Friday, February 27, 2015

My daughter is competing in her first horse show. What does she need to wear?

This is a daunting question.  We are about to enter my daughter’s 5th show season and just purchased her 4th set of show attire.  I’m getting better at this but still find the process mystifying.

We were really fortunate that her first shows took place under the guidance of a trainer who liked a nice turnout and worked one night a week at our local tack shop.  It was so easy!  I just showed up while she was working and told her to pick out whatever she liked.  As time went on and my daughter changed disciplines and competition levels, I had to wrap my head around when they wear what.  There are still nuances that are lost on me, especially in the hunter world but I can certainly get you started.

I have 2 universal pieces of advice.  Firstly, if you can borrow or buy a used show coat, shirt, jodhs (pants) or garters, do so.  With so many kids showing at a young age there are always barely used show clothes kicking around.  Save your pennies for later on when they are burning through breeches and boots.   Secondly, keep her in jodhpurs and garters as long as possible (I’ll explain this in a minute).  The girls are in such a rush to grow up but there are several reasons to slow them down.  1) They look adorable.  2) The judges love the adorable, well turned out little girls. 3) It is way less complicated and expensive.

Regarding the information that follows, links will take you directly to appropriate items on the Dover Saddlery website.  Hopefully this will make the whole thing a little less overwhelming!  There are many other good options.  These are just the items we have chosen.

Show coats are generally dark in color.  For rated shows in the equitation ring and dressage or eventing shows, the jacket should be solid black or solid dark navy.  For Elizabeth’s first three show seasons during which she only went to schooling shows, we were able to find beautiful coats on sale for $50.00 but they had a plaid pattern or pin stripe to them.  The pattern was barely noticeable but since Elizabeth plans to do some sanctioned events now, we bought a solid navy coat.  That meant there was nothing on the sale rack.  She is still a child’s size – 14 – in some things so not quite as expensive as women’s but much more than in the past.  I wish we could have gotten one from a friend.  She’ll only use it 10 times and will likely outgrow it by next year.

The upside to them moving up to women's sizes is that you have a ton more to choose from.  The downside is the cost goes up pretty dramatically.

You can never go wrong with a white shirt.  Certainly you can get away with a light color at a schooling show and the jumpers are far less fussy about shirt and coat colors.  But, in most disciplines, the white shirt is the proper choice.  The shirts have a flat collar that snaps or buttons across the throat and they have a loop at the back for the stock tie to pass through so be sure to buy a shirt from a tack shop.  A proper shirt is known as a "rat catcher" but don't ask me why!  White shirts are the easiest to find in numerous sizes and different fabrics for different temperatures.  There are now a number of companies making “cool max” long sleeved white shirts with a dry wicking, breathable material.  Proper dress means a long sleeved shirt with the cuffs poking out from the sleeves of the jacket.  On hot days, the cool max shirts make a big difference.  On super hot days, judges often choose to allow riders to forego the show coat all together.  Try on several brands and styles of shirts.  I know some have huge necks, others tiny necks.  You really need a good fit.  If the neck is too big and you add a stock tie it will look messy.

Short sleeved shirts (this link goes to a women's shirt but we bought a children's size so I know they are out there, just can't find it) are not proper attire.  However, my daughter wears one with a stock tie to most summer shows and she’s not the only one.  Again, my knowledge of A circuit hunter shows is lacking but when it’s been 90 degrees at a show Elizabeth has entered the ring in short sleeves.  For sanctioned shows we always have the long sleeve shirt in the garment bag just in case.  Talk to your trainer about shirts, especially if you are going to rated shows of any type.  They should be able to advise you.

I’m not sure when they need to start wearing a stock tie but it is proper attire.  Elizabeth started wearing one last year.  I think there’s some trial and error involved in stock ties.  There are pre-tied stock ties but we bought the old fashioned kind.  They are white cotton and take some practice to get right.  You also need a stock pin to hold the ties in place.  For Pony Club it needs to be a super plain pin but there are several very fun options out there to add a bit of pizzazz to your show look.

