Wednesday, February 22, 2017

the slowest of slow marches

Charlie lives at a barn notable for being located actually within the grounds of a small private high school. This makes for a slightly unusual barn atmosphere - but in a surprisingly good way. It's basically just overrun by a bunch of friendly high school girls who love horses. And Charlie loves it when they fawn all over him haha.

hope you're not tired of this view yet
Anyway, naturally the high school also has an IEA team (Interscholastic Equestrian Association, the HS version of the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association) and I volunteered at their Regionals show this past weekend, held at another local school McDonogh's on-campus facility.

i was strangely enamored of these lovely (if a bit beat up) wooden saddle racks and bridle hooks. they look like they'd take up way too much space to be practical... but i still like 'em!
My assignment was to hold down the fort in the barn area - ensuring that all the horses got out in time for their respective classes. Not particularly consuming, since each horse had its own handlers for tacking and such anyway. I literally just needed to make sure nobody was in the barn who should have been in the ring.

so pretty!!! but see the spikes lining the tops of the barn walls? no birdies allowed to perch here!
It meant, tho, that I was stuck inside the barn, putzing around for hours. But what a pretty barn! And of course the regular rhythms and lessons and comings and goings of the barn's residents wasn't infringed upon at all by the IEA show, so I also got to watch a seemingly unending stream of big fat gorgeous hunter jumper horses parade through the barn on their way hither and thither.

so many chubby ponies!!! also i was surprised to find myself looking at this cross rail division and feeling like Charlie's probably just about ready for something like this!! exciting!
Sure, very few (if any) looked much like TBs - it seemed like mostly warmbloods or ponies - but I was struck by just how.... fleshy and full bodied and ... healthy they all looked. And not in a 'fat' or 'obese' kinda way either (tho certainly some of them pushed that boundary a bit).

srsly tho. the grounds were so lovely, with all sorts of pretty little areas inside and out
It made me realize that I've become so accustomed to Charlie's thinness, his long skinny neck, his ribs, and his angular hind end, that I've kinda forgotten that it's not necessarily a good thing.

temporary stalls set up in what appeared to be a small schooling ring
Of course it's not necessarily a bad thing either... Charlie's 6 months out from his last race. And I've written before that he never really "crashed" post-track. Which is true. But he also hasn't really rebounded yet either. For a while he was very week-to-week with his weight. Losing and adding muscle in spurts. Lately tho we seemed to have plateaued. He's not really thriving.

in my mind, this is the quintessentially Maryland country view
And again it's not a bad thing (gotta keep writing that lest the internet world things I'm panicking about a skinny ottb lol). It's just a long slow process. And I've found that, much like how I have slowly become somewhat inured to Charlie's lanky, bony appearance, so have the folks responsible for managing the overall barn care.

more spikes!! and stalls of various ages, as apparently renovations are underwritten by private philanthropy
So when I got back from the show, feeling like Charlie would have stuck out like a sore thumb among all those glossy plump well-upholstered hunters, and asked that we add a lunch to Charlie's diet.... I was met with some push back. Frustrating.

Luckily a vet happened to be around for annual check-ups and vax appointments and gave Charlie a quick physical and nutritional assessment. Her thoughts? "Yea I can see why you think he's skinny." lol...

ahh, there's our familiar hero!
He's a big guy tho, and after discussing his current volume of grain, hay, and supplemental forage (alfalfa and beat pulp pellets), we decided to first switch to a different base feed that has more bang for the proverbial buck. This leaves the option of adding more volume later as needed.

Naturally, since I'm a bit like a wildly swinging pendulum and once I see that something is a problem I want to DO ALL THE THINGS to address that problem.... Naturally I also want to start adding all other kinds of supplements to his diet like oils or other fats or weight or muscle builders and what have you (not adding ulcer treatments here bc we already did that).

current state. leaves a bit to be desired.
For now, tho, I am resisting that temptation. Simply for the purpose of continuing to make small, incremental changes. We'll see how he does with the transition in base feeds. Then maybe we'll add a third meal. Then perhaps I'll look into some of those various top dressings that ppl swear by.... And in the meantime, hopefully the spring grass will be coming up too and maybe suddenly my shaggy bony little caterpillar will metamorphose into a glossy sleek and stout butterfly.

