Monday, March 6, 2017

Why do We Spend so Much Time and Money on This Crazy Obsession?

This is my attempt to turn a speech into an essay, so please forgive me my loose interpretation of many rules of grammar. I gave this speech Feb 25th at the French Creek Equestrian Association's Annual Meeting and Awards Banquet.  Fay Seltzer asked me to write it up for the blog, so here it is.

Why do We Spend so Much Time and Money on This Crazy Obsession?

When French Creek Equestrian Association’s president Fay Seltzer asked me to speak at this year’s annual meeting and awards banquet, she asked for a “husband friendly topic.”  After mulling this over for a bit, observing husbands at our recent schooling show, and batting the topic around with my husband, I came to the conclusion that the question every husband ponders is “what is it about horses that make my wife so happy?”  The “happy wife, happy life” thing only scratches the surface.

As a professional horseperson, I often wonder what motivates my students.  I see their over-booked lives. I see the sacrifices they make, both financially and time-wise, to be at the barn. I see how they struggle with fear and frustration to achieve their goals. I gear my business to helping them get satisfaction from the horses they love.  And I (well, my husband, actually) wonder why.

From a psychology standpoint, the horse-human relationship has not been studied much.  Equine Assisted Psychotherapy utilizes horses as mimics of human emotions to help with anxiety, PTSD, depression, anger management, and the list goes on. EAP has been a breakthrough for people who don’t respond to traditional “talk therapies.” 

According to Dr Gardner, in an interview for The Guardian, “One of the reasons I think equine-assisted therapies work so well is that everyone has a reaction to horses; nobody is indifferent. People either love them or fear them, so that's two big emotions that immediately reflect what most of life's issues revolve around.”

Although EAP is a far cry from the way most of us enjoy our horses, Dr Garner may be on to part of the “addiction” to horses.  Later in the article, he goes on to say,  "It has been clinically documented that just being around horses changes human brainwave patterns. We calm down and become more centered and focused when we are with horses," he says. "Horses are naturally empathetic. The members of the herd feel what is going on for the other members of the herd."

In our often over-scheduled life, a place of calm is often worth the price.

Taking this a bit further, I find many horse people are what I’ll call “friendly introverts.” They meet the introvert checklist, as Dr. Susan Whitbourne wrote for Psychology Today, a few of which are:

       1. You enjoy having time to yourself
       2. Your best thinking occurs when you’re by yourself
       3. You don’t initiate small talk with salespeople or others with whom you have casual contact. 
       4. You often wear headphones when you’re in a public situation. 
 5. You prefer not to engage with people who seem angry or upset.

I think most of these apply to horse people, especially dressage riders, particularly the last one. The article goes on to describe studies documenting introverts “re-directing” from high-emotion situations—redirecting their eyes in mild cases and physically leaving extreme emotional settings.

This ties in so easily to a common horse training technique – when a horse becomes tense or afraid, trainers often change the topic, wait for the horse’s emotions to settle, and then return to the scary/tense thing. As introverts, this behavior is hard-wired into us, and we get rewarded for being who we naturally are.

A student of mine takes it a bit further, and describes how her horse helps her bridge the gap between her strong introvert personality and casual interaction. She said:

 “When I talk about my pony to non-horse people, I talk about his personality. I tell stories where I interpret his attitude as if he were speaking to me. I like to tell stories about how patient and stoic he is. I talk about how fun it is when he runs around with the youngsters in the pasture. I tell stories about the times when all the other horses are running around and he looks up, decides it’s crazy to expend so much energy, and then goes back to eating. I talk about how fuzzy he is in winter. And then I show them pictures like he’s my baby.My friends notice that I tend to get more animated when I’m talking about Karison.”

Talking about Karison helps Cheryle bridge the gap of uncomfortable small talk so common in introverts, thereby making her more at ease.

Getting back to the barn aisle, stable life helps us horse people keep connections with friends and family that share our interest.  Just as a Star Wars buff finds his “herd” at Comic Con, we find our herd at the barn, at the show, at the paper chase, or at the hunt.

In the English language, the word loneliness doesn’t have an opposite. Light has its opposite in dark; anger has its opposite in joy.  But loneliness doesn’t have a word that describes it’s opposite.  Maybe belonging is that opposite.  The barn creates that for us.

I overhear conversations in my barn, and they so closely resemble what Stanford Assistant professor Gregory Walton calls “belonging intervention.” The three principles of “belonging intervention” are:
You are not alone.
You belong.
And it gets better

Walton studied “belonging intervention” in minority groups of college freshman. In his work, the “test groups” were counseled in the above three key ideas. That counseling impacted their academic performance and, surprisingly to Walton, their health.  The impact lasted through not only college, but until the end of the study, three years college. 

