Nothing is happening!

Nothing. Is. Happening.  These words just may have played a role in a recent series of text messages to Lauren after a few perfectly OK, but decidedly uninspired rides.

For the uninitiated, dressage training looks something this: like long periods of not much, punctuated by three strides of brilliance, followed by another period of Very Boring Things.  I know this.  This is not a new concept to me.  Yet a few weeks ago, I had a few moments of panic after one of those rides where nothing went terribly wrong, but nothing went particularly right either.

As an amateur who’s never ridden at this level, much less trained a horse new to this level, it can be so incredibly difficult to know if the work you’re slogging away at, day in and day out, is actually making any kind of difference.  Quite often, it feels like there is absolutely no change from day to day, week to week.  You question your sanity in spending exorbitant amounts of money on this sport, especially when you’re braving freezing temperatures to ride in circles for what seems like hours.

Cardoon Winter 2016

Cardoon wishes that I’d let him have the winter off.  This FEI stuff is hard.

Its been terrific to be boarding at Lauren’s for a few months because aside from the nice indoor and great care, I have eyes on the ground for more rides than not, and that makes a difference.  If nothing else, it keeps me from spiraling too far into my own put of despair.

Lauren and her assistant trainers Natasha and Lisa have both assured me that Cardoon looks and feels great and that we just are where we are.  One day, if I keep picking away at the little things, collected pirouette canter will just happen and I’ll wonder why I was so worried.

I did have a small realization today when I rode and we practiced some canter half pass, a movement which seemed so incredibly hard at exactly this time last year.  It felt at the time like we did so many bad half passes, replete with bad riding and bad horse behavior.  It felt like we’d never, in a million years, be able to do one of these in a respectable manner.

Yet tonight, we made lovely canter half pass in both directions and worked on making it just a little crisper, a little more upright and slightly better positioned.  But the basic movement was no longer the struggle it was last year.  I don’t know when that happened, but it gives me hope that I’m not destined to flounder in this no man’s land of bad pirouettes and crooked collected canter forever.

In the meantime, I’ll try to embrace the grind and punctuate it with fun things like hill work, cavaletti and trail rides.

 

Advertisements

The Check-in

I had my weekly lesson with Lauren on Christmas eve, as she’s now off to Welly-world for the winter season.  While she comes home three times between now and April 1, and while Cardoon and I will have regular eyes on the ground for at least the next two months (I’m lucky enough to be boarding at her farm for the winter again!), I wanted to have one last check-in with her on our progress before we were abandoned…ahem…left to our own devices for a while.

There are some things in the dressage world that have to be taught “just so” in order to avoid problems down the road.  For example, I’ve seen that the flying changes can be kinda, permanently challenging if a horse’s propensity to be late behind isn’t nipped in the bud early on.  While late changes were never a problem for Cardoon (he liked to demonstrate his savant-like capacity for changes as early as First Level), we’ve seen  several horses go through this issue lately, it made me worry that there might be other complex sounding movements that could be equally screwed permanently.

Like the pirouette.

The pirouette feels right now like something I will never master.  I feel as though I’ve been stuck for a month doing transitions between collected canter and very collected canter, and living in an exercise involving a 20 meter circle with a canter volte at 12, 3, 6, and 9 o’clock.  We’re doing it, and the pirouette canter might be getting ever-so-slightly better, but it feels like I’m standing still and lack any skills to make the canter as small as it will need to be.

A few lessons ago, while observing our struggle to sit and collect, even for a few strides, Lauren suggested that the next step (for us) towards the pirouettes was to get Cardoon VERY round, while still in a collected canter.   Think rollkur, but without the permanently cranked over neck, open mouth, and torture.  Lets be honest here, with his big shoulders and driving horse front end, Cardoon is physically incapable of a rollkur position. That said, getting him to be truly over his back, giving at the base of his neck, while still cantering uphill and forward is a challenge.  And it was getting in the way of our work towards the pirouette because his tendency is to brace at his withers, and bring his neck and head up.  This isn’t conducive to the balanced, round, uphill movement we’re after.

