Sunday, September 27, 2009

First Dressage Lesson in Ages

Oh, and were we ever rusty! But that's to be expected. Val felt pretty good, but he was stiff through his top line and locking his jaw on the right. My trainer got on him for about 10 minutes and presto-change-o, his back was swinging again and he was even in my hands when I got back on. We continued to work on asking him to come up to the outside rein, but he started locking his jaw on me again, which of course means it's something funky I'm doing him that's making him stiff.

We worked on a new exercise in shoulder-in that's very nifty. I will draw up a diagram when I have time, but a description will have to suffice for now. We would do shoulder-in down the long side from F to B, then do a trot lengthening from B to M. To sum up, shoulder-in from corner to middle letter, middle letter to opposite wall letter. My trainer says it really helps to get them to stay "together" in their lengthenings.

I also was nagging at the poor guy constantly with my heels, especially at the trot. Nag, nag, nag. My trainer "vocalizing" each nag helped me to stop, but the only way I was able to keep it from happening was to brace on my toe. I need more work on my foot position, but I did find a thought/image that helps me get my weight off the outside of my foot and more towards the inside: I imagined I was squishing a bug with my big toes! Gross, but it helped. Although that was causing my feet to want to make like flippers and stick straight out to the sides. Big sigh. With much finessing and straining, I could get my toes to point forward-ish and have my weight on my big toes. Yay! And now my heels need to go down more. Oh, the never-ending cycle!

So, my "homework" for the next few rides is:

1. Don't nag.
2. Keep him forward!
3. Re-establish bend. (We've gone from having way too much to having too little. Whoops!)
4. Make sure he's reaching forward to the contact and is even.
5. Start trying to react to what exactly he is doing and what needs fixing every day, instead of just following instructions.

Number 5 is definitely a long-term goal. The reason we went from having too much bend to having too little is because I was just following directions: asking for less bend every day, instead of realizing that Val was learning that I wanted a little less bend and was giving it. Oops!

So, lots of little things to work on. We also need to work on sitting trot if I'm going to do 1st level in the spring. I was also told that 3' jumpers is probably not quite do-able this winter; so I'll have to be happy with 2'6". I wish they had a 2'9" jumper class! Ah, well. Finally, I was informed that snow actually makes good footing, so long as there isn't ice underneath. The snowy trail-ride plan is a-go! Now we just need some snow...

Saturday, September 19, 2009

A Relaxing Day/ Winter Contemplations

Val had another day off today. I went out this evening, and when I whistled to him while I was walking to his stall, he absolutely screamed at me, like, "Please come over here and feed me!" Silly boy. To his disappointment, I took him to one of the dry lots. I stayed in there with him, and just watched him for a while.

I think it's so interesting how they choose just the right spot to roll in. It can't be just any spot- it's got to be that one spot with the dirtiest dirt of all. I love that now that he's fit he can actually roll himself over- when we got him, he was too fat to get both sides!

When he was done rolling, he shook off the dirt, and I whistled to him. He walked over to me, poked me with his nose, and I rubbed his face a bit. Sweet boy. Then I went and cleaned his stall. When I was done, he got put back inside, and finally he got his dinner! He lives for that grain, I'm here to tell you. I wish I'd brought him an apple, though. I don't think I've filled the apple quotient for this week yet!

I'm really not sure how long he's going to be on this "reduced" schedule. I'm thinking at least two weeks, but I really hate to not ride every day for such a long period of time. I know he deserves his rest, though. He hasn't had a long break since we bought him; sure, he always gets at least one day a week off, but I think he needs the time to unwind a bit. So that's to be determined.

I've been thinking about this winter, and what I want my goals to be. My summer goal was to go to the AECs, and we managed that! I think I want to aim for doing a 3' jumper class, and getting him ready to go 1st level in the spring. Last winter, we did go to a few jumper shows, and we did the 2' and 2'6 class. I remember one trip where he was so charged up, it was hilarious. He was bouncing up and down with energy, practically. That didn't go so well!

There's two dressage shows in the spring, and we'll probably go to at least one. He's definitely ready to move out of training level, but we're not quite ready to show 1st level yet. We could probably do 1st 1 without make ourselves look foolish, but we'd massacre 1st 4! I think we can make a good push in our dressage over the winter.

I also need to practice braiding and pulling his mane. This should be more of a fall goal, though; that way I won't completely freeze my fingers off!

