Back Field

I wonder if there’s a way to get WordPress to just put “Wow, oops! It’s been a while since I posted!” at the top of every new post I write…

Yesterday afternoon Poe and I ventured to the back field for the first time this year. It’s open for walking and trotting along the tops of the hills, with cantering and jumping tentatively back on the menu today. Considering how much damn snow we got in the last few months (including all that stuff not even a week ago), I’m surprised how dry the footing is already. Anyway, we did a lot of walking, and only had one incident with a horse-hungry phantom in the bank complex. One minute Poe was motoring along, nice and relaxed, and the next he’d spun around and darted back the other direction. He gave it up after a couple strides though, and was pretty easily convinced to walk past the lurking scariness.

I think it’s the first time since fall that I’ve put his three-ring elevator bit back in. It’s a Happy Mouth double-joined pessoa mouthpiece, and it’s gotten a bit raggedy and chewed looking, so I stopped by the tack shop yesterday and ordered another. Now I kind of wish I’d waited, as he spent most of the ride chomping at it and curling up to duck behind it, so I’m not sure it’s our best cross-country bet any more. That said, when I finally asked him to trot he was glorious. He stretched through his back and took this lovely buttery contact and powered along. We had one firm discussion about who was in charge of setting the pace, and after that he half-halted really quite nicely, all things considered, and was just a complete joy. THAT is my trot right there. All morning I’ve been calling up the swingy happy powerful feeling of it as balm against the office grind.

Upcoming plans: I’m out of the country May 10-26. Poe is supposed to go to my trainer for a couple weeks, but I haven’t been able to iron out the exact schedule with her yet, so I’m trying to temper my hopes.


So, once again, bad blogger. A lot’s happened since my last update…

First, I rode in a clinic with David DeWispelaere in April. I really enjoyed it, and intended for a long time to write about it — but less than a week after the clinic, Poe came out of the pasture lame. NOT HAPPY. I’d taken him out back for walking and trotting hill work on Tuesday and had a really nice jumping lesson on Wednesday. He felt a bit sluggish by the end of the lesson, so he got Thursday off. Then Friday, lame. LAME. I called my friend Lennie, who happens to be one of the most knowledgeable horsepeople I know, and she graciously came out to the barn to watch him jog. It was definitely left hind (my eye for lameness is terrible, but this was pronounced enough even I could see it). He didn’t seem to want to place the foot, so Lennie felt it was an abscess brewing, and best thing for it would be chuck him back out in the field and wait.

The next Wednesday he was still about the same, maybe a touch better than that first day. The vet was coming out to float his teeth anyhow, so I called ahead to ask that he watch Poe jog, throw the hoof testers on him, etc before doing his teeth. The vet kindly squeezed it in. He saw the same left hind lameness, but couldn’t find any reactivity with the hoof testers, no heat, no swelling, no difference in pulse between the legs. He didn’t have time for further diagnostics and couldn’t tell anything based on what he’d seen. So I set up an appointment the following Monday (soonest I could get someone), and put him on a couple days of bute.

Monday the second vet watched him jog on and off the lunge, did the hoof testers, and did some flexions. Poe was a total brat about flexing his left stifle. He wasn’t fantastic about his right either, but worse for the left. No real heat or swelling, and no difference in the jog before and after the flexion, but he also wasn’t able to hold it all that long. Inconclusive. We were set to do nerve blocks next, but Poe was a bit fried and refused to have the twitch put on, and reacted rather violently to the vet’s attempt to get the needle in without the twitch, so we scrapped that. He is usually an easy horse to handle so the whole exam was a bit disheartening. Much moreso because we were no closer to an answer than we’d been last week. The vet advised I give it another couple of days, and set another appointment if there was no change, possibly bring him in for x-rays.

By Wednesday there was no difference. I don’t have a truck and trailer, so hauling him up to the clinic was not a great option. A third vet was able to schedule to see him on Saturday. He’s the one who usually handles emergencies so they don’t schedule him, but I was very flexible about when I could see him so he worked me in. He repeated everything we’d done Monday, with a bit better success on the flexions, since Poe was feeling more cooperative. Same result: he flexed fine. Back in the barn the vet pulled out the hoof testers — and voila! Tenderness in the left hind. It was the first time Poe had reacted to them, but there was a definite, repeatable reaction. Probably a stone bruise. And a huge, huge relief. The vet had also brought out the thermography camera, so he had a look at both of Poe’s back legs with that. Really cool little device — and also a relief to see no difference in heat between the legs. The vet felt there was a small amount of swelling in the left stifle, but nothing super alarming.

