Monday, April 30, 2012

IDA Nationals: A Ballad for What Might Have Been

As you might guess from the title of this post, IDA Nationals this past weekend didn't quite go according to plan. I went into the weekend mentally focused, confident, as prepared as I could be in every way... and extremely sick. Unfortunately, that last element turned out to be way more influential than any of the others, and affected my riding far more than I had even anticipated.

I had not ridden at all since my short bareback jaunt on Thursday afternoon, and barring the impact of slogging all the way across this fair country to get to the unbelievably beautiful facilities at Centenary College in New Jersey, had really gone out of my way to lay low and conserve energy. Thus, I felt like I had a pretty good chance to be able to forget about feeling crappy at least for the 15 or so minutes that would be required of me to compete. I actually headed into the competition on Sunday morning very excited and confident in my abilities to do well.

I drew an absolutely wonderful horse named Maestro that I was really pleased with. The only problem with him that I could foresee was that I was going to be his 6th rider of the weekend and 3rd rider of the day, meaning that tiredness could definitely be an issue. But, I have overcome this problem in the past and had no nerves about being able to do so now. When the time came, I headed up to the warmup and got on, feeling coolly ready.

But then... the wheels came off. I picked up the trot, and it was like I could literally feel whatever strength I had within me draining out through the bottoms of my boots onto the arena floor. Within 30 seconds I was sweating profusely and completely winded. I had never felt anything like this. Whatever sickness I've had was clearly still with me and clearly still dishing out an evil punishment. The upside was that my horse was a real pleasure. If he had been naughty, I have no idea what I would have done, as I was essentially just trying to hang on and generally steer in the correct direction. I had absolutely no strength for anything more finessed or complicated.

The test itself was a special kind of agony. Throughout the entire opening trotwork, I was panting and breathing so laboredly that my father could hear me from the sidelines. I was in a total fog and felt on the verge of passing out at all times, and had to coach myself through every movement with the promise of the walk ahead. Needless to say, it wasn't the most brilliant trot tour I've ever performed!! I briefly recovered during the walk but then quickly fell apart again in the canter. I just literally had nothing in me to dig down to; I was completely bottomed out.

The last movement of canter was a shallow loop of counter canter. I got to the corner of the arena and absolutely could not remember what I was supposed to do; I was so close to fainting that my mind was utterly blank. Finally I remembered at the absolute last second, but by that time I had not prepared my horse properly and he swapped out. It was a heartbreaking moment, because I knew that, however not brilliant my test had been up to that point, it had still been error free and could possibly still scrape into the top 4 or 5. Now, with a major error, my chances for a top ribbon were firmly closed. I finished out the one remaining movement of the test and left the arena feeling very, very disappointed.

Here's my test:

(I also have a few photos but they are on my dad's camera so I'm waiting for him to send them to me)

In the end, I finished with a 67% and 7th place. In the grand scheme of things this was still a huge accomplishment and I knew I should be thrilled, but couldn't help feeling a bit low about how much better I knew I could have done if I had actually been riding at my best. It was, physically, one of the most difficult tests I've ever ridden, and it was just a huge shame that it also happened to line up with a competition that I've not only literally spent years hoping and qualifying for but also that I will never get to have another try at. This was my very last intercollegiate equestrian competition EVER, after four years of hunt seat, western, polo, and dressage. It was, then, a bittersweet moment at best.

So, my moment of IDA glory may have eluded me, but in the long run it's hard to complain. I've had such a wonderful three years on the Stanford Dressage Team and have become an infinitely better rider and competitor because of my time there. I am so blessed to have horses of my own to ride and compete, meaning that the road is far from over. There is nothing else to do except continue moving forward. Onward!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Sick Panda Heads to Nationals

Well, in the past week I've somehow managed to contract the worst sickness I've had in my four years at Stanford (blazing fever, nausea, body aches, cough, sore throat, sinus/headache... basically name a symptom and I have/have had it). D'oh! Talk about bad timing. But, come hell or high water, Rachel and I are Nationals bound starting tomorrow. I've been pounding fluids, sleeping as much as society at large will allow me, and taking every medication (homeopathic and non) that I can get my mitts on. I am also lucky that I don't ride until Sunday, so I can lurk in my hotel room throughout Saturday if necessary to get into optimal fighting condition.

