Calm, Forward, Straight

Calm, Forward, Straight

Monday, November 29, 2010

In the arena #37 - A girl can dream can't she?!

I realized that I have been mentioning / complaining about / obsessing over my arena situation non-stop lately, so I thought I'd post about what Val and I are dealing with, and how I'm going to make it better.

Val is living in our current workspace - our "arena". A modest electric fenced paddock with an irregular shape and increasing amounts of ever deepening sand. He has lived there for over a year. His day to day movements have churned the sand to a depth of maybe eight inches in some places - especially in his wallow holes. He generally has three of these going at any given time.

Now I know I shouldn't complain about having to deal with sand because the pros
  • The ground really never freezes hard. It's a yielding surface for Val's shelly feet even in the dead of winter.
  •  Digging holes and scooping poop is sinfully easy.
  • And no mud. Yep - I said no mud. Probably the best aspect of sand. My grey horse who loves to sleep totally laid out stays exceptionally clean.
mostly outweigh the cons...
  • Feeding over mats (heavy) from hay bags (not eating with head down to clear passages).
  • Sand clear is expensive.
  • Here's the kicker - when it doesn't rain enough no amount of dragging will restore a firm, safe footing. 
Until we have sufficient space with consistent safe footing, or it rains more regularly, we'll be sticking to walking with limited trotting down the long sides. No sharp turning or cantering. We'll have to save all that for when we're at my trainer's farm.

A while back I created a small temporary "arena" for my boarder to work in - hunter / jumper style. She can set up a jump or two in there, but it's not level and she tends to rut it up endlessly circling. I mostly use it to desensitize Val to the extra scary back of the property, where my "real arena" will reside.

I have room for a 160 x 80 dressage arena. This project will require five tandems of sand (give or take) to make the whole back of the property level and create the actual arena with proper drainage + a number to be determined of crush and run gravel loads, many hours of grading and rolling, and some sort of fencing. I hope to accomplish the project over the winter / asap. Check back for updates :)


Sunday, November 28, 2010

In the Arena #36 - Halt. Angle. Flow.

The firing order for exercises aimed at improving lateral leg responsiveness (turns on the forehand, leg-yielding, shoulder-in, half-pass) is: Halt. Angle. Flow. Take note, these are consecutive, not concurrent. Only when the horse listens to the half-halt (halt) and is therefore better balanced, will he respond more easily to the lateral leg aid (angle), after which we must go with the horse freely in the direction of the chosen lateral movement (flow). Avoid using the lateral leg aid at the same time as the half-halt.  Erik Herbermann A Horseman's Notes

Slipped a ride in on the day before Thanksgiving with my new bareback pad, which I absolutely l-o-v-e. When I purchased it I had no idea it would be so helpful with dressage. I figured riding bareback would be good for my seat and balance, and thought it would be a fun, comfortable alternative to the saddle, but so far, it has also totally confirmed that my recurring turning issues are due to the unevenness in my hips--> legs--> stirrups. We had no sticky turning whatsoever bareback - everything was the same in both directions. I haven't worked up the guts to trot yet, but I felt really secure throughout the session.

I want my with saddle riding to feel like my without saddle riding... deep seat, open hips, even legs, relaxed and draping around my horse. I think Sally Swift compared that feeling to a melting ice cream cone dripping down the horse's sides.

Today's ride (saddled) was mainly about keeping the connection on the outside rein, while not totally dropping the contact on the inside rein, and a little bit of lateral work. After warming up, we worked with the cones, doing shallow serpentines. This exercise was super helpful as besides being aware of the contact through the turns, the outside and inside reins changed every few strides, with a couple of neutral strides in between. Don't forget about the leg! I also focused on making my aids as subtle as I could, and still be effective. In the midst of all of this coordinating, I was struck by something my trainer had said to me (long ago)... steering horses is more like riding a bike and less like driving a car. It has taken quite a while for that little nugget to sink in :)

Val cracked me up again with his trying to guess / decide what we would do next. I really can't repeat any exercise too many times without him anticipating. Cones are always for serpentines says Val. I reckon we won't be practicing entire dressage tests when we get ready to show either.

We finished up with some trot work - halt trot / trot halt transitions. I get a better response to my trot request from the halt than the walk for some reason... Val offered to canter a couple of times as well - those pesky crooked hips again. He has a really nice canter. I can't wait until we get the canter depart down, but that will have to wait for now.

