A lovely day at the show

Third show yesterday: Starlight and I have been together just 3.5 months and our partnership and enjoyment of each other is growing by leaps and bounds. I love this mare! and she seems to love me, too, bless her generous heart.

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Enter at A. See all the nice shady trees they have at Osierlea! So pretty there.

Yesterday we showed at Osierlea in San Juan Bautista, California, one of the nicest places to show in Northern California. Osierlea has been a dressage facility since the very early days of dressage in California. In fact, I think I may have showed there as a teenager many, many, many decades ago….

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Practicing in the arena the day before…

Nowadays it is a jewel of a place, a quiet retreat of many trees, flowers,  nice arenas, with friendly and helpful show personnel and volunteers. Some of the lovely touches (let show organizers take note of how much this matters):

  • A check-in packet containing a schedule of riders (“day sheet”), information about the facility (a map!),  some free sample size horse products, and some cookies for your horse.
  • A cool cup of water offered to hot, sweaty competitors as we exited the competition arena. Oh, thank you, thank you!
  • A big bowl of carrots for the horses sitting on the show secretary’s table all day. Take as many as you want, it was renewed all day long…
  • Free (good) coffee, nice fresh muffins, and fresh fruit in the morning.
  • Delicious and very reasonably priced fresh grilled hamburgers for lunch. My show
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    Coats were waived, it was HOT

    helper husband can’t stop talking about the hamburgers and what a deal they were (especially compared to the lunch offerings we’ve seen at other shows).

  • Pleasant and helpful staff and volunteers, well dragged arenas, and NO FLIES! Plenty of room to warm up, with a large separate area for lunging. Immaculate facility.
  • Reasonably priced overnight accommodations for the horses in well maintained stalls.
  • Fresh flowers and a softly tinkling water fountain on the show secretary’s desk gave an atmosphere of calm.
  • Lots of shade and many places to sit down and relax. Shady seats to watch the rides.

The little things matter and they make a big difference in a show experience that feels relaxed and pleasant, or unpleasantly struggling.

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Like air travel, we have a choice in show venues (sometimes)...I will always choose a pleasant and helpful show management over one that is surly and/or unorganized, both of which I’ve run into occasionally, although many shows are well run. Just few are as lovely as Osierlea.

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With an inexperienced horse, the chance to go a day early and school in the arena: is priceless.

Starlight showed very well and we had a lovely time together. She is starting to be able to focus on me at shows rather than everything outside the ring, and so the feeling of relaxation and harmony is coming together as you can see in some of these photos. I apologize for the quality, most of them are screen shots taken from the video, and it was almost noon, so the camera had trouble with the lighting as we went in and out of shadow.

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Across the diagonal at training level

Starlight goes to her first big show

With a new horse, you’re never quite sure what you have until you’ve tried a few things and gone a few places. I am happy to announce that Starlight passed the test of her First Really Big Show with flying colors!

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What a clever and good girl! You survived the test! Carrots shall be yours!

In spite of unseasonably chilly temperatures, winds whipping the tents, decorative ringside plants falling over, and horses bolting, Starlight was practically perfect in every way. Well, other than being rather tense. We’ll allow that, since she’s not quite six.

Bless her horsey heart! Extra carrots for her!

Although she was certainly tense in the dressage tests (still working on relaxation and suppleness), she did five Training Level tests over three days, earning scores from 63-69%.

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The judge commented kindly on my “beautiful horse and lovely turnout!” Yes, you can braid with rubber bands (match the mane, of course), and yes, you can wear colored coats (see the rule book). Star’s abalone browband goes beautifully with my green coat.

We have plenty of things to practice (relaxation! bending! transitions!) before our next show, but she’s handling the crowded warm up ring with aplomb, ate and rested well in her stall, and generally was pretty relaxed at the very busy show grounds.

