Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Pas de Deux

I was planning to write about the Pas de Deux, but Chronicle of the Horse beat me to it.  My 15 seconds of fame, and they picked the photo where I look like my head is falling off. Oh well

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The 2015 Show Season

The 2015 show season is winding down. The last overnight show is history. My whites are drying in the basement, to be sorted as to which has too many stains to see another season. We hosted our last schooling show, the local schooling circuit’s year-end show is coming up, and there’s a handful of one-day local events, but the big, high-stress-don’t-choke-for-at-least-7 ½-minutes shows are over.  

As I sit staring at the blank screen, I feel like I need to do something to commemorate this year’s season. I haven’t written much about it, because clear goals + working the plan = success doesn’t lend itself to good narrative. But it does lend itself to snapshots.  So this blog will be my word-snapshots of my favorite moments this season.

Personally, I had my best season ever. My mounts achieved, or exceeded, the goals I set for them, whether it was learning to relax and stay rideable in front of a judge, or winning a fancy neck garland at some big show.

My students, many who were either new to showing, moving up to some monumental level, or had young horses, also had a very good season.  I watched them learn to manage their show nerves, plan and execute their warm up routines, and learn what their horses needed at both day and overnight events.  I am super proud of how far all of them came this season, and I have a ton of great memories with them, but those stories are theirs to tell, not mine.

So here’s mine.

Toenails and traditions
Linda began a new tradition this year-- painting her toe nails blue whenever we were headed to a big show.  I found this really, really funny, and joined her for second half of the season. I swear my blue sparkly toes made all the difference at the BLM finals.  Plus it seemed much more innocent than our tradition of dead birds, but ironically the dead bird thing continues to follow us.  I kid you not, at one show I’m chatting with a vendor, and she tells me this story of when they were setting up at the show, their dog ran off and (you guessed it) killed a bird.  She, of course, knew nothing of our strange superstition. Subsequently, my mounts had quite a nice show.

The Pas de Deux
My friend Aneesa and I competed in Pas de Deux this season on our red mares to (of course) music from the 2014 Annie remake.  Putting the choreography together and competing it created enough fodder for a blog of its own (and, thanks to some amazing photos, probably will be). But my favorite moment was after the shows were over, Chronicle of the Horse called to interview Aneesa and I about our ride (it won the BLM Championship class with a whopping 82%, with one judge giving the ride a 9 on "performance as a pair").  Aneesa’s text to me after the interview – “this feels unreal.”  The whole experience from working out the choreography, to the first run through with music, to the competitions had a magical, unreal quality to it.

The perfect mare
Secret was impressive beyond my wildest dreams this year. Linda and I didn’t look closely enough at the calendar while planning her show season, so she ended up going to Sport Horse Nationals one week (an 8 hour haul), coming home for 2 weeks, then heading to Dressage at Devon, then home for 2 days, then away to the BLM finals.  Despite with this aggressive schedule, she exceeded my wildest dreams.  She took home ribbons in every show, ending up 5th in the PSG and 10th in Fourth level at Sport Horse Nationals, 4th in the 4-3 and FEI test of Choice at Devon, and 8th in PSG and Reserve Champion at 4th level at the BLMs. 

 I have 2 favorite moments with her – first one was coming home from Good Times farm in July, where she had won both the 4-1 and 4-2 classes. Half way home, Linda looks down at the two blue ribbons sitting in her lap and, with a look of surprise, says to me “That wasn’t an Arab show.” Yes, Linda, your little half Arab doesn’t check prize lists or pedigrees, she just does her job. Quite well, I must say.

The second moment was at the BLM finals. Our group had classes Thurs-Sun, and since Secret had such a crazy schedule, we decided to not enter her in any classes on Sunday.  In the morning she looked a little tired, but by lunch time she was dragging Linda all over the show grounds, clearly looking for her turn in the sandbox. Gotta love a horse with that kind of heart.

