Raleigh Dressage Show II Recap: Day 2

Sunday at the show was an exciting day, as TC and I moved up to First Level in an Opportunity class. I felt like despite not really working at that level for very long, TC was more than able to handle it. After all, 10 meter circles are a lot easier on a 14.2 1/2 hony than on a 16.3 gigantor palomino. His trot lengthenings might be so-so, but they are there, and the canter lengthenings were quite good for this pony with a motor.

TC warmed up a little quietly, and I worried that we wouldn’t have enough gas in the tank to make for exciting lengthenings. Though he did wake up once we got into the arena and were surrounded by more of the show environment. In hind sight I should have slowed his tempo down slightly in the trot in order to show more of a difference in the lengthenings, but that’s a learning experience for me. We score 6’s on all the lengthening movements (bummer), but an 8 on the stretchy circle and a good smattering of 7’s. I was surprised to see the judge give him less than a 7 on his gaits, but rewarded me slightly more. Overall we earned a 65% and another blue ribbon for our efforts.

The weekend in general was a great success, and a huge feather in the cap for TC who is becoming a star of a show horse. I can only hope that Jack will settle into the fray just as quickly, but then again, TC has that ponytude to give him an edge in that area. I’m glad to have wrapped up my time riding TC on such a high note- I think his next rider will do an even better job with him and honestly am excited for the little guy’s future!

Raleigh Dressage Show Recap: Day 1

Since buying Jack, I knew that eventually I would need to give up the ride on TC, since riding 3 horses (with Riley back in Raleigh) is more than I can manage longterm. Because I also wanted to compete him one more time and improve on the last show’s experience, we determined that the Raleigh I/II dressage show would be our last hurrah before handing the reins over to someone else.

On Saturday, we competed in Training 2 and 3, tests that we also competed in at the prior show. TC’s entire demeanor was that of a well-traveled show horse, not the 7 yr old at his second competition, and he was the consummate professional.

Training 3 was our first test (why, oh why do they do the higher tests first?) and he warmed up beautifully. The test itself was fairly good, barring some spooking/looking at the water in one of the corners that turned into us almost leaving the arena in the next. Our only real bobble was in the canter, where for the first time TC did this fun thing where he got disunited, so I brought him back to a trot and picked up the lead again in time for the next movement, which was the downward trot transition across the diagonal. We got an unfortunate 4 for the break in canter, but that’s fair.

Our test scored a 67%, earning us 4th out of 16 competitors. It’s of course frustrating to think that if we hadn’t broke in the canter that we could have maybe even won the class, but overall I was really pleased and surprised to earn that score.

Training 2 was our afternoon ride, and even the in-laws turned out to witness dressage brilliance (kidding- Training 2 is a boring test at best). Luckily there was enough time to read the same judge’s comments from the morning, and learn from that feedback to make a plan for our second visit. Barring a little lookiness at the continuing standing water in the corner at A and scooting into the downward walk transition in the next corner, I am really happy with how the test went. The judge thought so too, and we finally broke 70% with a 72 for a pretty blue ribbon.

Some big goals (for us) were met in this test. I was finally able to show off his good stretchy trot and get an 8 on that movement (where’s my coefficient at- boo!). One of the goals I stated to my trainer before the show was also improving my rider score in the collection marks. Depending on where we are, I generally get a 6.5 or 7. So a 7.5 was a definitely step in the right direction, as I am finally getting the feel for where my elbows should live and keeping my hands closer together.

Tomorrow, we look at TC’s first First level test!

Lesson Notes 7-22

Somehow I survived my two lessons on Saturday, and both horses lived to tell the tale as well. And considering whatever the heat did to potentially addle my brain, in addition to my head already spinning with deadlines and the impending show this weekend, I find that I need to jot down the things I learned from those lessons while I still remember.

