Monday, July 29, 2013

Talking Core Strength

When I started on my dressage journey, I thought I had a pretty strong set of abdominal muscles. I was a regular runner, did some Crossfit type workouts, and regularly helped my husband train for his military PT test (mainly by making him embarrassed that he couldn't do as many sit ups as me). I wasn't in the best shape of my life, but I could bam out sit ups with the best of them. Then, I started sitting the trot, asking for lengthenings, and demanding through contact. 

Oooooh boy. It turns out, my core has an awfully long way to go. Anyone else had this discovery?

First level is demanding. It asks that the rider develop a lot more muscular control to maintain balance, straightness and constantly correct aids. It asks that you sit UP for the first time (instead of the slightly huntery frame of Training level), and that you begin to draw your horse up to you as the beginning of baby collection. That's nearly impossible without a set of incredibly strong and active deep core muscles. That's a type of strength you can't necessarily get from a workout or a specific abdominal exercise, and without riding several horses a day seems impossible to achieve. 

My weakness has been pointed out in countless Nancy lessons, but none so much as my July lesson where I sat the trot the entire time. Guys, my abs were so weak that my back hurt the day after that lesson from having to compensate for my weak core. After that, I was more inspired than ever to tackle my ongoing core weakness. 
(Video of Nancy tweaking my position at the start of the month. She was reminding me to sit UP, as if tied to the ceiling. Please ignore my flailing elbows, this was hard and I don't quite have it together.. yet.)

Obviously doing more sit ups is not the answer, as my abdominal muscle strength is actually quite high. Plus, how many high level dressage riders do you see going around with completely ripped 6 packs? Pretty much none, right? I'm starting to realize that pure strength is the issue here, I think it's tension endurance, suppleness and the ability to lengthen the muscles that matters more instead. So, how do you do that? 

Well, here's what I've been doing to help my full core strength (did you know your core muscles go from your thigh to under your arms? How ridiculous is that?!): 
  1. Walking with my dogs (not so much running, as you can't be as upright). At least 2 miles daily, typically 4-6. This takes about an hour to two of my time every day. I go in the morning, before sunrise. The important things to focus on here are keeping the core muscles tight, and supporting. Think sucking in to zip up a tight pair of pants, while at the same time feeling as if your breastbone is being pulled upwards towards the sky. Doing this gets the muscles working in opposition, so it's hard at first. The motion of walking is similar to the motion your hips will make on a horse, and helps you work your core while focusing on other things. I also enjoy how I can practice holding a dog leash in each hand and work on keeping my shoulders back and down and my elbows at my side, instead of doing the chicken dance.
  2. Kettlebell swings. I do these with a full mobility swing (the kettlebell goes over my head, instead of just to eye level), but that's an advanced move and requires that you already have basic stability of your core and lumbar spine. Safety first, start with swings to eye level! What I love about this exercise is how similar it is to the dressage posting trot, leading with the hips. The swinging motion forces stability in the whole core while the body moves. Finally a swing overhead more fully lengthens the core muscles while they are working in opposition, strengthening them.
  3. Yoga. Doing a yoga routine (I like the first half hour of the P90X yoga video) is brilliant for working on your core stability, strength and length. The type of dynamic stretching in yoga forces you to pay attention to your breathing and balance, which really helps translate into riding. 
There are other exercises that you can do to strengthen and lengthen your core muscles. I know a lot of pro dressage riders avidly practice Pilates. From what I understand this sort of core "strength" becomes second nature (think balancing on your bike), and learning the art of sitting up tall in the saddle requires more muscle development than keeping that knowledge in use. In other words, as you learn to sit the trot and ask for collection, you need more core strength. After you learn it, the muscle memory will help support you and you won't need so much strength to maintain. 

This depth of thought on the core is something I never encountered in riding until I started to really work at dressage. This focus is also why photos of me slouching are so completely annoying to me, but inspire me to keep working. Anyone else really work on their core strength? Am I on the right track here?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Chevaux Write Up, Part 2

One of our really nice canter departs. Look how soft and uphill he is!
This show was small, so I only had a few riders separating my First 2 and First 3 tests. I know the First 3 test better, and have practiced it more, so I wasn't too worried. Between  the tests, I knew I wanted to reaffirm our contact some at the trot and school our counter canter and simple lead changes.

Just as I did in my first warm up, I spent a lot of time at the walk establishing relaxation and contact. In a complete turn around of normal events, Guinness was very nervous and "chompy" at the walk, but settled into the rhythm and contact at the trot. I schooled the leg yields again, until I could get them without too much of a nervous breakdown, and we moved on to counter canter. This felt solid, and Guinness was relaxed so we headed for the ring.