He prescribed a 3-week course of bute (2gm twice a day for three doses, then 2gm once a day for 10 days, then 1gm once a day for 10 days), and said I should ride him. Nothing super strenuous, stick to large figures, no jumping — but he felt the bute would address any inflammation, and that moving would help him strengthen/loosen whatever he’d tweaked, and things would either improve and be fine or get worse so we might have a clue what else was going on. We discussed other options too — injecting the stifle, taking him in for x-rays — but we both felt this was the best next step. So, after over 2 weeks out of the saddle, I got to climb on the pony-face again! It was a fantastic feeling just to walk and trot him around the arena.

That was mid-May. I honestly feel like we’ve still been getting back into work since then, which is kind of pathetic since it’s been 2 months and he wasn’t out of work that long. I feel like he’s had good days and bad days, though. He’s consistently more comfortable on the footing in the indoor, but sometimes he feels pretty great in the outdoor too. We went back to jumping a month ago. We haven’t done a lot, but he is SO so excited and happy every time we do.

I’m still freaked out that my horse is secretly broken, though. Every tiny bobble and misstep scares me. I’m terrified I’m doing wrong by him somehow, that I will ruin him. So, I’m trying to take things in baby steps. Baby baby steps. I’ve launched Operation: Super-Stifle! and am walking him up and down the hills out back at least once a week. It’s something we can do even in this insane heatwave. (A couple weeks ago we had a heat advisory all week, with temps around 100 and insane humidity — so that was a week of a lot of baths and zero riding, which hasn’t helped the feeling that we’re woefully unprepared for anything right now.) This Sunday we’re going cross-country schooling at Steepleview. I’m prepared to quit the minute he starts feeling tired. I’m also using it to gauge whether or not to sign up for their recognized show over Labor Day weekend. Some moments I feel like it would be the most fun thing ever and we just have to go do it — and other moments I remember how showing leaves me wanting to vomit the entire week beforehand, and pretty much every moment during it that we aren’t running cross-country. Still, if I never show the nerves will never get better.

To that end I did a little ride-a-test schooling thing a few weeks ago at my barn. You could pick any test, ride it once for the judge, get feedback and a mini-lesson about how to improve that test immediately, then ride it again. I had the best score ever, and while I was tense I did not entirely lose my mind when we hit the ring, so it was an improvement. It helps that the judge was Jodi, who I used to train with. And she had some awesome advice for us, and some really concrete specific thing we should be working on. Namely: shoulder-fore at the canter, especially on the right lead. Do not let him trick me into hold his head up with the inside rein to that direction. Use the long walls instead of circles until he’s more balanced. We have not been doing this enough — I know it will help us enormously, and need to start busting it out now that the weather’s broken.

Okay, this was a really rambling catch-all, but I think I hit all the highlights of the last couple months. Oh! Except the saddle! I bought a dressage saddle. Update for another time.

Poe walk, July 2012

Clinic: David DeWispelaere

I intended to do a blog post about this clinic right after I rode in it – but time got away, and away, and away. Here, instead, is an article I wrote about it for the latest edition of Cross Country Magazine.

David DeWispelaere is a Grand Prix rider and trainer known for his use of classical dressage methods, emphasizing lightness and harmony in the communication between a horse and rider. He regularly conducts clinics throughout the United States and Europe. This April, he spent three days teaching at several farms in the west metro.

I rode my 6-year-old gelding Poe in one of David’s sessions, and audited several others. What stuck with me the most about David’s approach was his softness, patience, and calm attention to each horse’s emotional state. Before my ride, I caught part of a session with a young, sensitive mare. David had her rider go with a longer rein on a 20-meter circle, encouraging the mare to find her own balance while soothing her nerves with this simple exercise. In very little time the mare relaxed and stretched down, going in an even rhythm. Once she was calm, David had her rider “try to get a little closer to her” by shortening the reins slightly. The mare stayed even, round, and comfortable, and the pair were able to go on to cantering around in the same calm attitude – a nice accomplishment given the mare’s history and greenness.

I’m an adult amateur event rider with a young horse whose attention span and interest in dressage is still a work in progress. I’m currently trying to teach him to carry himself like a horse instead of a giraffe, so my work with David was largely focused on encouraging Poe to relax and seek contact.

David began our lesson by asking about our background, then had us show him how we typically warm up. Once we were ready, he put us on a 20-meter circle with a long rein, then asked that we gradually spiral in to a smaller circle, always encouraging Poe to stretch into a long contact. David emphasized that when the horse is going well, we should leave them alone: “That’s when he should go the best – when you do nothing, when you leave him alone when he finds the right way.”

