Monday, September 24, 2012

Night Moves

Fall at Touchstone Farm brings cool, crisp days that are perfect for horseback riding. It also brings the fall crop of Instructor Training Candidates (ITCs) in the Horse Power Instructor Training Program (HPITS).

The OC: But I digress ...
The ITCs attend a three-month course of intensive training to be therapeutic riding instructors. ITCs who complete the course and pass the PATH Intl. certification requirements are eligible for PATH Intl. Instructor Certification at the Registered level.

The HPITS curriculum covers everything from lesson planning to horse selection, to the complexities of physical and mental disabilities, to the business of running a therapeutic riding program. A unique aspect of the program at Touchstone Farm is the emphasis on the instructor’s horsemanship, including the instructor’s own riding skills.

The Homestead: Home away from
home for the ITCs
ITCs have long days that begin with barn chores and often end with evening lectures and homework. They live onsite, at the Homestead, and are completely immersed in the life of the farm during their stay.

I love having ITCs on the farm. They are without exception interesting, engaging, fun horse people. Plus, their presence means that I always have someone to ride with on the weekends.

It’s because of HPITS that I got to participate in one of Roxy’s great roaming adventures. (You were wondering when I would get to that, weren’t you?)

Last October, I often rode on weekend afternoons with Gina, an ITC from Texas. One Saturday night, we went out to dinner after our ride. We returned to the farm around 9 PM. Just before the entrance to the farm, a large, dark shape loomed at the roadside and then stepped into the road.

Roxy, loose and nearly invisible on the dark country road.

Roxy: "What? I was hungry."
She should have been safely in the Garden paddock, which is tucked between the entrance to the farm and the river. This year, a grant enabled the farm to rebuild Garden and many of the other paddocks with fences and gates worthy of Fort Knox. Last summer, though, Garden was in rough shape, and the barn staff did what they could to keep it secure.

The paddock was plenty secure for Annie and Velvet, but for Roxy, not so much. This wasn’t the first time she’d gotten out. She had found a spot against a slope where she could climb over the electric fence without getting much of a zap. Once loose, she roamed in search of good eats.

Gina and I drove up to the barn, where Gina grabbed a halter. We returned to the farm entrance and called for Roxy. No surprise, she didn’t answer. We didn’t have flashlights, and the car’s headlights didn’t illuminate much. A bright moon was shining, but it was impossible to see in the shadows.

Pausing to think like our quarry, we returned to the barn for a bucket and some grain. Back at the farm entrance, Gina stepped from the car and rattled the grain bucket.

Cloppity, cloppity, Roxy instantly trotted out from the shadows at the river’s edge and plunged her head into the bucket. I clipped on her halter, took the bucket from Gina, and led Roxy back to the barn. In the moonlight, I could see the other horses in Garden and Kennel paddocks rush to the fences to follow our progress.

Gina met us at the barn and we put Roxy in her stall. Roxy was gracious about being busted, although the hay in her stall may have had something to do with that. We shut out the lights and went our separate ways for the night, grateful that we had caught Roxy before she met with disaster.

Rebuilt paddocks: Oh, how I love
those sturdy fences!
After this adventure, the farm staff moved Roxy and her turnout buddies to the OC, a multi-acre pasture with enough grass to keep even Roxy inside. Now Roxy resides in the Front paddock, which has the advantage of being in the center of farm activity. Surrounded by staff, riders, and other horses, Roxy stays put, although she is still the first one at the gate come suppertime.

I can’t drive by the Garden paddock without thinking of that night with Roxy and Gina. It makes me smile, but Garden's sturdy new fence makes me smile even more.

See you around the farm.

Kathy McDonald
Rider and Volunteer at Touchstone Farm

Monday, September 17, 2012

Escape Artistry

Blue: Don't be fooled
by all the cute.
The recent rain has greened up the lawns at Touchstone Farm, and the cool days have re-energized the animals after the summer muggies, renewing their spirit of adventure. That’s my explanation for a sudden increase in escapes on the farm.

I arrived at the farm on Saturday morning to find Blueberry, that wily pony, munching happily on a patch of grass near his paddock. On Sunday, as Roxy and I worked in the Hacking ring, I could hear annoyed squeals coming from the barn. That was Blue, shut into a stall to keep him from wandering while the barn staff figures out how he is getting out of his paddock.

