Monday, September 26, 2011

Whirlwind Wrap Up Part II: Ringo Meets Heidi

After the Woodside show last weekend things started to really heat up because of equestrian team pre-season that had me occupied for 8 or 9 hours a day. Most days I could only ride one of my horses and fell into bed at 10pm feeling drained from the combination of hard work and hot weather.

By the time Thursday rolled around I was feeling pretty fried, especially since whatever few brain cells I had left were groping with the fact that I had to leave for Twin Rivers that evening with Kiki in tow for the event and felt neither packed nor prepared. On Thursday afternoon, however, I took a quick break from being stressed to have a very exciting dressage lesson with Heidi Gaian, who has been Rachel's instructor for years and years.

I had never seen Heidi teach before and so was happy to watch Rachel's lesson before I got on. Rachel was riding a very nice new client horse, and it was interesting to watch him improve over the hour. Heidi's style was very direct and to the point, which I liked but also found a little intimidating. She seemed to be asking a lot of hard questions and movements; what if I couldn't keep up with what she was asking?

When my lesson started I told her my score history and, upon hearing that I'd gotten some good scores at second level, she suggested we start working on some third level things. You know what that means: changes. Gulp. Ringo has beautiful changes but so far I've been mediocre at best at producing them cleanly and expressively on command (there are a lot of flying changes in our counter canter and a lot of late changes when I ask for them... perfect).

So, the first time she asked me to come across the diagonal and do a single change, my stomach was in knots. I really wanted to get it right the first try and make a good impression! I took a deep breath, set him up as squarely as I could, and asked as strongly as I know how. And... whee!! It worked! It was one of our better changes! I had a big sigh of relief and thought to myself, 'well, I've passed that test, now we'll probably move onto something else.'

Imagine my surprise, then, when I immediately heard her say to go across the next diagonal and do not one, but three changes! Yikes!! Ringo really had his dance shoes on because even though I was totally discombobulated from this request he still performed admirably and pulled off three lovely changes. We did it a few more times, sometimes more cleanly than others, but in general I was thrilled with him and Heidi, I think, was happy too.

At the end of our lesson as we were wrapping up she asked, 'So, when are we taking this horse Prix St Georges?' I gave her a sort of stunned look. I've been told that Ringo has PSG potential but always in a distant, nebulous, years-off kind of way. Heidi went on to say that we could have Ringo going PSG by the spring if we worked at it.

She finished by saying, 'Why not?' Why not, indeed. I think, despite Heidi's (seeming?) confidence, that it would be a pretty massive stretch to be going FEI by the spring, but I'd certainly like to keep trying! Though there are definitely still many many miles to go between here and there...

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Deep Breath Time

All right. Time for a big deep breath. The past three weeks have felt like they've gone by at a million and a half miles an hour and I'm feeling distinctly behind the eight ball. My clothes are a massive disgusting mountain in the peak of the dressing room. There are shopping bags filled with empty food cartons filling the passenger seat of my car. My tack and show stuff are balled in a dirty pile in the tack room. I've survived three solid weeks of showing (the longest continuous streak I've ever done) and am thoroughly exhausted but also immensely satisfied.

Here's the first part of a recap of the past few weeks (which is going to take a few posts because hella stuff has gone down):

9-10 September: Dressage Derby with Ringo

I took Ringo up to beautiful (read: 103 degrees and flat, flat, flat!) Vacaville, CA, for our first show back in California and our second level debut. Rachel had originally thought that she might come with us but her horse ended up not being quite ready, so we were on our own. Though I'm sure we would have scored better with help in the warmup, it was also a good experience to go and realize that we can also manage pretty well on our own.

(The perennial step one for bringing Ringo to a show: attack the white bits with as much QuicSilver as I possibly can)

(Ringo loves his baths. Clearly.)

Ringo was pretty faultless both days. It was so. freakin. hot. that he felt a little lazy, and I was glad that I had decided to buy a pair of big DQ-ey spurs (1"+, uncurved, and blunt) right before we left. In our first test on Friday we had two judges, which gave it a very official feel for a regular second level test. Ringo was awesome in warmup and then got a little tense around and in the ring, which mostly carried over in our canter work, where he felt a little unbalanced and wild at times. Still, I was very pleased, especially since I was so hot that my brain was on semi-meltdown.

