Thursday, June 30, 2016

Throwback Thursday: We Jumped The Jumps

... very, very tiny jumps.
Dear Past Self,
Your leg embarrasses me. So does your helmet. And your saddle placement. Horse is cute, tho.
Future Self
True Story. Before Guinness' body started sliding down the achy slope of old age and decrepitude, we actually did quite a bit of jumping!

When I brought Pig home, the goal was to transition him from a career as an excitable hunter into that of an event horse. I was a rusty IHSA hunter rider, with a childhood of questionable eventing jump instruction behind me. Pig had literally been cross country schooling once in his life. Despite this somewhat-iffy background, I leapt (heh) at my first chance to take Pig over some cross country jumps.

Little did I know, in the short time Guinness had left in his jumping career he would go on to teach me all sorts of things. Including: how to wait for the jump, how to fold at the hip, and how to bravely tackle large fences. He made me into a confident jumper, and allowed me to refine skills I'd never had the chance to truly develop.

While I wish I had photos or video of our more advanced jumping, I'm glad to have these little glimpses into our time jumping together. I can still remember the sticky humidity of that day, the sound of hooves on solid ground, and the smell of the honeysuckle mingling with horse sweat.

Do any of you have moments from the beginning of a journey that stick with you?

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Stephen Returns: A Sweaty Story About Counter Canter

I'm not the sort of rider who falls apart too much without regular instruction. Plus with Pig's goals accomplished, I haven't had taking lessons at the top of my to-do list. Still, when Stephen Birchall said he was coming out in June, I knew I had to get a ride scheduled.

I know regular lessons are better for my riding and push me to get more out of my horse. I also know my position has gotten incredibly weak from riding with a mind to Pig's limitations. Stephen pretty much called me on both of these things immediately.
But when you gotta throw all your weight onto the right hind to get the horse to step under, your position kinda goes to shit.
"Slow him down. You can't supple him when you're pushing him to trot at mach 10!"Stephen called out after watching our warm up trot for a few minutes.

I had started off at the walk, but pushed Guinness into the trot a smidge before he was ready for it, in the interest of not being late. That did not pay off for us. By the time Stephen turned his attention to us, Pig's trot was still pretty tight in the back and neck. Not terrible, by any means, but not the incredibly supple work he's been handing in recently.

"You have to ride him in a place of a little more soundness to get him to come through. Bring him back until you find more regularity. Bring him back, but don't let him break." I know that when I slow Pig down it's easier to talk to him about loosening up his body, but for some reason I have been forgetting to use that tool.
"Slowing down doesn't mean the engine dies, it means you think 'sit and piaffe on those back legs' as you bring him back."
When we finally had achieved a more regular and slightly more connected trot, Stephen moved on to fixing my positional woes, which were multiple.

"I'm going to come over there and pinch your shoulder blades together. Sit up! No, not enough. More. MORE. SIT UP!!"
"Still not enough. More. MORE MORE MORE."
My upper body has started to go rogue in the last couple of months. Mainly from riding Pig when he's been a little off. I let him convince me to slack of the pressure of my position when he isn't feeling 100%, and I need to stop. Slouching isn't really helping anyone. Stephen drove home my need for more upper body accountability by reminding me, "He keeps popping up because his back is tight, so you have give him a comfortable place to go by sitting up."

As we moved into the canter, where we spent most of the lesson, Stephen gave me one more good reminder. "Dressage riding is a lot like body working. You can feel where the horse is tense, it's your job to help guide him through the tightness. You have to help him work out the kinks and tough spots."

I was encouraged to push Pig away from my leg, moving his shoulders in and out. Stephen wanted me to emphasize the true bend of the canter first. If I needed to slow things down to find the right balance, so be it. The bend stayed until Pig relaxed into it.

Then we did shoulder fore in the true canter. Stephen remarked that we've worked on this, which we have in a way. I've been striving for control over those shoulders for awhile, I just haven't really worked them in the canter. Glad to see the work is paying off.