As time wears on, our arena gets more areas of churned up, deep sand, which Val DOES NOT want to work in faster than a walk. I have no desire to risk injury, so we will be waiting for our next trip to my trainer's, or some substantial rains to firm things up before cantering on purpose. This is actually a good thing - it will give me more incentive to get the finances together for our planned "real arena". If can envision it, I can make it happen.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Giving thanks

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow. 

We all have so much to be thankful for (besides the major meal coming later in the week)  :)

Here's some of my list. Please feel free to share what you're grateful for...
  • My occupation, landscaper. I am so fortunate to work outside all day, stay fit and my have my father as my business partner. My sideline - jewelry artist - helps fill the gaps, and justifies my college education :)
  • The island where I live is one of the loveliest places anywhere, (and equally challenging)
  • My trainer, who generously shares her knowledge of classical dressage, horsemanship, and her home with Val and I
  • In a little over a year, several of my dreams have come true... finding my fabulous equine partner and purchasing the land where I boarded him... my future home and farmette
 Lastly, I need to acknowledge the online community I've found since starting my blog. Kind, generous, helpful and uplifting - these are just some of the qualities that you all share. You guys keep me inspired and motivated - consistently moving forward. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Oh, and one more thing. To Val - thank you for using your manure pile as a pillow last night. Love you man :)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Out of the arena - Good Morning Mr. Sunshine

Gorgeous beach ride. Loose rein. Calm focused horse. Stunning weather. Lovely companions. I couldn't have asked for more.

Val was still a bit of a handful to bridle, but much improved over our last beach trip. I had to use the fender on the trailer for an impromptu mounting block as the sand piles on the side of the road weren't tall enough to mount from. My horse is tall - I forgot how tall... we towered over Captain Sue and Honey Bee lol :) We were the picture of relaxation as we headed out over the ramp to the beach. I believe Val would have gone on for hours - he tried to continue going south as we neared the ramp to get back off of the beach.

I'm so pleased that we have made our way back to out of arena riding. Equally as much as I want to make progress in our dressage study, I want a happy, willing trail horse.

Friday, November 19, 2010

In the Arena #35 - A chip off the old block

Val and I had another productive session. Chilly and windy, but nice enough down at the barn. Our warm-up went very smoothly, although I wondered if Val was sore from the farrier's visit. His strides were a bit short and mincing when we first started. Should he be sore three days after his trim?

Besides the obligatory time spent trying to pay attention and coordinate my reluctant body parts, we worked with the cones - set into a line, about eight strides apart. Weaving through the line - as well as circling the cones and accurately targeting each cone. At one point a very loud and strange sounding bird began crashing around in the trees next to the arena. It definitely got Val's attention.. he stiffened up, snorted some and generally got tense. I attempted to redirect him, and his reaction was, no, I only want to face this way and stare towards the monster in the woods. My response was to pay no attention to the distraction, ask for a step and then a halt, then two steps, then a halt... then a few more, and so on. My trainer has been stressing to me to be aware when we're in challenging situations, and Val has given me something - stopping there, and especially praising and rewarding. My tendency in the past has been to say, well I got that so lets go for more right now - wrong...

We were back on track shortly. Towards the end of our ride, I worked without reins for a while, and then dropped the stirrups as well... practicing halts and turns. I had several interesting epiphanies. One - while my feet were out of the stirrups, I got the quickest, smoothest most willing turns ever. Especially going left. I believe that without my foot being in the stirrup, the uneven torquing issues with my right leg and hip disappeared. Obviously my stiffness has been blocking Val. I was aware I had been blocking, but thought it was through the rein aids. His sometimes reluctance to go left is a direct response to this blocking - I'm quite sure of it now.

The upshot is:
1. I need to address my physical issues
2. There is a lot more work without stirrups in our future.. that bareback pad is going to come in handy :)

Two - for the first time I can remember since I started riding Val, I actually forgot which direction we were riding. Things were equally smooth going both ways - I didn't need to be aware of it. Progress!

We have spent some time after each of our recent rides getting familiar the new arena... grazing nearby and doing some work in hand. Val is becoming very relaxed back there now. I plan to carry that relaxation further by taking Val out to the beach sometime this weekend - it has been a while.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

In the Arena #34 - The art of riding is the art of not interfering with the horse

Yesterday was simply beautiful, once again. We've had a string of gorgeous warm days... time to take advantage. I slipped up to the barn around lunchtime, groomed and tacked Val up. We built on Sunday's work, culminating in trot / halt, halt /trot transitions. More improvement in forwardness and accurate school figures + lots of trotting. Val was blowing and snorting, seeming very engaged during our trot work. A lovely, relaxed ride.

