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

Monday, March 26, 2012

21st century dressage freestyle

One of the doctors at work showed me this video, and it is way too cool not to share!! Stacey over at Jumping Percheron recently posted about how most dressage freestyle music is boring, and this reminded me of her comment.

The rider in the video is Bent Jensen, a renowned dressage trainer down here in Wellington; he competed in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona as part of the Danish dressage team and now trains upper level riders. But don't go to his website until after you see this video. The trainer is performing at Dressage Under the Stars, March 2012:

It's awesome!! Now THAT is a freestyle! :)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

On the madness of horsepeople...

This summarizes some of my experiences in the crazy equestrian world of South FL...it's kind of depressing to realize that it's just as bad in other states (and countries!). I thought it was just us down here being affected by TAD (Thermal Affective Disorder).

Love this blog!:

Introduction to First Level

The last 2 weeks since I took the "For Sale" ads down have been really, really good.

As it turns out, I did end up caving and taking out an old pair of nylon cord draw reins that I own from my jumper days. I hate those things, but I clipped them on Lily just to have them there. While riding her for the girls that came to see her, I realized we needed a hell of a lot more work on our canter. We had not really cantered in over a month, and while performing for the prospective buyers, I realized just how rusty Lily had become. My idea was to have the draw reins on, and if necessary, give a suggestion (never, EVER cranking down on the draw reins) for her to bring down her head at the canter. 

The result? My draw reins are the kind that clip onto the girth loop and the bit (instead of running throught the bit rings). Just having that little bit of extra weight on the bit was enough to get Lily to really think about arching her neck and lowering her head. My legs did the rest to bring her back up and her hind end engaged, and it was sooo much easier to get her on the bit at the walk and trot! The draw reins flapped loosely between her front legs the entire time. It was the weight of them on the bit that did the rest.

For cantering, I did use a little bit of light contact on the draw reins, only enough to put pressure on the bit if she lifted her head above a normal head carriage. The first couple of sessions re-introducing the canter, Lily was completely dropping her left shoulder on the left lead and leaning in; because of this, it was almost impossible to keep her on the rail going to the left. In Mary Wanless's book "The Natural Rider", she discusses that to correct this, you should make sure that your weight is evenly distributed across your seat bones. So I did the opposite of what I used to do in jumpers-for years and years, I was always told to step into the outside stirrup, to avoid getting dumped on the inside of a tight bend when doing rollbacks and tight turns at a gallop. This time, I distributed my weight evenly in the saddle, and all of a sudden, like magic, Lily straightened.

We've continued practicing this in our workout sessions for the last 2 weeks, and doing 2 wonderful exercises that Judy gave me in my last lesson about 3 weeks ago: the loopy serpentines that I described before, and the giant X. For the X exercise, we would post at a working trot down the long side of the arena, turn the first corner, collect and sit the trot, and at the 2nd corner, launch into a medium trot crossing the diagonal to change direction. In the opposite corner, half halt, 10 m circle (I added the circles to make it harder), down the short side of the arena at a collected sitting trot, up the long side at working trot rising, and repeat the exercise. Lily really seemed to enjoy this, and has been responding by being slinky-like in her flexibility and willingness to bend, while staying on the bit for longer periods of time. We've also started practicing simple lead changes again at the canter, and just staying on the rail down the long side of the arena at the canter-we usually do a lot of 20m circles.

We've also been working on the trail the last 2 weeks - once we went out by ourselves and just did an extended free walk around the park; another time we went with Dianne and Mark, also just walking, but since Lily wanted to power walk in front, I had her doing zig-zag leg yields across the trail on the straightaways so we wouldn't put too much distance between us and Dianne and Mark; and the 3rd time, we went by ourselves again for a proper conditioning ride, where Lily glided down the trails at a trot, neck arched and on the bit most of the time.

