Monday, January 13, 2020

back with January's Fix-a-Test

It's been a long time since I did anything formal with dressage, for a couple reasons... Mainly revolving around the fact that I've spent a lot of time, money, and energy on improving our #skills in this phase, without really seeing much in the way of payoff in competition.

Like, Sure. We can more or less get through anything First level, but it ain't necessarily cute haha. Luckily, that's perfectly sufficient for our purposes, so I've mostly turned my attention to the jumping stuff in recent months, figuring our solo schooling dressage rides every week would be enough to keep us going.

we picked a great day to get out for adventures - it was in the 60s!
Things have been going pretty well in recent weeks tho. We had exceptionally lovely weather during my annual winter "staycation" -- the week between holidays that I take off and spend doing whatever the hell I see fit to do (incidentally, this year included unplugging from EVERYTHING and it was AHMAZING lol) -- And so Charlie's been in pretty regular work.

He's fit, strong, sound and happy right now (knocking on wood), and it's been fun musing about what the coming year might hold for us.

So when I started gathering dates for shows, clinics, schoolings, etc, and saw our favorite dressage barn was hosting a Fix-a-Test clinic this past weekend? Obvi I impulsively signed us up haha. The clinician is actually the barn owner and manager, and my normal dressage trainer C is the assistant trainer. And turned out to be the scribe at this clinic too, which was convenient haha.

obvi tho, it's mud season. i tried -- really tried -- to protect my poor boots with these rubber slip-on boot condom thingys. alas, the mud won this round... note charlie's equally disgusting hoof too haha
It was honestly really nice being back here again, since it had been forever. And we were early enough for a long slow warm up during the ride before me, where I got to watch a local pro working on 3rd level with an absolutely lovely 26yo mare. And funny enough, this was the same pro who judged my first ever dressage tests on Isabel...

Actually, Isabel's history nearly entwined with the clinician too. Had Isabel been 100% registered Arab (her dam was a cross) it's extremely likely that upon ending my lease back in 2016, this farm would have initiated a breeding lease with Izzy's owner. She really was that fancy haha...

Alas tho, what they really needed was the registrations so their babies could be registered as arab crosses. Isabel didn't have that, so it didn't work for their purposes and thus the mare retired back to her pasture pet lifestyle. Which honestly worked out just fine, let's be real!

still the actual cutest tho
Anyway, warm up was basically lots and lots of walking, tho I did ask Charlie to come round and walk with purpose after a bit. Plus we practiced some of the half turns at walk.

When it looked like our turn was more imminent, I did a little trot each way, and an eensy amount of canter on both leads.

Then we began! I reintroduced ourselves to the clinician (who peripherally knows us as trainer C's students, but has never really seen us go) and talked about our objectives for the day. Namely: while I understand test riding is all about accentuating the good and masking the bad, we kinda fall more squarely into one of those camps than the other LOL.

And moreso than trying to "fix" a test, we were kinda here to learn how to, erm, ahem, for lack of a better term, "fake" it. Hey, honesty is the best policy, right?

going into 2020 grateful for this rig
And so right off the bat we went out and rode the Training A test. Incidentally, this was my first time actually riding through the entire thing. We had intended to ride it back in June at the MDA schooling show, but rode 1-1 first where upon the judge not-so-subtly suggested we scratch our second test haha...

To be perfectly honest? The test rode a lot better than I expected. Charlie was his absolute perfect self, buoyed by both the magical footing and by being currently at the high end of the Charlie Soundness Spectrum ©.

If we rode that test exactly in that manner at a show? I'd be fully satisfied haha. But of course, that's not reality, right? In the real world, we run the gamut of footing situations at shows, not to mention the distraction of atmosphere and horses everywhere, plus what can sometimes be a disruptive change in footing or situation from warm up to show ring.