I overhear conversation that lines up with “belonging intervention” in my barn aisle regularly. Every time a rider is going through a difficult training stage, or a nagging lameness, or struggling to balance barn life and “real life,” I hear other boarders telling them they are not alone, listening to them, helping them, and reminding them that it gets better.  That shared empathy, that community, that belonging—churches offer it, social clubs offer it, and  barns offer it.

And when it’s going well, does it get any better than a great ride?
We often talk about a great ride as being “in the zone,” which psychologists refer to as “flow state.”
Flow state - also known as “the zone,” is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.

Situations that can have flow often have these two characteristics:
              High interest
              High but achievable technical skill

Flow is an actual brain-chemistry state, when the norepinephrine (brain chemical of alertness) and dopamine (brain chemical of interest) balance to make that magic mental cocktail, where we are totally in the moment. 
Pulling from Mikaly Csikszentmihalyi’s web site (he is, incidentally the author of the book entitled, Flow), several elements are involved in achieving flow.

·       There are clear goals every step of the way.
·       There is immediate feedback to one’s actions.
·       There is a balance between challenges and skills.
·       Action and awareness are merged.
·       Distractions are excluded from consciousness.
·       There is no worry of failure.
·       Self-consciousness disappears.
·       The sense of time becomes distorted.
·       The activity becomes an end in itself.

The best part is that this wonderful state can be created so easily in the barn. A quick Google search will find a “cookbook” of how to create flow, and a few of those steps are pretty much built into horseback riding:

1. Rituals to begin event. In our world, those rituals include grooming and tacking.
2. Be mindful (aware, but non-judgmental) about your thoughts. This state is easily created in the early stages of the ride as you plan the workout.
3. Being aware of your emotional state and modulating it as needed.   Every horse person does this – it’s windy, my youngster looks frisky, am I ok with that or should we lunge first?
4. Cadence training (focusing on a sound or song) or targeting to help narrow focus.  Just listen to a horse trot, and you can’t miss the cadence.

So whether it’s the sense of calm, the sense of connection, or just the mental “high” of a good ride, we all have the addiction.  Sorry husbands.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Add-a-Bead Dressage Education

Sometimes I feel like my dressage education is an add-a-bead necklace. I take lessons, I ride and audit clinics, and I observe riders, and each educational opportunity gives me a new pearl to add to my chain. In the weeks since the Judge’s Forum and FEI Trainer’s conference in West Palm Beach and Loxahachee FL, I’ve found my teaching and riding sprinkled with the pearls I gleaned from my trip.

The first pearl was for me. The major reason I make the trek down each year is to re-set my standard. Winter in PA creates a challenge—how do I keep my standard high throughout the long months of riding alone? During the summer, I can sit ringside at shows, observing the JJ Tates of the world, and let my cognitive learning skills do their magic. I watch skilled rider’s body alignment, quietly effective aids, and the volume of their corrections.  This information worms itself into my brain, and my mounts respond. But the magic doesn’t last forever, so by mid January, 12 weeks after our last show, my training was feeling a bit stale.

After two days of watching 7 CDI Level riders, including such names as Canada’s WEG rider Karen Pavicic on her up-and-coming mare Beaujolais, and Beatrice Marienau aboard her Nation’s Cup mount Stefano 8, develop their horses, my internal dressage eye is reset, my brain is working out new training ideas, and my arena time now feels much more inspired.

Venus was the recipient of the next pearl. She often comes into the arena a touch on the unresponsive side. For her, the pearl came from Alexandra du Celliee Muller’s lesson on her mount, Rumba. I watched as Alexandra tried to subtly, tactfully bring Rumba more in front of her aids, and how that made her seat more and more crooked, just like happens to me on Venus. Then, as the clinicians Lilo Fore and Hans Christan Matthiesen encouraged her to get a better reaction, Alexandra gave him a strong (but not ugly) correction, to which Rumba splattered forward, dropped his poll, and lost the collection. Ah, Venus and I know this pattern well.

Lilo gave cooking advice that clearly resonated with Alexandra. She described cooking soup, and how when the soup needs salt, you don’t come in with the entire bag, because if you get the soup too salty, it’s tough to fix it. Instead you add salt, you taste it, and then you add more if needed.