As a result of sorting through photos from the clinic on the previous evening, and noticing my many posture infractions... leaning forward, weight off to the left, twisting my upper body, elbows flapping like chicken wings... I spent this ride focusing on keeping my body centered and even in the saddle. Oh, easier said than done.

I've been reading Franz Mairinger's Horses Are Made To Be Horses, and these thoughts resonated with me:

"The better the body control is, the more consistent the aids will be. Then the horse will learn quickly and the rider and horse will understand each other. The control must be such that the rider knows what every part of his body is doing and every movement must be independent of every part of the body. We do not normally think about what we do with our body, but to be a good rider we must do so. The rider does not have trouble with the horse; the horse has trouble with the rider."

A lofty goal... will I ever get there?


My farrier made it to the island for our appointment today after all. He complimented Val's fitness and great attitude during his trim. (last visit we had that cowboy come to Jesus meeting) Smile... I love my horse. We have made great progress in the last few months. It's gratifying when others notice too.


What is less than gratifying are some aspects of being the barn owner. At the last minute the farrier changed our appointments, making them about four hours earlier. The appointments were originally set for after school, so that Lorraine, Cowboy's owner, could hold her horse for Will. As we were expecting heavy rain later and in consideration of Will's schedule, I caught and held my boarders' horse for the trim, rather than making Will wait while I hopefully got in touch with her mother, who isn't the most experienced horse handler. She (the mother) gave me some flack when I called to tell her the situation. I suggested she might want to thank me, and that first consideration goes to the farrier who drives seven hours round trip to see us, and who has no replacement. Rock and a hard place...

Sunday, November 14, 2010

In the Arena #33 - The unbearable lightness of being...

Today we had our first ride since returning from the clinic. I gave Val a couple of days off after we got home. He was a little foot sore and unfortunately took a pretty big chunk out of his right front as he exited the trailer. More on that later...

Sunny, warm, and most especially no bugs. Perfect weather to ride. Breakfast, grooming, tack and we were off. I'd be lying if I said that I was a 100% confident about how the ride would go, but much of what I worked on at my trainer's was organizing our sessions, not getting bogged down, and keeping the momentum going. Happily there was no need to worry :)

We warmed up with some work on the loose rein, then proceeded to transitions, turns and 20m circles.  Billie from camera obscura has a wonderful post today exploring the concepts of "on the bit" and "on the aids", where she discusses thinking the transition, thinking your aids, before you act - the result being you can employ the lightest aids possible.

Val and I worked on this idea at our clinic, and again this morning. I "thought" about my turns, allowing only my eyes to go where I wanted us to follow. And voila, a smooth turn with a straight neck and the lightest of aids. Conveniently, this concept also addresses one of my most persistent issues - getting ahead of my horse with my upper body - as well as the ever popular "inside rein-itis", which I am well on the way to conquering.

We moved on the trot. Did I mention that this is the first time I have asked for the trot (at home) in many, many weeks? My last request was met with crow hopping, shoulder lowering and head shaking which I'm certain was mild in the big scheme of things, but still intimidated me. Today's success reinforced that my problems (and they are my problems, not Val's) were due to lack of confidence, persistence and resolve. My request for the trot this morning was met with a lovely transition and a horse who was reaching. Also, I was pleased with the state of my seat... it felt deep and even.

To finish up we did some squares with turns on the forehand at each corner. A funny thing about my horse - I really can't get away with just drilling exercises predictably. For instance, he anticipates our rein changes the moment I switch the whip to the other side. That Val - he keeps me on my toes lol. Extra carrot cookie stretches for you mister. :)


While at the clinic I had time for some reading. I highly recommend the book "Dressage Unscrambled" by Bill Woods. It's a collection of short essays that tackle the sometimes way too serious world of dressage riding with an entertaining yet informative point of view. It had me laughing out loud and marking pages for future reference. After that I moved on to Franz Mairinger's "Horses Are Made To Be Horses" which I am still in the midst of. This book is included on Grey Horse Matters' excellent book list, found here. Also a high recommendation. Happy reading :)


Now, back to the missing hoof chunk...

Wednesday was my day to check in with the farrier. Next week makes six weeks, so we're due to see him. Our farrier travels three hours and stays over night to do our horses. I am the organizer of the visits - setting up the appointments and reminding the owners, keeping track etc. It takes a little legwork, and some notice to get everyone on the same page.

