Sunday, December 29, 2019

Dancing the dance of his people

Trainer Z came out to visit!  I was so happy to see her.  Scheduling problems kept her away for longer than expected and I was super eager to get kicked back onto track.  My ride on Saturday was quiet and positive, the weather was beautiful (40* in December is lovely), and the ring was all ours.  Perfect.

Then the horse trailer showed up while we were working the canter and the horse clamored out with a bunch of noise and it all got rather electric.  Theo was up on his toes from the start, probably due to the winter storm blowing in tonight.  It was nice at first but it started to boil over.

He got completely overwrought in the flying change work, lost his lid, and danced the dance of his people all around the ring.  Grrr, damn it Theo, we'd gotten past this!  True, we were working the changes harder than usual and I was making some changes to try to get them more uphill, but that level of lost chill was unwelcome.  I knew he was checking out stage right when he suddenly dove off the wall in a 'spook' followed by one of his leaping bucks.  Ugh.  After that, it was a matter of keeping the lid on while he bucked, cantered in place, tried to spin, and generally had a melt down.

The finale was when he launched himself straight up in the air and kicked out while passing the spectators.  Honestly, Theo.  Don't kick the barn manager or Trainer Z.

Whelp, rides like that happen and we sent him to big trot to reset his brain.  Trainer Z was frankly delighted with the snorting, powerful beast I was riding.  I was far less thrilled as he was still looking to come flying off the rail the second I let my guard down.  Good day to be in a double.  Yes, it was fun to sit that crazy powerful trot and do some laterals, but that was a hell of a lot of horse. 

"Ride that big fancy horse!" 
"I don't want a big fancy horse!" 
"Well you have one so you better ride it!"

Once his brain was back, Trainer Z got out the lunge whip.  Seemed like a good day to make Theo jig and it was time for him to start working on half steps.  Theo knows Trainer Z well so I wasn't worried about him freaking out and striking her like he would a stranger, I was more worried about him dumping me while overreacting.  He has zero fear of lunge whips but he has been known to scoot under pressure.

Turns out I didn't have to worry.  We started with tapping his hocks to get him to pop his hind legs up.  He figured that out very quickly and was eager to pop up his hind legs in exchange for a sugar cube.  Touching with the whip while he was moving worked a bit too well and he'd tuck his butt too much.  He couldn't trot like that and would try to canter.  We ended up having the best results when I did it without a ground person.  Walk trot walk trot walk trot walk trot very collected walk Half Steps!  Theo is a very quick study when it comes to earning sugar and we got two real steps. 

I expected him to be even more wound up after that but the half steps work seemed to settle him down.  He was calmer afterward, like he'd gotten something out of his system.  Trainer Z laughed and said 'Muffin doesn't spook anymore, he just piaffes and passages'.  That will take some getting used to.

So it was the tale of two Theos.  On the one hand, complete meltdown with big bucks and leaps.  On the other hand, we had some big, clean changes (which led to the meltdown so there you go) and our first half steps.  He's such a complicated critter.

Two weeks until our next dressage lesson.  I'm supposed to be working on those uphill changes with the full understanding that they will be dramatic but I can sit it so I just need to ride through it.  Which sucks and is hard for me emotionally but I need to face it.  With everything he unloaded tonight, my butt stayed right in the saddle.  I never lost my stirrups, I wasn't in danger.  I didn't like it, but it was within my wheelhouse.  I can't drop him on his forehand to keep the change non-dramatic.  I'm going to need to wear my silicone full seats, sit back, and just go for it.

I'm starting to understand why people are willing to pay so many thousands of dollars for a horse with a change.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Let's discuss 2020

2019 was a competition year.  It was a year where I got the pay out for the many years of work that preceded it, including being terribly humbled in 2017 and rebuilding in 2018.  I bounced all over New England.  I showed, I got scores I was proud of, and I moved up to Second Level.

