what i wish i’d known

Let me tell you what I wish I’d known,
When I was young and dreamed of glory.

Olivia started me thinking about this all the way back in April. April! And it’s taken me until now to put it together. A lot of the things I were thinking of were aspects of riding that I thought I understood, but which turned out to be nothing like I expected.

I was pretty green when I started with Murray. Greener than I would recommend. Greener than I would be if I had a do-over. But ego is a thing, and at least Murray is a funny and good-natured guy who, antics though he has, doesn’t really want to kill anyone. That greenness meant that I’ve realized and learned a lot of things over the years.

happy babies! but omg my elbows

There will be no short-cuts with this creature

There are some horses where you can teach them something once and it quickly generalizes across a variety of situations. Or horses where you can just try something out and it goes well the first time. Hell, I’ve done it! I clipped Sookie in November without the slightest idea what she’d do in response, and with little concern that it would go anything other than well. That’s just the type of horse she is.

That horse? That horse is not my horse. Murray needs every single lesson — sometimes he needs each one 4 or 6 or ten times. Murray needs every step explained to him. Murray needs every good behavior rewarded and every bad one ignored. Murray needs consistency. Murray needs refreshers and primers when you come back to a lesson after a while off (ahem, clipping).

I thought we’d just do a few things right and skip along and blip bloop beep! There we’d be, jumping around training level courses and killing the spectators with our incredible good looks and shockingly low price point.

Spoiler alert: we’re not.

This is obviously not on Murray. But now I know: there will be no skipped steps. No short-cuts. We will do everything.

You never stop riding your butt off

I had this idea that once we go more trained and less green, I’d just be able to sit up there and look good (maybe wave at my adoring fans as we galloped by?) while Murray did all the work. Sure, I’d read the course maps and do the general directing, and pick a distance here or there. But my horse would be so well trained, I wouldn’t need to ride as hard as I did when training my horse to jump!

Wrong, wrong, wrong. So much wrong.

The first time I rode around the Novice XC at Camelot, I did almost nothing. Because I had a sprained knee. The next time I rode around the XC at Camelot? I had to ride my ass off. I rode my ass off up to every fence that Murray was like “err, there’s something near that I’m not sure about.” I rode my ass off to fences where Murray was like “oh, that’s where we’re going?” I rode my ass off to fences that Murray ate for breakfast.

It’s not the same riding or effort. Taking Murray around his first real XC course was a battle of wills to just keep him moving forward and underneath me. Now I have to do that a lot less — like, 10% of the time probably. The rest of the time I don’t get to just sit there and look pretty. I work hard to keep him put together, set him up well for each fence, and make the ride as good as it can be.

I’m not trying to say I thought that XC would be easy as I moved up the levels. I just thought I wouldn’t have to focus on the riding part so much. Or maybe that my horse would be so trained and consistent that I’d half halt him with one iota of energy ten strides out from a fence for a perfect spot every time. I don’t know. But we ride every fence, and we ride every movement, and we’re better for it.

this magnificent nearly-tracking-up-stride not brought to you  by “sitting there looking pretty”

Consistency is key

I don’t know when I realized this. I think it really came on over the last couple of years, as I’ve worked with younger (human) students. I always knew that in training animals, being consistent is essential to clear communication. But one day I just realized that so many of the problems we have are due to a lack of consistency. And I’m not just talking about me and Murray.

How far would we be now if only I’d been consistent from the very beginning? If I hadn’t done hundreds, maybe even thousands, of transitions where I kicked Murray into a trot, then pulled on his face to get him to walk and try again because I thought the transition didn’t meet the standard? If I hadn’t made refusing a fence a crime that earned sympathy sometimes and a wildly out-of-control response at others? If I hadn’t just kicked bigger and moar and harder for a little bit of forward?

This one bites both ways. When I’m not consistent, I muddle over Murray’s incorrect responses more than I probably need to. Did I put that aid on clearly? Was that response within the acceptable range? Did I wobble through the transition and unintentionally cause that? All of that questioning of myself makes the training less clear and precise too.

I’m not a robot, so I don’t expect I’m going to come out the same every day. But if there is any skill I’m working hardest on honing right now, it’s greater consistency.

reprogramming rider

My biomechanics clinic lesson on Sunday was not as biomechanics-y as the other lessons at the clinic, but it was still really valuable. One could loosely refer to it as a “be very clear and consistent” lesson, or a “ride better for better horse” lesson, or perhaps a “don’t be an asshole” lesson. But all of the “do this betters” were very specific and followable instructions.

