March 6, 2014

Horses. And singing.



But back-yard mutts can surprise you. The woman who first taught me dressage . . . did wonders with a series of back-yard mutts.

I’m glad to hear that on a couple different levels. One is that some day I will need to look for another horse for myself, and it’s good to have those stories tucked in my memory to encourage me to look at “any” horse. . . .

Yes—with those quotation marks firmly in place.  I was trying to think of what I would say you must absolutely look for in a horse—four sound legs is always a good place to start, and while Grace’s mare always was sound, no, you know, sane person would have risked her, with that crooked leg.  In Grace’s defense she was very experienced as well as knew the mare from a foal, had done most of her Heinz 57 mum’s training and was a friend of the original owner who as I recall insisted she’d always have her back as a pasture ornament if she broke down.

I’d say the bottom line non-negotiable in a horse for ordinary—um, rider mutts—like you and me is a kind eye, very visible, I might add, in the photos of Amore.  Having established the eye you want something who likes its work—which is a little harder to ascertain in the usual for-sale try-out, but that’s where your secret weapon, Rachel, is deploying herself on your behalf.  Rachel will know!

The second reason I’m glad to hear that is because of a big change that’s coming to our barn…it’s time to get my girls their own horse. . . .They are OVER THE MOON about this, naturally!

Snork.  Naturally.  When are you going to get your husband on a horse?

 . . . we can get whatever horse is the best fit for us and worry about getting a next step horse for the girls later. Another thing I love about my trainer is that she is happy to work with ANY kind of horse, which is a great attitude to be working with.

It’s really the only attitude to be working with.  Yaaaaay for Rachel.

So, wish me luck with finding my next amazing horse, whoever it will be!


And if there’s a good story attached to it, I’ll see if Robin wants another horse guest post.


I’m still assuming—by not thinking about it too clearly—that I’ll ride again some day, but I admit I don’t know how or under what circumstances.  The problem is that I went over the casual-hack line decades ago.  I don’t want to have the occasional amble on horseback over the countryside, even this countryside*, I want to have a relationship with a specific horse, and contribute to its quality of life, well-being and training as it contributes to mine.  And that kind of relationship takes an investment of physical energy I simply haven’t got.

But I still think in horsy terms.  My MGB, who is still in the garage at the cottage while I dork around endlessly about selling her, was my little cream-coloured mare from the moment I set eyes on her—the old-car garage who found her for me had actually brought her in from Dorset or Lithuania or something.  I’m pretty sure describing her as such still exists on the web site somewhere—and shortly after I’d put that bit up I received a Very Huffy email from a preteen girl who had a horse telling me, more or less, that she had Lost All Respect for me for preferring a car.  It wasn’t a question of preference, it was a question of bank balance.

And, about a year later, it began to be a question of ME.  Feh.  But there are other things.  I totally identify bell ringing as a partnership with a live creature with a mind of its own at the other end of a rope/rein.  One of the tangential pleasures of Nadia as a voice teacher is that she rides.**  I’m not one of her, cough-cough, better students, but I’m easy to get stuff across to, first because I have more imagination than is good for me, and if Nadia tells me to close my eyes and become a tree, I close my eyes and become a tree. . . . And second because I’m another horse crazy and she can tell me to get my weight off my forehand and my hocks under me.

Possibly on account of Bratsche’s horse story I’ve been thinking about singing in horsy terms even more than usual.  But I’ve mentioned here that for some time now my voice has begun to feel a lot like another critter, some live thing that is my responsibility, that needs kindness and exercise and attention.  Gleep.  It no longer feels like my voice—where is all that NOISE coming from??—and ‘I’ feel overhorsed.  I don’t know what I was expecting when I got into this voice-lesson shtick but I was not expecting this disconcerting mixture of strength and lack of control.   Horsy metaphor:  when my voice is warm and full and open I can’t frelling do anything with it, and it reminds me rather a lot of the four-year-old warmblood I exercised for a while many years ago.  Four years old can be pretty young in a big horse.  This one had barely been backed and had everything to learn, including how to make his legs function in an orderly sequence.  Some of you will know about teaching a young horse to canter under saddle and how all over the landscape they can be as they try to figure out how to perform this complex task.  This boy was a sweetie—speaking of the kind eye—and totally willing to try, but oh my.  Mostly we trotted, which is, of course, what you do with a horse that can’t canter yet.  The more stable and rhythmic the trot, the more possible the canter.  But he had one of those gigantic warmblood trots as well as being a loose cannon.  Actually he was a lot of fun and I hope he grew up to make some nice human rider very happy.  But at the time trying to enable him to move in a straight line or a gentle curve even at the trot . . . is a lot like me trying to carry a tune now when my voice is up and running.  If I shut down and go all control-freak on myself I can hold that tune, no problem, as I’ve been able to carry a tune fairly reliably all my life . . . but it’s not a sound quality you want to encourage.  As soon as you—or more often, Nadia—wakes up my inner young warmblood . . . I’m all over the planet, tune-wise.  Arrrrgh.  One of the ironies is that at the moment I sing worse for Nadia than I do at home—because she can get the voice out of me whereupon I go to pieces.  ARRRRRGH.

