Show Time: It was all worth it

I haven’t been blogging or journaling. I have a backlog of posts I want to edit and publish (and I still intend to), but obviously I’m not going to journal the past month and a half. I wish I had, because I learned a ton, but life was just too crazy. Hopefully my year-end review at work will make it all worth it.

I was inspired to come back to the blog because of the incredible experience I had at a schooling show this past weekend. The short story is: it was all worth it. The money spent on training and lessons. The three years of work where it felt like we didn’t make any progress. The agonizing over training decisions, and the crying over failures.

I made every effort this weekend to set myself up for success. This was our first show since Rob returned home from her dressage boot camp, and my first since I attended my own boot camp, and I wanted it to be successful. I wanted it to usher in a new era for our relationship – one where we like going to shows, where we’re successful at shows, and where we’re happy working together even away from home. So I hired my trainer to come coach us (a trainer! At a show! How novel!), I planned to dress casually even in the show ring, and we trailered down the night before to school in the show ring. I also didn’t invite any family to watch, which explains my sad dearth of media.

So we arrived the night before, something I’ve never done. She got on the trailer great – it was her first time on this particular trailer and she walked right on like it was her own stall. Portentous for the rest of the weekend, maybe?

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When she got out of the trailer at the showgrounds, I expected her to blow me off. She usually does – letting her anxiety completely take over until she forgets I exist. Instead, she calmly lowered her head like I asked, with perked ears and a happy eye but also with a nice focus on her boss mare. (That’s me! Boss mare 100% of the time. I’ll just keep repeating it to myself until I believe it.)

Immediately after unloading we tacked up to school. We were the only humans there and the farm was very dark. It’s a nice, large, showgrounds – probably six rings, plus a couple of warm-up areas. The stalls feel luxurious, the footing is always impeccable, and the farm is always spotless. It’s also where I showed as a kid, so it has a special nostalgia.

It was the perfect environment for me to focus 100% on getting some decent work at a new location.

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And decent work was achieved! We had neither perfect roundness nor great forward, but we had enough of each that I was very pleased. My expectations have definitely been raised in the past few months – six months ago that late-night school would have been the best ride we ever had.

We tucked the ponies into their stalls and headed to a very late dinner and an even later bedtime. But staying at a hotel nearby means a later start in the morning, apparently. Post-4:30, even! Why didn’t anyone ever tell me!?

The morning of the show, Robbye was again well-behaved in her stall. No screaming, no anxiety, lots of eating and drinking and pooping. We tacked up and prepared for our first test – Training 1.

And it went…alright. My trainer was preparing for her own ride so couldn’t coach us, which in hindsight was probably good for me to experience. Now I know what the difference is between my instincts and what Kim wants me to do, and I can actively work to warm up on my own the way that will get us the best work.

So the first test was just okay. We botched a lead twice, which is weird, but I’m sure it was just a lack of forward and/or impulsion. That was the theme of the test – slow – though the judge didn’t seem to see it as much as I felt it.

Robbye got to rest for an hour or so while I tried to get over my disappointment. That ride hadn’t been the incredibly overwhelming improvement I’d fantasized about. Where was the pride? Where was the glow in my stomach?

Soon it was time to warm up for Training 2, and I headed with my entourage (showing with a trainer is so fun! You get a whole fan club, and get to be a part of a fan club for your teammates!) to the outdoor warm-up arena. Rob hadn’t been out here yet but I wasn’t worried; she was so well-behaved and quiet that we just..did it. We just warmed up. It was a mediocre warm-up, again, but it was fairly-round and fairly-forward, so I was content!

Until she dumped me – right on my head. She even galloped away without checking to see if I was okay. Horses never do that in the Facebook videos!

At this point I’m on the ground hyperventilating because I’m just. So. Upset. Sad, embarrassed, and overwhelmingly disappointed. Why have I been doing all this work? Why did I pay for all of the training and the new gear? Our boot camp was supposed to mean we wouldn’t humiliate ourselves at shows and events anymore – like we have been for the past two and a half years. I’m tired of having the crazy horse. I’m tired of falling off or of bucking across the dressage court.

And yet here I am, crouched on the ground with a split lip, unable to catch my breath because of debilitating disappointment.

I think I hit a turning point on the ground there, guys. Usually, I don’t get angry. Angry, for me, quickly turns to tears and humiliation and apologies.

But this time, sitting in the sand, with everyone looking at me and with my ride time quickly approaching, I felt a fire start in my belly. My breathing slowed and the pain from the cut in my lip faded away.

I. Got. Mad.

So I got back on and absolutely rode the snot out of the rest of our warm-up.

And then I rode the snot out of the test, too.

And as we trotted down centerline, the anger faded and the anxiety faded and the embarrassment faded, and all that was left was an overpowering, absolutely glowing sense of pride. I managed to hold back tears of happiness until we saluted the judge, and then I broke down in relief.

We had nailed the roundness. We had nailed the forward. We had nailed the transitions and the geometry and that silly canter lead. I had anchored my seat in that saddle and she had said Yes ma’am and I had responded Good!

This is what we’ve been working toward. This is what teamwork feels like. This is what submission and impulsion and rhythm and success feel like.