Was the result magical? I’d be lying if I said Lilo’s words made a 100% turnaround, but it did make a difference, in not only Rumbas balance, but Alexandra’s straightness. Lilo made clear to all of us, riders, judges, and auditors, that this is not a quick-fix problem. And, of course, as horses are apt to do, Rumba set out to prove Lilo wrong – he came in on day two more uphill and more prompt in his responses.

Slingshot also received a pearl, this time from Dana Fiore’s lesson on So Special. So Special wanted to come short and deep in the neck, putting too much weight on his shoulders, which affected his suspension. Dana applied the clinician’s corrections to “show him the way up” through variations in shoulder in– the two that made the biggest difference were trot-walk in shoulder in, and varying the angle of shoulder in while maintaining the same bend. Throughout the ride, So Special’s trot gained more and more airtime.

My students and I all received a pearl from Karen Pavicic’s lesson on Beaujolais and Debbie Hill’s lesson on Cartier, a 9-year-old Dutch Harness Horse (who, incidentally, at one point in his career came through New Holland horse auction). Both horses were big, powerful moving horses, with a ton of bounce in their gait, and a tendency to carry their heads high. The corrections – focusing on hands going with seat bones in the canter, connecting calves to the bouncy horse, and making collection changes in small increments to help the horse understand to use their hips instead of their neck, keep getting repeated in my home sandbox, both to myself and my students.

Like an add-a-bead necklace, each pearl I gain creates a more complete string of knowledge on how to better develop horses and riders in this beautiful sport.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Seat Toy Box

Of course, it's No Stirrup November, and SFD just began a no-stirrup challenge on the Straight Forward Dressage Facebook page, so a blog post about the seat seemed fitting.

One student very frankly told me why she booked her first lesson with me. She said she was tired of being beat by my students at shows, and that all of my students had nice seats. I took that as high praise.  Another SFD student is a two-time blue ribbon holder from Dressage Seat Equitation at Dressage at Devon - heck, every SFD student who competed in DSE ribboned in that division in 2015 and 2016. Go Team SFD!

So how exactly do I build that seat? Jokingly, I tell people I take stirrups away, tie them to the saddle, and chase them with whips. Which is actually pretty close to the truth.  SFD students spend time on the lunge lunge line, they work without stirrups, and from time to time, they ride with various "toys."

The SFD seat method is based on two ideas.
1) The dressage seat takes fitness, and fitness comes from work, both on the horse and off of the horse.
2) In order to recreate the correct feel on a horse, you need to first feel it. Which is where the "toys" come in.

So here's my build-a-seat "toy" box. Each of the "toys" is selected to help the rider get a certain feeling, with hopes that the rider can re-create a tiny bit of that feeling without the "toy."  None of these "toys" are perfect, each has quirks and limitations, but point of the "toys" is to create a feeling, not perfection.   (fwiw, none of the affiliated "toy" companies have approached me about this blog.)

Of course, we start with the lunge line. Lots and lots of time on the lunge line. With stirrups, without stirrups, with one stirrup, doing funky exercises with arms. doing funky exercises with legs, etc. This builds fitness, balance, and confidence.

This is the Unisit. It really is a seat belt that holds the rider's thighs in the saddle. It does a good job showing students how to lengthen the thigh and reach down with the knees, engaging the abdominal muscles and the inner thigh muscles.

The Unisit does have it's limitations though -- it pulls riders a bit too much on the front of the seat (making it uncomfortable in delicate places), it can make thighs a bit grippy, and  it  keeps rider's seats very straight in the saddle -- some horses are reluctant to canter in it.  Also, if the saddle doesn't fit the horse, horses will get resistant in it.

This is the Unisit on a rider. You can see how it encourages a long thigh. 

This is the Equicube. It is a 3.2 lb weight that riders hold with their reins. It is held in front of the saddle, just above the withers.  I often use it right after the Unisit, as holding a weight out in front of the body encourages riders to lean back to counterbalance the weight, resulting in students sitting more on their seat bones--which corrects the Unisit's problem of putting riders a bit on the front of their seats. In addition, the Equicube helps riders tap into steering with both reins and their seat. Most riders feel the Equicube in their abdominal muscles and in their upper back.

The problem with the Equicube is two-fold -- 1) holding a whip along with a weight and reins is tough, so lazy horses will take advantage. 2) the weight is a bit much for younger riders and riders with shoulder injuries.  I wish they made an Equicube-light.

This is a metronome. The base of the training scale is rhythm with correct tempo and energy.  Most horses change tempos depending on the figure and where they are in the workout, and riders politely adjust their seats to the horse's tempo.  Giving riders a set "tick" in their ear encourages riders to set the tempo instead of following the horse's tempo.

