Show Recap: AEC Dressage

Holy moly, I have so much to share with you guys!

But first, let me first shout out to the awesome people I have met so far because of this blog- from Hannah the Bates rep, to Hillary and Emily! Hearing that my voice [any voice] is relevant is so uplifting and I love love love the experience of meeting people irl that I know from the inter webs.

Anyways.

Jack was a freaking STAR. With the exception of the night before dressage, in which he was a total idiot, planting his feet and snorting at the horse-eating-hoomans and flipping out about his tail (why is this a thing?), but since his brain was fully in its box when it mattered, I will forgive him these things.

Overall he was much more chill about the whole KY Horse Park atmosphere than I expected, though the hack out to the rings did get increasingly tense as the days passed. But in general, Jack really settled every time I put him to work, even if it was just a long and low walk to stretch his legs- if I asked something of him, his mind was so much more at ease.

So we arrived Monday evening, and by the time we has somewhat unpacked it was too late to do more than a cursory walk around the barns. Therefore Tuesday and Wednesday were our days for exploring, gaining confidence, and trying to navigate the huge horse park. This all well swimmingly until we got to our dressage warm up ring, which was not only somewhat remote and required crossing a very busy street (within the horse park, but still overrun with bikes, golf carts, and people in a hurry), but it was also adjacent to the Egyptian Arabian show that was going on. Jack would start to relax and then we would hear whooping and hollering from inside the indoor ring, or a hotter-than-hell Arab would pop out of the entrance with its tail flagged and screaming its tiny head off. This caused Jack to go into the afore mentioned melt down- not a great premonition for the actual test the next morning.

And yet somehow the eventing gods smiled down on us, and our start time of 9:24am was minutes before the Arabian show started (9:30) so we got to warm up in relative peace and quiet compared to the days before. The other ~4-5 riders in the warm up were polite and everyone was communicating well, basically a rare delight at any show, let alone a championship competition. I went through Jack’s warm up routine as planned- lots and lots of walk, asking him to go forward and back in that gait and adding in halts, then picking up to trot and a little canter before giving him another 5 min walk break. When we had about 5 minutes left, I picked him up and started asking for suppling and forward in the trot, and threw in a couple canter transitions to make sure they were crisp, and we headed up.

Immediately some of the tension returned when Jack saw the cameras, the volunteers, test runners, and what not that hadn’t been there the day before. So I gave him tons of pats and walked him over to the judge, said our hello’s, and got him cantering to loosen his back. Then away we went.

My first centerline isn’t captured in this video, but I did fill out the paperwork to get the official RNS copy. Overall I was trying to go for forward and relaxed, which I think we mostly achieved. Nerves got the better of me with some of our geometry, and then there’s the free walk. The simple truth is, Jack got behind my leg, and when I squeezed with both legs he took it as a cue to trot. Luckily he was obedient in coming back, which one judge gave us kudos for, but that particular part of the test may or may not haunt me from that day.

I think my scores from the 2 judges had the largest spread of the division- a 71.9 and a 65.2. The closest spread between scores was 4 points… so apparently the big yellow pony was somewhat controversial between the judges, and their vantage points.

Still, we were tied for 4th after dressage- but this was no dressage show!

Dressage Lesson Recap

Since I had Jack fully looked over, I noticed some major changes in him. First he was beautifully relaxed and swinging through his body. But he was also stiff through the left side of his neck, whereas he used to be more flexible to the left and stiffer to the right. There’s always been a stiffness in his left front, and a sensitivity in his right shoulder. In any case, there are more upsides than downsides, but since getting him totally checked out he’s been a little different in the bridle and the saddle, and some adjustments have been needed.

Combining that with the outright (repeat) slap in the face that was my last dressage test, I was having some major confidence issues. Though in previous lessons we’ve been focusing on moving up the levels, I asked to specifically look into certain aspects of the test that I knew would make it or break it in the Championships.

In this particular lesson, it was transitions that we discussed, since I’ve been frustrated with how bracing he’s been in transitions in the last couple weeks.

