Friday, December 30, 2016

2016 Goal Review | 2017 Goals

2016 Riding/Horse Goals
Keep Pig's stifles, other arthritis issues, and bare feet managed appropriately. Soundness and happiness are the keys to success this year.
- Pretty well managed. I went into this year with a no-holds-barred approach when it came to managing Pig's multiple issues. Overall, I think we have done a lot with my tiny budget and his rapidly aging legs.
Find a trainer I like for both myself and my horse, and get my budget and time together enough to take regular lessons.
- While I don't have a regular local trainer, I do think our semi-regular lessons with Stephen Birchall and keeping us moving forward at a pace we can handle.
Attend 2-3 recognized show weekends.
- Three full weekends of recognized shows in the books for this year!
Attend 1-2 schooling shows, either at the farm or off property.
- One schooling show at the farm in March. Hoped these would be more beneficial than they turned out to be. I think for my horse, expecting him to mentally handle an on-property show is kind of unfair.
Up our score averages. Average a 60% at recognized shows, and a 62% at schooling shows.
- The curse of the schooling show continues! While our scores weren't unfair at all, I couldn't keep Pig's brain at local schooling shows. Bigger recognized shows we were pros at all year. By the end of the season, I was feeling very confident about our tests.
Get our 2 remaining 3rd level scores for our bronze medal.
Bronze is done and prominently displayed on the mantle. Done, and done.
Clean up changes, so they are clean and prompt 90% of the time.
- This one needs more work. I'm calling it done because they are prompt and on my aids 90% of the time. But the cleanliness and relaxation of the movement can vary wildly.
Improve collected gaits to 4th level quality.
- I feel our collected gaits are ready for 4-1. Crazy.
Assess whether Pig can do 4th, and begin to look hard at his future.
Assessment completed: We will be working hard over the winter to try to put together a somewhat less embarrassing 4-1 debut.
[Stretch] Put on half steps.
- I'm going to mark this as completed even though all we really did was start them. I don't know how much further we will get, but the little bit that we messed with these improved our trot immensely.
[Stretch] Go foxhunting. This is easily doable, if I just make the contact and have the funds/time.
- Time and funds were lacking severely by the time foxhunting season came around. Instead we went out the day before opening day and galloped the hunting lanes with my own hunting dogs.

2016 Personal Goals
Get financials recovered from move + funemployment time.
- Still on the path to recovery. Damn vet bills and other unexpected costs murdered my ability to really get this goal where I want it.
Put up online storefront for design goods, and at least break even.
- Hahahaha. No.
Figure out grad school focus, and get in application for Fall 2016 or Spring 2017.
- I think grad school might be out for the next year. Instead I cultivated my job prospects and looked toward the future of my career path.
Do a little bit of yoga 3x weekly.
- Does a little bit of yoga 3x monthly count? 3x yearly? Oh dear...
Read 1 physical book a month for a total of 12 books at the end of the year. (Maybe recap reading in a post at the end of the month?)
- I really want to call this one a success, I read 8 books fully and listened to 12. I could have made a little more time for reading, but I think I greatly improved this year over last.
Join a gym again. Weight lifting needs to be back in my life.
- Joined a crossfit gym for a few months, then quit to train at home. Ended up joining a local "globogym" close to work and the barn, which is convenient enough for my concessional lifting needs.
Run 3x a week. Keeping basic 5 mile times under 10 min per mile (sub 9 optimal).
- While recurring bronchitis and a bout with really terrible pneumonia kept me from running as regularly as I would have liked at the end of the year, the majority of the year saw me running even through extreme Maryland jungle temperatures. That's enough to indicate success in my book.
Run from my house to Meridian Hill Park and back. (12 miles total city running, with several huge hills)
- Never did have the stamina or time built up to do this. Really want to, though. So I'm keeping it on for next year.
[Stretch] Pick up project horse.
- Hahaha! See above on "finances".

