Sunday, December 18, 2011

Cliffs Notes from Clinics

My favorite movie is Dangerous Beauty, the story of a 16th century Venetian courtesan. One scene depicts the heroine, addressing a group of Venetian wives, and, as she is peeling a banana, she says, “The Latin for banana is arienna. Banana tree is pala.  A woman’s greatest, and most hard-won asset is an education.” The scene is all the more memorable since she concludes by deep-throated the banana, but that doesn’t really relate to my blog, so I’ll leave that alone….

I treasure my education, and I routinely augment my regular lessons with clinics. The quality of education from this year’s clinician list has been truly impressive.  Secret, Venus, Eclipse, Sling, Flash, and Legend have been my mounts, and I thought I would give you a peak at my lesson notes.  Rather than bore you with pages and pages of notes from each specific clinic for each specific horse – and believe me, I have them – I thought I’d sum up in a Cliff’s Notes-style blog.  None of these things are profound, as the difficulty of dressage is not in the complexity, but rather in the specificity.  So here goes.

Control every part of my body. Control my thigh pressure, control my seat, control the angle of my pelvis, control the placement of my legs, control the pressure in my calves, control my hands.  Ride better.

Control every part of the horse, every stride.  Control the shoulders, control the hind legs, control the tempo, control the balance.  Train better.

Keep every part of my body separate. If I need to boot a horse forward, my hands need to stay still. Otherwise it’s confusing to the horse.

Sometimes I need to ride the harmony, sometimes I need to disrupt the harmony to change a specific item – balance, suppleness, activity, obedience. Then I need to re-establish the harmony.  Don’t leave the exercise until the harmony is reestablished.

Pushing when there’s tension only makes more tension. 

Pushing when there’s relaxation and balance sometimes creates some really amazing work. Don’t coast when it feels good, use the “good” to make “even better.”

Tempo and clarity of the gait cannot be overestimated.  If every stride isn’t in a clear, correct rhythm, fix it. Don’t move on until that basic is in place.  Skimping on that step will cost you balance and suspension in the long run.

The calf is for go. The spur or a thumping calf is the correction for not responding to the calf.  Save the whip for collection.

If I think my horse is supple enough, supple some more.  A lack of suppleness can show up as heavy on the aids, running from the aids, or just plain stiffness. 

Ride the horse out to your hand. Don’t take the bit back to the horse.  If the horse won’t go to the bit, check the suppleness, then let the horse go out to the bit again.  Ride better.

Ride the horse out to both reins first, and then worry about bend. If he’s not out to both reins, I don’t have control of enough parts of him to make a correct bend anyway.

If my horse is heavy in one rein, make sure the opposite shoulder isn’t popping out. Don’t give him the rein to lean on, instead put movement in the “heavy” rein, and a steady contact on the rein that is avoiding contact. And get off the track – the second track encourages straightness.

Break things down for the horse. If he understands walk pirouette from the seat aid, but wants too much help from the rein in the canter pirouette, keep going between the two until he understands that it’s the same thing, just a different gait.  Teach the horse, don’t just muscle him.  Train better.

Know what I am doing and why. When I ride a circle, I need to know what I want to accomplish through that circle. Do I want more bend? Do I want to control the tempo? Do I want to improve the balance? The clearer I am in my mind, the more clearly I will communicate to my horse.

If an exercise begins to fall apart, stick to the “why.”  If I wanted leg yield in trot to improve suppleness, and the horse misunderstood and cantered, rather than correct the gait (which wasn’t the goal of the exercise) stay in leg yield until the horse understands and gives me more suppleness.

In short, ride better and train better.  I think that’s what we all want. With or without the banana.

Monday, December 5, 2011

A Little Help from My Friends, Part 2

In addition to Cheryle and Linda, two people fall into the “I can’t live without them” category – Doug and Amy.

Yea, Doug is my husband, and he is contractually obligated to be around, but the level of support he gives me goes far beyond the ‘good horse husband’ requirement. In reality, SFD is what it is because of him.

About 9 years ago, I was in a slump. I had left my working student position and starting to build my own business. I understood that building a business takes time, but I had a few other things going on.  Swayze, the horse I had developed while I was a working student, was dying of cancer. I was busting my butt as a waitress to cover Swayze’s vet bills. I was riding for a gal with some nice dressage horses, and frankly, I could tell she was working her way off of my client list. The remaining handful of students only had outdoor arenas, and it was fall. I was looking at a long winter in the restaurant, feeling like I wasted four working-student years and had nothing to show for it. I decided I had had enough, and it was time to engage the back-up plan and return to school.

Doug and I were living together, but we weren’t married yet, and frankly, I don’t know how he put up with my depressed, surly self.

I brought up the topic of returning to school. He was supportive of my plans, telling me it didn’t matter to him what I did for a living, as long as I was happy.

Then he bought me a web site, and lent me money to attend a USDF instructor workshop.
The web site became a turning point for me. It started as and later, when we rented our first barn 2 years later, evolved into The early web site helped me stay focused on my goal. It gave me a place to organize my training theory, showcase my students and horses, and helped me see the big picture of my career, instead of getting bogged down in the day-to-day ups-and-downs of building a business. Later, when SFD started to need me more in the arena than behind the desk, Doug learned Dreamweaver and became webmaster. 

The USDF Instructor Workshop was another turning point. At the workshop, I met Mary Russell, who has Lucky Cricket Farm. She asked me to come teach a series of clinics at her place, and from that clinic came three training horses, all of which the owners wanted to see in the show ring – two under me, and one under his jr rider. Mary has a full-time job in addition to a lesson barn, so that is a service she couldn’t provide.

As a working student, I had funneled my limited funds into clinics, so my show resume had a glaring 5-year gap in it. Competition exposure was something I really needed, and those three horses got me back in the show ring. All three horses have won numerous year-end and all-breeds awards, Pentacle with his junior rider Victoria.  One of those horses is Statesman’s Eclipse, the Morgan stallion, and he is still with me, currently competing at PSG.

