Friday, August 16, 2013

Back to Basics: When Less Is More

Lately I've really been struggling with keeping Ben forward and engaged in his flatwork. If I give him a long rein and let him go how he wants he marches forward and tracks up quite nicely. As soon as I ask him to collect a little bit and come onto the bit he immediately lets his hind end trail behind him and loses any ounce of impulsion he may have had. 

Typically this would be slightly annoying and I'd just keep kicking on without much of a response but it didn't worry me much because he is always much more gung-ho at shows. Until we went to Frazier this past weekend and he did the exact same thing in the dressage ring that is. 

When I first got Ben I didn't ride him with a whip, crop, or spurs. He really was (and still is on his own accord) a naturally forward going horse. But as the dressage workload increased the whip got added as support for my leg and the spurs got added as a bending/lateral aid and slowly but surely I ended up with a horse who is at best quite dead to my leg and at worst pretty damn resentful of it. 

He has been remarkably frustrating to ride the past few weeks for this reason and I knew something had to be done about it before I started to dread doing a flat school on my own horse. 

For starters we had to fix the issue where his response to my leg aid was to stop, balk, kick out, swish his tail., etc instead of going forward. Next was to work on getting him to understand that he goes the pace I tell him and he maintains it until I say otherwise. 

I decided to ditch the spurs for now as I think that just makes him resentful and I prefer he move forward off just my calf without the spurs. I had also been riding with a crop lately instead of a dressage whip as I can use it every once in a while and get a more effective response than just constantly annoying him by tapping him with the whip nearly every stride, but I decided to go back to the whip and work on getting him sensitized to that once again. 

Yesterday we got to work on tackling this issue head on. I kept my reins loose the whole ride and didn't worry about his frame at all; all I cared about was his response to my leg aids. We started at the halt. When I gave the lightest of squeezes and he either balked or gave me no response at all he got kicked sharply forward into a brisk trot for a lap around the ring. We repeated this in both directions all over the ring for about 15 minutes until I could give a whisper of a squeeze with my calves and he would step briskly forward immediately. 

We then repeated this for the trot. Starting at the walk, I would give a light leg aid. If he didn't step right up into a forward trot he got kicked forward into a canter for a lap. He picked up on this one much more quickly and only gave me a hard time about the first couple of transitions. He quickly learned that he had only two options: do exactly what I asked or end up doing more work than I had asked for. 

Towards the end of our ride he was going forward off the lightest squeezes of my leg and I felt as if he was awaiting my command instead of going off of his own agenda. We also worked on pace maintenance. I'm tired of kicking him on every stride with little to no response. I should not be working harder than he is just to trot in a consistent rhythm on a 20 meter circle. 

I would trot him forward and not give him any additional go forward aids. The second he tried to slow down he got kicked into the canter. Again, he was either allowed to do what I asked or do more than I asked. There was no other option. 

All of this went over quite well and by then end he was doing some excellent walk/canter/walk transition on a long rein off of my leg alone. The plan for today's ride is to repeat this process for the first half and then attempt some real dressage work on big figures and straight lines to encourage the forward thinking. That will be the true test. This will obviously take some time and I'm willing to take that time to fill in the holes in our foundation, especially because I'm positive his lack of respect to my leg aids translates to xc when he spooks at something and stops dead in the middle of a field. 

I also have a lesson for the first time in months tomorrow morning so I will run this by my trainer as well. I have no doubt that this issue is my fault. I always accepted him being lazy because he used to be such a sensitive hot head. I was always fighting with him to relax and slow down so whenever he offered to slack off a bit I gladly welcomed it. Unfortunately it has now grown into him thinking he can get away with giving little effort when something gets hard. I felt a lot better about our ride yesterday and I'm hoping today's ride goes just as well.

I own a very talented horse but sometimes its hard to get him to display that talent. They always say your horse is a mirror of you and that is quite true with Ben and I. We're both stubborn and we both *know* that our way is the best way. Normally we get along quite well but when we butt heads it can get hairy. I have learned over the years of owning him that sometimes I need to take a deep breath, take off the pressure, and return to the basics. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Frazier Horse Trials Results

Look at me posting right after a show and not months later! Woo!

