Dancing with Pony

About a month ago, Mimi had a change in her living situation at the barn.

Previously, she’d been in the multi-stall mare motel (Same as at every other boarding place we’ve been), and she was “typical” Mimi: kicking the stall during feeding time, any time she was hungry, or if her neighbor was “too close”; stealing her neighbor’s hay; grumpy mare faces at other horses; crunchy/puffy hind legs (from the constant kicking).

Honestly, it’s something close to a miracle that she’s even remotely sound at this point, since this has been the norm since pretty much forever, especially the stall kicking.

Apparently it had gotten pretty bad: kicking at 3AM so that the barn owner could hear it even in her house (albeit with the windows open, and sheet metal siding on the back side of the stall, which reverberates nicely…), and even the neighbors were starting to say something. (Really?!? You run a cattle operation, which involves almost constant fence banging, clanging and clattering, and relentless mooing and bellowing of bulls. No place to say anything about noise.)

The departure of a couple of horses at the barn opened up a couple of stalls, and barn owner was able to convert a three-stall shedrow that was separate from the main barn into one large standalone stall + mini turnout paddock…all for Princess Mimi.


Pony’s new digs

She’s got about a 16×32 stall that opens up into a mini paddock space…coupled with her “big pasture” turnout with the rest of the herd for the standard 12+ hours a day.

It’s really an ideal set-up for her — there’s about a 15′ aisle between her “suite” and the main barn, so she’s got other horses close…but not too close. She also gets fed first, and turned out first, and her general response to the whole thing seems to be “Finally, I am being recognized for the Princess that I am.”

The change has been pretty amazing: She’s completely stopped kicking, she’s lost weight because she’s not stealing her neighbor’s hay, the “puffy stovepipe” hind legs are looking almost normal (just some permanent windpuffs above her fetlocks), and her demeanor in general is much more cheerful and content.

And yesterday, I had one of the best arena work sessions I’ve had with her in a long time. No hind-end tripping whatsoever, and she was eager and happy. We had the barn to ourselves (peace and quiet at the barn = happy mental place for me), I had music playing, and we danced.

She gave me some beautiful spiral sets, at all three gaits (even the canter…I was shocked), and she was beautifully balanced and light. I swear I even got what would probably be considered trot lengthenings in dressage terminology.

A funny moment: What happens when you’re working dressage-esque moves such as a turn down the center line with your former gymkhana pony? Oh, yeah. Straightaway = go time. All I could do was laugh and gather her back up. After everything she’s done for me, she deserves a change to play.


sleepwalking pony

And finally, it’s been a long-time goal, and after a couple of years of slowly adding to the collection, I finally have a set of Taylored Tack for Mimi. (Her s-hack set-up is also TT.) Just because we’re not competing anymore doesn’t mean she can’t look pretty…and I would be remiss in my duties as a tack hoarder to pass up amazing deals on barely-used-like-new pieces of tack I stumble upon, especially when they’re the right size/color.


a tack set worthy of the Purple Princess


Coming out of the show world, I’m a huge proponent of cross-training for the endurance horse. It’s not just about getting them fit and going down the trail: I expect my horses to be responsive to seat, leg, and rein aids, to give to the bit, the use their hind end to provide impulsion, to carry themselves comfortably, and be solid and comfortable at a walk/trot/canter.

It probably helps that I actually like doing schooling and arena work. There is something predictable and immediate about it…a mix of instant gratification (well, sometimes…) and long-term results. I’m not talking about just drilling endless circles around the ring…that’s boring. I’m talking about mixing it up, incorporating things like trot poles, cones, barrels, and other brain exercises into schooling routines that help create a more supple, responsive, endurance horse.

I’ve been fortunate enough that all of the barns I have boarded at have been performance oriented, so I have always had access to things like cavaletti poles, jumps, cones, barrels…and arena space. Some places have had larger arenas than others…currently, I have access to about a 180’x75′ sand arena, which is plenty of space to do w/t/c drills, as well as all sorts of trot pole patterns or weave cones.

Basically, the faster you want to school, the more space you need…but basic trot poles can be done at a walk in a pretty small space…and if you’re just starting out, most of what you’re going to do is at a walk or trot anyway.

I’ve pulled a lot of inspiration and schooling exercises from patterns learned during my time in the show ring. Reining and gymkhana patterns, or modified versions of parts of them, are great bending and suppling exercises.

