Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Dressage Boots

Usually when I get the opportunity to do something really exciting and special, there’s some kind of back story.  That back story comes up over and over again when we reminisce about our horse experience, i.e., the clinic where I misread the directions and went to the organizer’s house in a downtown Washington DC subdivision instead of the barn, the show where I was 4 hours from home with 2 horses to show and no girths in my trailer, the dead bird story, well, you get the idea. 

These stories also make great fodder for the blogs. 

As I was thinking about this weekend and organizing the amazing lessons I enjoyed with Debbie McDonald, I thought I would tell the story of my boot saga, complete with me somehow agreeing to be part of a fashion show.

Us crazy dressage riders, in addition to putting ourselves up against the impossible standard of “the perfect 10,” with the equally impossible standard of trying to not stain really expensive white pants in a very dirty barn, insist that our very tall boots are much stiffer than the boots of our other equestrian friends. Much, much stiffer. Like you can bang on them with your knuckles and they sound wooden stiff.

The boots are all leather, and like all good leather shoes, there is a break-in period. The boots are fitted so that when they are new the leather hits the middle of the knee cap, so that when the ankle area softens (the only part of the boots that will soften, by the way) and the boots “fall,” they are still tall enough to come to the back of your knee. Needless to say, until the ankle softens, walking around, mounting, and riding is painful, often bloody torture. But once broken in, they mold to the legs like chocolate on caramel.

So, obviously, we dressage riders will go to great lengths to avoid breaking in new boots. We will repair, resole, replace zippers, anything to delay the break-in period. I bought my show boots 10 years ago, when Silly was 5, after Dressage at Devon.  I was SO STUPID EXITED to get to ride at Dressage at Devon.  After 4 years as a poor, hard-working working student, I was finally getting to ride at A BIG SHOW. 

We arrived the night before, and my old boots didn’t have zippers. I put them on to ride, and because it was evening, my legs swelled. I couldn’t get them off.  On the advice of Silly’s breeder, I laid on my back in the barn aisle with my legs in the air to try to get my swollen legs to un-swell enough to remove my boots.  Yea, this is big time horse showing at its best.

My next pair of tall boots had zippers.  I didn’t want to go to the expense of full-custom, so my semi-custom options were really tall or just at the knee cap.  I went with the knee cap size. Once they had broken in, they were a tiny bit on the short side, but not floodwater geeky-kid short, and they were broke in, so in mind they were perfect. 

As they aged, the ankles got a bit softer.  I replaced the soles.  Then I replaced the zippers. Then I did the the soles again. Then the zippers.  A few years ago I lost a bit of weight, and I needed to have them taken in.  My boots came back, well, not my boots. The widest part of the boot wasn’t really lined up with the widest part of my leg.  But they were still better than breaking boots in, so I wore them. 

The advantage of boots with zippers is they are much easier to get on and off, but the zippers need regular repair. Sometimes it’s the zipper that gives out, sometimes it’s the stitching around the zipper, which lies against the saddle, and therefore is subject to a lot of friction.  Plus leather is weakened by the stitching holes.  So after much riding and zipper replacement, the time comes when the leather is just too weakened, and the boots just need to be retired. Since my faithful boots also had developed holes in each ankles (I was dumping sand out of them daily), it was time. 

So it was time to start the whole cycle over again.  Again I had the choice of a little too tall or just at the knee, and this time I went with too tall.  But of course that size was on backorder. No biggie, show season had just ended, I could easily come up with 4 or 5 weeks between October and April to break them in.   

Then Secret and I got selected for the December Debbie McDonald clinic at Hassler Dressage.  And I had boots with big holes in the ankles and zippers that were failing. 

I called the store, and they promised to have them drop-shipped as soon as they could, but no promises as to exactly when I would have them. 

As I couldn’t very well ride for Debbie McDonald in my sneakers, I took my boots to my cobbler yet again. He said he would patch the holes and replace the zipper, but he wasn’t sure the stitching would hold. 

I picked them up and sure enough, on ride 2, the leather gave out.  Of course it did.

But good news -- that day the tack store called. My  boots were in. They arrived Thanksgiving week, giving me a whole whopping 2 weeks to get them broke in enough to ride effectively in front of 100 auditors. 

Did I mention that I ordered the extra tall boots?

I added heel lifts, and walked like the Tin Man to the mounting block until my thin chestnut-mare skin needed a few days off. Linda reminded me of the “sponge trick,” putting small, round tack sponges at the back of my knees to soften the stiff top edge of the boot. 

This helped a lot, but I really didn’t want to ride around with yellow discs at the back of my knees in front of auditors, then Maddy came up with the idea of using the black foam poll-protectors.  Perfect! I was still mounting with something far less than grace, but by the Friday before the clinic, I could bend my knee enough to move my leg back without grimacing. 

My Tin Man days were over. Or so I thought.

As part of this clinic, Hasslers was having a Christmas Shopping Extravaganza on Saturday night. Susanne Hassler asked for volunteers to help. I, of course, offered my services, hoping she needed someone to refill wine glasses. But no, she needed people to model clothing for one of the venders.  Me, who lives in fear being called by “What Not to Wear,” modeling clothing? All of us at the barn were quite entertained by the idea.  But the shop owner agreed to let me wear that brown tail coat I have been drooling over for 2 years, so ok, fine, I’d do it.

Then she hands me the boots to go with it. They looked great with the coat – they were tall, chocolate brown, a bit of bling on the top, and just looked expensive.  And they are really, really, really tall. Like over the top of my knee tall. 

And I am supposed to walk down stairs in them. 

Um, well, ok, I guess.

Just to make matters all the more comical, the DJ starts playing “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy” just as I begin my lurching, rail-clutching descent.  It was all too much, I burst out laughing. 

I did my loopdy-doop around the audience, and then I was supposed to walk back UP the stairs.

Remember, I couldn’t bend my knees in these boots.

So I elegantly, in the most awesome runway-models strut, I crab-hopped sideways up the steps, hanging onto the banister for dear life.  

I don’t think the runway holds much of a career for me. 

The rides? Yep, they were awesome. I’ll give you the low-down as soon as I get caught up  enough watch the DVDs -- we ended up spending another night at Riveredge, since the snow came early causing traffic mayhem (my students who came to watch made the 90-minute trip home in a record 5 ½ hours). 