Another horsy metaphor:  I was singing some poor innocent song this Monday at my lesson, soared up to my Big Note and . . . lost my bottle and went flat.  I said to Nadia afterward in frustration, this is exactly like coming up to a biggish fence on a horse you know can do it backwards and if you put it up another foot, and at the last minute you bottle out and sit back on her—and she raps it with her feet and brings a rail down.  ARRRRRRRGH.

I’m still hoping I’m going to grow up to make some nice human rider very happy.

* * *

* Which at the moment is eyebrow-deep in mud anyway.

** She was a bit of a hot shot in her youth.  It wouldn’t surprise me if she dusted off her hot-shot status once her own kids are a little older.

Horse stories


The nice thing about dressage is that there’s LOTS you can do without needing to sit the trot; so if that happens to be a problem, you can still do a ton without dealing with it. . . . your comfort will also probably vary a lot from horse to horse since different horses’ gaits feel so different.

There’s pretty much always something you can do with dressage, given that you have a good trainer, a sound horse, and can get yourself into the saddle.  One of the ironies in this skill as in so many is that sometimes what you need is precisely the skill you haven’t got yet:  I know I’ve told this blog before that my great breakthrough about sitting the trot was when I realised it was my stomach muscles, not my back or my seat, that were crucial—at which point my back stopped bothering me.  But I don’t think it would have done me much good to be told that I would sit the trot with my stomach when I was first starting to learn;  I had to be mostly there already and needing only the final thud over the line.*  The really counterintuitive thing for me was the way then that those frelling gigantic warmblood trots** became if not precisely easy, then comprehensible . . . and thrilling.

My trainer says jumping is pretty much just dressage where someone left some jumps in the way. . . .  That makes some sense to me, but I’m sure it will feel VERY different at least sometimes if I do try some jumping eventually. . . .

But the bottom line about dressage is that it’s about making you and your horse and particularly you-and-your-horse happier, more supple, better balanced and more flexible about anything and everything . . . so jumping is dressage where someone left fences in the way:  dressage is the bottom line, whether you call it ‘dressage’ or not.  This was really making some good sense with Connie . . . siiiiiiiiigh. . . .  and Jenny was a show jumper.***  Jumping was her first love and the years she had suitable horses she even earned money at it.  But she absolutely believed that dressage was the necessary basis, for show jumping or anything else.  Although she was funny about some of dressage’s little foibles.  The point of show dressage is that the horse does exactly what you tell it to† when you tell it to.  The last thing I want, Jenny would say, is some animal that waits for me to tell it to perform a flying change.  And of course a good show jumper is figuring out the next fence as soon as the rider has settled on their line so it knows where it’s going—which may be about half a stride to spare, depending on the course, so it needs to be able to make some of its own decisions.  Connie had lovely flying changes—not that I was necessarily in the right place at the right time, riding her, either to ask her or to let her do them.