Super Pony
Capitano, Shelley’s wonderful young German Riding pony, came into my life last year last May as a 5-year-old. Last year we got to know each other in the show ring, with quite a bit of success. So this year we decided to make a few more goals for him. He had a solid season, winning his all-breeds on a 70% median score, which landed him 57th out of 585 First Level Horses nationwide.  My favorite moment was at the conclusion of a ride in Lexington, I look over and Shelley is giving me the two thumbs up – and her first words when we left the ring “you two didn’t leave any points on the table in that ride.”  He’s such a rideable young man, and I can’t wait to see how he develops.

Gaining Confidence
As my personal horse, Venus often ends up on the back burner, particularly when it comes to shows.  She has tons of clinic and quadrille miles, but when it comes time to head down the centerline, generally I’m astride a client’s horse – which matches with the business purpose, but that’s another (currently half-finished) blog.  When she was a 5-and-6-year-old, SFD was smaller, so I was able spend time teaching her to get over her baby-show-horse nerves.  Then I got busy, and as a result she only saw 6 shows from 2009-2014.  As we were committed to the Pas de Deux, I needed to make sure she was solid enough to fill her job as confidence-role-model to Ming.  So we hit some schooling shows, some recognized shows, day shows, overnight shows, etc.

Venus has always shown me her insecurity by taking over a little – when she’s confident, I’m clearly in charge of the steering wheel, throttle, and balance. When she gets insecure or overwhelmed, by the environment or the level of work I’m asking of her, she never does anything bad, she just gets ahead of me. When she’s worried, she knows best.  In the show ring, the tests generally go better when I can prepare her balance for the next movement, so that was my goal for her this season: to have her confident enough to let me stay in charge.

She got much, much better with each outing, and it goes without saying this was reflected in the scores and placings.  My favorite moment with her was in a test in September. We had just finished the canter half pass, and the next movement was a flying change.  She did the change without me, then she realized I was still sitting in the left lead, so she swapped back. We did a third change, grossly after where it was supposed to be but on my cue, then recovered fast enough to save the next movement and finish the test relaxed, with me clearly in the driver’s seat. The multiple changes did not earn us any brownie points, but Venus’ making a mistake and correcting it without getting  flustered really showed me how much more relaxed she had become in the stress of a show environment.

Rocky is Liz’ quirky, expressive Morgan gelding. Liz injured her knee last year, and subsequently he ended up on my ride list while she had surgery and tons of PT.  As she was just back to riding in the spring, I was his jockey for the first show this season, the Mason Dixon Classic, a local Arab Morgan show.

On a lark, we post-entered him in the Morgan geldings in-hand class. I gave him a 15-min crash-course in running the triangle, which he clearly understood.  Then it was our time, and the silly horse pranced round the triangle like voguing drag queen, complete with a snort on the halt.  He was clearly having a ball. The judge loved him too, placing him high-score in-hand of the day. Conklin Photography got some amazing shots that really captured Rocky’s look-at-me attitude that day.

Baby Cakes
Campione, who I’ve nick-named Nibs, came in to my life in July as a gangly 4-year-old. His owner, Elaine had him backed by a cowboy the previous summer, and on the advice of the backer, gave him a year off to grow before continuing his education.  I lunged him for a couple weeks, then carefully climbed on. He seemed quite agreeable to me being up there, so I proceeded to teach him how to stop, turn, go, and how to wander up our big hill.

By mid September, he started to feel like he was ready to take it on the road. The problem was the calendar--by then we were down to Dressage at Devon, BLM Finals, and Region 1 Championships, all three major shows.  Devon show grounds is such a tense, claustrophobic environment and SFD already had 9 horses headed the the BLM Finals, so that left the Region 1 Championships—a huge, high-stress 7-ring show 5-hours from home. Plus the forecast was for 30 degrees each night with wind each day. If he could handle all that, he definitely has the makings of a show horse.

If you follow SFD on Facebook, you already know that he was a super star at the show. My favorite moment was his first trip down the centerline, where he sprawled into a halt, with his left eye rolling around to figure out where Capi was grazing. Once he located Capi, Nibs flipped his ears back to me, as if to say “ok, I’m ready, let’s do this” and proceeded to head around the ring being the obedient, good kid that he is.   

