The Thighs Have It

Now that I ride 3 to 4 times a week, I have a lot less time for writing about riding. Which is a trade I’ll take any day. The riding has been particularly good lately, and I chalk that up to two things: 1) a happy horse and 2) strong thighs.

Dunnie has been in a great mood lately, since he started getting turned out at night in the big back paddock with his new girlfriend, who is appropriately named “Happy.” He’s so much less crabby than he had gotten lately, and is back to thinking it’s fun to play with me in the ring.

Dunnie, being happy with Happy.
Dunnie, being happy with Happy.

While one can’t possibly overvalue the merit of having a happy horse to ride, perhaps the even bigger improvement in our riding over the last two weeks has been how strong my legs have gotten. Part of this has been from consistent riding for a few months; the horse muscles are finally getting back to proper shape. The other part is that I have, in anticipation of an upcoming “milestone” birthday, become extra-focused on toning myself up, specifically in the thigh area.

Pinterest has about 3 billion suggestions for how to tone up your thighs, and I’ve been incorporating them into my daily workouts. In the mornings, I do some light thigh-centered calisthenics (leg lifts, fire hydrants, sumo squats, wall sits…I’ve tried them all) in circuits that switch up the exercises from day to day. I go for a half-hour to forty-five-minute ride around midday, hopefully before it gets hot as hell. Then sometimes in the afternoon I go to the gym and either do weight training (which is often upper-body-focused, cuz that’s important too), but also includes squats with a dumbbell over my shoulders, and the leg-press machine. Or I run on the treadmill, or, preferably, outside.

It’s amazing how much of a difference it has made in my riding, immediately. Before, at the lope I’d have a really difficult time going for more than half the ring. I’d be gripping with my legs inefficiently and huffing and puffing because of it. Also, in my weakness I was tensing up my lower back, making it rigid to try to hold on tighter but only succeeding in bouncing against my horse’s movement instead of flowing with it. I went back to Sally Swift’s Centered Riding to remind myself of the right movement for a rider at the different gaits, and it worked like a charm. I took that metaphorical metal rod right out of my back, and now I’m flowing along with Dunnie’s rhythm as we lope around the ring several times, doing large fast and small slow circles, and I don’t feel wiped out from it at all.

I’ve had this picture as my computer background image since approximately 2004. It has migrated across my computer screens through several different jobs. My coworkers would ask, “Hey, is that you?” and I’d reply “I wish.” It’s always been a touchstone for me, even though most of my life I’ve been an English rider. It’s an image that represents the little girl in me, who answered the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” with “A cowgirl!” even though I didn’t really know what that entailed, I just knew it was someone who worked with horses.

Me (I wish).
Me (I wish).

Riding Dunnie this last week, I’ve had glimpses of this feeling. We’ll be loping around, and I’ll feel strong and centered and relaxed, and he’s happy and fit and collected, and it’s like I’ve clicked into a place that I’ve only dreamed about before. This mythical cowgirl riding her horse through the firey sunset isn’t just an image I’ve carried inside me for years in those moments; for a few seconds, I am her.

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Patience

We went through a phase in the last month or so where things weren’t going great. I think what happened is that Dunnie got over the initial excitement of having someone new to play with. When I got there, he was kinda bored and lonely and so he was willing and interested in anything I wanted to do. But after a bit of that, he decided it was time to play on his own terms, which is how I came to realize how truly smart he is. This usually took the form of doing something weird when I gave him a cue, even very simple things like “trot,” he was seemingly misinterpreting for “weird, crappy half-pass.” We had a lot of difficulty with the canter transition initially, too. And then our spins, understandably rudimentary at first as I learned how to ask for them and as he worked through stiffness and rebuilt those muscles, all of a sudden started deteriorating instead of improving.

I misunderstood what was happening. I thought that as I was going through the learning curve, I had just hit the part where things that seemed pretty simple to learn at the outset  had now reached a deeper level of complexity and revealed that they needed more skill on my part. Perhaps that is true, to a degree. Unfortunately, that sort of thinking turned it into an Ego Thing. Especially during lessons, when I feel like I have something to prove to myself and my trainer in order to feel like I’m progressing.

In reality, what I had on my hands was a bored, smart horse who was messing with me. That’s a situation that requires flexibility, not the rigidity of an ego-driven desire to just push myself and my horse harder. I found myself on some days getting very frustrated with him and myself, and that’s what forced me to take a step back.