So at the beginning of our lesson, I asked E to get on and feel him out. Our first nugget came when she explained that she was feeling out his medium walk to free walk transition, where any tension in the transition is sure to first come up. Within each step of walk, she wants me to feel like I have the option to halt, so that he is sitting (versus leaning over his shoulders), and within that more correct balance ask for the trot depart.

I may be biased but gosh he’s purty

We then looked into working on my contact- many people let go with their fingers more than they realize, and even though that may feel “soft” to us, it can be confusing to the horse- much like having a conversation with someone on the phone and their voice is going in and out. Having a consistent connection is a much more palatable experience for the horse, and so we worked on my connection.

For this, she wrapped a straw in a tack sponge and placed that combination in each hand. The straws were meant to point up his neck, never to cross or point in. It’s a great visual indicator of what my hands are doing, since they are mostly in my peripheral vision and I can immediately see when they go astray. The sponge was to help me hold and keep a steadier connection.

I learned pretty quickly how difficult it was for me to truly keep my right hand closed- since it’s the more dextrous hand, it opens and moves more easily. So I had to work to keep my hand closed and my elbow soft, and using just my elbows to lengthen his neck made for a much better connection than I’ve had lately. Below if you look closely (and ignore the side conversation of my sweet and ridiculous barn family who are kindly videoing me) you can see the straws sticking out as I ride:

We also looked into his canter departs, both up and down to/from trot. These have also been a little sticky, and I have a hard time avoiding comments about him falling into the trot even when it feels pretty balanced. However, as you’ll hear in the video, I learned that’s not uncommon for big horses to struggle with that transition, and while I can manage it as much as possible it’s probably not going to be the highlight of the test- so aim for a 7 and move on. Also, enjoy more side commentary from the barn fam.

In general it was a good check in and some helpful reminders of the basics for Jack and I. With all the conditioning and focus on jumping we’ve been doing lately, the dressage work has been a bit neglected. But this lesson helped me get inspired to work on cleaning up some moments and making myself a better rider, hopefully to put our best foot forward at the AECs and also to be a better partner to him going forward.

 

 

Biomechanics, Pirouette Canter, and a Dressage Lesson

In addition to attempting death by humidity, I’ve also been getting my learn on this week.

On Monday it was a dressage lesson, and I warmed up Jack with a long walk warm up on a long rein, changing direction and overbending him through the neck to work out the kinks from his chiropractic session a few days prior (she had found issues on both sides of his neck, and he was wonky a couple days after). I then asked E to get on him since I had expected him to still be stiff, but actually he felt and looked really supple through his whole body.

After feeling him out, I hopped on him and we discussed some specific body mechanics concepts that were picked up from a recent Suzanne Von Dietz clinic. One of these nuggets included correcting a common rider problem- low hands. Often, if a rider is told to raise their hands, their shoulders also creep up- whereas instead the shoulders should stay down and back.

The visualization for fixing this then is to think about a wheel mechanism driving up our torso. As it brings the arms and hands up, it drives the shoulders down and the upper torso back. This was a really helpful mental reminder for me as we went along, and I could quickly correct myself when my hands got low by just hearing E mention the wheel.

The other position tip I got was regarding how my pelvis sits in the saddle. My pelvis should mirror his, just as my shoulders should mirror his. So for lateral work or work where he is truly bent around my leg, my shoulders are turned even more, creating a corkscrew effect on my torso which engages my core and makes for a stronger rider in general. My pelvis should sit somewhat forward on the inside of the saddle, specifically thinking about the pelvis and not the hip. Bringing the hip forward tends to make us tip forward and close the hip angle to the inside of the horse. Bringing the pelvis forward keeps the upper body back. By having the inside of the pelvis forward, and outside leg should stay back. You know you’ve got it right when you can feel the stretch through the outside hip flexor.

That stretch in particular was a really good indicator of whether or not I was doing it right- no stretch = pelvis not twisted to follow his bend.

We took these concepts into working on his collected canter and bringing his hind end along for the ride in order to start developing what will eventually become his pirouette canter. Homeboy is obviously feeling really well, because he was really sitting and was taking the weight himself versus dumping 1300# into my hands. Our half pass at the trot was also feeling great and so much easier in each direction.

Honestly, I was smiling from ear to ear after this lesson, despite Jack and I being soaked through and dog tired.

