Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Sore Butts

I noticed something about Pig in our rides following the Stephen Birchall clinic.
"Noticed something about me?"
Namely, I noticed he was pretty sore. The day right after our lesson he was very resistant and tight, which I attributed to the work done the day before. This kind of work...
Look how far that hind leg is under his body!
I gave him the next day off, and when we came back to work on Tuesday he was still pretty tight. Though, he still gave me several nice and calm flying changes on my aids. After a solid bit of time, I was able to encourage him to stretch, and I hoped that helped to loosen him. Unfortunately, it didn't seem to. The rest of our rides this week have been super tense. He hasn't been very enthused about changing bend or really coming through at all.

Probably because he's super sore right here:
Oh. And right here too:

I've been giving him a lot of Sore No More massages, and we focused on getting relaxed and through (but not collected) on Sunday. Hopefully with nothing to do today except stand in the sun, he'll be feeling a little more up to the work this week!

Monday, September 28, 2015

More Stephen Birchall, a button for flying changes, and the tough right lead

An example of why my stirrups needed shortening...
- Raised my stirrups one hole
- Decided my tack was okay
- Worked on stretching Pig down and through his back, loosening his neck/poll/jaw especially
- Took away my whip, making me rely on my weight and legs to aid

From the warm up, we picked up a left lead canter. On the circle we suppled the canter and increased the jump by increasing bend and response to my inside leg. From there we went on to do three  and four loop serpentines, finally leading to developing the flying change:
The video gives a good overview of how Birchall initially explained the lead change cue to me, but we ended up talking it over in more detail later. Here's what I picked up:
1. Balance the canter by getting a relaxed counter canter, able to be straightened or bent to true canter easily.
2. Start activating the soon-to-be-inside hind by bumping with the inside leg behind the girth. Step into your outside stirrup to keep the canter lead while you do this. Don't be afraid to mess with inside flexion to keep the lead, too.
3. When the new inside is more active, start to flex the horse in the direction of the new lead. At the same time, aid for the lead change with the outside leg and bring the inside leg forward, changing your weight.

This sequence really seemed to click with Pig. He boomed off changes at my request throughout the lesson, even though we usually struggle doing them on the wall. I was really impressed. Birchall even said "I see him starting to understand.  It think we're starting to install a 'button' now."


With the idea of the changes firmly lodged in my head, we switched directions to work on the stubborn right lead. The stiffness of our work to the right was immediately obvious when we went to simply pick up the right lead. I couldn't keep Pig flexed to the right and get him to step into the lead. Instead, he would strike off on the wrong lead and flip mid-depart.
It's super awkward, no?
In an effort to loosen up Pig more to the right, and drive home the idea that he CAN flex and step up at the same time, Birchall had me flex Pig to the right, HARD. He had me completely let go of my outside rein and just use the inside rein to bring Pig's neck around until he had to loosen at the base.
Give in, Pig. Give, in
Once Pig relaxed in this position, he had me aid for the canter.
Still a little awkward, but at least the depart is clean!
I explained to Birchall I was using the outside rein to help me "catch" the outside shoulder when I asked for inside flexion and without it I felt out of control. He told me to try using my outside leg and seat to catch the shoulder instead, suggesting I've become a little too reliant on fixing this issue with my rein. Probably right.

Once we had the right lead canter and actual bend, we headed off to work on straightening and balancing it further. Birchall had me do slight shoulder-fore on the long sides and then counter canter loops. 
With just a little counter canter work, we headed to ask for the change. This direction they did not come as immediately as in the other. For my first attempt, I felt Pig was straight and ready to change, but when I cued he did not respond.
Can you spot where I ask? Hint, it's right at the letter. Second note: the cue wasn't terribly clear. Oops.
Without missing a beat, Birchall told me to keep it together and "Give him a big kick with that inside leg. So that I can see it!" Apparently that was the encouragement Pig needed to give his ribcage and leap into a change.
While the changes were pretty tight in the back, I am actually super happy by how CALM they were. A lot of times we will get a change, only for Pig to bolt off into the sunset. Hopefully as we get our cue more solidified I can help him relax through the change and actually manage him through the whole transition.