Finally, I want to take him on at least one trail ride in the snow. We did a very short one last year, but this time I want to go back on the actual trails. I think it'd be fun! Of course, we'd either take a cell phone or a friend with us. I love the snow, and he's always happy to go on a trail ride, so that should be fun. :)

Ahh, winter. I can't wait until the first snowfall! The first snow day where I get to go out and ride my horse on a school day. The first time the ponies get to go out and play in the snow. And of course, riding bareback to keep my bum warm! Winter is such a fun time of year.

Friday, September 18, 2009


I finally have time to write about the AEC's! I have to say that my trip to Lamp Light was probably the best possible way to end the season for Val and I. Although our final score was 109.9, and we were, quite obviously, in dead last, it was actually a phenomenal weekend. Yes, really!

We arrived Wednesday evening around 6, unloaded the boys, and got them settled in to their stalls. We unloaded everything from the trailer, including our trunks, saddles, and other junk, and got everything situated in to the tack stall. We had a great spot; we were in the permanent stalls, so we were very close to the water, and our stalls were literally right across from the muck pile.

After everything was organized, we got Val and my instructor's horse, Strider, out for a walk. We ran in to Andrea and GoGo from Eventing-a-GoGo in one of the dressage warm-up arenas. We talked for a while, but a piece of caution tape was spooking GoGo a bit, and she became a bit disturbed when it got caught on her ear. She started backing up rather quickly, so Val and I made haste to get out of her way! She stopped before she ran into us, thankfully. We talked a bit more, then went on our separate ways.

The next day, we spent the morning watching the advanced dressage. Sadly, nearly all of the horses were noticeably behind the vertical for large portions of their tests. One horse and rider who were not, Nate Chambers on Rolling Stone II, instantly became my favorite pair, although Rolling Stone did not have the flashy movement of the other horses. They ended up in 3rd overall!

Later in the evening, when the arenas we would be riding in the next day were open for schooling, I saddled up Val and got on for a lesson ride. We started in the dressage warm up arena, and it was absolutely the most phenomenal ride I've ever had. It was like everything my trainer had been telling me for the past year finally sunk in! We had a stellar warm up, then rode over to the competition ring and pretended just like it was our test, although there were others schooling in the ring too. We went around it once, then rode down center line and did an improvised version of the test, so that Val wouldn't memorize it.

It was excellent! With very little input from my trainer, I managed to do the best test I'd ever ridden in my entire life. When Val was finished, I got off in the arena, loosened his girth, and gave him a big pat. We left, and my trainer said that we looked like the best pair out there! I couldn't have been happier.

Warm-up the next day was almost as good; it wasn't quite on the same level as the previous one, but still a lot better than in the past. When it was finally our turn to go around the arena, I felt so confident and prepared, although I was a bit nervous. As I was riding around, waiting for the bell, the announcer, who is also the announcer for some local shows and knows my trainer, was reading what I had written on the information sheet I sent in. He read my thanks to my trainer and my mom for me; I almost teared up a little, and after the test, I found out that they had too.

When I went in, I could feel that Val had gained some extra energy from my nerves. We did our test, but we did have 2 breaks to the canter from the trot, which stemmed from my nerves. The rest of the test was very good, and on the movements where we didn't have breaks, we had higher scores than we ever had in the past. We were nailed for the breaks as expected, so we were tied for 47th with several other horses with our 41.5. I was still estatic; it was a great test where it wasn't bad!

The next day was cross country. I was incredibly excited; I'd walked it the night before and earlier that morning and was pleased with the course. There were lots of difficult things that I knew my horse and I could handle, and I felt very prepared.

We had a pretty good warm up, and both Val and my form felt very good. We got down there very early, and although we had plenty of time, we worked Val pretty lightly because my trainer and I were concerned that Val might get tired towards the end of the course. I was feeling a bit nervous, but I tried to ignore that. When it was time to head over to the start box, we jumped one warm-up fence and galloped over to it. We waited until the person in front of me had been gone for 2 minutes, then we walked into the box for our countdown. With a 3, 2, 1, go!, we were off.

