copyright- Teresa Alexander-Arab

Monday, December 5, 2016

Dancing in the Dark

I wanna dance in the dark and never stop
We gonna light up the night like shooting stars
Whenever you hear the sound don't be alarmed
Move move move
Dancing in the dark

I have a confession to make:
I have never ridden Carmen alone under the lights.

Go ahead and call me chicken. I've called myself that. But the truth is I listen to that inner voice when it tells me that something isn't right.  This relationship I'm building with Carmen was so very fragile at first that I was afraid to shatter it by being careless. In full disclosure- I also did not want to get hurt.

These days though, Carmen and I are gaining confidence in ourselves and each other. Recently, being in regular (and excellent) lessons has helped push us forward as well.

Yesterday, I went to bed with a splitting headache. Today at work it came and went and it was driving me batty. When I got home I decided to stay outside and see if the fresh air would help (spoiler alert- it did). As soon as I pulled up and got out of the car, Carmen was locked on me and her gaze followed me as I went into the house. I decided to put on my riding clothes 'just in case'. I brought in the horses and gave them supper. I then puttered for a bit dithering getting ready.

I decided to tack Carmen up and head up to the ring. She was pretty quiet about the whole thing- although she did take exception that I wouldn't allow her to stick her head in Irish's feed- he never finishes in right away and that drives her bonkers.

It was just dusk when we headed up to the ring, not quite dark. Carmen was good on the lunge so I didn't spend much time on it before I mounted up.

As a dressage training ride it was a nothing to write home about (or blog about ha-ha). But as a confidence training ride it was terrific. As it got darker the spot lights came on (love my solar motion sensing spot lights). Carmen was obviously a bit freaked by it all but her instinct was check in with me and she actually  listened to me: instead of screw you I'm out of here. Enjoy being eaten by a tiger sucker!'.
It was more like "I hope you know what you're doing and if we get eaten by a tiger I will never forgive you but okay, we'll do it your way" 

There was one teeny-tiny scoot and one small spook. She was tense and had a hard time letting go but she listened. And I didn't grab or hold tight her mouth. When I got tight in my seat I relaxed it. In the end we were cantering around the in the circle of lights and I was doing an okay job of rating her speed with half-halts (as opposed to grab and hold).

I decided to end it at that note and not push for more- it seemed that we were pretty much on the edge of what she could handle.

I dismounted and we walked down to the barn feeling proud of both of us. I put her away and she looked at me over the stall door
I was pretty good wasn't I?
Yes you were. 
I totally deserve a carrot, right? 
Yes you do. 
Obviously not from tonight but from our lesson friday

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

Friday morning my alarm went off and, as usual, I lay there a few minutes listening to the weather report. "The rain has ended for most of the province. Today will be cloudy with sunny periods but very windy with gusts up to 50kmh".

I groaned. I had a lesson for today and I could visualize the whole thing in my head: Carmen and I flying around the ring like some mad kite and Shanea futilely trying to work with us. In fairness- we all know that Carmen does not like wind. Add to the lack of regular work because of weather and it seemed like it would be a difficult day.

However, there was no way I was going to cancel. Shanea had already demonstrated how good she was at getting us to be calm against our better judgement so maybe she would be of use. She has also offered to ride Carmen if things got hairy. Of course it's not me if I don't verbalize how I feel so I put this as my FB status:
written slightly tongue in cheek
You know you have good friends when they immediately contradict you. My responses were along the lines of "it will be what you expect so expect it to be great"and "breathe" (always good advice for me, it's amazing that I don't pass out regularly the amount of time I hold my breath!) and, when I said that I was going to wear my safety vest "good idea".

Even Ed asked me if I was going through with the lesson. I said 'yes' and he looked dubious- won't she be a bit, well, difficult in this weather? He pays more attention then I realize sometimes.

