Thursday, November 27, 2014

Auditing Gems

Yes. That's a Norwegian Fjord stallion. Yes, he's adorable.
I love auditing clinics with "big name" trainers. I'm too poor to shell out to ride with one at this stage in our training (maybe if we were looking at showing FEI, but my trainer has done an excellent job on her own so far!), but I think there's a lot of great knowledge to be picked up from watching other riders. A lot of people struggle with similar problems in slightly different ways, so many times I'll find a solution to an issue I'm having with Pig, a new exercise to work a weak point, or a better way of looking at a training problem. So, when I got notice that Luis Reteguiz-Denizard was coming back to town, I made room on my calendar.

The best part about auditing this clinic is that Lou is my trainer's trainer. That makes his teaching style incredibly accessible to me, as it is so similar to my trainer's. Many times I have audited a clinic with Lou only to have a bit of Nancy's teaching come through a little clearer. Plus, it's always fun to see your trainer get a lesson. Right?

Here are some gems I picked up from this weekend's clinic:
  • Honesty off the leg means the horse reacts to the leg with correct movement in the stifle and hock, not with speed. Make sure when you're applying your leg that the horse is stepping out correctly, on both sides. The horse in question was very one sided, lazy on a right hind. Lou was helping the rider feel what equal action in both hind legs felt like.
  • Short sides are just shorter long sides, and should be ridden just as straight as a long side. (I'm absurdly guilty of forgetting this.)
  • Don't forget the outside hind in the shoulder in. You have to make sure he is sitting and supporting with that leg, or you'll push him into a leg yield. Support the outside, push the inside.
  • Presenting a horse in a double tells your instructor that you are ready to increase the level of feel and responsibility needed to ride in a more advanced way. You, as a rider, have to be more aware of yourself and the horse.
  • "You've gotta want more out of him, because right now I feel like I, as your instructor, want more than you. And that makes me cranky." -- This is a great thing to remember, no matter who you're lessoning with. If you aren't ready to ask your horse for more (acceptance, obedience, bend, impulsion, understanding), why are you in lessons? It's not fair to your horse or your instructor.
  • Don't work your leg out of rhythm with your seat. (Another big problem for me, and probably anyone who rides a lazy horse).
  • Know the difference between an engaging half half, and a disengaging half halt. You want a low neck (more horse in your hand)? Stifles are more disengaged than engaged. You want a higher neck (horse off your hand)? Stifles need to be more engaged. The need for engagement was demonstrated by a Fjord stallion with a tendency to get heavy in front and lazy behind. He needed more engagement to pick up the front of himself. The need for disengagement was demonstrated by my trainer and her Friesian/Dutch gelding, who tends toward overengagement (think constant piaffe instead of walking, or cantering). Disengaging his stifles lowered his head/neck and kept him in a rideable and thinking frame, rather than being so engaged he could barge through half halts.
After the clinic I headed home to ride my group of green ponies and Pig. The clinic inspired me to try working on Pig's canter collection a bit more. Lou warned against keeping a lazy and claustrophobic horse in collection too long, which resonated with me. So we worked on 3-4 strides of super collection followed by 5-10 of a more working canter frame. This exercise really amped Pig up, keeping him solidly in front of my leg. In fact, we had to have a few discussions about what I actually meant by "half halt." Whoops!

Anyone else audit a clinic recently?

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Expensive bits, are they worth it?

Thanks to everyone for your comments on my post about introducing Guinness to the double. We're a week in, and he's still doing great. Some of your comments, along with Pig's reaction to the bridle, have given me some ideas on what bits I want to buy for Pig's own bridle.

For the bradoon, I'm not looking for anything special. He seems to do fine with the loose ring double jointed bradoon. This surprises me, as he hates a loose ring plain snaffle. But, maybe in conjunction with the curb it doesn't move as much? I've decided to stick with a double jointed bradoon with a lozenge instead of a French link, and I have my eye on a couple. For the bradoon, I'm looking for a thickness of 12-14 mm. No thicker. (Pig's regular snaffle is only around 14mm, so he's used to, and likes, thin bits.) Luckily, these are fairly affordable and easy to find.

For the metal content, I'm interested to try a copper-heavy metal. I've mostly schooled Pig in only rubber and stainless steel bits. He has been doing much better with the introduction of sugar to his bitting and riding routine, though. The sugar is helping him accept the bit even more. Maybe the copper would do the same?
Cheap and easy to find. My favorite kind of horse equipment!
The curb is something I've waffled on. I know, for certain, that I need a curb with far less or zero port. So, I've been looking at Mullen mouthed curbs, specifically thin ones. The thinness requirement has narrowed down my options to the Neue Schule Thoroughbred Weymouth and a plain stainless steel Mullen mouth.

Thoroughbred Weymouth
The Neue Schule Thoroughbred Weymouth -- 12mm thick, tilted at 45 degrees and curved for tongue relief. Supposedly designed for the narrow and sensitive thoroughbred mouth. Runs around $210.

Stainless steel Mullen mouth Weymouth. Also 12mm thick. $40. Zero mention of magical properties in the ad.
My question to you is: Is the expensive Weymouth worth it? What has been your experience with expensive bits? Have they been worth it for you? Anyone used this particular type of curb?

Monday, November 24, 2014

Fitness and Dressage

As I sit here, hamstrings and glutes screaming from a recent day of weight lifting, I can't help but think about the connection between riding and fitness. More specifically, the relationship between dressage riding and fitness.

