Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Winter Workshop 2012

By Cheryle Oshman Blunt

I can remember when I was about 10-12 years old, I would sit for hours every spring reading the descriptions of horseback riding camps for kids my age.  I was very dedicated to choosing just the right one.  Did I want to swim in the pond with “my” horse every day, or did I want the camp where we would jump and jump and jump?  I knew even as I pored over those brochures that we did not have enough money to supplement my weekly riding lessons with an expensive camp experience, but it was still a dream.

A few years ago when Ange started talking about adult dressage camp, my excitement bordered on the ridiculous.  I told my husband that all I wanted for Christmas was to go to horse camp.  Of course, we call it a winter workshop, but you couldn’t fool me, I was finally going to horse camp.  Believe me, I wasn’t disappointed.

In the last couple of years, I have my role has shifted from participant to staff. We have some younger riders who participate these days, but most of my time is spent with the adults.  And what I see is pretty special.  I see a weekend when a bunch of grown-ups get to immerse themselves in their passion.  I see people who leave their limitations behind – time limits, physical limits, and the limits of self-consciousness – to grow as dressage riders.  Actually, we all grow as equestrians.

This year’s workshop had tons variety, from silly to serious.   On the less-traditional-dressage side, we formed a semi-circle around a shivering woman in jingly hip scarves who taught us to isolate our abdominal muscles. Sure, she called belly dancing, but we weren’t fooled.  “We call that lead changes,” Ange said, as we popped one hip to the side and then the other. 

That wasn’t all. Later on that day, I watched riders grab swords, spears, and lances to try their hands and their horses’ hooves at lobbing heads (well, foam mannequin heads) and pig sticking (or, spearing tape-covered pieces of foam).  Needless to say, there was a lot of laughter that day.

In the mounted work, I saw many riders stretching their riding skills in private, group, and seat lessons.  Throughout the weekend, everyone was taught by Ange, Cara, and Kelsey, getting different perspectives and different words to help them progress as riders. And boy did they.

The unmounted events catered to dressage geek skills, overall horsemanship skills, and fun skills. The mounted upper-level dressage demonstration and the “how confirmation effects training” theory session satisfied the dressage geeks in the group. Learning to take a horse’s temperature, pulse, and respiration, as well as how to wrap a horse and get tack pony-club clean, satisfied overall horsemanship skills.  Then there was goal setting, and the history of those Medieval mounted games to round it all out.

At the end of each day, riders and horses went to bed tired and happy, to return next morning full of smiles and coffee.  In all honesty, I’m glad that my camp experience has come to me as an adult.  It’s sweeter now than it would have been during my childhood.  Whether I participate or teach, full days at the barn surrounded by horses and friends who share my passion is an exquisite luxury I can appreciate keenly.  Thanks, Ange, Cara, and Kelsey.  And thanks to all who came.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Red Mare Update

Several people have asked about Venus’ progress, as I have been a bit silent about it lately.  Frankly, I was afraid to jinx her very steady progress, but at this year’s Winter Workshop, we looked at videos of her at 4, 5, 6, and from December, and I was really pleased with what I saw. To paraphrase Denny Emerson’s latest book, training progress is like grass --you don’t see it growing until it needs cut.

To recap (and save you time digging through old blogs), I purchased Venus as a 2 ½ year old. She proved to be a tricky youngster because of her very fearful nature.  Dressage training did what it was supposed to do, giving her more confidence, enough to compete in the young dressage horse FEI classes as a 4-and-5-year-old, and by age 6 she was really coming into her own, giving me a red ribbon in Suitablity at Dressage at Devon. 

In March of her 7-year-old year, I was letting her run around in the indoor (we had been stall bound for weeks from crazy amounts of snow – it snowed over 70 inches that winter), and she tried to jump out. She didn’t make it.  Yea, it was ugly.  “The Crash,” as we call it in the barn, did quite a bit of damage, and took a lot of time off, hand walking, slow rehab, and crossed fingers hoping she would come back 100%. 

