Forward forward forward

I’ve been feeling the urge to write about Robbye lately, but that’s tough to do when all we’re accomplishing is slow, steady, excruciating, exuberating, exhilarating, long-awaited, oh-so-satisfying, I’ve-been-waiting-years-for-this progress.

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A few weeks ago I printed out Second Level Test 1 – not to learn the whole thing, and certainly not to prepare to show it, but instead to see what was on it and pick pieces out that I knew I could practice on my own. I was a tad disappointed to see a whole lot of “collected trot” and “collected canter” in the test. We can practice shoulder-in, and I can ask about learning haunches-in, and we’re already fairly strong in 10 meter circles and counter-canter, but “collected” anything hasn’t yet been on our radar…and pretty much everything in second level dressage is “collected”.

So I spent a couple of days fiddling with the test: stringing the shoulder-ins together, analyzing the transitions, identifying the holes in our training.

(That’s one thing I love about practicing dressage tests even with no intent to show – they really illustrate holes. Can’t execute four transitions between S and C? There’s a hole there!)

But between each movement, where it called for collected trot or collected canter, I just asked for our normal, working gaits and resolved to ask our trainer, Kim, about it at our next lesson.

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Our next lesson arrived; I was excited and nervous.

“I’ve been looking at the second level tests,” I said. “There’s a lot there we already know.”

Kim nodded.

“But between every movement there’s collected trot and collected canter. Even the centerline is collected trot! And we haven’t really worked on that yet…”

Kim smiled and shook her head. “Pick up a trot,” she said.

We did, and it was good. (Pretty much everything Rob does is good, now, and wow does it feel weird to write that.)

“Make it a little more,” she said. We did. “There’s your collected trot.”

I was astonished. “This is our regular trot…?” I drew out the o in trot, questioning.

“And it’s collected,” she insisted. “You’re a second level pair, now.”

At the moment I found it hard to believe, but in retrospect it’s easy to see. When I watch our work in the mirror, I see a knowledgeable, competent team. I see harmony, obedience, and a bit of brilliance.

It’s easy to hear compliments (my barn friends are so gracious with them!) and brush them off as “You are doing so well…for you.” For years Rob and I struggled to make any progress at all. She stopped at fences. She bucked me off. She refused to give an ounce of submission. We were the crazy pair, at the show and at home.

I’m beginning to believe, now, that the compliments aren’t a “…for you” sort. They’re not just impressed that the crazy horse isn’t bucking across the ring, riderless. They’re just plain impressed. We’re doing real dressage, and we’re doing it well, and every week we get a little bit better.

So that’s what we’ve been up to – printing out a second level test just to see what the future held, and discovering instead that we’re already there.

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Preparing to Show

 

Last week I took a lesson which was 100% show preparation. We trailered to a nearby farm to use a different indoor, I began my warmup on my own like I would at a busy show, and when we were properly warmed up I went straight into a run-through of 1-3, after which each of the spectators offered their thoughts on my test – what was good, where we can make improvements, where I screwed up and relied on the trust bank (hey, it still happens!).

Because – oh, yes – there were spectators. Two years ago a trip off the farm would have turned into a drama-filled hour of bucking and wheeling – maybe that’s why my barnmates and a few of my trainer’s other students turned up? Really, I think it was an excuse for a group of friends to get off the farm together – but for me, it turned into a test of my show preparedness.

Because the hardest part of a show isn’t the test, or the horse (thank goodness), or the tack or the trainer or the arena or the movements.

It’s the people.

The people who watch us.

The people who judge us.

I have no idea why being watched/judged/spectated bothers me so much. I know I shouldn’t have gone into dressage with this hangup (Should I switch to jumpers? I should switch to jumpers). It’s gotten a bit better since I started competing in cosplay competitions, but I still lock up when anyone other than my trainer is watching me. It’s probably obvious, but – locking up is not good for dressage.

ANYWAY.

Our practice test was adequate. It felt like a decent presentation of our skills – which, since we were at a new venue and in front of a small crowd, I was very proud of “decent”.

And the feedback from “the crowd” was nothing but uplifting – everyone gave perfect compliment sandwiches, for which I was relieved and grateful. I got so much good feedback!

