Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Training Sessions, Round 2

WELL. Remember how I spent my first week in Aiken soaking up unending sunshine and glorious 70º days? Well now I'm stuck just remembering it too, because we've had nothing of the sort for the better part of the last week! The weather has turned decidedly poisonous, and it was even warmer up home in Carlisle a few days ago than it was here. Needless to say, I'm feeling far less clever about escaping to the "sunny" south of late than I did when I first got down here.

(Kim Severson on the high-flying Fantasy Impromptu)

Fortunately, the sun did come out yesterday just in time for another round of the USET Training Sessions, this time with show jumping specialist Katie Prudent. I managed to nip out for the morning sessions before coming back to ride my own, and it was seriously worth the trip. Katie was audible (a HUGE advantage over Captain Phillips) and really made her opinions known. If she didn't like something, we all heard about it QUICKLY and LOUDLY. I really felt like I learned a lot, though I'm not sure I would necessarily enjoy taking a lesson from her myself.

(A quiet moment mid-lesson)

(Jennie Brannigan and Cambalda)

I got to watch three group lessons. In each, Katie set up slightly different exercises that all tested the same basic principle: the need to be able to control the horse's length of stride. Most groups started out, after some intensive flatwork, over poles on the ground, trying to fit increasingly collected numbers of strides in. I thought about my triumph of cantering between two poles on Kiki without having her totally lose her sh** and realized how very, very we have to go together!!

(Allison Springer on one young horse...)

(...and another!)

Then, they moved on to jumping lines and some short courses, all with the same focus on accuracy and adjustability. Katie accepted absolutely nothing but the best from the horses and the riders, and was very clear in the sort of results she wanted. I really appreciated the clarity of her vision and her ability to give the riders enough guidance to properly execute what she wanted to see.

(Jennie Brannigan on Walkabout, who was a bit of a wild man but who I seriously liked)

(Rocket man)

I would definitely say that these lessons seemed tougher on the horses than the lessons with Captain Phillips had been. Those private lessons had often lasted just around twenty minutes and been tailored exactly to an issue the rider wanted to work on. They would jump just enough to get the result they wanted, and then quit with the horses feeling relaxed and happy. I'd actually been really happily surprised with how well they'd seem to have gone.

(West-coaster Tiana Coudray and Master Hill)

(Kim Severson on Wiley Post, a horse I loved at the last training session but who seemed a little unglued yesterday)

In contrast, the lessons yesterday were not custom-tailored to any one rider but required them all to fit their ride into what Katie wanted to see that day. The horses were pushed very hard, and I think sometimes got confused or a little panicked throughout the course of the lesson. I definitely didn't see anyone leaving as relaxed and happy as they did from the Captain Phillips lesson. I don't necessarily think this is a bad thing -- sometimes a lesson needs to be a little rattling to really bring the horse and rider up to the next level -- but it was very interesting to note the different teaching styles at play.

(Tiana and her stunning horse Ringwood Magister)

(Will Faudree and Pawlow)

After a few hours, it was back to the farm to ride and run for the day. Both ventures are going well, though we've been spending a lot more time hacking out on the road than anything recently because of all the foul weather. Here's to some more sunshine in the near future!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Unexpected 9-Miler: Complete!

So yesterday dawned cool and breezy, mid-60s with nice blue skies. I dropped Pa off at the airport and had a few hours before I was due at Suzi's, so I decided it would be a perfect day for my long run of the week. I was due for my first 7-miler in four years, and I was pleasantly excited (and a little nervous!). Using the My Maps feature on Google, I mapped out an innocent-looking route near Suzi's house, then changed into my running clothes and set off.

But goodness! What a NOT innocent run that turned out to be!! A 1.5 mile hill at mile 4 and getting horribly lost at mile 6 required me to backtrack for 20 minutes, sneak through the middle of a trailer park compound, scramble over a five-bar gate, and bushwack through the woods briefly before getting back onto a recognizable road, only to discover that I was still very very far away from home! I had to walk for about 10 minutes down a steep hill, but other than that I ran the whole way back to my car. It took me two hours, and I'm not sure I've ever been more physically exhausted in my life when I was done.