There is something to be said for riding with someone who doesn’t know your horse. Murray and I rode with her last time, and for both lessons he was pretty angelic. Sure, we weren’t doing the hardest work, but it wasn’t nothing either. Alexis did a really excellent job of coaching the horse and rider that showed up to the clinic — not what we might be, not what we thought we were, not what she thought we were. She just took what we had and worked with that, which is exactly what she told me to do with Murray.

accurate representation of how we’ve spent a lot of time lately

We started with the “what have you worked on since last time” chat. I have been working pretty hard at twisting right and making my posting clear, but have not been working hard on my bear down. I also recently started trying to sit a little closer to the front of the saddle instead of back toward the cantle, and habituating Murray to more correct aids. For example, I’m trying not to give up on the walk before moving on to the trot, and really trying to enforce that leg = forward.

Alexis asked me what I do to not give up on the walk before moving to the trot. I told her that I take up some contact at the walk and try to keep pushing Murray toward it. I try to see where he is each day and meet him there, and then slowly push him for a little more than he is wiling to start with. If he’s feeling fractious, I back off a bit. If the lesson took us there, I also wanted to work on my down transitions. They tend to happen in a heap and on the forehand and I hate them.

First, Alexis gave me a little lecture about approaching training the right way — i.e., not rewarding bad behavior/tension/incorrect responses by giving up the aids. (I do actually know that, but all of my skills, abilities, and knowledge in animal training and behavior seem to go out with window when it comes to riding.)

Then we talked about how she wanted me to approach Murray’s lack of response to leg aids. Alexis said that Murray seems to be a relatively sensitive guy, and sensitive horses in particular often become dull to repetitive/noxious/meaningless aids as a method of self preservation. (This is always something that has confused me because he is sensitive, but at the same time just ignores the fuck out of my leg.)

“If someone was kicking me in the guts all the time, I’d probably tense up and ignore them too,” was her exact analogy.

Err right. That is all true, and logical.

this is NOT the walk mechanic you are looking for, and also WTF are you doing why are you putting your nose on your chest?!!?!

Alexis wanted me to silence all of my aids and start reprogramming myself and Murray using the smallest possible aid, starting with halt-walk-halt transitions. So off she sent me on the circle to walk without harassing or nagging and keeping an exceptionally still leg. I still needed to keep my other positional fixes (twist right, bear down, short reins), and maintain a following hand. But no other aids were there to be.

I whined a bit about it at first.

I can feel the walk moving my torso side to side, I said. That’s because you’re sloshing your torso around, Alexis responded.

Why are you shoving him along with your seat? Alexis asked. Because he’s walking SO SLOWLY, I whined. He’s not walking that slowly, she told me. Stop nagging.

And then I was to halt. I asked Alexis to clarify the halt aids for me so I could make sure they were right she wouldn’t see me just hauling on my horse’s face to get him to stop. Alexis told me to tighten my thighs to still the following nature of my seat, and fix my hand so that the motion of the walk was not “allowed”.

After the halt, I could squeeze Murray gently, ONCE, to ask him to walk. If he didn’t respond within “one potato”, then I could squeeze again ONCE and follow it immediately with a tap from the whip.

His first response was a bit sluggish but didn’t earn a tap. The next go around I bumped Murray with my leg, and before “one potato” was up, I bumped again. Alexis was like “nope, you don’t get to do that. One little kick.” She also encouraged me to think about giving the aid more with the top of my boot than with my heel, to minimize the size of the aid.

tippity-tappity warm up trot

After six or seven walk-halt-walk transitions, we moved on to trot. Alexis wanted me to ask Murray to trot in the same way — a little squeeze — and then keep posting without kicking him for exactly as long as Murray wanted to trot for. When he walked, I would just go ahead and stop posting.

So we did an ugly walk-trot transition (more on that later), and trotted. And trotted. And trotted. And trotted. Alexis was like “Okay this is great information. He’s really quite willing to trot around, so he’s not all that lazy after all.” OKAY FINE ALEXIS FINE, MY HORSE ISN’T A LAZY ASSHOLE I GUESS I AM.

The next task was to finesse the walk-trot transition. There were problems with the transition outside of the aid. Murray is a push-back type. He doesn’t want to seek the contact, so he inverts. I was exacerbating this, as I ceased to follow the motion of the walk with my body and hands as I asked for the aid, and just stilled my my hand and kicked at the same time. I also lost my bear down and anticipated/pitched forward a tiny bit. Instructions: keep the bear down, keep the hands following, still do the transition.

In the next set of trot walk, I told Alexis that I felt like Murray was progressively losing energy. She said I could give him a little aid to encourage him to trot a bit bigger, but no nagging. Alexis also encouraged me to make the aids short and inviting — the aid should make Murray want to trot, not make him think “oh fuck, I’d better trot now”. She wanted the release of the aid to encourage the behavior, not the progressive clamping down of my legs.