Ah horses. They're never really great at satisfying that need for instant gratification, huh. lol.... Oh well. At least we're moving in the right direction.

This whole 'advocating for my horse' thing is kinda new for me since I've never owned before. It surprises me too. As someone who has been staff in many barns for many years, I always just... ya know... did the thing the owner asked me to do. So now I'm in this new position of authority, and have to remind myself that it's ok to say, 'Actually yea, I'm asking you to do this thing bc I want it done, not bc I want your opinion on it.'

Have you had to have similar conversations with the folks responsible for your horse's day to day care? How has that worked out for you?

Monday, February 20, 2017

like riding a bicycle

Guys. It's happening. Charlie is actually honest to god figuring it out and is remembering his lessons from one week to the next! I probably sound like a broken record but each time I jump this horse, the idea of eventually eventing him feels more and more real, more tangible!

best canter evar ;)
Today's post is kinda a two-parter, as we started the day at OF with another round of free jumping, since Charlie could frankly use all the help he can get in that department. We then did a more traditional (albeit shortened) riding lesson immediately after.

I could probably split each component into separate posts.... but for the purposes of documenting the training process, the two are inextricably linked. Free jumping this horse is having exactly the impact on his development we had hoped, and it's already showing!

he hung out alllll by his self at the trailer for maybe ~5-10min for the first time too. didn't notice. good boy.
Right away, too, Charlie showed improvement from last week. He clearly remembered the exercise and was prepared to exert a little more effort and be a little more forward.

cherry-picked moment #1
Obviously that's not to say it was totally without blooper moments bc... well. It's Charlie and he's big and awkward and apparently kinda lazy. But in a smart-lazy kinda way where you can see him exploring every possible alternative method to jumping haha.

cherry-picked moment #2. if it happened twice it can't be just a fluke, right??
Really tho I was quite pleased with him. We got him built up pretty quickly to where we left off last week: ground pole to cavaletti to small oxer. He made nice work of that a few times (and less nice work a couple times too haha), then we reconfigured to three low cavaletti in a row.

exhausted from the exertion. 
With plenty of encouragement from the ground crew (free jumping this horse is apparently a team effort lol) he made it through respectably a couple times and we opted to finish on that. Good boy!

my favorite part of this video is when trainer P yells "Leg!" as Charlie goes through the grid.... obviously the teacher's reflex is strong haha

Obviously again there's nothing ground breaking here. He's still often awkward and stilted haha. But the moments when he does just canter on through feel promising.

And I was quite pleased to see a few instances where things weren't quite perfect but Charlie could recognize and adjust accordingly, instead of just crashing into the pole (except for that one time, oops). Baby steps y'all!

a tale of two personalities haha. charlie is snoozing and bella reeeeeeeally wants to know what i'm up to
Then I popped his bridle on, hopped aboard, and we moved outside for the piggy-backed component of ridden jumps. Obviously the horses were already 'warmed up' but we still went through the routine of a little flat work anyway. Practice practice and such.

Plus it was trainer P's first time seeing Charlie go since the seismic shift following switching to the new girth and spurs.

Bella continues to shine too!
It really is an impressive difference in the horse. There was absolutely no dinosaur getting stuck in tar pits. Even when I had to remind Charlie a couple times for more trot. And Charlie has been striking off simply and drama-free onto both leads - and will now execute a totally pleasant jumper-worthy simple change.

friends!!! and a dog that i totally promise isn't actually dead!!
Now I'm not saying the dinosaur is totally extinct -- but as trainer P said, now we know how Charlie is gonna react when something is buggin him. It might not always be the girth. But that's his 'tell.' For now tho we appear to have smooth sailing, yay! 

d'aww good pony!! still so awkward even when he 'nails' it haha
Anyway after a brief workout in trot and canter, we quickly moved on to hopping over little fences!! Alas not a ton of videos bc Brita and I were often working over our own fences simultaneously (it was just the two of us riding). But the two jumps she did catch were fairly representative of the whole ride.

i'm somewhat hilariously left behind Charlie's huge effort at a gappy distance.... but am absolutely loving every second
Charlie had moments of absolute brilliance (or as brilliant as you can be over 2' haha) where he easily and comfortably found the jumps. He jumped from and landed on both leads about equally and even executed a couple changes over the fences.

He also had a couple "Oh Shit" or "WTF" moments too - and we both played a role in some misses (like when I was completely left behind at the above jump lol).

