Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Stanley: A Love Story

People ask me all the time if I have a favorite school horse, and every time I answer without hesitation: Stanley. Stanley (aka Loristaan, a seriously badass show name by all accounts) is not only my favorite school horse, but one of my favorite all around horses of all time. What follows is not so much a biography as a love story:

(The big guy himself in an IHSA flat class)

(Me and Stan)

His first career was as Aaron Vale's grand prix show jumper/derby horse. He was a high junior jumper next, then came to Stanford with his junior rider and became a part-time team horse known for his ground-eating stride and big time jump. Eventually he was leased out to a nearby hunter/jumper program, where he competed happily for several years until some front foot lameness began to slow him down.

(One of the world's cutest faces, without question)

The summer after my freshman year, Stan came back to Stanford for some rehab and a reassessment of his potential job going forward, as it was pretty clear that his jumping career was over. The only problem: Stanley had never done any serious dressage in his life, and he was famous at the Red Barn for being extremely high energy even to the point of being aggressive to people on the ground (especially men). It was unclear whether he would be able to transition into a new role as a more beginner-level mount.

(Classic Stan expression)

I volunteered to be his go-to rehab rider, and over the next few months we walked, and walked, and walked. At first he was extremely distant and withdrawn, but every day he came out of his shell a little bit more. He had never been checked out for hacking around the property (as he had a famous and violent spook), but slowly we explored every inch of the Red Barn property. By the time we were up to trotting and cantering, we had become fast friends, and he would look out over his stall with ears pricked when I approached.

(Begging for candies, something he would never do when I first met him)

Once school started up again, I didn't get to spend nearly as much time with Stan, but I was still delighted to see him happy and sound in his new job as low-level dressage and flat horse. In the fall of my Junior year I got to be reunited with him for Stanford's first ever home IDA show, where we pulled off a win at First Level.

(Being fancy!)

Then, it wasn't until today that I got to ride him again. I was worried that he would be dull and lazy, as he has mostly had inexperienced riders between then and now, or that he would feel as distant to me as he had in those first days.

(Legend status)

But he didn't. As soon as I got on, he instantly perked up, puffed himself up, and felt absolutely amazing. It was like reuniting with an old, old friend after a long absence. I actually got choked up, it felt so good to ride him again.

(What a champ - ps: Stanley is NOT small, if that wasn't previously clear)

Plus, know who else got to ride Stan recently? MOM ERICKSON! Ma has grown to love Stan from a distance after years of listening to me gush about how awesome he is, and so when she visited last weekend I arranged so that she could take him for a brief spin. They had a blast! Mom did a great job and Stan, being the unbelievable worth-his-weight-in-gold creature that he is, was amazing.

(Wahoo! Look how great they look!)

So basically, Stan = one of a kind. I'm so lucky to have had this amazing horse (all 18.1hh of him!) in my life.

(Love you, Bud!)

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

IHSA Regionals at Stanford

This past Sunday, the post season for IHSA (the hunter/jumper intercollegiate riding association that I don't compete in, but that the equestrian program at Stanford is mainly focused on) kicked off with Regionals held right at home at Stanford. What is Regionals, you might ask? Well, it turns out that IHSA has a rather complicated formula for selecting riders for nationals. Here's my inexpert explanation:

Regionals is an individual-only competition (the highest scoring team from regular season goes straight to Zones) comprised just of the riders who have garnered a qualifying number of points from each region--in our case, California. It is a first of two post-season hurdles required for an individual to qualify for Nationals: first you must either come in 1st or 2nd at Regionals, then 1st or 2nd at Zones (which in our case is comprised of schools from all over the West and as far east as Nebraska!!), and then finally have a ticket to the national finals.

At Stanford, we had a rider in every class, and every single rider qualified for Zones except one (and even then, he rode beautifully and won a very hard-fought 3rd!). Yay Stanford Equestrian! These individuals will now join the team at the Zone finals, which will also be held at Stanford in early April.