  • The turn into a trot extension must be straight through the body and straight up and down. Otherwise, it’s difficult for the horse to lift their shoulders (especially if said horse is half draft and full carriage horse and has shoulders that weight 10,000 pounds).
  • The initial turn down centerline has to be bombin’, for the sake of my score and of my confidence. This is our first impression and our opportunity to say “look how awesome we are”. Plus, if I nail it, I’m going to be more likely to ride the heck out of the rest of the test.
  • I need to sit back, look where I’m going, and allow space to move into my rein during the leg yields. I’m too dang anxious about this movement and I’m letting it completely sabotage my test.
  • Speaking of which…if I mess up a movement (*cough* leg yield *cough*) I need to let it go and move on. I let little failures literally collapse me. When I collapse, Robbye takes the two inches my weakened core gives her and proceeds to dive onto her forehand, causing even worse work. That right there is a vicious cycle.
  • Canter loops must go all the way to the centerline.
  • 15m canter circles need to be larger and more centered. Don’t turn right off of the centerline!
  • 10m trot circles need to be larger and more correctly bent. (What a nice problem to have – that our 15m and 10m circles are too small!)
  • I can ask for a quicker simple change, and Robbye is perfectly capable of providing nice ones. I’m just too conservative and scared.
  • I need to remain thinking throughout the test. I must ride actively – constantly asking for more, preparing for the next movement, thinking thinking thinking. (It is incredible how much thinking goes into a first level test; I can’t imagine what a Grand Prix one is like.)

This looks like a whole lot of things to work on, but truly we’re at a perfecting stage. Which frankly is incredible to me – that I could be perfecting the toughest test in first level, and preparing to move up someday soon.

Now, to find a show!

An homage to the trust bank

Don’t tell my trainer. Don’t tell my barn owner. Don’t tell the local DQs – I may get ostracized.

But…

Robbye and I have been jumping!

Granted, the jumps are crossrails and cavalettis. And yes, we’ve been using the dressage saddle, with full-length stirrups.

But some of them were good jumps – and all of them were fun jumps.


I think I first heard of the trust bank from Nicole at Zen and the Art of Baby Horse Management. The basic concept is that trust is not binary – it’s not something a relationship inherently has or doesn’t have. Instead, it’s a constantly flowing resource from which and to which both the horse and the rider can withdraw and deposit. I completely biff a transition, hang on the reins, or give a too-long correction? I’m withdrawing from the trust bank, and therefore Rob has less of a reason to give me the benefit of the doubt. I give a fair correction, hand out a timely cookie, or ride a movement particularly well? I’m putting a deposit in the trust bank, and our relationship grows.

Robbye can withdraw and deposit as well, and she has always taken full advantage of that privilege…to the point of putting our trust bank balance way in the negative. Every time she ran out, every time she bucked across the arena, every time she “spooked” (this horse is not spooky – she’s “spooky”) – she was taking out of the trust bank. I could no longer rely on her.

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Smelly saddle pads, yummm.

Two and half years ago our trust bank hit an all-time low when we crashed into a fence at a show. I had withdrawn from the trust bank by entering a class we weren’t 100% ready for. She had been withdrawing from the trust bank for months through dirty stops and run-outs and bucking tirades.

For the next year she and I continued to withdraw from the bank without ever replenishing it. I continued paying for lessons from someone who didn’t build us up (one of my most egregious withdrawals – and I made it for two years). Rob continued bucking, bracing, and generally being a nasty snot. We didn’t like each other and certainly didn’t trust each other.

And then we switched trainers, and things got a bit better. I got fairer and she understood her job better. She still ran out and I still made stupid mistakes, and overall we were still withdrawing more than we were depositing – but at least the completely reckless pace of decline had slowed.

I got tired of the fighting. I put her in training for the first time, with the trainer who had already helped stanch the flow of trust. Rob’s boot camp started on the ground – something, it turns out, my mare and I both desperately needed. I needed to learn how to treat her like a horse, and she needed to learn how to respect me as a leader.

Ever since that training we’ve been adding to the trust bank. Of course we still make withdrawals – and really, recently, it’s been 90% me making those withdrawals. Robbye knows her job and understands her place, now. For years I was treating her as my partner, when horses…can’t really be partners. That’s not how horses work. Robbye needed to either be the leader or have a leader.