I think my preparations have gone as well as I could have hoped for. I had one last great weekend of riding down at Shannon's (where I figured out one of the horses I've been struggling with to the point where I was able to do all the second level movements, where before I'd had a hard time getting her on the bit - yes!), and had a somewhat humbling but very edifying run through of the test with Heidi Gaian.

Today, I ran through the test one last time with Ringo bareback and thought it was one of my smoothest tries yet. Fingers crossed that that's a good sign! Hopefully if I can do it without a saddle, I'll have no trouble at all with one to help me out...

(though ok I admit: I DID use a bridle... sigh. Clearly getting soft! ;D)

All right. New Jersey, here we come!!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Diaries of a Part-Time Catch Rider

As I mentioned last time, I've been trying as hard as I can, in the run up to Nationals, to ride as many new horses as possible. I get to ride a pretty wide variety of horses regularly at school, but at this point have ridden most of the school horses dozens of times, so while they might still present challenges they don't have the same feel as trying to figure out a horse I've never sat on before. That's where my trips to Dayna and Shannon's have been so amazingly helpful, as they have a big barn full of horses that are unfamiliar to me.


 (Though we can't forget that Ringo is still the star of the show!!)

 (Ringo go to eat grass that reached all the way up to his belly on our walk yesterday - he was pretty pleased, to say the least)


I've been doing pretty well: in the past few weeks, I've ridden 10 horses for the first time, which is the same number of new horses that I had previously encountered in the past four months combined. I wouldn't say that my frequency of riding as increased that much (though the days I go down to Dayna and Shannon's are certainly a bit busier than normal!), but my range certainly has.

So what goes into that first impression? Well, as usual I've been tracking these new adventures, and I thought it might be interesting to flesh out some of my notes a little further, horse by horse, to show what I think about and tend to focus on with an unfamiliar mount to try to get them going as well as possible as quickly as possible (trying to keep in mind, always, that at Nationals I will only have 10 minutes of warmup!!).

Here it goes:

Freddy


Basic Stats: 16.3hh chestnut gelding fancypants warmblood owned by Stanford, fresh off a career as a big-time Eq horse on the east coast. I was the first person to ride him dressage, presumably since he was a wee lad in Germany or wherever he came from.

First Impression: ooh lawdy this is a nice horse. Great (!!) gaits, beautifully uphill without trying, generally accepting of the bridle. HOWEVER, spooky spooky spooky. And lazy. And spooky. And pretty unclear on the concept of actually going on the bit and using himself properly. And lazy. And spooky.

Plan of Attack: Lots of transitions between walk and trot to get the engine revving, combined with slight counter flexion, especially through the turns, to correct his tendency to overbend his neck without following through with his body. Once neck and body bend are more linked up, then add in a sculpting inside leg to outside hand to get him bending the right way. Then, lots of forward and back at trot and canter to forge a bridge between his now energized hind end and his now-straightened front end. Wonders! He was awesome! I practiced sitting a ton on this horse, as he was strong and had lots of movement. 

George


Basic Stats: 17.3hh chestnut TB-type warmblood gelding owned by Stanford, just donated to be a lower level jumping and hunt seat horse. 

First Impression: Sketchy. He has been struggling with back pain issues since we got him, and it showed the day I rode him. He seemed generally unwilling to go forward very guarded throughout his body, but especially in his back and hind end. The first time I kicked him to go forward, he humped his back and spit the bit. Lovely.

Plan of Attack: Tons of transitions with the reins basically thrown away to get him thinking forward again. This was actually pretty successful, and I was able to sneak the reins back and get a very decent and swinging working trot out of him. I never felt very comfortable asking for much more, though, and quit pretty early. This was probably my least successful feeling ride of them all.

Welti


Basic Stats: 16.2 hh chestnut stocky-type warmblood gelding owned by a client of Rachel's who Rachel is planning on competing at 3rd and 4th level this year.

First Impression: Somewhat heavy and low-set neck, but very well trained to the seat. KILLER trot. Nice and responsive to the leg.

Plan of Attack: I had Rachel's help figuring Welti out, which was a huge coup. She got me to really push him forward and up into the bridle from behind, which wouldn't have been my first instinct as he felt like I needed to keep half-halting and half-halting to infinity. With more engine from behind, however, he immediately became more rateable and uphill in the bridle. A good lesson to remember! I practiced sitting a lot on him too, and enjoyed the most AMAZING extended trot. Awesome.

