Saturday, April 3, 2010

First post since February? Yikes!

Well, things have been going very well with Val and I, although we have yet to get to do a cross-country schooling because of the weather. Our dressage is finally clicking again, after it totally imploded over the winter, thanks to my "one response" riding that never changed no matter what Val needed... fortunately, that is on the road towards becoming better.

Now, we should have our first XC schooling of the year next Sunday, if the weather doesn't do anything stupid. That's going to be the huge deciding factor on the novice v. beginner novice question. We've been really stagnant this winter, and we definitely didn't hit our dressage and show jumping the way I thought we would. I really thought that by this time this year I'd be more than ready to go novice, but now I'm not so sure.

Could Val and I go Novice without huge mishaps and horrible accidents? Almost certainly. Would we be competitive at all? Would we have any shot at going to the AECs again? Would I be bored at beginner novice? It's those last three questions that are really holding me back. I'm an extremely competitive person, and that kind of pulls me two different ways- I want to push myself and do better (go novice) but I also want to place well and go to the AECs (stay beginner novice.) My desire to go to the AECs and NOT place last is incredibly strong!

Right now, I can tell you I'm really leaning towards staying BN for most of the season and maybe doing one novice towards the end of the year, but this XC schooling may change everything if things just go really, really well. We'll have to see.

This is probably a pretty boring update post, but I thought I'd let everyone know we're still alive and kickin'!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Finally Getting Back into the Swing of Things

Well, that's pretty much what this post is all about. In the past few weeks that have been my second semester of my junior year, things have not been according to routine. This was the first week where I was present for every single day of school (no getting sick, no going to a funeral for a friend). This was the first week I got to ride Val a majority of the days. And this was the week we finally started getting our dressage back together!

For awhile, I haven't been having very regular lessons. They kept getting rescheduled for mini-emergencies, but the fact that the lessons were rescheduled for legitimate reasons doesn't make our dressage any better. I've been accepting poorer and poorer performances from Val without even realizing it.

Things really came to a head this week. Thursday, I was riding in the arena while my instructor was giving a lesson and she was telling me that he needed to bend and reach forward to my hands. I was stubbornly sure that he already was, but I started doing a serpentine and I kept getting in "trouble" for leg yielding. "He doesn't need to go sideways, he needs to BEND!" And I was stubbornly sure that we WERE bending. In reality, Val probably looked like someone had jammed his head close to his neck and then forced him to eat something vile-tasting; he was gnashing at the bit and turning completely U-shaped. And I was positive that he was soft, forward, and bending!

So, whatever hallucinogen I was on yesterday didn't work today; I saw my instructor ride my horse and saw what I hadn't been getting in forever. Then I got on and really felt my horse, and I realized he hadn't felt that way in months! We focused on him taking the contact instead of me forcing it on him and we started to work on a more gradual "soften" as a reward instead of just dropping him. I've definitely lost a ton of the finesse I had last summer!

Anyhow, it was a nice, basic lesson and we ended on a beautiful canter-trot transition. :) My instructor made me realize that I can't just keep riding the same way every day for forever and asking for the same things and expect to get the same results. Horses aren't machines; a button that "works" one day might not the next, and continually pushing the same button will just make them resistant and confused. We have to adjust to what we're sitting on every day and we can never expect them to be completely predictable. Where would the fun be in that?

Also, as a side-note, my fitness is definitely improving! My aerobics class is really more a "go down to the YMCA and use the machines and equipment" class; we get to do 20 min of cardio and then 15 minutes weights/etc. every day. I've been working on the elliptical, and I love feeling that every day 20 minutes is easier than yesterday. This Thursday, I went completely full-out, as fast as I could, for 20 full minutes and I felt VERY accomplished! That success made me think, "Gee, I bet I can run for a whole 20 minutes too!" According to the elliptical, I've been going between 1.5-1.8 miles every day. Let me tell you, folks, 1 mile on an elliptical machine feels a LOT different than 1 mile on a treadmill!