The shoulder fore work bled into work "leg yielding" in the canter, to help loosen up Pig's back and get him stepping up more with his hind legs.
Paying off to the left, maybe not so much to the right.
I had mentioned to Stephen that we needed work on the canter, especially in obedience and balance in the half passes. So we quickly moved to counter canter, which is where the real lesson began.

We counter cantered for nearly 20 minutes in each direction. Walk breaks were incredibly minimal. Pig and I both worked our asses off, and I was incredibly proud of both of us for rising to the occasion. Stephen mentioned that I need to be working in the counter canter much more often, at least 10 minutes in each direction during our dressage schools.
But seriously. That counter canter. Also seriously... my position is so rough right now.
Our neglect of the counter canter was immediately obvious to Stephen. Pig was nervous and stiff in the movement, anticipating a change. I was struggling to sit the damn thing, instead relying on my reins to keep the flexion. I was too afraid to accidentally cue for the change.

So we counter cantered around in an exaggerated true canter bend until I could establish a real half halt, off my seat and weight rather than rein and leg.
Note my butt is still hovering over the saddle. Turns out it's hard to convince your horse to sit when you aren't actually doing it either, somehow managing it here. Magic, I tell you.
Things went fairly smooth to the left. However the wheels fell off a little to the right.

In the right lead canter, I had a tough time keeping the left shoulder contained. As Pig steps shorter with the right hind, this isn't too surprising. However, the tenacity of the bulging left shoulder cannot be underestimated. Until I get that shoulder under control, I have no ability to half halt. Pig will simply get more and more tense and "stuck". I find it hard to sit a tense Guinness back, and am often bounced up out of the saddle. This makes half halting from the seat impossible.
Pictured: Pig's right shoulder being bulgy and my finally-starting-to-open hip angle.
Also pictured: The most awkward moment in the canter.
I had to take a lot of corrective actions to fix the left shoulder issue. Dropping my left seatbone onto the shoulder to move it over helped, as did moving onto a circle where I could exaggerate a shoulder fore. Straight lines are the enemy for this type of control, as they just allow Pig to stay tense and bounce me out of the saddle. Picking up his left shoulder means putting more pressure on his right hind, which is the bad leg. It's not totally surprising we have this issue, but it's also something I should be more prepared to fix. On the circle I am able to create a better canter and relaxed back, giving the the ability to again sit for the half halt.
Turning circles helps get more weight on the inside hind and lighten the outside shoulder. 
With the counter canter solid, we started working to refine the change button I hastily installed last fall.
Lol, change moments.
We started by straightening Pig in the counter canter, without changing rhythm or losing suppleness. Then we went back to true bend. When that move was solid, I was to work on changing the bend, just a little. Then we went back to true bend again. Finally I changed the bend and added leg cuing for a change.

Some changes were late, and some were misfires, but the relaxation in the change was improving rapidly. Both Pig and I learned a lot of good lessons about waiting here.

We left with a lot of homework. I need to refine my position. I'm a better/stronger rider than this, and I need to work harder. We both need to work on the counter canter more. Its strength and balance building is what we need in our life to improve the front end lift of the canter.

Overall, I was very pleased with the work we both put in for Stephen. Pig is in the beautiful place where he understands the work now, meaning I can push harder without fear of an explosion. He's strong, and ready to rock.
So strong that his massive neck looks less like a TB neck, and more like that of a Spanish stallion...

Monday, June 27, 2016

Endurance Meets Dressage: Liz Visits!

Seems like no matter where I go, there are bloggers to be found. And those bloggers? They are always amazing people, with great stories, helpful hands, and open arms. 

