Thursday, June 28, 2012

Stall rest

It's not stall rest for the princess.  It's stall rest for me.

My knee was bugging me a bit last week.  Nothing serious, just a bit sore.  At the dressage show, after a ridiculous amount of walking around the grounds, I went to ask for a left lead canter and felt a very distinct pop in my right knee.  Ouch.  It was decidedly sore after that, enough that I popped some Advil on the way home.

With the competition season in full swing, I am trying to be smart about this and give my body rest when it needs rest rather than push it and end up at a show with a leg that isn't working quite right.  Anyone remember the shoulder debacle of 2011 when I ignored an injury and had my arm basically give out on me in the middle of a stadium jump course?  I need all of my aids to be functioning in order to take the princess cross country without scaring small children, animals, or my trainer.  And sometimes a lot of luck.

This means I haven't been in the saddle since the show.  Four days off for me.  I'm ready to climb the walls.  I'm not someone with enough will power to go to the barn for a visit and not ride, so I've been staying away.  Fi had the planned two days off after her two show weekend (she finished on her dressage score with her junior rider and got fourth place at the Groton House Summer Classic!), but come Wednesday I had to ask the trainer to have someone else work her.  Fortunately, her junior rider has asked to extend the partnership a bit longer for a show on July 18.  This means the princess still has two riders and one of them is much younger and healthier.

I have a flat lesson tonight, so we'll see what my knee thinks of this.  With any luck, four days of stall rest, some NSAIDs, and some hand walking did the trick. Hey, if it's good enough for the horses, it's good enough for me.  A pity stall rest doesn't get me out of work or doing the dishes.

Sunday, June 24, 2012


Fiona and I at the GPC 3-phase

So yesterday we had a dressage show.  First one of the year and the first one in ten months.  A lot has happened in those ten months.  A whole heck of a lot.  Fiona was gone for the better part of four months, for one thing.  We do most of our heavy lifting for dressage during winter, so that's a bit of a setback.  For another thing, when she got back, we were very much focused on fixing the jumping fiasco.  She was winning the Beginner Novice dressage (and sometimes the Novice) so there wasn't a lot of pressure to work on the dressage until May when I started to look at getting to a dressage show.  The princess was going better than ever, so the move up to First Level sounded completely logical.

This was a move up show.  Pure and simple.  Fiona has never been asked to do a First Level test in competition.  It's the equivalent to a Training level USEA test, though I think it's somewhat harder due to the order of the exercises and what the judges are expecting.  It includes lengthenings in trot and canter, ten meter turns at the trot, and fifteen meter circles at the canter.  Our canter transitions also have to be on a marker, as opposed to between two markers. 

While I have done this level before, it was only on a very limited basis and was about eight years ago on my previous horse, the old schoolmaster.  Fiona and I are both very green to this level.  I think the judges could tell by the deer in the headlights stare as we came down center line.  We don't have a dressage arena to practice in and it's hard to do accurate figures when you can't practice them at home.  I was craning my head, looking for markers for my circle, instead of riding my horse.  Not good.

However, we did get a 57%.  We weren't in last place and it's not even an embarrassing score.  Disappointing, but not embarrassing.  Heck, we even got a ribbon!  That 60% mark seems very much in reach with some more mileage.  We just have to figure out how to practice when we don't have access to a large dressage arena.  I was in the middle of my 'free walk - medium walk - trot - canter' sequence and I remember thinking 'these are coming up so quick!'.  A transition every ten meters and each one having to be precise is a big jump up from a Novice dressage test.  Fiona was an absolute trooper.  Our test was workman-like, we hit each movement and scored nothing below a 5.  We just didn't have the fabulous movement of a lot of the warmbloods to make up for our rookie mistakes.  I was riding conservatively so our trot lengthenings didn't score well, but the canter ones did.  I know some of my friends were holding their breath, waiting to see if we would manage the downward transition after my speed demon shifted gears, but she came back nicely.

The judge wrote 'sweet horse' on her score sheet.  I think I'll hang it on the fridge.

