Tuesday, August 30, 2016

hot + emotional: a lesson with Stephen Birchall!

I rode in yet another dressage clinic with my most favoritest clinician, Stephen Birchall! When I found out he would be back at Austen's barn I immediately asked to be penciled in on the schedule. Um. Even tho I didn't exactly have a horse to ride.

But!! There are truly generous people in the world, and a lovely mare was made available for my use. Plus this mare has had lessons with Stephen before, so neither of us individually were strangers to him - just to each other. Meaning.... this clinic recap may be a slight departure.

There was only one catch: Shen is very hot. And very sensitive. And basically has zero confidence. Literally every single aspect of this lesson was about giving her confidence first and foremost, and improving her way of going as a secondary purpose.

equine therapy session starts now
A very VERY distant third was improving *my* way of going.... which. Well. Is a disappointment in some ways. And is also VERY apparent in the video and all of these pictures (major shout out and thank you to Liz for capturing so many wonderful moments!!!!!).

Part of why I'm interested in riding different horses in dressage lessons lately is to learn to be a better dressage rider. Perhaps in some ways this lesson did in fact add to my education in that department... but idk. There are some pretty serious positional and balance flaws going on (like the fact that I still sit on the outside of the horse despite making such a huge deal out of it in the Grant Schneidman clinic this past spring...).

I'm going to go right on ahead and forgive myself for those flaws and errors in my riding for now tho. While I may be 100% confident that a more correct seat or position could have further helped Shen, I'm also 100% confident that we more or less made it work together.

"good girl Shen!" - emma
Shen basically can't walk on a loose rein at present. She needs a certain degree of contact and support (her owner described it as a "thunder coat" haha), from both the reins and legs. But like. Don't put your heel on her. No.

No seriously tho, Emma. Stop that right now.


She is very sensitive. A shift in my weight, a jiggle with my legs, just about anything could set her off. Really tho, when I say "set her off" what I mean is: a sudden rigid full body tenseness and quickening of the step that feels like a bolt but doesn't actually go anywhere or turn into anything. It's just all so tight omg.

So it's really easy to feel like you have to grab at that and stop it. Except guys this horse really isn't going anywhere. That's maybe the biggest sole problem here. The horse just doesn't have a lot of trust or confidence to actually go forward. But she feels so stuck and tense and electric that a rider could easily be tempted into trying to shut her down even more.

We started off in trot fairly soon bc the walk was jiggy and tense so might as well just start moving out(ish). Shen right away puts herself in a frame with very little effort, but it's very false. And there's almost no energy coming from behind, even tho in reality she has nice gaits. It's just lost in the tension right now.

It was seriously hard for me to not try to push her out for more tho haha. Like, I kissed at her once. ONCE. Because that was a goddamn mistake haha. Basically any leg was too much leg. The aid to trot was a brief fleeting thought about trotting, and maybe a gentle slide with the seat bones. But NO LEG.

I got a lot of practice at this too since once we were fairly reliably trotting, we moved on to trot-walk-trot transitions. Eventually followed by trot-halt-trot (intermingled with trot-halt-walk-trot) transitions. The biggest important detail in all of this was to find the moments where I could release.

listening ears. listening way too damn hard haha
Could I release in the downwards? Could I release the inside rein for three beats? Both reins for three beats? The outside rein very much felt like a security blanket for Shen - but over time she started softening more and more in the releases.

Stephen also had me work on spiraling her in towards him and leg yielding back out again. This had multiple advantages - it helped soften her more, but also gave her the opportunity to do a thing nicely (bc she's legitimately a nice horse to ride) and get praised for it.

And yea, the praise train pretty much chugged around constantly in this lesson. LOTS of verbal encouragement and reassurances happening with every step lol.

Eventually we got to a place where the trot was pretty darn reliable, as were the walk breaks in between. Going into canter was kinda tough bc I really struggled figuring out this horse's aid (she did in fact actually take leg for the canter aid, but it was still a balancing act for me). And of course it was also really hard to not immediately pull back in those first rushy bolty feeling steps.