Then there is the boot/pant combination.  Jodhpurs or breeches should be light in color.  We usually go with a light tan but white is also quite popular.  There are several colors of tan, all are acceptable.
If your daughter is under 12 years old she can wear jodhpurs, pictured above, paddock boots and garters.  The boots and garters can be black or brown leather but they should match.  The jodhpurs should be light tan.  Jodhs are longer than breeches and cuffed at the bottom.  They also have elastic straps at the bottom ala 1980’s stirrup pants which button to the inside of the cuff and go under the sole of the paddock boot.  The garters are lengths of leather that buckle around the pants above the calf and below the knee.  My daughter swears they are uncomfortable but the upside is the kids get to wear well broken in paddock boots and they are less crazy hot than tall boots.  For girls going with jodhpurs and garters, they should wear their hair in two long braids finished with hair bows.  They look so fantastic cantering around the ring with braids bouncing and ribbons blowing!

For older girls, you will need tan breeches and black field boots or dress boots, though field boots seem to be the current fashion in the shows we attend.  Dress boots pull on, field boots have laces in the front on the foot and zip up the back.  Two years ago Elizabeth wore her first pair of tall boots and they were a children’s size.  Last year she was 11 ½ and had to buy women’s.  We haven't gotten that far yet this year.  Tall boots are a little complicated to fit.  Choose show britches first.  These tend to be a little more structured than schooling britches. You should be sure your daughter wears her show britches when trying on boots.  The boots are meant to be extremely fitted.  If she wears thinner pants to buy the boots she may run into trouble on show day being unable to get them zipped up.  Same goes for socks.  For the most part, field boots zip all the way up the back.  They are easy to get your foot into but can easily take 2 people to zip.  Tall boots must be broken in so buy them at least a month in advance of your first show.  Be sure the person helping you knows what they are doing.  I’m finally getting the hang of how boots should fit but could never have figured it out on my own.  They fit illogically high up the leg and so tightly I’m sure they must be the wrong size!  However, that’s just the way they need to fit.  They do stretch out but it takes time and wear to stretch them.  I make my daughter wear hers around the house for at least 2 hours a day for the first few weeks we have them and that seems to do the trick.  When broken in they "drop" so what looks excessively high when you buy then is truly the correct fit down the road.  There is also spray called boot stretch.  We spray the boots inside and out before zipping which helps.  And sometimes the boots simply cut off circulation!

If you went with breeches and tall boots, her hair can no longer go in cute braids with ribbons.  Hair can either go up into the helmet or be collected neatly at the nape of the neck.  In either case, a hair net should be involved.  No hair should be hanging down her back.  The issue with putting it in the helmet is fit.  A helmet should be snug.  If you buy a helmet to fit with hair up, she will need to wear her hair up all the time.  My daughter’s helmet is snug without hair in it so we do a neat bun in a net at the nape of her neck.  Honestly we have yet to perfect this whole thing so I wish you luck!  The braids and bows were so much simpler!!!!

The helmet should be solid black.  There are some fancy helmets out there now with stripes down the middle but just like the white shirt, you can never go wrong with a solid black helmet.  For a schooling show the little velvet helmet covers you can buy are fine to cover up an inexpensive helmet but at a certain point it is worth investing in a really good helmet to protect your child's head.  We keep a neoprene cover on it most of the time so it looks nice and clean on show day.  For the cross country portion of eventing we cover it with a helmet cover in Elizabeth's eventing colors.

Gloves should be solid in color.  White is the proper color in dressage but as long as they are solid you should be fine.  We keep a separate pair of show gloves.  Schooling gloves get really grimy and we want a crisp turnout on show day.  My daughter chooses to wear black at this point which seems to be acceptable.

The pony turnout is a whole other story but mainly involves well cleaned tack and a clean saddle pad.  The pony should be bathed if possible and a braided mane is always nice.  For dressage the pad should be entirely white with absolutely nothing on it.  In the hunter ring the pad is a little sheepskin in a saddle shape that goes under the saddle.  In jumpers and the jumping phases of eventing, any saddle pad is fine.  In dressage the horses should not wear anything on their legs - no wraps, bell boots or brushing boots.  For jumping most of them wear some kind of boot.

