Monday, July 15, 2019

Hilltop Dressage

It's safe to say that I was pretty discouraged after the disaster of our little schooling dressage show last month. I felt a bit like a moth beating myself senseless against a screen door, trying and failing to reach that sweet sweet lamp light. Dressage is.... hard, yo.

this farm is not ugly
I'm really happy with the coaching and help I've had both in learning more about dressage myself, while also trying to bring along my graceless brontosaurus. Dressage trainer C has been an invaluable resource. I'm definitely not trying to replace her or completely shift tactics or anything like that. But scheduling can be such a hustle sometimes, tho, ya know?

Plus, there was something else about that dressage show that really had me shook. Basically, I know what Charlie is and what he isn't. I'm used to his awkward way of going, and my whole team and I continue to be so thrilled with how far he's progressed over the last few years.

the amount of wildlife that has taken up residence in my truck is mildly alarming at times. this spider was pretty tho!
That's all well and fine and whatnot, but my worry is that we've all become a little blinded to how the horse appears to strangers. The first impressions are... not always great haha. But in a dressage show, they're everything, right?

So after this judge at the schooling show basically tore me apart for presenting my horse to her in his condition at that moment, I realized that we might be in for a rude awakening in any actual recognized or rated shows haha. And thus: a new idea was born. I wanted to seek out a fresh set of eyes to help assess and evaluate where we are in our training and condition, and help inject some fresh mojo in breaking through those persistent issues.

it's definitely butterfly season in maryland - these tiger swallowtails are EVERYWHERE!
Which is a long way of saying, we decided to haul up to Hilltop Farm up the Route 1 corridor for a lesson with their gold medalist Grand Prix trainer Jess.

And guys. It was awesome haha.

i spy with my little eye, a Charlesaurus in the grooming bays!
I mean, first of all the farm is friggin gorgeous. It's everything you would expect an uber fancy dressage barn to be. Pristine grounds. Luxurious rubber pavers lining all the aisleways (even the gravel drive seemed shockingly cushy). Wash room bays fully kitted out and available for use by ship-in riders. The whole nine yards, ya know?

Which proved useful bc the heavens basically opened up in a torrential thunderstorm the moment I parked. So Charlie and I quickly hustled through the deluge to get inside the safety and dry of the barn. I usually do all my setting up and tacking and whatnot at the trailer, but this honestly wasn't a terrible substitution LOL.

these wash racks have it all - cross ties, rubber flooring, hooks to hang things.... we maybe looked a bit homeless since i brought in all the stuff i'd usually keep at the trailer due to the rain
For the lesson itself, I don't actually have a ton of explicit notes. At this particular point in my riding career, honestly I feel like there's a such a distinct limit on what I can achieve myself - compared to how badly I need/crave real time instruction and guidance. In other words, I really just want more frequent lessons.

I don't want to have to remember 18 different subtle insights on my body position, core, application and timing of aids, while also trying to ride the appropriate figures and movements etc. Instead I just want someone telling me what to do, when, and how haha, in real time.

i've only seen rings like this on youtube haha
To this end, Jess had me go about my warm up mostly on my own at first, before identifying some key areas to work on. These mostly revolved around known issues and weaknesses that I've worked on with dressage trainer C too -- something that's always reassuring when different trainers agree haha.

the other trainer was in there schooling his upper level horse too. i made charlie watch haha
Highlighted issues were:

- The connection isn't very good bc I don't hold a steady contact and allow little moments of slack into the reins
- Charlie's tempo is actually a bit too fast (he was very nicely forward for this ride, compared to the slug he often is at home...)
- I've previously worked on getting him to "squirt forward" when I put my leg on, but perhaps he's ready to graduate from that and I need to instead start focusing on steadiness in tempo.
- On a related note, our transitions are too hollow -- a symptom of the poor connection and inconsistent tempo. Canter transitions were particularly wretched.
- Our straightness is also kinda a biggie - we have too much bend in the neck and not enough in the body (naturally I told her this shows up in a big way in our jumping too...)
- For some movements, like leg yields, my leg positioning was backwards. I want to swing my inside leg back, but actually need to keep it up by his elbow.
- We're also nowhere near round enough at the canter.

my signal wasn't great so the gps tracking isn't very accurate, but you can get a good idea of the facilities
For me, the biggest takeaways were those first two items: the connection and the tempo.

Tempo is a tricky thing to address with Charlie bc he can be a very different horse in different environments and situations. In some ways he's a lot easier to ride away from home when he's less sure about what's happening and less distracted by wanting to go back to his stall.