. . . I am SO spoiled! I would never in my wildest dreams have thought I could have a guy as great as him! . . . . It does mean, however, that the kind of horse I’ll be wanting for my next one (when Amore can’t be ridden any more — hopefully many years from now) is going to be much different than if my first horse had been a back-yard mutt (so to speak)

Well, add me to the forum chorus of JEEEEAAAAAAAAALOUS.  But back-yard mutts can surprise you.  The woman who first taught me dressage—and totally did my head in by proving I could learn to ride††—and who had no money, did wonders with a series of back-yard mutts.  I learnt the extended trot on her first success story, one of those ‘Quarter Horses’ that has about as much QH bloodline as I do, but they arrive on the East Coast in gigantic truckloads for auction, and the paperwork says ‘QH’ I suppose because they’re from Out West Somewhere and the paperwork has to say something.  He had a back as long as a city block and his shoulders and his pasterns were perfectly upright (speaking of the comfort/discomfort of sitting to certain horses’ trots) and he had no business ever so much as coming on the bit and getting his hocks under him . . . but he did it, with Grace training him.  It was pretty funny really:  his back accordioned about six feet as he came on the bit.  Suddenly he was (almost) a normal-looking horse.  And his extended trot was amazing.

She had another horse, a mare, she’d (also) got cheap, because she’d broken a foreleg as a yearling and it hadn’t set quite right, and the foot turned out.  Eh, she’ll never amount to anything with that leg;  and furthermore, as she grew up, her rear end grew more than her front, so she was that disastrous creature, a horse who is ‘higher behind than before’ and will spend its life running downhill.  And of course never ever be capable of coming on the bit and getting her hocks under her.

You can see where this is going.  The mare loved working and couldn’t wait for Grace to ask her to do something.†††  Grace competed her in the New England finals at third or fourth level . . . and I swear every last judge Grace rode for, from her first training show, hissed through his/her teeth and said that the mare would never go any farther because of her conformation and she’d never stay sound on that leg.  She retired sound at, I think, sixteen;  she had her third and last foal two years later. ‡

And of course my hellhounds are back-yard mutts. . . .

* * *

* Your mileage may vary.  I was a very slow learner about riding as about so many things, although some of that was my going into it with the conviction that I was clumsy and stupid and wouldn’t be able to learn.  Self confidence?  What would that be exactly?

** I don’t know if this is true across the warmblood spectrum—and I’m not going to spend the next frelling hour googling my way through a lot of horse sites, I want to sing tonight—but a lot of warmblood breeding was to produce carriage horses where gigantic sit-at-your-pelvis’-peril trots were a total plus^.  The dressage thing under saddle came later.

^ Although I don’t know what the postilions may have thought.  In my admittedly limited experience posting to an eighteen-hand warmblood powering over the landscape is even less possible than sitting.

*** Connie was the last horse I rode regularly, before the ME objected.  And Jenny was her owner and my teacher.

† Because you and your horse are a PARTNERSHIP.  A good horse is never a thousand-pound machine that does the same precise thing every time you flip a lever.  I’ve never ridden a true ‘push button’ horse but I’ve ridden several excellent schoolmasters, and they have their ways of getting their point across by doing what you told them, not what you wanted.  While your human teacher, standing in the middle of the ring, tries not to laugh.

†† I’d been mostly taught by riders with natural talent who had no idea what to do with someone like me.  Grace was herself not naturally talented in that way;  she’d worked for her horse skills and had gazillions of approaches to any given horse/rider situation . . . and endless patience.  We’ve lost touch, but I hope she’s healthy and thriving, wherever she is.

††† That mare was one of my schoolmasters.  And she was . . . a character.  Her desire to do stuff was genuine, and she’d try till she exploded—but she loved working because she had a fantastic trainer.  She could have been a serious handful for the wrong person—for someone who didn’t allow her to be herself.  She didn’t suffer fools gladly, and it was a pretty great compliment that Grace let me ride her.

‡ The downside of this story is that she wasn’t going to get any farther, not because she couldn’t but because she was a back-yard mutt, half thoroughbred, half Heinz 57 and in show dressage, it matters.  If a Shetland pony can heave itself over the fences clean in an open jumping class when nobody else has, it’s won.  If a Shetland pony does every figure in a Prix St Georges dressage test perfectly, it’s still going to lose to the eighteen-hand warmblood who is perhaps only 98% perfect but is so beautiful you could cry.  And Grace’s lovely mare looked like exactly what she was—TB/mutt—and this was also happening right when the dressage fashion was turning away from TBs to warmbloods.



Okay, here’s my immediate personal seriously sucky news of the week.