In pursuit of this increased roundness, we spent about two weeks working on nothing but a very round, uphill canter.  It was an awful lot of thinking about putting his nose between his knees, without actually ever getting his nose close to that place.  We did a lot of suppling on the outside rein, giving, and then suppling some more.  My left shoulder now hurts a lot, and its possible I now have a rotator cuff injury.  But I think all of that suppling paid off.

In my last lesson, I asked Lauren to hop on Cardoon and give me her assessment of how she thought he felt.  Basically, a check-in on whether she thinks he’s progressing and whether my training feels “right”.  I don’t want to be working towards the pirouette only to find out that I’ve somehow permanently prevented us from ever getting there through incorrect work.

Much to my relief and delight, she actually giggled a little when she got on him and the words “He’s getting So. Fun.” may have passed her lips.  She also assured me that pirouettes are not, in fact, like flying changes.  One is not likely to completely FUBAR them by riding badly.

The other small joy in my lesson is that when he does misbehave while we’re working on collected canter (which usually looks something like canter-canter smaller 1 stride-flying change-one tempi-slam both front feet on the ground in anger-then leap away 2 feet-then continue cantering), its not me.  Because he pulled the same exact thing with Lauren.  Its not that I want to see my trainer fail – I pay her to succeed -but it is a little gratifying to know that this is just where we are, because it’s where we are, and not because I suck.

All in all, the check-in went well.  Lauren assures me that we’re where we should be and that I shouldn’t panic.  The pirouettes will come.  Eventually.  And in the meantime, we just need to keep chipping away at that very, very collected canter – with our head down and nose to the grindstone.

Cardoon December bath

Cardoon got a mid-December bath and a THIRD body clipping in preparation for two months at Camp Prix-St-Georges-in-2016 or bust.  

 

With Gratitude

A few weeks ago, a friend posted a news article on Facebook about the barn where we had all ridden as teenagers.  After a long period decline and then of being closed, it is now under new ownership and management, and will soon be the home to new horses and new trainers.  The article brought back memories of summers in the sun, winters spent freezing in the indoor, and how lucky I was to find a life with horses when I was a kid, while growing up in suburban New Jersey.

Like a lot of adult amateurs, I didn’t grow up in a horsey family.  My mom (a teacher) and my dad (an architect) probably had no idea what they were getting into when they gave me riding lessons for my 10th birthday.  I remember opening that gift of my first riding helmet (safety first!) and being just so excited that I was going to be able to get on a horse and really learn what to do while I was up there.  Their willingness to cart me to and from the barn for years, and pay for this ridiculously expensive hobby is something I’m thankful for to this day.  My parents let me find my passion, and indulged me in pursuing it to the very best of their ability.

God only knows where my love of horses came from.  I just remember always having a  decided preference for stuffed animals over dolls as a young child, and that obviously carried over to the real thing.  I’ve never had any use for babies, while I now, at 40, have two horses, three dogs, a cat and six chickens.  If I had unlimited money and time, there would be more of all of them, but still no plans for babies in our life!

From my first school pony (Barney Rubble) to my Big Eq horse (Murphy’s Journey), horses were a major part of growing up for me.  After my parents took the leap and bought me my first (and only) horse as a kid, we eventually landed at Snowbird Acres Farm.

Mom and Willie

My mom was a good sport about holding one horse for me while I hopped on another horse for a different division.  She looks pretty relaxed here, so I’m guessing I wasn’t riding off on Double A, who she blames for an awful lot of her gray hair.  I think this was also about the time she started asking why I couldn’t take up dressage.

At the time, Snowbird was something of a local legend, at least it was to me!  Run by the Siegel family, the place was huge by New Jersey standards.  It had an indoor arena, four barns, an outside course for hunters, and four other outdoor rings.  They also had a big lesson program with a ton of school horses, and ran three A-rated shows in the winter and at least two 5-ring C-rated shows a month from May through October.

