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, 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.” 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Showing in the Heat

Everyone keeps asking me if we show in the heat, and yes we do. But we take some extra precautions to keep the horses comfortable. The humans, I figure, can speak for themselves, but the horses didn't choose to go to the show, so I feel obligated to make sure they are ok. I have learned a lot of tricks from my endurance-riding friends as well as picking up a few tips from other sources.

Here's how we do it:

First, my trailer has tons of windows and three fans - one for each horse and one in the tack room. When I trailer on hot days, I open the windows in the front of the tack room and between the tack room and the horse area so the horses get the most air that they can.

I use ice to keep the air around the horse's heads cooler. One way horses cool is by panting, so having cooler air for them to breath goes long way towards keeping them comfortable. The hay bag also has ice dumped over the hay. When I am only hauling one horse on hot days, I keep the head divider open so both fans can blow on Ockie.

In this shot, you can see how the fan blows the ice-cooled air over Ockie. We jokingly call this "red neck air conditioning." Ockie usually has a water bucket hanging in front of her too, but she kept playing with it and blurring the photo :-). The trailer door was only closed for the lighting of this photo, usually they are open when the trailer isn't moving. 
Of course, we sponge and scrape with ice water on the horse's necks and jugular areas during walk breaks and right before and after our class. Amy meets me at the bit check area with the bucket ready to go. I am usually pretty independent at a show, but on hot days I really need an extra set of hands to help keep my mount cool.
As soon as we get the tack off, we put ice on the horse's legs. It not only helps prevent minor tendon stress from becoming strains, it cools the many, many blood vessels that flow through the legs. When it is hot, we hose the horses off while they are wearing their ice boots.
On days when the sweat just isn't evaporating, sometimes a spritz of alcohol will help. Alcohol evaporates easier than water, and takes some of the heat with it. We will spritz the horses before warm-up, just before we go into the ring, and during cool down. We try not to over-do this trick, as it will dry their coats

Also, to keep them drinking enough, I offer them beet pulp-alfalfa cube soup in the trailer along with their water bucket. Sometimes I add carrots to the water bucket, to flavor the water and encourage them to play bob-for-carrots along the way. Yes, this makes a huge mess, but in addition to getting water in their systems, it gives them some long-staple fiber in their stomachs to absorb any trailer-stress stomach acid, which helps prevent uclers. Cleaning towels are cheap, Ulcerguard isn't.

I electrolyte the night before we trailer and after we get home. I don't electrolyte just before trailering, as giving the horses something to make them thirsty then putting them in a moving trailer where some horses won't drink, isn't really a good idea.

I am realistic with my expectations on hot days. I can't be angry if a horse isn't 100% when the temps are 100, that just isn't fair. And yes, sometimes we even stay home on hot days. Sometimes.

(yes, I know I haven't blogged in forever, I'll get an update blog up soon. Promise.)