So.... If I want to get that feeling of "good enough" in the show ring when it matters, I'll need to get a feeling of "wow great!" in practice. Right?

if we could actually do this at a show and walk away with a 34.2%.... i'd be satisfied lol
Thus, we moved on to the "Fix-Fake-a-Test" portion of the lesson LOL.

Like every dressage trainer and judge who has ever laid eyes on Charlie, she wanted more forward. Not necessarily a different tempo -- I actually went back and ran my metronome app while watching the video and the tempo is still right on -- but a more forward feel in that trot.

It's hard for me to commit to this feeling when I know we have difficult turns or transitions coming up, but her point was the forward balance will actually help with those movements. Case in point: Perhaps Charlie's best ever canter-trot transition during this ride (end of video, around 10:37).

Overall, for such a large horse, Charlie is not a big mover. Isabel was by far a bigger mover than Charlie, but his size really highlights the contrast of his anti-extravagant gaits. I shouldn't necessarily be trying to ride him "bigger" in his movement, per se, but if he's not forward enough we will get dinged for it every.time.

my sweet big bronto with his little trot on those long legs...
For my position, the Clinician P echoed basically all of what normal dressage trainer C has said to me over the years. She wanted me to be less clingy with my calves, and better with my arms.

She called my arms "short" haha, which prompted some funny chat in the video you can barely hear unfortunately, but basically I have T-rex arms on a bronto horse. It's..... a tricky combo lol. But I need to work harder at keeping my upper arms closer to my body, while bending my elbows and not pulling down with my hands, especially the inside.

Incidentally, pulling down with my hands also happens to be the trigger for when I collapse my frontline and tip forward in my seat. This will obviously be a work in progress for a long time, and you'll see in this particular ride I wanted to let my hands get really wide apart as I worked on lifting them. Eh, one thing at a time, yes?

canter's nice tho ;)
Once we had the working trot put together, and my positional balance a bit better, we started working on those 10m half turns that show up at the very beginning of Training-A.

The exercise was (and this is all in the video): ride a 10m circle at trot. Do a full circle, then repeat with just a half circle. So, in essence, you ride one and a half 10m circles. Except, the last half circle you stretch out a bit, making it more oval. Obvi it still has to be 10m in one dimension, otherwise you miss X, but the other dimension you can stretch out a bit so that when you arrive at X you're kinda already straight on the center line.

From here, continue out the center line to change directions, then repeat on the other rein - one and a half 10m circles with the last half being more oval in shape. Change directions again, then put it all together, creating the E-B "S" shape serpentine of 10m half circles.

The idea is that it's harder for the judges to see when you go a bit too far in the A-C dimension of the arena, vs if you overshoot your distance on the E-B axis. So if you give yourself a bit more room there, you're likelier to have a more balanced change of bend over X.

Through this movement I definitely needed to be conscious of not pulling down with my inside rein.

includes: work on 10m half and full circles at trot, and lengthenings at both trot and canter

Next we worked on canter. Mostly staying on a 20m circle, with putting together spurts of lengthening.

The clinician actually said I have a naturally good seat (in the video omg) which like.... Uh, nobody has ever accused me of that haha. Normal dressage trainer C (who was taking the video) has spent literal years trying to help me improve my seat, esp at canter. YEARS. But ya know. There's only so much you can do while fighting your saddle.

I've been riding exclusively in my monoflap L'Apogee jump saddle for a few months now tho, and having a clinician call my seat "naturally good" is definitely reaffirmation that this is the right choice haha.

going into 2020 also grateful for this saddle haha. kinda diggin the minimalism of doing everything in one saddle anyway, tbh
Having a saddle that puts my seat in the right place means instructors can move on from trying to get me sitting, to actually improving my seat aids. Ya know, the whole point, yes? In this lesson, we worked a lot on connecting my outside seat bone and outside rein to help send Charlie into his canter lengthenings.

This worked marvelously, and really helped correct my tendency to pull down on the inside and tip/lean in. Instead, it helped me stay sitting upright and balanced on my seat. Like.... You can actually see the change in the video haha. Yessssss.