I got back in the car (after sitting dazedly in its shadow, chugging water, for a few minutes), zeroed the odometer, and set off to see what I'd done. 8.9 miles !!! later I got back to my starting point. Oh hello, 1/3 of a marathon!! I'm pretty proud of myself for digging through. I just need to keep that mentality going in 13 weeks time when I hit Mile 20!

Meanwhile, the ponies have been going well. Kiki had a tough lesson today, doing the same exercises I last wrote about but to the left, her harder direction, and with the addition of canter poles which made everything much more potentially exciting. It was definitely more of a struggle, but she tried hard and had some excellent moments. Ringo had his first moment of bad behavior yet, leaping up in the air briefly (and hilariously!!) when I stood too close to a jump that another horse was jumping before going back to being perfect again. Hopefully that means he's feeing good =)

I'm taking Kiki to a little show tomorrow to do a dressage test, which should be good fun. Here's to a happy and relaxed pony come tomorrow morning!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Pieces Falling into Place

(Kiki enjoys her paddock on another gorgeous day in Aiken)

Today I had a lesson on the flat with Kiki that was very exciting because it was the first time I'd ridden and really felt like I was finally getting over my rustiness. Better yet, Kiki responded by being absolutely fabulous!

We started by just working at the walk getting me to sit properly and hold the right level of contact in the reins (not pulling, not throwing it away). After Suzi had had to give me a little talking to about my hands at the beginning of my lesson yesterday, I was extra determined to stay fluid and connected. It sounds so obvious, but it was amazing what a difference carrying my hands properly made: much much less head flipping and a far more consistent balance and pace. When I first got her she would fall onto her forehand and start leaning on the reins SO HARD that I had to (I still think correctly, and I was told to do this by multiple different trainers) really jab back her to get her off the reins and re-oriented. Now she's much more balanced in general, so it's me that has to get re-oriented to giving her a much more "grown up" and subtle ride.

We did some walk to sitting trot transitions, trying to keep her in a little more of an uphill balance than she's used to. She was such a star!! It was hard work but she buckled right down and tried to do what I was asking her. I was happy because I sat well (!!! YAY !!!), kept carrying my hands well, and was able to maintain her balance and change pace within the gait using just my seat instead of my legs or hands. This was pretty huge, and it was the first time she'd felt so good in her trot since the middle of August last year. Suzi was very happy with my riding and happily surprised with how Kiki looked, as she's been riding her and hasn't got a chance to see her go.

After a quick walk break we worked the canter a bit. The canter is definitely Kiki's weak spot at this point, and when she gets hopping I have a hard time not getting jostled out of position. So, it was very satisfying today to get some good work! Certainly nothing stellar, but a few circles where she was straight and pushing through - pretty huge for us!! I was able to hold my position better than I have been so far this trip, which really made me happy. Maybe I'll have kicked the rust off by the time I have to go home...

That was it for today, but I left really feeling like I had a plan for what to do going forward: what my position should feel like, what her trot should feel like, and what our homework points are. We're going to do a little schooling show on Sunday to just do a dressage test: a perfect opportunity to practice! I'm nervous I won't be able to fit into my nice breeches (though man, Papa and I have been SO HEALTHY so far; I definitely think I've slicked down a little bit in the week since arriving) but otherwise very, very excited.

In sad news, I'm driving Pa to the airport first thing tomorrow morning. After that, I move into the house at Suzi's, which doesn't have internet, so my posts will probably be a bit more intermittent from here. Here's to more good rides and happy ponies to report when I next get a chance to check in =)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Morning at the Track, and Kiki Jumps!!

Sorry for my absence last night; Pa and I actually tried to be outgoing and we ended up going to see a movie and didn't get back until NIGH on 9pm, at which point I was exhausted and passed out. Clearly, we're living the wild and crazy life.

Yesterday we got up at dawn and headed out to the Aiken training track to watch the morning gallops. There really isn't any better way that I could imagine spending an early morning (besides being in the saddle myself!) and it was a great start to the day.