TC’s Dressage Lesson:

  • Conservative and correct is better than up tempo and tense
  • Sit into the canter transition (and keep mentally reminding myself to push him off the right leg from time to time)
  • Keep my elbows heavy and hands low
    • TC can be a head wagger occasionally- keeping my hands low and together (thinking about having a low center of gravity) stops his mouth from taking on any movement that happens as a result of posting with my elbows up high
  • Think about 10 meter circles as 2 halves
  • Prepare early for transitions- TC needs more time to process than I realize
  • Look out on the stretchy circle to maximize the number of steps available
  • Think about walk in the transition from lengthening trot to working trot- show off the “coming back”

Jack’s Jumping Lesson:
I had a very different horse under me for this jump lesson, despite the near three-digit temperature. Jack came out and was much stronger than I was used to, which is a result of his getting fit and building confidence. It’s also a direct reflection of his time as a foxhunter, where I was told that he was taught to either trot fences or gallop them. While we worked on managing his stride in front of the fence, trainer had some words of wisdom:

I’m going to take the suspense out of the situation for you. You’re going to have some ugly jumps for a while.

And well, as you’ll see in the video, she ain’t wrong. Here are the other tidbits that I need to stick in my skull moving forward:

  • Our flatwork is coming together (yay!) but I need to remember to not camp my legs out in front of me
  • As he gets stronger/fitter, I shouldn’t be surprised about his wanting to take the bit
    • Add a running martingale to allow for more control
      • Keep my hands up and reins short for same
  • Do not lean for the lead
  • Hold to the fence, then be sure to release as his front legs lift off

Between fences, we also chatted about goals. I would like to do a recognized show by the end of the year, and we decided to aim for Stable View at the end of September as a result. Even if showjumping looks a bit ugly, we should be able to get around a Beginner Novice course by then as long as I stick with the program. And with lots of schooling options between now and then, including a clinic in a few weeks, we should have a lot more experience under our belts as a pair before taking on Aiken!

 

Show Recap: Capital Dressage Classic Day 2

When we left off last week with TC and I’s recognized dressage show debut, we chronicled the ups and downs (as in, downs- falling off a pony at a dressage show, and ups, as in blue satin) that always follows horses.

Day 2 was a little more subtle in general. We were only doing 1 test, Training 3, which was the test I had practiced most before the show. The arena we were to compete in was in a different part of the showgrounds than TC had seen before, so I spent lots of time hanging out near the ring so he could see the busier side of the facility. We decided to stick with our plan of not cantering in the warmup, and instead focused on extreme relaxation and throughness. For myself, I made sure to stay very quiet with my hands and focus on moving him off of my right leg to keep him straight.

Heading down centlerline like 🙂

Really truly, we had the best warmup yet. He was attentive, obedient, relaxed- all the things I wanted and more. We went into the dressage court feeling super confident and ready to eek every possible point out of the test.

Overall, I am thrilled to pieces with the test. Sure there are things to fix- him staring off into the distance in our free walk because Oh! vendors! and Oh! Ponies! and Oh! bleachers!. That bogey right lead canter (earned my first ‘2’ for that one!). Some moments where I lost his attention after the last downward canter transition.

But for me, there’s a lot to love. I love how swingy he is through his back and his forward but balanced tempo. I love how despite some blips, he was [mostly] obedient and focused on me throughout the test. I love that he was able to stretch and release tension through the stretchy circle, and how prompt our first canter depart was. And for the first time, I was able to focus on not hollowing my lower back and keeping my elbows from expressing their inner chicken! For me, despite scoring a 62% on the test (4th place in a biggish class- judge was harsh!), I felt like this was a huge breakthrough for TC and I, especially at his/our first show!

We are now discussing taking TC back to the fairgrounds for the show at the end of July. It may be hotter than blazes, but I would love the opportunity to improve upon this first experience!

Show Recap: Capital Dressage Classic Day 1

So in and amongst the activities involved in exploring the qualities of a future next horse, I also competed in my first recognized dressage show.