(Ringo looking so pretty and white when he first arrived!)

I finished my test only to have the judge at C blow the whistle and tell me that I'd gone off course. Huh?? I was so hot that I honestly couldn't remember if I had or hadn't. Fortunately the other judge stepped in on my behalf and said that I was fine, but it was still pretty strange. The judge at C then presumably had to give me scores for movements that she didn't actually watch (or remember watching) me do. It was unsurprising, then, that her score was a good deal lower than that from the judge at E. I got a 61% from her and a 69% from the other judge (!!) for a 65% aggregate score. Not bad for a first attempt!!

(Endless Vacaville sunset - beautiful, but insanely warm)

Saturday we came back for the same test again. I shortened my warmup a bit and ended up timing it pretty perfectly. Ringo was much more relaxed and we put in what was by far the best test I think I've ever ridden to date. It felt incredibly fluid and easy. The canter work, especially, felt super balanced and square, which is something we struggle with. Unfortunately we jigged in our free walk, which not only blew up that score but also our collective marks for gaits and submission. Phooey. We still got four 8's and our entire canter tour scored 7s and higher, so I was thrilled. We got a 65%+ but with the one mistake of the free walk rectified would have come very close to breaking 70%. Good boy Prowler!!

The pictures are posted and viewable here:


After that it was a whirlwind week to get ready for the Woodside dressage show the next weekend, which I actually did write about in real time (mostly to feel sorry for myself. Whomp whomp).

I had some great lessons with Dayna in the meantime, which I would write about more in detail except my brain feels like a cotton ball and my three lessons with her have all blended together. The big takeaway: more leg, less rein, sit up tall, don't freak out. I'm pretty sure I could have that shouted at me for the rest of my life and it would never stop being applicable. But man, Kiki has been improving in leaps and bounds under her instruction and I'm excited to keep moving forward.

Next post, my clinic with Heidi Gaian on Ringo (Ringo go PSG?? Maybe, my friends) and then my most recent outing at Twin on Kiki. Until then, I've got a lot of laundry to do.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

LIGHTBULB

After my disappointing Friday with Kiki, I felt so emotionally and physically drained that it was pretty hard to get really excited for my rides on Ringo on Saturday and Sunday. Ringo was a total star, but I felt very flat as a rider. We had a very disrupted warmup on Saturday thanks to some water-truck/drag shenanigans halfway through which meant that I didn't get to work the canter nearly as much as I want to so that when we got into the ring the canter was pretty wild.

On Sunday I fulfilled a big goal of having a mistake-free test (no broken gaits, missed transitions, etc, which I usually manage to have at least one of each time) and was rewarded with my best score at 2nd Level yet, a 66.7%. The canter work was still pretty far from where it has been in the past and I didn't feel like I rode particularly brilliantly, so it's exciting to think about how much better even we can score when we get everything popping at once. Mostly it just felt good to have this show behind me; for whatever reason I didn't enjoy myself this weekend, and I'm looking forward to getting some good training in before I regroup and head out into the dangerous waters of DQ land again.

I left Kiki completely alone on Saturday because I was still very disappointed from Friday and didn't want to give her a bad ride just because I was feeling frustrated. I was somewhat dreading getting on and fighting with her today, so I decided to take a chance and ride her bareback just for a spin around the property. I've actually never ridden her bareback before because she's been so, umm, "enthusiastic" that I've feared for my life. But, by 5 pm today and after 12 straight hours of nonstop horse show and equestrian team preseason action, I obviously wasn't thinking straight and decided to go for it.

And it was awesome.

As in, it was one of the best rides I've had on Kiki ever. I picked up the trot and she was steady in the bridle, not racing, and as relaxed in her back as I've ever felt her. When I asked her to rock back and lift her poll while still coming forward, she did it without throwing a fit. We ran through the entire same test from Friday, in the dressage court, and it was far and away the best attempt we'd ever done together. Her canter felt bigger and more rideable. Her trot felt bouncy and powerful without being out of control. I could sit. I could turn. I could put my hands forward without feeling like she was falling apart. It was an epiphany.