My Training Level test didn't have the same pressure.  It's still tougher than the Novice test for USEA, but bigger circles than the First Level and no lengthenings.  I also had less pressure on me, so I went in there thinking 'just school the test, this is just practice'.  It did help me remember to breathe and I was able to get a better test because I made a correction rather than just letting her do whatever she wanted.  When she started to barge off, I made the sharper correction, which may have knocked that movement but made the next three better.  Another workman-like test from a pair of dressage green beans.  We got 13th out of 22 riders, including a lot of pros taking their fancy babies out for early mileage.  Not bad at all.

The show was a wake up call in a way.  All the training in the world won't help us if we can't get it together in the show ring.  This means I need to practice in a dressage arena so I'm not frantically looking for letters in my test rather than riding.  It also means I need to RIDE my test rather than perching up there and turning into an alien because I don't want to upset my mare.  Who promptly gets upset because I'm being weird.  I also need to push my warm ups.  For my first warm up, I just kind of got her together and moving.  For my second warm up, I was doing leg yield, shoulder in, walk to canter, halt to trot, and everything else to get her bouncing more and listening.  I felt really silly doing that before a Training Level test, but hey, everyone else was doing the same thing.  The result was a much softer feel and my horse being much more responsive.

Bit by bit, I'm figuring out how to actually compete in dressage.  I'm hoping to do one more sanctioned dressage show this year with First Level tests 1 and 2.  We can do it at home, I just have to figure out how to take it on the road.  In the meantime, back to Novice land for the UNH horse trials in two weeks.

Ah, show season.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

A dressage show, step by step

Going to a horse show isn't simple business.  It takes months or years of training, weeks of preparation, a few frantic days of grooming, cleaning, and packing, and a long day at some far flung location.

Friday found me parked in the aisle cleaning tack.  It was just too darn hot out to ride in the middle of the day and Fiona had a very busy weekend that required nice turnouts.  We had highs in the nineties three days this week and heat indicies over one hundred.  This did not lead to a lot of practice going into our dressage show.  However, it did lead to some very clean tack.

There's something very zen about tack cleaning.  I took the day off from work, so rather than sitting in my AC and waiting for the temperatures to drop, I headed out to the barn.  No one else was around, so I got comfy in the aisle, turned on my iPod (Lady Gaga, for those that are curious), and scrubbed every bit of tack.  It meant that I was offline, away from my phone, and chilled out in a way that so very rarely happens in the modern world.  It was probably the last bit of peace I was going to have for 24 hours.

After the tack was spotless, I snagged a quick jumping lesson after the heat broke so that Fiona could stretch her legs in a way that wouldn't worry her or put her in a bad mood.  She was extremely good.  Next came a bath, some trimming, a braid job, and a lycra hood to protect her braids.  Her braids needed to last two days, so keeping them clean was crucial.  The princess was very stylish.
She is the Great Masked Avenger!  Or a very embarrased eventer being forced to be a dressage horse, one or the other.

Finally, finally, after 8pm, everything was packed and ready for our show.  Since Dorkzilla had an 8am ride time, I would be back at the barn at 4:20am.  Who needs sleep?  Clearly not me.  I went home and took care of my last minute preparations.  Due to my own sleep schedule, I didn't even attempt to go to bed until midnight since I was so very awake.  I'm a bit of a night owl.

Total sleep?  Approximately one hour.  Ugh.

Back to the barn to feed, brush, put on the shipping boots, and load.  At least I think that's what we did, we were already in zombie land.  We may have danced jigs and run amok around the barn for all I remember.  We tossed the princess and Dorkzilla onto the trailer and headed off to UNH for our big ol' sanctioned dressage show.

Now Dorkzilla had an 8am ride time.  He also have a 4pm ride time.  My ride times were 11:33am and 4pm.  That leaves a lot of time to sit around and do nothing.  What do eventers do when bored and they have their horses with them?  They go cross country schooling.  No, seriously, after Dorkzilla did his Second Level test 1 (and won his class), we changed into our cross country gear and went out for a school.  I have never seen so many double takes in my life as when we walked back through the dressage show in full cross country gear.  The people running the show kept saying 'oh, you're those riders'.  I'm not sure what to think of that, but yes, we were those riders.

