Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A Review: Cat Sense

Have you ever thought about what your cat is thinking about, when he's looking at you? Or what he does all day when you're not home? I am curious about what goes on, inside my kitty's brain and why he'll go and do one thing while it doesn't seem to logically make sense to me. I read the Cat Whisperer last month and learned a great deal about why cats do what they do and how to address some of the less desirable consequences of not meeting their basic requirements.

John Bradshaw is the writer of Cat Sense and his book takes a slightly varied approach to Mieshelle's book. In Cat Sense, it's more about the cat as a species, its history of coming to be and includes many factual studies done, to discuss the details of what he is talking about. The breakdown of the book is well thought out and flows well, too. We start about the history of cat and move to cats of the future and go through everything else in between. Bradshaw is thorough in his details and it is clear a lot of research has been done on his part. I like that he includes a few illustration scattered throughout the book where helpful and the various "extras" that he includes in boxes throughout the book. His writing style is clear and easy enough to read for the average reader and the prose he chooses is simple enough for even the non-science types.

I felt like every sentence was teaching me something new. He isn't about dumping a bunch of facts for you to read... no, this is not a text book but rather a critical collection of feline history and behaviour compiled through a logical and thoughtful concept and a logical hypothesis made. A lot of his musings are just that... thoughts and questions based on both what he andecdotaly observes combined with scientific research that he pulls in. He provides a good deal of food for thought about some of the current practices that humans employ, to control unwanted cat breeding and reflects both sides of the debate. I found myself critically questioning things I believe and support right now. It gives a different perspectives and either further reaffirms what I think, or encourages me to reflect about some of the perspectives I hold.

The best piece of information I learned was that our cats view us as a type of surrogate mom and giant non-hostile cat. This all makes sense because mother cats and their kittens are very close and I've seen daughters stay with their mothers for the long term but I rarely see males of the family stick around. I wonder if Buckingham tells his friends that he's got two mommys.

If you have a cat or just have a wonder of what makes animals tick, you'll find this read informative and enlightening. I'd highly recommend all cat owners to pick this book up so they can learn about their fuzzy feline friend!

I couldn't resist!
This is both hilarious and common of what people
think of cats.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Lesson #71: Put Everything Into It

It is freezing today. And the stable is buried in so much snow that it requires "digging out" to access it. Not that we had to dig ourselves out but Sheri tells us how it was like before we got there.... oy. We're "die hards" now... waking up early just to go out to ride in the dead of the winter. Granted, we're indoors but it's not heated so it's still pretty chilly. It's the first time I've considered winter riding clothes.

We work only on the flat with a bunch of very technical exercises that are really tough to accomplish! 4 poles are set up for each of us, radially. Then we are asked to circle the outside of the poles and gradually attempt to move over the center of each pole. Wow, this is tough. Quinn drifts on the pole that is on the open side and we continually miss the center. But, this exercise is getting me to get a better feel for when her body is drifting out and I'm losing control of her or didn't ask her to turn early enough. It also shows me how far in advance I need to be anticipating what's going to happen. It's not like driving a car.. you HAVE to be well aware of what you are planning to do next and cannot decide last minute (though driving last minute probably isn't very ideal either). We also do figure 8s over 2 poles that are across from one another and try to do small circles around each pole as well.

In addition to a lot of bending, this is a lot of work required of the rider to ride with their bodies and not just their hands. Our bodies, heads, eyes, legs and seat need all work together to tell the horse where we want to go. I'm lucky that Quinn is so forgiving but it's clear that this is not easy. When I look and turn my head towards 2 poles ahead, she's much more prepared and does exactly what I want... we smoothly transition to what I intend. But, when I look down or stop thinking about where I'm going, she is confused too and does what she thinks would be asked of her.

One day... we're supposed to be able to do this (get ready) at the canter. I know.

Posting Diagonal Jar Tally: = 2 x $2.00 = $4.00
To date: $75.00

Monday, January 20, 2014

Lesson #70: Practising with Purpose

We were lucky yesterday; we made it in before the snow started coming down. I rode a new horse: Quinn. She's a beautiful (and big) paint Dutch Warmblood with a white mane and a black tail. She's such a sweet mare and is certainly more go than whoa. I found the feel of her trot in between Ariel's and Bonspiel's and had a much easier time than the lesson with Bons. The only thing I had to keep aware is her desire to speedy around the arena. She's sensitive to aids and reacts quickly when asked and is chomping at the bit. I have to slow her trot pace down every time I initiate trot!

We do lots of flat work crossing over and changing direction and transitioning. For me, the main purpose is to get accustomed to Q. Figuring her out and getting used to the way she does things. I find out that Ariel is in love with Q and just adores being around her... and we had in the arena, Bons, Q and Ariel. It was super cute to watch Ariel march at the same pace as Quinn when they met while walking the long side... and you see that feisty Ariel head held high and quickly keeping pace with Quinn's long legs.