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“I also need that candy cane.”

Slowly, slowly, we refilled the trust bank. If we hit rock bottom at negative a thousand, then by last summer we were finally approaching negative 100. I was starting to see the results.

Can we ride bareback again? Yes!

Can I stop longeing before every ride? Yes!

Can I ask for a canter extension without fearing for my life? Yes!

Can she trust me to use the whip in a fair, clear manner? Yes!

Then the summer was over, and we hadn’t spent trust on any shows, and we had continued taking lesson from our amazing trainer, and I was very careful to maintain both fairness and dominance, and finally, finally, I felt our trust bank hit zero for the first time in years. Suddenly our progress in dressage launched forward. Suddenly Rob wanted kisses and snuggles before riding time. Suddenly bucking and bolting just wasn’t a thing that we did.

The past six months have been spent filling our trust bank to overflowing.

In a dressage lesson a few weeks ago, Rob made an extremely dirty move and ducked out of the arena. I’m sure I had “left the door open” so to speak; we had been working on controlling her shoulders and I probably over-corrected. Either way, it was a turd move and she knew it.

I disciplined her fairly, I corrected the shoulder bulge the next time around, and we moved on. Small withdrawal from the trust bank on both our parts.

But we have trust to spare, and a small issue like that doesn’t affect us anymore. In fact, it turned out to be confidence building. My dominance was reestablished, my need to control her shoulders was reinforced, and she saw yet another fair and timely correction. Our ride the next day was better because of the withdrawal.

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So proud of himself.

Our trust bank balance has been so healthy, in fact, that jumping has actually sounded…fun. I’ve been missing it. I thought jumping was out of the picture forever, and a couple years ago I was happy to see it go. Now, I’m wondering if eventing is a legitimate option again, after we’ve topped out with dressage.

Our trust bank is overflowing, so I can withdraw a little bit to point Rob at a jump when it’s been 2 years since I rode over fences without fear.

She pops over it with no drama and with happy ears – and now we’re back to overflowing. I’m beaming, she’s happy, and we’re cantering around to approach it again, long stirrups and dressage position and all.

Thank you Robbye, thank you trainer, thank you hard work, and thank you trust bank.

 

Achieving Happiness

Hey all! Long time no write. Although I’ve enjoyed reading everyone’s blogs over the past year, for my own journey I’ve been happier with my personal journal rather than a public forum. However, the urge to write hit me and…well it turned into a rather long essay. When the muses strike, am I right 🙂

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At a hunter pace – two years ago.

Robbye and I have made the most incredible transformation in the past year. Last January I was so frustrated and unhappy that I put her up for sale. This January we were, as a team, knocking on second level dressage, and really stinkin happy as we did it.

When I last blogged, I wrote about my new strategy for remaining happy (both in and out of the sandbox) – take a big step back from every goal, reassess, and chill the fuck out.  I put a pause on my bronze medal dreams, switched Robbye from partial board to full board, and continued taking weekly lessons – with the sole goal of “seeing where we could get”.

Step back from showing

I didn’t show at all last year. In fact, Robbye may not have even left the farm at all. Competing is extremely stressful for me, especially since I have a horse who needs me to be the boss 100% of the time. If I’m not confident, she’s taking over. If she’s taking over, we’re bucking across the showgrounds.

Do I want to spend $50 at a schooling show to smother myself in anxiety as I hang on desperately to my out of control horse?

So yep, there’s work to be done here, if I want my bronze. A lot of work.

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Our first show over fences – four years ago.

But the truth is, I’m still not sure if getting my bronze medal is important to me. As goal-driven as I am, and as much as I love rewards and ribbons and medals, showing recognized is extremely expensive; the cost to reward ratio seems very high. For now I have my sights set on some local shows so I can start working on my mental stability at a competition, and I’ve continued competing on my own (in cosplay contests) to work on my confidence.

Will we ever get back to the busy show schedule we used to have? I don’t know. At the moment it doesn’t matter to me.

And anyway, “moving up the levels” or “training up the levels” or “learning up the levels” is sounding more appealing to me than “showing up the levels”.

