Friday, February 28, 2014

Knowing when to rest

"Whew, I'm beat!"
Last week I mentioned that Guinness was starting to feel a little sluggish and behind my leg. Tuesday, he wasn't in the mood to work, still lazy, slightly stiff, and a touch on the grumpy side.

That's when I knew it was time to give him an extra day off.

You see, we've been doing really well on our training schedule. I've been riding 5 times a week (4 dressage schools, and one conditioning/mental break/long hack) regularly, and I think the intensity of the schooling work really started to get to him.

Our schooling hit a totally new level last week as we switched our focus to developing more power in each gait. We've been hitting the canter/walk/canter transitions hard, and asking for a lot of work keeping connected when lengthening and coming back to collection.

Basically, we've been kicking ass and I think it's time to step back for a day and let all that work sink in.

A year ago, I wouldn't have understood how to plan that as well as I do now. Reaching for higher levels of training has taught me to see pausing for a breather as a benefit to training, rather than a stumbling block on the way success. Despite my change in view, I still don't regularly schedule breaks. Life as an Adult Amateur means I juggle so many things, breaks seem to just happen. Or, I wait until my horse tells me he's ready for a moment to rest. I'm not sure that won't change as we keep advancing our training, but it works for us right now.

With luck, Guinness and I will both be back to work on Saturday morning in a better mood and feeling ready to work. While Pig is off, I'm going to fit in another session for myself at the gym and deep clean my house (I'm coming for you husky-hair-dustbunnies!). No use wasting all that free time, right?

Do you guys ever schedule in breaks during your training? Or do you let your horses tell you when they need a moment to chill?

Thursday, February 27, 2014

TBT: Old Show Photos

Last month, I spent a long period of time sitting around with my mother in the hospital. (Everyone is fine, no worries!) One benefit was having the time to sit down with my mother's fancy phone and finally send myself horse show photos from last year. Check these out!

I look crazy ... 

Canter, Canter, Canter!

On our way to the ring! (Plus, Jen's Bitsy in the corner!)

I have no idea what I'm pondering here. Probably not sucking. I didn't work out ... ;)

Pretty pony!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Butts in Seats

In my workplace, you'll often hear us trading back and forth idea of performers and discussing their ability to "put butts in seats." Managing some of the biggest venues in the region, it's important to us that the facilities don't look empty when there is a performance going on.

What's that have to do with dressage? Well, it's also important to put your butt in your seat while riding, no? The phrase also makes me giggle, and giggling is always important when horses are involved.

Honestly, though. I've been using this sort of as a riding catchphrase recently. My last month's rides have really keyed me into one major riding issue that is keeping me from improving Guinness' collected gaits. That issue? A complete lack of depth in my seat, especially on the right.

Take the video I posted earlier this week. At both final halts, I lift my right seatbone and Guinness falls to the left in the halt. Oops. Our left lead canter departs from the walk suffer quite a bit, too. Without sinking deep on the right seatbone, I can't properly cue the canter and keep the right hind leg on the ground. 

So for now, every ride is about sitting deep on the right seat bone. I'm even practicing in my chair at work, and in my car. Last night, things came together pretty well. It's pretty obvious when I get things right, and that's heartening. 

So, get out there. Get your butt in the seat!

Monday, February 24, 2014

First Tries at Second Level

Saturday I tried running through Second Level Test 1 in its entirety for the first time. The outdoor ring was finally thawed, though a huge puddle and high winds made the whole place spookier than a show facility to Guinness. All the horses were up in arms that day, and playing hard.

I didn't expect much.

What I got from my horse, though, was an amazing effort. Even though very spooked by the wind in the trees across the street, he did his best to hold his concentration. He pushed hard to give me the best movement he could, and stayed a loose as I could expect for the weather transitions. He never even ground his teeth. Not once.

I wish I had that attempt on video.

But, the camera was knocked over by the wind and all I have is a 20 minute video of the footing. So ... oops. Luckily, Sunday the barn was hopping with people and one lovely woman was willing to stand out in the cold wind and take a few videos of test run throughs. Barn people are seriously the best.

Unfortunately, Guinness felt tired. He was constantly falling behind my leg, and felt very stiff. I'm sure battling the mud in turnout, the weather shifts, and a hard ride the day before didn't help. Sundays are long days for us, so I didn't ask him for much beyond running through the test twice. Test video below --

Things I learned from running through this test? 

