Monday, October 25, 2010

BLM Finals 2010

The easiest way to mess up a perfectly good training flow is to enter a show.  Works every time.

Secret, the super-star good girl, for the two weeks before the BLMs, well, simply wasn’t.  The rides would start out well. Then tension would creep in. She’s half Arabian, so she can do tension. Tension in Arab-speak means quickness.  The other half is Friesian. Tension in Friesian-speak means a chess-piece neck and a hollow back. Then I’d get strong (big show coming – gotta get it right RIGHT NOW).  Secret’s good-girl nature would kick in, and she’d start over-reacting to every aid. Then she’d hit overload, and run away with me. With her neck in already in my lap, I didn’t have brakes.  Great.

On that note, let’s toss her in the trailer and compete with the best horses on the east coast.  Just to add to the fun, let’s take the 4-year-old along. I figured, if I’m going to be embarrassed in public, I’m going to do it right.

Tuesday, as Secret and I are dashing around the arena in a ball of frustration, Ed, who will forever be known as Amazing Shoer Ed, dropped by to reset a couple horses. I dismounted in a storm cloud. I did my usual “Ed, fix this horse.”  He, of course, offered me a lesson, and did his standard line about how he can’t fix training problems with a horse shoe, and then proceeded to do just that.

Guess the mare wanted bigger hind shoes.

Of course, she’s a mare, so this didn’t make her perfect by Wednesday. She still had to trust that I would be trustworthy, which frankly, I hadn’t been. The 45-mph winds on Thursday didn’t help, but even with the wind, she kept getting better and better in all of her reactions. Her scores on Thursday at second level were low 60’s, but as she became more ride-able with every passing moment, she showed me that the trust was returning.  That was much more important to me than high scores.

Friday was our second level championship class, so I asked Scott for warm-up help. Within moments he had us sorted out. He had me focus more on the rolling feel of her gaits, instead of the engagement, and she just floated into her championship class. She was amazing. She read my thoughts and we danced through second level test three. 

Championship classes have two judges, one at C and one at E.  The C judge agreed with me. The other, well, not-so-much. 

Ah, the fun of horse shows.

The C judge awarded her a 65 and change, placing her third in the class. The E judge gave her a low 57%, placing her near the bottom. I’ve seen spreads before, but this particular spread really bothered me. A 65% means your horse is on the right track and all is good. A 57% means either something bad happened, or you and your horse are insecure at the level. With these thoughts churning in my mind, I headed out to ride in the second level test three open class. When I sent in entries, I hoped to use it as the warm-up for the Championship class, but the schedule hadn’t worked out that way. As I looked around warm up, I noticed that most of the other second level championship competitors had the same idea.

I went down the centerline, rolled into the medium, and my mind was churning with thoughts of “Am I messing up this super-fun horse???”, and then into the first shoulder-in, with “no, that friggin’ judge needs her eyes examined,” and on and on it went, rolling between cursing the judge in my mind and wondering if I owed Secret’s mom, Linda, a huge refund.  Meanwhile, Secret is going along under me doing her job, with frankly, very little help from me.

Secret seems to know her job. She earned a 64% and placed third.

So we decided the judge at C was right.

Saturday we had scheduled a lesson with Scott—between their building project  and WEG effecting the show schedule this year, lessons down at Hasslerville have been slim pickings. If we know he’s going to be at a multi-day show, we try to reserve a day for training instead of competing. Lately, the left half-pass in canter seemed to jump-start our tension/runaway cycle. With Scott’s help, we were able to sort out what is physical tension and what is emotional tension, and work out a plan to help Secret through both. She was super. I can’t wait for next year; third level is going to suit her well.

Sunday was our first level championship class. I had low expectations for the class, as at first level she gets dinged a lot for her upright, Friesian neck.  

She warmed up well. Cara was my eyes on the ground, making sure I had the ideal tempo and neck as long as she could balance. The class started really well, with Secret right with me, but as we got further into the test, I could feel the fatigue of a long show. She tried really hard, and did all of her work right with my aids, but her neck got shorter as her gas tank ran low, and I was giving her a lot of help with my seat. 

The judges saw the fatigue, but they also saw the obedience. Her combined score was a 66%--with both judges being within .5 of each other. 

She went at 11:50, and it was a huge class, ending at 4:08, and awards were at 4:20. At lunchtime, her 66% stood her sixth with ribbons to tenth, so we went to lunch in Lexington, hit their awesome bookstore, and then took our time packing. 

When we got back to the showgrounds, she was hanging on to ninth place. At about 3:45, she was bumped out of the ribbons, so we debated leaving or hanging out for the test sheets. By the time Linda had done the Arab paperwork and I had crammed the last things into the trailer, we loaded the horses and pulled around to the office and just as our test sheets were available.

Holy crap the little black mare gave me a 10 and two 9’s.

The halt at A earned a 10 from one judge at C and the 9 from the judge at E. The other 9 was on the leg yield on her harder side from the C judge, who could really see her crossing, and rewarded her lateral suppleness.

