Sunday, March 27, 2011

OVCTA's Test Clinic with Pamela Wooding

Saturday I was the organizer for OVCTA’s 2011 Test Clinic with Pamela Wooding. This was the first time I ran this size of a project. I have run big events, but they were for my own students, an audience accustomed to my many shortfalls. This time the audience was OVCTA and DVCTA members. I’ve also helped on committees that organized events bigger than our test clinic, but this was the first time I flew solo.

I know, I really didn’t have to fly solo. I could have delegated more of this event, but I had overcommitted myself in February and early March, which means I wasn’t organized enough to divide the job into delegate-able parts. Plus I have a bad habit of working things out in my head as I go, and if I delegate something, I have to be clear enough in my directions to give my help confidence.  Which makes delegating hard, especially first time I do something, because I really don’t know what I’m going to do until I do it. 

 I did pass along lunch/refreshments to Cheryle and Linda, and of course I had a lot of help on the day (by then I’d gotten organized enough to pass out jobs), but the rest of it was on me.  I learned a lot putting this project together.

A little info on our day – Pamela Wooding, a very tactful R judge with gobs and gobs of experience, and also a competitor of everything from training to FEI, came down from NJ. We had live demo horses, and each rider had prepared a specific test. Pam evaluated each horse’s basics, then helped them with any problem areas they were having in the tests, then each rider rode a complete test that Pam judged out loud. We had horses of many different breeds, shapes and background, and presented tests from Intro to Fourth, USEA Novice A and B, and I-2. Pam answered questions as we went, and in our Q and A session before lunch. We had a booklet for just about everyone that had descriptions of the changes to the tests, directives of the levels, where the double coefficients are, and bios of the horses and riders.

What I learned putting this together:

1.       This kind of education is EXPENSIVE.  The total bill for the day was over $1200.  The judge’s fee was the lion’s share of it, and given her experience, I think that is as it should be.

2.       Pricing an event like this is really hard. Most people have no idea of the expenses of this kind of education, and therefore think the auditor fee should be minimal. The riders, who know that they are there for the auditors, also think that their fee should be minimal. I do understand that money is tight, and in this world where so much information (and misinformation) is free on the internet, it makes writing a check for education hard. But I managed to keep the fees less than the cost of entering a schooling show, and included lunch. For as much information as was presented, I thought it was cheap.

Plus, in events like this one, there’s always ways around the expense. On Thursday, someone I had never met called and said she wanted to come but the finances were getting in the way. I happily handed her the registration table Saturday morning in return for her day’s auditing.

3.       Color printing from Staples makes education costs seem cheap. Only the front cover of the booklet was color, but when I went to send it to Staples online, the price came in at $352.80 for 30 copies. Wow. That is not what I had budgeted at all.

Of course, I found this out late Friday afternoon, when I had ran home to make Pam’s last changes to the booklet. My plan was to send it to Staples, then go back and ride two horses and braid one, then swing by Staples and pick the booklets up on my way home. But when I saw that price, I kinda panicked. My wonderful husband came to my rescue, and monitored the printer while 30 6-page, double-sided pages printed, then folded them for me. I would have been up until 3 am without his help.

4.       Cutting corners is a BAD idea. I cut a corner by not making an application for the demo riders, and it was a corner I really shouldn’t have cut.  I needed to have demo riders organized well before hand so Pam and I could work out the format, which meant I was looking for demo riders in my already-overloaded February. Because I didn’t make an application, my demo riders really didn’t understand what they were committing to. Once I realized my gaff, I apologized like mad, and probably over-communicated with them the last two weeks. It’s a testament to the rider’s character that they didn’t all revolt and refuse to ride. Thank you all of you. The day wouldn’t have been nearly as special without you and your horses.

5.       Set-up creates unforeseen dramas.  On Friday, Cara and I headed out to pick up the portable OVCTA arena, and I realized I had left my lights on. We jumped into Cara’s truck, and drove to Hunter Hill to get the arena, but alas, the arena now lives at Ludwig’s Hardware, which, of course, is 2 miles from the farm. When I hopped out of the truck to unload the arena, I ripped my jeans from the zipper to the tailbone. Great.

