Thursday, May 30, 2013

Volunteering

As some of you know, I spend a lot of my time in the summer volunteering at horse shows. I love volunteering, and you should too (no matter what discipline!). Here are my reasons:

  1. You get to FINALLY wear shorts outside in the sun. All day. I'm not promising you won't still have the palest legs of anyone you know, but you won't feel out of place bearing your pasty gams around a ton of other horse people. And you never know, you might even get a tan (don't worry, it won't last).
  2. Learn the rules! I volunteer at a lot of dressage shows, and I've learned more about the nuances of USDF/USEF rules than I ever gleaned by simply reading them. (For example, did you know that the location and size of a warm up arena cannot be changed mid-show?) You don't want to break the rules, or inadvertently disqualify yourself. This is a great way to learn what to do, and why!
  3. Get familiar with show routines and what's expected of you. Maybe this doesn't apply to everyone, but I show alone and sometimes it's overwhelming to get to a show facility and wonder "gee, where do I go?" Volunteering a lot gives you insight into how a show is run, who to talk to, and how to deal in a show atmosphere. If I hadn't volunteered before my first few shows, I'd have been LOST.
  4. Free Instruction. Typically, I ring steward, and let-me-tell-you-! that's a great way to pick up training and riding tips. At the warm up ring, you have all sorts and styles of instructors giving their riders tips. You are also privy to how people solve problems in warm up, how they gloss over a nervous horse, or try to wring points out of a test. Watching is the #1 way to learn if you can't be riding, and this is free (plus they often feed you!).  
My view as a Warm-up Ring Steward at Harmony in the Park a couple of weeks ago.

This weekend, I'll be off scribing, possibly jump judging, and maybe checking bits at the IEA Horse Trials and Training 3-Day. My lovely friend Jen of CobJockey lives close to the large horse park, and I'm lucky she's willing to open the doors of Ch√Ęteau Cobjockey to my shenanigans for the weekend.  I'm thrilled to be back with the eventing crowd for a long weekend (Yay! My employer's community service hours count!), and excited to see some good friends run around the tracks. If you'll be there, look me up!

Do you volunteer? If not, why?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Drop Noseband: A Review


Does this bridle make my nose look fat?
My new noseband came in on Friday (full disclosure, yes, I left the office early). The piece is made by RedBarn, and is really nice quality. The padding on the noseband section is really substantial and well-cushioned. The leather is nice, and it's finished well. I really can't complain about any part of it!

I ran out to the barn on Saturday morning to try it on Pig. I was slightly worried about fit. I know these types of nosebands can be difficult to fit properly, and I was second guessing not buying the adjustable NunnFiner one from Bit of Britain. Luckily, this one fits Pig really well. The nose section isn't too long and the rings don't interfere with the bit. It was also easy as pie to adjust to the end of his nasal bone, in fact I think I might even raise it a hole next time. (Word of advice! Always adjust a drop noseband so that the nose section is resting on the horse's nasal bone, not the cartilage that falls below it. Otherwise, you can easily cut off their breathing and cause big problems! Also, make sure there's at least 2 fingers of clearance space between the sides of  the nose piece— where the upper part of the nostrils are. This is especially important if you own a thoroughbred or Arabian, as their nasal passages tend to be much larger than other breeds. You want to leave plenty of room for breathing!). As for look, I love the look of a big nose on a horse, and I think this noseband makes Pig's slight Roman nose very handsome. He totally pulls it off.

