get organized! (aspen h.t.)

The truck curse was still with me two weeks later when Aspen Farms Horse Trials rolled around. Wednesday I took an eight hour roadtrip back to Yakima to retrieve my beloved truck. Then the next morning, one of the tires was suspiciously low after I had topped it up the night before. Next, barnmate got injured rendering her unable to show. Day now thoroughly upside down, I zipped off to Les Schwab to get the hole in my tire fixed and TrJ rearranged her day to show barnmate’s horses for the weekend.

About four hours after I had intended to leave, I loaded Speedy up in my Loaner Trailer (I really, really like that trailer) where he looked at me suspiciously since he was alone, but stood still as can be for the whole ride. So still, in fact, that I pulled off at a truck stop to check that he was still standing in there. And he was, just…. completely still.

We have had an uncharacteristically wet spring in the PNW this year. We got 12.87″ of rain at my house in March, April, and May of this year. For the same period in 2020 we got 7.5″ and only 3.57″ in 2021. We had a few sunny days leading up to the show but the humidity was rising and the barometer was getting low (literally we measure these things at my house now). According to all sources, it was going to be a wet and wild one at Aspen.

It wasn’t quite raining men, but when I got there the parking area was an absolute mud pit. A friend of TrJ’s had kindly saved me a spot and I wrangled my trailer into it. I got Speedy unloaded and into his stall — literally the closest stall to the entry gate, which meant he had lots to gawk at all weekend — and then committed to tacking up for the shortest hack I could reasonably fit in because it was just raining harder and harder every minute.

wet wet wet. I bought this rain coat before Kentucky and it saved me at Aspen!
Lee Schaber

As an aside, WHY are people such assholes in show parking? I had to knock on someone’s LQ door to ask them to move their truck to get into my spot as they were blocking both the road and the spot. The group parked on the other side of the spot asked me to repark and move a little further away from their rig. I declined, since I didn’t think the ground would hold up to repositioning. This is show parking. The goal is to fit in as many rigs as possible, not provide you with luxury accommodations you wingdings. If you want a bigger spot, buy an RV spot.

During my hack Speedy decided he couldn’t possibly canter in the puddles in the arena, which was fairly worrisome. When I told TrJ she advised me to put in a couple of small grass studs for dressage the next day because — surprise!! — I got to ride on the grass. This actually worked out in my favor, as I’m not sure the property owner would have appreciated me studding up for dressage in his sand arena.

still not straight 10s for cuteness??? but got a compliment on his canter this time!

My ride time was 8:56, so after TrJ and I got barnmate’s horses settled in I poured myself a cocktail and tried to braid Speedy. People were cruising back in to the show grounds after dinner at that point, and Speedy was at his most gawkiest and fidgety. After getting three braids done in an hour I gave up, decided it would happen in the morning or not at all, and set myself a 4 am alarm. Worst case scenario I would beg off my failure to braid with the fact that it is beginner novice and — I think — not technically required.

I really need to get my own watch to wear to shows, because once again I had a bit of a timing panic when I heard the warmup/ring stewards calling the rider directly ahead of me. (Fortunately they were informing them they were three out or something, but it still got me a little worried.) Speedy did jump one puddle as we were cantering around in the warmup, and I was a little hesitant to really put my leg on him on the slick grass. TrJ encouraged me to trust that he had his footing and that I need to practice putting my leg on him because I need to be able to push him forward even over sloppy ground.

As far as the test went, it was the first time I got into the ring and could actually feel and ride and make adjustments during a dressage test, which was huge for me! I was chatting with a friend about it later and she described the contrasting feeling as “hoping your warmup was good enough and holds through the test,” which is how I normally feel going into a dressage test. Speedy, for his part, was excellent. I’m always so impressed with how he buckles down and is such as yes-man in the show environment. Yet another thing to love about him.

dressage test video:

My cross country ride was Saturday early afternoon. It rained hard Friday night, but by Saturday morning the sun was starting to peek out. Novice riders went in the morning and there were some pretty wild skid marks from the earliest horses on course. A couple of soggy course walks had me convinced that none of the questions on the course looked big or scary (and there was a sharkstooth that I was super excited to jump!) but that the quality of the footing would really be a deciding factor in how I rode. After her Novice XC ride, TrJ told me to put in some pretty big studs and feel it out as I went. Luckily, that week I had just schooled at Inavale in a lot of wet, sticky mud, so I had an idea of how Speedy might feel in those conditions and how I might want to ride him.

Luckily the ground had really firmed up by the time I got out on course, and Speedy didn’t have any footing troubles or hesitation compared to the horses in the morning. Speedy left the start box with the same open, easy canter that I’d felt from him at EI and I felt both excited and peaceful as we cantered over the first few fences.

I was excited for this ramp and Speedy jumped it in style
Cortney Drake Photography

I discovered at fence three that I had pressed the wrong button on my watch to get it to start, so I was running without minute markers. I tried on a long gallop stretch to get it started but couldn’t seem to find the “start” button (it’s just the biggest button on the watch, Nicole, no big deal) so gave up. I estimated that Speedy’s easy canter would be right on pace for the course (350 mpm I think?) so figured that as long as I moved my pace up from that a bit and made sure to gallop the longer stretches I would be fine.

The water entrance was where I had my first taste of trouble with Speedy: coming up to the wide, entrance he skittered to the right and I aaaalmost missed the flag. Later, walking the course at Inavale, TrJ explained to me that you really want young/green horses to be able to see their way into and out of the water. I clearly took too steep of an approach to this entrance, so Speedy’s eye was glancing right past the flag and around the water instead he of thinking about going through the water. The better approach would have been to go out wide to the right and turn Speedy to the water so he was approaching it more directly.

eeeeeps!