Next year will be different.  I made it to one plateau.  Theo is now a very confirmed low level dressage horse.  He can hold his own right up to Second.  Now it's time to see if he can make the jump to a mid-level dressage horse.  Next year is not going to be about pretty ribbons.  It's going to be a building year where I put in the miles on these more complicated tests.  I need to practice my (non-existent) ring craft, Theo needs practice with holding himself up in that higher frame for a whole test.  He needs an actual medium and maybe an approximation of an extension.  We don't need to pay for rated competitions to do that.  Any standard sized ring with a poor trapped sucker judge will do.

I do expect to debut Third in 2020, but I expect it to be at schooling shows.  I don't expect us to be ready to go into competition just yet.  We might get confirmed enough to go do a couple one day shows late in the season and knock out our scores but I don't intend to do any overnight shows or big shows.  Just little stuff, one test at a time, building up our confidence and experience.

We will be out doing the western dressage thing and moving up to Level 3.  Not a lot, but a couple of local outings to support the discipline.  If we have our flying change, we might even toy with Level 4.  Will we go to the championships?  Maybe.  I'm not writing it off as our one away show of the season, but it's not really on the calendar.  I'm going to have my hands full with training and I'm not sure if I want to add a three day show to the calendar when his counter canter might still be a bit busted.

There will be a third type of show on the calendar.  Trainer D and I have been plotting out how to reintroduce Theo to the world of the h/j show without the drama of our last outing.  I'm currently looking at taking him out in the modified adult eq (2'3") to make sure I can keep the lid on him before moving up to the adult eq classes (2'9").  I have zero expectations or goals with this, it's strictly for fun and helping Theo be a well rounded equine citizen.  Trainer D has volunteered to take him around for some of those early rounds to help him build confidence.  He's developed a good relationship with her and I think he'll take a lot of confidence from her calm, professional approach to the courses.

After 2019, I'm looking forward to a quiet year with minimal travel.  I may have also committed to a crazy race in 2020 that will require me to be in serious run training through the summer so that will be a thing.

Margaritas, dinner with running friends, and online entries are a dangerous mix.  Don't do it.  You might end up registered for an ultramarathon.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

2019: The year of 'Who, Us?'

What a year.  Wow.  I started the year with no real guidance or training.  I was ready to give up on my dreams of a Bronze since I didn't know if we could do it.  Or how to get there.

February brought us Trainer Z and a plan to make our goals a reality.

This was really the biggest event of 2019.  Trainer Z rode Theo and declared that we were ready for Second and there was no reason to stop at Third.  We could do it and she was going to show us the way.  All of a sudden I had a map and someone to show me where I was on it.  I stopped wondering if I could do Second and started wondering when I would move up. 

I set out on a very aggressive show schedule to make the most of my year.

We had good shows, we had bad shows.  Some days he was an angel, some days he was a land porpoise.  I got everything between 64% and 55% at Second but we got our Second Level scores for our Bronze.  We also got our first 70 in both standard dressage and western dressage.  Theo is still undefeated in western dressage.

I also learned that miles won't make Theo easier to manage at away shows.  He's not a good horse for multi-day shows.  It's been a difficult pill to swallow but every horse has their flaws.  I've learned to respect this and to focus on day shows.

By the end of the show season, we were actually comfortable in our Second Level tests and I didn't want to puke on my way down centerline.  A very important victory.

And then the wheels came off at the barn.  We moved to a new barn with very little notice.  We made new friends and started riding with Trainer D.  Jumping became a regular event and Theo blossomed with the additional cross-training and improved care.

We've come a long way from being the pair that was always in last place.  This year we had good scores and good ribbons (an amazing number of yellow ribbons, not sure what's up with that).  People now recognize Expect the Unexpected and not for a bad reason.  We were the year end champion for Second Level with my local GMO.  Theo got his Register of Merit in western dressage.  We were ranked 16th in the nation for AA First Level freestyle.

Looking back, things like bad judges and blows to the head and sleepless nights seem so much more minor.  2019 was one hell of a year.  We're going into the new decade with a new home, new trainers, and goals that would have seemed impossible a year ago. 

