"And, when you want something, the entire Universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." -The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Quest for Lighntess

It's been a long time since I posted on here, though I think about it all the time! Between work, more responsability at the barn, riding, and time with Charles, it seems the days fly by. Usually when I'm home, all I want to do is sleep, and then it's time to go back to the barn.

Lily's progress continues. It seems like almost every ride includes a new breakthrough with her. April brought about a few of our first real leg yields:

Still some tension here, but she is slowly improving

A lot more work on the bit:

I'm leaning forward (yuck) but love how she looks here!

Tracking UP!

And the Lightness clinic.

The clinic was life-changing, if I may call it that. I cried, bitched and had internal tantrums, and poor Lily, overwhelmed by a progressive change of all of the equipment she was comfortable with, in one fell swoop demonstrated the trainer, whom I will call Miguel for the purposes of this blog, why she DIDN'T need a whip, why I think she IS athletic enough to make it to upper level dressage, and her rider's (me) ability to stay on...

Despite all this, we ended on a really, really good note:

Yup, that's us, on the 3rd and last day of the clinic.

The clinic took place at the Martin Downs Equestrin Center in Palm City. Please check out their photos! It is a LOVELY, top-notch facility, where all disciplines (Western, H/J, dressage, and everything in between) are truly welcome. Tara, the barn manager, is awesome, and despite her busy schedule running a 50-stall barn, managed to make all of us feel welcome and appreciated. It was a beautiful experience.

Sarah organized the clinic single-handedly, and it was a huge success. Judy came too, but as an auditor, because Rose's hip had been flaring up. We went a day early, to give Lily and Romeo extra time to become acclimated to the new surroundings, since they both initially can get worked up in new environments. Sarah towed Romeo in Mark's truck and trailer because she had to pick up Miguel at the airport, and Judy and I drove down in her truck with Lily in tow about 30 minutes behind her. The drive only took an hour from our area in Broward, and Lily trailered well. She was assigned a large box stall in the main barn, with her own overhead fan. Her neighbor was...an Interagro Lusitano!! As it turns out, Martin Downs is home to the Interagro Lusitanos when they are shipped to FL for the yearly auction, and some have become permanent residents. Hence, Lily's handsome gray neighbor (he was a gelding. They did have Interagro stallions in the stallion barn.)

Romeo was over at the stallion barn next door, where most of the clinic horses were placed for the weekend. I had asked to be in the main barn away from the stallions, not because I have anything against stallions, but because Lily had gone into raging heat 2 days before the clinic and I didn't want her distracted by the absolutely gorgeous Spanish stallions at the end of the stallion barn (all of them either Lusitanos or Andalusians...beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!) while I was trying to get her to learn new things in a completely new environment!

Thursday afternoon, after allowing the horses to settle in for a couple of hours and checking out the hotel room we would be sharing, we went back to the barn (a 10 minute drive) to tack up and ride Lily and Romeo in the covered arena. There were mirrors at one end, and Sarah and I wanted to make sure the 2 horses were used to the mirrors before the clinic started.

Tacking up Lily, she was fidgeting constantly and calling, which drives me crazy. This is one of her things when she is in heat-she gets monumentally attached to other horses within seconds. After saddling up, I released Lily in the large round pen, and had her trot and canter around for a bit before hopping on. After being so worked up in the cross-ties, I figured she'd explode in the round pen. She surprised me by being very good.

We rode over to the covered arena, and entered by the mirrors. She looked at them, but was unfazed. We walked and trotted, covering the length of the arena and letting her look at everything. She was fine until Sarah and Romeo left the arena, where she decided to have a small fit-she spun, did a small rear, and crow-hopped a couple of times, but I spun her around and made her trot. She wasn't really paying attention to me after that, and despite her anxiety, I could tell that she was exhausted. I had her do a couple of leg yields and shoulder-ins in front of the mirror at a walk, and left it at that for the day.

We met Miguel for dinner that night. He is Spanish, and his first language is Spanish, but when he speaks in English, he has a heavy French accent from having lived in Switzerland when he was younger. The most fascinating thing about him is that all of his training and riding is self-taught, which makes him truly gifted. By the end of dinner, we were all excited to start learning from him the next day.