When tracking left, I really need to focus on almost a slight counter bend to get my horse straight. None of this is in the video unfortunately (showed up most when tracking left in canter), but it's fascinating to me bc it's not at all what I feel from the saddle. I can feel something isn't right and that we're crooked, but my instinct is to want to pull Charlie's head further in, which is the opposite of what every trainer says to me. My body is a liar lol....

obvi tho, charlie is da real MVP
Anyway, the final tidbit relates to riding the working vs lengthen canter. In my head, I want to "show a difference", but the clinician said this was leading me to go too far in the wrong direction for working canter. She said it's super common among eventers to make this mistake, esp at Prelim. Where they want to show a big difference between canters, so they end up riding the working canter too much like a collected canter.

She said it had to be more subtle than that. Like, imagine riding a canter between two ground poles set at an indeterminate distance. At Charlie's present state of schooling, he can pretty easily do three different canters between those poles. He can do a "natural" canter -- whatever striding comes up naturally when left to his own devices. He can also add a stride (+1), and take out a stride (-1).

In my head, I've been thinking about the difference between working and lengthened canter as the difference between the "+1" and "-1" canters. But actually it needs to be the difference between the "natural" and "-1".

this shot is a callback to January 2017 when i took a very very similar picture after one of charlie's earliest dressage lessons. so much has changed since then. but this horse, he's still Charlie <3 <3
So..... if you're sensing a theme here, it's basically that we just need more forward. But in balance. Not running, not bracing, but definitely not slugging along either.

Which, ya know, that's been our dressage nirvana, our holy grail, for a couple years now lol. And probably will continue to be for many years to come. But I'm actually pretty happy with where Charlie is now in his strength and balance and overall quality. It's especially gratifying to see how much our rhythm alone has improved since riding with the metronome (something I continue to do in basically every single schooling ride).

It's been a long time since I stopped believing Charlie might actually be competitive in the dressage ring. But I'm not going for the win, ya know? Our goals and priorities lie elsewhere. I just want a good feeling, a happy sound strong horse, and a qualifying score lol. Right now that feels within reach, so I'm happy haha.

This Fix-a-Test format also worked out really really well for us. I've done the format once before and had the exact opposite result, namely bc it was not a good match between me and the clinician. But under my current circumstances, going into a ride with the absolute goal of improving my strategies for a specific test was very effective. And, also, turns out, about $25 cheaper than a "normal" lesson at this farm haha.

So yea, sign me up lol! Will hopefully get to repeat again through the winter season!


  1. T-rex on a brontosaurus had me spitting out my morning tea.

    Also, your unplugged week at home sounds like BLISS.

    1. oh man, it was absolutely bliss haha <3 i did all those little things around the house that always get put off, like clearing closets and the dark little corners and surfaces that are always prone to clutter. so refreshing!!

      and lol yea, the size disparities between me and my horse are definitely a bit humorous, maybe i should just give in to reality and buy one of those dino-suits like KC has?? lol...

  2. Welcome back! Sounds like a great time!

    That said, your poor boots! Lol. Also come cry with me about my saddle woes. It's depressing.

    1. oh man, i definitely feel very very sad for those poor boots haha, they are so abused!! c'est la vie, tho, i guess.... and good luck with the saddle situation. i've had fantastic luck with trials at MD Saddlery. go online, see what's what, have whatever you like shipped to your closest location (usually can be done within a week) and go sit in all the things and take home whatever you want for a free trial!!!

  3. Welcome back! Sounds like a good lesson with some real takeaways.... Am totes jealous of your weather too! Well, maye minus the mud on your boots... ;-0 At least snow is clean.

    1. we've been extremely lucky with the mild weather. it won't last forever (february and march are traditionally our proper "winter" months here) but i'm trying to enjoy as much of it as possible while we can! the mud tho... blech!

