Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Stephen Birchall Clinic Part 1: The Defenestration of Austen

"Defenestration: n. Developed from the Latin. Roughly defined: the action throwing a person out of a window as a way of removing said person from power. See also: The Defenestration of Prague, an obscure series of historical window-throwings from the time of the Protestant Reformation, reminding all of us to stay away from windows during times of political upheaval in the Czech Republic."
-- Pig, Equine Historian, Ph.D.
Last weekend, we had another opportunity to clinic with Stephen Birchall. Though I've been in desperate need of a lesson and really been looking forward to this clinic, I somehow let the whole thing sneak up on me. Adult amateur problems, yo. Unfortunately, this meant I went into my Saturday lesson kind of unprepared and mounted on a fire-breathing red dragon.
"I saw a mouse!" -- Pig
I've always said that some of the best lessons come when you are not at your best, and I suppose that could be said of this one. Maybe. I think I'd prefer to have had my A game, though.

The lesson started with me explaining that we are planning to show Third this year, in an attempt to collect our final Bronze Medal scores. I went on to explain that I feel our collection is finally developed enough, but the canter work is feeling much weaker than the trot. I think I called it "flat and tense." The changes, I went on, are much more confirmed, though exuberant and "bolty."

Obviously, that intro meant we had a brief warm-up followed by nearly exclusive work in the canter.

Once cantering, Stephen picked out immediately that I need to get better body bend from Pig. This was one of the things I'd had brought to my attention by the judge at our recent schooling show, and something I was hoping we could work on. To address this issue, Stephen had me take more inside rein, using my inside leg to keep Pig stepping into the bridle.
"They tried to make me go to rehab. I said 'no, no, no'..."
-- Pig, Emperor of Tense Bend
As per usual, Pig reacted to this insist aid for more bend by tensing his whole body and popping out his outside shoulder. But when I tried to correct this by using my outside rein, Stephen stopped me.

"You're blocking him with that rein." Huh. "Give with the outside when you take on the inside. Otherwise he feels trapped and just goes tense. Use your seat and legs to straighten him out and keep him in the bridle." Oooh.

What resulted was a careful dance. I would put Pig in the bridle solidly, and he would be very straight. Then I would put on my inside leg a touch more, and ask for more bend with my inside hand, giving slightly with my outside. Once I had more, I carefully took a half halt with both reins, ensuring I followed that up with enough oomph from the hind end to get more jump, not a flatter stride. The outside rein release was barely a breath. Any more release, and Pig reacted like I had dropped him and refused to go into the contact again. (Stephen was quick to emphasize that I needed to pay more attention to my hands. They are getting too noisy during moments they should be quiet.) The breath release allowed him to feel like he could lift his shoulders and have the room to contort his body into the deeper bend.  If he took too much advantage to the outside, I kept my outside rein, but used my seat and a thump with my outside leg to remind him not to blow through me. This is very similar to a lesson from the last Stephen clinic.

Stephen is big on emphasizing those loose leg bumps as a way to keep the horse relaxed and "breathing". It seemed to work to defuse a tense situation. The solid but not constant bump of my leg seemed to break through Pig's muscle tensing and get him to relax a split second. Sort of like slapping a person who is having a nervous breakdown.
Maaaaybe less dramatic, though.
At this point, Stephen pointed out that I needed to be more aware of my inside leg when asking for bend. He kept repeating to me to keep my heels down and my leg longer. He also kept nailing me for moving my right leg back to catch Pig's wayward haunches. Oops. He seemed to think the severe issue with Pig's right haunch falling in may be both learned (he's been able to get away with it) and residual pain response. He pointed out that Pig seemed to have no issue actually using that leg normally once I corralled it appropriately.

He tried to have me fix the issue by leaning to the outside, forcing Pig to straighten up. This did work, but the alacrity of Pig's reaction caused Stephen to exclaim "So, he's awfully sensitive!" He suggested this issue would be more fixable with my seat by catching it early in the warm-up.

