Sunday, 23 November 2014

I Believe I Can Fly

I know I have been quiet of late, but that's only really because the Royal Winter Fair was on, and I was busy doing the following:

a) watching amazing international jumpers (hi Beezie!!! hi McLain!!! hi Darragh!!! hi Philippaerts!!)
b) partying debaucherously with (some of) the above
c) partying debaucherously with everyone else
d) stuffing myself silly with amazing Royal food
e) watching all other manner of horse everythings
f) recovering from hangovers.

Yes folks, the A Circuit Party Scene is alive and well.  I can personally attest. Ha ha.

I may or may not be in this photo somewhere.

Putting all that aside, in combination with the Royal, I gave Riley some time off (on purpose, I swear!) He had been acting a little tired, due to the intense flatwork and jumping sessions we've been having lately and I wanted to give him some time to regenerate.  Same thing for most of the horses in the barn - they (and we!) have all been working like crazy.  To be honest, I didn't really realize I was carrying some level of sore-all-the-time on my own person until I had a few days in a row off from riding altogether.

But toward the end of last week, I started doing light flats with Riley and some of the others I ride, and they all came out of it feeling absolutely better for the short break.  I fully expected psycho horses and bucking and wildness and they were all very ho-hum about it - cheerful, but certainly manageable once we started back.  

This led into the past week, where we got Trainer back from Doha (where he was VERY successful, YAY!!!) and had him all to ourselves for an entire week. New Assistant was trying horses in Germany, so he took over all the lessons. 


Tuesday was easy - we had a light flat session, and I flatted a little with Barn Owner who is a few weeks back into it after having most of the summer off.  It wasn't the most challenging lesson I've ever had but a great opportunity to review basics and work on a few fiddly little things, like my left hand apparently having a mind of its own.  We did a few exercises with rollback turns at a good canter after Barn Owner retired, and ended really well, working with a more direct rein instead of the opening rein that Trainer started us all out with.  ("Eet is more definite, more precise, you ready to use both at same time when necessary, we play with zis, see here you need more direct and here you need more open, yes good!")

Wednesday we moved into jumping a little. We started out over a single vertical on, set in the exact middle of the ring, facing down the long side - so you would canter down the long side, say on the left lead, turn left down the middle of the ring (C for dressage people, I think?) and jump the jump after a long enough approach, then turn left or right depending on your preference.

Trainer started the jump around 3ft for my first warm-up fence, which I mentally noted and wondered if we would in fact be jumping a bit higher today.  We warmed up well and then the jump went up hole by hole.  

At around 3'6" I started to do stupid things - kick a bit too much or pull a bit too much, lock my leg on the last three strides, and try really, really hard to manufacture a distance out of thin air.  The purpose of the exercise, of course, was to get and maintain medium canter, come through the turn, not press your horse too hard or take back too much, and keep that nice medium canter and adjust only if necessary.  

But can I just say how HARD that is to do? OK, at 3ft, or 1m, or whatever it is all fine and dandy, even if you throw in a bigger fence in the middle of a course.  But when it's a single off a sharp enough turn and THEN a long approach (so you are messing with your rhythm on the turn, then giving your mind and your eye a million years to second guess on the way to the jump) you really, really want to be DOING SOMETHING.  This goes back to my last post, where we practiced the Art of Doing Nothing, and the exact same thing applied here.  

I managed to figure it out well enough at 3'6" and the hole above it, but once the jump hit 1.20m I kind of stopped being able to do very much right.  The first time I pulled to the base and got a frog jump, then I galloped, and then I just kept seeing the REALLY short one over and over (and over.) Trainer put the fence back down to 1.10m (which of course looked teeny tiny by then!) and had me jump it; no issues and a lovely distance, then cranked it back up again right away and had me think about and replicate the same feeling.  This method worked absurdly well and suddenly I could ride again.  We jumped the 1.20m vertical 3x in a row in a lovely fashion, I was happy, he was happy, Riley was happy.  Then we had a great talk about the open water and how horses read 1.60m jumps and how to ride Grand Prix and actually it was a great night, the insight is incredible. Have I mentioned ever how lucky I am?!

Friday Night Pony Frands

I gave Riley Thursday off, then flatted Friday. I had a few horses to do, so I ended up on Riley last and just rode bareback. (I know you're all shocked by now.) It was definitely my best bareback ride to date; we trot and cantered and did a normal flat then courses upon courses over poles where I just worked super hard on keeping a nice, medium canter and letting the pole come to me instead of trying to find it perfectly.  My poor little bean was quite sweaty by the end - time for another clip - and took about ten years to dry under the heaters.