More later. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Trickle Down Training

Slingshot at the Big Fall Show

Last Sunday marked the official end to SFD’s show season with OVCTA’s Big Fall Show. As I took my whites and show coats out of the trailer, I was thinking about the year.  This year I have had several horses accomplish some wonderful things in the show ring, and all of my mounts seem to be making steady, consistent progress, even the ones that haven’t headed down the centerline. Which got me to thinking about trickle-down theory.  But because I am a horse trainer and not an economist, my thoughts centered around centerlines, not dollars and cents.

Secret and my road to Sport Horse Nationals began last January, when I started focusing on every detail.  I was fresh back from auditing the FEI Symposium in Florida, with Steffen Peter’s admonition to “ride every movement for a 9, every day,” fresh in my mind. If I asked for a canter from the walk, and she tightened her neck even a bit, we’d do it again.  Every halt needed to be square.  I kept telling Linda, “it’s a competition year, not a training year.”

But in retrospect, I think I was a bit incorrect. 

So I spent the spring and summer perfecting Secret’s reactions, and, as is her nature, she became a more and more obedient girl. We clearly defined the beginning and end of each movement, every time, until it became habit.  If she did something less than a 9, the thought in my head was “Secret, we can do better.”  Before long, I knew I could count on the canter-walk-canters, the straightness of the centerlines, and the steadiness of the left shoulder in.

Since habits are habitual, I found that mindset trickling over to the other horses. I insisted that my all of mounts be calmly obedient, even the ones who were not heavily campaigning.  Venus became more obedient in her canter-walk transitions. Flash started to wait for my seat, which made the little pinto-power bounce even more. Sling became steadier in the connection.  Ember and ET, the 4-year-olds, became more consistent in their reactions to the leg aid. Star, the fun little sales horse who moved on to her new home in August, became more focused on me and less on her environment.

So the summer training continued, and my habits evolved.  If I wanted to ride every movement for a 9, I needed to make sure my mounts were right with my aids, every moment, not just when I needed to ask for the 9.  I started to utilize more range in my half-halts–in addition to a preparation half-halt and a re-balancing half-halt, I began to use a smaller, more subtle “are you with me?” half-halt when I was focusing on the quality of the gaits and the harmony.  Not surprisingly, my mounts improved not only in more prompt responses when I used a stronger, preparatory half-halt, they began to show better quality of gaits and harmony.  My increased focus on my half-halts was trickling down to increased focus from my horses.

Focus, like habits, develop over time.  One horse, in particular, showed amazing growth in his ability to focus.  Sling, who we refer to as “ADD boy,” started his season doing well in the numbers, but I wasn’t completely happy with his rideablilty in the show ring. So once he earned his regional qualifying scores, I decided to keep him home.  

The only catch with staying home is at home it is easy to miss how much things are improving, especially things that develop slowly. So totally I missed just how well he was beginning to lock into my seat.

Then I took “ADD Boy” to the Big Fall Show, in the gusting, cold wind, and rode First 2.  He was with me every step of the way. His back was so connected to the movements of my hips that it felt like he was following my thoughts.  Lisa Schmidt, the judge, noticed, and rewarded the ride with a 71.89%, a 7 on submission, and an 8 on harmony.   And it wasn’t a fluke—he was super in both clinics he attended this fall.  Both Catherine Haddad and Lendon Grey both commented on his obedience and work ethic.  He needs a new nick name, “ADD Boy” no longer fits.

My springtime comment to Linda proved to be inaccurate. The increased focus on the details required to excel in the competitive arena had directly improved the training overall. Secret’s big year had trickled down to create a flood of improvement in all of my horses.


Monday, October 7, 2013

Sport Horse Nationals 2013

Secret believes ribbons should be carrot flavored.
Dressage at Devon was last weekend, and for the first time in 9 years, I didn’t enter a horse. I have two 4-year-olds on my ride list and Harry is a year old now, so I had horses eligible for the breed show, but back in January I decided to skip it this year.  What would entice me to keep my youngsters home from the largest breed show in the country you ask?  Sport Horse Nationals.

This year Sport Horse Nationals was in Lexington, VA, which is only 4 ½ hours away, as opposed to Idaho, which is 2 days away. Secret has been the wonder girl all season, so I wanted to see how she compared to the best Arabians and Half-Arabians in the country.   So we sent in an entry and packed the trailer.

Because Sport Horse Nationals is limited to Arabians and Half-Arabians, unless you ride in a predominantly-Arab barn, chances are your coach isn’t available. So, like at many Arab shows, we do some coach-swapping.  Aneesa, who is a regular student of Cara Klothe (who, while she was in college, trained and taught out of SFD, and now works as assistant trainer at Rolling Stone Farm) trailered over a few weekends before so she could polish Par’s performance and we could get re-acquainted with each other’s styles. Cara and I have tag-teamed Aneesa’s show coaching a few times in the past, so shortly I felt up-to-speed to wear the coaches hat.

I also was in need of warm up eyes, so when my friend Lauren asked for warm-up assistance as her trainer Anne Rawle wouldn’t be making the trip, I jumped at the chance, but only if she’d be my warm-up eyes too.  I went down to her place and watched her take a lesson with Anne, and she came down to Hasslers and watched a lesson with Scott.  Lauren, being Lauren, took copious notes, and showed up with her notebook in warm up. 

I felt more prepared to help Aneesa, but the way the times came out, I was going to be en-route when she was doing her training level class. So the week before we spent a lesson on warm-up priorities and the stages of warm-up, including timing how long it took for Par to reach each stage.  Lauren’s first ride, at First level would also be during our travel time, so I put Secret in the trailer and headed to Lauren’s so Lauren and I could practice warming each other up. And time each other’s warm-up. Linda also video tape our test run-throughs so I could use that to help my final preparations.

Between the time with Scott and all of this warm-up preparations, Linda and I figured we’d done all that we could do to help Secret show her best. Now it all came down to judge’s opinion, who managed to have the better ride that particular day, and what curve balls Mother Nature would throw at us.  

Of course, we were all hoping that we would show our best. Arabs do things a bit different than the open shows. For example, in addition to huge ribbons and lots of flowers, National Champion and Reserve National Champion received coveted Arab statues given as trophies.

