What I’ve learned about horses, riding and dressage from running – and vice versa

I’ve been a runner, albeit a slow runner, for more than a decade. In the past year, I trained for and ran two half marathons.  I keep at it, even though I’ve battled with a variety of knee, back and hip issues over the years and the fact that when it comes down to it, I’m really not built for running.  I’m like the Quarter Horse showing at 4th level.  He can do it, and definitely be credible, but he’s not exactly Valegro and his owner is pretty darn happy with that 62%.  I keep at it because every year, it gets harder and harder to stay fit (said every middle aged woman ever), and as I learned when I brought Cardoon up the levels, dressage is physically hard.  If I’m not in shape, I can’t and shouldn’t expect my horse to do the work either.

I’m contemplating running another half in the spring, and on one of my long runs, I got to thinking about the lessons I’ve learned from running that can apply to horses, riding and showing dressage. So here are a few rambling thoughts from my run:

Lesson #1: Training makes us sore.  I’ve been dealing with a niggling knee pain and hip soreness that has been plaguing me for months and my last long run was hell on my hips and glutes because I’d worked out with my trainer the day before.  If training my body to run 10+ miles is making me sore, asking Halle to carry herself and use her right hind leg is going to potentially make her sore too.  The trick is knowing when to say when and when to keep pushing.  A certain amount of discomfort is necessary to improve fitness and get you ready to run a half marathon, but you don’t want to do it with a stress fracture or torn ligament.  I’ve talked with the doctor about my knee and hip, and his best advice was to keep stretching, strengthening, and work through it.  And you know what?  The more I do that, the better it gets.  Halle needs to work through some discomfort too, and I need to help her dig in and work through it.  And I need to help her do this with compassion, even if she’s telling me where I can take my hard work and shove it.

Lesson #2: Consult the vet when necessary.  Following on from the previous lesson, its important to check in with an expert periodically to make sure that the Halle’s struggle (or Cardoon before her) is strength related, rather than pain related.  I try to get chiropractic work for myself regularly, but frankly, my horses see the vet, acupuncturist, and chiropractor more frequently than I do.  Maybe this is a running lesson I can learn from my riding, because Halle always works better after the chiropractor sees her, and Cardoon did quite well with regular injections.  Making sure that she sent’ struggling because of an actual injury is important, and keeping her at her best with routine vet care will be critical if we’re going to achieve our FEI dreams.

Lesson #3: Cross training makes a big difference. When I’m a little burnt out on running like I am right now after logging more than 500 miles of running in 2018, a little cross training in the pool or with a spin class helps break the monotony while continuing to build strength and fitness. Lisa Hellmer, the amazing assistant trainer at Sprieser Sporthorse, does cavaletti lesson days once a week.  (For some real fun, watch this video.)  When I can, I take Halle up to Sprieser for Sunday Fundays, and she inevitably comes home fresher and happier.   My resolution for the new year is to swim twice a week, and buy some more cavaletti for my own farm, so every day can include a little cross-training fun for Halle.

Historic Half photo

This is the only picture you’ll see of me running – before the race.  Because the after picture isn’t a pretty one.

Lesson #4: Sometimes training is ugly.  For anyone who hasn’t run a marathon or big race, it may come as a surprise that there are photographers on course who then try to sell you pictures of your racing glory afterwards, just like horse show photographers. Who are these people who actually want photos of themselves in the last stages of a long race?  I mean, this is when you’re thinking about puking, and at least speaking for myself, I always look like I’m one step away from dying.  I feel a little the same about women who show in full makeup.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m impressed, but I know I’m working too hard to allow makeup to do anything other than melt off my face while I’m showing.  Anyway, the point here is that this dressage stuff is hard work, and its OK if it looks like it sometimes.  Sure, we all want to look like Laura Graves, floating serenely above Diddy’s fancy legs, but it doesn’t look like that every day. We and our horses all ride the struggle bus sometimes, and everyone needs to admit that’s just how things are.

Lesson #5: We need to make horse shows a more supportive, community-oriented place. Running races is fun, even when you’re pretty sure you’ll puke at mile 12.  (OK, maybe that part of my last race wasn’t a joy, but I got over it when I spotted the downhill turn to the finish line!) Everyone is SO friendly and there is so much support from the people working at the race expo, handing out water on the course, and the spectators who stand outside holding silly signs.  More importantly, other runners are incredibly supportive of each other and they’re just happy to see other people out there doing it, even if doing it means walking part of the course, or running really slowly.  There has never been a race I’ve run where I haven’t had other runners cheer me on and try to lift my spirits when the going got tough.  My last race featured this awesome guy who compliments absolutely every person he passed on course, while he was running his race. I don’t know where he found the air to do it, but it was amazing.