Riding at Snowbird was an experience.  I was fortunate to be of an age with a few other girls there at the time – Cathy, Erika, Marni, Jen, Tammy and Kelly – and we formed the core of a group that helped run shows, coach the younger kids, and fill classes so the points would count for year-end awards and regional qualifications.  I was fortunate to often be working at the barn on Sundays, when things were a little quieter, and my trainer would sometimes throw me up on the newest horses in the barn to see if they might make good school horses.

Snowbird gave me opportunities.  Opportunities to meet people I wouldn’t have known otherwise because they went to different schools.  Opportunities to spend long days outside, being silly (Like the summer when half my friends, after finishing clipping horses went to town on the Siegel’s collies.  And then their own hair). Opportunities to ride different horses in different divisions.  Opportunities to work hard with a horse for months, and see success with that horse in the show ring.

Some of those trial horses became my competition horses.  I remember the first time Torri asked me to hop on Corona, and then she jacked the fence up to 4′ to “see what he’d do”.  Happily, he cracked his back clearing that fence, and I stayed on, and he became my 3′ equitation horse for a while.  Then there was Almost Always – a little mare we called Double A – who would almost always jump anything you pointed her at.  The only time she wouldn’t was when you didn’t trust her to get you to the fence.  Corona taught me to stay on, and A taught me to trust a good horse.

DoubleA

Double A in the jumper ring, circa 1990.  One of the times I didn’t trust her was at exactly this fence.  She had a spot all picked out, and it was different than mine.  All I really remember is parting ways with her, and ending up on the far side of the triple bar, sitting on the ground, holding the whole bridle in my hands.  I tried to let her pick the spots after that.

Trusting Double A like I did let us jump some fences that you never would have thought a little 14.3h, part-Arabian hony could clear.   One show, we finished our go at the Pre-preliminary jumpers (about 2’6″) and got the call to head up to the Equitation ring because they needed one more person to get around the 3’9″ Medal course so the qualifications would count.  As I went into the ring, I felt the weight of the real Big Eq riders on my shoulders, as their placings wouldn’t count unless I could get my little hony around the course.  So we went in and rode for all we were worth.  I’m sure it wasn’t pretty (thank god there is no video or photographic evidence), but I do remember that we left all the fences up, except the back rail of the last over.  Maxine Best, mother of Olympian Greg Best – equestrian hero of the day, shouted, as I cleared that last fence, “Four faults!” and started a huge round of applause.  I was both inordinately proud, and mortified, but I trusted that little mare to get us around that day, and get us around she did.

After a few years, Snowbird brought me Murphy – a gigantic, chromey chestnut 17.3h Irish warmblood  with a huge jump.  Thanks to another client of the Siegel’s, I now had a quality Big Eq horse  and the opportunity to really compete in the Medal, Maclay and USET.  To this day, I still have my number from my first “real” Big Eq on Murphy.  We had our ups and downs.  Riding a one stride in-and-out as a bounce in the USET class was not rewarded, but there were other highlights as we figured out how to control his stride and stay with him over the fences.  Murphy and I had just one season of competition, but riding at the next level gave me a glimpse of what I might do in the future.

I took some time off from riding at the end of my senior year of high school and through college, but always knew I’d go back to riding at some point.  I’m still grateful for the opportunity to ride as a kid – thanks to both the sacrifice of my parents to make it happen financially and to the community at Snowbird that made horses a social and fun experience.

Kids today find themselves in such structured programs for so many of their activities.  I hope that some kids out there in the horse world have the kind of opportunities I did, and that the new management at Snowbird lets kids run a little wild and find the kind of life with horses that I’ve found.

 

Doing it wrong (in all the right ways)

I was fortunate again to scrape together the cash to ride with Michael Barisone the weekend before Thanksgiving.  The last clinic in August helped give me motivation and a little breakthrough that really helped improve my position.  The hope was that this weekend would do the same, which would be especially good heading into the long, dark, and hopefully not-as-cold-as-last-year winter.

I’m very happy to report that the clinic was once again worth the money, but not in the same way as last time.  Sure, I have some new things to work on, new focus, and I had another little “aha!” moment in the changes, but the best thing I learned is that I continue to do lots of things wrong, but I’m learned how to do them wrong in the right direction.