Since that pivotal winter, Doug has worn the hats of photographer, video editor, show groom, holder-of-the-homefront while Ange is at shows, stall help, chief maintenance man, moral support and occasional kick-in-the pants.  My dreams come true every day because of this wonderful man.

Amy is my groom, and is the best groom I have ever had. One of the realities of riding professionally is I just don’t have the time to curry and buff to my heart’s content. How a horse is handled on the ground directly relates to how they go under saddle, so having the right groom is crucial.

I remember when I hired Amy. I had been trying to fill my grooming need with working students and in-house for a couple of years, and finally gave up and put an ad in the Horse of Delaware Valley. I had a good response to my ad, but I was worried about the whole interview process – what questions should I ask, what if I hired the wrong person, etc. I set up interviews with nine people, and by the end of the day, I asked two of them to come in and try the job for a day (with pay, of course). In reality, I liked Amy the best, but the other gal had a stronger resume.

Once the day was over, it was clear that Amy was the right one for the job.  She has been with me over a year, and I hope she never leaves. She is careful and safe, the horses all like her, and she is great at the details. Two of my horses, in particular, have a LOT of details to help them perform their best, and Amy handles all of their quirks like it’s no big deal.   Plus she has a great sense of humor, something that is sorely underestimated in a barn.

Thank you doesn’t even begin to cover the depth of emotion I have for the help and support you two give me.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

From the Student's Perspective -- Alexa and Mi Alma

Alexa Derr is one of my juniors who spent last winter working with SFD's schoolmasters. I thought it would be fun to see how her winter lessons affeted her show season. So I asked her to write a blog for us.

by Alexa Derr

Last winter, I had the opportunity to ride SFD’s schoolmasters, Silly and Pikasso. and those lessons really shaped me as a rider for Mi Alma, my young horse.  Thanks to them, Mi Alma gave me a truly memorable 2011 competition season.

Before every lesson, I would get butterflies in my stomach. Mentally, I psyched myself out thinking that maybe if I sat there and looked pretty, Silly would do the rest, since she is a schoolmaster. As you know, that’s not the case. It took time for me to stop riding her as if she was a glass horse and my inexperience would surely break her. Once I got over that, we had some really good rides where I learned to organize Silly’s big engine and big gaits. 

Once I had a handle on balancing the big dressage engine, Pikasso took over teaching me the lateral movements. We clicked and his power was perfect for me. Riding lateral movements gave me a variety of tricks when schooling other horses. He has amazing willingness in collection, and riding half steps for the first time sent me to cloud nine! These two horses took me from sitting and looking pretty on a horse to feeling every movement, using different parts of my body independently, and riding actively. 

After searching months for my next dressage partner, I found my budget was too limited for a trained horse. So I had to get creative and start from scratch…how about a three-year-old off-the-track thoroughbred? I met Mi Alma two weeks after his last race in October of 2010. With his puppy dog personality and sound mind, we bonded instantly and I knew he was the right project for me.  I had hoped to train him enough to sell, and then use that money to buy a more trained horse.

After an exciting winter of learning and growing, it was time to put my new tricks to use. In late spring, Mi Alma and I had the opportunity to ride with Suzanne Hassler of Hassler Dressage. I was decently calm and collected on the drive down, but as soon as I walked into that amazing facility and humongous ring, I became a deer in headlights. I had to overcome those paralyzing voices in my head, which is easier said than done. 

Ange got me out of my fear with her ever-tactful words, “You don’t suck and you won’t suck.” It worked, I snapped out of it and RODE. Turns out, there was nothing to be afraid of after all. Miss Suzanne was such a sweet lady and a great confidence booster. She declared Mi Alma a possible third level candidate. So maybe he isn’t a resale project after all.  He could be the one to help me reach my goal of ‘A’ Dressage rating (third level) in United States Pony Club. 

Mi Alma was very easy to mold into frame, but that was the problem. Over the summer, he trapped me into doing his work. He looked pretty just coasting down the long side, earning his pretty blue ribbons at intro level, meanwhile my arms and legs were killing me. Enough was enough; it was time for some role reversal. Getting his hind end under, his back swinging and his forehand up was very challenging, especially with his three-year-old body parts going every which direction. Keeping his shoulders aligned, his barrel/back pliable and non-board-like, his legs where I wanted them, and a relaxed top line was no easy task. Once again I had to overcome my mental block and get those independent aids back in action. When I did, boy did it make a difference. 

Then the ‘C’ word came into the picture… Canter. Looking back, I am not really sure why I was so nervous to canter since his days on the racetrack were short lived due to his lack of energy. But I think the transitions was the problem. His transitions went from trot, crash on the forehand, race to the first stride of canter, and then crash on the forehand again. Again with body parts flying everywhere, Mi Alma had me trapped into doing his work. It was bad enough my dad started calling me “noodle,” due to my flopping arms, stomach and legs. Rather attractive right?  

So back to those beloved seat lessons I went. After a nice tune-up, I was able to “sit, slide (my legs into position), cue.” Bam! We had a non-scary transition followed by a decently uphill canter! My oh my what one week at SFD Baby Boot Camp can do.

Now, the day I had been dreaming of finally came. Ladies and gentlemen, I’m talking about the “Big Leagues:” Dressage at Devon! Now if you have met Mi Alma, you know he has the most laid back personality, so timing warm-up, class size, and class time length was quite the task. In the end, he had just enough energy to strut out of that ring with that DAD green ribbon flapping on his bridle. Remembering that day brings such a smile to my face because I not only overcame all butterflies, but I held my own riding in a ring of professionals.

Mi Alma has taught me patience and how to be affirmative in my cues. He has also taught me to anticipate his reactions and from there I am able to cue faster and more accurately. This has helped me to feel more and use independent aids to their capability. Thank you to Ange, my parents, the Brok family for finding Mi Alma, our fan club, and those who played hooky from school and work to watch us at Devon!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

OVCTA's Big Fall Show

I love OVCTA’s Big Fall Show. It falls on the first Sunday in November, and marks the end of the show season for those of us at SFD. But that’s not why I love it.

