Coping with Crotch Pain

I’m writing this because someone needs this advice.  I don’t really want to talk about the trouble I have with my crotch and riding in a public setting.  So if you don’t want to hear about it, please click somewhere else.  I get it, not everyone has had trouble with a painful crotch while riding.  If you don’t want to hear about crotches, I’ve got a helpful piece about arm position here that you can read instead.

For those of you who do want to know about the trouble I’ve had with my crotch and riding, the short story is that I’ve had bruising, abrasions, and swelling all in the area where my bathing suit covers.  I could get this from just five minutes in a wrong fitting saddle.

I wasn’t always susceptible to these types of injuries.  I spent most of my adolescence galloping up and down hills bareback on my shark fin withered thoroughbred.  It wasn’t until I was about 28 years old that my saddle first started to hurt me.  It was a beloved dressage saddle that I bought when I was 20 years old. I had worked all summer at a sleep away camp to put a down payment on it.  It was made of super soft elk and tacky buffalo leather; it put me in a secure position for riding my young horse, and was comfortable enough to ride on the trail.

I was able to solve the problem I had with that saddle and rode without crotch pain for about 10 years.   I took a year off riding while I was pregnant, then recovering from childbirth and episiotomy.  I was OK for several years, and then at the age of 39, I started having the troubles again. 

I’ve learned that bodies are constantly changing, sometimes in ways that we don’t even notice.  It could be changes in weight, body shape due to age, even hormones play a part. 

If you are having trouble with crotch pain in your saddle here are some things that you can do:

  1. Don’t ride in saddles that hurt you.   Duh.  But if that’s all you’ve got, there are some things you can do that might help.
  • Give yourself time to heal.  Any area that interfaces with your saddle that is already compromised will be more likely to cause problems.  Before trying any new solution, make sure that you are fully healed in order to give the solution a chance to work.
  • Make sure you are sitting straight in the saddle.  You can’t do this by yourself, you will need someone with a good eye to make sure you aren’t sitting to the left or right, or riding with one hip in front of the other.
  • Make sure your saddle is balanced on your horse.  I am more likely to get pain if I ride in a saddle that is low in the front.  Sometimes, I will even raise the front of the saddle up more than is correct to get some relief.  I’ve heard others have the opposite experience and prefer a saddle that is low in the front.
  • Change your stirrup length.  A shorter stirrup can help you get out of the saddle more easily and may even help you sit in a bit of a different spot on the saddle.
  • Change something else about your stirrups.  When I ride in English saddles I sometimes get pain from the stirrup buckles.  A quick solution is to pull the buckles down so that they are closer to the stirrup iron.  A more elegant solution is to get some single layer leathers that have a loop at the top to attach to the stirrup bar, and a T shaped peg to change the stirrup length.  When I ride in Western saddles, putting a Hamley twist in my stirrup leathers helps me to open my hips and sit more on my seat bones, freeing up my crotch.
  • Try a seat saver on your saddle.  They come in sheepskin, foam, gel, and other materials.  This never worked for me and always made my problems worse.  But everyone is different and this might be the solution for you.
  • Change your underwear.  Padded underwear exist, they are marketed for riders, and are similar to bike shorts with a chamois.  They didn’t work for me.  The first time my crotch turned on me in my 20s riding without underwear gave me a lot of relief.  When my crotch turned on me again in my 30s, going back in to underwear helped out.  Try wicking sports underwear, or a different cut of underwear.
  • Explore skin sensitivities that may have developed.  Be nice to your crotch, most doctors say that you shouldn’t use soap on the pink parts, and you definitely shouldn’t douche.  Wash your undies and breeches in detergent that is free of dyes and scents.  Don’t use fabric softener.  Consider using a different type of lube when you have sex.  Maybe try a menstrual cup instead of tampons.
  1. Talk to your OB/GYN about it.  You may be going through a different life stage and there are things that can do to help.  I’ve been in perimenopause for a while now.  (I know I’m young, I’ve always been precocious). I was prescribed an Estrogen cream that helps with improving elasticity and healing abrasions. 
  1. Consider lubing up for riding if friction is a real problem.  I was hesitant to put this on the list because I haven’t tried it and I’m not sure exactly how it would work.  My OB/GYN (who I’m not sure has ever even seen a horse) suggested I apply olive oil or oil based lubricant to my crotch before I ride.  I can’t fathom doing this without creating a big mess, but maybe there is a way?
  1. Be frank with your saddle fitter about your discomfort.    It is literally the job of the saddle fitter to make sure the areas of you that interface with your saddle are comfortable, so speak up when you are in pain.  There may be some alterations your saddle fitter can do to help you.  If your saddle fitter makes you feel uncomfortable about voicing your pain, or that your pain is unusual, get a different saddle fitter.  I had to find a different saddle fitter after my first bout of crotch pain.  I’ve been happily riding in Custom Saddlery brand saddles ever since.  Not all of the Custom Saddlery saddles work for me, but I’ve had great experiences working with the company to address and solve issues.
  1. You may need to change saddles.  You might need a different model or brand.  You may need to go up a seat size, ride in a different tree, use a different block, try a wider or narrower seat, try a wider or narrower twist.  If a saddle is being made for you, you can request extra padding in some places, or for the padding to be scooped out of other places.  It all can make a difference.  If you find a saddle that seems to work for you and your horse, see if you can take it for a trial.  I recently had a saddle that my horse loved and I rode in it fine for a day, but was in agony after riding in after three days in a row.  If you do riding that doesn’t necessitate a certain style of saddle, you might even switch to something completely different.