  • Our halts are getting pretty freaking awesome.
  • Medium trots are on track for good development. I really need to work on letting my legs drape down and sinking deeper into my seat to follow the movement. Until I wrangle that, I can't really ask Guinness for more without getting a break. Add that to the "Needs Improvement" list.
  • Ride an accurate medium trot diagonal. I tend to cut these a little short. It ends at the letter, not halfway between two letters. Derp.
  • Screw canter --> walk and walk --> canter. Seriously. Screw that transition. It also goes on the "Needs Improvement" list. Ugh.
  • Learn to ride an accurate counter canter serpentine. I don't know where I'm going, and it's pretty obvious that I'm lost out there. On the plus side? The counter canter is still pretty okay, despite not having schooled it for months. Might want to dust some cobwebs off this soon to avoid the dreaded "counter canter motorcycle."
  • Go for broke in the medium canter. Right now it feels awesome, but isn't reading that way. I need to make sure I get more out of this movement, because we're good and brave in it.
  • This test's Brain Fart Moment is going to be right before the second counter canter serpentine. I tend to want to cross the diagonal to change lead. I'm going to have to remember to stay focused here and not lose easy points. (I love getting these moments identified early!)
  • Big point? Half halts. I use them all the time while schooling, and they are there. I have to remember to sit up and ride them during tests, or things stop feeling manageable and start spiraling out of control. Extra plus? Half halts force me to drape my legs and stop trying to crawl into the fetal position. Sit up! Half halt! Just do it!
Other than the above and the basic faults (slight chair seat/tense hip flexors, hands too low/inconsistent) I'm feeling pretty good about these tests. I think if the work continues as well as it has been (knock on some wood, seriously!), we can certainly be ready by our schooling show date of April 19th. 

What do you guys think? Pick me apart!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Getting it together

This week, I've finally jumped back on into the swing of things. My rides have been solid, and actually happening on a schedule. My horse has been strong and willing. I haven't been sick.

In short, what's going on here?! Quick! Somebody knock on ALL THE WOOD!

Last week, I pushed for more elasticity and flexibility in our lateral work. We started off a little bit weak and discombobulated. Not surprising for a horse and rider with a spotty winter work record. By the time Saturday afternoon rolled around, Guinness was feeling physically good but he wasn't mentally playing the game. He wasn't comfortable in the bridle that day, tossing his head and generally being a fuss face. We did as well as we could and he did settle in a bit as the ride went on.

Sunday, a switch flipped. He was fabulous. Immediately soft and forward into the bridle, he felt so strong and on my aids. I worked hard that day to sit heavily on my right seatbone, as I tend to float it and squeeze with my inner thigh instead of actually sit and weight it. This made a huge difference in Guinness' straightness and overall balance. It's something I'll keep in mind for every ride (until I forget ... again).

We started off the lateral work with some leg yields to get Guinness listening to my seat and leg aids. I've been practicing these pretty hard. They were such a weak part of our showing last year at First Level, and I don't want them to trip us up again this year. As you can see in the short video below, the yields to the left are pretty fluid. Unfortunately, until I can get myself sitting deeper on my right seatbone, the yield to the right is going to be a little wonky. I did fix it and get some good work, but sadly that work didn't end up on video.

Leg Yielding Video:

After getting Guinness on my aids, I worked hard on refining our shoulder in. My goal this month has been to increase the bend in the shoulder-in, and step up the engagement from the beginning. What do you guy think? Am I getting there?

Shoulder-in Video:

Keep your fingers crossed that my barn-owner managed to get the ring watered today. While my rides recently have been fabulous, I'm a little over being coated with a thick layer of dust after every ride. If you look closely at the videos, you can see how dusty it is. (You can also see how high the snow was here. see how high it's piled up on the outside of the arena?)

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The 2014 Show Schedule, As It Currently Stands

My 2014 show season is full of a lot of hopes. I'm positive I won't hit all my goals, or go to all of my shows. But for now, here's what I'm aiming for! 

Tentative Show Schedule: 
April 19 -- Heartland Region CT & Dressage Schooling Show
• Plan to show 1st 2 and 2nd 1
• Easy first show, with lots of atmosphere. Plus, it's cheap!
• Scores here count towards IDS awards.

May 17-18 -- Harmony in the Park
• Plan to show 1st 2 and 2nd 1 both days
• Eeeeexpensive rated show. But, I need the extra score at 1st for my Bronze, and I'm interested to see what the judges have to say about the work I've put in towards 2nd. 
• Can I convince my mother to cover show fees for my birthday?