I do find it difficult to bring Quinn back, after she's started to speed up so I test the amount of pressure she needs, to initiate the trot from walk as I had been a little overzealous in one instance and we took right off. I also test the half halts required, to get her to slow her pace. Since I spend a lot of the class learning about Quinn, I forget a lot of my other equitation type things like posture. I tended to lean forward when she sped up pinch with my knees. All things I need to watch for always.

We did try seated trot and when I was being told to do this or don't do that, I literally felt like I was being pulled in different directions: loosen and relax my hips and legs yet maintain weight going through my heel. Add the open chest and sit up and "back" (well, I was leaning forward so really, that's just sitting up straight in the saddle) so I'm basically loosey goosey in my lower half and then intentionally firm above. All the while, absorbing the movement from the horse by letting it "wave up" through my body and out my head. Don't forget the silent and soft hands with firm elbows. There is seriously a lot going on. Oh, and stay on.

We did try a burst of canter but I was warned that she tends to pony trot first so clear and strong directions are important. I was not really prepared for her canter and it was not as good as it could have been. I also haven't figured out how quite to slow down a canter without transitioning down into the trot. I think I'll need to learn to have her 'collect' her canter a bit more, for that to happen. We haven't worked too much on that in canter yet.

Easily, I will need more time to practice with Quinn to get better acquainted with the way she responds to aids. I really look forward to riding her again in the future!

Posting Diagonal Jar Tally: = 2 x $2.00 = $4.00
To date: $71.00

Friday, January 17, 2014

A Reading Rainbow

I was unsuccessful in fulfilling my late 2013 goal of completing 9 books by December 31st. I finished 7 novels and a stack of graphic novels, which I didn't write about. In case you're wondering, the series included volumes from: Gotham Central, Criminal and Fables. I have so many books which I still need to read... so my theme for this year is to read books on my book shelf and complete the ones which the book club at work will draw on a monthly basis. Hopefully I'll be able to get through at least 14 for the year and if I read more, then hurrah for me!

Check out my Book Club page for updates and new listings.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Onwards into 2014

When I started this blog, I wasn't sure exactly what I wanted to write about. I did know though, that this would be an outlet for things that interest me and projects that I undertake to improve myself. I had just turned 30 and decided it was time to take control of my life beyond what I was doing the last decade; it was now or never. We're on year 3 now and upon brief reflection, I realize that my blog subjects focus around a few primary subjects: equestrian, travel, photography, and facts and stories (through books or otherwise).

I think I've done well for myself so far but this isn't close to being a lifetime of information yet! So, onwards to improving, growing and learning. I have made a series of resolutions and goals for myself that will continue to push me in my journey of things that help me drive this blog. As well, with an audience, I'll be much more likely to be held accountable for my promises as I do hate to break them... more out of pride than anything else. So, here goes:
  • Plan my fitness regimen for the week and execute as expected. One of these must be yoga.
  • Practice my piano diligently daily so I am able to play at a deeper level and excel at a level that I never accomplished previously.
  • Sleep at designated times daily, as per my weekly plan.
  • Take more pictures of people. Get out of my comfort zone of standard landscape. Seek to find the 'mesmerizing' and 'beautiful' in people (a difficult feat for someone like me!).
  • Read more. And not just the types of books I'd tend towards or are already comfortable with. Always be reading something and learning. Get bold!
  • Back off from over-eating... this is tough because I love to eat a lot. The main reason that comes up for this one... I don't waste food and I don't waste my time having to work off the excess caloric intake.
  • Stay positive when the worst (or annoying) looks imminent or likely.
  • Even though I'm very much the perfectionist when I do things and am not likely to "get out there" until I deem everything to be perfect, I resolve to enroll in the in-house horse show if there is opportunity to do so.
  • Get proficient and confident enough to get out on a hack this summer.
  • Start 2 lessons (or bi-weekly restart) per week once Old Man Winter decides to retreat for the next several months.
I sure hope that I'm able to follow through without too much of a struggle... already the first few have been posing a real challenge. But, as my title, onwards!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Lesson #69: Taking Notes

The barn is quiet this morning. As we make our way up the drive way, I see the piles of icy snow sitting at odd angles from the driveway. It must have taken hours for them to dig themselves out this past week. The winters are rough up this way, it seems. Which isn't at all surprising but it sure was a lot more than I thought there would be. It was pretty quiet but when we entered the stable, everyone was buzzing about and Sheri came to talk to us about our mounts for today.

