changing my buttprint

One of the hardest things about adapting to PonyLyfe has been actively working to not ride Sammy like I rode Murray, and training my brain to not expect him to ride like Murray. (It is a little embarrassing for Murray that I’m a skosh unseated by the pony’s relatively “big” gaits though.)


I took Emma’s advice and put my phone on the fence and this was the first shot I got and it’s pretty exemplary of pony’s and my relationship

This has been the biggest problem in jumping, though of course it’s come up in dressage too.  Our first few jump lessons were super easy and straight forward, and I didn’t try to put too much buttprint on the pony anyway. I pretty much just pointed him at the fences and let him get us there, which worked well for him. The courses weren’t terribly complicated and I wasn’t fussed by a deep or long spot so I just went with it. Then around my third jump lesson I started to be like “wait just one darn minute, I get to have some input on how we get to those fences!”


exhibit a: Nicole is very good with a braced hand

That’s when the trouble started, of course. When I insisted that we not just bomb around at the fences, Sammy was like “ok well that’s not actually part of the agreement, which means I don’t have to do my part either.” Mostly he didn’t stop dirty, but a couple of times I thought we had a pretty good step to a fence and he was like “NOPE”. Luckily for me, this coincided with a couple of frigid, snowy weeks in early March when most people weren’t making it to Sunday group jumps, so I got several private jump lessons (for the price of group jumps – yay!).

We had two main problems. Number one, that I couldn’t figure out how to get the pony to slow the fuck down. Number two, that I couldn’t figure out how to shorten his step when we were coming up to a fence because of number one. To fix number two, I kept trying to sit down into the pony coming in to the fences which would be when Murray naturally shortened his step. This made us both jump super awkwardly. To fix number one, I basically yanked on the pony’s face for dear life, because I had zero other tools in that particular kit. It’s what I get for riding a super sensitive push ride for five years.

TrJ fixed number two first, then tackled number one. The fix to number two was basically: keep a lighter seat, don’t drive to the fences. Just a matter of practice. The bigger fix came when we started to get the speed issue sorted.

Because of the way Sammy was like “just don’t touch me approaching the fences”, I was feeling both too fast, and out of control, and like I had no influences over what was going to happen. Which just made me go *grab grab grab* at his face more, and resulted in stops. TrJ emphasized that I really need to get my step on the turn to a fence, and approaching the fence just stay steady. Sammy can be trusted not to BARREL down to a fence and then get on the forehand and stop, but he can’t jump if he thinks you’re getting in his way. And if I didn’t get my step around the turn when I asked for it quietly? Add a bigger half halt until I got the step.


this is SUCH HUGE PROGRESS for us

TrJ is big on having a rider half halt in time with the canter step, and of course in my head I was like “wow this sounds a lot like see-sawing”. But, as I’m discovering with TrJ, there’s a lot more to riding that I don’t understand than there is that I do. Half halting in time with the canter could be see-sawing, sure, if I wrenched back and forth with a see-sawing motion in time with the canter. But if I half halt and release in time with the canter to avoid getting a fixed hand that Sammy then ignores and braces into? Not really a see-saw.

Once I started to figure out how to stop just hanging on one or both reins to ask him to slow down, and making it clear that I really mean it when I ask for him to slow his feet down, all of my half halts got more effective.

Sometimes when I’m riding the pony I feel like such an utter n00b. He weirdly manages to make me feel like I don’t know how to keep my leg on or my hands following or stay up in a two point, and I’m just flapping along like an utterly out-of-control pony rider. Little bits of progress like this have made a huge difference to our rides, though! And for all our struggz, this little guy is making my butt way more educated.

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unlocking pony

One super bummer thing about my new barn sitch is that even though there are a fair few people around, and it’s a pretty vibrant and friendly place, there aren’t a lot of people loitering around in the arena who could be hijacked into taking video or pictures for me. Seriously, I think there have been two days (of probably 30 rides since I started leasing the pony?) that there has been a free human in the arena. And the other part is that I’m just not quiiite comfortable enough to yell out and ask for video.

WHYYYY GREYY

Proof or not, we’ve been making some major progress unlocking the pony. Even just five-ish weeks ago Sammy and I were really struggling to get on the same page about dressage. During one of our rides, he tried zipping off in a little fastfast trot as an evasion when I put my leg on. I was thrown off balance the first time, and even though I shut the second zip down pretty quickly, I felt him try it at least three more times during the ride for seemingly no reason (I mean, there’s always a reason). It was one of the most annoyed response I’ve gotten from him. Ignoring me? Sure. Wrong response because he’s unbalance or not sure what I’m asking? Totally reasonably. Annoyed? Not really a thing he did.

