Monday, August 26, 2013

Five Weeks

Five weeks.

Five weeks from today, I will be getting on a plane to England to begin an entirely new chapter of my life. Two years of an entirely new culture, and two years of leaving behind some of my favorite things: hot summer American road trips with the windows rolled down, greasy spoon diners like Waffle House and the other vagueries of regional American cuisine, the crazy jingoism of American culture that I unabashedly love (and somewhat fear), the farm, my friends, my family... and, of course, horses.

I'm not sure I've ever been more simultaneously bubbling over excitement and wrenched apart with bittersweetness in my entire life.

To commemorate the milestone, I bought my plane ticket today:

(one-way, baby - also not gonna lie, pretty excited to check out Icelandair)

I'm also in the final stages of applying for my visa which, aside from a few classic misadventures in the sort of terrifying beautiful city of Lawrence, Mass that occurred while trying to get my fingerprints and other biometric information recorded, has gone suspiciously smoothly. I'm remaining on tenterhooks until the finished visa is in my hand though, for sure.

As I slowly keep checking off the boxes of things left to do before I leave, one big question remains: What to do with this blog? I waffle a lot between stopping the blog permanently after I leave and then perhaps starting up a new one after graduation to commemorate the next chapter in my riding life, or perhaps just keeping going with the rare horse-related post whenever I get a chance to over the next few years (like I did last time when I went abroad), or transitioning it more fully into an Oxford blog with both academic and horsey experiences covered.

So what do you think, dear readers? Would you enjoy reading about life at Oxford? Would you rather I kept the blog to horse-related things going forward, even if it meant probably very few posts over the next few years? Or would you prefer the blog end now entirely, and perhaps start anew when I return to the States in a few years? 

I'd love to keep writing, but I don't want to bore you with the (probably going to be tragically dull) life of a Masters Student with only a minimum of horse-related payoff if you don't want that. So let me know!

In the meantime, I'm off to try to find a means with which I can simultaneously freeze time to enjoy these last few weeks of summer AND jump time forward so I can start grad school tomorrow. Because I'd really like to do both. 

(My first day in Oxford for my junior year study abroad in 2011 - back in my 'cock one leg for all pictures so it looks like you might either really have to go to the bathroom or may have just broken your leg' days... good memories.)

Friday, August 23, 2013


It was no rest for the wicked, as just two days after our wild weekend at Saugerties, Ringo and I were back with Kim again for a lesson over at the local indoor. Now with Saugerties behind us, there's only one show left on Ringo's and my card before I leave for Oxford: The New England/NEDA/Region 8 USDF Fall Championships in September. NEDA Fall is also at the HITS showgrounds in Saugerties, so I've definitely got a good mental image of what the competition is going to be like... now it's just time to step our game and perform!

Looking forward to championships, Kim has been really trying to push us to the next level. In our lesson this week, this meant focusing on two specific points: upping the power of the collected trot and canter, and improving the quality of the pirouettes.

It's interesting to now be adding power to the trot, when I feel like throughout Ringo's career I've been continuously trying to take the edge off and keep him in the box. He used to be so strong and would threaten to get away from me by the end of every test I did with him. It was a labor of years to get to the point where I felt like he stayed calm, relaxed, and chilled out in the ring. So, it felt weird to suddenly be firing him back up again!

But as Kim reminded me, this time around we're trying to get that old energy but without losing the relaxation we've worked so hard to create. It's amazing to feel Ringo's newer bigger and more powerful gaits when he stays loose through his body: whereas before he used to get quick and racing when I tried to add power, now he can actually keep the same tempo but actually grow bigger and more impressive.

At both trot and canter, Kim encouraged me to keep pushing the boundaries of the range of Ringo's gaits, asking for bigger extensions and smaller collections. Here's some of the short canter-big canter work we did:

Then, it was time to move on to the pirouettes. Basically our problem with them now is that in the test Ringo has developed a bad habit of rushing out of the corner, meaning that I have to spend the diagonal fighting to get him back to a normal collected canter instead of being able to take my nice collected canter and turn it into a super-collected pirouette canter. As a result, the piris are too quick, unbalanced, and lack control. 

To work on this, Kim first asked me to really exaggerate the collection going into the pirouette. It... didn't go that great. And resulted in a few attempts like this:

Basically at the slower speed, Ringo quickly realized that breaking was an easy way to get out of working. And, in an attempt to keep him from breaking, I got into a bad cycle of getting really tight and scrunched in my position and riding too hard. Not pretty.

To solve the problem, Kim had us play a little game of "Ring-Around-the-Trainer." Basically Kim stood at the spot on the diagonal where my pirouette was supposed to go, and I had to make the pirouette big enough to go around her. This solved the breaking problem by forcing me to make the pirouette big enough that Ringo could handle the more collected canter without wanting to find a way out, and as an added bonus it allowed Kim to yell at me to relax at close range!! Haha.

