Monday, October 6, 2014

The Short and Long Story of Dressage at Devon

Devon is over, and I can see my desk again, so it’s time for a recap, while I’m still basking in show afterglow, or is that the cold medicine? I’m not sure.

For those results-oriented folk, here’s the short version:
  • Wednesday I rode Capitano, Shelley’s super 5-year-old German riding pony, to an 8th in Suitability and a score of 71.4% for 6th place in Materiale.
  • Also Wednesday Aneesa competed Ming, her 5-year-old mare, and brought home 5th in Amateur Handler.
  • Thursday Secret earned a 62.071% in 4-1 on wet footing (NOT her thing, by the way) for 8th out of 12.
  • Friday Secret earned a 65.357% in 4-1 again for 8th, this time out of 17.  Both classes were won with a
  • I needed to do a last-minute horse switch for quadrille, and managed to stay in line and stay on top in the Dixon both Friday night and Saturday mid day.
  • Sunday Paige and Slingshot brought home red in Jr Dressage Seat Equitation with a 70.0% 

Now, of course, there’s always more to the story, and in this case, it involves lots and lots of snot. I felt a little funky on Monday, and I chalked it up to allergies. Tuesday the same. Wednesday I woke up with my throat on fire, my sinuses filled with battery acid, a serious case of vertigo and a runny nose. I employed chemical warfare – pretty much every cold medicine we had in the house. In this slightly-drug-induced state, I put a foot in the stirrup of a 5-year-old in what is, let’s face it, a pretty lousy show environment.
Devon show grounds is in the middle of a neighborhood. It is small, and cramped, with very limited warm up. That warm up is crammed with youngsters in hand, FEI horses, and 8-20 other horses that will be in the Materiale and Suitability classes. Most of those horses are young, and September in PA can offer some crisp nights. I’ve had some rather exciting rides in the Dixon and seen some downright dramatic ones. I’ve only been riding Capi since May, and although he has always proven to be trustworthy, it is Devon, so who knows.

Then, as we are tacking up, I couldn’t find Capi’s girth. I borrowed Secret’s girth, but Capi has a young-horse chest, and Secret is built like a tank, so her contour girth was right up against his elbows, with the buckles almost over the saddle pad.  He held his back tighter than normal in his first ride and didn’t do his normal nose-blowing, but if that’s my only complaint on a 5-year-old at Devon, we are doing very, very well. 

As I said, Capi was perfect. When he got cut off in warm up, he came right back to me. When the bigger horses were thundering around him in the ring, he was cool. I’d feel him get a bit tight, so I’d hug him with my legs a bit more, and he’d take a breath and go forward like the good boy that he is.  He was so obedient and steady that I had two people ask if he was for sale before we even got back to the barn. Nope, not this boy—he and his human, Shelley, have a long, exciting career ahead. 

In the afternoon we had some tough time crunches. Capi and I were in the gold ring just before Aneesa and Ming were due in the Dixon. Immediately after Aneesa’s mounted class she was scheduled in Amateur Handler. So the whirlwind went like this – hop off Capi, go cheer Aneesa on, then while Aneesa changed clothes, Sue, Ashley, and I toweled off Ming’s sweat marks and shined her socks. Then Aneesa grabbed the reins for a sprint to the ring and a sprint around the triangle.  It was worth the hustle, as Aneesa left the ring with a big pink ribbon.

Aneesa took the 5-year-olds home, and I stuck around to school Secret and Sling, who was my mount for the DVCTA Quad Squad, under the lights. Secret handled the lights like a pro. I gave her a full workout, as being an Arab with only one class per day on Thursday and Friday, I wasn’t worried about her bottoming out. 

Sling, on the other hand, didn’t seem like himself. He was tender across his back, and he was really, really needy–not his normal Dennis-the-Menace personality. I wasn’t sure if it was just the small stalls and the stress of Devon or something else, so I decided to climb on and see. He started out fine under saddle, blowing his nose and relaxing. But when I asked for the canter, he wanted to hop in place. When I asked for more forward, he started swapping leads behind.  Once back in the stall, he parked out quite elaborately and peed a very small amount of cloudy, dark urine. I called the vet, took him home, and started him on SMZ for a suspected bladder infection.

This, of course, did not bode well for the Quad Sqad performance, scheduled for Friday night and Saturday mid-day. On my way home I called a student who has a smallish, red, Arab-Warmblood PSG/Intermediare 1 horse named Fox, and asked her if I could borrow him. I can’t thank her enough, and I am really quite humbled that she trusted me enough that she didn’t bat and eye.  She said “sure, when do you need him?” Then I broke the news to the Quad Squad Director, Anne Miller, that I was going to be riding a different horse—one that had never met the other horses in the group, or been to Devon, or ridden to music, or even done quadrille. I assured her Fox would be fine (as I crossed my fingers behind my back).

Thursday I woke up feeling decidedly not well. I took a handful of cold medicine to control the symptoms. Linda, who lives close to the show grounds, did the morning feeding, so rode a couple of horses before heading to Devon and watched the drizzle and wait for our 7:03 ride time.  Secret hates wet footing, so Linda and I alternated wandering through the shops and hoping the weather would break and the footing would miraculously dry out. 

While Linda and I were killing time, Secret, who didn’t care for only one evening class a day, was trying to tunnel her way to the show ring. So we tacked her up in the afternoon and did 20 minutes of light work to prevent further barn destruction.   

By 6 p.m. the rain had ended, and Secret warmed up like the seasoned show horse that she is. Then we went in.

My internal dialog went something like this:

Holy crap, I’m headed down the centerline in the Dixon Oval at Dressage at Devon!! HOLY CRAP!! Ok, get it together, what is our plan – canter, ok, canter. I’m cantering in the Dixon!!!  – organized, brain, organized…BUT I’M IN THE DIXON!!! your plan Ange….work it IN THE DIXON!!

Then we passed the judge’s box at E and the decorative corn stalks rustled. Secret spooked and shot forward. That was just enough to get my brain back into riding mode. I half halted, laughing at the silly little Arab mare, and headed around as the whistle blew.