SIing, of course, was a star schooling with the big boys all weekend.  He and I had two lessons with Scott. He handled the distractions much better than at Devon, and by the end of the week he was letting me re-engage his brain when he lost focus, no small feat for a young mind. In his second lesson he gave me glimpses of the big-boy canter to come. Wow, this horse is going to be amazing.

Now I’m home and back to reality. This week we move into our new home at Journeys’ End Farm in Glenmoore, Pa.  The week after we have one more show – the OVCTA Big Fall Show, then the season is completely over. This last show has me really excited about the winter’s training.

Pictures to come, I promise!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Warm-up Ring Safety

A year ago, at the OVCTA Big Fall Show, an accident occurred in warm-up. A competitor was seriously hurt. She was life-flighted from the show grounds and spent several months recovering. She has made a complete recovery. Thankfully, her story has a happy ending.

A few months back, she came to our OVCTA board meeting to discuss warm-up safety. Not etiquette, safety. Her thoughts and resulting suggestions made extremely good sense. Since then, I’ve been preaching it to my students ad nauseam. Of course, riding a youngster at Dressage at Devon got me even more fired up about this particular soap box.

The soap box goes like this—when you get on a horse, you are responsible for the safety of everyone around you. You cannot blame the horse, or the left-shoulder-to-left-shoulder rule that half of the world forgets. You, as pilot, need to keep your eyes up and keep your horse far enough away from other horses  to prevent accidents by preventing herd instinct from kicking in, literally or proverbially. 

Horses are horses, and are hard-wired to certain instinctual behavior, regardless of their training. Their instincts say that when a horse is crowding their personal space, he is asserting authority. In a pasture, when Bucky crowds Angel, Angel either moves away from Bucky, showing submission, or fires a kick at Bucky, telling him she’s the boss. Once this hierarchy is established, both Bucky and Angel can happily graze.

Put Bucky and Angel in a crazy, stressful warm-up, in an unfamiliar setting, with a bunch of other strange horses, and, for the horses, hierarchy is up for grabs. This whole equine discussion is going on while we are focused on competing for tiny pieces of satin.

Our race for satin brings out the “it’s-a-horse-show -I’ve-gotta-get-this- absolutely-perfect-right-now” behavior, i.e. looking down, and problems arise. There we are, being all self-focused and perfectionistic, unaware of the battle for herd hierarchy around us, and we don’t notice the other horses until we are too close. 

One of two things happens. Our confident, powerful dressage horse does what dressage training was originally created to do—he clears a path through the battle field. The less confident horse gives way, maybe towards another less confident horse, who also gives way. Or worse, towards another confident war horse, and less confident horse panics. By this point, the rider on the confident horse is half an arena away, not even realizing the chain reaction they started.
Or the second thing happens. The insecure horse tries to look around and get a feel for the heirarchy, which gets the rider correcting the horse’s head and looking down, which makes the horse feel more fussy and claustrophobic, and the rider more tense and frustrated, creating more tension, to the point of boiling. About that time, that confident war horse enters stage right, and the insecure horse looses it. 

In both scenarios, injuries can be prevented if we just stay aware of what’s going on around us. 

As a coach, I can help prevent injuries by making my job of be my student’s “eyes on the ground” on step further. In addition to helping her be confident about her horse’s tempo and balance, and I can also keep her clear of traffic jams. 

As a competitor, I can prevent injuries by keeping my eyes up and communicating with the other competitors.  “Coming up behind you,” or “outside,” said at the last minute does not justify cutting someone off, but said early enough can prevent many disasters. If I’m riding a particularly insecure or inexperienced horse, I can communicate that to my fellow competitors. This does not absolve me of responsibility, but hopefully it will remind my fellow competitors that I’m in there, and to please look around occasionally. Or I can warm up my Nervous Nellie in a quiet, out-of-the-way warm up.

But my contributions are not enough. 

Every one of us needs to wear the responsibility for everyone’s safety like a coat. We need to be aware of each other, and communicate with each other, and know that we, personally, can keep our fellow riders from harm.

Because the best happy ending is the accident that never happened.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Dressage at Devon 2010, Sling’s Trip to the BIG TIME

Dressage at Devon is a magical show each year.  Take the largest DSH breed show in the country, complete with tons of cute, nervous babies, add a prestigious CDI with the fire-breathing FEI horses, then top it off with a kick-butt trade fair, and you have a A LOT going on.  Then cram the whole thing on a show grounds the size of a city block.  Yes, this is a recipe for craziness, and yes, it is an intense show, but somehow it works.

This year, Slingshot, Wendy Adam’s super-star 4-year-old was my ride.  Sling, more than any other horse I ride, has a fan club.  Wendy owns Glory Springs Farm, a big, active boarding barn in Wernersville, where I teach a couple times a month. We joking call it SFD West. Wendy bought Sling in utero from Marilyn Cormier, another student, and he grew up at Glory Springs, so all of the boarders know him.  He’s been with me at Red Bridge since January, and his fun personality combined with his loud snore (this boy can saw some logs) as endeared him to the home SFD crowd.  So when we show, everyone comes out to cheer him on. 
This was Sling's "staff" on Tuesday - he had a whole new crew on Wednesday! 