If you are having trouble keeping your crotch happy while riding, I deeply sympathize with you.  I hope there is a solution on this list that can help you.  If you have found a solution that I haven’t listed, please drop me a line and let me know what it is!  Remember, everyone is different, and everyone deserves to ride without saddle pain.

Ali Kermeen has been a professional trainer and instructor since 2001. She has competed in several different disciplines and styles, earning year end awards and certifications in most of them.  She currently has a Mustang named River that she enjoys competing in Cowboy Dressage (in a western saddle) and Working Equitation (in a dressage saddle).

Cowboy Dressage World Finals 2019

Ridin’ for the Brand Competitors: Phil Monaghan (AUS), Dave Ellis (CA), Rudy Lara (NM), Ali Kermeen (CA), Tanja Krauss (AUS), Amy Prechter (MT), Jenna Rankin (WA), JoAnne Gillespie (CA)

I’m not one to write extensive show reports, but I just had the show of a lifetime so I’m going to make an exception.

I entered three horses in the Cowboy Dressage World Finals:

-Angie Eagan’s Paint mare “Trampalena” (Lena), in the walk jog challenge division

-Melinda Prosser’s Tennesse Walker “Pusher’s Muddy River” (Tyrone) in the gaited horse division

-My own Mustang “HCE River” (River) in the prestigious Ridin’ for the Brand competition.

I had intended go with another barn for support, but due to an unfortunate accident they all dropped out so I was more or less on my own.


On our way!

The horses all loaded and traveled well to Murieta Equestrian Center.  I rode Lena first, and she was tense but let go of most of her tension and tried to give me a good ride.  When we were walking back toward the barn, her cup of worry began to overflow.  Rudy Lara asked if I wanted to ride back with him.  I didn’t think it would help. I stepped off, and she exploded.  She got away from me, and put her leg through her reins.  Thankfully JoAnne Gillespie was nearby and easily caught Lena and gave me some kind words of encouragement.  I was off to an auspicious start.

One reason that CDW Finals is my favorite show of the year is because of the free education offered.  Sharon Speir gave a lecture on detecting subtle lameness.  I highly recommend this lecture for anyone who likes horses and wants to give them a better life.  Next was a hackamore lecture with Dave Ellis and Phil Monaghan.  Brad Tarp was meant to give the lecture, but was called away on a family emergency and these fine horsemen stepped in.  I ride Tyrone in a hackamore so I saddled up and attended. 

Eitan Beth-Halachmy, Dave Ellis, and Phil Monaghan discuss hackamores

I’ve been riding in my own bosal style hackamores for about a year.  Last year at finals I cornered Phil Monaghan and got him to talk to me for about 20 minutes about where I should start.  I was happy to get my setup and fit signed off on by both Phil and Dave.  I learned some more about the fit and use of the hackamore, and Dave also gave me some help with proper use of the bosal while riding.  I’ve found that on the topic of traditional Californio style horsemanship, there is no book or video that is as good as talking to an experienced trainer.  There are not a lot of excellent vaquero style horsemen around, so having two at our disposal was a real treat.

One thing that stuck with me is when Phil said “Imagination is what is missing most in horsemanship these days.” I agree completely and would like to see more people learn by mindful experimentation.

The evening finished off with a brief meeting about the future of Cowboy Dressage.  It seems like the partnership division is growing and next year more tests will be offered!


Lena let go of most of her anxiety.  When I took her to the Cowboy Dressage gathering in the spring time, she manifested her anxiety by charging open mouthed at people who got to close, as well as other horses.  I was pleased that she didn’t do any of that, and just had a little reluctance to yield my inside leg.  Debbie Beth-Halachmy knew that I didn’t have any one with me and made sure I had a caller for my tests.  In fact she had Eitan call my first test.  Wyatt Paxton called my second test.

Tyrone did his very first dressage test ever in the main arena.  Thanks to Sue Eckles and Cleo Home bringing him some buddy horses, he did great!  Like Lena, he could have yielded to my inside leg more, but he got the job done and stayed with me.  Considering I had only ridden this horse a half dozen times prior to the show, and our first ride was understanding the concept of moving away from leg pressure instead of into it, I was thrilled.

River was already done with being in a stall.  He has lived in a large pasture his entire live and does not do well with captivity.  I try to mitigate this with frequent walks and opportunities to roll.  Despite having gone on two walks with rolling earlier in the day, he had way too much spunk to do the first phase of the Ridin’ for the brand competition, which was a partnership on the ground test.  In warm up, he was alternating between frolicking on two legs, and nipping at my shirt.  He was telling me that he was really itchy.  I was telling him that I had just spent an hour grooming him for this important event.  Finally I acquiesced to him and let him roll one more time right before it was our turn to go.  I figured having a dirty horse was going to score better than a horse trying to bite my clothes for our entire test.  We did a marginal but passible partnership on the ground test, I know we are capable of doing much better, but we did the best we could that day.

Phil Monaghan is seriously doing his Partnership on the Ground test in the foreground. River is preparing in his own special way.

Since River clearly needed more stimulation, I saddled him up and gave him a ride.  It was probably my favorite ride of the show.  We schooled in the arena during the golden hour listening to Tanja Krauss’s freestyle music and we just danced together.  It was a magical feeling.