The next day, Friday, was private lesson day, and Miguel was booked solid for the day. Sarah had the first 2 lessons (for a total of 2 hours riding). They worked on shoulder-in and counter shoulder-in to get Romeo's mind off of wanting to run when excited. By the end of the lesson, Romeo was dripping sweat. Sarah had a somewhat hard time understanding the exercises because she doesn't have a dressage background and there was a language barrier, with Miguel's first language being Spanish. I could understand what he was asking her to do, but my one criticism of the lesson was that when one way of asking her to do something didn't work, he didn't phrase it differently-he just kept asking her to do the same thing over and over, in the same choice of words, even though she wasn't understanding. Eventually she'd get it, but she had no idea what she was doing to make it work. In Sarah's case, it might have taken her 15 minutes instead of 1 hour to understand the one exercise if the information had been relayed differently. A very good instructor will change the way he/she describes movements or corrections to try to reach his student more effectively. Sadly, most riding instructors, Olympic calibre trainers included, lack this ability. It applies to everything-someone may be excellent at something, but that doesn't always translate into that person also having the capacity to teach someone else how to be that good.

Sarah demonstrates a shoulder-in as she had Romeo circle around Miguel

By the time the 3rd lesson was happening, I was really wishing I had been able to schedule a private lesson for Lily and me-the private lesson day had already filled up by the time I registered. I was curious to see what Miguel would think of Lily, and what exercises he'd come up with for us. He seemed to be very impressed with 2 of the riders, both upper level competetitive dressage riders, both of them with beautiful gray Andalusian geldings. His way of teaching worked perfectly for the more advanced students. The first rider owned 5 horses, and had brought her Andalusian and a Hanoverian mare for the clinic. She seemed nice enough, but had already angered Sarah by requesting in advance that no one watch her private lessons, and then entering the arena on her horse before Sarah's lesson was finished. The second rider had a gorgeous ride on her gelding-it was like watching a dance, where they were both completely in tune to each other, and there was this tangible love between the two of them as they rode past...it was lovely to watch. I expressed interest in a lesson, if there was any kind of cancellation or if there was any way I could be squeezed in at the end of the day, and Miguel said that if he still had the energy, we could do it.

As it turned out, another lady who had scheduled 2 lessons back-to-back finished early because she was tired, and Miguel was able to squeeze me in after all.

I tacked up Lily with my heart in my throat from NERVES. By this point, it was 5:00 pm in the evening, and pretty much everyone who would be attending the clinic had arrived, and was sitting at the covered arena watching the lessons. I have stage fright, even after so many years competing on the jumper circuit. Also, some very dark, ominous clouds had rolled in-it looked like it was going to downright pour at any minute, there were hail warnings for the county (lovely, the sound of hail on the tin roof of a covered arena!), and Lily had been cooped up in her stall all day. She was distracted and fidgety while I tacked her up, whinnying at the horses turned out in the pastures, and it didn't help remembering that every other time I have gotten on her in the past when I've been nervous, she's turned into a firecracker.

I mounted up in the covered arena, and we warmed up so Miguel could watch her move. I didn't even bother trying to get her on the bit-he had criticized this when done by everyone else, even the Grand Prix riders, so I just stayed off of Lily's face and rode her with a light seat. She was going particularly inverted because of her own nerves, but she did walk, trot and canter uneventfully. Once he had seen enough, Miguel called us to him, and then he proceeded to rip into us. Or so it felt.

He asked what did we want to learn in this lesson. I said I wanted exercises to get Lily working more from her haunches and improve the quality of her gaits, and to get her lateral work equal (she is much better leg yielding to the right than the left). He asked if my goal was competitive dressage and I said yes; I just want to see how far Lily and I can go; my main goal right now is to get her working correctly. He kind of scoffed at us, which I found incredibly offensive. He truly acted like he thought my mare was useless, and said that we would never be able to help us in a 1 hour lesson. I was floored. He had given lessons to several inexperienced riders on gaited horses, ranging from Paso Finos to a Mangalarga Marchador without a problem, without belittling them, but he couldn't teach me on my horse? Why even bother squeezing me in, if he was going to have that kind of attitude?

We had been told to bring 2 sets of reins, but to bring our usual bit. The first thing he said was that he couldn't teach us anything with Lily in a loose ring (I had her in a Myler Comfort Snaffle loose ring). WTF??! I had a whole collection of bits back home, with everything from a waterford bit from my jumping days to a low port kimberwicke that I used for brakes on my previous gelding, and had brought NONE because we had been told they would not be needed. Then he pointed out that Lily has an inverted neck, which I am fully aware of, and I pointed out this was actually an improvement from before-we have only recently been able to figure out how to get her to work correctly without freaking her out.