Liz exemplifies all of those amazing blogger traits. If you don't know Liz, she's an amazing endurance rider (just finished her first 100 miler! I'm in awe!) with two crazy athletic horses and an adorable ball of husky fluff, Kenai. Having bonded over shared #huskyproblems, Liz was one of the first I called about our move to the east coast. During our cross country move, she opened her home to my husband, the dogs, and I to stay for a night. And what a night that was... 
Rolling thunderstorms through the mountains, piles of huskies, good friends, good conversations, good food, good beer... I kinda wish we'd remembered to take photos!
In April, Liz traveled through DC for work, and stopped by to meet Pig. In between her impromptu riding lesson, Pig's hilarious attempts at changes, and waiting for a locksmith, we had another great time. 
Also, Liz takes crazy good photos.
So when Liz said she would be stopping through DC again, I made sure to phone a friend. Liz is too much fun to keep to myself!
Horse girls in city clothes. A rare sight.
We packed a lot into a short visit, but it was SO fun. I barely noticed how tired I was... barely. Starting the day off right, we headed to the barn where Stephen Birchall was holding a clinic.
Stephen rides Maverick
Liz had mentioned wanting to audit a clinic, so I was quite happy this trip lined up with Stephen's visit! We had a chance to watch Stephen ride a horse I'm quite familiar with, then give a lesson to another pair I know pretty darn well... 
The Puppetmaster at Work: Stephen directs Emma and Isabel to greatness
Emma's lesson was chocked full of information, so I think we were all happy to relax a bit with her and Isabel afterwards.
Okay, so maybe Isabel wasn't big into the "relaxation" theme. More into the "NO TOUCHY" theme.
That bottom lip, though. 
We only took a few minutes of downtime though...
"No, no, no. You're doing it wrong. The huskies get the clif bars, not the peoples."
Because it was time for Liz and I to get to riding!
Liz and the two old chestnut boys.
I'd arranged it so that Liz could ride my friend's ex-pony club mount (of epic blogger trail riding fame) for the day, but planned to also give her a short lesson on Guinness.
And accordingly coordinated their outfits... duh
Liz is the perfect person to test out Pig's lessoning abilities. She's at home on a hot horse (have you heard about her awesome 100 mile mare Q?! Talk about hotness!), and has great natural feel for riding.
Happy ears.
All I really did was give her some pointers about basic dressage cues, and she was off pushing buttons and learning all about dressage contact, shoulder-in, haunches-in, and spiral circles.

She's the kind of student I can imagine any trainer would kill to have. Her position is gorgeous and she works super hard to learn the concepts at hand. Liz, you're amazing. Come back and ride my horse any time!
Ted would prefer I didn't ride him, however. Apparently I can't sit on a horse without trying to make them work properly!
After our quick lesson, we said goodbye to Emma and Isabel and headed out on a quick trail ride.
Complete with Pig leading through a couple of water crossings!
The weather was downright perfection, with a sunset coming on and a slight cooling breeze. I am so happy I was able to show Liz around the property while it was at its most beautiful.
Seriously. Does it get better than this?
We're already planning future adventures, which I seriously cannot wait for. In the meantime, make sure you go check out Liz's blog for endurance adventures as well as stories about her adorable husky and more! Girl lives a crazy full life, which I am so happy to be a part of!

Monday, June 20, 2016

So What Happens Now?

It's a strange feeling to have accomplished all the goals you had set for your work with your horse.
Best mail day ever!
Now that I'm done with my bronze, I'm at a bit of a loss as to what my goals with Pig are, going forward. At the start of this season, I was unsure we would even make it show. Pig was so irregular because of his worsening stifle; he felt like he was rapidly failing.
Clearly neither Pig nor the judges agreed...
After the last show, I had decided to give him time off. A few weeks of only hacking and first level work would tell me what he was capable of, I figured.
There's been an awful lot of this recently.
However, as summer has developed Pig has felt better and better. He starts each ride hitchy and stiff, but generally works out of his issues after 15 minutes of a careful suppling warm up. In fact, he's been feeling better than ever in the contact and much more solidly confident in the 3rd level stuff. We've even been playing a little with 4th level canter collection, plans to take it easy be damned.