But we’ve gotten more and more in sync since then, and it feels like our progress has been taking big strides lately! Now that we have the pony mostly ahead of the leg and working with multiple different gears within each gait, TrJ has me trying to get him to unlock his left side and stop leaning on it quite so much. At first I was confused by this, because I feel like whenever I take a hold of the left rein, Sammy falls hard to the right and so of course I grab the right rein in response (it’s the best response, obviously). I thought I was feeling a right-side problem, particularly with getting his right hind under his body. And maybe I was, but cranking his neck around to the right was not the solution there.


a cleaner pony from a drier day – showing off the vast expanse of his chubby back

In my most recent lesson, TrJ had me focus on making sure my left and right reins were the same length and not letting Sammy hang on that left rein. Part of the problem is that the pony gets “locked up” on the left side of his body — as if instead of being toned but pliable muscle that moves in both directions, it is a bowed 2-by-4 that is held in place by a short rein, but isn’t fixed by a longer or following rein. Hmm. It’s a bit hard to explain in words. Like the left rein pulls the pony into a slight C-shape to the left that he then leans on and relies on in order to maintain that C. At the same time, he leans on the left corner of his mouth on the bit, and seems to ignore the pressure there. So if you drop the rein, he falls over his right shoulder but doesn’t soften, and if you keep holding the rein he’s happy to lean on you for quite a while. Like, maybe forever.

TrJ had me tackle the problem in a more fiddly-way than I would really like, but explained that she wanted us to try this just as a short term solution. Sammy is pretty set in his ways, and we don’t want to fiddlefuck around in the future. But for right now, it’s one of the only ways we can communicate to him that we want something different than what he’s used to delivering. So there’s a bit more grabbing of the left rein and massaging with my fingers than I’d like to do (not least of all because I literally can’t manage to keep track of all those things I’m “supposed” to be doing when instructed to ride that way), but every ride we work toward a quieter, softer way to ask Sammy keep moving through both sides of his body and not brace through his left side.

so very not-tall

As much as I don’t want or really like using that tool, it is another tool in my kit. And I can totally see why some people become reliant on fiddling — it does get some immediate results. Plus, just because it’s not my preferred tool, doesn’t mean I can’t learn to use it well, or apply some Academic Horse Training-type principles to it. It fits into a learning paradigm along with many other training tools, and I should remember that.

we got sprung

When I moved to the Pacific North West everyone was like “you better get some good rain gear!” or “I hope you have good waterproof boots” or “if you don’t like the weather in Oregon, just wait five minutes!”

I was still unprepared.

In January, it was gorgeous. Cold, but gorgeous. We burned a lot of wood in the stove. We set our garden up. I was like “holy shit! I better get ready to plant my garden sooner rather than later and move up all my seed starting!” This resulted in me starting way too many seeds way too early, but it’s a good thing I did because then I killed a bunch of later starts by being a bit too casual with the water (whoops).

February started to get cool again. It snowed. I didn’t work in the garden much. But I still went for a couple of runs. I think.

March was psychotic. It snowed four or five times.

And then we got sprung.

In a matter of days the sun came out, the world dried up, and daffodils started bursting out of the ground all over my yard. Sunsets were gorgeous, the days started to get a lot longer, and the ponies blankets were thrown off!

nudist pony!

I started riding in tee shirts, and shedding layers like crazy. The ponies were enjoying themselves, lying flat out in the field and rocketing around like nutcases at bring-in time. It got dry super fast!

And then it started raining again.

Two days ago it was sunny most of the day, and then it absolutely poured for about half an hour around 5. Thirty minutes later? Sunshine again. The water was draining so quickly through my back field that I could literally hear the soil sucking it up. The sun came right back out after the rain.

When I peeked out  my back window around sunset, I could see the fog rising up from the ground. I’ve never literally watched fog coming up from the ground before. (This is called radiation fog and is caused by the cooling of the earth that rapidly cools the air and brings moisture close to the dew point, resulting in fog. I’ve always thought of it as Tule fog because I first learned about it in the Sacramento valley.)


scampered out to my back field to watch the fog

Today it’s raining off and on again. Last night I saw some lightening.

I am pretty sure we got sprung in Oregon. But wait five minutes. I’ll update you then.

academic horse training

When I was in Australia in November, my friends instructed me that I must pick up several copies of Andrew MacLean’s seminal text — Academic Horse Training. The book isn’t available in the US and isn’t exactly easy to get anywhere outside of Australia, or even in Australia. I had to order the book directly from Equestrian Sciences Institute, who delivered them to my godmother’s house, and my god-brother ferried them to Oregon for me on a family vacation.