Since my lesson wasn't until 12:45 I decided to lunge Carmen a bit in the morning to see how she felt about the whole thing. The wind was fierce but it wasn't freezing and the sun was trying to come out. She was absolutely fine and I started to feel more optimistic. I only did about 10 minutes in the ring and then gave her a good groom, put her blanket back on and went around doing my chores. I dragged the ring and did a general clean up in the barn (not that it really mattered with the wind stuff just kept blowing around). I had just finished my lunch when Shanea texted me that she was running a bit early.

I headed out to the barn and brought both horses in. Ed took advantage of that to get the tractor in the small paddock and scrape out some of the mud before winter comes and it freezes. I was feeling a bit rushed and I could feel Carmen feeding off of it already. Damn these sensitive mares. I made myself stop and breathe deeply and be calm. I tacked her up quickly (fortunately she had already been groomed) and headed up to the ring. I led her around and she was more looky then previously. Which was my fault. But the sun was out and the wind was settling down.

Shanea arrived then and we had a chat. Now during our lessons, I hand her my phone and she takes photos as we go. I usually end up with over 80 photos that I could make a stop action movie of. How she does that and teaches I don't know but it's great. I keep the photos and study them. I post a few here and on FB but I use them to see how I'm doing. Last lesson I saw far too many photos of me having a tight rein:
When Carmen gets tight she shortens her neck and goes behind the contact. I go looking for it by pulling back. I'm also preparing for a leap/spin/bolt so it's also self-self-defense. While it's understandable that I do that, it actually is not helpful and will not get Carmen to stretch into contact. Instead I will have a horse who is short and tight in front. I'd been working on it a bit on my own but I really wanted to focus on it in this lesson. When I told Shanea what I saw she completely agreed (in fact she looked relieved that she didn't have to break it to me- such is the life of a riding coach). With that I mounted up and we went to work.

And it was fabulous.

Not everything and not all the time but there were far more good moments then bad. We started on the circle and Shanea talked me through using my seat bones to swing with her back (that's a familiar comment for me too). It was all about positive energy- giving Carmen a task to do so that she didn't have to worry about anything else. We worked our way into the spooky areas.

And it's not that she didn't spook- she did a few times. But they were what I would consider 'normal' horse spooks- ones like 'ack what's that? oh it's okay?phew'  vs 'oh my god trolls we must flee and confuse them by random changes of directions'. The wind died down, the sun came out and it was a beautiful day.

Rather then recap here's what we worked on (as I remember):
-When she gets short and tight don't tighten the rein- put the leg on to get her to go forward and follow the bit.
-Ask her to come down to the bit: not in a forced frame but to bring the alert status down. As soon as she does reward
-use her energy to go forward from behind. Getting her hind end in gear makes it easier for her to focus and carry herself.
-sit up and use my core so that I am a source of balance for her, especially when she's flailing.
- let her have rein, oops not that much she took advantage and pulled, use your elbows/core to keep her from pulling your forward.
-when she bulges her shoulder in, straighten her on the outside rein and use you knee to direct her over, not your hand crossing the whither....

I could feel her lightening and stretching into contact. Her back came up and she worked from behind. the trot, when it was good was like we were floating.

Carmen is wary of the spot we're heading and her head is coming up - but look- slack in the reins and I'm urging her forward. Look at that hind leg reaching under. A few minutes strides later and she's relaxing and looking for my hand: 

There was a this one moment when Carmen was not thrilled with where we were working and did not want to trot forward. I kept the rein contact light and used my legs to ask her to push forward from behind and she went into passage. It was cool and funny and fun to ride all at the same time. We just kept asking her to flow and finally she went like the training level horse she is. It's nice to know that it's in there though. 

Anyway this post is long enough so I will end it with a few of my favourite shots from the lesson:

my absolute fav of the day. 

Later I had to confess that my ride had been awesome and I had maligned poor Carmen.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Carpe Diem

The weather has turned cold and wintery. I know I shouldn't complain because it's almost December and I do live in Canada....but still I am not looking forward to no longer being able to school Carmen.