I’ve learned recently that the biggest factor in creating frustration or anxiety for me is feeling rushed, and I’m almost always doing it to myself. Obviously there are situations in life which are under time constraints that we have no control over. But I rush myself all the time, for no reason. When I’m learning something new, I just want to know it all and master it all RIGHT NOW. So when I found myself huffing and puffing and growling at my horse like a rabid dog, my first step in getting back on track was to slooooow it down.

Everything I was trying to do, I took to a slower gait, or a lower threshold of success. We couldn’t lope a whole circle without him alternately charging with his head up or breaking down to a trot? So we did the circle at a walk, in good form. Then we did it at the trot. I couldn’t get him to do a left spin at all; he was just twisting his neck and then backing up. So I spent a ton of time undoing that. Forgetting the spin, I just pushed him forward every time he tried to take a step back in response to my cue. I literally just worked forever on getting him to walk forward. After that, I trotted him in very small circles, reinforcing that I wanted forward motion from him (ultimately where the speed will come from in the spin) and that I wanted him to cross over his legs. After awhile of tiny trot circles, I tried to use that momentum to pull him directly into a spin. It worked on the right, but I still got nothing on the left. Finally, I ended up trotting him toward the fence; when its presence forced our forward motion to stop, I immediately put on my outside leg to push his butt over toward the fence, executing a half turn. Even then, I rewarded him taking even one step the way I wanted him to.

This week I’ve ridden twice so far, and in both rides, it seems that my work has paid off.  I’m much more relaxed, because I don’t have rushed, unrealistic goals and a sneaking suspicion that I don’t know what I’m doing. Dunnie is more relaxed and seems to be willing to play with me again on my terms because I’ve extended him patience and clear communication instead of frustration. He’s back to doing things just because I’ve asked him to do them. And now I’ve incorporated a sort of graduated method of working with him in our rides. Push, fall back. We try something that’s a bit of a reach and set a low threshold for what constitutes “success” at that. Then we fall back and doing something physically easy or brainless. I make him do five-foot circles at a walk to build up his spin muscles, and then I just let him trot around without schooling him at all. He’s so much happier. And because he’s happier, he’s easier to control. And because he’s easier to control, I can have a much, much lighter touch on my aids. These last two days I have been tamping down how much I need to touch him on the reins or with my heels to get to the lowest possible amount that makes him react. Often, it’s not much. Being lighter on my aids, in turn, makes him happier. And all of that makes me happier, and on top of it, actually makes me feel like I’m finally getting somewhere.

Happy Dunnie.
Happy Dunnie.

Equipment Change

My trainer left and now I’ve started riding with the woman who formerly owned the horse I’m leasing. She knows him incredibly well and I feel like we are finally on a really good track towards making some progress.

In the last couple of weeks, Dunnie was starting to get really, really ornery. I wasn’t quite sure why; I speculated that it could have been the arrival of all the summer camp kids, or the ridiculous heat (upwards of 105 with the heat index). But I also noticed that he was becoming less sensitive to my cues and that things we had done pretty well before, like spins, seemed to be getting worse, not better.

It was all a bit discouraging. It was a sort of in-betweeny time for me where I was missing lessons due to all the nasty weather we had and I was just trying to fix problems entirely on my own, and seemingly making them worse. But one lesson with my new trainer shed light on the problem. It wasn’t me; it was the equipment we were using.

I have hated Dunnie’s saddle from Day One. It’s a nice-enough-looking show saddle, but it weighs like 3 tons. I can never lift it onto his back without giving myself a hernia and making him pissed off because I’ve got either the girth or the stirrup stuck underneath it.

And apparently he has been hating it too. Wednesday night my trainer got on him during my lesson to see what was up with him; was he stiff, or just not used to being told what to do, or what? She turned around in the saddle and realized that the saddle looked to be too long and putting painful pressure on his back by his loins. We speculated that it could be the reason he kept pulling his head up much higher than he was supposed to be carrying it, and why he seemed to be charging around the ring like he wanted to do. She also pointed out that the bit he had on was quite harsh, and didn’t give me any leeway with connecting with his mouth without putting a lot of pressure there.