You guys know I'm pretty serious about my fitness work. I run somewhere between 15-20 miles a week, no matter the weather, I typically try to get into the gym a couple of days a week to lift heavy things, and I do a yoga routine 2-3 times a week.

Lovely winter gym!
What you may not know, is why I run. I'm an asthmatic, and have been my entire life. The running gives me stronger lungs, with a better ability to clean themselves out and keep me from getting sick. It helps me build up respiratory strength and endurance, something incredibly hard for me to develop. I attribute my lack of bronchitis in the last few years directly to my running. Running is totally non-negotiable with me, and I'm lucky that I love doing it and that my body holds up to it very well.

My trainer, however, hates the fact that I run. See, running (and cycling and sitting!) acts to shorten your hip flexors. To get technical on you, the hip flexors are the long stringy bits of muscle around the hip and upper thighs that allow you to lift your knees up towards your face. When not regularly stretched out, or tight from overuse (read: sitting all day, or running all day), they easily overtake the abdominal or glutes. Tight flexors also act to change your posture, causing your butt to stick out and your lower back to overarch, also known as pelvic anterior tilt. A bad thing in riding. In dressage specifically, a shortened hip flexor can make riding with a long and relaxed leg impossible. Instead, every time your abs engage, the hip flexors will shorten and your leg will involuntarily come up. Hello immediate chair seat.

So running sounds pretty bad, but it alone doesn't contribute to riding issues. In fact, a lot of strength exercises end up working against dressage riding.

In dressage, you want a perfect relationship between a relaxed and allowing body and the stability needed for good contact, balance, and clear communication. In other words, you don't want to be just flopping around up there, but you can't be so rigid and stiff that you're squeezing the life out of your poor horse.

"I don't know how you do that! I wouldn't have the strength to ride like that. One horse, and I'd be exhausted for the rest of the day!" This from my trainer after watching me ride her training horses for the day. This was not a compliment. I was using my body against myself. Using all the strength in my legs to hold on to the horse while trying to use my ab strength to shove my upper body into position. I can't even describe to you how hard it was, but because I'm incredibly fit it seemed doable.

It turns out, relaxation is the name of the game. One day, my holding on muscles exhausted, I learned what it means to let my legs hang without holding. I noticed how I could now use my abs effectively, and easily communicate with my horse. Plus, Pig relaxed noticeably without me holding on so much. He started using his back a lot more. I joked with Nancy, "maybe I should stop working out and just get super flabby so I ride better." "Sounds like a good plan to me!" she shot back.

Another lesson learned.

The view from a recent run...
I've tailored my fitness routine recently to help my riding. I still run, a lot. I still lift weights, though now I am conscious to lift in a way that doesn't encourage my hip flexors to take over or tighten. And, I only do ab exercises on the machine that allows me to go past the horizontal, which disengages and stretches out my flexors. In addition, I follow up long runs with hip stretches and the use of a foam roller to relax and stretch my tight hip muscles. It's hard work, but necessary if I won't give up running. (Anyone else looking for stretches/exercises for this issue, click here.)

It's interesting to me how dressage takes such a flexible sort of fitness, compared to cross country/jumping. Has anyone else noticed this? Had to take action to make it work?

Saturday, November 22, 2014

How To Clip A Pig

Step 1: Find a high resolution copy of the Guinness beer logo.
Step 2: Create stencil from logo.

Step 3: Administer silly drugs (Dormosedan gel is da best!).
Step 4: Draw lines on with sharpie.
Step 5: Commence hair removal.
Step 6: Admire awesomeness.

Step 7: Remember your quarter sheet matches your horse's new favorite treat, candy corn.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Throwback Thursday -- The Gala of the Royal Horses

Early last month, we had an event come to my work. This time, it wasn't a music artist I'd never heard of or a sporting event I'm not interested in. Instead, it was a horse event!
Called The Gala of the Royal Horses, the show is loosely based on dressage, with a big dose of Spanish flair. Besides traditional dressage riding demonstrations, there were Spanish themed performances, and a couple of Lipizzans performed the famed "Airs Above Ground."
Parts of the show were certainly cheesy to actual equestrians, but the crowd loved it. In a talk with one of the riders prior to the show, he remarked, "Things are different in the performance than they would be in a show or training session. Sometimes I'll get bitten or kicked, or the horse will misbehave. I can't correct him, just grit my teeth and smile."
There were certainly moments where the horses misbehaved, and I enjoyed watching the trainer's face during those moments. While he had a smile on his face, you could tell he was bothered. How difficult!
Overall, it was a fun night. A big group of my riding friends from the area attended, and we all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. My job for the night was to take photos for our in-house archives. So, enjoy my shots!
Here the trainer was demonstrating teaching the piaffe. They used 3 horses in various stages of learning the move.
At the end of a fancy Spanish-themed performance during which this horse carted around a girl with a big skirt draped over his butt, the rider turned the horse to leave the ring. The horse either spooked, or the rider spurred him unintentionally, because he bolted for the out-gate. It was a little dicey there for a second, and I caught this shot just before the group passed beyond the curtain. I'm not positive that girl didn't hit the concrete on the other side.
A couple of young Lipizzans doing liberty work.
The main trainer did a dressage demonstration with this Andalusian. It appeared to be mostly Third Level. The horse kept flubbing his lead changes, which really seemed to be starting to annoy the rider. Whoops! Like most of the show, this section made liberal use of the Spanish Walk. Does anyone else think the Spanish Walk looks silly?