I look like some kind of deranged clown but ignore that!! look how nice Murray’s neck is!

As I trotted around, Alexis kept reminding me to keep my legs very still and not bump him. She almost wanted me to feel like I was kneeling and sticking my heels out a little bit, with my lower leg away from Murray’s body. I think this also included stabilizing more through my thigh.

Once again, this biomechanics post has become far too long. So I’ll split it into two, with the canter mechanic and down transitions, and a couple of other big take-aways in another post.

But the big, horrifying piece of news is that, once again, I’m having to totally reprogram the way I ride and train my horse because it’s not him, it’s me.

One day, one day, I will be able to ride my willing and forward horse accurately and precisely and without intentionally or unintentionally fucking him up. One day. (Hopefully a soon one.)

have you heard the news?

I find myself approaching friends and acquaintances and asking if they have time to come to a clinic I think they’ll really love — there will be coffee and donuts! — so they can learn more about my dressage lord and saviour: biomechanics.

I’ve turned into a full fledged Mary Wanless/biomechanics evangelist.

But I don’t think this is entirely invalid! We had another biomechanics clinic with Alexis Martin-Vegue this weekend, and there were seriously some minor miracles in that arena. Alexis coached one rider into shaping and balancing her horse enough that he went from lame (not NQR, not a little uneven, lame) to sound. Actually, she did it with two different horses. She had riders turning pony tippity-tappity canters into real, proper canters. She revealed that my horse is way more forward and willing than I ever realized. She turned water into wine.

It’s pretty cool to watch (and do).

zippy pony (pre-lesson) from last time

The thing about the biomechanics lessons is that each ride is so individualized to each rider that it’s hard to draw sweeping conclusions across the whole clinic. (My lesson was also totally different and was more about training theory and improving my horse through clarity.) There were a few things that Alexis mentioned to more than one rider, which I managed to retain (somehow).

Post the trot you want

This is along the lines of having you influence the horse instead of getting on and having the horse influence you. When your horse zips out from underneath you, you can’t fix it by making your post less high — that just makes the steps smaller, but the same speed (steps per minute). This might feel like slower movement/lower velocity (velocity over the ground = size of steps x steps per minute), but it doesn’t improve tone or reach or throughness. Instead what you want is for the steps to stay big, but for each step to get sloooower.

Alexis repeated a couple of times that it’s really okay to get bounced onto the wrong lead (or maybe even sit your horse a little off balance) by doing this. It’s communicating to the horse that the zipping isn’t what we’re going for, and encourages their legs to move in time with the post. Bigger, slower posts == bigger, fancier trot.


little miss zippy after she accepted some bear down and connection
all of these pics are from last time — i just took videos on peoples’ phones this time!

Complete the arc of the post

A lot of riders (me included, still!) weren’t completing the arc of the post. If you think of the knee as the fulcrum, the pelvis should make an eight of a full circle arc from the seat of the saddle to over the pommel. Lots of riders skipped the top part (me! I think that’s what I thought of as “posting smaller” or “posting slower”) or the bottom part (hovering a bit above the saddle, also kinda me). Or both.

Alexis didn’t want rider slamming into the bottom of the saddle, but she wanted them to land and rise purposefully and fully. No bouncing off the bottom or hovering or avoiding the seat of the saddle. Full posts, up and down. I think I talked about this last time too.

arrow pointing to the center of the circle/the fulcrum, arc showing the motion of the post

Beware the man trap

One rider had a horse who really wanted to suck her into the back of the saddle and behind the motion. Alexis called this his “man trap” — the place he wanted people to sit on his back so he had to do the minimum work and the rider just got somewhat drug along.

This was a really interesting case because the rider couldn’t bear down into her horse until he’d come up to meet her. So she had to lift him with her thighs (I don’t really know how she did this part because I’m not the rider, and there’s only so much you can get from watching) until he gave her a place to bear down into, and then she could really sit into him.

This part was the funniest because Alexis kept saying things like “you need to pull him along by his man trap” or “get out of the man trap”. It was awesome.

Emphasize the upswing of the canter

This one has been big for me and is a constant battle, so it was especially cool to see how this affected other people and their horses. In the canter, after the horse lands the outside front he progresses through to landing the inside front the rider’s seat sweeps across the saddle. This is the down swing. Then, as the horse picks up the feet and pushes off the inside front, the rider’s hips swing back and close a little. This is the upswing.