Just to recap, I have been riding TC, a 14.2h Paint gelding, for the last few months, imparting my admittedly limited knowledge to him along the way. Not to puff myself up (don’t worry, my ego gets thoroughly deflated if you keep reading), but I’m exceptionally proud of his progress- he has literally changed shape, become consistent in the bridle, and in general become a fairly solid little dressage pony [hony]. We took him to one clinic, which was my first off-property adventure with him, and promptly signed him up for his first show- and a big one- a recognized dressage show at the State Fairgrounds in Raleigh.

So we arrived at the fairgrounds the day before, and I had a beautiful schooling in a fairly quiet atmosphere, running through our tests and feeling like the 70% I was shooting for was there in sight. Our first test was bright and early Saturday morning, and the atmosphere was definitely more electric. For the first time since high school, I luckily had a coach to get through warm up, and things were going swimmingly until I asked for the right lead canter. Now I should caveat this with saying that TC has been fairly reactive to my left leg of late, but that morning he simply wasn’t game to pick up the canter. So I tapped him with the whip. Which induced a series of bucks and crop hops, almost running into another horse, and between steering, sitting, and pulling out a braid in my effort to grab mane, I ended up in the dirt. Cue 5 people who were sweetly concerned about my fall from on-high, and after assuring them that it wasn’t far to fall and thank goodness for good footing, my adult-amateur self girded my loins and got back on the damn pony.

We schooled the right canter a couple more times, which continued to induce drama, and I determined to sit way back in the transition and let the chips fall as they would. Our test, as you can see in the 2 photos above, was a little high and tight, and my position a bit defensive and hollow itself. We scored a 64% and a fourth place ribbon for Training 2.

After chatting with the trainer, we decided to leave canter out of our warmup for the second test (Training 1) and focus on relation and suppleness, and getting him off my right leg which he was bracing against. The warmup then was much more pleasant, and I went in to the arena and determined to ride the shit out of every movement.

Overall I am really pleased with the transformation here. We earned ourselves a 69.78% with a tough judge and a blue ribbon, which felt like redemption after the morning’s damage-control type of ride. I actually felt like the free walk maybe even deserved a little more credit than was given, but after trainer said we could round that up to 70%, I felt like it wasn’t worth nit-picking over.

Pony got lots of praise and cookies and we washed him down while avoiding getting nipped (a fun new habit of TC’s). 2 ribbons, and roll in the dirt, and our first day at a recognized dressage show was in the books!

Clinic Recap: USDF Instructor Workshop

Screenshots until I compile all the video

Saturday TC and I participated in a different kind of clinic as demo riders. The ‘clinic’ was actually an instructor workshop, as a learning opportunity for instructors working towards their USDF certification at that level. The format then, was a little different. I rode, and received feedback from the participant, who then received feedback from the clinician on her lesson plan, how she gave me direction, etc. Basically it ended up being a free lesson for us and an excellent chance to get us off-property in a relaxed (though effing cold and blustery) atmosphere. Win-win!

Once TC realized the horses in the giant outdoor mirrors weren’t going to eat him, he quickly relaxed into the work. Overall the crowd, clinician, and his owner (plus myself) were all thrilled with him and highly complimentary- everyone wanted to sneak him onto their trailers and take him home. Not bad for a barrel-racing bred paint pony. And I admit, I’m a little proud of him- the way his body has changed in the last couple months has been pretty impressive.

For me, I felt like they were less impressed. I had to engage my thick-skin mode and soak it up as a learning opportunity, since in order to educate the participant’s eye, all of my flaws were described in detail. The highlights include:

  • I sit left. Very left, all the time. How does this help the horse, who also is heavy on the left? None. It helps none.
  • I ride like a chicken- I need to keep my elbows close by my side
  • I collapse my right side
  • I balance myself on my stirrups
  • I brace my legs into downward transitions
  • I hollow my lower back
  • I lift my shoulders and get tense in my upper body
  • I need to open my hip flexors and get my legs back

In order to fix a couple of my offending traits, a few things were proposed:

