Thursday, 28 July 2016

Saddle Help!

I've been thinking that I may need a saddle change. I know that I might be embarking down a long and expensive road, and I'm willing to do that (maybe, kinda, sorta lol), but I need help.

My saddle on Luke, the simulator

There are many factors in this saddle story, but as a really brief overview: I have a Jaguar Dressage Saddle. I bought it used 7 years ago for a different horse and when I was a different size and shape than I am now. It was the only option that fit my horse at the time so was an easy choice. When I bought Kachina I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Jaguar fit her too, at least to the best I can tell. This summer, I began to wonder whether the Jaguar fit me as a rider. I've never bought a saddle with me in mind before, only the horse. I tip forward constantly and really struggle to sit back, that is almost certainly at least partially just me, but may also be to do with the saddle. The saddle may have too small a seat for me. The balance of the saddle may be off. Shimming the saddle may improve the balance for me, but may also make it worse for Kachina. The saddle isn't a bad fit for Kachina, but it may not fit her as well as it did when I first got her. I've never really ridden in another dressage saddle (other than brief trials), so have very little frame of reference.

Me, Ellie, and the Jaguar in 2009

Me, Kachina, and the Jaguar in 2016

So bottom line: My saddle may or may not work for me and my horse as is. Maybe my current saddle can be modified by reflocking, shimming, etc. Maybe I need to buy a new saddle. I need someone to help me determine these things.

Now, here's where the problem is. I don't know who to get to help me. I don't have a regular trainer. I don't know anyone I can borrow a dressage saddle from to try it. The only saddle fitters I know of are not truly independent and are also dealers for a specific saddlery (and I am cautious of completely taking someone's word when they have a conflict of interest, even if they have good intentions). Kachina is not super consistent under saddle, and I don't have a super consistent position, so the amount we can tell from short saddle trials is limited (I can tell bad from good, just maybe not good from great). I don't know where to start.


Do you have any advice for me? If you were in my position, where would you start? Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Shows Done, Clinics and Schooling Here We Come

I had to make a couple of hard realizations at the local show this last weekend; 1. My horse is not on the bit. 2. We are still a ways away from being able to do a good training level test. I can't even blame the show environment, as if I'm honest, I can see that Kachina isn't consistently there at home either. We've been working and improving on some things like relaxation, bend, canter transitions, and my position, but other things have suffered as a result. I feel like we're at one of those stages where things get worse before they get better (at least I'm hoping that's the case, because if it turns out that we're just making zero progress then that'll make me sad to say the least).

One of my goals for the year was to get out and show and go to new places and give Kachina exposure. I think I've succeeded at that. We've done 4 shows this year, and 4 other trips to new places to do new things. Both Kachina and I are now equally comfortable at a show grounds as we are at home (sometimes even more). I have my warm-up mostly figured out and I know I can pull Kachina out of her stall, hop right on and get her focused and working.

There's one more recognized bronze show on my calendar for 2 weeks from now. Part of me really wants to go. But part of me realizes that we won't be significantly better in two weeks than we are now, and it's silly to spend a bunch of money to have someone tell me to work on things that I already know I need to work on.

So, I'm making the hard decision to finish my show season now. I've done the showing for exposure thing, so now the next time I show, I want to do it to show off how great Kachina and I are and how well we can do a dressage test. That means lots of rides by myself working on transitions, half halts, connection, etc. It also means me getting as much instruction as I can arrange.

I'm already signed up for all 3-days of a clinic with Elaine Banfield on the first weekend of September. I'm also in the process of trying to get another dressage instructor to come down from Calgary to give a clinic here.

I'm excited for this phase. I don't have to worry about deadlines or getting ready for the next show, so I can break things back down to basics and slowly build them back up. We have a lot of the different pieces, but I need to put them together and develop a lot more consistent foundation. I'll let you know how it goes...

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Local Show Recap

This weekend was the local horse show (local of course being relative in my sparsely populated area). This is classified as an Open Breed Horse Show and offers a little bit of everything: Dressage, Western Dressage, Halter, Showmanship, English Performance, Hunters, Western Performance, Trail, Reining, Gymkhana, and even a Costume Class.

Even though it's not a recognized show, I make a point of trying to go every year I can, for a few reasons:
a) it's the only place I can show dressage that is less than 3 hours away
b) it's local, so I can sleep in my own bed at night and don't have to use much gas
c) it's a super friendly environment and I always have fun meeting and re-meeting other local horse folk
d) I think it's important to support the local show as if people don't enter, they won't be able to keep holding it
e) Nostalgia - this is a show that I watched and competed in as a kid, I spent several years living in other cities, and there's something cool about returning full circle to be back here showing as an adult.
f) It's cheap - as well as saving money on gas and hotel, entries are super reasonable at only $10 a class so why not?

Thursday


Thursday night, I bathed Kachina and hauled her to the show grounds.

I got to the show grounds fairly late, but there was just enough daylight left for a quick schooling ride in the warm-up arena. Kachina started off rushing, but we were able to get some lovely walk and trot in the end and I went to bed feeling pretty good about the next day.

Friday


Friday was dressage day. I was signed up for Walk/Trot test B, Training 2, and Training 3. My ride times were about 9:30, 10:30, and 11:30. Since I knew I'd probably stay on between my first and second test, I had planned on a fairly short warm-up before our walk/trot test. Unfortunately, when I got on, Kachina immediately refused to go forward. Kachina is a very very forward horse and so this was totally out of character for her. I tried getting her to just walk on a few times but she was seriously balking, she even kicked at the girth a few times and almost reared. I could tell something wasn't right and so I got off and scratched my first class.