It really IS greener.
One of the sheep has been getting out, too. He doesn’t go far – just to nibble grass on the other side of his paddock fence. You put him back, and minutes later he’s mysteriously out again.

The farm has two other determined escape artists. Kiwi the goat is one. He is smart, friendly, and curious. You never know where Kiwi will turn up, but it’s seldom where you want him to be.

Kiwi: He's everywhere
he shouldn't be.
Kiwi and I went head to head on Sunday when I was tacking up Roxy in the lower barn. I heard thumps and crashes in the locked grain room. When I unlocked the door and slid it open, there was Kiwi, trying to get the lids off grain barrels.

I shooed him out, only to see him nimbly re-enter from the unlocked side of the sliding door. He and I went another few rounds, and then Jordan Reynolds, a member of the barn staff, found a barrel to wedge against Kiwi’s personal entrance.

I think Kiwi knew I ratted him out to Jordan. As Roxy and I walked to the ring, Kiwi followed us, head-butting me along the way.

Goat-proofing the grain room
Later, I saw Boo take him firmly by the collar and stuff him into the stall next to the incarcerated Blueberry. Busted by the big boss.

There’s little love lost between Kiwi and the farm's other great escape artist, Roxy. The only time I’ve ever seen Roxy put her ears back is when Kiwi gets in her face.
I thought they might see each other as kindred spirits, sharing their love of freedom and food. This is not the case. They are fierce competitors in a contest of unauthorized eating.

Roxy: "Can't comment. Eating."
Roxy keeps to her paddock these days, but her adventures in breaking and exiting have set the bar pretty high, even for clever Kiwi. Next week, I’ll tell you about Roxy’s Greatest Escape.

See you around the farm, and watch out for that goat.

Kathy McDonald
Rider and Volunteer at Touchstone Farm

Monday, September 10, 2012

Working from the Center

As I mentioned last week, Touchstone Farm is hosting an Open Centered Riding Clinic with Mitzi Summers on September 18-20. Roxy and I plan to attend, even though we’ve attended two other Centered Riding clinics in the last year.

Centered Riding is an approach to riding instruction that focuses on better communication between horse and rider. It was developed by Sally Swift, who lived right down the road in Brattleboro, VT.

As the official website says, Centered Riding
“… teaches you how to help your body do what you need to do in order to ride well. Centered Riding techniques help promote suppleness, stability, and clearer aids, making riding more comfortable for both horse and rider. As you learn and experience the principles through your horse's motion and responses, you and your horse tune in to each other and work together in harmony. These techniques can increase confidence and enjoyment and release tension in horses and riders, making training easier.”
As I’ve experienced it, two elements of Centered Riding have most helped me improve my riding, and given me tools for monitoring how Roxy and I work together:
  • Understanding what horseback riding is like from the horse’s perspective. I thought I knew, but I didn’t. In one of my favorite exercises, riders pair up, with one rider resting a bridle around her neck and holding the bit in her hands while the other rider holds the reins as if riding.
  • The bridle exercise: I'm taking my role as horse very seriously.

    The “horse” quickly discovers that a very light touch on the reins still comes through loud and clear. Hands that move constantly, that wander, that slacken and then pull, or that yank on the reins are really, really unpleasant. The rider's actual intent is harder to discern, too.

    The “rider” realizes how steady, consistent contact with the bit, and therefore with the horse’s mouth, enables her to give her horse quick, subtle aids that the horse can immediately recognize and respond to. It is SO much less work for much better results.

    I loved discovering that I can be gentle without being uncertain when I use my aids to communicate with my horse.
  • Learning wonderfully vivid imagery that helps me remember and use Centered Riding techniques when I ride. For example, to develop a steady but supple hold on the reins, I now think of holding a bird in each hand: too loose and they’ll fly off; too tight and I’ll hurt them; in between is just right. Centered Riding is full of these memorable images, and they work.

The clinics are a lot of fun, even when you are not on your horse. Participants with a wide range of riding experience have attended the previous clinics at Touchstone Farm. Both English and Western riders attend. All of us have a great time, learn a lot, and … did I mention that the food is great?

See you around the farm.