But trophies weren’t the only thing on the line--in Arabs, competition results actually change the horse’s name. When the horses earn enough points and enough championships, they get their names changed to add +, +/, ++// etc. after their name. It’s kinda like wearing their resume whenever they enter a show.  These are really huge milestones in the Arab world, with the horses being honored with a presentation in the main show ring, often followed by a barn party.

Secret has already earned her +/, and being a half-Arabian who only competes in dressage, has only one more / she can earn.  In order to get it, she needed to win a Top 10 finish at a National Championship and earn a bunch more points.  Paradox needed a few more points for his /, and a Top 10 is worth a whole bunch of points, so Aneesa and I were both working on show nerves well ahead of the shows.  Starting a week or so before, she started texting me to say the anticipation was killing her. I started having nightmares about halting at X, and sudden snow squall blocking my view of the dressage letters. Yea, this was a big deal.

Despite this anxiety, Aneesa managed just fine without me. She ended up 3rd in the quite-competitive Amateur Owner Training Level class, earning Par a new / after his name.  She missed reserve champion by .1 of a point, and spent the rest of the week letting me know it was my fault for not getting up earlier to make it to Lexington in time to warm her up.  My retort? Your 20-year-old horse is 3rd best horse in the country. And she didn’t even NEED a coach for that.

Lauren, who hid her show nerves much better than Aneesa and I, piloted Breeze around  the sandbox for  a quite nice First level ride that finished 3rd,  earning another top 10 ribbon.

Lauren’s Prix St George ride was next to go, and Linda and I made it there in time to help her warm up.  She was a bit insecure about that ride as it is her first year at FEI, but she and Savannah warmed up well. That is, until the amazingly cheerfully-on-top-of-things-for-five –whole-days ring steward (the woman deserved a medal) called that the ride before was circling the ring. I watched her lower back stiffen, and instantly Savannah, her very, very honest mount, forgot how to count tempi changes.  In desperation to help my friend relax RIGHT NOW, I went with humor.

“Lauren, pretend it’s Friday night, you only have $5, and want to drink all night. Shake your booty, girl!” Lauren promptly busted out laughing, shook her hips, and went in to ride a national top 10 Prix St. George worthy test, complete with accurately-counted changes. To top it off, she earned her final score for her USDF Silver Medal.

Lauren rode Savannah again on Thursday in her 4th level class, again earning a top 10, with a score over 68% from one of the judges. 

Finally, on Friday, Secret and I had a go in our 3rd level class. There were 33 other pure Arabians and Half-Arabians in our open division, with  lots of +/, ++//, ++++// after their names. Linda and I wanted a top 10, but with the quality of the purebreds and the warmblood crosses in our class, we weren’t sure if it was realistic. We were in the first hour of our class, which ran nearly 5 hours long.

The dressage arenas were on the top of the hill, and our stabling was in the far back corner. Linda and I nearly wore our shoes out walking up and down the hill checking scores, which were slow to come out. We walked, and waited, and walked, and waited, did a little shopping, then walked up the hill again.  Finally, after all of that walking, we got our score – 8th out of 33, for a top 10 finish.  Mission accomplished.

Sunday was Secret’s Second Level championship, but Saturday afternoon the skies opened up. Secret is a really good girl, but slippery footing scares her. She hates the splashing and slipping, so she’ll hold her back and shorten her neck.  Which is a huge improvement—a few years ago she would leap the puddles and kick out at the mud.

Sunday morning dawned foggy, so not much hope of the arenas drying out. I walked up to check the different warm ups and see the condition of our assigned ring. I took a few steps at M, the low point in the arena. Yep, it was splashy and slippery. Linda and I agreed that it was a good thing we had already earned the needed top 10, and with the footing it was anybody’s game.

I warmed up in the one arena that had some dry areas and some puddles, so I had a chance to get her loose and to get her acclimated to the mud separately.  We went in and did our thing, and Secret was a bit tight in the neck, and it showed in her mediums which were a bit running, but otherwise she was a good girl. She didn’t leap or dodge any puddles and did everything I asked her to do when I asked her to do it. As scared as she gets in the mud, I couldn’t ask for anything else. I was really proud of her.

Lauren, who had watched more of my class (I tend to avoid watching my classes, it just makes me nervous), said a lot of the horses were having trouble with the footing. Since there were only 15 in my class (they divided purebred from half-Arab at 2nd level), we figured we would need to stay for awards. Which, of course, was the last thing of the day on Sunday.  So we waited. We took our time packing, did another tour of the shopping, and generally killed time. We waved Aneesa off in the morning, and Lauren off in the afternoon. And waited some more.

Again scores were slow to come. We joined the mob at the dressage office. Or I did, as Linda couldn’t look.  When I told her Secret was Reserve Champion, Linda didn’t believe me. She made me look again. Even on second look, Secret was still Reserve Champion.

So Linda and I celebrated Arab style, with some over-blinged-up gaudily embroidered ego-jackets that declared BR Danny’s Secret as Reserve Champion and Top Ten Sport Horse Nationals all over them. If Secret gets her resume attached to her name, well then Linda and I will wear it as well.  And we wore them we did, at Dressage at Devon the following weekend. Of course we did.

Secret's haul from Sport Horse Nationals

Back of the ego-jacket

Front left of the jacket. Go Secret!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Intensive Training

As pretty much everyone knows, I’m very committed to my education as a rider.  I fit in lessons as often as my schedule and budget allow. But like everyone, I always want more, so over the winter, I decided to turn my dream into a plan. I wanted an intensive time of lessons.  The obstacles, of course, were time and money.  

Linda was fully behind me, as it would give me intensive training time to prepare Secret for Sport Horse Nationals.  So that gave me a concrete timeline, instead of that elusive “as soon as ___(fill in the blank with whatever we choose to limit ourselves with)_____” that allows us to postpone of our dreams– the timeline was August or September, 2013.  I contacted Jann, who does the scheduling for Scott, in January to get on the calendar. This was well before I had sorted out the funds, but I had time.

Linda was willing to support Secret’s bill, but if I was going to do this, I really wanted 2 lessons a day.  I wanted to really make the most of it. 

I put my jumping saddle on the market and ear-marked those funds for “Ange’s training trip,” but honestly, my jump saddle wasn’t much, so it didn’t bring in much 

Then, in May, a former student’s family, Alexa, Dawn and Dave Derr (who, after spending the winter in WIT, moved on to Lendon Grey’s capable guidance for her emerging FEI career), handed me an envelope. The front of it said “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest. ~ Benjamin Franklin.” Inside was a note that Dawn had looked into a way to start an online fund for my continuing education, but the choices were pretty varied in benefits/limitations, so they hoped that the enclosed money would be a jump start to my continuing education fund.  I was completely speechless I opened the card. Wow.