It wasn't an immediate fix, and the first few times I still managed to get too tense and hard in my riding, resulting in this reaction:

But after a few tries, we were really starting to get the hang of it:

Was it perfect? No. But for the first time, it really felt like we were moving in the right direction. Even after having Kim tell me so many times that I needed to chill out in my aids, it was really surprising to feel how relaxed I needed to be in order to let him turn properly: my instinct is definitely to think that if I buckle down and ask him HARDER HARDER HARDER, it will make him better. But it won't. He goes best when I allow him to move freely. You know, like pretty much every theoretical text on riding, EVER, would tell you. Huh. Imagine that. Dressage definitely keeps finding new ways to keep me humble!

To the right (our stronger direction), things in general went a lot smoother:

After our last successful pirouette attempt to the right, Kim had us go straight into a line of 4s and then a line of 3s, focusing on riding forward but deeper in my seat than I'm naturally inclined to do. And we actually nailed it! And caught it on video!

The next is obviously to try to actually get that quality in a test! It's really cool to feel the difference in the tempis now compared to even two months ago when we moved up at GMHA. 

Good boy, Ringo!! What an amazing, amazing horse :)

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Massive Recap

(Fair warning: this post is truly a doozie, though I promise there will be tons of pictures and videos and a minimum of giant impenetrable blocks of text. Either way, buckle up.)

So... it's August 21. And I haven't updated my blog in three weeks. How did that happen? Well...

First, I took a week of vacation and visited my best friend from college and her family at the Lutheran bible camp in Michigan that they visit every summer:


 (Archin' - I came in 2nd in the all-camp women's archery tournament!)

 (My friend Clare being a ninja on the teeter totter)

 (The camp's 'recreation quilt' - I took full advantage of the 'resting' and 'dining' elements)

 (Playing my banjo in the outdoor chapel)

And it was awesome.

By the time I'd gotten back, these had come in the mail:

(My silver medal pin!)

(And my certificate!)

Then before I knew it, it was time to turn right back around and head off to beautiful Saugerties, New York, for the biggest dressage show Ringo and I had ever gone to. Seriously, it was massive: permanent stabling for 1400 (!!) horses (though there were 'only' 400 competing this weekend), at least 15 massive arenas that were each big enough to hold between two and six standard arenas, and trade fair and horse show extras as far as the eye could see. 

(Me and Ray checking out the big grand prix arena, where the CDI classes were held)

(Not a shabby view! Pa and I loved the slate fieldstone walls that went all the way around the big arenas)

It was hard not to get intimidated. There were soooooo many outrageously classy horses, and it felt like out of the 400 competitors, 500 of them were competing at PSG or above. I was really glad to have Kim there for the weekend, as she was able to guide me through my nerves and get me and Ringo feeling as fancy as possible.

(Getting nice and relaxed in warmup)

On Saturday we competed in a big open PSG class (32 horses total split into two sections with the same judging panel). Ringo felt a little crooked in warm up, but with Kim's help (and a lot of leg yields), he was feeling fresh and ready to roll in no time. Since I already have gotten my silver medal, Kim suggested that I use this test as a preparation looking towards NEDA Championships in the fall, and try to add a little more sparkle and power, where up until now I've been happy with being as conservative as possible and just trying to survive.

Here's what we ended up with:

In general, I thought I did a pretty good job of going for more, but there were definitely some elements that still needed improving. While my medium and extended trots were the best we've done in a test yet, our walk work was a little lackluster and our pirouettes were still... pretty bad. I was also annoyed with the tempis, which are something that we definitely have the ability to score well on and that I rode poorly and ended up flubbing in pretty much exactly the same manner as I did at Puckerbrush. Poo.

So overall I thought I did an OK job but not great, and certainly wasn't expecting a ribbon in such a big and competitive class. Imagine my surprise, then, when I ended up 4th with a 63.4%!! Even if the class hadn't been split into sections, I would have come 6th out of over 30 horses. Eeeee!!!! What a good boy Ringo!!

As in previous tests, I had an unusually large split between the two scores of my judging panel--just over 60% from one judge and a 66.7% from the other. I think Ringo is a horse that judges either really like or really don't and am at peace with that at this point, so it wasn't too surprising. The judge I received a 66.7% was an FEI 5* judge (the highest rating of judge there is) and placed me first in the class, so no complaints!!

(My last page from the 5* judge who gave me a 66.7% - pretty awesome to see eight 7.0s out of ten movements!!)

On Sunday, I competed in a 4th Level Adult Amateur Challenge, which meant competing in a Dressage Seat Equitation class in the morning and a 4th Level Test 2 in the afternoon. Prior to this July when a girl at my barn did one at Lendon Gray's Dressage 4 Kids festival, I'd never even heard of Dressage Seat Equitation classes, and definitely didn't really know what I was getting into. It ended up being a lot like a traditional hunter/jumper equitation class on the flat: the judge stood in the center with a scribe, called out commands like walk, trot, etc, and then judged us on our position as we performed them.