At this point we moved on to a little counter canter, but it was pretty obvious that I didn't have enough control of the shoulders and haunches to keep the counter canter. Stephen had us come back to the 20 m circle, practicing haunches in and shoulder in at the canter on the circle to get a better control over Pig's body.
Pirouette canter on the horizon?
With controls reinstalled, we headed back out to do a ton of 3 loop serpentines, holding the lead. Within the counter canter sections, we worked on getting a steeper bend. This not only helped me to keep the lead, but also helped Pig stay balanced over his "outside" hind leg. In other words, more bend meant we weren't falling out of the canter as much.
Better balance = better half halts
Once we had the counter canter pretty confirmed, and Pig wasn't so tense that he was tuning me out and swapping constantly, we moved on to add a single change.
Pictured: Exuberant and "bolty"
Stephen didn't seem too horrified by our ugly changes (or at least he hid his horror pretty well!), but he was insistent that there is a lot more I need to do with them (obviously...). His biggest issue related to bend (notice a theme?). He pointed out that after our changes, Pig is still bent in the original direction.


Basically, I need to do less celebrating that we got the change and more riding the movement and the strides directly after the change. Maybe keeping my butt in the saddle during that leap n' flail would help, too. This issue is entirely rider error, so it's really up to me. Even though Stephen pointed this out, I struggled to really get this all weekend. Chalk this up to something I'll be working on.

We quickly moved from this movement to the centerline -> half pass -> change movement from 3-2. Stephen was happy with Pig's half passes, calling them "quite nice" and suggesting that I be careful not to allow more angle to develop when trying to increase the bend.
Things we do well...
We fooled around with this movement quite a bit, trying different prep approaches to get better bend switching in the change. Pig was getting very sharp to my change aids in the process, leading to one extremely explosive change when I cued him the "normal" amount, but he thought it was way too much. In his normal way, Pig let me know I was riding too aggressively by nearly pitching me right out the open window of the arena...
Pictured: A classic power shift via defenestration. Not pictured: My face when I realize I can see the ground outside and just might be landing on it head first...
Sensitivity. Thy name is thoroughbred.

I think the whole moment really shook Pig and Stephen the most, and it honestly ended our lesson. Pig's brain was shot after this. We did some more work, but the horse made his opinions on repeating this exercise very clear by flat out refusing to half pass to that corner...
Straight up noping.
He also tried the his classic move: bolting when I tried to half halt from my seat, and slamming to a halt when I closed my hands...
"What part of 'nope' was hard to understand?!"
At this point, I just walked Pig out and explained to Stephen that the only way to get his brain back at this point was to just walk and take off all pressure. I told him sometimes he comes back enough to take a little pressure, but sometimes he doesn't.
Pig's feelings on the whole thing.
Stephen agreed and we ended up just chatting more about some things I can do. He stressed that above all, I need to be much more tactful with this horse. I already know I need to be a quiet and tactful rider, but Stephen suggested I take it even further. He said that I don't "crank and spank", but that with this horse any sort of correction is going to be taken as punishment, and I have to be very judicious in my application of the aids.

It was kind of an interesting discussion, especially when I later realized this is one of the first times Pig has brought all of his nervousness to bear in a lesson and I knew enough to realize exactly what was going on. Stephen seemed very wowed by how sensitive Pig proved himself to be in this lesson, but seemed interested when I said that most of that sensitivity has to do with pressure. If there is no pressure, his sensitivity is much lower. As we've started schooling higher levels, he feels the pressure more easily.

All of that aside, I left this lesson still feeling like Pig and I are capable at the level and feeling more empowered in our working relationship. That might seem odd, but maybe it was just due to splitting a bottle of champagne with Emma afterwards...
"Look, Lady. I didn't actually toss you out the window. You should gimme some bubbly as a gift of gratitude."

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Possibility of Awards

Spring has definitely sprung here in Maryland, and show season is rapidly approaching. I've had an eye turned towards new GMOs here in the DC area, with the consideration that we may try to go for some awards this year.
More blues please!
Of course, I ride a distinctly non-fancy thoroughbred with a serious aversion to pressure. As such, my expectations towards winning anything are incredibly low. I'm always happiest to have a fairly relaxed test free from major flaws and above 60%. That caveat spelled out, let's take a look at what I'm aiming Pig and I for this year:

GMO Awards: Potomac Valley Dressage Association
Logo shamelessly pulled
via PVDA.