People, we need to bring that kind of spirit and sense of community to dressage shows.  Instead of looking aside politely, or worse, whispering to our friend about the dumb mistake a rider made or the youthful misbehavior of a horse in the ring, we should try to buck people up and make them feel supported.  We’re all in this together! What’s to stop us from telling people coming out of the ring that it gets better?  Or congratulating them on the good things they did? Just a little more friendliness in this tough, often solitary sport could go a long way to helping everyone keep at it, and try to be the best rider and trainer they can.

So, my resolution for the coming year is to remember and try to implement all of this.  To push when I need to, get expert help when necessary, know that it’ll be hard, and try to cheer on my fellow dressage queens.  This is a mad, mad world we’re in, and any bit of encouragement helps.

 

 

 

Taking the long way round

I’ve been absent from this page for most of the year because there just hasn’t been much to say.  With a young horse, there are ups and downs and circles where you chase your tail, but none of it is very interesting.

Until now, when I’ve looked back, become a little introspective, and begun to take stock of where I’ve been and where Halle and I are going for the new year.

Most of this year has been spent doing nothing more than walking, trotting, and cantering on a 20 meter circle.  The theme of almost every ride has been, “Yes, Halle.  I CAN touch you.”  Most rides, all year, start with the following conversation:

“Don’t touch me,” says Halle.

“I’m going to touch you, dear.  This is my leg and its not killing you, nor leaving a bloody spur mark.” I say.  This is usually followed by a buck, kick, or swinging of the ass or wild flinging of the head in one direction or another.  One of the more amusing things has been when I touch her with my right leg.  And she kicks out with her left leg.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat until she realizes I’m not going away.  Sometimes that takes 2 minutes.  Sometimes she continued to protest being touched for most of the ride.

I did ride with Michael Barisone a few times this year, and the lessons I learned from him weren’t earth shattering or revolutionary, but I find myself hearing his voice in my head almost every ride, and that voice improving that ride.  Inside leg.  More inside leg.  More bend.  More trot.

The other thing Michael told me a few months ago was that while Halle seemed to be a lovely horse, our progression up the levels wasn’t going to be linear, like that of another 6 year old he saw that clinic.  Unlike that lovely little gelding, who will likely proceed in a  straight(ish) line up from First to Second to Third level, Michael confirmed what I had been thinking for some time.  I’m taking the longer, more circuitous way around the training pyramid.

On the days where Halle’s case of the Don’t-Touch-Mes only lasts a minute or two, and she really lets me in to ride, we can do all the lateral work we want, have lovely balanced transitions, and start to lift her front end.  She can compress, and extend (a little), and she gives a great feeling between two legs and two reins.

On other days, she can’t walk in a straight line.

This seemingly never-ending cycle of consistent, correct work followed by days or weeks of can’t-walk-staight sometimes got me down, but I’m probably luckier than most amateurs.  I’ve had the good fortune of seeing my trainer bring multiple horses from 4, 5, or 6 years old up through the levels to FEI.  I remember Fender running backwards around the arena.  I remember when Midge was a terrorist.  I remember seeing Danny do his best to dump Michael, after he’d succeeded in dumping Lauren.  Twice.  But I also remember seeing all of them grow up and be solid citizens.

Not only did Fender grow up to be a good FEI horse for Lauren, he went on to have a career with Lauren’s mom and helped several of her assistant trainers get Bronze and Silver medals.  Midge is also now a stellar amateur horse, once again competing at FEI.  And Danny grew out of his naughtiness enough to start learning the ropes of Grand Prix.

It is amazing how things happen, and you don’t notice the progression until you get closer to the other side and realize how far you’ve come.  I still have so far to go in my journey with Halle, but I realized last night that sticking with it through all of those 6 year old temper tantrums is finally starting to pay off.  Halle has learned that when I put my leg on, I’m not taking it off just because she kicks, bucks, or throws her head around.  And I’ve learned that I need to just stick with it and kick on, because as Lauren told me a few months ago –

Halle is going to be a really super horse.  Probably just not this year.ED183389

Relief Pitching

A few years ago, Cardoon and I were really struggling with something.  I don’t remember what it was, but I’m fairly sure I ended up in tears after stringing together some really spectacular profanity while riding at home.  Kevin may have come out to the arena to investigate.  I called Lauren, and she told me to bring him to her farm the next day.  She’d get on him and see what she could do.

