A Different Kind of Obsession

I haven’t been writing lately because I’ve been obsessed with something completely different from horses; pregnancy. Pregnancy. Something every mom is intimately familiar with and unexplainable to those uninitiated. Everyday is a new adventure so it’s not like I know what I’m talking about either. I do know that it’s completely different than what I expected. Since I bought Savy a little over 3 years ago, she’s been my number one priority. I was always thinking about her, obsessing over training, and day dreaming about the perfect centerline at our next show.  I completely expected to continue as normal once I got pregnant, until I was too large to physically ride anymore.

That has not been the case. Almost immediately the morning sickness and fatigue of the first trimester put a screeching halt to any riding. Since I found out I was pregnant I’ve ridden maybe 10 times in almost 4 months. It’s crazy! What’s surprising is that we’ve actually made progress. It seems that each time we work together, either on the ground or in the saddle, our work is more potent. When I ride next, it’s as if we just finished our last ride, even if it was two weeks earlier. What’s even better is Savy’s overall acceptance of the aids has improved dramatically.  She has always chomped on the bit, or tried to evade the bit. Not so much anymore. A few ground driving sessions improved something we’ve been working on for 3 years!

Since my rides haven’t been long, or taxing, I’ve been focusing completely on the basics. Inside leg to outside rein. Bending through the body and not just the neck. Rewarding for each little try on Savy’s part. Taking frequent walk breaks. Keeping the back lifted during the trot to canter transition. She felt so solid, soft and on my aids during our last ride, that I decided to try out some more difficult stuff. Leg yields centerline to B & E, easy. Even tempo, stayed on the outside rein, beautiful cross over. Trot lengthening, easy. Improved the connection dramatically actually. I could have taken that ride all the way down centerline at a rated show!  If we were working regularly with a trainer, it’d be time to up the ante and start working on harder stuff.

If it seems I am really excited and over celebrating just one ride – I am. Even if it was great, everyone knows that with horses it’s one step forward two steps back.  But my riding days, as sporadic as they are already, are numbered. I’m going to hold onto this one great ride. We had a cold snap recently with lots of snow and I barely made it out to the barn, but when I am there Savy has a wild look in her eyes.  As much as I miss her, and riding, I’m happy that she gets this break to be just a horse. She has no pressure, no expectations, and as a result she seems to like our time together even more.

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Turkey Trot Schooling Show

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I went to the Turkey Trot (a local schooling show) with one objective in mind, schooling in the show ring. Prior to our last show, I went down centerline practically paralyzed with nerves.  My only real goal was to get through the movements; halt at X, don’t go off course, canter when I’m supposed to and pick up the correct lead, and ride reasonably accurate circles.  Savy quickly learned she didn’t have to work hard in the show ring, and I became a passenger.

So for this schooling show, I put no pressure on myself to score well and had no expectations of being high in the ribbons. There were no more than 6 riders in each class so I mentally prepared myself for a pink or green ribbon, and fireworks in the arena.  I am extremely competitive, so this was difficult for me.  Generally anytime I change the status quo with Savy I get lots of bucks and pinned ears.  Surprisingly she didn’t buck at the show, but there was a lot of ear pinning at the canter.

The canter. My nemesis.  I have never been awesome at riding the canter.  It wasn’t so bad in hunters because we just kind of perched there anyway, but I still had trouble with my leads.  Now that I understand bending, I get my lead each time just fine, but I have a tremendously hard time sitting the canter and following the movement.  It doesn’t help that Savy’s canter used to be really difficult to sit at all. Used to being the key phrasing.  Her canter has come a long way and there’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to ride it.

My problem is I tense. I tense because Savy likes to be behind my leg, especially in the canter, and to get her forward I squeeze.  Unfortunately I squeeze with every muscle in my body.  This, of course, has the exact opposite affect and makes Savy very unhappy.  I am learning to relax my body and move my hips with the movement.  If Savy isn’t forward, she gets a boot with the leg.  She keeps getting boots until she’s forward.  We’ve make tremendous improvement in only one week.

I still had some issues with the canter in the test, but I consciously attempted to relax. And while she wasn’t as forward as I would have liked, I didn’t stop pushing for it.  Luckily I have videos of my ride and I am starting to see glimpses of the horse and rider I want us to become.

Surprisingly we received a First and Second place in Training 2 & 3 respectively.

 

Connection & Sept Training Update

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I love that happy expression during a walk break.

“On the bit”, “In front of the leg”, “through”…pick your cliché.  They all work to describe the indescribable.  I’m sure Germany has a word that means all of those things, but we Americans struggle coming up with the most perfect phrase or word to capture the most basic dressage principle.  Every time I think I know what connection feels like and I think, finally, Savy is on the bit, we push the envelope and I realize once again how little I know.   After competing successfully at Training Level, I am 100% focused on reaching First.  This means more connection, more drive, and more finesse.  I absolutely have to consistently ride with a true dressage seat, basically using my hips, rather than my usual seat which is somewhere between a dressage seat and a hunter seat.  This is tough.  Almost as tough and getting used to steady connection with Savy’s mouth (short reins).  My hips and lower back have been killing me.  I mean killing me.  To the point where it hurts to walk up right the next day if I’ve been sitting for a while.