The trot work went as I had planned it, nicely up in the shoulders and correct in the shoulder ins. Overall the footing was pretty good, except for the corners. I could feel Secret getting tighter and tighter every time we went into a corner.  In the canter, where she pushes off more with her hind legs, it got worse. I’d give my reins forward a little but she’d hold herself. She did everything I asked, just a bit tighter and more held than I would have liked to show the judges. But I could feel the tension building.

Then we hit the final extended canter, and she was, well, exuberant.  If I can hold the tempo in her exuberant moments, the judge’s comments are usually something like “bold” or “confident.”  If we don’t stay together, the comments aren’t so positive.  This was not one of our together moments. She did come back to me in the corner, though, and ended with a polite halt at x.

Then the crowd applauded. Seriously, it surprised me a bit. (Who watches dressage??) The Quad Squad riders had came out to support me, as well as many of my friends and students. That was pretty dang cool.

The ride scored better than I expected, at a 62.071%, with the winning ride being a 68.071%. One of the judge’s commented on Secret’s connection in the trot, which made me feel quite good.  I have focused a lot of training time teaching the spunky Frie-Rab to take an honest connection and not pose in her neck, particularly in the trot work.

Then it was Fox’s turn for the Quad rehearsal under the lights in the Dixon. He warmed up outside of the ring like a pro. Then we headed into the Dixon. He was like – Whoa, that’s a big ring, big lights, big music, gotta stop and take a look at that….then he’d gallop forward to catch the others, then he’d back off again. Once we hit C and headed into the dressage ring, though, I could almost feel him go “oh, dressage arena, letters, got it.”  He locked into my seat and handled all of the scary moves in the pattern, including cantering head-on towards another horse, as if he’d done it for weeks in rehearsal.

By Friday the cold medicine was controlling the plague symptoms better, but I still knew exactly when the meds wore off.  Linda again fed for me so I could sleep in a little. I taught a couple of lessons, then headed over. 

Linda and I decided against an afternoon ride on Saturday, in case Secret was tired, and instead opted for a longer warm up.  Which had a potential time crunch, since Quadrille was scheduled at 7:05 and Secret was due in the Gold ring at 8:45. Linda and Fox’s owner were both available to play groom for me, and I’ve had crazier schedules at shows, so I wasn’t super worried. Keyed up maybe, but not worried.

The quadrille performance went better than Thursday’s rehearsal. Fox only backed off a couple of times, and with Emily’s 23-year-old horse showing off his levade at regular intervals, I doubt anyone noticed Fox much.

Once we got back to the barn, with so many awesome people there to help me, I had plenty of time. Enough time to fidget and fuss, which is my normal pre-warm-up routine.

Once I got my foot in the stirrup, I was fine. I went into warm-up with two plans – ride the rhythm more clearly in the canter, particularly in the changes, and not hang with my right hand, which is my “OMG this is IMPORTANT to me” default behavior, which had showed up in Thursday’s ride.

Right away in warm up Secret told me that she didn’t appreciate my right rein from night before. I spent my first couple of warm up sets (I generally warm Secret up with short work sets and lots of walk breaks, to get the buttons I need working while preserving relaxation and gas tank for the show ring) asking for better right side suppleness.  At one break, I walked over to Cara, who was my eyes on the ground (thank you again, Cara), and said I felt the stiffness on the right, but worried if I addressed it too much in warm up I’d lose the relaxation and thoroughness. It seemed to me that I could eat some points for the right bend in a few places, but I didn’t want to sacrifice Secret’s highlight, which is the fluidness of her overall pattern.

So I spent the remaining warm up sets focusing on uphill balance and forward-and-back adjustability.  Cara announced “that’s your show trot” moments before the ring steward flagged me over.

This time I kept my head in the game, kept my right arm from clamping, and kept my seat moving. Secret was right with me, every step of the way.  It was fun. I smiled like a fool, not because I was at Dressage at Devon, but because my girl was so on my seat it was like she was reading my mind.  Everything went pretty much as I’d planned it, except the right-to-left change, where I need to change at C then immediately begin a 20-M circle. When I cued the change, I turned my shoulders toward the circle point, but my hips didn’t swing as much, so Secret had an unbalanced moment. Otherwise, it was the ride I wanted to show the judges.

After the final halt, I leaned forward and scratched Secret, and the crowd applauded again.  The crowd was a group of my students, my fellow quad squad members, and friends from the Arab circuit. Earlier that day, I’d watched other riders graciously wave to their support teams, or point at their horses, you know, nice, classy responses. Did I do that? No, I blushed the bright-red color that us red-heads are uniquely capable of, and then buried my head in Secret’s neck.  So much for class. 
Did Secret and I pin? Seriously, folks, this isn’t Disney. She was a good girl, and showed herself well, but those horses were really, really fancy. She showed the judges what she is, an obedient, well-balanced, good girl. That is all I can ask.  Since I didn’t expect her to ribbon, we weren’t disappointed. That she showed herself so well, that was my goal, and I am thrilled at how well she scored.  Plus one judge gave us an 8 on harmony. In my way of thinking, I can’t do better than that.

Saturday the quad performed again, and by then Fox had it all sorted out. He was the super boy. Only a horse with a really wonderful mind would let me throw him into this totally nutty situation and trust me to get him through it. What a special horse.

Saturday afternoon I took Secret and Fox home, and by then Sling’s antibiotics were working. His back was much less tender. Paige rode him at home, and he was confidently cantering around in his normal way. So she gave him a bath and we decided to take him to Devon on Sunday.

Sunday Paige and Sling warmed up well, then went into the Dressage Seat Equitation class. She had a bit of bad luck in the class – she didn’t hear the judge call for the left lead canter, then when she saw the other riders cantering, she (in her words) “kicked and hoped.”  Sling took the right lead, then they corrected it. She had a good ride, but that mistake took her to the red ribbon. Regardless, I was crazy proud, watching a rider I had started on the lunge line at 8, and a horse I had backed, go in and show such quality work in such a stressful environment.