Two tack resets and modifications later, she was finally back to her regular self. I still don't know what exactly was the problem, but something with the saddle or girth must have been pinching or somehow irritating her. I love my Ogilvy half pad but I do find that its thickness makes it hard to get the girth the right tightness so that may have been a factor. I've never had this problem with her before though.

Even though Kachina was finally going well, the previous issues really affected my mental game. I wasn't confident that the problem was completely solved and I couldn't stop worrying and focus on doing my warm-up. I walked around for a ridiculous length of time because I couldn't get myself to work on the trot. I was seriously considering scratching for the entire day. Finally, I got over myself and got to work, schooling the trot and canter. We've been working on canter transitions recently so Kachina was really anticipating them and was getting tight in the trot or going into canter by herself. Her canter transitions were nice though so I didn't want to punish her for them. I decided that we were going to go into the ring and attempt the test, but I wasn't going to worry about the canter part of the test. If we did it, great, but even if we just trotted or got the wrong lead, I wasn't going to stress. This was a day where just getting into the ring was a success.

We did get into the ring and we did our tests including the canter. The trot work was quite tense though. Kachina kept wanting to transition up so we did a couple of unintended canter transitions. We also had one corner of part walk, part trot, part canter, I'm not even sure what her legs were doing as it really felt like a combination of all 3 gaits. We had the wrong lead to the right and just did a circle of counter-canter, but we got a lovely canter transition to the left. We got a deserved score of 54% and lots of comments about tension and above the bit. The second test was much the same and scored a 53%, though there were some nicer moments.

Before my first test - Kachina is hollow and above the bit,
but I'm actually sitting back (we'll celebrate the small victories lol)

My hand and arm position needs work, but in both the tests and the warm-ups I succeeded in not tipping forward and not hanging on her mouth, those are huge wins for me especially when I'm tense, so yay!

My non-horsey friend M came to watch my last test and we went out for lunch after I had put Kachina away. That was a nice distraction and helped me to not dwell on my disappointing performance. I wish we could have done better, but Kachina was trying to please, and I do think just getting into the ring was a success that day.

I came and went from the show grounds a few times that day, chatted with other riders, checked on Kachina, hosed her down, and took her out for walks and hand grazing. The stall was small, only 8'x8' but Kachina handled it like an old pro.

Saturday


Saturday was the English Performance and Hunter classes. I was entered into English Pleasure, English Equitation, Road Hack, and Show Hack.

The very first class of the day at 8am was English Pleasure. I got on to warm up with plenty of time to spare and was pleased that whatever tack issues we had the day before were not being repeated. Our warm-up was pretty good, but Kachina was still anticipating the canter whenever we trotted. We did get correct leads both directions though.

When we got into the English Pleasure class, Kachina was hot to trot. It's a massive arena (it's built for chuckwagon races), and she wanted to trot instead of walk and canter instead of trot. We had a few times where she broke gait upwards, and we had to try a couple times to get the right canter lead. It was such a disaster that I just had to laugh. Needless to say, we didn't place.

The massive arena (this was taken on western day)

After English Pleasure, I went back to do some more schooling. At this point, the warm-up ring had been transitioned to the trail arena, so the only place to work was on the track, which was hard, sloped, and not ideal. I was able to get some really good work out of Kachina there though. We trotted circles and were able to get a more relaxed headset and rhythm with no cantering. We also got come nice correct lead departures and were able to go back to nice trotting afterwards. I was super happy with this ride even though it wasn't in the show ring.

Next up was English Equitation. In this class, you have to do a combination of rail work and a pattern. I looked at the pattern and it was as follows:
1. Walk from A to B
2. At B, turn on the forehand 90' to the right
3. Canter left lead in a half circle from B to C
4. Rising trot in half circle right from C to D
5. Canter right lead in half circle from D to C
6. Rising trot in half circle left from C to B
7. Halt at B and back one horse length

We struggle with trot to canter transitions, so I saw that we were supposed to do two canter transitions, one from a halt, and I just about scratched. In fact, I did scratch, but then I realized that this was the smallest class I had during the show and I wanted a ribbon, even if it was a pity default ribbon, so I decided to go for it. Of course, once I entered the ring I found out that there were more entries than I thought and there wouldn't be a default ribbon anyways haha.

We did the rail work first and Kachina was actually awesome! We wobbled in our right canter transition but we stayed in the gait we were supposed to at all times so yay! Also, it being an equitation class, sitting trot was one of the commands and we can totally rock that!

Then came time for the pattern. It was a pretty tight pattern and nobody found it super easy. I did some trot steps for the first canter transition, but I got both leads properly and our turn on the forehand was perfect! We ended up with a 5th place ribbon. I felt it was a well deserved ribbon and was really happy with it.

Green is totally our colour

Next came road hack and show hack. These are also rail classes but they ask for more gaits and tougher transitions. Road Hack had walk, walk on a loose rein, normal trot, strong trot, canter, extended canter, hand gallop, and a halt directly from extended canter. Show Hack had walk, normal trot, collected trot, extended trot, normal canter, collected canter, and extended canter. I was so proud of Kachina during these classes. She was right with me and super adjustable. Despite the fact that we haven't worked on it much lately, she had a clear difference between the collected, normal, and extended gaits. I actually thought we might place, but they were big classes and we had a couple bobbles that I guess were enough to keep us out of the ribbons. Also, in every class, I knew and felt genuinely happy for several of the riders who came out ahead, so it was pretty hard to be bitter about them beating me.

With that, I was done for the day, and it wasn't even noon. I untacked, Kachina got lots of treats and some hand grazing, I packed up, cleaned out the stall, and hauled home. The awesome thing about showing locally was that I didn't have a long drive ahead of me and I was able to be home by mid-afternoon and put my feet up with a cider and pizza (just because I was home, didn't mean I felt like cooking!).