Instead of a drawn-out blow by blow, here are some of the photos that I took using my coach's camera, as I'd forgotten mine at home (which explains why these have a slightly different color cast and look than what I normally shoot - silly Nikons!):

(Nikki rides Lando on the flat for an educational clinic that took place after the show)

(Team President Rachel Kolb rides Dreamer in the clinic)

(Sophomore Laura Bernard lopes to victory in Western Intermediate!)

(Sarah and Luke looking very tidy in the clinic)

(Team Co-President Justine riding Lando to second over fences)

(Dreamer looking very fancy with Alex!)

(Rachel gives a big smile heading into her flat class, which she won handily)

(Macey and Sterling, the best little pony in the world)

We're in the home stretch preparing for the last dressage show of the year, which will be a home show at Stanford this coming weekend. I'm feeling a little nervous, a little nostalgic, and very excited!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Lesson with Brian

So for the past few weeks I've felt like I've had absolutely nothing to talk about on the horse front, and now all of a sudden I'm several posts behind. Such is life! It's exciting to feel like my horsey life is coming back onto the front burner, where for the past few weeks/months I've had to focus a lot more wholly on school and work.

(Nice long neck warmup canter - thank you so much to my friend Patrick for coming out and taking all these amazing pictures! So awesome!)

(Warming up under Brian's watchful eye)

On Thursday I really jumped from the frying pan and into the fire (if we're going to continue the fire/cooking metaphors... why not) and had my first lesson on Ringo since October! I rode with Brian Sabo, who has got to be one of my favorite instructors of all time. It was a bit of a leap of faith because I was hoping the homework I've been doing to get him back in shape was going to show, but, since it had been such a long time, had distinct visions of Brian telling me that I'd been going down the completely wrong path for the past 4 months and spending the entire lesson walking on a 20 meter circle.

(Getting more flexible in those outside left aids)

Well, most mercifully, it seems like the homework has payed off. Brian was in general very complimentary of the way Ringo looked, though commented that his ability to collect looked like it was still in the process of coming back from his month long vacation--this was to be expected, but it was good to hear as a reminder to not get frustrated in the collection department as we're trying to build strength.

We started out doing some straightness exercises that ended up being more for me than they were for Ringo. I've been having a hard time bending to the left, as I've blogged about previously, and I brought this up at the beginning to get Brian's help with. He watched us go for about a minute and immediately was able to identify the problem that I've been grappling with for so long: I'm not straight!

(Well, and it looks like I have a bit of a slouch to contend with, too!)

Well, I sort of knew this, but Brian was able to really articulate exactly what I was doing that was asymmetrical, and how to fix it. Essentially, my right leg (which is the one that atrophied so badly when I broke my neck) is weaker, and so to try to control it I tend to throw all my weight to that side and lock/freeze that knee. The result is that my body is always slightly positioned like I'm going right, even when I'm going left, and it's very hard for me to be correct in the left bend because my right knee needs to be able to bend and follow the curve of the horse's ribcage and my left leg needs to be able to carry slightly more weight.

(Brian assesses our haunches in - this is a prime example of me locking my right leg and throwing my weight to that side: I should have more weight in my inside stirrup here than my outside)

To fix this, we did a serious of 4-loop serpentines at the posting trot where I really exaggerated the shift of my body position as I changed the bend, just to try to reteach my body to be a little more elastic. Then, we did shoulder-in to haunches-in going to the left, which both require the right leg to remain relaxed and somewhat flexed, with me focusing pretty much solely on my body and leg positioning. The difference was HUGE and we got some great movements out. Then we reversed direction and did shoulder-in right to haunches-out right, which required me to shift my right leg from being dominant and at the girth to passive and flexed slightly. Again, thinking about this made a massive difference, and we had some of the smoothest transitions between those two movements that I've ever done.

(Half-passin' - again, I should have more weight in my left stirrup here than my right: bad Kate!)