On Saturday she was really spooky and reactive. I had to get off and lunge her again. I realized that I hadn't worked out her energy before getting on and it came back to bite me on my behind. Or it was the energy generated by wearing electric orange. When I got back on she was still pretty wired but knowing that I might not have another day for a bit I dug deep and rode through it all. In the end we both survived and we were both sweaty. But it seemed that we had gained something in the process.

Sunday was a winter storm so no riding was possible. Monday was not stormy but pretty raw and windy and I decided that riding was not an option. However, on both days I brought her out and gave her an in depth grooming. She's a bit funny about it- at first she makes grumpy faces but as I go along she relaxes more and more until she's quite relaxed and happy. On Monday when I came home from work I head a nicker and looked over to see her watching me intently.

Today I rushed home from work, unloaded the feed and shavings I had bought and prepared the stalls to bring the horses in. Carmen hung around while I puttered. Irish stayed up in the field - I'm pretty sure that's a trap. 

In the ring Carmen was a bit worried at specific areas but halted as soon as I asked. When I got on she was tuned in and listening. While the spooking is still a work in progress it's getting easier and easier to keep her attention and/or get it back. I was quite happy with the trot work- it was forward and energized. I sat up and thought 'canter' and she lifted into this forward and rhythmical canter I had to smile. We did a few circles with just one baby flail that quickly sorted out. I brought her back to walk and halted and hopped off. I had only been riding 30 minutes but it felt so good. We were both pretty pleased with ourselves.

yes another photo from our last lesson- which is good because
we have another one booked

I'm hoping that we can keep working for a bit longer.

Saturday, November 26, 2016


Cynthia found some hunter orange shirts for us to wear while riding. We figured that these will keep us safe when riding. They should also be useful for visibility when riding out even when it's not hunting season.

The shirts are quite light so I was glad I got a large so I could layer. When we were getting the horses ready I had my flannel jacket over top. Once she was tacked up I put it in the tack room and came out beside her.

She jumped sideways.

Carmen: aargh!
Me: whoa! what's wrong? 
Me: It's to keep us safe- you see it's called 'hunter orange'
Carmen: You are not sitting on me wearing that colour! And are you wearing a PURPLE SHIRT UNDERNEATH? 
Me: Well it's more blue than purple....
Carmen: Good lord, do you even look in mirror? This is ridiculous. 

Up in the ring Carmen was on high alert- looking for danger everywhere. She was particularly spooky on the far end by the woods. Very likely there were people hunting or working down there.
Me:  Just breathe. Why are you so nervous? 
Carmen: How can I not be? I have a neon popsicle for a rider. 
Me: *sigh*
Carmen: I mean we're not exactly blending in. 
Me: but..
Carmen: you are like some huge neon sign saying 'all you can eat buffet right here!' If we get eaten I will never forgive you. 
Me: There's nothing out there that's going to eat us. 
Carmen: You poor naive tangerine glow stick there's ALWAYS something looking to eat us. 
Me: like what? 
Carmen: lions, wolves, TROLLS. 
Me: no, none of those things are here. 

Funnily enough, now that I've accepted that this is part of Carmen's make up I don't get as freaked out by the spooking. I just kept working away. The recommended action is to work away from what is scary and gradually get closer. Which is fine except that with Carmen she will fixate on it and the area seems to grow. So I can't always ignore the area because her fixation on it takes over the whole ride.

It's a balancing act. But in the end she was relaxed and blowing.

With the weather she hasn't been in regular work and it's starting to show. She's still young and not sure how to deal with the excess energy so it translate into reactiveness. But we'll get there.

Me: See, we did the whole ride and nothing bad happened. 
Carmen: This time. 
Me: And next time. And the time after that. 

Carmen: we'll see but next time could you dress more sensibly ?
Like when we had that lesson with that nice young lady? 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016


I'm happy to report that things are swinging along. I feel that I have a deeper understanding of Carmen these days and no longer react to her moods. If she's cranky in the cross ties I tease her about it and then carry on. It doesn't take long before she relaxes and enjoys the attention.

Cynthia came out this afternoon to ride with us. The weather has turned colder and it was a raw day. I use the ground work to figure out where the spooky spots are going to be for our ride. They now move around so this helps. Today it was up by C. Even so, when we were lunging she was pretty good.