While some people warm up for dressage in a nice, relaxing manner, we went out and jumped cross country with some fun canters between fences.  Hey, whatever works.

My great debut at First Level was solid.  We didn't hit the 60% I hoped for, but with 57% and a sixth place finish, we weren't exactly laughed out of the ring.  She was workmanlike and ignored my tension due to not being used to being in the large arena.  I was in the big girl ring!  Unfortunately there isn't a video of that ride, but there is a video of my later ride at Training Level test 3.

We got a 60.2% for that one.  I'm proud of the test because I was breathing through the whole thing and actually rode my test rather than being petrified.  Not competitive in a class of 24 riders, but progress for us.  I know we can do better, but right now the struggle is with myself and no one else.  Once I get it together?  Fiona will be unstoppable.

In the meantime, Dorkzilla kept himself amused.

I think that's an entire bale of hay.  We spent most of the day shoving the hay back in the trailer, only to have him yank it all back out.  It's like pony Nintendo.

After a long day at the show, we packed up while a big thunderstorm rolled in.  The timing was perfect for us, our horses didn't even get wet, but it meant that our last classes didn't even get to finish.  Tomorrow we'll find out how the Dork did in his class.  I'm not in the ribbons, not even close, but Fi was never intended to be a class winning dressage horse.  At least not with me in the saddle.

Now I'm at home, enjoying a home made beer and processing my day.

Hey, this is an important step in the dressage show experience.

There probably won't be that much productive processing until tomorrow.  Right now I'm mostly just staring at the computer screen and wondering how I'm still awake.  Evaluation of the performance and what it means for the princess's career will come tomorrow.  Tonight?  I will have a beer, relax, and enjoy the fact that I have a mare that got the comment 'sweet horse' on her test today.  I've never heard that from a dressage judge before.  Finally, they're catching on to what Fiona is really like.

Thursday, June 21, 2012


The princess is pretty laid back about things.  She takes life pretty much in stride.  Sure, new things need to be looked at and possibly snorted at, but she's willing to accept most things as non-lethal with a pat on the neck and a bump with the heels.  Mini donkeys, waving flags, barking dogs, big blue tarps, even sleeping cows are all okay in her book.  She doesn't like them, but she can cope.

Running cows?  Now that's another matter entirely.

I was catching up with her junior rider today who regaled me with the adventure of Fiona's trot sets this week.  After a couple days off for that sticky right hind, the princess went out to keep another horse company during some trot sets.  The galloping field we used to use has been turned into a cow pasture, so we are now using the lanes through an orchard.  This is great for trot sets, but there's one small problem:  cows.  Not just any cows, friendly cows.  Cows that like to join the horses on their trot sets.  This was an entirely new experience for Fiona.  Standing cows or sleeping cows are okay.  Walking cows are still acceptable.  Cows trying to run with her?

Evidently she decided at one point that enough was enough and took off like a bat out of hell up a hill while her companion trotted along calmly.

I've never heard of friendly cows that try to join the horses that trot by but I guess this is a regular thing for this particular set of cows.  Of course, everyone knows what this means.

After this weekend is done, Fiona is getting her butt hauled out to that orchard over and over until she can cope with the cows.  She's a smart girl, it's just a matter of showing her that the cows will not, in fact, eat her.  I expect there will be some very exciting rides while this is going on.  I'll be taking her out dressed for war (otherwise known as her full XC turnout including her boots and war bridle and my full seat breeches and possibly sporting my vest) while she gets her exposure.

Most riders try to avoid things like pastures full of cows that upset their horses.  Clearly there is something wrong with my brain as I am planning on riding straight at them.  I've been told on many occasions that I have more balls than brains.  Seems an accurate assessment.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Heart breakers

Horses can be the biggest heart breakers.  One day everything is perfect, the next, nothing can go right.