Then Saturday happened.

Once again, silence on the flat warmup - and then we began to jump. We warmed up over the same vertical in the middle, set this time (as a WARM UP JUMP NOT FUNNY) at 1.0m (3'3") which looks plenty large for your first fence of the day.  After maybe four quite perfect jumps, Trainer had me hop off Riley and go walk a couple of lines that he had set.  I walked the first line, a vertical to vertical, in a quiet-ish four, then the second line, a bending oxer to vertical in a going five.  Trainer was all, OK hop on and show me how to ride them.  So I made up a course including the lines and got the numbers but had to work for them a little, meaning I was under pace.  I repeated the exercise after Trainer's instruction ("think about what you did, I'm not gonna tell you, now you fix and we talk about it after") and we were both very pleased with the result. I got more pace right away, actually hit my first jump too forward, but then melted back (but not too much!) and settled beautifully for the lines.  We practiced the course once or twice more making the bending five into a quieter and less direct six. Both the five and the six were pretty easy for me and Riley; his adjustability has really grown by leaps and bounds and settling back for the six was no problem and neither was assertively going for the five.

Trainer decided, after this, that it was going to be High Jump Saturday - a little bit of a repeat of Wednesday.  I personally love High Jump Saturday and was excited to improve my riding from Wednesday.  

Well... where do I start? The jump started at 1.10m, grew very quickly to 1.20m, and I was still having no problems and sailing right along feeling great.  I hit my distances well - sometimes they were a squidge short, or I would have to lightly put my leg on - but it was never abrupt or yanking or particularly disturbing to the lovely medium rhythm. Mostly, I did what I was supposed to by just SITTING THERE, supporting with my leg and feeling lightly with my hand, my horse in a lovely package and my position in the right place.  It's truly astonishing how very little there is to do if you've done your preparation, are secure in the saddle, have a balanced horse and the right canter.

We did the 1.20m vertical off both leads, from short and long approaches, and then the jump just kept going up.  I started wondering if Riley was going to just stop or jump through the fence, but he just kept on trying his adorable little heart out.  Once the jump hit 1.30m he was a little bit surprised, over jumped it by a bit and stumbled slightly on landing.  Then he really started to concentrate! I couldn't believe myself, readers - instead of getting nervous or worried, I was excited, and confident, and my only thoughts were concentrating on my canter and Trainer's voice.  My position was, dare I say it, as close to flawless as it's ever been; I was never once out of balance, falling on Riley's neck or getting left behind, my leg was under me at all times, and our take-off spots were as close to ideal as they can be.  And so the jump just kept rising and rising.  By the end, where we eventually stopped, it was the smallest of hairs below 1.40m.  And guess which super cute little horse didn't even touch the rail a single time?

This is not me, but this is a horse jumping 1.40m.

We jumped the 1.40m jump (can I just say how much typing that BOGGLES MY MIND?!) three times in a row in truly lovely form before stopping.  Once we reached that height I could feel Riley doing different things; he was studying the jump a bit more as we came to it, and I could feel him really summon himself up, almost crouch and then sort of explode off the ground to clear it.  It's definitely a different feeling than the ~la la la smoooooth~ feel we get most of the time when jumping smaller. 

Also not me, also 1.40m.

And can I say? That was officially the coolest thing ever.  EVER.  The adrenaline junkie in my person craves more. All I want to do now is jump that big again and revisit the memory in my mind over and over.  I am so happy and so proud of both myself - I've never jumped that big - and my horse - who has also never jumped that big! 

Still not me, still 1.40m.

Trainer was also, how shall we say this? acting like a proud parent? He made me take a picture next to the jump, he is in the photo as well grinning like crazy, and spent most of the afternoon bragging to anyone who showed up about how big we'd jumped.  Of course I was setting jumps for him after and he did high jump for himself (on one of the 8 year olds who has more scope than should be allowed) and cleared 1.55m sort of casually. So cool to watch.

Saturday definitely comes toward the top of the list in terms of the best days I've had in my entire life, and of course one of the best horse related days.  Any motivation that may have trickled sadly away at the dire thoughts of never ever selling my dressage horse and never moving up in the jumping world has definitely been renewed with vigor.  As trainer said, "you have entered a new phase in your riding!" and I fully intend to first stay there and then move forward and that the universe is not in fact conspiring against me and that somehow it's all just going to be okay. I feel like I end blog posts like this a lot lately but... it's coming together. I can feel it, the proof is now actually tangible and I am so ridiculously hopeful and excited for the future. Big things are coming.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Doing less to get more

Trainer has an interesting philosophy in riding life.  Do what you have to do, when you have to do it, and no more.  That means there are times when you just sit there.  He likes to snicker and tell us he's a lazy person, but too, that the hardest thing we all have to learn is to do nothing when the time calls for it.