Whatever this horse's failings at lead changes, he was a piaffe machine! Also, get a load of that TAIL! So lovely!
The start of the Airs. Here a Lipizzan demonstrates some Levade. Of course, I managed to catch a moment where he was hopping around... oops.

I have no idea what this movement is called, so I'll just call it "The Flail." The horse would rear as high as he could, then strike out with his forelegs.

See ... lots of flailing about.

The famous Capriole! These guys went SUPER high into the air to perform this. Much higher than I've seen previously. It was almost impossible to capture on film, though.

I was told this horse was originally selected as a prospect for the Spanish WEG team, but ended up not being able to mentally handle the training and was replaced by Fuego. I have no idea if that's true, but he was a really quality mover, especially when you consider he is an Andalusian. Here he is gearing up for a bit of extended trot.

Here's another shot of the fancy Andalusian. He was my overall favorite. Just a gorgeous mover!
In case you were wondering, yes all of these horses were wearing body glitter. Whaaaat?! I know!! Is body glitter USEF legal? If so, I need to get Pig decked out!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Double Trouble

Achievement Unlocked: Train horse to double bridle
Yep, you're seeing that correctly. That's my finicky, opinionated, and delicate-mouthed horse sporting a double bridle. The idea of him in one has been so distant, this photo sort of feels like a dream.

As we've been starting work on 3rd level (shhh, no one tell Pig 3rd level is supposed to be hard!), I've been thinking it was a good time to start introducing Guinness to a double. It's not completely necessary, but I figure he's so sensitive to bitting and bridling changes it's a good idea to start as early as I can.

So I've been casually shopping for doubles, gathering bridle parts, and window shopping bradoons and weymouths. At the same time, a friend generously offered to let me borrow her double for the winter. Just to trial the whole thing out. She came out on Sunday to drop off the bridle, and we popped it on.

Apparently her PSG horse and Guinness are exactly the same size because we didn't have to change a single thing on the bridle. It fits just as is. Obviously it isn't a perfect fit for him (Ack! That bradoon hanger buckle! My eyes!), but it'll do for now. The one big thing I've noticed is that I will absolutely need to look for a weymouth with a much lower port. The one in this bridle is an average height, but obviously a little too much for Pig. Interestingly, he did just fine with the loose ring bradoon, despite not going well in a regular loose ring snaffle.

I kept our test ride pretty short and sweet. We ran through pretty much all of our suppling exercises, as well as some simple changes and lateral work. Even though I purposefully kept a loop in the curb rein, I noticed an immediate effect from Pig. Instead of taking 30-40 minutes of careful warm up to start really lifting his withers and collecting, he took 10 minutes. And his shoulders were very quick to move up and out of the way. I was really astounded at how much less I had to use the reins. In fact, I found myself riding even more off my seat. He was working so well through the back, he was definitely a little sore from it last night.

Though notoriously difficult in contact, Guinness never once dropped out of the bridle or fussed in the double. He was not sure about it (stood with his mouth gaping open for a minute after I put it on, obviously confused), but didn't reject it. In fact, the only thing I noticed was that he was about 10% lighter in my hand. He isn't a heavy horse at all, so that is a considerable amount of lightness. He didn't gape his mouth while working, or grind his teeth (his favorite way of expressing annoyance). I was so proud of him!

Right now, I'm planning on sticking him in the double once a week or less. I want it to be something he gets very comfortable with, and understands. I also don't want to pressure him with it. He's been so good in his snaffle, I don't want to undo any of that work by pushing too hard.

Still, that's my crazy thoroughbred ... in a double bridle. Whoa.

Now, anyone have any spare black cob-sized bridle cheeks, curb reins, or a bradoon hanger?

Monday, November 17, 2014

A Methodical Warm Up (is the name of the game)

This post is inspired by a conversation Aoife and I had in the comments of both her blog and mine where I got into a vein about encouraging engagement, bend and flexion... enjoy!

In May, I asked Nancy for an exercise I could use when Pig completely threw in the towel. Something that we could work on that was simple enough for him mentally let go, and demanding enough that we were still working.

"Ten meter circles," she said. "Boring," I thought. But, as it turns out, they are anything but boring.

We've been living on some form of the 10-15 meter circle for months now. For my stiff and resistant horse, circles are his kryptonite. He can't fake me out on a circle. I can feel the moment he weights one shoulder more than the other, and the second he loses his push with his hind end. For me, they've given me a safe place to practice the juggling of half halts and exceptional feel I need to execute other movements.

Work on these circles has pushed Guinness and I to a new level of work. His flexibility and submission is much improved. Plus, they've become a safe place for us to retreat when something goes wrong in our schooling. Too many wrong answers in our renvers work getting him flustered? Back on the circle to chill out and reconnect. Blowing through my outside half halts while working on a canter medium? Back to the circle to increase respect and lift.

So here's how it starts...
Silly music used to hide the audio I forgot to scrub. (Video link for those with a reader.)
We start on an 8-10m circle at the walk. These can happen anywhere, though I usually like at least one side of them to connect to the rail. (If Guinness is going to blow a half halt, it's usually in an attempt to push his shoulder straight to the wall.)

My focus is on maintaining a solid contact on the outside rein, pushing the rein against his neck to guide him around the circle without pushing him over. Like always, I have to hyper focus on making sure my elbows are bent and the rein feels connected to my hips and core for an effective half halt. "Bigger L in your elbows! Raise your hands!" The half halts on the outside keep Pig from falling into the circle and weighting his inside shoulder too much. Little gives and pushes with the rein tell him it's okay to turn.