So, do I think a push for 4th in our future? Realistically no. It takes this horse so long to be mentally okay with the work, he'd probably be 20 before he was ready to tackle 4th. Plus, our changes are not at all ready for this sort of thing. I've always known he only had as much change in him as I needed to squeak by 3rd.
This is not the sort of change you can get away with at 4th...
I'm thinking seriously about leasing him out to a dressage newbie. He'd be perfect for someone looking to learn 1st or 2nd level, and really improve their feel. I've been worried about his ability to handle dressage-beginner style mistakes with contact, but I'm feeling more confident after putting him in the hands of someone I would consider perfect for him.
Liz knows hot horses. Pig knows dressage. The results are positive. More on this visit later...
He was a perfect gentleman, coming into contact when she was right and popping out honestly. She was able to push the buttons for shoulder in and traver, and play with half pass feel on a circle. It was just a 5 min ride, really, but he was mentally solid. That gives me hope.

Still, I think I'll finish out this year with him. We'll maybe show again, just for fun. Let's see how much the stress of hitting our goals was actually holding us back.
Plus, I'm not ready to let this face get kissed too much by someone else. Yet.
So stay tuned for some maybe-directionless posts and adventures. I'm looking forward to seeing what we have left. And I'm looking forward to enjoying the time we have left as a pair.

Friday, June 3, 2016

A Day of Awards: PVDA Day 2

Sunday of PVDA Spring started off better than Saturday, despite worse rain. To begin, I didn't have work, so I could get to the show grounds earlier. Then, my mother (visiting from Indiana to see my show, despite the rain and being deathly allergic to horses... HI MOM!) bought me the most amazing Kerrits' coat from the VTO clearance rack.
Eventing Nation did a write up of this thing, and I echo the writer's sentiments. This thing is amazing. Watch for a full review soon.
I hoped buying the coat would cause the rain to quit for the day, but sadly it only cleared up for a few minutes while Jan rode her last test. (You're welcome Jan!)
This pair was outstanding all weekend. You wouldn't have known it was little Pennsylvania Pete Penn's first time at a recognized show or working in these sorts of conditions. They both went out and did their job admirably.
Following Jan's test, Sonka and I wandered to the office to confirm my test changes for the day. Switching from 3-2 to 2-1 meant we would be able to leave at least an hour earlier. Since both my rides were in the afternoon, I still had plenty of time to prepare (read: memorize 2-1, since I hadn't ridden it in years).
Poor Sonka didn't really want to be a horse show dog in the rain. He's such a good sport.
Hanging out at a horse show all day is one of my favorite things. I love chatting with other competitors, wishing people good luck, and hearing the stories of their rides. There's something wonderful about being a part of that community. Well known trainers and amateurs both come together to share in the atmosphere. I find it's especially true in situations of crazy weather. I was glad to be stabled in a barn with some excellent people and with Jan. They made the weekend very fun.
When the weather looks like this, you have to find something enjoyable about showing.
At one point I was chatting with Nuno Santos, RRTP Star, and his group about thoroughbreds. When I mentioned that Pig is 18, Nuno looked over at him and exclaimed "18?! No way!!" That put a big smile on my face. I love my old horse. I told Nuno that his horse, Ken's Kitten, is one of my favorites, and he told me all about how the horse is working at 4th level with his brother in California. So fun!