After my lesson tonight, I got on the treadmill and ran at 4 mph. That lasted for about 5 minutes until I was gasping for breath and positive I was going to DIE, right then and there. So, I came back to a walk, caught my breath, and kept going for as long as I could. Rinse and repeat and 18:30 later, I had run a mile. I can't believe that an almost 19-minute-mile kicked my butt!

On the plus side, my recovery is definitely better than it ever was. Also, I used to only be able to run for 2:30 before being completely out of breath. That's definitely an improvement, however small. I think I want to keep checking how fast I can do a mile on the treadmill a couple times a week; I'd like to be able to do an 18:00 mile in the next two weeks at least. I think that's reasonable, although I really don't know much about running. By the time May comes around, I would ideally like to be able to run for 15 minutes without stopping for a breather. I figure that if I can run for 15 minutes, surely I can ride for 5 minutes cross-country without getting too tired toward at the end of the course!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Lost Week

Well, crap. I didn't get to ride this weekly hardly at all! Monday-Thursday was pure craziness, then Friday I longed him over some jumps at the request of my trainer and couldn't ride as long as I wanted to. Today, I went out to go ride and not a soul was there! I'm not a huge fan of riding completely alone when it's this cold; so I cleaned my stall in the hopes that someone would show up. No, of course not. That would just be too easy ;) So I came home. I will definitely ride tomorrow, but this week just feels like it's been a gigantic waste. I'm beginning to realize that our first event is in not very far away... just the 3 weekend in May! The first XC schooling we'll try to go to is in March. I'm getting very excited, but I'm feeling a little unprepared.

Here's hoping next week goes more according to plan.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The no-longer-quite-as-elusive One Stride

For the longest time, one of my biggest issues with Val has been my complete inability to get the typical "horse" stride- 12ft- out of him. The key word in that sentence, sadly, is "my". He has no issue whatsoever with getting a "horse-sized" stride with other riders. So, it's clearly something I'm doing to hold him back.

We've tried many things- my trainer has even watched as I "pushed" him right after landing, clearly asking for him to speed up and take the jump in one stride, and seen him ignore my signals and take it in two. And she got on right after that incident, and he gave it willingly to her! It felt like even if I was doing everything right, he was convinced I wanted two strides. Which, when I was a less forward, less confident rider, I did! I wasn't ready for him to be that forward. That's not the case anymore.

So, today, we tried a different approach- I had a lesson, and after I jumped a simple cross rail a couple times, we turned it into an oxer and built a cross rail in front of it. It was set on a short one-stride distance- 18'. Gradually, we built it up all the way to 22', an-almost-standard one-stride distance, and not once did we get two strides! That was definitely a good moment.

My lower leg position was much better today, and my toes were even pointing in the semi-right direction! Unfortunately, my upper body had become locked and stiff. I wasn't hitting Val in the mouth or landing on his back, but I was like a completely rigid board he had to carry. By the end, I was bending- bending in my elbows, bending in my hips... getting closer to a more fluid jumping position.

The only negative part of the lesson was Val's inattentiveness, at times. He was so excited to be jumping, and so confident in his abilities, he felt that he could go as fast and disorganized as he pleased. He didn't need MY input; he knew how to jump! Well, we set that straight with a few circles before and after the fence, and he had calmed down and was just taking me to them instead of rushing towards them at the end. A very productive lesson, overall.

Yesterday, I had planned to jump some little stuff, but the arena was terribly crowded and both Val and I were sick and TIRED of being inside. It was a fairly nice day, and although it was incredibly muddy, we decided to head off into the wild blue yonder for a trail ride.

There is something about being alone while you're with your own horse that's amazing. When you spend as much time with them as I do, you feel like you know them inside and out. You know when they're tense; when they're going to spook at something. You know if they have devious thoughts of barreling back toward the barn at a gallop. And you also know when you can trust them.

I trust Val. We were out in the open, for the first time in several months, and I didn't even get on or canter him once inside the arena. I took him off the cross ties, bridled him, and hopped on. And I had a fantastic ride. We went in and around some of the light woods at the back of the property. We rode a little near the pond. We even "schooled" water via going through puddles. I even let him canter a little when we turned around. We were on the back stretch; not the actual path that led straight to the barn, but I could feel him thinking "barn!" and I let him pick up a slow gallop anyhow. And when I asked, he came right back down. He thought about not, but the thing is, he did.