After the season
Now that the memories are made, the show clothes packed, the ribbons displayed, I’m heading into my favorite time of year – fall training. I get to play with next year’s skills, spend time on the big hill, and relax in the training until the cold comes and steals flexibility.  And bask in the memory of a good show season.

I have to take a moment to acknowledge the owners of each of these horses, who trust me to develop and compete such wonderful mounts. I'm honored and humbled that you selected me to ride for you.  I can't say thank you enough. 

Thursday, September 10, 2015


This summer SFD has been crazy-busy.  This, of course, is a good thing.  Maddy and my ride lists have been full, SFD’s Forward Movers prepared a record number of kids for Lendon’s Youth Festival (we took a dozen, up from our normal 2 or 3), I’m preparing to re-test my l judge’s training, and this season, in addition to helping students, I have three horses I am personally campaigning.  All of this is quite good, enjoyable, rewarding work, but it does make for a busy summer. Which means “schedule the work, and then work the schedule.” Theoretically, all things will go smoothly.

But this is life, so ‘smoothly’ rarely happens.  Messy is more the norm.

As summer continued, additional messy stresses started piling on. I did what I do when in high-stress mode--I firmed up the walls of the schedule, made sure to include pockets of “refuel Ange” time, and kept to it, but now the walls were wall-papered with to-do lists. Somewhere around this time, I suffered a minor injury, which took my escape-from-the-world jogs and bike rides off of the agenda, making life inside of my walls a bit more brittle. 

Then, the week before I was to head to Saugerties with the kids, I lost a close friend. The fact that he was a horse should surprise no one.

I met Pikasso back when I was a working student in GA. He was only 7 then, and a complete southern gentleman. His owner and I became friends, and later, after I had moved to PA, Pikasso sold into my barn. I did not own him, but as a stable manager and trainer, once a horse is in my care, it’s a remarkably short trip from there to my heart.

When a horse passes, few people consider the horse’s stable manager’s need to mourn. But the caregiver spends more time with the horse than anyone, even his owner. I know the horse in a completely different, but no less rich, way than the owner.  When I lose a horse, I feel the loss very, very sharply. The hard part is while I am processing all of those emotions, I have to be support for the owner, often without any support of my own. Crumbling, ranting about the lack of fairness of it all, or just crying about how much I’ll miss him just isn’t an option. Owners can do that, but stable managers don’t get that privilege, because in the eyes of everyone else, he wasn’t my horse.  Which really doesn’t make sense--it’s like saying the only ones who can mourn a human’s passing are their blood relatives. This, of course, is horse pucky. Having known, trained, taught with, cared for, and worried about Pikasso for 17 years, I felt his loss sharply.

Or I should have, but not this time. The rigid walls I’d built to keep my schedule going wouldn’t allow time for mourning. By now the brittle environment inside my  walls had completely sapped my sense of humor, so I started keeping my distance from everyone for fear I say something inappropriate.

I went to Dressage 4 Kids, and all went really, really well.  I competed Capi and Secret the following weekend, and they were awesome.  On the surface, all was wonderful.

But the problem was the walls. They just didn’t want to come down.  Living inside walls isn’t fun. It feels distant from everything and everyone, emotions feel muted, opinions dip towards apathy. In short, it’s not a happy place.

Months ago, Doug and I had discussed going away for a few days in Aug. As usual, 150 reasons came up why we should skip our getaway, but the getaway was on our schedule, and I was working my schedule, so we went.

We purposely did not plan anything. We booked a hotel near the beach. We slept in until the scandalous time of 7, then looked at a map and decided where to wander. 

And without a schedule to hold the walls up, they began to relax. I began to relax. I caught myself smiling and laughing with my husband.

Our final morning, I went to watch the tide roll in one more time.  I stood, and as the waves crashed around me, I felt the tears finally begin to flow.  There, watching the sun come up, I said goodbye to my friend.

Then, in a messy, delightfully disorganized manner of life, a pod of dolphins began to leap and play. The balance of that free, wonderful play against the sadness of my loss reminded me that although the bitter cost of losing a horse is very high, the joy of loving them and sharing life with them is worth it.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Birthdays, Boyfriends, and Business

Memorial Day weekend, 2005, I signed the lease on my first barn, and with that, I became a business owner. 