As my ride times approached, I took Pig and Sonka out for a jog in the field. Though we all ended up totally drenched, I felt really good about Pig's energy levels. He didn't feel fried, just ready to go.
Sonka asks, "Why. Why are you doing this to me?"
The rain picked up as I went down to warm up. I threw on my coat to try to stay as dry and clean as I could before my test, and got to work. The footing was even more flooded than the day before, and Guinness was even less impressed with it.
I don't think gross is an appropriate adjective any more. Maybe "epic flood stage" is a little more accurate.
I had come out in the snaffle, as my 2nd level test was first. I figured I could switch to the double if I needed for 3rd, but Pig actually felt fantastic in the contact. He did not feel fantastic in his back or in his confidence in the footing; however, especially as we attempted to school counter canter.
"This footing. SAVE ME, FOR I CAN NOT EVEN!" -- Pig
I would like to point out my face in this series. You cannot accuse me of taking this behavior personally. I am SO ZEN. 
Thankfully, Pig's antics faded with some praise from me and a low-pressure warm up. Eventually he was going around beautifully.
Boom. Work that counter canter.
When we headed in the ring for 2-1, I felt absolutely zero stress. Though I knew one more 60% would clinch my Rider Performance Award, I wasn't focused on it. That lack of pressure translated to Pig, who felt more relaxed as we went on.
First entry.
With the pouring rain (seriously, watch the video, it was pouring), the judge had been letting people ride out of order. Unfortunately, this led to her having the wrong test in front of her as I started. Though I told her my number and my test prior to her whistling me in, I think we just had a slight miscommunication. Whoops! Not a big deal, she asked me to exit the ring and start again.
This was probably our nicest halt of the weekend. Note Pig still trying to investigate the road to the left.
A slight leap over the puddle at A made the entry a bit unsteady in the bridle, but I think we stayed relatively straight. Unfortunately post halt, Pig threw me some sass about getting round and stepping up into collection. By the time we reached C we were talking nice again, and I'm not sure the judge noticed or wanted to change the score.
The medium trot needed to be a bit more prompt off the aid. I let the trot get longer before it got bigger. The first couple of steps were pretty decent, but then I let him get on the forehand. That made our transition a bit rougher. Still, a 6.5 for a medium trot is pretty damn good for us. I'll take it.
One of those nice steps just before I had to remind Captain Forehand he has a butt to sit on. Note to self, stop leaning back.
Our shoulder-in work was pretty tense. To the right this was due to an extremely large and deep puddle on the rail, and to the left Pig was just a bit stiff. The stiffness meant his neck was bent, but he wasn't carrying that bend through his ribcage. That's something we've been working on forever, but just couldn't get solved with the time off before this show.
It's hard to shoulder-in with your knees up by your eyeballs. I'm honestly impressed he isn't more inverted here. He felt like he'd completely dropped out from under me.
Our halt followed the same pattern as all the others, distracted and not solid on four legs. Since Pig wasn't paying attention for the halt, you can imagine how much the rein back took him by surprise. Whoops.

Still, the walk work was pretty good in this test. Pig's back didn't feel as free as the day before, but we had some relaxed wobble ears in the free walk. Hooray!
Girl, look at that body...
Unfortunately, the canter depart could have been more prompt, and the canter struggled from the same lack of temp as the day before. Thankfully, I'd chosen properly and picked the test with simple changes in the serpentine. That's an exercise I've been using in schooling, so we were ready to rock it in the ring. The simples were a bit muddy on the downward portion, but I'm really quite happy with how they looked in the upward parts. We had 6.5s on the simple changes, but an overall 7 for the serpentine, which I think is a personal record on that bit of geometry.
Good pony here. Really impressed with how he kept his brain plugged in during the serpentine.
The end of the serpentine and start of the canter work was an exercise in patience, as Pig lost his footing a little and trotted behind a couple of times. This water was really ridiculous. Doubly unfortunately, this made for a really uncomfortable medium canter. I kept pushing to try to hold the tempo and the canter, which garnered us a 7 and a comment of "bold". I'm not sure I agree, but I'll take it!

Then the toughest part of the test hit. We had to do the same geometry as in 3-1, but not have a change. We needed to demonstrate counter canter. The first direction we did not manage this at all. Pig slipped in an auto change, which was very smooth. I couldn't remember the way the test was broken down, so I wasn't sure how to contain the error to one movement. That led to me freezing for a second out there, then bringing him to a walk way too early.

Still flustered, I blew the second canter transition, and we ended up striking off on the wrong lead. My fault, entirely. My reins ended up far too long by this point, and our medium canter was an exercise in creative riding to keep the impulsion AND the lead.
Here you can see my hands saying, "don't you dare swap behind!"
The second direction's counter canter went better, but only because I rode the snot out of the pony to keep him from swapping on me.
The last medium trot felt really good, but the judge was right to call the downward transition the best part of the movement. Finishing strong, our final halt and centerline were fantastic (scored a 7!).
Lovely halt, though horse still trying to daydream to the left.
I was super happy with the test, and felt we had turned in a pretty good performance-- despite the lead errors. I wasn't sure it was going to score super well, but didn't care too much. I was pretty sure it was a 60%.
Checking in with the ring steward, I slotted my 3-1 ride into an earlier scratch. With only 30 minutes between rides, I decided to just stay on the horse and walk around the warm up ring. Pig had gone so well in his snaffle I felt no reason to change to the double. I hoped that extra time in the footing would help him relax about it.

