The concept is simple enough.  You use a template to guide the application of some glitter gel to create fun patterns on your horse.  The first thing I realized when I put the template on the horse is that the template is made of somewhat flexible material, but there is no getting around the fact that you are trying to use a two-dimensional object to conform to a three-dimensional horse butt.  Also, if the horse even shifts its weight, the template can move around, even if you fastened it with something like painters tape.  Thankfully, we were working on Star, who is generally quiet, but even she needs to move a little.

The other issue is that the gel is, well, gel.  Too much of it and it oozes down your horse outside of the template.  Too little and you can't really see the pattern.  Plus the sponge thing that comes with the kit.  Totally not big enough.  So you use your hands.  And now you have glitter gel all over your hands and then your clothes and probably the floor.  Also on the people who are standing around watching the unfolding catastrophe who then offer to help out of pity.

One of the tips I got from the video I watched was that two coats might be needed.  But you need to wait until the first coat is dry.  One question I had after watching the video was, "How long does it take glitter gel to dry?"  I was about to find out.  Let's be clear that it isn't 5 minutes or 10 minutes or 30 minutes.  Eventually, I gave up and just glopped the stuff on as thick as I could and called it good.  Also, the barn is now partially bedazzled because I got glitter everywhere.  The stool, the floor, the walls, etc.

Now for the hoof polish.  Again I wished I had watched the YouTube video earlier because the reviewer said that while the actual solid color hoof polish from Twinkle Glitter was fabulous, the glitter polish, which is what I got, left more than a little to be desired.  Much like glitter nail polish, it takes multiple coats and works best with a solid color underneath.  I did not have a solid color, so I was going to have to live with the deficiencies.

I brought Star out to the concrete floor and brushed her hooves off really well.  Then I took a deep breath and started applying the copper colored glitter polish (Gemma's choice...).  Much like the video, I had trouble getting good coverage.  Two or even three coats were recommended with each coat drying before applying the next one.  Again, HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE FOR THE POLISH TO DRY?  Please, dear company, for the love of God, put that information in big letters where my feeble eyes can easily find it. 

Much like with the glitter gel, I had to wait and test the dry time for myself.  I am guessing it was about 15 minutes.  Which left me only enough time to do two coats.  I wasn't that happy with the coverage, and you can see in the picture below that it is gloppy and not that attractive, but I will say that when Gemma was in the full sun in the arena for her dressage tests, the sparkle was really obvious and it did look good from a distance.  So the moral of this story is that there is a bit of a learning curve and using a solid base coat and allowing lots of time is the best way to get an optimum glitter hoof.

Now that the horse was in good shape with her rainbow hair extensions, glitter stars, hearts, and weird flower that Gemma insisted on, and sort of glittery feet, it was time for Gemma to get her costume on.  She could do that by herself, so I turned my attention to the saddle pad problem.  Because the top of the pad was still in good shape, I thought maybe we could use it if we put another pad underneath it to protect from the damage of the ripping and loose batting.  I couldn't wash the pad because I thought it would disintegrate in the wash, so I started brushing it as much as I could.  And I realized that maybe it could give us one more ride.  I felt the torn areas on the bottom, and while I knew that would be no good for an hours long trail ride, it would probably be OK for a horse with part of her winter coat grown in with a light rider for about 40 minutes of actual ride time at the walk and trot.  So I decided we'd use the rainbow pad and if Star showed any discomfort when Gemma was in the saddle, we would substitute a colored pad.

And then all of a sudden, it was time to go.  Gemma was in her costume - no wardrobe malfunctions! - and Star was tacked up.  It was a half hour, on the dot, before Gemma's first test, so we headed to the arena.

Gemma did a nice job warming Star up.  Star is 24 years old, so she can appear a little stiff for the first few minutes.  But Gemma just walked her and then eased her into some trotting and a little canter.  When she was looking good, I was surprised to see Gemma playing with asking Star to yield through her poll and bend.  Gemma still seems a little uncomfortable riding that way, so she only does it for short bursts or during lessons.  But she was doing it on her own and she and Star looked great.  I wish I had gotten some video of it.  I told Gemma if she did that during her dressage tests, she would get really nice scores, but she still seemed unsure about it.  I decided to let it go.  Gemma shows for fun, and I don't want to take that away from her.

I also got some pictures of the whole ensemble:

Note the rainbow bridle that "Santa" got Gemma for Christmas.  It was the one that didn't come until Christmas Eve last year after being stuck in I think it was Kentucky for 11 days.  It was so handy to have it for this project!

