7 years ago, a dog was born that changed my life. All dogs do, one way or another, but not always this much. I wrote about this before, but I keep coming back to it. Breeze came into my life as I had begun taking anti-depressants in the wake of Ringo’s illness and started to become more able to do things with my life. That meant that the 6.5 years we shared were some of the most fulfilling of my life. We travelled to shows all over Sweden (and a few in Norway) with him and I became friends with some wonderful people thanks to him. At the same time, The World of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones gave us the opportunity to travel abroad more than I had ever done before. That was not because of Breeze, but in my mind he became deeply associated with this very happy time in my life.
6 years ago today, Ringo passed away. It feels like a lifetime ago and in many ways it is because together Ringo and Breeze changed my life almost completely. And now they are both gone, which my brain on some level still refuses to take in.
We learned of Ringo’s cancer towards the end of 2013. That, together with my mother’s advancing illness, sent my stress and depression spiralling out of control. I went to a doctor for the first time in many years, thinking that my blood pressure was through the roof and/or that I was about to have a heart attack the way my heart was racing. It was “just” a panic attack and severe anxiety, but it did convince me to start taking anti-depressants, which I had resisted for…well, decades.
I didn’t know it then, but it was the beginning of a very different phase of my life. In 2014, our book was published and we welcomed home Breeze, and both these events would have far-reaching consequences. The book through its amazing success and the many interviews, trips abroad and other wild experiences that it led to. And Breeze…well, without Breeze I would not have made so many new friends or become so involved in the Boxer Club through dog shows, training for working dog trials and just living a life with a boxer at the heart of it. We may have had dogs since I was quite young, but my life had never be so completely arranged around a dog as it became with Breeze.
Almost two and a half months now since the beginning of the year and Breeze’s passing. I can think about him without that horribly sharp pang of pain, but often I flash back to that first seizure on our walk. The cold sweat that immediately gripped me as my brain assumed the worst. It always does, but this time it was right. Just like it was right when Ringo started limping for no obvious reason. Of course, I have no doubt been wrong several times as well. But with Breeze…its odd, I don’t know if it was because of the surgeries for his knees and the cancer scare last autumn (that one turned out to be nothing, though), but for the last year or two I felt this almost painfully strong attachment to him. I’d often hug him in that way you do when you’re scared of losing something, as if you could hold on by hugging. I’d also feel scared that I was too happy, that things were too perfect now that I had Elio, two wonderful dogs and a horse. I am sure everyone gets these feelings, but I often get stuck in them. Well, that’s depression and incurable pessimism for you, when you feel good you are always waiting for something to go wrong.
Back to an old favourite today, a lesson blog. Writing something every time I ride became a chore even before I bought Barka (yes, that happened while blog was on hiatus, in early 2019), but it is still a good idea to occasionally write down my thoughts after a lesson. 2021 has started both well and not so well in terms of my riding. On the plus side is a happy, healthy horse (fingers crossed and all that) and the fact that I’ve had a chance to ride for Sten Åstedt every 14 days. Normally, I get a lesson for him once a month but twice now I have filled in for other regulars. Today was one such instance, we’ve had a mass of snow over night and those who needed to transport their horses to the arena couldn’t make it.
Less good is that I have been plagued by nerves. The cold weather is beautiful and lovely, but it can make the horses just a little frisky. To be honest, Barka is just a little more forward than usual and a little more alert, but when something gets on my mind, it stays there. I’ve found riding in the arena particularly difficult and that’s a bit curious because it used to be I felt much safer there than in the outdoor paddock. But what I have realised is that my fears have changed over the years. With Barka, I am much less worried about losing control over her (that was always my big fear before), but I am still worried about things happening that might scare her. Outside, I can keep an eye on my surroundings. Inside the arena, I never know when there will be a sudden sound outside the door. So its about control, but control of the environment around me rather than the horse.
It has been a while since I wrote anything here. Over 3.5 years, in fact. I’ve posted plenty to Otherworldly, but nothing about dogs, horses, books, mu*ing or life in general. For some of it, I’ve used Facebook instead. For the rest, I’ve had the occasional urge to post but found myself frustrated by the need to redesign and restructure the site. The site just ended up being an awkward reminder of the fact that I wasn’t able to muster the energy to work on it properly. I keep having things get only partially finished because of my depression and then I get even more depressed because I have half-finished things lying around.
But sometimes things happen that make me care less about my little obsessions and hang-ups. On January 1st this year, our beloved Breeze passed away at only 6.5 years of age. Out of the blue he started suffering seizures on the 31st of December and the next day we learned that he had a large brain tumour and that nothing could be done for him.