But he didn't touch a single pole and he jumped everything. He rode forward and carried me to each fence (we jumped a number of different verticals and oxers plus the one in the video). And cantering the jumps is a thing we can reliably do now.

Meanwhile I just kinda sat there and let him do his thing, while keeping my left hand hooked on to the neck strap like it was my job (just don't ask what my right hand was doing bc I promise I don't know haha). And that's basically exactly what it looks like: essentially, not much. He's still awkward and I'm still just clinging to his back like a passenger while he works it out.

turned out with no blankets - it's a miracle!
But it's pretty freaking exciting to me, especially knowing that the above ride was Charlie's 5 month anniversary of becoming an event-horse-in-training. Catching up on the timeline: Charlie's final race: Aug 9; First ride Sept 18; First jump lesson Nov 5.

He's had 7 total jump lessons, 2 free jump schools, and 5 dressage lessons. Not a ton in the grand scheme of things, but we've made the most of them and have worked hard on our homework while schooling in between lessons.

The timing of everything just feels really good. Spring is coming. Charlie is getting more and more sound through his body and feet. And he is slowly but surely learning his job. So maybe, just maybe, we may actually put together some semblance of a show season. After the disaster that was 2016's season, I'm pretty excited by the prospect!

Sunday, February 19, 2017

no dogs were harmed

But a certain gray mare we know and love mayyyy or may not have accidentally jumped the dog.... oops haha. Dog was unfazed tho. Maybelle don't care! Updates on that ride soon :)

nope, dog definitely does not care
Anyway, I hope everyone is having a good weekend! Things have been fairly quiet on the riding front since I was out of town most of last week. And unfortunately a miscommunication with Charlie's barn staff led to the big guy sitting in his stall for 2 full days without turnout.... Ugh.

sucks, buddy!
Which apparently led to much violent weaving (I don't blame him!), during which he whacked himself something good on the inside of his RF. Poor guy. And of course he's such a delicate flower that the whole leg blew up.

the struggle is SO REAL
Oh well. Nothing a little ice and freedom to move about the cabin pasture can't fix haha, Since as soon as I got back in town and could reassure the staff that the horse was not in fact dying, he was finally returned to his regularly scheduled turnout.

I'm not sure the barn staff shares my opinions about turnout.... In fact I'm positive they do not. Which is fine. Everyone does it a little differently. Just. Ya know. You don't have to like what I say.... but you do have to do it. Since. Ahem. I pay the horse's board.... And I'll need a pretty convincing reason why he should spend days on end cooped up in a box plz thx. The above wound alas does not meet my criteria (I know, I'm evil and totally unsympathetic to Charlie's plight. Sue me.)

i think he'll live. tho i'm keeping leg transplantation on the table as an option just in case
Luckily for everyone involved, the weather has suddenly turned absolutely freaking glorious so Charlie even went out totally naked this weekend!! Crazy - I hope he's enjoying himself!

The weather meant we had basically perfect conditions for our weekly lesson at OF yesterday with Brita and her mare Bella (jumper of the above dead-looking dog haha, who I assure you was not harmed in the making of this lesson!). More exciting details to come on that soon!

In the meantime, I hope everyone is having a great weekend!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

discretion is the better part of valor

An interesting side effect of blogging about restarting an ottb is that I'm delving deeper and deeper into exploring my riding and training philosophies.

What do I believe about horse training? What are my experiences (limited tho they may be)? What is my desired outcome and how am I going to get there?

today's pics are all of phillip dutton, for no reason other than i admire him. and upper level xc pics are badass.
the above is from Fair Hill 3* in 2015
This isn't necessarily a new quality in me haha - I've maybe always tended to over think, over analyze or over conceptualize what could (should?) be fairly straight forward topics. But I kinda enjoy dwelling on the subject... and apparently I enjoy writing it out too. Perhaps bc the act of writing forces me to think more clearly or be more organized in the thought process? Do you ever feel that way too??

Anyway. Lately I've been thinking about quotes from various trainers over the years. One, from Dan"If what you are doing isn't working, slow down."

 2016 Rolex 4* 
Another, paraphrased from Stacy Westfall (whom I've never met but enjoy following): 'Everything in horse training can be broken down into smaller and smaller steps.' And, "Understanding is the foundation for communication."