I had been working “in the industry” for years by then – from teaching lessons and riding for a show barn in college, to four years as a working student in 3 different programs (with three different focuses), to stable managing, to freelance teaching, to keeping training horses in a boarding facility. So putting my name on a lease was a logical, albeit scary, step. 

As I look back over my time in the horse industry, I have to liken it to a relationship.  In college, while I was vacillating between a degree in journalism and biochemistry, I took a summer job teaching riding lessons.  A year later, I was offered a position riding horses at an A-circuit Arab barn.  In my mind, college was preparing me for a dignified, parent-approved future, and I was earning a few bucks on horses. Horses became the equivalent of a high-school girl’s “bad boyfriend.”  (I had one of those too, but that’s a whole other story.)

I finished undergrad and decided to take a year to play with horses before I started either a masters or vet school. I took my first working student position in South Carolina.  Essentially, I ran away with to have a “fling” with the “bad boyfriend.” Or so I thought. 

My first dressage boss, Claudia Garner, went out of her way to teach me not only riding, but also business skills. Unfortunately, my time with Claudia was filled with loss – my super-supportive dressage instructor from home developed breast cancer, my favorite client from home died of prostate cancer, and my step-brother passed away suddenly. I had too much loss going on to make grown-up career decisions.  I’m sure I frustrated the heck out of her – she was looking for someone to groom up as assistant trainer, but I was still on a fling and not ready to tie the knot, no matter how pretty the ring. So I had to break up.

When I I took my next position at Garland Farms in GA, I was looking for escape and healing.  The bulk of Garland’s business was vacations, and it was tons of fun. Our clients were at their best, free from the cares of daily life, and able to focus on their passion. It was a great place for me to heal.  Plus, with the regular influx of new students and Gina Krueger’s close supervision, I really learned to teach. It was, to stick with my analogy, the equivalent of dating the “fun guy.”  You know, the one who is quite acceptable to take to family holidays (or, as one of my college friends used to say, "Christmas-able), but probably not ring-worthy.   

I was approaching the 2-year mark at Garland, and my “fling with horses” was beginning to look more and more like a career path.  So if this dressage thing was going to become a “real relationship,” where did I want it to go?  Well, FEI of course. So I sent out a bunch of resumes, went to several interviews, and took a position at Black Swan Farm in PA with Lorinda Lende. This position was different than my first two, as both Lorinda and I knew I was there for a set length of time-one year, and to learn specific skills.  Which would make my time there equivalent  to “Mr. Right Now.”  

After my year, my plan was to return to GA, where I have family, and work on establishing myself professionally.  But during that year, I met Doug, who seemed both Christmas-able AND long-term worthy.  I decided to stick around in PA and see how our relationship would develop. (I know, mixing this real relationship into my metaphorical relationship essay makes for potentially messy prose, but stay with me reader.)

So I picked up some freelance lessons, then a few more, took a stable management position to replace waitressing as my consistent rent-covering income, then took a couple training horses, and a few more students, then worked out a deal with a boarding barn to base a lot of my training clients in one location. My “bad boyfriend fling” was beginning to look more and more like a serious commitment. Meanwhile, Doug and I were also getting more and more serious.

So we decided it was time to tie the knot, with both my real boyfriend and my metaphorical one. Doug and I got married in Oct 2004, then we signed the lease on our first horse facility the following May. The ''bad boyfriend'' had made an honest woman of me.

Just like a marriage, SFD has gone through wonderful times and rough patches, and I've learned  a ton about horse management, people management, business management, and managing my goals, but that is a story for another time. 

Happy 10th Birthday SFD. We’ll toast you at the horse show this weekend.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Playing the Numbers

I am not from an affluent background. Without an academic scholarship I would not have been able to go to college. The scholarship covered tuition, but not books and living expenses. I had to keep my grades up in order to renew my scholarship, but I also needed groceries. In addition to school, I worked 30+ hours a week for my rent.  I needed to be efficient with my time.