This is at direct odds from our previous instruction, where we were forever doing something. If nothing was going on, that was a very bad thing indeed.  There was always a list of tasks to accomplish: in the corner, take back, then come lightly forward through the turn. Steady after the jump. Half halt on the approach. You can't just canter along and enjoy the ride, for heaven's sake, you are riding! Do something!

But with Trainer the approach is different.  Let the horse find his own balance, stop trying to help him so much, let him fall flat on his face a few times until he figures out where his legs are - it will make him, and you, better in the long run.  Don't take back in the corner. Just stay on your rhythm, relax your elbow, let the flow happen.  There is no need to interrupt the rhythm on the approach unless you actually see that you need to adjust your distance.  Accept whatever distance you've gotten yourself to in the last stride.  Once you've jumped the jump, decide then, and only then if you need to steady, if you need to go, or if you just need to sit there.

This has been the focus of my lessons over the past couple of weeks.  Where everyone else is flatting, I'm constantly jumping.  Trainer has said I know enough about what he's working on with everyone else, so we're working on something else.  I guess this is complimentary, and the jumping is definitely something I need work on.  And oh, it is hard.  I'm a control loving perfectionist.  I love my perfect distances, my perfect rhythm and the perfect ride.  Trainer has made it his goal to get me over that and just allow things to happen, to stop chasing the fence and the distance, to stop anxiously looking so hard for it and just letting the pace and rhythm dictate everything.  His big thing, which he isn't wrong about (when is he ever wrong?!), is that I block with my elbow coming through the turn.

Curious Pony roaming free in the barn aisle...

Of course, this hearkens back to the way I learned to come at a jump, which is to collect through the turn and come forward out of it.  It's ingrained, seriously.  So guess what I get to do all the time now? Jump singles off the turn on a forward rhythm that isn't too forward but isn't blocking.  This has involved me feeling like I'm flapping my elbows around like a chicken and letting Riley fall on his face a few times.  He didn't like that much, and doesn't do it so often now.  It's actually improved his jumping a lot - and mine, too.  I don't start messing with the canter so much, and just let whatever happens, happen.  Oddly enough, with the tiniest of adjustments, it works out to be The Perfect Distance about 95% of the time.

In slightly amusing things that I'd like to remember for awhile, at the end of a lesson the other day I was chatting with Trainer, and asked if he thought if I could be a 1.20m rider next year.  To which he said, "you already ARE a 1.20m rider, look at ze other riders at the show doing 1.20. You have ze education and ability to do beyond zat already. Do not mistake your abilities with ze abilities of your 'orse." To which we discussed Riley's tendency to say no to bigger jumps if they are not met with complete and perfect accuracy. But that's another story, I suppose.

I also enjoy? torture myself with? keep an eye on the market...? by looking at cute horses for sale approximately every day of my life, particularly ones that I think would possibly be suitable for myself.  Mostly, I get depressed when I see their price tags. Obviously I can't make a move toward buying one just yet, what with still owning Tigger, and my entire budget tied up there.  There are some horses I've fallen across that I've liked and watched their videos a few times and even asked about price on one or two.  

But the other day I fell across one that I completely cannot stop thinking about.  He's in the Netherlands, he's young but apparently super straightforward and brave, and scopey scopey scopey. He ticks all my boxes - he's fancy, he's small(ish... I like the 16-16.2 ones!), he's quick and blooded but not crazy looking, he's super super cute, beautifully bred, and apparently very sweet and kind and jumps from anywhere.  He's shown up to 1.15 and has very obvious scope for a lot more.  I inquired about him, somewhat seriously. In an interesting twist of fate he is listed for the exact price that I'm trying to sell Tigger for, including import costs.

The chances of this horse being around by the time Tigger sells are small.  He's a really nice horse listed with a busy sales agent and I suspect he will fly off the shelf. But you never know.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

One of these things is not like the other

Though it's something I don't really mention too terribly often here (or ever, really) I do have another horse, one whom I actually *own*, named Tigger.

Tigger is an interesting fellow. He's a beautifully bred Warmblood gelding by Indoctro out of a Darco mare who jumped 1.40m herself.  I purchased Tigger almost exactly two years ago as my move-up jumper. When I bought him, he was a seven year old pleasantly fancy jumper who had competed to 1.15m and was expected to max out around 1.35m or 1.40m. I searched for some time for him and was absolutely delighted when I found him. The jumping world was my oyster.