We might not have had the success I wanted in the show ring, but I was happy with Kachina, and had a great weekend with some wonderful local riders. We'll be back again next year.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Writing-on-Stone Part III

Sorry, getting behind on my posting here. This will be the last part of the Writing-on-Stone weekend, and then I have a show from this weekend to recap and a few other posts sitting in the drafts folder.

Saturday's Ride


Okay, so when we left off Part II, there had been a several hour delay of our ride due to rain, I had lost my phone in the river, but we were finally ready to hit the trail for Saturday's ride!

Playing in the river on Saturday morning
All photos courtesy of S

We started the ride going the opposite direction from yesterday, we climbed a hill, wove through some rocks and came back down to the river to cross in a different spot. S had decided to sit this ride out. Kachina isn't usually herd-bound at all, but as the first part of the ride kind of circled around the rodeo grounds, Kachina was very concerned that she could see SK back at the trailer and that she wasn't coming with. She kept whinnying and was not focused enough on me. So, when we got to the uphill part, she didn't listen to my directions to follow the trail, and instead started going straight up a much steeper part of the hill. I really didn't want Kachina to come over backwards or slip so I gave her some rein and tried to steer her with my legs as best I could while I pitched myself forward to keep us balanced. We made it up the hill and back to the trail okay, but there was one leap where the horn of the saddle hit my stomach really hard. It hurt for the rest of the ride but I figured I was just being soft. Later that night, I looked at it and it was already swollen, purple, and bleeding, so I didn't feel like such a wussy! It actually really hurt all week and made bending over or sitting up difficult, it's finally getting back to normal now though.

It was on this hill, just going up instead of down

After the steep uphill and weaving back downhill, we got to the river. Like on Friday, there was a pretty long wait both before and after the river while we waited for everyone to cross a couple at a time. Kachina was extra distracted during these waits and would not stand still. We could still hear SK and the other horses back at camp whinnying and that didn't help. This was probably my most frustrating part of the weekend.

The river crossing itself was much deeper than the one the day before. I'm not sure whether all the rain had made the river level rise or whether it was just because we were crossing in a different place. The water went up to the bottom of Kachina's western saddle pad (but luckily, it was an inch below the top of my muck boots so my feet stayed dry!). Other people with shorter horses or who took slightly different paths got their butts wet. Kachina was awesome about the river crossing though. It helped that the banks here were sandy instead of mud. One horse still started leaping through the river though and a second rider on the weekend ended up falling off into the water. We got that horse caught, the rider back on, and carried on.

Muddy water horse

After the river, we went up a gradual slope up to the top of the coulees. Here we rode along nice flat grassland with crop fields on one side and a steep drop off back to the coulee on the other side. We were able to spread out here and move at a good forward pace. From the high ground there was an excellent view of the Montana Sweetgrass Hills. At one point, Kachina suddenly stopped dead. I didn't see anything ahead or on the ground that would make her hesitate so I bumped her forward. It took me about two steps to figure out that I had no contact. One side of my headstall had come apart and the bit was hanging completely out of Kachina's mouth! I somehow got Kachina stopped and got her to bend her neck enough so I could grab onto her halter and then dismount. A few people saw what was happening and stopped with me (thanks awesome people!). The chicago screw was completely gone. I had bought this headstall fairly recently and it was my first one with chicago screws so I hadn't thought to pack extra. Luckily, one of the other riders has some twine on hand and I was able to tie the bridle back together. This incident is one of the reasons Kachina gets the title of bestest horse, as this so easily could have been a wreck if Kachina hadn't stopped for me. Once I got the bridle fixed, I had to get back on. I always use a mounting block at home. And even back at camp I had mounted up by standing on a bucket. For most of the trail, I would have been able to use a hill or rock to give me a step up, but this was the flattest field of the whole trip. I might have been able to get on from the ground after enough attempts, but luckily one of the outriders came to my rescue and dismounted to give me a leg up. I was embarrassed but extremely grateful.

Bestest horse needs some practice posing for photos

By the time I was back on, me and the group who had stopped with me were fairly far behind the rest of the pack. We did some power walking and some trotting and got caught up. I haven't had much of a chance to trot on the trail before and so was glad for the excuse. Kachina was awesome.

Bestest horse not impressed with forced posing

We got towards the end of one of the coulee fingers and rode down a steep trail through the rocks to get to the bottom. The rock formations were super cool, but there were some steep steps down that were a little scary. Once we were out of sight of camp, Kachina had focused back on me and so she was foot perfect. At this point was where a couple other riders decided to use Kachina as a lead horse for them as she was being so steady. These ladies were more experienced trail riders than me, and it made me so proud of my girl that she was considered the steady eddy horse. Kachina also doesn't care if a horse is right on her tail and so that helps a lot. At least three people used Kachina as a lead through tricky spots on the ride and I was honoured but also felt extra responsibility to keep Kachina at as even a pace as possible.

Being tailed

Once we got to the bottom of the coulee, we wound through belly deep grasses and bushes and crossed the small creek four or five times. The creek was shallow and only a few strides wide, but it was still challenging. In a few places the banks were quite steep, both in and out. Also, the water was disconcerting to the horses as once a few had gone through, the mud would churn up and make the water a deep black that the horses couldn't judge the depth of. Kachina was actually good with the black water, but there were two places where there was deep mud and Kachina did a giant leap up the far bank to get out of it. The first time I was very close to being unseated, but I stayed on. The second time I was better prepared, but I still couldn't stop her from leaping.

Some of the scenery we passed through was absolutely gorgeous, but my only camera had been my phone so I was only able to take mental images.

After winding through the creek, we made our way up and down the coulee sides a few more times. Kachina was really good both uphill and downhill. At one point we were riding on top of a ridge and could see our camp in the distance down below so that was cool. Even though SK started whinnying, Kachina didn't reply and stayed focused on me.