We moved into the show grounds the day before the 3-day show started, so we had the chance to practice in the dressage court. Very helpful, since Star is a bit worried about the judges booth, as in “Heck no, I am not going near that thing!” At least not right at first, which makes for an awkward centerline entry. My husband had the brilliant idea of sitting in the judges booth the day before while we practiced our test, and offering her a piece of carrot. Aha! That did the trick. She immediately got over her fear and was able to approach the booth. No problem the next day in trotting down Centerline toward the judge.Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 9.27.44 PM

Three days of showing are exhausting for horse and rider, and we were both more than ready to be done by the end of it. Star leapt into the trailer at loading time with the “Please take me home now, I want to sleep in my own bed” look of someone who has been on a ten-countries-in-ten-days trip. Now we take a little break, and focus on training, with a little trail riding thrown in for cross training. Fun!

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A bit of over exuberance at the canter circle. Yeehaw!

First Show with a New horse? Try this

This wasn’t my first rodeo: I’ve shown some at dressage shows for the last three years. But Starlight, my new Andalusian mare is not quite six and is new to it all: the Judge’s booth, the announcer, the crowds of fans (well, make that five fans), the applause, heck even the whistle that starts the test was new to her. IMG_1973.jpg

The whole purpose of our first show together – and indeed, our first few shows – had to be

“This is FUN, Starlight! You will receive praise, cookies, and admiration. You will not work very hard, and everyone will tell you how beautiful you are. Soon, shows will be your favorite place to go!”

With this in mind, and knowing that Starlight has a good mind but she is horse that needs a little time to look at new things and get used them – and she has a lot of energy and is young – I planned my show accordingly. Some of these tips might be useful to you if you have a new, young, or inexperienced horse.

  1. Go the day before and school in the facility. It cost me extra time, effort, and money, but WOW was it worth it. Starlight would not approach the judges booth at first, but stopped DEAD as we practiced trotting down the center line. If that had been our first time in the ring, it would have been disaster. Fortunately, I could work that pattern multiple times until she realized there wasn’t really a monster there. The next day, we had only a mild spook at the booth (instead, we spooked at the side gate at K where some people lurked just around the corner. Oh well, couldn’t anticipate that)Screen Shot 2015-02-01 at 5.14.40 PM
  2. Plan your warm up carefully. You know your horse and know how much time they need. Give a little extra warmup for the show environment, but don’t wear them out. In this case, my first test was at 8:13 a.m. and it was chilly, so yes, I did need to wear her out a bit. We did more cantering in the warm up (and a bit of leaping) than I would usually plan on, but it was necessary in order to have controlled cantering in the test. It worked. Make sure you have plenty of time before your class so that you and the horse do not feel rushed.IMG_1957.jpg
  3. Have a friend or friends to help you. Someone to call your test (if dressage), give you water, help lead your horse through the spooky tunnel into the ring (in our case), and just generally tell you how great you and your horse are, even when you aren’t. We all need encouragement!  Even if you have to pay someone to do this, do it. Let them know what you need, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. It takes a village to show an inexperienced horse. My former horse was “point and shoot” easy to show. It’s not like that with a green horse and I need more help right now. It will get easier but now is not the time to do it alone.
  4. Celebrate every victory. Your horse stood still so you could get on? Yahoo! The horse behaved in the warm up ring? Well done. You managed to ride the test without major errors and did not jump out of the ring? WOW, that’s fantastic! Remember the point of a young horse’s first few shows is to give the horse a positive and happy experience. You may get a good score – or not – but most importantly, make sure your horse has a good time (and you stay safe).

Starlight and I rode Training Level tests 2 and 3 at our first show, and I laughed at the Judge’s comment:

“Capable pair but too conservatively ridden so that horse doesn’t think forward…”

You bet I rode her conservatively! It was her first show and I wanted to keep everything very calm and relaxed. Point taken, though, and next time I will let the fire breathing dragon out a bit and ask for more. Looking at the video, he’s absolutely right. I’m learning, too, what will Starlight do at a show? How will she behave? How can I help her succeed and be happy?

This “capable pair” are falling in love with each other and learning to become a team who understand and trust each other. The years ahead hold so much of fun and interest for us, I hope and pray.