June/July -- Chevaux Schooling Show
• Show 1st 2 and 2nd 1. Maybe 2nd 2.
• Super cheap local show, 10 minutes from my barn.
• Scores count towards IDS.

July 27 -- IDS Schooling Show
• Sunday one-day show. Bletch.
• Will only attend if I need extra scores towards IDS awards.

September 5-7 -- MSEDA at the Park
• Kentucky Horse Park! Omg.
• Show 1st 2 and 2nd 1, or 2nd 1 and 2nd 2. Depending on how season has gone.
• May only show one day.
• Finances may come into play on this show, but I'd love to make the trek to KY this year.

October 4 -- IDS Championships
• Hope to qualify for at least a First Level ride-off. Will also show a 2nd level class. Just because. If I don't qualify for any awards, I will probably skip this show.

Awards Goals for 2014:

IDS High Percentage Award -- 1st Level
• I'm aiming to have a median score in the mid 60s for this year, and place higher than 5th as an AA.

IDS Championship -- 1st Level
• I'm aiming to qualify for the ride offs (I actually qualified last year, but didn't show)
• Would like to be competitive, and score in the mid 60's at the Championship ride.

Bring it 2014!
If you haven't seen yet, Hillary over at Equestrian At Heart has a contest going where you could win Higher Standards Saddle Soap. This stuff is getting crazy-good reviews. You should probably check it out! :)

Monday, February 10, 2014

Sick of Being Sick

After 8 long days of sickness, I was so happy to wander over to Jen of Cobjockey's barn and video her Sunday team lesson. Being around horses felt so, so good! I took some video of her ultra-adorable pony, and you should go check it out.

The cold air didn't bug me too much, so as soon as I got back home I packed up and headed out to the barn for a ride on Pig. We didn't do too much, but just hanging out with this long face felt great. It'll be another two days before I ride again (single digit/negative temperatures forcast for the next couple of days, brr!), but I'm glad I got to check in on my horse. 
Totally unflattering photo. Too happy to care.
In other Guinness news, my barn owner sent me this photo before she bundled Guinness up in another layer of blankets. Apparently the trees in his pasture were getting pretty aggressive ...
For a $30 secondhand blanket, I'm impressed it's lasted this long.
I guess I'll be spending some quality time stitching that sucker back up. I checked it out yesterday, and the hole actually goes all the way through. Way to go, tree.

Dear Mid-winter. Get better, okay?

Friday, February 7, 2014

Pretty, Shiny, Distracting Things

So in a fit of sickness-related depression, I bought a completely unnecessary, but shiny present to myself. I introduce.... my new browband!

Unlike the rest of you flashy kids, I actually enjoy keeping a pretty low key look on my horse. He's a pretty flashy red color, so there isn't a whole lot I feel I need to do to dress him up. But! I do love how a u-shaped browband can give an understated bit of fancy. You mostly see these on really nice bridles (read: out of my price range), and the shape can be tough to track down. Plus, they're also usually bedecked with enough flashy gemstones to make the Queen of England blush. I'm not a gemstone kind of girl, and I ride a pretty, but masculine, horse. I can't wait to try this on him. I think it'll help balance out his drop noseband, too. Yes?

Also, here's a bonus video clipped from my December lesson. It shows some of the walk --> halt --> walk exercise that we've been doing ad nauseam. Hope it clarifies my earlier talk about the walk for some of you! (Try not to notice how badly my purple shirt clashes with my quarter sheet. Please.)

Thursday, February 6, 2014

On the Soft Forward Halt

I'm still sitting at home sick. It's been almost a week since I've seen my horse, and that and the coughing are making me a little crazy. I also ended up dragged into a snowpile taller than myself by two husky dogs overjoyed to be outside today instead of cooped up with their sick mama. Whee! Instead of focusing on that madness, I thought I'd take my down time to really dig deep into a training point I've been working on. Enjoy!

With December being my last lesson until March or April, I've been revisiting it often, especially the part where we worked on establishing a soft and forward halt. As I've had these on my "To Improve" list for some time, I thought I'd set down how I've been working on improving them.

This is not a forward halt. Do not let your halts look like this.
As you might know, Guinness is prone to shortening and backing off contact. His slight lazy streak also helps him fall behind a bit at the halt. This usually results in me losing the back end, ending the halt with un-squared hind legs, a raised head, and shortened neck. Gross, right?