When I called I caught him working a horse, so he told me he'd get back to me. Tried him again Friday and still haven't heard back. The following week being Thanksgiving, we'll be on to eight weeks between trims by the time the holiday is over. If I had heard from him while in Virginia, i.e. in a timely manner, I had options for other farriers, which I do not have here at home. Of course this happens when Val has the worst looking feet he's ever had. I'm trying not to be super irritated about the situation.

I did recently order a good hoof rasp. Any advice about how to tide Val's feet over would be greatly appreciated. I am familiar with how to use the tool, just not sure what my goal should be :)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Clinic Notes: Day five and six

Wednesday afternoon. My trainer got called in to work yesterday. Since it gets dark so early in the evenings now, I elected to ride along with one of her other students rather than miss out. An excellent decision. Both of us had really good rides. Effective warm-up, achieving a smooth flowing walk and then more solid trot work. I focused on my posture... not leaning forward or leading with my upper body, keeping my hips even, keeping even weight in my stirrups, driving with my legs... receiving with my hands. Circles, serpentines and great transitions. This ride encompassed everything that I want to happen when Val and I work on our own. Uplifting!

Thursday morning - one last ride + a tack review. I woke up early to get the truck and trailer mostly packed, with the intention of getting another ride in before heading home. My fellow student arrived and we proceeded to groom and tack the boys up. I decided to try out the Thinline bareback pad I found when tack shopping on Monday. Val was starting to get sore (barefoot on the hard ground) so since I wasn't planning to work him too hard it seemed like a good time to test the pad out.

The pad is very well made, with a material on the underside that is anti-microbial and grippy. The girth, a cinch type, is made of the same material, and is stretchy. My complaint with other bareback pads I have ridden in is that they slip. This one totally stayed put. It didn't even budge when I scrambled on. It fit Val's back beautifully. The top is non-slip as well, at least in combination with my full seat breaches. I felt completely secure. The best part - Val was licking, chewing and reaching for the bit - soft - from the very beginning of the ride. He was using his back and reaching under himself. My legs and seat felt like they were getting a good stretch as well. Thinline bareback pad - expensive but well worth it. I can't wait to ride in it again. I believe Val agrees - two thumbs up!

Final thoughts. Eight rides in six days... six with Val and two longing sessions. (Val gets tomorrow off!) The clinic surpassed my expectations.

Here's the goal list I made for this past week:
  • A more secure seat / more confident rider.
  • We've got "calm" down - now I want to focus on "forward". This will stem from the secure seat. When I ask for more energy it won't be half-hearted or timid.
  • Solid transitions up and down in the walk and trot, with Val reaching, stretching and using his back.
  • Leg yielding and baby lateral work.
  • Ideally we'll attempt some canter work as well. 
  • Some new photos and possibly video
Not too shabby. While I wasn't ready for lateral work yet - I'm hoping to be on track at my next lessons. And although I had intended to get longed more often, it's probably good that I didn't as in the evenings after longing sessions I was pretty stiff. Due to scheduling I missed out on a lesson, but instead I reached within myself, faced some fears, and took responsibility for training my horse and myself. High hopes!


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Clinic Notes: Day three and four

Monday afternoon. One of my goals for this clinic was to figure out how to accomplish the warm-up in a timely and efficient fashion, without relying on input from my trainer. We only work with her every few months, so we need to do this confidently on our own. Without spiraling down into a battle of wills or stalled out in one of the corners. Done. Addressing conquering our steering stickiness / leadership issues has made a world of difference.

We moved on to some gorgeous trot work, initially full arena on the rail, moving on to the quarterline and then school figures thrown in. Both directions (!) Everything felt smooth, workmanlike... best of all easy and FUN. We also worked in two point for a while to adjust my ankles and their lack of springiness. Let's just say it's been thirt- (cough, cough) years since I rode in two point. Oh - did I mention that this was done with another horse in the arena with us. A year ago I would have had a total (internal) melt down at the thought of having a lesson with another horse in the arena. A superlative ride. We have come a long way, and I just love my horse :)

Tuesday. I groomed / tacked up a horse for my trainer, then watched her ride for a while. Afterwords we switched off for a longing session. I rode Star, a very well built and powerful thoroughbred mare, with big gaits. Most of this session focused on my position, and how to use my driving aid / legs to encourage Star to carry herself. Another issue we worked on is my (bad) tendency to lead with my chest and get ahead of my horse. Acknowledging that you have a problem is the first step as they say... We also did a bit of sitting trot work. It is very challenging to process all of the information that I get in my lessons, and when we do position work - changing so many elements at once throws me for a loop. It would be interesting to see how my afternoon ride on Val would be affected...