The trick to getting the most benefit from the metronome is insisting that riders RIDE the tempo, instead of correcting the horse to the tempo. If the rider keeps correcting the tempo, the horse will overshoot it - first slower, then faster, then slower -- instead of the horse locking into following the rider. Most riders are a bit sore everywhere when they first start using a metronome, as controlling 1,000 lb horse takes clarity of movement.

These are my low-tech bits of baling twine. The orange one is a loop, that I use to help wandering hands. Often, as riders concentrate on seat, leg, balance, steering, the hands go wandering off a bit. By slipping this loop in the velcro of gloves, it gives a gentle reminder to keep hands up.

The two blue ones are used to  tie elbows to belt loops, again to give riders a feeling of when their elbows are drifting away.

Hands and elbows often wander when the horse is just a little behind the leg -- not backed off enough to appear slow, but backed off enough to not be stepping fully into the contact. Rider's widen their hands and arms to maintain the lighter contact.. These two tools help riders notice that wandering created by the backing off, and correct the horse with their leg -- hopefully before I notice it. 

These are the newest addition to my toy box -- the Perfect Heel from PS of Sweden.  Tucked in side of these Velcro-on heels are two weights.  I use them for two scenarios.

First, if a student has worked hard with out stirrups to create a nice, long thigh and deep seat, but once we add the stirrups back the seat begins to bounce, these heels are quite helpful. That bounce is coming from ankles that tighten when they feel the steady surface of the stirrup. Add the Perfect Heel helps the rider re-create the "draped" feeling of no stirrup work, while keeping the stirrup platform under their foot.

Second, for students who tend to use their heel to do all of their leg aids, the Perfect Heel will encourage a stretched calf from which to aid.  Once that feeling is established. riders are more easily able to tap into individual parts of their leg as aids -- the inner thigh, the knee, the calf, and the heel.    I see this a lot in riders on smaller horses, where the horse's belly falls away from the lower leg. 

This is another shot of the Perfect Heel where you can see the weights. They are removable. Most riders feel the difference with two weight plates in the heel, but I take one plate out for my younger students.

Friday, November 4, 2016

KHDTS Symposium Report

We were unloading at the BLMs when I received the e-mail from Jann, the secretary at Hassler Dressage, that Secret and I had been selected in the upcoming KHDTS (Klimke Hassler Dressage Training Symposium) Oct 28-30 2016.   Which is awesome, and a bit terrifying, all at the same time.

The next e-mail asked for permission to use video from the clinic as part of an online video library.  I agreed, as it seems like the right thing to do. Then noted my nervous-meter creeping up.

My Facebook feed and inbox started filling with more and more ads for the clinic, then the Saturday reception was advertised as full.  From attending previous clinics at Hasslers, I know that means close to 200 auditors – nervous-meter cranked up another click.

Linda was right with me.  She checked out the rider list, and realized that not only was Secret the only non-warmblood, she was the only mare.  I was pretty sure we would also be at least 5 inches shorter than any other horse there.

The week before, my groom was on vacation. She returned to work on Thursday, and my working student, who had been trying to muscle through work with a stomach bug, gave up and called out sick. Which pushed packing for the clinic to Friday morning, with us leaving early afternoon--nothing like a little frantic activity on top of nerves.

I am a chronic over-packer.  With the temperature doing it’s normal PA fall fluctuations, and nerves telling me I need to look tidy no matter what, I just kept throwing in more and more clothes.   Then, in last-minute panic, I tossed in yet another outfit.   If nerves completely sabotaged my riding, at least I’d look tidy.
Check out that boot polish - the square is a reflection of the window pane, and my boots are not patent leather. This is a bright, shiny example of nerves.

In the spirit of getting the most out of the weekend, I signed up for an additional lesson with Michael on Friday. I tend to ride like a robot when I’m getting used to a new instructor, so I thought it best  to get that out of my system before the auditors showed up.  

I made my hellos to Michael, told him a bit about Secret – age, show experience, her highlights (canter pirouettes), what I’d like improved (more cadence in the trot, help with her hard flying change), and Scott added that he thought Secret would be a good horse to show the auditors about early piaffe/passage training. I purposely didn’t mention her breeding.

Michael watched me warm up, then stopped to discuss the training plan. I realized (and he commented) that I was out of breath – yep, I was in total nervous mode, complete with holding my breath. 

 We went to work, in a format that he held to in all of the lessons – first transitions within the gait, go a bit from the leg, come back with the upper body to test the half halt. Once he was happy with that, then trot canter transitions until they were fluid. Then into the work phase.