Too many riders really emphasize the down swing — it’s easy to do so. When you start to really sit into the canter, this is the easiest part to sit into. Alexis wanted people to spend more time in the upswing, bringing the hips back and closed with more energy and pausing in this moment. Another way she described it was reducing the sweep across the saddle for the rider. So the rider just stayed with the horse in the down swing, and then held the horse up in the up swing. This is what turned the ponies’ canters into true, cadenced canters, and added a bunch of jump to the canter of the more advanced horses.

spend more time in this moment (or just before)

Corrections tend to feel huge — they’re not

The fixes that Alexis puts on riders can feel really dramatic. A lot of this seems to have to do with going against the asymmetries your body wants to have, as well as being encouraged to access deeper muscles that you might not normally access. But for most riders they weren’t dramatic, and were designed to be very digestible and easy for us to remember. Moving the heel back one inch, sitting another centimeter toward the center of the saddle, looking toward the outside ear instead of the inside ear. And these little things can totally change how your horse goes.

On the other hand, when riders try to fix their own asymmetries they also tend to way over-do it, and instead add on new and different asymmetries. I’ve definitely never done this.

The best part of it was that everyone had a really great time! There were very little ass-pats and good jobs and “do it again, but with more angle”. It was hard, but it’s the good kind of hard. And Alexis does an amazing job of breaking it down so that riders can understand, implement, and retain all of the different pieces.

So: do you have a moment for me to tell you about biomechanics?

stargazing

In grad school, my Bayesian stats professor frowned upon what he called the practice of “stargazing” — that is, staring at the p-values of your model results to determine what predictors were informative or not. He called it stargazing because many academic journals use asterisks next to results to indicate their significance level (* = p < 0.05, ** = p < 0.01, *** = p < 0.001; TLDR you want more stars/a smaller p-value). This professor was more interested in effect sizes and model error, which makes a lot of sense. You can have a very statistically significant predictor with a biologically irrelevant effect size. Which doesn’t make that predictor very good, in reality. Or you can have a predictor with a massive effect size and large error bars that mean it ultimately isn’t statistically significant, but might be worth further investigation. He made a whole R package called “stargazing” that reinterpreted the results of models with little asterisks just to make people happy.

Most of my stargazing now revolves around trying to find shapes in stars. For a long time I thought Murray’s looked a little bit like a horse jumping a fence with his rider climbing waaaay up his neck. A horse with no tail, I guess.

with the purple as the deformed-ish horse and the blue as the rider!

But now I think it looks more like a fetus or newborn kangaroo, which delights me.

I love a good star. There are some classic shapes — the diamond (Wonder from the Thoroughbred series, right?!), the heart. A friend’s horse had the most adorable balloon on a string.

Eugene has one of the greatest stars I’ve ever seen — like a little sunburst.

or a hairy little seed!
Eugene also meets my “makes me look good in selfies” standards

And I’ve seen a couple of horses online lately whose long star-stripe combos look like germinating seeds which I LOVE. I couldn’t find any to post here, but they are particularly delightful.

Jag has a perfect #1.

This guy’s looks like a rose! ❤

Image may contain: sky, horse and outdoor

I told my husband that if we ever find a horse or a puppy with an Airbender star, I’m automatically allowed to have it. He agreed because it’s so improbable.

I also personally swore to myself that if I found a horse with a star shaped like the continents of Africa or Australia that I’d definitely at least give them a second and third look. Or if it looks like a gang symbol. Or something obscene.

Image result for airbender appastars just really don’t normally make arrows that point down

I saw a horse at the track with just the best star once! It was a classic diamond, but had been interrupted horizontally in the middle by a line of brown hair. It was fascinating! I also loved him because he was being very Murray-ish about standing around in the paddock. I have no idea what his name was, sadly.

What does your horse’s star (or face marking) look like? What are the best stars you’ve seen? Show them to me! I love stargazing now.

more camelot media!

I’ve been going to Camelot since 2011 — I’ve been so many times that I thought it would be fun to compare some media from my many shows there.

Dressage centerlines


june 2012 — check out that velvet helmet cover and horrifying braids! with the lovely Quincy

july 2015 — first rated show!


2017 – the final centerline since we cantered the first one!

2018 – I swear I was smiling just seconds before this!

Dressage tests


2012 – the definition of cherry picked! I only kept 3 pictures from this dressage test.
none of them were cantering!

2015 – the lean was fierce!!! this test scored a 39 — I was over the moon

2015 – canter leaning on point

june 2017 — aww look how cute he’s getting! still doing some weird shit with my torso though.


2017 – canter work was full of strugz


2018 – outfit on point, sideways lean almost eliminated!
no canter pics from 2018 again! oh well.

Cross Country

I pulled together a collection of schooling and showing pics for XC comparison. I thought there’d be more cross over between the various fences, but there wasn’t.