Then, Saturday morning Amy went to vacuum the lounge. The vacuum had died, so I suggested she use the shop vac. Dumb idea. The shop vac blew dust out the back side, and I mean a lot of dust – enough to set off the fire alarm. Rest assured, the fire department gets to Journey’s End FAST. 

6.       No matter how much you plan, on the day of the event, something will go wrong. My little PA system failed me miserably. If I put it too close to the wall, it fed back. I tracked down enough extension cord to get it away from the metal walls, and it would randomly feedback whenever anyone’s cell phone went off. Of course, feedback and horses never go well together, so we finally abandoned ship, and Pam ended the day hoarse projecting her voice. She did ok until the barn staff decided to drag the arena just outside of the indoor, but that was only temporary. But I couldn’t control that, which brings us to the next point.

7.       I can’t control everything. I really wish I could have controlled the weather (don’t we all??). It was COLD. Just to add insult to injury, last weekend it was 70. I was completely impressed by the die-hards who huddled there until the bitter end. You guys are awesome, so completely committed to your educations. And you must have more long johns than most of us.

8.       Trying to learn when I’m the organizer is pretty much impossible. I spent most of the day hopping up and down, answering questions, making sure everyone was where they needed to be, and doing random stuff. I was optimistic that I could squeeze some education time in as well, but it really didn’t happen. I got excellent, usable feedback when I was riding, but wasn’t able to sit still long enough to absorb much from the other rides.

9.       A beer with my awesome volunteers to celebrate a successful day makes everything so much better. But then, I knew that already. Thanks so much for all of your help, you are the best.

Linda was all over the place with her camera, so I’ll get some photos up soon. 

Monday, March 14, 2011

Early March lessons, part 2

We went to the canter work first, and Barbara had me ride him just a little more forward, and his neck just a little longer, and check the balance with an occasional counter flexion, and he locked into a rolling, forward, effortless collection.

In the trot, after some tinkering with the balance, he found a nice, uphill swinging trot, but was setting that giant stallion neck right into my hands. Barbara liked how he looked, and when I glanced in the mirror I agreed with her, but I wasn’t happy with the heaviness. So she had me purposely lighten my hands whenever I half-halted, to which responded by shortening and stiffening his neck (his favorite mistake). So we tried doing the same in shoulder-in, and again we got a short, stiff neck.  Then we tried it in a slight renvers. Bingo. The trot got rounder, with a softly swinging back. 

The whole process of finding Eclipse’s best gaits was a bit like Venus’ canter corrections with Scott—get in, make the adjustment, then get out and ride the harmony—but  with the adjustments toned down for Eclipse’s sensitivity.

Then we spent some time working the half passes. I had gotten in the habit of letting my weight fall to the outside in the half passes and pushing the horses over, instead of sitting with the bend and leading the motion. Once she got me sitting more correctly, his half passes became more fluid and correct. 

For the last two weeks, I’ve been applying her insights to Eclipse’s training plan, and the quality of his gaits feels more fluid and forward. This Friday I let him do some of his tricks, and his tempi changes were straighter and more on my seat, without a hint of him taking over.  In his trot lateral work, I can really feel the shoulder freedom. I can’t wait to get some fresh video of him.  

Silhouette was last to go, with a ride in the OVCTA Jean Moyer clinic on Sunday.  Jean Moyer has made a name for herself as an eventing coach. I signed up for the lesson because, a few weeks before the clinic, entries were looking pretty light. Plus the clinic was to be hosted at Firefly Farm, which is a five minute hack from Journey’s End.  On Friday night, at the OVCTA Annual Meeting, Jean was our speaker, and discussed her annual educational trips to Germany, and bragged about her horse who is competing Prix St. George in Germany.  I was starting to look forward to my lesson.