First we spent time in the working pirouettes.  He had me ride her a bit more up in the shoulders, and had me use my upper body more firmly to help with the collection.  He asked me to ride the first step of the pirouette small, then make them bigger as we went, and stressed that I needed to know how many strides I wanted to put in my pirouette before I began it.  Then he sent me across the diagonal, with instructions to ride a full pirouette at X.  My mind got a bit racy – I have ridden full working pirouettes on Secret, and technical, show-pretty half pirouettes, but I had not asked her to give me a show-quality, at-a-specific-spot-in-the-arena full pirouette.

I headed out, collected, rode the first half of the pirouette well, then, like a nit whit, started pumping with my upper body in the second half. Secret politely covered for my messy riding.  The good news is Michael let us do it again, and I rode like I actually have sat on a horse before in my life.

Then Michael gave us a break and asked me about her breeding. When I told him, he said, “when you came in, I wondered what pony is this? But then she goes to work, and she can do the job.”  I admit, I enjoyed that Secret surprised him.

Next Michael came in with the in-hand whip. I had done a little bit with Secret between the BLMs and this clinic, just teaching her to walk and halt from my body language and voice on the ground, and teaching her lift each leg when it is touched with the whip.  Secret is half Arab, so she picks up on “tricks” quickly.

We made a good start on the piaffe, so we moved on to the changes.  Secret has had trouble with her right-to-left change. Recently I made some equipment changes, and as a result she was keeping her back more lifted and the changes were coming clean at home.  But I had been getting them clean by letting her go in a lower frame for the changes, and doing them early in the ride while her back strength was fresh.  Now we were late in the workout, and I was no-way going to lower her frame in front of the German. 

So the changes were messy.  Michael took my stirrups and whip away, to get me sitting back more in the changes.   We played with several different patterns, to find the one where she could keep her frame up AND do a clean change. Then we rewarded her.

He watched a few half passes in trot and canter, which he announced were “fine,” and we wrapped up the first lesson. I was starting to think I’d be ok in front of all of the auditors.

At the rider’s meeting shortly after my lesson, Jann announced that the riders needed to meet with the videographer for a short interview.  Interview? On camera? The nerves jumped right back up.

I had a bit of time between my lesson and dinner, so I went for a short run to burn off the rest of my stupid nervous energy, then grabbed a shower and headed out to the rider’s dinner.  Food, wine, and laughing at funny stories dissipated the rest of my nerves, so I figured I had a chance at sleeping.

I was a mid-morning ride, so to keep me from fretting, I braided Secret and Eiren Crawford’s mount, Godot SSF.  Both turned out pretty nicely, if I do say so myself.

In our Saturday lesson, Secret proved she understood how to lift her hind legs, by picking them up the minute Michael came near her, before he even cued, which generated chuckles from the audience. She tried a bit too hard in the in hand work, resulting in a bit of rushed, quick steps.  She redeemed herself in the pirouette work, making even better quality pirouettes than the day before.

That night was the lecture, and here’s some cut-and-pastes from my notes:

·         Riders  are responsible to be theoretically fit. Not just rely on the trainer on the ground.
·         Replace  'why won't he' with looking at it from the horse's perspective.
·         Teach a horse a movement - 'get it done.' Once you can get it done,  then time to polish.
·         For every time you have to ride a transition, it's reacting.  Every time you ride a transition because you want to, that's training.  Same with half halt.
·         If the gaits change when go into lateral work, it is a problem. Fix it before the movement.
·         Balance control with quality of gait/beauty.
·         Ideally should be able to dial the positive tension up or down.

After the lecture, Carol Havelka, the videographer, cornered the riders for our interviews.  Cue the nerves—instantly I was at full blown to panic. I had crazy helmet-hair that was hidden under a ball cap and my chin was peeling from windburn the weekend before. I borrowed a lipstick from Linda, and as I used my reflection in a window to put it on, I didn’t realize until afterwards that my eyeliner had melted when I rode, giving me two nice raccoon eyes. 

Then, to make it even better, I stuttered in the interview, mispronounced Linda’s last name, and got mentally flustered. I was trying to describe Secret’s work ethic, and between the thoughts of “10 on try” and “100% effort every day,” I managed to make her a 10% try horse.  I hope Carol is an editing wizard, as I didn’t give her much to work with. The video will be online in January, and I don’t intend to ever watch my interview. Ever.

On Sunday, after the warm up, we began with patterns to help her changes, and tons of rewards when she got her harder change clean and right with my aids. 