After seeing how the noseband adjusted and really worked with the bit, I will probably never go back to using a flash. This is so much more effective without being restrictive. Like I mentioned in my last post, I hate how tight flash nosebands have to be, and how they pull in weird ways. The drop is so simple, but doesn't pull strangely, and is only in effect when the horse tries to open its mouth. Then, it gives a very clear pressure on the nose, encouraging the horse to take the contact and lower its head. So much clearer than the upper pressure given off by the flash.
A close up!
Guinness seems to really like it. It actually keeps his mouth quieter than anything else I've ever tried, and the extra bit support allowed me to make mistakes without a huge blow up. If that doesn't tell me he's more comfortable, I don't know what does!
**  Just to clarify, this noseband doesn't get rid of Pig's reactions to irregularities in contact, but it allows him to feel more comfortable within the contact. Meaning, if I make a mistake his head might pop up, or he might hollow out on one side. That lets me know I need to fix something, and I can work on it. Before, any irregularity in contact was cause for a very hollowed out back and a head thrown way up in the air. Getting back from that was pretty much impossible, and was making it very hard for me to improve. Now, I feel like I can get better and work on the subtlety my horse demands.

My two rides in this noseband were very, very good. On Saturday, Guinness was a little nervous. A bit of a storm was blowing in and the horses on the farm were all restless, running like idiots in the pasture. He wasn't terribly focused on me, and typically this would spell a disaster of contact. I felt like this was a good test of the noseband's ability to mitigate my mistakes, and it really was. We did have a bit of an argument over contact in a few spots, but I channeled Nancy's words to keep my shoulders back and down and to post my body up through my shoulders. That kept me balanced and didn't let me throw away my hands. When Guinness would raise his head to avoid the bit, I remembered George Morris' words of wisdom. "When the horse puts his head up, go against instinct to lower the hands to force his head down. Instead raise the hand and keep the contact steady." (Quote heavily paraphrased!) This worked remarkably well on Pig. He would raise his head, I would raise my hands (keeping my shoulders back, and my legs ON), and he would take the contact, lower his head and raise the base of his neck. It was amazing.

Sunday we had a lovely ride. Guinness was completely relaxed, and we ended up getting some of the best quality work we've had in months. I got off with a smile on my face. What else could you want?

What do you guys think? Anyone else give a drop a try?

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Show photos!

Thanks to Jen from Cobjockey for photos! (though, I think my mother actually took a few of these. Thanks, Mom!)

Goodness. What am I even doing here? The only plus side to these photos is noticing the increased engagement over last year. 

Elbows in! Look up! Sigh, the horse is pretty ... 

You can't say he wasn't using his hind end!

One good thing I can see in these photos is an increased engagement over any work we did last year. Pig is clearly finding it easier to put more weight on his hind end and really move up under himself. If only we had broken through that tense neck, I think we really are right on track.

Thoughts?

Friday, May 24, 2013

Ch-ch-changes ... in tack

After the show, I've been thinking about how my last lesson with Nancy and our crappy show performance are related. So far, here are my points:
  • I need to maintain a connection on BOTH reins at all times in BOTH directions. There is an outside rein, but you need the inside, too. 
  • Keeping steady contact is directly related to keeping my shoulders down and back, my elbows in against my sides and my core engaged with every single step.
  • My legs both need to be on my horse and stretched down long. No more of this curling up and back, or slowly trying to come up into the fetal position. Additionally no more heels into my horse's side. Turns out, he hates that.
  • The right shoulder needs to move over AND forward. It's okay to move the reins to get that, but you have to keep your weight on that side and your torso stretched up. 
After brainstorming things for awhile, I've decided to be a little pro-active with the contact thing. Guinness is obviously excessively sensitive to changes in contact. As I'm not a good enough rider yet to have perfect (or even good?) contact, I need to find a way to lessen his reactions. At this point, it's nearly impossible to fix anything once he throws a fit. All I can do is put my hands low and go into "damage control" mode. It doesn't really help either of us.

I decided that a change in noseband and bitting is needed. First, I switched back to my eggbutt double jointed lozenge snaffle. It's a bit Pig has always been happy in. The only reason I changed it to a loose ring was to try to give him some extra play in the bit to see if that would encourage him to mouth it more, and chomp and tense less. I think it's done that, but at the expense of magnifying every mistake I make. The eggbutt is more stable in the mouth, and that's what we need right now. As for the noseband, check this out:
He looks better in chestnut tack than I thought he would... 

