Monday, March 17, 2014

A Cast of Characters

Last week was a pretty special week. The beautiful weather we had here in South Carolina was positively exhilarating. Ideas were flying between Kim and myself as the gears of the brain started slowly grinding away. The end of winter is just visible and it was a good time to just have some fun!

For me, that means being at the barn and riding! I know my last blog post indicated that my focus might be shifting away from riding into a more studious mind set but sometimes the days open up and I just can't be still. I rode every day. Most days found me working with multiple horses. In between rides I was raking, dusting, sweeping and chatting with Kim. (There was some teaching going on too but let's not worry about that).

I'd like to introduce you to the cast of characters that overwhelmed my week:

I was able to start working with the gorgeous Canadian named Odin this week, joining into some training work that has already been going on with him. (Mentioned in my last blog post) I'm starting out, of course, with groundwork. I have spent my time with Odin leading, lunging and grooming... really just trying to get to know him. Other than being super smart, he is not a lot like Matilda. There is very little stillness in him and he spent a lot of time trying to bite me. I am not using the clicker with this one, though it is not out of the question. Right now I am just trying to get a handle on the personality and not mess him up too much. :/ 

It's exciting to start work with a different horse. I've already reminded myself that this is a new journey and, as with Matilda, I will make mistakes in how I read and handle him. All I can do is my best and take it one step at a time.  So much is possible but I have to work small and smart, looking to achieve small goals. 

I believe Odin will be a challenge to my creativity. He seems to get easily bored and I have to find ways to make myself and our work interesting in order to keep his attention. Not so easy for a natural born wall flower...

Odin is also one of Matilda's paddock mates. They seem quite close. Hopefully she won't tell him all of my secrets.

 Enter Penny, the retired Amish cart horse, a new love in my life.

Penny came to us a short time ago and has already made a huge impact. She is a real big mover and unstoppable. I got to ride her 4 times this week. She has an incredible amount of action in her body and will force you to loosen up your hips and your back. It is just too hard not to follow her motion. In a short time, she has made me learn to soften my posting, lighten my seat, fully release my half halts and not ride with all my weight in my left foot and hip. 

I would think, being a cart horse, she has spent a lot of time with blinders on and in her new life she loves to look! She is a true sweetheart with a gentle face. We are still opening up her personality. I have a feeling she is going to be changing a lot as she tests her boundaries and experiences the new found freedoms in her world.

In the meantime, Kim is working to get her comfortable with cantering and jumping in order to expand her new role as a lesson horse. There is a lot to come for this girl. I thoroughly enjoy her. She makes me feel giggly and school girlish. I can't help but wear a big grin when I am on her back.

This is Julian. A poor picture of Julian, sorry. Julian has been a part of Bramblewood for years now but it was last year that he blossomed as a school horse. He proved to be a phenomenal teacher until he had an injury that took him out of the game. He was put on stall rest during which he temporarily and understandably lost his mind. About a month ago, he seemed ready to get back into things. He is now being worked back into the lesson program with riders who are able to do rehab work with him: walk/trot, lots of transitions and some poles.

Kim let me get on him Friday. It was only my second time to ever get on him.  He's a little lazy and very wiggly but once he settles into the idea of forward motion, he is a super cool horse to work on. I hope to be able to ride him now and again to help with his rehab work.

And lest you think I forgot:

My sweet Matilda. She and I had an amazing week. We have achieved a level of cooperation and beauty of work between the two of us that has been unmatched thus far. Everything about our work together is going so well. She is really soft and responsive these days. We are working on building leg yields, turn on the haunch, over poles and of course the canter.

This week's focus tended toward finding some reliable, balanced canter departures. In our work over the last year, we have found one here and there, usually having two to three months in between a single success.On Thursday, we got many attempts at canter transitions with a couple of clean transitions in the mix. The very next day we had two successful canter transitions back to back. I was so excited and proud. We may get nothing like it next week but are definitely moving forward.


There are moments during the week when a horse walks past and I watch the muscular legs step into a stall. I feel like I am watching a movie. It is hard to believe that this is my life, working with and around these magnificent creatures. This is a gift for which I am incredibly grateful.