Sometimes I wonder if I trust him too much. But other times, I think that a lack of trust in your horse is what causes some of the worst accidents, especially jumping accidents. If you're pointing you horse at a fence and you're simply not sure if they'll go or not, it is incredibly easy to pass your uncertainty on to them. And one thing I know about horses is that they (at least all the ones I've been acquainted with) aren't big fans of things their riders are unsure of. Anyone that rides cross country has got to trust their horse; we owe it to them to not create some self-fulfilling prophecy with our own doubt.

And that's my deep thought of the day, I suppose. Sadly, I have to stay at school very late this week for newspaper, which pretty much means I can't ride, not with the amount of homework I have to do. Best case scenario, I'll get to ride again on Thursday. Ah, well.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Hind Legs and Energy

We had a really good lesson on Monday. Despite the fact that we walked for 95% of it, I feel like I learned some incredibly important things.

I warmed up Val myself for around a half-hour while my instructor, C, was giving the lesson scheduled before mine. I went back into the "he WILL stretch and connect" mindset and got him to stretch and continue stretching even when I collected the reins. D, my instructor's instructor, made a comment I found interesting a few weeks ago. She said, if you have to shorten reins from the walk to the trot, or the trot to the canter, you know they're not stretching forward to and accepting the bit. Their neck shouldn't shrink; they should still be stretching forward to your hands. The rein length you use for the walk should be the same for the trot and canter.

When the other students were gone, we started a pretty simple exercise. We have mirrors on the F-M side of the arena, so we worked on that side. We started at M, tracking right. The idea was to leg yield to X, then switch to haunches in (in to the BEND, so although his haunches were technically to the left/ "B" side of the arena, they were to the inside of his LEFT bend in the leg yield) for a few steps, then straighten to the mirror and turn left, INTO the wall. We circled at that end of the arena until we were ready to go again, then we did it the other direction.

It sounds pretty simple, and it mostly was. The big things she talked to me about were his hind legs and how his energy moved through his body. When we're leg yielding from M to X, his LEFT hind leg is coming up under his body and pushing him forward. The energy is going from his left hind leg up through the left rein.

When we switch to doing the haunches in, although we don't change bend, it's now his right leg that's coming up under him and pushing him forward. At first, that really had me confused. How could that be when the bend hadn't changed? Then I realized it was direction that had changed. He was now just going forward; he wasn't traveling to the right anymore.

C fixed a little hole I was developing in our leg yields- I've always heard her say that you don't want the hip just trailing along, so I ended up over correcting and asking for his hips to move exactly with his shoulders. They're technically supposed to be just a teeny bit behind in a correct leg yield, so we fixed that by either speeding up the shoulder or slowing down the hip. Crazy-technical stuff!

We also worked on getting a really nice connection to the outside rein and using it with the inside leg to establish correct bend, especially on the circles after the haunches in part of the exercise. Val always likes to throw his haunches to the left, no matter what direction we're going. So, inside leg and outside rein, with a light tap of the whip on his hip, would get him to straighten up.

At the very beginning of the lesson, she finally found a way to explain how I should be sitting in the saddle so that I finally get it. I always have a dip inward in my lower back, and that's kind of interfering with my ability to shock absorb. You want a bit of a curve there when you're jumping/in two-point, but when you're riding dressage and trying to sit the trot, your lower back needs to be straighter. It's a feeling of tucking your hip bones under. If you stand up and place one hand on your stomach and another on your butt and push a little, that's how it's supposed to be. It was really hard for me at first to do it at all; I would end up accidentally pushing the entire opposite way. But whenever I did figure it out for a whole circle or so, Val would stretch forward to my now steadier hands and soften to the bit without my even asking, just because I was sitting better! That's something we'll have to experiment with to perfect.

We finished up by cantering a circle, again messing with Val's hind end. We wanted his hips in line with his shoulders, so it was more inside leg to outside rein, with an open inside rein to encourage his hips to come a bit more to the inside. It took a while, but he finally got the idea and it was just amazing to feel his balance shift! He has never been quite that round, up, and balanced in the canter. It truly felt like the beginning of collection.