(Early Morning Light FTW)

(Ahhh the good life)

(zoom zoom)

We also ran into a grand total of five other snowbirds who we knew, so it turned into a bit of a Northerner's Hootenanny. Good times =)

(is there anything more beautiful than horses galloping in good morning light?)


(classic track shot)

We finished off the morning with a trip to the Track Kitchen (Pa's favorite place to eat in Aiken) for a delightfully gut-busting breakfast of hotcakes and french toast. It was divine.


Then, the past two days at Suzi's I've been doing some little proto-jumping exercises with Kiki. Yesterday we just did canter poles, and she was pretty naughty!! It was her first time doing anything jumping related in seven months, so I don't really blame her, and I definitely spent more time smiling than grimacing as I got taken for a ride ALL over Suzi's big jump field. Still, she felt a little like she used to back when I first got her, which made me a touch worried that we were in for another loooong spring.

(A moment of calm)

(good girl)

Then, it was extra exciting to come back today and have her be much, much better! She cantered quietly through a line of poles probably a dozen times (where normally she goes to pieces as soon as she figures the pattern out) and then trotted a single cavaletti and a little cavaletti bounce! As uninteresting as the jumps were in themselves, it felt great to be back doing something again =)

(Hold that contact, Kate!)

Ringo has been continuing his streak of absolutely perfect behavior with aplomb. We did some more continuous trotting today, and he felt straight and even. I'm trying to keep myself from getting too excited and dreaming too big every time I get on him, because with horses there's never any guarantee for anything going the way you plan for it to, but it's getting pretty hard not to get optimistic with him feeling so good. Fingers crossed for continued progress!

(Handsome dude - also, check out those blue skies! drool)

Tomorrow is Pa's last full day in Aiken. Where did the week go? It's seems like just a few hours ago that we arrived in the nick of time for the training sessions. I've really enjoyed getting to spend time with him again, and even though I'm sinfully lucky and get to spend two more weeks in Aiken after he goes home, it's not going to be quite the same without him. At the very least, I'm going to miss my running buddy! We've done three 3-milers and a 4-miler since arriving, with one more 3-miler planned for tomorrow. The weather is supposed to be, if possible, even more perfect than it has been, so it should be a great day to hit the roads.

(This also happened. AMERICA!)

Monday, March 21, 2011

Out on the Roads!

Today was a more quiet day in Aiken, which was a nice change of pace from the action-packed weekend (though at the same time man, what an awesome first three days!).

Pa and I slept in (which for early birds like us meant 6am for Pa and 8:30 for me), loafed around the hotel room for a while, and then went out for another nice 3 mile run. It felt great to run before my legs got tired out from riding, and this was by far my best run in Aiken yet. I still haven't felt as fresh and bouncy as I have on a few runs as Oxford, but hopefully as I settle in I'll get that back. I also had a very sore left leg (I think from adjusting to running on the uneven dirt roads) the first two runs but thankfully it felt great today. I'm definitely still really enjoying running again, and having a partner (Pa) makes it extra nice!

After that, we went to lunch at our favorite sandwich place (New Moon Café, a beloved stop dating all the way back to our very first trip to Aiken back in 2003!) where I had a veggie wrap that I'm still salivating over, and then grabbed some riding clothes and headed over to Suzi's.

It was a busy day at Ledgefield so we got to watch a few lessons before riding, which I always enjoy immensely. Suzi helped one woman who has the same problem that I do with carrying her hands out in front of her, and so it was very helpful for me to watch her work to improve that.

Then, Papa and I tacked up Kiki and CB, a client horse of Suzi's, and took to the roads! One of the most special things about Aiken are the almost ubiquitous red clay roads that are wonderful for hacking out on at a walk and trot. It wasn't clear that Kiki had been out on the roads yet, but she was a total star back at Gina's (even walking up the river with me a few times!) and so I wasn't too worried.

(Kiki and I on a sand bar, about to wade back into the river near Gina's last spring - what a good little trail pony!)

