Shark Saddling

Harley has been a rockstar lately. I told my trainer that while it did take me a solid year to figure him out- we have really been clicking lately and I feel like our rides have actually started to be productive instead of slightly out of control and mostly mediocre.

I think a few equipment changes have made a big difference lately. I bought a used MW Albion SLK High Head dressage saddle when I first started leasing Harley. I never blogged about it here because my mother reads my blog and already thinks that maybe shoveling my money, by the pile, into a fire might actually be a cheaper hobby than riding horses…

I bought it used on eBay so it was a huge and pricey gamble. The model is the same saddle my trainer owns and tends to fit a variety of horses. I had ridden Harley in her saddle before I started leasing him and we decided it should work. The high head model can be somewhat more difficult to find used, especially in the states. I was also in a time crunch since I really wanted to wait until I had Harley before I bought one so I could try it on him, but obviously didn’t want to be stuck for long without a saddle at all.

I think I made out fairly well on the deal. The price was good and upon arrival the saddle was in good shape. The flocking appeared to be in good condition and it looked exactly like the photos. The one thing that wasn’t explained in the ad was that this saddle had, at some point, been at least partially remade. It’s clear that the repairs were well-done, by a reputable place, but I would have maybe liked to have known that before I bought it. Still, it is a very nice saddle. At the time, I had two choices: this one at a very reasonable price; or a new demo model for a great price that was still about a $1000 more than the used saddle. This being a lease horse, I opted to take the gamble and save a grand up front. I don’t regret it. I think it fits Harley about as well as it could without investing some serious coin into fitting this nearly 20 year old orca for his retirement gig!

 

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TWINSIES!!!

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All jokes aside, go look at that Harley photo again and tell me how in the world you’d go about saddling that horse!!

 

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I did the best I could and hoped I could half-pad the rest. Here is how the saddle fits with just a simple saddle pad:

 

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I like the steep rise of the pommel to fit those massive withers but look at where the balance of this saddle is even with sizable rear gussets- it’s too far back for me. He’s so uphill I would end up in a chair seat leaning forward to try and keep up with him. So I needed a rear riser pad. I have a shimmable ThinLine Trifecta half pad that I like very much except that you really aren’t able to fit very many shims in the pad- at least not enough for me to comfortably sit on Harley. I have been riding with this half-pad on Louie for every lesson and I love it on him. For Harley, I recently bought an ECP shimmable half pad and chuckled as I ripped out and threw away the laughable, completely useless foam shims that it comes with and stuffed in several ThinLine rear shims. This thing is a god-send and is working so well for us. Would I love him to have a completely custom saddle that fits without the use of these pads- sure- but he hasn’t been back sore since I’ve had him and he is moving so well with this configuration.

 

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Here you can see the saddle balance already much improved. I added a TSF girth and Harley is moving the best he has since I’ve leased him. With me in a better spot mechanically as well, I have been much more comfortable and it has even reduced some of the strain on my knees while I ride him. Clearly I still have some latent muscle memory of riding in the “backseat” for so long- either that, or I am part bridge troll…but once I start to realize I don’t have to lean so much, this will be a much nicer picture!!

 

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Physical Limits vs Mental Limits

Monday I wrote about ways that I am pushing some physical limits in my life and today I want to talk about some mental limits that I’m struggling with lately in my riding.

A few weeks ago, I had an amazing lesson on Louie where my trainer even video taped part of my ride to show me how much my seat has improved and what a positive influence it was having on the way Louie was moving.

 

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Alas, what goes up, must come down. Tuesday’s lesson was a total bust and I’m still trying to process what was going on. I think I may have been in my own head too much- trying to reproduce something I came across in a very exploratory frame of mind by instead forcing it or rushing it. Louie was being a little lazy and when I couldn’t get him to feel how he felt last ride, I kind of crumbled. When Louie started phoning it in, the wheels came off and we were a mess out there. She asked me to do some canter transitions to balance him in the trot and he was. not. there. He was super dull and giving the bare minimum amount of effort and I was suddenly completely at a loss for what to do. I could feel it- or rather the absence of it- and I just kept trying to force it. I was able to finish with some decent canter work only after a heart to heart….er…whip to rump discussion with Louie and my trainer explaining to me that I wasn’t even asking him to keep it together- I was just giving away all of the impulsion out the front. Weak sauce.

After the lesson she told me something I already knew, but after that performance, probably needed to be told again. She said something to the effect of, “you are not a beginner anymore, when people start lessons they look to their instructor to guide everything they do. When more advanced riders take a lesson, they come in and ride and I help when they need it but they do what they need to do for their horse before I say a word. You have more than enough tools in your toolbox to get him where he needs to be without me- you have to ride him like he’s your horse. If I ask you to do some exercise but you can feel he isn’t balanced enough to do it, get him there- do something else you know will help him.” She’s right, of course.