Full board for the win

Putting Robbye on full board has been absolutely huge, and I can’t imagine going back. When she was on partial board, I was required to go out 6 days a week to clean her stall. And for each of those six days I almost always rode – whether I really wanted to or not,  and whether I was really in the right mental state to or not. Now, I go out to the barn when I want to and when I’m prepared to. Weather disgusting? Don’t go out. Didn’t get enough calories today? Don’t go out. Coworker upset me and I just want to go home and nap? Don’t go out.

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A very good ride almost exactly a year ago – we are so much better now.

With the way Robbye is (dominant, a tough ride, challenges me once a ride like clockwork) and the way I am (inexperienced, sensitive, prone to over-correcting and not letting something go once we’re past it), we don’t need to be hanging out with each other when I’m not feeling it.

Does that make me less of an equestrian? Less of an athlete? Less of a trainer?

I’m sure it does. I don’t feel dedicated anymore. I’m more of an ammy and less of an athlete; especially since I haven’t competed in a year and a half.

But part of my strategy for happiness was chill the fuck out – and I’ve chilled. And I’ve gotten happy. So, ya know, I traded some competitiveness for a whole lot of happiness. Worth it.

I’m also enjoying my other hobbies a whole lot more. I’ve started writing book reviews. I won second place at a cosplay contest this winter. I made a whole dress. I planted some flowers!

(And let me tell you about that cosplay contest – hearing how encouraging and positive those judges were as they critiqued my work was eye-opening for me. They told me that their judging philosophy was to note all of the good things a competitor has done with a costume, and judge from there – and they were vocal about those good things. I know not every dressage judge is going to be as complimentary, but I’m going to proceed with the assumption that they are, and that they’re here to reward the good, not mark down the bad.)

Moving up the levels

In November of 2015 – the last show we attended – we absolutely kicked butt at Training 3. It felt great, we looked great, and we even won, but if we respected the “show at a level below where you train” we shouldn’t have been showing high training by any stretch of the imagination. At that point, Training level was our max level.

Oh, how that’s changed! We learned, and then perfected, canter/walk transitions. We learned, and then nailed shoulder-in. We corrected our leg yields and made them dressage worthy. We slowly transitioned from a Training Level-frame to a (gasp) I-could-see-this-horse-going-Second Level-frame.

I mean for heaven’s sake, a year ago we couldn’t make a nice 10 meter circle. Now, they’re part of our warm-up. When we did a test run through last week, my trainer dinged me because those 10 meter circles were too small.

All of this progress has been super for me. I don’t have any goals, but I can still feel us getting better.

Best of all, I think Robbye likes the “higher” (lol) levels of dressage – she doesn’t get bored. We have so much to work on we can’t fit it into just one ride: extensions at all three gaits, collection at all three gaits, leg yields, shoulder-in, haunches-in, simple changes and counter-canter – and that doesn’t even include all of the work we’ve been doing to improve movements we thought we already knew (cough halts cough). Her brain is engaged, her ears are forward, and her legs are engaged and forward.

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Pooped lady from last week.
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And one from last winter – talk about an outline change, even if you take out the roached mane.

I’ll tell you what – a horse who wants to work and is happy to work is a whole lot more fun to work with…and learns a whole lot faster, too.

 

On May 14th Robbye turns 8 years old. Every year I like to joke that “this will be the year she grows up”. Maybe she finally has grown up, and my happiness experiments coincided nicely with her maturation. Or maybe her finally acting “mature” now is actually her just…being a lot happier. She only has to work when her rider is in the right mental state. Her work is interesting. She’s more fairly corrected and rewarded.

 

Happy, happy, happy.

What a happy pair we make.

Strategy for Happiness

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My life got a whole lot happier after I decided to keep Rob. I’d like to think that hers did, too.

As soon as she came home, I put her on full board. I no longer needed to go out to the barn six days a week to clean her stall.

I also immediately forced myself to take a huge step back from the attitude I’d had about riding and training for the three and a half years I’ve owned Robbye – namely, one of constant progress, weekly consistency, and an honestly grueling weekly schedule which didn’t care a whole lot about weather.

Instead, I decided that I was going to do some major chilling out.

Honestly, I don’t know what my goals are anymore. My “huge life bucket-list” goals, at least when it comes to competition, used to be earning my bronze medal and completing a recognized horse trial. Now, those goals seem expensive and silly. Do I really care about showing recognized? I’m not sure.

