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.

 

Drawing the Bigger Picture: Part II

This didn’t get out Friday because I got caught up at the barn, trying to assess whether Foster is still sore from our jumping last weekend, or if there is something shoe-related going on there. I won’t even consider that it might be something else until tomorrow. *Sigh* Anyways, until then, here are the rest of our brainy break throughs (part 1 here) from the week of lessons.

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Effectiveness of the Seat
To be a dressage queen is to have a good seat. But the seat is also important in jumping, as the rider has to make decisions about two-pointing versus sitting versus sticking close to the saddle (the last is BC’s phrase, used before XC fences). In dressage, I am really focusing on using my weight properly in the half-passes. I’m also working to fight against my own natural confirmation, the dreaded hollow-back ghetto booty combination, that makes it hard for me to stick with the full circle of movement my hips should make in the canter. For showjumping, Bobby emphasized a lighter seat and as previously mentioned, moving from galloping position to sticking “closer to the saddle” upon approach. One seat, used lots of different ways!

Locked on the fence- also, this photo just makes me laugh

Locked on the fence- also, this photo just makes me laugh [Portofino CT Oct 2013]

Commitment Issues
Damn all that baggage of the past. Committing to a course of action is an absolute necessity with jumping, and being less than confident can sometimes have dire consequences. BC picked up immediately on when I became anything less than a fence-eating-machine, and as of course, so did Foster. In his words, I am not to ride pathetically, and having that confidence and grit will help me be a quieter rider by not feeling the need to make any “big moves” in front of the fences. For dressage, commitment means being clear in my instructions and the level of my expectations. Even if it is a trot to walk transition, the horse should “land” going forward and in a good balance, not petering out or falling on the forehand into a lazy amble. It’s up to the rider to commit to asking for all those details, and thinking about these things until it becomes habit.

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Thinking about the Landing
How many times have I heard this one? Probably a bajillion times, but it really resonated when BC asked us to halt in 5 strides after the gymnastic. That shit is hard. And why is it hard? Maybe because my horse is not used to expecting something to happen on the landing. Halting after fences is one of the big take-aways from our showjumping lesson, and a wonderful exercise for getting a horse listening. In the June Jump lesson, we did something similar in making small circles after landing from a fence before continuing on to another element. And guess what- in dressage, you know what is a great way to get a horse focused on you and “keyed up to your seat”? Transitions. Forward, backward, halt, etc. Never should we just careen around the arena without a plan, and that was the point I’ve finally figured out this week.

It’s going to take real discipline to remember all of these, and surely there will be times when I forget one or more of these major points. On the flip side, I really do think that if anyone can master all of these issues they would gain major ground in becoming a better rider. And that is, of course, what I aspire to be.

Drawing the Bigger Picture: Part I

3 trainers, 8 days. Information overload? Just a little.

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In many ways though, the lessons do overlap, even though each trainer had different ways of communicating the same things. Here are some of the theories that I’ve noticed transcend two or more of the lessons in just a short time period.

Response to the Aids
Foster should always be listening (ideally), and always waiting for the next cue. We’ve been together so long that sometimes I fall into being repetitive or allowing him to be ho-hum, which makes communication when I really need him a challenge. In our June jump lesson, the trainer had us do canter walk or canter halt transitions and incorporate turn on the haunches or turn on the forehand to keep him thinking about balance and reactiveness. In Bobby’s showjumping lesson, we focused on halting after fences or a line, to keep him coming back to me as the source of instruction. Both accomplish a horse that is listening and reacting quickly to my aids.

My [mental] picture of the right canter

My [mental] picture of the right canter

Focus on the Canter
The quality of the canter in showjumping is everything, and Bobby stressed that he be balanced and active when approaching fences. Similarly, in our dressage lessons we have been working on increasing the activity of the canter, which teaches Foster to sit while engaging his hind legs. Even though the truly collected canter is not a gait that you would use through a showjumping course, the idea of increasing engagement certainly translates.

[From the Clinic] Bobby Costello shows us how to use both hands and outside aids to make a turn to 9

[From the Clinic] Bobby Costello shows us how to use both hands and outside aids to make a turn to 9

Following with the Hands
All three instructors have now said something to this effect, which is saying something. In my June jump lesson, she reverberated pretty much word for word what BC said in the February clinic– push your elbows to the fence. With dressage, this really comes into getting the most out of the free walk by actively following the bit with my hands- even if there is slack in the reins, the horse can feel it and likely take that room to stretch down. With the collected canter, this comes as making sure that I am not constantly holding, which would make him heavier and heavier in my hands.

 

Tomorrow- 3 more things that have been beaten into me this week…

Dressage Videos

Firstly, I want to thank Tracy for setting up a fund so we can show some support for Lauren, who is bravely going through one of the hardest things imaginable. Though I haven’t seen Lauren in person since before she was married, those events have been weighing on my heart all week and it’s good to know how to help.

Secondly, I just want to say that I had every good intention of blasting you guys with videos of the majority of the lesson, but thanks to an almost kaput computer, you’ll have to settle for the highlights- Half-pass and Canter Work.

Hoping you all have a good weekend! Get ready for more lesson recaps next week 🙂