Despite it's humble name, the BFS is a 4-ring, well-ran and well-judged schooling show.  The rules for dress code, bits, etc, are enforced just like a recognized show, all the way down to the bit-check technical delegate policing warm up.  It has the feel of a recognized show at a fraction of the cost. But that’s not why I love it.

The BFS is staffed with an army of friendly volunteers. They greet you with a good morning, wish you a good ride, and just make the whole show-stress thing a lot less stressful.  But that’s not why I love it.

The BFS hosts the championship classes for OVCTA’s schooling series, and gives great prizes.  The show committee goes out of their way to make sure each competitor’s packet has a treat for the rider and a treat for the horse. Each Dressage Seat Equitation rider gets a prize, as well as all of the team competitors. The champions get embroidered saddle pads, huge ribbons, a victory gallop and a perpetual trophy.  But that’s not why I love it.

As a barn, my students have typically done quite well at the BFS. But that’s not why I love it.

The BFS is held at Ludwig’s Corner show grounds, which is close to home, so most of my students show up either to compete or be moral support for each other. A few years ago, one of my students brought wine and cheese to share. The tradition has grown, and this year the show committee let us set up a snack table for everyone to share.  The adults, the kids, the parents, volunteers, and various supportive friends and family members hung out, watched, and supported each other, turning what could be a stressful year-end championship into a fun, relaxing day spent enjoying our horses. 

That’s why I love the Big Fall Show.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Little Help from my Friends, Part 1

This last year has been a little crazy, even by my standards. We moved the barn to a winter home, then to our permanent home, then last month Doug and I moved ourselves into the cottage on the farm. Here's a few blogs about it all:

     First, last November. How was the move? Well....
     Then in June, SFD has a New Home
     Then July, What Have you Been up to? Well...

Now that things have settled down a bit, I find my mind wandering dangerously close to sentimental thoughts about SFD’s amazing community. They kept our barn afloat while we navigated some stressful seas. This blog is part one of a thank-you to these wonderful people.  If stress brings out people’s true characters, then this year showed me that SFD is made up of some truly wonderful people.

This summer, at a show, a member of the SFD family had a lousy day. We’ve all had them, those days when nothing goes right, and at a show, it seems even worse. I was standing at an uphill vantage point, and I watched as other members of the SFD community literally surrounded her and gave her a listening ear, words of encouragement, and all the moral support that a good barn is supposed to give. It was an awesome moment for me -- SFD operating as a supportive, nurturing community.  That was my goal when I hung my shingle 6 years ago.  Learning this sport is hard, on both physical and emotional levels, and a community of caring friends that understand makes finding the joy in the journey easier.

Even before that day, I knew that SFD is not about me, it is about everyone. SFD has grown beyond the original 9-stall barn, and beyond the fences of the SFD barn itself.  Every pull-in lesson student, every off-farm location student, is embraced as family when we meet at events.  I find this really, really cool.

This didn’t happen by accident, or as a solo act. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without help, as I am the queen of too-many-ideas-and-not-enough-time.  Two people in particular wandered in when I really needed their help. 

When SFD moved to Red Bridge in 2008, we decided to expand SFD to include student’s horses. Previously, I only took care of horses in training with me.  When Doug and I made the decision to expand, I was worried about two things – was I organized enough to keep everyone informed and the paperwork together, and do I have the personality to keep the barn functioning as a group?

Cheryle has been my solution to the first question. When she came on as a boarder, she filled out her paperwork with such attention to detail, I knew I was in the presence of a much more organized mind than my own.  Offering her the position of “office hero” was a no-brainer. Her constantly cheerful tone and much-better organization skills have gone a long way to keeping everyone informed of going-ons at the barn. Plus she happily keeps our records organized, a skill I, frankly, don’t want to take the time to get good at. She says she enjoys bookkeeping. That just doesn’t seem normal to me…

The second solution came a few months later, in Linda. One big concern I had when I started allowing student-boarders is clicks. To some degree, as a group gets larger, clumping-by-friendships is unavoidable, but I really didn’t want to have SFD divided along the “those who show” and “those who don’t.” Linda’s camera skills help draw the non-competing members into the show stories, and her party-organizing skills really help us gel as barn.  

Additionally, Linda came to dressage as an adult, so she understands the emotional ups-and-downs of the adult beginner, and is down right empathic about helping others through the emotional ropes of learning to ride, and then to show. Her tact and well-timed kind words offset my rather sarcastic communication style.  Plus she can organize all of the details of a show weekend, down to dinner reservations. 

So here’s a big thank-you to you two. I would be lost without you.

Monday, October 24, 2011

BLM Finals, 2011

On October 12, we loaded up Secret, Flash, Basil and James, along with their accompanying humans, and headed to the Garden State Classic/BLM Finals at NJ Horse Park.  Secret and I were slated for the 3rd level Championship, Flash was entered in training level to continue learning to show, and Basil was making his dressage debut.

Living here in Region 1, so close to the boarder of Region 8, we have our pick of championship shows to attend. It seems like every year, either BLM Finals or Region 1 gets rained on. For the past few years, I’ve luckily picked the dry show. Not this year.

 This was Saturday, after the footing had  a day to dry out.
The mud is still up to her coronet band.
After all of the careful planning, calculated training agendas, well-timed shoeing and massage appointments, etc., Secret’s score in the championship class was determined by Mother Nature.  Thursday night the show grounds were flooded with rain, leaving the competition rings a slurry of sandy mud. 

Secret hates mud. Mud makes her tense.  Tension makes her over-reactive. She hates mud on her tummy. So she goes faster. She hates mud on her nose.  So she holds her neck high and tight, like the knight in a game of chess.

Again from Saturday. Chess piece neck, but still a
recognizable half-pass, even from the side.
Needless to say, being ran away with by an over-reactive chess piece isn’t exactly the dressage ideal, so her championship ride didn’t work out like we had hoped.  The judges comments were kind, and the scores were appropriate.   