But we made it in and through, and I knew I’d need to purposefully half halt and put my leg on for the second water on course. I got excited and leaned for the long one to the sharks tooth, and then absolutely did not stay with Speedy with my body, so that jump was a bit ugly too.

Coming down the hill to the second water, I made that effort to purposely slow Speedy and point him into and through the water, and he entered with less hesitation this time. The second to last fence had been pulled off the course because the landing was a total swamp, so after the second water we had another long gallop stretch to just two more fences.

Nicole: so excited to jump this fence!!!!!!
Also Nicole: jumps the fence really poorly *facepalm*
Cortney Drake Photography

Speedy was careful with the terrain changes throughout the course. Aspen has both gently rolling terrain and some steeper knobs, pimples, and moguls that the course designers use liberally for all levels. Whenever we had a steep downhill, Speedy slowed to a trot as he assessed the grade and I legged on to encourage him to roll back into a canter when he was comfortable. I think it will be good for us to practice developing and maintaining an uphill canter even through those quicker terrain changes. But for now we have time to kill and it doesn’t matter if we trot a few downhill slopes. I’d rather than than have him panic and run downhill out of control.

Since I had no watch, I had no idea whether I’d come in on time on cross country and had to wait until scores were posted online. While I waited (and iced my horse) one of my best friends showed up with his daughters (his wife was one of the vets working at the show). Speedy napped and we put together an enrichment ball for him and the girls admired him (for about five minutes, and then they became distracted with the bed tucked up in the gooseneck of the trailer).

Sunday I didn’t ride until early afternoon again, and I spent the morning watching some of the 2*/Prelim with my friend and his daughters. Overnight the course designers and builders had to move sections of tracks and multiple fences for almost every single level for Sunday’s cross country. The rain (which started again Saturday night) and slop created by the horses that had already run cross country forced their hand. I cannot imagine the stress that must have caused everyone on both sides. Luckily, I got to do stadium on Sunday!

While I was warming Speedy up for stadium, I was coming around to one of the fences and as I was making the turn TrJ yelled at me “get organized!” This is not uncommon for me to hear from TrJ; I seem to be the perpetually disorganized. In this case though, I thought “I was just about to, uggggh!!” And then I realized…. TrJ wants me to get organized earlier than I think I need to get organized. The next go around I tried to organize myself through the turn, rather than on the straight away, and TrJ still beat me to the punch with her “get organized!” I definitely still have plenty to work on in the organization department.

omg the snoooot — Cortney Drake Photography

The stadium course at Aspen had a little more height than the one at EI, but once again was a really fun, flowing course. And this time I headed in with a determination to actually ride this course. I did a pretty good job of keeping Speedy steadily forward until we turned around to the vertical that was on the diagonal across the arena. It was a long approach after coming around the corner, and Speedy got way close and rapped it hard. After watching the video about a hundred times, I needed to get Speedy a bit better organizer earlier in the turn and keep the canter steady through the turn and down the long approach. I didn’t actually have enough space on the long approach to “just steady” after rebalancing, and Speedy moved up ever so slightly to the fence (which is his tendency anyway), getting us awfully close.

I love Speedy here, but there’s looots for me to work on.

After flagrantly turning back to check on that rail, we came around to the in and out. I’d definitely lost some control at this point and Speedy jumped crooked over the oxer in and then (of course) saved us over the out. Since Speedy powered up to fit in the two, when I sat on him to half halt to the final fence he didn’t immediately come back to me, so I figured it wasn’t worth making a big deal about it (spoiler alert: TrJ did not agree) and let Speedy carry us down to the fence.

Luckily Speedy is both quick and handy and he got out of his own way for the last fence as well and left that one up, so we had another double clear round under our belts.

Lee Schaber

The scores in our division at Aspen were nuts. The top six riders in my division all finished on their dressage scores — me included — and only a few riders dropped down during XC or stadium. I started in 9th after dressage and only moved up to sixth.

Regardless, I was super proud of both Speedy and myself for getting through our first soggy PNW event without any major mishaps! Although, we got super lucky and it wasn’t actually raining during any of our rides, and the sun even came out for our cross country run a little bit. But those frigid, soaking, Aspen (poor Aspen, always seems to happen at Aspen) weekends are a staple of the PNW eventing scene so we had to have one sooner or later.

Corney Drake Photography

Writing this all out, and watching all my videos again, it’s becoming clear to me that I need to invest a little more mental effort into getting Speedy and myself organized! I need to be quicker to get organized, and better about staying organized (since it’s more efficient to stay that way than it is to vacillate between organized and disorganized. Though honestly, I’m sure that will be a long-term piece of homework for me. Being organized is not my strong suit.

don’t forget to #hugyourhorse! Cortney Drake Photography

xc schooling, systematically

Speedy and I had a jam-packed end of March, as the Friday after we got back from Shawna Karrasch we loaded back up for a two-day cross country schooling on “the dry side” at Tulip Springs. I had a lot of farm work to catch up on, so TrJ rode Speedy during the week for me. He came back with a very good report card — his flat work is coming along, he’s getting stronger and more balanced, but TrJ would like to keep jumping him once a week because he’s just so fun.

Oh and also because he could use her help with staying soft to the fences, which I guess is fair. And in reality, it works pretty perfectly with my heinous spring farming schedule, and is exactly why I wanted to be in a program with trainer rides.

Speedy finally got a chance to groom his lesson buds, and did so with gusto throughout the weekend. He stopped looking quite so deranged and desperate after half an hour or so.

On Friday, TrJ had Speedy and I come out for a private lesson, and instructed me to give Speedy a good lunge before coming out to gauge his energy levels and get him to start listening and then bring the lunge line out in case we needed it. I used some of my Shawna strategies during my lunge, and while Speedy wasn’t totally attentive and responding to the game, he did settle in to it and looked for clicks after some gawking. Since he seemed reasonably settled, I wandered out to TrJ on course with the lunge line clipped to my belt loop.