It was complicated.

The book is pretty hefty though, and I dawdled on cracking it, other than to look at a few pictures, until this week. At this point, I’ve read Academic Horse Training for a half an hour or so each day (um, this new life plan with dedicated reading time is awesome!!) and it’s addictive. It dropped a large number of truth bombs in just the first two chapters. I’m far from done with the book, but there are a couple of these nuggets that really stood out.

On girthiness

Andrew MacLean hypothesized that in the past (like the way past) humans have selected horses for reduced girthiness, because we rely so much on the girth to hold our saddles on, and if you can’t get a saddle on a horse, you can’t perform on it. Some horses never get over their sensitivity to girthing.

Ahem.

freeeeeeeeee you can’t girth meeeeeeeeeee

And at the same time we expect horses to be intensely sensitive to little movements of our leg mere inches away from this place that we ask them to be not sensitive to significant pressure.

It doesn’t make a ton of sense, and it (along with inconsistent signalling) helps to explain why some horses become so dull to the leg aids so quickly. Because every single day before we say “hey, listen to this leg” we first say “hey, ignore what’s going on down here.”

On spooking

One of the theories on the origin of spooking is that by suddenly and unexpectedly changing track, a prey animal can trick a predator and throw it off course. By doing this, they gain a bigger lead over the preadator or scary thing, thus making themselves more likely to survive.

So the better a horse can hide his desire or intention to spook, the more likely he is to survive. Which means that for flighty horses, the ability to make a spook super unexpected is probably literally written into their DNA.

Thus why sometimes my horse (or any horse) will be trotting along and be just fine with something and then EXPLODE out of nowhere in fear of that thing. Because if that “predator” could tell that they were going to change course before they even got there, then the element of surprise and advantage of the sudden course change would be lost. If it’s something not so worrisome, then it might be worth just giving some major side-eye and neck craning to.

So literally the most frustrating, unpredictable, and hard-to-control-and-train spook is the one that is most deeply ingrained in a fearful animal. Great.

On the fear response

The fear response is literally one of the oldest, strongest, most easily reinforced pathways in the brain. And this is especially true for prey species. For horses, one instinctive reaction involving the fear response can undo many months of careful training, and can take many more months of careful, positive associations to smush back down.

This unlocked a ton of thoughts for me — why Murray could be so great in one place, and in another place or after a big spook he just lost it. Why something like clipping was super hit or miss depending on the day, even after I had spent many hours working on it. This also underlined to me even more how important groundwork and developing a strong level of trust and understanding between rider/handler and horse is. Because sometimes I was the thing that stimulated the fear response in Murray, so he didn’t necessarily always know that something I was suggesting would be “okay”.

On bucking

It’s supposed to dislodge big cats. hahahahaha


not as effective as he hoped

I’m still only halfway through the book, but I’ve already recommended it wholeheartedly to several friends. Enough that I’m getting another shipment of books sent my way. I had a few extra copies thrown in there, so if you want your own copy, let me know (nicole g sharpe at gmail)! They should be here within a month, and I’d be happy to send one along to you. They aren’t cheap ($75 plus a little bit for shipping I think), but the book is WELL worth the money.

More nuggets from Academic Horse Training to come. I am absurdly excited to start working with my future horse using the paradigm and framework outlined in this book!!

missing the monster

It’s been a busy week here at the ranch — firewood stacking, crop research, ag meetings, field scoping, forest exploration, water permits. The kinds of things that don’t wait for you, even if you ask nicely. I had enough time to squeeze in my pony rides, but found myself feeling a little melancholy and missing Murray.

Most of the time I’m just fine — and sometimes I’m probably inappropriately cheerful — about Murray’s retirement. Obviously I don’t wish we’d been sidelined by nine (well, ten). I know it was the right decision, and I know that this doesn’t signal the end of me riding or showing or doing fun and amazing things with horses. Maybe even horses who cross tie and tack up easily — who knows! But last week? I had the morbs.

I’m not sure exactly what brought it on. Probably because the pony hasn’t been taking to dressage like a salmon returning to his natal stream. And all of the tools I have to deal with a horse who doesn’t dressage are Murray-shaped screwdrivers, not pony-shaped drill bits. Once the pony started making a little progress, I fell into a bit of my own mental positivity trap. I was like “now that I can get you to stretch down into the bridle for one or two strides at a time, it’s straight uphill from here, little guy! nothing but PSG for us!”

But — shocker — that’s not how it went. I started thinking about leasing another horse in the barn. A horse sized horse. Who has dressage training and has competed at training level and, well, goes on the bit.