The neat thing is Secret had one of her championship judges again the next day in her two open classes. As the footing dried out, Secret’s relaxation improved, and so did her scores.  Having the same judge 3 rides in a row, with each ride being very, very different,  and seeing that reflected in the scores tells me that the judge judged what she saw each ride.  As a competitor, I can’t ask for anything more. 

By Sunday, Mother Nature had returned Secret’s sunshiny personality, and her score was back up where it has been all season.  With the exception of the championship class, Secret placed well against the warmbloods, bringing home a fifth and two thirds. 

Check it out - completely airborn.
Flash, on the other hand, seems to be a mudder.  Her reaction to the mud on her tummy was to bounce higher.  Linda caught an awesome photo of Flash with all four feet off of the ground.  Her bouncing brought home the a red ribbon.

Unfortunately, Flash put so much into bouncing out of the mud that her back became more and more tired as the weekend progressed.  Her back fatigue showed in her scores, which weren’t as high as the last show, but she was much more ridable in every class, which is no small feat for the turbo-pinto mare.  She was also much more relaxed overall  at this show—we could ride every class without needing a ring-side equine baby sitter.  Flash has really learned how to show this season. I’ll focus on getting her back stronger over the winter, and we’ll see what next season brings.

It's a little out of focus, but what an amazing canter!
Basil didn’t compete until Saturday, and by then Friday’s blustery wind had dried the footing considerably.  He is a super young man, with a laid-back workman-like personality and a body built for dressage. He handled all of the show chaos like a seasoned veteran, and was obedient and willing in both tests. He scored mid 60’s in both classes, tying for second on Saturday and bringing home blue on Sunday.  Rebecca and Dennis bred Basil as a family project. The pride in their eyes at watching their baby grow up was really fun to be a part of.

SFD students have also been rocking the show ring recently.  Rebecca and James ended a strong first season with a good BLM show, Kristen and Clyde brought home red from the Thorncroft event, Alexa and Mi Alma had a great ride at Devon and were FCDA intro level and thoroughbred champions, Jess and Mo brought home ribbons from FCDA, and I’ve heard rumors that Paige aboard Maggie and Ericka aboard Stella have been cleaning up over fences.  Plus I can’t forget Bethany and Willy who have been tearing it up at the medieval mounted games events.  Dressage cross trains into other disciplines so well, but more of that in a later blog. I have asked several students to write a few paragraphs; I’m sure we’ll hear from them soon.   

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Coming Soon

Dear Blog,

I am sorry. I have been neglecting you.  Between boxing up the house, moving the house, un-boxing the house, competing and attending Dressage at Devon, a wonderful weekend visit from my closest friend, and BLM finals this weekend, I just haven't given you the time you deserve. But as the old Willy Nelson song goes, "you were always on my mind." So brace yourself, soon, very soon, all of the ideas bouncing around in my head will flesh-out the outlines saved on my phone. I promise, your time of neglect will end very soon.

Your over-scheduled Blog-Writer.

Monday, September 5, 2011

My Thoughts on Showing

I show a lot, in everything from little schooling shows to breed-specific shows to regional championships. Between shows, I wear the hats of trainer, instructor, coach, and L graduate. My students range from their first show to seasoned FEI riders. This gives me a rather wide-ranging perspective, and from this perspective, I wish I could say a few things to competitors. Since this is my blog, heck, I think I will.

This is supposed to be fun.  Keep that in mind as you plan your show season and prepare for each show. What is fun for you? Is it blue ribbons? Then be sure you are confirmed at the level you are competing, and don’t enter your well-loved heart-of-gold quarter horse in an Olympic qualifying show. 

First, the level you choose to enter. Most riders loose 30-40% of their polish when they step into the show ring. If you want that blue more than you want oxygen, then you need to be blue-ribbon worthy on an average day, not only on your “best-ride-ever” day. Chances are, show stress isn’t going to bring out you or your horse’s best, especially if you are worried about the trot lengthening. So set yourself up by going down the centerline knowing that you and your horse are not just competent at the level, you are dang good at it.

Second, the shows you choose to enter. If blue is the goal, stick to smaller, non-national-team qualifying shows. Even if you aren’t competing FEI yet, the Olympic contenders show up with their whole barn, which means the 2016 hopeful may be in your class. Just watching those amazing animals in warm up is pretty intimidating. But if “fun” for you is putting Mr. Heart-of-Gold against the big boys to see how he compares, by all means, go for it. Frankly, that is how I define fun, so I do it all the time. Doing this, I rarely bring home the blue, but I know how my horse stacks against the big boys. And once in a while we steal the blue. That, for me, is fun.

Showing is 50% preparation and 50% luck.  We can only control so many things in this sport. We can’t control the weather, the order of the class, the arena we are assigned, or the naughty neighbor dog who comes tearing alongside your class proudly carrying the awards-table table cloth in his mouth. 

One thing you can control is how well you know your test. Memorize your test until you can recite it in your sleep.  Memorize not only the pattern, but how you will ride that pattern. Ride the separate parts of your test, then the whole test, then the parts again, until your mind and body have it cold. If your horse learns the pattern, all the better--if he is in the habit of heading deep into the corners or beginning a circle at B, you can add impulsion and balance while he's doing the steering.

If you have a lot of tests to learn, or fight with show nerves, memorize your test inside-out, then use a reader. In our barn, we have policy of whomever goes off course has to buy the entire show group ice cream. This year, with all of the new tests, I, unfortunately, have picked up the ice cream tab more times than I care to admit. My excuse is I am in the ring from training to PSG this year, but in reality, I just need to make myself take more time memorizing tests. It is something I can control.

Appreciate your support system. Showing is important to you, or you wouldn’t give up your time and your money. Your family has to pick up your weekend laundry duty, and your show friends have to deal with your neurotic pre-show habits. These things are an inevitable part of showing, so be nice to them. Greet them with “good morning.” Say “thank you.” Smile. Buy them a beer or an ice cream. You need these people to make your dreams come true, so appreciate them, even if the judge didn’t appreciate your ride.