  4. For all of Bobby's blood relation to oversized moose, he also had an itty bitty way of going. I spent so much time trying to package his giant dumb body together that let his loose was THE WORST. And now I hate riding anything forward. Riding is hard, yo.

    1. omg it's so friggin hard tho. all these trainers see charlie when he's relaxed and happy and sluggish and are like, "MOAR 4WRD OMG" and then we get to a show and he's tense, tight over his back and bracing into a flat choppy run and it's like, hrm, these two things do not compute!! tbh tho so long as i'm not getting rung out by the judges i can live with just about whatever!!! LOL

  5. I also have t-rex arms, thankfully I do not ride a long-necked horse tho!! I do feel your pain!

    1. lol the short arm syndrome is REAL!!! makes me want to do all sorts of weird things to compensate lol....

  6. Hahaha! I love the T-Rex arms with a Bronto neck LOLOL Had me dying!

    Welcome back from your vacay, and I bet it was great to relax and unplug for a while. I think we all need that! That sounds like a great clinic, and I'm glad they had good tidbits for you, as well as you guys got along!

    1. the time off was very much needed haha, i'm grateful to have had it and am feeling refreshed getting back into things. and yea i was really pleasantly surprised by how well the fix a test went, and am hoping to do more!

  7. Ugh yes - short arm crew makes steering the struggle bus harder. I'm glad that Charlie got to shine through on this day and that you got some good insight on how to approach dressage tests this coming year :) Welcome back from unplugged land

    1. thanks!! it was honestly a really impulsive decision to sign up, but ended up being so so worth it. gotta love that!

  8. I feel like the lower level test are so much about movement that it's hard to see huge improvements in scores despite your horse being a million times better schooled than before. By the time we had that forward and balance combo going on a level to somewhat compare to the naturally nicer moving horses, we were past ready to move up. Or, at least that was my experience with Bridget. I guess it's kind of like having a head start for the higher levels, tho, right? :)

    1. ha yea i think you're right in a lot of ways, altho charlie still doesn't really feel even close to ready for the next level up. the lateral work and collection required at second level are.... gulp, a pretty heavy lift for us at present LOL! but ya know, that's the great thing about eventing - it's nice to feel secure enough for the level's dressage requirements to be able to just focus on the jumping.

  9. I love fix a test clinics! Thanks for sharing, I'm working on several of these same things too, this test is pretty similar to First 1.
    Oh and a big congrats on the 8.5, that's quite an entrance!!

    1. oooh yea, it's very very similar to 1-1, actually i like 1-1 better tbh haha. but yea, all the same components, so it's useful to get all this great feedback on how to break them down into exercises!

  10. Ooo sounds like a very useful day out. i love it when a last minute plan come together.

    1. definitely!!! it was nice to also feel like i *wanted* to do something with dressage again lol, and then even better to have it actually go well!

  11. I also have T-Rex arms. At this point riding a stegosaurus. :D :D
    " My body is a liar lol...." yup. this and ever this. That said, once you get that same lift in the flat as you do over fences then Charlie will be amazing. :)

    1. oh man, i hope you're right haha. actually our next ride after the above clinic was prettttttty good in terms of what sort of trot charlie wanted to be doing (and he was insistent, "Emma We Are Doing THIS Trot, Now."), so maybe he's already got it and *i'm* the one who needs to catch up?? lol...

  12. I think I actually like fix-a-test better than actual dressage showing. So much awesome feedback and actually applied to the tests. It's something I will definitely do a ton of if I ever get another horse...

    1. it's definitely a great format - but with a caveat!! my first time doing this type of format was a massive failure that left me feeling like serious sour grape. the difference was that the methods that judge/clinician used during the "fix it" portion of the clinic were reeeeeally not well aligned with either our current training program or my own personal learning style, and i ended up kinda actively ignoring the feedback.

      this time was much more effective bc the clinician is actually my normal trainer's trainer, so the methods and approach were obviously very similar.

  13. This looks like heaps of fun. Maybe I can convince the dressage club or student club to run one of these here


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