            I met Jenny while hellhounds and I were out hurtling today.  Some of you will remember Jenny.  She has a horse farm/stables/yard at Ditherington.  I rode her gorgeous mare Connie for—was it about a year?  I’m pretty sure both the beginning and the end were recorded in this blog—until the ME started letting me know in fairly graphic terms that I couldn’t ride regularly, week after week . . . and there’s no frelling point to riding any other way than regularly.  At least not at my age and when I’ve done enough riding and hanging out with horses in years past that I’m not interested in anything less than a relationship, and preferably a training relationship, with an individual horse, in which one or the other of you and probably both are learning stuff you didn’t know before.   I miss riding.  I miss hanging out with horses, but while Jenny always says I’m welcome to stop around any time, it seems so pathetic when I can’t ride. 

            I miss Connie.

            Connie was lovely.  She was a Connemara/thoroughbred cross, which is a popular breeding because it produces a lot of good horses.  She was one of them.  She could do anything if you asked her nicely—she was positive and willing and clever, a ‘schoolmaster’ (or perhaps schoolmistress), as they call such horses, without being a push-button robot.  She paid attention, and if you didn’t ask correctly, you didn’t get what you thought you wanted.  She also needed your help:  she couldn’t do it alone.  She engaged.  She was right there for you.

            She had an accident out one day in the field, no one knows what or how, the same harmless, as-much-as-anyone-ever-can-horse-proofed field she spent all her days in.  And had to be put down. 

            She can’t have been more than her mid to late teens.  She should have had another ten years of teaching humans to ride—Jenny’s son was due to have her when he outgrew his pony—and some years after that of being a pasture ornament.

            So I’m going to post a few Romantic Hampshire photos here, some of which may contain hellhounds, and go to bed sadly. 

A courtesan, a bride, and a mare

I missed the Metropolitan Opera Quiz because the blasted bride was forty minutes late.   Not to mention a lot of Renee Fleming.  Singing, I mean.  Renee Fleming was not late.*

            We–Peter, hellhounds and I–were supposed to be in Gloucestershire tonight for a major clan birthday party.**  During one of the lulls of canine digestive mayhem we’d booked a cottage that takes dogs*** because I was having one of my spells of total sanity loss, when I believed the vet had figured it out.  Foolish me.†  So we cancelled.††  This meant I was not going to miss Renee Fleming singing Massenet’s Thais††† which would recompense me for almost anything.  And then Niall went down with flu, for pity’s sake, Niall doesn’t get ill, let alone ill enough not to ring bells, which is his purpose in life, which meant that the wedding I’d been supposed to ring before I found out we’d be in Gloucestershire and had to cross my name off the list, was short a ringer . . . this was now after I’d noticed what this week’s Saturday at the Met was going to be, drat it, but I am both loyal and very, very local, so I swallowed hard and said okay.‡

            And then the bride was forty minutes late.  And the service took longer than the schedule looked like it ought to.  Sigh.  I’m presently listening to my old Beverly Sills Thais‡‡, which is some comfort.  And Connie and I cantered away like anything this morning.  I didn’t quite dare try a ten metre circle, but we were probably doing fifteen, and she was right there ready to be asked to spiral down a little more.  But because the universe is in perfect balance in all its minutiae, even to someone riding a horse in circles, our trot work was pretty terrible.  We began okay but as soon as we started cantering it was all over.  Cantering Connie is a good way to wake up her trot, if she’s in need of waking, but she hasn’t been in need of waking in a while‡‡‡.  And my impression was that she too was saying, Yaay!  We’ve finally got the canter sorted!  Silly woman!  I thought she’d never learn!  So let’s canter!  –We had some really splendid walk to canter transitions too.  Some of them I’d even asked for. 

* * *

 * Renee Fleming would be fired if she were late.  There are a lot of brides out there I think need firing.^  Don’t talk to me about major one off event planning:  I’m not interested.  Sure, I know the stories about the twelve-car collisions on the M3 and the six hour tailbacks:  those brides I absolve^^.  The rest of them . . . I’m a cynical old curmudgeon but I would bet you that if it were in the contract that every paid professional involved in a wedding started getting time and a half for every minute past fifteen that the wedding was late starting, a lot more weddings would happen on time.  Of course I’ve just missed the Met opera quiz and a lot of Renee Fleming, so I’m not in a good mood.