I got Tyrone and Lena both shown and put away before 10AM.  They were very good, and both earned some blue ribbons.  Rudy Lara and Rudy Lara Jr were buddy horses for Lena, Tessa Nicolet was a buddy horse for Tyrone and provided me with Dan for a caller.  I also got to know Kelly Landry a little bit and her one eyed stallion was a buddy horse for Tyronne too.

Trampalena and me

River and I did our challenge test for the Ridin’ for the Brand competition.  The lope bow tie over poles is the bane of our existence and my goal was not to scare him.  Goal accomplished!  Again, not our best test ever, but passable.  Our jog work, stops, backs, and turns were pretty good. 

River hadn’t layed down in his stall yet, so I know he wasn’t sleeping.  That is bound to make anyone feel a little strung out and crazy.  Tanja Krauss said she unscrewed the light in the stalls so her horses could get some rest at night.  I thought that was a good idea so I did that for River.

I was feeling pretty exhausted by the end of the day, like it was the end of the show.  But it was just half time.


Tanja’s lightbulb trick worked!  River had layed down in the night and gotten some sleep.

Lena woke up a bit bothered.  I’m not sure what she was worried about, but despite pulling back when we were getting ready, I decided to ride her.  She felt happier to be doing something with me than being in the stall by herself, so I showed her.  She didn’t want me to sit down hard on her, so I just didn’t do that.  She tried her heart out and I couldn’t have been happier.

Tyrone was also a good boy, getting better every day!

It was freestyle day for Ridin’ for the Brand.  This was going to be our strong suit.  I had help choreographing the routine from Diane Kernoodle of Center Stage Musical Freestyles and the music makes me very happy.  I went to River’s stall about an hour before our ride time to get him groomed up.  I latched the door behind me, but he was ready to get out of the stall.  He shoved the door with his nose and it gave a little bit.  He shoved it again, a bolt from the latch came off, the door opened and he was off like a shot.

River is a Mustang, and though we think he was born in captivity, he still has the call of the wild in his blood.  This isn’t his first time getting loose, and I knew it would take some time to catch him.  He’s not the type that wanders over to the nearest food source and starts eating, he’s the odd type of horse that wants to feel his body move unencumbered in wide open spaces.

Fun fact, there is no fence around the perimeter of Murieta Equestrian Center.  I didn’t know that at the time, but I know it now.   I had some help with some passersby trying to catch up to him.  He visited the bottom of the property where pony club was having a show jumping rally, he crossed through the creek on the south edge of the property, picked up the neighborhood pedestrian/bicycle path, and just like that he was gone.  No one saw which way he went.

River on the other side of the creek that serves as a boundary to Murieta Equestrian Center

That’s when I started to lose my composure.  Some pony club moms picked me up on their golf cart, one of them got intel that he was in a business park south of the facility.  I knew I needed reinforcements so I started calling the few people whose phone numbers I had that were at the show.  CDW partner Lyn Ringrose-Moe answered and dropped what she was doing to join the hunt for River.  We got word that River was spotted at the nearby airport, so we took a battalion of golf carts down there to meet him.

Finally we spotted him on the runway!  He saw us too, and wasn’t ready to be caught yet so he took off through the open space reserve of the river toward Jackson Highway.  I called Lyn again, in tears this time, and she got in her car and zoomed down the highway to help.  Thankfully River turned back around, and went back to the airport. 

There was a clearing between the runway and the river that we got River corralled on.  I had a bucket full of treats, and I tried to entice him by shaking it.  Most horses would come to that, especially being a couple miles away from another horse and also spending the last 30 minutes on the loose.  Not River, he flipped me the middle hoof, kicked out at me and tried to run again.  Golf carts blocked his way, so I took a deep breath, set down the bucket, and tried to make myself the source of calm.  That worked and River came to me.  I haltered him, and he was caught.

The red lines are where I saw River. I’m not sure of his route through the business park.

I have never ponied River from a golf cart before, but doing it on an airport runway seemed like a good place to start.  Despite his rogue tendencies, River is a very good horse and he quietly ponied 15 minutes back to the equestrian center through neighborhoods, shopping centers, and speeding motorists.  We returned to stabling with about 15 minutes to go before my ride time.  I put the saddle on him, got dressed, and even had time for a little warm up.

Our freestyle went pretty good!  It felt a little bit flat to me like my horse was a tiny bit tired, but the whoops from the spectators helped bring out the showman in my horse.  On lookers said they couldn’t tell he was tired, and that he looked soft and willing.  I want to give some credit to his good nutrition he gets from his Grand Meadows Grand Premium Plus supplement. 

That night was the catered party, we had entertainment from Rudy Lara, Jr. doing trick roping and Dave Stamey singing his cowboy songs.  The finalists for the Ridin’ for the Brand competition were announced and River and I made the cut!  We would ride in the finals the next night! 


Lena and Tyrone continued to improve; both of them gave me the best feel on their last ride.  We continued to have outstanding support in readers and buddy horses from the friends we made.