Throughout most of the ride, I was pretty proud of myself as a rider. I don't have much experience riding on that kind of terrain, but I felt I did a good job of supporting Kachina when I needed to and giving her rein when she needed it. I also stayed calm and relaxed. However, when we got to the last descent, I got nervous. It was windy path where you couldn't see the problem areas until you were on top of it. It started at the top of the hill, where there was a narrow gap between two towering rocks, and only room for one hoof between rocks at the bottom. Right after the gap was a steep downhill.

Here's my crappy illustration of what it looked like. I know the one leg looks awkward,
but that mirrors what I felt while going through it, like "where does the other leg go?!"
There were some other places where there were big flat rocks across the path, like the one SK had fallen on, or places where there was a super steep part and rocks or drop offs on either side so you only had a narrow path you could stay on. In total there were 4 or 5 places within a 10 minute stretch where my heart was in my throat and I just wanted to turn back, but of course couldn't. During these times, I wasn't relaxed and supporting, I was terrified and needed Kachina to get me through instead of the other way around. And she did! Kachina was careful, methodical, completely sure footed, and she carried me through every challenge. Bestest horse title clinched!

Coming back to camp

We crossed the river again in the same place as the way out, and retraced our steps for the last section of trail back to camp. Once we got close, Kachina and SK started a loud vibrant conversation with each other, but at least this time Kachina also listened to me and we made it through the last hills unscathed.

Much whinnying on our return

Note: Kachina is a rockstar with going down hills. She rocks back on to her haunches and walks evenly down with no rushing or slipping. I was thinking about how good that is for building her dressage collection muscles!

"Okay, I'm back with my friend, now I will relax and grab mouthfuls of grass"

Saturday Evening


Soon after I had Kachina untacked and put away, it was time for supper. Supper on Saturday was provided and was "Burn Your Own Steak", they had 5 barbeques set up and a cooler full of raw 8oz striploin steaks. We got to grab a steak and cook it ourselves so it was done to our own specifications and was ready when we were. It was an awesome idea. Trying to cook steaks for that many people and keep them warm would have been a challenge to say the least. Having us cook them ourselves was genius! To go with the steak were baked potatoes, homemade coleslaw, beans, and pie. It was a delicious feast, though we ate it crammed under the small shelter as another storm came through right after I took my steak off the bbq. We had more good conversation with good people, including a girl who does competitive trail riding and had some cool stories.

The rain on Saturday was a lot less than the rain on Friday, and it stopped soon after supper. I tacked up again and S and I went on a low key ride around the rodeo grounds. I was glad I brought my dressage saddle as my belly didn't want to get anywhere near that western horn again! We had a pleasant ride and then settled the horses down for the night. I was exhausted from the day and the lack of sleep the night before so I called it a night pretty early.

Beautiful sunset ride by the river, ruined by Kachina's expression :-P

Sunday


After a Much better sleep, I woke up refreshed in the morning. We finally had blue skies and sun and the temperature climbed quickly. Kachina was super chill in her pen and I even caught her dozing (I never see her lying down!).

Sleepy pony

Sunday's trail ride was due to start at 10am, but we talked to the organizer and it sounded like it was going to be the toughest route of the weekend. S and I decided to skip the organized ride and do another easy hack around the rodeo grounds instead. We packed up all our camping gear, and then tacked up for our ride. During the ride, we wandered down to the river. Nobody had been in the river for a while so the silt was a bit more settled than the day before. I still thought my phone was a complete goner, but from the vantage point of Kachina's back, I thought I saw a glint of blue in the murky water. I jumped off, waded in, and found my phone! It was a perfect end to a perfect weekend.

Picture from Friday, but the smile says what a great weekend I had!

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Writing-on-Stone Part II

Part I

Saturday Morning


I didn't get much sleep on Friday night thanks to the perpetual noise of rain and thunder and the persistent dampness. I wasn't exactly chipper by the time Saturday morning came, but I was determined to "fake it until you make it". I started the business of dressing in the best rain clothes I had, filling water buckets, preparing breakfast, and getting ready for the ride. Saturday was scheduled to be the long ride of 6 hours, split into two groups, one at 9am and one at 10am. I was in the 9am group.

As 9am approached, I had my saddle bags packed and was ready to tack up quickly, but held off on pulling off Kachina's rainsheet until closer to the time. It was still raining, but at least not pouring as much as the night before. I figured that we would still be riding, but just choose a modified route or something. However, I was seeing a distinct lack of activity from other camps around us so I wasn't sure.



Right before 9am, the organizer drove around in her truck and gave us the down low. There wasn't really a route that we could safely take in the mud and rain. The trail we were going to take was going to be completely off the table for the weekend after that much rain. Other routes were still a possibility for the afternoon, but the rain had to stop, and there needed to be at least a couple hours of clear skies to dry things out enough to be safe. It made sense, a couple horses is one thing, but with such a large group, the mud would be bad and the trails would get pretty torn up. I appreciated that they were making the cautious decision.

We ended up having a group meeting soon after to discuss options for the day. The nearby campground and interpretive centre had some programming going on that we could join in on and the organizers would shuttle us up there if we wanted. A number of people went, but S and I wanted to stay closer to the horses to keep an eye on them. I was sad the ride was postponed, but I was tired enough where sitting on my camp chair didn't seem like a bad plan. We hung out around the campsite. It was still raining lightly, but at this point I was thoroughly decked out in rain gear, complete with emergency plastic poncho, and muck boots, so I didn't really care. Kachina and SK were totally chill and kept having droopy eyes so we left them where they were. S and I had lots of good conversation and the morning passed by quickly.