The ride was pretty uneventful. Which is always welcome. She had her spots of distractions/spooking but it was all pretty minor and I just dealt with them. It's weird but I don't give them much thought anymore and it doesn't escalate either. Hmmm.....

My goal for my riding is to give her rein to reach into but it's hard- when she goes behind the vertical or feels 'up' I worry that she's going to spin/bolt. But I'm working on it- give with the reins, ask her to go forward into it. It's coming. We had moments of it and I'll take them because that's how training works- stringing together moments.

Carmen got a bit fast in the canter work but that was okay- it gave me energy to use.  My goal was to keep her on a circle, flexed in and steady in contact. That worked for about 2/3 of the circle. But it lost it shape at the end by C. I brought her down to trot or walk,, fixed the bend and then back to canter. As we moved further down she was keeping it pretty well and then had a wee spaz- where she flailed a bit and swapped in back and then sorted it out, all in 2 strides. I think what happened was she cantered over a hoof print hole (made earlier) and was surprised by it. I giggled because it was such a baby spaz moment and she immediately settled. It was kind of like t his:
Camren: 'canter canter, cant- ooh WHAT'S THAT?! Avoid. Avoid. *swap, flail, swap back*
Me: oh Carmen. hee hee hee. 
Carmen: Never mind. It's FINE. Nothing happened. STOP. LAUGHING! 

I was happy at our trot work and our canter as well. It's becoming more rhythmic and flowing. I used Irish to help us around the scary bits but didn't make too big a deal.

I brought her to stop and she was standing all relaxed when my phone rang (I ride with my phone in case of accidents). It was Ed and I told him I would call back once I dismounted. I put my phone away and jumped off. Remember last week when I twisted my ankle?  I had forgotten about it but when I landed it collapsed and I fell flat on my back.
Owwww.  I said.
Cynthia asked if I was okay and was confused as to what happened. Which made total sense because the last time she looked my way we were just standing there.

And the cool thing was that when I fell right at her feet she never stirred a hoof. She didn't even lift her head. Although I'm pretty sure she rolled her eyes. So I'm happy about that training I did with her around falling. Carmen stood there while I stuggled to my feet and followed patiently as I limped back to the barn.

No matter what else happened during that ride, her reaction to my fall made my heart sing. I really feel we're becoming partners.

I'm not really slouching- it's my safety vest riding up

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Lesson Recap

Let me start by thanking each of you for the the kind words and condolences following Belle's death. It's been hard and sad but I know it was the right thing to do. d'Arcy was depressed the next day but is starting to perk up a bit. We've been making sure he's with us a lot but monday we go back to work so I hope he'll be okay.

Between looking after Belle and the weather I haven't ridden since Monday. I was scheduled to have a lesson Friday but it poured all day. Same with Saturday. I was feeling a bit frustrated but to be honest I think it was a good thing. I'm not sure that I was emotionally calm enough to be a good leader and Carmen isn't at a point where she can be the comforting one.

Fortunately, I was able to rebook the lesson for Sunday. The day dawned foggy but the sun was trying to come through. I got Carmen ready early because I figured she would need more time on the lunge given the time she's had off. She was cranky at first getting ready but I was expecting that. I've noticed that she gets annoyed if she believes I've been neglecting her. As I groomed her and gave her attention she relaxed and became softer.

I was glad that I had planned some time to work with her on the ground because she really needed it. Not because she was wild but she was definitely tight and spooky. I kept it simple and very black and white- paying attention to me was right and looking around and ignoring me was not. By the end she was focussed on me even with distractions.

The time was perfect for when Shanea arrived. Let me sum up the lesson with one sentence: it was AWESOME. I enjoyed my second lesson as much as my first. It was all about getting Carmen moving from behind and tuning in to what I was asking. She was leery of some areas and I worked on  giving her room to listen but staying supportive.