And local horsemanship pro Jim's words often echo in my head: 'Whenever you ask the horse for anything, know exactly what you want. And do not move the goal posts midstream.'

Back to the earlier questions, what is my desired outcome? Simple, it's twofold: I want to event Charlie. And I want to have ALL of the fun while doing so. How am I going to get there? Well. One step at a time. Basically, my motto has been 'go slow to go fast.'

2016 Rolex 4* stadium 
The visual metaphor I keep returning to is building a house. First, we have to identify the site, then prepare it for the foundation. Next, the foundation itself is laid - and finally the house is built atop it all. The whole picture is brought up to spec with refinements like electricity and running water. And maybe finished with landscaping and tasteful interior design.

But for fuck's sake. There is no mother fucking sense in hanging a picture over the giant goddamn crack in your wall bc your shoddily-laid foundation shifted beneath your feet. And that sure as shit ain't the house's fault either. If you're impatient about not being able to choose paint colors or buy furniture yet.... maybe an undeveloped plot of land isn't for you.

2016 Great Meadow Nations Cup 3* .... honestly not 100% this is pdutty... but whatever, it's a cool pic anyway lol
Does that sound judgy? Sorry.... kinda haha. Really tho, I'm serious. Everything I do with Charlie right now is about laying the foundation for what I hope to be able to do tomorrow. Next week. Next month. You get the picture. But Charlie gets a say in the speed of this process. And so far, the biggest thing I'm learning from him is when to slow down, back up, lower the bar, or break a question down into its component pieces.

Bc let's be real, the horse can't walk and chew gum at the same time lol, and I just have to meet him at his level. He probably needs a little more time than the average ottb, and that's totally fine.

2016 Great Meadow Nations Cup 3*
The last thing I want to do is destroy his confidence by pushing him too far when he's not ready. Because remember - when Charlie first came to me, he could not handle pressure. He'd grow upset and defensive if he didn't understand or if he thought he was in trouble.

In effect, the horse did not know that it's ok to be wrong, that he wouldn't be punished for mistakes. And he therefore did not trust situations when he was confused or didn't understand. He lacked confidence. And it drives me crazy when I hear this type of behavior described as 'naughty' bc that's just not fair to the horse.

Nine times out of 10, if the horse doesn't give the right answer it's because they either don't understand what you want or bc they're afraid they'll be wrong or get in trouble or be hurt.

2016 Plantation 3*
Horses don't choose to be bad. Sure, some might test limits, or evade and resist questions, but that still boils down to clarity in communication. And to be clear - I'm talking about the green horse here. The horse still working on 'go' and 'whoa' and 'turn.' Things admittedly get fuzzier as training grows increasingly complex... but I'd argue that the fundamentals are the same.

For Charlie, I've had to purposefully show him that it's ok to be wrong. That he can give the wrong answer, receive a correction in proportion to the mistake, and then be rewarded upon getting it right. As Janet Foy said, "Ask the horse a question. See what answer he gives then either reward or ask again." Nbd, and no dwelling on the mistakes.

Once Charlie learned that he always has a place he can go - that he's always safe so long as he's trying, he's become more willing, more interested in figuring out what I'm saying, what I'm asking. He's grown curious. He volunteers. He wants to participate. And it's so much more fun!!!

2016 Plantation 2*
So there are two main mantras that have been working well for me, personally, lately in my green horse journey, and that I basically repeat to myself over and over again haha:

-     I would ALWAYS prefer to finish a ride wishing I had gone a little farther, done a little more, vs. the alternative of regretting not quitting while I was ahead.


-    However disciplined I expect Charlie to be, I need to hold myself to a standard 10x as strict.

2016 Plantation 3*
It's a fairly conservative philosophy... There's not a lot of risk taking and maybe it's not really very exciting. But so far it's working out pretty ok for us. And I'm banking on saving up all that excitement for the rush and thrill of galloping across country on a safe, reliable horse* who trusts me as much as I trust him.

What about you - do you find yourself agreeing with any of the above? Disagreeing? Maybe you're more comfortable with pushing the envelope and testing a horse's limits earlier on? Or maybe you think I've got it totally backasswards, and your experiences with green horses have led you to entirely different conclusions?

Surely I can't be the only one who spends way too much time thinking about this stuff haha (or am I?) - do you have little rules or guidelines that you always fall back on like my two above?