TrJ has a pretty different cross country schooling style to the other (what, three or four total??) trainers I’ve schooled with. She had me trot Speedy around working on the same things we work on at home (bending, going forward and back, a little bit of lateral work) until he felt really, really rideable. If he broke into the canter, I was to bring him back to the trot and keep working at the trot. TrJ wanted me to be able to go forward and back within the trot without tension in his response. She even called me out at one point when I thought about maybe cantering sometime soon and Speedy stepped politely into the canter.

all the media I have from schooling is a vast collection of blurry video/screenshots, thanks to iphone and android not playing well together. i blame apple obvs. but it is a pretty cute blurry screenshot.

“Did you ask for that?” TrJ yelled at me.

I had to sheepishly admit that no, I had not, and she instructed me to return to the trot. TrJ also had me trot around and between all the different fences, letting Speedy see them from all angles. At one point we trotted alongside between two fences, one of which TrJ was sitting on, and Speedy stiffened his neck against me. TrJ asked me why he did that. I thought it was Speedy telling me he was uncomfortable/uncertain. In this case, I thought it was because he wasn’t sure what I was asking him to do, or what I might ask him to do. Was he going to have to jump that fence again in a minute? TrJ agreed that it had to do with Speedy’s discomfort and lack of understanding, so told me to revisit any fences he stiffened at like that until he could stay soft around them. It never took more than a second pass by a fence for Speedy to stay on task and with me.

After an eternity at the trot (okay probably like 15-18 minutes), TrJ said that Speedy looked like he was ready to canter, and I desperately was. So we repeated it all at the canter. One thing I didn’t do as much, and TrJ didn’t push me on it, was ask Speedy to go forward in the canter. I didn’t know how much zip I would get in the canter, and this horse has taught me more than any other that I absolutely am not stronger than a horse. So I wanted to keep us both in control, and if that meant not opening up his canter too much in an open space, that was just fine with me.

We did, eventually, jump. But we warmed up (at the trot and canter) for probably 25-35 minutes, way way longer than I’ve ever warmed up for XC before, especially just schooling. TrJ let me know that her plan was to take Speedy over all the various elements that Tulip had to offer and see what he remembers and what he needs to work on.

Speedy was exactly as brave and forward to the fences as I remembered, and didn’t take a second look at anything. But he did get tense, pull, and fling himself over the fences from the very beginning. Sometimes he over-jumped, sometimes he just surged to the fence, but almost all of those first jumps involved Speedy breaking tempo, ignoring my half halts, putting his nose up, and doing exactly what he wanted. TrJ had me keep circling back to the same log at the trot, focusing on keeping the tempo and keeping him on the bit as best I could, until Speedy started to jump softly, in tempo, lifting through his withers.

blurry smudge demonstrates signature Speedy stag sproink

Next, we strung a few fences together. And every time Speedy got tense and rushed to the fences I just came back to the trot as quickly as I could and circled back to the fence at the trot. I don’t remember it taking more than one circle at any fence in a string to get a softer jump out of Speedy.

I’ve never had a coach on cross country make such a point of getting a calm, quiet response to every fence. Usually over-jumping and pulling is laughed off as great enthusiasm, maybe the horse jumps the fence once more, and then everyone moves right along. TrJ has talked to me at length at home about how rideable she wants all her horses (Speedy included), and I’ve seen her dig into other students about getting their horse rideable and responding correctly. Having Speedy approach each fence steadily and quietly, and jump each fence softly and with correct form, is an important element of that rideability. Speedy’s signature stag-leap is not a good habit to be jumping in. It might be the response that he’s “most comfortable” with, but our goal is to reprogram that response into something more reasonable, more stick-able, and less prone to scare the shit out of Speedy (or me!) when we start jumping bigger fences.

And how do we reprogram that response? More reps of jumping fences correctly, instead of in bambi-mode.

one of my favourite things about overnights with horses is morning coffee + grazing time

TrJ also introduced us to some technical elements (banks, ditches, sunken road) really systematically, which really came as no surprise after the way she approached us jumping a simple log on the ground. We took extra time at the banks to make sure Speedy and I were both on the same page, since I told TrJ right up front that I’m terrible at down banks. TrJ had me grip with my lower calf — none of this lean-back nonsense that I’ve gotten from every other trainer ever — rather than my thighs, and Speedy helped me out by being the most reasonable and conservative down-bank-dropper ever. Love him.

Our private school was long, and we covered pretty much every jump I was comfortable with that was out there. I kept expecting TrJ to say “that was good, let’s end it there for him” because that often happens in our lessons after Speedy and I complete an exercise well. But we kept on trucking along, and Speedy got more and more rideable and more and more sensible throughout the day.

hopefully someday soon I’ll learn to ride my horse AND grab mane?

On Saturday we rode in a group, and Speedy came out both more relaxed and more amped. On Friday, he felt nervous-new-place-what’s-going-on rushy. On Saturday, he felt strong-happy-friends-are-here-I-love-this-game rushy. But, he was responding to my clicks and looking for treats way more on Saturday. At several points he wouldn’t graze, but he did turn to me for a carrot, so that was neat.

Again, we schooled very systematically. Speedy was much more reasonable on approach to the fences, and TrJ noted that his tendency to stiffen, pull, and stag leap came when I was softening too much on approach to the fence. (Which is exactly what I do at home, and exactly what I’ve been dinged for as a rider for a decade so…. maybe I’ll finally break that habit?) TrJ reminded me to keep riding Speedy to the base of each fence, and I worked on staying effective and supportive in that ride (rather than chasing/driving).