2020 will be a building year, not a showing year.  I'm glad we got to have this year of victories to build up my confidence as we go into a training cycle.  This is the first year where I feel like I can call myself a dressage rider.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Muscle memory

I had a very big, important 'ah-ha!' moment today in my jumping lesson.  What was it?  I remembered something I was taught probably thirty years ago.  I remembered how to fold over a jump.

Sounds dumb, right?

I've been struggling since I got back into lessons to undo the training I picked up as an eventer that gave me a more open, defensive riding style.  Galloping down to a drop on a mare with questionable brakes taught me a lot about how to stay on top when things get a bit chaotic.

This is not equitating, but I lived to tell the tale

But I want to do equitation now and I'm riding a very, very different horse.  It's all about the pretty on my safe, lazy horse.

I've been struggling to close over fences and stay in my two point through gymnastics.  I can't seem to move in the right way.  In order to stay over the saddle I had to round my back on the way down from the apex of the jump.  That is kind of not the right thing.  Trainer D has been struggling with what words to use to make me move correctly.  It's such a split second thing and so nitpicky but I know it's important if I want to do equitation.  I'm in no danger of coming off or interfering, it just doesn't flow.

We're not polished, but we're getting in done in a safe way

I used to be able to flow.  Deep in the recesses of my mind is a rider that could cruise around a course of fences in a smooth way.  It took my eventing trainers years to beat that movement over a fence out of me.  It's not safe to close like that in cross country.  Now I'm trying to get it back.

Today I had to stop for a few minutes while a TB had a spaz.  I'm not big on wasting time in a lesson so we had a verbal discussion about what I was feeling and the mechanics.  Tiny minutiae that I damn well know most clients don't talk about.  I know my lower legs are swinging because my lower back is doing the wrong thing.  To which she said no, not your lower back, your hips.  I stopped, put my hand on my hip flexor, and said here?  She said yes and said I should feel the pull in my hips and hamstrings as I drop into my heels and fold.  I went back to the gymnastic and was hyper focused on my hips.  Heels down, legs still, feel it through the hips . . .

I botched fence one badly (my horse is a damn saint and didn't even notice) which set me up for muscle memory to take over while I was clinging to his mane with both hands.  It wasn't my eventing reflex that kicked in.  It was the older muscle memory that pushed my butt back and made my hip flexors burn as I properly closed over the second two fences in the gymnastic.  Trainer D suddenly started yelling 'yes, that!  Do that again!'.  I cantered around and went through again while thinking 'butt back' and sure enough, the back rounding suddenly disappeared. 

It's still in there

Then I stopped and jacked my stirrups up two more holes while she put the fences up another couple holes.  We both knew I'd managed to unlock something I was starting to think I'd lost forever.  I went into the grid again with my shorter stirrups and I could almost feel the neurons reconnecting.  My body KNOWS how to do this.  It's just been a very long time.  I went into the grid and with the shorter stirrups and bigger fences, I found my fold even easier.  It hurt like a sunovabitch but I found it.  Trainer D was delighted, I was ecstatic, Theo was stuffed full of cookies for being such a machine while I figured things out.

That is probably the last major piece I needed to get my jumping back in order.  Most of what I need is polish.  And pain killers.  Those muscles are not at all used to moving that way (and she had me doing posting trot without stirrups, wtf I'm too old for this crap).  I'm going to be very sore for awhile now that I have remembered how I'm supposed to be moving.

But I'm okay with being sore like this.  I got a bit of my h/j mojo back.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Like fine wine

Some things improve with age.

Theo's about to turn 16.  I gave him Jan 1 as his birthday since no one knows what his actual birthday is.  Something about that age makes his years feel more real to me.  Probably because that was Allen's age when we started showing together.  It pulls at the little threads of dread about a horse starting to approach retirement.  He's not a youngster, or even a horse at his physical peak.  He's a bit older, a bit arthritic.  There are white hairs coming in across his forehead.  It takes a bit longer to warm him up.  There's a clock ticking but I don't know how much time I actually have left.  Being in a h/j barn, most horses his age are the steady schoolies.  The old men.  The ones stepping down from competition.