Or maybe you wish I'd shut up already about this meaningless navel-gazing philosophical drivel and just post more pix of Charlie's cute face plz?? lol....

(*provided he can stay on his goddamn feet!)

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

amps + damps

Incremental changes have been key with Charlie - in getting to know each other, in helping him adjust to his new lifestyle, and in tweaking his dietary needs. It's all still very much a work in progress, tho.

two forms of signal amplification shown above: treats! (for positive reinforcement) and tall boots! (the better to strap my spurs onto!)
The cool thing about him being a delicate, hot house sensitive flower (albeit, an extremely quiet and shrinking-violet-esque type flower), is that small adjustments can have big effects. 

my saddle may not be to everyone's tastes, but damn do i love it. and this Arc de Triomphe girth, handed down from Wick, suits it perfectly! also: half pad in pic above shown with front shims.
Lately I've made a couple small changes that have totally altered our riding landscape. Of course, with a horse as green and changeable as Charlie, it's entirely possible this improvement would have happened anyway.... Or it may not last.... Maybe, maybe not. Who knows.

but.... charlie apparently didn't share my sentiments. this cheapy fleece Ovation girth is much preferred for its dampening effect and distribution of pressure. le sigh. also: half pad above shown without front shims.
I've been playing with my saddle's fit, including changing gullet plates and experimenting with shim and half pad configurations. Nothing is quite perfect yet, but Charlie's back has been changing shape as he adds and drops muscle, so we're just kinda playing it by ear. For now, the best fit seems to be: medium gullet plate + pro lite half pad with thin front shims.
we spend a lot of time chillin by the trailer. he likes cleaning up all the loose hay bits!
While I think that's helped, a much more noticeable improvement stems from swapping his fancy gorgeous anatomic leather ADT girth for a simple fleece lined Ovation girth. This makes me..... sad haha. But it makes Charlie super happy. For whatever reason, both Isabel and Charlie seem to prefer the soft flexibility and freedom of these girths, despite my wishes to dress them in more 'stylish' leather.

The delicate princess gets what he wants tho. And since we've switched to this girth, my giant oaf of a dinosaur hasn't gotten mired down in a tar pit once. And - like magic - we are suddenly back to striking off simply, almost-drama-free, into both leads.

trusty little nubs! thy name is amplification!
The last little adjustment is one I already wrote about - adding spurs to the mix. This has also necessitated moving back to riding in my tall boots instead of the river boots. Since adding the spurs, I've ditched carrying a dressage whip or crop - and haven't missed it once.

you can't tell me that's not the cutest face. also we finally introduced cantering on the lunge!! both leads too, good pony
Charlie is fantastic with these nubs. Combined with his increased comfort in the new girth, we've seen vast improvements in his 'resisting being driven forward.' Not to say that it's totally gone - bc, remember, that's a fairly entrenched behavior in the big guy - but we have since had entire rides where it either hasn't cropped up at all, or only appears as a momentarily raised head and pinned ears.

canter poles and cross rails and cones, oh my! we practiced over this the day after free jumping to reinforce the idea. charlie was taking no prisoners and attacked it, good boy!
The spurs are great for me too, bc they force me to be more aware of my lower legs. More responsible for ensuring that every aid is purposeful, and has a beginning and end.

As I've said since day 1, my favorite part about riding Charlie is that for such a green horse, he really is so sensitive and so ready for me to deliver the best possible aids and cues to him. It's true with any horse but it's especially true with Charlie: The better I can be, the better he goes.

little mound of doom. we like to ride and hand walk up and down that random bump in the grass often. it's good practice on challenging terrain for the big guy!
So it's been really refreshing to have found some tweaks that improve the 'dinosaur stuck in tar pit' behaviors so we can get back to feeling like I have a sensitive, forward horse who responds to the slightest changes in my seat, weight distribution, or leg position. There's hope for us yet!

Have you ever made some slight change with your horse that entirely changed the way he went? Whether through equipment or supplements or physical maintenance? Anything that kind of made you wish you had tried it ages ago??