Very sadly, my favorite road near Suzi's house has been paved (whhhhyyyyyy on earth would you destroy such a lovely thing??) but we were still able to head up John Scott, which is a nice, albeit more hilly, route. We walked up the steeper part of the hill (which someone had mystifyingly decided to cover in gravel that made it totally unsuitable for trotting - again, WHY) and then started trotting when we got to the flatter parts up top.

(Kiki is unenthusiastic about sharing the road with Pa and CB - also, can you say GORGEOUS DAY??? It was actually perfect)

And boy, they were both great! I always have a bit of a time getting Kiki to feel even in both reins, and this was a great time to practice as we were trotting in essentially a straight line for about 10 minutes. As soon as I got her straight her trot just ballooned into this marvelously swingy, fancy gait and I felt like we could be trotting down the centerline at Rolex any minute (a girl can dream, right??? =D). It's also just amazing to consider how good and rideable she was today, when a year ago I hated having to even trot her straight from one end of the ring to the other for fear of her locking her jaw and starting to run. We've come a long way, baby.

(Man, life is good!)

We did have one small 'situation' when we got up to the quarter horse farm about two miles up the road. Kiki was doing fine until two palominos came cantering playfully from behind a tree so that they popped very suddenly into our line of sight. Kiki had a serious HOLYCRAPTHAT'SREALLYSCARY!!!! moment that entailed her briefly flying to the other side of the road, nearly bowling CB over in the process and with me hanging on for dear life in the back seat. Fortunately, as soon as she got to the other side of the road she came to her senses and, besides being a little bit more on alert for the rest of the ride, was perfectly behaved. Whatta champ.

(Coming back to the farm with Pa and CB leading)

After that, it was a quick (but great!) ride on Ringo, and then before we knew it the day had slipped by again! It's incredible how quickly the time flies at the barn =)

Tomorrow we're up early to check out the sunrise workouts at the training track and then enjoy a massively filling breakfast at the track kitchen (easily Pa's favorite eatery in Aiken) before heading over to Suzi's. Kiki's getting her feet done, and I'm very excited to talk to Suzi's farrier (who's been doing an excellent job - her feet have never looked better). Should be another exciting one!

(Total non sequitur but I got a kick out of this - the Aiken town crest, which appears to be: a mansion, golfers, a horse, and... "progress." Awesome)

Sunday, March 20, 2011

XC Day at Pine Top

Today Papa and I headed over to Thomson again to watch cross country day at Pine Top. It was wonderfully cool today (after the upper 80s we had yesterday! I simply refuse to complain about sunny weather this time of year, but I was seriously wilting in my current thick-blooded state) and we both had a great time helping Suzi get ready and then heading out to watch.

(seriously exuberant jumper!)

Suzi and Ryan were great, loping around easily - though she did say that, due to it being his first outing in so long, he was a bit strong! He really is a beautiful jumper.

(woahhh Ry By)

(Such a class jumper)

It was so nice to just walk around the course in such nice weather and watch so many wonderful horses and riders clearly having a great time. There really is nothing like that great horse show feeling!

(What a beautiful way to spend a morning!)

(This jump looked wicked fun)

We hung around through the end of the Prelim, and then headed back to Aiken to see the Erickson ponies.

(Ahh some nice morning sunshine)



I rode Kiki first again and did a bit more "dressagey" canter like I was talking about yesterday (which mostly just meant sitting in the saddle instead of being in two point) and in general it went very well. She can't hold a put together canter for very long, but she definitely felt less stuck than she has in the past. To the left (her stronger direction), we were even able to do a big circle of counter canter in a more collected but still active frame. Excellent! I struggled a bit with my position (partly because I'm not in my saddle and so am using Suzi's stubben jump saddle which doesn't fit me super well, but I'm loath to blame the equipment when I'm also clearly so rusty!!) but felt like I made some improvement during the ride.