Traffic cones and trot poles are usually the easiest things to come by, and take the least amount of room to store, so that’s what I’ve used as my illustrations. For trot poles, I like finding the heaviest wood ones that are still manageable — they’re less likely to bounce  and roll if the horse hits them, and I’ve had enough occasions where a solid whack of the hoof on the pole was enough to get them to start lifting their hooves. PVC gets brittle here in the sun — one tap of the hoof and it will shatter — plus, they’re lightweight and roll at the slightest tap, so you’ll be constantly resetting poles.

It’s really nice to have a helper on the ground when it comes to setting poles, but after a time or two, you’ll learn what the best spacing is for poles and what your horse’s stride length is most comfortable at. I don’t get too worked up over having things perfectly spaced and aligned, either…because I’m also trying to teach them to pay attention to the ground and their feet, and adjust their stride accordingly, which may mean imperfectly spaced poles/uneven ground surface.

Just some (bad) illustrations of some of my favorites: (Disclaimer: My horse-schooling skills are better than my Paint drawing skills.)

Flat Poles
The basic flat trot poles: Great for working on straightness, paying attention to their feet, and using their hind end for impulsion. The spacing given for each gait is a rough guideline and place to start: you may have to fine-tune the spacing for your individual horse’s stride.
The Circle:
 This one is fun. Great for working a circle, and on bending and impulsion at the same time. The faster you go, the larger you’ll want to make the circle/space the poles. Definitely a challenging one…start slow and work up.
 Staggered Poles
Similar to the straight poles, but really gets them lifting their feet and driving forward. Having jump standards or pole blocks of some sort really work the best here to lift the end of the pole. In a pinch, I’ve scraped sand into a pile on one end, or have used concrete blocks (just be aware that if you stick the pole in the inside of the block, it won’t go anywhere should the horse hit it and they could trip/catch themselves).
The Box
Endless possibilities! You can do loops around and cross through the box, stop inside of it, work on turns inside, use it as a transition point (walk in/trot out, trot in/canter out, and the inverse — which is harder to go fast and then slow down). One of the best all-around exercises and leaves a lot of room for creativity.
The Fan
Like a combo of flat poles and the circle…works them on foot awareness and lifting their backs. Would only recommend at the walk/trot…spacing on these is really tricky at the canter and requires a lot of room.
 The L
Stolen from the dreaded trail course back-through obstacle, if spaced wide enough, can be walked or even trotted through, or use the poles as trot poles and make loops and circles around/over the poles.
Figure 8 Cones
The cones aren’t really necessary to do circles and shapes schooling, but sometimes it helps give a good visual aid, especially on keeping circles even and consistent.
Circle/Spiral Cone
 The basic exercise is just a circle around the cone — work on consistent size and even distance from the cone. Great for flexibility, bending, working off leg, and even pacing. To make it more challenging, start at the cone and gradually spiral out, then spiral back in.
Weave Cones
Two exercises, one drawing. The light purple path shows an exercise that will work on more exaggerated bending and straightening, while the light green path would be more working off leg and efficiently moving through the cones. Goal on that is to get close to the cones and move off of leg, versus over-steering with the reins. (May save your knee from slamming into a tree trunk.)
Not illustrated is the rail exercises (which do need more of an area/larger space: the beauty of a lot of suppling/pole work is unless you’re working at speed, it can be done in a smaller space): a common one I’ve encountered is to speed the horse up on the long side of the area, then ask them to slow on the short side. This is supposed to help with the speed up/slow down requests on trail…Mimi, in typically Mimi fashion, likes the speed up part…but not so much the slow down part.
I also do a lot of circles off the rail, direction changes, leg yield off the rail and back on, ride deep into corners to work on bending, lots of transitions and gait changes…basically, try to keep things interesting and make an arena schooling session count towards “putting something in the bank” that will be beneficial on the trail.
If you have questions/need clarification, let me know…and if you have your favorite arena exercises, please share!!

arena work stats

One thing I hear from a lot of endurance riders is a dislike for arena work. While it’s not my favorite thing, I don’t really mind it, and I definitely do my best foundational training in a controlled arena setting. Just for fun, I turned on one of my GPS apps this past weekend to clock my ride time with the pony.

What I learned was interesting.
Duration: 31:50
Distance: 3.18 miles
Average Speed: 6.0 mph
Max Speed: 9.5 mph
Mimi consistently walks at 3.5-4 mph. She can bump it up faster, but that is her comfortable range. Her trot is 7-9 mph, and her canter is 8-9 mph. I found it curious that, for us, cantering gains us nothing in terms of speed and covering ground, but it does offer up a change of gait and muscles used.
The arena at the barn is all sand, too, so that was the equivalent of a pretty good sand wash workout. And when I’m in an arena, I’m not just riding endless laps. I ask for engaged collection, we do a lot of gait changes, and circles, and flexion. So I was pleasantly surprised to see just how effective of a workout my arena sessions can actually provide.
A few photos from the past couple of weeks:
New browband from Taylored Tack to dress
up an old bridle. Mimi has always been the
purple princess.

she will slam on the brakes in the middle of
a schooling session if she’s thirsty

Perky Pony!
New reins, also from Taylored Tack. They’re
purple, and camo. How could I resist???

some days…

“Pony” is said as a term of endearment.