I had some suspicions about the saddle. I’ve been reading Reining: The Guide for Training & Showing Winning Reining Horses by Al Dunning, and the chapter on the importance of fitting the saddle to your horse had some elements that jangled in my mind a little bit. But the equipment that I ride Dunnie in is his. It came along with him, so I kind of assumed that whoever picked it out for him chose stuff that fit him right.

A heavy, Western show saddle.
A heavy, Western show saddle.

Yeah, that assumption was wrong. Last night I went out to the barn to ride again, this time with totally different tack. The saddle that my trainer picked out from the tackroom was seriously about 1/3 of the weight of Dunnie’s saddle, and the saddle pad had a nice split in it in the place where it goes over his withers, so it wasn’t putting pressure there. It was also a shorter length, so it didn’t cut into his back where the other one was. As a nice added bonus for me, the stirrups were a lot less stiff—the leather on his saddle makes it really hard to get the stirrups straight on my feet and I always felt like my ankles were being twisted. Now my feet are straight again and I can put a lot more weight into my heels. We also put him in a different bridle with a less-harsh shank bit, and (yay for me) no split reins.

The difference was staggering. When I got on him last night, he was a different horse. My trainer said she could see him smiling—his ears were up, he wasn’t tense, he felt so much lighter in my hands. He wasn’t charging around the ring with his head in the air anymore, either. When we took off at a lope, I was able to make a slight connection with his mouth like I needed to rate his speed without him getting pissed. And he just naturally carried his head low and relaxed.

Today I went out and rode him by myself in that same tack, and it was great. He was back to being that same willing, happy horse I started riding a couple of months ago—before the accumulation of pain from his tack turned him ornery. And now that he’s not so tense anymore, I can be a lot less tense. Before when we were cantering, he would pick up his head, which would cause me to tense on the reins, which would cause him to slow, which would cause me to tense in my calves to push him forward, which would cause him to speed up too much because I was gunning him, and then back to the tension on the hands again to try to slow him down. It was a feedback loop where we were really frustrating each other. Today, for the first time, we calmly loped a circle the way we’re supposed to. He was relaxed and responded to the slight pressure of my hands to regulate his speed, so I was able to stop my death grip on his sides with my calves, and really sit deeply in the saddle. If he felt like he was going to break, I was able to push with my seat to keep him going. Everything just felt so much more free and flowing.

The whole thing has made me realize the deep importance of having the right equipment for your horse, and for that to be a serious part of the evaluation of what’s going wrong if there seems to be something going wrong. Keeping your horse as happy and comfortable as you can results in a better ride for both of you.

Before and After

It’s been almost two months now since I started riding Dunnie.

The day I met him, I went out to the barn knowing almost nothing about him; I knew that he was a reining horse and that he had won 3rd place at the International Buckskin Horse Association’s World Show several years ago, and that he was much loved at the barn. I had no idea what to expect, and, having just about zero knowledge of reining, no idea really how to measure him.

When he came out of his stall, I thought he seemed a little small, a little pudgy, and very shaggy with a thick, hay-colored winter coat.

Dunnie, on the first day I met him in April 2016.
Dunnie, on the first day I met him in April 2016.

But I reserved judgement, trying to learn as  much as possible about him. He had been leased for a while by a woman before me who rode him a couple times a week; she’d had to move away because of her job. He’d been pastured outdoors in the winter, which accounted for the unusually heavy coat in a place where it doesn’t get all that cold.

Of course, once I got on him, I immediately fell in love. He was so easygoing, so willing, that I knew right away for sure that I wanted to lease him.

The first time I groomed him myself, I realized just how much coat he was shedding. In five minutes, I’d have several curry-combfuls of his light-colored winter coat drifting around the ground. But underneath, I could see glimmers of the shiny, golden coat that must have inspired his show name, which I learned through some Googling is “Boomtown Gold.” I began to get excited about cleaning him up, and threw myself into grooming him really well every day that I rode him.

struck gold
Dunnie’s golden coat shining in the sun on his withers.

Slowly, more and more of that undercoat emerged. One day while grazing him, I looked over at his back and saw the sun shining off the spot on his withers where all the winter coat had come off. He was still shaggy around his belly and thighs, but here was a glimpse of what he’d look like once he finished shedding. We’d had an especially good ride that day, I felt I was getting stronger and making progress on learning reining techniques. As I reflected on how lucky I felt to be where I was, doing what I was doing—how lucky I was to have stumbled upon Dunnie—I looked at him and felt like I’d struck gold.