To combat this, Nancy had me work hard on getting a forward marching walk that was consistent in the bridle. Once we'd established this, she had me really think about collecting the walk. The first few steps towards the halt must be in collection, after all. The walk will slow, but stay engaged -- the steps just getting higher instead slower. She had me think about lightening the front end by keeping my hips active. It's really important when collecting the walk not to lose the 4 beat gait. I'm lucky that Guinness has an incredible walk and that he's fairly easy to collect without losing his walk rhythm. However, it's still something I have to consciously protect and think about.

At this point, I like to make sure that my horse is moving forward readily. I don't want him to get stuck and think that I'm asking him to slow down or be lazy. Often, I'll throw in some trot transitions or ask for a faster tempo at the walk just to keep him thinking "go."
Once I have an energetic, easily collected, but well cadenced and consistent walk (haha, so easy, right?), I'll ask for a halt. The important thing for me to remember here is to keep my legs on, not float them off my horse. He has to realize he can stop moving while still being engaged, and a big part of that is me keeping a light driving force on him throughout the process. It's also imperative in case I need to bump him forward, but we'll get to that later.
The actual halting comes from my seat. I will sink into my seat bones, thinking about how they have been moving his hind legs forward at the walk. When I ask for the halt, I want to make sure to keep a swinging hip (the forward!) but to weight my seat bones to ask the hind legs to come under and stop. It's really hard for me to do this and sit up straight, but tightening my abs seems to help keep me upright and resisting enough to bring Guinness to a halt. 

During all this, my hands are managing the contact but careful not to pull. I don't allow Pig to get heavy or blow through my seat aids, though. Occasionally I do have to remind him to halt by gently closing my reins. Eventually, though, I want to eliminate this for good. Most of the time, I am focused on keeping him happily stretching his topline forward and staying roundly underneath me. Slight vibrations from my ring fingers help to keep Pig softly mouthing the bit, not bracing against it. I tend to keep an eye on his neck where it stretches out of his shoulders. This is where it is easiest for me to see/feel if he is shortening his neck, which is typically the first sign of us losing the "forward" and Guinness beginning to drop contact and hollow.
If he does begin to shorten or hollow, I immediately close my leg a fraction and ask him to move forward with my seat. We will reestablish a consistent and marching walk, and try again. If he does come nicely under himself and halt with a stretching topline however, I am careful to reward him by releasing the rein. I don't throw them away, but I calmly release any pressure that has built up in them. I expect him to stay at a halt even if I do throw the reins away. (He often doesn't. Bad Pig.) He has to learn that his forward aid comes from my seat, not a release of the rein.

This whole process is really time consuming, and often means that we will go a few rotations of the arena without halting more than a few times. However, after a time of working on this, I usually end up getting lovely prompt halts that are very forward and calm. Guinness will stand calmly, fully square, and ready to move off at a moment's notice. His neck stays stretched out in front of him, instead of nervously curling in, or raising up and hollowing his back. He is much easier to back from this type of halt, as well.

I've noticed as we've done this exercise during every ride, the time it takes to develop the nice forward halt has decreased. I've also noticed that my hands tend to be much kinder after practicing. It's really a win-win.

While a funny angle, this IS a pretty good example of a forward and engaged halt. Look at those hind legs! This halt was a total fluke, though. I had no idea what I was doing here ... 
Do you guys practice the halt? Do you do anything similarly to me?

Monday, February 3, 2014

January Goal Wrap Up | February Goals

I'm writing on my couch, under a heavy blanket and shivering out the last of a fever. I haven't been to the barn in 3 days, and am hoping this nastiness clears up so I can get back out there tomorrow and start off the week on schedule. Ugh, being sick is the worst.

January Goals

1. Keep up with my Day One riding journals.
Success! I've pretty much kept up with my Day One riding journals. I forget how much more I get out of every ride if I analyze it carefully and break it down into "3 Things For Each Ride." Plus, it's a fun way to take a photo to remind me of every day!

2. Bring GP back to pre-break fitness with a LOT of long slow miles.
Sucess! While we are not 100% where we were pre-break due to weather and general winter nastiness, Guinness is feeling strong and capable again. I'm not worried about pushing him for a bit more engagement or suppleness. My two-a-day Sundays have certainly been helping! 

3. Improve my transitions from bent to straight and back again.
Success again! We are getting much better at this! The new saddle is really helping me sit on my right seat bone, which keeps Guinness' right haunch from floating off into the netherlands of the arena. Going from shoulder-in to the track is easier, so is turning and maintaining a straight line rather than fishtailing all over.