We had a successful jump lesson as well, but that’s enough detail to bore you with for now!

 

 

June War Horse: Novice Dressage A

I guess I’ve been long overdue for a great big WTF moment in dressage, but I sure got it this weekend.

I thought we put in a pretty respectable test. Sure, he came above the bit in a couple transitions, but I thought our geometry was good, his balance was up, and I was really focusing on my position.

Apparently the judge didn’t agree. I got my first 6.5 on rider score, and my mind is still blown by that 6.5 on the free walk. Also, her overall comment wants more bend through his ribcage, but wants him straighter in the canter transition on the circle? Any DQ’s out there that want to explain to me? I’m all ears.

In any case, that was a bit disappointing but I’m going to try to learn from it and move on. I’ll recap SJ and XC this week!

The answer to Life, the Universe, Everything… Minus 10

WHEW.

I’ve been running around like an idiot (emphasis on idiot) but I wanted to capture a few of the learnings from the last couple weeks so that my silly brain doesn’t lose them.

Last night I had a dressage lesson where we worked on some big-kid stuff, namely canter half pass. Jack has a good concept of haunches in on a circle, so mostly this involved trying to get the haunches in as we travel on a short diagonal. In theory, this should set us up for success once we get to learning flying changes, as we can use the lateral movement to help him think about sitting versus exploding through his shoulders (which is his MO in general).

The exercise

The way we introduced this concept to him was by trying what E called ‘the paperclip’, that is getting his haunches in and him sitting, then trying to bring that across a short diagonal before turning and trying again. To really get him to step sideways she had me leaning into the direction to show him more clearly which way we were going. Apparently Carl Hester has some students lean so far as to look at the inside hind as they ride it, but luckily I wasn’t asked to do that!

I have been feeling rather crooked recently, and so we also worked on an exercise to see where I am sitting in the saddle. This involved thinking of the seat of the saddle as a clock face, and I tried to land my seat at 3 and 9 when posting, then 12 and 6, then post around the clock backwards and forwards. It was definitely an interesting feeling and gave me a better feel of where I was in the saddle, so I’ll be playing around with that in my warm up whenever I feel super crooked.

mind numbing

In case you are simply burning with desire to see part of our lesson, a lovely friend took some video for me. You can see a bit of our warm up here, which includes references to the clock idea, and also some canter where we do micromovements- pushing his haunches in and out, flexing him right and left, and moving his shoulders around.

 

Show Recap: VAHT Dressage

I haven’t been to a show outside of North Carolina since high school. And I haven’t competed at a recognized event besides the Carolina Horse Park or FENCE in just as long (let’s just put the number at well over a decade). The Virginia Horse Center had always intimidated me- mostly because my friends had bigged up how horrible the drive was, how scary the coliseum, and how gnarly the hill was on XC. All these things, plus the 4 hour drive to get there, left me less than enthused about making the trip.

Now in hindsight, I won’t say they were wrong (the drive definitely requires attention, even on the easier approach), but I’m so glad I went.

I got there mid-afternoon on Friday, and after settling Jack in discovered that they were allowing people to school in the coliseum, which was where our dressage was to be. So I took Jack for a hand walk inside, then did our normal lonnnnnng walk warm up before running through a 20 minute flat school. Despite the scary noises- people walking above, doors opening and closing, the buzz of the electric lights- Jack took it all in beautifully given that this was his first time encountering such a place.

Saturday we did our pre-ride around 10am, and I kept the actual work part very short so as to save him for later. Even still, when I got back on 30 minutes before our test, he felt a little sluggish. I don’t normally carry my whip for the actual test, but I kept it on me and spent a lot of time working to get him to unlock his back and stay in front of my leg. A few transitions and I headed into the coliseum.

As expected, Jack got a little tense being alone in there with the scary hoomans now sitting at the table. I tried to let him get a good look at the judges up close, but it wasn’t long before the bell rang for us to begin. Because there was space and to try to get his back unlocked again, I quickly threw in a canter circle and headed down centerline.

The tension approaching the judges was obvious and less than desirable, but I’m pretty proud of the test we put in despite that.