My heart is still in pieces and I miss his beautiful face and his large, comforting presence every moment of every day. He was not an easy dog but he was a wonderful dog.
I posted this on Facebook already, but this blog needs some love too, so I thought I might as well include both the post and the video of the event in question.
This is starting to become routine. I stop blogging for a while, I change around the website and I never get things fully finished so that I feel comfortable with starting up. But whether or not I am ready to get back to regular posts, I do feel an urge right now to write about the latest developments with my riding. There may also follow posts about dog training, because I’ve been bitten by that bug too.
But to start with the riding, I am still riding Barka as part of a project at the riding school to give a few students a chance for more intense training as well as some low-level competitions. I ride my regular lesson on Mondays and then I ride Barka on my own on Fridays. In addition to that, we get a chance to ride for external trainers. Last year it was mainly jumping for Gunilla Fredriksson, which definitely highlighted just how basic the jumping we’ve done before has been. This year I’ve had the opportunity to ride twice for Sten Åstedt and that has been a real revelation when it comes to dressage. He has been training the instructors at the riding school for some years, so some of what he said wasn’t exactly new, but being taught one-on-one and really focusing on what he does differently was a whole new experience. Basically, its a matter of retraining a lot of the things I’ve been taught over the years. For example, my seat needs changing from the ground up, since my body is still too used to the old “push your heel down” school of riding. He wants my legs further back, my feet horizontal to the ground and the toes pointing forward. If the horse were to disappear from underneath me, I should land on the whole foot, not the heel which would mean I’d tip over backwards. And then there’s the fact that whether I am doing a circle to the left or a circle to the right, I sit for the wrong direction. One way would be natural (which way depends on whether you’re right- or left-handed), but both being an issue means its a learned behaviour. The fault? Having been taught to look far ahead, which on a circle means your pelvis is going to be going in a different direction than the horse’s body.
He illustrated this very clearly by having me ride Barka on a circle to the right while keeping her flexed at the poll for a circle to the left. As long as I did that, I sat correctly. The first few times that I changed the flex at the poll, my seat changed as well. That is going to be a lot of muscle memory to retrain. He also asks his students to ride from the outside in (outside leg to inside rein) instead of inside out (inside leg to outside rein), in part because he wants us to tell the horses what we want them to do instead of what we don’t want them to do. Show them the way with the inside rein instead of hindering them with the outside rein. A lot of it is definitely the opposite of what I’ve been taught before, but it certainly felt very good once I got it to work. Is it the one true way? I don’t know, I am not experienced enough, but I like the way he presents his ideas. He talks a lot about how it is easy to communicate something other than what you think you are communicating and this is something I’ve had ample proof of when training Breeze as well. Trying to get across exactly what you mean to another species is not easy, especially not when you’re using ways to communicate other than talking or writing such as balance or body language.
The last lesson for Sten (this past Wednesday) also involved a lot of focus on my rising trot. During the first lesson, he’d told me I kept going a little too fast. Now, he also wanted me to sit down much more lightly, as if my horse had a bad back. I definitely need to get my balance down into my feet for that to work and I need to rid myself of my urge to create momentum by using my seat to push the horse forward (in part learned over years of riding the laziest horses I could find), both when trotting and cantering. He had me give canter aids without sitting down in the saddle and at first I couldn’t quite visualize how I could lift the horse’s ribcage by just using my heel, but then suddenly it worked. Quite an amazing feeling, given how much I have struggled with giving soft canter aids and not trying to rock the horse into motion with my whole body.
The final thing for my new checklist was to keep my inner hand steadier (and lower) by imagining that I am holding one finger on a neck ring. He noted that generally he’d place the virtual neck ring further down on the horse’s neck, but my arms were too short. ;P Well, at least I have an expert agreeing with me there, I’ve always said I struggle to ride larger horses because of my short arms. Fortunately, Barka fits me pretty well. No modern dressage horses for me, which suits me just fine. I like the more baroque models. Fingers crossed that she will stay fit so that I can keep taking these extra lessons this semester, because its really motivating.
Well, I failed to write following last Friday’s session (in fact, I rode twice on Friday, both on my own during the day and then a lesson in the evening), but since Monday was largely a follow-up I might as well discuss them together.