Monday, February 13, 2017

free jumping Charlie

Alternate titles:

Big trees fall hard.
Maybe we should stick to dressage.
What we have here is a failure to ambulate.
When we go high, he goes low.
At least he's pretty.
i can live with pretty
Ahhhahaha..... yea. So, lol, Charlie is a quiet horse. He is extremely laid back. It's his defining characteristic, and was ultimately the deciding factor when I found him fresh off the track, unstarted and body + foot sore.

i like riding in pretty places too
So far, it's worked out pretty well for me. I'm having a lot of fun with Charlie and he's perfectly suited  for my "Let's do all the things!" approach to horses.

quiet, thy name is charlie!
There's a downside to his casual, laissez-faire attitude tho. Namely, despite being a decidedly-not-dumb horse, Charlie doesn't think particularly deeply about obstacles that may fall in his path. Nothing really impresses him, and he's not super inclined toward exertion.

This can often create stumbling blocks (lol puns) in the training process.

bella looked great!!!!
spoiler alert: charlie reached neither this height, nor this form haha
Anyway. A couple weeks ago, Britt's post about free jumping her lovely new horse Smitty reminded me of when Brita and I sent Wick down a chute a couple years ago, and the lasting positive impact that had on Wick. That was the turning point in when Wick finally figured out what this whole jumping thing was all about.

he tried, tho. sorta.
Fast forward a couple weeks to when trainer P brought up the subject again in a lesson, suggesting that Charlie could benefit from the exercise. And when we learned that one of our regular ship-in lesson mates wasn't coming this week, we set the date. Charlie would learn to free jump!

ground pole champion!!!
I rode Charlie around the outdoor dressage court briefly to warm him up in all three gaits, then took him into the indoor to help finish setting up. We sent the horses through the chute first with nothing, then with ground poles, then each slowly built up to various configurations of cavaletti - 18' - jump - 18' - jump.

gotta watch out for those cavaletti tho.... they'll getcha every time!
Oh Charlie. He struggled a bit with this exercise. Ground poles were fine, but the big guy basically ate shit over his first cavaletti. He gave them a little more respect after that.... but not much. Once he kinda got the idea over two cavaletti in a row, we gave him a break to think about it while another horse took her turn.

c'mon charlie, this problem is not solved by slowing to a walk over the poles...
Then Charlie went through again and eventually built up to a ground pole - 18' - cavaletti - 18' - 2'6 oxer. And by that time he had basically figured out the drill and cantered right on through the exercise, barely registering the "increased" height (3 whole inches, whoa buddy!) on his last trip.

moving out with a little encouragement
So that was reassuring haha. When he actually pays attention and at least half-way applies himself, the work comes fairly easily to him. His form is good enough for my purposes and his canter appears easy to jump from. He's just... gotta... ya know... JUMP.

there ya go, buddy! there's that exaggerated canter stride we know and love!
In time, Charlie. In time.

and we have lift off!!
And in the meantime, we'll probably revisit this exercise with some regularity as Charlie continues to learn how to sort himself out.

Grid work is a common theme in lessons with trainer P anyway, but letting the horse go without a rider had the advantage of removing his whole "resisting the rider's aids" issue from the equation. Without a rider, Charlie had nothing to fuss or fight against distracting him from the task at hand.

video here, fail-tacular wipe out and all
(i was undecided about including the wipe out in the video bc i'm like 73% positive charlie's former owners subscribed to my youtube channel.... and.... while it wasn't a bad fall, it's also not really the picture i want them to have of their beloved race horse learning to jump. oh well. my adherence to documenting the entire training process won out, and the clip is included. tho i resisted the urge to add in gratuitous slo-mo..... maybe that'll crop up as a gif one of these days!)

The way I see it, everything seems to happen a little slowly in Charlieland - including his let down and transition from race horse to riding horse (we're just now at the 6 month mark since his last race). But I'm hopeful for some breakthrough moments haha. I'm both eagerly awaiting and dreading our first xc jumps. Methinks the solid fences will grab his attention and encourage more respect.... but I also would love to not ride one of those epic stumbles.... We'll see!

Ahh horses. It's always a trade off with something, right? I really love Charlie's quiet and pleasant disposition tho - and the time I spend with him is often the highlight of my day. So that alone is enough to bolster my patience in taking the time he needs to figure out what apparently does not come super naturally to him.

Have you faced similar trade offs with your horse? Has your horse needed extra time for skills development? Or maybe he's like Bella - plenty talented, but sensitive and needing help staying calm?