At the end of 2015, I really wasn't sure what the future was going to hold for my old horse. As of today, it seems he has stabilized enough to continue as my training companion for another bit of time. While I'm always watching and evaluating his abilities and happiness, I currently can't look forward to retiring him and picking up a project for myself.
Photo by StitzPics

2017 Riding/Horse Goals

  • Continue to manage Pig appropriately as a riding horse, and stay within my budget. Research ways to keep me more comfortable while doing his feet, and better ways to keep him pain free while working hard.
  • Continue to finesse Pig's understanding in the double. He really started to get it this year, and I would like to see how much better he and I can get with the tool.
  • Get those 3 changes across the diagonal for 4-1 without totally losing our brain. 
  • Show 4-1 at a recognized show.
  • Get the 4th level scores for my silver.
  • Develop plan going forward with Pig. Will he be leased? Will he be retired? His work days are still coming to a close.
2017 Personal Goals
  • Average 10-15 miles a week when running.
  • Average 2-3 trips to the gym to lift, weekly.
  • Run from my house to Meridian Hill Park and back. (12 miles total city running, with several huge hills)
  • Improve my running time back to an 8:30 minute mile pace. 
  • Keep average hours of sleep daily above 7 hours for a week.
  • Read 12 books this year. 
  • Stay open to the moments that present themselves. Don't forget to make time for friends and a personal life. It's necessary to keep me grounded.
Onward! Toward 2017!
Photo by StitzPics

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

December Stephen Check-in

Stephen Birchall teaching Pig and I in August
Photo by Liz
I've started treating Stephen Birchall's clinic visits as "check in visits." Moments to get pro eyes on Pig and I as a pair, and shape the path of our training for the next short period. Stephen is excellent at giving me feedback on the progress we've made, good or bad. I can then pick his brain on the direction we should be heading in, and concepts to explore to make our work better.

At this point in Pig's career, everything is about refinement and relaxation. There aren't a lot of new concepts to introduce. He knows the basics of every aspect of dressage (except the piaffe and passage work, but I don't think that's ever going to be a worry for us). Our training refrain has just become "More, Better." Stephen helps me figure out how to get more, and how to make it better.
A critical eye is always helpful! Even (especially!) in established partnerships.
Photo by Liz
Last time Stephen saw us, Pig was in desperate need of a stifle injection. We had been struggling with connection, namely a quick enough hind end to support the connection. He encouraged me to do more posting trot in my saddle, and be tactful when asking for more from the weak leg. 
Thankfully, that funky right hind seems to be much more comfortable now!
A little after Stephen was here, Pig ended up finally getting his injections. Since then, we've been working on coaxing him through his residual anxiety issues as they relate to the weak joint. On Sunday, Stephen immediately remarked that he saw an improvement in the way Pig was responding and moving. While I have a sneaking suspicion that he is just impressed a 19 year old thoroughbred is still going, I'm not going to peek too hard at his compliments.
Looking good for an old man!
I prefer having time between lessons to work out concepts and ideas on my own, to bring my progress and questions to the teacher for the next lesson. At the last lesson we'd explored a few tactics on getting Pig even in both reins as well as work on improving Pig's responsibility for his own balance. I was able to report back what was working to get him in both reins, and further drill down on those tactics. 

We also explored how far we could remove support from Pig before he started to panic under the weight of his own responsibility. We really drilled down here when it came to the canter departs.
A stuttery and surprised depart to start...
Pig's first canter depart was dull. He was a bit dead to my aids, and when I tapped him he stuttered into the canter. Stephen immediately had me bring him back down and try again. 
A bit more explosive...
The second depart was certainly not dead to my aids. Pig lurched forward, giving me a lovely head toss. It was as if he said "Woman! I'm listening! Geeze!"