I love this young horse too.  He’s goofy, personable, honest, gives 110% every ride, and has an AMAZING hind leg.  True to his bloodlines, he is a slow-maturing horse, so Wendy and I decided to wait until he was fully 3 ½ before we started his formal education.  He’s been under saddle since mid-February, and rewarded our patience by being mentally ready to start his show ring education by July. I specify mentally, because every time I enter him in a show, he hits another growth spurt, tipping his balance hither-and-yon, resulting in some interesting dressage tests.  That is the reality of showing young horses. 

I love the young horses.  Helping these young horses learn confidence and trust is really exciting to me.  To build confidence, I have to take the youngsters to the edge of their comfort zone, then bring them back to more comfortable, over and over again.  To build trust, I have to clearly create boundaries for when they are nervous, but I can’t add pressure when they are at that edge.  I have to sense when they are on the edge of overload, and take them to where they feel safe.  I have to be completely ok with any embarrassing shenanigans that may happen.  Often, to help, I enlist an equine babysitter—a seasoned, nothing-bothers-me, no-nonsense horse to help. 

In July, the NJ Horse Park show was perfect for Sling’s first outing.  Secret was going too, so she could play babysitter.  The show was 3 days long, so he could be there long enough to work through the worry, then get over it.  We requested the back side of barn C so he could have a quiet place to get away from the show ring commotion. 

As expected, Sling was OVERWHELMED.  On Friday, when he was completely beside himself, we didn’t canter on the left lead at all.  His safe spot was anywhere that Secret, his babysitter, was.  We spent a lot of time walking and lunging, and had to keep our mounted work in the quiet, tucked-away-out-back warm up.  Secret came ringside with him and watched his tests.  By day 3 he was much more confident, both leads had arrived, and we could watch the big boys in the crazy warm-up, but joining them in the sandbox, well, not yet.  He showed in the 4-year-old test, and earned respectable scores.  Wendy and I were very pleased.

Since July he has had 3 other day trips, twice with a baby sitter and once flying solo, but all at quiet venues, and he has become more and more confident with each outing.  But Devon is anything but quiet. 

We arrived on Monday afternoon, and a stroke of luck had us stabled with Ursula Ferrier, who owns Scimitar, Sling’s dad.  Ursula is not only a great horseman, she is a fun person to hang out with, which kept the atmosphere calm and relaxed, which is exactly what Sling needed.

On Monday, when I schooled Sling, he seemed cool as a cucumber coming out of the barn, so I mounted and rode to warm-up.  Our timing was unfortunate—everyone seemed to leave right as we arrived.  His confidence left with the other horses, so I got off and went back for lunging equipment.  A few minutes on the lunge, and it seemed a light bulb went off in his head.  It was like he said, “Oh, yea, I know how to do this,” and my good boy returned. 
Warm up on Tuesday

Tuesday Sling’s entourage showed up to watch him go in Suitability to be a Dressage Horse.  Sling was a perfect gentleman about having so many humans fuss over him.  He warmed up great, and once in the ring, he noted that I was making suggestions from the saddle, but was a bit too overwhelmed to truly respond to them.   I played my supportive rider role (“no, Sling, the judges stand won’t bite,”  “Good boy Sling for going around the flowers instead of jumping them,” etc.) and tried to keep him away from crowd.  We did ok staying clear, that is, until they called for the right lead canter.  Right then I was looking for my way clear, but was behind two horses and with one on my right.  They all started cantering.  My vote was for us to make a circle, and depart on that circle, but herd instinct pulled Sling into the canter – which would have been ok, if it had been the correct lead.

I brought him back to trot, and actually cued the canter, but by then he was upset, so he took the incorrect lead again.  By try 3 we got the lead, but Mr. Try-too-Hard was flustered.  The rest of the class was nervous rushing.  His mind didn’t even settle in the line up–he stood there fussing with his bit, which is new for him.
Wednesday our Materialle class was later in the day, and Wendy and I alternated walking him around most of the day.  But it really didn’t matter, by the time I got on he was wound up.  I spent warm up asking for his attention, and about the time I was concerned I wouldn’t get it, he settled in to my aids.  Then I started to get ambitious.  I know Wendy wasn’t concerned about the placing, but I like to give owners ribbons when they let me compete their horses. 

So we went in, and frankly, I over-rode the trot work. As a result, I got his neck a little short, and he got fussy in the contact and inconsistent in the tempo.  After the first trot, the judge had us walk for what seemed like forever, which gave Sling time to settle into the arena and me time to mentally whip myself into shape.   I allowed his neck longer for the canter work, which allowed his incredible hind legs to do their thing, earning him a 7.6 for his canter.  He earned a 7.6 for general impression, and a 6.7 for walk. Not surprising, his trot was his lowest score, at 6.5, for an overall of 71%, ranking him 7th overall. 

But the best part for me was after the class, when this huge, goofy warmblood, in the craziest show in the area, is such a good boy that Paige, Wendy’s 10-year-old daughter, can lead him around in all that commotion.  This is a super horse on so many levels. 

Thanks Wendy, for the opportunity to show such a fun horse.