I felt just a hint of hesitation at the first fence, but it jumped fairly well. As we made our way to fence 2, a coop decorated with wooden chevrons, Val spooked a bit at a light patch of gravel on the dirt, and he was still unsure of himself as we came to the jump. He actually refused; he just slid to a stop. I smacked him a bit on the shoulder and turned him around to try again. This time he went, and we galloped our way to fence 3, a small-bench shaped jump called "The Seat of Power." I was feeling pretty nervous at this point; worse than I ever have before. I was a little surprised; cross country has always been my favorite and our best phase. My nervousness in warm up had definitely followed us onto the course and it certainly affected Val's confidence.

When I lost my stirrup on the way to fence 3, I had a mini panic-attack. I have no idea what happened; I've jumped without stirrups before, and a lot higher than that fence was! Instead of just heading to the fence, I circled in front of fence 3. As I tried desperately to get it back, Val was going faster and faster. I realized I was accidentally asking him for more speed with my other leg. When I finally reassessed, I pulled my leg off, stopped the "circle of doom", and got myself back together. We jumped fences 3 and 4, a little cabin before the water, with no problem.

As we approached the water, Val ran out his shoulder over to the edge of the sand so he didn't have to touch the water. I tried to correct him, but I only got one foot in before we jumped out over fence 5, a log painted like a snake, and were on our way to 6, the sawmill jump. I felt very out of control at this point, and my goal was to simply finish cross country. I was determined to not get eliminated and not fall off. Val was hardly listening at all at this point; he was resistant to any input I tried to give him. When I tried to harness his forward and turn it in to a balanced gallop, his butt went sideways and he continued at a pace that was a good deal faster than I was happy with.

I focused on keeping my upper body back at the fences and my lower leg locked forward. I did the best I could to collect Val before the fences, and I rode every one. Fence 6 rode well, as did the in and out that came after it. We then went down a forest path to a sharp turn to fence 7, a roll top; while on the path, he switched his lead behind, so I had him trot and fix it. The sharp turn to the roll top rode well, but I couldn't get him as collected as I'd wanted before the next jumps, a mini-coffin, and we ended up jumping the first part, a simple flower stand, too far to the left; which nearly ran us into a tree. I over-corrected to the right, so instead of barreling at the ditch at an angle, I just circled to the right and got him together before we went over it.

The next fence, a simple cabin, was easy. As we approached the second water, I felt misgivings on his part. I slowed him to a walk, and he went in without hesitation, immediately picking up a trot, and then a canter. We were out over jump 11, a log, heading to a neat log that was set up with two logs. It could be jumped on the left, where the logs were right on top of each other and made a vertical jump and you had to go around a tree, or you could angle it and jump it on the right side, where it was an oxer and you could go straight to the up bank. We jumped it at an angle like I had planned, went up the bank nicely, and then down a hill. We made a tight right turn at the bottom to 16, a stair step fence, and were over the last fence fairly easy.

I was a bit disappointed with our run, but I still felt like I accomplished something by riding through my nerves and finishing the course, plus handling Val's little "out-of-control"ness. Fortunately, my horse's "out-of-control" isn't too terrible! My trainer is also specualting that he may have gotten his toungue over the bit, which would have caused some of my difficulties in slowing him.

The day before, we heard a girl bawling her eyes off because her dressage test hadn't gone as planned. Apparently her horse had an allergy attack and sneezed through the whole thing. And instead of laughing it off,(because really, it wasn't her or the horse's fault) she was crying so loud the entire barn could hear her, for over 15 minutes- "But I wanted it to be perfect!"

When we got back to the stalls, I put on my best teary-voice and said, "But I wanted it to be perfect!" Not a one of us could stop laughing for quite some time.

So, after that, we were in dead last. The person who is last goes first in show-jumping. My goal was simple: to go out there and make people wonder what on earth we were doing in dead last. The course was very, very simple. 1 jump on the long side, then diagonal, diagonal, diagonal, outside line, final jump. For those ambitiously minded, or for those with nothing to lose, there were two ways to get to jump 2. You could go around the final fence, or you could make a 90-angle turn right after you landed after the first fence and go between two other fences. My goal was making this turn.

As Val was being a tad inattentive the day before, we spent the warm up making sure he was listening. We warmed up on a loose rein as usual, then we started doing some really fun stuff. Walk to canter, canter to trot to halt, walk to canter in a different direction serpentines (we can't do canter-halt yet). These really got him pushing off his hind end, and he was being incredibly well-behaved. We started jumping, and after we'd jumped the vertical a couple of times, we halted a few strides out from the vertical, then jumped it, just to check and make sure that he was listening. His jump improved tremendously with these; especially when we did this at the oxer. He was really pushing over the fences.