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As I backed off of my goals, I backed off my schedule too. Do I really need to train five days a week? In February?! Hell, no.

There were several work weeks in the middle of winter where I didn’t go out at all. It was cold, it was raining or snowing, or I had a meeting. I didn’t feel well physically or I didn’t feel mentally up to having a dressage ride.

I’ve slowly been fighting down the guilt this new schedule causes.

You know what’s helped the fight the most? Realizing that we’re not doing any back-sliding.

Hell, we’ve been making a ton of progress lately! Every ride is like a happy surprise – this is what my “young” and “green” horse is like after five days off?! What fun!

Fun. Fun. Riding and owning a horse is fun!

What Happened in January

 

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Like probably 90% of those of us who actually experience the season, I struggle in the winter. My (picky vegetarian) diet means I’m constantly cold. I’m beyond grateful to have an affordable indoor, but my desire to ride plummets with the temperature. The stalls are harder to clean – both because everything freezes and because the horses are in and aren’t getting worked. Riding itself isn’t as fun – lack of turn out makes crazies, much longer warm-ups and cool-downs must be budgeted for, and there’s about ten times as much hair to groom.

The worst of it, for me, is the lack of sunlight.  When the sun sets at 6 so does my desire and motivation to accomplish anything. I can’t even read or watch Netflix – all I want to do is sleep…Sleep and sulk.

Even my non-horsey hobbies suffer. I can’t get motivated to go to board game night when the sun will have already set before we get there, so I’ll just yawn my way through the evening, half asleep. I can’t stay awake long enough to read a novel, and I can’t get up enough motivation to craft or sew.

Obviously writing is out of the question, as evidenced by the last three months of radio silence from An Amish Warmblood.

When Robbye came home from training early last fall, I thought we had finally crossed the hump – the three years it took for us to find a loving and a workmanlike relationship.

The show, where we won our dressage class, was one of the high points of my life, as sappy as that sounds.

I felt like, at that point, I had accomplished what I had set out to do with Rob. We had completed this test which was submissive, brilliant (as much as a Training level test can be, anyway), and undramatic. We had won a class of more than ten people! We had proven to the world that neither of us were failures, and that we could do more than embarrass ourselves!

So that was nice. Very, very nice. But…what do you do after that?

The correct answer is: make new goals and start working on them. Look for the next “hump” and get over it. Improve, improve, improve!

But this show had happened in mid-November. As winter began and I desperately needed goals, excitement, and motivation, I had just achieved what I’d been struggling with for three years.

So I did nothing, and spiraled lower.

I know it’s such a first world problem. I accomplished my goals with my HORSE, and now I’m as depressed as I’ve been in years! How silly it sounds.

But there I was burning money, gas, and precious precious energy every day to go to the barn and do…nothing. Clean my stall. Hand out treats. Sulk.

At the end of January I sent Robbye back to training, happy that I wouldn’t have to clean her stall every day anymore.

In mid-January I put her up for sale.

I wrote a long list of her favorable qualities – and wow, what an experience that was. Virtually bomb-proof. A happy trail partner. A decent, if green, jumper. Extremely tolerant – a “pony club” mount. Broke to the harness and cart. Great at giving newbie rides and taking treats and pats from non-horsey people.

Above all, a talented, promising dressage horse.

I collected an album of photos. Here’s one where you can see her impressive build – one that would be great for a man, a growing boy, or a larger AA. Here’s one where you can see her flashy wide blaze and her gentle eye. Here’s one where she’s jumping beautifully while I flail on top of her.

Here’s one where you can see how god damn pretty she is.

The interest poured in (not to me – thank goodness – but to my trainer). One woman was particularly interested and wanted to talk to me. She was a mom and wanted a mid-level eventer for her teenage daughter.

And so I took the mom’s call and sang Robbye’s praises for half an hour. I told her about how she can go out in the field alone or in a group and is happy. How she doesn’t like to roll and is dirt colored anyway, so grooming is a breeze. How she can be tough to get round and forward but once she gets there – oh boy is she there.

I told the mom how much she loves people. How she nickers every time I walk into the barn, and watches me walk around the barnyard if I leave her in her stall or the crossties.

I told the mom how I had taught Rob everything. Cross-tying and putting on a bridle and jumping ditches and walking through tarps and crossing creeks and doing carrot stretches.