Stephen remarked, "I'm not seeing that he's being bad, I'm just seeing that maybe he's trying too hard." This is accurate. When we tried the next depart, Pig was determined to nail the depart. I guess he did?
Third depart. Now with more explosion!
I'd like to point out that my aids for these departs are pretty minor. For the most part, all I'm doing is shifting my outside leg slightly back and lifting my inside hip. The horse is just incredibly sensitive and very concerned with doing the right thing. It's that thoroughbred hotness coming through. 
Example: I didn't really ask for this depart. I did, however, lift the wrong hip at the right time. Whoops!
I mentioned to Stephen that Pig's reactions tend to get bigger when he feels like his shoulders are in his way. Instead of shifting or lifting them, he just explodes through them. Stephen suggested some of the work I was doing to lighten the shoulders and shift weight to the hind end in the walk might be causing Pig to fall out of alignment.


Lovely depart!
The moment I stopped micromanaging the depart and let Pig travel straight before cuing, all our tension melted away. Pig stepped right into a lovely canter. 

Note to self: The horse is better at figuring out where to put his legs in a canter depart than me. Let him do his job.

Stephen wasn't even worried about the downward transitions. Those are looking lovely right now.
Just sit up and let the walk develop. Could be more uphill, but I'm not worried about it for now.
The canter itself is feeling much better than a couple of months ago! Pig is finally starting to use his stifle again without panicking. His canter is still fairly flat, but it's stopped being so horribly 4 beat. I'm also slowly adding in exercises to help lift the shoulders and create more jump from the hind legs.
I could watch that right hind sit all day long, because some days it just doesn't.
The collection is there, I just need Pig to be more comfortable moving more uphill to be able to consider debuting him at 4-1. There's a lot of work ahead to see if we're even ready, but I am happy to try as long as the horse keeps wanting to do the work.
Werk that right hind, Piggy.
On the agenda ahead?
- Increase uphill balance in the canter.
- Continue working towards relaxation before and after changes.
- Confirm ability to change 3x on a diagonal without totally misplacing our brains (see point above).
- Increase bend and self carriage in the half passes and shoulder-in. Continue working on horse carrying his own balance, instead of my micromanaging everything (and failing).
- Continue developing a more even connection in both reins, coming from a more even hind end.
Till next time, Stephen!
Photo by Liz

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Thoroughbred: King of the Cuddles

Face hugs and ear kisses are our favorite.
Photo by
There's a large portion of thoroughbred owners and lovers in the blogosphere. I think I speak for most of us when I say that thoroughbreds are some of the weirdest, quirkiest, and loviest horses (with great selfie game) out there. I mean, mine is...
Sleepy snuggles.
Sure, ex-racehorses can be quite mercurial, and even difficult. They are typically highly intelligent, full of energy, and emotionally connected to their people. A horse with a long racing career is often very tuned into "his people."
"Dis my people!"
I've been known to proclaim Pig to be a "one person horse", pointing out his attention to me and indifference to others. For example, he'll typically cuddle me pretty hard while he merely tolerates others. Though, he's quick to extend his circle of cuddle worthy people after a few visits.
"I'm gonna give you cuddles, but I want you to know that I'm only doing it cause I'm sweet and I like you a bit."
Of course, there are thoroughbreds who are much less particular about the people they'll shower with cuddle time.
... like this one.
But really, I think the important thing here is how people oriented thoroughbreds really are. In my case, I have a hell of a time getting a photo of my horse in the field that doesn't look like this:
"Hey girl. I know I was standing there all majestic-like. But then I saw you and had to come put my nose in your face."
Or this...
"See. Nose in face. Mission = accomplished."
Or this...
So much cuddling that I'm being crushed with it.
Or this!
Naptime cuddles are the absolute best cuddles.
This horse doesn't believe people are for anything but investigating (unless they're picking up poop in an arena). While he doesn't come running when I call, he's happy to see me and wander over to find out what our day will hold.
"It's dressage today, isn't it?"
He goes so far as to even follow me into the tiny tack room!
What? It's a "tack room." I just assumed this is where I would get tacked up.
No matter what our day holds, a good cuddle session is never far. Whether playing things super low key...
Bareback lounging hugs
Or taking ourselves seriously...
Ear kisses for a job well done.
For me, having a horse that acts more like a German shepherd is really fun. Though sometimes I might put a bit too much faith in the horse.
Like those times when I leave him grazing and wander off.
He never lets me down, though. He's too attached to his two legged herd.
Lookout, kids. Crazy man-eating thoroughbred on the loose over there...
He's even pretty fond of his fuzzy four legged friends, too.
Especially that black one...
Best friends.
The real cuddles come after our rides, though. That's when we hang out together and relax.
Don't lie. You wish you had a horse friend who stuck his tongue out for photos.
Making silly faces is our specialty.
The tongue really is ridiculous.
But we also spend a lot of time eating...
Om noms.
... and drinking together.
"For me?! You shouldn't have!"
I know I'm not the only one who loves the sweet nature of the thoroughbred (not that they're the only breed that's sweet!).
I know Emma is a big believer in this TB's sweet streak!
Sure, the OTTB isn't for everyone. Really, though... is any breed? For those who love them, the thoroughbred is often one of the most affectionate and loving partners in the horse world. And ones like Pig certainly aren't shy about showing their affection!
Photo by
Do any of you have stories of affectionate thoroughbreds in your life? Lets share the love this generous breed shares with us!