We practiced flexing and changing the bend on the circle. At first she was all 'what?'  but then figured it out and it went a lot better. From the middle we worked our way out around the ring. Carmen was, of course, worried about certain spots - when this happens her head comes up and her topline gets very tight:
head up, under neck stiff, hind legs trailing and someone
please cut off my hands! 

I'm to keep my elbows engaged and ask her to bend around my inside leg. Unforunately, my hands tend to get a bit uneven as well. But as we worked she would drop and relax. As the lesson progressed that came faster and faster.
hands better(ish) and she's starting to step under
asking her to flow forward and find contact

We worked on the leg yielding and it was improved from last time. As was her straightness on the quarter line.

Our trot work was a lot better as well. She was flowing forward and listening to my aids. Of course it wasn't perfect but she wasn't trying to run away or balk.
I love her soft and listening ears here. And I may be smiling.

being very brave through a spooky corner and I obviously need
to make sure that her head is still there. 
 When we were heading up to C she gave a big spook where she suddenly spun 360 degrees. But she didn't bolt and I was unbalanced but still on. Shanea stayed very calm through all of it and we carried on with the work. Because I had my core engaged I didn't get thrown off the side.

moving forward. I am being a bit defensive in my body but letting her have some rein and
it doesn't look awful.  
I was so happy with how were able to keep on track and build on what we did in the lesson before. I like how Shanea can break things down and is willing to take the time if you don't understand. She never seems frustrated and NEVER seems anything but calm. Even with the few spooks we did.

We finished with a wee bit of canter work- I asked for it so that she could see what we were doing.
I'm a little perched but let's look at the inside hind....

Cynthia had a lesson right after me. In the barn Carmen looked once and then settled into enjoying my attention. She was so relaxed and happy that I decided to bring her back to the ring to graze alongside. She was quite happy to graze while Irish worked. 

When Carmen is happy there's a calmness in her demeanour and a softness in her eye that tells me about the horse that she will be. 

Today was just what I needed.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

12 years

I don't know if I've ever told the story of how we came to have Belle. A few months earlier we had put down our 3/4 Aussie Jewel. I was really missing her and d'Arcy (who was 4 at the time) was pining. Jewel was one of the smartest dogs I've ever known. She also wasn't an easy dog. I decided that I wanted to rescue another Aussie in her name. We applied to a breed rescue and passed the interview and home visits. We then had a call that there was a dog that might fit our household. She had spent her early years in a cage being used for breeding. She lived in Maine so Ed and I drove halfway to meet up with the rescue people in St. John, NB. It was a long day but I loved her right away and we brought her home. She came with issues. Belle was terrified of small spaces. It took months before she would follow me into the bathroom and years before she stopped flinching. She was aggressive towards other dogs and boys between the ages of 7-16 made her become very defensive. We worked through all of them. It took a while for her to be able to walk for more than 10 minutes without being tired. Once she became fitter she was your typical bouncy Aussie. 

 Since Monday Belle has not been eating, barely drinking and having trouble breathing. There were glimpses where she seemed to rally and then fall backwards. We consulted with the vet over the phone twice. Today we tried something to ease her stomach. It was an impossible choice- death by heart failure or death by starvation/dehydration. Tonight she drank a bit and then promptly threw it all up. Ed and I discussed that we would give her a few days max. 

Ed left to go to a meeting and she took a turn for the worst. I looked at her struggling to breathe and I saw my mother in the hospital bed with the same struggles. I knew with complete clarity that it was time.

 I called the vets and they said to come over. I tried to get in touch with Ed but couldn't get through on his cell. The staff were more than kind. They helped me carry her in because she couldn't walk.  I sat with her on a mat on the floor waiting stroking her head and talking to her. 
don't worry baby. You will be running free soon. I love you. You are the best dog. 
She put her paw on my hand and looked at me. 
She passed away quietly with me stroking her head. I knew when she was no longer there. 

Belle was 12 years old and had 8 wonderful, happy years with us living the life as a family dog. She loved her people fiercely  and would die to protect them. I am glad that she is no longer suffering. 

The average life span of a dog is 10-13 years. 

It's not nearly enough.