If your child is an eventer they will wear their formal wear for their dressage test and a different outfit for cross country.  They will sometimes have the option of wearing cross country gear for show jumping.  That is generally a factor of how much time they have between phases.  If you have more than an hour, go to show jumping in formal attire and change into cross country gear afterwards.  If the order of go has your rider traveling directly from show jumping to cross country, they should show jump in their cross country gear.

For cross country the kids love to have colors.  Some are subtle and others deck out everything - my daughter is among the latter.  The horse's boots, ear net, saddle pad, the rider's shirt, helmet cover, vest all display a matching color combination.  This is really fun and the distraction is often a good one. My daughter can get a bit intense and stressed out so distracting her with dressing up herself and her horse in fabulous matching gear alleviates the stress.  

Now just add your fabulous rider with a great smile and go out and have some fun!!!  Happy showing!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Silver Linings: The things we learn when our horses can't work.

I was giving a friend an update on Quizz the other day and realized just how big a blessing Quizz's issues have been so thought it was worth sharing the upside to rehabilitating a horse now that I can see the upside!

For most of January we took one step forward and two steps back each week.  It's been difficult to pin down the issue.  Winter inflicts enough stiffness on its own, exacerbating the question of whether there is a real problem or just an environmental one.  We had some good days.  Quizz no longer cross cantered (rather than bringing both inside legs forward together, the horse brings the front inside leg and the hind outside leg forward together).  She was doing better with her canter transitions though frequently exploding on the lunge line before picking it up.  We would have a good day followed by a day she didn't want anyone on her back.  We panicked that the saddles didn't fit but it turns out that wasn't really the biggest issue.  We did what you do with horses; we tried different things until we found a way to make things work.

Quizz has now been shod twice by her new farrier.  She still definitely has something going on in her right SI.  She won't let the farrier bring her right hind leg up under her so he has taken to doing all the work on that leg out behind her and she is much happier.  She is growing a nice amount of hoof in front, less behind.  He estimates it will take 6 - 8 months to get her feet where he would like to see them.

In the mean time, we developed a routine that seems to be working.  My daughter lunges Quizz for 10 - 20 minutes before every ride.  The goal is to achieve 2 smooth canter transitions on each side before working under saddle.  Some days this takes longer than others.  Quizz generally explodes at least once, leaping off the ground on all fours, bucking and taking off around her circle or another more creative shape.  Some days she explodes 3 or 4 times.  As we implement this routine, the lunging duration continues to vary but definitely improves each day.

As I mentioned in my post on lameness, lunging is an important skill but one we often neglect.  It had been on our list to work on for over a year and we did work on it a bit but usually our trainer would lunge the pony or horse, Elizabeth would watch and take over the lunge once we were sure things were going well and only at the walk and maybe the trot.  Over the past few weeks Elizabeth has developed her skills immensely.  Our trainer now sits at the side of the ring while Elizabeth handles the lunge line.  When Quizz explodes Elizabeth calms her saying, "Easy," and brings her back to a controlled trot or canter.  Four weeks ago Elizabeth was afraid to really swing the whip at her.  Now she uses it to insist on a consistent tempo in the trot and on picking up the canter.  The transitions are still not timely but they are getting better.  And the best part is that Elizabeth is solving a problem on the ground she struggles with in the saddle: respect!  The ground work is making Quizz respect her young rider.  The more Elizabeth insists on the canter transition on the lunge line, the better Quizz's canter transitions go under saddle.  I am so incredibly proud of my 12 year old daughter as I watch her master this skill and work with her horse to build a relationship and mutual understanding.

When Elizabeth sits on Quizz's back, the horse is already warm and loose.  The ride begins with stretching Quizz at the walk on 10 meter circles in both directions.  She's very tight through her rib cage so Elizabeth is learning to not just use her inside rein but to really use her inside leg to bend Quizz's body.  This is also improving.  Elizabeth is not big and heavy at this point so making a horse respect her leg has been a challenge but she's getting some results.  She absolutely has to get Quizz round and using her body properly at the walk before she can trot, and at the trot before she can canter.  In the past we've let the roundness and contact slide since those are difficult riding skills to master.  But now it is too important for Quizz that she engage her core during work and that she is not allowed to hollow her back.  By the end of their rides, Quizz looks wonderful!  It takes an awful lot to get there but she develops a beautiful, forward working trot, a nice long and low stretchy trot and lovely, smooth canter transitions.