Everyone is available to ADW and I so Sheri suggests I give Bons a try and ADW is riding Texas. Bons is a 17.2hh Trakehner and I don't really realize that until I ask... I couldn't even get that saddle on him without getting on my toes and still, that wasn't enough of a signal that he's huge. I thought he was 16hh but he's far taller than I thought! When I climbed ontop, I felt like I was towering over everyone and that it was certainly a long way down... *gulp*

While we walk around, I'm still a mildly shocked with the difference with going from 15.1hh to 17.2hh and having some trouble adjusting psychologically. We do get started into the posting trot and I was ready for a "bouncier" post but I didn't think it was as floaty and grand. When I ride Ariel, the posting is 'easy' and comes far more naturally; with Bons, I notice that I almost have to float in the air momentarily before coming back down. It reminded me of the dragon boat stroke that one of my past coaches tried to teach us to do... slow and long air time and powerful quick water stroke. The philosophy felt similar.

It took me some time to compose myself because it was not at all like what I have been working with these past few weeks. It's as if I was moving one level at a time... and getting more and more comfortable with one level and then being pushed onwards to a new one and being challenged all over again. It was like learning to ride again... but with know-how. I do struggle with him this time because he's so big and my leg aids and pressure seem to do little in terms of getting him to do what I want. He's clearly wondering about what that little nagging itch on his side is. This lesson, I struggled with much. I struggled with my heels, my balance, positioning, coordination... all things I felt were relatively comfortable with Ariel.

We work the entire lesson on flat work and I'm happy that we did because I'm pretty sure I would not have been ready to do anything further. So, the focus was very technical and I used half halts to slow him down and do some trot to walk transitions as well as keeping him focused with those half halts during the rising in the posting trot. Lots of leg aids to keep him along the outer ring of the arena and to keep from doing whatever it was he wanted.

Some of the more technical notes that we had to take today included...
  • With any new horse, get some time to walk around with them and try stuff out.... like half halts and seeing what they respond to. How much pressure is needed for things, etc.
  • Half-halts can include short, frequent strong ones or they could be strong and long (like 1 second)
  • The outside rein is primarily the "brake" rein that is firmer and provides less give... that's what the inside rein is for.
  • I also have to remember to slow my posting down, if I want him to slow down (Toolbox Check!)
  • When we were transitioning down from posting trot, we needed to half-halt with the outside rein, stiffen our seats during the "down" and keep our legs on just enough to keep them moving forward and not getting lazy with their downward transitions.
  • If they're speeding up, the worst thing is to pull frantically on the reins because it gives them something to grab onto and pull themselves forward with. Use your seat and legs to slow down.
  • Bons is the type of horse to want much more guidance from his rider so he can go on autopilot. Sheri tells me that he much prefers the confidence of a rider on his back than one who gives him too much slack.
  • Keep ankles in a nice gentle contact with their side while you guide them forward. It gives them a "tunnel" to move forwards; you're basically telling him where you want to go... straight, turn etc...
Overall, a very intense lesson and lots of information to process for the coming week. In terms of fitness, I haven't been diligent to getting in yoga or much else and will be trying again this week to fulfill 80% or better.

Posting Diagonal Jar Tally: 1 x $2.00 = $2.00
To date: $67.00

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Lesson #68: Sitting Trot Progress

Hooray! Riding a second day in a row :) Yesterday was a make-up lesson but today's our normal riding day. I'm a little saddle sore though... and not surprisingly, I don't really mind because I'd be more than happy to jump on a horse and ride again ;)

Today was a busy lesson with 2 other students with us. And guess what? Ariel hates EVERYONE today. Bonspiel is already not Ariel's friend but it appears she doesn't like anyone today; she pins her ears and defiantly raises her head when we pass the other horses. It's even worse when anyone gets near her rear... even at 1 horse length! I have quite the job out for me today since someone's in a very un-social mood. ADW is riding a bi-coloured mare (Paint or pinto? I'm not sure) named Quinn who's more go than whoa.

Lots of 20m circles to get Ariel supple and warm during the trot. I struggle to make these nice and round and they look more like lumpy ovals. To further increase suppleness, Sheri asks me to get Ariel doing 10m circles at the corners and remembering to push her through so that she doesn't fall in. This is tricky. I find that as mundane as flat work like this can be, it's critical to practice it so that as we get faster, we'd be better able to move through turns appropriately.

Next, Sheri has me altering between seated and posting trot. I am starting to get the feel for seated trot better now. I'm not always able to get it right away or to sustain it for extended time but I am able to get a few spurts here and there. She said that the minute I felt Ariel raise her head, get stiff or otherwise, that I would return to posting and re-attempt a relaxed seated trot. This was a really interesting revelation today... when Sheri told me that I was getting it, I paid attention to the way my body was feeling, how things were moving and where my riding toolbox was at. When things were going right, it felt like my hips were moving in a circular motion going forward, up and back again and the movement that I absorbed from Ariel was 'vibrating' up through my spine and out the top of my head. All the while, my legs and seat were firmly centered in the saddle.