  • Take my stirrups away – it’s hard to be crooked/lean without stirrups
  • Do lunge lessons
  • Get stronger in my core
  • Teach me the breathe
  • Get that sweet pony a different rider (just kidding)

I also left with some exercises to set us up for success- and mostly this was focused around working on getting that left shoulder lighter (which of course would help if I didn’t constantly try to grind it into the dirt with my weight). We need to work on turns-on-the-forehand, since his lack of education around this was a low point in our lesson. We can also do a tear-drop type exercise to pick up the left lead canter while he’s in my outside (right) rein. Similarly, leg yielding in and out by closing my outside leg and encouraging him again to weight the outside rein.

Overall, I came away with some new opinions about myself as a rider, but feel determined to improve from the experience. I learned what TC is like in a new environment, and am so pleased that he stepped up to the plate. It gives me confidence that more outings are definitely going to be in our future!

The Sport of Dressage in a Post-Valegro World

Ahead of Valegro’s retirement next month at Olympia, Horse & Hound released this tear-jerking video congratulating Blueberry on an epic career.

Since I can’t be there to watch the ceremony (tickets are already sold out for the December 14th show), instead I find myself looking ahead. What will the sport of dressage look like after Valegro?

For one, I’m going to guess that there’s a lot of riders out there who will be glad to see Valegro back home and not in the dressage court, since it will mean a chance at them finally capturing the blue ribbon, or the gold medal, or what have you. But besides that, I think there is going to be other effects of the Charlotte-Valegro sensation.

One trend I expect to see is a continuing rise of helmets worn at upper level competition. This year’s Olympics saw the entire British team sporting hard hats, and more surprisingly, the introduction of media outlets questioning the decision of other teams (*cough* Germany *cough*) on the absence of the safety gear. Charlotte Dujardin makes for a wonderful role model, and I think the trickle-down effect of helmet popularity will still continue after Blueberry’s retirement.

What I wonder about most is how the training and breeding of dressage horses will change (or not) going forward. Will breeders see Valegro as a one-hit-wonder from a bloodlines point of view? Or will we see start to see less emphasis on flashy front ends (a la Totilas) and more impressive backsides (bottoms like a cook, as Carl Hester put it) coming forward?

And then training- though the world dressage scene largely rails against rolkur methods, we still see unsightly images from warmups and even on the world’s largest stage that indicate it’s still around and in use at the highest levels. With part of Blueberry’s success surely due to his relaxation in the ring, will we see others follow suit? (As I hypothesize that a horse in rolkur could not possibly be relaxed, or appear relaxed)

Or, with the shining king of relaxation and power on the sidelines, can we expect the flashy, prancy movers with an overtight topline to rein once more?

My hope is that the legacy of Valegro will not fade away with his retirement, and that it will inspire a new generation of riders to adopt some of the lessons learned from him and Charlotte. That is, be safe, be smart, be happy. Focus on the well being of the horse and the correctness of his movement, and don’t cut corners in training to get to the top. The next 4 years leading up to Tokyo 2020 will be defining time period for the sport, and I hope that those with influence lead us down the path that Valegro and Charlotte created.

 

Horse Show Recap: GaG at CHP

While I’m having a serious bout of horse show hangover (y’all, it was 2 years since my last show!), I can definitely look back on Smitty’s first competition and smile.

We arrived Saturday afternoon and settled him into his stall, and he seemed fairly content to relax and munch his hay and drink his water like a good boy. We walked a few laps of the venue and let him see the bikes, kids, dogs, tents, and other general show atmosphere that was slowly building. Since he handled it well, I tacked up and schooled him a bit. Luckily for us, there was only one other rider schooling, which had little to do with Smitty and a lot to do with my mental composure. Once I relaxed my death grip on the reins and gave us both a job of moving forward and changing direction, life got suddenly easier and we were able to find a good note to end on.