The day I first tried him

Hindsight being 20/20, I should have listened to the little voice that said, "Irene, this horse is a bit spooky, and a bit nervous, and sucked back a little when you jumped that liverpool. Do you really want to deal with this every day?" But I liked the horse SO much, and had SUCH a fun time riding him, and he was my type and adorable and scopey and perhaps most importantly, all that was in my price range.  So I bought him with bells on.

Fast forwarding a little, things went from okay to bad to worse to done.  He started to consider the fact that he didn't want to do things - even little things, like cantering poles. Poles couldn't have been more terrifying to him.  To be fair, he was a green horse; despite the fact that he was seven, his actual experience and pro saddle time had him more in the five year old range.  He got really spooky and started to say no to some jumps. I was bewildered and hadn't ever dealt with something like that - bearing in mind he was more or less my second jumping horse ever and I'd been jumping for all of two years at that point with a season off.  So I didn't handle it as well as I could, which is something I fully admit.  But even with pro help, things declined. It all kind of came to a head when he tossed my trainer at the time into a jump and broke her arm the day before the first show of the season.  At that point, he got labeled a "problem", I was taken off him and he went to be ridden by a local pro who had a deep love for tricky horses and could stick anything. To make a long story short, we spent the summer trying to fix him, and I finally had enough when I tried to jump him myself and ended up on the other side of an oxer, alone, for no good reason.  So he went up for sale.

We spent awhile trying to sell him as a jumper. Through a trainer switch and more horse shows this ended up not panning out very well. By the time January 2014 rolled around, he was stopping every time someone tried to jump him.  It wasn't that he couldn't jump well. God knows he was scopey. But he was done. He had decided.

This prompted some redirection, and in April I sent him off to a local dressage trainer who had shown to Grand Prix and had a lively sales program.  When she got her hands on him, she thought he might be a first level horse we could sell for $10-15k.  (Note: I paid significantly more than that for him in the first place.) But as time went on she started to call me really excitedly and tell me how talented she was discovering he was.  First, it was that he could do second level, and then the realization that his changes were very good put him at a third level prospect. As the months have rolled on, however, my little jumper reject has blossomed into a shining star in dressage land.  And today he is schooling Prix St. Georges and his trainer expects he will move up to Grand Prix in a few years.  My jumper reject, a Grand Prix horse - just not in the discipline we originally anticipated!

I'm happy for him, that he's found a discipline that suits him and where he excels and shows real talent. He's not perfect, and there's still a lot of work to do, and he's never going to be a particularly easy horse. He does make you work for what he gives you, but when you work he works just as hard.

In which I try to ride dressage for the first time ever

The problem is, I'm not a dressage rider.  I've taken lessons on him, even a clinic with an international Grand Prix rider which I thought might shake things up in the right direction, but it's not my thing. I tried to make it my thing. I wanted it to be my thing. Because it's not exactly every day you just suddenly have a Grand Prix anything, much less an accidental one. But it's not my thing. And so Tigger is still very much for sale, with his price very much increasing as the days pass, which bodes mildly well for the next horse purchase but makes my checking account really sad in the meantime.

Tigger and I have been through the emotional ringer together. I was on cloud nine when I bought him and spent every spare moment obsessively watching videos of him. I was so happy that I found him. And then that slowly transformed to fear... which transformed into terror and hurt and anger. I spent a long time being terrified of even getting on his back, which rationally didn't make a whole lot of sense since it wasn't like he did anything bad while I flatted him, it was only ever jumping.  I spent a lot of time feeling hurt and angry and upset and sad about the situation. Today was the first time I've been able to go back and watch the videos we took, and that I put together with such love and enthusiasm, from the days I trialed him, without wanting to pulverize something or cry.

Because he is a good horse. He's a wonderful horse, actually. He's sweet. He's kind. He loves to be curried and cuddled. He's a bit mischievous and funny, but he's comfortable and safe (as long as you don't point him toward a jump!) and a hell of a lot of fun to ride. He loves to hack and will plod out on a loose rein.  He's going to make someone really, really happy.

But I need that to happen... sooner than later. I've felt like I just wanted to move on for a long time, but that there was some lesson that needed learning first.  After almost two years I finally feel like I learned it. Had an epiphany, maybe. I finally feel safe, and okay, and serene about moving from him, instead of just wanting him OUT OF MY LIFE RIGHT NOW.

So... universe, if you're listening? It's time. Bring Tigger his new person. It's just time.