With these three sources, I had about 2/3 of what I needed to pay the Hassler bill, not counting travel time and lost wages.  Then, in mid July, I received an e-mail from the American Morgan Horse Institute, asking for a photo to include in a press release she was writing about the 2013 van Shaik Scholarship winners.  I had applied in late 2012 for training with Eclipse, but he had retired in January, and I had forgotten all about it.  Apparently the letter announcing I was a scholarship recipient had been lost in the mail.  I now had enough money to fund my trip, I just needed a Morgan to spend it on.

First I called Liz, who owns Rocky, a talented Morgan I had backed for Ensign’s Grace Farm several years ago and continue to train for Liz, who bought him at 4, to see if she’d mind if I took him to Hasslers for 2 weeks.  She readily agreed.  Then I contacted the AMHI Scholarship chair to make sure I could use the funds for Rocky instead of Eclipse, to which they agreed. So we were set.

To make sure my trip was the best it could be, when Catherine Haddad came to teach at our farm in August, I asked her to lunge me. When I was a working student, I quickly realized if I took a lesson on a horse, that horse went better. If I took a seat/lunge lesson, ALL of my horses went better.  She worked on my balance, which made my aids more independent.  I spent the next week riding at least one horse a day without stirrups.  I was going to be READY.

I had a total of 16 lessons in two four-day blocks. The plan was to take Venus and Sling on day one, then take Rocky and Secret for the remainder of that week.  That Saturday we’d come home. The following Tuesday Rocky and Secret would join me back at Hasslers.  Rocky would go home on Thursday, and Ember would have his first off-farm outing on Friday along with Secret’s final ride. 

I rearranged my lesson schedule, prepped Maddy to help with some of the at-home training rides so my evening work at home would alternate between teaching one evening, riding the next, and packed the trailer and headed out.

In my first lessons, Scott and I discussed my half halt.  In my lesson with Catherine 2 weeks before, she had asked me to lift Venus’ shoulders with my seat, and I wanted Scott’s help in clarifying how exactly to do that. I told him I felt like my half halt activated my mounts’ hind legs and increased back swing, but didn’t necessarily bring them taller and more rolling in their shoulders.  This became the theme of the trip. Defining, refining, and tweaking my seat so it becomes an invisible tool to create a harmonious ride.

I took crazy notes after almost every lesson (I think I missed one), and here’s some clips from the notes:

Clearly change my body language from the warm up set to the work set.

In lateral work, I can bring up one shoulder at a time. I cannot bring up both shoulders. Mix up lateral work with half-halt lines to get both shoulders supple and up.

Quick transitions and larger transitions within the gait are good for bringing shoulders up. Smooth transitions, both between and within the gait, are better for supple toplines and swinging backs.

When using my seat to make the horse more uphill - think of a pulsing push for my lower back into my hand. Don't just fall in love with activity, make sure I feel a change in the balance. If I half halt and the shoulders don't come up, leave the collection and set it up again. The activity has to lift the shoulders, unless I'm only working for activity, in which case my seat should behave differently.

When using my back more to create a collection, be careful not to fall behind the vertical with my shoulders. If I do, it makes my lower back stiff and not following as well.

If I'm worried that I don't have the shoulders up enough, length the stride a few steps. That will tell me. If shoulders are down, the horse will quicken instead of lengthen.

When I feel something tight, move in and out of it. Kind of like a rusty hinge, loosen it with movement. Don’t sit on the tight exercise.

When something feels good, figure out what I can make better.  Work on the individual parts, then go back to the whole. For example – in pirouettes, sometimes school hind legs, sometimes school bend, sometimes the shoulders, then go back and ride a technical pirouette.

Ride every change for the accessibility of the back that I need for tempi changes. Prepare the new side, then ride to change. When I can ride loud in the change and quiet right after, she's ready for tempi changes. Not before.

After I came home, I had that momentary can-I-do-this-without-Scott’s-help panic, but after watching my rides in the mirror, I was really happy with the picture I was seeing.  Overall, I found I was quieter as a rider. I was able to make changes with my seat that I would previously have made with my rein or leg.  Which, of course, meant smoother, more supple horses. 

I also found I had developed a bit more confidence in my tools.  I wasn’t worrying that my aids would work, or were they the correct ones for this moment.  I was just putting them on and reading the horse’s responses. 

Secret came home with taller shoulders in the trot, and smoother, relaxed flying changes. Rocky came home with a much better canter balance and rhythm.  Of the at-home horses, Venus benefited the most.  Between my pre-lesson with Catherine and the improvements in my half-halt, I now feel  more confident to compress and expand her powerful canter.  And it paid off – I took her to a schooling show September 14, and I have struggled with show nerves with her since about forever. On the 14th, I wasn’t nervous, and therefore neither was Venus.  We went in, did our thing, and earned our highest score at 3rd level ever – a 66.97% with 8’s on extended trot, extended walk and gaits.   

Of course, you ask, since Secret was prepping for Sport Horse Nationals, how did she do? She did well, and I’ll tell you all about it in my next blog.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Secret's Two Days with Debbie McDonald

Linda e-mailed me a couple of months ago quite excite that Debbie McDonald would again be teaching at Hassler Dressage. Two years ago, through a twist of unexpected fate, I had the opportunity to ride Secret with Debbie. Those two lessons formed the framework that I built on last year, when she learned use her back and truly collect, which resulted in a massive jump in her competiton scores this season.  To say Linda and I were excited about the lessons might be an understatement.

I ride in public on a regular basis. I show often. All of my training sessions are open for any of my students to watch. I participate in clinics with auditors.  I have been doing all of this for years. I should be over performance anxiety.

But apparently I’m not.

I started to get nervous a week or so before when I saw the list of riders and horses. I’m usually the only one mounted on a non-warmblood, so that is expected. But the company I was in for this clinic was a list of horse/rider combinations I have been admiring for years.  To name a few, Silva Martin and Aesthete (national Champ 4-year-old, highly placed as a 5-year-old), Kim Herslow and Rosmarin (cleaned up on the FL CDI circuit in the small tour), Marne Martin and Royal Coeur (the US representative to the 2011 World FEI Championships for Young Dressage Horses).  And Secret and I. Secret is a truly special, talented animal, but winning Arabian Region 15 Championship just doesn’t seem like it is in the same league as the World FEI Championships. But here we were.