A few other miscellaneous clinic notes:
- Lots of counter canter work is going to need to be done daily to keep Pig thinking about what is my idea and what is his. We need more canter lead obedience, even though it is much better than it used to be.
- Sometimes horses need to feel the inside leg lift off during the moment of the change, to give their shoulders room to move over. Pig will probably need me to work on this to develop more confidence and jump in the change.
- Each horse and rider is going to take a different approach to contact. I saw Birchall give another fussy horse a completely different approach than he gave Pig. That horse was prone to curling and getting too low to evade, with head tossing thrown in. He had the rider ride that horse with short reins and boot the horse forward when it would duck behind. He also had the rider bump the horse's head UP with the reins, then go back to being very still. His emphasis on still was quite different from how he emphasized I not get too still and dead in contact.
- A dressage horse should not be UBER light, they should take the contact and be solidly in your hands. A horse that is too light is not with you, and not paying attention. "If a rider is coming down the centerline and their Grand Prix horse goes super light, you can be sure they are thinking 'Oh, shit!'"
- When correcting and imbalance (like Pig's stiffness to the right) it's okay to have more weight in your inside hand than your outside. Don't be a slave to "inside leg/outside hand", while that is what you should strive for, in some situations you have to deviate. Don't be afraid to deviate and find an effective way to communicate to your horse.
A good clinic!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Spending money I don't have; Learning things I need; Getting sore legs

He's so photogenic...
Last weekend I rode in a clinic with Stephen Birchall. While I hadn't heard of him, he came highly recommended by a barn friend of mine. As I am still yet to find a trainer I really mesh with out here, I figured my (admittedly very limited) money would be best spent on a quality training session heavy on the theory and touching on a lot of ideas. I went into the whole thing crossing my fingers there would be a lot of concepts for me to savor over the next couple of months. Thankfully, I wasn't disappointed.

In fact, I picked up so many ideas I'm going to break this clinic into a few posts. (Plus, I've been a little buried in work and visitors. So, take this as a way of easing back into writing.)
Ready for action?
Like any new meeting with a trainer, Birchall started off our lesson by investigating my tack. He immediately took away my dressage whip, but unlike other trainers made no immediate comment on my huge-looking spurs. He checked my saddle fit, agreeing with me that it isn't perfect but doesn't appear to be hurting my horse. He suggested it may be pinching a little at the shoulder, which I've kind of been figuring.

As I was explaining my PTSD-esque issues with contact and how they stem from this horse's particular issues with it, Birchall investigated my bridle. He suggested I add a flash to my bridle, and crank in my noseband. I explained that I used to ride this horse in a drop (for years), but have switched to a regular noseband because I now feel that I need the feedback from my fussy horse. Birchall gave me a heavily skeptical eyeball (Which, well, yeah. I probably would give myself one, too.), but we proceeded without cranking down my horse's face.

The whip removal was probably the biggest change for me. I've been using my dressage whip much less for forward encouragement in the last few years, and more as a long "pointer finger" to encourage my horse to activate his hind end. However, it turns out that I might have become a little too reliant on my whip to solve issues that my weight, seat, and legs could solve.
As witnessed by the loud thumping it takes for me to "encourage" my horse into a trot...
Birchall explained his whip-taking theory as being rooted in his time with the Spanish Riding School Bereiter. It seems he is very focused on using weight to encourage the horse to move into the proper balance, and doesn't really like the "whack and yank" methods of some. (Does anyone really like to whack and yank? I mean....)

I will say, removing my whip made me think a lot more about which leg I needed to apply, and which leg/seatbone was active. Removing it has also had the interesting side effect of making my horse much hotter to my leg (after an initial warm up period in which I pray for relief).
Here my legs are considering falling off. At least the horse is forward?
It was at this point that Birchall when on to make one final tack adjustment... he shortened my stirrups by one hole. I won't lie, I've been considering doing this for at least a couple of weeks. I've noticed my hips have been a lot tighter, and I've been really reaching for my irons. I'm super happy the clinician asked me to shorten them, and was actually annoyed it took so long between him suggesting he'd like them shorter and giving me a chance to stop and shorten them.