I thought the judge was fair, and she definitely picked up on our weaker right lead canter. Her overall comments are spot on- it is a risk right now with Jack to ask for more, and we’re slowly developing more relaxation in the ring so that I can try for a bigger trot without tension marring his gaits and suppleness. I was able to try for it in a few places in our test, like the circles and the trot diagonal, but it’s not consistent throughout the test.

Overall this was a huge learning moment for us, and to say I am proud of how Jack handled it would be a vast understatement- I am thrilled with him despite the scary judges for how mature he was in that environment. We ended up with a 26 which put us in 2nd out of 18, and well placed to tackle the big cross country!

Show Recap: May War Horse Novice Dressage

Lucky me, I was the first ride of the day at 8 am on Sunday, and so didn’t have time to do my typical pre-ride (read: was not willing to wake up even earlier to go ride in the dark), but figured we’d give it our best shot with a slightly longer warm up than usual, and incorporate my 20 min of walk work there.

Honestly, I felt like we won the warm up. He was forward, relaxed, listening, getting beautiful departs in the canter- I was thrilled. But when we walked over to the dressage court, I felt a bit of tension building in Jack. Of course he hadn’t seen the white fencing up close for a while, and though I tried to give him all the pats and options to see it, the judge rang us in before he truly settled.

The first half of the test felt a little electric as a result, and you can see where he gets a bit hollow and against my hand at times. My geometry was also not at its best- one of the faults to being the first rider in is that there are no tracks to go by, and I didn’t realize how much I rely on this at a show (whereas at home I do make myself think about it- will definitely pay attention going forward!).

I don’t think it was our best test ever- in general I like him to be a little more relaxed and swinging through his back, but opted for forward in this test instead. So while the judge was fair and marked us down where appropriate, we apparently still made enough of an impression that we sat just behind Andrew McConnon for 2nd place after the dancing was done.

Lots to improve on, but a decent way to start the day!

Show Recap: Longleaf HT Novice Dressage

By now I feel fairly confident in Jack’s show routine, and he’s starting to feel a little more confident in it too.

He needs time to get to the venue and take it all in, so Friday we got there nice and early (before the potentially-tornado-holding-storms arrived) and went on a long flat ride. I made myself do a full 20 minutes of work at the walk- which normally means lateral work (shoulder-in, haunches-in, leg yield, walk half pass in each direction) until he settles, and then work on stretchy walk and medium walk transitions. When he feels loose, we start doing a baby trot and working in almost-walk and actual walk transitions to get him listening to my half halts. This also so far is exactly what my ‘pre-ride’ looks like the next day.

Eventually I’ll start doing canter transitions and work through a few elements of my test before finding a quiet calm note to end on. Jack was really good and relaxed Friday, and came back mentally very quickly despite the fact that the tent catching the wind like a sail occasionally caused a spook or two.

Saturday, I got him out of his stall and went for a walk around the grounds before tacking him up and doing said pre-ride. We stopped after one canter depart in each direction and a centerline, so that he still had plenty of gas in the tank for our dressage test later.

So by the time we got to our actual dressage warm-up, Jack had seen the rings from a riding point of view twice. He felt relaxed, even a tish lazy, so I was careful not to go too crazy getting him really forward in the warmup and leave nothing for us in the dressage court. A quick glance from the coach to make sure we didn’t look terrible, and we went over to the ring.

Jack being a spooky guy, I made sure to walk him around the perimeter of the arena a couple times and give him lots of scratches next to the judge. I felt pretty confident going down centerline, and was disappointed when we had 2 decent sized spooks mar our test.

The judge practically had to score us down for the one approaching E since it was so obvious, which was unfortunate. Otherwise the test felt obedient and I made sure to show good geometry as much as possible.

I knew I didn’t have the free walk I really wanted, but didn’t want to put too much leg on and break gait, so subsided with getting the reach and swing without having the forward I would have liked. I also overshot centerline slightly, but overall was happy with the quality of the test, despite the couple bobbles.

The judge rewarded us with a 26.4, putting us at the top of the leaderboard going into cross country.

But more on cross country tomorrow!

Show Recap: SPHT Novice dressage

It’s been a hell of a week. And at times when I wanted to blog most I had either no time, no brainpower, or no computer handy. #firstworldproblems amirite?!