On the first day of class, when the professors handed out the syllabus, I paid very close attention to the total points needed to get the grade I needed. I carefully tracked my points on each test, and when I got the points I needed in each class, I’d focus more attention on the next class. Using this plan, I kept my gpa high enough to continue to the next semester. I joking called it “playing the numbers.”

After college, when my hobby started to look a lot more like profession than an interlude between undergrad and grad school, I realized that, in order to have a profitable career, needed to once again play the numbers.   

Dressage competition is all about the numbers – he who gets the most wins. So I studied the test to see where I could earn the most points. I quickly realized that the people who knew the most about the tests were the judges, so I would volunteer to scribe as often as I could.  As soon as I met the requirements, I enrolled in the L program. My L earned me access to judge’s clinics and round tables, which are a wealth of information for tallying up the most points I can in my 7 minutes in the sandbox.

I freely share that information with my students. And here, I’ll share some of that information with you.

1) The answers to the question are written on the top of the test and in the directive box. Read the whole thing. You’d be surprised how much information is there.If you have any questions about the test, check out the USEF rule book. It even has a search function. The judges have packed a ridiculous amount of training advice in that rule book.

2) Judges want to see a horse trained to the level they are being presented at, not training at that level. So when I present a horse at training level, he needs to know his leads and be able to steer consistently. Same for first level, leg yield needs to be a sideways/forward movement with hind legs crossing, not a drunken shoulder-crash into the rail.  Shoulder-crashing is a training stage most almost-first-level-horses go through, but should be over it when they are presented to the judge as a fully trained to first level.

3) Judges are hard on riders because they assume the horse is trained to the level, therefore problems in the ring fall to the rider’s aids and presentation. Besides, the rider chose to be evaluated, not the horse.

4) The walk matters. Practice it. Free walk, medium walk, free walk, over and over again, until your horse doesn’t think that every time you shorten the reins they are supposed to trot. Every single test makes the free walk or extended walk a double coefficient. So if your horse knows that when you give the reins, they walk on, and when you shorten the reins, they keep walking, you get rewarded twice. If your horse doesn’t understand this, you get penalized twice.

5) Learn to ride straight centerlines. They show up every test, and the judge is looking right at you. Even if you are not 100% on the bit, be straight. That’s what they can see from C. The judge at E will ding you for not being round enough, but if it’s pretty close, the judge at C will give you the benefit of the doubt.  Although centerlines and walk work aren’t particularly sexy, if you can ride a straight centerline and make a med walk – free walk – medium walk, you can OWN Intro A.  That’s 5 out of 9 movements in Intro A. 

6) The tests have tricky parts in them on purpose. That way the judge can tell if your basics are correct. Usually those movements are the coefficients. If you nail the coefficients and the centerline-halts, you’ll rarely get below a 6 on submission or rider.

7) Corners matter. If you ride one well, flex-bend-straighten in every corner, your horse will pretty much stay on the bit until almost E/B, giving you time to worry about other things (like setting up your next depart or lateral work). Revving a horse on the short side, making a good corner and a hard turn to the diagonal will make the horse want to GO, so your transition to the lengthen trot will be clear. Plus judges will reward good corners in the rider score.

8) Know where the letters are. The distance between the letters doesn’t change, so when you ride a 20m circle at E tracking right, you should always cross the center line looking at the rail 6 1/2 feet from R. If you are lined up with R when you cross the center line, you are making a 24m oval. That isn’t a circle, and it will show up in your scores.  In fifteen meter circles, your outside stirrup should pass over the quarter line. Ten meter circles should not cross the center line.

9) Know your dressage test. You can’t control the weather, or the footing, or the judge’s mood, or if your horse is having a prey-animal day, but you sure can control if you know where you are going and how you are going to get there. And I don’t mean “centerline, circle at B, canter in the corner.” Know how where in the ring you need to flex before each corner. Know how many strides you need to prepare before your canter departs.  Pay attention to that when you practice – flex the same before every corner, sit 3 strides out and grab your core muscles before every canter depart. Those clear patterns inspire confidence in both you and your horse.

10) Smile when you salute. It won’t save a horrible ride, but it won’t hurt either.  This is supposed to be fun.