And since we’ve stepped it up a notch, Savy is testing me.  We had one of those “come to Jesus” rides the other night that make me question while I do this to myself and my horse.  Rides like this start out innocently enough and then Savy decides, no, I’m not bending to the right.  Absolutely not. This is her go to when the work gets harder.  She tries to evade the connection.  The ride left me with a bad taste in my mouth, but we worked though it, and it gave me some good insight.

As my trainer would say Savy is playing me.  Nicole and I have been working on quieting my hands so that Savy’s head doesn’t move when I give rein aids.  So during my ride I made a conscious effort to not do anything with my hands down the long side where I could watch us in the mirror.  Savy’s head was still moving ever so slightly back and forth.  I realized that Savy wasn’t pushing into the contact enough, and not truly connected.  This tiny head wag was the only indication.  By all accounts she looked like she was “on the bit”.  Her neck was arched with a relaxed poll, she was moving forward and correctly bent to the inside.  My new driving seat really makes a difference.  I know what it feels like now for her to be “in front of me”, and I’m getting harder to fool.  That being said, these tough rides are usually followed by a couple months of beautiful work and progress.

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Nicole and Savy working baby half-passes.

Speaking of First Level I almost need to starting giving Savy her own training update.  Girl is a rock star.  She pulled out high 60’s on both of her first First Level tests without breaking a sweat.  Her only issue is trot lengthening’s, and it’s only because of strength.  That will come with time.  She is only 5 and not built for dressage.  She does seem to be built for lateral work though.  Nicole started working baby half-passes with her and she didn’t bat an eye.  She just did them like no big deal.  Nicole also told me she almost popped out a flying change in the counter canter because she was so balanced.  She didn’t because she doesn’t want Savy to get too far ahead of me.  I have to get to First Level!!!

Thanks to our new barn buddy Erin, I have some awesome video from out last lesson.

 

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Foxy watching Nicole ride Savy – best barn dog ever!

 

Dressage Show Prep

I intended to begin my show prep the Saturday before the show.  The husband was out of town and I was stuck home taking care of a sick kitty.  What better time to clean tack and finally use those clippers I bought.  One thing led to another and before I knew it was drunk off wine with the ladies from the back barn by 3pm.  Nothing cleaned, nothing clipped.  The next morning I drug my hungover bum to the barn to at least clip Savy and attempt to do some chores.  One thing got done.  One. I shouldn’t have worried though, my work week was so stressful that even cleaning tack seemed like a luxury.  Despite my deadline packed work week I managed to get in a little show prep from my office chair.  These are some of my favorites.

This article, The Unwritten Rules of Dressage Test Riding, is less about the technical aspects of riding and more about ring craft.  Something I know nothing about in Dressage.  For my non-horsey friends ring craft is the art of riding a winning test.  Not just riding the movements, but making the test as a whole a step better than the competition.  In dressage the best horse doesn’t always win.  This sounds crazy but there are so many ways the rider can mess things up, through not fault of the horse.  The rider could forget the test and make a wrong turn somewhere (or go the wrong direction and ride half of your test backwards before the judge realizes it…like me).  And it doesn’t even have to be something that big.  Savy has a tendency to swing her butt slightly to the left when she halts.  It’s my job to remember to use the tiniest bit of left leg to keep her straight, but not too much leg because then she’ll swing her butt to the right.  That little detail could cost me an entire point off that movement, if not more.

I also really like this article about riding accurate circles.  I am notoriously bad at riding circles.  And I don’t know how to measure distances in meters.  I know there are 4, 5 meter sections in a circle, but what 5 meters looks like, I don’t know.  At least I think that’s right…either way this article helps me visualize the circles in the arena.

And finally for inspiration I like this video 🙂  Gets me every time!

This one is good too.

 

A Really Good Lesson

My lesson last night was so good I couldn’t stop thinking about it and decided I had to write a post about it.  A small but spectacular thing happened.   I looked down at my hands at one point and they were correct.  My outside hand was an inch from the withers, my inside hand was about two inches from the withers, my thumbs were up and they were in front of the pommel.  So simple, yet I’ve been trying to get to this point for almost 2 years now.

When I first sat on my very green mare 2 years ago and decided I wanted to learn dressage, my hands were quiet.  Very quiet.  So quiet they never moved.  My trainer would say “wiggle the inside rein”, “squeeze the outside rein”.  What??  What does that even mean.  Even now I have to remind myself to have some play with my fingers every few strides.  Luckily I’m to the point where when my trainer says half-halt, I’m already half-halting, or when she say shorten your reins I just had the same thought.  Timing is everything.  This is probably related, but last night was also the most steadily connected we’ve ever been.  I had much fewer moments when there was slack in the reins.