On Friday, I rode 3 horses, worked with a total of 5 by the end of the day. I still get surprised when horses do what I ask. The job of learning and building skill will never end and these characters are the best of teachers.

While I love and appreciate them all, there is only one that remains my partner. (Did anyone notice my change in  pronouns? I only realized it when I read back over the horse's descriptions.)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The New Normal

Sitting here, watching the snow fall, it seemed like a good time to revamp the blog. I have several partially finished posts that I stopped writing because I reminded myself that this is supposed to be about Matilda's journey. It's just not anymore. This is about my journey now, though Matilda is and always will be a part of that.

It's snowing here in Southtown. They are calling for up to 6" of snow and ice. What?!? Between holidays, college classes taught at the barn, temperatures in the teens, ice and now snow, there has been little time for riding. I sometimes feel like I spend more time rescheduling my students than I do teaching them and I wonder "when are things going to get back to normal?"

To me, normal is having a set schedule: Ride 2 horses 3 days a week (possible bonus ride on Wednesday). Teach from 3-7, do a few closing chores (possible bonus catching up with Kim and Rachel), get home around 8:30-9:00. Teach 9-5 Saturday, Sunday and Monday off....

Then I wonder if I will recognize normal when it comes this time. It may not look the same as it did last spring. On the radar for 2014 are an increased student base, online class that I have one year to finish (already 2 months behind), building a huge course curriculum with Kim (requiring some serious research and writing time) and the opportunity to work with Kim and one of the barn's top riders on another horse that is ready to be.... ummm.... 'polished'. My house is for sale and I still have a husband and 2 dogs. Both sides of my family would like to have a reunion this spring/summer and all of my childhood friends and I are turning 40.

I may not be able to have a set schedule in the coming months.The 'new normal' may involve daily change. I may not be able to schedule an hour to study on a morning (or 3 hours to ride, for that matter) but will need to be ready to read when the moment comes to me. I may have to be ready to change my plans all the time. The new normal might include simply being flexible each moment of each day. There are things that need to be accomplished now and while riding is always on the list, I have to learn to balance it with other things in a way that wasn't required last year.

This year has huge potential and I am excited to see what it brings. With all the work to do, I don't have to wait for the snow to stop or the sun to shine. I can keep moving forward no matter whether in front of the computer or in the saddle.

People talk about horses living in the present, that they don't anticipate the future the way we do... that's hard to believe a half hour before feeding time. They certainly seem to anticipate food. In any event, I guess that is what I have to do. Live in the moment. Be ready to study or read or write in a 5 minute window if it offers itself. I'm learning to be ok with that.

Yes, a good day to overhaul the blog. This is the girl that Matilda built... is continuing to build. Cool.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Fighting for Balance

Riding has become a compulsion. I feel positively driven to ride any day that I can possibly fit in the tiniest of rides, always Tuesday through Friday. Unusually busy days like today are a struggle. I started fighting with myself yesterday: "but if I leave the house no later than 8, I can fit something in before I start teaching." or "Maybe I can stay and ride after my last lesson... I won't get home too much later than usual."

The problem is that I am tired. I am not reading, writing or taking the time to study riding theory (which I love) or study my Bible (which I also love). My babies aren't getting the extra walks I promised them... Not too mention my husband who thinks I would rather be at the barn than at home.

I love riding. Every second I spend leading the horse into and out of the ring, on a horses back, or grooming is a treasure and a blessing. Even when I am struggling with a problem, Matilda is resisting or she and I are fighting, there is happiness to be found in the saddle.

But I have to find ways to give time to the other joys in my life. Balance is so much a part of horses and it can't be just balance of body. It has to be balance in body, breath, thought and life.

It grates me a little but I will not ride today. I will enjoy my first day in my fleece lined cargo pants (since I won't be wearing riding pants). I will spend a little extra time petting the dogs and have that second cup of coffee. I will leave the barn early today, if possible.

And as I sit back, take a breath and sip my coffee, the thought crosses my mind: if you break your leg this weekend, you will regret this....