I’ve ridden him every chance I’ve gotten for the past two months, weather and work sometimes making that tricky, but I keep finding a way. Most of the time it’s just us out there, with me doing the best I can to be the leader, taking him through the exercises I’ve learned from my trainer and from reading and watching everything on the Internet related to reining in order to build up his muscle and flexibility and get his mind and body back into competition shape. Simultaneously I’m his student, letting him teach me how to communicate with him so we can do the tricks he already knows how to do and that I’m just discovering for the first time. When we’re out there together alone, we work—the riding I’m doing now is the most focused, most directed, most in-depth riding experience I’ve ever had—but it’s also play. I can feel him responding with interest to every new game I pose, every challenge. “What if we try this?” I ask and he says, “I’m game!” Sometimes we do great and I’m amazed at how easy it is. Other times it’s not perfect, but we gave it a good try and so we move on, saving it for another day.

People at the barn have started commenting on the change in Dunnie. My trainer says she can see him getting more fit; others have commented on how much happier he seems, how much friendlier he is in his stall. Someone mentioned that he’d been allowed to get away with quite a bit prior to my arrival, and that he seems to be responding really well to me. It’s so wonderful to hear these things. There’s probably no greater compliment I can receive than “You are making things better,” and when that specifically includes making someone else happier and healthier, well, it doesn’t get any better than that. He’s making me better, too, making me learn patience and chipping away at my stupid perfectionism.

It’s a trope our society presents frequently in stories: the makeover—whether drastic and overnight, or subtle and gradual—the idea that something or someone new comes into your life and fills an empty space and you become visibly different, the changes on the outside reflecting the changes occurring inside. Sometimes, even when it is gradual, it can be startling, as it was the other day when I tacked up Dunnie and brought him into the indoor arena. I put his reins up on his saddle horn and left him standing there a moment while I dragged a stray jump standard out to the edge of the ring, and when I turned back and saw him, I was amazed. The winter coat is completely gone now, and he’s lost weight and toned up. With his fancy saddle and his ears perked up, he looked like the champion showhorse that he was before, and hopefully will soon be again.

Dunnie, looking handsome at the end of May 2016.
Dunnie, looking handsome at the end of May 2016.

Past the Plateau

This week’s riding has been some of the best of…well, ever.

So far, I’ve been out to ride three days this week (still up in the air about going today, since storms are predicted this afternoon), and on every one of those days, I’ve felt improvement. I haven’t had the opportunity to ride like this since I was a pre-teen in a summer riding camp, and it’s possibly the best thing (riding-wise) that’s ever happened to me.

One of the biggest frustrations I had while riding back in the city was the length of time between lessons. I’d start to feel like I was learning something and then it’d be a week, or two weeks, or several months before I got on a horse again and by that time it was back to square one. There comes a point in learning where you need to just put in hours. First, you learn things. If you can do the thing at all, it feels like an accomplishment. But then you reach a level where it feels like you’ve plateaued. You can still do the thing, but the more you do it, the more you realize you’re not doing it that well, and the desire to get better is kindled. At that point, you just need to spent a lot of consistent time reinforcing and refining the skills you learned when you were at a more basic level.

That plateau level is basically where I’ve been for the three years since I’ve gotten  back into riding. I’m more mature now than I was when I stopped at the age of 21, and in the intervening years, I’ve learned a lot more about how to learn. So since I’ve been back on the horse, I’ve been happy, grateful, relieved … and also, fundamentally frustrated, knowing that there was so much more to riding and wanting to go there but never quite being able to get there.

And now, I’m there. One day, this amazingly trained, patient, willing horse was dropped into my lap and now I’m finally, finally able to ride and train at the level I’ve been yearning for. I set goals and then every day I work at them a little more and I improve a little more and then I achieve them.

IMG_4743
What’s next?