I finally had another lesson with Judy Saturday. I'd been really excited to show her our progress, as the day before, Lily had been absolutely amazing, actually staying on the bit for a full 15 min at the end of our ride. This was the first time she's done this for that long while in the arena. She's been getting better and better at simple lead changes within 3-4 strides as well, and the other day while attempting to push her into a shoulder-fore at the canter, she actually did a flying lead change! The funny thing was that she scared herself and tried to bolt...*lol*...silly girl. I think it's the first time she's ever done a flying change under saddle; she can do them effortlessly on the lunge and at liberty.

I did place the draw reins on Lily for the lesson, but they were slack as ever. I demonstrated our warm-up loopy serpentines, which I've made more difficult by doing mini leg-yields to push Lily into the bends. She has been responding really well to this, and Saturday was no different. Judy was impressed. After we'd done loopy serpentines up and down the arena at a walk, Judy had us practice real leg yields. We'd walk down the center line, I'd make sure I was sitting with my weight distributed evenly in the saddle, look where I wanted to go, and push Lily over with the opposite leg. Leg yields to the left were effortless. To the right it was a little harder-her hind end trailed somewhat. We worked on this for a few minutes, then switched to something else-the giant X. Judy had us circle BEFORE crossing the diagonal. This was harder than what I had been doing on my own, as it meant getting Lily organized, without changing the pace, before sending her across the diagonal. Again, Judy was very happy with our progress.

We then practiced simple lead changes, which Lily nailed fairly well. Good thing we'd been practicing! I asked if Lily was even remotely on the bit at the canter, as it always feels like she's going down hill. Judy had me work on my position, and I made the conscious effort to stay even in the saddle. At one point, I felt Lily lighten on the bit and arch her neck-she was on the bit.

We then repeated everything without the draw reins-it made no difference! Lily's performance was just as good without them! She was even on point with her trot-halt transitions. I was thrilled, and so was Judy.

On Sunday, I rode for 45 minutes without the draw reins, and Lily gave me another amazing ride. Maybe it's a new trend? :)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Revisiting an old dream

One of the perks of living in South FL is the winter show season. The weather is mild, so some of the bigger shows in the country take place in Wellington, such as the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF).

Totillas himself was supposed to come to the US this year, specifically to Wellington, to show at the World Dressage Masters competition. Judy and I were about to buy the VERY expensive tickets to go see him in person, when we heard he had pulled out of the competition due to lameness issues.

However, Heather Blitz and Paragon were there, and took a second place in the Grand Prix Special.

She is now one of my favorite dressage riders. She is the first professional dressage rider that I've seen that actually wears her stirrups shorter than I do. She raised and trained Paragon herself. The horse is so expressive in his gaits that he almost doesn't know what to do with all that energy! Watch the video above to see what I mean.

There have been hunter/jumper and dressage shows going on every weekend at WEF this season, and Judy and I were trying to make it to see the dressage classes. We drove up one rainy Saturday but couldn't find the dressage arenas. So we watched the jumpers instead. I don't know when this happened, but apparently draw reins are now the norm in the warm-up jumper arena. We only saw 2 horses in the entire show that did NOT have draw reins in the warm-up! Wtf??!! I was horrified. I actually learned to use draw reins when I wasn't competing anymore; this was unheard of on the Puertorrican jumper scene and in the Tampa schooling show jumper scene as well.

There were a lot of gorgeous horses that could have been just as good at dressage as they were at jumpers. Except their heads were cranked down into their chests by draw reins pulled taught in some of the heaviest hands I've ever seen in person. Both Judy and I were horrified.

However, I still get melancholy when I watch top level riders at horse shows, because I came so close to being one of them. I always wonder what my life would have been like if I'd been able to continue down that path. I commented this to Judy, and she turned to me and said, "You can still do it." "In dressage?" I asked. I have no interest in going back to jumping. I've completely passed that phase in my life. "Yes. You are very talented-if you really want to go to the Olympics, you could do it."