After I introduced myself to Jean, I discovered her German education includes time spent at
Herbert Rehbein’s barn.  My most influential instructors all go back to Rehbein’s training program, so I knew instantly our training priorities would align. She immediately saw Silly’s weakness and her highlight.  Silly’s weakness is her try-too-hard attitude, which means she can get tense and quick easily. When she’s a little nervous, like at the beginning of a clinic in a new environment, it really shows up.  Her highlight is her wonderfully sensitive back, which means I can make small changes with my seat that will affect her overall balance.  Jean used her sensitive back to settle the tempo, then took it to small, repeated collections with just my abdominal muscles, followed by allowing her to go a bit more forward and a bit more uphill by relaxing my abdominal muscles, followed by a following seat.  Again this confirmed Scott and Barbara’s work with me – get in, get the job done, then get out and relax and ride.

Jean kept the small transitions within the gait going through transitions, circles, figure 8’s, shoulder in, half pass, and counter canter.  Silly, true to her good girl nature, kept working harder and harder, and her gaits became more uphill and swingy.  At the end, Jean had me collect her all the way back to half steps, and once Silly showed off her half steps, Jean had me set up a few baby passage steps. Silly was pretty tired by that time (event folks don’t seem to believe in breaks), but she came up with a couple steps for me.  Gotta love this mare’s heart. 

Again the true test of a clinic is in the next ride, and I was a bit worried as Silly was really whipped at the end of her lesson. But on her next schooling session, she was awesome--really swinging and uphill from the first steps. By the following Tuesday I could see a difference in her topline muscles, and feel more suspension in her trot and canter. 

The other horses in my barn have also benefited from my three-lesson reminder-course in ‘ride better.’  Secret has been going like a rock star. Rocky, who I develop with his owner and only sit on once or twice a week, is more accepting of my seat. Flash has made huge strides this winter, as has her owner, and the last two weeks have just been icing on the cake. 

Looking at all three lessons as a whole, the recurring theme of clear, quick corrections followed by riding the harmony, is not a new idea for me. I teach it almost daily. Working on my own, it’s easy for my type-A controlling dressage personality to take over and want to fiddle along, under the guise of “light corrections,” instead of making a clear correction and trusting that correction to work.  When I ride this way, my eclectic collection of mounts each begin to happily show me their best gaits, regardless of their bloodlines or conformation.  That’s what it is all about.     

Now the challenge, to make it happen in front of a judge in May.  

Early March lessons, part 1

One big problem with dressage competition is the judges judge how the horse looks, not how they feel, and sometimes there’s a big difference between those two.   And sometimes, as a trainer, I’ll need to break the rules a bit for a time to help a horse get strong in a specific part of their body.  It’s not the kind of thing a trainer likes to do when there’s a show looming on the calendar, so that training is reserved for the non-competition season, which is when the ‘real’ training happens. Show season is for showing off, training season is for training. 

During training, when I feel the need to break the rules a bit, I prefer to do so with some help from the ground.  One of the amazing things about living here in Chester County, PA, is the wealth and depth of dressage training experience just a short trailer ride away.  Some years I trailer more in the winter than in show season.

This has been a really hard winter, and to me, that means I couldn’t trailer. Added to the weather, Cara had an ugly abscess that put her out of commission for a couple of weeks in January, then as she was playing catch up from that, she and I passed a nasty cold back and forth, so we couldn’t even rely on each other’s eyes.  I was left to go it on my own, which can mean I have time to work things out, or it can mean I have just enough rope to hang myself.  After my last trip to Hasslers’, I was a little worried about Venus.  Secret, Sling, Silhouette, Eclipse, Flash -- those guys I feel ok developing with the help of a camcorder. But Venus, well, I’ve learned a lot about training from her, as her personal training path is not my instinctive way of training, so with her, I need help.  With all the ice this winter, help just wasn’t available.  

By the end of February, I was ripe and ready for help. 

In this mindset, of course I said “yes” to a dressage lesson at OVCTA’s Jean Moyer clinic March 5-6.  When Happily Ever After farm announced that Barb Strawson would be teaching there March 3, again I said “yes.”  Then, when Jann, Hassler Dressage’s secretary, e-mailed and said Scott would be available March 2, of course I said “yes” again.  

Venus was first up for the education week.  Last time Scott saw her we were working on a better forward response to my aids and a more correct reaction to the use of the whip.  Such lofty dressage goals, I know.