I can always tell when Linda is nervous and excited, she gets talkative. Which works out well, since I clam up. Sunday she carried the conversation during our trailer ride down.

We arrived in time to watch part of the first ride and then I was up. I never know how much to warm up for a clinic ride. I don’t want to do too much, for fear of fatiguing my mount since we are going into a 45-minute concentrated lesson. But on the other hand, I know the best way to get Secret using her back, and it takes a few minutes. 

 I took Secret for a long walk to relax, did a little bit of trot stretching, then headed in. I should have taken some time to get her canter loose, but nerves have a strange way of altering time, and I ran out of it – time that is, not nerves. I had plenty of those.

When I ride in a public clinic, I know I expose myself to the often-brutal opinions of the internet trainers. I don’t want to be “that student,” you know, the one who does her own thing regardless of the clinician’s instructions, overrides their mount, talks to the clinician thinking they are giving information and instead comes across argumentative. In short, I don’t want to be the disrespectful student.

I think, in this case, I may have gone a bit too far.

After Debbie commented on how much Secret’s body had changed since she saw her 2 years ago, we went to work.  Well, Debbie and Secret went to work. I just sat there.

Debbie tried to get me to ride more. She encouraged me to use my seat to improve the canter rhythm, which was hoppy because I was riding like a robot. She tried to stimulate me to improve the bend and connection in the trot work. 

Finally, about half way through the lesson, I pulled myself together and started to actually ride the horse I know quite well how to ride. Debbie noticed that too, by saying “now you are finally riding!” 

Despite my stage fright, I got some really good stuff out of the first day. Namely:

Ask for more ground cover, and then rebalance her if she runs. Then do it again, until she can give me bigger strides without falling onto the forehand.

There is only one collected trot and collected canter. Not the long side version, the half pass version, the shoulder in version. Every stride has to cover the same amount of ground and Secret’s neck has to stay long and out to the bit, no matter what. If the quality of her gait or the quality of her connection changes, abandon the lateral work and fix that first. Then go back to the lateral work.

Before the half pass work, make sure the shoulder in, haunches in, and leg yield work. If all three of these things go well (they did), then she has the tools to make a big, well positioned, ground covering half pass. Now ride the half pass like it is big, well positioned, and ground covering.  

When collecting into the pirouette canter, she has to shorten her stride, let me position her in haunches in, and keep her neck long. Until she is able to reliably do all three, we shouldn’t add turning steps.

Hassler’s Debbie clinic was shared with the USEF Developing Rider clinic and the Emerging Athletes Program. To accommodate all of this, everyone in the clinic rode on Sunday with auditors. The second lesson would be either Monday or Tuesday morning, sans auditors. Since we are fairly close and Secret treats the trailer like her favorite dining room, I offered to ride on Tuesday to save a longer-distance rider a night in the hotel.

When I came back on Tuesday, I was determined to be a more effective rider. I started by giving Secret a full warm-up.  When my lesson time came, Debbie started with “Let’s see some changes.”  Secret has had a hard time learning her changes, and we have struggled with tension as well as timing, so I was ready for help.  I headed on to the quarter line to make 2 changes along the very-long long-side of Hassler’s arena.

Debbie stressed that Secret must have a good canter, and she must do her changes in that same canter. Because she struggled with the changes being late behind, I had been working on Lendon’s “whoa-go” to get the hind legs caught up with the front legs, but now it’s time to get past that and make big-girl changes.

Ok, we can do that.

Then she asked for more changes, like 4 on a long side. ‘

Ok, we can do that.

 Then she asked for a change every 6 strides.

Ok, well, I guess we can do that…but that tension issue….ok, Ange, keep riding….

Of, course the tension issue came up.  Which, in Secret’s terms, means she knows what comes next, and I should just sit up there be a good, quiet, get-out-of-my-way kind of human.  Then she can make her neck nice and short and do her changes whenever she really wants to.  Yea, that doesn’t’ really earn us high marks from the judges.

We took a minute. I explained what I was feeling – that as the tension builds, Secret anticipates the flying change and gives it to me on the half halt.  Debbie’s response? She needs to get over that. Do more changes, not less.  When she anticipates, drop the counting between changes, and instead work the preparation.  Do the half halt and skip the change sometimes, and sometimes do the half halt and allow her to change, until she is really cued into me.  Only let her change on my terms.  She stressed that anticipation is not a bad thing—it often leads to better expression.

And wow, was she right. I got a true, bona-fide big-girl change.  Not just a swapping from one lead to the other, but a clear, uphill lifting into the air, landing on the other lead. It’s in there!

We revisited the half passes, which were much more fluid on Sunday. We did a bit of medium trot, where Debbie got after me to go for it more, especially in the transitions.  Then finished with some  pirouette canter, which went much better than Sunday.

We collected, and added haunches in, and Secret’s neck stayed nice and long – so we turned a few steps.  Not hopping around, but truly collected, carrying-on-the-hind legs turning steps.  That is in there too!

So now Secret and I have our homework to get strong enough for the next big jump in collection – Prix St George.  She has Sport Horse Nationals in September and a several-day visit with Scott to make sure we are ready.  Onward and upward!


Monday, August 12, 2013

Road Trips Start at Home

Ok, I know this blog is supposed to be a clinic report on my two rides with Debby McDonald (I will tease you with WOW, I am such a lucky trainer to get to ride a horse as willing and talented as Secret, and to have the support I have from Linda, Hasslers, and the home front to have the opportunity to get such quality instruction--yea, life is good), but a couple of recent blogs have caught my attention, so I’m feeling the need to stand on my red-headed soap box for a moment.

The first of these events is a speech entitled “Roadmap to the Podium," given by our dressage team’ Technical Advisor/Chef d’Equippe Robert Dover.  Here’s a link to Chronicle’s blogabout it. In short, he describes a pipeline starting with the Emerging Athletes Program (the up-and-coming young riders), the young horse program, the developing rider program (for horse-rider pairs that are gearing towards the big time), and the internationally-competitive riders. He discusses how each of these areas needs funding, especially getting the elite athletes funding to compete internationally.  He makes a commitment to hold fund raising events to provide cash for his master plan. And people are willing to help –proof is Lendon Grey’s Winter Intensive Program, which ties right into the Emerging Athletes Program, received tons of help from both sponsors and professionals.