2012. holy long spot, quincy! murray could fit at least three more strides in there before taking off!

2012. camille, before she got a face lift!

 
2015. So good at jumping.


2015. this is Murray’s patented “slither” move.

2015 schooling like rather a juggalo here


2017 – we actually jumped the purple roll top this time!

2017 – I had originally thought this blue bike rack was the same as in the massive long spot above, but it isn’t!


2018. turns out i still climb my horse’s neck on occasion!

2018 – camille again! the previous section pictured is just to my left in here — by her tail.

2018 — this year, a bigger roll top!

Stadium Jumping

 2012 – this is the fence where I screamed “dickhead” because I made Quincy runout. sorry Q, I was definitely the dickhead there.


2012 – these BN fences look soooo tiny!

There were no 2015 stadium pictures, of course, as I was eliminated. But look! There are some bonus pics from Murray going intro in 2014 instead!

2014 – little baby murray!!

2014 – this is when i started to get serious about my outfit. is till own and wear this shirt!


2014. what even is happening here, murray?

2017 – enter the rainbow grab strap!


2017 – and the hanging knees. some things never change.

2017.  what a curiously familiar takeoff point that is, Murray…


2018. LOL those knees.

2018 – this seemed rather an unnecessarily big effort.

2018 – same knights as above!

 

shake it off

When Kate came up and rode Murray, she described him as trying to “shake off” the aids. When she put her leg into him, he wiggled or squirmed or maybe even kicked out, but didn’t necessarily go forward. Which is the whole point of putting the leg on in the first place. Megan pointed out that sometimes in response to leg Murray just pushes his ribs back into the leg — which is something I have felt before, but never had anyone identify it to me so I didn’t know if I was being crazy. These are such perfect descriptions of my horse’s behavior, though. He’s totally not being malicious. He’s just problem solving in a (for me) unproductive way.


no Kate, NO, you may NOT put your leg on me, nooooooooooo

In the last two months or so I’ve worked hard on pushing through those instinctive responses of Murray to just flick me off when I go to apply aids. It means pushing through my own instincts too. Because when Murray starts to get a little wiggly or sideways or offer up the wrong response, my go-to is to let up and try again. Which inadvertently tells Murray that he should repeat that behavior, because it resulted in a release of the pressure. So instead of letting up I have to keep my leg on and wait for the right response, or something resembling the right response, before I let go of the aid.

Even though he’s  learning rapidly and incredibly well lately, it’s still in Murray’s nature to shake off an aid he’s not totally in favor of.


“problem solving”

For example, sitting through the canter aid, which Kate suggested would help Murray understand the distinction between leg = bigger trot and leg = canter. Though I only use one leg for the latter and both for the former, sometimes it’s easier to canter rather than trot big. So this should help clarify that. Murray’s thoughts on sit-sit-canter range from THIS IS NOT ACCEPTABLE to ugh fine. We’ve been getting less offended flailing and more acceptance though. The other thing I noticed is that my first attempts at this lost all of the bear down, and I inverted in the middle and arched my back through the aid and transition. If I’m inverted through the transition, I can’t imagine that it’s easy for Murray to be round through it. So I focused on bearing down and shortening my front line through the transition, and it did seem to improve things.

not like this. this is not bearing down.

Then there’s connecting to the left rein. He’s always lacked connection to the left rein, as we both tend to just rely on the right rein for… most things. Megan directed me to really keep that left rein connection when it’s on the outside and push Murray over into it with my right leg. And in response, a couple of times Murray has flicked his head to the outside, turned left, or just stopped and gone backward. Which is, sorry kiddo, not what we’re looking for.

And then I caught myself doing something SO MURRAYish it was embarrassing. Though it’s somewhat torturous to do it, I’ve been forcing myself to improve the connection and march at the walk  before I move on to the trot. It doesn’t have to get perfect during the warm up, but it does have to move toward being more marching and through than when we started. A lot of this means finding out where Murray wants to start in the connection, and adding a bit of leg for more march and connection, and asking for a bit more roundness, having him bend properly instead of rotating around his inside front leg, then adding a bit more march and connection, etc. And after I added leg and felt Murray push into the bridle a bit more, I did something with my hands to shake him off the contact. I don’t recall exactly what it was, but that’s hardly important. No wonder this horse doesn’t want to take or trust the contact — if I’m not thinking about it, I might actually tell him to not do the right thing. Oops.

oh hey, apparently a year ago i briefly learned that short reins make my horse look way better. i clearly promptly forgot it.

Yet another example of how I am, truly, just like this horse.