So, the long story turned out really long. This year’s Dressage at Devon will definitely go down as my favorite year yet.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Videos of Devon

Yes, it was a blast. I have a full report ALMOST ready, but in the mean time, here's video of Secret and my Friday ride: Secret, 4-1 at Dressage at Devon Friday, 9/26/14

Also, Fox and I were in the quadrille, it's on this page, Scroll down to Friday, then scroll right to Special Exhibition.

I will get the full report up this weekend. I have time to put the finishing touches on it Saturday. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Secret and I at Dressage at Devon

This is Tuesday of Dressage at Devon week, and this year I am riding in the Performance Division. I get to make this journey on Secret, who I totally love showing, and I am stupid excited. 

I’m not a stranger to Dressage at Devon, but for those who are not familiar with this show, it is actually 3 shows in one- a Dressage Sport Horse Breed Show, a USEF/USDF Dressage show at 4th level, and a CDI.

Tuesday through Thursday is a Dressage Sport Horse Breed Show, my normal stomping ground at DAD.  Tuesday through Thursday is full of babies, youngsters, broodmares, and stallions shown in hand on the triangle.  There are also some mounted group classes. In addition to Mares under Saddle and Stallions under Saddle, the youngsters get a spin around in groups divided by age or gender, depending, in Matriale and Suitability to be a Dressage horse. Suitability is ranked by gaits, where Materiale conformation is also considered.

In order to get into the Breed Show, all you have to do is send in your money and have the guts to canter in a group on a young horse. I’ve done this on many, many horses. I have had horses and students in the Breed show for the last 10 years, and had the opportunity to play coach to students in the CDI a couple of times. But I haven’t had a trip down the DAD centerline.

Going down the centerline, well, that takes a little bit more. First you have to send your money along with a score you earned at the level. Then, once the closing date has passed, the show management ranks all of the scores and decides how much time they want to allow for each class--PSG, GP, Young Riders, 4th level, etc. Then they start from the top of each class rank list and when they run out of ride slots, everyone below that line gets their entry money refunded.

As a trainer and coach, I try very hard to keep goals appropriate to the horse and rider pair. This helps keep excitement up and disappointment low.  For example, when a student asked about moving from the schooling shows to the USDF/USEF shows on her 23-year-old Mr. Reliable, I advised her to go for a Schooling Show year-end award, as at his age, his gaits won’t compete with the fancy, young Hilltop horses out there.

With this in mind, let’s be clear, taking Secret, a half-Arabian half-Friesian, to the most competitive show in our area, wasn’t what I would consider “appropriate competition.” This is no slight on Secret. She is, hands down, the best competition horse I have ever had. She may not be the fanciest mover I have taken down the centerline, but she is the most rideable by far.  She gives 100% every minute in the show ring.  Because of this, I can show the judges a really balanced, accurate interpretation of the tests. Yes, they can ding her on elasticity, particularly in the medium and extended gaits, but the non-brilliance moves, the ones that show submission and trainability, she’s a pretty consistent 7 or higher.  But as she is not a warmblood, what most people will be riding this week, she is a bit of an apple in a pile of oranges.

Sport Horse Nationals is all Arabians and Half-Arabians, so that is appropriate competition for Secret, i.e. a whole bushel of apples. She did extremely well there last year.  Sport Horse Nationals rotates coasts, so this year the original plan was for Linda to take up the reins at recognized shows and start earning scores to her bronze medal.  But then she and her husband decided to sell their house and build a new one.  To me, as trainer and friend, watching the stress this was putting on Linda, I didn’t think it was a good idea for her to make her hobby into additional stress. So, to prevent that, I asked if I could try for DAD on Secret. Mind you, we hadn’t even been down the centerline recognized at 4th level.

So then we did our first 4th level ride, and it scored surprisingly well. We had a submit-able score for Dressage at Devon. Then Secret continued to earn good marks at 4th level in the next 4 shows. I began to wonder if maybe, just maybe, this little powerhouse of try-to-hard could actually get into the big show.

So I sent in the entry.  Once the closing date passed, I started furiously checking my e-mail box. This year it was 10 excruciating days between the closing date and when the welcome e-mail came out. I almost wore out the e-mail button on my phone.

Then it came.

Holy cow, I’m headed down the centerline.

People keep asking me if I’m nervous. The answer is no, I’m really not. I’m really, really excited. I didn’t really expect Secret to get in, so I do not expect this wonderful, all-heart Half-Arab to pull a ribbon against the fancy horses. To me, getting in was winning. My goal is to help Secret stay calm under the lights and excitement, since, let’s face it, Dressage at Devon is a zoo of a horse show. I was much more nervous last year at Sport Horse Nationals, as apples-to-apples, I knew I was riding one of the best in the country, and it would all come down to how well the test was presented.  But at Dressage at Devon, against the oranges, I want to show them the apple of my eye, and I get to do that regardless of the placings.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Rough drafts

The blog has been silent for some time, and I have had much chiding from friends about it. My apologies. I understand the importance of breakfast entertainment—which I guess goes two ways, as the smell of toast accompanies my writing.  I have many half-written posts that I just haven’t had a chance to sit down and finish.  In an attempt to justify my lack of posting, here’s a teaser of the half-finished writings, and also a quick summary of the many months:

I suffered another whiplash injury over the winter, resulting in 3x a week visits to physical therapy for 3 months. This is when I got behind in my computer work, as the necessary PT took a big chunk of time. But in that time, I learned a ton about supporting muscles and compensatory injuries. Ironically, I also got a horse in training around then that needs the same sort of training plan. Applying a PT approach to this guy’s training has really helped him. The good news is he can’t read, so he won’t mind that this blog is still a rough draft.

I taught 3 theory classes over the winter addressing the emotional side of our sport. The one on rider frustration was very well attended, and is half-finished blog post as well.  

I have a Public Service Announcement post about lug nuts, along with photos. The short version for now -- check the lug nuts on your tires regularly. Yes, I do have photos to accompany this post.