Last January, almost 2 years after her accident, I had spent 3 days at with Scott Hassler trying to find my “before the crash” mare. Our mixed results left me pretty disheartened. Two weeks after, she gave me 5 minutes of amazing—it was like a pin-prick of light at the far end of a very long tunnel.  

In February, six frustrating, doubt-ridden weeks later, we returned to Scott.  Some days she’d be cooperative and soft in her body, other days diving onto the forehand and locking her neck.  He saw signs of progress, so advised I stay on the same path, but the little light at the end of the tunnel had taken on a frustrating strobe-light feature.   
We muddled along this way until April, with a frustrating cycle of her cruising along, looking pretty, but feeling very flat and unresponsive, and then be really good and quick-off-of-the-aids for a while.  I would think we were past her “staleness,” as Scott termed it in February, only to have it show up again a few rides later.  My other mounts were progressing consistently, but my own horse was consistently inconsistent.  Despite all of the other horse’s progress, Venus’ lack of progress had me feeling like a failure as a trainer. 

Because of the dramatic trauma she had inflicted on her body, I worried that the problem was physical.  I had the vet, chiropractor, massage therapist, shoer, saddle fitter, and other trainers look at her, and no one could find a physical reason for her lack of responsiveness.  Which just added to the frustration–if she didn’t hurt, why couldn’t I get her to work correctly?

It all came to a head in April (while a few students were watching, of course. I guess that’s the risk of having an open training program). Venus was cruising along, not really responding to my aids unless my aids got loud and ugly, then would over-react.  I got off frustrated and in tears over Venus’ lack of ridablility.  I was emotionally wrung out. I decided that if she needed that much pressure to do the work, then I wasn’t the trainer for the job.  I just don’t have it in me to use that kind of pressure every day– it was not worth the emotional cost.  I felt like I had wasted 2 years and countless dollars trying to rehab her.  Maybe she just wasn’t capable of the work.  The strobe light at the end of the tunnel flickered to tomb-like darkness.

As timing would have it, I was scheduled to take Secret and Sling to Scott for 3 days. I decided to take Venus for the first day, and then return with Sling for days 2 and 3.  I figured if he couldn’t help me with her training block, no one could.

After I whined to Scott about my frustration, I put her to work, and as I expected, she looked ok. Flat, not responsive enough, but from the ground, she didn’t look nearly as bad as she felt. So he got on. 

And he agreed with me.

He said she felt ok in her neck and the contact, but she just wasn’t using her back or hind legs, particularly her left hind. She also was not responding to the seat and leg aids, and it showed up most in the canter. The left canter was stuck, the right canter was quite unbalanced and running. He worked on quickening her responses to the aids, and getting her using her hind legs. She improved.  He asked me to leave her for the three days, and he’d ride her again the next day. 

I ended up riding her the next day, and the next. He had me warm her up, then ride her in short, 3-7 minute long segments, going between a small compressed trot, walk, compressed trot, and working trot. Then do the same in the canter.  The point–the shortened gait makes her bend her hind legs and prevent her from using speed to avoid the work, and the short sets respect her growing back and stifle strength.  She, of course, threw a few objections (she is red, after all), but the frequent breaks kept her tension from evolving into a “battle of the red-heads.” When her temper flared up, he’d have me maintain the current level of intensity with my aids until she relaxed a little, then give her a break.  She was not allowed use her emotions to escape the work, any more than using speed to escape the work.

He said this was the path he has wanted to go with Venus for a long time, but she hasn’t shown the emotional maturity to let go here. He felt her mind was ready for it, and frankly, I was at wits end, so I was equally ready. The added bonus of this method is it should teach her to manage her emotions when the work got harder.