So lots of things to focus on, and lots of dedicated practice needed for our rides. But it’s getting a little better, bit by bit. And once I stop accidentally shaking my horse off the aids, it will probably get better a bit faster!

vacation + house sitting

If you’re wondering, a fantastic way to get comfortable hauling your horse is to haul him approximately 250 miles over the course of 4 days. This is not necessarily a way to make your horse happy with you. But damn, I feel much better about trailering now!

Murray had just one night to languish at home in his pasture after Camelot, and then we got right back in the trailer and headed to my in laws’ house for ten days of house sitting and dressage schools and vacation and trail rides. He wasn’t happy about getting back on the trailer, and he was even less happy when he unloaded (may have sat down a wee bit). But he’s settled in and is doing all right.

The property is dreamy, with miles of trails nearby (mostly ag roads, but with some gentle terrain), and a full dressage court with mirrors (we had a dressage camp here a few years ago!). I’m getting some work done, and I’ve only messed up the irrigation every day so far. So that’s good work.

Unfortunately, being away from all my trainers has me feeling rather panicky. Murray is learning so quickly lately — he’s in a massive upswing of understanding. At the same time, I’m changing a lot about how I ride and how I communicate with him. Which leaves me in this terrible position of feeling like I shouldn’t ride unsupervised at all right now! What if I do something wrong? What do I do when he gets confused? How am I supposed to fix it when he throws new weird shit at me? Am I posting slowly enough?!

We will survive, obviously. And it’s all right — if there’s anything this horse has taught me, it’s that almost anything I mess up now I can probably fix later! (With the right help, of course.)

 

smashing & crashing

I’ve been watching a lot of Great British Bake Off so I mean smashing in all of its possible positive connotations, and not just the ones that look a bit like this.

I was a little worried about the XC course at Camelot. It was challenging — which is pretty much what Camelot excels at. And instead of a nice, friendly, welcoming, come-jump-me first fence, the Novice course had a big, barky, ramp-y hanging log.  I knew I’d have to ride it hard.  The second fence was the arrow, but after that pretty much everything on course was something we’d seen or jumped before.  They were still challenging and a good size, but they were at least challenges I was familiar with. Including that knee-busting down bank from last year.

yep, this arrow!

Murray warmed up really well. He didn’t feel tired, but he was listening and wasn’t sassing me too much. Kate, on the other hand, was full of sass. She kept telling me things like keep my ankle bone on my horse, and that I needed to steady my lower leg and stop jumping for my horse. And I was like “don’t you KNOW how this horse feels about having legs wrapped around him?” and she was like “stop sassing me and be a better rider”*. So I tried to do just that.

Given our problems with down banks lately, I made a plan with Kate for the down bank. She wanted me to ride the house before it on an opening stride, and then push Murray forward from that house for a stride or two with that same BIGGER feeling. Then I would keep my leg on and sit a little back to the down bank (Kate said I wanted to keep that feeling of having 3/4 of the horse in front of me). Murray could take all the time he needed to look at it, but I wasn’t to take my leg off or lose that forward motion. (I think. That’s how I remember the conversation, at least.)

The part I didn’t tell Kate was that if he refused it once and didn’t give me a good feeling about a second go at it, I was planning to retire. I wasn’t prepared to fight about it, especially not with a TD looking on.

Fortunately for us, the down bank wasn’t a problem!

Right down the bank, hooray!

We did, unfortunately, have a problem with the first fence. I tapped Murray three times coming up to it, but he was having none of it and needed a good, hard look at that fence as we got on top of it. I circled him and we got over it the second time, but at that point I knew we were absolutely just in it to finish and not to make time.

And it’s a good thing that I got that into my head early on, because our course was riddled with ridiculous moments of barely slithering over fences (maybe Murray learned something from that snake?), trantering, and stopping to STARE at fences that were absolutely not on our course.

Despite the stopping and staring, the fences I actually had a plan for rode really well. We got right over the trakehner without circling (my foolproof technique to get Murray’s attention back before fences on a downhill), and the down bank rode perfectly. I thought we’d get such an utterly shitty spot to the roll top out of the water because we’d lose all of the energy through the water, but lo and behold it rode just fine. We got in tight but not because we chipped in! It was the fences where I was just like “this is normal and easy, just go like you go at home!” that we flubbed majorly.

I told Kate that I pushed and leaned to this fence and took the flyer and it was awesome! I did push, and I did lean, and it was awesome. A flyer it was not.

Which is a pretty telling lesson.

We ended up with two 20s and a fair bit of time. C’est la vie when you stop for a peek every five fences on course and throw in an untimely circle before the last fence because someone is afraid of the finisher’s booth. It absolutely wasn’t perfect, but it’s also something that has gotten much better with practice in the past.