So, my unofficial goals for Frazier this past weekend:

*Have a obedient, accurate, and quiet dressage test - check
*Have a good, confident, forward xc round - ehh, mostly check
*Jump a nice stadium round - check

Obviously cross country is still our weakest phase at this point but I was really pleased overall with how the weekend went and this was his first time on xc since the middle of May so we accomplished what I had hoped to accomplish for the most part. Wow, that was quite a run-on sentence.

Dressage was actually quite lovely but WAY too lazy. If you had told me a year ago that I would be complaining that my horse was too lazy in dressage I would have checked you into a mental institution. But seriously. He was straight, he was bending well, our geometry was nice and accurate, but man was he lazy! He had zero engagement and wasn't tracking up at all and no amount of kicking, spur usage, or whip tapping was going to change his mind! The judge gave us some nice comments with just an overall suggestion that the whole test needed more forward (which I knew very well!) and we scored a 33.0 so I can't complain too much!

XC was next and the course looked nice and straightforward which was just what we needed. I own quite the quirky horse however and he never makes anything nice and straightforward. He was absolutely fantastic over the first four fences. He came out of the box thinking forward and actually locking onto his fences which is something I've really been working on lately. 

Fence number 5 was a water crossing/puddle complete with lots of fish swimming around so he was a tad skeptical about that but walked through just fine. This was followed by a left turn to another unmarked water puddle before fence 6. Well. We first found something to spook at before we even saw the second water so we stopped dead like a statue and we argued about going forward. I was kicking and whacking and clucking and he was bucking and balking and mini rearing. We apparently were not in agreement about which direction we should be going in.

He then saw the second water and I got him up to it but he couldn't possibly be expected to go through that water despite having just gone through the previous one. So by this point we were going to be overtaken so I pulled him aside to let the other rider pass at which point Ben realized that the puddle did not contain horse eating monsters and happily went through. 

But then I asked him to jump a log and we all know how scary logs are especially after your life was threatened by a fish filled puddle just moments before. So he stopped. And I reapproached. And he was definitely going but then I decided to add some insurance that he would jump by tapping him with my crop on the takeoff stride and that just shocked him SO much (because I have never, ever done that with him before) that he slammed on the brakes in quite a dirty stop. So yes, we had two stops at the most straightforward log ever. And then he spooked at something else again and I had a hard time getting him to trot down the pathway into the next field... He seriously is lucky that he is so cute because he can be remarkably frustrating

We continued on without fault aside from a peek at the ditch where I reapproached and stuffed him over. He finished happy and jumping well despite having had three stops and finishing more than three minutes over the optimum time...

Stadium was great, he was jumping nicely from the short spot and he easily jumped a nice, steady clean round. 

So overall I need to rev his engine a bit before dressage, keep on keeping on with our xc issues because I really do think the more he gets out and comes through the finish flags the better he will be, and keep riding stadium the way we usually do because that is typically our best phase. We ended up with a sixth place ribbon when all was said and done but the best thing we left with was good learning experience for the both of us.

So here is the on-the-ground video:

And here is the helmet cam videos of xc and stadium although I cut all of the spooking/stopping fiasco out because it was quite long and boring to watch:

Next up is the Lyme Horse Trials on Sunday, again at Novice. I'm happy to be going out again right away so I can repeat the good things and hopefully fix the not-so-good things! In reality our xc issues are mainly just keeping his focus on going forward and jumping the jumps instead of checking everything else out. The jumps are not the problem which is why I am confident that once I figure out the right way to ride him, Training level won't be an issue at all.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Millbrook Horse Trials

Last weekend I took a road trip up to the gorgeous Millbrook, NY to go watch the Advanced division run cross country at the Millbrook Horse Trials. Living in Area 1, we don't always have access to watching the pros run at the upper levels. Most events around here only run to Prelim, if we're lucky. It was a great opportunity to watch and learn.

I had originally planned to walk around the course a bit but we ended up getting a great spot at the water complex so we sat there for the whole division. This actually ended up working out nicely because you could watch every pair through the same series of fences and see what made it ride well and what made it ride not so well. 

A trend I've been noticing not only at Millbrook, but also from watching video from other upper level events, is that the riders who have a nice forward stride make it look a lot smoother than those who don't. Even for the combinations on course that require a shorter, more controlled stride, those that can package their horses up while still maintaining the energy level in the hindquarters end up having much better rides than those who pick at their horses and kill the power. 