When it was time for Gemma's test, I moved into position to call it for her.  She was doing both Intro A and B tests.  While she has Intro B memorized, she struggles with Intro A, so I call it to help her feel less nervous.  The test went well, and I didn't make any mistakes calling it.  (I'm prone to forgetting where I am at or misreading something or for one of my poor friends, calling the wrong test.)  I even called it loud enough for people in the next county to hear, because Gemma routinely tells me I don't use enough of my outdoor voice:)

The judge for this show was amazing.  Her feedback for each competitor was the best I've ever heard.  She always led with something positive about the horse or rider or test and she picked one or two things to give constructive criticism about.  If there was a formula for schooling show judges, that would be it, in my opinion.  She was super complementary about Gemma's costume and the accuracy of the test, and she explained that Gemma needed to ask for a little more energy from Star and improve the shape of her circles.  (If I had a dime for every time I told Gemma that, I would be independently wealthy, but what do I know?)

Gemma had a short break, and then she did her second test, which went a little better than the first one.  I think she even got an 8 on one of her halts.  It was nice to see that because Gemma went through a phase where she was asking for halt with too much rein and creating a stilted, sudden, uneven halt.  Now she is working on preparing the horse for the halt and executing it more smoothly. 

Keeping Star warmed up between tests

A walk to trot transition for Intro B

In the end, Gemma scored a 65.937% on her Intro A test, which was good enough for first place.  And she got a 66.250% on her Intro B test, which earned her third place in the most popular test of the day.  Plus, she got third place for the show series in Intro Level.  Which was pretty impressive for her first year of showing dressage on a horse that wasn't even sound enough to ride in January of this year.

It was a great way to end the dressage show season, and Star enjoyed a big, custom cookie at the end.

And if you still want to know about the drying time of the glitter gel, it does eventually dry.  I'm not sure exactly when, but by the time Gemma was all done showing, it was dry.  So now I guess I need to figure out how to get it off...:)

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

A Photo Shoot with Star

One of the things that I never did when I had Nimo was to have a professional photographer take pictures of us (other than a couple of times a show).  I do have a lot of great pictures of us and him, but I think professional photos always seem to have an extra something that isn't normally captured by an amateur.

Something that may have been holding me back, though, was that I didn't know any professional photographers.  The idea of vetting photographers gave me flashbacks to planning my wedding, and I admit that I just didn't want to do it.  Over the past couple of years, though, I have met and gotten to know two photographers that I like and feel comfortable with.  

Given that Star is 24 years old, and I don't know what the future holds for her and Gemma, I decided to set up a photo shoot for them with one of those photographers.  And a little over a week ago, we met at the barn for a fun-filled (but hotter than we expected) photo shoot.

Star was a consummate professional, of course.  But because she doesn't bat an eye at anything, we had trouble getting her ears forward for some of the pictures.  We tried an app that makes horse sounds and we tried running and jumping, but all to no avail, as Star remained completely unimpressed with our antics.  Finally, knowing her love of treats, I grabbed a treat bag and I started throwing treats in her direction.  That did the trick, and we got lots of great pictures as a result.  Here are a few of the highlights.  All photos are by CarlyGPhotography and are used with purchase.

It was a great experience for Gemma - she had an absolute blast picking out her clothes and posing for the pictures.  And having a wonderful, solid horse to take pictures with also helped to make the experience very positive for everyone.  I loved not being behind the camera and having to try to make all the decisions.  The photographer was a bit surprised when I said I didn't have any specific shots that I wanted - I guess most people do.  But I happily did not plan or prepare in any way, and the mental break was nice.  And I've got some wonderful keepsake photos of a special partnership.

Monday, October 4, 2021

Softening the Hands

"Don't pull," said my instructor for probably the 837th time.  I inwardly sighed because I wasn't pulling.  But for the 837th time, I moved my hands forward and made the reins loose so it would be clear I wasn't pulling.  Even though I knew I was supposed to maintain contact with Nimo's mouth.  "Your reins are too loose.  You need to shorten them."  I dutifully shortened my reins.  "Stop pulling..."  And the cycle continued.  For years.

I can't remember when I finally figured out what the problem was.  I changed instructors after awhile, and then again, and again as I searched for a good fit for Nimo and me.  But at some point, I learned that there is a technique called softening your hands.  It is probably intuitive for many riders and instructors, and that is why it isn't always explicitly taught.  And there are plenty of riders who never use the technique.  I see the lack of its use most often at the higher levels of dressage, which is an embarrassment.  Higher level dressage horses and riders should be a picture of harmony, but most often they are a study in tension and conflict as the rider cranks the horse's head down and the horse looks as if it will explode if the rider lets up on the reins even the slightest bit.