4. Practice getting a soft, forward halt until I go blue in the face.
I. Am. Blueintheface. We've been practicing these soft halts during every ride. I have to say they have been getting MUCH better. I've also noticed them helping with straightening, and with increasing push from behind during my lengthens. I think the message to Guinness is getting through. "I need you to change your gait, not your connection and push." We still need work here, as it takes a few halts to remind Pig to stay soft. Still, coming along nicely!

5. Add flexion to my shoulder-in without wiggling off the rail.
This was hard. We worked on it with Nancy in December, and I'm still struggling with it some. I've discovered that asking for more flexion requires me to ride with even more subtlety and tact in the contact that I had before. It also requires me to be much more balanced and on the ball with my hips and legs. We're getting better, but not quite there yet. Every shoulder-in holds the angle longer before we wiggle off or back on the wall.
I'm adorable!

February Goals

1. Keep a more regular schedule. I usually try to ride 4 days a week, but the snowstorms and winter doldrums have been making it tough to get out regularly. I want that to change in February.
2. Refine the shoulder-in. Try to keep angle constant, bend consistent and be able to pick it up with confidence and speed. Try not to have to "work into it."
3. Increase responsiveness to upward transitions. Working off seat, not leg aids almost exclusively.
4. Increase responsiveness in downward transitions, keeping forward engagement. Start getting more prompt halts from walk and trot. Get prompt walks from canter. Keep neck long and relaxed.
5. Increase Guinness' confidence in backing. Keeping him relaxed in up to three steps.
6. Run through 1st 2 and 2nd 1 at least once. If possible, video to review later.

Yow! Let the hard work begin!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

I'll Show You... my barn.

View of the Barn
My barn is unique, because it's a pasture board set up. So the barn itself contains a tack room, bathroom, feed area, two cross ties and five large box stalls. During busy days, every stall can be filled with horses being tacked up, both cross ties will be full, and people, dogs and horses will be milling around everywhere. It can get crazy. Luckily, the open layout allows people to flow pretty well. A sliding door at the front, allows for full access to the aisleway.
On the back side of the barn is a pasture where most of the school horses are kept. That allows the students and barn owners easy access to their frequently used horses. Some other boarders keep their horses on nighttime stalls. Their horses are brought in at night and fill up most of the barn stalls. Guinness, meanwhile lives on 24/7 turnout, and is only brought in once a day to be fed his individual supplement.

Your Horse's Living Space
Guinness lives in the biggest pasture on the property. It is mainly comprised of the barn owner's older school horses, and broodmares. The black gelding with the snip in front is an older (navicular-plagued) dressage schoolmaster. He and Guinness take turns being top gelding. The upper pasture is currently closed for the season, leaving the horses full run of the woods to the left of the photo. It's about 15 acres total. In the summer, the horses will be allowed out on the two upper pastures (the big expanses of snow at the top of the photo) on a rotating basis. Each section is about 15 acres of nice grass pasture. In the winter, a round bale is offered 24/7.

The Tack Room
The lesson tack
The tack room has two big areas. The first is all first aid stuff and school horse tack. The second is boarder and private tack storage. There is a bathroom and office area off the boarder section. The tack room is pretty climate controlled.
My stuff! (Yes, that's THREE saddles stacked there. Shuddup.)
My stuff is piled up in the corner. I have plenty of room to keep my things at the barn, but I usually keep my show/spare things at home just to cut down on clutter.

View of Where You Ride
Outside of the indoor arena.

The indoor arena is where I mainly ride in the winter. It's a pretty nice, though small arena. It's just about the size of a regulation dressage arena. That makes practicing movements a little difficult, as I'm always reaching the end of the long wall too quickly. Nevertheless, it's fairly warm in the winter, dry, and pretty cool in the summer. I'll take it.

There is an outdoor arena, but I don't have a good photo of it. It's currently frozen. Here's a photo from last winter showing some of it ...
There is also a little bit of a jump area set up in the pasture next to the outdoor arena. I don't ride there very often.

Favorite Feature of Facility

Trails! I love having so much to explore off property. In the Spring/Summer the neighboring property opens up his trails to riders at my barn. That offers me up to 10 miles of nicely groomed trails ranging from steep hills, to rolling terrain, to flat galloping areas. There's forest, and fields, a bubbling creek and even a lake!

In the woods!
Early fall gallops in the hay field... 
Cornfield byways make excellent galloping lanes!
During hunting season the trails are closed, but the roads and fields are safe for riding. The roads are mostly dirt/gravel and really nice for late winter conditioning.
Open fields are pretty fun ... 
Wintery road hacks (part of Guinness' north summer pasture pictured at left)