He then had us work on a 10 meter circle at the walk, with Lily overbent to the inside, and then send her out in a straight line, pushing her forward with my legs. The point of the exercise was to improve the quality of her gait by getting her to extend, though I still don't understand the mechanics of this exercise-the why and how of it. Lily would release in the circle, but I would be told to continue-I couldn't tell what Miguel was seeing as indication that it was time to send her into the straight line. We tried this at the walk and trot, but she wasn't giving a snappy response to the leg pressure on the straightaway-she was still tired from the day before.

Because of this, he asked for someone to hand him a whip. For me to use. I felt all of the blood drain from my face. Lily is absolutely terrified of whips. All I have to do is hold a lunge whip in my hand, unmoving with lash pointing down, and she will LITERALLY run herself into the ground in terror. She will tolerate me holding a dressage whip while standing on the ground next to her and running it over her body when she is calm and in the right mindset, but when she is in heat, any little thing I do can cause a flashback, and has the potential to seem life-threatening to her. I had no idea what she would do in a new setting, with a group of people watching us, and a man trying to pass me a whip across her neck. Judy actually spoke up for me, explaining that Lily had been abused, but Miguel decided to proceed with the introduction of the whip.

She did freak out when he tried to hand it to me, so Miguel quickly worked on desensitizing her, running it all over her body until she stopped flinching. I was enraged because my mare does NOT need a whip. However, he wanted me to use the whip just to reinforce my leg. If she didn't respond immediately to leg pressure when sending her out on a straight line, I was to tap my calf with the whip. I tried it, and was very surprised when Lily did NOT take off, proving the new levels that her trust in me has reached. Her response at the trot, however, was to give me her very fast pogo-sticky trot. Miguel then wanted me to slow my post to control her, which I can do just fine without half-halts, but Lily wasn't really responding to that with the whip in my hand. He then wanted me to try the exercise at the canter. Now, that did result in Lily bolting, where I instantly dropped the whip, and we did a mad circle at a gallop around Miguel while I got her back under control.

"THAT is why I don't use a whip." I said, my blood boiling, as I brought my poor mare to a halt in front of him. After that, he still wanted me to use the whip, but by then, Lily was so worked up there was no need for me to tap my leg-she was responding instantly to leg pressure.

I was a frazzled mess of nerves by the end of that lesson, and felt that it had totally not been worth putting myself in danger for it nor worth the extra money I'd be paying for it, just to be subjected to this man's opinion of a TB cross mare. Example: Lily snorts with every stride when she canters, like most fit TBs do. Ex-racers have the snorting-with-every-stride down to an art, and thanks to Lily, I learned that this is actually inherited. She started this type of snorting when she really started to really trust me at the canter, which happened around the same time that she really started to get fit.  I love hearing her do it-the snorting stops when she is tense. Miguel said he had never heard a horse do this and acted like Lily was a freak for doing so. I find this very odd. I'm pretty sure this isn't limited to just Thoroughbreds, but whatever.

I untacked Lily and hosed her off, so angry that I felt the tears springing into my eyes. I put her away next to her boyfriend as the thunder really started to rumble. That evening at dinner, we discussed who would be in which groups. The vast majority of riders were on gaited horses, mostly Paso Finos, Trote-Galopes, the Mangalarga and a gaited Morgan. They were divided into 2 groups, one with the more timid and inexperienced riders, the other with the more experienced riders on difficult horses. I was kind of placed by default in the 3rd group with the Grand Prix dressage riders and another First Level rider, because we were the only four on non-gaited horses, and we all rode dressage.

The next morning was a chilly and watery one. I was exhausted, and felt like I was coming down with a cold-my head was throbbing and my nose was runny. The weather wasn't helping-we had more hailstorm warnings, and we'd had electric storms all night long. It was a good thing we had that covered arena, as the storms rolling in from the sea were affecting all of Florida. Even Charles, back home and working Thursday night, had said the thunder and lightning was so bad in Broward that they could hear the rumbling inside the building, a rare occurrence.

In the morning, we had the lecture portion of the clinic, which was fascinating. We learned about Nuno Oliveira and Jean-Claude Racinet's theories, all new to me. I wondered how I had existed without knowing about this kind of riding. The entire principle of lightness is that you teach the horse to carry himself with minimal cues and effort from the rider. The ultimate goal is to have the horse so in tune to your aids, that you can think what you want and the horse will do it. But to be able to do this, you must have the horse in an uphill frame. The horse is naturally balanced on his own, but becomes unbalanced with the weight of the rider. You must bring the withers and neck up so that the horse becomes balanced again, so that everything that he can do at liberty, he'll be able to do under saddle.