So, that was the horse I took out into the jumping arena. Val will occasionally lengthen his stride on the way to fences, but I really held him to a spot on our first fence. We landed, made the turn look easy, and continued on to do a near-perfect course. We didn't touch one rail! It was the best round I have ever had, and I couldn't have been more proud of him. The announcer was saying my thanks to my mom and trainer again. I wrote, "My trainer deserves a huge kudos as well, for all the long hours she's spent trying to make me a rider," and after he read it, he said that it looked like she'd succeeded! It was such a cool thing to hear.

As we came out of the arena, we were handed our AEC Completion ribbon. I stuck it on Val's breast collar, and felt like I had won first place rather than ended in last. I jumped off, loosened his girth, and told him what a good boy he was. Then we packed up and came home.

And that was my AEC adventure! Although things didn't go as planned, I had a great time and wouldn't have changed my experience for the world. Val's having a bit of a break after all this hard work; we're scaling back to only a few rides a week for a while to give him a rest. I rode him today for the first time since we've been back and he was great! We did dressage and some more of those neat canter serpentines. He felt really engaged in his work and happy to be being ridden; he was in such a good mood when I saddled him up! He has even asked for some attention while in his stall the last few days. That is pretty odd for him; he's never been one of those horses that wants to be in your lap.

And even after our AEC "flop", the thing I love the most about my horse is that he doesn't care that our ribbon was purple and maroon. He still nickers at me when I whistle to him, and that's all that really matters.

Edit: Thought I'd put up this picture too, even if my expression is rather interesting. Look at those perfect knees! Those happy, pricked-forward ears!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Jumping on Terrain

Yesterday we put together a dressage arena back in the area next to the pond to school in today, and set up some jumps back there that we schooled over yesterday. Man, was it a lot of (icky!) work hauling the standards and jumps, completely covered in mud, goop, and spiders, into the back of mom's truck, then unloading them and carrying them around the hills until we got everything set up.

And how many jumps did we make? 4. 5, if you count the one that was a pole wedged into a small split tree, held at the other end by a human "standard". We had a combination that could be ridden either uphill or down, a jump in the woods augmented with some real logs, and a plank-jump by a large tree.

We warmed up in the field by the pond, then walked over to the jumping area. We had some barrels set up just before you crossed a small trough made by two equally small hills, and we jumped those a few times before we moved over to where the real jumps were. We started with the plank fence by the tree, which was a just a cross-rail for warm up.

Our first approach to it, Val spooked and actually ran out to the left, and I didn't do as much as I could have to stop it. I did reach back and smack him, but I didn't pull the right rein like I should have to redirect him to the right. So, I got a bit of a talking-to about not riding every fence. My trainer pointed out that since I most likely could have gotten him over it the first time, I should have, because if the same thing happens at nationals, we won't want the points that come with a run out if we can help it! On the plus side, though, I wasn't even vaguely put off balance by his refusal, which is definitely an improvement. In the past, refusals would at the very least put me very off-balance and only half-on my horse, and at the worst, I would fall. That's a good improvement, anyhow.

We approached the plank-jump again, and this time got over it, although I was a bit tight on his face because I wanted to prevent another run-out. He jumped pretty happily over it, although I didn't release the way I should have. A third attempt had him jumping it like it was no big deal, and me releasing well. It turns out that we use a crest release, which we do probably 98% of the time, the place where his mane switches from white to black is where my hands belong. How convenient!

We then jumped the second piece of the downhill as part of a circle with the plank jump going the other direction. Once we had that well, we did the downhill. We trotted it the first time, because the approach to the first part of the downhill is a pretty sharp turn, and we weren't quite as balanced as we should have been. We then tried it again at a canter, this time with instructions to go to the "natural" fence with the logs in the trees if things went well. They did, and as we approached the jump, Val hesitated and dropped to a trot, but I added leg and smacked him on the shoulder with the bat and he jumped it gamely enough. Then we were instructed to ride the natural fence the opposite way, and do the uphill combination, which we did.

After all these uphills and downhills, I was really starting to like the influence terrain had on my horse's stride. This is probably the first time I've really jumped uphill and down besides banks in our XC schooling, and it's quite a bit different. We practiced getting a good, balanced canter going downhill and keeping our impulsion going uphill, both of which were fun.