Bu practicing these things daily, until they become habit, I am able to help my mount earn the most possible points. And that is my goal, not to stomp competition or hit a specific number. My goal is to show my horse well, which means not leaving any points lying around in the ring. By chasing those points, I earn the highest number I can earn. And hopefully a pretty ribbon too. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ten things dressage riders who winter in FL don’t truly appreciate

1) Frost on the eyelashes is kinda pretty.

2) Tactful riding – not pissing off a fit, athletic, pent-up, playful horse. Oh, yea, and trying to get some productive training done.

3) The delicate balance of enough clothes to be warm, but not so many as to get sweaty. If that bottom layer gets wet, you’re doomed.

4) The incredible importance of getting each layer really, really smooth.  Friction is NOT your friend.

5)Allowing enough time to get the layers smooth again after a potty break.

6) Having a sock collection about different weights depending on the temps, how much training vs. teaching that day, and which boots I’ll be wearing. Making the right sock decision is paramount to my mood for the rest of the day. (I know, you Fl folks don’t even WEAR socks unless you are riding.)

7) The huge debate -- toilet paper in the porta potty or a warmer bum from peeing in a stall.

8) Added padding is advantageous in the event of a fall.

9) The horses are so itchy under their hoods, that every time you stick your hand in to make sure they are warm enough, they start grooming your shoulder. I admit it, I love that.

10) How on those brief, warm days, the horses feel so happy and good, it makes it worth putting a foot in the stirrup on all of the cold days.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

You are What you Teach

When I was a working student in Ga, my favorite boarders was a wonderful older lady, Mary*, who taught chemistry at the local college. In Ga, one of the important things I learned was my dressage seat. Often, when the morning chores and riding were done, Mary would do me the invaluable favor of getting me off the farm to grab lunch. Our lunch conversations are some of my best GA memories.

Mary would patiently let me verbally process the volumes of information I was learning, and in return she’d give me the most wonderful life lessons. One of my favorite was about her leading a chemistry lecture, and doing a double-take at the chemical formula she had written on the board. She said she was struck with the thought, “Oh, so THAT’s how that really works.” Her point was sometimes you don’t really know something until you teach it.

My boss in GA understood this as well. When I got to GA, my seat needed a lot of work. I was so crooked I would wear holes in the left side of saddle pads. Before leaving to be a working student, as a money-hungry college kid, I had ridden pretty much any horse that was offered me, in pretty much any tack available, from western to saddle seat. My big talent was not my tact or sensitivity, it was my Velcro bottom.  It wasn’t pretty, or terribly effective, but I stayed on.

I, of course, spent time on the lunge line.  Additionally, she assigned me to teach seat lessons. Garland Farms had a strong vacation business – people would come for 2-10 days and ride twice a day, usually a combination of a morning seat/lunge lesson with me and an afternoon session on one of the schoolmasters with my boss. I spent many, many mornings helping vacationers learn to be balanced and independent with their aids. Then I’d go to lunch with Mary and talk about it.

Needless to say, this was pretty good formula for me.

Mary’s words come back to me regularly, especially this winter. This year has been unusually cold for us here in eastern PA, and trying to make dressage progress in these temps is tough. A few of our horses thrive in the cold, but most just get tight. I can’t blame them for what Mother Nature has done to their bodies, so my lesson plans have focused primarily on seat and correct reactions to the aids.

I spend a huge chunk of time sitting ringside, huddled in my electric blanket, or in the middle of the ring, holding the end of the lunge, analyzing how to help a student find the correct position, highlight how that feels in their bodies and in their mounts, then capture that feel to recreate it at will. Then, when everyone is warmer, we can use that feel to change their horse’s balance.

My ride list includes four horses at the dreaded 2nd/3rd level gap, where dressage horses have to take the step from being good, obedient horses, to changing their balance to create more uphill, engaged, expressive, collected paces. It’s a hard stage for both horse and rider—I have to sit as if they are already going like FEI horses, even though they aren’t really supporting my seat that way yet. The best analogy I have for this stage is a teeter-totter – the horse’s head is at one end, their tail is at the other, and I’m trying to stand in the middle, keeping both ends under control to prevent random crashing of one end down or the other. The fulcrum of this balancing act is, of course, my seat.