We lost one of our long-time boarders in Aug. Losing a horse is hard for everyone – the owner, fellow boarders, and the stable managers. The story from Doug and my perspective is coming, but frankly, this one has been a bit hard to finish. Probably because it is still a bit fresh.

I have a mostly-finished post about, as a professional, balancing my personal education/competition goals with the goals of SFD and my clients. I may leave this one on the unfinished pile until I can figure out how to say what I want to say without coming off as “poor Ange,” since that isn’t how I feel at all. Finding the balance is tough, but that’s all part of it.

I have a compilation-of-lesson-notes kind of blog about how it takes a village to raise a dressage horse, or, in this case, a dressage trainer. Every time I go to wrap this up, I have some other insight from some amazing lesson. I think I may just need to publish this and accept that (hopefully) these insights never end.

I have a blog I mostly wrote in the spring, after helping the pony clubbers get ready for dressage rally, entitled “stages of on the bit.”  This post is nearly done, but I need to go over it again to make sure I haven’t oversimplified the most misunderstood stage of a dressage horse’s education.

I also have a blog about judging. I’m off to the USEF Judge’s Clinic at HITS on the Hudson this weekend, so I am reluctant to post this one until I see how this weekend effects what I want to say.

Then, of course, there’s the big news – Secret and I made the cut to ride in the Fourth Level class at Dressage at Devon. I have an outline of my excitement, my thoughts, and how truly special this horse is.  Somehow, I think this blog may be up soon, as this is fun stuff to write about.

So, in the words of Willie Nelson, “you were always on my mind,” and I will, I will, I will get some of these unfinished works posted soon. I will.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Young trainer, young horses

Last  weekend, we had our first schooling show of the season. Maddy was not present -- not because she does not support our shows, but becasue I sent her down to Hassler Dressage to audit the USEF Young Horse Training Session. Below are some clips from her notes.

June 28-29, 2014

After two days of watching some amazing young horses, I had pages of notes but I was able to narrow down the information to about a page. Although the clinic was focused on the young horse , the information can be applied to any horse to help a more through, supple and obedient horse.

-     Your aids are a conversation with the horse- sometimes you whisper and sometimes you have to yell, but you should never just sit there.  You are the horse’s inspiration.

-     Be clear and be precise. You are the horses only coach.

-      Always ask questions- does the horse need more suppleness? More engagement?

-      Don’t just visit exercises . Make sure the horse understands what you are asking. Especially once a horse has gotten a concept. For example, the horse must first learn the concept of shoulder in and then you need to define it and make it crisp. Details are very important but don’t punish the horse when not satisfied, just ask again.

-     Horses don’t just have three gaits, they have six. Know the horse in each gait. Does the horse need more bend in trot left vs. right? Does he/she need more straightness in canter right vs. left? ETC. Need to understand the horse beneath you.

-     Tempo work should be ridden through the whole body.  And there should  be forward thoughts but not fast. The hindlegs need to help move through a supple back but  don’t forget about the shoulders and topline. The topline should stay supple so the power can come through. Horses use their neck for what the back should be doing.

-     Bringing the horse back in tempo work should be creating energy not stopping it. If the horse has good forward energy use lines to harness it ( like corners) . Subtle tempo changes help the suppleness.

-     EVERY transition should be CRISP. Be  like a spark plug. The horse should always be thinking “What does my rider want from me next?”  the first steps is when the dance begins. Don’t just let the horse slide through the movements. Ask them to step, and each foot fall is a step.

-    Halts are transitions for balance.

My choice to send Maddy to Hasslers instead of being at our schooling show was clearly the right one. I'm pretty happy with the results of Maddy's weekend. Her training horses have looked great this week.  

Sunday, June 15, 2014

All Grown Up

Venus turns 12 this year, and I realized I haven’t posted a word about her quite some time. Why you ask? Because, frankly, she has become known around the barn as the good girl, and let’s face it, consistency doesn’t lend itself to good storytelling. 

Venus schooling in winter 2011
When I bought Venus, back when she was an awkward coming-three-year-old, SFD hadn’t opened. I was still freelance teaching and training, and wanted a young, hot, fancy horse to develop and compete. I really enjoy riding hot horses—for my tastes, the quick responsiveness that comes with it is worth the potential tension.  She is Dutch and thoroughbred, and a red mare, so I thought for sure she would fit that bill perfectly.  Her sire’s sire is Roemer, a sire known for stamping his offspring with rideablilty, which I thought would be a nice balance for the thoroughbred heat. 

As a youngster, she was indeed a hot, responsive, could-get-
tense mare. She showed well, earning a paycheck from the Jumper Futurity for her scores in the 4-year-old FEI division and a red ribbon at Dressage at Devon as a 6-year-old. 

Venus in the Think Pink ride at DAD, 2012
As she has matured, her initial heat has mellowed to a very ridable response level.  In 2011, Scott and I developed a plan to teach her to manage her emotions, which worked really, really well. So well, in fact, that in 2012 she and I were included in the quadrille at Dressage at Devon. She was super. The whole process of going to practices and learning to deal with flags, music, horses headed straight towards her and horses tail-gaiting her helped seal the lessons she had learned the previous year. She became so good in a group that this summer we were asked to ride lead in the First Level Quadrille at the DVCTA USEF Show at Radnor Hunt.  She has become a reliable mount.

I guess this really isn’t too surprising. Horses, like people, go through different stages of emotional development. Usually around 5 or 6 the horses are going through the equivalent of adolescence. They begin to develop confidence and challenge their place in the herd, which can make for some interesting training sessions. Somewhere between 6 and 8 they settle into their mature personalities—which is why most of us pros advise our students to not buy a horse younger than 6.  Around that time, Venus became much more tolerant and much less hot. 