We cantered more fences on Saturday too! But the same rules applied. If Speedy hollowed, pulled, and ignored my half halt, I just had to circle him back around and come to the fence again. It’s a bit easier for me to manage him in the canter, because it’s a gait I’m more effective in. Also, I put my stirrups up a few holes and was actually making contact with the knee blocks on my saddle, which was astonishingly helpful. Weird, how equipment works best when you use it as intended.

Overall, a really good outing for both of us, though I probably got more out of it than Speedy did. Speedy is still as confident and fun on cross country as the horse who convinced me to buy him at the gel√§ndeplatz. He’s SO game (seriously, not an ounce of refusal or balk in him out there) and so enthusiastic. I want to hold on to that, even while we rebuild his habits to be a bit more reasonable. TrJ is so organized, I can actually see a path for us to get that rideability out there. Which on its own feels pretty amazing, after floundering around in my riding for the last few years.

We will definitely need a few more outings before I feel show-worthy, which might be hard to wrangle with the spring schedule, but we’ll get there!

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.

xc schooling: this is not a negotiation

The thing that sucks about being an integral part of event organization/management is that you spend all this time making courses fun and rideable, and then you decorate them and make them all gorgeous and even more fun, and then you clean them all up before you get a chance to ride them. I mean, talk about unfair. So obviously I’m all over any opportunity to school the course when one comes up — especially right after the event, when the footing is still awesome!

Murray was hard to read for much of the time we were on course. He was super calm and mellow walking around, not jigging or spooking or pulling ahead of the group. Just walking around and enjoying the scenery. And that is awesome! I totally want ponito to be calm and mellow out there.

When we started warming up over the easy, mellow fences, Murray got a bit of pep in his step. He pulled me toward the little logs on the ground, and even some of the bigger ones.

Then we came to a fence that was a bit bigger, and a bit more like a cross country jump — a pretty standard log box, nothing too exciting. Just a bit different. And Murray was like “okay, okay, okay” right up to the base and then “WOAH NO WAY”. Which is really not that easy to ride, especially when you’re not in the best riding shape yourself.

So I got a little defensive and kicked Murray toward the smaller fences for more of  warm up. And in response he got pissed.

The problem with riding defensively (for me, at least) is that it means I get left waaay behind over the fences, and I can’t stick with the motion of the jump. I unfold the landing gear way too early, and end up slamming down on Murray’s back and/or face with every fence. Which is understandably unpleasant.


not how i want to be landing

But when your horse is being pulling you forward one moment and slamming on the brakes the next, it’s hard¬†not to get defensive. And when he bucks and leaps and throws his head up so high he’s looking back at you between his ears well… you don’t really want to let go of those reins.

That is, of course, why I have a neck strap. I was just too stupid to think of it at first.

hello, mother!

We jumped back and forth over the log for a bit, with an unnecessary amount of accompanying antics. So I decided to leave the log box for later, when Murray was in a bit better mental space, and we headed up the hill to watch the prelim and training team tackle the down banks.

I had wanted to practice over one of the medium (probably 3′ drop?) banks, since Camelot often has one. But we just settled for watching and laying down in the grass instead.

When we got to the little BN/Novice banks, Murray was like “YES UP BANKS YES” and he was awesome! Then I turned him around to go down them and he was like “NO HELL NO”.

Long story short we tried easing him into it by going off the edges and just representing and representing and representing and following another horse and Murray just doubled down with Nope. I could feel him pushing his sides out against my leg further and further back from the lip of the bank, and could just tell that the conversation was getting less and less productive. It would have been different if there had been an even smaller bank to step down, but as it was I called it off. I knew it wasn’t going to get better, only worse.

So we moved on to the water. After which came Murray’s piece de resistance of NOPE.

look it’s just a little rainbow chevron! it’s awesome, okay Murray?!!

So there’s this new rainbow coop coming out of the water. And I’ll admit, it’s painted a little scarily for a pony. It’s probably a bit weird looking in their not-quite-full-color vision. And Murray was having NONE of it.

I walked him up to it, had him touch it, let him look over both sides of it. Then we trotted up to it and he was like “naw” pretty far out. So I cantered up to it and he was still like “nope.” We switched to the other side so he was going back to the group and he SCREECHED to a halt basically right on top of the fence. And then he did it AGAIN. And then I smacked him with my reins, gave him a good long runway, and got a quality, rhythmic canter going. And he stopped¬†again.

Each time he stopped he was basically on top of it. Front feet touching the base board, nose right on top of it. He just didn’t want to jump it.

I’m not going to pretend I was giving him the perfect ride every time. But it was a good enough ride and a small enough fence that stopping on top of it was truly unnecessary.

a much more reasonable landing position! yay

This might be too much anthropomorphism, but it really felt like Murray was thinking “I don’t know if you recall, but I don’t have to do this anymore if I don’t want to.” Which is, unfortunately for him, not the case. I’m not going to ask him to do anything too crazy. And in response, he’s going to have to do what I ask.

We had this discussion once more about a bright orange table (think Home Depot if it were a highlighter), and then a small green and blue bunker. After the green and blue bunker there was a long gallop stretch, and Murray really took off and flattened out. And I think something clicked then — that cross country is the place where we do the jumping and the galloping and it’s not¬†soooooooooooo bad out here after all.

We schooled the ditches with a good bit of success (it really was my fault for letting Murray point himself at a ditch I knew had just been filled with white gravel — I should have given him more of an opportunity to look at it first), and Murray started pulling me toward the fences again. I felt like we were finally in a good enough rhythm that I could get into a proper jumping position and stay out of his way, and in return he could use his body the way he wanted to.

We ended with the last few fences on the Novice course — a large hanging palm log on a gentle downhill, short gallop, then a pretty sharp left turn to a little coop. Murray cantered down to the palm log and felt so good that I just let him gallop on to the final fence. He slowed to a trot for a hot minute when he thought that I was going to ask him to jump the training or prelim fences backwards, but then I turned him onto that sharp left and he saw the coop and was like “oh super!” and trotted right up and over it.

