Dressage Recap: A Lesson, A Blogger Meetup, and a Saddle Fitting

Since buying Jack in June, his body has changed a ton- homeboy has never been in a program quite like this one and he suddenly has muscle in places he never did before. So even though I had my saddles fitted to him in the summer, his back and demeanor was telling me that the saddles no longer were a good fit. Cue 2 saddle fittings (and crying into my empty wallet) and we are starting to see signs of a happier, looser version of Jack.

During the second fitting, Tracy of The Printable Pony swung by while they were in town and met the giant banana beast and listen to me complain about Jack’s not-so-rude rudeness (aka his shoving habits). It was so great to meet her and her sweet husband, and all the photos in today’s post are thanks to her! (Yay new media- thanks Tracy!)

Blogger meetuppppp

After weeks of not having a proper dressage lesson due to my Fair Hill and photography commitments, I finally got one in last night. The trainer rode Jack first to feel him in his “new” (read: not new) saddle, which sits up so much better than before. Jack is so much more relaxed than he’s ever been, even with a dropping temperature and riding in the spooky indoor. She commented on how much more rideable the canter is getting (thank goodness- that was such a hot mess before) and how he’s more reliably pushing to the bit, even if sometimes it means that he gets heavy in the hand. We’re fine with that, since he’s still finding his balance – all things in good time, especially with dressage!

I’m learning not to brace my legs in the saddle (this applies to both my jumping and dressage position) and engage my core and lower back- a constant struggle for me. And Jack is learning not to use his neck/giant shoulders to transition from walk to trot. As simple as a walk/trot transition is, doing it correctly is probably the most difficult thing we are working on, and a large part of our lesson was focusing on this one aspect.

There was plenty else to work on though, and so as not to bore everyone to tears, here’s the short version:

  • Get him in both reins before going down centerline to stop him bouncing off my L/R aids
  • Prepare early (earlier than I think) for centerline as he still doesn’t feel at home on that line
  • Use outside rein/core/lower back when he goes hollow- next two steps will likely be ugly but then he will soften
  • Keep walk small but active for trot transition
  • Don’t overbend to the right, keep thinking about having the neck come straight out of his withers
  • To the left, think about riding a hexagon instead of a circle to bring his shoulders around (not lean on R shoulder)

Banana Boat

Dressage is hard, folks, and we’re still getting those all-important foundational elements cemented. Once they are there I have the feeling we will start doing all the fun stuff. But for now, getting the basics- including saddle fit- will make for a happier, more correct horse with hopefully a long career ahead of him.

Advertisements

Show Recap: Running Start BN Combined Training

Saturday, Jack and I (with the help of our amazing friend C) headed out to do a quick Combined Training event in Southern Pines. The goal was to get a little more exposure and get a confidence building round. Essentially we were to do our dressage test, go back to the trailer for a tack change, jump, and head home again.

Jack’s dressage test was okay. The next time I take him out I’ll be adding spurs, because I feel as though his tension translates into getting behind my leg, and I definitely was not able to be nearly as quiet as I am at home. Still, the judge liked him well enough, giving him an 8 on the following movements, as well as his gaits:

  • Trot circle right
  • Change rein KXM
  • Trot circle left
  • Change rein HXF
  • Downward transition to trot
  • Free walk
  • Upward trot transition + turn down centerline

We got dinged overall for our hollow moments which was not surprising- again I know that we are going to have hollow canter transitions for some time until we re-wire Jack to use his hind end instead of his massive shoulders to change gait. The test scored a 29 (71%) with plenty of room for improvement.

Our jump warm up was also just okay, and I needed a swift kick in the butt to hold to the base of the fence. Our jumping round was then the total opposite, as each fence impressed Jack more and more and we got ugly chippy distances and even a stop at the swedish oxer (which is fine- that’s a new question to him and no ground line). So after having cowboyed him through the course, I was not satisfied and quickly requested a schooling round, which is what you see below.

It’s amazing what change you can effect when you actually ride. I was really thrilled with the result and felt like Jack would have a very positive note to end on. The pony got lots of pats and stuffed full of treats and we were homeward bound.

Thanks to a brain fart on my part, we likely won’t be competing in October, but definitely lots of lessons and hopefully even a clinic with a certain former trainer of ours. The more miles the better!

Show Recap: September War Horse Dressage

Questions I ask myself this morning… Why do cats only barf on carpet instead of hardwoods? Why is the Dunkin Donuts closest to me 3 times slower than every other one? Why am I so sore?

Well, at least I can answer the last one. Riding 2 horses is hard work, y’all, but competing two horses is brutal. I now have so much more respect for Buck Davidson and his 10,384 string of horses that he competes. I took Jack (doing BN) and Riley (Green as Grass) to a schooling horse trial this weekend and my body is wrecked. But rather than whinge about my aches and pains, we’ll focus on dressage.

Jack did a cross country schooling the day before as well as a showjumping round, then proceeded to wear himself out by screaming and pacing his stall for an hour. So when he came out on Sunday for dressage, he was a very tired pony. I warmed him up away from the hustle and bustle of the warm up ring and tried to put some spring in his step, but overall he felt a little flat and not nearly as supple as I am used to.

This definitely translated into our test. While our upward canter transition is hollow at home as well (a training issue we are working through!), he’s not normally braced in the other changes between gaits. But in the test I was challenged to keep him soft through those movements. Jack earned an 8 on his free walk (awesome) and the judge nailed me for bracing my own legs into the downward transitions (a known issue for me, darn it). I walked out of the ring expecting to score a 34 or 35, and was pleasantly surprised to earn a 32, which shockingly put us in 2nd out of our division of 19 after dressage.

Riley handled the new atmosphere with his general aplomb, and spent Saturday toodling around at the walk checking out the sights. With energy conservation as the name of the game, he got a whopping 5 minute warm up before dressage. We practiced walk trot transitions and a few centerlines and headed over to the ring. My goal for the test was to ride with better geometry than the previous weekend, get straight centerlines and ride him more forward to my hand. Unfortunately my phone ran out of space just after the centerline, but I believe we accomplished all those goals.

Riley earned a 26 in dressage, a full 10 points ahead of the other (admittedly pint-sized, adorable) competitors in our GaG CT division. If you want to see a slightly less steady version of the test, you can watch this video from the previous weekend. Our free walk was hugely improved this time around, and Riley garnered sweet comments from the judge and even earned a 7.5 on gaits!

Riley’s ribbon and Jack’s test

To say I’m proud of both boys is an understatement- they were phenomenal and given how green they are they handled everything amazingly well (bar Jack’s screaming). Tomorrow, jumping recaps!

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.