I felt like a failure, running off to my trainer to have her fix the problem.  I’d been working at it for a while, and things were just spiraling down, down, down.  Lauren told me not to worry about it – I just needed a fresh arm and an inning of relief pitching.  It was good advice then and it is still good advice today.

This year, for the third or fourth year in a row, my current riding horse (formerly Cardoon, and now Halle) has spent a little time at Sprieser Sporthorse over the winter.  It has been a nice reprieve to have one less horse at home in the coldest months, and has the benefit of giving us a head start on the show season.  With work putting me on the road for a good bit in February, I sent Halle there at the beginning of the month.

Not only was this a nice reprieve that kept her in work, but I was in need of a little relief pitching.  January was rocky, with inconsistent opportunities to ride because of the lousy, frigid weather and the addition of some five-year-old antics.  Halle never did anything completely nutty, but the canter transitions were…a little too exuberant, to say the least.

Enter the magic of Lisa Hellmer and Lauren Fisher.  In a week, they had Halle walking, trotting and cantering pleasantly and with slightly less exuberance.  With some consistency, I probably would have made it there too, but a little relief pitching made all of us happier.

halle-nose.jpeg

I’m happy to say I picked her up and brought her home tonight after a great lesson with Lisa, on one of the magic cavaletti days.  Halle and I still have miles to go before we can do something really exciting – like put together a test, any level test, from start to finish – but we’re over a small hump and I’m ready to take the reins back full time.  And its really great to have her snuggly nose back in my barn.

 

Starting Over

One of Stephen Covey’s 7 habits of highly effective people is to “Begin with the End in Mind.”  This is great advice in life, but also in horses.  Knowing where you’re trying to go is so important in training, so you put the right basics on your youngster to get you to your end goal.  Obviously, you don’t want to teach a horse to be a pro at neck reining if your goal is producing a show hunter. A finer point, however, is that knowing what kind of feel you want at the upper levels of a sport can help you train for that even when you’re years away from it.  This is a lesson I’ve always understood intellectually with horses, but in the past few months, it has become integral to my daily riding and training, thanks to a new horse and a wholly new and different view on training than I’ve had in the past.

In many ways, it feels like 2017 as a bit of a lost year when it comes to the horses, but in reality, it was a year long march towards an exciting new beginning.  Last year was the year that I retired Cardoon from dressage and sold Healey.  It was the year I was able to, just once, ride a confirmed Grand Prix horse. It was also the year that Halle came into my life.

When I decided to sell Healey, it was a tough decision in some ways, but easy in others.  There is a lot to be said for having a horse in your barn who you trust and has a great brain, but I know that I still have FEI dreams and I don’t want to struggle against nature the way I did with Cardoon.  The only reason he and I got as far as we did was because he was willing to try, but there was nothing that was easy with him (well, except the flying changes).  Healey will be a little easier than Cardoon when it comes to lateral work, but at the end of the day, he just wasn’t made for the sitting you need at PSG and above.  Knowing what I know now, beginning with Healey wouldn’t get me to the end I had in mind.

Fortunately, Healey sold relatively quickly and I was able to think about the next horse.  It was an intimidating prospect to realize that while I had the biggest budget I’ve ever had for buying a new horse, I still was going to need to buy something young or less trained in order to get something with the FEI potential I wanted.  To be fair, I’m a pretty decent rider.  I’m also, based on what I saw when I sold Healey, pretty brave for an amateur.  But for those of you not familiar with young warmbloods, even the kindest, best-brained of them can give you a pretty wild ride, and they often stay that way until they’re 7 or 8 or even 9.

 

Enter Halle.  The one and only horse I tried.  She was perfect.  She was fancy.  She had life experience and was easy to handle on the ground. She was a GIRL, and I’ve never had a girl.  And most important, she was in my budget.  We got along well, and the purchase went incredibly quickly.  Within two weeks of Healey leaving for his new home, Halle arrived in my barn.

Halle first dayOf course, she is a five year old Dutch mare (Sir Sinclair x Consul), so that means she has opinions and she’s sensitive.  And so I’m starting over, beginning with the end in mind.

 

Halle has good basics thanks to the two trainers who started her, but she’s now having to actually go to work every day, a sometimes challenging concept for a young horse.  Some days are good and some days are like riding a lit stick of dynamite (especially those days when its 25 degrees, with winds blowing 15mph).  Some days she can do most of the trot work from first and even second level, and on that same day, she might be utterly incapable of picking up a left lead canter.

Having had the experience of Cardoon, and working methodically through each level, trying to achieve mastery of Training, First, Second and then Third levels, I have a better understanding of where I’m headed this time.  I also don’t feel like we need to master each level in sequence on the way up.  I’m content to live in the young horse space this time, somewhere between training and third level until she is confident and confirmed in the bridle, connected over her back, and responsive without being explosive.