My reflections on this test?

Centerline: Fairly straight. Decent halt. We lost connection in the upward transition, leading to a little wiggle and a hollow back. Though we recovered well, the turn at C was not very through (twisted head/neck, Guinness was not bending off my inside leg and stepping through with inside hind).

Lengthenings: Better in this test, and better the 2nd direction. Guinness looks slightly off or "hoppy," due to a slightly hollow back and lack of strength to sustain his balance as he transitions. Just needs more practice, meanwhile my hands need to bounce less and quietly follow more. (Use your elbows!)

Leg yields: Well, we have developed enough sideways travel to consistently make it to X and back to the wall without feeling like we are running out of space. Otherwise? The leg yield left was pretty good, haunches only slightly trailing. The leg yield right still looks like it takes Guinness completely by surprise, and needs considerable work. My plan right now? Widen my right rein to allow freedom in his shoulder without losing straightness.

Circles: Trot circles were okay, and the change of bend was negotiated pretty well. I need to work on properly sizing my 15 meter circles. I keep forgetting and riding more of a 20 meter circle the first time around in the canter. I also need to remember to keep my outside leg on to guide him around and keep him forward. But, I'm pretty okay with these for now.

Change of lead through the trot: We did pretty well on this, and my schooling is starting to really show. He popped out of the contact slightly, but still changed his bend and happily jumped into the other lead. I'm not complaining, but I'm leaving this movement on our list of "needs improvement."

Canter Lengthens: Thinking leg yield right before I ask for the lengthen has helped us be straight, now I just need to be braver and allow Pig to motor on out. This should be a strength for us.

Canter loop: Honestly, I'm pretty happy with these. I could finesse the geometry, but overall they are calm and cadenced. I'm not too concerned with these. (My, how far we have come ...)

Walk work/stretching: Just okay. The walk should be a strength, but needs to maintain relaxation. The stretchy circle is always going to be a pain, but more work at the rising trot and with changes in contact should help improve this score. Biggest point? Don't forget to post the stretchy circle!

Final Score? 61% Check out the video below, and try not to vomit from the shake. My husband is no great videographer, but I still appreciate the effort!

Overall, I felt like this show was a success. It feels like a definite improvement from our May outing, and reaffirms that we are on the right path. I don't think we are quite ready for our recognized show yet, but I'm confident that we will be. The work we have to do is finessing the test and really working riding with the same quality the whole time, not hacking through the big issues. That's a good thing, and I'm ready to get started!
Our last lengthen was certainly our best! Still some tension in the neck and we weaved all over the place before finally getting the haunches under, but I'm supremely happy with the push I'm seeing develop behind!
One sweet moment? After untacking, a massive rainstorm blew in. I left Guinness to stand tied to the trailer in the cool rain, while I stood inside the trailer escaping the downpour. Standing quietly, eating his damp hay, Guinness was perfectly calm amid the bustling of those running for cover. Every little while, I would stick my hand out through the slats and rub his ears. In return, he'd raise his head and sniff my hands, obviously searching for bits of apple. It's these type of moments that make me most thankful for this big red horse. He may not be the most talented dressage partner, but he is fantastic at just being a partner. I love watching his big ears perk up when I call his name, and am constantly wowed by the seemingly boundless trust he puts in me. He's been the perfect horse for me, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Show Stats:
Hours away showing: 7
Number of things forgotten: 3
Bags of licorice consumed: 1
Number of tests: 2
Average %: 61.5%
Worth it? Absolutely!
After admitting my intense love for licorice to you all, I feel this was a necessary photo.
... now I'm hungry :)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Chevaux Write Up, Part 1

"Locked and loaded, Mom! Let's go!"
Saturday dawned early, and promised rain. After bathing Guinness and braiding him in the quiet of my barn, we loaded up and headed out to the show. We arrived with the perfect amount of time to do a quick hand walk, tack, and warm up.

Unfortunately, Captain Guinness MacPoopmachine managed to smear poop all over his butt in the trailer (it's one of his favorite hobbies). He came storming out of the trailer with wet poop smashed deep into his still-wet tail, flinging it around like a deadly poop-whip. He was playing dirty ... literally.

After managing to wash out his tail again (by dumping buckets of water on it, as the facility lacks running water or a bathing space anywhere near the trailers), I turned my attention to getting tacked up. This is when my front right billet strap stitching finally gave up the ghost and decided to rip the last 3/4ths of the way out. The front quarter of the stitching has been loose since I've owned the saddle, and I've been watching it carefully. So far it hadn't shown any sign of deteriorating any more, and the task of getting it fixed kept getting shoved down on my to-do list.