  1. The Thoroughbred Placement Resources High Score Schooling/Licensed Show Award
    • Two awards: 1 for highest score in a PVDA recognized show, 1 for highest score in a PVDA schooling show.
    • Qualify: Horse must be full thoroughbred, score must be received during current competition season (qualification deadline: Nov 15th), rider must be member of PDVA when score is earned.
  2. Year-End High Score Awards
    • Only scores earned at a PVDA recognized or schooling show will be counted.
    • Season through Oct 31.
    • Average score tabulated after highest and lowest score are dropped. Average score must be above 55%.
    • Awards are split into divisions, mine being AA. Further split by level category.
    • 8 volunteer hours with PVDA required for eligibility.
    • Minimum of 7 scores from same rider/horse combo, and at least 2 different tests in the level.
    • Rider must be a PVDA member.
  3. Rider Achievement Awards
    • Rider must be PVDA at time of earning scores, and proof of membership is required.
    • Scores must be earned at a PVDA schooling show, or any recognized show.
    • Qualifying scores: USEF First Level – 62%; USEF Second Level and above – 60%
    • Four Qualifying Scores are required for each award.
    • Scores must be earned from at least 3 different judges from at least 2 different shows.
    • Schooling show judges must be at a least "L" level.
    • Scores may be earned across multiple years.
    • Scores may be earned on multiple horses.
    • Rider may be awarded once only at each level in both the schooling show and recognized show categories.
    • Rider is responsible for reporting scores.

National Awards: The United States Dressage Federation (USDF)
Logo shamelessly pulled via USDF

  1. Bronze Medal (Need two 3rd level scores only)
    • Rider must have a GM or PM USDF membership at time score received.
    • Horse must meet minimum competition eligibility requirements (HID okay) and be registered with the USDF with the owner under which it is exhibited.
    • Scores must be from USDF/USEF licensed shows only.
    • Scores may be recorded on multiple horses.
    • Scores must be submitted all at once, not as earned.
    • Two scores of 60% or above needed at each 1st, 2nd, and 3rd levels.
    • Scores must be from two separate rides at each level.
    • Applications and $25 fee must be submitted by September 30 to receive award in calendar year.
  2. Rider Performance Award (One score needed at 1st and 2nd)
    • Rider must have a GM or PM USDF membership at time score received.
    • Horse must meet minimum competition eligibility requirements (HID okay) and be registered with the USDF with the owner under which it is exhibited.
    • Scores must be from USDF/USEF licensed shows only.
    • Scores may be recorded on multiple horses.
    • Scores must be submitted for each level all at once, not as earned.
    • Awards given at Training, 1st and 2nd level only.
    • Each level is a separate award and must be applied for separately.
    • Four scores of 60% or above are needed from the level being applied for.
    • Scores needed from four different judges at level being applied for.
    • Scores needed from four separate rides at level being applied for.
Award eligibility is so complicated! But, being only two scores away from my Bronze feels really good. I hope we actually manage to knock that goal out this year!
Photo by Jen.
Are any of you aiming for any of these awards? Do you have your own GMO awards (or similar) that you are aiming for? How do you keep your scores and eligibility straight?!

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Fun With Poles: In which I channel my inner Klimke

I don't know if you're familiar with the Klimke family, but I hope you've at least heard the name. The famous Reiner Klimke and his fabulous but, ahem, quirky horse Ahlerich, have always been huge inspirations for me. Any sort of hot and sensitive horse that can deliver a test like Ahlerich's in the 1984 Olympics is worth emulating. (Especially based on Friday's ... sensitive ... test.)

But the the movement Ahlerich and Klimke push me to master the most is the flying change, a movement the pair showed off to perfection in their Olympic victory lap.

Of course, Pig isn't quite up to Ahlerich's level of relaxed sensitivity and cue awareness, and my riding only resembles Dr. Klimke's in that I am also a human atop a horse. So, we have a long way to go.

Still, the Klimke family is full of good advice and exercises, so I decided to take some advice from Dr. Klimke's equally successful daughter Ingrid and turn to cavaletti to assist with my dressage training. Ingrid, a 4* eventer and Grand Prix dressage rider, advocates the use of cavaletti for dressage horses. She encourages using them for mental variety, strength building, and to improve the horse's gaits. Ingrid is the master of cavaletti exercises...

