Progress with the Flying Changes! At least for the moment.

Riding is full of frustrations but right now Starlight and I are in one of those all-too-rare and wonderful epochs where we are actually making all kinds of progress. I almost hate to say it lest I jinx us.

The canter has improved immensely which makes things like Flying Changes feel so much more possible. Somehow the Changes have been a bit elusive – we would find them and then lose them somehow. But now I think we are going to get and KEEP them.

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Nice uphill canter in preparation for the flying change

We have spent months working on improving the canter. Lots of counter canter (not Star’s favorite exercise, but it was good for her). Lots of transitions trot/canter/trot. Walk/canter/walk. Shoulder-in and haunches-in at the canter. Forward and back at the canter (lengthen and shorten the stride). Moving the hips and shoulders around until I could control the speed, bend, angle, etc. fairly easily most of the time (notice the caveats – sometimes none of this works). We also worked to make sure she was quick off the aid to the canter (not needing to “think about it for awhile,” or requiring several aids to pick up the canter.

After establishing a nice collected canter, we do a half-volte (half 10 meter circle), and on our way back to the rail, half halt on the outside rein, move the shoulders towards the new lead, and ask for the new lead. These steps happen fairly quickly; if I delay, things do not go well. Sometimes things don’t go well anyway. Try, try again.

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The moment of the lead change, from right lead to left lead.

After the change, I immediately praise her verbally and pat her with the inside hand, canter a few strides, and then walk. She’s still new to it so she needs lots of praise and a short walk break to make the point of “see, what a smart girl you are! And wasn’t that easy? Now you get to walk, yahoo!” Hopefully she decides she loves to change leads (not just randomly, but when asked, one hopes).

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Starlight looking pleased with herself and thinking about that wonderful lead change.

Oh Starlight, we’re not in Kansas anymore.

We’ve had a long hiatus from horse shows (about 18 months, actually), we’ve moved from Northern to Southern California, and now Star and I finally went back to the show ring.

Our local ‘hood is San Diego, and in San Diego, that means: Del Mar Fairgrounds

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The Del Mar Fairgrounds is a famous racetrack as well as a showground. The weekend that we showed, they were training TBs on the track until 9:30 am, so for the first hour and a half, classes in ring three (which was next to the track) got to enjoy groups of young TBs blowing by at full speed. YEEHAW!!!

Yes, the track really is THAT CLOSE to the arenas. Imagine what it’s like to be asking for an extended canter as the TBs are running by (!) 

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Most entries scratched the morning classes, and the ones who didn’t…wished they did. The rides were dramatic, although the EMTs did NOT have to be called, thank God.

The warm up arenas are IMMENSE and rather exciting! That’s Star looking teeny (she’s actually 16.1 hds, it’s just the other horses are HUGE) with me in the green coat in the foreground.

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I wondered why Star was being difficult in the warmup until I watched a video my husband took. The giant bay horse behind me (not pictured here) was rearing and leaping about 10 feet behind me. No wonder Star was tense! She held it together, but it was distracting. All good training, though. What a good girl.

Below is the indoor arena. It is usually for FEI classes and some day we will be in there. Meanwhile, I enjoy watching the big boys and girls ride their tests. I’ve been watching some of the Master Classes and Freestyles held there recently and it’s been a blast.

Indoor Arena at Del Mar below: check out the Jumbotron hanging from the ceiling and imagine seeing yourself up there (gulp). Better have it together before you try to ride in there…

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P.S. And how did we do at the show? Well, we did o.k., not great. Star was quite tense the first day (tempi changes during the counter canter, really? It was funny), and I was a bit sloppy in my figures (I really should have practiced those 10 m canter circles, I’d forgotten exactly what size they are). Our scores were lower than we usually get but they were good enough, and by the second day of showing, Star was much more relaxed and felt like her normal self. So it was a very successful exercise in getting her used to a very stimulating show grounds, and she ate well, drank well, slept well, was relaxed in the stall and decent in the rings. We hope to return at 3rd level in late April, and in no time she will be an old hand at Del Mar…

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.