We had a number of false starts in both directions (just speeding up into running racing trot) before figuring out how to strike off nicely into canter. It was fine tho. When we'd miss the depart, we would just ease back into reestablishing our trot - nbd, pony, it's ok! - and try again.

And guys - that was maybe actually the coolest thing about this horse. That TRY. She was sensitive and unsure of herself and very lacking in confidence about what we were doing and why, but damn if she seriously NEVER quit trying. And listening.

So after those couple missed departs when we corrected by going back to nice trot (instead of say, just running into canter), she figured out the strike off based on my (likely shoddy) aids and away we went cantering.

now that's a better trot girlfriend!
For... maybe a couple strides at a time before she'd lose the balance and break. But that was fine too. Just back to trot (and perhaps not coincidentally, this was the portion of the ride where her trot was the absolute best - she would really settle into a much more swinging trot like she finally could move forward) and then try again.

life is tough for those red mares
We finished by getting a couple laps of our little circle at canter where she didn't really rush or invert at all - just kept pushing and trying - then let her be done and showered with praise. Upon realizing that she then happily put herself into a stretching free walk on the buckle, I opted to hop off pretty soon after to let her finish on that note lest the walk tighten back up again.

she really has a sweet face
So it might not have been some big breakthrough fancy pants dressage lesson for me. I didn't learn any new movements, nor did I walk away sitting like a grand prix rider (in fact, some areas perhaps regressed... le sigh).

But it still felt like a real win. I learned a lot about giving a sympathetic ride. And about being accountable for my lower legs, and shifting weight. And I tend to think Shen and I were able to build some very real trust by the end of that ride.

Monday, August 29, 2016


Let's kickoff this Monday with a little love, shall we? I'll heap it out in the form of this friendly, somewhat goofy gray guy, Casanova. We had the pleasure of getting to know each other over the course of a lesson. Or at least, try to. It was maybe a bit like speed dating and this guy is kinda an enigma. He was cool tho!

"Well hello there, do you come here often?" - Casanova
Gotta love goofy personable horses too. Or at least horses who are willing to dance a little bit for their carrots lol.

Anyway he was a good lesson mate for me too. He's learned what the trainer M referred to as "fake dressage" - he just gets low and heavy and LOW. The more you fuss the lower and heavier he gets (at one point I let the reins completely out and he just kept going around with his nose on the ground).

can we take a minute to appreciate how pretty this farm is?
Plus he took a LOT of leg omg. In a weird way tho. Like you could tell he had a motor and that he could carry himself up and into the bridle better... But it was almost as if he had to make sure you were serious first.

double wide gazebo!
So I picked up a crop and he was like, "OH OK Thats what you meant. Got it." haha. After that tho it was just managing his rhythm and softness. Like this is a horse who clearly can do the things. But he's also very clearly been a lesson horse for a long time. He knows the order in which we proceed. And when we should take breaks etc.

look at all the little gates!
And by our second canter he was pretty sure the jumping was coming up soon so he was much more alive. A little stiff at first bc his way of going had me getting a little grabby and braced against him. Maybe still residual defensiveness since this was my first real ride since eating shit off Gogo last week (womp womp).

quite handsome actually. even if he was super distracted by the athletics field haha
But he was the perfect tattle tale for me bc he would only truly soften and carry himself when I softened myself and allowed him. That's a feeling I need to commit to muscle memory.

he was glued to this soccer practice like it was the freakin world cup
Jumping was pretty straight forward too. It had the added advantage of soccer practice starting up in the field next door and Casanova was just riveted omg. Like he had a lot of money riding on the game or whatever. Not spooking but just wanting to stop and stare. And getting a little inflexible when we were near that side of the arena.