Pusher’s Muddy River (Tyrone)

The RFTB finals consisted of a mystery test, and a freestyle with no compulsory movements.  My old friend Michelle Scott, and her 5 year old daughter Abby, came out to help wrangle my horse and cacti that evening.  The mystery test was essentially a mirror image of the challenge test we had done on Thursday, with simple lead changes through the walk instead of the jog.  Again, my goal was not to frighten River in the lope bow tie, so I took a page from Tanja’s book, and did some excessive walking in that movement.  I knew my score would suffer, but my relationship with my horse would not.  My goal was to make it to the final five, and I had already achieved that goal. 

Our freestyle was similar to the one that qualified it, but we added some haunches-in butt-waggling and did our lead changes through the walk.  We also backed up in a circle.  All in all, it was a solid performance.

It came time to announce the winners, and I still hadn’t been called in the final two!  I held hands with Jenna because I’d never felt more like a finalist at a beauty pageant, and that’s what they do.  Jenna was game to go along, but she was also the clear winner.  I came in second!!!

Ridin’ for the brand winner Jenna Rankin on her beautiful morgan show horse and me on some horse I found at the airport


No riding today, just packing up and the awards ceremony.  I ran out of clean clothes after my unplanned expedition to the riverfront and airport, so I went in my pajamas.  I won my very first tri color championship and my very first buckle!  Actually Tyrone did, I just helped 😉 

I’m thankful to all the old friends and new friends that I made.  For those who helped me at the show, and those who held down my life at home.  I’m especially grateful to the cowboy dressage partners for curating this community that is governed by the Old West Code of Honor, “A cowboy is kind and gentle to small children, old folks and animals.  Be honest in thought, word and deed.  Be a good steward of land and its animals.  Stay curious and open-minded.”

Even though I went to the show as the only person with the three horses, I was never alone.  It is impossible to be without friends at a Cowboy Dressage Gathering. 

HCE River, Pusher’s Muddy River, and Trampalena earned all this loot! Thanks to Spalding Fly Predators and Dale Chavez for being award sponsors!

Ali Kermeen is a Cowboy Dressage level 2 clinician, and has a handful of other certifications from various equestrian organizations in several different disciplines. She owns and operates HC Equestrian in Milpitas, CA and enjoys her mustang River in Cowboy Dressage, Working Equitation, and Trail Riding.

7 Steps to Growing Working Equitation in Your Area

Working Equitation is one of the fastest growing equestrian sports in the US. It includes a dressage phase, and an obstacle phase judged like a dressage test (called ease of handling). The upper levels include a third phase, obstacles at speed. Some shows even have a fourth cattle working phase!  I describe it as a combination of dressage and gymkhana, with a dash of trail classes and a hint of jumpers.

One thing I really like about Working Equitation (WE) is that there is no set dress code. You can show up in western gear, dressage gear, or traditional Spanish gear. You can rock the look of any discipline! I’ve seen the classic hunter look, and I even saw a jousting horse and rider rock their look at a horse show (no armor though).  All you have to do is pick a theme, and stick to it. Good riding is good riding, no matter what your butt liner looks like. Working equitation gets that.

Sounds like a blast, right?  But what if there are no opportunities to do working equitation in your area?  YOU can change that!  Here’s what I did:

Step One:  Learn How to do Ease of Handling

I already know how to do dressage, but Ease of Handling was something I’d only seen on the internet.  (Any dressage instructor should be able to teach you the basics for WE dressage).  I studied up on working equitation online, the rulebook was a great how-to manual to get me started.  I was lucky enough to find an EOH clinic that was not too far away.  I took seven lessons (on five different horses) with working equitation superstar, Carlos Carniero.   I found a working equitation schooling show 4 hours away, and went there to learn more.  Both the judge and organizer of the show helped me learn more and answered all my questions.  I also got to know some of the other competitors who would become allies in helping me grow the sport in my area.

At the schooling show, I brought a small cadre of clients with me. These intrepid souls were ready to go on this journey with me, and encouraged me along this path.  My students were happy to try something different and enriching for their horses.  We had a great experience, but it was a long journey. We all wanted to do more, but closer to home.

Step 2: Build your obstacles

I took a “Field of Dreams” approach. Build it, and they will come. So over 6 months I set to assembling my obstacles. I won’t lie, I did it on the cheap. My handy husband helped me with a lot of it, and there were many places where I tried to re-purpose items that I already had. I had friends and relatives source some parts for me. I did have one item specially made, a gorgeous arched bridge that can be moved by hand.

The rulebook at has specs for the obstacles, and I was also able to get ideas from the organizer of the clinic I went to, and the manager of the schooling show I attended.  I also looked on you tube and Facebook groups for tutorials and design ideas that would work for me.

Step 3: Plan a schooling show…to be held in three months

It may seem like I’m skipping way ahead by putting a show as step two in this plan, but hear me out.  It takes quite a while to organize a quality show.  It’s important that your show is well run, and a positive experience for everyone.  It takes time to plan, but luckily for you, the website has a checklist for things you need to do to organize the show.  There are lots of items on the list, but everything is obtainable!  You can skip some of the steps for schooling shows too.

Many people will be motivated to learn about WE by having a casual show in their area to participate in.  Some will want to watch a show before trying it for themselves.  Either way, the show will benefit your cause to grow WE in your area.

Step 4: Utilize social media

I had to get the word out about the show, so I turned to social media. There were groups on Facebook for WE in the North Bay Area, and Central California, but none that incorporated my area (the south and east SF bay area). I checked in with the others I’d met in my area that wanted to see WE grow. They thought it was a good idea to form a Facebook group, so I created Greater Bay Area Working Equitation. (If you are interested in upcoming WE in our area, go join this group now!)