Around noon, the rain finally stopped and some blue sky appeared. We were enjoying drying out and warming up. Then, beyond the bend of the rodeo grounds we could hear some yells of "whoa". There were clearly some people already there so we didn't immediately move, but then I could hear some more "whoa"s and could tell that whatever horse was loose wasn't being immediately caught. We got up and started walking that direction to help. When we rounded the water truck, we could see that 4 bay horses, all without halters were loose. There were 3 or 4 people surrounding them, but they didn't have anything to catch the horses with and so were basically at a stalemate. I turned back to grab some spare halters. As I was on the way back to our campsite, the horses blew through the circle and started running towards one side of the rodeo grounds. I grabbed 3 halters and leads and started trying to head them off. Four loose horses is tough, as even if a few stop, if the other starts running again they will all follow. I spent a lot of time wading though almost waist deep wild rose bushes and getting soaked, trying to come at them from the right direction. Another girl grabbed a bucket of grain and with that we were able to catch one and then the rest. There was a moment of confusion once we caught them, because it turned out that none of us who were holding them were actually the owners, we got it figured out though.

It turns out that all 4 horses were from the same barn, and 3 of them were pen-mates. The three pen-mates were loose together in a portable corral of metal panels, and the other mare was in a separate electric fence corral beside them. The mare had spooked at something and had gone right through the electric fence. That created a chain reaction and the other 3 busted one of their corral panels and escaped as well. Three of the owners had gone to the interpretive centre, and the remaining guy had just checked on the horses and they were fine so he just took a quick trip down to the river when they escaped. We held the horses as he reset the panels. We looked the horses over and none seemed to be any worse for wear. It's very lucky that things ended as they did. For one, the horses could have easily been injured running through their portable corrals, but second, the rodeo grounds isn't fully fenced off and if they had made it out to the hills, we'd have been chasing them for days.

Soon after the excitement with the loose horses, the organizer again came around and told us to be at the gate, ready to ride out at 2pm!

Since it was still a while until 2pm, S and I decided to lead the horses down to the river access at the rodeo grounds and let them splash around a bit. Both mares were totally cool with the water and were almost dragging us too far into the river. I took my phone out of my pocket to document the moment. I had a thought in the back of my mind that pulling out my phone wasn't a smart idea, but reassured myself that my phone was waterproof so it would be okay. Sure enough, I listened to the wrong voice, and as I was taking the first photo, Kachina yanked on the lead rope and my phone tumbled out of my hands into the river. Well guess what, having a waterproof phone is zero help if you can't find it! I was standing in only about 18" of water but the Milk River isn't named the Milk River because it's clear, it's a murky milky brown from the fine silt in the area. I couldn't make out the bottom at all. I tried to mark my spot where I had dropped my phone and handed Kachina off to S. I then spent the next half an hour swearing and slowly combing the bottom of the river bed with my hands, trying to feel for my phone. The problem was, I had no idea where it might be. First, with holding Kachina, I didn't know exactly where I had been standing, just an approximate. Second, half the river bed was deep soft silt and I didn't know if my phone would sink down into it or not. Third, there was a pretty strong current and I didn't know if it would be enough to move my phone downstream. Fourth, I was at the edge of where the river started to get deeper and my phone may have tumbled down the underwater slope into the middle of the river where it was too deep for me to use my hands to feel the bottom. There were too many factors and so I had to resign myself that my phone was probably gone forever. I was really sad to lose the photos and memos and stuff on my phone, but at least I knew my contract was up and I had the extended care coverage, so one way or another I'd be able to get a new phone without paying through the nose. I was so frustrated with myself for being so stupid though!

The last picture my phone took as it was falling towards the river

Anyways, by this point it was getting to be time to tack up so I left my phone in the river and brought Kachina back to the campsite.

I guess Saturday's ride will be covered in Part III! (still hoping to get some media from other people)

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Writing-On-Stone Part I

Alright, prior warning, this is going to be a monster post, if you want just the highlights, see Weekend in Numbers.

Background


In January, I saw on Facebook an event for a trail riding trip to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park. The ride was organized as an official AQHA trail ride event, but was open to any one and any type of equine. My friend S and I regularly go for hacks on the roads and fields around the barn, but we had been itching to go ride somewhere else and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. We jumped on it and mailed in our registrations. The event had a huge amount of interest. Even though it was January and the ride wasn't until July, all 50 spots filled up in less than 2 weeks and there were enough people on the waiting list that they created a second ride for a following weekend.

For those of you not familiar with Writing-on-Stone, it is a Provincial Park and a National Historic Site. It is protected for both it's natural landscape and for it's cultural and historic importance. Writing-on-Stone is located in Southern Alberta and pretty far from civilization. Most of Alberta's streams and rivers flow either East to Hudson's Bay, or North to the Arctic Ocean, however the Milk River is actually part of the Mississippi River system and it flows South, eventually reaching the Gulf of Mexico. The park consists of natural grasslands, plus dramatic coulees, hoodoos and other rock formations where glaciers carved through sandstone. The Sweetgrass hills in Montana can be clearly seen from the park and shows just how close it is to the US border. The area is important to the Blackfoot people, and there are archaelogical sites and rock carvings and paintings that were done by First Nations people thousands of years ago. There was also an outpost of the Northwest Mounted Police here back in the day. More information available here if you're interested. Because of all this, you can only ride in the area if you are on a guided tour, and only 2 or 3 groups of horse riders are allowed in each year.

File:MilkriverAB.JPG
Creative Commons image from Wikipedia (by Wheateater) of Writing-on-Stone,
showing the Milk River, and some of the Sweetgrass hills in the background

Even if it wasn't for the restrictions, there's no way I would ever ride here without a guide. There are game trails, but no actual trails and only years of experience with the area allows you to know where the safe places are to cross the river and make your way through the rocks and hills. They don't call it the badlands for nothing.