Fiona has had issues behind before, but as she's gotten stronger most of those issues have gone away.  She had been very sound since her return from Aiken with very few of her 'flat tire' moments where she'll lose her balance and stumble behind.  I've always suspected a loose stifle on the right.  When I first got her and she was out of condition, she would stumble in corners constantly.

On Friday we had a lovely dressage lesson, but she had one of her flat tire moments followed by being off for the length of the arena before coming back.  She also had a couple of bad steps later in her ride, but it was there and gone before I could even pull up.  Today she had another flat tire moment when I asked for a lengthening and she wasn't eager to push off of that hind.  Not lame, but guarding that hind leg.

Of course this happens when she's got a XC school on Wednesday, a dressage show on Saturday, and a schooling three phase on Sunday.

She's on bute as of tonight and tomorrow she'll be getting a relaxing, stretching type ride with her new junior partner.  Monday the chiro is out and he'll be checking to see if she needs another adjustment.  He's also a vet, so if there's something more dire afoot, he can recommend bringing in her regular vet.

I'm edgy and tense, but it's not something that I can actually do anything about.  I just have to wait and see what happens.  The last time she did this, she got a bit of bute and some time off and came back just fine, so I'm not quite in panic mode.  Not quite yet, anyway.  We'll see what changes we have to make this week in order to get her in tip top shape once again.  Hopefully it's just a bit sore, like my right knee has been bothering me for the last couple days, and we'll both be back with some anti-inflammatory and TLC.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Dance card

Summer is a constant stream of exhausting weekends, recovery, and then prep for the next exhausting weekend.  I've spent the last two days recovering from Valinor, and now it's time to set my sights on our next outing.  The next stop on the princess's tour is the UNH dressage show, so it's time to quit worrying about getting over obstacles and time to worry about being able to stop, turn, and adjust speeds.  And that whole training pyramid thingy that people keep talking about.  Supposed to be important?  I dunno.

Fiona certainly doesn't mind this.  I spent an hour today dodging ponies in a lesson and getting her stretched out and moving again.  She was very ready to get back to work.  I've heard it said that Thoroughbreds like having jobs and thrive with discipline.  I have to say that Fiona is one of them.  She may grumble a bit when asked to get moving when she's stiff, but once she's rolling, she is very happy to do her dressage homework.  The shoulder-in still gets a protest, but it's very difficult for her right now.  She's getting more accepting and obedient as we go, not that I expect our submission scores to ever get very good.  She has too many opinions.

I did hear back from the Jockey Club and it's official:  Fiona is not a registered Thoroughbred.  They weren't able to match her to any horse using DNA.  Alas, she is a grade mare.  I'm going to leave her paperwork as it is, since she's most likely an unregistered TB and I have no intention of ever breeding her, but it is a bit disappointing that I couldn't find her history this way.  It looks like we'll never really know where she came from.  Not that it really matters.  Papers are a distant second to being just awesome.

Clearly I'm not the only one that thinks she's awesome.  The same junior rider that took her to Mystic has asked if she can take the princess out to the Groton House Summer Classic.  Of course I said yes.  I always need help getting my girl the amount of work she needs.  For the next two weeks, Fiona has two riders on her dance card.  It's pretty easy to organize, since school's out for the high schoolers and I ride at night.  Two work outs a day suits Fiona and gives the junior rider plenty of time to get to know my rather quirky mare.  It does make some scheduling more complicated.

But it's entirely worth it to keep the princess in work as school starts to ramp up.  It's only temporary, but I'll take help where I can get it.  The princess is very demanding and no one has the heart to tell her no.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Perfect pair

I sat down and counted last night.  Six sanctioned events for the princess in 2012, but not a one with me in the saddle.  That's a very strange situation to my little mind.  She's my girl, I should be showing her!  But today we fixed that little problem.

The princess and I hauled off to Valinor Horse Trials for her seventh sanctioned event of the year.  I love, love this event.  The sandy soil provides good footing and the rolling hills give a lot of terrain.  The jumps are inviting and I always enjoy my runs here.  So does the princess, and we all know that this is all about what the princess wants.

