Forward into the contact: a continuing journey

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Horses are right or left handed, just as we are. They tend to lean on one rein (usually the left) and to be harder to bend in that direction.  

Starlight and I recently attended a Jane Weatherwax clinic where we worked on riding forward into both reins evenly. While it sounds like a simple concept, it’s one that we’re still working on as we train to show Third Level this year.

How hard could it be to keep the contact even? HA!

Looking at the “bad illustration” below, you can see Star is over bent in her neck (too much inside hand), resistant in her jaw (can you blame her?), a bit braced and hollow in her back and hence her neck is a bit high and braced as well.

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This is not a pretty picture.

Solution? Lower the neck, give with the inside hand, straighten the outside shoulder (don’t let it drift), make sure that inside leg stays at the girth if you are circling right (as I think I might be about to) and use your body to turn, NOT your reins. So simple, right? Oh, if only it were that easy. And ride forward to engage the haunches (engine)!

Star’s desire to lean on the left rein is made worse by my own decades long tendency to be rigid with my left wrist. My whole left side tends to have problems: left leg wants to creep up, hip collapses on that side, head tilts that way sometimes. Oh dear.

Star and I have worked out a co-dependent relationship: she will lean on the left rein and I will carry it for her with my stiff left hand.

Only I really don’t want to do that any more so it’s time to change the rules of this game.

Horses, God bless ’em, have long memories but also plenty of forgiveness (most of them). You can change the rules and stop hanging on that rein and pretty soon, the horse will start to carry himself as he figures out a new balance. Yes, this does actually work, I have felt it!

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Star demonstrates haunches-in. Note the mud-coated left foreleg (from kneeling to reach for tender spring grass under fence). My inside (left) leg should be further forward, on the girth, and my left shoulder could be a tad further back to be perpendicular to the fence.

Use suppling exercises such as:

  • shoulder-in
  • haunches-in
  • 10 or 15 meter circles
  • leg yield to shoulder in
  • shoulder in to half-pass

These are useful exercises for strengthening the horse and teaching balance.

Important: don’t hang on that inside rein!

Giving periodically with the inside rein checks that the horse is not depending on it for balance and remains on the aids.

The problem is remembering to keep the inside rein light along with all the other 2000 things we have to remember. And encourage the horse to move FORWARD (but don’t rush!) into the connection…

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Forward into connection with a nice outside rein connection

Does a bit of bling make you a dressage diva?

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My mare and I are on the cusp of Third Level. Flying changes come and go – occasionally she does a few easily clean and straight, and other days, it’s, “huh? I have no idea what you’re talking about.” All other third level moves feel fairly easy; the changes will come soon enough. Probably.

So I allowed myself the indulgence of buying a new (admittedly unneeded) show shirt at the Animo Black Friday Sale. 

Admittedly, the shirt above falls in the rather blingy (but oh so fabulous!) category. Does this make me a dressage diva? It is an interesting question.

Such a (negatively) loaded term. I immediately think of a small overweight woman bouncing along on an enormous horse, weighed down with bling everywhere. “NEVER!”quoth I.

Yet one most know oneself. The truth will set you free.

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Know Thyself

Diva definition: “a usually glamorous and successful female performer or personality.”

Having attained a certain age (well over 50), perhaps I’m entitled to enjoy a little glamour here and there. Well made, glittery shirt? Sure.

As for success, well, it comes and goes. Doing what we can to be successful AND have fun.

Dressage Diva: Yes, in the true sense of the word. Bring it. I’m old enough to enjoy the glitter if I want to. That said, let’s try to stay reasonably tasteful. One can go TOO far. As in this:

 

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Coming soon: Starlight embraces her inner dressage diva with her own glittery coronet (aka browband). Just wait until you see her Christmas Present.

 

 

Should you go to a clinic?

Star and I have struggled a little with finding a steady connection with the bit. Star’s automatic reflex is to raise her neck and brace herself, especially if she is a bit tense or nervous, becoming quick in her gait and keeping her back hollow. Ick.

Of course I would like to slow her tempo, adding cadence and push from her hindquarters, engaging her back, and getting a nice, steady connection with the bit. It’s a work in progress.

Right now I’m in the midst of a three day clinic with Corinne Dorrepaal, a wise and experienced trainer from Holland who comes to the USA for clinics occasionally. Lucky me!

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Much improved connection, thanks to Corinne’s help at the clinic

Clinics are expensive – each lesson usually  two to four times what you normally spend on a lesson – and I found myself thinking about that cost. Is it worth it?