Here's a snippet of my class:

In general I thought the class was a lot of fun and a great idea for something to promote better riding among amateurs at the lower levels. However, I had a few qualms with how my particular class was run. Specifically, my class was designated as a "4th Level Dressage Seat Equitation" class, and at the beginning the judge explicitly said that we would be tested on 4th level movements and skills. So, I was expecting perhaps some half passes at trot or canter, maybe some pirouette canter, and for sure at least one flying change.

It was a let down, then, when our test consisted of rising trot (umm... this is not part of 4th level), medium and extended walk, a turn on the haunches at walk, collected and medium (sitting) trot, and collected canter. And that's it. Boo. I definitely feel like my strengths as a rider become more obvious with increased difficulty, so it was frustrating not to get to show off my skills at this level.

In the end I placed 3rd (out of 4) with a score of 72%. The judge's comments, I will say, were pretty much in line with the things Kim drills me on regularly at home: keeping my leg underneath me in trot, keeping my head straight over my shoulders, and keeping my thumbs on top. So it's not as if I thought she was being unfair; I just wish it had been a truer test for the level we are supposedly at.

It was a fairly quick turnaround that afternoon to come back for the 4-2 test. I was a little disheartening to see as I was cantering around the arena that I was riding for the same judge that had done the DSE class (who was also, coincidentally, the judge who had given me my lower score at PSG!). By this point I felt like the judge had a pretty set notion of what Ringo's and my skills were, and that it was going to be an uphill battle to break out of that box.

So in that light, I was pretty disappointed with my test. I thought I did a good job continuing to push the trotwork to the next level as Kim has been urging us to do, but that I was sloppy and inaccurate. Then numerous parts of the canter fell to pieces that we don't normally mess up. I think Ringo was a little more tired than I thought he was from the weekend's exertions, and since I was tense and focused on trying to push push push I wasn't there to support him when he needed it. As I made my final salute I knew I hadn't done enough to convince this judge that we deserved more than we'd shown in our DSE class, and it felt really frustrating.

Here's our test:

We did end up with a 62.9% which was enough to bump us up to a 63% aggregate score and 2nd overall in the AA Challenge. We won a beautiful whip and $75 cash, which I must say definitely went a long way to smoothing over my feelings of disappointment, haha. In general I really liked the format of this challenge and would love to do it again, though I do think there were a few elements of the setup and judging that I'd love to see changed going forward.

Overall though goodness, what a show. I already knew how incredibly special Ringo is, but it was thrilling to get to show that off to such a big crowd and to have it be recognized by others. This was my second to last show with Ringo, so it really felt special. I'm so lucky to have been able to go, and to have had the support of Kim and my dad there, and my mom back at home (who graciously took over my chores while I was away). I'm excited to head back for the New England Championships a month from now!

(The most beautiful creature)

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Some Candid Pictures from Puckerbrush

First off, thank you SO MUCH for all your amazing comments on my last post!! I'm still on cloud 9 from last weekend and your wonderful words of support made the whole experience that much more special.

I've been enjoying a nice quiet post-Silver Medal week, getting in one more week on the farm before I leave for a week of vacation - wahoo! The ponies are all doing great and I think will enjoy a little downtime as well.

Here are a few more pictures from Puckerbrush--not quite as fancy as the last ones! But hopefully enjoyable in their way :)

 (Food options near the show were low, so we ended up eating at the truck stop near our hotel both nights we were there - the food was actually good, but the portions were... epic. And the waitresses judged us when we didn't finish! Also, note the semi coming out of the wall behind Pa.)

 (Me chillin at the truck stop)

 (My pre-show outfit - dang. Just the classiest.)

 (Pa and Ray absorbing the news that we got our last silver medal score: so. much. relief.)

And here's what we've been up to in the post-Silver haze:

 (The head coach of the Stanford Equestrian Team (and fellow Bay State native) stopped by the farm yesterday to visit with Ringo, the newly-minted celebrity)

(After getting me totally addicted to the Tour de France this summer, Pa finally got me out for a ride on a real road bike a few days ago -- my first time EVER on a bike with gears! I only learned how to ride a bike in college, and while I grew to love my fat tire fixie 'Cedric,' I've never been the most confident biker. I went prettttty slowly, but had a great time! Maybe a new hobby for horse-less Oxford??)

In bittersweet news, I entered my very last shows of the season: the NEDA Fall Festival (doing the PSG Championship!) with Ringo and GMHA Fall with Ky (going Novice). It's likely that these will be my last two shows for at least two years. I'm not allowing myself to feel (too) sad about it at the moment, but am just looking forward to two more outings with my wonderful horses. 

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