After a mini-boot camp for jumping this week, including a cross country school on Friday, Fi just wasn't in the mood for dressage today.  She felt stuck through her back, possibly stiff, was a bit trailer bound, and I didn't do a good job of pushing her through it.  Okay, let's kip the excuses and get down to the actual root cause:  yet again, the nerves nailed me in dressage.  Darn those judges and insisting on watching me so closely and making me all nervous.  But to put it in perspective, we got a 37.5.  That's the first time I've gone sub-40 with Fiona at a horse trial.  As disappointed as I was in my performance, it says a lot that we are still a full five points down from our run at Valinor last year.  If our bad days are now in the thirties, we're still making progress.  This put us tenth out of 13 or 14 entries in our division.  Well, at least we weren't last?

Our jumping, though.  Oh, our jumping.  As my trainer said several times, that was the nicest stadium round we've ever done.  Period, end of story.  Fi warmed up reasonably well, despite the traffic and some near collisions (I HATE the beginner novice warm up ring, this is a big motivator to move up).  We trotted into the show ring and the princess shifted gears.  She was no longer trailer bound, she had her game face on.  The approach to the first fence was goofy so I just started her course at the trot.  She cantered all of the rest in a very mannerly fashion.  Hunter pony she was not, since my half halts still have to be pretty aggressive in places, especially on the downhill sections.  The stadium course at Valinor has considerable terrain so we had to be balanced quickly.  She pulled the course off without a rail or a flier or any twisty goofiness.  The ring steward actually complimented us on our nice run afterward.  I darn near cried.

It was straight to cross country after that, which I love.  There was almost no wait.  I checked in with the steward and they gave me my two minute warning.  We were off before either of us could get tense.  Our biggest problem was that the jumps were little and the pace was slow.  We were going at 320 mpm for this course and it was an early season beginner novice.  Fiona made bids for several novice and training fences and seemed genuinely confused by the little fences.  That didn't mean she wouldn't jump them.  She was as bold and honest as anyone could want.  I thought for sure she was going to look and back off at the scary tire jump so I got in the back seat and really put my leg on.  Evidently it wasn't that scary since she boldly moved up and then left a stride out.


But we finished with a big gallop up the final hill.  Fiona had plenty more in the tank and I had a big smile on my face.  I figured that we were out of the running for a ribbon with a soft cross country course, but it was still a fabulous outing.  Turns out I was wrong.  Fiona jumped up five spots with her clear rounds to end up in fifth.  Our best finish as a combination. 

A couple days ago I was talking to a friend about partnerships with horses and how it's all about what's acceptable to the rider.  It's very individual.  One person will adore a horse that another person can't stand.  We both thought of a horse that we knew that was a saint to ride, but a grump on the ground.  I laughed and said that Fiona had to trade on her perfect ground manners, because the heavens know she's not a saint.  I was asked which I considered more important, a horse with good ground manners or a horse that's a saint to ride. 

I couldn't really answer, because as far as I'm concerned, Fiona's just perfect at both of them.  It's all a matter of personal preference, and I like the wild ones.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Building up confidence

Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.
     - John Wayne

That quote is in honor of my entirely chicken reaction to this being on the course for this morning's jumping lesson:

I went back down to the arena after our lesson to retrieve the vest I forgot (the one in the picture) and decided to snap a picture as a memento.  According the measuring stick that's in the arena, this was just under Training, so about 3'1" or 3'2".  The height was one thing, the approach was a whole other.  A tight, left hand turn going to a corner that invites the run out on the left . . . on a mare that has a left side run out.  And she'd run out on me a couple times in a combination.  I'll admit, I rode that thing like we were going to war because I just wanted to get over it.

She cleared it beautifully.

It was a tough jumping lesson as the princess was having some trouble focusing.  She's not always sure if we're going over or around, so that's a bit of a challenge.  I can't let her just gallop down to things, so she gets flustered when she has to shorten up.  We also struggle with combinations since the distances are always tight for her, so I have to whoa and shorten, but at the same time she loses confidence and I need to kick on so she continues on to the second fence.  If I botch timing at all, she runs out.