The next morning  we went on another walk around the venue, which was decidedly much busier than the day before. All was well until about 10 minutes in, when the atmosphere got to Smitty’s baby brain and resulted in a minor meltdown. In the interest of self preservation, and of those around me (read: horses, children, dogs everywhere), I found a quiet unused field to lunge him and get the sillies out. It took a lot longer than I would have hoped to do so, but eventually he got his brain reinstalled and was listening and doing transitions politely on the lunge line and it felt safe to venture back into polite society.

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At that point it was almost time for my dressage, and so we tacked up and found another somewhat quiet area to do warm up before heading into the arena. Baby pony was tired at this point, but put in an obedient test and was completely unfazed by his sandbox experience. We had wiggly centerlines (straight lines are hard, yo!), and geometry in general left some points on the table, as well as a lack of free walk (which we haven’t introduced yet). But given that, Smitty still scored a 29.7 and got his first 9 for a movement- what more could I ask for?

introatest

After dressage, Smitty got to nap for a couple hours before heading out to show jumping. The Green as Grass showjumping was held on the grass, and I was surprised to see the cross rails of the past replaced with a full set of verticals and even an oxer, complete with gates (which I have no idea if he’s ever seen) and ferns and the like. It was a proper mini showjumping course.

Celebrating with some dressage with some Chardonneighneigh

Celebrating dressage with some Chardonneighneigh

My warm up consisted of a couple trot circles, one lazy jump over the warm up cross rail, and heading into the arena. Smitty perked up a bit at the sight of the new fences, and we proceeded to fence one. At each new jump, I could feel the baby brain wondering why this one didn’t look like the last. But he was incredibly honest and with a little encouragement took each one with increasing confidence. As you can hear in the video, I did my best to convince him that he was superman after every fence, the dominator of 18″ fences all over the world. Apparently my nattering was highly entertaining to my friends, so enjoy the commentary.

Our clear showjumping result left us in 2nd place (or 1st, they haven’t posted official results) out of 10 horses, and I couldn’t be happier. With the help of wonderful friends, and a great venue, baby Smitty had a wonderful first show experience and hopefully set the bar for things to come.

 

Lesson Recap: Dressage Lesson Numero Dos

October is officially a big month for Smitty, and last night was the first of several lessons planned before his first show. Sorry in advance for no new media, and for this being a brain dump so I can remember all the things next time.

We rode out in the outdoor ring, which I have been avoiding since my confidence took a hit last month and I’ve been sticking to the more enclosed covered arena. But I want to power through some of my anxieties, and for me that means having an instructor there to get me out of my head and focusing on the saddle. Speaking of saddles by the way, the Amerigo Vega monoflap is officially the winner of the trial period, and though it was odd to have a dressage lesson in jump tack, I’m grateful to finally have a saddle that fits my gangly boy.

Winner winner chicken dinner!

Winner winner chicken dinner!

We started our lesson by warming up with a forward walk, and getting me to focus on staying relaxed until I trusted that I could really lengthen my reins to a semi-free walk length and allow him to telescope his neck out- a main focus for the next hour. Once I was able to do so without crabbing up, we introduced transitions between medium walk and free walk. I haven’t yet attempted medium walk, as we were focusing on the forward motion of the walk primarily, but it was a relief to see that he seemed to understand the concept fairly readily. For now though, we don’t want to keep him in medium walk for more than a few strides, since it’s hard for him to hold at this stage.

Just trying to break up walls of text here...

Just trying to break up walls of text here…

Moving into the trot, again the focus was on transitions. We started asking that the walk to trot transition be from back-to-front, meaning that the push was coming from behind. Again because of the baby status, that meant that it was a small effort, a few small steps before moving into the proper forward, working trot. I now realize that I have been holding my reins too short, and I need to focus on keeping them long enough that he can reach out with his neck at all times. If he comes up in the poll or above the bit, I am allowed to widen my hands to keep the contact with his mouth, but not allowed to shorten the reins in response. Then when he lowers his neck and stretches out again I can slowly bring my hands back together. And if Smitty were to become resistant, or attempt to dive down into the contact and drag me along, it is my job to ride with a strong core and back and lower leg. Then I don’t run the risk as much of being pulled over the handlebars and I can trust in myself to stay balanced should anything happen. Similarly, I need to stay strong and balanced into the downward transitions and keep him marching, instead of going splat into the walk or trot like he wants to do.