And hey, apparently this is what winning feels like, too.

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Boot Camp: Robbye II and III

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Once I had a base built via Hollywood (the GP schoolmaster) and some fun installed via Tonka (the retired pro barrel racer), it was time to meet back up with Robbye and show each other what we learned! Here are some notes from the first two full lessons I had on her after a month of separate boot camps:

  • Forward forward forward. Now that she actually responds to leg, I can get forward when I want it, and I can insist that it’s the amount of forward I want! Walk is still a bit tougher, but trot and canter – it’s magical. I love Robbye’s trot.
  • No more “wiggling” my hands to ask for roundness. Like I asked on Hollywood, Robbye responds better to a gentle pulling side to side – it’s more like I change the bend in the neck until she gives in her jaw. Once she gives and rounds, I can play a bit smaller to maintain the roundness.
  • THOSE STOPS THOUGH. When I ask for a halt like I’m riding a barrel horse, Robbye really sits on her butt and stops.
  • When we get into an argument – especially about roundness – I need to immediately get on a circle. 20m is okay – 10m is better. This gives me the advantage because she can’t use her favorite weapon – bracing into my hand.
  • Speaking of bracing and hands – I really need to cut that habit. When Robbye feels my bracing arms, she responds (understandably!) by bracing back.
  • I also need to remember my releases. I’m trying to teach self-carriage, and in order to do that I need to let her carry herself.
  • It’s time to start practicing lateral moves! She has baby leg yields and shoulder-ins!
  • She really needs a haircut. We’re playing a fun game of how-high-can-Robbye’s-mane-grow-before-falling-over.

Boot Camp: Hollywood V

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My fifth ride on Hollywood, and my first after having ridden Robbye. I went into this ride knowing that he was teaching me things I would take back to her.

  • I DID A CANTER PIROUETTE! It was awesome. For Hollywood, you just push the shoulders into a smaller and smaller circle until he sits on his haunches and pirouettes. It felt very weird. A lot like Robbye’s canter when she doesn’t want to move forward.
  • I practiced test 1-3. It was a really nice way for me to see everything I’ve learned. I had to maintain bend – especially during the counter-canter – maintain roundness, leg yield off of the wall, get a confident canter transition without losing my seat, and (of course) pay attention to geometry the whole time. It was a really really fun exercise and not easy even on a very knowledgeable horse.
  • I need to be even more consistent about my left bend. It’s really an issue for me.
  • I also need to be more vigilant about my core/trunk position – I like to twist, and that’s silly. I also like to get popped out of the saddle. I think this is going to be any easy change for me to make, as soon as I focus on it. Goal time!
  • I’m gaining so much confidence. I warmed up by myself doing shoulder-ins, leg yields both onto and off of the wall, and checking my own straightness and bend. I couldn’t have done that a month ago.

Boot Camp: Tonka II

I’m so sorry for the lack of media for this lesson – I really want some photos of me running the barrels, but my normal picture-taker is recovering from surgery 😦

How awesome is barrel racing?!? IT’S SO FUN!

I was pumped for my second lesson on the barrels, but it, again, started slowly, with some fear with me. Tonka’s navicular makes his right lead canter really off-kilter, and that, combined with the western saddle and my natural fear produced a whole lot of perching on my end.

And for Tonka, perching means go.

Luckily, Tonka also has nice brakes. So I’d ask for the canter, get it, get scared and perch, get more scared because he was speeding up (like I was asking him to!), and then whoa. Nice, Annye.

But you know what? As soon as Kim coached me through keeping my butt in the saddle, we got quite a nice canter – controlled but forward – and I wasn’t scared at all.

(I like cantering. It’s my favorite gait by far. This damn fear from my stupid accident just has be completely discombobulated.)

The key for me is that I need to keep my seat in the saddle during the canter transition. I caught a glimpse of this revelation during my rides on Hollywood, but I didn’t really feel it until Tonka wouldn’t take anything but.

So that was my first light bulb moment. The second came as we were attempting to run the barrels at a slow canter. Tonka kept getting more and more upset, I kept getting more and more tense, and our runs kept getting slower, messier, and scarier.

As I get tense, I brace. I think I’m half-halting – I’m trying to half-halt – but really I’m leaning on the horse’s mouth and transferring all of my tension there. And that really doesn’t make for a happy pair.

Instead, my half halts have to come from my core, not my forearms. Of course I knew this, but I didn’t really understand the difference between my bracing and a nice half-halt until Tonka kicked my ass at my lesson.

(I went home and stumbled across a really cool show-jumping round where the rating from the rider was so obvious – and he was doing it all from his seat and core. No bracing! It was a great emphasis to my lesson learned.)

I ended on a super-fun run around the barrels that made me feel accomplished and proud. I’ll tell you what – these lessons are doing wonders for my self-esteem, as I encounter timely aha! moments and grow more and more confident.

On to the next one!

Boot Camp: Robbye I and Hollywood IV

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Some very quick notes from my first ride on Robbye since her training began, and my fourth ride on Hollywood, the GP schoolmaster:

Robbye:

  • I need to be even more forward on Robbye, at the trot. More, more, more!
  • Insist on a frame right away; ask just like how I’ve learned with Hollywood
  • Remember – I’m the boss with this mare!!