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Growing pains

It was a cold and breezy day, and young Starlight was full of Vigor and Vim! She was at her first dressage clinic at a brand new place, and WOW WAS IT EXCITING!!!

Her mind could not take it all in fast enough, and she trotted around tensely, resisting the bend and chomping on the bit. Soon, the instructor suggested we try a canter. With some trepidation, because I could feel how high she was, I gave the aid.

WOOHOO! I was riding a dolphin, not a horse, as she took three giant leaps up and down. She just could NOT contain her exuberance. Here’s our unplanned levade/canter depart:

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You can’t hear my squeak of dismay, but you can imagine it…Fortunately, my kite soon came down to earth and stayed there.

From flying, Star decided that instead of cantering she would be a Pogo Stick.

Bounce, Bounce, Bounce, around the circle we went, with me laughing nervously.

It was kind of funny, but not terribly useful in a dressage lesson. Ah well, we got through it, and after a few minutes she settled. The instructor, Major Miguel Tavora, took us through a series of exercises designed to relax and supple the horse. Things such as trot/a few steps of walk/trot on; shoulder in on the circle; small circles at the walk focusing on getting a soft bend from the horse, and more made a big difference in how Starlight carried herself.

And look what we ended up with: a beautiful dance with a supple and obedient horse. 

Yay for my lovely horse, and Yay for Major Miguel Tavora, who patiently talked us through the steps to get from worried and distracted to more focused and supple. We look forward to the next two days and hope we don’t have to go through the Kite/Pogo stick part tomorrow…

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A field trip for Starlight

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“You can do this, Starlight. I know we’re at the big, scary Woodside HorsePark, but keep it together and don’t kill mom, O.k.?”

We’ve spent the last three weeks practicing calmly and easily loading and unloading from the horse trailer. Starlight had limited trailering experience when I bought her a month ago, and had never ridden in a straight load trailer (except when I bought her and brought her home). So she has needed some time to get used to the idea. We’ve established the inside of the trailer as home of the Magic Bucket of Joy (with delicious pellets) and Place Where You Get Lots of Pats and Carrots. It’s working.

Starlight eyes the trailer for a moment of two, weighs the pros and cons. “Gosh I really want that magic bucket…but I’ll have to get in the trailer…hmmm, I guess I should just do what mom wants and get in. She’ll be happy, and I’ll get the bucket. Sure, what the heck.” And in she goes. Yahoo.

 

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Focus, my child. Focus.

Big day today: our first field trip to another place. Having owned a horse who periodically would REFUSE to load back into the trailer (stranding me in places like the county park for hours upon end), I have a bit of trailer PTSD. But I am trusting Starlight to do the right thing. So far, so good. And I have to take the plunge at some point. Besides, Starlight and I are going to shows, trails, clinics, etc. We need to trailer places.

Starlight was very excited at the Horsepark – and who can blame her? It has wide open spaces, many arenas, lots to look at, and I wasn’t able to take another calm horse to babysit her.

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EEEK! Just so you know I don’t show you only beautiful shots. Hollow back, head in the air, not a pretty picture. Fortunately, this was a minority of the time and only at the beginning.

But once I was on her, she was willing to focus on the work and within 10 minutes I was able to do somewhat decent work with her.

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Much better here…As she sheds her bleached winter coat, her coat is becoming an interesting “tiger’s eye” color. She’s Black on her registration papers, but I’m not sure what color she’ll be when she sheds out.

Star is a SUPERSTAR and I’m very pleased with how she did in her first outing!

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Practicing our dressage in the Big Covered Arena. Garbage cans in the background.

 

Where is your energy ball?

“Keep the energy ball in the middle of the horse!” the clinician reminded me. 

My horse tends to be more laid back (very safe and non-spooky) and while he is a willing worker, the idea of having a Big Ball of Energy in the Middle of the Horse was a useful one. Rather than trailing hind legs that I continually nag to “keep up, keep up!” I’ve started thinking about having a crackling lightning ball of energy.

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Or, as another teacher once put it,

Think of riding a great, big, bouncing Beach Ball. Fun!