Michael knows that we’re aiming at the Prix St. Georges next show season.  It will be a stretch for sure, but I’m hoping that I’ll be able to put on a tailcoat sometime in the late summer or early fall.  Knowing that’s my goal, and after a little warmup to get Cardoon really working over his back, we dove straight into the PSG work.

This would be a good time to point out that we’ve only schooled tempi changes a handful of times, and Lauren has only had me approach the general idea of a pirouette.  We never really tried to execute one.

Michael didn’t know that, so when he asked me to show him my four-tempis, we careened wildly across the diagonal (actually, about 5 different diagonals), throwing in random changes.  I think we did three of them.

Once he made it clear that he wanted FIVE changes, FOUR strides apart, on ONE diagonal line, I finally got myself together, and really rode them.  That was the “aha!” moment for the clinic – feeling just how much effort I had to put into those changes.  It’s no longer about just asking Cardoon to move forward, and then asking for the change.  Now I need to train myself to keep him strongly centered between both legs and both hands and drive him STRAIGHT into each tempi change.  Only when I really SAT and DROVE in a way I’ve never done before, did that line of FIVE, 4-tempis appear.

The more important lesson came in working the pirouettes.  To be fair, I’ve never done them on any horse.  And since I’m pretty sure Combined Driving tests don’t call for a canter pirouette, that means Cardoon has never done one either.  Again, this didn’t daunt Michael.

“Come through the corner, onto the diagonal, and TURN before you get to X!” he says.  Sure, sounds easy…turning.  Just…turning.  Of course there’s the turn to the diagonal, straighten, bend, collect, keep cantering, stay round, KEEP CANTERING, and then turn the smallest figure you’ve ever ridden.

Fortunately, Cardoon is a saint, and while I’m sure he was confused by the push, pull, and groan of frustration coming from his back, we did eventually start to approach something that may have resembled a pirouette.  What I learned, and what will be invaluable as I go into a stretch of riding on my own, is how to do pirouettes wrong, but in the right direction.

Lauren likes to tell me that its not a problem when I keep making mistakes, as long as they’re not the same one, over and over.  I think the lesson from this clinic is also to keep making different mistakes, but make them in the right way.

In the pirouette, what I realized is that I was trying too hard to keep Cardoon’s head down, and keep him round.  This gave him no room to come up through his shoulder and turn.  My turns were round and on the bit, but way too big.  When I let go of keeping his head down, I felt like I could lift his shoulders right up and move them over with each stride.  While I’m sure the result was somewhat horrifying to watch, it gave me a better feel for where we’re headed, and those formerly 6m voltes started to be more like 2-3m pirouettes.

I’ll need to go back and fix the roundness once I can get the turning sorted out, but at least I have a map of which pieces can be wrong while we get the feel of the pirouette.

After all, Michael told me that I have to do 10,000 pirouettes to really understand them.  I think I have 9,950 to go.

 

Physical Demands

There was a discussion recently on COTH (Chronicle of the Horse) forums when someone asked “Now that I have this new, giant WB…should I expect every ride to be a sweat bath?”  At one point, the poster asked do I need “to really hit the gym?”  I laughed, because I could relate.  Last year, as we trained through Second Level I remember an awful lot of rides where I got off Cardoon absolutely drenched in sweat wondering why this was so bloody hard.

Let me be perfectly clear – dressage is hands down, the most physically demanding riding I’ve ever done.

Cardoon FallI’ve always been a reasonably active person.  I grew up riding jumpers and equitation. I do yoga, some strength training, and train pretty regularly for half marathons.  And for crying out loud, now we have a farm which comes with its own set of physical challenges.  In short, most people see me as a pretty physically fit person.

That’s what I thought too, until I started really riding Cardoon and aiming at Third Level.

There is a kind of strength and fitness that I’ve realized is needed to ride well at the higher levels.  Although we shouldn’t be holding our horses up with our arms and shoulders, or constantly squeezing with a vice-like grip to keep them going forward, there’s a rolling application of hands, leg, seat, and core that is hard to describe to a non-rider.  The combination of continually adjusting, tightening, and flexing each of those components to achieve greater collection, better bend, or that engaged flying change can be physically taxing, and that’s when its all going well.