The major emphasis of his speech was FEI level dressage riders, but he does give lip-service to the USDF, as “The USDF provides grassroots encouragement,” said Dover. “It’s the first portal of recognition for the emergent athlete.”

I understand that his interest is primarily in putting together a gold-medal winning team, but he has forgotten a huge and regularly overlooked part to the dressage community.  I am not talking about the adult amateur community, which I see gets a lot more support than they are often able to fully appreciate. For example, USDF Connections, a terrific magazine, is packed with AA-friendly info each month.  Several Dressage Institute grants are geared towards GMO educational events that are specific for adult amateurs. The USDF Adult Dressage clinics were created with the sole purpose of educating amateurs.  Heck, adult amateurs even have their own competition category—believe me, when I see Michael Barsione on my class list, I know I’m not getting blue. As a professional working in the middle-class dressage market, there is a significant economic gap between Michael’s trip around the sandbox and mine, but yet that is the standard I am held to. 

From where I sit, as an instructor, what limits most adult amateurs is not their riding education opportunities, it is balancing family, job, and riding, which is no mean feat. Being able to make the time for regular riding and lessons is often a challenge, regardless of who guides their educations.  Anyone who can hold down a family, a career, and compete in this sport gets my respect. I couldn’t do that, hence I made riding my career.  But that is another topic.

The overlooked category is, in my mind, is the local instructor. 

If Dover wants to raise funds for his programs that money needs to come from two main sources: big contributions from big cooperate sponsors and from smaller contributions from the dressage community at large. Obama ran his first presidential campaign using the consistent small-contribution model, so it works. But in order for Dover’s audience to stay excited enough about dressage to become consistent contributors, they have to be consistently excited about their sport. They need local instructors that inspire them.

Which brings me to the second bit of prose that has me fired up—Catherine Haddad’s most recent Chronicle Blog post.  In it, she talks about the clinics she has been teaching recently and the quality of students that the trainers have been putting in front of her. In summary, she feels like dressage instructors need to get more and better training, in order to teach better dressage to their students.

 I agree with her.  As an instructor, nothing gets me more fired up than working on my own education. Having Scott, Catherine, Lendon, Gunner, Maryal, Gerhard, or any of the other clinicians I have worked with over the years push me to be my best inspires me to go home and do the same for my students.  I regularly plagiarize my instructors. I can only teach as well as I have been taught.   

My students are the fruits of this concept. They know this, and are therefore super-supportive of my education by verbally supporting me, being flexible with their lesson times when I go for a lesson, and with the annual "Ange's education Christmas gift."  As Linda has said repeatedly, “When you go get a lesson, we all learn.”

So it’s not surprising that I think that when a highly trained clinician comes to the area, the organizer should first offer slots to the local professionals. When that highly-educated instructor teaches an amateur, she teaches one person. When she teaches a professional, the trickle down goes to all of that professional’s students.

What really surprises me is how hard it is to get professionals to fill the lesson slots. In my area, we have the luxury of an abundance of really well trained CDI-level dressage instructors. Most of my friends, who work in the middle-class market like I do, use one of these instructors regularly. But the opportunity to get a fresh set of eyes, especially with ability to take what you learn back to your regular instructor for discussion, is really an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed.

But it is. Last spring DVCTA brought in Gary Rockwell, a CDI judge who has sat on Olympic panels, as a clinician. DVCTA had a terrible time filling the ride slots. DVCTA had to subsidize the price and call people directly to fill the lessons. Even if Gary Rockwell isn’t someone’s first choice for their education, the opportunity to get a highly-decorated judge’s perspective in a non-competition format is something I made it a point not to miss.

Of course, professionals face the same limitations as other riders, sometimes even more so—time and money.  I would love nothing more than to keep an FEI-tract horse with either Scott or Catherine and have their eyes on me daily for an extended period of time.  But the reality is the middle-class dressage market, where most of us are working and who really need the education, doesn't allow for that big of a continuing education budget (yes, I do have one – it really is a line-item in the SFD budget sheet). But that kind of money usually shows up with adult amateurs with careers (or husbands with careers) who have already paid off their children’s educations and their mortgages.

Which brings me to my challenge.  If the top crust of the dressage world is really interested in improving the overall quality of dressage in our country, help out the middle-class dressage instructors.   And not just the ones who are lucky enough to have a super-talented horse or two—help out the ones who are working hard and improving every horse they touch. Invest a bit of yourself as a mentor.  Be willing to help make better riders, instructors, and professionals.  That would create a difference that would really impact our dressage community and create a strong home base to support the elite athletes on their road to the podium.

I also think, we, as dressage instructors need to find creative ways to invest in ourselves. I have a bit to say about that, as well as a zygote of an idea that a few of my fellow instructors and I have been working on since spring, but this blog is long enough already, so you’ll just have to wait for that.  Next time.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Secret's Photos

As promised, here are some photos of Secret's progress. 

This is Secret in fall of 2010 at the BLM finals.  This photo is a bit out of focus, but you can see how she wants to bunch her muscles at the base of her neck, which closes her throatlatch.  Compare the size of her stride, the height of her croup, and the bend in the joints of the hind leg that is on the ground in this photo to the photo below.

This is Secret this past June at Windy Hollow Hunt. You can clearly see how much her trot stride has grown, and how much more power is coming from her hind legs.  She was checking out a horse grazing outside of the arena, which gave us great ears but a slightly short neck, but even with the neck a touch short, it is longer coming out of her withers than in the photo above. That bit of bracing is gone.  (thanks for the photo, Stacy!). 

This photo was taken at the ESDCTA Memorial Day show in 2011, during a 2nd level test. You can see her wonderful, uphill canter. When we stayed home, I was most worried about improving the trot, but check out the next shot to see how her canter developed. 

As you can see, her canter is still wonderfully  uphill, but now she is moving through her whole body and really opening up her frame.  She has a ton of power now.

Yea, I included this shot just because I like it. In this moment, I have just half-halted to set up the medium canter. Check out that engagement -- those hind legs are loaded with power.  She is such an amazing horse, I am so lucky to get to ride her. 