I had read an article about improving your feel for the horse’s gaits, so I spent some time at the start of each session working on that. I also worked on getting my legs further forward, to get into a better position. Still need a stronger core, though. Following that, I focused on the basics during the warm-up: straightness, proper corners, obedience. On the whole, I think Barka responds quite well to most work at walk and trot, though once we moved onto shoulder-in and half-pass she does find it more challenging when her right hind leg needs to do more work. But that’s the idea, to try and strengthen it for the canter, since we’re still having a lot of arguments about taking the canter aids without the need for a whip to be applied and at least one protest buck.
I was particularly pleased with her trot towards the end today, after we’d done quite a bit of work on shrinking and enlarging a circle. She felt nicely balanced and fairly straight.
After missing last Monday due to a seminar, I was eager to get back to working on Barka this week. Maybe a little too eager, since I found myself a bit unfocused and doing a bit of this and that initially. However, after warming up, I did settle on doing some of that canter work since she certainly had felt strong enough for it during the jumping class last Friday.
Initially, Barka very much disagreed. She was fine with cantering when I stood up a bit and just allowed her to mind her own business during the warm-up, but once I started asking for canter from a more collected trot or even a walk she balked. I applied the whip and was rewarded with some surly kicks, though one of those did lead into a very nice canter. It definitely took quite a bit of persuasion, but I did get a circle or two of decent canter in both directions. After that, she was a lot more malleable and I asked for a bit more work at walk and trot before wrapping up. By that time she was insisting that she was very tired indeed. I also noticed that around 2/3’s into the hour, she had more or less switched which rein she was supporting herself on. She starts with the right but by the end it was more to the left.
For riding a dressage test, I’ll obviously need to get to the point where she doesn’t question the canter aids, at least not during the test itself. I should probably put in canter transitions during every lesson, just to remind her that I will insist on them.
For this Monday, I wanted to continue working on transitions as well as shortening and lengthening, though the end result was a bit of a mixed bag in terms of keeping to the plan. I clearly need a lot more practice when it comes to planning my own riding.
The good news, however, were that some stretches I’ve been doing seem to have worked to make mounting up a bit less uncomfortable. Still feeling a bit stiff, but I’ll keep at those and see it it keeps improving. I can tell my seat isn’t great without being reminded of using my stomach properly with some regularity, so that’s another one to keep in mind.
As for Barka, I am quite pleased with her at a trot. It is definitely her best gait and she gets quite supple after a bit of work. I rode with spurs today and she was quite a bit more “electric”, almost enough to make me tense up a bit, but she behaved. The canter came more easily that way, though getting it right every time is still a work in progress. Once she’s a bit stronger, I’ll need to do a session focused on canter transitions, but right now it would frustrate her pretty quickly.
I am starting up my horse blogging again, though with a bit of a different focus and format. Since a few weeks before Christmas, I am renting Barka from the riding school twice a week as part of a trial at the stables where they want to offer students a chance to do more than just take lessons. For this spring, the plan is that the riding school will be fielding a team for a regional dressage competition and the core of the team will be three of us “guinea pigs” in the horse rental program. Given this, I have an actual goal to work towards with Barka. Plus, I will be riding on my own, which I am very unused to doing after 30 years of just taking lessons. Taken together, this calls for some planning and what I will be doing with for each session on my own is write down what my goals had been and what I managed to accomplish, as well as make particular note of any issues that I need to work on. Since Barka managed to get kicked right before Christmas, today was the first proper session in a while, though I did help with starting her up again over the holidays. But this will serve as the starting point for project get ready to compete.
With today’s session, I wanted to focus on transitions as well as a bit of lengthening and shortening, working primarily at walk and trot since Barka is still lacking a bit of stamina after her involuntary rest period.
I managed to more or less stick to what I had in mind, though I can feel that the whole planning and executing my own lesson is still very new to me. For example, I probably switch between exercises a little too often. I did feel a marked improvement in Barka’s movement from start to finish, however, and her trot in particular felt balanced and relaxed at the end. The best transitions were from walk to trot, where I felt a nice impulse from the back and she maintained her frame. Trot to walk needs a bit of work, though I think it mostly comes down to my position not being steady enough. Canter work needs a lot of improvement, I will get to that in the next segment. I also had some issues with smaller circles, but that may come down to her only having started doing those again last week.
With this session in mind, I was able to come up with a list of key issues to work on during the spring. Number one is my own fitness, or lack thereof. I have been having a lot of issues with finding a good position in the saddle without various parts of my body hurting, so I will clearly need to limber up my legs and my hips as well as strengthen my back and stomach. I’ve had back issues in the past, but I’ve never felt quite this stiff before. I have clearly hit the age where something needs to be done. As for Barka, I do need to work on balancing her sides so she’s not so uneven, but I find it isn’t that huge of a deal with her all considered. If I improve my position I think that part will improve a lot too. Her canter, however, will need some work. She needs to become a good deal stronger and less likely to get the wrong leading leg in the canter. The latter problem is particularly difficult for me to work on as I am absolutely terrible at telling when a horse is on the wrong leading leg, which means I can’t correct for it quickly enough to be efficient. So that is a bit of a dilemma when riding on my own.