Of course when you’re training, things rarely go well all the time.  As Cardoon and I began to learn collection, I found that our particular bugaboo was Cardoon’s willingness to move forward energetically into the contact – and stay there.  Many of those sweat drenched rides were because I was suckered into pushing, holding and gripping for all my legs were worth.  I forgot much of the time that my horse can feel a fly land on him.  He doesn’t need 50 pounds of pressure from my leg AT ALL TIMES.

We worked diligently on making him hot off my leg by asking nicely the first time, and using a sharp smack with the whip if he didn’t respond with alacrity.  Fortunately, it didn’t take much, and at our last show, he was even a little too hot off my leg – he actually jigged in the walk!  (Success!)

To test his response to my leg, Lauren often in lessons tells me to take my leg OFF, then put it back on.  Then take it off again.  He should keep going forward, and he should jump a little when I put my leg back on.  I need to always get a response.

With that lesson learned though, we’re still working hard.  Cardoon can move off my leg without a constant, nagging leg, but how to capture that energy and utilize it for the collection we’ll need for the pirouette?  It’s important to capture that energy through the horse’s back, and use it to bring the horse “up” and not let the energy escape out the front.  Creating and, more importantly, maintaining energy for collection requires a different kind of strength than almost anything I can think of.  My abs can tell you that capturing the energy you create with the leg cycles though the seat, core and hand.  After a great ride just the other day, where we worked on collected canter to very collected canter and back, I woke up with some aching abs the next day.

Must be time to hit the plank position a little more, and maybe resign myself to participating in No Stirrups November.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to train hard – both on and off the horse – and scowl at people who suggest that riding is easy because the horse is doing all the work.

Why do we show?

Cardoon is ready

Cardoon says he’s ready for whatever today brings…as long as I remember to ride.

Cardoon, Kevin, Murphy and I are all happily ensconced in the campground at the Virginia Horse Center in Lexington, Virginia for this year’s Region 1 GAIG Championship show.  I feel pretty awesome that we qualified at Third Level, although with 27 people in our class today, some of them with lots more experience and frankly, far fancier horses, I’m not going into this expecting a ribbon.

Which made me think on my drive down here – why do we show?

So much of horse sport, especially for the amateur, doesn’t involve prize money or other exciting prizes.  In dressage, you’re lucky if you get a ribbon that’s worth $1.25.  This summer, when I was reserve champion in the Sport Horse Amateur Challenge, I won a big fancy neck ribbon and a saddle pad.  It was pretty cool…but in reality, what does it mean? I do decorate my home office with my championship and end-of-year ribbons, but they’re still just ribbons and not something useful – like money.

Purpose – For myself, showing gives me a goal, a purpose for each and every ride.  Each level is a benchmark for progress and the next level to be attained.  When I know I have a show coming up, I’m just that little bit more motivated to really make Cardoon sharp to my aids, or jump into each flying change just a little bit more.  I think without a show goal, I get a little complacent.

Camaraderie – Then too, there’s the social aspect of it, especially now that I’ve left boarding and keep my horses at home.  Time at a show is a fun, friend-filled weekend doing something we all love, together.  As crazy as horse people can be, they can also be quite a lot of fun. When you’re really lucky, the weather cooperates and this weekend in particular can be one of the magic fall weekends where the air is crisp, the leaves are changing, and you’re able to enjoy golden fall sunshine in the mountains of Virginia.

Human Nature – As much as I often think I’m not really that competitive, I really am.  I like to test myself against other, and see where I compare.  Not being at the top is OK with me.  But getting a sense of what I do well versus what others do well or better is helpful in addressing my training goals.

Experience – All that said, none of those reasons quite answered for me why I’m showing at this show, this year.  Money is tight, and even though we bring the Airstream and camp, it’s not as though that makes a huge financial difference.  And like I said, I’m far from a sure bet for a ribbon in my Finals class.