Friday, July 26, 2013

Secrets of Training Secret

Ok now Ange, pressure is on. You promised everyone positive, fun blog—now you must deliver.

Sorry, this one is long. My friend Stacy, of stacylynnephoto.com, got some great shots of Secret at a show last month, and I have a ton from before the training break. I'll get a photo blog to go with this long-winded diatribe posted tomorrow.

The topic of today is Secret.  Secret is an 11-year-old Arabian-Frisian cross owned by Linda Butz.  I have had the pleasure of riding Secret for almost 5 years now. She is a wonderful mare. She has a double-dose of try-too-hard and that keen Arabian intelligence.

The story of Linda and Secret reads should be titled “How to Start out Wrong and Still Somehow End up Right.” 

Secret, right after Linda bought her.
Linda bought Secret four months after she began riding. She bought her from a video. Linda was such a novice that it did not occur to her to worry that Secret was unmounted on the video.  She liked Secret’s pretty trot, and was learning to ride on Secret’s half brother, so that was enough to seal the deal. 

When Secret arrived from Wisconsin to Pennsylvania in December, Linda was a bit surprised at what she saw. The fuzzy, pasture-toughened mare wasn’t exactly the elegant, sleek horse of Linda’s ideals. She asked the shipper if it was the right horse.  Right or wrong, it was the horse she got.

Secret was a 5-year-old scared alpha mare, so Linda followed her instructor’s advice and sent her to a cowboy. There Secret learned to allow humans to touch her ears without rearing, stand like she had parking brakes, and, after 2 ½ months, to carry a rider. The cowboy was concerned about Linda and Secret as a match, and advised her to get lots of professional help.

After 4 months with the cowboy, Linda took Secret to a co-op with her instructor. Her instructor was a student of mine, so when they ran into trouble with Secret, her instructor called me. 

I took one look at Secret and her papers (I had trained her half brother on the Friesian side and many of her Arab-side relatives), and I knew this was an amazing athlete. I also knew she would be hot, a tendency to spook, and maybe a touch of ADD.  Her strengths for dressage were the natural uphill movement and super quality canter.  The training issues for dressage were clearly displayed in her upright neck and weak loins, which were things I am very comfortable correcting, but I was brought in to make her safe for Linda, not turn her into a dressage superstar.

The problem that brought me to Secret’s arena was an ugly buck in the canter depart. Linda, thankfully, wasn’t there—just the current instructor and I.  I really don’t like needing to do a discipline training session in front of a new horse owner. 

I started her on the lunge to make sure that she could easily get into the canter. She could, and had a really super canter. So I got on and worked with the trot to help her to relax a little. Then I asked for the canter.

Yep, the mare can buck.

This was not the cute little unbalanced-green-horse-hop-into-canter buck, this was a head down, back up, I-want-rid-of-this-annoying-human bronco buck.

So I did a little discipline work to explain to her that bucking into the canter is not acceptable. No, I didn’t abuse her, but she had to understand that displaying displeasure by trying to unload a rider is unacceptable, and if she bucked, she would have to work much, much harder than if she just took the canter.

Then I set up the canter depart again, and learned that Secret is a determined little alpha mare.  She tried to unload me again, with a bit more determination. 

So again I tucked her nose on my stirrup and booted her into a tiny circle until she was dizzy, then cued the canter again. She politely took a gorgeous, uphill canter, which I greeted with much praise and petting.

Apparently, when she decided to give me her canter politely, she decided I was acceptable as her rider.

That fall, Linda sent Secret to me for training. The plan was to stay the winter then return to the co-op with her regular instructor. Linda’s personal goals were trail riding, with the ultimate goal being to trot downhill.

Early on, Secret showed me talent for dressage.  Even though competitive dressage was not Linda’s goals, we decided to take her to a schooling show in early spring to see if the training held away from home.

In our area we have a huge horse community, with riders from recreational trail riders to Olympic team members in the neighborhood.  Most of the time, when we go to a schooling show, there’s a wonderful hodge-podge of pony club horses, well-loved ott’s, out-of-season fox hunters, and all-around horses. But sometimes the big boys show up, especially in the spring, to trial-run their tests before hitting the bigger shows.

Guess who showed up? Hilltop Farm and Iron Spring Farm. Not that it really mattered. I just wanted a nice, uneventful trip around the sand box.

Secret gave me a nice ride.  And she ended up 3rd, behind Hilltop and Iron Spring, and not by much.  Wow.

So we decided to enter her in the Mason Dixon Classic, a local Arabian Morgan show, a few weeks later, where she earned training level champion.  Not bad for her first recognized outing. Linda promptly fell in love with horse shows.

So Linda and I sat down and made a plan. Most horses need show miles to get consistent in the ring, so Linda and I decided to give Secret a ton of outings.  While we were at it, we’d shoot for a few schooling show year-end awards and hit the Arab circuit. 

We showed her a lot that first year, and although Secret had some inconsistent moments, she became better and better with every outing.  She ended up Top 5 at the Arabian East Coast Championship, 3rd in All-Breeds that year, and 6th at the BLM finals against the warmbloods.

Secret continued her winning ways through 3rd level, racking up ribbons, Legion of Merit designations, high-score Half-Arabian awards, and regional championships. But when we got to 3rd level, even though she was placing well in the classes, she was having trouble with the same movements over and over in the show ring.  I knew the struggles would only get worse, so after a heart-to-heart with my trainer, Scott Hassler, I asked Linda to let me pull her off the show circuit and work on some of the foundational strength issues that were limiting Secret’s ability to do 3rd level with ease.

Yea, that’s not a fun talk to have with any horse owner, especially one whose horse has been kicking butt for 3 seasons.

The underlying foundation problem came back to the weak loin and upright neck I had noted when I first met Secret.  Because of her weak loins, when she lowered her neck to the “on the bit” posture, she would support herself by bracing a little in the base of her neck, meaning there was no true connection to the reins.  When I put my leg on, sometimes I’d feel her change in my rein contact, but most often I’d feel her quicken her tempo and get lighter in my head instead, which meant I wasn’t able to recirculate the power from her hind legs through her topline to create true collection and cadence.

 In order to get to Secret’s loin muscles, I needed to work her in postures that didn’t allow her to use the base of her neck for support. These postures weren’t pretty. The work was really hard. Secret would come in sweaty every day, but she never, ever argued with me about the work. This mare is truly special between the ears. 