The next step is to increase Quizz's work load.  Right now the weather is just miserable.  Quizz is doing very good work but often it's every other day.  By the beginning of March we will start working 5 days a week and, soon after, 6 days a week.  The duration of work will increase and hopefully by then she will be able to reduce the amount of lunging and even begin to jump again but we will be patient and let the horse determine the pace.

It's actually very interesting to watch this mare's progress.  She has had moments that she was not exactly cooperative which bothered us because she generally has a great attitude.  I have sensed a shift recently as though she feels like we finally figured things out and are giving her what she needs.  I believe she loves working, she loves eventing and she loves my daughter.  So I'm extremely optimistic we will get there and hopefully in time for a great season.

So in the end this whole thing has been a blessing in disguise.  It’s actually great seeing the things Elizabeth is learning during this rehab period that she wouldn’t have worked on if Quizz had been perfectly healthy.  If she had been healthy we would have been working on jumping position, jumping higher, no stirrups, etc, all valuable things we will get to but I feel like the things she’s focused on instead are the things we easily skip over or don’t fully embrace and perfect because we all have limited time.  We always say we need to work on lunging but until the horse forced us to go there we weren’t doing it in a way that Elizabeth was really learning and taking responsibility for.  I’m so proud of her.  You should see Quizz being totally ridiculous jumping up and down and taking off all crazy and Elizabeth telling her easy and bringing her back without a care in the world.  It’s hard to believe my daughter is only 12 years old sometimes.  

Thursday, February 12, 2015

When Horses Aren't Fun: How not to end up with an inappropriate mount for your child.

I suppose there are many times we question our involvement with horses, especially during a New England winter!  But my topic today centers on the pain of choosing the wrong horse.  Too often a parent is willing to buy their child a horse but without the necessary support they can make an inappropriate choice.  Once that happens it is very difficult to undo the damage.  It is unfair to the kid and it is unfair to the horse.

The first pony we leased for my daughter was appropriate for the sport we leased her for but when we changed sports, the pony was no longer a safe choice.  She dumped my daughter several times before our trainer wisely said enough.  This is the point at which parents are tempted to make a huge mistake by not listening to our experts.  Our experts want the best for us.  In my case, the trainer had not one thing to gain by a horse change since she neither buys nor sells horses nor does she take a commission on any purchases.  Fortunately, the pony we had was wanted for the job she knew and we were able to send her to a good home.  Too often when the horse doesn't work out it is difficult to find them a new situation.  It can take a very long time to rehome an unsafe horse and all that time you will be paying for board, shoes, vet costs and possibly training for a horse your child isn't riding or is riding in a limited way.  The wrong horse will prevent your child from doing the things she wants to do.  An uncooperative horse will make Pony Club or horse shows nearly impossible and if you do manage some schooling shows, your child will find it difficult to move up the levels or to go to rated shows and after awhile, you will resent the horse.  You will also watch your child's confidence deteriorate and she very well may become so afraid she no longer wants to be involved with horses.

I've watched a few families suffer negative experiences.  One family I know has a one year lease, two daughters who want to ride and very little knowledge about horses.  Older, more experienced people can ride their horse but the girls who lease him really shouldn't.  Even some trainers don't want to ride him because it isn't worth getting hurt.  One of the girls came off the horse and broke her foot shortly after they got him.  The family is stuck with the horse until the end of the lease and they are trying to do what they can, engaging a trainer to ride him.  The biggest mistake I saw this family make was not having help right from the start.  They waited months thinking they knew enough.