While I’m standing back at the same starting line I was at more than 5 years ago with Cardoon, I feel more prepared for the journey ahead and have a better idea of what the finish line looks like.  This journey will be a different one, filled with different challenges than last time, but at least for now, it feels like a journey with the potential to go a heck of a lot further than the last one.

For now though, instead of gazing at that distant horizon where we can pirouette and piaffe and passage, I’ll go back to trying to focusing on the here and now – one where we can pick up a left lead canter and understand that my right leg is not some sort of rare instrument of equine torture.

 

 

 

Knowing when…

Horses can’t talk.  This is probably one of the most obvious statements I’ve ever written, but it is true and presents me almost weekly with a deep psychological challenge and existential question.  If only my horses could talk, they could tell me if I am doing right by them. If I am being entirely fair. Or if they just can’t do that right half pass because their hocks hurt, or if they are having a hard time bending left because they hit their head on the stall wall while trying to jaw wrestle with their neighbor an hour before I came to ride.

I’m an amateur, and while I see my horses as partners in a sporting effort, they’re also still my pets, family members, and good friends.  I know how much it sucks to ride hard when my back hurts or I’m just stiff from sitting too long in the car, and I want the best for them. I try to be at least reasonably understanding when they have a hard time performing for some reason.   At the same time, the percentage of their lives that they have to spend actually working is pretty small – maybe 4 hours or 2% of their week – so I expect them to try, even if the going is a little tough.

Even more, dressage is hard.  It is hard for me, and it is hard for the horses.  We take an animal whose natural tendency is to carry 60% of their weight on their front legs, and through training, teach it to carry that 60% of its weight on its hind legs.  There will be aches and pains for horse and rider along the way to the FEI levels.  That is normal, and it is normal to expect the horse to keep trying through a little bit of discomfort.

That said, knowing when to push through the training trouble, give a horse a few days off or call the chiropractor or acupuncturist, or even the vet, is one of the most difficult decisions I think I make as a horse person.  These are the decisions that keep me up at night, and that I talk about incessantly – to myself, to Kevin, to my trainer, or to anyone who might be able to help.  I try to keep my level of crazy to a minimum so I don’t drive away my friends, but these thoughts keep me up at night.

I’ve had some horses who were relatively easy to figure out.  Ian, my grand old man of a Thoroughbred, was great at saying, “Hey mom!  Something’s wrong!” by going off his feed dramatically or being 5 out of 5 lame with an abscess.  Even when it was his time, at nearly 27 years old, he told me in no uncertain terms that he was ready to go.

Cardoon…not so much.  Admittedly, I have Cardoon at a different point in his development as a show horse, but he doesn’t have nearly the same reaction to difficulty as Ian did.  Cardoon internalizes, and then he shuts down, which makes finding a cause, and possible solution, rather hard.

After my show season was over last year, I gave Cardoon a few weeks of easy, fluffy work, but then started back in the more serious training in mid-November.  Unfortunately, he started throwing in periodic bouts of shutting down while I was riding him.  I was hurt, upset, perplexed and utterly obsessed with what was wrong and what to do.  I tried working him though it, and I tried taking him to the vet.  Both things made something of a difference, but he still, as of January was just quitting at the beginning of rides and telling me where I could take my “hard work” and shove it.

Knowing when to try different things is hard, and it can be demoralizing when something doesn’t work, especially when you’re spending hundreds of dollars to try something that might help.  Vet visits are expensive, and when there’s no obvious glaring problem, diagnostics can really run up a bill and even then not point to anything specific.  Seeing the saddle fitter, trying new tack, having the chiro come out to work on the horses – all of these things have a price tag and still may not produce results.

After four months of trying different things – training, testing, injections, treatment for ulcers – I had another talk with my vet and more talks with my trainer.  Despite our best efforts, we can’t come up with a pinpoint reason for his behavior, so I’m saying enough is enough…for now.

It is absolutely heartbreaking for me to just stop training at this point in in our journey together, but the right decision for everyone’s sanity (and my wallet) is to give us both a big, long break and see where we are come summer.  Maybe he’s just telling me that after almost 5 years of working hard for me and taking me places I never expected, he needs a sabbatical.  So, I’ll focus on Healey, maybe teach Cardoon a few tricks, and hope that Dr. Green can cure whatever is ailing him – whether that’s between his ears or somewhere in his body.

cardoon-and-the-ladies.jpg

Cardoon is going to get some time to hang out with the ladies next door.