Yep! It's the infamous Micklem bridle that everyone has been trying out recently. This one belongs to a fellow boarder generous enough to let me try it out for a bit. The change in Pig wasn't exactly "miraculous," but overall it was a positive effect. He was much less reactive to changes in contact. In fact, I was finally able to focus on my shoulder and leg position instead of constantly worrying about whether my hands were causing him to object. It was a big enough change that I'm completely willing to give it a try. Only? I'm too cheap to shell out $200 for the thing. Hell no. That's more than I'd ever consider spending on a bridle.

Ridiculous. 

Anyway, I'm not willing to give up on the obvious comfort the Micklem gave Pig. So, how does a girl compromise her cheap, cheap, cheapness and her horse's obvious preferences? Well, she takes a close look at tack design and uses her brain ... 
Left: Micklem | Right: Drop

Yep, on closer inspection the Micklem noseband is really just an elaborate drop. Sure, the Micklem is all one piece, has nice ear cutouts, holds the bit stable at the top, and more easily contains the drop crown strap, but really it's pretty much just a drop. And a nice quality drop noseband is totally in my budget. So I bought it. This one, actually.

I've literally never thought of trying a drop noseband on my horse before. In fact, I didn't really understand why you would use one as opposed to a flash. In the last week, I've really looked at them and studied what trainers say about them. Apparently, a drop is more effective at keeping the mouth closed than a flash, and is less likely to put pressure on the developing teeth of a young horse, and so more common in use with young horses. While Pig has had his teeth done very recently, and doesn't have any dental issues contributing to our problems (you can bet I've checked!), I think the drop's other purpose is suited directly to him. The drop is also capable of holding the bit steadier than a flash, and without as much tension on the horse's mouth. In order to get a flash to really hold the bit, you have to strap it down to a degree that I can't get behind. Because of the hinge on a drop, the bit is gently held up in the horse's mouth. This lessens the amount the bit can move, and makes it much gentler on the mouth. Hopefully that translates to a happier chestnut horse! 

I just checked the tracking on my package. It's currently sitting on my porch. Can I leave the office yet?

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Letting Things Be Ugly

Well our May show didn't go quite as planned. We ended up with a couple of pretty hard scores to swallow, and a lot of homework.Tension and frustration marred out tests, despite my efforts to leave them behind.

Our first test (First 3), while easier to memorize, is the most difficult test I've ever ridden. It's a big jump from Training, with the movements come fast and heavy. There is not a moment to take a breath, instead everything is one constant transition. I like this about the test, but it's a true test of contact and submission from the horse. In other words, it's pretty impossible to skate through this test without solid basics.

Skaters, we are not.

Pig warmed up tense. I warmed up tense. It was a perfect storm of bad contact. I tried to keep him balanced on both reins, and he was having none of this. He took offense to my braced right shoulder, my forward lean and my swinging legs. I was so worried about how awful he was acting that I couldn't remember to actually ride properly. By the time I did manage to get things together enough for a couple of strides, he had expended all the generosity he had left for me. We schooled some counter canter (oddly our best movement right now), and I headed over for my test.
The heavily wet footing did not help matters. Pig found it to be "gross" and he kept exaggerating his strides and refusing to move out in the stuff. Stupid rain.
I guess the best I can say is that it was reasonably accurate. Our bend was iffy, Pig's neck was braced against me during the whole ride, and we even blew the change of lead through the trot. It was so rough.

After schooling our simple changes for a little bit, I ended up putting Pig away for some rest and taking some time to try to forget how frustrated I was. I wanted to start my second test with an improved focus and a better start. I knew the only way to do that was to stay positive.