I would be lying to say that pulling Secret off the show circuit was easy. Linda wasn’t happy about it. There were many, many tense days between Linda and I.  But Secret dug deep, and gave 100% in every difficult strength building workout I planned for her. We took Secret down to Scott monthly to get his unbiased opinion on our progress, and every month he’d point out to Linda where he saw the improvement and what he expected to see change next.

I have to thank Linda for giving me the time to help Secret. Many owners would have moved their horse to a different trainer, but despite the disappointment of not competing and the rather un-dressage-like work I needed to do with Secret to get her stronger, Linda stuck with me. Not all owners would do that. 

And boy has it paid off.  As she has gotten stronger in her topline, she now has a super feel in the bridle. The increased strength allowed her to show more bend behind the saddle, which made her renvers, travers, and half-pass much more fluid.  Plus the added strength took her flying changes from late behind to really, really pretty expressive changes.  She has developed a really nice school canter and working canter pirouette with a long neck, instead of the bunchy Friesian neck.

After the year home, this April we headed to the Mason Dixon Classic again to try out 2nd and 3rd levels.  That morning I had a panic attack. What if the improvements in Secret didn’t translate to higher marks in the show ring?

My panic was unfounded.  Secret scored really well, significantly ahead of her competition, and ended up 2nd level and above champion.   She has continued her winning ways this season, including AHA Region 15 Reserve Champion at 3rd level and Champion at 2nd level.

That Secret is doing so well in the show ring is awesome and quite a testament to applying the correct training and giving the horse the time she needed, so I’m really pleased, but not completely surprised.  What has surprised me is the reaction we are getting from the judges.  With the most recent dressage tests, the rider score is now divided into 3 categories – position, effectiveness of the aids, and harmony with the horse.  The first time I saw all 8’s in those numbers, I chalked it up to a generous judge. By the second and third time, I was feeling truly humbled to get to ride such a horse that can demonstrate harmony to a judge. But at Region 15 Championship, when Kathy Rouse gave us a 10 in harmony, I was completely speechless.

This weekend we get to ride for Debby McDonald at Hassler Dressage. Secret and I worked with Debby 2 years ago, and during our strength-building year, I referred to those lesson notes repeatedly. I am excited to again get to work with Debby and see what she suggests for Secret’s future development.

I’ll let you all know next week.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Winter Funk

When I opened this file to work on this blog, I saw that I started it back in mid May. I guess winter funks are just as yucky to write about as to experience. Plus, once spring hit, things started rolling along nicely, with more ups than downs, which makes this blog feel whiny and outdated—my apologies for being the downer.  But an update is needed before I go into the good stuff that is happening, so here it is. Better late and one post-funk blog than several months of depressing dribble.

That said, last year was tough.

The quick 2012 synopsis: I decided to keep Sling and Secret, two super-fun horses, home from competition.  They both had strength-related training issues, which are challenging because they resolve so gradually it’s hard to see the progress – unlike teaching changes or leg yield, where you can clearly tell when horses have that light-bulb moment and figures out how to sort out their legs.  Strength, on the other hand, takes time. Flash, a super-moving re-train that I have spent a long time sorting out for her owner, fractured her jaw and missed the show season.  Silly, my big, sentimental-purchase mare, gave me a beautiful foal, but she had a lousy labor and lost her colostrum, meaning 2 blood transfusions for Harry and a night with an IV bag for her.  I put Venus on the A-team to get some show miles, but hitting the high-profile shows my student’s needed for their goals, combined with all of the quadrille practices, wasn’t the best plan for getting the best performances from her.  My sweet, wonderful girl was a bit frazzled by the end of the summer.  Eclipse’s PSG show season was compressed for financial reasons, resulting in scores going down instead of up, and a nice case of stomach ulcers. Then, to top it off, in October I found out that he was retiring as of January 1.  Yes, the training level sales horses did really well in 2012, but I didn’t hang out my shingle to be the queen of training level.

Then, adding to this on a personal level, in December, my Grandpa passed away. The horse grandpa.

Needless to say, I spent the winter in a bit of a funk. Every time I heard the song “Some Nights” by the band Fun., I totally understood the lyrics. 

Meanwhile, SFD has been doing well. Doug came on board last summer, and the barn is full. Maddy got promoted from Working Student to Assistant Trainer, and she and I filled our winter days with riding, teaching, and serving the needs of our clients. 

Which helped me do the only thing I know to do when I get in a funk. I stay busy. I avoid thinking about one of my big fears – that I will get so caught up in running my business that I stagnate and become a “good enough” rider and trainer. I didn’t move so far from family and friends to settle for “good enough.”

I’d like to say the soundtrack had become was Billy Joel’s “Keeping the Faith,” but in reality it was closer to Fun.’s “One Step.”

I have some really super supportive people in my life, and they gently, and not-so-gently, kept the pressure on me to keep my goals in the fore front. Linda, who knows how much getting training help inspires me, insisted that I take Secret down to Scott’s regularly this winter, and of course I took Venus along (if I’m going for the day, get as much out of it as I can).  For Christmas, my students sent me to FL for the FEI Trainer’s Symposium.  These things kept me from falling into melancholy, but the funk-fog was still misting around the edges.

The supportive people in my life took it even further. Cara Klothe offered me her FEI mare, Ocarina, for the show season. I hemmed-and-hawed, and with Linda spouting all of the advantages of accepting Cara’s generous offer, I decided to accept. It was the right decision, as working with Cara’s super fun, very-clear-about-how-correctly-she-should-be-ridden mare has been a blast. I’d say more about this, but then I’d spoil a future blog post.  Each time I sat on her this spring, the focus required to ride her well would push the funk further and further away.

Then, show season started. Secret and Sling both made it very, very clear that my decision to keep them home last year was the right call. They both have walked into the show ring like stars, ready to truly perform for the judges. But again, that’s another blog. 

Now that the fog is lifted, I kept hemming-and-hawing about posting this blog.  I didn’t want to write this over the winter since reading downer blogs is, well, a downer. But after enough comments from readers, I felt like I owed you guys an explanation as to why the blog has been quiet for so long.  Plus it will help put the next few blogs in context.

 The current soundtrack in my head? Jimmy Cliff’s “I can see clearly now.”