Let me tell you right now that if you have spent less than 6 days a week over at least 5 years with a horse you have no business owning one without professional help!  They are complicated and there is an endless amount you need to know to handle the variety of situations that will arise.  If you have a backyard horse for your kids you need Pony Club.  Run, don't walk, to your nearest Pony Club and start learning what you need to know.

Another family has a daughter who is a bit more experienced and has had a very tough horse for a few years now.  She handles him extremely well but hasn't been having any fun at all.  Every ride is exhausting to watch.  He always misbehaves, is very out of control and it is not a training issue.  Her mother, who grew up with horses and Pony Club, has finally started looking for a different horse but even she is wondering what took her so long.  They wasted several years on a horse that was never going to be a good partner for her daughter.  I'm amazed the girl still wants to ride!  They will not be able to sell the horse and plan to donate him to a collegiate riding program.  Woe be the rider who draws that horse in competition!

Let's take a moment to think about the cost of the wrong choice.  Board where we live is about $1000 a month, shoes range from $200 a month on up, the vet is about $1000 a year in a good year with no issues and then we have lessons and training costs which would be a minimum of $70 a week or $3600 a year.  So a free horse costs you no less than $18,000 a year to support and honestly it costs more than that.  So the thought of spending all that time and money for something that is not fun, stresses you out, endangers your child and has no easy out is ludicrous!  But there is a solution!

I will start from the premise that it is always possible to find an appropriate horse for every kid.  That does not mean that it will be quick or easy to find the right horse.  And even wonderful horses have bad days.  You will find many people who grew up with horses that threw them off, refused every fence, never came to them in the paddock and on and on.  Some of those people would argue that they learned more from those naughty horses than they could have from the kind who take care of their rider.  Well, I beg to differ.  You don't necessarily learn more from either kind but you do learn different things.  In most of those cases, someone, usually not the parents, gave those kids horses that were then kept in their backyard.  Most of those parents didn't make conscious choices about the horse they had.  It was a different time.  And I would warn you about any "free" horse that crosses your path.  As mentioned above, the upkeep for a horse is far more significant than the cost of an appropriate mount for a child assuming you aren't trying to be competitive on the A Circuit or in the Pony Division so if you are willing to support a horse, be willing to provide a small budget for the purchase.

I would argue that as equine parents our priority is to give our children the opportunity to experience life with horses and all the wonderful things that can come from that in the safest way possible.  This is especially important if you are a parent with limited knowledge of horses, even more so if you have limited access to help.  There are 2 primary qualities that stand out as determining the safety of any particular mount.  The first is a good brain.  You will hear this often with horses.  It generally means the horse is intelligent, doesn't spook each and every day at the same exact bush it has lived next to for 5 years (I used to ride a horse that did this and it was annoying rather than unsafe but would have been very unsettling for a child).  A horse with a good brain will try to figure out what you want him to do and will know when he has a kid on his back and how to behave.  The second quality is experience.  You can buy a young horse that will miraculously have such a good brain that it doesn't need experience to be a safe mount.  However, it is best as a non-horsey parent to stick with slightly older, experienced horses.  A horse that has already done everything you want to do with it will not be surprised.  It will understand what's going on each day and can help your child along as she's learning.  An older horse will need more maintenance but I promise it is well worth the trade off!

Before you choose a horse, know what it is you want to do with the horse (hunters, equitation, dressage, eventing) and look for a horse that has a record at that sport.  If at some point this changes, be aware you might need to change horses as well.  For instance, we leased my daughter's first pony to be used in the hunter ring in the short stirrup division.  She was only ridden in smallish, enclosed rings.  My daughter then switched to eventing.  Suddenly the pony found herself in wide open spaces somewhat far away from the barn and with no other horses in sight.  Asking her to change sports was actually unfair.  She would have needed a great deal of training in order to succeed in a new sport and it just wasn't worth it so we sent her back to the short stirrup division where she has kept her rider very happy.