On Sunday morning Murray was definitely tired. He wasn’t quite as peppy in our stadium warm up as he had been for cross country. He was a good boy though, and jumped all the things, even with a HUGE break in the middle because of show scheduling probs.

I’m not exactly sure what went wrong in stadium. The timing wasn’t perfect. And we were tired. And the fence we crashed into was right next to that dreaded announcer’s/finisher’s booth that Murray hates so much.

What I know happened is that Murray jumped big over fence 4 and even bigger over 5. We didn’t manage to get pictures of number 5, but I really felt him crack his back over it. We landed in a bit of a pile, and I didn’t manage to get him back as we came around the corner to 6. Kate describes Murray’s scrambly gaits as “chicken gaits” and that’s exactly where we still were. We didn’t have a good rhythm and we didn’t have a good tempo. Whether it’s because he was scared of the judge’s booth or the fence or just didn’t feel like it, Murray tried to cram another stride in before the oxer and there simply wasn’t space. And down it came.

 

 

Fence four. Just a wee bit higher than we needed to be.

It was a disappointing end to the weekend to be sure. It would be nice to finish an event on my first go at the level some time. (And maybe to stop failing so hard at Camelot!) But it was an educational one, and it was fascinating to see Murray’s and my problems through a new trainer’s eyes.

We have a lot to work on — as always. But it’s work I know we can do, and work I’m excited to start on.

Plus — as many of you have mentioned — my outfit was on point. Now I just need some navy gloves….

*Not an actual Kate quote. Just the way I interpreted her kind sentiment.

better every ride

After hauling all the way to Camelot on my own, and getting there when it was rather warm, I was pretty delighted to find myself stabled next to Eugene and Levi. They are two of my favourite ponies, and I knew they wouldn’t spend the entire weekend kicking at the panels when my horse tried to befriend them. Murray ended up being much more friendly with Levi than Eugene (shhhh don’t tell David but Eugene is a bit of a snob!!).


I spent three days trying to catch these two making out

I knew from the get go that there would be a lot of different stuff about this show. Murray is a different Murray than he was six or nine months ago, and part of the new training paradigm/protocol is not letting him get away with unnecessary shit. Not to say that I get wild or whippy on him when he throws out some Murray moves — just that we get on with our lives and it doesn’t get him out of responding correctly to what I was asking for. (And yes, if this sounds a lot like “good training” you’d be right. Isn’t it wonderful that I’m learning about it now?!!)

So we got out into warm up, and after stepping on the danger noodle, we got to work. Kate said she’d refrain from trying to change the horse too much, but would throw biomechanics fixes at me to help put us together. And boy did she ever throw biomechanics at me.

First, Kate told me to stop shoving and over-riding the walk. Um, I thought I was just following the motion the way I was supposed to? No, apparently not. So I just stopped trying to do that all together, and focused on simply not resisting the walk. When we moved on to the trot Kate kept telling me to slow down my posting — no, slow it down more. She did not want me letting Murray bounce me around into the trot he wanted. Which is also what I thought I’d been doing for the last two weeks. Or not. You know.

I might even be smiling a bit here?
this must have been in the serpentine — which got a 7!

Kate wanted me to pull my seat bones further toward the front of the saddle — sitting them in the deep part of the saddle, instead of sliding them toward the back and perching forward slightly. It turns out I have this tendency of stacking my ribcage slightly ahead of my pelvis, so even though my spine is relatively neutral, I’m not actually sitting up straight. To remedy that, I needed to keep thinking about kneeling and sliding those seat bones forward in the saddle.

By far the biggest change in our schooling came in the canter work. Kate kept reminding me to lift the saddle on the upswing, and then allow the canter with my hands. I’d do one, and promptly stop doing the other. When I could do both at once and keep Murray moving forward, the canter totally transformed! I must practice this canter more to solidify the feeling and the mechanic, because that is the canter we’re actually going to be able to do stuff with.

On test morning I got up early and fed and braided, and only ended up about three minutes off my projected mounting time, with a clean ponito. I paid a kid to braid his tail and she did an incredible job — her best, she said! along with the comment that Murray has a really, really long dock — and we were looking spiffy and ready to go.

“free walk” (lol) — judge’s comments “needs more stretch, breaks to trot”, scored a 5
(we broke to the trot in the next movement also, garnering a 4)

I was not prepared for this dressage test. I’ve been riding “circles” and “diagonals” for months but haven’t actually paid attention to any movements or geometry. And the walk work? HA! I knew the walk would be what it was, so spent the weeks before focusing on the connection and the trot work. So I went in hoping to nail the geometry of the circles and serpentine (oh yeah, made Kate school me on those before — and was she ever a fucking task master about their size) and with fingers crossed for the walk work.