I don't like this at all.  I was just learning to rock with my Hellbeast when his navicular got the best of him and he retired.  He had just turned 19.

But Theo's not like the school horses that are stepping down.  Little punk almost got me off today and it wasn't even a temper tantrum.  We jumped a little cross rail to get him mentally engaged in his dressage school.  He landed on the wrong lead so I asked for a flying change.  According to witnesses, he over did it behind, lost his balance, and tangled up in his own legs.  So he jumped up and out of it.  For about four strides, it was up and down chaos.  He went back to counter canter and then popped a clean change because clearly it was easier to just start over.  I was happy to still be on top when the dust cleared.

Noooooot repentant

I can't complain.  He was trying too hard and getting in his own way by changing behind before the front.  Apparently he took my correction to get more active behind to heart.  That's straightforward enough to fix, he just needs miles.  It's actually on the aids now so that's a huge win.  My friend was riding her fancy Legs mare and commented on his very (overly) enthusiastic hind end.  I think there was a bit of envy.  Her mare is in her prime, but she also took off with her this week and then was almost unrideable yesterday.  Theo, in contrast, was trotting on the buckle between exercises even with the rain pouring on the roof and her mare broncing on the lunge.  I ask, he tries his heart out, and then we stop for a cookie.  Yes, he occasionally spooks or pulls a land porpoise but it's all honest and straightforward.

The horse I rode today was a much better horse than the eleven year old I met.  His action behind was better, he was stronger, he was more sensitive, and he was more balanced.  He's also more interactive, more trusting, and far more willing to try.  He's my little sports car with all the buttons and options.  

There's not much I can do to stop the march of time.  Every horse owner I know wishes that they could keep their horse in stasis so they don't keep aging.  As a dressage horse, Theo is very much in the golden window where he is mentally mature and his body is still very able.  Now I have to keep him in that golden window for as long as I can.  

Monday, December 9, 2019

Winter sucks

Seriously, look at this BS.

That's my Brandy new car.  Under 18 inches of snow.  Guess what I didn't do much of last week?  ANYTHING involving leaving the house.  It wasn't just the snow.  I live in NH, I'm from Minnesota, I know how to cope with snow.  It was the snow removal when the hubby had oh so conveniently hurt his back before the snow flew.  Apparently you should be careful how you twist when holding a big ass chainsaw.  He pulled something bad in his lower back and was pretty much couch ridden for a couple days.

Let me tell you, I made damn sure he knew that this was how I felt on those occasions when my back went out and I didn't want to move.  He has a whole new level of empathy for me now.  He now understands why things like taking the dogs out and running the dishes are not options when your back is an endless wall of pain that flares up if you shift a millimeter in the wrong direction.  He didn't even have nerve pain to contend with.

So I had full snow removal duties as well as all the chores I usually avoid as being hard on my back.  Like hauling in pellets to feed our pellet stoves and running the dang dishwasher.  I was careful and did things in phases so we didn't end up with both of us on the couch.  I dug out in sections, snow blowed with a timer so I'd know when to stop, and once the tractor was free and started up, the hubby was put to work.  It's like sitting in an armchair but more productive.

Little cameo by my trailer that is now completely snowed in for the winter.

By the time I got us completely free, it was day three and I was physically exhausted.  When Trainer D asked if she could ride on Thursday instead of her usual Wednesday ride, I warned her that she'd want to lunge first.  Theo after three days off would be a bit of a kite.  I was apparently right and he did a land porpoise all the way across the ring with her.  Not scary, but not his usual behavior for a training ride.  On Friday when she rode him again (I was too sore), he was perfect.  Trainer D even took him for a little walk in the snow.

I finally made my triumphant return over the weekend and rode in my western gear to support thicker socks and more layers.  It got down to 7* Saturday night, it was gross.  And now it's raining and in the 40's for two days so the melt will be crazy, followed by another freeze.  Most wonderful time of the year my butt.

Theo continues to be amazing and perfect.  I'm having deep and profound thoughts about what to do with 2020 but that will wait for another post.  For now, I'll steal the rides while I can.  I know deep winter is coming and that these are still the good riding days.