I've long loved the idea of using cavaletti for strength building (get those stifles in gear!) and for encouraging more cadence and lift in Pig's trot steps. Of course, Pig was a former jumper, so I know I have to be a little careful when reintroducing him to work over poles. Not because he'd take to it poorly, but more because of excess enthusiasm...
I set up the poles a couple of trot strides apart, just to be on the safe side. I didn't want Pig leaping in like a fool and getting his legs tangled up in super close poles. (Have I mentioned his poor coordination?) At first we just trotted through the regular poles on the ground.
Honestly, I could have stopped there. The regular poles seem to have gotten exactly out of him what I wanted. His trot grew more animated, engaged, and suspended. But, I was interested to experiement with raised poles. So, up they went a few inches off the ground...
And hilarity ensues...
It's here that my ex-jumper decided that this was clearly a very neat bounce exercise, and proceeded to neatly leap right through the whole thing.

Man. I wish this horse was still a jumper sometimes.

Anyway... we continued, and I tried to install a half halt mid leaping pole exercise...
Look, Mom! A piaffe! We are totally ready for Grand Prix now!
But finally we got it!
The graceful Ingid Klimke I am not...
Honestly? I think I got more out of the plain poles on the ground. Maybe our strength isn't high enough for these fancy raised cavaletti yet, and I certainly cannot manage to ride them quietly. Add this sucker to the goals list...

Monday, March 7, 2016

No such thing as a bad show

Friday morning, I woke feeling like maybe my intermittent illness had finally abated (spoiler alert: it came back on Saturday, again.). When 3pm rolled around, I happily headed out the barn and made an attempt to memorize my test.

When Pig was incredibly distracted and nervous as I was tacking up, I knew I'd made he right choice to show in the double. When his mind is gone, he's almost impossible to keep together in the ring. Having the double to help me encourage him to tip his nose out is very helpful in keeping his brain in his head.
Emma and Pig act out Pig's mental state...
In fact, our warm-up went from snorty, spooky, and inverted to quite through and fluid. Guinness's gaits felt quite good, with a lot of jump in the canter and suspension in the trot. He was even very consistent in the bridle, and willing to take some input from me. We did a lot of walking (leg yields and turns on the haunches), some rising trot, some canter (departs to right lead and counter canter only. NO changes schooled.), and finally a little sitting trot. He felt great.

Unfortunately, all of that good preparation was for naught. We ended up walking around or standing waiting for our turn to go, and Pig's brain left the building. He thought he was completely done, and he went so far as to try to exit stage left. Bad. Pig.
Not pictured: Pig's brain leaking out.
By the time our test came around, he was testy. Anything that was hard in the direction of the door, he completely balked at. This resorted in some hilarious tantrums, which mostly made me a laugh hysterically. I would say that his tantrums were disappointing, as they rendered the test nearly unrecognizable, however I was honestly very happy with the test. Why?

First, the double proved to be a useful tool and something I feel comfortable showing in. Pig was just as solid in it as he is in the snaffle, and it helped me ride him a little more aggressively in places where I otherwise wouldn't have been able to do so.

Second, the things that were good in this test were VERY good. And some of those things are pieces we really haven't put back into schooling for that long.

Test Highlights:

  • Half passes were on point. We need more bend through the body to the right, but the half passes left, which have been our more difficult direction, were fantastic. At one point Pig threw a fit before our canter half pass left, and ended up on the opposite side of the arena. I made him half pass from there to the other side of the arena (a much more advanced movement), and he handled it wonderfully. Proud mama moment.
  • Both changes were actually pretty clean. The judge probably thought they were exuberant because Pig was anticipating, but honestly he was exactly on my aids. This is just where we are with these right now, and I am pleased with his performance.
  • His trot work was OUTSTANDINGLY good. He was very suspended and collected. I barely had to ask for that, it's just where he is right now. And that place where he is feels good. At no point in the comments did we receive "needs more uphill balance." I've been a little worried about his collection level, so this feels good.
  • His turns on the haunches sucked in the test, but in the warmup they were amazing. These have really hit a new level.
  • Medium/extended trot were fantastic for us. We kept our rhythm for the most part, and are actually teetering on the real thing. Just gotta work on building them faster, right now it takes too long to hit the maximum extension. For this test, though, I actually had a place to sit while we did the extension, and that's really a first.
  • We need more bend through the body when going right. I'm struggling getting Pig to give through his ribcage. I think more renver/traver work will help with this. Now I have control of his shoulders/haunches, I just need to help him stabilize his body bend.
  • I need to keep working on sitting up and correctly through my torso/hips. That makes the biggest difference in whether we have collection or not.
  • Changes. Gotta keep at these.
  • Release of rein at canter. This comes right after a change in 3-2, and that can make it difficult to get Pig's wishy-washy hind end under control of my seat again. It's really obvious in this video that I lose it the moment I release the reins. At least he keeps his self-carriage otherwise? Ha!
Test video:
Note: Things were pretty wonky due to Pig's tantrums. You'll notice I go off course a couple of times due to them. And I almost go off course right at the start (wavy line at far end, and forget to turn up the centerline at C after renver meltdown). There's also a jump in the middle where the judge thinks I went off course, the video stopped in the middle while I hashed that out with the judge (I was actually correct).

Also note: Yes. At Pig's final tantrum, you can hear me say "Oh, F your face!" Giggles.

For for anyone wondering, tantrums like this are not abnormal when my horse is tired/done and at home. I'm actually fine with them, because they are ultra rare or less dramatic at away shows. As this was in our home arena, I would expect them to be worse.

The test -- 58.97%

At the end of the ride, the judge stopped me and said, "That was the hardest thing I've ever had to judge. Either he was a 9-10 or he was a 0, often in the same movement!" She commended me for his work, saying she was very impressed with the work he turned in, calling him "very talented." She went on to describe him as "strange and difficult". which made me laugh.

She was flummoxed at his seemingly sensitive overreaction to a quiet aid, but willingness to take a spanking and hard riding to get him back to work. At this I just shrugged. "Eh. We're just an old married couple poking at each other's nerves. We both know exactly how much we can get away with." At that, she laughed.

We walked back home and I put Pig away.
What? You don't put your horse's blanket on while he's still wearing his double?
I think he could tell my overall mood was pleased, despite his iffy behavior in the ring. Overall, it was a solid first ride through 3-2. I see a lot to look forward to this season!
So there were lots of scratches to be had.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Dat show season, tho.

Even though snow is forecast to fall tonight and Saturday, I'm sitting over here excited as can be about my spring plans. I even revised my show schedule page to reflect any and all shows/clinics I am considering for the year.

If you click over, you'll note a couple of upcoming moments of excitement, the most exciting of which is my acceptance into April's Janet Foy Ride-a-Test clinic!
Don't worry Ms. Foy. I'm trying to get those withers lifted more by April...
Less exciting but more pressing, I also entered the final schooling show in my barn's winter series, scheduled for tomorrow. The first few shows in the series were unfortunately taking place while Pig was still gaining strength or lame with old-man-itis. Now he's back in gear and ready to run through a third level test just to see what the biggest sticking issues are.

Of course, the horse is finally ready, but I have come down with some version of the flu. Which totally sucks. In true horse-girl style, I plan to man-up and destroy my health to ride my horse in a tiny schooling show with zero payoff. Bring it on!
"Destroy yourself for a minor horse-related event? Why... I never!"
Of course, even for a small schooling show I find myself obsessing over the details, like memorizing the test. Mainly, I keep wondering if I should bust out Pig's double for this show.
Such fancy. Much blur. So dark.
I schooled him in it on Tuesday night, expecting some soreness related tantrums when it came to collection. While he was a little tight and tense starting off, the curb does a great job of helping me encourage him to keep his head out and down while warming up and during transitions. That's vital to accessing his brain, and keeping him calmer during a ride. Based on that alone, I am inclined to show in the double. However, when he is really working well he goes much better in the snaffle.

Hard to tell. Right now I'm considering warming up in the snaffle and seeing how that goes. He's so temperamentally unpredictable from ride to ride, I can't really make that sort of decision on the day. And, the fact that I'm basically using this show only to run through the test has me want to try it in the double just to see if that's a viable option during the show season.