It depends. In Corinne’s case, Yes! Here’s my metric for deciding whether to spend the money on a clinician:

  1. Is he or she an effective teacher?  Many clinicians offer years of experience, having seen literally thousands of horses and riders of all sorts. They draw on that vast resource of knowledge to quickly solve your riding problems.
  2. Does this person treat the students and horses with respect?  A positive attitude with respect for horse and rider is nonnegotiable. They must not drive the horse into the ground with too much work during the clinic (and if you feel the work is too hard, Speak Up!), or use their authority to abuse horse or rider.
  3. Does this clinician offer something different from my current teacher, but not conflicting with her general methods? If it’s just more of what your teacher offers (without further depth), why bother? If it conflicts with what you do at home…you will have a problem continuing the work and either lose all you gained at the clinic, or have conflict with your trainer. Don’t do it.
  4. Do I finish the lessons with practical exercises to take home and a clear understanding of what I need to do, practice, work on, aim for?

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    Starlight in a nice uphill collected canter. She can’t maintain this very long yet, just a few strides and then we let her go bigger for a few strides, then collect again..

  5. Is the clinician open to questions and discussion when I need more clarification?
  6. How did I feel about the lesson(s)? I always try to have my clinics videotaped, as many of the sessions as I can. I’m a visual learner, not auditory, so watching video helps me understand what happened and reinforces what I felt. It also helps me decide if it is worth going back to the clinician because the real question is…
  7. Does this clinician make a positive difference in my horse and me quickly and effectively? 

Day one of the Corinne Dorrepaal clinic, within 15 minutes she had my horse looking so much better! Of course, in my lessons at home, this happens too. A little warmup and some coaching does a lot of good. But I felt we made some important strides forward in the area of getting a good connection over the top.

What I took away from my first day:

  • The gray areas matter: always pay attention to the little things, don’t be sloppy. Every transition, every moment.
  • Keep asking Star to lower her neck (from the base of the neck) all the time. Be wary because she starts to bring it back up and you don’t realize it. Especially in the transitions, lower the neck, it improves them and also makes her stronger.
  • Slow the tempo down in trot and canter. Keep the energy through frequent transitions within the gait (“almost walk, trot on”), but keep the tempo fairly slow.

More insights in a few days! And here is a small portion of the lesson video, focusing on collecting for a few strides, then lengthening for a few strides exercise, all while keeping the neck low to engage the back. We begin with a little walk work and proceed to trot.

 

 

 

Starlight at the horse show

Starlight made the jump to Second Level this weekend, and did it in style with some quite good scores. Below are a few nice pictures from test 2-3. What a truly lovely setting and we always enjoy showing at Osierlea in San Juan Bautista, CA, where everyone is helpful and friendly, the footing is excellent, and there are gardens all around you. No dust or flies, either, I don’t know how they do it!

It’s horse heaven. Star told me she’d like to live there, but unfortunately it would be too long a commute for us. We’ll just have to visit occasionally.

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Up the Centerline for the halt and salute

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Shoulder-in

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Medium trot across the diagonal

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Collected canter right

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More collected canter right!

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Counter canter serpentine, right

Getting better all the time…

Starlight is at a stage where progress happens fast. I know  plateaus will come soon enough, but I’m enjoying her willing attitude and aptitude for dressage.

What a dance partner she is!

A fellow blogging friend challenged us to a “before and after” post about our horse, so here we go: the first five months with Starlight

Starlight in March 2016 when I bought her:

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Talking to Starlight before the vet check. You’re going to be my girl now (assuming you pass the vet check)!

A few weeks later, under saddle as we got to know each other. Looks at those happy smiles.DSC02965

 

In April, at the Woodside HorsePark on a cold windy day, having a clinic with Miguel Tavora, Starlight gets a little TOO enthusiastic about the canter depart!

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Whoa there, girl! I don’t want to play Calamity Jane in this partnership!

Our first show, Training Level, six weeks after I bought her. She was very tense, but obedient and safe.

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Notice how shiny her coat is as she sheds out the bleached winter coat and grows in a nice shiny black summer coat. I feed her Platinum Performance and Chia Seed which helps with shine, too.

By our fourth and last show at Training Level (hooray!), she feels like an old campaigner. Works beautifully in a crowded warmup ring, has no problem with the judge’s booth or the flowers on the ring, knows her job and does it. A little tension in the first test but performs very well.

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See how much more grownup she looks now!

While we continue to struggle a bit with reaching over the top for a solid connection with the bit, Starlight improves weekly and always has a willing spirit. I can’t say enough good things about the Andalusian – when you find a good one.  For me they are the perfect combination of trainability, willingness, good sense, forwardness, comfortable gaits, and beauty. You can tell I’m besotted. This horse would follow me anywhere and do anything for me. It is a precious trust.

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Starlight in May 2016, finishing a Training Level test and feeling quite pleased with herself.

 

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

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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