Venus at NEDA 
She has not become dull, by any standard. She is such a good girl, and she has developed a patient, schoolmaster personality. If the aid is correct, she happily does what she is supposed to do. If the aid is incorrect, she tends to ignore it, or just sorta respond.  Over the winter, a student was struggling with shoulder in, so I put her Venus for a ride. When the student set it up with too much inside rein, Venus just went down the long side with her neck over to the right. When my student figured out the use of the seat and outside rein to set up the shoulder in, Venus not only gave her shoulder in, she lifted her shoulders, changed her carriage, and added suspension to her step. It was like Venus was saying to my student “look, when you do it that way, you get all of this too!” Venus was practically cheering her student on.

Venus, with Nicole up.

She has become such a good girl that last fall, when I decided I really should learn to jump with more skill than just grabbing mane and hanging on, Venus became my ride for our weekly jumping lessons. It became clear that Venus really enjoyed jumping, and when my Dr. suggested that I give it up (some old gymnastics injuries in my neck), I passed the jumping reins to Nicole. Nicole is a much more skilled jumper, and Venus has flowered under her training.

She is such a good girl that when a couple of students with young horses were looking for a calm horse to join them on a paper chase last fall, Venus and I came along to play babysitter.  She has not only become a dressage schoolmistress, she has become a solid-citizen all-around horse. 
Venus competing at her first "A" hunter show

But, like most things, this comes with a negative side. Since she is such a good girl, I really don’t get to ride her that much these days. Over the winter, she was busy teaching a few choice students how to put a horse on the bit correctly and how to ride correct lateral work. Nicole jumps her.  Maddy, my assistant, earned some much-needed show miles on Venus this spring. 

As Venus has grown up, so has my business. Unfortunately, in recent years, her competitive ring time has been limited by client demands. Each year I have started with the determination to get Venus out and do what I bought her for – show. And each year one of my client’s horses begins to take off.   Competing on a client’s horse not only makes my client happy, it lets me use my show budget to do exciting things like buy a tractor for my growing business.

Which brings up that negative side again. I am a professional dressage rider who likes hot, spicy horses. And my mare has evolved into a wonderful good girl that anyone can ride. She clearly doesn’t need a professional to ride her any more. Plus she seems to really like teaching, loves to jump, and is great on a trail ride. My growing business could really use a bigger trailer, a better drag for the arena, and a replacement for the purchase-really-used Toro that we use to muck the barn—the list keeps getting longer. So I have decided it is time to sell her. 

Venus, just turned 3. She was all legs and booty
Venus now, the pretty girl. 
This process of letting go of the tailcoat dreams I bought along with my awkward red filly (I NEVER dreamed she would grow up to be a beauty queen, I just liked the way she used her hips) has been very, very hard.  But Venus is so much happier teaching and jumping than being asked to work harder and dig deeper every day, as is the life of an FEI horse, that the decision has been made for me.  Some of the horses I ride really enjoy the harder work. Secret thrives on canter pirouettes, and Sling thinks half steps are so much fun that he offers them whenever I say “good boy.”  Venus does all of this work, but when she has more variety in her life, she is more fresh each day. So in addition to not needing a professional to ride her, I think she’d prefer to not have to deal with my professional goals and professional intensity every day.

 I half-heartedly put her on a few sales sites last spring, but didn’t really promote her much. But now, with the business growing again, it is time to let my good girl go become a cherished teacher for a new owner that will love what she has grown up to become.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Perfect Self Carriage

As a dressage instructor, I have to help my students understand many, many topics in order to develop their and their mount's dressage potential. One thing I often need to help students understand just how active they need to be when riding dressage.  Between the half halt, the posture, the bending aids, the movements, the balance,the steering, etc., there's a lot going on up there.  Often, the aids are small, so they aren't obvious from the ground.  When I introduce this concept, usually I will hear something along the lines of "riders look so quiet up there, like they aren't doing anything."  

To which I reply, "There in only one horse that I have ever ridden that I didn’t have to actively help with his balance. One horse, and only one horse, that I could just sit up there and do nothing and he would maintain perfect self carriage.  That horse lives outside of Wal-Mart. The best part is he only costs fifty cents to ride."

So one of my students sent me this photo.  His balance is a bit on the forehand for my taste, but heck, he is in perfect self carriage.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Keep Calm...

This highly praised wardrobe essential can be yours, but only for the next few days -- sales end April 21.  This is a Bonfire Fund Raising Campaign, and the way it works is for each t-shirt sold, $5 goes toward SFD's Instructor Education Fund. But it only goes through if 50 shirts are sold. If less than 50 are sold, no one gets charged and no shirts are mailed out.

I started this drive about a week and a half ago, and it's almost over. As of this writing, we only need to sell 7 more shirts. Who wouldn't want this amazing piece of cheezy horse wisdom?

But now to the inspiration behind turning me into a salesperson.

As I'm sure you've noticed, education is pretty important to me -- of my students, of my staff, of myself.  Heck, it's so important to me that we give it away for free in our Open Training Demos. 

So now I'm going to ask you to give back.  But you get something for it.  A cool t-shirt.

This an outgrowth of of my crazy idea I wrote about in a blog last August, about how if we really want to improve the quality of dressage in the states, we need to invest in our local instructors.  Of course, the most local instructors I know are, well, Maddy and I.  

Last year I applied for, and received, an awesome training grant from the American Morgan Horse Association.  With it, and help from some of my clients, I spent two weeks at Hassler Dressage really focusing on my skills. I came out of it a better rider, and therefore a better instructor.

I also came out of it hungry for more.  

So this year, I decided, in addition to our normal monthly investment in instructor education, SFD would ear-mark proceeds from our Schooling Show Series, including sponsorships, for instructor education.  

But that did leave a gap, for those who want to help on a smaller scale.  So I found this t-shirt fund-raising campaign, and decided to give it a try.  

The catch is we need to sell 50 shirts for it to fly.  So buy a shirt for you. Buy one for your friend. Buy one for your significant other. Heck, buy one for your dog. 

Then Maddy and I will go get an inspirational lesson, and come come home and pass that inspiration on to you. 