You don’t have to compete to excel in dressage. I know this is an odd thing to say in a blog about competing, but it is true. Competing is a completely different skill set than riding, or taking a lesson.  I have a student who showed a few times, and then quit showing.  She still takes lessons and clinics, and really loves her horses. Her opinion on showing – why would she spend all of that money, get all stressed out in an expensive outfit, to get a stranger’s opinion that she may or may not agree with. For her, that doesn’t increase her enjoyment of her horse.  So she doesn’t do it. Which brings us to my next point.

The judge isn’t always correct. Yes, I said it, in print. Lightning has not struck me dead yet.  Frankly, competitors, expecting a judge to be correct in every decision, every ride, really isn’t fair. These judges are making 12-40 decisions every 6-8 minutes. That kind of concentration is really, really hard. When I sit in the judge’s booth for a day, I am TIRED.  I, and every judge I have talked to, scribed for, or sat in a judge’s training session with, tries their best to give each competitor a fair, constructive report on the ride they watched. And sometimes they make mistakes. Sometimes the mistakes are in the competitor’s favor, and sometimes they aren’t.  I probably see as many Christmas gifts on score sheets as I see Scrooges.

That being said, there are times when judges do overstep their boundaries. Judges only have the right to comment on what they can see. Judges who make blanket statements about the horse, in my opinion, overstep their boundaries. I understand that the personality type attracted to judging is, by definition, judgmental, but to write on score sheet that a particular horse is “limited by genetics” (yep, I really did get that on a score sheet) is inappropriate. Especially when I, and pretty much every other judge, has disagreed. Thankfully, the horse’s owner and I both follow my next advice.

Don’t let anyone change your opinion of your horse. This is your horse, and I’m guessing you really love him. You probably love the way his nose feels, the way he makes funny faces when you groom the right spots, the way he nickers when he knows you have carrots. Don’t let some stranger who sits in a box change that. You can be disappointed in your performance together, but don’t let that change how you feel about him. Your horse didn’t choose to come to a horse show. He’d probably prefer 5 lush grassy acres to a nervous rider obsessing over a transition at a scary flower-topped letter box. He does it because you ask. That alone is worthy of affection.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Happy Birthday to Me

The third week of July was a mess – Silly needed to be confirmed in foal, and I needed to do a few things, namely, finalize the lease on the additional pasture land, move a new boarder in, pick up a new-to-us barn fridge, take Secret and Venus down for lessons with Scott on Wednesday, and, the biggie, I had to find a truck to replace Big Blue before I lost my rental truck on Friday, July 22. My birthday.  Great. Everyone asked what I was doing for my birthday, and my reply was the same—wipe out my “to-do” list.  I figured if I survived the week, turning 40 wasn’t an issue at all.

Monday I called several car dealerships, to try to narrow my list. Tuesday, after I moved the new horse in, I test drove several trucks (and scared one salesman by describing the repairs the truck needed…yea, I know I am female, but I know what failing ball joints sound like, and failing struts. No, you don’t need to talk to my husband).  Every time I got in a truck, I wondered, “Will I feel comfortable pulling the horses in this truck?” A few of the trucks had features I liked, but none were really ideal. I called my mechanic uncle, and he managed to systematically rule out just about every truck on my list.  Meanwhile, the clock was ticking.

Wednesday, I interrupted truck shopping for my monthly trip to Hassler Dressage.  Linda, Kelsey and I loaded up Venus and Secret. I had several questions about Secret’s training path, and was eager for his eyes on Venus’ progress.  Both mares feel significantly more balanced and Venus has been more willing, but working on my own, I wanted to make sure they looked as good as they felt.

The answer, for both mares, was “yes.”  Scott was very complimentary of the improvements in both horses, and gave me tons of homework for Secret in particular.  Up until now, Secret has followed Eclipse’s training path with stunning accuracy.  But now her path diverges, and with his help, her next few month’s training plan is now mapped out.  

By Thursday I had given up on finding what I wanted, and was trying to decide what I could settle for. Then Doug found my truck on the internet. It was exactly what I was looking for. Just before I left for the dealership to test drive the truck, Leslie, from Trevelyan Farm, texted with the happy news that Silly is expecting.   I headed out to see the truck, and yep, it was exactly what I was looking for.  I negotiate the price, and arranged to get the rental returned and the new truck picked up on Friday.

Then Doug and I went to dinner. I let our favorite bartender pick my traditional birthday beverage, a tasty Belgium beer, and a friendly couple picked up my last beer.  The musician started playing a Jimmy Buffett cover, and I was feeling quite fulfilled. 

I don’t expect people to make a fuss over my birthday, so I really didn’t notice when no one did.  When Berks County Pony Clubbers asked for lessons late on the following Friday evening at Vue de Lue barn, which incidentally isn’t where I normally teach them, I honestly wasn’t suspicious at all.  I started to wonder a little when Wendy said there were 8 or 9 students at 8 pm on a Friday, and when I was told not to eat since there would be food at the Pony Club meeting, but I still arrived in full teacher mode.

I finally caught on when everyone came out of the barn yelling “SURPRISE.”

Yea, I can be kinda slow……

The party had a circus theme.  The Derrs had gone all out decorated their barn, and Doug had photoshopped my face into circus posters.  Dawn, Alexa’s mom, put together a scrap book with photos of students with their horses all circus-ed up.  I now knew why Kelsey’s horse, Buzz, had huge yellow stains on him for a week (he was tye-dyed in the photo), and why I wasn’t supposed to ask about the sparkly garland on Cheryle’s helmet or knotted glitzy stuff into Karison’s forelock.   Seems strange is kinda normal around our barn…

I wish my legs were that long!!
The sheer amount of time and creativity offered by everyone completely blew me away.

Thank you all very much, for the most amazing, memorable party I have had since Mom dropped my birthday cake in Jr high.  I’m not sure when, but sometime in the last 10 years, Pennsylvania has become home, in large part because of my amazing family of students. You guys rock my world.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

What have you been up to? Well….