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Probably our my biggest challenge during the lesson was keeping myself loose and pushing him through any distractions. The outdoor ring is horrible for this, being surrounded on two sides by a trailer park, a third side by a neighborhood under construction, and the last side by a spooky hay barn. I feel like I am constantly watching to see if dogs are going to pop out, or cars, or trailers, or deer… you get the picture. So when one of the neighborhood residents closest to the arena started up his Harley Davidson, and preceded to let it warm up for 5 minutes just out of sight, I nearly lost my shit. Riding can be so much of a mental game, and truthfully, last night I had some fail moments. While Smitty handled it quite beautifully for a youngster, I was a tense mess until the motorcycle left the area and confined us to the furthest end of the arena, clutching my neck strap for dear life. Now looking back on it, I realize that I really need to push through and find some trust in Smitty, or fate, or what have you, and not lose my game face any time the atmosphere becomes challenging. Because as Eliza reminded me, you can’t control the weather, or the atmosphere, or even the footing sometimes, but you can always control or focus on your line, or your tempo, or your bend when those things become annoyances, and that it’s best to just keep riding through.

We found a really good note to end things on, cantering in both directions, and Eliza praised us for our progress with the quality of our canter departs and for the overall picture. It was a good lesson for reminding me of the positives and for getting an outside perspective on myself and my abilities as well as how Smitty actually is a very good baby and that it’s going to take time for us to develop a partnership. Tonight, we squeeze in a jump lesson with a new-to-me trainer. Hopefully I can build on some of this retrospective mental mojo and get some good points to boot!

Lesson Recap: Darcy Dressageing

Yesterday I had Eliza out for our first dressage lesson in, oh, 9 months. I introduced her to Darcy, expressing that I hoped to get her a bit more sensitive to my leg (currently Darcy is very much a kick ride) and make sure I was making the right decisions in general.

Dark screengrab from prior video of Darcy dressaging

Dark screengrab from prior video of Darcy dressaging

We talked about setting the expectation to be in front of the leg even from the ground. So walking in hand, I’m now to carry a whip, and Darcy is expected to march along with me, instead of meandering behind. In the walk under saddle, same thing- we march, and I overemphasize moving my hands with the motion of her head to encourage Darcy to use her neck. Moving my hands also releases my hips and further encourages the motion.

Darcy trot 2

One note that I thought was interesting in the walk was regarding leg cues. In general, at all gaits, I am to keep my legs very quiet and hanging along her side, then lightly ask for a forward response- if I don’t get it, then I quickly ask strongly with both legs to get a reaction. At the walk though, using both legs isn’t as helpful, and it was in Eliza’s opinion that especially on a mare, squeezing with both legs creates more of a negative response. Instead, I am to alternate left and right leg aids for a few strides to encourage her to walk forward.

Talking + Riding = Derp face

Talking + Riding = Derp face

Also of note was our discussion around sitting the trot. Darcy’s a round girl, and rather bouncy to sit her working trot. She can also tend to tighten her back when you sit, which makes for an even bouncier experience. So I am to practice sitting her trot, but not until she is truly pushing into the contact. Continue to sit even if she tightens her back and in Eliza’s words “until you have improved the trot” before posting again. This really only happens over a few strides, but ideally eventually I’ll be sitting more and more. It’s a good tool to have in our pockets.

Darcy canter 2

Overall Eliza was impressed with Darcy, and everyone who sees her go ends up grinning and saying just how cute she is! She’s definitely a different kind of ride from Foster, but in Eliza’s opinion is a great horse to make me a more well rounded rider, and I couldn’t agree more.