Auzzie


Basic Stats: 16hh dark bay Australian TB leased by Stanford from a local eventer; an ex-three star event horse now doing low level hunt seat and jumping.

First Impression: Dually 2.0! Not the most impressive gaits at first crack, a little tense, and a little weird in the contact, but extremely willing and forward.

Plan of Attack: Steady, following, but firm hand to encourage him to soften his jaw and release his back, coupled with some spiral ins and spiral outs to loosen him up even more. Then, some forward/backs and shoulder in to get his gaits opened up a bit, while maintaining a really steady and positive contact with his mouth. Again, like Freddy, I imagine myself forging a bridge between his hind end and the bridle, with my body as the stable support that holds it together. Awesome results. What a cool horse.

BB

Basic Stats: 16.3hh dark bay Irish Sport Horse at Dayna and Shannon's, freshly imported from Ireland; has competed through CCI* level.

First Impression: FANCY. People gushed about this horse before I got on and I wasn't disappointed. Gaits to die for, naturally uphill, and an unbelievable sensation of power from behind. That being said, I also found him very strong to start and somewhat difficult to control, like I was on the edge of him getting away from me at any moment.

Plan of Attack: Half-halt back to a trot/canter that feels manageable, then add power from that tempo, dialing it back if he felt strong or out of control. Really strong core usage to keep him collected in trot and canter, as going to the hand was generally not a good choice. This was a hard ride for me but a rewarding one. When I got it right, he felt unbelievable, definitely one of the nicest horses I've ever sat on.

Georgina

Basic Stats: 16hh black Irish Sport Horse mare at Dayna and Shannon's, imported a few years ago from Ireland and currently going Novice.

First Impression: What a pleasant horse to ride. Extremely well schooled and correct, if lacking in the presence of a horse like BB. Somewhat heavier on right rein than left.

Plan of Attack: Lots of counter bend and lateral work to get her more even on both reins. When she got straighter, she was unbelievably pleasant and easy to ride. And very smooth to sit, too!

Eclipse

Basic Stats: 16hhish bay Australian gelding at Dayna and Shannon's. I have no idea what his competition level is.

First Impression: Like Georgina, this horse was wonderfully well schooled and correct, but also lacked a bit in big-time gaits or movement. Also a little heavier in the right rein.

Plan of Attack: Basically the same approach at Georgina. He had a really impressive transformation when I actually got him straight - his gaits opened up significantly and he actually began to feel pretty darn fancy at the trot! I also tried out the counter canter on him and found that he could hold it, so used figure 8s of counter and true canter to get him more balanced and straight in the canter with equally good results. Really, really fun to ride.

Seeker

Basic Stats: 17+hh bay draft cross at Dayna Shannon's who has competed through Training.

First Impression: So squishy! This horse literally felt like a couch! It was hilarious. Again, he was very well schooled and actually remarkably straight, but had a natural tendency to go quite downhill without any energy at all.

Plan of Attack: I played around with different lateral movements and quickly found the haunches in to be the most effective at gathering him up and capturing some energy - I used the haunches in just before most transitions and whenever I felt him getting dull and low. In the canter, it was a matter of using my body to encourage him to be taller while scooping him up and forward with my leg. A workout of a ride, but a really fun one.

Annabelle

Basic Stats: 16.3hh black Irish Sport Horse mare at Dayna and Shannon's, imported from Ireland and with competition experience through Preliminary.

First Impression: Quite fussy in the contact and a little barging naturally, but with the promise of great gaits within.

Plan of Attack: I spent an unusually long time at the walk on this horse, working out the correct rein and leg pressure combination to get her more settled in the contact. She has a huge natural walk, so I practiced shortening and lengthening it while having her maintain a friendly connection to the bridle. When she felt civil, I moved up to trot, keeping the same feel and maintaining the same exercises of forward and back to build the energy of her trot without having her start to brace and get away from me. When she relaxed, she felt awesome! I was able to sit her trot pretty extensively and use my seat to encourage her to collect more while still coming forward. She would occasionally attempt to come above the bridle, at which point I had to sit deep and be firm but following with the hand. She reminded me a lot of Kiki, and I had an unbelievably fun time riding her. I could have ridden her (well-behaved) trot forever!

...