Murray wasn’t perfect, but I had a path and a plan for him. I knew where I was going in his dressage training and, for better or worse, I intimately knew what his training holes were. And I was pretty optimistic about the places we could still go. There was plenty of fun left in our relationship, even if we weren’t jumping the biggest fences or galloping at break-neck speeds.

Plus, he taught me SO MUCH. He taught me how to be patient — like, really patient — and creative. He totally enabled my obsession with continued learning and animal behavior.  And he was fun to ride!  Minus being lame, the last year and a half or so were so much more fun than struggle.  He wasn’t everyone’s type of ride, but I loved riding him.

I miss learning with him, and playing with him. I miss laughing at his ridiculousness, and telling absurd Murray stories to my friends.

It’s a funny feeling to simultaneously know that a horse wasn’t the right horse for me and yet to deeply, thoroughly appreciate him for all the lessons and learning. To be glad that you don’t have to deal with spookiness and flightiness and stupid tacking-up dances and miss him terribly at the same time.

 

who does it best? east vs. west coast dressage

A couple of weeks ago I was catching up on The Eventing Radio Show, listening to old episodes from last year. Joe Meyer, who I love as a host and a rider, made the throwaway comment that he wouldn’t mind competing out here on the west coast because everyone does so well in dressage out here. It was meant as a joke, but it piqued my interest anyway. I have definitely complained with my west coast friends about the “easy” dressage judges out east, and I’m sure people in Texas are laughing at both coasts. But who is right?

This, it turns out, is an easy enough question to answer. So I took to Startbox and Event Entries and scraped for data on dressage scores. Then I fired up R Studio and went on a big fat fishing expedition (research slang for exploring a dataset for relationships instead of testing specific hypotheses).

The short answer? There’s no difference in average dressage score between the East and West coasts for FEI events.

Data collection & other details

There are hundreds and hundreds of events held across the US every year, and usually a few hundred people at each of those events. So to save my sanity when scraping the data, I stuck to rated events that offered the FEI levels. A few USEA-only events slipped through the cracks because I’d already opened the event and at that point, it was easier to just copy that data. I tried to get an even representation of events across the year and across the country, but of course there are more events on the East coast than anywhere else.

I ended up with a little more than 5,500 rider records before I called it quits on copying and pasting and reformatting.

For each rider record, I included the division, venue, date, state, area. I included columns that allowed me to pool similar divisions that aren’t exactly the same (CIC 2* and CCI 2*, or training and training 3-day). I also included whether the level in question was USEA or FEI rated.

I didn’t include any multi-level effects for for rider or dressage judge. Laziness was not the only reason for this — by ignoring the influence of the judge (for now), I could (kindof) see if the effects across different areas had to do with riders or judges. If the same 5 judges worked at every event across the US, then we’d expect their scores to be very reliable, and differences from coast to coast would have to do with rider differences.  Of course there’s many more than 5 judges and these effects wouldn’t be so obvious, but you can see what I’m getting at.

(Obviously if you have questions or quibbles, get in touch.)

Fun fact!  

Mean dressage score in the US? 34.756. Standard deviation is 5.19.

This is the density histogram of dressage scores across all levels. You can see that though the mean is 34.756, there is a peak in scores after that — right around a nice even 35.

So there you have it. That’s the average dressage score at (rated) events across the US.

If you’re trending below a 35 you should feel chuffed as you’re doing better than most! When you score below 30, you’re doing better than about 85% of the country. Below a 25, and you’re doing better than ~97%. Down below 20? You’re the 1%!!

(Non-eventers reading this, remember that lower dressage scores are better in our world.)

The questions

Mostly, I was interested in exploring the differences between the coasts, USEA areas, and states to see if dressage scores varied significantly from place to place. And for the most part, the differences weren’t stark or necessarily significant.

At the FEI levels, there are no significant differences in dressage scores across major geographical areas of the us — east coast and west coast, the south, and the “mid”dle. If you’re not familiar with the model outputs, the important columns here are the Estimate and the asterisks. The intercept estimate represents the average dressage score of the east coast, and the estimates below are how much the other coasts differ from the east coast dressage average. So other areas of the country do have slightly higher dressage scores on average than the east coast, but not significantly so. (I’ll get to the stargazing in a second.)

You can see this reflected in the density histogram at the top of the post. There’s a lot of overlap between the dressage scores of east and west coasts at the FEI levels.

But how do the USEA levels stack up when you compare things from coast to coast?

Well, things aren’t quite so tidy. Let’s do some stargazing (those asterisks are typically thought of as good things in stats land)!