 ^ There’s a (bad) joke here about building fires under them, but I’ll leave you to finish it for yourselves 

 ^^and some department of social services should provide a free bottle of champagne every year on their anniversary, as a kind of pension

 ** Somebody else turning 80.  Been there, done that.  And a hellhound interfered with that one too.^

 ^ Peter’s 80th last December.  And Chaos had a throat infection and was really really really really sick.  The whole story is back on the old lj blog, if anyone wants to revisit past adversity.

 *** Perhaps our error was in not doublechecking that they took hellhounds, and fate said tut tut mustn’t have this carelessness.  WHAM. 

† I now have some frail and trembling cause to hope I may have figured at least some of it out, but I’m not going to talk about it in public yet.  It’s been a long scary two years and I’m pretty shellshocked.  Make that extremely shellshocked. 

†† I have very mixed feelings about this.  I dread huge parties, but it’s really nice to see everyone.  One at a time, preferably, in corners, between hors d’oeuvres, etc.^  It’s also a great excuse to dress up. 

^ Good luck. 

††† Thais is the courtesan.  For anyone who is puzzling over the title of this entry.  She’s a pretty interesting character, especially for a woman in a 19th century opera:  there’s this monk who decides to try to save her from her wicked ways–so far so standard–but then she actually does convert and he suddenly realises that he has the hots for her.  She dies of one of those mysterious invisible symptomless diseases^ Hollywood would make famous a few decades later–Massenet is fond of mysterious diseases:  he kills off his Manon the same way–ecstatic, with a vision of heaven, and the monk collapses, babbling of his desire for her, with a final cry of Pitié! (which is, just by the way, very effective, like Alfredo crying Violetta! at the end of La Traviata or Rodolfo crying Mimi! at the end of La Boheme.  Anguish and despair are great ways to end an opera).  No less an authority than the New Grove Dictionary of Opera agrees with me that Thais is sadly underrated.  The music is really interesting.  It’s all sort of . . . French.  

^ The Plot Device Disease 

‡ And the torment doesn’t stop:  I’m ringing some damn thing tomorrow evening (as well as service ring in the morning, of course.  With Niall hors de combat I hope we’re not ringing plain hunt on three).  I don’t even know what it is.  I just know I have to turn up at x tower at x time and pull on a bell rope.  Probably another of these frelling carol services.^  I’ve told you before that I’m a strong believer in bells:  we should ring more things rather than fewer–more weddings and particularly more funerals, and more just . . . things.  I think those two-minute silences on Armistice Day should end with a lot of people pulling bells off.  For example.  So I’m completely hoist by my own petard.  But I do find it frustrating that there are a lot of perfectly functional rings of bells around here that have no ringers so when someone wants bells they have to go scouring around other people’s towers for spare and/or mad ringers to fill in.  Learn to ring, you guys!  It’s fun!  It’s good exercise!  It enables you to haul heavy-on-the-bit mares up off their forehands! 

^ I’m still trying to remember to, uh, sing.  You may or may not remember that I’m supposed to learn to sing these wretched songs I seem to be composing.+  So I try to sing when I’m out walking hellhounds–when I’m out walking hellhounds very far away from anyone else.  I will never be Renee Fleming but I can carry a tune, more or less, but I’m only erratically audible++ and Oisin says briskly I need to sing more.  I’ve started making copies of lyrics and sticking them in my back pocket because I seem to have forgotten the lyrics to everything I ever knew.  Except Christmas carols.  I can sing Christmas carols for over an hour without repeating myself.+++   Hoarse but triumphant.  Of course the wildlife that lives near any of our usual routes is becoming increasingly traumatised and the sheep run away sooner than they do when I’m not singing, but I suppose some kind of progress is being made.

 + If I compose slowly enough . . . that won’t work, I’ve got several finished.  

++ Which is arguably a good thing, but counterproductive

+++ Scary.  Very scary. 

‡‡ Although speaking of scary I’ve had a really scary experience.  I was trying to remember what you call the order of service when it’s a wedding–you know, those little white booklets they pass out at the door that tell you what’s going on.  They’ve got a name, don’t they?  So I googled it.  Of course.  And managed to choose the wrong click to info:  found myself facing a huge Adobe file and a license agreement–I’m coming to loathe Adobe, but that’s another story–so hit ‘back’.  Wouldn’t go back.  Wouldn’t do anything.  Hung.  Eventually hit control-alt-delete and got off the web but was now faced with a Task Manager window suggesting I End Task . . . and thirty three little green boxes at the bottom of my screen going gleep gleep gleep in the most extraordinary manner, as if they were thirty three little green mouths serially opening and shutting. 