So basically, every horse has required an examination of straightness, engine, and the connection between those two elements (with collection coming as an added bonus if all goes well). I've been so lucky to ride such nice horses; it's been a real confidence boost and a good reminder of how basic thinking can be applied a wide number of ways. I'm headed back to Dayna and Shannon's this week and am excited to see what new adventures lie ahead!

(I won these gems of breeches at our team post-season celebration lunch this morning. They are forest green, have an embossed paisley print, and are utterly heinous; I LOVE THEM.)

Friday, April 13, 2012

Bummer Man

It's been raining like crazy for the past week (complete with thunder and lightning storms!! Super rare in California!) and unfortunately that meant that my show this weekend got cancelled. Boo. I'm kind of bummed because I was feeling quietly confident in our chances of getting that much-coveted last score for our bronze medal. We've been so close for what feels like such a long time now, and I know that Ringo's doing even better now than he was in fall when we got our first 3rd level score. Oh well. Such is scheduling with horses!

(Ringo can handle the disappointment if carrot stretches are involved! He's such a show off - I would kill for his flexibility!!)

I'm going to aim for my next show in the first weekend of May, right after IDA Nationals and right before I go home for a week for my high school's five year reunion. We'll just be even more ready then!

In the meantime, I've been living a fast and loose lifestyle, trying like crazy to get as ready for Nationals as I can while still staying on top of my classes and enjoying my last ever (!!!) spring as an undergraduate at Stanford. Needless to say, I haven't been getting a lot of sleep of late! But I can sleep after graduation... right? =)

(early mornings on the road to Gilroy - I've been up at 5 or earlier seven days out of the past thirteen)

I've been so lucky to be able to go down to Dayna and Shannon's on Thursdays and Fridays for the past two weeks to ride some more horses before Nationals. I've gotten to ride six different horses so far that have run the full gamut of small to large, narrow to wide, downhill to uphill, green to broke. It's been really fun to get a feel for so many different ways of going, and it's been a real confidence boost to not be really 'stumped' by one yet. Hopefully this bodes well for a few weeks from now! I really owe Dayna and Shannon a ton for letting me come ride; it's been great extra saddle time and a great change of pace to get acquainted with some new horses. Plus, I've gotten a hell of a sitting trot workout!!

I've got two more weeks and a couple more trips down to Gilroy to cram in some last minute practice. Nationals are sneaking up very fast indeed!! My goals for these last few days:

-sitting trot for at least 15 minutes, every horse I ride, focusing on keeping core STABLE and seat bones anchored-

-practice test at five times on five different horses-

-don't get sick, get enough sleep, stay cool (this may be the hardest goal to achieve!)-

I also want to practice riding Ringo on the wire a few more times... but that's a different story altogether =)

(Happy pony post-wire-ride last Sunday)

Monday, April 9, 2012

Double, Snaffle... Wire?

First of all, Happy Easter everyone!

I classic horseperson fashion, I spent my Easter Sunday... at a horse show. Namely, at IHSA Zones (the last step before Nationals for the hunt seat Equestrian Team riders) right at the Stanford Red Barn. I wasn't riding but got to take lots of photos that I'll post later in the week.

But the real excitement for me was after the show was over. High on life after a massive lunch from Chairman Bao and the Stanford Equestrian Team dominating the team competition and clinching a trip to the National finals, we pulled out a few of the Western horses for the English riders try Western on, with extremely hilarious results.

Meanwhile, I grabbed Ringo for a nice casual bareback ride to unwind after a long and exhausting weekend, and decided to go one step further and not only go saddle-free, but bridle-free as well! I have been safekeeping my friend's neck wire for the past few years but have never used it (but have always wanted to!), so decided after warming Ringo up in his snaffle to give it a go.

(he looks so happy!)

He was awesome!! We had a few turning and stopping 'situations' at the beginning, especially to the left (which is our tougher direction no matter what), but we quickly got a groove going. We walk, trotted, and cantered in both directions, and he was such a champ. Now Ringo can go with two bits, one bit, and no bit at all =)


Man, what an awesome horse. I'm a lucky girl!


The next week will be busy preparing for our first real dressage show of the season. Ringo has been feeling amazing recently, so I'm just trying to put some polish on without overfacing or souring him. Fingers crossed!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Galway Test Ride

Man, it feels good to be back in my own bed again. What was I saying in my last post about being refreshed and recharged? Scratch that. The past few days have definitely drained my batteries, but I couldn't be more pleased or satisfied with how they went.