With the inside rein, I'm flexing. With a stiff horse, this becomes a practice in constant vigilance.
With every step I must evaluate how he is working. Is he lifting from the base of his neck? No? Flex with the inside rein, give slightly with the outside rein, and kick him up with the inside leg. Always that inside leg. The moment he steps up with the hind leg and releases with his neck, release the flex and go back to neutral and balancing contact.

With Guinness this has to be a seamless dance. Too much action in the hand, and he goes on the offensive. A fraction too late with the leg aid, and he's sucked behind the bit. Other horses are much more tolerant of this, I've found.

The leg and seat aids are key factors in encouraging more engagement and a loose back. In the circle, I have to guide the bend with my hips. My inside hipbone needs to point forward, very forward. I think of it as trying to touch Pig's shoulder with my hip. I find that pulling the outside shoulder back helps me get the inside hip further forward. I'm not very flexible, though.

At the same time the inside hip is forward, the inside leg needs to be down. Mine likes to creep up, sort of craving a chair seat position. I work at lengthening the leg to keep my calf on, but not tightening the leg. That's one of those things you have to feel to understand, and once you do you have the idea forever. Having my legs hang long and loosely allows me to give meaningful thumps to encourage forward with my legs without upsetting my seat (and thus upsetting my half halts and contact). That's taken some serious practice.

When we started the circle game, every aid of mine had to be comically over exaggerated. My guiding hip needed to be so far out in front of me, it didn't seem physically possible. My leg had to stay longer and kick more than I thought I could support. And my flexion aids had to be ridiculously huge to get a response (other than tension). After a few months of over exaggeration, we're thankfully beginning to refine things. That refinement is a whole 'nother process. One I'm still working out. Part of that work towards refinement is what you see in these videos.

When we have forward engagement and a nice loose neck and back, we move to the same exercise in the trot.
Often at the trot, it'll feel like starting over completely. That's pretty normal. Again, the name of the game is vigilance. I ask for engagement, and if I don't get it I insist with leg bumps. If he starts to fall in, I sit on the outside seatbone for a stride, and half halt with the outside rein. When he gets to straight and stiff, I flex and push my inside seatbone further forward while bumping with my leg.

It feels like dancing, and I suppose it is.

Once we're working together like a good team, we leave the safety of the circle and work on being our awesome selves. The flexibility and respect the circle work has given us then lets us go out and do things like this...
I realize its just a shoulder-in, but dammit that's our bad direction. And I'm pretty freaking proud of it, too!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Where we are

The jump to Second Level was pretty tough for Guinness and I, and I don't think that's a very big revelation. His confidence in the bridle and flexibility had a long way to go before he was ready to tackle the increased collection and bend required at the level. My communication skills, body awareness, and general feel needed to improve ten-fold, too.

The summer and fall have been quiet on the blog front mainly due to the repetitive nature and slow progress of our rides. For about 6 months, it seemed every ride with Guinness was a huge struggle. He resisted flexing. He resisted collecting. He resisted transitions. He even started resisting contact again.

In short, he was a difficult creature to coax into the work. Soundness was there, but the strength and mental fortitude was lacking. It was a completely new problem for me, and one that took a lot of thought and, honestly, strength to tackle.

At times, I considered his suitability for the work. I wondered if his brain just wasn't cut out for the exacting and repetitive nature of dressage. I thought maybe problem solving just wasn't in his tool box.
Still, we persevered. We trailered down to my trainer's farm once a month for extra rides under her eye, and worked hard at home every week. I rode tons of other horses with varying degrees of training to improve my feel and fill up my own tool box. I also took a serious look at my flexibility and physical shape and started to really put together a routine of stretches to help me better control my aids.

Very slowly, things got a little better.

Pig felt a little more flexible. He slowly stopped throwing constant fits. He started working confidently into the bridle almost every day. Collection started to feel real. He developed a trot I could sit. One day, the work just clicked for him. He had the strength to collect and push, and the mental fortitude to take a correction and keep trying. Every ride started to have positives. Suddenly the brambles were clearing from our path forward.

The biggest changes happened for me. My mindset of riding changed. I no longer see myself as a rider. Instead, I'm a trainer. My tool box is full of enough exercises and fixes that I no longer feel lost when my horse makes a mistake. That confidence is translating to my horse.

We're flying forward now, and I couldn't feel better about our progress.
Thanks to everyone for bearing with us for the last few months!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Vacationing in Horse Country: Where to Stay & The KHP

I hope I've managed to convince you to visit Lexington over the last week. Assuming I have, I'm going to give you an in on the place to stay. We're also going to take a look at the Kentucky Horse Park and talk about the U.S. Dressage Finals a little. Hold on to your pants ...

The Essence of the Bluegrass | Horse Lover's Rating **** | Non-Equine Rating *** | Cost: $170 +, depending on room choice and weekend

The Essence of the Bluegrass is a bed and breakfast located in a modern mansion, just two miles from the entrance of the Kentucky Horse Park. Yes. I said TWO MILES FROM THE HORSE PARK. What. Amazing, I know.

Not only are you super close to the horse park, but the house is located on Mount Horeb Pike, nestled in between huge horse farms. The road is incredibly picturesque, and the driveway is filled with horses as it abuts Stalmare Arabian's indoor arena and pastures. In addition, the owner's have a small barn and a few horses out back.