I can't begin to say how good it felt to hear that again. To hear a trainer I trust, that has ridden with some top riders and trainers herself, say that she thinks I'm that calibre of a rider. When I graduated from highschool, I tried to flip my life over to make that dream possible, but all of the doors were shut in my face: the one trainer that was willing to take me there moved back to the States, I was accepted into a very good university in Massachussetts with an intercollegiate riding team that would've gotten me out of the island and right into upper level competition here in the States...but my father changed his mind and refused to help finance my first year (after that first year, I could have had a riding athletic scholarship!) at ANY university, and without those 2 pieces to the puzzle, my family simply could not afford the monumental expense of taking me to that level. There were simply no other trainers like that in PR at the time, no exposure to sponsors because all competition was local, and to move up the ranks to eventually get to that level, I would have had to compete in the States regardless. I let the dream go without a fight, because it seemed to not be in the cards for me.

Judy was willing to go the distance to help get me there, but once we started discussing cost, the battle seemed more and more uphill. Charles would've supported me in this decision. However, I looked at this path long and hard for 3 weeks. Judy talked about breeding Rose to elite stallions (she is a registered Azteca, remember, with nice bloodlines-she is out of the Andalusian stallion Romerito II) and selling her babies to get the money together to get me a really good horse on whom I could get noticed. This would have taken a minimum of 3 years, assuming everything went smoothly, and that's just to get The Horse. It would've been at least another 10 years of training, competing in recognized shows (= lots and lots of $$$) to work my way up the ranks to the highest levels of dressage and competition, and then trying to qualify for the Panamerican Games, to then see if I would qualify to be on an Olympic team...the idea of the process was daunting, full of "what-ifs" (what if The Horse got injured, what if we didn't make the cut in one of the lesser competitions and had to start over, etc), and with a necessity for good luck to be on our side just to make it all the way there on the first try... We discussed creating a partnership, moving to a different state to be able to afford multiple horses (so I could keep Lily and this Wonder Horse), riding Rose up to 4th level in recognized shows to get noticed for a sponsor (or sponsors) in the meantime (the logistics of this was difficult-if a mare is popping out babies and was at Training Level to begin with, it would be very hard to condition her up to 4th Level in a span of 3-4 years in between pregnancies-I didn't see how this would work out). But then the chiropractor came out, and his diagnosis of Rose's problems was pretty grim. It would be very hard to take her to that level of competition without injuring her. If she could even make it that far to begin with, before her physical issues got in the way. So that kind of annulled half of the plans.

I continued riding Lily, willing to watch and wait to see what would happen, if we would get some big revelation from the heavens about whether I should dare to hope that money would somehow pour out of the skies and we'd be able to even think about shooting for this for real. Then one morning, I was going to take Lily on the trail for a nice relaxing ride, and the minute I got on, she started bucking. She had an absolute fit in the barn parking lot, for no reason that I could see or imagine. I somehow managed to stay on. These were mean bucks, too-not her happy crowhopping. She wanted me OFF. I couldn't understand why. I'd worked her the day before, and there had been no change in tack that day. Prior to me getting on this day, we had done some nice stretches in the cross ties, and she had been her usual calm sweet self up until the moment my butt sat in the saddle.

So I got off (once I was able to get her to stand still for a couple of seconds) and lunged her. She wanted to run, and run, and run. So I let her run. And when she didn't want to run anymore, I made her run some more. She galloped on the lunge line in both directions for a good 40 minutes, of her own accord mostly. She was extremely reactive, acting like she thought I was going to beat her, which I wasn't even hinting at with my body language. It drives me crazy when she does that-when Lily gets upset, she regresses.

Once she got to the point where she wanted to walk on the lunge and listen, and the sweat was just dripping off of her, I got on again and just rode her in the arena, mostly walk and a little bit of light trot on the bit. It took forever to cool her down. I still don't know what got into her. Maybe she was going into heat? Her back wasn't sore when I untacked her, and there was no pain anywhere that I could tell. I gave her bute for the next 3 days, just in case, which she had off anyway because I was back to work.