I was impressed by David’s use of simple instructions and movements to educate both the horse and the rider. On the smaller circle, he asked me to reach forward to touch Poe’s neck with my inside hand. It revealed instantly when my outside aids were effective and when they weren’t. Without a good connection in the outside rein and Poe’s respect and understanding of my outside leg, giving away the inside rein would make the circle bigger. This is a concept I’ve read and heard a thousand times – a simple, classic exercise – but something in the way David showed me created a lightbulb moment. His awareness of how this exercise guided my horse’s attention and attitude was key – it taught me something new about the purpose of the pattern, rather than just its mechanics.

Throughout the lesson we used simple tools – enlarging and decreasing the circle, serpentines – to try to show Poe that he’s responsible for his own balance. (I love my horse’s big head, but I am NOT interested in holding it up for him!) “If he loses his way,” David said, “show him the right way again. Then give him more freedom. We want him to go round because he reaches for the contact, not because you have to hold him there. It should feel natural for him to go round.” It’s been hard to kick the instinct to try to “help” my horse by shortening the reins and asking more loudly, but ultimately it should make him into a more thinking, willing partner.

Probably my greatest take-away from this clinic is the value of patience. Though there were plenty of appearances of Poe’s giraffe impression, when I continued to ride the patterns calmly, patiently, and correctly, he eventually figured out that it’s easier and more comfortable to stretch down. He started to take more responsibility for his own way of going, and tune into what I was asking him. David and I also discussed other tools for getting Poe’s attention, including changes of gait, backing, and in-hand work.

I enjoyed David’s soft, thoughtful approach to each horse he worked with, and his emphasis on trust and communication. For more information on David, visit

David DeWispelaere

Saddle Shopping: Albion SLK

I had a bit of a day at work yesterday, and spent much of the afternoon daydreaming about taking Poe out back, growing a pair, and letting him MOVE. It’s been a bit chilly and windy and he is a bit cooped up, but — what’s the worst that could happen? I let him run a bit and — what? He’ll never, ever, ever stop? He’s definitely not fit enough for that. So I figured I’d put my stirrups up and let us both have a bit of a workout.

When I got to the barn, the instructor who helped me with my bajillion trial saddles on Monday was there. She said Here, I have another one for you to try. She brought two out from a client’s locker. She set the first one on him and we both said HMM. It looked somewhat promising. Not fantastic, and it swam around a little bit, but Hmmmm. She set the next on him — an Albion SLK — and we both said OOOH. It looked really pretty darn good. It has a pretty high cut-back pommel designed for horses with shark-finned withers, which he doesn’t have, but that shouldn’t really matter. We chatted for a while about Albions, how people seem to love them or hate them. Then she left me to ride in it.

So I scrapped my back field plans and took him to the outdoor dressage arena. I swung my leg over and sat in that Albion SLK, and said HMM. And then I asked him to walk, and said OOOH. Wow. My leg just sat nice and sweet as, no knee poking into the thigh block or tree biting at my butt. Maybe this is what everyone keeps talking about, how when you sit in a right one you’ll know. So we went to work.

His Poeness has never seemed to care much about the wind whipping around (though it sure distracts me), but he is a sight-seer — and he always feels stiffer and shorter in that arena to me versus our indoor. I think he just doesn’t like the footing as much? So I struggled for a while to get him to listen to me and soften and stop staring over there and bulging that way and giraffing around please! We had some really nice moments, and worked on some leg yields, and tried to straighten up that right lead canter — and then he just started getting strong and barging around and I took him inside to see if we could get some better quality work. He was still a bit of a pill at times, and running through all my halts and half-halts (ugh, PONY), but we did get some nice work. It’s so impossible to say if he started out choppy and behind the leg because of the saddle, or the footing in the outdoor, or my lack of spurs (I wear them for flatwork but not jumping or galloping), or the day, or..? For the most part I just rode and did not think about the saddle (except to be glad that I didn’t hit that high pommel while posting, or notice that I wasn’t swimming around in it or fighting against it).

Right now it’s tied for #1. I felt like I stuck the canter better in the County, but it’s a poorer fit on him. I’m hoping I can beg another ride or five in the Albion. The instructor said her client doesn’t use it any more, so she’s pretty sure it’s for sale. (Though I did a quick search for them this morning, and am a little disheartened by the prices I’ve found… Though most of what I’ve seen have been Albion SLK something-elses [Ultimas or Brentinas or etc] and I’m pretty sure this one was marked just SLK, so maybe it’s a different model?) Please cross some fingers for me.

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