The amazing view from the back gazebo.
The owner is actually an event rider (who apparently got roasted by Jen of Cobjockey at his last show! Small world!), and his little barn set up was something I totally drooled over. We also talked riding and showing over breakfast, which was really fun! His wife served breakfast, and enjoyed telling us about the times she's ridden and the horses she's worked with. The two are just wonderfully fun people.

We stayed in the "Equestrian Room," which is a first floor room with its own exterior entrance door from the patio. It's a gorgeous room, that is not done justice in the photos on the website. Its tall ceilings, hardwood floors, and little details really pleased us. In addition, we chose this room because we were allowed to have the huskies tag along on the trip! Nothing makes a vacation better than puppies! Note: If you do decide to bring your dogs along, keep in mind that the owners do have dogs of their own. If your dogs are socialized, this will be zero problem!

The front of the house ... also one of the worst photos I have ever taken. I am so sorry.
Coming and going from the house was a breeze (something I always worry about with Bed & Breakfasts), and the breakfast was out of this world good. We talked about it for the rest of the day. It was easily the best thing we ate all day.

I solidly recommend staying here if you're in Lexington on vacation. Wandering out to the gazebo with a cup of coffee and the dogs, and being able to hear the faint announcements from the KHP was unreal. Really, really cool.

They also nestled a little bottle of Maker's Mark onto the bed. Welcome to Kentucky!!

2nd Annual U.S. Dressage Finals at the Kentucky Horse Park | Horse Lover's Rating **** | Non-Equine Rating * (maaaybe **) | Cost: $0 (your mileage may vary. Avoid the tradeshow if you're on a budget) | Time Spent: 3 hours

Our first foray into the world of Dressage came Saturday night, waiting for our dinner reservation time. We went straight to Alltech arena, where the Intermediare I Open and Grand Prix Open Freestyles were going down.

If you haven't been to Alltech Arena, it is really something to see, especially decked out for Finals. While the crowd was varied widely depending on who was riding, the excitement in the air was still palpable. It certainly had the air of an important show.
Alltech Arena is one venue in the U.S. that does feel like a big European show. It was just missing the spectators.

We had to leave just before North Forks Cardi entered, but I know you guys have already seen his ride. I was excited to see Angela Jackson and Allure S, whom I have enjoyed watching and showing with at the Hoosier Horse Park several times, walk away with the Intermediare trophy.

I did wander around the trade show in between classes. The offerings varied, and the stores weren't all open. Still, I noticed a few dressage trends. 1. ALL THE RHINESTONES. Seriously. There were rhinestones on everything. Breeches. Helmets. Boots. Spurs. Gloves. Everything that could glittered. Except the horses. I saw zero body glitter on horses. Not sure if that's against USDF rules. I'll have to check... 2. Ridiculous schooling boots. Photo below. Just, what?
Seriously. What is going on with this? Why do I sort of want it?
On Sunday morning, we wandered back to watch the 2nd Level Championships. I like watching horses compete at my level. It helps me to see what judges are looking for, and better measure how Pig and I stack up in the scheme of competition. While the tests we saw were certainly impressive, I don't feel like Guinness and I are completely out of our league at 2nd. In fact, I saw some things we definitely are competitive with (counter canter, anyone? Travers? Renvers without letting our butts leave the wall?). It made me eager to get back into the show ring with my pony!
A view of the outdoor rings, all set up for championship level rides!
One issue I saw was in the Prix St. Georges Open Championship test. The field was intensely competitive, and each horse was amazing to watch. But while we watched, two horses were rung out of the ring in a row by the head of the jury, Janet Foy. Both for unevenness in the gait. I couldn't even spot any issues, so I was completely floored. Janet Foy is a huge name in the dressage field, so I'm sure she was on here. Still, neither of these horses looked uncomfortable or screamed "lame!" to me. I can't imagine getting rung out of the ring at championships for having a lame horse. How awful!
Have you ever seen a judge ring out a rider for lameness? The times I've seen it in the past were obvious lameness issues. Not this subtle stuff.

Still, the show itself was gloriously organized. The announcers were pretty much on point with everything, and the rings were running remarkably on time. I saw relatively few normal horse show snafus, and the competitors hanging out by the rings were really supportive of the whole show (though they were wishing it was about 20 degrees warmer!).

We didn't stay at park long at either visit, but I was really happy for the opportunity to see the competition. It's making me greedy for some showing luck. How fun would it be to show there?!

What do you think? Have I made you all start planning your Lexington trips? Let me know!

We're back to regularly scheduled Pig content tomorrow. Thanks for going on this little vacation review with me!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Vacationing in Horse Country: Keeping Everyone Happy

By now in our journey through Lexington, we've discovered some great things for horse lovers and great things for those with other interests (namely, drinking). Today, I want to look at some of the great restaurants we hit up, as well as an amazing bookstore we wandered into. These three places are absolute must-sees!

Sals | Food Deliciousness Rating **** | Cost: $10-$20 per person
As a French toast master chef myself, I feel pretty confident in saying this was some of the best French toast I've ever eaten.
We hit up Sals for brunch, but they also offer a dinner service. Honestly, I have to recommend their brunch more. The food was astounding, there was zero wait, and the service was friendly. Plus, Sals serves brunch from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday! It's almost impossible to miss.

After ordering mimosas and a trip to the Bloody Mary bar (yes, there's a Bloody Mary BAR), we started with an order of French toast for the table to share. I think this might have been the best decision we made all morning. If you like custardy and delicious French toast, flee to Sals this minute and order this.