For events only sanctioned by the USEA, there east coast has a significantly lower average dressage score than any other area.  Riders in the middle of the country (basically Montana) are scoring nearly 2 points more, on average, than riders out east. People in the south get about 1.4 points more, and out west we get a measly 0.7 points more.

It’s important to note here that the “points” I’m talking about are percentage points, not raw points on tests.

Let’s break this relationship down a little more by state, shall we?

In this case, the intercept state is California. And what we see here is kinda neat! West coast states seem to line up (ish) in terms of scoring, which makes sense because they would probably pull from a very similar pool of judges. The second row in the table is Canada (from Bromont’s results).

But start comparing to the east coast, and we start to see some differences! Florida and Maryland in particular appear to be preeeetttyy generous with those dressage scores! Riders in those states score 1.36 and 2.55 points better on average, respectively. On the other hand, Montana is out there hammering their riders with dressage scores an average of 1.17 points worse than in California.

Because I’m California-centric, I plotted the distribution of scores in the lowest-scoring state (Maryland) vs. California, to show what a significant difference here looks like. It’s not a HUGE split between the curves, but you can see that there are quite a few more riders in Maryland in the sub-30 zone than you see in California.

So what does it all mean?

There could be lots of reasons that I found significant differences between the dressage scores of different states and areas. For one, I didn’t apply a single correction for multiple tests to this data set, and I explored tons and tons of potential relationships. Statistically speaking, one of them was bound to come up significant.

Could it be that riders out east are just better than riders in other states? Ummmm. I mean sure, this is one possible answer. But given the variance between states up and down the eastern seaboard, I’m not sure this hypothesis holds up.

It’s also possible that judges on the west coast and in Montana are much harsher and stricter than on the east coast. I’ve heard people say that it’s hard to “make it” in dressage in California because there’s such strong competition down here in the form of Steffen Peters and Hilda Gurney. Perhaps the presence of Olympic-level riders makes judges more strict? If so, one would expect a similar effect in Florida. And… well, the data doesn’t quite hold up to that either (but also isn’t designed to answer that question).

It seems like there might also be some hyper-local effects on the east coast, since it’s so densely populated out there. This might be due to the fact that judges out east don’t need to have a very wide travel radius in order to judge plenty of shows. If those judges tend to score a little better, then that would create pockets of shows where scores are a little more generous.

Anyway, there’s lots of potential reasons for these trends. I just enjoyed looking at them! What I can pretty confidently say is that for 2018 at least, riders in California were not getting preferential treatment from dressage judges (erhrrm, Joe!).

nuggets of Mary

Some choice nuggets of wisdom from Mary that I found scattered throughout my notes.


 

Don’t give up when you’ve got it. Both as a learner and an instructor, think, “I’ve/you’ve got it — now make it again. Good, now make it again. Now make it again.”

Got it, lost it, got it, lost it, got it, lost it, got it, lost it — this is the process of learning.


lost it

On change: it doesn’t take long to change your perceptions. Close your eyes. Hold your arms level. Now raise one arm up 45* and the other arm down 45*. Hold them there for ten seconds or so. Now, with your eyes still closed, bring your arms back to level. Open, and observe the difference between the heights of your arms. Most people will have brought their arms back to a quite uneven “level”. Just ten seconds with your arms at different heights changes one’s perception of “level”.

“I have to do it right,” blocks you from learning. Dressage is an experiment. It’s not always about doing it right every time and never doing it wrong. Give yourself the freedom to play with your riding, so you can find what is right.


experimenting!

The solution becomes the problem. Such is the way of learning.

“Do nothing” or “Do X” both assume the rider is the same as the instructor — the same feeling, the same ABCs*, the same problems. It is the trainer’s job to pole vault across the gap in understanding between the trainer and student. (See Megan’s iceberg and triangle of skills for more on the ABCs.)


connecting our left brains and right brains

In riding, you have to use your left brain and right brain. The basic process is right brain –> left brain –> left brain –> right brain. You have a feeling (right brain) –> you identify it + say the words –> you hear the words (from you or a trainer) –> you have the feeling again. The words don’t have to make perfect riding sense, as long as you can attach them to that feeling. (One rider described her feeling to Mary as “I feel like a meringue”. Mary had no idea what that meant, but the rider was clearly doing something right, so she kept telling the rider “be a meringue! you’ve lost the meringue — there you go, that’s a great meringue!”)

I’m trying usually means “I’m wishing, I’m hoping, I’m wanting, and I’m sweating — but I’m probably not doing it yet.”


lol, we did a lot of TRYING