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.

 

Advertisements

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

getting stacked

Unlike many clever, productive bloggers I know, I wasn’t able to either a) get posts scheduled for the week of the Mary clinic, or b) get my Mary notes into blog-form immediately after the clinic. I have very good reasons for this, though. I was busy RIDING PONIEZ. I didn’t send in a video as a demo rider, since I had hardly ridden in the four months before the clinic. But I had some pretty big riding takeaways from the clinic, and Kate kindly offered up some of her ponies for me to play around on and practice with.

The biggest was about my plungers, specifically my faulty left plunger. Faulty? Maybe not faulty. Perhaps just a little less effective, kinda clogged with coffee grounds.

french GIF
pro tip: do not search “plunger” on giphy

Much as many people describe the horse’s body as made of train cars or blocks that you want to line up with one another (and not have the caboose off in some other universe or traveling  different direction), your torso can be thought of as stacks of boxes or building blocks (there are great images of this in When Two Spines Align). For a strong torso, your building blocks need to be stacked on top of one another squarely. They should be box-like.

But not everyone is box-like. Some of us have an extremely-well-developed gangsta lean.

I’ve been leaning off of the left side of horses since before you were born.


that’s not true at all, I’ve only been riding for nine years (so if you’re nine or younger, then it may be true)

I’ve known for a long time that there’s something wrong with my left side. On occasion, I’ve tried to counter-act the leftways lean by leaning right  or just JAMMING my left leg down. But those are not actually solutions. It turns out, my left side lean is much more complicated than that.

What the Mary clinic and riding with Kate showed me is that the problem with my left side has to do with how my boxes are stacked on that side. Somehow, my boxes are smushed down on the left side, with their center of smooshness somewhere near my hip. My left leg is shorter, my left seat bone isn’t on, and my left obliques are all shortened, and to top it all off I sit on the right side of the saddle. OH AND my left leg is less stuffed and toned than my right. It’s so embarrassing.

Kate picked this up first, when I was riding one of the horses at her barn. She encouraged me to put weight into left leg and sit with my right seatbone almost in the center of the saddle. I was like “no! I’ll fall off if I do that! My left seatbone is like 2″ off the saddle when I do that!”


not as bad, but my left side is still being a dick here

The next big piece came when we did spinal realignments during the clinic. After seeing L get her spine stacked up to neutral, I was like “me! me next! me me me!” and stripped off as much of my clothing as I could bear to shed so I could have my spine aligned properly. Hot hands packets fell out from all over my body as I did so, but I didn’t care. Anne sat me down on the bench, asked me to assume neutral, and then pushed down on my shoulders. I fell backwards at the lightest touch. Like not even a little bit unstable or wiggly, I straight up FELL BACKWARDS because my “neutral” is not straight.

Anne had to get after me a bit to get me to sit up straight, then showed the observers how my spine lacked the appropriate curves in general. I don’t have enough lordosis in my low spine, and not enough roach in my upper spine. (Roach may be the wrong word.) Anne added in a touch of curve to my lower spine, and had me lower my sternum. Then she pressed down on my shoulders again and I was a MUCH sturdier box. My leftways collapse was gone (or at least minimized) when I got my spine stacked up properly.

Image result for human spineit turns out that spines should be curved — just in the right ways

A third big piece of the puzzle came when Mary talked about the plungers and showed us how to assess our internal obliques. Okay, so what is the plunger? In short, the plunger is the feeling of weight down through your body, and you should have equal plungers on the left and right. Adopt a stance of extreme ‘tude. Your ‘tude-iest ‘tude stance. Cross your arms, sass your computer (or your dog or your boss), and lean on one leg. Feel how well the forces transmit down into that leg? That’s the plunger.

This could be wrong, but to me the plunger is strong when your box edges are all perfectly lined up, and the forces are being transmitted as efficiently as possible through your bones to your joints to the ground. Change to your non dominant ‘tude side. If you’re anything like me, you won’t even feel a plunger on that side. It’s like that leg is barely attached to the rest of your body and the ground. Mary had this whole method of moving the plunger from one side to the other but it didn’t work for me, really.

What did change my plunger was lengthening and shortening my internal obliques. There are three layers of obliques (I didn’t know! I should have, I spent enough time with animal carcasses), and they all strap your torso in slightly different directions. The internal obliques point from your hips up toward your sternum (desperately trying and failing to find a way to involve Mary’s memory device of “tits up” here). You shorten the internal obliques on one side (say the right) by bending to the right, crunching forward, and twisting to the left. You lengthen the internal obliques on that same side by bending to the left, leaning back, and twisting to the right.

We did this back and forth slowly about ten times, exaggerating the movements. Then we switched to the left internal oblique. After stretching and shrinking both sets of obliques, my left plunged SLAMMED into the ground. It was as if I could suddenly feel my weight equally through both legs. It truly felt like all of my boxes were actually lined up on my left side.

I haven’t had a chance to try this exercise in the saddle, and I’m not entirely sure it would be safe to do so. But next ride, I’ll give it a go before I hop on and report my findings.