The particular complex at Millbrook was a decent drop into the water, four very forward strides to a corner in the water, and another three forward strides to a table out of the water. The table was luckily very forgiving as more than a few pairs ended up more or less crawling over it! 

Another thing I noticed was that the riders who were able to stay over their legs as they dropped into the water had much better rides. Those that lost their legs dropping in were required to use the first stride in the water to catch themselves and sit back up which left less time to find their line and distance and kick on to it.

Here are a few photos:

Overall it was a great day and Millbrook is a lovely venue! Hopefully I will make it there as a competitor next year!

Tomorrow Ben and I are off to compete at the Frazier Farm Horse Trials in the Novice division. His dressage has really been coming along at the Training level so I have high hopes for his performance in the much simpler Novice test. I'm also hoping for a forward, bold, and confident cross country run. If all goes according to plan I should have a helmet cam video to share as well!

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Riga Meadow Horse Trials Results + An Update

Two posts in one day? What is this sorcery? 

I realized that I really only had one more post to write to FINALLY have you guys all caught up on everything from this season so I thought I would just sit down and write it!

After Kent and the Boyd Martin clinic we were supposed to go to Apple Knoll on June 23rd and we were supposed to move back up to Training there. However, the event had low entries so it was moved to the end of July instead which was unfortunate because it left us with almost two months between events, which is exactly the opposite of what Ben needed at that moment in time. Not to mention that I was really looking forward to competing at Apple Knoll and the date they moved it to was the week we were going to be on vacation in Florida. 

So the next event for us ended up being Riga Meadow Horse Trials on July 14th, which was to be our second Training horse trial and our first recognized Training. Ben was an angel the whole day, starting bright and early at 4:30am when he was quite the gentleman about getting his boots on and loading onto the trailer all the way up to being an absolute star in the dressage ring. He put in what was probably our best Training test to date and earned an even 40. I thought the trot circles should've been 7s instead of 6s but otherwise I thought the judging was very fair and constructive and we ended the first phase in 8th place. 

I went and walked xc and it looked totally do-able and a lot of fun, quite the contrast to how I had felt walking the cross country course at my first Training where I was quite terrified of a few of the fences! Unfortunately, the eventing gods apparently still don't like me very much because before stadium I started to feel pretty lousy. I'm sure it had something to do with the perfect storm of the heat, my lack of eating anything, getting three hours of sleep the night prior, and having just walked quite a long xc course. Regardless of the reasons, I knew it was in both of our interests to scratch and wait to play another day. It wasn't fair to Ben to ride him when I wasn't feeling 100% and he's quite a tough ride xc so I need to be fully there to properly pilot him. 

As disappointing as it was, I still thought it was a successful day because he put in quite a nice test for him, he had a perfectly good experience, and we even still got a ribbon out of the deal for placing after dressage!

Here is the video of our test:

Ben has only been to three events this season, and only finished cross country at one. At this point, he just needs to run for the experience so I am taking him to two unrecognized Novices because they are inexpensive and nearby and I know they will provide two good, confident rounds for us. Then hopefully we will finish off the season strong at Training!

So there you have it, everything from the 2013 eventing season is all written up! I've also updated the Eventing Schedule page at the top of the blog. I will be back to more frequent and more "live action" posting now, which I look forward to. Our next event is in just 7 days, so I will be sure to write all about it!

As always, thanks for reading, and a very special thank you for bearing with me and my writing procrastination!

Boyd Martin Clinic Report

Way back on Memorial Day weekend at the end of May, Ben and I made the trek to Fitch's Corner in Millbrook, NY to take part in the Boyd Martin clinic. I was equally excited and nervous as I'd never ridden with Boyd before and I had also signed up for the Training group, and I had no idea what was in store for us in that regard!

Saturday was scheduled to be a flat and stadium day in the sand ring, and Sunday was meant to be a full cross country day. We arrived Saturday morning in the pouring rain. It was about 40 degrees (F), it was freezing, it was windy, and it remained that way for the entire day. The ring was super wet and sloppy but the footing held up quite well and it wasn't deep or slippery. 