Thursday, October 17, 2013

Down the Rabbit Hole

(I need to rename this blog "Matilda's Project" and change some things. It's time to commit to letting this be about more than training Matilda and we are so far past the whole clicker training thing....)

About 13 years ago, I was working in an office in Washington, DC and living at home with my folks, saving money. I decided I had to do something different and after contemplating many options (including a simple vacation and taking classes for Microsoft certification) I decided to go back to school to get a music teaching degree at Converse College.

I was taking voice lessons at the time from an amazing teacher, Mrs. Eddy-Hurley. She was amazing to me not because of her teaching ability, though she is an excellent teacher, but because of her intuitive empathy. My arthritis was in it's 'glory' at the time and she could tell by the look on my face and how I walked into her studio how I was feeling. She would instinctively know that I was not up to standing next to the piano and pull out a chair that I could perch on for work or that I was so uncomfortable and sore we had to chuck the lesson and do body work, stretching and breathing on the floor. I would always leave her studio a little less locked up than when I walked into it.

She inspired me. I wanted to go back to school to be a teacher like her. Sharing a joy with people of all ages and from any walk of life but in such a way that was not limited by an expectation that we would simply work at singing everyday.

I was quickly side tracked at Converse. I made choices, some good~some bad (don't worry Ron, I think of you as one of the good ones:), that took me on a different path. It wasn't long before I was back in an office.

Ron and I caught some real breaks that allowed us to make some different choices in our lives. One was that Ron wanted me to realize a childhood dream of riding horses. I remember him talking about finding a place out in Taylors, he had talked to one of the owners on the phone and wanted to take a look. I remember driving out from Spartanburg that first time, thinking that it was too long a drive and there was no way this was actually happening; no way we would keep this up. Silliness.

Then I found myself riding. And I found Mrs. Eddy-Hurley again, this time in Kim. She seemed to know when my knees hurt too much or when I was too frightened to be pushed (more on fear later) but I rarely had to tell her. She knew (and still knows) when to chuck the lesson plan and just talk. Then she invited me deeper into her world.

Now I find, unexpectedly, that I have ended up on the path that was started 13 years ago. I am in a place where I can be the teacher I dreamed of being: 'Sharing a joy with people of all ages and from any walk of life but in such a way that was not limited by an expectation that we would simply work at singing (now riding) everyday.'. I just saw all this for the first time yesterday. Amazing.

It is never, ever too late folks. If God calls you to something, He calls you. It may not look like what you thought and the path may have many side trips but keep yourself open and all of a sudden you find yourself There. Too cool.

Thank you Kim, for inviting me into your Wonderland.

In October 2007 (I think), Ron and I walked down the gravel driveway of Bramblewood Stables for the first time:
Cathy, the first horse I rode at Bramblewood

Ron and Iggy

Bella, the only horse I ever owned, with Matilda, the horse that taught me you do not own horses. Horses own you. Then you spend your life making yourself worthy of their trust.

One of my first times on M. 2009?
Telling moment: Penny saw the barn before our house

Then all the rest:


For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
~Jeremiah 29:11 (RSV)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013


Today, I mounted Matilda from the ground. I honestly didn't think my leg was strong enough. Kim did. She made me try. I'm still a bit incredulous.

Then we found those canter steps that we've been looking for the past few weeks. On a circle. From a halt/walk. With only a 2-3 trot steps in between....

Ummmm.... that's all.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Trail Prep and Hill Work

I'm sorry all my pictures look basically the same but this is what I see, so you might as well see things from my perspective:)

I started putting this together yesterday. This morning I thought about this and the last two years as I read:

At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it. ~ Hebrews 12:11

First we pause to take it all in...
while Matilda snacks on the hill:)
We walk down the hill,
And trot up!
Heading into the paddocks
One of my favorite spots. You can see the mountains.
Once the leaves are down we'll be able to see most of Bramblewood from here.
Down to the trailhead
Then some well deserved relaxation!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Summer Riding

As the summer comes to a close it is a god time to look back and share what's been going on with Matilda and me over the course of the summer. Two ideas really dictated my approach, both from conversations with Kim towards the end of Spring:

1) Why does summer (bringing with it heat, summer camps and more ring traffic throughout the day) have to mean that I ride less? Just ride.