As with all things Mary, your mileage will vary. LB-LB communication is fraught with error. But if you’re having trouble with twisting one direction or another, just know that it could very well be your abs (and plunger) working against you.

climbing rope + moving forward

Somehow, getting my horse forward has become a central theme of my life again. I had thought that I would try to establish the whole leg = go, no seriously it means go every time thing early on in my next horsey relationship. I guess I didn’t count on leasing a pony.

But, I did have a great conversation with TrJ in one of my lessons that helped me figure out a biomechanical problem I’m having, and helped us reformulate our approach to flatwork with young Samwise.

View this post on Instagram

Handsome little beastie . . . #reboundpony #weißwurst

A post shared by Nicole (@nicolegizelle) on

TrJ — and many other people who have trained me — comment constantly on my clinging and creeping leg. TrJ’s particular words are to let my heels drop down, and relax through my leg. But I’ve heard it many other ways. So finally, during a walk break in a flat lesson, I was like “soooo am I using my leg wrong? It feels like I’m climbing a rope, where they creep up a little bit more every time I squeeze until my leg us all crunched up.”

TrJ said she had a VERY similar conversation with the son of her trainer when she was a kid. The son said “it easy to solve, just push your leg down every time before you kick!” TrJ evidently tried that for a while. Seems easy enough, right? — jam leg down, kick, jam leg down again — and it turns out that is not actually the solution. I mean, not long term anyway.

The crux of the problem: the pony is not in front of my leg. I kick a little, and then I kick a bit harder and maybe squeeze a bit too, then I kick from that squeezing position, and next thing I know my feet are all the way up on the saddle flaps and my knees are at my chin like a jockey.

(I’m out of pony media, so please observe Smellinore demanding pats.)

View this post on Instagram

Place pats here . . . . #jellinoreroosevelt

A post shared by Nicole (@nicolegizelle) on

I’m at a slight disadvantage because of Sammy’s size. Because he’s short and rotund, my calf is what contacts his sides the most, and it’s a tad more difficult to make a clear kicking motion with the calf. But, TrJ pointed out, there are a lot of really tall riders out there (Boyd, William — she just refers to 4* riders by their first names like we see them all the time, ha!) who have this conformational problem on normal sized horses. However, they have no problems. Why? They get the horse responsive off the leg early.

So we spent the last few minutes of the lesson focusing on getting Sammy crisp off my leg in all gaits. He’s pretty good in the trot, especially after just a couple of kicks. But in the walk, his two-year-break from real work really kicks in. Sammy is like “no, the walk belongs to me.”

And that makes perfect sense. In jump lessons, we pretty much canter, jump a course, praise the snot out of him, and then let him do what he wants in the walk. And I plan to keep doing most of that, minus the part where the walk becomes the “pony rules time” gait.

TrJ had me do the very familiar exercise of giving a small kick and if I got no response in a couple of steps immediately following it up with a kick + tap of the dressage whip. We did several circles where I tried to walk for just four or eight steps before coming back to the trot and it was rough. Sammy was like “super, the walk is mine!” so I immediately reverted to shoving with my seat. Once I got my seat still, it was hard not to get yanked down out of the saddle but his attempts to scratch his face.

I repeated the exercises on my own during a ride and was really surprised how many repetitions it took for Sammy to start listening to my leg without the whip. I started the exercise going between trot and canter, because I know it’s a much easier transition for him to grasp. And grasp it he did! Transitions weren’t perfect, but they were there and they were prompt.

In the walk I got absolutely tuned out. Like, the second we were walking, I basically didn’t exist. I was maintaining the contact (insomuch as we had a connection at that point), so it wasn’t like I was throwing the reins away and saying “break time” with one aid and “work time” with another. But I did probably 20 or 25 transitions from walk to trot where I needed a light tap of the whip to back up the leg aid. To the point where I was like “oh man, I’m going to have to quit doing this in a second because it’s starting to feel an awful lot like a fight.” Finally, somewhere around attempt 26 I guess, I got a transition into trot just from my leg. It wasn’t super prompt, but it came before I got the whip organized and I was just like YES YES PONY YES and threw the reins away and let him have his head. I did one more transition to trot and Sammy was like “fine, I’ll play your stupid game” and then I practically leapt off and stuffed his face full of cookies.

your human games are stupid and you’re stupid and you should feel stupid, human

It did not take Murray 20-25 walk-trot transitions to get the idea of this exercise, so I was a little worried about the amount of time it took Samwell. But it turns out the pony is a clever little cookie, and I haven’t had to have the discussion more than one time per ride since then. So it took longer to stick at first go, but it has stuck much better than with my own horse!

Originally TrJ suggested I work on a bit of getting Sammy forward and a bit of getting Sammy to push into the bridle during each ride, and bring the two together as we made progress on each. But they converged way faster than we expected, and getting pony forward has resulted in much better interest in stretching forward and down. So now I get to work on both at once, which is obviously so easy for a unitasker like myself.

And for those of you who sometimes feel like you’re climbing rope when riding your horse, I have an exercise for you….