The rest of our meals followed the stellar example set by the French toast starter. I'll go out on a limb and say everything on their menu is delicious. Really, you can't go wrong.

Coles 735 Main | Food Deliciousness Rating **** | Cost: $50 per person
Located in a historic building, Coles has a ton of charm.
For a special dinner, we wandered down to Coles 735 Main. With an interesting cocktail menu (including lots of local bourbon cocktails!), and a menu with a ton of different choices, we knew we would be in for an interesting time.

The restaurant is a tiny little place, with extremely limited seating. It is also pretty popular, and I would recommend making reservations way ahead of time. We tried calling for reservations on the day of, and ended up waiting until 9:30 to get a table. Though we had the time to spare, you may not. So, PRO TIP: Call head.
Poblano mashed potatoes with smoky vegetables on top? This dish is amazing...
That said, the wait was completely worth it. Coles' food is astoundingly well thought out and delicious. I had the Beef Shoulder, and almost went weak in the knees when I tasted the potatoes that went along with it. Our server was fantastic, and made fabulous suggestions. Plus, the vintage foxhunting murals along the ceiling of the seating area really made me fall in love with the place. Tons of charm! Have you called to make those reservations yet?!

Black Swan Bookstore | Horse Lover Rating *** | Non-Equine Rating **** | Time Spent: 1 hour
While walking through a historic neighborhood in Lexington, we wandered upon Black Swan Books. If you're anything like us, a used bookstore with piles of books spanning every subject under the sun fills you with a ton of excitement. Or maybe I'm just a huge nerd. Anyway...

Black Swan carries enough rare and historic horse books (as well as more current horse books), to entertain the horse-lover. However, the true awesomeness of this store comes from picking the brain of the shop owner and perusing his awesome collection of rare and old books.

My med-school husband went nuts for some ancient surgery texts, while I ended up lost in the art and architecture section. We actually ended up needing to leave before we were ready due to an impending hotel check-in time.

This shop is one of those little treasures you find when exploring a city on foot. For those loving books and history, it's definitely a must-see.

Do any of you have favorite little shops like this in your town (or your favorite vacation spot)? Let me know! I'm always looking for something like this when I travel!

(All photos in the post thanks to the websites and Facebook pages of each respective business! The links to each can be accessed by clicking the name of the business!)

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Vacationing in Horse Country: Beer, Bourbon, and Barrels

Yesterday I talked about how vacation friendly Lexington, Kentucky is for both horse lovers and their long suffering spouses. Today, I'm going to talk about one of the most popular attractions around Lexington for both groups: The Bourbon Trail.

Bourbon whiskey is native to Kentucky, and reigns as king there. Many bourbon lovers will refuse to drink a bourbon made outside of Kentucky, on principle. They swear it isn't as good. As a non-bourbon drinker, I have a hard time telling the difference. However, I have to recommend the tours of the distilleries on The Bourbon Trail, even for non bourbon lovers!

Town Branch Distillery | Horse Lover's Rating **** | Non-Equine Rating **** | Cost: $7 per person (Make sure to ask about the military discount! We ended up getting free tours for military members, not sure if that was just because it was Veteran's Day Weekend.) | Time Spent: 2 hours
While all the distilleries were very pretty. The distillery room at Town Branch was especially eye-catching.
Town Branch Distillery is probably the easiest distillery to visit, as it is located right in the middle of the city of Lexington. Owned by Alltech, a feed company and big sponsor of the Kentucky Horse Park and horse events, the distillery is unique in also being a craft brewery. The beer they are known for, Kentucky Bourbon Barrel, is one of my favorites. So, I was especially excited to visit.

The tour starts off with a little video explaining how Alltech got its start in grain and feed production, and turned that start into a side hobby crafting alcohol. That part was probably the only boring part of the tour. I wish they'd let the guides talk about the history instead. Our guide was fabulous, and I'm sure he could have been more entertaining than the video.
The gorgeous horse-head of the Alltech logo is always a welcome sight!
First stop on the tour was to the brewery section. There wasn't a whole lot to see here, just big steel vats bubbling away and the overwhelming smell of bready-yeast. Our guide was good at explaining the different paths the beer and whiskey would take from this point forward. He also talked about how the barrels used to aging bourbon can only be used once for bourbon, and how this led to their development of bourbon barrel aged ale. Apparently, when they get the used barrels from the bourbon distilling section they usually have some bourbon left in them. He said that sometimes that amount can be almost a whole barrel. That's why Bourbon Barrel Ale is way more alcoholic than their regular Kentucky Ale. Interesting! (And delicious!)
Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Stout -- My new favorite!
At this point, we were allowed to taste some of the beer. Due to the large selection of whiskey and beer offered by Alltech, their tour tastings are done by ticket. On your tour ticket are four tear-away tickets. Visitors have to choose what they want to "spend" their tickets on. There are four varieties of beer to taste, and four varieties of whiskey. I chose an even split, 2 beers and 2 whiskeys.
After tasting beer, we headed off to the picturesque distillery room, complete with historic copper pots. From what I understand, Woodford Reserve and Town Branch are members of the few distilleries that still use copper stills. The tour guide here was excellent at explaining how the distillation process happens within the stills, and how the low proof alcohol that is put in turns into high proof "White Dog," or moonshine.