So, a pretty fantastic lesson from beginning to end. :) We have another scheduled for Friday and I've got to admit, I'm itching to jump at this point!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Actual riding!

Ah, at last! When I finally got the opportunity to put butt to saddle on Monday, Val had a lot less energy than I expected. I even longed him a bit first, just to see if there was anything totally wacky in there. He didn't even buck once, and after just a few minutes, I hopped on. Things were a bit crazy- the indoor was in heavy use by the lesson kids. My trainer was on one end, giving a girl a longe-line lesson over jumps. At the other end, another instructor was teaching a girl to really sit the canter correctly and to do transitions within that gait, and they were on a circle, too.

When you consider that our arena is 20m wide (about) by 50m long (maybe)... it was tight! The other instructor eventually had her girl leave the circle, but still, 4 people going around a small arena with a big chunk cut off by a longe-circle is... tricky. Especially when Val and I hardly ever just stay on the rail, although we kind of had to that day.

The actual rides on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday were all pretty much the same. Val felt like he was rushing and just not really connecting to the bit or softening and bending at all. My bad habits had come back, as they are wont to do after 3 weeks without riding. I was using way too much inside hand and having trouble keeping it from crossing over his neck. Also, I had major "duck feet" going on, as I usually do.

My instructor's instructor, who we'll call D, was in the arena on Tuesday. I could see her watching me and Val, and I instantly got very nervous. In the past, she's watched me and then told my trainer some things, which I don't mind at all. But I feel like I'm a reflection of how well my trainer is teaching things, and whenever she watches me, I feel instantly like I have to do my absolute best. Val MUST be on the bit every single second. We can't be overbent, we can't have too much bend. We can't have a sluggish transition, too much angle in our shoulder-in, not enough crossover in our leg yields... we need to be perfect when D watches us!

Obviously, that's impossible to do. I can't just magically start riding perfectly when D starts watching, and she's going to see our bad moments from time to time. Either way, the only thing she said to my trainer was that I was posting a bit behind my horse's motion. Not surprising, considering how nervous I was.

Anyhow, after those three mediocre rides, I was supposed to have a lesson on Friday. My trainer ended up not being able to be there on time, so I decided to just ride myself, since I was already on Val and I didn't want to sit and wait for what would've been 40 minutes. D was there again, this time riding her amazing old show horse.

This horse, Breeze, is about the coolest horse I've ever met. He's a paint, and he used to successfully compete at Intermediate! Of course, this means that I worship the ground he trots on ;) He's 25, but according to D, he hasn't changed a bit since his competition days. And I have never seen a horse that has a motor the way he does!

You watch D riding him, doing all manner of complicated dressage moves like 3 tempi changes and canter half-passes and pirouettes and you think, wow, he's so controlled! But under that calm facade, he's got a 1200 HP engine. All it takes for him to go from a nice walk to a dead run is for D to stop giving the invisible cue that tells him not to. He never, ever had problems making Intermediate speed, and he loves to run. D says that he was the most amazing horse XC- he just loved it; he never looked at anything and he really relaxed when he could just go out in the open.

Anyhow, the first part of our ride on Friday was just as terrible as the first three this week. D, fortunately, had her attention taken by Breeze, so I wasn't really being watched. Still, things weren't good. Val had PLENTY of energy on Friday, and he was choosing all manner of ridiculous things to spook at. I started just trying to loosen him up, letting him trot, and canter if he wished, on a fairly loose rein, just asking for him to stretch and bend. I then shortened the reins up after maybe 10 minutes and started asking for more roundness. In hindsight, I think he need more "stretchy" time. We were doing a serpentine and had just reached the place where I was going to change bend when he spooked at the door.

It was a pretty hard spook for him; he squirted sideways rapidly and did about a 60 degree change in direction. For the first time, his spook didn't get my heart absolutely pounding. It didn't even really unbalance me at all! We just continued on and made another pass at the door, with me insisting it was NOT scary and that yes, he could trot right by it. That made me pretty proud. :)

He was concerned at two other places in the arena, but he only spooked the once. It was shortly after the spook that D was done warming up Breeze. She was putting him through his paces, and so Val and I just went into the middle and watched him. He is a fascinating horse to watch. After he had preformed his extensive repertoire, including his super-fast run, D stayed on him for a bit longer and I could just see the change... he was calmer now. After they got off, I started riding Val differently.