If you want to do more, like use our sponsorships to advertise at our facility during our many educational events and schooling shows, follow this link to more info, or contact me at

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Learning to Ride

This is written by Maddy Mangan, SFD's Assistant trainer. I started teaching Maddy when she was in junior high, and after a break from riding while she was in college, I happily accepted her back as a working student two years ago.  Her work ethic and commitment to her education impressed me enough that after her time as working student was over, I offered her the title of Assistant trainer.  I asked her to write a blog about the difficult process of learning to ride in such a way to improve a horse's overall balance. I hope reading about her learning process helps you with yours. ~ Ange


 By Maddy Mangan

About a year ago, when I was offered the assistant position at SFD, I decided to take the plunge and go full time in horses. As a young professional, I knew I was sorely lacking in show miles. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a horse to compete on. So Ange so graciously offered to let me bring her big, black mare,Silhouette, back into competition after time off as a broodmare. I was thrilled except that there as another problem. I could not for the life of me figure out how to ride the black mare with a big engine and big attitude.

So the struggle began.

Ange warned me when this started that Silhouette is a tricky ride. She has a sensitive mouth and hates to go on the forehand, so riding her uphill from the seat and leg is really important. When the rider gets it right on Silhouette, she locks into a wonderful, uphill floaty gait. But if the rider doesn’t get it right, Silhouette tells on the rider by nodding her head like a bobble-head doll and squealing in the canter departs.

Ange’s goal, besides giving me a show mount, was to take my riding from the “steady-keep-you-head-down-horse stage” to learning to ride my horses with lowered hips and a more uphill balance.  Which, of course, takes that elusive dressage thing we call “feel.” In short, Ange’s goal was for Silhouette to teach me how to ride.

I took lesson after lesson trying to get the “feel.” This is one of the most difficult parts of dressage. Learning and teaching “feel” is tough because “feel” is a bit different for each rider. Ange had to translate how “feel” felt to her into words, and hope those words translated to something my body could lock into.  So much of dressage is figuring out the right balance and feel for each individual horse at each moment of the workout, so sorting this out at this stage of my riding career is pretty important.

Ange was trying so hard to help me. “Ride her hind end, don’t worry about her head,” “Don’t fight with her mouth.” And the list continues. I just could not figure out the balance of my aids to help Silhouette understand that I wanted her to carry herself more uphill.

It is not that I did not understand how Ange was trying to get me to ride this horse, but Silhouette and I just could not find the right place where we clicked. We just kept fighting with each other. There were some very good rides and I would think “yes I finally got it!” but the next ride I would just not be able to recreate the feel from the day before. I was getting very discouraged.

So Ange put me on Venus for a few rides. She is quite a different mare then Silhouette, more tolerant and very kind (no head bobbing or squealing or anything), so I felt a little more at ease on her. During a lesson on Venus, Ange had me working on transitions. We started with halt to walk, focusing on keeping Venus’ shoulders up-which is really easy to feel on Venus as the pommel of the saddle practically drops if she isn’t keeping her shoulders up. If she dropped her shoulders, I had to make her halt again. By the end of the ride, Venus was taller and more connected. It was like the front of the saddle not only lifted, it became connected right into my seat.

I took this back to Silhouette, hoping it was the missing piece. It certainly helped, but Silhouette seemed to still be getting trapped somewhere. I just could not carry it through like I could on Venus.

One day, Ange called me into the arena. She was riding one of the training horses and asked if I wanted to hop on a get a feel of her. I never turn down a ride. Ange told me that she had been working on the half halt, very similar to what I had been working on with Venus and attempting with Silhouette--half halting with my back and lower leg, asking her to carry on her hind end, and then release up and out. It was the same feeling of keeping the withers and shoulders up like on Venus, but for some reason on the training horse, the feeling was a light bulb moment for me. I had to hold her on my seat with shoulders and core but let it out in a controlled way. I had to own every step. I had to own the balance. Could this be the missing link for Silhouette? Was I just letting the energy spill out over the front of the saddle, instead of lifting the shoulders up, and letting her fall more on the forehand?

So again I brought this new light bulb moment to Silhouette. Half halt the balance onto her hind end, then own the motion and allow it through, controlling the out. I focused on keeping her shoulders more up and not letting the front of the saddle drop at all. And it finally clicked! Six months of struggling and I finally had found the key to the uphill balance that Silhouette needed to be through and connected.

Of course I was worried I would not be able to carry it to the next ride, but I got on telling myself that I could. And I did.

Silhouette and I still have a lot of work to do but I am happy to say that we are now working together and not fighting. And I certainly know that I have a horse to show this summer.

So Miss Silhouette, you are teaching me to ride!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Searching for Inspiration

I was searching for inspiration (a conscious effort to battle the winter blahs), so I pulled out my notes from the FEI Trainer’s Symposium with Steffen Peters and Scott Hassler in January.  Looking at them now, a little over a month later, let me look at how that trip has improved my training arena. To keep this from becoming another long, dressage-geek diatribe, I am going to discuss 3 areas that I have notes on and how they have improved my rides. Like pretty much everything in dressage, they all come down to basics.

Positioning the neck for the bend

One of the horses in the clinic was a young horse with limited road miles. He was a bit overwhelmed by the environment, and showed it by bracing in his neck and wanting to come too high in the contact.  Steffen emphasized that horses need to be correct in the connection before they can proceed to the work of the day, no matter what was on that day’s training agenda. He had the rider position the horse with inside bend, then flex the horse’s neck to the inside, but not take the neck further than the width of the horse’s chest. Then he had her straighten the neck. When the horse maintained a soft neck bend without excessive inside rein, Steffen asked her use the outside rein to put the horse’s neck whatever height gave her the best feel of the horse’s back and control of the topline.

Throughout the weekend, the topic of a slightly braced topline came up.  Croup-high gaits and unauthorized lead changes were attributed to slight bracing in the connection. 