really tho it was just kids. nbd Casanova, nothing to see here!
So the focus became getting him soft and bending again before starting out on whatever the jumping exercises were. Which, to start was a simple gymnastic. Trot pole to X, eventually building up to a compressed one stride to an oxer. We mostly handled that just fine, tho I was having trouble forcing myself to release over the out jump. Typical issue for me that I would love to resolve one of these days. Trainer M hit the nail on the head tho calling it "defensive."

still watching those soccer players. but still omg this farm is so pretty!
Then we did some basic elements of coursework, trotting in to a line and cantering out in a quiet add stride. Then working on a roll back. Then putting it all together. Basic simple stuff and none of it was ever very large. But the purpose was correctness. Trainer M wanted to see carefully planned turns, and balanced pace to the fence.

indoor for good measure
Both Casanova and I have a tendency to get a little excitable on approach to the jump and then run past our distances a little. So we worked a lot on that. And it was that same feeling as before: I needed to soften so that Casanova would "melt" into the rhythm instead of rush off the ground.

This horse was great for teaching that feeling too bc despite being distracted by the soccer team, and despite getting jiggy when we would start the course, he was VERY honest about softening when I did. Again, that's a feeling I must remember bc it was super effective, and yet is something I really struggle with.

with a very organized and tidy aisle plus lots of pretty ferns hanging all over the place
It's been really great riding this variety of horses too bc they've all added a slightly different dimension to my most common mistakes. Like riding backwards. Each horse responds differently, except when I get it right. When I get it right, they generally all do too. Funny how that works lol.

One of these days tho it would be great to settle into a more regular routine with just one horse. And not have to hustle so hard for lessons just so that I can ride and jump something interesting!

Sunday, August 28, 2016

the fluffening: moar ponies!!

Back by popular demand - it's moar ponehs!!! Same babies, different day.

But now complete with 100% moar Wicked too!!!

Ah man it just makes my cold dark little heart go pitter patter to see these tiny little yearling shetlands and big ol' warhorse Wick be all friendly and stuff. 

And about Wick - seriously, what is not to love about this guy? 

I always get eighteen kinds of paranoid about a horse striking out or spinning and kicking, esp around smalls and babies.... idk why. It kinda seems like that's a thing tho? And Isabel was definitely a striker.

But damn, Wick is such a diplomat. Seriously tho - doesn't he basically look like some politician on a state trip, going down the line and shaking hands? Putting this out there right now: Wick for President 2016!!!!

Obvi tho we can't leave all the fun to Wick - I had to spend my own time with the babies too. I esp loved that little horse sized orphan foal. What a sweetie! As soon as I'd scratch his back, he would start mutually scratching one of the yearlings' backs too. 

And those yearlings were mighty sweet. Still ponies tho... So obvi still closer to hell haha. Super cute tho!

Happy Sunday everyone - hope your weekend is full of soft fluffy sweet ponies too!

Friday, August 26, 2016

full circle (literally)

Whoa a crazy thing happened - I actually rode my horse guys!! For... the first time this month! A quick timeline reminder - last competition was at the end of May, and we had stopped actively training by the end of June.

July was strictly trail riding, but that got boring real fast. Up until yesterday, Ms Thing has been a complete and total pasture puff through the month of August.

we're gonna need a bigger saddle pad
She. Um. She took that a little too literally haha. Mare is fluffy to say the least!

"oh god you're gonna post pics of me being fat on the internet, aren't you? fml" - isabel
also - does it make me a bad horse mom that i didn't comb out her mane tangles? i hope you say "yes" so that i can unequivocally say "idc"
We obviously only hit the trails again (bc reasons) and it was kinda ridiculous. The one time I pushed the mare to canter (to chase some deer bc obvi), she has gotten so fat that the saddle didn't stand a chance and went straight up on her shoulders and she took immediate offense and set off bucking.