I got the word out about my new facebook group by announcing it on all the statewide and national working equitation facebook pages I could find.  I also contacted WE United to get my show on their activity calendar.

Step 5: Teach others what you know

As we got closer to the show, I realized that while there is interest in working equitation, not a lot of people in the area knew how to do it. I figured I could host a clinic and teach them how. I set a date, and shared it on the facebook page I created, as well as with the calendar.  I reached out to the local pony club, I know they are always game to teach their membership something new. They sent all their kids to my first clinic! I filled the clinic date, and ended up teaching a second clinic for those with conflicts on the first date.

In all, I taught twenty-two people at these clinics. A few of them even did both dates.  Most were first timers. Some were more experienced and it was fun to help them too! The experienced WE competitors were happy to share their experience with how things are done in bigger competitions than I had seen. Participants brought auditors, who I put to work as ring crew.  I met a lot of really lovely people.

Some of my students at the clinic were professionals with their own training businesses. I loved getting to know other leaders in the industry, and hopeful that they will take what they learne d back to their students to create more interest in WE.

I structured my clinics to include all the WE obstacles in the Ease of Handling.  I got everyone ready to compete in the EOH phase by the end of their lesson.  I ended up doing private dressage lessons for half the participants who were new to dressage.  This is how I found enough people to fill my show!

Step 6:  Have the show

Custom Saddlery and Kathie’s Cinches & More sponsored the show so we had some cool prizes.  I had tremendous support from Indian Hills Ranch, and so many terrific volunteers that helped the show run very smoothly.  We were able to create a positive and fun show experience.

We had a one day show, with one show arena.  That means that we had to pull out the dressage court and set up the obstacles in the middle of the show.  It would have been daunting, except that just about every competitor and spectator helped out!  We were able to undress and redress the arena in about 45 minutes.

Step 7:  Keep it going!

The show created even more interest in working equitation as competitors posted their photos and positive experience on social media.  I’m happy to report that I was asked to conduct a clinic at a venue an hour away from me.  The clinic filled 18 spots in less than a week!  People want to do Working Equitation, and are eager to learn.

Through this process, I’m constantly in awe of community. I’ve met so many great people along the way in this journey. I’ve learned a lot, formed friendships, and gained resources. The dressage, eventing, pony club, cowboy dressage, and existing WE communities have supported my energies and endeavors 100%. I’m grateful to all the communities and individuals involved for helping me.  I’m confident that you will have a similar experience when you create a working equitation community in your area!


About the author:

Ali Kermeen has a training business, HC Equestrian, in Milpitas, California.  She loves doing all sorts of things with horses, and has students competing in 8 different disciplines.  In 2019 Ali wants to show more in working equitation, so she’s hopeful that someone else will organize a show in her area so that she can ride!  Ali is available to come to your location for clinics, and will even bring her own obstacles if you are relatively nearby.  Contact her at [email protected] and follow Ali on Instagram @happycanterer


Testing our training with gates, Brio part 4

In addition to spending heaps of time with our favorite metaphor, the tarp, I’ve also spent lots of time working on gates with Brio.
I’m a firm believer that a good horse should let his feet become his riders feet. When I ride a horse through a gate, I want to open the gate, and keep my hand on the gate when I go through it, and close the gate without removing my hand.
Brio has an opinion that differs from mine on every single aspect of how I want to operate a gate. If he had his druthers, the most cooperative he would be about a gate is to do a Hollywood stop by the latch, let the rider fling the gate open on the move, pass through the gate, and never look back.

Brio doesn’t like to stand close to the gate, be near the gate when it is moving, stand in the gap of an open gate, back through a gap, step towards the gate as I close it, and stand by the gate while I latch it. Rather than continually work with a gate to achieve my goal, I addressed each aspect of his distaste individually.

To help with his lateral movement, I worked on his joystick control, and his rein yields.

I worked on his patience training to help his stand quietly as I operate the latch.

I worked on backing between cones, then through gaps in the gate and other narrow places.

I used this set up to have control over the narrowness of the space I wanted Brio to get comfortable in
I worked on having him stand by the gate as it swings away from him and towards him. This is fun to do with a partner, playing “catch” with the gate with riders mounted on either side. This was a particularly difficult task for him. ( There was a point where he got fed up with the game, jumped onto a plastic lawn chair and got loose…twice in one day)

I worked on him standing while I shifted in the saddle or did something else with my hands.
Again, the gate wasn’t so much of an issue as the aspects of his training that were lacking in his response to a gate. We worked on all of these training aspects on the ground prior to doing them mounted. The gate was a test of his skills and training and he failed. Rather than take the test again with no additional preparation, we went back to study the curriculum that he wasn’t understanding.

The process took quite some time, and isn’t perfect yet. As a result, Brio is much better at opening a gate and we can do it the way I like now. While it has taken me months of training to get to this point with the gate, the journey has given me a better riding horse with more malleability. These days we are getting about a B- on our gate test. Breaking down the skill into parts makes it much easier for horse and rider to understand.