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Calm horses feel like the energy is behind you, so the rider needs to activate the horse and bring the energy ball forward under the seat. Be careful not to rush the horse forward into too fast a tempo in your desire for energy. A horse that runs along in a quick trot cannot balance himself. Half halts and frequent changes of gait, plus lateral work, will help activate the hindquarters. An occasional brisk hand gallop forward sometimes helps, too!

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Here we see Finn’s energy is not yet under my seat.  You can see that I am driving with my seat and legs, but he’s not reaching and moving forward into the contact or bending his hocks.

 

Some of you have the opposite problem: energy that gets out in front of you, a feeling like you’re being pulled along, perhaps, or racing along too fast.

High energy horses tend to have the energy ball get in front of the rider. In that case, using half halts and the seat brings the energy back into the middle of the horse. Be careful not to pull on the horse, as this will just lead to a tug of war. Horses generally win any pulling contest (they outweigh us, in case you hadn’t noticed). Frequent circles, changes of gait, and some use of lateral movements can help a quick horse slow down and focus.

Always we want a sense of energy in the middle of the horse, under our seats, so that we feel the hind legs pushing energy through the back, being softly received into the hand and circled back through to the hind leg again.

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Finn warming up at the same show. He is more engaged, although things are still a “work in progress.”

 

Ideally, there is a sense that you can go forward or slow down at the slightest touch. It is a very elastic feeling when it works! It begins with getting the energy ball in the right place: in the middle of the horse.

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Different show (hot day, coats were waived). But you can see Finn’s energy ball is balanced under my seat as he begins this working canter pirouette.

Disruption: what if dressage tests had THIS score included?

Screen Shot 2015-10-20 at 4.29.14 PMMy husband is a horse person only by marriage, but he has, under duress, observed a fair number of dressage tests over the past few years. Today he suddenly suggested:

“Maybe they should have a score for “How Much Did This Horse Cost? And How Much Is Your Monthly Training Bill?”

Those horses usually win everything anyway.”

Well, yeah, usually. There is something compelling about those horses who cost Six Figures. They just do move differently. I find it a bit unfortunate that Dressage competition has become somewhat of a breed show. In other words, the most spectacular horse may win over a better trained (and ridden) horse. Although that’s a subjective statement, isn’t it? I call this “Breed Show Dressage.”

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In Breed Show Dressage, natural gaits and ability are heavily weighted, often much more so than correct training. The judge is so taken by that amazing walk, that showy trot, that he throws out 8s and 9s with abandon, waving off theDSC01944 “little problems” of being behind the vertical, jammed in the neck, rushed, with the hind legs trailing. The next horse, a more ordinary citizen, elicits a yawn and a bunch of 5s and 6s. She just doesn’t have the razzmatazz that Spectacular Gaits had, although her tempo is good, her figures correct, she’s steady on the aids and using her back correctly. Who wins the class? Leg flicking Spectacular Gaits, by a long shot. Spectacular Gaits beats Correct Training, in other words.

Proponents of breed show dressage say that we should reward good gaits. Indeed we should, WHEN they are the result of correct training and riding.

Should we reward them simply because they are natural to this athletic being? Not if this is truly Dressage. Regard the web definition for Dressage:

  1. Haute école (“high school”)
  2. the art or method of training a horse in obedience and in precision of movement.
  3. From the USDF site:Dressage is a French term meaning “training” and its purpose is to develop the horse’s natural athletic ability and willingness to work making him calm, supple and attentive to his rider.

Perhaps our judges are being trained to interpret this as meaning that the more naturally talented horses should be rewarded more highly: start with the gait and add on from there. But to me, Dressage means training: to improving a horse’s natural movement, suppleness, obedience, etc. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that my horse is not inexpensive (although not six figures), and I do get help from a trainer and clinicians. I’m not doing this on a super tight budget (although I have in the past). I’m just noting that maybe dressage is losing its way as it becomes more about Super Athletes and less about correct training.

Screen Shot 2015-10-20 at 4.32.45 PMPerhaps my husband is right: let’s add on estimated PRICE under “collective marks,” just for jollies.