Part of me is legitimately sad to see her so out of shape. And another part is incensed that barn management has been so fully unequal to matching Isabel's nutritional needs as her work levels shift (remember when I was begging them to feed her more bc she was too skinny?).

august 2016
Mostly tho. It kinda just feels poetic. Obviously I would rather not see an obese horse. But in a weird way it feels fitting that Isabel is basically rapidly returning to the shape in which I found her, nearly four years ago.

october 2012. never forget!
At one point we had carved a pretty special sport horse out of this. But I think Isabel's ready to return to her roots. It's cool tho, girlfriend. Get that hay belly!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

spectacular fashion

So according to Aimee, I'm on a bit of a roll lately. And... well.. She means that quite literally. I'll explain.

After the lesson at Dan's farm in PA, I drove right on down to our farm to pick up Brita and Wick to head over for our regularly scheduled weekly lesson at OF with trainer P. Two lessons in one day is apparently one of the ways I roll right now. And it was another (even bigger) chestnut - this time the gelding Gogo from a couple weeks ago.

more chestnut ears!
I was super excited to try my hand at him in a more normal outdoor lesson, esp since it was really just me and Brita riding (one typical lesson mate was doing an easy hack on her brand new mare - so exciting! - and another was putzing around bareback and bridleless with the pony she outgrew but still adores).

But.... kinda right off the bat things weren't going well. Gogo was VERY against my hand, very fussy with the bit, and very very stuck.

just needed a navy bonnet and we would have matched wick!
He probably hadn't been ridden in the two weeks since I last sat on him... which undoubtedly contributed some stiffness. But he was also just kinda in a mood. I simply *could not* get him going. And finally had to pick up a stick and wake him up a bit.

Eventually we started to get a couple moments here and there where I could feel his back free up, and feel him come through. But it was tough to maintain. And he'd quickly revert right back to stiff, hollow, shuffling, stuck and very against my hand. Canter was not as bad as I expected actually, but the horse still basically felt like two different creatures from front to back.

And here's where I made my mistake. Made a poor life choice, and I really should know better. What I *should* have done was continued on with the flat work, spending another ~20 minutes at the trot really pushing him over his back and getting that loose softness that we had the first time I rode him.

I could feel it in there - it would have happened. He would have kept getting better. But probably by the time we would have gotten there, he would have been good and tired (remember, he's not been in regular work for probably three months) and especially with the heat, it would have been time to call it a day. Ah hindsight.

still fussy with the bit
But nope, that's not what I did. Bc we were there for a jumping lesson and I wanted to jump. Save the horse from the extra exertion of the flat work so that we could pop over some fences instead.

Which you might notice is the *exact opposite* of good sense when the flat work is that bad... That horse that felt like two different creatures front to back at canter felt even more like two different creatures front to back over fences. Seriously. His front half and back half basically jumped completely separately.

no pics of me riding (thank god) so instead here's Brita and Wick demonstrating how to not utterly fail over fences lol
And that felt exactly as uncomfortable to ride as it sounds. Don't get me wrong - he was actually a very good boy. Rushed a little bit to one of our first warm up fences, but then started waiting like a gentleman and would let me work with his canter (to the degree that his stuck way of going would allow).

He found the jumps nicely, was only a little sticky with the steering (it's hard to sit on your butt around a turn when your butt isn't connected to the rest of your body), and never got bolt-y on landing.

There was a very real problem tho: his awkward stuck way of going meant that I kept getting jumped way out of the tack. Even when we found the fences nicely. And the 4 stride line was basically my undoing. The first time we kinda got a little crooked so trainer P had me go fix it. But the second time we nailed it and.... man I just got jumped right out of the tack over the oxer. Literally. And fell HARD (but in spectacular fashion, according to onlookers). Ughhhh.

no riding pics, but riding is never far from my mind - even when walking to work from the metro. who sees a corner jump?!?
What a stupid reason to fall too. Like the horse did nothing wrong, and was a very good and honest boy. But I had done what I often criticize others for doing: skipped over the basic foundation type stuff to rush ahead to more advanced things. Skipped loosening up his stiff stuck back and ended up with a stiff stuck back myself. Le sigh.