My supporters (Mom, husband, huskies, and Jan's husband) took shelter in a nearby empty steward's booth while I continued to get soaked in the rain. Jan, bless her, hung out by the ring to talk over my test.
Saint status. Right here. Someone ring the cannonization bells and call the Pope.
While walking around, I heard that I took 2nd (out of 3) in the 2-1 class with a 62%. That thrilled me! I may have told everyone that I could fall into the muck in this last test and be happy. I had officially accomplished everything I had hoped for at this show. TWO USDF awards done in one weekend!

Of course I was already wet and on the horse, so I was still going to go through with my final test. My stress levels were absolutely zero, though. I think that made a huge difference. Pig was relaxing beautifully in the warm up. He was in the bridle better than 90% of our rides, and really listening well with zero stress. I schooled some half pass and a few half halts before wandering back up to the ring to put in our last ride.

The first halt was kind of a mess, but the half halt was there. I just didn't hold things together enough to get it square. Pig tried to stare down the judge in the halt, too. Probably trying to intimidate her, which ... may have worked? Either way, rounder and squarer would have been better.
Laziest. Halt. Evar.
Unfortunately, my lazy halt followed into my next movement as I errored by motoring down into a really crappy medium trot.

Um. Guys. 3-1 doesn't start with a medium trot. Ooops. I took the error with a smile and started with a new centerline and turn, per the judge. Shoving my mind back in the game, I headed out to ride one of the best third level tests of my life.

Pig was forward and in the bridle. His topline was relaxed, and he was right with me.

The half passes and shoulder in definitely needed more bend. The first direction was more relaxed than the second, but I'm not complaining too much.
Needs more body bend. But so relaxed!
The first medium trot was described as "needing more thrust and reach" which feels fair. However, our extended trot garnered us a 7, and rode beautifully. Pig took one stumble step, but never offered a jog. Clearly the long walk break helped a lot here.

Our first turn on the haunches also garnered us a 7. I think it looks a little wide, but he does keep stepping, so I won't complain. This is a coefficient movement, so having a 7 helped a ton.
Oh my god. This walk.
Our canter work was okay, but a little bit tighter in the back. Pig was still brilliantly in the bridle, but still not 100% okay with the footing. Of course that led to a hilarious fail of an extended canter gallop.
I seem to have taught my thoroughbred a dressage gallop #whoops #tempofail #funtho

The judge calls my first change "over ridden", but I was happy with how it rode. Pig stayed on my aids, and I did over ride it. With nothing to lose, I was hoping for a clean one! The change was cleaner than our others, but not quite there. Still, Pig gave a huge effort, and I couldn't help but have a huge smile break out on my face. It was so much fun to feel him so responsive!

The second change, while called 'not quite on my aids' which wasn't true, was clean. We got a 6.5 on that change, which feels like a miracle. I giggled outrageously at this change, as I desperately tried to gather us back together for our downward transition.
Gearing up for a clean one!
As I turned down the diagonal for our last medium trot, Pig turned on the afterburners. When I asked, he let loose with the first "real" extended trot he's ever given me. Midway through the diagonal, I realized I had no idea how to ride what he'd given me. I just collapsed into giggles again, letting him go and have all the fun.
Look at this magnificent horse!
Our downward from this felt like a million bucks, and we turned up the centerline to nail the last bit with a 7.
Evolution of a half halt
I ended this test with a smile from ear to ear, having had the most fun ever in the show ring. I knew we'd had another 60% test, but I didn't imagine that we'd walked out with a 62.576%!
Enjoy this brief clip from the test. Sadly, it's all that exists.

I'm so proud of this old horse. I feel like we had 1000 break throughs during this show, and also finished out two milestone awards. I can't imagine having gone on this journey with another animal, and I am so proud to have managed this with him.
This. This feels good.