After a little over an hour of prep and a lovely ride by Kelly and Riva to inspire me (you guys are awesome!), I hopped back on for the second test of the day (First 2). This test is all sorts of movements all over the arena (Seriously? I've never done so many turns at R and P!), but it's pacing is much slower than First 3. As a result, there's more time to soothe a nervous horse back into contact before trying a new movement. I rightly thought that if I could get Guinness a little more relaxed, we could have a better test.

In warmup, I just worked on trying to get him to relax the base of his neck and stop bracing so badly. We didn't eliminate the problem, but we did manage a little bit of a longer and bouncier neck. Magically some of this relaxation even bled over into the test.

I'm not sure what our judge was expecting, but our scores were low. Like really, really, really low. My first test scored at 50%, and my second scored a 52%. We took the bottom of our class. After reviewing the scores for the weekend, I noticed that this particular judge was really hard on people. She hardly scored any horses in the 60s at all. Many of the horses I was showing with are actually 2nd level horses with average scores in the mid 60s at recognized competitions. Even they were in the low 60s or mid to high 50s. I'm not trying to make excuses for my scores, but it's helping me stay encouraged and keep working.

The little things, right?

Overall, it was still a good weekend and I'm glad we showed. The community at this show was really good, with lots of my old eventing crowd there and my new dressage friends. Plus, Jen was grooming/fetching wine and sandwiches for me. What could be better? Additionally, I'm more committed than ever to solving our contact problems so that we can work better.
Pig excitedly thinking about going home, or eating grass, or ... not showing ;)
In the time following the show, it has been hard to stop our poor performance at the show from getting me down, but I'm trying to keep everything in perspective. My mantra has become "it's okay to be ugly." In trying to fix our contact issues, Pig will sometimes throw a pretty big tantrum and trot around the ring ignoring me, head in the air. It takes all I have not to resort to the hunterland see-saw to remind him to stop that (right now!), and instead keep adjusting my position and keeping him forward into my contact without bracing up out of sheer frustration. Last night was a great example of this. We started soft and swinging, I made too many mistakes and started bracing. Pig threw a fit, and I started bracing more and forgot to ride my horse. Finally, after relaxing some and a lot of sticking to my guns and not letting him back away from the contact, we were back to swinging and loose in the neck. That second bit of nice work ended up more consistent and easier to keep than the first.

We'll get there. If I don't murder my picky horse first. ;)

Now, someone tell me a good breakthrough story so I can keep my spirits up!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Show Season

I realized today that I haven't given an update on our plans for the upcoming show season. Whoops!

This year, I've made an effort to streamline my showing efforts to best hit my goals without going completely broke, or wearing out myself and my horse. Let's review the goals, shall we?

1. To achieve 2 scores of 60% or above at a recognized show to put towards my USDF Bronze medal.

2. To demonstrate competency at 1st level.

3. Qualify for IDS ride-offs at First Level.

4. To get comfortable with all the demands of showing, and feel capable and in control of the whole situation.

5. To learn as much as possible about my sport, and enjoy spending time with the people in it.

So far, my schedule looks something like this:

May 11, 2013
IDS Schooling show
First Level 2 & 3

June 22 & 23, 2013
Indy Dressage Classic
First Level 2 & 3

July 20, 2013
Chevaux Schooling Show
First Level 2 & 3

September 28, 2013
IDS Championships/Schooling
First Level 3, ?

As all of these shows are IDS recognized, I should have no problems qualifying for ride-offs with IDS. I'm hoping to be able to get 2 decent scores at the Indy Dressage Classic, allowing me to have my scores for my Bronze. If the show this weekend shows that I'm not ready to hit the "big time" the following month, I will delay that showing debut until August.

What do you guys think? How do you decide what shows to go to?
Let's go show season!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Nancy Breakthroughs and Show Prep

Saturday Guinness and I saddled up for another lesson with Nancy, the last before we embark on show season for real. And, it was good. Very good.
A sleepy Pig greeted me that morning. Too adorable not to share.
For the second day in the row (I'd ridden Friday), Guinness came out of the barn with a completely sweet "let's get this" attitude and no drama. I have to say it was lovely.