The next day, I cried, talked to my barn owner, talked to my trainer, and then took Robbye off the market.

T1 & T2 Schooling Show – Details and Reflection

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I want to put a few more show details down here for my own documentation purposes. It’s a lame post – I know – but I really value this blog as a journal as well.

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I know that our halts need work – getting square is really a matter of luck at this point – so I feel like a 6.5 on our first halt is both generous and lucky. I’m also happy with a 7 on our free walk; as Robbye has gotten stronger and rounder, she’s lost a bit of the fantastic stretch she used to have.

A 4 on our left lead canter feels generous. We botched the lead twice and only ended up cantering on the left lead for probably 5 strides. I was proud of myself for maintaining nice geometry in my circle even as I struggled to pick up the correct lead. I’m hoping that I learned from this particular mistake and that it won’t happen again.

That final halt 10, though. #schoolingshows!

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I felt all of these were very fair, and the “very patient correction to L canter” comment gave me a warm fuzzy. I really appreciate judges (and trainers, and bosses, and … everyone) who can turn a failure or mistake into a compliment or gentle lesson.

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I am very happy with these numbers. All of the scores below 7 are issues I know I need to work on – the halt (I lost her haunches), the canter to trot transition (it’s still a bit of a “run her into the ground” type transition, instead of being back-to-front), the trot to canter transitions (still a tad hollow), and the stretchy movements (need more stretch!).

The 8 on our medium walk is reassuring; I’ve always felt that Robbye’s weakest gait is her walk, and I really struggle to get any impulsion out of her since she prefers to walk as slowly as possible. We really worked it for this walk section and I’m happy the scores reflect that fact.

And there’s another high score for our final halt! I need to figure out what we do differently in our final halt and do it in our initial one. I bet you anything it has something to do with the tension I release for the second one…

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Again I felt these scores were fair for a schooling show. Truly, to get three 7s and a 6.5 on impulsion and submission is huge for me and especially for Robbye.

The “obvious leg aids” are just something I need to deal with until 1) Robbye is more sensitive and forward and 2) I’m a better rider. I’m very happy to have more obvious aids if it means replicating the work we got in this test, and I’ll willingly sacrifice my Rider Aids score for it, at least for now 🙂

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Our final scores are just…mind-blowing. From reading your blogs, I feel that these would have been perhaps 60%-65% at a recognized show – scores I would be extremely pleased to earn.

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The rankings, too, are very heartening for me. There were 8 people in T1 and ten in T2. When I saw these numbers, I just hoped to placed in both classes – I know it shouldn’t be, but being competitive is important to me. Along the same lines of “don’t embarrass myself” and “make my trainer proud”, I want people to see my partnership with my horse and recognize it as a good one. The recognition that comes with ribbons is validating for me. So to beat ~15 other scores is huge.

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Yes, I fell off at this show. Well, no, I didn’t fall off – I got dumped. And that really sucks. I heard later that Robbye was a huge disruption as she galloped through the warmup arena to get back to her stall.

That’s embarrassing, and embarrassing is the last thing I want at a show (especially one where I’m there representing my trainer).

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After crashing into a fence at a jumper round more than a year ago and subsequently taking a huge step back from jumping entirely, I never imagined that a fall could make me stronger.

But this particular crash awoke some passion that I don’t think I’ve felt before, and that passion led to a quality of work that I definitely haven’t felt before. I used the fall and the way I felt after it for me.

My goal for this winter is to make that quality of work my every day. Every day should be passionate and 100% committed – like I’m heading into the ring to score a 70%, or to win in a class of 10.

And if I don’t have the passion every day – that’s okay! But I won’t be riding. I want that work I got after my fall, and I’m not willing to let Robbye compromise at 50% anymore. If I’ve learned anything from the struggles – and now success! – that she and I have endured as partners, it’s that I am in charge. When I decide what happens, we’re both happier.

 

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So I may be riding less than 6 days a week this winter. And yes, this goal completely contradicts my 2015 goals to have zero days.

But the fact is that I want to work hard. I want to devote 100% to this relationship and to our progress, even if it means fighting sometimes, or falling off sometimes, or taking days off sometimes.

I know what I’m chasing after now, and I know how good it feels to catch it.