We started the first day with some basic flatwork, doing a lot of transitions between gaits, particularly in the canter. Once we had sufficiently warmed up on the flat we trotted a small vertical a few times before taking turns cantering down a small grid of four oxers, all two strides apart, with a placing pole in front of each fence. Ben handled this quite well and was jumping fabulously. After we did this grid twice, the fences were raised so the last one was about 3'6". Nothing like easing you into it or anything! Ben again jumped fantastically through without even the slightest issue. 

Next we put together a little course, starting with the grid, coming around down the diagonal and jumping a three stride line, and then turning back to a gate jump. I let Ben get a little strong into the line so he had a rail on the second fence. We then did a slightly tougher course where we started with a skinny on the centerline, turned to the gate vertical, a bending line of five strides to the three stride line. The first time around we got a little too close to the gate so we had a hard time getting the striding, so we ended up getting a six and a four. No worries though, he just had us immediately come again and we nailed it the second time around!

We then jumped the skinny the opposite direction, turned to a one stride on the diagonal, and then turned back to a liverpool oxer. Ben kept jumping over his shoulder on the in to the one stride, mostly because I am always concerned that he won't make the distance because of his size so I have a tendency to rush him off of his feet a bit. Most of the time I get lucky doing this, but if he ends up getting a close spot he really dives over the fence instead of jumping up. I need to learn how to get the same amount of power and package it up into a shorter stride that is more centered on his hind end. This is a constant battle we are always working on, as Ben struggles greatly with adjustability in his canter, particularly on the flat, but over fences as well. Eventually, we had a great jump through the one stride, and he handled the liverpool like a seasoned pro.

We ended the day with a couple more courses that jumped quite well. Quite a few of the fences were set at about 3'6" but Ben was pinging over them like they were crossrails. We even earned the compliment from Boyd that we were "making it look easy!" If thats not encouraging, I don't know what is!

The rain had really taken its toll on the footing of the cross country course so instead of doing the whole second day outside we did about an hour in the ring, and 30 minutes of cross country in the one field where the footing was decent. As disappointing as this was, the whole Fitch's Corner team did a great job of accomodating us where they could and keeping everyone safe. And it ended up being a ton of fun anyway, as we spent the majority of time in the ring jumping cross country type obstacles, such as a corner, a liverpooil-turned-ditch, and a skinny arrowhead. 

We started the session warming up on the flat a bit at will, before starting the jumping off with another grid. Four fences, with one stride between the first three, and two strides to the last. We jumped through this grid quite a few times until it ultimately ended with the last oxer at 3'9"! Again, Ben handled it like a pro, earning a "What a horse!" from Boyd. 

We played around with some more courses, incoporating a bounce, the corner, and quite a tough bending line from an oxer to the gate vertical that Ben and I just completely missed the first time! We got it the second time through though! After playing around with some of the courses we popped over the ditch, one stride to the vertical, then jumped the vertical, one stride to the ditch, four strides to the corner, and then started jumping the ditch at an angle, one stride to the skinny arrowhead. That was a lot of fun and Ben was super honest and confident even though he had never seen anything like that before. We jumped it the first time through with guide poles on the arrowhead, and the second time through they were removed. Boyd told us we had "the best ride to the liverpool out of anyone." I can get used to this!

We then moved on to cross country. We warmed up over a "course" of sorts of some portable xc fences. We jumped a small fence off both reins, than a five stride line, and then jumped an angled, offset two stride before heading off to the water complex. We started by trotting through the water and out the bank, which Ben handled beautifully considering it was the first time he had ever done anything like that. We then put a little course together, starting with a small three stride line to the water, out the bank up, another log towards the water, then out over quite a massive table! Ben had a great time galloping through the water and he was super brave. 

Overall, it was a fantastic experience and I cannot wait to do it again next year. Ben was great the whole weekend which is what I definitely needed after experiencing Kent the weekend prior. Boyd is a fabulous clinician, he puts things into words you can understand, he would stop and talk to you one on one if you were having difficulties with a specific exercise, and he increased difficulty (and height, and width) of the fences/courses very gradually. Before you knew it, you were cantering down to some large fences without a care in the world, and the horses jumped great over the exercises as well.

Here is the video from both days, it gives a good glimpse into how miserable the weather was the first day, huge kudos to Fitch's Corner and Boyd for sticking through and standing out there all day:

As always, thank you guys so much for reading!