Getting into that groove felt¬†awesome!¬†I just wish it hadn’t taken us 90 minutes to get there! Fingers crossed that with a few more jump lessons and another XC outing under our belt we get back to that place of rideability more quickly and can actually, you know, run a whole course.

xc schooling hot takes

I had the gall to take Murray cross country schooling in preparation for Camelot this weekend. It was… interesting.

doing like the humans do

Last time we schooled (at Fresno), Murray was super displeased in general and spent a lot of time bucking instead of cantering, screaming and kicking out after fences, and generally making the fact that something was wrong known to the world.

So I got the saddle checked and reflocked and we’ve jumped a few times since then. So I was¬†relatively sure that Murray wasn’t in pain during this schooling. Just opinionated.

And sleepy. Apparently pony was very sleepy. He found a nice patch of grass and got ready to curl up.

ugh fine I’ll get back up

There were many invisible fences.

just little ones

And I rode some invisible drops.

I also totally failed to ride some real ones.

Murray can change his mind SO FAST. One second he’s like YES LETS DO THE DITCH I KNOW HOW TO DO THIS NOW. And the next….

It took us a while but we did get our ish together about 2/3 of the way through schooling. We solved some problems and I figured out how to actually ride my horse.

not like this, is the answer

So all in all a fun day! With an excellent, excellent media outcome!

flat out

Flat out both describes the hours I was working in the week leading up to our first one-day this year, and my status post-show (as in flat out in bed). This show was hectic.


how many jump standards can you fit in a nissan versa? eight. eight is the answer.

Some unforseen equipment failures made it such that we couldn’t start working on the new tracks until way too late. I mean, a broken mower will do that to you. We also had a very lofty list of fence improvements, and were somewhat unwilling to compromise on what we would sacrifice to make sure it got done in time for Saturday.

So we got it all done.

we made a prelim-sized piece of chocolate cake! sprinkles tba

This meant three straight days of 6-8 work at Stallion Station by me and the course builder, and a ton of hours put in by the owner and a whole host of other volunteers. But it looked BALLER and it rode EVEN BETTER.

every level got a rainbow!!

There were also 35mph winds (with gusts up to 45mph) on Friday which made prepping SO MUCH FREAKING FUN.

I love working this show, but I’m glad my life will be getting back to normal for a while. It really takes it out of you. Plus being forced to watch and not getting to show is definitely a bummer.

That and I haven’t laid eyes on my horse in…. 11 days.

We found this HUUUGE gravid female Western Pond Turtle on course while setting up. It was crazy!! Behind those oak trees to the left, Cache Creek runs through. I think Mrs. Turtle got confused looking for a nest site in the intense wind and came up much further than she needed to.

There’s no regularly schedule of riding in my life any more, but this week should be a nice one. Not too much on the schedule, so plenty of time for the pony.

 

notorious ottb makes his triumphant return to intro-level eventing!!!

A couple of weeks (March 23rd! ugh! so long ago!) before the #toitnups I got to take Murray to Fresno to school XC, which was a good way to knock a couple of goals off my list and have some maaaaajor flashbacks to four-year-old Murray.

Murray marched out to cross country at a strange place boldly and with only a few idiot moments as we crossed tiny ravines or gravelly rivulets from the intense recent rains. The fantastic thing about Fresno is that it’s super sandy and just soaks up the water like nbd, so the course had a couple of mucky spots but was, overall, in pretty good shape.

As was Murray’s attitude.

let me tell you what i think of this perfectly nice, well-groomed track

We got out on XC and Murray was like “ahh, no, I won’t be trotting around in straight lines or circles, thanks all the same”. He kept turning in off the tracks (where the gopher holes were rife) and balking. He was a little ball of tension, so I just focused on giving him a job without putting on too much pressure: just go forward and steer-ish and all will be forgiven.

And then the train came.

A really, really long train. Right along that track that you can see just behind us in that picture above.

To his credit, Murray did not utterly lose his shit like the last time we encountered a train. He did, however, decide he was going back to the trailers. Now.

So he would turn toward the trailers and I would turn him back onto the course, and he would turn toward the trailers, and I would turn him back toward the course. In this manner we made our squiggly way 50 meters or so away from my trainer, but managed to at least stay out on cross country.


We warmed up over a little cabin, which Murray stopped at the first time and was like “err what is this again?” But after that he was pretty much on board with the jumping thing.¬† It was just getting to and from the jumps that was unexpectedly difficult.

Our next set of antics came as we approached a log box with 3-4 strides after landing to a¬†steep downhill. I was pretty worried about the whole steering + Murray + downhill, so when he came to a stop at the log box I decided we’d have to tackle that question another day. Instead, I tried to ask Murray to settle down and canter politely in a circle in the grass.

To which he responded thusly.

Which was, of course, greatly appreciated by everyone involved. Especially the people trying to have a dressage show just across the way from Murray’s absurd antics. Sorry, dressage peeps!

At this point it was pretty clear that I was going to have to come back to Fresno if I intended to get any serious schooling done, so I decided we’d just go back to the baby basics: walk around, jump some easy jumps, try not to be a freak show.

Murray seemed settled enough at the walk and marched around the course just fine, but he was really spooked by the bigger fences and whenever I asked him to canter he started to flail around and go sideways. Every time. Pretty much until we were right in front of a fence, at which point he’d sit back on his butt and drag us over the fence. It was… confusing.

I realized at the end of the day that this was pretty much exactly what Murray used to do when we would take him schooling as a 5 year old. It took me a while to remember that. But I used to only be able to canter him if we were 8-12 strides out from a fence, and never in a group.

yes, my favourite thing ever is re-training the horse i hope to take novice in 6 weeks over intro fences.