Like last week, when I was struggling to get Dunnie into a good canter transition without running into a sloppy trot. I had a breakthrough then with figuring out a better way to ask him for the canter, and I set myself a goal for this week: to be able to canter around the entire ring, getting the flying change in both directions. I thought it might be a stretch for me, given how weak my legs felt at that point. But then yesterday we did it. From a complete standstill, Dunnie picked up a canter in a perfect transition. We cantered around the ring, got the flying lead change in both directions. I even went a little bit further than that, backing him up after we stopped, doing a rollback (which I didn’t even really know how to do, but just felt like he did so thought I’d try it) and then picking up another perfect canter transition in the opposite direction. I felt…real. As in, “I’m really doing this.”

 

Problem Solving

Wednesday when I rode I could not for the life of me get Dunnie to give me a good canter transition. He kept doing that super sloppy speedy trot thing that horses do sometimes and is one of the most frustrating things I know of. I wondered if it was because we were outside for the first time in a long time. I wondered if it was the footing out there. I wondered if he was sore in the shoulders, or even maybe lame. But when I got off him and watched him walk from the end of the lead rope, nothing looked amiss.

Thursday when we rode it started happening again. But occasionally he’d do a little jump like he was trying to get into a canter stride. He wasn’t being ornery, and this time we were inside, hiding from the midday Texas sun. As I mentioned before, he is such a willing horse that I had to take a step back and wonder what I was doing wrong. The answer was: a couple of things.

First, I’m still not too slick with the split reins. For much of the lesson, especially the exercises where I’m softening his neck and shoulders and hips through circles and figure eights, I ride two-handed. But when we get to cantering, I try to ride one-handed. If things were to go badly, I feel like it’s a lot easier to shorten up on the reins that way, and while I’m still building back my leg muscles, I sometimes want to hold onto the pommel at the canter for a little extra help. But it’s not easy keeping the reins even and sometimes I find that they are lopsided, pulling his head in one direction more than the other, which has to be distracting.

Second, and more important, I still slip into a hunter seat. My lower back has a natural arch in it, and years and years of hunter seat riding made me develop a habit of emphasizing that on the horse. So it takes a particular effort on my part to drop my tailbone, tuck my butt, and lengthen that part of my spine the way you’re supposed to do in a Western saddle. I have to imagine that this is somewhat confusing to Dunnie, and I think it was the major issue in preventing us transitioning to the canter. When I stepped back to take a look at myself, I realized what I was doing was sitting forward, arching my back, and using both heels to try to push him forward, but really all I ended up succeeding in was chasing him into a fast trot. Then I was pulling him back, trying to collect him so we weren’t flying around the ring like idiots. I brought him to either a very slow trot, a walk, or to a halt, trying to get the transition from different gaits. No dice. I knew he could do it; I watched my trainer do it on him like a week ago, and he had smoothly and immediately picked up a nice, collected lope for her. I stopped him for a moment and thought about what exactly she had done. I remembered that she really only signaled to him with her outside leg, but I knew there was something else as well. I tried just the outside leg, which still didn’t work on its own, but it put me on the right track. When I pulled my outside leg back to prompt him into the canter, it shifted my weight. Then I pulled up the memory of my trainer doing it in my mind’s eye and watched the rest of her body movement — I thought I remembered her sitting back in the saddle and kind of urging him forward with her hips. So I tried that, and it worked! From a standstill, Dunnie picked up a canter right away. I kept trying the transition a few more times in both directions to make sure we’d got it down. The right is a little bit sticky with the lead, so I’m going to keep working on making that side supple and flexible, but I think I finally understand how I need to talk to him with my body so he understands what I want him to do.

The next step, of course, is being able to sit the canter more, shall we say, elegantly. I do feel my legs getting stronger every day, but I’m also still adjusting to the longer stirrups, so I’m not as tight or as still as I’d like to be. Now that I don’t have to spend all this time sweating it out trying to chase him into the canter, wearing us both out, I’ll be able to practice the actual gait a lot more. My goal is to be able to go all the way around the ring one direction, get the flying change on the diagonal, and go all the way around the other direction by the end of next week. I think that’s a reasonable goal, although when I write it out, it sounds so basic. I really have lost a lot of the muscle I built in California over that 6 months that I didn’t ride.

Little Victories

This week’s rides have been excellent, and I finally feel like I’m starting to settle in and make progress. Last week I didn’t get a chance to ride at all because of the days of storms and historic flooding in the Houston area. All the horses at my barn were fine, just very, very wet. The place was largely inaccessible all week and all of the rings were under water.