He sent me home with the advice to use anything to get her more active and uphill EXCEPT forward.  Yea, it was the opposite of how I rode pretty much every other horse in the barn, but at this point, I was willing to try anything. He cautioned me that this would probably take six months to get her committed to really bending her hind legs, but he thought I would be happy with the results if I stuck with it.  After three days, Scott had managed to turn the tomb back into a tunnel, with dim light at the end of it.

Since I was in uncharted territory with Venus, I begged Jann, the secretary at Hassler Dressage, for a follow-up lesson. Two weeks later, I loaded the mare up and headed down again. I had been a good little dressage queen, and stuck to the homework, but had concerns.  I wanted to talk to Scott about adding some lateral work, as I felt like Venus was getting a little bunched-up with the steady diet of transitions within the gait.

Scott saw improvements in two areas – Venus’ acceptance of pressure, and the clarity of my aids. He agreed with adding controlled lateral work, as long as she didn’t swing her hips out to avoid bending her hind legs.  Again he advised patience, and he said would start to see an improvement in her gaits and responsiveness gradually over time. He reminded me that I was looking at a 6-month project.

We went home and continued our homework.  While this is going on, Silly, my other mare, become lame and subsequently bred, I hit show season with Eclipse, Secret, Flash and Sling, someone hit and totaled my truck, and we are moving to our new barn—in no particular order. I like stress. Stress keeps my outlook so positive.

With the new barn though, Venus could again get turnout, which helped. She was becoming consistent in the work–not stellar, but consistent, which is enough for me. 

We continued to make steady progress through the summer, and her mind became more and more calm.  She became more and more accepting of the work with less and less tension—a huge step for her, and necessary for her to climb the levels. Her only minor setbacks were honest physical complaints, and quickly resolved (sore front feet when the ground got hard resolved with hoof packing, a really tight back just before she cycled resolved with B-L, that sort of thing). The light at the end of the tunnel was at about 25-watts, but steady.

In late July, I took her back to Scott to check her progress. He was very pleased with what he saw, especially in the trot work.  We worked on creating more activity in her lateral work, instead of just using it to break up the compression work. We added activating the walk before the canter to get the first stride of canter more uphill, added more school figures in canter, but kept the canter strides relatively small.  Again he cautioned me against big, forward gaits. He told me he’d like to see her canter pirouettes starting to develop before we introduce the medium canter. Finally, we had some measurable forward progress.  The light dialed up to 60 watts.

By August, Venus was beginning to have moments of really swingy, soft work, and was starting to offer more work on her own, but I still felt like we were getting stuck, especially in the canter.  I took her to Scott for a check-up, and after he watched me warm up, he said I had more hind-end activity than front end movement – a huge change from April.  We spent the lesson discussing techniques to teach her to lift her shoulders more. I went home with my mind full of new ideas for the direction of her training, and the bulb burning a bright 75 watts.

Venus and I continued to plug away, using various techniques to improve her balance and suppleness in trot and canter.  I mixed her work days with lots of walks on the hills to keep her mind fresh. Somewhere along there I started to really look forward to riding my girl. 

In September, again I returned to Scott for a check-up, and he was thrilled (his words, actually).  Ashley, the assistant trainer at Hasslers who has seen Venus since she was 5, didn’t recognize her.  I was actually a bit surprised by their reactions. Venus had improved gradually, and although I knew our rides were going well, I hadn’t realized her gaits and balance had changed so dramatically.  Scott sent me home with the orders of “come back with a canter pirouette.”  The light bulb was burning bright and steady.

I continued to do my homework, and when I headed down to Scott’s for our December lesson, Kelsey tagged along to shoot some video. The lesson went well, with work on improving her right lead canter, improving the clarity of her half-pass work, and cleaning up her changes.  At one point, she locked into a brilliant, balanced, ridable left-lead canter that completely rocked my world.

Then I came home and watched the video.  She looked even better than she felt. 

I am touching wood as I type, but I feel like Venus and I are standing at the end of the tunnel looking into the full sunshine, and it is a wonderful place to be.