After the whole explanation was done, we got on with the whiskey tasting. Here is where Town Branch really blew me away. In addition to their whiskey offerings, they have a coffee liqueur made from their whiskey. It's similar to Baileys Irish Cream, but without the cream. The tour guide made a cocktail with this delicious liqueur by adding hot water and floating cold heavy cream on top.
Toasting to a successful afternoon at the distillery with a "Bluegrass Sundown"
This cocktail was amazing, and totally worth saving a tasting ticket for! I highly recommend this! If you're lucky, the tour guides make a full sized cocktail that can be had for two tickets. If that's what you want, I'd recommend saving your tickets and hanging out close to the guide. That went fast!
Like most places in Lexington, the Town Branch Distillery has a painted horse decorating their distillery room. A horse with a hop flower painted on its head. I approve!
My suggestion? Even if you're just in town for a horse show, get out to Town Branch on your down time and enjoy a couple of hours and some great craft beer and liqueur!

Woodford Reserve | Horse Lover's Rating **** | Non-Equine Rating **** | Cost $10 per person (Military discount was substantial here, too. And valid in the gift shop.) | Time Spent: 2 hours
The drive to Woodford Reserve is through some of the most gorgeous horse country I have ever seen. I'd heard it described, and the descriptions didn't do it justice. Any horse lover is going to drool all over their car on the way there. I highly suggest you make the non-farm-lusting person with you drive, so you can suction cup yourself to the window and enjoy it to the fullest.

Woodford is a bit more corporate than Town Branch, which you notice from the moment you walk into their visitor center. Still, everything is polished and gorgeous. They really have their eye set on making visitors feel welcome and important. We browsed their gift shop (full of some unique things!) and signed up for a tour.

Their tours fill up quickly, so you might have to wait for yours to start. We ordered lunch from their patio café to pass the time. Unfortunately, we might have overestimated the amount of time it would take to get our food, eat it and get to the tour. You can picture me hilariously slurping down soup in a hurry in order to make it. Only water bottles are allowed on the tour, so we were trying our best to finish everything up before heading out!

The tour here puts you on a bus to go up and down the hill of the property, and you are given individual headsets to hear your guide. The tours are only about 20 people, and kids are allowed on them. The distillery is rather loud in places, and a bit bigger than Town Branch, so the headsets were appreciated.
A glimpse into the beauty that is Woodford Reserve's property. Their iconic wooden barrels, gorgeous old buildings, and unique triple copper still really stand out as you tour the property.
My favorite part of Woodford was the old aging and distilling buildings. These buildings are from before prohibition, and we were told they are the oldest distillery buildings still in use in the United States. Super cool! The architecture (art/architecture nerd alert!) is classic, and some of the historic details are amazingly well preserved (the shutters, for instance!). The buildings lend a historic air to the whole tour, and really give you a neat feeling.

The guide at Woodford did a great job explaining Woodford's unique take on bourbon distillation, namely how they tweak the process to bring out certain flavors. That part is pretty cool. As a person who has made her own liqueurs, I know that the process of leaching flavors into alcohol is pretty complex. Woodford takes that complexity to a completely different level. They are meticulous about their process and their aging. They do not age for a certain time, but instead a certain taste. This way they ensure that all their bottles have the same distinctive flavor profile. Complicated!!

The one major component the guide discussed was water. He mentioned how the limestone rock in the Lexington area creates a special water table. The water has no iron content, which can make water taste metallic. Instead, it is high in calcium and magnesium, which tastes sweet. He mentioned that this is why so many thoroughbred breeders are located in Kentucky. They take advantage of the calcium rich grass to help give their baby racehorses the edge. I have to say, the bottle of Woodford Reserve well water I had was pretty delicious!
The grain mash at Woodford. This is where the yeast creates the alcohol that is later distilled to a higher proof in the copper stills. Looks like something out of the Middle Ages, right?
Another interesting tidbit we learned on both tours is that these distilleries both give away their spent grain to local cattle farmers. Apparently there is still some alcohol in the grain when they give it away, and the cows can get quite drunk. Anyone out there seen any drunk cows?

Once through with the tour, we were bussed back up to the visitor center and ushered into their special tasting room. This was set up gorgeously just for us. Each place setting was meticulously poured and arranged.
My tasting place setting. This gorgeous set up was accompanied by a copper ice bucket, which I used quite a bit to water down my whiskey. Sorry bourbon fans!
Like I mentioned before, I am not much of a whiskey aficionado, so this part of the tour wasn't really my favorite. However, I have to say that the "double oaked" whiskey was pretty good. Still, the highlight of the whole tour is that bourbon ball. We ended up buying some of those in the gift shop, and they were totally worth it. I highly recommend getting your hands on good bourbon balls some time soon!

The verdict? Get thee to a distillery! These two trips were real highlights for us. If we had more time, we would have tried to make it to Buffalo Trace, another stop on the Bourbon Trail. Even with only two stops, I'm happy we went!

Have any of you been on the Bourbon Trail? Do you like bourbon? Is bourbon quintessentially linked to horses in your mind too?

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Vacationing in Horse Country: Keeneland Breeding Sale

Last week the big red pony had a bit of training break while I went on a quick vacation to Lexington, KY. He was working so beautifully, I have my fingers crossed the break did him good and we come back to work as strong as we left. I certainly feel refreshed and ready to dive back into training!