Camp


Our basecamp was located at the Writing-on-Stone rodeo grounds. The grounds are located in a curve of the Milk River and has flat land to camp, a rodeo arena, and a covered bbq area. There are no services of any kind (no electricity, no cell service, no plumbing, there were two port-a-potties for washrooms, and a water truck for water for the horses).

Our camp with our puny little tents

We had to figure out our own way to keep our horses overnight. When I signed up for the ride originally, I thought that there were permanent pens at the rodeo grounds that we could use. Unfortunately, I found out a week before the ride that that wasn't the case and had to do a mad scramble to figure out a Plan B. I ended up buying four Hi-Hog portable horse panels. I cleaned the local co-op out of their entire stock so I got their last 3 normal panels and their one-off bright pink one! The panels were expensive and I was not happy at the unexpected cost, but they are a good design, nice and sturdy, and fit into my trailer perfectly. The panels created a decent size pen for Kachina and I had a lot of peace of mind knowing that she could move around and lie down as she wanted. Now that I have the panels I will have to search out more trail rides to use them on!

Kachina's home for the weekend

My friend S kept her horse (who's name also starts with K, so let's call her SK) tied to the trailer overnight, with a long enough lead for her to move around and eat and drink, but not trip up with (SK is a lot better behaved with being tied than Kachina is!).

SK at the trailer
S and I slept in tiny little tents. They worked fine, but we were jealous of all the fancy rigs around us, especially when it was raining buckets!

Fancy rig across from us

The Group


There were 50 riders and horses on the ride. I was struck by what a diverse group it was, of both humans and equines. There were all ages from two juniors, up to two people over 70 years old. There was a pretty even split between men and women (can't say that for dressage shows!). The horses included mules, arabs, thoroughbreds, quarter horses, standardbreds, appaloosas, paints, draft crosses, etc.

Part of the group

There was one large group of people who came together from the Bowden Horse Club, but for the most part there were smaller groups and pairs of people. We met and chatted with some really genuinely nice folks from across Alberta and even BC and Saskatchewan.

More of the group

Most people were in Western tack, and so was I (it's just more suited to attaching a breast collar and saddle bags, wading through a river, etc), but there were also a couple of endurance saddles in the mix. I saw one girl with a dressage saddle and got excited, but she just likes having a lighter saddle to hoist up on her tall horse, she doesn't actually ride dressage. Some people were clearly very seasoned trail riders, but there were plenty of horses and riders who weren't used to the challenges of the trail and usually do something else.

One of the waits on the trail

One thing that impressed me was the number of helmets. Usually in the western world, you don't see many helmets. I was going to wear mine regardless, but I was prepared to be one of the only ones who did. Instead, a full half of the group were wearing helmets. Baseball caps and cowboy hats made up the remainder (and a couple of the mule riders had hats big enough to call sombreros!).

Friday


We had packed up most of our stuff on Thursday night, and so Friday morning we just had to load the people food and the horses. We got to Writing-on-Stone just after noon, and had lots of time to set up camp and settle in before the pre-ride meeting at 3:30pm. Immediately after the meeting and introductions, we all tacked up and left for our first ride at about 4pm.

Super beautiful area with lots of cool rock formations

At the pre-ride meeting we were told that the first ride would just be about an hour and a half, and we got the impression it would be a pretty low key first ride. Well, that wasn't quite the case.

We left the rodeo grounds and pretty quickly came to the river crossing. I've never done a river crossing with Kachina, but was doing a pretty good job of telling myself and S that it would be okay and we didn't need to stress. Then, about three horses before me, a young mare on her first river crossing decided to buck and rear and leap through the river. The guy riding bounced pretty good in the saddle and came off about halfway across. He kept a hold of the reins and got back on, only to be unseated into the water a second time. He never let go of his horse and they got across in the end. He was completely soaked but was a super good sport about it and had no qualms about continuing the ride. After he was back on his horse on the other bank, the group continued crossing. I was getting nervous about crossing myself, but figured that I could use the solid looking appy in front of me as a lead and we'd be okay. Of course, said appy balked pretty good about entering the water too. I prepared myself for the worst but looked up and kicked on. Kachina was a bit unsteady, but she behaved herself and we made it across in one piece. This crossing was only up to the bottom of my stirrups, though people with longer legs and/or shorter horses got their boots wet.

Waiting around after the river crossing

On the other side of the river, we stopped while everyone else made it across the river, a few horses at a time. There were 43 horses on Friday's ride, so that takes a while, especially when not all the horses want to go. Standing around waiting was by far the toughest thing for Kachina and I all weekend, and the first ride was the hardest. Kachina is pretty steady when you let her go forward, but make her stand for too long and she starts dancing around and tossing her head pretty good. I definitely wasn't the only one having this problem. Once the whole group was across, our guide started on this long story about the northwest mounted police who had lived in this little cabin by the river's edge. It would have been interesting another time, but in this situation, me and a few other riders were just praying he would stop talking so we could get our horses moving.

The old Northwest Mounted Police outpost

Next up, was going down and up to cross a pretty deep dry gully. This was our first taste of really having to lean back going down and lean forward and give the horse their head on the way up. I know how to ride hills on horseback in theory, but the terrain around the barn is very flat so I don't get much practice. At the pre-ride meeting we were told the story of one rider who let her horse run up a steep hill, and when the lady behind them tried to stop her horse from following, she inadvertantly pulled her horse back on top of her and had to be flown out on a medi-vac helicopter. It was a good warning, and I was very careful to not let Kachina run up hills but at the same time make sure not to pull on her. We made it through the gully okay, but a few horses later I looked back and all I could see was a horse leaping out of the gully at a run, minus their rider. We got the horse caught, the rider back on, and carried on.