Some days, it’s a four-letter word.

Today was kind of the latter, at least for part of the time.

I took advantage of getting up early and forced myself to get. out. the. door. in a decent time fashion, versus frittering away the time on the computer.  It paid off…it was 86* driving down to the barn.  Windows down weather!

And it stayed somewhat overcast and not unbearable right up until I was ready to depart the barn.  We even got misted-dripped-dribbled on for about two minutes while riding.  Hard to call it rain, since I think it evaporated before it even hit the ground.  But it was enough “wet” to piss off the pony.  I sort of wish I had a picture of it…we’re cantering along, I’m grinning like a loon because it feels good, and she has her ears pinned and the pissiest look on her face, since she is getting wet.

Think “Princess and the Pea” only with water instead of hard little vegetables.

Never mind that 30 minutes later, she was absolutely loving her bath.

She also wasn’t thrilled about doing arena work today.  Just for kicks, I turned on one of the GPD apps I have and tracked our time and speed, and to see just what all those circles amounted to.

One hour of riding, walk/trot/canter, 3.7 miles, with approximately the same average speed.  And it’s a sand arena…guess those years of circles actually have been good for something.

And she did the whole thing barefoot…without being gimpy.  Which is quite good, for her.  I think I’m finally getting it on her trimming.

It’s a sand arena, yes…but it’s not necessarily a “clean” sand arena…there’s random rocks and deeper spots and harder-packed shallow spots.  Arena, yes…perfectly groomed show arena, nope.  Which makes it a good workout and a good test on the hooves.

And when I say we rode for an hour, we rode.  Circles, gait changes, more circles, stop-go transitions…my show background is never far removed from the surface.  Oh, yeah, and I made her really work at carrying herself in a frame, since she wanted to keep being lazy.  When she’s lazy, she really embraces her daisy-clipper movement, which is a polite way for saying she doesn’t pick up her feet.

Which means she then trips on one of those aforementioned rocks, or a deeper patch of sand.  Since I’m not a fan of the whole -trip-fall-squish thing, I made her work and actually pick up those little legs.

And then I made it up to her at the end.

Pony swilling Gatorade…her second-favorite
flavor, “Cool Blue”
I kinda love how she’s giving me the hairy
eyeball as she grabs for it

Her Gatorade habit started back in my show days, before I had a clue what electrolytes were all about…all of us kids tended to do the “bite for me, bite for my pony” approach to food, and our ponies usually partook on whatever we were munching.  Only Mimi really loved Gatorade, especially the orange flavor.  Her preferred method of getting it was licking it right out of Mom’s hand…much better than out of a bucket.

It’s actually been years since I’ve given her any Gatorade, but I had gotten some for me last week during the worst of the heat wave, and brought the last of it down to the barn this morning.  And just for old times’ sake, I shared.
Yes, she got the last of it; No, I didn’t drink from that bottle afterwards.
Gatorade + a very refreshing bath and Pony Spa session made up for whatever ills she might have been feeling towards me.  Summer itchies + bugs + sweat + layers of fly spray mean that a bath is pretty much a weekly necessity from June-September.  She was lovely and clean when I left, although I’m sure an hour later, she wandered back into the arena and rolled in the sand.  And rolled.  And rolled.
Because she’s not happy unless she resembles a pigpen.

Music to Ride By

Music is one of those prerequisite things in a lot of the barns out here.  During my formative, growing-up-with-horses years, I spent quite a bit of time in barns that played a lot of music.  Add to that the fact this is Arizona…the southwest.  Wild, wild West sometimes.  Can you see where this is going?

Yeah…I still know/remember pretty much every country song that was popular between the years of 1993 and 2002.

Music also tended to play a part in horse shows…when the “Serious Business” ring work was over and it was gymkhana time, someone would typically kick on the radio.  Music seemed to make the ponies (at least mine) run a little bit faster.

It also meant the long-suffering show parents (and ponies) were forced to listen to the musical, karaoke-esque stylings of a bunch of kids as we’d sing along in between whoops and hollers of excitement.  Sorry, Mom and Dad.