For the half steps,  Michael wanted to do the in hand work without a rider. Secret proved she had been thinking about it in her stall, and by the end gave some lovely, recognizable piaffe steps.  He announced she had “ability for piaffe,” which is high praise from a German.

Then with me up, we did a ton of transitions between half steps in sitting trot, then forward rising trot to help create more swing in her trot. We didn’t turn her into a warmblood by any means, but I could feel her starting to use her back in a more swinging way in the trot. When we played with the medium trot, she was more able to lengthen he strides without defaulting to her usual quicker strides.  This is an area we will continue to work on, but I felt true progress in the quality of her trot this weekend.

We ended the lesson with some half pass work. During one half pass, he had me move my inside hand more away from her neck. Then he asked me to keep my hands closer together, so I moved my outside hand over, and felt Secret wrap her body more around my leg with no shifting in her balance. That was really cool.

I am now home, and with videos of my lessons as well as notes from my and the other rider’s lessons, I’m inspired for the fall training season. 

Thank you to Scott and Suzanne Hassler for including me in this event, to the staff of Hassler Dressage for keeping all of it running smoothly, and to all of the event sponsors that helped make this happen. Thank you to Linda, for being Secret and my biggest cheerleader up the levels. Special thanks for Secret, for covering most of my nervous-nitwit moments.  And a special thanks to Michael Klimke, for giving so much of his knowledge to all of us.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Hard Part of Showing

I love showing horses, truly I do. I enjoy the training and strength-building process, then taking that training and polishing it up until it is performance ready. I enjoy figuring out how to ride each movement so that it earns the most possible points, every time. 

I enjoy writing the pre-show training schedule, timing the hacks and variety days so that the horses are mentally ready as well as physically ready.  I like writing the show schedule (yea, I’m weird like that), playing trailer-packing Tetras so things easily come out in the most efficient order for set-up – load riding stuff first, then  tack stall hardware, then stable management, so they come out of the trailer in reverse order.

The night-before anticipation, that’s the best. When the actual class is still far enough away that nerves haven’t taken over, and hope runs high. In those moments, we all see Valegro in our mounts, and it is wonderful.   

I enjoy walking my tests in the barn aisle, reviewing the parts that are important to each horse.  I enjoy going over and practicing warm up plans for both my rides and my students. I like clarifying goals for each trip down the centerline, so everyone knows what a “good show” will look like for them.

Sometimes it all works out, I have a ride I’m happy with, and I earn the score I want, we get a pretty ribbon, and everyone is happy.  Those days aren’t hard at all.

Sometimes it  goes well, but I don’t place in the class. Sometimes good riders, mounted on better quality horses than I have, take home the ribbons.  Of course I get a twinge of “I wish I had the ride on that fancy horse,” but those twinges don’t last long. I tend to be a “love what you have” kind of person, so that isn’t the hardest part for me.

Sometimes it doesn’t work out, and I’m stuck dealing with the emotions that come with disappointment. Sometimes my test falls apart for whatever reason, be it environment, weather, or distractions, and my horse’s trust in my aids evaporates.  Sometimes judge thinks less of the ride than I did.  

These days are tough, but they aren’t the hardest part of showing for me. 

After the tough rides, I wouldn’t be a good trainer if I didn’t spend the next weeks dissecting my training, looking for weaknesses in my system.  I wonder if show stress affected my riding, and made the I-thought-we-had-this-solid movement somehow fall apart in the exact moment I needed it to work.  I wonder what I can do to better prepare my horses for the crazy, completely unnatural conditions we call a horse show. 

But even this isn’t the hardest part for me.

The hardest part for me is after the show.  That’s when the ugly inner-demon of self doubt shows up.  And that demon isn’t picky, he’ll rear his nasty head whether the show went well or not.   If the show went well, the demon tells me I got lucky, and “the big boys” weren’t there, or the score could have been higher.  If things have gone poorly, the demon starts in with “A more skilled trainer would do a better job with this horse.” The demon feeds on after-show fatigue.

No matter how solid my track record has been, either with a particular horse or in this sport in general, when I’m show weary, the demon speaks loudly, and ignoring him, and the emotions he dredges up, that’s the hard part for me.   

I suspect anyone who works in a performance industry is plagued by this demon.  Our “what have you done for me lately” society seems to value current success over historical track record.  But horses don’t have the same values. They prosper with long-term consistency, or, in short, good history. 