I nearly lost my temper, it was a close call.  I'm never, ever allowed to lose my temper with Fiona, she's far too sensitive.  She would completely melt down.  I think she's afraid of being wrong and a lot of our issues can be tied back to her being so desperate to get it right.  Fortunately the trainer stepped in with excellent timing to keep me from getting overly cross.  By the end we had our groove back and she was carrying me straight to the fences again, but I definitely feel like I need to have my war face on to get her around.  Not aggressive, but very confident and clear on exactly what I want and where I want it.  We're having a crisis of confidence right now and I need to be confident enough for both of us.

But when we got it right?  She darn near jumped me out of the tack.  Scope will never be her issue.  It does tell me that she is not ready for any move ups in the near future or possibly for a long time.  Stadium still boggles her mind.  Poor little princess.  With the little fences we have more options to get it wrong and not get hurt.  By contrast, our dressage school on Tuesday was beautiful while we focus on her carrying herself and not trying to balance on my hands.  She gave me her first baby steps of half passe while I was working on getting her to really listen to my legs rather than just performing tricks.

Our next outing is at Beginner Novice, so that should be a good, confidence building type of an outing.  The jumps will look like nothing when we're schooling Novice and occasionally just over at home.  She went really well at Valinor last year, the stadium is nice and open.  We've got another jumping lesson tomorrow to build up her confidence some more, a cross country school on Friday for even more confidence, and then we're off to our first sanctioned of the season as a pair.

She's a good girl, she tries hard, she just needs to know she can do it. Until then, I'll just have to tell her she can do it for every single fence and be sure to tell her what a good girl she is every time she gets it right. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Show moms

It looks like a big chunk of the barn's show team is heading off to Valinor this weekend, including me and the princess.  We're already organizing cars, equipment, and times for course walks.  It's quite an experience to travel with a big group.  I like the camaraderie, but oh boy, can it be a circus by the time you add in all of the entourage members.  Moms, dads, siblings, even the occasional boyfriend or husband.

The spectators range in expertise from 'so what are you all doing in that arena?' to 'the trot work was great, I'm sure you got under 40'.  My husband is actually closer to the second group, but he has learned to avoid me at horse shows.  I either take his head off in warm up (I'm a bit tough to manage right before going in the ring) or he ends up holding my horse all day. 

I find that there are more moms than any other type of family member in the entourages.  The infamous show moms.  Just today we were joking around the barn about some of the moms we've seen or known.  Some moms know nothing about horses and we generally herd them out of the way so they don't get stepped on or put equipment where it doesn't belong.  Some moms try to help, and know what's going on, but instead of making things easier they just make the riders crazy.  These aren't what I consider show moms.

Show moms are ones like my own mom.  The ones that know how to braid, where all the tack goes, what the deal is with getting to the ring and warming up on time, and they always carry a towel to wipe off boots on the way into the ring.  These are the invaluable women that are usually tired, hauling equipment, and cheering for some little girl on a shiny pony regardless of how the ride actually went.  These are the moms that know how to fix a braid at the last minute, when to stuff a sandwich in a cranky rider, and when to walk away and let the trainer deal with it.

A lot of teenagers fuss about their moms.  They argue, they get under each others' feet, and generally drive each other crazy.  On the one hand, I have to laugh and appreciate the fact that I do have my own car, my own driver's license, and no curfew.  Those three things seem to trigger most of the fights.

On the other hand, I know one day those teenagers will be at a show as an adult, look over their shoulder, and really wish their mom was there.  I know I sure as heck do.  It would be a bit of a commute, as my mom lives over a thousand miles away, but I really do miss having her at my shows.  Aside from knowing the timing for stuffing food in me so that I don't get shaky and I don't get sick from my nerves, it's always nice to have complete, unconditional support during a competition.  And she's my mom, who doesn't want their mom around when they've got big things going on?

And someone to hold my horse when I forget my armband.  Again.

I don't know if my mom would want to be an eventer show mom, since it's a bit more harrowing than watching the hunter ring.  But maybe, one day, we'll work out the timing and she can take a crack at it.