After that, we traveled down a coulee valley along narrow single track beside steep drop offs. The drop offs weren't that far down, but one misplaced hoof and you and your horse would still be in for a tumble. I was super grateful that there weren't any long waits while we were on this part of the trail. Kachina was listening very well to me and allowed me to steer her along precise zig zags and keep her back from the red-ribboned tail in front of us. S had her mare right behind us for the whole ride as Kachina doesn't care and it helps SK to stay in control.

I didn't take photos of the dicey parts of the trail for obvious reasons, so here's Kachina 

We got to one place with a bit of a grassy slope where we again were standing around for another story and waiting for who knows what. There was a steep hill on one side, and a drop off, with a cliff going up on the other side. Kachina was pretty antsy again but this was the fourth or fifth stop of the ride at this point and she was better than she had been near the river. The area was filled with wild sage and it smelled amazing. The group started to move off again in single-file. We were stuck near the back, so by the time we were leaving the grassy area, we could see the first riders riding up on top of where the cliff was across from us. They were quite high compared to us and I didn't have a good feeling about what kind of hill must be around the bend. We got to the end of the valley and the trail turned sharply to go uphill. the first part was steep but manageable. Then there was this big piece of sandstone embedded into the hill, it was big enough where the horses couldn't step over or around it and had to go over. Kachina was surefooted on it, but the change of surface made her hesitate a little. It was only a split second, but unfortunately, that hesitation happened as SK was stepping onto the rock behind us. She's an older horse and doesn't have quite the same range of motion in her joints to recover from losing her footing. SK slipped and fell down, completely down on all 4 legs. There was a couple of terrifying seconds where S could see her horse's legs splayed out in different directions and thought the worst. An outrider who was supervising the hill climb yelled at S to get off, and her mare scrambled to her feet and started up the hill on her own. SK passed by Kachina and I and I could see that she was sound and okay. We followed her up to a flat section, caught her, and I held SK until S made it up to us on foot. We later learned that another horse slipped and fell on that same rock after us (they were also okay).

S and SK looking dapper

When we reached the top of the hill we were riding across flat prairie and it was a nice break. Of course S's stirrup decided to break and fall off completely. We got it fixed and carried on. Kachina got to show off her power walk as we motored across the grass to catch up the rest of the group.

The rest of the ride was less eventful. We came down from the prairie back to the low land. We went back across the gully and retraced our steps across the river and back to camp. That gully seemed a lot easier the second time around compared to the bigger hills we had encountered.

SK in the middle of a head toss, lol!

All in all it was about a three hour ride. It wasn't a super difficult ride, but certainly challenging enough for our level of group, and less of a cake walk than we expected for this first ride.

During the ride, we could see storm clouds roll in and thunder and lightening start in the distance. The rain gratefully held off just long enough for us to get back to camp and peel our saddles off, but then the downpour started. It started raining at around 7pm, and other than two brief reprieves, it didn't stop until about noon the next day.

We had a lot of this kind of sky

That much rain doesn't make for very fun tenting. We did what we had to outside, but took cover in the truck or trailer when the rain intensified. We abandoned plans to bbq chicken for supper and cobbled together things that were easier to prepare in the rain. Once we dove inside our tents at night, we did our best to not have to come out again.

Taking refuge from sideways rain inside the truck

I was glad I had decided to set up my tent with the door facing Kachina's pen. Throughout the night, I sat up frequently and cracked the corner of the zipper to make sure that Kachina was doing okay.  That night was quite the test for her rain sheet, but it seemed to keep her dry. She did really well in the pen and was eating and drinking nicely.

My view out of my tent!

This is already a novel, so I'll wrap up this post here and continue with Saturday and Sunday in Part II!

Monday, 18 July 2016

Weekend in Numbers

(idea for post format stolen from Steph at Hand Gallop)

This weekend was the trip of a lifetime, a 3-day trail riding trip through Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, a beautiful and sacred area full of history and dramatic scenery. It was an eventful weekend to say the least, some good, some bad.

First ride on Friday, before the torrential rains started

The weekend in numbers:

75 - age of the oldest rider on the ride
56 - hours spent off-grid with no internet and no cell service - it was a nice break actually
50 - number of horses and riders on the trip
24 - hours that my phone spent at the bottom of the Milk River (but I found it!)
9 - age of youngest rider on the ride
8 - hours of riding
8 - oz of delicious Alberta steak we got for supper on Saturday
7 - loose horses I saw and helped catch on the weekend (3 after dumping their riders, 4 after they spooked and blew through the temporary fencing)
6 - alcoholic beverages consumed
5 - thunderstorms that hit us (so much rain!)
4 - river crossings (2 that were deep enough to reach the bottom of the saddle pad)
4 - mules on the ride
3 - groups who were tenting on the weekend (including me and my friend), everyone else had LQ trailers, motorhomes or other RVs
2 - people who fell off into the river
2 - huge leaps Kachina made through deep mud
1 - bruise and cut on my stomach from the horn on a particularly steep hill
1 - tack mishap whereby I found myself with no contact in the middle of a ride after my bridle broke and the bit was dangling completely out of Kachina's mouth! (baler twine to the rescue!)
1 - bestest horse who I got to ride all weekend - Kachina was a champ!
0 - number of times I fell off

Full recap and photos to come

Thursday, 14 July 2016

A Bad Day

Groundwork is a constant work in progress with Kachina. She's gotten better in lots of ways, but earlier this week we had a bad day that highlighted how far we still need to come.