Blogging about my riding experiences has most definitely fallen by the wayside these last years. Depression has played a role, but also a lack of inspiration and a feeling that I was repeating myself a lot and writing because I had to, not because I wanted to. Perhaps I will give it another try, keeping posts to when I feel I have something worthwhile to chronicle. Such as last Monday’s “riding lesson”, which took place somewhere very different than what I am used to. Elio and I were in Spain to present the Spanish edition of The World of Ice and Fire and we went to Barcelona for a few days and then to Osuna, where they were opening a small gallery of the gorgeous Spanish cover art for the series. Osuna is also where they shot part of last season and the town is really hoping to provide some interesting sights for Game of Thrones fans (not to mention that they have some amazing sights in general). They were thrilled to have the official presentation of Spanish edition of The World of Ice and Fire there and to play host to both us, the publisher and the cover artist. We received a very warm welcome, but even that couldn’t have prepared me for the surprise on our last day there.
On Sunday, I had happened to mention that I loved horses and would love to come back to Andalucia to ride a PRE (Pura Raza Espanola—also known as Andalusian, though technically that is a less specific term). On Monday, our host Jesús told me they could take me to a stable in town so I could get to try an Andalusian. I was of course thrilled by the offer, but I had no riding clothes with me. They insisted that we go there anyway. Once there, Luis Calderon and his sister Milagros made us most welcome and showed off their beautiful PRE stallions. After we had seen the horses demonstrate Spanish walk, passage and piaffe in hand, Luis started warming up one of the horses for me while Milagros headed out to find me clothes. She soon returned with boots, pants and a shirt (the latter being a gift from her, showing the logo of the Andalusian side-saddle association, of which she is the president). A riding hat was not included (it is not commonly used), but I realised that I could not pass up the opportunity. I did, however, decline the offer to take a trail ride to our next sight-seeing location; that seemed a little too adventurous without a riding hat. Just one more reason for me to come back and do it another time!
Once I was dressed and ready, I was introduced to a beautiful bay stallion called Latino. We started out in a small indoor arena, with Luis initially having him on a lead-rope as he talked me through the aids. The difference against a riding school horse was roughly the difference between a tractor and a Ferrari in terms of sensitivity to my aids, so I really had to get used to that. Language caused small confusions on a few occasions, but Luis was very patient and clearly used to teaching riders who aren’t used to the power and sensitivity of the PRE. Once I was more settled in, we went outside into the larger arena. There Luis let me experience the Spanish walk, passage and piaffe, all with him helping out with a lead-rope and a long whip to guide Latino when my aids weren’t precise enough. I have, I think, fairly decent hands, but they were clearly not soft and sensitive enough to keep from collecting a little too much at times; I really had to work on trying to hold the reins like fine threads of silk in order to be soft enough.
After a while, it was time for the lead-rope to come off and after riding along for a bit, Luis asked me to try the Spanish walk on my own. The aids are diagonal, with a press of the leg and a squeeze of the rein, but you can’t do it too fast or the horse will attempt a passage instead. We had a few false starts, but then something clicked and all of a sudden Latino was doing the Spanish walk again, with me giving the aids. It was an amazing moment and I have a photo that captures it, showing a giant smile appearing on my face. Of course, I would say the credit for that walk goes to 99% to Latino, who was very patient with a beginner at such things, but the feeling still can’t be beat. This was the most special thing I have ever experienced on horseback.
And I think that those who know a little bit about me as a rider will see another reason for why it was so special, beyond me getting the chance to ride a Grand Prix trained PRE stallion. Ever since my accident when I was ten, I’ve been a nervous rider. For the first few years after the accident, every unexpected thing a horse did would leave me crying. Then it got better for a while, at least when riding indoors and on horses that I trusted well. Now ... well, additional caution always seems to set in with age, and I have gotten very used to riding primarily small horses or large ponies. Then I feel I can stay in control, even if something unexpected happens. In a sense, it is a compromise; I’ve learned to ride better and feel more confident about myself as a rider over the years, but only by keeping myself to a certain type of horse.