After getting those concepts sorted, we moved on to the half pass zig zag that is in the CIC*** test that I'll be doing in March. The first few times my half-pass left... left a bit to be desired. Since the half-pass is essentially haunches-in on a diagonal, and I had just performed haunches-in left quite admirably, Brian was a little worried at first at my inability to transfer one skill to another. We broke it down to basics, and discovered that I was having a problem envisioning the proper line of travel, and so would sort of start wandering sideways, which is what was causing the tension. Brian tested this theory by drawing a straight line on the arena floor for us to follow, which caused a night and day difference in our performance. Wow! So basically, I need to focus a little bit more on having a clear and correct line of travel, and less about "going sideways," which I've been getting hung up on.

(looking FANCAY to the right, which is my easier direction)

(Still a little counter-weighted, but better positioned, with a better result)

(looking fly to the right)

(Brian sketches the pattern on the ground for me to follow)

To finish, we did some canter work and flying changes. In general, Brian was extremely complimentary of our canter, saying that it had great balance and activity. Yay! Coming out of the turn to go into the changes, however, I had a tendency to sort of throw that good balance out the window, which led to some not-so-clean changes the first time around. After re-stressing the importance of really going deeply and squarely into the corners, Ringo really sharpened up and produced some lovely changes. Hooray!

(Twinkle toes!)

(Nice uphill, elastic canter with good stifle flexion)

(Oh Ringo, you spoil me)

In general, I couldn't be more thrilled with how the lesson went. Brian was super helpful, I got some great homework, and it was a great affirmation that what I've been doing has been generally correct. And man, Ringo is so special! Days like this, where he goes so incredibly well, really remind me how lucky I am to get to learn from him. Good man, Ray!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

West Coast Training Sessions

I actually got a little out of order in my timeline, as the day before Davis I had the real treat of going down to Dayna and Shannon's in Gilroy to see the first of the West Coast Training Sessions with Captain Mark Phillips, the Chef D'Equipe of the US team. I've gotten to see some of the East Coast Training Sessions in years past in Aiken, but had never actually been to a California one before as they are usually held in southern California, which is a bit too far for a morning of watching barely audible dressage lessons. But, this year they were just an hour from Stanford, so I took one of my first trips off campus in what felt like forever to drive down and have a look. The weather over the past few days has been absolutely unbelievable, and in Gilroy especially there were wildflowers everywhere and it was warm but not hot, sunny but not bright: perfect.

I did a writeup for Eventing Nation, which I thought I would repost here, with the addition of many extra pictures! So without further ado:

It's hard to be unbiased, but California winters really are wonderful: after hot, brown, and crispy summers, the rains finally come and everything bursts out in green and bloom. It was especially lovely this past weekend at Red Fox Farm, site of the 2012 West Coast Training Sessions, where the mild weather was complimented by cherry blossoms and wildflowers in full force. The flat sessions were held in Red Fox Farm's spacious covered arena, where a decent crowd of about twenty spectators gathered to watch the best and brightest of the west coast learn from Captain Mark Phillips.

Overall, the flat sessions were refreshing in their emphasis on absolutely correct, straight, basics, backed up by intelligent and dynamic riding. The 20 meter circle quickly became the central unit of each lesson, as riders needed to demonstrate true straightness and evenness in both reins there before being allowed to move on to more complex movements. Captain Phillips had a lovely teaching style, clear and demanding but also quick to praise when a rider improved and gave him what he was looking for. Each and every rider improved drastically over the forty five minutes they had with him.

First of the morning was Shannon Lilley and Forgotten Emblem, or "Michael," a horse she successfully competed at CCI** level last year. The theme of the lesson quickly became straightness, especially at the canter where Michael tended to carry his haunches ever so slightly to the inside, by using shoulder fore and counter canter. The transformation when he straightened and started using himself fully was huge: he went from being somewhat short-strided and tight in the back to showing really lovely gaits, especially at the trot.

Next up was Max McManamy, on her adorable and eye-catching pinto Project Runway. Max and "Devon" were on the short list for the Pan American Games last summer and are coming off a successful season at the CCI** level. The focus of her lesson was improving the length and straightness of the neck by insisting that he fill the outside rein and not depend on the inside rein on the 20 meter circle. Again, the difference from start to finish of the ride was impressive.