Looking back on those agonizing years of lessons on Nimo where my instructor was telling me not to pull, I think what was actually going on was that he was trying to convey that there needed to be a change in the way I was taking up contact with Nimo. If Nimo was moving well, I needed to soften my hands and have a different kind of contact than if he was struggling with his balance and needed my support or correction.  The length of rein would not change, but the tone of my arms and hands would change.  I'm sure at the time, I was probably riding with my arms and hands always tense because I didn't know any other way, and I was, in fact, stressed out and tense during my lessons.

I guess I can't speak for everyone, but eventually I learned that softening my hands is the way I tell my horse that he has gotten it right.  Whatever I'm asking, whether it is yielding at the poll, flexing the neck, giving through the ribcage, shoulder-in, half-pass, more engagement, less speed, or just a shift in balance, softening my hands is the quickest and easiest way for me to say, "Yes!"  I don't always get my timing right, and I admit there are times when I even forget because my brain feels so overloaded with all the things going through it.  Yet I am pretty sure that the correct use of softening hands is probably one of several things that sets amazing riders apart from the rest of us.

I have been hyper-focused on softening my hands when I ride Freya.  During the last week or so, I finally got my schedule and brain and motivation all in the same place, and I was able to get four rides on her in eight days.  And that was when I realized something pretty important that pretty much everyone knows (including me), but that I had lost sight of with all the stuff going on the past few months - Freya needs me to ride her several times a week in order for us to get better at working together. 

I know, shocker, right?  I've been riding Freya when I can, but I've probably only ridden 2-3 times a month on average.  And that wasn't enough for her.  I am almost positive that she has some anxiety when she has a new rider/handler/activity, and the best way to help her through that anxiety is to repeat the thing frequently in a quiet way, so she has a chance to understand what is happening.  

For example, I hadn't ridden her in close to a month before I did my last lesson with her.  In addition to being a little sore on her feet (she was dealing with an infection in her heels because of the poor shoeing she'd had done before we got her, and I didn't realize how significant it was and thus I didn't start the treatment she should have been getting until my instructor pointed it out), she was anxious.  I had trouble getting on at the mounting block again, which was an issue that I thought had been resolved.  I initially thought it was a problem with the mounting block, but I'm 99% sure now that it is a problem with her being anxious about being ridden by someone new (or infrequent).  She is incredibly solid for Gemma getting on, but Gemma rides her several times a week.  I assumed handling her every day would be good enough to help her be comfortable with me, but it didn't help our under saddle work.

We moved the lesson from the sandy arena which seemed to bother her feet to a grassy flat field next to the arena.  She'd been ridden there before (by Gemma) and been fine.  But when I started asking her to collect and improve her balance, she started crow-hopping.  Over and over.  I forget how many times she warned me.  And after, I don't know, maybe 12-15 crow hops, she legitimately bucked.  I knew it was coming, and I knew it was too big for me to stay on.  I put my right hand on her neck, grabbed mane, and somehow managed to rotate in the air and land on my feet.  (Yes, I am as proud of that unscheduled dismount as I am of any blue ribbon or endurance ride I ever finished.  And there were even witnesses!)  Freya stood perfectly still as soon as she felt my butt leave the saddle.  And there was zero drama getting back on.  She was just being super clear after many warnings that she was really uncomfortable changing her balance in the way I was asking.

We wrapped the lesson up with some in-hand work, which seemed to be easier for her to handle.  And I was left to figure out how I was going to work with Freya.  Because as uncomfortable as she was with what I was asking, I couldn't let her continue to move in her on-the-forehand, unbalanced way.  At some point, her compensations will create physical issues, and I don't want that life for her.

I spent the month after the lesson debating how to move forward.  The first thing I did was give her a week off so I could start treating the infection in her heels.  The second week I put Gemma back on her for walking only on grass footing.  She seemed fine.  No crow-hopping or bucking for Gemma.  But Gemma wasn't asking her to improve her balance.  The third week Gemma started doing walking and a little trotting in the arena, and Freya looked good in the sense that she didn't seem tender-footed on the sand.  And the fourth week, I got back on. 