I loosened the reins again and I absolutely insisted that he stretch. We worked on that until he was stretching and bending. Then, I did a walk to canter in one corner and rode several circles, working on him being forward and up. He was happy to oblige. Then, I just let him go. He did a couple laps of the arena before he was done, then we came down into a nice stretchy trot and took a bit of a break. He was no longer constantly hopping in the trot, trying to canter. He didn't feel like he was all pent up.

Then, we shortened our reins back up and we worked. We started with another walk to canter on the other lead and did one more lap of the arena, then I collected his canter back and he just did it willingly. I put my reins in a bridge and I refused to pull my inside rein over his neck, which also helped.

We started doing one of my favorite things- walk to canter serpentines. He's just so good at them; he comes down to the walk without a fight and he takes only the softest cue to pick up the canter again. While D was riding Breeze, they worked on canter halfpasses. Val and I can do okay halfpasses in the walk, iffy ones in the trot, and we'd never tried in the canter. We tried today.

We recently got mirrors on the small side of the arena, so you can now see yourself in them head on when you go down the long side. I got a nice, collected canter from Val, and then I just asked him to do a canter halfpass to the right. Imagine my surprise when he did! I could see that he really was maintaining his right bend in the mirrors, and although he didn't have huge crossover, he was bring his hips and shoulders together, not just oozing to the right with his shoulders. Not bad for a first try!

We played with that a bit the other direction, did another walk-to-canter serpentine, and came down to the trot and had a bit of a break. We went back to work and used the mirrors to do haunches in both directions. Then we did some leg yielding and picked up the trot. I asked him to be round and forward, and he was. We did some transitions, and then I let him really stretch down. I gradually slid the reins and he just followed the bit until he was doing our best-ever stretch down trot. I'm usually lucky if I get his poll level with his withers- he held the stretch below his withers for a bit! D actually saw us doing our stretch down, and she commented on how nice it looked. :) My trainer came in toward the end and also saw some of the work and said it looked pretty good, too.

After that, he got huge loves and was done. I walked him for a while so he wouldn't be too sweaty, then I got off. It was definitely our best ride in a very long time. We have a lesson later day, and I've got a feeling that will go well.

Overall, I've learned how important your mindset is. As soon as I decided that yes, he was going to be a dressage horse today and I was going to do the right things with my hands and shoulders and legs... things just fell together. Positive mental attitudes are difficult to beat! I just hope we can summon that feeling for our first real dressage test of the year...

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Schedule

Just reiterating this from an earlier post and adding to it possible XC schooling dates and dressage shows, for my reference.

Possible Shows
May 2-3 Kansas City Dressage Spring Competition
May 15-16 Mill Creek Pony Club H.T. at Longview
May 29-30 Briar Fox Spring H.T.
Jun 12-13 Queeny Park H.T.
Jul 17-18 Heritage Park H.T.
Jul 24-25 Briar Fox Farm Summer H.T.
Oct 30-31 Briar Fox Fall H.T.

XC Schoolings
March 14-15
March 28-29
April 4-5
April 11-12

Schooling Shows
May 2
June 20
August 22

Combined List
March 14-15 Longview XC Schooling
March 28-29 Longview XC Schooling
April 4-5 Longview XC Schooling
April 11-12 Longview XC Schooling
May 2 Heritage Park Schooling Show
May 2-3 Kansas City Dressage Spring Competition
May 15-16 Mill Creek Pony Club H.T. at Longview
May 29-30 Briar Fox Spring H.T.
Jun 12-13 Queeny Park H.T.
Jul 17-18 Heritage Park H.T.
June 20 Heritage Park Schooling Show
Jul 24-25 Briar Fox Farm Summer H.T.
August 22 Heritage Park Schooling Show
Oct 30-31 Briar Fox Fall H.T.