I admit my life gets pretty crazy, especially this time of year.  This year is particularly crazy. Of course, everyone knows about our move. But underneath that headline news, my mare, Silly, decided to go lame, and then Big Blue Truck was smashed by a rouge Honda. Meanwhile, the normal business of the show season has been rolling along. 

So, put the events in order, a couple of weeks before our move, Silly went lame. Silly, officially known as Anisette, is my big, wonderful black Hanoverian mare that I bought a couple of years ago. I have known Silly since she was 4, and loved her since I met her. I don’t mention her much in the blog, because “Silly is working great, trying hard and making steady progress” is kind of boring reading. Around the barn, she is known as “the good girl.” She is smart, talented and tries too hard. I’ve always said she would go broken, and apparently I was right.

In May, my good girl started feeling a little funky.  She went from funky to oh-my-goodness-she-is-lame so quickly that I thought she was going to abscess in her right front foot. We soaked, but nothing blew. Dr. Crowley did a nerve block, a very-localized anesthetic that numbs specific regions to help find out where exactly the pain is, and pain went away when we numbed the toe/coffin joint region, so she suggested an ultrasound.

While Secret was scaring the warmbloods and Sling was sorting out his show nerves at the Memorial Day show in NJ, Dr. Lewis performed an ultrasound on her right front pastern. Her soft tissue looked great. So Dr. C came back out, and we x-rayed, and nothing of significance showed up. So we blocked again, this time specifically numbing the coffin joint, and Silly jogged off sound.  

Then, while Secret was giving a career-best 3rd level performance and Sling was struggling with his balance from a recent growth spurt and trying to convince me he needed to stop every time he needed to poo ("no, Sling-a-ling, you can't stop in the middle of a dressage test, the judges don't like that") at Ride For Life, Dr. C injected the coffin joint. I came home with high hopes of bringing my super-fun girl back to work as soon as we returned. No such luck. Injecting the coffin joint made no difference at all, so Dr. C recommended an MRI of that foot.

We scheduled it for the following Friday, as Wednesday I was scheduled to don my tail coat for Eclipse’s Prix St. Georges debut at Suddenly Farm. He did a respectable job for blue, despite my major “oops” – I memorized the old PSG test, not the new 2009 version.

The following Monday, I received the results of the MRI, and bingo, we found the problem. In the sagittal plane of her right front foot, the MRI showed a subchondral bone defect in the distal phalanx. In layman’s terms, in the center of her coffin joint, well away from the edges that show in an x-ray, she has a bump where there should be a smooth surface. Most likely, this bump has been there since birth, and being the good girl that she is, she as figured out how to get the job done despite the discomfort. But over time, the bump has smashed into the bone below it, and it has done its damage.

By now it was late June, so I made a few frantic calls to Dr. Crowley to be sure that this sort of issue wasn’t hereditary, followed by another frantic call to Leslie Feakins out at Trevelyan Farm to manage the breeding, and Hilltop Farm to secure my stallion choice (Bugatti), and sent Silly off to see about making her a mommy. Our timing was good—she arrived at Trevelyan with a follicle about ready to breed, and proceeded to produce not one, but two more follicles (did I mention that she is an overachiever?). Hopefully one of them will combine with Bugatti’s offering. Next Thursday we will find out if she is indeed pregnant.

But the fun didn’t stop there.

A week after I took Silly out to Trevalyn, I was driving down 113, minding my own business, when a red Honda CRV decided it needed to cross the road at that exact moment. Honda vs F250? The truck won the battle, breaking the CRV’s axle and protecting me in the same moment.
Between Enterprise Commercial Truck Rental and the insurance companies, I managed to rent a proper pulling vehicle to get Secret, Paradoks, Linda, Aneesa and I to the AHA Region 15 Championships that Friday. The show was tons of fun, and Ted worked his magic -- Aneesa and Paradoks brought home a Top 5 at training level, and Secret earned the title of 3rd level champion. 

Although the battle went to Big Blue, the war went to the insurance company. Last Friday they totaled her out and left me frantically truck shopping, as the insurance company will only pay for the rental for another week. Hopefully, I will find Big Blue’s replacement in time for the Gunnar Ostergaard clinic next weekend. If not, we have back-up plans to get Secret and Sling to the festivities. 

So, in short, expect a naming-party for the new truck, and a clinic report in the near future. Assuming things don’t go any more crazy than they already are….

And Now, a Word About our Sponsors

In late 2009, when I sat down to work out plans for 2010, one item on the list was to try to sort out this whole “sponsorship” thing.  Then, as followers of the blog know, thanks to the passing of my landlord in late December 2009, 2010 was a flurry of relocation stress, that concluded with our recent move to our new home.  But somehow, even with this chaos going on, I managed to find two really super sponsors.

As I was wrapping my head around what being sponsored meant, I couldn’t help but think about the sponsor/athlete relationship.  I wanted sponsors that I would be really proud to ride for. Sponsors whose products and services were as high-quality and well-thought-out as the care and training I give my horses.  In short I wanted sponsors I believe in.

Which lead me to my two sponsors.  I am really proud to represent both Custom Saddlery and Zephyr’s Garden products.

Custom Saddlery became my sponsor in late 2010.  I will freely admit I feel like I've hit the big time when I see my name on their rather-prestigious list of "Custom Saddlery Sponsored Riders.

I have been working with Fred That, VP of Custom Saddlery, for a while now. Whenever I have a student ready to purchase a saddle, I try very hard to be as cost-conscious as possible. We scour the internet and the tack stores, looking for something that both horse and rider can live with, until we are totally frustrated. Then we call Fred, there, tucked in the depths of his trailer, lies the perfect saddle. With only one exception, Fred has been able to make every horse’s back happy and the rider balanced. Which, in my barn, with everything from 13.2 ponies to 18.1 warmbloods, is pretty impressive.