I put Kachina out in the pasture last Thursday. I had been out a couple times to check on her in the pasture and make sure everything was good, but Monday was the first time I had pulled her out to actually do anything with her. The pasture kind of forms a big L-shape around the rest of the property so Kachina's new herd-mates were able to run around and whinny at her from multiple directions around where I groom. Of course Kachina couldn't possibly focus on me when her friends were screaming at her from a new direction so she was a pawing mess at the outside hitching post. After getting her to stop pawing for a minute, I untied her and did some lunging work around me near the hitching post to get Kachina's focus back. This actually worked pretty well and Kachina started paying attention to me and licking and chewing. I had just tied her back and was starting to clean her feet when the dark clouds blew in quickly and the downpour started.

We fled inside into the indoor arena. Kachina is fine about being lunged or ridden in the indoor arena, but she gets quite tense when asked to stand or tie in there. That problem is compounded several times when torrential rains are making a racket on the roof. And knowing her new pasture buddies were outside waiting for her probably didn't help matters either.

All that meant that Kachina was a mess. Grooming, having her stand without pawing or trying to run me over, putting the saddle on, putting the bridle on, leading, buckling the noseband, tightening the girth, it was all a fight.

I did my best to make it into a training session. I had zero tolerance for her swinging her body into me and firmly insisted she stay out of my space. I did a million minor corrections for every time she tried to walk away or move her head while I was trying to tack up. I generally have a lot of patience, I think it's my best feature as a horse person, but I'm not going to lie, it was frustrating.

Bad days are sometimes the best for learning though. This day was the same day as my riding lesson with T. T is great with groundwork and was able to give my some new techniques to use when Kachina gets to that level of blocking me out. Despite the frustrations, we did make some positive headway, and if I can get Kachina to show some manners on a day when there's a perfect storm of factors working against us (both figuratively and literally), I can do it any day. I'm sure glad it's not always that hard though.  

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Reining Lesson #2

(Not a true reining lesson, just a lesson with a reiner because we don't have a dressage trainer, previous lesson was two and a half weeks ago)

I had another lesson with the barn owner T this week. I wanted to work more on canter transitions, but Kachina was pretty tense so we ended up doing a lot of work at the trot and didn't get to the canter. That's sometimes just how it goes and it was still a good lesson.

The theme of the day was to let go of my outside rein. At the walk, I can ride with any length of rein I choose, from a fairly short frame, to completely loose on the buckle. However, at the trot, I can't seem to be able to give up my reins. It's a self-fulfilling cycle whereby Kachina gets tense, bunches up, and starts to race at the trot so I need my reins, but I'm using my reins too much with contributes to Kachina getting tense. Additionally, I overuse my outside rein compared to my inside so I end up tipping her nose to the outside and the counterbend helps nobody.

T had me loosen my outside rein and hold my outside hand forward so that the rein was on the edge of being floppy. This of course isn't how you ride in dressage, and it shows T's reining background. However, as T explained, I don't need to ride like this forever, I just need to do it long enough to kick my habit of relying on the reins too much. Instead, I need to make sure that I am sitting back, relaxed in my seat, and looking up to keep Kachina's speed and direction under control. My inside rein shouldn't stay tight either but if I can squeeze on it as much as needed to make sure I'm maintaining the correct bend and can see Kachina's inside eye. Pretty much all we worked on was doing a calm circle of trot with keeping my outside rein loose, but that was SO HARD!

The fact that it was so difficult to give up my outside rein shows that I am too reliant on it. The outside rein is a very important tool in dressage, but if I can't control how much I am using it, I can't use it as an effective tool. This is a good wake up call.

Google made an automatic panorama compilation of three photos I took of
Kachina running in the pasture - I think it looks pretty cool!

In striving for a relaxed trot with a loose rein, I was doing walk transitions every time Kachina was getting too fast and away from me. There were several times where T was telling me my reins were too tight and my excuse was that they were tight for that time because I was asking for a downward transition. Kachina is quite good at listening to my seat, but I can't get her to transition down off my seat alone, it does need some rein. However, it shouldn't be taking me multiple strides to get her to come down to walk. The fact that this was happening didn't really click with me until the end of the lesson but it's an important realization. Regardless of how tense she is or how loose my reins are, I should be able to get Kachina to slow right up the second I ask. It might not be a nice balanced transition on the bit (for now), but her response to me asking needs to be a lot more immediate. Really, with Kachina, it's probably better to have her almost over-react to a slow down command, so that I can add more leg later. I've inadvertently been allowing Kachina to become dead to my half halts so that needs to stop now. A lot of prompt transitions are in our future.

I know training horses and ourselves as riders is not a steady even progression, but it's annoying to figure out that I've recreated past problems while working on improving something else (we had developed a better half halt before). On the bright side, I've already mostly eliminated doing that thing where I lift my inside arm up and bring it across my body that T called me out on last lesson.

Monday, 11 July 2016

Pasture Dreams

I'm a big believer in letting horses live as naturally as possible, namely space to move. I had my last horse Ellie out in pasture with a herd as much as I could for the 14 years I had her and I think it helped with keeping her fit, sound and happy into her 20s.

Love this photo

Thick as thieves

It took almost 2 years but this week I was finally able to realize the dream of being able to get Kachina into a pasture.

Getting acquainted

We did a very careful introduction of Kachina into her new herd and it went very well considering, though Kachina went into crazy mare in heat mode for the one gelding. The pasture is now inhabited by Kachina, another mare, a gelding, a minature donkey, and an injured bull.

Kachina and her new boyfriend
She was glued to his side for most of the first day
Crazy mare mode - apparently must inspect geldings junk at every opportunity

Herd complete with miniature donkey
I would have been happy with almost any size of pasture, but Kachina hit the jackpot. She and her herdmates have more than 120 acres of green prairie to graze and run. Kachina will have to return to her old pen for the winter once the cows come home (literally, it's a working cattle ranch), but that's okay. Now that she's part of the herd, she should be able to go back into the pasture every summer.

So much space, and so green!

Getting to see her open up and really run made me so happy!

Going...
...going,..
...gone!