Once we were through the theory and tack discussion, we moved into the active warm up. Birchall explained he wanted me to encourage Pig to warm up very low and round. This follows a lot of the other advice I've been given recently. I agreed, especially as I've seen a lot of good results using this type of warm up. Birchall suggested I think of this warm up as encouraging my old man to reach down and touch his toes, stretching out his lower back.
Because. Face it. We all needed that visual.
To encourage Pig to stretch down, Birchall had me open and close my inside hand. (Think, tighten and loosen my fist on the reins.) Then he had me keep my hands low, telling me not to let them leave the level of my fleece. We basically kept my hands there the whole ride, which I found very interesting. He stressed that I keep my hands much more still at the posting trot (Strugglebus here. In fact, a main strugglebus thoroughfare...), and really encourage more stretch by releasing down when Pig gives through the poll.

As the warm up progressed, we ended up with a nicely stretching horse with a fairly loose and swinging back. I was happy! With 30 minutes in, it was time to move onto the fun stuff!

**Note: At the end of my ride, Birchall commented, "It's really obvious you know this horse really well. I think he's fine in that noseband just the way you have it. I wouldn't change a thing, other than your stirrups and riding without your whip more often." Glad to hear it, dude. I wasn't planning on tightening my noseband anyway!

Monday, September 7, 2015

Funny Things: A Media Blooper from Loch Moy

Loch Moy was the show where getting video was cursed.
But the photos were good!
Either my phone ran out of memory, or the person operating it didn't realize it was on the wrong setting. We've all been there, minutes before entering the ring and trying to teach someone how to use your iPhone. It rarely works out, and for me it resulted in this hilarious 24 second timelapse video of my Sunday 2-2 test. Enjoy...

I guess it's a good overview of dressage test geometry?

Friday, September 4, 2015

Things Learned: Lessons from Loch Moy

Look at those bright pony eyes!
Loch Moy was a huge learning experience for me. Not that I haven't learned from my other show experiences, but I feel I took a lot more tangible lessons away this time.

1. Stay at the walk as much as possible in the warm up. At home I'll often walk for up to 30 minutes starting a ride. I alternate directions, ride spiraling circles, and do lateral work all at the walk. My goal is to solidify my rein connection, before asking Pig to engage too much. Once he's comfortable and relaxed in the contact, I start to shorten my reins (again, at the walk) and ask for more engagement and suppleness. Finally, we will move into rising trot and ask for the same thing. Then canter. Then sitting trot. Then we are good to go.
"Walking is the key to my brain."
At shows, I'll often rush the walk work in the hopes that the trot will get Pig more in front of my leg. I need to be more patient and rely on the warm up that works at home. All the walking and careful management of connection translates to a more relaxed ride. Even if I am short on time, it is more beneficial to me to get a relaxed connection than to get Pig in front of my leg. With a relaxed connection, I can at least turn in an accurate test.

2. Circle the show ring at a collected walk. This brilliant tool is one I accidentally picked up this weekend, and will be keeping around. Riding such a hot horse, it can be very hard to dance the line of "brilliant" and "too hot to handle." Walking in a nice active connection helps me stay balanced between the two. The fact that it also helps conserve some of Pig's energy helps a lot, too! Walking keeps him engaged and thinking without wearing or stressing him out.
Just like Laura Graves.... ;)
3. After riding, leave Pig alone in his stall to decompress and sleep. I've known Pig gets grumpy at shows if he's constantly messed with. At this show, I made a conscious effort to leave him alone to decompress after his classes. He is very routine oriented, and enjoys getting a face rub after being untacked, a quick bath, and being left alone in his stall to nap for over an hour. Saturday we went to lunch and hung out with people instead of checking on the horse. He rewarded us by taking a hard nap and being a cheerful and curious buddy for the rest of the day. Note to self: the horse needs his naptime.
Yes. He piled up all the hay he refused to eat into a big fluffy bed and slept on it. He's basically a dog.
4. Two classes on the second day is too much. I've always done two classes a day at a two day show, and it has never occurred to me to do less. Pig is very fit, and physically the tests have never worn him out. However, I underestimated how much mental strain he was under when performing so long. Working obediently in collection for such a long time really wears him out, and I need to be more aware. From now on, we show twice on the first day and only once on the second. Feeling like I'm pushing an exhausted horse is really no fun!
"I am happy to hear you learned something... for once"
What do you think? Are there similar lessons you've learned from showing, even if you've been doing it for a long time?