It was Ringo's turn next, and we did some more of the transition work that I did on my first ride with him two days ago. I focused a bit more on engaging his hindquarters by doing some low-grade lateral work (shoulders in or haunches in) and was very happily surprised at what a difference it made. He was much lighter and more fluid in the bridle, and marched along with the active intensity that I've been used to (whereas the past two rides he's felt almost weirdly lazy). I tried really hard to not come against him with my hand, with mixed success. I have a hard time getting the downward transition without feeling like I have to pull (booooo), though there were a few where I was able to do it properly with my leg and body while keeping my hand light. Something to keep practicing!

(Ringo's tongue making its daily appearance - he hates having foam on his mouth and becomes obsessed with trying to lick it off!)

(good boy!!!)

We went for another run this afternoon, for which I felt much fresher thanks to the cool weather. Phew! I'm still definitely noticing some serious leg fatigue right from the outset, but hopefully as I get more riding fit that will pass. And certainly, when I get back to brisk British spring weather with no horses to ride, training is going to feel like a cakewalk in comparison!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Another Action Packed Day in Aiken

So sore. So tired. SO HAPPY!

Today was Pa and my second day in Aiken, and we made it another full one! We got up early and headed over to Pine Top to watch Suzi ride a few horses at the event there. It was another absolutely perfect day, and Pine Top was looking swooningly beautiful with the spring bloom coming out. Pa had never been there before, and so he was (of course) blown away by how beautiful it is. I can't wait for him to really see the cross country tomorrow!

(Pine Top is beeeooootiful)

Suzi rode her own horse, Ryan, first in the Prelim. He hasn't been out to a full event in a few years and was a bit "excited" during his dressage test. As usual, I was so impressed with the quiet and tactful way that Suzi rode through a tough situation; she's such an amazing horsewoman, and truly the rider I look up to most.

(Doing a good job on a very tense Ry)

Afterwards she headed straight over to show jumping, where they jumped a very nice clean round. Since the course had been causing quite a few problems up to that point, it was nice to see it done properly!

(Ryan is an awesome jumper and quickly redeemed himself after his questionable dressage performance)

(Good boy!)

We then helped her quickly cool Ryan off and tack up her second ride of the day, a client's horse named Merlot who was going novice. He's a super nice, fancy little horse, and they had a lovely test. In a true reflection of the competitiveness of divisions down south, she scored a 31.5... and was in 10th place!

(Such a pretty boy)

(His canter especially was kind of swoon worthy - I wish I'd gotten better photos! I realized at the end of the day that I had it set in the wrong mode (stupid!) so I had to toss out a loottttt of blurry photos - boo)

After that, we headed back to the farm to ride the ponies. I got on Kiki first and did some nice big trot and then forward canter and counter canter out in the big field. I was feeling a lot better in my balance today, though I definitely still had a few shaky moments! I already find my balance in two point difficult on her because she's so small that the balance point on her is very, very fine. Her canter felt very good, though I'll be interested to do some more "dressagey" cantering in the next few days (ie: actually sitting on her back) and see how she responds, as that's usually when her weakness comes out most acutely. She definitely feels much straighter, though, and could even do some counter bending in the counter canter and still keep a nice, active step behind. Good girl!!

(Kiki's got a bit of a belly at the moment too! We're just two fat girls, trying to make it in this world =D)


(Thanks, Pa, for the awesome photos!)

With Ringo, I did four laps of the arena at trot, with a lap of walk break in between each. My balance needs to be in such a different place for him than it does for Kiki that I definitely flopped around a bit the first quarter or so of the ring!! He feels very relaxed but a bit heavy and stiff in the bridle, which isn't too surprising given his current strength and workload but still feels weird compared to the featherlight feel that I remember from before his injury. Still, I'd much rather have him be a little too heavy in the bridle than too light! He also feels wonderfully sound and even, which I can't be thankful for enough.

Afterwards, we came back to the hotel, changed, and then went for a run! My legs were absolutely dead from riding so it was a pretty hard run for me even though it was only three miles, but I still was proud with how cardiovascularly fit I felt and in my ability to stick it out despite my legs feeling like they literally had nothing more to give.

I have a sneaking suspicion that it's going to be an earrrlllly night tonight, and then it's up bright and early tomorrow morning for cross country day at Pine Top! It's going to be another exciting day for sure =)
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