The new monkey wrench in the ride was that upon landing Murray would immediately throw his head in the air and pull hard to the right. Which he had kinda done since we started jumping again this year, but was accentuated to an absurd degree while we were schooling.

We did still manage to get some good fences in. And, a train came by not one, not two, but¬†three more times while we were out there (after which it came¬†never again that day). Each time Murray got progressively less anxious and slightly more angry. During the passing of the third train he even managed to anger-eat a few bites of grass! I imagine that he’s thinking of the grass as me, and biting into it with all¬† the feels he wishes he could gnaw into my flesh. Or maybe he’s imagining he’s killing a train. Who knows.

Overall not the most productive schooling outing ever, but there were definitely some positive moments. We can still mostly jump, I can still mostly not fall off my horse, and our steering showed definite improvement as the day went on.

A week later during a jump lesson I discovered the likely cause of all the flailing and pulling right upon landing: the flocking on the panels behind Murray’s shoulders is pushing into his newly-formed-and-oh-so-ripped topline muscles. Which is a good thing because yay topline! But it’s a bad thing because I literally¬†just¬†got my saddle reflocked, and think I’m outside of the 30-day free callback that my fitter offers.

Ultimately, I decided not to enter the Fresno HT because there just wasn’t enough time… with wedding planning, job crazinesss, and my horse coming back into the world of jumping like he’s a four year old (just bigger, stronger, and cleverer than before), there was just no way could get the two of us ready in time.

and uh… whatever this is

But we’re back at it! And there will be plenty more shows for us to flail around at later this year. In the mean time, there will be plenty of flailing Murray antics to enjoy!

shadows of the future

When I lived in Congo, I watched this group of 5-10 year old chimplets, living together in a peer group.¬† As you might imagine, watching a bunch of pre-pubescent chimps do their chimpy thing all day was a riot to observe, but not necessarily indicative of adult chimpanzee behavior.¬† They played hard and, sometimes, fought harder, as kids are wont to do.¬† More often than not they fought over nothing, perceived slights or a toy that couldn’t be shared, a dead frog that everyone wanted.

not kid chimps, but really cute regardless

The “alpha” of this little group, we’ll call him Lousingou, was a delightful young man, not the biggest around, nor the strongest, but magnificent in his own mellow way. I adored him, but as far as alphas went, he didn’t do much.¬†It took me weeks to even figure out that he was the alpha. He was lovely, but he never threw his rank around, for better or worse (and throwing your rank around is literally what male chimpanzees live to do).¬† One day a screaming, shrieking fight broke out between two other kids in the group group, and it went on a moment longer than usual. Lousingou was sitting by me at the time; his hair suddenly stood on end, he grew five inches (in just the way that horses do when you get to a show), and he barreled over to the fight.¬† More accurately, he barreled¬†through the fight, breaking the two of them up with the swift efficacy that can only come with great power and great respect.

I was just a flash.¬† Just a moment.¬† But it was a moment so clear it was impossible to believe that this wasn’t the alpha male that Lousingou would grow into.¬†If you told me that Lousingou was anything other than a magnificent, big male now, I’d cut off my own hand.

and I don’t just mean a big male by virtue of size, but one of those really important big males who shape the group they live in. a david greybeard, if you will.

I felt moments of this schooling the Zookini XC for the first time on Monday.¬† It was the girl’s second field trip, and first time on a cross country course.¬† Of course there were bobbles. The brake line failed multiple times and the power steering went out for sure.¬† But there were moments — these wonderful moments — where I could just see the incredible horse that this mare will become.

in addition to being an excellent sofa, which she is

At first Suzy was confused by all those gigantic things out there.  Like, what sick creature would put giant, stonehenge-like structures out in the middle of a field of food?  They could not be real.

Once she realized that they¬†were real, and weren’t going to eat any of us, things got better. Suzy led the group, walked in the middle, trotted with the other horses, even cantered in the group a little and¬†didn’t lose her head. The water was easy — easy!

Then we walked up to the little baby logs on the ground and she was like “I couldn’t possibly comprehend what you want me to do with this.”¬† Trainer kindly walked Suzy over the littlest one on the ground and a lightbulb went off in the mare’s head.¬† We turned around and she absolutely¬†pulled us to the log and leapt over it happily.

I’ve never really done mares, but everyone who loves them says that once you get them on your side, they’ll give you 150%.¬† And suddenly, I believe it.¬† Sookie believed it was her job, she wanted to do it, so she did it.¬† I’m not sure I could have stopped her if I¬†wanted¬†to.

We jumped some more logs and even the ditches.¬† We cruised around and ate a lot of grass while our friends jumped much more of the course.¬† But it was all cool — that was the goal.¬† Get out, have a great time, jump the things.¬† The only fence we had a problem with was this little palisade wall.¬† Sookie didn’t think it was for jumping.¬† I respectfully disagreed.¬† We compromised and jumped the wall.

isn’t this mare cute?!

When this mare has an education, she is going to be unstoppable.

[The peer-groups lived that way because they were orphaned (by hunting of their families, each orphaned baby at the sanctuary really represented 5-10 dead chimpanzees headed for the bushmeat market), and because so many orphans had been arriving at the sanctuary between 2000 and 2008 that the sanctuary couldn’t keep up with integrating young chimps into more natural, age-distributed groups.¬† It obviously would have been better for the babies to grow up¬†with adult chimpanzees who could have shepherded them into chimphood more adroitly than their human caregivers, but sanctuaries do what they can with what they have.]

usea convention notes: level creep

One of the most interesting discussions (for me) at convention was the Course Builder’s forum.¬† There were some good updates on new rules (frangible pins, measurement of top spread on angled lines) and then a pretty informative discussion on “level creep”.