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Things Fall Apart: Loch Moy 2

Sunday, I had hopes for more exciting tests. I was hoping I could push a for a little bit more from Pig and show off a little bit.
Unfortunately, I screwed up my times and ended up ready for my first ride time an hour too early. This meant had to make the hike from the barns and back twice. While this gave me an extra 10 minutes to hold an ice pack to Guinness' leg, it didn't help keep energy in the tank.

Once I got on, Pig felt tired and was more finicky in the contact than on Saturday. I kept to the same warm up routine, this time more to conserve energy than to conserve soundness. Pig felt sounder than on Saturday, but much stiffer and more flat. I had a passing moment where I considered scratching, but decided to go in anyway.
Sadly, the video of this test did not turn out. My technology woes were much more exacerbated.
The test felt solid, but flat. I knew I had lost energy in our two turns on the haunches, which were coefficients. I figured with that issue we probably hadn't made a 60%, and I was right. We'd scored a disappointing 58.718%. The judge was hard, but I thought very fair. We missed a placing in our large class by a few 10ths of a point.
Turns on the haunches: The first was too wide, the second too stuck, not catastrophes, though.
(Click to make bigger)

The judge nitpicks our connection and Pig's collection. I totally agree with her. He was lighter in the connection and not as through as he could be. He also tended to drop out in my half halts. We still need more consistent bend in our travers.
Hold the bend.... hold it!
Still, we put in a solid test without big mistakes (ouch on the 4.5 simple change, though deserved!), and I am happy enough with it. Pig kept his neck down for the most part, and stayed with me. Even if the collection was lacking we had a decent attempt on our mediums... for us.

In the downtime between tests, I tried to give Pig time to nap while I wrapped his leg with ice. Our stabling companions were amused that I joined him in the stall while I re-hydrated and refreshed myself on my final test (2-3).
Sleepy Pig... with his butt in my garment bag!
When I got on for 2-3, I knew we were in trouble. Pig was exhausted. I knew he wouldn't give up during the test, but I worried about losing his cooperation in trying to keep his collection. After a brief warm up (99% at the walk, with a little hard counter canter work to remind Pig "NO CHANGES"), I headed to the ring... where we were basically eviscerated.
Poor Pig. He tried so hard. And the score was so harsh.
When I entered the test I thought to myself "get as much energy as you can without stressing him out," and I think we did just that. I thought the test went alright.

We had a couple of moments, of course: A "motivational discussion" needed to be had during the turns on the haunches (Coefficients, again. I hate this level.), and my soaked-with-sweat full seats ended up sticking my butt too far back in my saddle when I started my last medium canter. There's a hilarious moment where I am flailing everywhere at the end of the medium, trying desperately to unstick myself. Pig comes hollow as if to say "What are you doing up there, lady?!" But otherwise, I felt the test was clean, if flat and tired looking.

I left the ring extremely proud of my horse. Though exhausted he had tried his heart out. When I asked for more in the second half of our last medium trot, he gave. When I asked for him to come up the final centerline with a little more bounce, he dug in and gave. Imagine my surprise and horror when I picked up this score sheet... a 54.634%.
So many 4s... (Click to make bigger)
Extremely spare remarks.
I won't lie. Writing about this test has been quite hard. My thoughts over the last few days have ranged from horror, to frustration, to anger, to resignation. For awhile I wondered if maybe we just aren't capable of getting decent scores at any level above First.

See, when the judge wrote "trot very irregular" and gave Pig a 5.5 for gaits, I was very hurt. He didn't feel "off" to me. I wondered if maybe I couldn't feel it, and I was torturing my poor horse by riding him while horribly lame. Then I wondered if he is incapable of the gaits needed for this level. Unfortunately, the video of the test was originally shot in a slow motion setting, and I couldn't bring myself to watch the whole thing until it was fixed. (It's hard enough watching yourself, far worse when every painful moment of your not-great test is slowed to molasses.) My show friend consoled me by saying that "Yes, Pig looked very tired. But not lame." She was watching him closely, and knew which leg to watch. She said he had a few bobbly steps, but nothing that would have warranted pulling or concern from the judge.

My friend (and Emma and Allison via text) did echo my thoughts, though. Being so exhausted, Pig looks irregular in his mediums. As this is the first movement, the judge probably formed an opinion of him there, and was looking for it the rest of the test. Still, the collectives are lower than I've ever had in my life.