We began by discussing her progress in the 6 weeks since he saw her. I wanted to check our homework, to have some help with the in-hand whip, and to look at the half pass and maybe her flying changes. I also said the homework of breaking-the-rules with a slightly rounder topline was creating more swing and power in the trot, but was concerned because, in that outline in the canter, she can get really short in her neck.

Once we started the work, Scott thought she looked much better in her back, and was much more responsive and quicker to the aids. We went to the in-hand work right away, and he had me focus on the transition into the first half step. He wanted it really crisp. When I let her ease into the half steps, she’s tipped onto the forehand. When I got her crisper, with his help from the ground, she started sitting more and tipping her withers and her poll up. The good news is he could just touch her with the whip to get a response, instead of the much-higher pressure from our January visit.

After a bit more suppleness work, Venus started to give me the super-swingy trot I’ve been getting at home. I was concerned that her hind legs were too slow in it, and Scott said she was fine.  My new self test is to take the trot a bit more forward and back, to verify that she was right with me and not just bouncing behind my aids. 

When we took the super-swingy trot sideways in half pass though, she lost her bend, just like she’s been doing at home (I was so thrilled she was making the same mistakes in front of Scott. Nothing is more frustrating than taking a horse for help, have the horse go perfect away from home when I have help available, then go home and have the issues crop back up again.).  He described her movement as “sliding sideways,” which is exactly how it feels.  He had me quicken the tempo a little just before the first half pass steps, and when I combined that with a more active seat, her half pass started to bound sideways instead of slide.  I still have more work to do until the half pass is show-ring ready, but I now have a plan to get there.

By the time we got to the canter, she was starting to fatigue, which meant she showed Scott the short, stiff neck-tipping forward routine that had recently crept up at home.  He said I was being too nice when she set her neck muscles against me. If I needed to supple her neck, I should try once politely, and if she ignored that, make a clear correction, and then go back to riding nicely. In short, get in, get the job done, then get out and ride the harmony.

He had me keep the connection, no matter how short her neck became, and put enough leg on (translate – a whole heck of a lot of leg) that she finally took a firm contact with the bit. Once she took the bit, I could more easily unlock her neck, and push her neck longer using my seat and leg. 

With the canter sorted out, we ran a couple of changes, and talked about a strategy for getting both changes more consistent. Her right-to-left change is quite fluid, and she’ll let me influence the canter before, during, and after the change.  The left-to-right change is a bit more tricky.  In the left lead canter, she leans against my right rein, and I’ve been using counter canter to help straighten the canter. Venus has gotten confused as to when she is supposed to change leads and when she is to stay in counter canter.  He had me be very clear, even to the point of quite loud aids, for the first left-to-right change, then come back and ride that same change from a much more collected canter.  Going between those two ideas, she started to focus more on the aids.

The test of any lesson is the next day—if the horse feels better and the work is repeatable the next day, then the lesson was a success, no matter how pretty or ugly the actual lesson was.  I’ve been working with Scott for quite a while now, so of course the next ride she was fabulous.  I have been focusing on keeping her correct in the contact and really active with her hind legs, and she’s been rewarding me with super work for the last two weeks.

Next up was Eclipse’s lesson with Barbara Strawson. Eclipse hasn’t been off the farm since last June, when he was diagnosed with Lyme’s.  He’s been feeling super, and the video looks good, but I needed confirmation that I have enough collection for his FEI debut this season. 

I enjoy working with Barbara. She has a great eye, and asks about the feel at just the right time—working with her is truly training together.
Well, as expected, I had a lot of horse. Eclipse is a wonderful stallion, with a fantastic mind, but on March 3rd spring was in the air, and the trailer sometimes goes to New Bolton’s reproductive center, and he’s an optimist, so it took a bit for him to quit craning his neck around looking for the ladies. Once he finally settled, Barb and I discussed our plan. I wanted to focus on the balance and the thoroughness, to make sure I was riding Eclipse’s most expressive, fluid gaits. The “tricks” are pretty easy for Eclipse, but with his over-achiever mentality, he can get a little over tempo, or a little over bent, or a little too collected in a matter of moments. So we got to work.

For more, see part 2