Shannon then returned with her Pan Am mount from last autumn, Ballingowan Pizazz, or "Mango." Mango is a beautiful horse with lovely gaits and tons of presence. They warmed up without much comment from Captain Phillips, but then were asked to start pushing their work to the next level. At the canter, especially, Captain Phillips felt that the canter was pleasant but could have more. He stressed the idea of always being able to "feel the extension in the connection" of the canter, meaning having a canter impulsive and active enough that the extension is always there, bubbling under the surface. He then gave one of the best maxims of the day, remarking that "A good rider is happy with what they have, while a great rider keeps trying to see what more they can eek out." It was then exciting to watch Shannon respond by pressing Mango into an even bigger, lovelier, and more uphill canter, finishing with some good work on flying changes.

I unfortunately had to leave just as Mackenna Shea and Landioso were warming up, which is a shame as Landioso is undoubtedly one of the most stunning horses in eventing at the moment. After I left, the riders went on to jump later in the day and then have another session on Sunday. Overall, it looked to be an exciting start to the eventing season in California.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

IDA at Davis Part II: Stanny Folks

Phew! Maybe, just maybe, my life is starting to settle down a little bit. These past two+ weeks have been some of the most commitment-filled that I've had at Stanford yet. Hopefully the light is starting to brighten at the end of the tunnel...

But anyway, back to Davis. First of all, I found a picture from my first ever show there, to celebrate having completed my last ever show there! Here I am Freshman year, riding "Reddy" in an IHSA flat class:

(Looking hunterific if I do say so myself)

After my ride first thing in the morning, it was time to shift into team cheerleader/stock tie-er (my go to job, always, haha). I have to say, everyone on the team rode beautifully. It's been a tough few months for the dressage team with Rachel getting sick, and so I wasn't really sure how we were going to look compared to our last show at Cal Poly. I think I can say confidently that everyone rode with more poise, tact, and better geometry. And no one forgot their test!! Hooray!

First up after me was Christy in Upper Training. She pulled the horse I had drawn at Davis in 2010, and did an amazing job with him. Seriously, they looked so fancy. He is a little tough in the connection to the bridle and his length of neck, and Christy was fighting some nerves stemming from getting thrown during her last practice ride before the show, and so it was really impressive to watch her step up so beautifully. She put in a polished test for 4th place.

(Christy and Finn cantering to 4th)

(Looking very classy!)

Right after her was Patrick, also in Upper Training and competing in his first horse show in almost a year after being abroad over the summer and fall (in Namibia and Australia... what a tough life he leads ;D). Patrick may have been out of the saddle for six months until this January, but you would have never known it from the way he rode. He got every last ounce out of his 21-year old mount and rode with great sensitivity and elegance for 5th place.

(Patrick and Lexie, both 21 years young)

Next was Michelle, our fearless team captain, leading the way in Lower Training. She had to deal with the most adversity of the day when the rider before her got bucked off (fortunately she was ok) and interrupted the show briefly, causing her 10 minute warmup to be split up and somewhat disjointed feeling. Still, she recovered nicely for 6th place.

(Michelle and her pinto friend)

Olivia followed next, also in Lower Training, on an adorable little butterball of a horse. Olivia is almost as tall (or even taller?) than I am, so she looked quite amusing on a horse that couldn't be more than 15hh! She had to reach deep into her reserves of leg power to get little fatteh poneh going forward, but did so beautifully and rode a really smart test for 4th place.


(Olivia puts the little pony to work!)

Finally, last but certainly not least was our awesome Intro rider Marilu. Unfortunately, Marilu got the toughest draw of the team, and so didn't have the best test. But such is the way of IDA! Fortunately our next show is at Stanford, where I'm pretty sure our Intro division is going to have the best horses of the whole show, haha.

Overall, I was so thrilled with how Davis went. The show was well organized and actually finished with enough time for us to get home before the sun set (barely), the horses by and large were great and extremely fun to ride, and everyone was super friendly. The team standings are extremely close, with Stanford holding a 1 point lead over Cal Poly and a 2 point lead over Davis. It looks like it will be an exciting conclusion at the last show of the year at Stanford in two weeks!
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