I battle the demon with rest, a hack, a long groom session to remind me why I love these wonderful animals.  If that isn’t enough, I go with facts – I look at my strengths on each horse, and the trends of their scores.  When all else fails, I whine to my support system, who either look at me like I’m nutty for listening to the silly voices in my head, or get me off the farm for a few hours or more, to remind me that the pseudo-reality called horse shows, that I care so much about, is only a part of who I am as a person.  

But the bitter truth is the demon could be right. My mounts might progress faster, or show better with  different trainer. Then again, the demon may be wrong.  But even if the demon is correct, I know that I have done my best for each and every one of my mounts.  I know that I will continue to hone my skills,  every day, so that tomorrow, my best will be better than it is today.  

Hopefully that is enough to banish the demon.                           

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Where ya been?

I’ve been a bit busy since my last blog post, which, for any self-employed person, is a good thing. But it means that this, my beloved blog and hobby, gets put on the back burner.

It’s been a good summer, with lots of shows, lots of ribbons (check out our Facebook page for stats and such), lots of laughs, lots of delicious meals away from home, a very wet go-kart race, and lots of goals met. We are packing for our last overnighter of the year, and have 2 schooling show championships left on the calendar, and then 2016 show season is a thing of the past. 

One thing that has kept me busy is staffing issues. We’ve had a bit of turnover, and right now have a “help wanted” ad out for weekend help.  I have a super working student right now, but only temporary as she has a semester off from her masters program. So if anyone would like to check out the inside view of a dressage program geared towards helping people achieve their goals, now’s the chance.  Shoot me an e-mail if you are interested.

I have a few half-written blogs, that hopefully I’ll get polished in the next few weeks.

Until then,


Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Continuing Education in Freestyle Judging, hosted by DVCTA

Lois Yukins
On March 19 and 20th, 2016, the Delaware Valley Combined Training Association (DVCTA) hosted the USDF Continuing Education in Freestyle Judging Program. Saturday was filled with a classroom discussion held at New Bolton Center, and Sunday was comprised of live freestyle rides at Ardara Sporthorses. Presenters were Klassic Kur Freestyle Designer Terry Ciotti Gallo and FEI 4* and USEF "S" Judge Lois Yukins. The audience consisted of 12 Participants, made up of L-graduates and USEF-licensed Dressage Judges, approximately 25 auditors and 11 demonstration riders.   

Yukins began the day by describing the path to creating the USDF Continuing Education in Freestyle Judging Program.   Her description began with “a box of stuff” that was handed around the L faculty, but no one could sort out how best add the information into the already-densely-packed L Program itself.  Yukins approached Gallo about the problem, who utilized her enthusiasm for freestyles and background in gymnastics judging to turn the “box of stuff” into this well-thought-out program. 
Lois Yukins
With that introduction, Gallo began Saturday’s lecture.  She started by defining the purpose of the event—to eliminate the “touchy-feely” element of filling in the “artistic impression” side of a freestyle score sheet, which often intimidates judges.  The silence coming from the participants illustrated her point. Terry solved that problem by tossing Easter eggs filled with candy to everyone who contributed to the discussion.
Terry Ciotti Gallo
Participation came more easily as Gallo outlined the specific criteria judges are to use to evaluate each category of the freestyle performance, augmented by video of good examples and poor examples.  By putting the evaluation into familiar judging methodology of “Basics + Criteria +/- Modifiers = Score,” she created a comfortable format for judges to begin their evaluations. 
Gallo began with an example of how music can enhance or detract from the horse’s gaits.  She played a short video clip of Steffen Peters riding Ravel in a trot half pass, and played several music clips with it.  The video clip never changed, but different music made him look lighter and more elegant, while other clips made him look slightly hurried. 
Using this as her segue into explaining methodology for evaluating the “Music” line on the score sheet, Gallo stressed that suitability of the music to the horse is the primary factor in evaluating the “Music” score.  According to Gallo, the criterion for this mark is the suitability of the music for all three gaits.  If the music is suitable, the score starts at a 7.  If the music enhances all three gaits, then the score is higher.  Modifiers that can push the “Music” score higher are cohesiveness, or is there a common thread in the walk, trot, canter music, and seamlessness of the editing. If music is suitable, music works together, and editing is good, it can earn an 8.0 or higher. In summary, the “Music” score is about the music selection and preparation, and is the score least affected by the technical performance.
After that, Gallo tackled the topic of “Interpretation.”   The primary criterion for “Interpretation” is what Gallo called “six-point phrasing.”  She defined “points of phrasing” as times when the horse’s movements changed with a musical phrase or dynamic change. A ride that shows six key “points of phrasing” should earn a 7.0 in the “Interpretation” category.