While unable to ride, I did attend the National Reining Breeders Classic at the Great Southwest Equestrian Center, which is only about five minutes from my apartment. I wanted to get a firsthand look at what a reining competition looked like. It was exciting to watch, as the competitors entered the arena at a full gallop and the first element in the pattern was a dramatic sliding stop followed by backing up, spinning, and then heading off in a canter. Unlike the showjumping at the Pin Oak, when I look at the reining competition I feel like it is something I could definitely do with some more training.

So this week, I’ve jumped right in to really pushing myself to learn and improve in a productive way. I’m excited to try out showing again (it has been fourteen years since I was last in a horse show, the IHSA competitions I did back in college), and hope to quickly get to a point where I know enough to go to some low-level competitions.

The thing about working with Dunnie is that he’s so willing. If I ask him to do something, he generally does it. While I’m learning new things — the techniques of reining — and he doesn’t do what I ask him for, I can usually assume that it’s because I’m not asking properly, or communicating clearly enough. When that happens, and I’m riding on my own (outside of lesson time), it’s up to me to figure out where I’m going wrong and try to fix it. Ultimately, this is a far more enriching way to learn. Instead of someone else (a trainer) giving me exercises to do and then assessing whether I’ve done them and then moving on, I’m creating the curriculum. I’m still doing a ton of reading and YouTube watching, learning new exercises for making my position better, and for making Dunnie softer and more flexible and responsive. I bring those concepts to the ride, and then I’m the one who has to assess whether they’re achieving what I want them to. I have to feel it myself instead of relying on an outsider observer.

The biggest thing I’ve taken away from this process is that little victories are very valuable. This is something I’ve also picked up watching Stacy Westfall’s training videos for Jac. Since he’s young and green and she’s teaching him how to do everything for the first time, she doesn’t expect him to be perfect. She rewards small behaviors that are steps in the direction of what she wants him to do, and he learns step-by-step. Although Dunnie is already a well-trained and well-seasoned reining horse, this is the approach I’m taking with him, building on small victories that show me he’s listening to what I’m asking and that I’m at least kind of asking in the right way.  It’s like we’re establishing a way to communicate with each other. I say, “Do this, please,” and if he doesn’t do it, I stop and think about another way to phrase the request, adjusting the position of my hands, or rearranging my seat and the distribution of my weight. Often while we’re standing still and I’m taking a moment to think about what to change, Dunnie will turn his head and look back at me, nuzzling at my feet a little. My trainer says this is great; it means that I have his attention. He thinks of me as the leader of the game, and he’s asking me, “What’s next?”

We had a really productive ride on Thursday where we did tons of exercises and had our longest, most collected canter so far. Cantering has actually been the one thing that’s a bit of a challenge for me to adjust to in the Western saddle. The stirrups are just so long and I keep losing my left one. I’m also not used to the low head carriage and the more rolling lope feeling of Dunnie’s canter — so much so that I thought he was giving me small bucks in the transition, but learned from my trainer that it’s not happening — it just feels that way. After all the little victories we achieved on Thursday, including getting a little more speed and fluidity on the rightward spin (left still needs work), perfecting the shape of our circles, and working on doing figure-eights backwards, I thought we could use a break the next day. It was hot and muggy, so I did something I haven’t done since I was a teenager — ride bareback. I thought I’d not only spare Dunnie the weight and sweatiness of his big saddle and pad, but also remove the temptation for me to push us to do a lot of work.

It was an adjustment to being on his back without the security of the Western saddle. He felt so much smaller! But after the initial shock wore off, it was quite nice. We walked almost the whole time, enjoying the breezes that came through the indoor arena, where we’ve been riding all week while waiting for the rains to stop and the outdoor ring to finally dry out. I realized that riding without the saddle can give me a new awareness of my position; without its guidance of where and how to sit, I have to really focus on my posture and the position of my legs. For fun, we did the reining pattern I had watched over the weekend at the NRBC, doing all of the elements at a walk and imagining the crowd cheering us on.  After that, we trotted a short bit just to see how that felt; his trot is so easy to sit to that I could have done it for even longer. My trainer suggested that I get a bareback pad because then I can canter and do more other fun stuff. I’m thinking about it, but I like the idea of having these bareback vacation/goof off days, and will probably incorporate them into our weekly schedule, especially as the summer heats up to near “a hunnert” here in southeast TX.