So what does it mean?

I think the saddle is bothering her. This claim is further supported by the fact that I've always felt that she goes better in the jump saddle than the dressage saddle. I always thought it had something to do with how the jump saddle encourages me to be lighter on her back, but perhaps it's more that the jump saddle just fits her better than the dressage saddle does.

I don't know what this was such a cosmic revelation to me, as it really should be obvious that the dressage saddle wouldn't fit, but it totally was. I only own one dressage saddle for both horses: a Devoucoux that came with Ringo and was custom fit for him and his old owner who was at significantly shorter than I am, meaning that the saddle has never really fit me superbly. I've always just ridden in it because it was a step up from my previous saddle (a Roosli that I'd gotten as a christmas present when I was 12 years old, 5'6", 170 pounds, and riding my 15hh quarter horse Boris) and because it fit Ringo.

Ringo and Kiki could not have more different body types (Ringo: narrow and bony with a huge wither; Kiki: absolutely barrel-bodied with almost no withers at all), but necessity has dictated up until now for Kiki to take one for the team and wear Ringo's stuff. The saddle never made her sore, so I had no reason to believe that, despite its obviously wonky fit, it was holding us back in any way. I feel stupid now because it seems like such an obvious place to look when dealing with the sorts of problems Kiki was facing, which all center around her back and her center of balance in some way. I've always been lucky and had strong-backed horses and good fitting saddles, so I've thought about saddle fit very little. After having such a huge turn around in the space of one ride, it seems pretty clear that the time has come to invest more time and thought into the saddle than I have been.

Fortunately talks of a new saddle (perhaps actually with flaps long enough for my legs?? What a shocking concept) have been on the table since the end of the summer when Kim pointed out how few favors my current saddle is actually doing for my position. It's still a big investment to bust out, but if it improves Kiki's way of going as drastically as our bareback ride was tonight, then it will be well worth it in the long run.

Any suggestions? I am sort of tempted to return to my Stubben roots, as I would trust their indestructibility and fitability with my life, but I'm really not sure. I've always dreamed of having a Stackhouse close-contact dressage saddle, because I despise giant overblocked monstrosities and always want something that's essentially as close to a jump saddle with straight flaps as I can get, but that's wayyy out of my price range at the moment. But, a girl can dream...

(Cute Kiki. Problem saddle.)

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Burn Out

Sorry for the lack of posting lately. I've been holding out fairly desperately for the day I moved into my dorm and got internet again, but of course here I am now sitting in my new dorm with a computer that I still can't get online and no hope of getting the problem resolved over the next few days. Boo. I've been in desperate need of an update, though, as quite a bit has happened since I last posted, so here is the crappier iPhone-produced and pictureless version of what I was hoping originally to write.

I've been feeling really burnt out lately. The anxiety of the move, plus being a little homesick, plus the always brewing drama of the Red Barn, plus all the stupid worries I have for the coming school year and coming back after having been away from Stanford for so long, have all left me completely exhausted both physically and emotionally. So, take any of the following histrionics with a grain of salt, as I most certainly have not been in the most resilient mood over the past ten days.

I took Kiki to the Woodside dressage show yesterday to do some first level tests in preparation for Twin next week. I have to say, I've been really pleased with how she's been feeling lately. I've been able to do more sitting work with her, and get her into a rideable place. The sitting, especially, has helped overcome the snag I'd hit where every time I would come back to trot after cantering she would literally grab the bit and by across the arena, because I could control her with my seat and not have to pull as much with my hands. Her canter was miles better than the throwing herself against the walls that she'd done I our first lessons with Kim, and there are brief moments where I can actually get her to unlock more through her back than she ever has before in the dressage ring.

So when I brought her to the show and she actually kept her head on straight during the warmup and as we entered the ring, I was pretty hopeful. We made some mistakes and she got tense a few times, but it felt miles ahead of where we'd been at GMHA in July. During the second test, especially, I really felt like we might actually start being competitive.