Once you identify the sport, identify the place you will board the horse and the horse professional who will help you with your horse.   Have a discussion with any potential horse professionals and ask about their approach not only to finding the right horse but to caring for the horse once you have it.  If you need help, is this person interested in helping you or does he or she primarily offer lessons and leave everything else to the owners or barn manager?  Our trainer is a resident trainer at the barn where we board and she gives my daughter lessons, gives our horse training rides and provides a ton of invaluable support and advice.  She is never too busy and is incredibly generous with her time and knowledge.  In some cases your horse professional will lead you to an appropriate horse.  I know one eventing trainer who specializes in half leasing schoolmaster ponies to kids for the introductory levels.  At a certain point they need to acquire their own horse but this is a great way to get started.  Our trainer does not act as an agent in horse sales but she does assist her clients by helping them identify the characteristics they are looking for in a horse, looking over ads brought to her by clients and going out to look at horses the client has identified as potential options.  This process is extremely educational.  Even though it can take a great deal of time to search for horses and visit them only to be disappointed by what you find, each horse you look at teaches you something about what you are looking for and which qualities are the must have qualities.

There are many places to look for the right horse.  There are great websites out there with horse listings and people at your barn will often know of good horses for sale.  Pony Club is a great resource for finding horses for kids.  Any ad that mentions a horse has been used for Pony Club rallies and/or ratings, especially if they have done rallies in multiple disciplines and ratings above the D2 level (which means D3, C1, C2, etc.) that tells you this is a kids' mount.  There are classified ads on the Pony Club website and many local clubs or regions keep their own classified ad pages.  From there it really depends on what you plan to do with the horse.  USEA (US Eventing Association) has websites by Area with great classifieds.  Sport Horse Nation is another classified site dedicated primarily to eventing horses.  I am sure there is an equivalent in the hunter, equitation, jumper and dressage disciplines and a good web search should help you find them.  In addition, and others have a huge assortment of classified ads.  You can narrow it down by price, location, age, etc.

The next thing you need to determine is what does the right horse look like.  Color, breed, even gender and size are all things you need to be willing to let go of in your search.  It's ok to have a preference but if you want a bay gelding and the perfect grey mare appears, you buy the perfect grey mare.  High on my list of qualities are good ground manners, willingness to get on and off the trailer and willingness to stand for me when I pull his mane or clip him.  These are the things that will make my job as chauffeur and groom easy and since I'm paying the bills, these are by and large non-negotiable.  I can say that because my daughter is riding at a low enough level that we don't need some kind of insane speed or jumping ability.  In fact, those would be negatives at this point.  For a first horse you want one you have to really kick to make it go rather than one you are always pulling on to slow it down.  As I mentioned earlier, experience is essential.  If you plan to ride in the open, buy or lease a horse that has evented or done hunter paces.  If you plan to do dressage, buy a horse that knows how to be ridden with contact so that your child can learn from the horse.  Ask parents of kids doing the sport your child wants to do what they most value in their child's horse.  Work with your professional to hone the list and prioritize it.  You should have a few non-negotiable qualities, several desirable qualities and a few preferences you can live without but can be kept in mind during the search.

I'd like to say something her about gender.  Some people will only buy geldings and others will only buy mares.  We've had both and here's what little I can decipher about the difference.  The boys may have an opinion but they are pretty willing to give it up if you insist.  The girls on the other hand tend to hang onto their opinions.  They are more willing to stick to their guns and have an argument with you about who's way is the correct way.  Our trainer is a big fan of geldings and my daughter's amazing pony was a gelding.  When I found our lovely mare our trainer was determined not to like her.  She tried everything to make the horse angry or to find an issue.  But our mare is just lovely.  She has the world's best attitude and tries her heart out every day.  She is definitely bossy and opinionated but she's so wonderful we can live with that.  She is also quite amorous of all the boys when she is in season which seems like pretty much most of the time so we live with that too.  So gender can be one of your non-negotiables but I hate to think we would have passed on Quizz because she's a girl.  It would have definitely been our loss.