Oops, I guess I'll be making a long drive into Amish Country ...

Luckily, my barn-mates had brought along the medium tree County that also fits Guinness. So, I traded my saddle for it (quickly!) and leapt on. Thank god for small miracles. Finally, I headed for the warm up.

Sadly, all the rushing and saddle changing had transformed my formerly Sleepy Pig into the dreaded Stress Pig. He was jiggling his bit, and refusing to walk forward and stretch. I took a deep breath and decided that the only worthwhile thing to do was to walk around and reestablish a connection and a semblance of calm. After 25 minutes had passed, we had developed a little bit more calm in the walk and a halfway decent trot. It was clear to me that our canter was going to be our best gait of the day, and that I was going to have to ride extremely tactfully to get through the tests without a blow up. I made a plan in my head, and headed over for my first test, First 2.

That's when the lightening started.

The 20 minute lightening hold actually served to let Guinness decompress a bit more. He took a brief nap while the storm passed over, and when we started back up he was in a slightly better mindset. I still had to be really tactful, but he wasn't quite the ball of stress I started with.
While lightening storms overhead, I make silly faces and Pig naps.

The test itself went fairly well. My trot lengthens felt pretty nonexistent, and we had some crookedness issues in them (I lost the haunches almost completely in the first one). The leg yields were MUCH better than I was expecting, and if I had sat up more I think we would have been even better. I lost the haunches slightly on these, and some points for that. Our circles and half circles to the left were a strong point. He was bent around my leg and contained well by my outside hand. To the right we still need to work on Pig's flexibility and my straightness in the saddle.

Canter work was fairly good, and we actually had pretty fantastic canter transitions (a rough point for us in the past, previously a place for head tossing and bucking). I wish I would have been braver with the lengthens, as I start to get good activity then back off. We'll need to work on these. There was a minor meltdown moment in the first downward transition from the canter to the trot on the diagonal. Pig clearly believed that we were schooling change of lead and offered a canter. I brought him back a bit more severely than I needed to, and he took offense. Luckily the walk work was up next and I was able to bring him back out of his tension and have a decently good free walk (I love getting 7s for coefficient scores!). I wish I'd been able to ask for more forward in the walk work, as he's capable of really fantastic stuff, but he was just too tense to ask for more. Plus, I'd forgotten my spurs (There's always something...).

I did have one incredibly stupid mistake. I sat the stretchy circle, which is required to be done at the rising trot. That was a -2 error, which is a stupid way to throw points down the drain. The stretch was better while I sat, so I don't feel too bad about my mistake. However, we'll be throwing more posting trot relaxation moments into our schooling.

Here's the video of First Level, Test 2! Stay tuned for Test 3, and my final show reflections!
Note: For a more authentic experience. Please watch this video while imagining me screaming at myself: "Sit up, Sit up! Sit UP!!!" and "Of course you can't absorb the contact with your elbows, your hands are practically underneath your thighs. WTF?!"

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Show Prep

It's that time again! After a long summer of slogging, Guinness and are are getting ready to test our mettle under a judge this weekend. Of course, this is just a super wee little local schooling show (8 total riders, I think?!). However, it is the venue Guinness found most challenging last year, as the arena is right along Illinois highway 36 and the occasional semi thundering by really seemed to wreck his calm. I'm not expecting this to not happen again, but I think I'll be more ready to calm the fireworks this year. I'm doing my best to aim for a solid performance without any major flaws.

The one area I want to definitely improve this weekend is our comfort level and relaxation in the tests themselves. As a pair, Guinness and I tend to stress each other out during a test, usually ending in a argument somewhere and a really diminished level of quality during the ride. So what am I doing to try to improve this?

First of all, I've been incorporating a lot more quick transitions and changes of bend into our schooling rides, complete with moments of relaxation to keep the tension at bay for both of us. I've also been pressing Guinness to offer more "push" in his gaits and to stay in front of my leg. To help him with all of this, I've been pushing myself to keep my position very solid. I have to learn to sit upright (abs tight like I'm zipping up a pair of too-tight pants, and my chest pulled upward as if tied to the sky by a rope ... if visuals do it for you), allow him to bounce me a little, and stop pushing and absorbing by bowing my lower back. I also have to keep my contact solid, instead of throwing away it away in tough transitions (like the change of lead across the diagonal in 1st 3).