Building confidence, not desensitizing.  Brio part 3

Brio is working on his low grade anxiety and confidence. To help with his anxiety, I’m giving him consistency. He is getting a routine in how he gets caught, tacked, and worked. Along with it, he is getting love and praise. He is now content to stand in the cross ties, comes to be caught instead of hiding in his paddock, and showing more of his personality. Everyone who handles him has a quiet and confident energy. As a result, he is starting to let go of his tension and relax.
To help with his confidence we are spending lots of time working on things that upset him. Things like traffic noise, tarps, crossing water, anything going over his back. This aspect of horse training is often referred to as sacking out, or desensitizing. Both terms elude to over exposure of a stimulus until the subject is no longer reactive to it. That isn’t quite the goal I’m looking to achieve with Brio.

For example, we’ve spent quite a bit of time getting him to cross a tarp. This isn’t something that really comes up that often when riding, so why spend so much time on it? The motivation is not to desensitize him to crossing a tarp, but to give him confidence to try something new. To get him to have enough trust in his handler to try something that he hasn’t done before.

The first time I tried to get Brio to cross a tarp, he spent much of his time on his hind legs, flinging me about the arena. With time and patience he will cross a tarp when he’s free in the round pen, and I can ride him over a tarp with no hesitation. This has led to him having confidence to cross bridges and water. Going past a blowing tarp on a rail has given him more confidence to trust his handler when traffic blows by him, ropes come at him, and carrying items.

So really the tarp isn’t there just for desensitization, the tarp is a metaphor for new things that he’s unsure of. It’s not just about getting used to the tarp, it’s about trusting his handler when he’s asked to do something that scares him a little.

Anthropomorphism in Horse Training, Brio part 2

Brioso del Amor , or Brio, is Liz’s unicorn-in-training. I don’t know too much about his history, except that he’s been passed around a lot in the past year. His breeder had him at a sale barn that sold him to a dressage home with an amateur. It didn’t work out there for Brio, he reportedly started rearing, so he was back at the sale barn within 3 months. Then Liz and Brio seemed to be a good match for each other. He did well at his pre-purchase exam, and arrived home in time for Liz’s birthday/Christmas.
Liz immediately picked up where she and Sawyer left off. While Brio was a good boy, he didn’t quite have the life experience that leads to the kind of confidence that Sawyer had. A loud motorcycle speeding by him led to Liz’s first fall in three decades. Between that and the discovery that Brio had a habit of breaking loose on the longe line and trying to mount the other horses in the arena led to Brio and Liz going in training with me.

We figured out a solution to the longing issue, and Liz learned some good things in her lessons. Then she got diagnosed with an issue with her spine, which required surgery and recuperation. I became Brio’s sole rider and had the opportunity to work on his confidence three days a week.

I began to really get to know Brio. My impressions of him was that he was upset with changing homes and owners so much. He seemed stressed out that he wasn’t sure what was going to happen to him next and what kind of rules his next handler would have. He would try to hide in his paddock when we tried to catch him, and he would flinch really hard when putting on his blanket or saddle. He just seemed to have a low grade worried expression all the time.

The longing issues and general disrespect of the halter seemed to stem from an issue of trying to posture himself at the top of his new herd. His herd consists of his stable mates, his handlers, and whatever random horse happened to be walking by or working in the arena with him. He was always looking for a way to express himself as being a cool and confident guy, while really harboring some self esteem issues.

I’ve often heard that it is not good, and even dangerous, to anthropomorphize horses when attempting to understand their behavior. I fully agree that horses are different than people in the way they interact with each other, humans, and their view of the world. However, my job isn’t just to train horses, it is also to help other people learn to understand horses. It is in that role that I find anthropomorphizing to be a very useful tool. Not because the horses are doing human-like things, but because it is easier to teach a human about something if you can relate it to something they already have experience with.
Most people have far more experience with humans than they do with people. If I can relate a horse’s actions, to a known trope of human interactions, I can be much more effective in helping a person understand a horse’s behavior.
To this end, I can relate Brio’s behavior to that of a kid who is a bully because his home life sucks. Or maybe the guy who has road rage on his way home from a day of getting pushed around at work. These are things that are easy for people to understand. Bridging the gap between anthropomorphism and equine behavior is the crucial step between evaluation/understanding and execution/correction.

When I interact with Brio, I’m going to treat him like a horse, and not a person. To address his low level anxiety, I am going to give him consistency. To address his issues with his confidence, I’m going to work on things that make horses more confident.

A new project: Making a Match (Brio part 1)

I’m starting a new blog series about my latest project, which is already well underway.Photo by Kathy Colman Photography

Meet Sawyer. He is a 28 year old Morgan gelding. Sawyer is a unicorn. He’s one of the rare horses that has a platinum character and pizazz to go along with it. He can teach the smallest child to ride safely. He can pack your husband through traffic and hard trails. He can willingly prance and gallop along the trail, jumping creeks and looking damn fine doing it. He’s everything you’ve ever dreamed of in a horse. So why does he need training? He doesn’t. He’s 28 with a soft tissue injury, he needs retirement.

Liz is Sawyer’s human. They are both lucky to have each other as they made each other very happy and had lots of fun. She is giving him the retirement he has earned at a great place in Pescadero. Liz isn’t ready to hang up her riding boots with Sawyer, she wants another horse just like him. Liz is also nostalgic for the beautiful Spanish horses that she was around as a teenager residing in Spain. She wanted to buy Sawyer, but a little bit bigger, a little bit younger, and Spanish. She turned to me to help her find her second unicorn.