Kathy McDonald
Rider and Volunteer at Touchstone Farm

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Centered Riding: a Q&A with Mitzi Summers

Mitzi Summers working
with horse and rider
If you’ve been to the Touchstone Farm website recently, you may have noticed that Mitzi Summers will be teaching a Centered Riding Open Clinic at Touchstone Farm on September 18-20. Centered Riding is an approach to riding that emphasizes enhancing body awareness and relaxation and more effective communication between horse and rider. (You can read a brief description of the philosophy and basic elements of Centered Riding here.)

I’ve taken Mitzi’s Centered Riding clinic twice and am really looking forward to attending this one in September. I can’t recommend the clinic highly enough:

  • The clinic is open to riders in any riding discipline and level.
  • Mitzi’s instruction is highly individualized to each horse/rider.
  • You can bring your own horse or ride a Touchstone horse.
  • You can stay at the Stepping Stone Lodge, right on the farm property, with cozy accommodations, a big fireplace, and food fit for a king. (I’m local, but I still show up for every meal during the clinic.)
  • You can grab the flyer and sign-up info from the Touchstone Farm website.
Mitzi is a Level IV Centered Riding instructor, trained and mentored by Sally Swift, who developed Centered Riding. In addition to her CR credentials, Mitzi has ridden, competed, and coached in dressage, cross country, western, open jumping, and hunt seat. She was the CHA 2010 International Instructor of the Year, and apprenticed with Chuck Grant, Vi Hopkins, and Frank Chapot. She teaches in the US and Europe and has taught in New Zealand and South Africa.

Mitzi’s expertise, warm and positive teaching style, and her great love and respect for horses make her one of Touchstone Farm's favorite visiting clinicians.

Mitzi and I chatted recently about Centered Riding and how it helps both horses and riders. I’m paraphrasing our conversation below.

Kathy: What led you to Centered Riding?

Mitzi: I had a lot of good and bad instruction over the years. After a particularly bad session with a instructor who emphasized “forcing” the horse to do what I wanted, I thought, “There has to be a better way.” That night, I happened to read about Sally Swift’s book, Centered Riding, and I thought, “It’s here.”

Kathy: What do you value in Centered Riding? Who can benefit from it?

Mitzi: Every rider can benefit from it. All disciplines and levels of rider can benefit from the techniques, which enable good communication between the horse and rider. Centered Riding focuses on the horse/rider dynamic and addresses nuances in the dynamic that prevent good communication. Those nuances could be the rider being unbalanced or stiff, for example, or poorly fitting tack. The Open Clinics are appropriate for all riders wanting to improve their riding and also for riding instructors who are thinking about becoming certified in Centered Riding.

Kathy: What does it mean to be a Level IV Instructor of Centered Riding?

Mitzi: Level IV is the highest level. Level IV instructors teach CR Open and Advanced Clinics, CR Instructor Courses, and Instructor Update Clinics. Years of experience with Centered Riding, horsemanship, and credentials for riding, training, and teaching are required, as well as apprenticeship with other Level IV instructors. The training includes bodywork, such as the Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais Method, and TTouch. Instructors have to continue updating their skills to maintain their current standing.

Kathy: Has Centered Riding affected your own riding?

Mitzi: Tremendously. When I get on a horse now, I have a mental checklist for myself from the Four Basics – am I breathing from my diaphragm, do I have soft eyes, and so on. I can check that I am riding correctly before I start to figure out what’s going on with this particular horse. It also gives me more information about the horse. That helps me know how to tell this horse what I need him to do.

Mitzi helping Roxy & me
get centered
Kathy: What have you liked about teaching at Touchstone Farm?

Mitzi: The clinics at Touchstone always seem to attract great people with great attitudes. The Touchstone staff are very helpful and willing to make changes – to tack, for example – if it will help the horses. I also know that I won’t have to worry about thing like safety issues, arena footing, or horse management, which isn’t true everywhere. And having everyone staying together at the Lodge makes the weekend a real happening.


I hope you’re intrigued by now, and looking to find out more on our website. It’s going to be a great weekend – topnotch instruction, great company, beautiful location, awesome food … what are you waiting for?

See you around the farm.

Kathy McDonald
Rider and Volunteer at Touchstone Farm