The other part of our relaxation training as been to ride the tests more often, and to try to video them when possible. As a kid, I always had it driven into my head that you never rode your whole test or your horse would learn to anticipate the movements and would blow everything. As I've ridden more in dressage, I've realizing what a load of crock that is. Of COURSE you need to ride your tests at home. Maybe not every day, and all the time, but you need to practice them and feel how the movements work with your horse.


So we've been practicing our tests. Unfortunately, the only video I have to offer you is one in which I did not review the test before I rode it. As anyone who knows me well can attest, my memory is completely destroyed. There was no way I was going to remember the fast paced First 3 after having last ridden it in May. Yet, I think I did pretty well to remember (I swapped the canter lengthen and one loop, and forgot to do the 2nd lengthen). I also mysteriously thought that C was A, and did my final practice salute with my butt to the "judge."

Oh well, don't judge me.

A few things I was really happy with in this video (despite the memory lapses)? The 10 meter circles were fairly well balanced. Yes, I could use more bend to the left, but the circle to the right and the movement into the leg yield left was one of the best we've had recently. It's the level of quality we are starting to get every ride, and I am very happy with it. Other nice moments? Our 15 meter canter circle at C (it's a little large, but the arena is also a little small), is beautifully balanced and the canter loop keeps a nice rhythm.

Things we need to work on? Leg yields -still a bane of our existence, the transition into the lengthen needs to be quicker and more relaxed, I need to sit up a lot more and shorten my reins (I was letting him get away with murder, and his head was starting to wag because of it), the change of lead through the trot gets blown about 75% of the time and it's 75% my fault - I need to get on that, and our accuracy could be much improved.

So, enough talking and on with the video. What do you guys think? It's kind of an embarrassing schooling moment to put out there, but the good moments were something I really wanted to share.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Swan Lake

As you guys might remember, I've been in riding boot camp for over a month. A pretty crappy result at our first show of the season and a stressful lesson with Nancy in May had me completely reevaluating Guinness and I as players in the dressage field. I was feeling pretty down about us, and wondered if we would ever finally breakthrough into the world of consistent, steady contact and manage to ride a single test without looking like a hunched over toad riding a red giraffe with its head on backwards.
Man, I think that toad is actually sitting up straighter than me. The hell? 
The first two weeks of boot camp were pretty grim. I had mandated that we would work on contact until we got it, but it was slow work. Guinness and I would ride until he would relax into contact at the walk, then we would free walk for a half a lap. I would pick up the reins, and we would do it again. Sometimes (okay, at the beginning, often), he would balk and I would boot him forward, exaggerate his walking rhythm in my elbows and raise my hands a bit to catch his evasion. Once he dropped into my hands and his neck relaxed, I would feed the reins out into a free walk again. Finally, we added the trot with the same routine. I demanded contact, and there was no rest or getting away from it until he relaxed down into my hands. The trot was harder, and I would often have to back down to the walk to reestablish rhythm, then ask for the trot once he was relaxed again. No transitions happened until he was relaxed and in my hand.

Let me tell you, that was a tedious month. But? Oh boy has it paid off!

This last weekend, we had our first lesson with Nancy since May, and we could have been a completely different pair. Guinness was soft in the contact. He was established, forward and willing to put the work in. Finally, Nancy was able to nitpick at us and push for more instead of struggle to get me to understand our problems.

It was amazing. For all of you out there slogging through the ugly. I've seen the other side, and it is beautiful.
Actual representation of what riding feels like on the other side of ugly ... 
Now, I have to keep this work while asking for more. More straightness, more sideways, more energy, more engagement. Oh dear. It sounds like we may be going back to ugly town, hopefully our stay won't be so long this time ...

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Taking It Personally

A little while ago, I was reading through some comments on Karen's blog over at Bakersfield Dressage. Karen was describing the way her Arabian's disobedient behavior can frustrate her, while her thoroughbred's does not. In short, she takes Speedy's resistance personally, but sees Sydney's issues as separate from herself. This makes training Sydney less emotionally draining.

"Karen," I said, "I totally get it."

Taking things personally with your horse is something I could probably write a book about, but I don't think I'm alone. In fact, I'm pretty sure most adult amateur riders deal with this at some point.

In my case, my horse and I are pretty close. He's the butter to my horse-obsessed bread. I know he trusts me, and likes me, even. We're a team. 

So, when I ask for a right lead canter depart (FOR THE FOUR HUNDRED THIRTY-FIFTH TIME!), and he pops off with the left lead, a nose in the air and a shoulder through my rein, I get upset.

We are a team, right? Why can't my teammate pull his weight? He knows this stuff. I, like most people let down, would like to give in to temptation of frustration. And, I have. More times than I'd like to admit. Instead of handling my emotions, I break down. I'll repeatedly ask, the same way. I'll demand a response, and I won't give up until I get it. Sometimes, I'll even find myself crying.