Monday, December 12, 2016

Understanding and Adjusting the Dressage Frame

3rd Level | PVDA Fall | 2016
Photo by Redline Photography
Dressage riders talk a lot about a horses "frame". What does that even mean? And how does our understanding of the shape our horses work in develop?

When I started riding dressage, my understanding of a horse's frame was simplistic. If my horse wasn't ducking above or below the contact, I considered him "in a frame". That there was more than one frame to ride him in didn’t really occur to me until much later.
Todd Bryan clinic: the start of my real dressage instruction.
Cincinnati, Ohio | 2010
Around Training/1st level, I understood that there was the stretchy frame and the working gait frame. While the frame of the dressage horse is typically described as the shape of the topline and the body, my understanding of frame at this stage was mainly tied to where my horse's head was positioned. I understood enough to know that as I went up the levels, the horse's head needed to be carried slightly higher. I knew the logic, but the practical application was lacking.
Head not in the air? Must be okay.
IDS Schooling Show | 2012
At 2nd level, I started to realize there were as many different levels of frame as there are speeds of gaits (read: infinite). I began to experiment with raising and lowering the neck, discovering how it changed my horse's balance behind or loosened up his back. My control over the frame was inconsistent. I wasn't able to hold a lower or deeper frame for long, and a higher frame would often get away from me and result in a horse escaping the contact.
Head too high, topline not engaged.
Heartland Schooling Show | 2014
At 3rd level, my mastery of adjusting the frame started to develop. I was finally becoming able to adjust the frame by fractions at will. I was beginning to understand the relationships between the frame and the hind end at a more intuitive level. I still made frequent mistakes, and often misjudged when to use a certain frame to achieve the results I desired.
For example: lower and longer when relaxing the back...
PVDA Fall | 2016
Every day, my abilities and understanding continue to evolve further. I think back to the days when I was unable to get my horse to lower his head in a shoulder-in, and I can't believe I was able to get good work out of him. I marvel at my ability to ask my horse to carry himself in a higher frame and collect to a greater degree.
Clinic snippet: Lifting a horse's frame when asking for more engagement.
Mistakes still happen daily. I often misjudge how much strength my horse has to hold a challenging frame, and push too far. I will ask for collection with the frame too long or too low. Still, the ability to actually realize and adjust the frame at will is such a marvelous tool. Maybe one of the best the rider of a hot horse can have.
Raising the frame to get the shoulders up and develop more collection.
Stephen Clinic | 2015
What is your understanding of a horse's frame? Are you still a beginner, trying to sort out what a frame really is? Are you at that intermediate stage where you are beginning to realize you can effect the way your horse carries his balance through his head and neck? Or do you have the basic understanding down, and working on perfecting your mastery of the tool (a process I am assured continues throughout your whole riding career)? What does your journey look like?
PVDA Fall | 2016
Photo by Redline Photography

Friday, December 9, 2016

An Overview of the Year's Learning

Looking back is part of looking forward.
Training is cyclical. How often have we heard that? How often do we, as riders, have to be reminded of that?