This is the video of Nuno Oliveira that Miguel played for us. Please note that not only does he ride one-handed, the horse doesn't flick his tail a SINGLE time during the entire video. The whip is carried upright in the traditional French classical manner:

He also played this video, which I had seen before. This is dressage on steroids. I don't agree with the bullfighting part of it, but man, this horse is AMAZING. The rider is Pablo Hermosa, and his Lusitano, Merlin.

I think the theory portion of the clinic was essential for us to be able to understand the exercises that we did later, and why we were doing them.

At noon, we broke for lunch, and returned at 1:00 pm to ride. It started to drizzle at this point.

My group went first, and I rode Lily in a borrowed Myler D-ring with 2 sets of reins, which we learned to hold in the French classical manner-one set of reins threaded through the thumb and index (snaffle rein to lift the horse's neck), the other beneath the pinkie (curb rein, to tuck the horse's nose).

We did several exercises, dropping and picking up the reins, asking the horses to walk, trot and canter with no reins. We then practiced the counted walk, which was completely new for us. Lily wriggled and tried to scootch sideways, and later I would find out that this is normal in young horses-they have a hard time going that slow while still staying straight. It was a fun exercise-we had to keep the horses going very straight, and very slow, with no reins, no legs and no hands. If they stopped, we had to start over. We even did a little "race" where we all did the counted walk down the length of the arena, with the slowest horse winning first place. We then did transitions from counted walk to trot, and from counted walk to a collected canter. And then we were asked to do flying changes without hands. This is where it got very interesting for Lily and me...

Up until that moment, Lily had done fairly well, despite the addition of a second set of reins, a completely different bit with a curb chain, my dressage whip in my hand (I had been ordered to carry it, though I had not needed it whatsoever) and an arena with 3 other horses, including a Lusitano stallion.  We had only done 2 flying lead changes in the past back home, and both by accident: the first, she had flipped leads on her own, from right to left (and took off when she frightened herself...), and the second time, I was experimenting with a counter canter, and she swapped leads on her own again from right to left, as I turned her into a circle to the left on the right lead. That second time was perfect, but I had never attempted to repeat it because her canter was still unbalanced.

Well, Miguel wanted me to try it. He had every rider cross the diagonal of the arena one by one, and do a flying change halfway down with a change of direction in favor of the new lead, all without reins. When it was my turn, he had us canter from a walk, with no rein contact. I was to pick up the lead he ordered at the instant he said it. At the corner, we would be turning to the right in front of the mirrors.

"Left lead!" Miguel called out.

From what I was told by onlookers, Lily picked up the left lead and actually did do the flying change to the right. I never felt it. All I felt was the part where she bolted, and the part where I froze, thinking, "Oh shit, I'm going to fall off in front of all of these people". I tossed the whip and grabbed the reins as she was headed straight for the exit. At the very last second, she changed her mind, swerved towards the inside of the arena, and gave a demonstration of some of her best crowhops yet. She must've gotten at least 2'6" of air-it certainly felt like we were going over fences with her head down... I pulled her head up, straightened her out, and she took off down the long side of the arena. I felt the instant where she considered running into the crowd, corrected her, which sent her in a beeline straight for Miguel, corrected her again, and she aimed for the back exit of the arena. The lady on the Lusitano stallion was standing next to the exit, and she backed him up against the exit to block it as we came flying down straight towards her. At this moment, my brain finally clicked and I went from helpless mode to "This is enough!" I sat up, and jumper-style, grabbed mane with my outside hand, and with my inside hand turned Lily away from the exit and spun her in a circle around Miguel, where she finally stopped. Why I hadn't done that right from the start was beyond me. It had been a 30 second run maybe, but it felt like we'd galloped the Kentucky Derby. Instant applause from the crowd when we stopped. Miguel was speechless, and after a second, he said, "And you need to practice more emergency stops!" I managed to laugh at this with everyone else, but I was sooo mad, and my heart was about to pound its way out of my chest. We had put everyone in danger -riders, Miguel, the crowd, and myself- because of a damned whip that my mare did not need.

I did not carry the whip again during the rest of the clinic. Miguel did not argue the point with me again.