For this lesson, he was absolutely on his best behavior. Forward and in front of my leg with minimal effort. Which, obviously, is extremely pleasant to ride haha. It's just not how we normally go. Normally I'm asking for more, more, more. But actually, even tho it felt a little alien, the feeling when we got the tempo right was very good.

the drive home was a bit dicey tho...
The whole idea is to arrive at a tempo and balance wherein Charlie doesn't feel like he's sorta snow-balling somersaulting over his front end. When he gets too fast, he sorta starts running downhill a bit and loses all his adjustability. When I can get him a bit slower in the tempo even as we keep the energy up, it's easier for him to shift more weight behind and carry a longer stride without getting heavy up front. If that makes sense haha.

the conowingo dam is always a joy in nasty weather lol
The other biggie, the connection, is something I'm really excited about. I've had bad hands and bad contact for as long as I've been riding dressage. It's really hard for me to hold a steady contact on any horse bc I'm so rigid and locked through my shoulders and back that I feel like I'm just hanging on the horse. So instead, I compensate by holding a longer rein with sorta floppy forearms that allow a lot of intermittent slack into the reins.

Dressage trainer C has been trying to help me with this for years, but it's just.... hard, ya know? This new coach Jess was actually able to help phrase things a little differently in such a way that I was maybe able to make some good changes.

Basically the issue is in my shoulders. She described the need for my forearms to be almost like "guardrails" or "chopsticks." In other words, fixed solid objects. My fingers can move, and my elbows should be soft and following. But everything in between should basically be still.

back on dry ground, doing our warm up hack with a little poneh. charlie is OBSESSED with these ponies. it's cute bc he's a horse. but.... if he had a mustache and drove a van someone would DEFINITELY call the cops lol
And instead I need to be thinking about giving through my shoulders. For me, I was kinda focusing on the spot between my two shoulder blades. Tho it was tricky haha bc when I'd be thinking about softening my shoulders I'd also inadvertently collapse my core.... So clearly I need to work on developing more independence between those body parts.

Regardless, I'm not sure I ever got it quite right, but even just that subtle shift made a huge difference in Charlie's steadiness. A difference that has stayed with us in all our rides since then too. For me, that's a huge key in determining the success of a ride. Can we reproduce, at least in part, some of the results we got in the lesson? In this case, the answer is definitely yes.

somebody, not naming any names, but somebody may or may not have learned a thing or two about connection
In all our rides since then, Charlie has actually been super. Going forward, in front of the leg, and pretty steady in the bridle. Actually, we finally had another jump lesson with trainer P too (details coming on that) and the #slug was literally nowhere to be found. Charlie was just straight up clicked into gear and a downright pleasure to ride.

I'm not sure all the credit goes to this one single dressage lesson haha. But still, it's always really nice when the horse feels so happy in his work, especially as we feel like we're having little breakthroughs.

So I'm pretty pleased with the lesson and eager to get the next on the schedule. It also helped that the price was ridiculously affordable despite the uber-fanciness and how accomplished and well credentialed the trainers are. It's actually one of the cheapest lessons of all the folks I ride with, go figure. So yea, we'll definitely be back lol.

And maybe one of these days we'll actually be a bit more convincing in the dressage ring in front of strangers lol. Maybe...

36 comments:

  1. what a gorgeous place. So glad you had a great lesson! It was funny you mentioned the whole 'arms as guardrails' thing, it got brought up in my groundwork lesson with my youngster - even in asking for things on the ground and longeing apparently bending wrists and using hands is a no no. Who knew? :)

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    1. i love that solid techniques and concepts seem to be basically universal no matter what it is you're doing with the horses haha

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  2. I really love being able to replicate lessons at home. I need to be able to do everything on my own since that is how I ride 90% of the time. It sounds like the new dressage trainer was a good fit for you and Charlie. Do any of your trainers get cranky when they know you are also working with others? I know some seem to mind a lot more than others do.

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    1. none of my trainers get cranky, tho that can be a thing with some folks. none of mine are too possessive since i don't really board directly with any of them, and only really have a standard working schedule with trainer P. who, btw, was the person who recommended i ride with Jess haha, so obvi there's no tension there.

      honestly tho i don't think i could ride with a trainer who got cranky or possessive. generally speaking, i try to be as respectful as possible of the pros i ride with and i don't go playing them off each other. furthermore, i try to ride only with folks who have reasonably similar training philosophies and who are looking for the same things from me and my horse. this way i don't go ride with one who wants me more forward, and another who wants me less forward. that tends to save a lot of headache for everyone involved, and hopefully helps trainers feel like their time isn't wasted with me lol.

      mostly tho.... scheduling can be a real hustle and headache. any trainer who would get cranky about me riding elsewhere had better be willing to work as hard or harder than i work to get on the schedule. if they're not booking my next ride proactively, then, ya know, they can't be too mad if i fill my time however i see fit!