Before you head out to try any horses, set a budget.  Depending on what you want to do, a first horse should cost between $5,000 and $10,000.  Backyard ponies can be cheaper, show ponies (meaning hunter division) will be far more expensive.  We paid in that range for our pony and quite a bit more for my daughter's current horse.  This may vary depending on where you live.  Remember a more flexible budget will give you more options but you really do not need to pay a whole lot more to get a first horse.  And don't expect to buy one horse and be done.  Again, it all depends on what you intend to do with the horse.  In our case my daughter needed one year with an experienced pony we knew she would outgrow.  We bought a pony, lost a little selling it (as we knew we would), and bought her wonderful next horse.  This horse should last her awhile if she can stay sound.  It's a little bit like buying a house.  You start with something small and then after having 3 kids you outgrow the tiny house and move somewhere a little bigger.  If you try to buy one horse that will be all things from beginning to end you will have to make concessions somewhere else.  Either you will pay more for talent you won't be using until some undefined time in the future by which time your child may not even be riding or the horse may not still be sound or you will buy too much horse - too big, too strong or fast - wanting to make it last only to defeat the whole purpose of trying to buy the appropriate mount.  Don't do it!  If you are really concerned about buying and selling on a rather short horizon, find a horse you can lease.

Regarding the search for the horse I just want to mention something about looking at ads and videos. Look at horses aged 8 - 16.  The older horses should cost less and you should plan for needing to retire that horse or free lease it out to kids when you are done until he can't work.  Many horses can keep teaching kids well into their 20's.  When you look at videos, make sure you are looking at a child riding the horse in a situation comparable to what your child will be doing.  I often found the videos were of professionals riding the horse.  I would ask to see a video of a kid jumping the horse in a field.  If the video is less than 10 seconds long, they might be hiding something.  They might not but it's something to keep in mind.  I'd rather see a horse jumping clumsily but safely with a kid on its back than beautifully 3 levels above where my child is competing.  Even better is seeing both!

After you identify some horses you are interested in, call the owners or agents to chat and set up a time you can take your child and trainer to ride the horse.  If the horse is nearby, try to visit on more than one day.  This is a huge long term commitment, take your time and gather all the information.  When we look at horses, usually the current trainer or rider will get on and warm the horse up, show off his jumping or lead changes, etc.  Then both my daughter and our trainer take turns.  If we go a longer distance and our trainer can't join us, I might hop on just to see if I feel like the horse is scary or not.  I'm not much of a rider but I can at least gather one more data point.  I would never buy a horse my trainer hasn't sat on but I might have to do the first visit without her.  I always let the people showing us the horse know ahead of time that I need to see my daughter jump the horse in an open field.  Often this has to be done on a different day since not everyone has a cross country field available on their property.  However, I wouldn't ever buy a horse without having seen my daughter jump it in the open.  Jumping in the open is a big part of what she does with her horse and it's the activity that leaves the most opportunity for something to go wrong.  After the ride I like to go into the barn and be part of the untacking experience, especially if they already had the horse tacked when we got there.  It's important to see how the horse behaves in the barn, on the cross ties, etc.  Sometimes you will gain little snip-its of pertinent information such as the horse can't be cross tied!  It may be a manageable quirk rather than a deal breaker but such a thing would surely warrant consideration and further investigation.

I'm not going to get into vetting and all the other things involved with buying a horse.  Everyone has their own perspective and I'm really just focusing on how to make sure you're making a safe choice for your child.  If you do make the right choice, your child will have fun and thrive while learning from a lovely animal.  She will likely improve her skills quickly and be able to move up the levels and gain confidence.  If you don't make the right choice, be patient but not too patient.  It takes a year to get to know a horse.  There are so many factors - change of environment, different riding style, new schedule, new farrier.  Give the horse a chance.  If you did your homework then you chose this horse because you believed it was the best choice.  Give it some time.  On the other hand, listen to your gut, your child and your horse professional.  If the horse demonstrates dangerous behavior, take it seriously.  Don't be afraid to say we made a mistake and to take steps to relocate the horse and start over again.  Don't waste 3 years with the wrong horse making a bad situation worse.  It's ok to acknowledge when it isn't working and to find a way to move onto a better fit but be responsible to the horse in the process.  In reality our kids are home with us and riding for a very limited number of years.  Try not to waste them!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

What About Me?: When mom wants a turn to ride.