2) For the horse's sake, be the rider that you want your students and/or clients to become some day. Ride for others.

So that is what I did (or attempted to do). I rode. I got to the barn early to ride, before summer camps started, or during the heat of the day, the only time the ring was relatively clear. I rode in the rain. Some days I only had 15 minutes and so would do a 5 minute groom and sit on a pony for 10 minutes, trying to teach it to stand still. I made my best attempt to keep riding no matter what and ended up riding 2-4 times a week most of the summer.

I kept up my lessons with Kim for all but 2 weeks which helped to keep me on task. Words cannot express the joys of being in lessons, continuing to learn, grow and develop.

Matilda and I worked following my new philosophy of riding "small and smart": riding for others. The barn needs solid horse teachers for our students that we can trust with walk/trot work first. We spent our summer, not looking for great leaps of progress but keeping the focus on balance, engaging her hind quarters and building strength and muscle memory. All the while I was watching her, looking for patterns of bursts of energy or unwillingness to work. More and more I feel like our theory is correct: that most of Matilda's inconsistencies (resulting in head tosses, kicking up her heels or bolts) are due to lack of balance in her body and/or mine. With that in mind, we worked transitions and circles adding in poles here and there. We kept everything at the walk and trot as we built in a true emergency brake by doing halt transitions ad nauseum.
The Pony and Me

(As a short side note, I was also given the opportunity to join a team or riders that have been working with a pony  belonging to one of our boarders. He has been a blast to ride and work with throughout the summer. I hope I have helped the pony's owner by doing a little bit of ground work with him and helping burn some energy off during the week. He has been another good teacher for me and shown me some imbalances and oddities in how I am carrying myself that I have been able to take back to my work with Matilda.)

Our work appears to be paying off. We made it through the summer without another bolt or anything like it (even with the incredibly crazy rainy, cool summer we had here). Head tosses are incredibly rare. Kim, Matilda and I have begun venturing out to find her canter transition again while maintaining our focus on balance and consistency at the walk and trot. She is lighter and stronger these days. Her straight lines are straighter and her bend is soft. Her head is coming higher as she learns to engage her hind end more and more (though she would always prefer to stretch her head low). Her halt transitions are pretty gorgeous.

A common summer sight: Matilda waits for some banana
I received the best compliment ever, recently, when I heard someone talking about Matilda moving on her tippy toes. She is so much lighter you don't necessarily hear the thud of a draft horse clunking around the ring. Sometimes you even have to look to find her because of her light steps.

We have also begun re-introducing her to some of the students who were riding her before we took her out of the program in February/March. They seem to feel a difference as well, commenting on her softness and ease of movement.

Needless to say all of this makes me very happy. We have worked hard. I continue to ride even as others are using her more. In the past, I backed off riding her as her lesson schedule picked up and I think it was a mistake. Continuing to reenforce her basics for her sake is important so that other riders can focus on their own work without having to worry about her so much. (Does that sentence make any sense?!?)

Is there anything better than a freshly drug arena?
In my lesson, we are taking tiny steps forward by adding crossrails and, as I said, looking for her canter out of a walk transition. This requires good balance from her and it is a bit of a struggle for me. I have confidence that we will find it and it will be better than ever. More relaxed, lighter... less like I am being drug around the ring.... rather carried. I'm looking forward to continuing on!

I should add that it hasn't been all work. I have been able to practice my jousting skills, using my crop to battle unwary low hanging branches along the side of the ring. We have chased cats, scared people by sneaking up behind them, hurried into the freshly drug arena to make sure Matilda's footprints were the first, shared watermelon and bananas.... 

We are also starting to think about getting back on the trails. It's been a long time since either Matilda or I have been out on the trails. We are preparing by taking walks through paddocks, Kim's front yard, up and down the driveway and down to the trailhead and back. We are waiting for tick season to firmly come to an end before even thinking about really venturing out. It should be an exciting fall!