"Why won't you just do it, you ass?!" I've been known to yell. 

Despite knowing that the problem usually lies in my riding, and that these reactions have been holding back my training, making my horse nervous and breaking down my problem solving, I find them difficult to avoid. Some days, I can easily zip right through a disobedience or a stubborn Pig moment without anything more than a quick thought, correction and new attempt. Some days, complete meltdown. With me, the issue often stems from my personal stress level. Things at work are rough? I'll probably cry at a leaping and inverted canter depart. A cheery Saturday morning, however, can having me hacking through issues without even pausing my singing to the radio.

So how do you keep on a training schedule when you have to school on workdays, not just lovely Saturdays? Or, god-forbid, days when you've just had a huge argument or gotten off the phone with someone you can't stand? 

That's a harder question than it seems. The adult amateur's life is full of stresses unrelated to riding, and often extremely tenacious stresses. In addition, time is tight. It's often impossible to ask that I wait for a less stressful day to ride, or simply "take a moment to refocus" before getting on. Yeah, that tactic may work if you're a zen master, but that's just never going to be me! My mind tends to focus on a stress and just magnify it to no end. It only takes a small issue to tip over the stress pile.

To combat this issue, I've been walking. A lot. On horseback. Every time I sense myself getting defensive, or taking something too personally, I take a small break (sometimes only halfway around the arena). I let Guinness have a long rein, and I think about the problem and the solutions. I let myself be a little angry, then figure out how to solve it. If I can't, we're done with that issue. I'll move on to something I know we can do, and we'll go off and do that for awhile. The confidence boost of finally doing something well reminds me of how awesome my horse is, and how well we work together. Often, that's enough to get me thinking enough to try to troubleshoot the issue we were fighting over with a clearer mind and clearer aids. I wouldn't call it "developing patience," but I suppose someone else might.

As I've been practicing this temper-management, I've noticed my horse having a lot more confidence in me and what I'm asking. His nervous tendencies have lessened, and he's much more willing to try than to just shut down and tune me out.

I guess you could say we're both becoming better listeners.

Despite everything, I've found that taking things personally with your horse isn't 100% a bad thing. People who invest a lot of time, money and energy into their horses tend to feel things pretty personally. I kind of see it as a side effect of being an awesome horse owner. So, you go Karen. You're a pretty spectacular horse owner. Getting personally offended in a pony relationship just comes with the territory, but let's all try not to let it overcome us.

Whoa Late: July Goals

Monthly goals are a thing I want to get more into, especially as Guinness and I move further along into our training. Of course, I'm no good with deadlines and completely missed the mark on July. Nearly half the month is gone already. How did that happen?!

Anyway, on to the important stuff:

July Riding/Training Goals

1. Develop consistent contact, especially through changes of bend and transitions.
  - We are already leaps and bounds ahead of where we were just two months ago, but transitions and changes of bend can still get sticky and result in an evasive Pig. Must remember to keep adjusting my contact, stay elastic and ride forward for every single stride.

2. Establish forward and calm leg yields, off the rail in both directions. 
  - No more panicking and losing our forward in favor of sideways. Here, I must remember that the leg yield is a straightening exercise and to continue to ride both sides of my horse. The sideways will happen when he is straight enough to support it. 

3. Keep up with my daily ride Journal (Day One, free in the itunes store right now, is AWESOME for this).   - Remember, take 3 things away from every ride. I can elaborate as I like, but at least 3 bullet points is the goal!

3. Achieve passable scores at our July schooling show.
  - 60% + or bust! (Keep your fingers crossed that it isn't a bust!)

4. Manage to ride at least 4 dressage schools weekly, and at least 1 hour long hack in addition.
We can do it! 
July Fitness Goals

1. Keep walking routine to 15 miles weekly while softly starting running again.

2. Amp up core fitness routine

to an extra day a week (making it 4 days of core fitness).

3. If everything holds, try adding in one day of strength training back in on Fridays. 

This hip injury has been total hell. I've sacrificed my own fitness routines in favor of riding (I had to pick one or the other, but trying to keep both was destroying my ability to heal). I'm such a complete disaster when I'm injured. Ask anyone who had to deal with me when I pulled my adductor in college and couldn't run. The last two weeks, I've been riding without any serious pain. A deep pull or twinge has flared up while sitting the trot or lifting my leg (like to walk up stairs), but nothing serious like before. I'm counting on all of you  to keep your fingers crossed that this sucker is finally on the mend!