Later that afternoon. Another great warm-up, getting right to work, and again with company in the arena. My seat felt fantastic. Apparently I was able to incorporate some of the input I got during the longing session. Val really enjoyed the extra room he had to breathe since I was not pinching with my knees. It showed in his gaits.

At this point my trainer suggested I try some cantering. We decided it would be best to ask for the transition from two point, coming into a corner, and after a couple of aborted attempts we did canter. I was totally disorganized and frankly - extremely sore from the longing earlier. I elected not to try again, not wanting to open a can of worms with this new step we were taking, that would have to be resolved. I felt a bit like I was being a chicken, but honestly I wasn't sure I could count on my body to do what I wanted - we were getting on three hours of riding for the day. Also - it was dinner time and the other horses who weren't still at work were doing mad dashes, bucking up and down the fence lines. Val was focused and attentive considering the distractions. Instead we worked on transitions and turns on the forehand, ending on a good note. Another great ride :)


Monday, November 8, 2010

Clinic notes: Day one and two

Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the horse through his glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their having taken form so far below ourselves. And therin we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. 

In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not bretheren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth. 
Henry Beston

We arrived safely on Friday afternoon. Got Val settled in, unpacked and it was time for dinner and a movie. Dinner was delish and the movie - Secretariat - not so much. I won't go into all the things that weren't satisfying - it's very much a Disney movie - enough said.

Saturday morning. Val and I are up first for our lesson. It was seriously cold and windy, blanketing overnight weather and a shock to the system.  We've been spoiled down at the beach - but no matter.
 Our warm-up was excellent and to the point. I handled the entire warm-up myself with little input from my trainer, validating the hard work we've been putting in for the last month or so.

After fifteen minutes of loose rein work and some simple figures we moved on to the trot. Val is slowly but surely reaching and using his back. I focused on allowing hands and driving with my legs - if he ain't reachin', you ain't drivin'! - plus re-balancing with some half halts. My trainer commented positively on the changes in my seat since our last visit (!) We only had a little stickiness, that she pointed out happened when the next student was bringing her horse into the arena. Chalk that up to distraction. I didn't make the connection at the time but she is right. All in all I couldn't have asked for a better start to our clinic.

Sunday morning. Colder and windier. Val didn't notice or care. He really seems to enjoy working, getting playful and sweet as we tacked up. I had more of a struggle with allowing hands, and even weight in my stirrups - sticky hips - in this session. Val responded in his usual way by challenging my leadership. Although I don't enjoy when this issue comes up, I got a lot of good ideas about how to keep it from happening (the goal) and dealing with it appropriately when it does while I'm on my own.

The answer is to break everything down to it's simplest components. If I'm having trouble with the turn on the forehand, make sure I'm getting a halt. If he's blowing through my aids (he was) then really get the halt, not the halt plus one step. I decided my course of action was do as many walk / halt transitions as necessary, gradually increasing the number of strides between the transitions, to get him focused back and listening to me and my aids. I am really happy to say that I worked this out myself, without constant feedback from my trainer.

She reminded me that not only must I allow and give with my hands, but I must also allow and give with my heart. This comment hurt a bit, but what she meant was that Val absolutely knows if I am not trusting in him. Horses know what is in your heart. And (as usual) she was right. I was holding back. As soon as I gave him 100%, he gave me 100%. After getting on the same page we did the most beautiful trot work we've ever done, long, low and relaxed. Smooth round circles. She also stressed that when we are struggling with something, I must be aware when to keep asking versus when Val has given me something - even just one step in the right direction - and therefore deserves to be rewarded. You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em! :)

Sunday afternoon. Time for a longing session. My trainer had computer work to catch up on so another of her students and I longed each other on the students' lovely 17 hand thoroughbred Howard. Very satisfying session. As instructive when you were the long-er as the long-ee. When on the ground I really aware of the way I used the longe whip affected Howard's stride length and smoothness. I had him reaching and using his back which I felt good about. When on board Howard, I was reminded of how far Val and I have to go - Howard uses his back. His trot almost threw me out of the saddle for the first few strides. A cadillac. I haven't ridden another horse besides Val for nearly a year. Getting longed is a great reference for whether you balance on the reins or not. I will say that I was better that I'd imagined I would be. Pleasantly surprised. My hips and upper arms are indeed sore this morning.