Finally, we jumped the jump in the split trees. Val had absolutely no apprehensions about it, and although we did take a few small branches with us, he jumped it well. We ended on that and went back to the barn feeling pretty good. Another of my trainer's students, an older woman who primarily does endurance, was waiting in the dressage arena for us to get done, and assumed the lead on the path to the barn, which is very long and straight. Val is always ansy about being behind other horses, so I always try to make him deal with it.

He got exceptionally displeased when Elmer began to trot, and we began leg yielding to the right and then back to the left. When he broke to a very prancy trot, my trainer told me that he could either walk, or he could piaffe back to the barn. So, although we obviously couldn't produce it under normal circumstances, we got to do a few steps of what was apparently a fairly decent piaffe as Val threw a fit that he wasn't allowed to trot after Elmer. It was a very, very cool feeling. I'd never really realized just how much they shifted their weight back to their haunches when they did a piaffe, and you could really feel that shift while Val was doing it. He finally calmed down and was allowed to walk back to the barn on a loose rain, happy as a clam.

Today we're back to dressage, and I'm going to drop my whip before going in to the arena we set up yesterday to simulate the conditions of the test on Friday. I am doing lots of mental "prep" for the AECs; every time I think about them, I try to imagine myself setting in front of the dressage arena waiting for the person before me to finish, and then I try to push away my nerves and exchange them for a very calm, sedated feeling. This year, we had a couple of dressage tests that started with us cantering center line because of my nerves, so I'm doing everything I can to make sure that doesn't happen at the AECs! I have no idea if this well help or not, but it certainly can't hurt!

Finally, Val got his tail and mane washed last night, and for the rest of the days leading up to the AECs, his legs will get washed every night to help get out any embedded stains, so that they'll shine nice and white for the competition! His tail turned out especially nice; it's even in a fairly decent braid to keep it as clean as possible until Tuesday evening when he gets his final bath.

So, the schedule until we leave:
Today- Dressage lesson. Wash white. Bring all tack home.
Monday- Val's day off. Wash white. Clean tack/boots. Wash sheet.
Tuesday- Bring tack back. Dressage lesson. Wash Val completely. Pack trailer.
Wednesday- Wrap legs. Leave! (Wash legs in morning if necessary.)

We leave early Wednesday morning. 3 days. Here we come!

Friday, September 4, 2009

"I stand on the outside, would die to get in..."

"I stand on the outside/ would die to get in/ I crawl inside just to begin again." -Shinedown, "Begin Again"

I think I'm really beginning to understand the extent of what I don't know about dressage. We've been focusing pretty heard on it for the last week and a half, and although we've improved, I feel like I've finally reached the top of a really big hill, and now I can finally see most of everything in "DressageLand". And 90% looks foreign and compeltely difficult!

Today, my trainer rode Val before my lesson and I got to watch. She was explaining how she wanted me to work on keeping the contact even. After having my trainer on him for an hour, Val started to look really, really good. He was really reaching with his hind end and he was taking a soft and steady connection to the bit. It was so great to see!

Then I got on and could feel just how much she had changed. It was a huge difference; it was like riding a school master dressage horse. I asked, and he just did. It was a great feeling, but it just makes me wish more and more that I could get him that way myself! She said that I had been ignoring or not pushing him on lots of little tiny thing, like him not taking a strong enough contact to the right reign here, or him throwing his haunches or shoulders a bit here... obviously I can't catch these tiny flaws yet. My trainer points out that she's been riding dressage/eventing for over 12 years, and she still can't feel every minute imperfection he produces.

She says that being able to make those changes will come in time, and while we'll work on it in our next lessons, it's difficult for me to try to make those changes when I don't know exactly what I'm asking for.

All of this is true, but it just serves to make me feel very, very humble. Humble, introspective... all good adjectives to describe how I feel at the moment.

I also got to see Breeze work. He's an old horse of my trainer's trainer, and he went all the way to Intermediate eventing! Which, to me, mean's he's practically a god. He did canter pirouettes, and tempi changes, and canter half-passes, and even piaffe (although he doesn't have the greatest piaffe). He's a paint, so he doesn't have the most spectacular movement on the face of the planet, but he still looks great for being nearly 25! The idea of a horse with huge, sweeping gates doing what Breeze did just leaves my jaw completely dropped. I'm trying to imagine multiplying the amazing things he did x 5 or so. It should be lots of fun to watch the upper level dressage at the AECs!