(Just bursting with pride over my awesome horse!)


(So uphill, so fancy!!)

Ringo and I packed up for Galway in the wee hours of Thursday morning, and after an uneventful drive that managed (for only the second time in my life) to completely avoid LA traffic, we pulled into Galway at around 3pm. I missed the FEI jogs, which I had been hoping to photograph for Eventing Nation, but still had plenty of time to get settled in and take Ringo out for a quick leg stretch.

Back when we evented, the ride the day before dressage was almost always a pretty hairy affair, with Ringo being tense, resistant, and often explosive. I think it was a testament to how happy he is these days that he was AMAZING on Thursday afternoon, just doing a mini balk on the way down to the arena and then working wonderfully. I even got the confidence up to show off a little bit, throwing in some of our schooling pirouettes and 4 tempis (which he did cleanly! good man!) by the end. I tried to keep it as brief as possible in order to leave him some energy for the next day, and was privately thrilled and hoped we could continue our good momentum.

That evening I got a call from the show secretary telling me that they had forgotten to get a CIC** test rider and asking me if I would mind riding that test as well. Another opportunity to get into the arena for some free experience and judging? They didn't have to ask me twice! The only bummer was that I had no chance to practice the test at all before my ride the next morning at 8am - good practice for composure under pressure!

The next morning dawned very early indeed as I was up feeding, grooming, braiding, and otherwise scrubbing Ringo to within an inch of his life to try to get his white bits sparkling. I must say, I think he looked quite dashing when all was said and done! We headed down and met up with Brian, who gave us some great tips on improving our shoulder ins, half circles, and overall straightness to pick up extra points. Then, before I knew it, it was our turn.


(Struttin')

(Good boy! Big pats!)

I was so proud of Ringo throughout. He kept the same level of calmness and rideability that he had had out in warmup, and our trotwork was some of the smoothest and most flowing that we've done together to date. We came a little undone in the walk pirouettes and walk-canter transitions, and the canter was probably only okay and not great, but that was due to my piloting and not Ringo getting tense or strong (which he has a tendency to do).

(Getting some 'halftime' advice from Brian between our CIC** and CIC*** tests)

After a little break we were back for the CIC*** test ride. Ringo was definitely a little confused to be back to work in such short order, and felt a little flatter and more tired, but with Brian's help I had him cooking again. Again, Brian's advice was completely invaluable in the warmup, and I went into the ring really feeling like I knew what I had to do to give the best ride I could.


(Cantering around the ring for our first canter entry test ever!)

(Ringo looking fly in the extended trot - if only I hadn't lost my position right after this picture was taken and messed him up! D'oh!)

And, for the most part, I did! Ringo was a little more tense in the trot in this test, mostly because I think he was tired, and I was inaccurate in the half passes which was a shame as they were otherwise quite nice. The reinback was bad but not as awful as I'd feared, but then the canter was by far the best I've produced in a test on any horse, ever. It just felt like he was flowing around the arena, uphill and cadenced and listening to my every aid. I was thrilled with him, and Brian was too when we debriefed after the tests were over. It was a wonderful start to the season.


(Ringo and I finally feel like a real partnership)

(What. a. CHAMP.)

It was a little bittersweet to be at Galway, my favorite event in the West, without a horse to go cross country on, and watching the XC on Saturday definitely impressed on me yet again how badly I want to get back into this sport. Fortunately, I have some VERY EXCITING NEWS that I'm just waiting to get finalized before I announce it that, hopefully, will mean that I will be eventing again sooner rather than later... ;)

(Final debrief with Brian - thank you again so much!!)

To finish, here are a few before/after pictures comparing Ringo and me this weekend to our first dressage show together at GMHA last July. What a difference 7 months makes!! Ringo's topline, suppleness, relaxation, and balance are all so much better, while my hands, posture, and seat are also visibly improved. It feels good to actually be able to see some progress after many long months of hard work!


(Trot July 2011 vs. Trot March 2012 - underneck muscle gone, topline filled out, balance significantly more uphill, on the vertical instead of behind; meanwhile, I'm sitting up more, carrying my hands, am securely down in my leg, have significantly raised my eye line, and am not pinching with my knee - yay!)

(Canter July 2011 vs. Canter March 2012: More forward, more uphill, much more engagement of the hind quarters; meanwhile my nagging left hand is much quieter and I've lost that dreadful slouch - excellent!)
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