Unforeseen horse handling opportunities have popped up :) I had to catch a very wound up mare - who was running her legs off in the arena due to a gate left open. Another student was just chasing her around with a lead rope... not effective. I grabbed a bucket of grain and things calmed down immediately.

This morning two horses appeared on the property and had everyone riled up, running the fence lines.  My trainer took the truck to find the owners and the next door neighbor and I - armed with carrots, hay and lead ropes - rounded the strangers up.

Oh, and Val showed another side of himself this weekend - the escape artist. He got out of his makeshift paddock three times, and had a little middle of the night gelding party that got us all out of bed. We've finally got him somewhere that will contain him. All's well that ends well.

I have some pictures but no cable to upload - so I'll post later. Off to a tack shop (!) to look at bareback pads.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Boot camp for my seat... (booty camp?!) :)

It's been super busy around here for the last few days. Preparing to head out to my trainer's place tomorrow morning. Val and I are doing a five day clinic... riding him in the mornings and doing a lunge lesson in the afternoons on the school horses, with my trainer and I trading off lunging each other. I expect that I will be very sore - oh my aching hips - but am looking forward to it. This kind of opportunity doesn't come around very often so I'm taking advantage.

My goals for the clinic are:
  • A more secure seat / more confident rider.
  • We've got "calm" down - now I want to focus on "forward". This will stem from the secure seat. When I ask for more energy it won't be half-hearted or timid.
  • Solid transitions up and down in the walk and trot, with Val reaching, stretching and using his back.
  • Leg yielding and baby lateral work.
  • Ideally we'll attempt some canter work as well. 
  • Some new photos and possibly video
 I've measured out and bagged feed, prepared the trailer and packed Val's belongings - he sure has a lot of stuff :) We're taking an assortment of blankets as the weather is so changeable this time of year. And we just received his new Cavallo simple boots which happily fit him perfectly. These will hopefully protect his tender soles from bruises - he got pretty ow-y on our last visit. Tack, first aid, grooming, buckets and of course treats pretty much fills my trailer's tack compartment.

Then there's cleaning and tuning up the truck - I changed the oil today + checked tires as well as cleaned all of the hay / sand / barn residue and rain-xed the windows. Trailer - check. Truck - check. This doesn't even take into account packing for my dogs visit with my Dad (Bob Daddy's Doggy Day Care) and my own stuff lol!

I'm hoping I'll have computer access while I'm up there. If not, I'll have a full report when I return next week. Back to packing!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Why I love thoroughbreds II

The "look of eagles"...
Zenyatta with trainer John Shirreffs and groom Mario Espinoza
There are many questionable elements about the thoroughbred racing industry. Let's please set them aside for a moment, to talk about unquestionably the best horse to come along in many years - maybe ever - Zenyatta.

I've been following this astounding race mare since her career started - at the age of four - because her trainer, John Shireffs, realized she was not ready to race as a three year old (or god forbid at two!). Just the first of many wise decisions made for her by her connections. Zenyatta is undefeated in nineteen races, and should she win on Saturday in the Breeder's Cup Classic (again) she'll be the winning-est tb in history. 

Where to start... she's a huge, gorgeous mare, bursting with dapples and personality. She has become famous for the Spanish walk she does in the post parade and on the way to the gate. She laps Guinness Stout out of tupperware containers like a dog, loves her beauty sleep and is reportedly super kind to handle. Her connections are in awe of her - you can tell.

Zenyatta's racing style is what really sets her apart. She's a closer whose thrilling late in the race, come from behind charges could induce heart failure. She seems to know exactly how much effort she needs to put forth to win. John Shirreffs believes this is the key to her longevity and soundness. Mike Smith, her jockey for all but three of her races, believes he has not gotten to the bottom of her yet. All I know is when she starts to go, the horses she passes look like toys. Her stride is that huge. And she's so relaxed that her ears just flop back and forth as she crosses the finish line and gallops out.

John Shirrefs has been generous enough to post frequent video of her over the course of her career. One of my favorites is this one where you can take a ride with her on one of her morning gallops. Not to be missed.

It was (prematurely) announced that Zenyatta would be retiring after her Breeder's Cup victory last year. Thankfully, her connections decided to race her for one more season. The owners, Jerry and Anne Moss, have more money than God, so I believe them that their decision was in her best interests - plainly she loves what she does - as well as the best interests of horse racing in general, which needs more stories like Zenyatta's.

Greed and disregard for the welfare of the equine athlete have tarnished the reputation of the sport of kings... perhaps on Saturday it will be the sport of queens :)

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