Liz and Sawyer, photo by Kathy Colman Photography 

So I went to the unicorn emporium and found him, right between the leprechauns with pots of gold, and the flying carpets.
Actually, we had a typical horse buying experience. We tried a bunch of horses, vetted one that failed, amended our criteria, and had many learning opportunities. Finally we found a horse who fit the bill perfectly.

These are my notes from my first meeting with Liz to talk about horse shopping.  She wanted a horse with Brio.  I think I delivered on that one for sure!

Brioso del Amor, aka Brio, is a 12 year old Andalusian (Pura Raza Espanola) gelding. He has low miles, which consequently means he is quite green for his age. If you look hard enough, you can just see his Unicorn horn starting to come in.

Never Stop Learning

by Nel Sanchez

My grand-father was a stockman and farmer who grew up in country NSW, Australia. What we Aussies call the bush. The stories he used to tell about the things he and his mates did on horses always had me in awe.

He had two phrases I remember hearing a lot. The first was “the best rider is always the one sitting on the fence”. Now as a 10 year old that didn’t really mean too much to me, but as a wiser woman in her early 30s I’ve come to understand it many times over.

The other phrase was “you never stop learning with horses”. And this one resonated with me very early on.

If you have been following The Happy Canterer you would have heard Ali herself mention the famous ‘barn rat’. The kids in the barn that watch everything and ask a million questions. When Ali was growing up, learning everything she could from everyone she could, I was on the other side of the world doing the exact same thing. I talked to anyone who would listen usually, asking about their horses and watching the different things they did with their equines. Every horse magazine I could get my hands on I read. I started pony club at 12yo where I completed all my D level certifications in the first few months of starting.

Me at 17, trying SJ on loaned horse Tonto. 
 I didn’t have horsey parents to learn from, not one of my school friends had horses or knew how to ride. I delved into Pony Club like it had been created just for me. My horse, Mustang Sally, was young, a 3yo quarter horse/stock horse cross, who was a sensible and quiet trail horse, but who shied at every new scary thing Pony club threw at her. And yes I fell off. And there were many times she walked right over the top of me. She was strong and green, and so was I. But I kept going, and I kept learning and I kept trying. It wasn’t always easy. But we bonded. She was the one that taught me the most. We learnt things together and became a partnership. All the learning that I had engrossed myself with as an excited kid had become not only one of my best investments, but a foundation for my time with this mare and all the future horses I worked with.

My heart horse Mustang Sally at Mounted Games
Having maintained an open mind toward learning has helped me become the horsewoman I am now. And will help me become a better horsewoman in the future. I encourage my daughter, who is 8, in the same way I encourage my friends and fellow equestrians, to never be afraid to ask questions! Ask the vet to show you how to give an injection, ask the dentist to show you the sharp edges on your horses teeth, get the farrier to show you what thrush/bruises/white line disease looks like. A friend’s horse has ulcers? Get her to show you the warning signs that prompted the diagnosis. Attend every clinic you can, whether you participate or spectate, there is always something to be taken away from clinics. Cross train, don’t focus on one specific thing all the time. The race horses I used to ride, used to be broken in and do cattle work before they ever saw a race track. The famous ‘Valegro’ went on regular trail rides. Watch your friends when they have riding lessons. Ride other people’s horses. Try something new. Read articles and books and magazines, go to shows and events to watch. Video your friend’s dressage tests and re-watch them with a copy of the judge’s comments. There are so many different avenues to learning that we can take advantage of. Even if you don’t have a horse yourself. With learning comes confidence and with confidence we learn more.

Ruby and Tahlia learning about hoof care. 

Flash forward to today and my grand-fathers wise words still ring true. Over the years I have learnt to take the “fence sitters’ with a grain of salt. But no matter how old I get, how much experience I gain, I never stop learning.

About the author:  Nel Sanchez is an Australian horse lover living in the Bay Area of California. Her first job out of school as a 17yo was on a Thoroughbred property in the Wollondilly Shire of NSW. It was here that Nel learnt the fundamentals of really ‘knowing the horses’ from a tough, but fair manager, that she continues to build on to this day. 

A groom’s responsibility

The Happy Canterer is branching out.  Groom extrodinaire Nel Sanchez is joining our team of bloggers! This is her first submission:
What do I do?In everyday life, when meeting new people or talking to friends and family, the question is often raised – What do you do? And I usually find myself giving one of two answers, either “I work with horses” or “I am a horse groom”. But unless you have spent some degree of time around horses yourself, that doesn’t really give you too much insight into what it is I actually do.  

In a busy program, horse trainers and instructors are pressed for time, working to deadlines coordinating horse exercise, riding, education, feeding, veterinary and farrier appointments, riding lessons, maintenance, competitions, trailering to events etc that to try to do it all would likely result in fatigue, burn out and in-turn compromise safety. As I groom I help to bridge the gap between horse and trainer, ensuring that the trainer is able to get their job done safely, efficiently and to the best interest of the horse itself.