Hollywood:

  • And even with the gelding…be the boss. When I really insist, I get great movement. I didn’t really realize how much of a difference this makes, even with a schoolmaster like Hollywood. When I told him I was serious, he tried harder and we made a better team.
  • At the same time, I need to try less. When I overthink the shoulder-in, it’s rubbish. Just let it happen – let the horse do his or her job as I do mine!

Boot Camp: Tonka I

Part of my boot camp agreement with my trainer was that I would not be just riding dressage horses. As soon as I felt comfortable with a horse, I’d be moving on to the next one.

When I arrived for my fourth lesson, a saintly big paint horse was giving a very young girl a barrel racing lesson. He walked at the slowest possible pace, and let her steer him with just a touch of his sides. I was very, very impressed by his kindness and patience.

…And then the lesson was over, and I learned I’d be riding him next – a barrel racing lesson of my own!

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Tonka is an older, tall paint horse with navicular. He took my trainer’s daughter to the junior championships when she was a junior, and my trainer showed him competitively in barrels as well. This is a horse who really knows what he’s doing, and used to be able to do it really well. Now, he makes the perfect beginner barrels horse, and seemed perfectly comfortable (and having a lot of fun!) despite his navicular.

First, we warmed up and I got used to the western saddle. I’ve never really ridden seriously in western tack – and definitely never taken a western lesson – so it was great to have some time to really feel how my seat was different in the big saddle. Kim emphasized that I had to really sit on my butt with Tonka, or he’d either run away from me or lurch into a back. A good lesson for me, since I have a horrible habit of perching.

Kim and her daughter insist that their barrel horses have good dressage foundations, so we next moved onto getting Tonka round. This was a perfect exercise for me; Tonka was a little harder to get round than Hollywood, and I learned a few tricks I can use on Robbye. Again, I did more moving of the head and neck than just “playing with the reins”.

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Also, as a western horse Tonka has more of a “set it and forget it” type headset. He doesn’t have to be held constantly like Hollywood. I’d never really experienced this phenomenon – it was neat. I’d tell Tonka where to put his head, then just remind him if he deviated. This let me have the looser, more relaxed frame and reins that you see in western.

For my actual barrel lesson, I started out with some basic theory. Each barrel has a “pocket”, which is even with the rider’s leg. The rider must ride straight into the pocket, not turning or even looking to turn until she’s in it. For the turn, the rider should stay an even distance from the barrel the entire turn around it, and absolutely must NOT look at the barrel! Looking at the barrel pulls the horse into the barrel, risking a knock-down.

So I started my barrel racing career by first walking the pattern, stopping in each pocket. Then I trotted the pattern, stopping in each pocket. Finally I cantered the pattern!

At one point, Tonka got a bit strong and wanted to control the pace (I wanted a slow canter – I was nervous – and he wanted to run). After a few repetitions of making Tonka canter into the pocket and then stopping in the pocket, he started listening to me and cantering at the pace I chose. This was such a great illustration of being the boss and getting an immediate reaction to that dominance.

I learned a lot about Robbye during this lesson – and even a few things about dressage. More than that, I had a sudden realization to what I love about riding. After my barrel lesson, I suddenly wanted to start jumping again. At one point I was “galloping” home from the third barrel and let out a happy whoop.

I love dressage. I think it’s really fun. I’m wondering if the fact that Robbye doesn’t think it’s fun has ruined the fun in it for me, too. And I wonder if her own boot camp will instill that joy for both of us.

I remain optimistic!

Boot Camp: Hollywood III

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WOW. SO BLAZE. MUCH FLASHY.

My first two lessons on Hollywood were at Kim’s barn in her nice little indoor. For my third, Kim brought Hollywood to my home barn, and I got to ride him in our big outdoor.

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He really does have a striking face.

Overall, it was the best of the three lessons. The light bulb moment from my second lesson proved persistent, and my confidence grew once again. Riding in the outdoor also gave us much more room to do some extended gaits and changes – neither of which I’ve had any experience with!

  • When I move my leg, I’m not moving my lower leg. I’m moving my whole leg. If I move just my lower leg, my seat isn’t affected at all! This made the most sense in asking for changes, where the cue comes from both the leg and the seat. If I ask for the change just by bumping with my new outside leg, I’m completely ditching half of the cue.
  • I need to keep more weight in my heels, with my toes up. Ultimately this will both improve my lower leg and allow me to use my whole leg better – not to mention the improvements to my seat!
  • He likes to take my reins away. I need to be more aggressive about keeping them. Really, I need to be more aggressive about everything – downward transitions, staying on the bit, disobedience.
  • I twist my body to the right. Stop it!
  • I’m overthinking the shoulder-in. Surprise, surprise.
  • Kim keeps telling me I need new, stiffer dressage boots. Any recommendations for a budget pair?.
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“I’m pretty sure this small ditch is going to eat me.”

At this point I was getting pretty comfortable with Hollywood, and I was creating some decent work. I should have expected what would greet me at my next lesson..