I first learned about level creep in 2014-ish when the proposed rule to have 1 or 2 fences on XC and stadium that exceeded the max height for the level by 2″ came up.¬† In my recollection, people were concerned that this constituted another excuse for level creep and making levels too challenging for the horses and riders competing at them.¬† My opinion of that was that if¬† horse is running around a 2’7″ XC but can’t safely clear one simple 2’9″ fence, then they probably can’t really safely run that BN course. 2″ should NOT make that much of¬† difference on a straightforward question. That opinion is even stronger now that I am more experienced at both riding and have a deeper understanding of¬† how courses are built and managed.

 

we’ve come a long way!

So, let’s start with the basics. What is level creep?¬† For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll define level creep as the steady increase over time of the size of fences and difficulty of questions on rated XC courses across the country.¬†¬†Just in case it wasn’t self explanatory enough.

Why do we care about level creep?¬† It depends who you are. If you’re a rider who sees courses becoming larger and larger in front of your eyes, maybe you feel like you’re being sized out of your division.¬† If you’re an organizer, you are hearing people complain about your courses, and wondering how you can keep people happy and safe.¬† If you’re a course designer, you’re trying to build courses that help riders be successful but also meet the requirements for the level.

And maybe, no matter who you are, you’re wondering “WTF is this even real?”


this fence measures at the appropriate height for BN (2’7″ with 4″ brush)
but it is technically too challenging for the level, based on the downhill approach and jump toward the spectator area

So is level creep real? In short, yes. But also no.

The overwhelming opinion of the course designers and officials in the forum is that we see true level creep only when courses have been existing at too low of a level in the past.¬† Certainly, those course are getting bigger and more technical,¬†because they weren’t big or technical enough in the past.¬† And this, in and of itself, is a problem.

First, it’s not fair to have riders across the country competing at the same level (be it BN or Prelim) on courses that are different sizes.¬† If someone is jumping around 2’3″ or 2’4″ getting their BN points while other people are only getting Intro points for that height, that is inherently not fair. (And yes, everyone acknowledge that this happens, even if sometimes rarely.)

Second, allowing riders to feel that they have become competent at a level on courses that are under-sized and under-technical is doing them a disservice when they either visit other venues or try to move up a level.¬† Running 2’4″ cross country does¬†not prepare you for a real 2’11” Novice course.¬† This was seen as a problem mostly at the Training and Prelim levels,¬† because the jumps to Training and Prelim are so big.


still a nice-sized fence, but on a much friendlier straight-away and level approach

If a level at a venue is creeping up to the national standard, can that really be considered level creep?

Course designers don’t want people to struggle (or worse, fall) at any level. But that’s not all on the course designers, is it?¬† And making courses smaller in order to accommodate what people in the area are used to or interested in riding is doing a disservice to the sport.¬† So they look at their results, evaluate their courses, and adjust within the requirements for the level as necessary.

Across California, I (and other professionals and officials) have noticed courses becoming smaller and more appropriate to the level at Training and below. This is a reflection of course designers and organizers acknowledging the problems in their courses and making changes.  This is the same process that the same course designers are going through at other venues in other areas, but instead, they are increasing fence size or technicality.

beginner novice fence 3 — under 2’7″ as it’s on a downhill approach
(you measure from takeoff, not the base of the fence)

What does this mean for riders?

For me, it confirmed the idea that level creep is mostly a non-issue.¬† I trust my course designers and officials — who are required by the USEA to change with regularity at each venue — to keep things within the requirements of the level, while giving an appropriate challenge for the level.¬†¬†But what about you?¬†¬†Have you experienced level creep? Do you see it clearly at events you attend?

But it also means that our voices are being heard to make changes.  When the courses in California were too technical and too big (four-ish years ago), riders and trainers made comments on the official USEA comment forms and personally to officials.  And course designers stepped up, re-evaluated, and fixed it.

If you’re a rider who is concerned about a question at the level, there are a couple of things you can do.¬† First, whip out your measuring stick and measure that bitch.¬† Fences are measured¬†by putting a level on the top of the fence and measuring the height from the ground at the average takeoff point (six feet away and center), or landing point (for drops).¬† From the base of the fence itself, depending on how it’s set in the ground and how level the approach is, there can be 4″ or oven 6″ of variation.

the same fence as above measures above 2’7″ on a level approach,
and makes a nice, friendly Novice question for the beginning of the course

Second, if you really feel that a fence is not appropriate for the level based on your measurements,¬†approach an official or course designer.¬† At the very worst, the official will tell you that the fence is appropriate and that will be that.¬† Possibly, they will talk to you about the elements of the fence that make it appropriate within the level.¬† Possibly, they’ll make a change — whether that means swapping out the fence, adding sand to raise the takeoff, or removing it from the course entirely.¬†¬†This goes for fences that are not appropriate for a level because they are too small also.¬† How many of us would complain a bout a gimme fence on course?¬† I never have.¬† But those fences also add to the perception of level creep — because if I’m jumping a 2’3″ coop at Novice and thinking that’s appropriate for the level, obviously a 2’11” table is going to be a big change for me and my horse.

During this session the course designers also discussed making themselves and their contact information more readily available and visible at events.  They want to hear from us if we have concerns, because this is the immediate feedback about their work that they need. It also gives them an opportunity to help educate riders and trainers.

This sport lives on the backs of the lower level riders.  As riders, we want to be here, and as organizers we want you to be here.  This should be fun, but it should also be the good kind of challenge.

I think there will probably always be people who complain about fence size at the lower levels — it’s just the nature of having a lot of amateurs in the sport.¬† Or perhaps it’s a reflection of something that I’m not seeing.¬† Are you concerned about level creep?¬† Are there aspects of this that I’m missing?