Latino, however, was a fair bit from the 14, maybe 15 hands I usually prefer, if not as large as your typical dressage horse tends to be these days. But I got up on him without a second thought (well, pretty much, anyway) and once up there I felt safe. Yes, I was on a lead-rope to start with, and I probably would not have been up for cantering, but what I did (and did without being nervous) was miles beyond anything I have done for years. This was a highly trained, sensitive and at the same times very powerful stallion, and I was actually breathing normally and thinking about my seat instead of hunching over and feeling stiff and nervous. I am not sure where that confidence came from, but clearly Luis, Milagros and of course Latino were very good at making me feel secure.
I should be adding some photos to the site, but until then I have an album up on Facebook.
Long time, no blog! I miss doing my weekly lesson reports, but I haven’t been able to get back to doing them with enthusiasm rather than with it feeling like a chore. As a result, I’ve avoided the blog altogether, but now I am trying (again) to find a more casual approach to posting and doing it only when I feel inspired by something specific.
Such as my new favourite horse (and dog) clothes from Uhip, acquired at the Gothenburg Horse Show last weekend. I had been eyeing their thermal skirts for a while since my current riding breeches are on the chilly side for winter and since I easily get cold legs in general when I am out with Ringo. I decided to get one of the Sport skirts and since they offered 50% off if you bought two items, I felt I just had to try on their long coat as well. After a bit of my usual indecision, I came away from there with a bag stuffed full of one cosy thermal skirt and one light and fluffy long coat.
And then I thought, why don’t I blog about it? I do book reviews from time to time, after all, so why not cover the occasional purchase related to my other hobbies? So, I dragged off Elio to the woods to shoot a couple of pictures and if you read on you get to see those as well. Bonus Ringo included!
I was back in the saddle again yesterday after the usual lesson break over the summer. I can definitely feel that today; we were just two students in the lesson, so we got quite the workout. But it was great to be back on a horse, especially since I got to ride Barka. She did start off rather opinionated—even for her!—and tried to ignore my leg aids as she just curled herself up behind the bit. Our instructor told me that she has been turning increasingly “mare-ish” of late; meaning, she needs a carefully balanced dose of determination and politeness from the rider.
Fortunately, I like horses with opinions and after a while we came to some passable agreements; she’d start moving forward on her own, I’d stop bothering her quite so much with my aids. Of course, there was still the matter of keeping all her body parts under control and making sure she was actually straight through the whole body. And once she’d stopped pulling back behind the bit, I had to readjust a bit mentally and remember to keep my reins quite short to give her proper support on her left side.
Her walk is definitely the hardest gait to work with as she does have a tendency to lose momentum and not really move through her whole body. The trot is quite good, I think, and yesterday the canter worked really well too. The transitions can be so-so, but the work we did yesterday—which included a lot of transitions as well as some lateral work—helped Barka stay together and get more explosive.
A little too explosive at times, mind you, but I am getting used to the occasional bit of bucking being thrown in. I hope the riding school is able to keep her—she has issues with dust allergies—because she really suits me quite nicely, both in terms of her body type and her personality.
Yesterday’s lesson was…exciting, courtesy of the temperature (-10). Most of the horses were on their toes and that definitely included Barka. I do get a bit nervous when a horse is tense and it feels like you’re sitting on top of the horse instead of sitting into it. That usually leads to me tensing up and then the horse tenses more and, well, bad feedback loop ensues. Add cold weather to that and you’re piling tension on top of tension. That said, it was Barka and so far my experience with her is that she doesn’t do anything too stupid. She has a pretty sensitive mouth and she certainly doesn’t seem inclined to do too much more than a bit of a bounce before she settles again. Fortunately, that turned out to be largely correct. We had a few incidents, including when cantering over a single rail on the ground apparently called for what felt like a rather substantial buck, but nothing that was a close call.
As for actual work, it was a bit spotty. A lot of my energy went into keeping Barka’s mind on the work and off, well, everything else. Some very nice trot from her again and more struggling with the canter transitions. Apparently she is also a bit too clever (and a mare, at that); they did a similar exercise yesterday and she picked up some bad habits from a single slip-up by that rider who at one point failed to keep her from joining the horses waiting in the middle instead of continuing down the length of the arena. As a result, she slammed the brakes on me a few times and refused to continue. Given how frisky she was, I had put my whip aside, which of course she took full advantage of. Mares.
Still, when we finished off with some trot at the end, she finally started lowering her form and breathing out audibly. You could just feel the tension melting away. That just took 60 minutes of work. I am hoping that if I jump her next week, she has done some more lessons earlier in the day. Though I am thinking not, she’s probably a bit too much for the lower groups to handle in winter.