Well, we weren't. Our first test scored the lowest we've ever gotten on wny dressage test ever (except for that memorable 51% I got at Stuart last year... But I try not to think about that, haha). When I got the tests back the comments were so mean on both, even the second one where I had scored better, that I burst into tears and couldn't stop crying. Both tests slammed me for my riding and said that I was holding Kiki back and limiting her potential with my restricting aids. I got my first '5' on rider in as long as I can remember. Rachel tried really hard to cheer me up but I was already in full on melt down mode so there wasn't much to be done.

I just feel like I can't do right with this horse. When I ride her forward, she races on the forehand and is completely unbalanced and out of control. When I ride her more conservatively, I'm restricting her potential and she gets tight in the back. I make her fussy. I make her tense. I can't sit her trot. I can't control her trot from the post. I can't get her unstuck in the canter. The list feels like it goes on and on and on. It makes me incredibly frustrated. I feel like I have the same horse I did when I started riding her as a five year old. All the work and training I've put into her has come to nothing.

So, it's back to the drawing board again, for what feels like the thousandth time. Maybe someday I will stop sucking enough to actually ride this horse properly and get rewarded for it. Maybe.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

I Swear I Haven't Died...

...I'm just living in a world without internet connection or power (besides my trusty car charger for my iPhone). I've been back at Stanford for six days now and am thoroughly enjoying being back in the California lifestyle, but will also be excited for next Friday when I can actually move into my housing for the year and can stop hiding out on my mattress in the peak of my trailer, eating nothing but warm diet coke and pb&j sandwiches* and taking cold showers in the equestrian team locker room (but hey, it's better than the sink!).

Both the ponies have settled in really well, though not without a bit of drama on the way. Kiki had a small and almost entirely healed cut on the front of her cannon bone on her LH that of course in the process of the five day road trip managed to get completely infected and blown up. Great. She has remained completely sound but the swelling has proven quite stubborn despite a complete round of antibiotics, sweat wraps every night, and now a three day course of steroids. Grrr. I have yet to ship Kiki to Stanford without something crazy happening to her left hind leg. It's cursed, and is begging to just get chopped off so I don't have to worry about it anymore (kidding. Sort of.). Fortunately the vet came out and gave her the go ahead to keep riding in the meantime, but I'm still running on stress level: midnight over trying to get the inflammation down.

Ringo, despite a round of scratches cropping up right before we left, travelled and settled in beautifully. Then in a moment of total hare-brained stupidity I decided to take him to the beach, which turned out to be a total disaster. Ringo hated everything: he thought the waves were going to eat him, the kids were going to eat him, the seaweed was going to eat him, even the ground itself was going to open up and swallow him whole. There was a lot of rearing and running sideways. Worse though, the sand was super deep right down to the surf, even though we went at low tide, which meant that I was totally convinced that he was going to rebow his tendon. There is still a slight irregularity that I can feel where the bow was, and so the next few mornings were spent very restlessly wondering if the lump had gotten bigger or if I was imagining things. Fortunately I think I diverted disaster, but seriously. The stress. I thought I was going to have a stroke.

In good news, though, I had a great lesson with Kiki today with Dayna Lynd-Pugh. We jumped a little bit but the big take away was a strategy for getting her steadier in the bridle without pissing her off or making her defensive. Bottom line: I need to cut the nagging with the right rein. Curretly I try to solve every problem I feel by cranking on the right rein, when what I really need to be firmer with is my right leg while staying following with my hand. So simple, so effective! I really liked Dayna's teaching style and am excited for another lesson next week. It's really exciting to have jumping be so fun again!

And then... Horse show? What? It's snuck up on me, but Ringo and I leave for our second level debut on Friday morning. There are definite rough spots in the usual places (simple changes = nemesis) but in general I'm feeling pretty well prepared. Ringo feels stronger and more relaxed than I've ever felt him, so even if we're not perfect I think it will be a good learning experience for us. Now, if I can just briefly convince him to forget that he has beautiful, clean changes that are wayyyy easier than counter canter :D

*(Don't worry Mom and Pa, I swear that's a bit of an exaggeration)
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