And I gotta admit - it was really hard for me to keep jumping him after that. Given that it was honestly just his way of going that unseated me in the first place - not some mistake or error or whatever - it felt like another fall would be a real possibility. Luckily tho I managed to keep my goddamn legs down, my butt in the back seat, and my fist tightly clenched onto that neck strap.

So we got through a couple more courses, including the lines that proved trickiest - since it was recovering my position after the fence that seemed hardest. And all was well. He really was a good boy - I actually really liked him and his good honest no-fucks-given nature.

But damn. Hopefully that's a lesson that will stay learned this time. If the horse feels like shit on the flat, it's probably gonna feel like shit over fences too.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

leaping Lion

It's funny - I kept calling this horse "Little Lion Man" the entire morning. Probably bc of Lauren's recent post about Simon over at She Moved to Texas. And also bc he is little (relatively speaking, tho he's definitely an upgrade for me haha). And he is Lion. And also about as manly as a horse can be, as the first stallion I've actually handled, much less ridden.

This would be Lion, one of Dan's prelim horses (technically the horse ran a 1* earlier this summer, but I do not believe there are plans for him to return to that level).

yep, that's the lion!
It's been difficult scheduling a lesson since deciding in June not to continue training with Isabel for the foreseeable future. Obviously I don't want to fall off the map completely bc I love this program, but it's kinda hard when the trainer is so far away.

I don't mind paying the expenses to have Dan travel to us - that is, when I have something worth it. Right now that isn't Isabel. And as much as I love Krimpet.... well... it's probably not her either haha. So we've basically been in a holding pattern. All along tho, there's been the option to go up to PA to lesson on one of his horses, so I finally found time to make that happen.

quiet in the cross ties
I expected to ride a sales horse, especially since he's mentioned one or two of them to me before (probably hoping that I'll buy something lol). So it was a surprise when the working students brought in Lion. Exciting!

trainer P says stallions often have a sullen way about them. idk if that's how i would describe Lion, tho he certainly seemed unimpressed lol
The excitement kinda dribbled into disappointment when they pulled out a dressage saddle tho. I asked whether Lion jumped in lessons and they said 'not usually.' Hrm. I mean, I love Dan's focus on flatwork and consider his lessons as glorified flatwork with jumps thrown in... but I also didn't anticipate driving 3hrs round trip for a dressage lesson when trainer C is basically in my back yard.

not the type of saddle i was anticipating! very relieved it was changed out haha
It cleared up fast tho when he got back from hacking and took one quizzical look at the saddle, asking "don't you want to jump?" Yes, Dan. Yes I do haha. Saddle was changed and we were off to the lesson on what was certainly among the most schooled horses I've ever jumped.

especially bc omg these leathers were soooooo long. i had wrapped the damn things twice lol
And it was likely that element - Lion's high degree of schooling - that maybe motivated the choice to use him for this lesson. I've written before that Dan believes many amateur riders would be well suited to learn on something that's already gone up the levels (he usually says prelim). Saying it's more valuable to learn what the buttons are and how to push them before trying to install them on something green.

Personally I could go either way, but have really enjoyed sitting on all these nicely trained horses recently. And Lion was no exception.

the nice forward flap of dan's jump saddle was much preferred. as, actually, were the somewhat aggressive blocks
The biggest standout was in noting how he responded to my errors (the same errors I always make on Isabel or anything else), but even more so in how he responded to my corrections. Namely: when I got it right, he very promptly, noticeably, and easily ordered himself as well.