So, what happens when the EquiNovice isn’t exactly a novice anymore? I’ll tell you what happens- responsibility!!!! UGH, what a drag! As long as you are new you feel like you can make mistakes, second guess yourself, be hesitant, and it’s all acceptable because, well, it is- you’re new. Coming to grips with not being new is a bigger mental hurdle than I thought it would be. I need to level up my mental fortitude to match my skill or it’s going to be darn near impossible to continue to advance.

I don’t imagine this was a particularly enjoyable lesson for my trainer to teach and it is in stark contrast to my last lesson which I think she probably did enjoy. But it means a lot to me that she continues to push me to be better. Yes, I pay her for every lesson, but she could just as easily feed me empty compliments and let me putz around on good natured Louie every week. I’m never going to show him; never going to be reflected publicly as her student; and may not even get to take lessons from her for very much longer. But she still cares about my development as a rider enough to tactfully have an uncomfortable conversation with me and push me to be better. That’s a quality instructor.

 

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Mental limits: must push for more progress! Onward and upward and don’t let a few bad rides get you down.

 

 

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Pushing for More

Finding a balance is tough- in life, in injury recovery, in riding. You can only really know your true limits by testing them because so many “limits” are self-imposed or temporary. These faux limits are negotiable and often worth testing!

 

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Much handsome.

Harley and I are testing our physical limits lately and while in some cases we’re looking for the limit to check if it can be extended, in other cases finding the limit will let us know a comfortable state in which we can chill and know things will be okay, at least until some other variable changes.

I am playing with how many times per week and how many times in a row I can ride before my knee bothers me to the point of having to take multiple days off to recover. Obviously this is completely unscientific because every ride is a little different but in general it seems like I can ride three days in a row, MAX. This is frustrating because it’s not a muscular thing, not a case of being out of shape (though, yes, of course I am), this is osteoarthritis and it’s annoying AF. What I’m working on now is trying to see if riding every other day means I am able to get more rides in per week or is there just a critical limit.

 

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Full derp.

With Harley I have been asking for more lately, and he is delivering in ways I didn’t even think he could. Yes, some of the improvement can be attributed to me simply riding more often. He is getting more fit and most importantly staying sound. He takes a bad step or two nearly every ride so I know his hocks are still causing issues but tomorrow he is getting injections and I’m excited to see what we will be able to accomplish when he is back to work afterwards.

 

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I know the saddle is a bit too far forward in this photo- the offset girth I use now helps a bit- but man, he is hard to fit! 

I have had a lot of success asking for adjustability within the gaits and specifically in the trot, he gets into a zone that’s rhythmic and very adjustable. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt anything like it before. He’s so athletic and has such a good work ethic but it took me a long time to understand the core strength required to focus that intensity. He is also a pretty big mover so sitting his trot is damn near impossible for me unless he is in that zone. Now I push the limits of how long he can correctly work in that zone before we fall apart. Most recently, I have been adding some transitions asking him to canter out of and transition back into that trot resulting in a much higher quality canter than I usually get from him. It should be noted that we are going about this relatively blind and mostly by feel- I don’t really know if he looks great and I’m sure I am making mistakes but we have moments where it feels great and I’m trusting myself that that sensation is the right path.

 

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I don’t want to call it something it isn’t. Is this a collected trot by definition? Unsure. The sensation is a bundled energy that does not feel explosive in any way. It is slow but distinctly two-beat; it’s comfortable to sit- feeling very up and down; it’s light in the hand and most enjoyably, requires hardly any leg at all and is adjustable in my core. The real question I have is: can this same sensation be produced through incorrect work? Can something that feels this good, be bad?

 

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Quick Catch Up

Here’s a mostly photo summary of the past couple of months!

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  • Harley wore rock socks to celebrate me going to the Stevie Nicks concert with my friends.

 

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  • Harley and I celebrated our 1 year Leaseaversary on April 2!! It has been a heck of a year and we have come a long way. Here are the numbers:
    • falls: 2
    • spooks: 1 million
    • saddle pads purchased: 8
    • shows: 0
    • lessons: 7
    • blankets destroyed: 1
    • cookies given: 1 million
    • bit changes: 4
    • emergency vet calls: 1
    • bananas given since last float: 0
    • nose kisses and boops: 1 million
    • cried in mane: 1, but he’d never tell
    • bareback rides: 5
    • jumps: 1
    • photos taken: 1 million

 

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  • Went to the Hoosier Horse Fair and watched some fun demos and agreed with this tiny booth.