I was incredibly frustrated with this episode, and almost irrationally angered by it afterwards. To the point where, when Judy sent me pictures of this wonderful little colt from an ad on Craigslist, I told her I wanted to go see him that same day. He was half Hanoverian, 1/4 Paint, 1/4 TB. Gorgeous little guy, and very unusual coloring-he was a red roan sabino! He had Donnerhall in his bloodlines, and was out of a lovely eventing stallion. We went that afternoon and I fell in love with him. He was a stunning mover, completely uphill, with good bone in his legs, beautiful conformation, and a quirky, playful personality. I LIKED him, and the feeling seemed to be mutual, because he kept following me around the paddock, despite his owner and Judy being in the paddock with us. On this horse, I would've really gotten noticed riding into an arena, and the best part was that he was just under a year old-I could have done all of his training myself and turned him into whatever I wanted. He also fit my "unusual breeding" requirement. His price was extremely affordable for the superb horse he was, but not something that I had sitting in the bank at the time.

I put up a "For Sale" ad for Lily that week. The colt, however, sold to someone else before I had my first inquiry on Lily's ad. I followed along with the inquiries just out of curiosity to see what would happen (I have never sold a horse) and also because I just had this weird sense of separation from my mare. It felt like I was just watching everything from a distance, with absolutely no emotional involvement. I had 2 inquiries. The first was disastrous-a girl that said she rode First Level came and tried Lily out. My first concern when I met her was her weight-she was not a thin rider, and Lily's abusive experience was with at the hands of a heavier man. I was afraid that Lily was really going to act up.

After going over how Lily should be ridden (with soft hands, letting her reach for the bit on her own), the girl got on, my mare walked off, and the girl immediately started snatching at Lily's face, trying to force her into a frame. Lily did not like that AT ALL, and proceeded to do a beautiful leg yield to the left at a trot of her own accord, throwing her head up in a way that almost unseated the girl. I had advertised my mare truthfully as the hot and sensitive creature she is, and this had been discussed with the girl and her trainer prior to allowing her to get in the saddle. This girl was afraid from the get-go, and unbalanced. The ride lasted all of 10 minutes, with the girl just walking Lily in a corner of the arena thanks to her trainer's coaching. Watching her made me mad. She was NOT a First Level rider-she had bragged about this repeatedly in her communications with me prior to having her come out. Maybe she can get a First Level horse to do what he's supposed to, but she was not at that level herself. If she's First Level, I'm Prix St. Georges!!

The second girl was actually a good match, and rode Lily beautifully and calmly. To make it even better, she had a Selle Francais gelding that she was trying to sell, and I went to try him out, considering a trade. The horse was fun to ride. The way the girl had described him, it sounded like he was dead to the leg and a giant brute, but he was actually quite responsive and a fairly big mover. However, I wasn't terribly impressed while riding him (despite having a decent stride length, he was stiff as a board laterally, and while I liked him, I didn't feel that "click" with him) and even less after watching the videos of us together-Lily was a nicer mover than he was, and he would have required a LOT of work to get him to the point where I have Lily now. After riding the gelding, I hand-grazed him while talking to his owner, while watching one of the barn lessons. Some of the students in the lesson using big bits, martingales, and hauling on the reins to get difficult horses to obey. This is when I woke up from my Hanoverian colt-induced stupor: I immediately started worrying about Lily's destiny, and wondered what the HELL had been going through my mind when I'd decided to sell her! It was a no-brainer: I went to my barn after trying out the gelding, rode Lily, confirmed that my mare is so much nicer (just in case I hadn't noticed before...), realized I really couldn't imagine my life without her, and went home to take down the ads.

Phew! I'm glad I realized what a huge mistake that was before it was too late. Whatever got into Lily that day she tried to buck me off must have affected my brain, too. I talked to Judy about the whole thing afterwards, and my final decision was the original one: I don't care about being an Olympic-level rider anymore, I just want to take an unusual horse and turn him/her into something outstanding. It was nice to revisit that dream, and to hear again from someone I respect that I have the talent to get there, but I choose to use that talent to train an unusual horse to do something big. Maybe a USDF bronze medal? That would sure be nice. :) And even if we never get there, competition, like life, is more about the journey, not the destination.

We'll see. In the meantime, Lily and I continue to work hard, play hard, and wait for the jump.