Dan made it clear from the start that I should focus on myself and my ride, especially since it wasn't a ride on my own horse. He dug immediately into my position, calling for a much longer leg with heels wrapped down and around the horse. Telling me to feel my heels connecting under the horse's belly.

a few of the residents at HF. i loved the facial markings on that one on the left - very unique!
And especially at the canter, I needed to focus on that long leg while achieving more roundness and more activity from the horse, with less inside rein. Unbelievably, the story still hasn't changed haha: the weight in my reins should be even. But if one is going to be stronger than the other it should be the outside rein. He also wanted more bend in my elbows, which (again, unsurprisingly) helped me improve the connection and get more of that "bounce" feeling in the canter.

Dan pointed out that Lion is used to him riding - meaning he is used to a LOT of leg. If my legs weren't burning I probably wasn't using enough. Well. Trust me, they burned haha.

course diagram: basically a modified figure eight exercise. all oxers are square and the course rides in both directions. turns are large and sweeping, not meant to be ridden tightly. oh and those are barrels under the wide center oxer
Moving on to the jumping exercises, I had to focus on a couple main points: getting a bouncy round canter with bend - not long or flat; going straight but without falling on the inside shoulder (Dan said that just bc you're going straight doesn't mean you don't have an outside rein - there's still an inside lead after all!); and keeping the energy coming from behind.

it was actually quite a lovely farm, very picturesque 
We circled the blue and white diagonal single in the bottom right corner of the diagram off both leads for a couple repetitions until I got it right-ish. Then went right into the course, starting with approaching the blue and white diagonal off the right lead and finishing with the one stride.

I got nailed for losing bend and letting the horse fall in on approach, and then letting him just get long and strung out on landing. We turned it around and things maybe even got a little worse - starting at the blue and white off the left lead going to the one stride (which we totally would have eaten if Lion hadn't saved my ass), then all the way around to finish back over the first blue and white.

with pretty little vistas out of all the doors and windows
The issue is that I would start with a decent canter (I consistently transitioned from walk to canter, which achieved that nice bouncy canter up in front of my leg) but would let it slip almost immediately, with falling in at the first jump then never pulling it back together again.

Well, actually, we usually did ok to the blue and white end jump on the other side of the arena bc there was another rider down their lessoning on his own 1* horse so I actually had to, ya know, actively steer and stuff. Which unsurprisingly led to much nicer jumps. Go figure.

nice tidy and spacious aisles too
We ran through it a couple more times in each direction (with ample walk breaks for Lion {and me} since it was super hot out). Eventually something clicked in my head tho. I could feel what Dan was talking about every time we did something wrong - that being the major advantage of riding a schooled horse: the errors were always very clear. But I just wasn't doing anything about it until usually too late.

So I actually made myself not just sit up and ride to each fence (with not just the outside rein that Dan kept yelling about, but also a helping heaping of inside leg {duh Emma}) - but also ride after each fence too. Esp since Lion tended to land a little strong, tho he always came back when I actually asked.

and large clean and bright stalls
And that last course clicked along perfectly - with the jumps coming up so plainly that I could hear Dan saying "Yes" even 2-3 strides out from each fence.

It was annoying that it took so long for me to actually get it right, esp on such a nice horse that honestly was not particularly complicated to ride. And especially on a horse that rides exactly the way Dan teaches... so it's not like any of this should have been new to me.

But whatever. It's been a minute since I had one of these lessons and I tend to be a little conservative on new horses.

thanks buddy for a good lesson!
Regardless, I left the lesson feeling somewhat empowered that maybe one day I'll have these basics down. In some ways it felt like a win to get on this nicely trained horse and make him dance a little. Tho obviously I also felt equally sheepish when I goofed up and the horse had to bail me out. 

And it's kind of annoying seeing the same mistakes I made with Isabel creep into my rides on every other horse. I didn't ever quite put the blame squarely on the mare for why things fell apart... but it's still pretty glaringly clear that my riding was part of the problem. Le sigh. 

All the same tho, I'm definitely working on it and feel like all of these rides on different horses are helping to put the pieces back together. So I'll enjoy the variety for now, and hustle as hard as I can to keep the lessons with my favorite trainers rolling even tho I don't have a regular horse in training.