So I went home and checked all of my horses. Were the toplines soft and easy to position? If I flexed them to the inside, then straightened them, would they hold the bend from all of my aids, every time? I changed my warm up plan – when I asked my horses to flex and soften their topline, if I didn’t get the response I wanted, I replaced my old plan of lengthening the rein and letting them stretch (which is my go-to when I had flexion problems, to make sure I’m not getting the neck to short and blocking the flexion), with repeating the flexion aid again until I got softness from a response to my aid. I probably wouldn’t have tried this plan in the summer as I would worry about getting the necks too short, but since it’s winter, I was months from the judges’ eye and free to experiment.

The experiment worked out.  I began warm up focusing on the flexion and ignoring what I saw in the mirror. When they started to feel soft, then I’d check the mirror.  What I saw was not short necks, it was softer toplines and more open throat latches as my mounts stretched more into the connection. Which meant I could then put the neck at whatever height was best for my mount’s balance in that particular part of the workout.

Go from a light, pressing leg

Steffen Peters has a couple of themes that have shown up every time I have watched him teach. One of my favorites (and one I quote regularly, with attribution, of course) is that the only things we have to communicate with our horses is our leg, seat, hand and voice. He insists that they respond calmly to the lightest of aids, particularly the leg aid.  He made it very clear that the leg should stay softly against the horse at all times, and the horse should go forward from a small press of the calf. Not a kick, not a bump, not a spur or whip, but a press. Every time, no matter what, without any tension.

So I went home and checked my horses. At the Debbie McDonald clinic in December, she had focused on getting Secret to slow her steps from my seat. The order of the aids – increase energy with my leg, slow the tempo with my seat, ask Secret to follow the bit into a longer topline, then relax my thigh pressure to allow her to go forward again. Being a good student, I had done that with pretty much all of my horses.  As a result, I’ve seen longer toplines and more control with my seat. But I think all of this emphasis on not running through my seat aid had let them be a touch lackadaisical about a forward response to my leg. 

Since I had spent a month on “stay with my seat no matter what,” when I added “forward energy with every press of my leg,” I found I had a bit of a hole.  Most responded, but not in the next instant. They went, but a stride or so after I applied the aid.

So for 2 days I kept my leg steady, and without taking it off, added a gentle press. If I didn’t get an immediate response, I gave a REALLY strong press-to which, of course, they hurried away from. I’d bring the tempo back under my control, and apply a gentle press again. Most of them got the point within a few repetitions.  I tried to be a good student of Steffen and Scott and not use my whip (which Scott emphasizes is for collection/cadence), or the spur (which Steffen emphasizes is for engagement). 

The result after a couple of days was, of course, my horses were more responsive to a light aid.  In addition, insisting on an immediate response created a feeling of the withers pushing the pommel up every time I pressed. This isn’t an unfamiliar feeling to me at all, but the 95% consistency of it was really nice, especially with so little effort from me.

So I kept that standard as a tool in my toolbox, and watched what it did to the other work. Slingshot, who I have been focusing on exercises to create shoulder freedom for several months now, took that shoulder freedom upward into his medium trot to create a reliable, rideable medium with very lifted front legs (I have video proof!). 

Three components of pirouette work

Pirouette work always comes up in FEI clinics, because pirouettes are, frankly, hard. They take a long time to develop.  And like most things in dressage, the pirouette is only as good as the basics. Scott specified the three areas of the basics that often create problems in pirouette work: compression, suppleness, and balance. His advice is to figure out which of the three is creating the limitation, then fix that part, then go back and work the pirouette as a whole.

With his emphasis on simplicity, Steffen addresses both the canter pirouette and the walk pirouette pretty much the same. They are all about control.  If the horse backs off at any point in the approach, go forward out of the pirouette. Only stay in the pirouette as long as the quality is good, if I can’t get out of movement, I’ve stayed in it too long.  Once the horse understands the compression, balance, suppleness, add the turning aids. Once the turning aids are understood, polish the approach. If the approach isn’t controlled, the movement won’t work, so repeat the approach.

So I went home and checked my walk and canter pirouettes. I tend to start walk pirouettes pretty early in a horse’s education, so they all do them to some degree. I love walk pirouettes for teaching bend without swinging the haunches out, lifting of the withers, and shoulder freedom. But when I added the element of ‘control every part’ and ‘go forward at any moment,’ I also got the benefit of, well, control and forward.  That control carried over to the next exercise, and the next, and the rest of the workouts. 

Using Scott’s plan of deciding where the problem was, working that part, and then putting it back together made a big difference in Secret’s canter pirouettes.  She went into the winter understanding to rebalance and carry more on her hind legs on a straight line or a 20 meter circle, but I was having trouble maintaining the quality of the canter when we started turning. Her compression and balance seemed ok, so I spent a few days working on improving her suppleness during the compression.  Then I went back to asking for the turning steps, and boy did it work. I went from the spiral in exercise to Steffen’s pirouette diamonds to working pirouettes on the centerline, and when I kept the suppleness in mind, she could make big-girl pirouettes every time.

So even in this hard, long, snow bound winter, with all of my usual help enjoying the sun in Florida, using the resources I do have, I’ve managed to keep my guys progressing. I am looking forward to everyone returning north so I can get familiar eyes on my horses this spring. That, and warmer spring weather.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

My Personal Trainer made Headlines!

Several years ago, I suffered a whip-lash injury to my lower back. While it was healing, I began to understand why riders gave up riding. I REALLY don't want to be one of those people, so I started looking for a personal trainer to help me stay strong in the right places, so I wouldn't wear my body out riding horses every day.  

I tried several different trainers, and they wanted to either make me into a body builder or an anorexic gymnast. Carolyn was the first one who actually listened when I said "if this doesn't make me ride better, I won't stick with it." And best of all, she's the first one who actually let me put her on a horse. 

In addition to my workouts, Carolyn has developed an Equestrian Boot Camp that we run here at SFD on Saturdays. Between her own riding (yep, that first ride was not a one-time event!!) and my feedback, she has created a system that incorporates cardio, core work and balance work. Believe me when I say this -- I can tell which of my students are in her class and which ones aren't.