The six key “points of phrasing” are as follows:

Tracy Basler adn Bondurant awaiting instruction from Terry Gallo
  • 1.       Initial halt and salute
  • 2.       First movement changes
  • 3.       Lengthening or extension in trot
  • 4.       Lengthening or extension in canter
  • 5.       Gait change
  • 6.       Final halt/salute

 If the ride shows more than these six “points of phrasing,” the score can go higher than a 7.0.  Gallo showed her personal shorthand system for counting points of phrasing, where she made tally marks for each point of music phrasing or dynamic change highlighted by the choreography. 

The modifier that can push the “Interpretation” higher is if the music expresses the gait. To illustrate this, Gallo played several music clips, and asked the participants decide if it was walk music, trot music, or canter music.  She stressed that the horse does not need to be “in step” with the music, but if the horse is in step, as this is a very hard thing to do in a show setting, it should be rewarded.  In summary, if a ride expresses more than six points of phrasing, has music that suggests the gait, and the horse’s gaits match the footfalls most of the time, the score should be an 8.0 or higher.

The third element Gallo explained was “Degree of Difficulty.” Evaluating this criteria is pretty clear-cut—if the requirements of the freestyle match the highest test of the level in all three gaits, then the score is a 7.0.  If the freestyle pattern is harder than the highest test of the level, and is performed well, then the score should go above a 7.0.  However, if the choreography includes a difficult movement, but it is not performed well, then the “Degree of Difficulty” score will be reduced.   This score, and the “Harmony” score, are the two scores where the strength of the horse’s basics will impact the number earned.

Next Gallo explained the requirements for the “Choreography” score. “Design Cohesiveness” is listed as the criterion for this category on the score sheet.  According to Gallo, choreography that shows a clear and logical pattern that is easy to follow meets the criteria for a 7.0.  If the pattern uses the entire arena well, shows equal use of right and left rein work, and has some elements used in interesting or uncommon ways, the score should be higher.  This score is mostly independent of technical execution, except when the technical execution makes the choreography hard to see. 

The final element Gallo covered in the lecture is “Harmony,” which relies largely on the technical execution of the freestyle.  Gallo said she put this discussion last because it is comprehensive of the entire freestyle performance.  To earn a high “Harmony” score, the horse needs to be calm and attentive, and the freestyle should look easy and fluid.  If the horse shows some tension issues during the ride, the harmony score should be below a 7.0. 

Gallo and Yukins also discussed that the FEI Freestyle sheet differs a little from the USDF Freestyle score sheet, placing “Rhythm, energy and elasticity” on the artistic side of the score sheet, whereas USDF places the equivalent score, worded as “Gaits, Impulsion and Submission,” on the technical side of the sheet.

Day two involved using live horses to allow the participants to practice their new methodology.  After Gallo used a live horse to demonstrate how she selects suitable music, Yukins took the lead in discussing scores for each of the 10 demo rides. 

The demo rides ranged from a training level teenager on a pinto pony to a Pas de Deux to a CDI rider’s Intermediate freestyle. Yukins began by giving a tactful evaluation of the first ride.  Her comments helped each participant understand how she arrived at her numbers, and helped each demo rider understand the strengths and weaknesses of their performance. As the day progressed, she changed tactics and started asking the participant judges to do the evaluating before she revealed her score.  Yukins' gifted teaching skills created a comfortable environment for the candidates to begin to use their new skills, by teasing the high-scorers that “they’d get hired a lot” and accusing the low-scorers of “Sunday grumpies.” By the last few rides, participant’s scores were very similar to Yukins and Gallo’s marks.

After two days of education, participants came away with a clear methodology for evaluating freestyle rides.

Lois Yukins discusses scores with the participating judges

DVCTA would like to thank Lois Yukins and Terry Gallo for sharing their knowledge of judging freestyles with all who attended.  Your style and your wit create such a positive learning environment for all involved.  Many thanks to all our volunteers and to our demonstration riders without whom this weekend would not have been so productive:

Karen Anderson / Fhinland - Third Level
Lauren Annett / Savannahh - Intermediate
Tracey Basler / Bondurant - First Level
Anecia Delduco / Captain Morgan - Fourth Level
Melanie Delduco / Flacon - Fourth Level and Pas de Deux
Lauren Kramer / Mazur - First Level and Pas de Deux
Rebecca Langwost-Barlow / Chesapeake - Intermediate
Silva Martin / Aesthete - Intermediate
Jordan Osborne / Domino - Training Level
Jamie Reilley / Feinest Proof - Second Level

Melanie Delduco and Flacon