Before I went in to the test I asked Kate for a mantra to get me through the test and keep reminding me of what I needed to be doing to ride well. She gave me one for the trot and one for the canter — sit to the front of the saddle, and allow with the hands respectively.

And all in all? The test was great. I kept my reins shorter than I’ve ever (test) ridden with them. I had my leg on and Murray was prompt and pretty much on the aids. Our two big blunders were breaking to the trot in the free walk, and breaking to the trot again in the next movement (medium walk). Given that we’d schooled walk-trot transitions a fair bit in the last few days, you can hardly blame the guy. Plus, new mistakes! I love new mistakes. Hate old mistakes.

bad habits still exist, though!

Even with the two mistakes, we earned a respectable 35 even. (If we’d not blundered, I would have been in the 33.5 range, putting me ahead of at least one pro but WHO IS COUNTING NOT ME.) I thought the judge (Jane McEnespy) was very fair. I watched the test of a horse a few rides after me, and the horse was super obedient and steady and very quiet. That horse also had his head down but had zero connection through the reins and was totally behind the leg. They scored a 37.9. I feel like that’s pretty fair for a quiet, obedient, respectable test that isn’t totally correct. At least for Novice.

I am so proud of how Murray showed up for this dressage test. He came out of there like it was the most normal thing in the world. Oh — and I forgot to mention that because the ring stewards were being a little conservative about sending people to the rings, we had to legitimately trot over to our ring to get there in time. I’m also pretty proud of myself. I went into a dressage test and rode the hell out of it.  I didn’t just try to coast through and avoid, I put my leg on and actually did the thing. That’s pretty cool.

final halt and salute got us a 7.5, even though it wasn’t totally square. perhaps a little generous.

I’m still working on my salute. I definitely don’t practice in front of a mirror to see how it looks. I like the alignment of my arm with my body here, but think I would look a bit better if my hand were a little closer to my leg — less winged out to the side. What do you think?

many firsts (just not the satiny kind)

This weekend at Camelot was… a lot. A lot of fun, a lot of firsts, a lot of hard riding, a lot of hard work. I didn’t go in expecting it to be easy, and it wasn’t. But it was harder than I thought it would be.

This was my first solo hauling trip, and my first time traveling to a show without my main trainer. Which is not to say I was without training — Kate stepped in and did an incredible job. If I’m clever I’ll dedicate a whole post to it. The short version: you gotta get yourself a Kate.

I borrowed my MIL’s rig to get Murray to Camelot and despite a minor anxiety-inducing moment leaving her driveway (there is a VERY NARROW BRIDGE with a VERY TIGHT TURN) it was smooth sailing. A trainer friend helped me find someone to back the trailer up in a pretty primo parking space (I just had to drive through a dressage warm up to get to it), and we were set!

Right before we schooled in the dressage courts, I stepped on a snake for the first time! I was lining Murray up with a big wooden mounting block and checking his girth and the stirrups when I stood on something a little squishy. I looked down and thought “that’s funny, someone left a lead rope! Usually I’m the one who leaves lead ropes around.” And when I lifted my foot up, the lead rope SLITHERED AWAY.

Clearly my Australianness has worn off, because it’s genetically ingrained in us to NOT step on snakes. And there was a danger noodle, right under my foot!

helmet + bonnet + coat on point!

This was Murray’s first show wearing a bonnet, and my first show in my sparkly new helmet! (I’m pretty sure Leah found it for me last International Helmet Day, thanks Leah!!!) I think Murray liked his bonnets. Every time I went to put them on he’d duck his head down and let me pull the fabric over his ears. Normally he is not a fan of me messing around with his ears or the top of his head.

Oh and — duh — this was our first rated Novice.


and our first tail braid!

We had a personal best dressage score — our first 35! — even with two, two mistakes! Murray broke to the trot in the free walk and medium walk — another set of firsts, because usually he’s like “uggghhh do we really have to trot again, I thought we were done?”.

There were some less awesome firsts, though.

We had our first good crash into a fence, bringing down most of an oxer.

And for the first time, I retired on course.

It’s the only thing you can do after crashing like that, really.

This was also the first show I’ve gone to where I knew that I wasn’t prepared enough. Not that I haven’t been underprepared before — I just didn’t know it in the past.

It was by no means a perfect weekend. But all things considered, it was a pretty damn good one. Tears and all.

I learned a ton. I got to gallop fast and jump big. If there are holes in Murray’s ability to listen to the leg and go forward toward scary things, it’s nothing we can’t fix (I hear it’s all about this thing called “stimulus control”, right Kate?).

A million thanks to Sheila and to David and Olivia for pics. Where would I be without you guys?!