We weren't the lowest score in the class. In fact, the whole class was scored harshly. I heard murmurs from across the grounds that this judge was incredibly rough, and that riders were scratching to avoid getting their percentages ruined. I'm not going to call this score "unfair", but I do think it was very hard. A score of 4 (insufficient) for my medium trot is fine and expected. A score of 4 for my shoulder-in is ridiculous. We needed more bend and engagement, but we demonstrated the movement consistently. We received the comment "...then nice stretch" in the free walk, one of the best of my show career with this horse, but scored only a 6 (satisfactory). It seemed the only thing this judge approved of was our ability to enter and exit the ring (7s).

I've decided to put this test behind us. It was terrible, but I don't feel the score represents where we are in our training. My horse was exhausted and couldn't be expected to carry himself to the level he needed for good scores, but he did a fantastic job. He was compliant, and very willing. I poured on pressure, and he put his head down and said "I can do it!"

I am so very proud of him. I can't ask for more.
I love being a part of this team.
I'm not sure where the scores from the weekend put us in the IDS end of year awards, and I'm not sure if we'll show again this year. I just started the job search in earnest, so most of my energy is now going towards that. We'll see how things pan out...

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Things Come Together: Loch Moy 1

After Pig popped his splint on Wednesday, I crossed everything in hopes he would come sound by Saturday. Friday I slapped ice under Pig's shipping boot and we hauled over to the show grounds (10 minutes from my barn! I can't comprehend this convenience!). Once there, I hopped on to school.
Look! Mountains!
After not having ridden for a few days, I was surprised Guinness felt pretty good. I wouldn't have called him 100% sound on Friday, but he was filled with go. I didn't want to stress him any, so I kept our ride very short and mostly to the walk. I did some rising trot and canter (about 10 minutes total) in the rings and the warm up area just to loosen up Pig's back and make sure he was tuned up enough. Then we quit and watched my new horse show friends school their fractious younger horses, and enjoy the view.

That evening, I re-iced Pig's leg and gave him his last USEF allowed dose of bute. Then I headed home dreaming of good things for Saturday.
Is there anything worse than trying to wrap a wet ice pack to your horse's sensitive leg with an inadequate amount of vet wrap?
Both my classes (2-1 and 2-2, in that order) on were scheduled for mid morning. I knew I probably wouldn't have enough time between the two classes to give Pig a good rest. The plan was to ice his leg thoroughly the morning of, and right up until my ride time. While his leg wasn't really hot or swollen, the bony splint bump was still pretty sensitive to the touch.

With Pig braided, wrapped with an ice pack, and completely ready to tack up, I dressed and headed out to support my show friend and see how the competition rings were rolling along.
While watching my friend, I may have fallen in love with this gorgeous and hot Grand Prix Trakehner stallion (Elfenperfekt, by Peron). You can't blame me!
The low key and friendly atmosphere at Loch Moy (everyone, literally everyone, wished other riders good luck and a good ride all weekend!) set me at ease for the day. Even if Pig showed himself lame and I had to pull, I felt that coming had been a good choice. Getting out into the show world in a new place just felt right.

Luckily I didn't have to test that feeling, as once I got Pig into the ring he felt great. The entire (long!) walk to the show rings was on dry and hard ground. But Pig attacked it with a big stride and swinging back. I listened closely to his footfalls, and was happy to hear him slamming down his left front just as hard as his right with every stride.

Still, I didn't want to push anything. Knowing I had a long ride ahead of me with two close together classes, I planned to walk the majority of my warm up. I did a lot of suppling work in the walk: with changes of bend and alternating turns on the forehand to get Pig's back and hind end stretched out, and turns on the haunches to encourage sitting and shortening. I kept Pig in a much lower neck frame, insisting he stay in the contact and think about what I was asking, rather than look around and make his own decisions. Finally, we did a little rising trot, focusing on changes of direction and taking half halts without dropping out of the contact. After another stint of walking and suppling, I asked for the canter and we schooled one simple change and a tiny bit of counter canter in both directions. I just wanted to ensure we were thinking counter canter, not flying changes.

Feeling confident, I headed to the show ring at the walk, again thinking of maintaining Pig's soundness and mental calmness. I laughed to myself as I walked around that I was channeling my inner Laura Graves, as she is known for walking her Verdades around the edges of the competition rings-- in contrast to many other top competitors who trot around testing buttons and jazzing their horses up.