But onto the show.

For the last couple months, I’d been working though the Novice B test in a committed way- something about those changes of direction from B to E and vice versa give me a certain form of heartburn. Add in that out right lead center depart had been, let’s say, a bit dramatic/erratic, and I was more than a little worried.

As most horse folks know, recognized shows are not exactly cheap. They represent a significant investment monetarily,  and of course also occupy a decent chunk of mental space and hours preparing to boot. They aren’t exactly a throw-away scenario, and I wanted this show to count, as much as possible. Feeling like I hadn’t prepared enough was the scenario I wanted to avoid most.

Anyways, that is all to say that I schooled the hell out of that test. Mostly not all at once but in pieces, because I’ve discovered that this is the best way to avoid serious frustration and make for a better test in the long run.

We arrived at the show Friday just after lunch, and had plenty of time to do a long walk warmup (like 25 min) before running through a test situation. Saturday I did my pre-ride as planned, and though tense at first, felt like Jack settled fairly well.

Our warmup for the actual event was not quite as relaxed, but with a bit of coaching he felt as good as possible and we entered the ring early.

Bar the free walk, I really am quite happy with the test. There were moments when I felt like I could have asked for more impulsion, but at the risk of getting tense, I feel ok with the result. The only part that really fries me is the free walk- normally this is an easy 8 or 9 for us. But as you can hear in the video, our OK-ish free walk was also interrrupted by a big spook in the ring next to us, just out of sight of the camera. Jack looked up understandably, then came back to me like the good boy he is, but in a short arena even that blip was enough to earn us a 6.5.

In the end, we ended up scoring a 27.4, which earned us 3rd place in a pack of 16. I won’t lie that the free walk score sort of sticks in my craw, but luckily some well meaning Instagram folks have been good about giving me a better way of looking at things.

I guess, when you’ve been building up for a return like this, or a show that you’ve been preparing for for months at a time, you let it become this gargantuan goal that it should never be. Horses are animals, and even if yours is perfect, it doesn’t mean that someone else’s isn’t going to be a distraction. That ended up being true for show jumping as well, which I’ll get into tomorrow.

Horses, man. Always a teaching opportunity. Always giving us an opening to become a better, wiser human being. Gosh darn it, we have to love them and hate them for that. Anyways, tomorrow (if I’m lucky), I’ll recap SJ!

Show Recap: Jack’s Novice CT with another pilot

While I was in sunny Florida stalking gorgeous [$$$] ponies, my own pony was trudging through the mud and muck, competing with another rider. Before the show she had taken a jumping lesson on him, and flatted him once on her own. Luckily though, she’s a talented rider (just placed 2nd at Pine Top’s Prelim!) and sensitive enough to absolutely have no problem with my occasionally spastic yellow pony.

Since I wasn’t there, I can’t go into the day in detail, but obviously it didn’t go too shabby. Together they scored a 27.9 in Dressage, which was fourth after a 3-way tie for 1st place (score 27.1 – dang it!). The video shows a test that is accurate with only small moments of tension, and I’m pleased that Jack had a fairly confidence boosting experience.

Then there was showjumping. Jack typically warms up beautifully for showjumping, then goes into the arena and ‘pings’ off all the fences in total sensory overload (the colors! the ferns! the poles! ah!). And you can see that A had a bit of that ride herself, though she implements the gag bit better than I to get his frame in a better shape so we wouldn’t go hollow over the fences.

They did get one rail, as you can see- where he got hollow on the approach and took out the back rail of an oxer. But overall, again, a really nice round that looked more settled than normal. Which is all I wanted!

Fake news

They accidentally recorded an extra rail, but Jack would have placed 5th overall. Since it’s a CT, and I wasn’t riding, I could care less, but it was good to see that overall he did fairly well in a course that looked like it caused lots of rails down.

In general, I’m happy with the experience that this rider gave him. I would say I would have preferred myself to be in the tack, but given the weather conditions, I won’t – Florida was glorious and that show looked wet and miserable. #sorrynotsorry

The next time we hit up the horse park it will be for a recognized show- and there’s a lot to prep between now and then! Thanks A for the great ride 🙂