Even more impressive is how Fred approached the one horse, Eclipse, who put his nose up at Custom Saddles. Eclipse likes this old, beat-up, patched, too-big-for-me brown Albion HR. Fred has put my antique piece of tack back together twice now. Last month, when he had it in to restitch the underside and patch the newest hole, he took a good look at how the underside was built to figure out why Eclipse goes so well in that old saddle, and he figured it out – in Eclipse’s case, it has to do with how the billets attach to the tree. I suspect Eclipse’s billet preferences will show up in a future Custom Saddlery model.

Taking the time to figure out “why” showed Fred’s dedication to excellence and his problem-solving mind that will find the solution, even if it means thinking outside of the box. That kind of thinking shows in all of the Custom Saddle designs, and makes me feel honored to hang their banner at our tack stall.

I really didn’t pick Zephyr’s Garden to approach for a sponsorship, Venus did. Which is only fitting, since Zephyr’s Garden is named after the horse, Zephyr, who is lovingly plastered all over their advertising. 

Venus, my red mare, has her opinions about everything. She is sweet, wonderful, hardheaded, talented, temperamental, affectionate, and opinionated- - in short, a chestnut mare. I have worked with her naturally-distrustful nature since she was a baby, and have almost made her into a “normal” horse. She will stand politely in crossties, self load in a trailer, and even go into a strange wash rack with minimal delays. But we never have conquered fly spray.

I spent weeks desensitizing her to a spray bottle filled with water, but the minute I switched it to actual flyspray, she began to dance, tremble, then exit. I concluded that it must be some chemical in the fly spray. I tried several brands, and the only one she would stand for was a super-watered-down herbal mix that seemed to attract flies, not repel them. So she turns out wrapped in every available fly barrier garment, but hacking out in the summer is just no fun.

A friend suggested I try Zephyr’s Garden. She went as far as contacting the company to get a free trial for me.  As I’m sure you can figure out, Venus will tolerate it. As of now, we wipe it on instead of spray, but I see a future day where she is letting me spray her like a normal horse. I switched all of my horses to it--I really like that Amy and I are not inhaling all of those chemicals every time we try to give them some fly relief.

Then Linda saw the bottle floating around the barn, and started in investigate other Zephyr’s Garden products. Secret gives Linda and I fits every year with her itchy reaction to every fly that touches her. She rubs her tail to frazzled baldness every summer. Linda has tried just about every product on the market, and when she saw that Zephyr’s Garden has anti-itch products, she couldn’t get her order in fast enough. Secret also approves of Zephyr’s products, and proudly sported a smooth tail in her victory gallop at the Region 15 Championship last weekend. In short, this stuff works.

Thank you, Custom Saddlery and Zephyr’s Garden. Your products are truly excellent.  

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Dead Birds and Horse Show Superstitions

Every athlete, no matter what sport, has some superstition or ritual they hold dear. For years I wouldn’t compete unless I was wearing Mickey Mouse socks.  The socks developed holes and my horses continued to do well, so I haven’t felt a need to replace them lately.  Besides, Linda, Secret’s mom, has it covered.

It all started at the Region 8 show in Saugerties, NY last September.  When Linda was setting up Secret’s stall, she found a dead bird. Secret did super that weekend, the little Frie-Rab holding her own among some tough warmblood competition. 

At Morven Park this May, Secret was not herself.  She was hormonal, crampy, tense, grumpy, and really wanted to stay in her stall with a heating pad and a box of chocolate. Our performances in the ring were further hampered by some biased judging--the judge actually wrote on the score sheet “limited by genetics.”  I tend to agree with the judge, but the gene I blamed was the x-chromosome, not the bloodlines.  And there was no dead bird.

Last month, we went to New Jersey for the Memorial Day show, and as Linda was cleaning Secret’s stall, she unearthed a dead bird. Secret proceeded to do awesome, placing high in really tough classes against some really fancy horses. 

Then, on Friday, as we were loading for Ride for Life, Linda found a dead bird in the hay loft. And yes, you guessed it, Secret rocked our world. She danced her way through all of her tests, earning a career 3rd level high score of 65% for a red ribbon.

I was beginning to worry that we would have to start sacrificing birds before each show, when thankfully Rebecca came to the rescue. One of the vendors at the show was selling dog toys, and one looked amazing like a dead bird. Linda bought it, and then hung it from baling twine next to our ribbons. Yea, our barn has a weird sense of humor….

Another weird quirk in our barn is naming things. We name everything. My rolling tool box that holds my grooming and show equipment is Max, the chest that lives in the trailer with the “life ends if we forget this” stuff in it (extra standing wraps/girth/reins, light bulbs, and the ever-important roll of toilet paper, etc.) is called Stanley, and the big box that holds the tack stall set-up equipment is Corry. The bird needed a name. So Cara dubbed the bird Ted. 

Ted, bring us luck in two weeks at Region 15. 

Friday, June 24, 2011

PVDA Ride For Life

When I was putting this year’s show calendar together, I saw PVDA’s Ride for Life,  a show that benefits breast cancer research. Someone along the way, my grandmother I think, equipped me with a sense of social responsibility. I get to play with the ponies all day, so I kinda feel like I cheat on it a bit. This show was perfect--it met my need to feel socially responsible while I played with the ponies. Plus, most of us have been touched by breast cancer in some way.

My touch came through Sue Steele, my first “real” dressage instructor. When I decided I wanted to learn real dressage, not just dressage-to-get-to-the-cross-country-course, I tried the instructors in my area. In the not-so-ripe dressage Mecca of central Illinois, that gave me few choices. When I tried Sue, her approach to my education was so markedly different than the others that I stuck with her. 

Sue was exactly what I needed. She was straight forward with her instruction, patient with all of my questions, and understood that, although I had ridden and competed since a young age, I was new to dressage. I needed time to develop some things, but could be pushed in others. Her direct, clear instruction brought me from learning the bending aids to competing 2nd level in two short years. When I had the opportunity, she encouraged me to take my first working student position where I could continue to grow as a rider. 