            And I hadn’t saved this entry before I went on line which I usually do because I’m pathetic and paranoid.

            Oh gods.

            I did, as you see, manage to save around the Task Manager and the green boxes . . . but I can tell you I was feeling profoundly unhappy when I closed and hit ‘restart’.  Would this still be here?  Or would I have to give you my eggnog recipe tonight after all?  Up the point that the bride was only twenty minutes late, you were going to get the eggnog recipe.  Oh well.  Tomorrow.

 ‡‡‡ The weather helps, but indeed today was weirdly balmy.  I should have been out frantically jamming the last tulips into pots but . . . I wasn’t.

A ten metre circle and a birthday party


I rode a ten metre circle at the canter today.  I’m so chuffed I can hardly stand it.  Our canter work has never been as good as our trot work, which is to say I’m meatloaf, because it may have been the first time I saw Jenny ride Connie she did these like two and a half metre circles* and I said afterwards that Connie would be perfectly capable of pirouettes if Jenny wanted to ask her.  But I just never keep it all together well enough.  There’s too frelling much going on at the canter and I’m always about half a stride behind and thinking, wait, is it my left . . . uh . . . which body part?  And to do a ten metre circle–which is miniscule, for you non-horse people–you really do have to have the horse both together and under you–balanced under you, I mean, as opposed to not having shied twenty feet across the arena leaving you behind–all at the same time.  Feh.  I have noticed that our cantering is improving, and we’ve done ten metre circles at the trot a few times.  But when Jenny said today, make a twenty-metre circle and then spiral in to ten metres, I thought she was out of her tiny mind.  But we did it.  And we did it both directions too which is to say Connie’s stiff side as well as her easy side.**  I actually couldn’t believe it.  I kept waiting for it all to go horribly wrong.  Sometimes when you get better at something you know what you’ve done or how you’ve done it:  you know what changed.  Sometimes you don’t.  I know our canter work has got better–and it’s also got better when we’re on our own without Jenny keeping me organised–but I don’t really know why.  My body parts are catching on by their individual selves. ***  And I sure didn’t know it had got this much better.

            Of course on Saturday† we won’t be able to canter at all.

            . . . So, anyway, I didn’t cancel riding today.  And the high produced by those ten metre circles got me through most of the rest of the day . . . and then I crashed spectacularly at about the point that the birthday dinner began.  I was just putting my shoes on†† and thought . . . uh oh.  I’m now furthermore smashed ††† and I’m going to bed before (I hope) I merely curl up on the floor with the hellhounds.‡  The food was lovely and the conversation was excellent‡‡, and I stayed sitting up in my chair, what more do you want? 

But allow me to leave you with a link as lovely as riding a ten-metre circle.‡‡‡  Jodi sent it to me a few days ago.  The title tells you everything you need to know and your finger should be thumping the connect button before you finish reading this sen. . . .

 * * *

 * Joke 

** All horses have a stiffer and a softer side.  It’s pretty pronounced in Connie’s case, probably as a result of whatever it was left all the scars down the left side of her neck and foreleg.  I’ve mentioned this before:  I don’t in the least understand how she managed to get through whatever it was heart-whole, which she manifestly did:  she’s absolutely positive and willing on the flat or over fences.  Of course she’s afraid of butterflies, pigs, and cow parsley/Queen Anne’s lace, but that’s another issue. 

*** I find learning a physical skill is often like this.  Your hands do it, your legs do it.  You kind of go along because you’re attached

 †Because of course I am riding on Saturday 

†† One pair of those famous four-pairs-of-shoes-in-an-afternoon shoes, which appeared in this blog a few months ago.  So, not All Stars.  It does happen occasionally, the not All Stars. 

††† Everyone else went on to red wine thus forcing me to finish the champagne 

‡ There’s almost enough room in their bed, and I just swept it out and changed the blankets yesterday. . . . 

‡‡ No thanks to me

‡‡‡ Or surviving a birthday party

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