While this year seems like one full of traveling (remember my quick trip to Chincoteague earlier this year?), in reality I rarely take real vacations. With my husband in medical school, long vacations are completely out of the question. Instead, I'm constantly looking for quick and semi-local getaways for us to take advantage of. Enter: Lexington Kentucky

As a vacation spot for a horse lover, Lexington is hard to beat. There's the Kentucky Horse Park for riding horse lovers, Keeneland Racetrack for race horse lovers, all the lovely breeding farms for those interested in bloodlines of top thoroughbreds, Arabians, saddleseat horses, and more. Add to all of that the general horse culture that pervades almost every part of life in Lexingon, and you have a pretty special trip. For me, the best part about Lexington is that you can customize your weekend based on your interests. An eventer? Come down during Rolex or May Daze and enjoy watching the competition. A thoroughbred lover? Check out the Keeneland sales and geek out over breeding lines!

We chose last weekend for our trip for a couple of reasons: 1) Our anniversary was Wednesday, and we wanted to celebrate. 2) The U.S. Dressage Finals were going on at the KHP all weekend, and we could catch up on some quality U.S. dressage in person. 3) Keeneland Racetrack was having its annual Fall Breeding Stock Sale.

Now the really fantastic thing about Lexington is that it has a little of something for everyone, including the non-equine obsessed of your family. On our trip, we planned to hit some of Lexington's amazing restaurants, breweries, distilleries, and local shops. Some other options include fantastic golf courses, historic village and house tours, and an awesome aviation museum. A quick search of Tripadvisor should give you a ton of options to keep your horse-tolerant, but not obsessed, family member enjoying themselves. Outdoorsy and historically-minded types will especially enjoy the trip.

Over the week, I'll go over how our favorite stops stacked up, complete with ratings and tips for each stop. First up:

Keeneland Racetrack Fall Breeding Stock Sale | Horse-Lover's Rating: **** | Non-Equine Rating: **** | Cost: $0 (Your mileage may vary. Don't wave.) | Time spent: 2.5 hours

Looking at the auction block, from the safety of the hallway.
We loved everything about Keeneland. From the moment you arrive, everything on the property exudes efficiency and class. It's obvious that a lot of careful thought has gone into every aspect of the property and the process behind the sales.
Watching the sale itself is an experience. My husband got a kick out of watching the auctioneer banter with the crowd, and seeing the spotters develop their communication with bidders. The whole process was completely fascinating. In the hour we watched the sale, we saw everything from weanlings to confirmed and pregnant broodmares come through. The prices were anything from $2,000 to $300,000, with an average sale price of around $60,000. My limited thoroughbred breeding knowledge could only let me keep up so much, but I definitely learned a lot about up and coming racing lines. My sporthorse-tuned brain kept picking out lovely prospects with uphill build, straight legs, and nicely tied on necks. It always floored me when these horses would often go for cheaper than I thought they would.  Lesson learned: Sporthorses do not necessarily make good racehorses.
The radiography viewing area (please note: photography of radiography is prohibited. I didn't realize that when I took this photo.)
For my husband, currently working through his radiology rotation in med school, the radiography viewing room was some sort of medical student Mecca. Here anyone (ANYONE, even you and I!) can have a sales horse's radiographs pulled up to investigate prior to the sale. I can't even imagine the cost that goes into this. As someone who owns an OTTB and been privy to plenty of OTTB sales in the past, I wish these radiographs followed the horse out of the industry. This would be such a boon to sport horse buyers! In addition to viewing the radiographs, anyone at the sale can request that a horse be taken out of its stall to be checked out, and request to speak with a vet about the horse. How cool.
A sample of the amazing art available at Keeneland.
To my delight (I'm an art history buff), there was also an Equine Art Auction running concurrently with the Breeding Stock Auction. All the art was on display throughout the sales pavilion, complete with appraised values and historical information. I drooled over so many gorgeous Baroque style paintings, I'm surprised I didn't get drool on any of them! This was so cool!
The out-of-season grandstand and track.
Unfortunately for us, Keeneland's racing season had ended the weekend prior, so there was not any racing to see. However, if we'd been there just a little earlier, we could have caught some workouts on the track. By the time we made it up to the grandstands, the tractors were dragging the last of the hoofprints out of the track. An abandoned grandstand and racetrack is both beautiful and mildly creepy. However, the closed state of the track meant that we could wander around the winner's circle and other places we otherwise would not have gotten to go. I totally suggest checking this out.
All in all? Keeneland during the sale was a totally worthwhile trip!
Things to Know When Visiting:
1. Casual dress is okay during the sales. We saw people dressed in everything from expensive business casual to jeans and ratty jackets. I got the feeling the people in ratty horse clothes were probably the ones throwing down the biggest money.
2. Parking is terrifying, but fairly close. While you can usually score a parking spot fairly close to the sales pavilion, you may end up parking the grass. If someone could explain to me why the parking spots in the nice lot are half grass and half asphalt, I'd like to hear.
3. There's free coffee if you get there before 10:30 a.m.
4. If you grab a sales book and dog-ear the edges, you're on your way to looking like you belong at the sale. With one of these in hand, you can pretty much wander wherever you want on the property, and no one will look at you twice.
5. If you go into the auction room, sit on your hands. The spotters are trained to watch for deliberate bidding moves, but that doesn't mean mistakes don't happen. We heard the auctioneer verify bids on more than one occasional, and once a bid was even missed. Auctions are run by people, and people make mistakes. Don't accidentally buy a horse!
Hot traveling tip! The bathrooms in the sales pavilion of Keeneland are some of the fanciest bathrooms I've ever been in. If you have to go, I'd make sure to go here!