The first half of our lesson, Nancy focused on getting my arms to my sides (no chicken elbows!), my shoulders down and back (mostly down), and my legs gently on. We worked on a slightly large 20 meter oblong, at the walk and the trot. The goal here was to get Pig relaxing into the contact and stretching his neck up out of the withers and raise up through his back more. He tends to brace against my hand and bring his neck up too high, instead of gently relaxing it out into my hands.

Pinpointing my contact as a point of contention between Pig and I, Nancy had me focus on keeping a steady contact in the reins. My elbows were reminded to stay back, and the contact pressure taken through them, not my wrists and hands. Then, my shoulders had to come down to keep my biceps and neck from tensing and resisting the elasticity the contact demanded. Not a hard concept, but a difficult habit to establish. As Nancy put it, I can't expect 2nd level and above collection until I get this sorted. So, I will.

When I got things right, Pig responded splendidly. His neck would come up out in front of me and noticeably lengthen. His stride would get loftier, which I would then encourage with my leg. Nancy explained that the lengthenings need to come out of this sort of stride. Then I can ask with my legs, and keep the tempo with my seat.

The concept of contact was expanded when Nancy reminded me that we DO use both reins in riding. Just because the outside rein is important doesn't mean we throw away the inside rein. Obviously this makes sense, but for some reason it wasn't clear to me until Saturday. We worked on turning Pig on the circle with both reins, keeping even contact and not letting him bounce at the end of the rein or waggling him back and forth in my hand. Elbows back, again, and weight on the outside shoulder when it bulges. I started to think of the circle as lots of mini shoulder ins, which is how I've been trying to think of them. 

One mnemonic Nancy used with other riders, but not for me this time (she has before, but it didn't sink in) was that of "two sticks and a ball". As in trying to control a ball with two sticks. You can't overuse one, or turn without both. Think of the ball as the horse's head and the sticks as the reins. Interesting concept. 

The last half of the lesson, we ran through some of the test movements that will be asked for this weekend in at our show. We picked up the canter and ran through the shallow counter canter loops, which were stellar. In fact, we only touched on them. Not even worth working on any more. That feels like accomplishment to me.

Then, we worked on lengthenings. I kept throwing away the contact I sweat so hard for in the first half. That was difficult. Then, I'd get off balance and forget to use my weight to keep Guinness' rhythm and keep him from rushing at the application of leg. Additionally, I would let Pig fishtail a bit behind or lean his shoulder into the wall, another symptom of throwing away my contact. My upper body kept collapsing and I wasn't following the forward movement with a strong core, instead 'pushing' by collapsing my lower back. We didn't nail anything here, but the homework was clear. I'm game for the work ahead. We can get this.

And finally, we ended with leg yields. This was stellar to the left, but exceptionally hard to the right. Nancy nailed that Pig is reluctant to take right rein contact (we've been struggling forever). She pointed out that to the right I need to take a lot more contact, even when going straight. The leg yields showed another issue stopping the contact. My weight isn't right. I'm weighting the inside way too much, totally blocking Pig from being able to move to the outside. After a few really frustrating minutes, we finally solved the problem. My outside leg wasn't on. (Nancy called it "peeing on a hydrant syndrome.") It's sort of counter intuitive, but the outside leg does have to be on in order to be able to weight that seatbone. Otherwise, I just throw myself to the inside instead of staying upright in the saddle. What a mess. More homework.

That last breakthrough was really big for me. I practiced it last night some, and it really does help me keep Guinness straight and on both reins dependably. Last night we worked mainly on changing directions multiple times without the usual raising of the head and resistance through the back. Turns out if your horse is steadily on both reins all the time, he won't resist changing directions so much.

Sigh. Homework. I like it when you are this clear.