 

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  • First bath of the year!!! So clean!

 

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  • Had a few really super lessons on Louie because my trainer is a wizard.

 

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  • Got to the barn in time to see Harley dragging around a small tree caught in his halter. I guess he decided he’d help with storm clean-up…..

 

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All in all, its been a good but BUSY couple of months! Lots of changes are currently or about to rock my world so I’m just trying to stay cool under pressure and let the chips fall where they may.

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Types of Athletes

Continuing with the theme of how very different my two paintasauruses are, I’d like to get your advice on some more nuanced coaching of my very different athletes.

I had a fantastic lesson on Louie last Tuesday night and I think I can mostly attribute it to me coming in hot with some energy and a very can-do attitude. I don’t know why I was in this mood but it worked super well with how Louie was feeling that particular night and we had a great ride. Louie is a very interesting ride for me and I think he’s my ideal kind of ride. We are actually a lot alike. He has this internal switch where he can go from relaxed, pokey, bombproof, toddle around on a loose rein babysitter to light, responsive, tuned in, fancy (draft cross fancy) athletic partner. You can have whichever horse you want that day if you know how to flip the switch.

Louie is like a car with a sticky shifter with a strong preference toward staying in first gear. When I find myself getting frustrated with his goofy evasions or general laziness I have to remind myself that we are literally the same type of athlete. I used to pull all kinds of shit to get out of running or fitness tests. I always told myself that I could play smarter and achieve the same success with less effort and, for the most part, I did. Well, here I am being burned by the exact same thought process…I just have to laugh. Just like sometimes my coaches had to get tough on me or creative on me to get max output, I have to do that for Louie. The silver lining is that we are both the type of athlete that is usually worth this extra effort because the resulting performance is really something. Is it a shame that sometimes talented individuals are not born with the work ethic and internal motivation to achieve their own max potential? Sure it is. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be coaxed out of them by someone else willing to put in that effort. Some coaches can’t or won’t do that and they write off these athletes as lazy, soft, and not worth the effort. They’d rather coach a team of athletes that try their best any day. That’s a decision coaches have made on me all of my life. It’s a spectrum, too, it’s not all or nothing. A lazy but talented athlete can still have an incredible amount of grit, it’s just buried in there a little deeper.

This post was going to be a lesson recap and it is quickly veering off into sports psychology territory. I’m sorry, read on if you like! I have the unique experience of simultaneously riding these very different athletes and it is exposing many parts of my personality to me that I haven’t really thought about in quite awhile. The talent vs effort argument is as old as time and sure won’t be discussed in full in this simple post. I like to think I am the coach that would put the extra effort in for the type of athlete that needed it. I think I even prefer to coach this type of athlete. It’s not right or wrong- it’s one way of doing things- a personal strategy.

I look at Harley and I feel like he is the max effort guy. The one who gives 110% every time. But EquiNovice, isn’t THAT what you want?? That’s awesome! It is, or rather it CAN be. Sometimes he feels a little bit too much like Rudy. Go watch that movie if you haven’t, it’s a valuable pop-culture reference if nothing else. Rudy gets a happy ending and is finally rewarded for putting in the effort despite the various challenges he faces. For every talented, lazy athlete, there is a Rudy or some kind of iteration that falls more on the effort side of the spectrum. That’s not to say Harley isn’t talented, he’s arguably more talented than Louie, it’s more of an effort in the right direction issue, I think. Coaching this type of athlete requires different methods. I am personally less familiar with helping this type of athlete achieve their success but I would imagine it is much more about thoughtful channeling than harnessing.

One thing is pretty clear, you can’t try to make either one of these types of athletes into the other. You will fail and waste so much effort, time, and emotional resources trying.

Being much more comfortable understanding my own tendencies, I know I am failing Harley in many ways because I am trying and learning to be a good coach for him, but I easily make big mistakes and get frustrated trying to understand what makes him tick. In my head, I see this:

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To me, his evasions are in the form of bulldozing off in a million different directions with all the best intentions. I quickly run out of tools to coach this because in dealing with this much more frenetic type of personality I want to yell “Just STOP for a damn second!”  “Think!” and that is exactly the wrong way to help him succeed because that’s me trying to make him into something he’s not (but something I understand better). His answer to almost every question I pose is RUN because he truly thinks that might be the correct answer and all I want to do is rein him in. I have to adjust, but I don’t know how.

Those of you with horses more like Harley, help a sister out! Or if you were the type of athlete who always gave 100% tell me about your favorite coaches- how did they help you? What’s your take on the talent vs effort debate? Will one categorically get you farther or is it more about an adjusted development process on either side to get greatness out of both types? Where is your horse on this spectrum?