When I first go to collect the horses, I look at their eyes, look them all over and read their body language. Each horse is an individual and they are all different in there relaxed state. If present, mood changes, illness or injury can often be detected at this first greeting. I put halters on the horses and as I walk them out of their stalls I listen to their footfalls. If I haven’t noticed a missing shoe or lameness, nine times out of ten you will hear it as soon as they start walking. Of course this is harder when the footing is soft, but generally I have a good record by following these methods. It’s the same when brushing and saddling the horses. You are not only removing dirt and debris from the horse’s feet and body, you are removing anything foreign from where saddlery will fit, checking saddlery itself for fit and maintenance issues, and checking the horse’s body by feel for any non-obvious bumps, injuries or soreness. You want everything to be comfortable, non-constricting and of course safe for both horse and rider. By learning each and every horse like this I am able to communicate with trainer/rider how the horse is that day. To me, it is just as important to mention if a horse is particularly tense or jumpy that day as it is to mention swellings or lameness. When you have a 140 pound rider getting on an 1100 pound equine communication becomes a very powerful tool. 

After being worked, horses need to cool down, be checked over for any obvious strains/injuries, have sweat removed, any treatments needed applied and then return to the comfort of their stalls or pastures. It’s my goal to have them return in as good as or better condition than when they came out. And this doesn’t necessarily mean looking pretty. A horse is a horse, and the most natural thing for a horse to do is graze and roll. Allowing horses to have a quick pick at the grass and/or a roll in the sand can do wonders for their mental health. And it helps build the good relationships I have with the horses I work with.

So what is it I do you ask? I am a part of a very important team effort. I am a groom, cleaner, nurse, confidence builder, safety advisor, strapper, teacher, communicator, helper and friend to horse and trainer. And I have the best job in the world.

About the author:  Nel Sanchez is an Australian horse lover living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her first job out of school as a 17 year old was on a Thoroughbred property in the Wollondilly Shire of NSW. It was here that Nel learnt the fundamentals of really ‘knowing the horses’ from a tough, but fair manager, that she continues to build on to this day. 


We aren’t going

Late in 2016, I took on a couple ex-racehorses in my program for Janlois Racing.  Full brothers Olympic Blue and Olympic Maize are eligible for the Thoroughbred  Makeover competition to be held at the Kentucky Horse Park in October of 2017.  I signed up for the competition and we began to prepare the horses.  Their owner, Ann Janlois, was particularly excited for the makeover and said the makeover would be her Kentucky Derby.

Upon entering my program both horses were quite stiff and body sore.  After some of their basic training, I began to work on loosening them up and teaching them to relax in their work.  We made good progress for quite some time.  

Olympic Blue
Then Corny had his struggle with thrush, and keeping shoes on.  He also had a hard time going forward when he was going to the right.  At his next appointment with our wonderful chiropractor, Wally Palmer, he thought some of his thrush issues and way of going could be indicative of a bigger problem.

Olympic Llama (Corny) would sometimes do this when asked to go forward to the right.
Blue hadn’t been doing that well either.  He had been on an up swing for quite some time, but then began to struggle, losing his hind end, and stumbling.  After a couple weeks of that, Blue saw the Chiropracter, who advised that it was time to work up his lameness.

I’m blessed to have a good team to keep my horses going and happy.  Dr Palmer, the chiropractor, and Dr Kielty, the vet, work very well together.  Over the next several weeks we did countless blocks, and examinations. 

Blue proved to be a very complicated case, never blocking all the way to any specific location, but several blocks changed his way of going.  Our interpretation is that Blue has multiple areas of discomfort and he wasn’t telling what hurt him most!  We decided to inject his hocks and stifles, thinking that might help calm some of his issues down.  Unfortunately he showed negligible improvement and we decided to give him another year off to recuperate from the stresses of his glorious racing career.  

Blue enjoys his turnout time and exfoliating mud baths
Corny blocked to his knee, which we injected yesterday.  We can also make some improvements to his shoeing after his radiographs which should hopefully make him more comfortable.  Fingers crossed and we will see how he is in a couple weeks.

Mark Janlois has become a very hands on owner, here he holds Corny for his radiographs
In all honesty, Blue was our prime hope for being competitive at the Thoroughbred Makeover.  Now that he is sidelined, it’s unlikely that Corny will develop a strong aptitude and sufficient training for any of the 10 makeover disciplines in time for the competition.

So we aren’t going.  The universe seems to be driving this fact home.  I obsessively watch one sporting event every year.  The Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event!  I get a lot out of watching the high quality of riding at Rolex, you should watch too.  It’s this weekend!  And it’s also held at the same venue as the Thoroughbred Makeover, the Kentucky Horse Park.  I spent the first part of this year dreaming of riding in the same hallowed ground as the riders I am wistfully watching in the competition. 

That’s not me, that’s my friend Elaine at the Kentucky Horse Park
The universe is also telling me it’s not meant to be by removing traces of the makeover from my life.  I had Retired Racehorse Project stickers on my car and truck.  Well, I traded in my truck last weekend, and my car is for sale, so soon I won’t have any stickers. (Anyone want to buy a 2008 Nissan Rogue?)

I’m sad to be missing out on the thoroughbred makeover competition. It was a fun journey, and I was looking forward to a heck of an adventure!  I’m very happy that Blue and Corny are staying in my program. They are so lucky to have owners that put their well being first.  And as for their trainer? I’m on the lookout for a new adventure!

The grave of legendary thoroughbred Man o War, located at the Kentucky Horse Park.  PC Elaine Hanscom
About the author: Ali Kermeen loves all kinds of horses and doing all sorts of things with them.  She’s currently looking for a new adventure, will it be working equitation?  Driving?  Cow work? Keep reading the Happy Canterer blog to find out what’s next for Ali.