Some of the larger shows would actually play music during the classes, even the ring work.  It’s very popular at large shows, such as the Scottsdale Arabian Show that’s going on right now.  It definitely adds some extra excitement and energy to performance classes.  And one of my favorite classes to watch at Scottsdale is the Liberty class, in which the horse is set loose to run around the arena and show off their athleticism and movement…all set to music.  Great fun, and a class I’d love to participate in some day.  (I’ve got a great playlist of song possibilities.)

One of the few things I was disappointed about never getting the chance to do while I was still showing in POA was Freestyle Reining.  It’s a class only offered at the International Show, which I attended once but wasn’t at the riding level (myself or Mimi) at the time to handle that particular class…helps to know how to do a flying lead change…or actually stop.  :)  But it’s a fun class: You come up with your own reining pattern that displays a certain amount of skills: flying changes, sliding stops, spins.  Standard stuff you’d expect from any skilled reining horse.  The catch?  It’s all set to music.  And the POA version, at least, also included a (very often used) relevant costume option.

Despite never competing in the class, I spent a lot of time practicing what I would do for it.

Long story short: Mimi and I have spent a lot of time riding to music. 

Oh, yeah…I also sing when I’m bored and/or nervous on a ride.  Anyone else grow up on the kid’s TV show “Lambchop”?  I did!  Long-suffering parents might recognize it as the show that spawned the song, “This is the song that never ends…yes it goes on and on my friends…some people started singing it not knowing what it was, and they’ll continue singing it forever just because this is the song that never ends…” Repeat ad nauseum.  I…adapted it during the McDowell ride I took Beamer to, when his antics had me off and hand-walking through two miles of sandwash.

Endurance version?  “This is the wash that never ends…yes it goes on and on my friends…some people started riding it not knowing what it was, and they’ll continue riding it forever just because this is the wash that never ends…”  Bad?  Yes.  Effective?  Yes.  Singing it kept my spirits up and the horse quite happily trolling along behind me.

(I don’t claim to be a good singer, especially a capella.  I ride tone deaf tolerant horses.)

My other trick has been co-opting the line from Finding Nemo‘s Dorry, the absent-minded angelfish: “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…”  When you replace “swimming” with “trotting,” the rhythm exactly matches the pony’s 7mph, loose-rein, troll-down-the-trail trot.

And I’ve got a selection of stuff I’ll sing quietly or hum when I’m on a section of trail that’s making me a bit nervous or uptight…it’s really hard to sing and hold your breath at the same time.  Plus, singing distracts me and lets the pony get on with her job without her rider messing her up.

So…all of that to say that today, I remembered to bring my little music set-up: iPod and little portable plug-in speakers, to the barn to ride today.  Arena work is getting a little stale again, so wanted to do something to spice it up. 

I’ll be doing my riding to music from now on, thanks.

Mimi was so happy and cheerful and forward today.  She kept offering to do more and more work, instead of schlepping around or trying to sneak to the gate.  (Well, we had a couple of sneak-to-the-gate moments, but all it earned her was the right to canter in small circles around the gate until she figured out the gate might just be a sucky place to hang out around.  Ponies.  Always testing.)

And Mimi has her own playlist on my iPod.  It’s actually called “Pony Playlist.”  Because she has music she likes.  It has to be energetic and preferably loud.  So her playlist is a lot of rock, some pop, and some country.  Want to know what Ashley Mimi likes to listen to?  (And of course the fact that I have definite music tastes, preferences and favorite songs doesn’t influence my pony at all…Because all of these aren’t on my Favorites playlist or anything…)

The House Rules
Whiskey in Mind
Let Me Go
American Made
Seven Days
(All of the above are off of Christian Kane’s “The House Rules” album.  My favorite musician [and songwriter].  A great country-rock blend.)
This Town – O.A.R.
Back in Back – AC/DC
Bitch – Mereditch Brooks
Bad Romance – Lady GaGa (Yeah, really.  Only song of hers I own…it’s catchy.)
Independence Day – Martina McBride
New Divide – Linkin Park
All In – Lifehouse
Bless the Broken Road – Rascal Flatts
Danger Zone – Kenny Loggins

Those were the ones we got through today.  There’s still another dozen or so that didn’t get played.  Eclectic much, right?  That’s sort of representative of my music collection…I tend to listen to a little bit of just about everything.

So not only did I have a great ride today, in gorgeous weather (75*, sunny, breezy…I actually got a bit pink from the sun…and they call this “winter” here, y’know…), I got to listen to music that I love.  Now that’s a good day!