Elizabeth on Sabrina with me on Toby.
I spend an absurd amount of time and energy supporting my daughter's equine passion.  Is it wrong that I want to have some fun along the way?  A major reason she has my support is that I had the same desire as a kid that she has now.  I would have given anything to have had a horse and to have been able to ride everyday.  I would have given even more to have been in Pony Club.  My own riding experience is fairly limited.  As a teenager I took lessons at a hunter barn in California whenever I had enough money from babysitting to pay for them.  I didn't ride at all through college and then in my late 20's, after my oldest son was born, I started taking lessons once a week at a hunter barn here in Massachusetts.  I loved it!  But then I had two more children and I just didn't have the time for my expensive hobby.  I tried several times to get my husband on board with my horse fantasy but it didn't happen.  So now that I am providing all of this for my daughter, there are days I selfishly wish it was me in the saddle.

I know quite a few moms who have been riding all their lives.  Their daughters discovered horses through their mothers and it was only a matter of time before they were both riding.  Many of these women now keep their horses at home.  Horses have always been a priority for them so when they realized there was a need to support more than one horse, they built barns.  Oh how I wish 15 years ago when we left the city I had opted for land and bucolic bliss over suburban convenience.  I'm now stuck in the town we live in until my kids graduate from high school so putting horses in my back yard is not an option.

If having horses in your backyard is an option, it's a great way to make riding more accessible for multiple family members.  With horses at home you save money on board and have the convenience of being able to ride whenever you want (unless it's winter 6 months of the year and you live in New England with no indoor).  Just having Elizabeth's horse at home would mean she could ride while I cook dinner!  But beware!  Having horses at home is a huge commitment.  I won't go into all the gory details but just a few of the things I've discovered one needs to consider when keeping horses at home are enough to put most people off.  Among them are manure management, insurance, never ever being able to go away or paying an extra $1000 for barn help to be away for the weekend, being the one to wake up to feed the horses 365 days a year and the one to do night check the same number of days no matter the weather, state of your health or other things going on in your life.  Perhaps at this point it is just as well that I can't have horses at home since I'm pretty sure I'd be in over my head!

Elizabeth on Pumba with me on Nugget.
For the past couple of years Elizabeth was riding ponies, first leased ponies then the pony we bought  for her.  During that time I had the good fortune to half lease a couple of different horses so that I did get a chance to ride a bit.  Every time I felt like I was getting somewhere, the owner would make a change and I would be without a horse again.  I am incredibly grateful that before that happened this last time I was able to go on a couple of trail rides with my daughter.  Those were the best days of my life.  Half leasing is a good option.  The cost isn't too horrendous and has a limit unlike ownership.  I was riding 2 days a week which should cost about 1/3 of the board for the horse.  Lessons cost money over and above this so it wasn't exactly a cheap option but it was appropriate for me with regards to both time and money.

When we bought Elizabeth's horse last fall my husband assumed we would share the horse.  I know a couple of other moms who are looking for horses to share with their kids.  And my two cents on this topic is that is doesn't work, at least not for us.  It certainly can work depending on your goals.  For our family, we have chosen to support Elizabeth's riding goals.  Those goals are pretty lofty and require her to ride often.  Our horse works 6 times a week.  We try to have our trainer ride her once a week which leaves 5 rides for Elizabeth and me to split up.  Well, if I'm lucky, I can have one.  And that is definitely the way it should be.  Quizz is Elizabeth's horse.  This is Elizabeth's sport.  They need to work hard in order to be ready for Pony Club certifications and horse trials.

My favorite view - of my daughter on her pony
 through the ears of an awesome horse!
So where does that leave me?  Horseless.  I've tried to talk my husband into buying me a horse but
since my daughter's horse has had so many issues - expensive issues - I don't think he will ever be willing to own two horses.  The most I can hope for is that another horse will come along with an owner willing to lease him or her out a couple of days a week.  Some day, when Elizabeth needs an upper level horse and Quizz has finished doing her job with Elizabeth, I will have my turn.  Quizz and I will live out our twilight years on the trail together.  Until then I will get my horse fix living through my daughter - watching, trailering, grooming and paying.