Over the last year, I've dealt with a multitude of physical and emotional training issues. Some related to my horse's age, and some to his personality. Resolving each issue took a comprehensive look at how our training at developed to that point, where we wanted to go, and what approaches had worked in the past.
Strengthen that stifle!
At the start of the year, we were working on developing Pig's confidence. He was struggling after dealing with significant arthritis and fitness challenges following the layup for his broken splint bone. The pain and instability of the stifle joints broke his trust in his own ability, and led him to act up defensively under saddle. With steroid joint injections, estrone injections, careful strength building work, and a low pressure approach to more advanced work, he started to blossom just in time for our spring show season.
Staying relaxed and happy in the first show of the year.
Early summer saw me start to put on the pressure again. We started schooling a lot of counter canter work, and shifting his balance further and further back. The low and round confidence building work of the early part of the year went by the wayside as we worked on developing half steps and a canter suitable for 4th level.

All that pressure came to a head in the late summer, when Pig's stress levels began to become unmanageable. I took a look at our intense schooling schedule, and realized we were due for a bit of a break. I backed off the pressure considerably, taking more hacks and working on building our relationship back. An August clinic with Stephen left me with a plan to return to lower and rounder work again, improving Pig's confidence and strength.
Lower and rounder, all the time.
With relaxation once more accessible, I again put on the training pressure. We showed in early September, displaying some of our best work (though not best scores) yet. Through relaxation, we were able to turn in good work for the level. I began thinking about pushing the training envelope again, this time aiming to work on the multiple changes needed for 4-1.
So. Uh. Not these.
Photo courtesy of Jan's husband.
Keeping an eye towards the relaxation work which had helped us, I tried to ensure we continued to work in plenty of confidence building sessions. I only worked high pressure one day a week, the rest of the rides focused on the basics of connection and throughness. We began to steadily improve, but the collection work was hitting a snag.
But that relaxation, tho.
Photo by Redline Photography
Another ride with Stephen in October pointed out a misunderstanding in my training when it came to support and outside aids in turning. Stephen pointed out Pig's need to be more responsible for his own balance. We worked on turning off the inside aids, and fluctuating the amount of support I would offer. The immediate result was a drunk looking horse, sullen from lack of direction. As we worked forward, I began to be able to improve the balance without having to feel like I was holding the whole horse together. Unfortunately, at that point Pig's old age reared it's ugly head with more force.
Pig demonstrating "force" with Stephen aboard.
Pushing Pig for more collection was starting to be greeted with disobedience. It was clear his stifle was paining him again, and he began slipping more in regular work. His fitness was good, but it was time for injections or pain relief again. I put him on Previcox and we kept pushing. The disobedience continued.

At Thanksgiving, I had Pig's stifle injected again. He seemed more comfortable immediately, but his defensive reactions continued. I began to brainstorm…
Outthinking the stressed out thoroughbred is tough business.
Putting his head down relaxed him, and unlocked his back. However, he could only shift his balance back so far with his neck so round. Remembering a tidbit from a clinic I had audited early in the year, I decided to try lifting his head and neck when asking for collection. To avoid stressing Pig with the change in frame, I would lift his frame and immediately ask for collection. Then I would lower the frame to keep him relaxed. We would repeat this process until we found a place where his frame could be lifted and he could step under himself further. Alternating between raising and lowering the frame helped keep Pig's shoulders lifted, too. A pleasant byproduct.
Lift those shoulders!
Photo by Redline Photography
This work has been going on for a short time now, with good results. I'm sure this approach won't work forever, but it's a new tool coming from a hybrid of approaches that have worked for us in the path. I am excited to see where it leads! Maybe we might make it to 4th level after all!

What training concepts made the rounds in your program last year?