So when the reporter from Suburban Life asked if I'd be willing to be interviewed for an article about Carolyn's fitness work, of course I agreed. Below is Carolyn's article. It's a bit hard to read, if you want me to send you a more legible digital version, e-mail me at

Monday, February 3, 2014

Vocab lessons

 Recently, I have had an influx of new students. Whenever a new rider comes into my program, vocabulary plays a big part in the first several lessons.  Creating a standardized set of terms to communicate about training is crucial. Which got me thinking about of how much dressage-ease differs from standard English.  For example:

Relaxed = Attentive

Light = Steady

Submissive = When the horse lets you control of each of their body parts easily.

Suppleness = Adjustableness.  In other words, can the rider control the wiggle?

Connection = When the reins have a steady taughtness to them that allows the horse to use their topline correctly to re-circulate the power from the hind legs over a swinging back.

In front of the leg = The horse’s energy is under the rider’s control, regardless of the speed or the tempo.  The test of “in front of the leg” is when the rider puts the leg on the horse should make a polite change in the feel in the hand.

Behind the leg = The rider is not in charge of the energy. Sometimes it presents as the horse going too slow, sometimes it presents as the horse getting quick and running from the leg.

Bend = Creating and controlling an even curve along the entire horse’s spine, and placing that curve in front of the inside hind leg. Some parts bend more easily than others, so sometimes creating bend means straightening the neck. When the curve is placed in front of the inside hind leg, the power of the hind leg helps push the withers uphill. The amount of bend is determined by the line of travel – ie, a 10 meter circle needs more bend than a 20 m circle. The most extreme example of bend is walk and canter pirouettes. In those movements, the inside hind leg always steps straight, never crossing the outside hind.

Collected = Lots of power held back a bit by the balance and angle of the rider’s seat.  Since the horse really wants to GO, the rider sits with their core tight and pelvis angled in such a way so the horse’s desire to GO becomes uphill balance.

Uphill = When the energy created by the horse lowers the croup and causes the withers to lift. Sometimes it can be felt by a change in the balance of the saddle. Sometimes it can be felt by an increase in shoulder mobility. Sometimes it can be felt by an ease of the movements. Sometimes the mirror is your best indicator.

Plus there are a few golden rules of dressage in our barn:

When in doubt, do the opposite.   When the horse feels stiff and all you want to do is hold the bend, move them in and out of the bend. When they feel quick and you want to hold them back, put leg on and push the energy forward, then allow the horse to come back.

It takes more leg than you think.  Particularly when the horse is learning collection. Or learning leg yield. Or pretty much anything, for that matter.

This is a sport.  There are times you’ll be tired, times your abdominal and thigh muscles will be sore. Times when the best thing to do is spend some time off of the horse cross-training your balance and core muscles.

This is supposed to be fun.  No matter what, enjoy the ride.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

FEI Conference Through Different Eyes

I flew home from the FEI-level Trainer’s Conference in Florida last night. On the ride home, as I was thinking about how to organize this blog, I tossed around a few different angles-- how Steffen Peters and Scott Hassler clearly showed all of us the lessons each horses had for us, how the inspiring lessons make me want to come home and train with more clarity, how re-setting my standard this time of year is so crucial in the hard-to-stay-motivated cold, how sitting in front of such clear communicators makes me want be a better teacher, but really, all of this has been covered so beautifully on other blogs, such as:

Then I thought of what made this experience different from last year’s trip south, and I had my angle. This year I shared the inspiration.

This year my assistant trainer, Maddy, joined me on the trip.  I wanted Maddy to come because, although she has watched Scott teach me many, many times, she has not had the opportunity to watch the progression of horses from first level to schooling GP back-to-back like this before. Also, when she watches my lessons with Scott, because I have been working with him for many years, the lessons aren’t filled with as much explanation as when he takes the roll of facilitator.  I wanted to give her a crash course in the training approach I have been trained in.

Additionally, this year again I was able to spend a very brief time watching Catherine Haddad train. Maddy got to see not only good training and riding, but also Catherine’s assistant take the roll of her eyes-on-the-ground, a role I want Maddy to learn to take.  I haven’t had an assistant that was confident enough to take that role in a while, and now that Scott’s barn goes south for the winter, I’m really feeling the lack. 

Monday and Tuesday, we watched and let our cognitive learning absorb Steffen’s effective, quiet seat while he and Scott’s words explained the order of their priorities in each phase of the training. We took pages of notes, and Maddy even stole a little cell phone video to watch Steffen’s canter seat over and over again.
After watching all day, we had dinner with our friends, Lauren and Fiona, who had also came down for the Conference, and discussed what we saw. Fiona has a gift for starting conversation.  I loved watching Maddy start in role of listener, then, as our conversations confirmed her ‘eye’, begin to contribute to our discussions.  We talked about Steffen’s training approach -- how he was willing to use more advanced movements to improve the overall thoroughness of the basics, and how the basics improved the movements themselves.  We talked about his rather short training sets, and how they would work in our colder temperatures. We discussed his amazing ability to get the horse to offer the movements. 

Fiona asked what we were going to do with this knowledge when we got home, and Maddy right away answered that she was going to bring Silly’s talented canter more uphill, and use it to make her “just overall better.” She also said she was eager to go back in the show ring on Venus, who has been helping Maddy find her show-ring skills after being away from the competition ring since high school, and really think about working the show ring to make Venus really shine.  

Needless to say, this all made me quite proud. Educating horses is my passion, but I can only train as well as my teachers have trained me.  As a thank you to all of the wonderful instructors who have not only taught but mentored me, I feel an obligation to do the same to the next round of professionals.  Maddy is not the first young professional I have helped, nor will she be the last, but since I taught her to canter when she was a kid, watching her turn into a confident, skilled horseperson is a particular joy.

P.S. I want to say a special thank-you to all of those at home who made it possible for Maddy and I to both be away, particularly with the Polar Vortex descending in our absence.  Doug, Joyce, and Aneesa, you are all wonderful people and I am truly in your debt. Thank you again.

Now out to apply it all in the balmy 14 degree weather.