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  3. Sounds like a productive lesson at a very nice farm! My trainer was pretty much non-stop "bent, pointy, heavy elbows!". Dressage is a lifelong learning experience I believe. :D

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    1. super productive, and a lifelong journey for sure haha!! i've been thinking a lot about my elbows too, and it's helpful, but still not quite getting the feeling right since actually in at least my case the issues are further up the arm.

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  4. That facility is incredible! Wow. I love it. I hear you on the tightness and losing connection. I really really struggle and seem to swing between to tight and too floppy. The thing that has helped me is to focus on the feeling in my hands and to focus on having that the same no matter way. That somehow lets me loosen things up a bit or take when I need to. I think a big horse like Charlie would make it more difficult.

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    1. isn't the farm so so pretty?? and i can see how focusing on keeping the same feeling in your hands is helpful. for me, i think it's actually a range of motion thing in my shoulders. my hands can only do so much give/take when the rest of my arm is completely rigid. focusing more on my shoulders really helped me release those muscles more. probably what i need is someone sitting on charlie's butt while we ride around intermittently jabbing me with a finger right between my shoulder blades LOL

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  5. OMG I am insanely jealous you got to ride at Hilltop! ahhh how cool!

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    1. 10 of 10 would do again - it's lovely there and everyone was SUPER friendly!

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  6. Gorgeous farm! Was this during Thursday's monsoon? Flooding was so bad in places! I'm struggling so much with my arms lately... I just can't get there 100%. I add leg get the forward impulsion, but then can't package it with my hands/arms. Or, I have my arms put together, but lack the impulsion so it's this fake packaging. It's such a struggle! I'm not so much rigid but can't find the balance between doing to much and to little and lifting my hands up vs keeping low... And then I start analyzing and all goes to hell from there... But arms, they're a struggle...

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    1. ugh yea the impulsion can be a huge issue for us too, charlie loves it behind my leg! turns out riding is hard, who knew?!?

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  7. Oh man sounds like a really great lesson. I get you on the whole needing eye on the ground thing. I am definitely there too. There is no muscle memory for me for a well, executed shoulder-in haha

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  8. One of my dear friends is a head groom there for Jess and I've heard nothing but great things about her! I'm so glad you were able to get there for a lesson!

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    1. she's really wonderful, everyone there was seriously friendly and down to earth

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  9. That is an amazing looking place, so fancy! It's funny how someone explaining it slightly differently makes things click into place. I'm with you on wishy washy contact, it's so hard! It sounds like a great lesson especially with being able to replicate the work at home.

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    1. yea i really like riding with different trainers bc you just never know when that "aha!" moment will come. it's especially useful for breaking through those persistent roadblocks

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  10. Love that barn...makes you want to move in... :-) Glad you had a good lesson - there is nothing like a good lesson to refocus and motivate you!

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    1. lol i would totally live there - it was gorgeous! and yea it was definitely a breath of fresh air into our flat work!

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  11. That place looks amazing! So happy you’re finding what works for you guys!

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    1. ha it's a constant process of searching for ever more, but this trainer definitely seems equipped to help us keep pushing

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  12. SO glad you got to ride at Hilltop,Emily has ridden there for lessons and it is a gorgeous facility. UGH on the weather tho those roads flood fast back there. I would live in that barn. I never got to ride there but only heard great things about that place and the instructors. Good for you stepping outside the comfort zone (and getting a great lesson as well)!

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    1. i'm honestly kinda shocked at how accessible the place ended up being. like, it took some real effort to schedule, plus there was an obscene amount of paperwork i needed to fill out (including attachments from my vet) before i could even get on the schedule. but once i was there everyone was extremely inviting and friendly, and the lesson was shockingly affordable. i liked it a lot!

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  13. All of the cheers for having something explained in a new way that really makes things "click" for you. That is AWESOME!

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    1. it is the MOST awesome! it's one of the big reasons i love taking so many lessons with different folks haha. like, it's entirely possible that without all the ground work i'd laid with dressage trainer C, this trainer Jess's instruction wouldn't have clicked so well. but the combination of the two really seemed to work!

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  14. That's great! And what a lovely place! That is the great thing about having different trainers - sometimes they can word things just a little bit differently that allows for us to understand something a little better. Hopefully you can get more consistent lessons!

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  15. I love when a fairly small tweak just changes everything! What a great lesson!

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  16. I always feel like an imposter when I go to a fancy place on my small, not fancy horse. Thankfully everyone is usually really nice so I get over it quickly.
    I had one instructor who kept changing the analogy she used to get me to change something about my position. When she found the one that worked for me, she would try to keep using that one. Crouching like a frog didn't work for me at canter, but riding a carousel horse did. Sometimes you need to hear it a different way to sink in.

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  17. I got the similar talk about my arms and upper body only Carrie says your body is the sursingle with side reins.

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  18. Sometimes just hearing something worded a different way is what it takes to click in our brain! Sounds like a great outing and totally worth the money and effort.

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