We finished our session uneventfully, though Lily and I were both frazzled after that, and we simply trotted when the rest of the group cantered. Afterwards, Miguel had us get off and practice everything on foot. This was very interesting, and it was even more interesting to realize that none of these riders had ever thought the effort that it took for a horse to do all of these exercises. We discovered how difficult it is to balance during a counted walk, especially if you only have 2 feet, and we then did counted walk to canter transitions on our feet, then with flying lead changes. At the end of the exercises, it was me by myself doing one tempis down the length of the arena (as a kid I didn't run-I cantered. One of my favorite things to do at the beach was flying lead changes while running on the wet sand at the edge of the shore). If you have never done this on your own, you should try it. Not only will you understand the horse better, but you will realize what YOUR body must do in order for the horse to be able to perform what you want. "Canter yourself." Miguel said while we were riding. If you can canter yourself, you can get the horse to canter while astride, without cues.

After the session, I asked Miguel how Lily and I had done overall. Compared to everyone else, we had received very little correction and I wasn't sure if it was because we were doing very well, or we were doing so badly that it was too much to correct. He said we had done great, and even the flying lead change had been great. He said that as a rider, all I need to do is sit further back. He wanted me to try the Spanish bit. It is basically a sweet iron curb with a low port and short shanks, that can be set up like a pelham with 2 sets of reins. He gave me one, and I placed it on Lily's bridle, ready for the next day.

That afternoon, we sat and watched the gaited horse groups. They were somewhat disorganized, as in one group, where Romeo and a Trote-Galope stallion had been assigned, there were a lot of very strong horses whom their riders could not get to walk under any circumstances. The exercises were a struggle for them, including Romeo, who was very worked up about being in an arena with other horses. The last group included the more inexperienced riders, on mostly Paso Fino horses. These horses were a lot more laid back than those in the second group, but one girl in particular was singled out because she, too, could not get her little mare to just walk either. It became such a struggle, that at the end of their session, both the girl and us in the crowd insisted that Miguel show us how he would get the mare to walk.

He switched her jaquima noseband for a serreta, and rode her with one set of reins on her curb and the other set on the serreta. It took Miguel a good 15 minutes to get the little mare to walk. Initially she was very confused and became quite worked up. However, Miguel insisted, patiently, with almost invisible aids of seat and hands, to get her to relax and just...walk... Eventually, it worked, and they walked several laps around the arena, and did circles in the center. Miguel suggested that the girl try a different saddle the next day-he explained he'd had such a hard time because the saddle placed him in a chair seat, where he was driving with his seat, and until he adjusted his weight so he was sitting straighter, he could not get the mare to walk.

The next day, each group was to ride twice. It was another watery dawn, and it was chilly. My group went first. I mounted up, and Lily immediately flung her head violently when she felt the pressure of the curb chain on her chin. We walked around the arena with everyone else, while I quickly got the 2 sets of reins sorted out, and figured out how much pressure I would need on one or the other. Just a gentle squeeze was enough to get a response from Lily, even with a loop in the reins. I was absolutely thrilled.

We did walk, trot and canter (myself and the First Level rider both continued to trot during the canter portions) playing with the reins per Miguel's orders to elevate or drop the horses' heads and necks. Miguel was teaching us how to bring the horses' withers up, which automatically made all of the horses look taller. The photo above was taken by Judy during this portion of the clinic. I was amazed when I looked down and saw that curve in Lily's neck, and felt her front end suddenly disappear, as all of her weight transferred to her back end. Really, really cool. We then did circles with contact on only the outside rein. This was one of the hardest exercises I have ever done, and Lily and I were almost able to do it at the walk, but barely at the trot. We didn't even attempt the canter.

Afterwards, I sat next to Judy to watch the other groups go. I was glad I'd been placed in the advanced group, because I would not have been able to do half as much. However, the gaited horse groups were MUCH more organized today, and it was interesting to note that pretty much every rider who had had issues with getting her horse to walk the previous day, was riding in a borrowed dressage saddle today! Even better-when asked to, all of these horses were walking without a problem.

In the afternoon, my group did more of the same, and I continued to make mental notes of all the stuff I wanted to practice later at home. Afterwards, I bought the Spanish bit, and have continued to use use it at home with the double reins.

Immediately after our session was off, Judy hooked up the trailer while I got all of my stuff together, wrapped Lily's legs, and then we loaded up and went home. We were all exhausted. While we all went back to work the next day, Monday (it was the loooongest workweek ever!), Lily got some well-deserved 3 days off.

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