What I realized in my musings on this subject during the drive is that what I’m really seeking this year is experience.  Cardoon and I have been together for three full years now and I know how to ride him at shows.  Unfortunately, for some reason I usually fail to dig really deep and give him the ride he needs to display the talents he has.  I also occasionally completely forget to ride at some point after my initial salute, adopting the Jesus-take-the-reins approach to certain movements.

My riding and ability to really dig in at home and fight for the collection and precision that is needed for third level and above has improved dramatically in the past two months.  Add to that the fact that Cardoon has made huge strides in strength and his ability to carry, and one would think that we could be in contention.  You never know…we could be, but I need to remember to ride once I go down centerline.

So, we’re entered in three classes this weekend – all aimed at being a better show rider. My goal is to fight for every movement and make sure that I’ve ridden to the absolute best of my ability.  I’m not going to give in to the gorilla arms, hunching forward, or climbing up Cardoon’s neck in the changes that haunt me when I get insecure or forgetful.

All in the hopes that we’ll come home with another pretty ribbon that I’m not too proud to admit still makes me smile like a little kid, even at the age of 40.

Gorilla Arms (or, how I got mad and started to fix my position)

At the beginning of August, I had the good fortune to ride in a clinic with Michael Barisone.  My trainer, Lauren Sprieser, works with Michael on a regular basis, and she periodically has him come down to Virginia.  Finally, the timing and finances of this visit worked out, and I was able to ride two days with Michael.

After achieving all of my showing goals for the year in July, Lauren and I had talked about where to go next.  Obviously, we’re aiming for the Prix St. Georges now (because who doesn’t want to wear a shadbelly?), and that likely elusive Silver Medal.  But there’s a long way to go between here and there.

One of the things holding me back from progressing at this point is, well…me.

I still have the residual habit of leaning forward and making what we all lovingly refer to as “gorilla arms” when things get tough.  You know, hunch down and stick your elbows out, wrists in, and I probably make a gorilla face too.  Lauren is on me about it, and even Kevin mentions it to me.  “Sit back, shoulders back, chest out” is something I hear a lot. Unfortunately, years into this dressage journey, I still do it and have a hard time correcting myself, especially when riding alone, which is most of the time.

Michael ClinicSince Michael is a good trainer, and has eyes, my position was just about the first thing he latched onto.  Interestingly, his very slightly different approach of telling me how to fix it was really helpful.  Rather than telling me just to put my shoulders back, he focused on telling me to lift my hands and keep them together.  That little bit of direction (and then a regular reminder about it for the next 45 minutes) really stuck and helped set me on the road of fixing a longtime position problem for real.

Of course, the real test is whether I can remind myself to fix this when I’m at home, without mirrors or Michael and Lauren in my ear.  This is where something else Michael said has really stuck with me – and made me angry enough (aka inspired me) to make the effort to fix myself once and for all.

“You look like you’re asking him to come to the bit, and he gets partway there, and you say ‘OK.  That’s all I can get.'” said Michael. “You look like a First Level rider who’s just along for the ride!  When you sit up, and pick up your hands, the whole picture changes and you look like a Grand Prix rider!”

This wasn’t an untrue statement, and I didn’t find it to be unkind.  But boy did it make me angry.  Angry enough that I didn’t want to hear someone say that – or think it – ever again.  After all, I’ve been riding for 30 years now, and I sailed through First Level two years ago!  “I’m a Third Level+ rider now!  I’m a Bronze Medalist,” cried my inner child.

Well, this was apparently just the thing to motivate me.  When I ride at home, by myself, I now hear Michael in my head.  I still make gorilla arms sometimes when the going gets tough, but more and more, I’m able to remember to sit up, and pick up my hands – and the new reward isn’t just that I hope I’ll never hear Michael say that again, its that Cardoon is going better than ever.  His back is freer, he bends more honestly into the contact, and his lateral work is greatly improved.

The Region 1 Finals at the Virginia Horse Center are just around the corner, and I’m hoping that my new and improved position, coupled with my new and increased expectations will help us score even better than we’ve done already.  Onward and upward (with my shoulders and chest)!