When the judge blew the whistle, I did a couple of sitting trot circles to feel that Pig was still sound and with me, and in we went...

We ended up with a 60.909% and 2nd place out of 4. I was very happy with the test and my horse. It was very conservative (on purpose), but I was impressed with how quiet Pig was in the contact and in the movements. I didn't have to push hard for anything. That said, if I had insisted he stay a little more forward I think he would have been more consistently in my hand and less waggy in the head. His sensitive mouth leads him to wiggle his head around with my every movement, especially if I don't have him collected enough.

We had a slight issue in the first canter depart, which I attribute to losing my focus for a moment. I wasn't quite prepared to ask for the right lead when we got to the letter, but sprang on the transition anyway. My fault entirely, and Guinness certainly made his displeasure known.
(Click to make bigger, but I can't promise that makes it easier to read...)
(Click to make bigger)
After this test, I jumped off Pig, loosened his girth, and we relaxed next to the rings while I looked over my next test. With 20 minutes until my go time, I hopped back on and did another walk-heavy warm up. Because 2-2 asks for much more counter canter, I did school that a bit more. Still, I wasn't pushing too hard. When Guinness broke in the counter canter in the warm up, I didn't push the issue. He didn't try to throw a change, so I figured we could manage to finesse things in the ring instead of school them to death. He felt a little better in the contact, and a little more forward heading into this test.

Again, I headed in at the walk. I really liked how the walk tactic had worked out for us before. I picked up the trot and circled a bit at the far end of the ring before the judge blew the whistle, hoping to get Pig a little more forward and in a relaxed collection.

Unfortunately somewhere between entering the ring and the first real movement, I had a memory malfunction and forgot the first medium trot. You'll see us go straight into the shoulder-in instead. The judge blew the whistle and I immediately knew where I went wrong. I guess I thought I was doing 3-1. While a little upset with myself, I giggled and yelled back to the judge, "Oops! My fault! I guess I just really wanted to get ahead of myself!" She laughed, we lost two points on our already unspectacular medium, and life went on. Oops!

(Sorry, my phone ran out of memory in the middle of this video and I don't have the whole test!)

I was even more happy with this test than the first. Guinness felt pretty darn good here. The only real issue we had was in the first turn on the haunches, where I stopped riding his shoulders and he escaped out the back. I pulled it together for the second one (which has been the more difficult recently), and we managed a 7 on that one. I am pretty proud of my save there, as those movements are coefficients.

While Pig wasn't forward enough to really get the scores he's capable of, just like in the first test, we rode an accurate test I am proud of. I feel the scoring was very fair. I am also pretty sure the 7 awarded to Guinness on Submission in the collectives is a first for us at this level. I can't explain how proud I am of that.

We scored a 60.385% and placed 3rd out of 5.
(Click to make bigger, though scribe's writing is still very difficult to read)
(Click to make bigger)
Being critical of my Saturday rides, my half halts didn't want to come all the way through. I could have used a little bit more work at the trot and canter getting Pig's butt to tuck more and get him to collect just a bit more. He tended to drop his back in our downwards quite a bit, instead of staying round and taking more weight behind.

However, I see glimpses of the more relaxed and strengthened horse I've been working on developing. In the last centerline of 2-1 Pig looks strong, and in our simple changes he stays quiet and with me. The medium trots also show a horse willing to push a bit without hollowing his neck and back entirely. With Guinness, quiet and round has been such a serious challenge. I am happy to see it in the ring, even if the tests aren't stunners!
If your test can't be stunning, at least kill them with consistency. Right?
When I watch both of these videos today, I can see how stiff Pig looks. I'm not sure I'd call him lame (and I know what I'm looking for), but he definitely looks labored at times. I can't say for sure if it is due to not being forward enough or the splint, but I am inclined to think it's from not being forward enough. I know that under saddle he felt pretty okay most of the time and willing to move forward and do the movements. I'm glad I didn't push him to be more forward, though I think our scores would have been better. He felt happy, and I am proud I worked with him at a pace where he was comfortable.
A happy and tired Guinness observing his favorite horse show tradition, the hours-long afternoon nap. Gotta get that beauty sleep in!