 

not throwing away my shot

I didn’t sleep at all on Friday night. ¬†I mean, I probably napped and dozed a bit, but there was no true sleep to be had. ¬†It was warm until the wee hours, and never really cooled down enough for me to need any blankets. ¬†To add insult to injury, it turns out that you use/twist/stretch the ligaments in your knees¬†a lot¬†without realizing it. ¬†A lot like every time you roll over or change positions, which it turns out you do a lot when sleeping on hard ground, you will be reminded of your injury with shooting pain up and down your leg. ¬†So when braiding time — 5 am — rolled around I was already awake and peering out at the ponies. ¬†Murray was snoozing quietly, so I took my time slowly getting out of my sleeping bag, putting on some clothing, and hobbling over to the bathrooms. ¬†Murray and I braided in the slowly lightening pre-dawn, and while it wasn’t my best job, it held for our test.

I wasn’t going to let my knee prevent me from riding in the show. ¬†Murray had been so phenomenally honest and fun after my tumble during schooling that I knew we could pull off a solid cross country run. ¬†We just had to get there first. ¬†I downed three ibuprofen while one of my friends went out to get me some more, and got on right on time at 7:35 for my 8:00 ride. ¬†My knee did not feel great, but it wasn’t too bad, as long as I didn’t lean on the right stirrup too much or move too quickly. ¬†This definitely changed how I approached the ride. ¬†Based on how Murray felt a little behind my leg and small, but still relaxed and round, I wanted to push him forward for more ground cover. ¬†But I knew that if pushing led to any kind of antics the likelihood that I would be able to stay on through them was small at best. ¬†Also, squeezing with both of my calves hurt!! ¬†So I kept it low key and just asked for little bits of increased ground cover and impulsion.

I developed a new warm up routine last week that I wanted to use at the show.  It focused on transitions on a circle, which have been problematic for Murray and I in the past: I always tend to just ask for a canter and pray that it goes well in the test, because the transitions are so explosive in the warm up.  This time, I wanted to really school the transitions and get Murray listening to my seat for the transitions to hopefully minimize tension and make the transitions more every-day feeling.

Murray was so quiet during the warmup that I was done early, and we walked over to the dressage court to see if I could head in a few minutes early (the one perk of being the first in your division). ¬†Murray tensed up again when we went into the new arena, but I went back to our transitions on a circle, and he settled. ¬†He still wasn’t as round as he had been in warmup, but it was still very good for us.

The test itself felt fantastic. ¬†I haven’t been practicing my centerlines, and haven’t had a measured court to practice in for a little while, so my geometry was not what it could have been. ¬†Like… my first circle was more like a 15 meter circle. ¬†I realised that we were pretty far off the rail during the circle, but there wasn’t much I could do about it since we’d already started turning back toward the centerline. ¬†I held my breath for the right canter transition, but it was¬†beautiful. ¬†I mean, there’s not really much more to say. ¬†You can see for yourself.

Collectives:
Gaits – 6.5, some tension
Impulsion – 6
Submission – 6.5
Rider – 6.5
Overall – Need to develop rounder topline, some tension, try to place down trans between letters, work on throughness back to front

It was awesome. ¬†It’s taken a while to get us to work together so well in public. ¬†Feels pretty amazing.

After dressage I hung out and watched Olivia’s ride while luxuriating in my friend’s Back on Track quick wrap. ¬†It felt niiiiice. ¬†And even better, my knee felt way better after taking the BOT wrap off. ¬†I didn’t walk my cross country course because, well, there was no way I was gimping around that thing on foot. ¬†It was mostly on the same track as the BN course from June, and I read the course map, so I figured we’d be fine.

Fortunately for me, my knee felt pretty awesome by the time we got around to cross country time. ¬†Almost normal again. ¬†We jumped a few warmup fences, had a little gallop, but kept it pretty quiet. ¬†I knew we’d be making a conservative cross country run, because all I wanted was to jump all the things and¬†not fall off.

Murray was a total champion on cross country. ¬†I just had to point him at a fence and his response was “that one? okay, let’s go.” ¬†It’s a good thing he was feeling so honest, because at one point when we started going the wrong direction and had to make a sudden (albeit shallow) change of direction, my knee let me know with some stabbing pains that such maneuvers would not¬†be repeatable. ¬†Even better, we managed to ride pretty much according to plan!¬† I planned to circle Murray well in advance of the trakehner to avoid him galloping down to the fence and not seeing it in time. ¬†If you recall from June, the approach to the trakehner is downhill, and Murray tends to turn into a little snowball running downhill, gathering momentum and ignoring everything in his path. ¬†We circled well back, but Murray ate up the ground between the circle and the trak. I gave him just a whisper of added leg, and over we went.

We did have two stops, neither of which I gave a second thought to.  The first was at the first water entrance, which is a new pond on the back side of the course.  The water was dark, brown, and frothy at our entrance, and I do not blame Murray at all for not wanting to walk in there.  He wavered back and forth for a few minutes before leaping over the foam and running through.  The second was at the down bank, which Murray understandably suggested we just skip.  We came in just barely under optimum time for no time penalties.

We totally deserved the stops, but at the same time I feel like they don’t really count. ¬†Maybe I’m having my cake and eating it too, but what horse doesn’t want to stop at a muddy water trap that looks like it might be harboring lepto, and a down bank that ended rather poorly very recently? ¬†Maybe it doesn’t bother me because I know that those are two really easy to fix issues — we just need more practice. ¬†No deep, underlying issues that will take months of backtracking to fix. ¬†No evidence of serious training holes that I’ve neglected for years. ¬†Just surface scratches that we can buff out with a little wax-on-wax-off.

It felt pretty freaking awesome to know that we conquered our first Novice course with so much more success than our move up to BN two years ago.


also, Kate let me school this little nugget on Friday so that was a huge plus