Sue wasn’t warm and fuzzy. A mutual friend described her as crusty, but as cliche as it sounds, under that crust was a heart of gold. Her Midwestern directness allowed few complements, so when she labeled me her “star student” shortly before I left Illinois, I was surprised and flattered. Her belief in me was a source of strength during the fatigue and insecurity of my working student years. 

Shortly after I moved to South Carolina, Sue was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent the usual treatment. It went into recession for a while, and then returned. This time the cancer won.  Sue faced her disease with the same direct, straight forward approach she took to dressage and to life.  

I think of Sue whenever I fix my rebellious right leg or use one of her exercises in a lesson. She shaped me into the instructor and trainer I am today.

This weekend, at Ride for Life, I ride in memory of Sue Steele, my first dressage instructor and my friend. You are not forgotten.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Dressage Kids Round Three

Of the many things that kept me hopping this winter, the kids were the most fun. I love teaching kids dressage. I have taught many young dressage riders in my career, and they seem to come in waves. My first group of kids are now grownups (which makes me feel really old….), and my second round are now all either in college or recent graduates. I was beginning to think my clientele had changed, but then Wendy, who owns Slingshot and Glory Springs, where I teach several times a month, asked me to teach her daughter, Paige. One thing led to another, and now we have a third round of dressage kids.

Alexa on Maggie
Since I'm dang proud of my kids, I thought they deserved a blog. Plus their parents sent me some great photos.

I think adults sell kids short when it comes to dressage. If a kid can take up the violin at 5, or ballet at 4, then they can learn dressage--real dressage, not flatwork in circles, but real, through-the-back-and-to-the-bit dressage. 

In several ways, they are easier to teach than adults.  Kids have the luxury of complete focus—they don’t have to worry about what to make for dinner, or how to get everyone to soccer practice. They haven't lived long enough to pick up the baggage and self-esteem issues that cloud most adult riders. They can just focus on their riding.    

And boy are kids focused. They want to ride better, and they want to ride better now. If I tell a kid to spend 10 minutes every ride working on walk-trot transitions, or working without stirrups, because it will make their riding better, they do it. If I tell them to do sit ups and stretches off the horse, they do it. And they get better because of it.

Now I don’t want to give the impression that I short the kids on the technical stuff. They get the same dressage theory crammed into their lessons as the adults. Paige, age 11, and Alexa, age 16, can both tell you the purpose of intro and training levels. Paige and Jessica, age 11, can tell you the first three steps of the training scale, and if I ask them to describe what they feel in their ponies in terms of the training scale, they can. Heck, Alexa can give you all 6 steps, and tell you the purpose of first level. She could even describe the aids for a correct back-to-front half-halt and for shoulder in.

Alexa, Paige and Maggie
For a moment, please indulge my slightly-off-topic soap-box. Adults’ favorite excuse for being outridden by the kids is fear. They claim kids are braver than they are. Not so. Every young person I have ever helped has been afraid. Heck, most of the kids came to me because they were afraid of jumping, and I was one of the few instructors that wouldn't pressure them to go over fences. Kids often outride adults because they are more determined. They are willing to do the hard, hard work required to master this sport. They’ll do the no-stirrup work, they will trust my eye over their feel, and they will let the process of dressage training sculpt them into dressage riders. The only fear I see more often in adults than kids is fear of failure.

Lest you think I prefer teaching kids, adult students have their benefits too. Adults are more willing to indulge my dressage-geek long-winded bio-mechanical explanations. Plus it's socially unacceptable to share an after-lesson beer with an 11-year-old.

Alexa and Hakuna Matata, her new horse
Back to the kids – Alexa, Jessica and Paige, through the dedication and carpooling of their parents, spent quite a bit of time at SFD this winter. Alexa’s new horse is a 3-year-old (I know, kids should have older horses, but this isn't a normal 3-year-old, and Alexa isn't a normal kid), so she divided her time between several of the trained horses in the barn. 

She went into the winter with a blue from Dressage Seat Equitation already under her belt, so she looked pretty on a horse. This winter we made her effective. She learned to use her half halt to make a horse more uphill and increase the thoroughness, swing, and suspension. She also learned to ride leg yield, shoulder in and counter canter. Her new boy has benefited from her time on my schoolies, rewarding her with high-score intro at his first two shows. She also shared Maggie, Paige’s pony, for Pony Club Dressage Rally, where she earned high scoring C-level rider with a 70%. 

Paige and Maggie
Paige’s pony, Maggie came down to SFD for a couple of months this winter. Last year, Paige competed Sweet Lilly, her oh-so-reliable pony, to OVCTA Intro Champion. Over the winter, we cemented Paige’s move up to the more-dramatic-moving Maggie. When they arrived, Paige wouldn’t mount Maggie unless I was in the ring, performed a rather fluid emergency dismount at the first sign of trouble, and cantered only when I begged. Before they went home, I would come to the arena for their lesson to find Paige warming Maggie up in all three gaits. This winter, she learned to trust Maggie by learning to channel that fancy, powerful hind leg. At this year's Pony Club Dressage Rally, the pair earned a 70% , for high-scoring D-level rider.

Jessica and Mohican
Jessica and her mom spent the fall looking for a large pony for her to move up to, and after looking at countless ponies, decided that they had the perfect pony in their own back yard. Cara and I spent April and May teaching Jessica and Mohican to slow and steady his tempo, rebalance from a lighter half halt, and to canter like a big boy. Since Jessica’s plans involve eventing, we even got to take Moe out for some gallops and school him over fences. That pony doesn’t say quit. Jessica went to Dressage Rally with Paige, and scored a 63.5 for a red ribbon, with their team bringing home second place overall. 

Jessica and Moe
Alexa and Paige have a summer of local dressage shows, including Dressage4Kids in July, and possibly a few Dressage Seat Equitation classes thrown in. I suspect Jessica and Moe will join them for some dressage shows this summer, but right now they are gearing up for Jump Rally and Event Rally in June.

Congratulations and more good luck ladies, go show ‘em how it’s done.

Gotta love that enthusiasm!