We move to some canter and since Ariel's been super cranky all lesson, she decides to speed around and I actually find it difficult to get a hold of her at times. I had to get into circles to slow her down or I would definitely have trouble with getting control. Our last exercise is a low straight jump with trot poles preceding it. Half seat and then 2-point the step just before the jump. Not at all easy; this is another thing I struggle with because I seem to anticipate the jump too early or I don't set myself up appropriately. It's not pretty. But, it's something I continue to work on. One of these days we'd be able to set up a little course in the arena.

One last thing that is not related to my skills in any form... Ariel and Bonspiel get into a real tiff this time. As she's walking by, he kicks out and she in return, kicks back... while I'm on. Though she takes a little kick, she does enough to knock my forward on her crest and daze me enough to wonder what just happened. We do end the lesson during un-tacking with some tricks!

Posting Diagonal Jar Tally: 2 x $2.00 = $4.00
To date: $65.00

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Lesson #67: Toolbox Check

It's a return after 2 weeks of no riding; due to the ice storm that hit the Toronto and surrounding areas. The lesson focused on us getting back into the groove of things; I like Sheri's approach of taking our time and going nice and slow since it's not a sport that anyone can get really good at, after a few lessons. This is a make up lesson and we head in again tomorrow. It's nice to have a break from the deep freeze we've been hit with, where temperatures drop down to -20C and that's before the wind-chill; and of course, it's several degrees colder in Hillsburgh, Ontario.

To accomplish this, we spend most of the time 'suppling' our horses' bodies through lots of relaxed trot and tonnes of circles. There were 4 horses in the arena today and of course, my horse Ariel seems to hate at least 2 of them. I have to be wary of my intention of direction and spacing more than usual. We are reminded that our primary mode of moving our horse is through our bodies: legs and seat, before using our reins. Reins should be a last resort to get a horse to turn, move over or even stop. I try to loosen my hips by relaxing them and just letting my lower body move with the horse while keeping my upper body tall.

My cardio isn't too bad as I don't tire as easily however, the endurance of the rest of my muscles lack and I'm reminded that if something goes off the rails, I have to go through my mental riding toolbox and reflect about what I might have missed. Sheri comments that my lower leg is looking solid today and isn't flapping about. But, my upper half suffers with flapping arms (at the canter), tense wrists and elbows, rounding shoulders and stiffness in my hips. And right on cue, once I review all the points, things come right together and Ariel's head relaxes forward and her body loosens up.

I have the opportunity to canter today, and I find my seat feeling very secure and when I remind myself to relax further, both Ariel and I seem to come together better and I'm able to do some nice circles at the canter.

Despite my poor posting diagonal jar performance, it was a good ride!

Posting Diagonal Jar Tally: 7 x $2.00 = $14.00
To date: $61.00

Friday, January 3, 2014

Reflections of 2013

Better late than never... Happy New Year, everyone!

I am inspired by Laura to compose my own "Year in Review". On my riding anniversary on October 4th, I composed a short post about where I was, relative to the goals of the Equine Canada requirements for English Riders; but in addition, some major milestones happened this year. In January, my other half ADW joined my classes to start riding with me and it totally paid off because in March, we got on a plane and flew to Iceland for a week; one of the activities was riding the tolt on the Icelandic horses for a full day through the lava fields.

An Icelandic pony and me!
We also went on a weekend long escape from the city to a country bed and breakfast with our riding partners NR and KF (check out the Trip Advisor page too). It was another opportunity to ride and further improve our riding and get the opportunity to ride outdoors without any boarders in a cross-country setting; I was happily saddle sore after the trip!

We've also made the switch from our previous stable to a new stable where the indoor arena is HUGE and our instructor has over 100 acres available to us for hacking. It's an incredible facility and I hope that we might have the opportunity to go out for a hack this spring/summer. We've also both realized that we're unfit and need to inject fitness to our busy schedules in order to both ride better and feel physically happier, overall.

In terms of personal milestones and bests, I have conquered the canter where I am able to initiate it and ride it confidently; I am far from being a whiz but that sure beats some of my initial attempts. Learning to bend the horse, simple half halts through reins and introducing flexion to straighten them out are new tools to my arsenal. I also noticed that I have been caught with incorrect diagonal a lot during lessons and in order to "train it out of me", I started a 'diagonal jar' where I count the number of times I'm corrected for an incorrect diagonal, per lesson. After a year of counting, the money will go to a local horse rescue to help them with whatever items they need.

I'd say that a lot of good things have come together this year and I hope that I'll be able to continue to plod along and improve my riding to a more intentional skill level. Perhaps I'll be able to cross off those things I was still short on, for the EC level 2 or maybe I'll enroll in a schooling show at the new stable. Anything's possible this 2014!