Our first ride was a struggle.  It took me about 12 tries to get on Freya at the mounting block.  I'm sure she remembered our last ride as not that much fun for her, and it had been almost a month since I'd ridden her by then.  I managed to keep my frustration contained and eventually got on.  Then Freya did what she typically does when she is anxious - she walks with quick, short strides.  (In terms of expressing anxiety, it's a very safe thing to do, as long as her rider isn't an idiot.)

So we walked, and we walked, and we walked.  We did circles and serpentines and random patterns around the arena.  I asked for Freya to yield at least a little through her poll (and softened my hands to let her know that was what I wanted), but other than that, I wasn't fussing too much at her.  We had some good moments, but it was clear that she was worried about what I was going to ask her to do.  So we kept walking until her walk slowed and was a more tempered pace, and I felt her starting to let go of her worry.  

Then I got off.  And she fussed a lot about wanting to go to the gate.  (And by fussing, I mean she kind of tossed her head around and walked fast.)  So we hung out in the middle of the arena while other riders rode around us.  I stood in the same place and Freya tried everything her well-behaved self could think of to convince me to go to the gate.  She pushed my shoulder with her nose.  She pawed.  She stomped.  She circled around me.  She gave me "The Look."  And finally, when I didn't move, she stood still and waited.

And then we headed toward the gate.  And she fussed at me again.  The same stuff.  Pacing. Circling, Head tossing.  She even tried to bite the gate.  Each time, I would walk her away from the gate, do a circle or some backing, and then come back.  Over and over, until she was quiet at the gate.

And then we headed to the barn.  Where she fussed in the cross ties.  (Normally she is quite good and stands quietly, but she had worked herself up.)  So I waited her out there too before finally leading her back to her field.

I was curious about how she would act the next day when Gemma rode her.  But she was her normal, well-behaved self.  

So I got on again the following day.  This time, I was able to get yielding through her poll a lot faster.  Again, I focused on the walk and doing patterns.  Toward the end, I asked for trot with balance.  I could feel her back come up.  That was her first-stage warning to me.  I devoted probably about 5-7 minutes to working with her in that zone.  That zone being the place where I was starting to push her out of her comfort zone and she was telling me she wasn't comfortable.  But I tried to stay under her threshold of actually crow-hopping, which was the second-stage warning.  I was mostly successful, and I managed to get about 2 strides of balanced trot in each direction before I could tell she was going to lose it.  I walked her out and then called it a day.  We probably rode about 25 minutes total.

Then Gemma rode again.  I wasn't seeing any changes one way or the other with them, and I decided to let that go for now.

For my third ride with Freya, I basically repeated the process that I had during the second ride, but I tried to get just a little more balanced trot - maybe a half of a 20-meter circle.  Again, she was worried about it, but I was able to keep her under her crow-hopping threshold.  I thought of it like I was chipping away tiny bits of the protections she had erected to keep herself moving in an unbalanced way.  She is just too sensitive and I don't have the history with her for her to trust me when I ask for uncomfortable things for me to approach it any other way.

For the fourth ride, which was just a day after the third, I was able to easily get on at the mounting block.  She stood perfectly still.  Then we headed out to a field next to the arena that is on a gentle slope.  It's a great field for easy conditioning that I used to use with Nimo when I couldn't get out on the trails.  Freya has been ridden in it several times by Gemma and maybe once or twice by me in the past.  But I thought of it like it was our first time because I really felt like the three rides so close together had started to give us a framework of working together.

My only focus for this ride in the field was for her to walk in a medium pace with some level of yielding through her poll.  Not her fast, anxious walk, and not a slow walk where I wondered if we would ever get from point A to point B.  A walk that would be great out on the trails, in other words.  She started at the walk I wanted because she didn't have the anxiety she had had a week before.  And she maintained it for the entire 20 minutes that I rode with only two exceptions, where she started to walk a bit faster (probably hoping to head back to the barn and be done with her bizarre rider).  Both times, I simply turned her into a small circle and she immediately slowed.

It was my first ride with her where I really felt like we were starting to communicate.  She was super responsive.  Which she normally is anyway, but in a calmer way.  I'm not quite sure how to explain it, but when she is anxious, she still responds to all aids.  If you ask her to trot, she does it immediately.  Canter, the same thing.  Turns, circles, halts, everything.  But she does it with an air of trying to provide the response quickly so she doesn't get punished.  (I don't have any reason to think that anyone in her past rode her in an abusive way, but given her sensitivity, I think even a single ride with a rider who lacked finesse would be damaging, and that could have easily happened during the time she was with the horse trader before we got her at the auction.)