As I watch my students become more and more balanced and effective as the winter wears on, I plug what I see into my own rides. Sling, one of the horses at the 2nd/3rd gap, who (thankfully) doesn’t tighten in the winter, proves Mary’s principle every day.

*Mary is not her real name, but as is one of the horrible downsides of our mobile, fast-paced society, I have lost touch with her. Since I don’t have her permission to use her name, I borrowed the name of one of my favorite childhood Disney characters.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Variations on a Half Pass

As I write this, I see snow outside my window. I don’t like this time of year, and not just because of the cold. I refer to winter as ‘purgatory,’ because most of my usual training help has headed south.  I spend 3 months wondering if I’m developing my horses correctly, or if I’m off on a garden path.  Because let’s face it, the worst place to see what a horse looks like is from his back. And ‘feel’ is a tricky thing – often, what I think things should feel like is pretty far removed from what they actually feel like, but that’s a topic for another blog.

This year, purgatory has been delayed a bit. In the last 2 weeks, I’ve been in front of 2 trainers that I highly respect, and I went down to the FEI Trainer’s Conference to watch for 2 days. The problem, of course, is I been exposed to a snapshot of 3 different trainer’s systems. I now have the job of analyzing that info, and seeing where and how it integrates into my system.   I have pages of notes to read, a bunch of video to watch, and a bunch of ideas to percolate in my mind.

A quick aside – yes, correct training is correct training. But just as different versions of Christianity are all built on the same fundamental beliefs that center on Jesus and afterlife, and all read the same book, each denomination has a slightly different flavor. I’m not here to start a holy war. In my opinion, as long as all paths lead to heaven (or, in our case, a relaxed, happy, balanced, obedient horse), who am I to criticize.

As I started to look at the info by topic, I realized I had a nice progression of half pass work. Venus and Secret’s winter training goals both include improving their half passes, so timing was perfect. Half pass training lends itself easily to a large variety of exercises, and the following three conveniently showed up at just the right time to address the ideas that were bubbling up.

So, the exercises, and what they improve in a horse-

Leg yield to the wall, half pass in a little, leg yield to the wall, half pass in, with no change in the neck position.

Catherine Haddad gave me this exercise for Venus, who tends to like to power along so much she loses suppleness in her back.

I played with this for a few days, and found it did improve Venus’ back. Additionally, focusing on keeping Venus’ neck in the same position, she started to stretch her outside shoulder out towards the wall more, which helped improve her shoulder freedom. Then I tried it on Secret, and instead of loosening her shoulders, it provided her with a wonderful escape route – if she pushed her shoulder a bit too much, aka popped her shoulder, she could get to the destination without lowering her hip.

That Saturday, Secret was scheduled to go in front of Gigi Nutter, who gave us the following pattern:

Same pattern as above, but straighten the neck in the leg yield, and re-position it for the half pass.

The purpose of this variation is to improve the acceptance of the outside rein in the half pass, and therefore helping the shoulders “stand up.”

I played with this exercise for both mares, and liked the control I had, but feel like, even though neither mare loses tempo significantly in the half pass, they could both use more “bounce” when they go sideways.  I know this is very common, but the best horses don’t lose energy or cadence when going sideways. As I was pondering which of the many half pass variations would help, I went down to FL to audit Stephen Clark at the FEI Trainer’s Conference. He had a rider demonstrate the following exercise:  

On a diagonal, looking at destination letter between the horse’s ears, ride forward, then ride half pass, then forward. Always keep the neck and shoulders on the diagonal line.

Stephen Clark used this exercise in the FEI Conference to improve expression and keep the same quality of trot in the half pass. The super-fancy-genetically-gifted-for-dressage horse went from quite nice to really impressive, so I was curious what it would do for my mounts.
I plugged it into the mare’s half pass plans, and for Secret, it made a really smooth, fluid, this-sideways-stuff-is-easy-peazy half pass.  For Venus, her natural tendency of make-big-steps got channeled into make-big-sideways-steps.

Just like a musician’s variations-on-a-theme exercise, I have variations-on-a-half pass to fill my days in wintery purgatory.