Not surprisingly, once I figured out my hands, they became much less important than my seat and my leg.  So yes I have a good connection, but now I need consistent forward.  Prior to last night I could get away with using my heels, or using what I can only describe as leg flaps, not really a kick, not really a squeeze either.  This only works for a few strides and it makes her tense and unbalanced.  So I have some homework…dropping my leg below the knee, keeping my toes forward and squeezing with my calf.  This position is not natural for my body but so much more effective that I can’t argue with the result.  We started first at the canter and oh my.  Suddenly Savy seemed to melt and spring forward at the same time.  She was relaxed, correctly bent to the inside, on the outside rein and oh so wonderful.  It’s amazing what tiny differences can make 🙂

July Training Update

7.14A training update is long, long overdue.  Mine and Savannah’s relationship under saddle has greatly improved.  She actually takes me seriously now and doesn’t try to bully me or evade my aids.   She listens to me!!  At least for the most part.  Connection is still an issue but it’s getting better.  I made a lot of progress before the wedding insanity happened, but since then I’ve lost a lot of ground.  Two months off will do that I guess.  Lucky it does seem to be coming back pretty quickly.  Which is a good thing since Savy and I are going to our first rated show in August.    We have only 4 weeks to prepare.  I was ready to back out after my first lesson since the wedding but Nicole seems to think we’re ready.  If it’s terrible then it’s terrible and I can use that as motivation.  Savy and I will be doing training 2 (most likely) and Nicole will be doing first level.  I am definitely more excited about watching Nicole ride her in the big ring.

7.14 2My videographer is off strike and back on duty.  I suppose now that we’re married he doesn’t have an option anymore 🙂  Still, he sacrificed his Saturday morning to come watch me ride in circles and he took a video of us practicing training 2.  It’s really easy to see exactly what my problems are with connection in the video.  I use my hand too much when I should be using my fingers, I let the reins get too long at times, and I really need to start using my core more effectively.  We lowered my stirrups a hole in my last lesson and it’s made a big difference in my seat, but I need to work on stretch down through my hips/heels.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wHIpVzdkhIU

Overall I don’t think it’s terrible, but it’s not show ring ready.  We need to work on our halt, and I don’t think I ever touched the rail at E during our 20 meter circles.  Savy was counter-bent after C going left and I would have liked more stretch in the stretchy trot.  She jigged a bit in the free walk but that’s not normal for us.

 

Who’s The Boss?

Emotions

Notice love is not one of those emotions, even though it seems like it should be the most important, it’s not. Since I love Savy so much, I try to help her and make her work easier, but this only creates more problems.   I have many ways of showing her I love her: I let her lean on my inside leg, I release the outside rein, I release the reins completely or push my hands forward so that she doesn’t really have to be on the bit, I lean forward, I throw my hips forward, I don’t make her march at the walk, I let her run around the arena totally strung out, and I’m sure Nicole know of many other ways I try to make life easier on Savy.  In my mind  I’m telling her I love her, but all Savy is thinking is “Haha sucka! Now I don’t have to work as hard”.

I’ve been trying for months to stop myself from doing this, but subconsciously I still want to.  The truth is that I feel guilty when I make her work hard and do something she doesn’t want to do.  Savy is a willful, stubborn, 5 year old Arabian mare.  She’s sassy and opinionated.  Riding for her isn’t about love, it’s about work and dominance.  She wants to be the leader of our 2 member pack and each time I ease up on her and make things easier, she’s becoming more of the leader than I am.

The turning point in my mindset happened several weeks ago at an Alfredo Hernandez clinic when he addressed the same issue with one of the riders.  He said you love your horse 23 hours of the day, but for 1 hour, the horse has to work (I’m paraphrasing because he said it much more colorfully than that).  So I’ve decided to trust the advice of professionals and take my loving feelings completely out of our training.  I’m not talking about respect, kindness and fairness, those are at the foundation of successful training, but love in the sense that I stop letter her take advantage of me.  I will no longer be a passive rider.  And let me tell you, Savy is pissed!  Super, super pissed.

Savy is beyond angry that I’ve been making her stay bent to the inside without releasing the outside rein and stay in front of my leg.  She is outraged and she’s fighting with all of her might to remain the leader of our pack.  And so begins the toughest time in our training history.  Our lesson last night was tense and stressful for all of us; me, Savy, and Nicole.  Nicole had me sit with a strong core, not leaning forword and not letting Savy pull me forward and with my elbows glued to my side.  I had to stay strong in my position until Savy released her neck and jaw.  The entire time using my legs to push her forward into the contact.  At one point I think both Nicole and I weren’t sure if she was going to give.  But finally, finally she did and we were able to get beautiful, supple, round trot work.  She even stayed round in the extended trot with no fuss.

It can be easy to get discouraged when we go through these rough patches.  Sometimes I feel like I’m no better of a rider than when we first started training a year and half ago and that we’re making no progress.  But then I remember that we went through the same thing last year teaching Savy to stretch over her back.  Now Savy has an awesome stretchy walk, trot and canter.  Something that used to be incredibly difficult is now one of our strongest points.  So I know that once we push through this challenging phase, Savy will be solid in her beautiful round, engaged frame.

This is what our last 5 rides have looked like….

Difficult