In addition to my goal for Freya, I had one for myself:  to immediately respond with softened hands the instant she gave me what I was looking for and to maintain that softness as long as she held her balance.  Yeah, so I need to do that every ride.  It didn't take Freya long at all to start moving the way I wanted her to for probably 75% of the ride.

So my path forward is pretty clear, I think.  Ride Freya 3-4 times a week for the next month with a focus on softening my hands in response to Freya's attempts at correct yielding and balance.  I also want to keep her working under her threshold of reactivity while still chipping away at her protections.  

But I also need a path for Gemma if the two of them are ever going to move beyond the simple work they are doing now.  Gemma has already demonstrated an ability to be a sensitive rider, but she needs guidance on how to be sensitive with Freya, particularly given that Freya will happily launch her rider into the heavens if said rider is not listening.  If nothing else, it is a safety issue.

My instructor comes out once a month to work with me and Gemma and Star and Freya.  (Gemma typically rides once a week with the instructor based at the barn, but the focus in those lessons tends to be on getting around the arena, hunter showing techniques, completing a dressage pattern, and basic position rather than the more advanced techniques that I think Gemma needs to learn to improve her horsemanship skills.)  So when she came out this past weekend, I told her that I felt like Freya and I needed another month to work on our relationship before we had another lesson.  But I thought Gemma and Freya were ready to move forward.

So my instructor first worked with Gemma and Freya on lunging.  It's clear Freya has extensive practice on lunging and she is delightful to work with.  She is a perfect fit for Gemma, who has never lunged a horse before.  I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly Gemma picked up on the basic techniques.  You can see a video below.  You may need to switch to desktop view if you are on your phone to see the video.


Then Gemma got on.  And guess what they worked on?  Softening hands when Freya gets it right.  (I hadn't said anything to my instructor regarding Gemma's hands.  It's just how she teaches.)  Much like me, Gemma didn't understand what softening her hands meant at first, and she would move her hands forward each time my instructor told her to soften her hands.  Unlike my old instructor, though, after a few iterations, my current instructor said, "You don't know what softening your hands means, do you?"  And she spent some quality time working through how to do it.  She held one end of the reins and Gemma held the other and they each pretended to be the horse or the rider while practicing different degrees of tension and softening.

Then, they went back to work.  You can see a short video of their work below:

I will note that Gemma has been taking lessons with three different instructors during the last three years.  Not a single one of them has taken the time to make sure Gemma understands this concept and practices it.  It is a travesty.  It is why I have started including Gemma in the lessons with my instructor now that she has Freya and Star to ride.  There are a mind-boggling number of things that a person needs to learn to ride well, and learning basic rein and leg aids and position are among them.  But I don't think it matters if you ride with perfect position if you can't find a way to signal your horse that she has responded correctly to your question.

We spend too much time here in the U.S. (at least in my area) working on position and drilling jumping or dressage movements and not enough time learning how to actually communicate with a horse.  If I never have to watch one more beginner lesson where the kid is told to kick harder anytime the horse won't move faster, it will be too soon.  (Especially when I know the horse is perfectly capable of trotting in response to almost a thought.)

I don't know what kind of training Freya or Star has had, in terms of how communication was approached.  I know both of them have show experience over fences, but beyond that, I can only guess.  But I can say that regardless of what it was (and it was probably quite different for each of them), neither one of them has any trouble understanding when I use my seat and legs to ask for a 10-meter circle or a shoulder-in or a half pass.  I don't need to spread my hands apart or use a leading rein or even use a whip or a spur or drill over and over or go through some complicated training process.  They can't do it perfectly in balance, but they have no trouble executing the maneuver at the level of their fitness.  I am not a particularly gifted rider nor have I been riding either of them that long, but they still understand what I'm asking because I use techniques that are likely to make sense to the majority of horses, regardless of whether they have been previously schooled on that movement.  So what that means to me is that if riders were always taught to be sensitive to the horse and aware of their movements, most horse/rider partners could probably do a whole lot more than they currently do.

I can't break this cycle for everyone, but I do hope I can break it for my daughter.  Learning to soften her hands is the first step in what I hope will be an incredible relationship with Freya.  Because Freya is quickly showing how very special she is.  And I am positive that if Gemma can learn to communicate with her in a sensitive and mindful way, there is nothing that mare won't do for her.

Have you learned a technique that you think forms part of the foundation you use to communicate with your horse?  I'd love to hear about it!