Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Missing Rolex

I guess it turns out I'm religious after all. Missing Rolex is like missing my annual holy pilgrimage. Sure I've missed Rolex before, but there was always an equally satisfying alternative (Badminton, Burghley, WEG... basically being in the right country at the right time!!). This year, for the first time since I was in high school, I will not be attending a four star event. Pauvre choux, I know.

WEG 2010
But NOT going is really making me realize how much I LOVE going!! Analyzing the competition, course walks, the shopping, the exhilaration of the horses flying past on cross country day, the immaculate presentation for the jogs, the nail biting show jumping. Heck, even dressage can be fun to watch!

So this year, my credit cards are safe, my rain gear will go undisturbed as I fly to New York City for a whirlwind wedding!! Fly in Saturday AM early, fly back Sunday AM early. Back in time to do some cross country repair work and teach a lesson. Whoosh!!

...Maybe its not too late to make it to Pau?

I went ahead and did a little analysis, and I'll DVR everything I can, and lord knows I'll be checking EventingNation every spare moment from Thursday morning onwards. Here's my thoughts*:

R Star (Zahra's aunt!!) will finish. Two bad years have taught them a lot. They should be ready for it this time.

James Aliston will make an impressive showing for the open GB Team slot.

Sharon White and Doug Payne will have an excellent 1st Rolex.

Michael Pollard will have his best showing ever.

Emily Beshear will get cheers the whole way round the course as "First Daughter."

We will have to start calling Marilyn Little-Meredith an eventer. She's not a show-jumper-turned-eventer anymore. I expect at least one of her horses in the Top Ten.

Parklane Hawk
Mr. Medicott
Otis Barbotierre
Fernhill Eagle
...will be the top 5, in some order (and if I get at least 2/5, I'd be pretty stoked about my handicapping skillz)

Absolute Liberty
Pepper Anne
Sea Lion
...will be horses I watch very closely for the future, for their own different reasons :)

*I don't subscribe to COTH, so unfortunately, I haven't been able to pour over Jimmy's predictions, so if we are either in agreement or not, it is purely coincidence.

Monday, April 23, 2012

On Going Beginner Novice

When I first started eventing (a few years ago now), there was a contingent of upper level riders who looked down upon the Beginner Novice level. If you sent them your BN novice horse for some training and show experience, they would agree, but they would only compete the horse at Novice. It was such a stigma that it crept its way down to the local trainers, so much so that I didn't even know why, but I wanted to compete Novice at my first show!

Of course, then the stigma became my own. I wore it as a badge of honor. 3 horses brought through the levels and 2 catch rides, and never once a round at Beginner Novice.

Then Zahra happened.

Sure, I could wait to compete until she's ready to go Novice later this summer, but I love going to the events, I want to show her off, and heck, she's just a baby after all! We've got lots of time, better to take it slow now and build a really solid foundation. Going beginner novice a couple times will give her a chance to absorb everything going on at the shows, see a few REAL cross country courses, and generally figure out what its all about. We may not win our first few shows, heck, we may not even finish! But I guarantee there will be a smile on my face the whole weekend.
Image (c) ShortHorse Studios

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Ralph Hill Clinic #1

Ralph Hill, aka King of Rolex

I love Ralph. Here's a guy who was able to go to Rolex year after year, horse after horse, time and time again. He rarely won the big shows, hardly ever made the US Team, but you need to be some kind of horseman to just keep coming back year after year like that. I challenge you to find another rider who was able to PRODUCE that many Advanced level horses in their career.

As most of you know, Ralph had a very serious fall a few years ago, and it fundamentally changed his life. He found religion, and gave up the drinking, smoking, and the other bad habits that had kept him off of the US Team for much of his career. His quieter life style has, I believe, allowed him to really focus in on HOW he was able to produce so many elite horses. Its because he really "gets" horses: emotionally, physiologically, and intuitively.  I remember one lesson last year, his eye sight has gotten so that he couldn't even see the dressage letters across the short side of an arena, but from across the longside of the arena, he could see that I was holding my inside rein "half a pound" heavier then my outside because "your horse just told me." That's some voodoo magic, and I want more of it!

And that's why I thought it would be worth driving 5 hours to Minnesota this weekend to take a clinic with this Jedi Master.

The first day was a fairly simple grid exercise that Baby Z could do in her sleep... but Ralph really got after us to do better than "just do it" and actually have a balanced turn and a consistent rhythm through the trot poles. Baby Z was having none of that and threw a temper tantrum!! Ralph referred to her as a "typical female" and made us keep turning to the right until we had her. Then on the individual fences, Ralph challenged me to stop picking down to the fences and just let her GO! I keep thinking she's too green to go full tilt at these fences. Ralph turned that on its head and said she's too green NOT to!!

Day 2 dawned cold and wet, so unfortunately no cross country schooling for us. Everyone was very disappointed, but schooling on a wet day in April could have destroyed the footing for the whole year, and respecting the owners hosting the clinic is fundamentally important if you want to ever be invited back!

So instead we set up a mini cross country-esque course in the indoor, using roll tops, gates, brick walls, flower boxes... and TARPS!! I watched in horror as Ralph draped a tarp across the bottom of a hogs-back, making it into a coop-like tent. For a full explanation of her phobia of tarps, go here.

Between groups, I pulled Ralph aside and explained my horse's phobia of the tarps. He didn't get it at first-- he was like yeah yeah, we'll get her over it, so I kept talking. Telling him horror story after horror story of her NOT jumping tarps until he said, "Ok, we'll see what she says."

When we walked into the arena, Ralph was having the jump crew demolish the tarp-tent, and Zahra got about 20 feet away and stopped, snorting. Ralph had someone fetch him a grain bucket, and we coaxed her over to stand next to the tarp.

She was quite tense through warm up, giving everything, down to the last flower box, the hairy eye-ball. We had a small fight trying to get her over a pile of poles on the ground, so sure was she that it was a trick!! Once we actually got to jumping, I finally felt her relax. We jumped a small cross rail, then a small vertical, then over the poles which had been such a problem... then Ralph shouted "Now go to the Liverpool!!" I gritted my teeth and put my leg on in a death grip. Zahra surged forward. I was committed to getting to the other side of this tarp, but in the back of my mind I wondered if Zahra would still be under me by the time I got there! I had tunnel vision galloping down to that tarp-- all I saw was the other side. And then she leaped into the air, and we were there!! Safe and sound on the other side! She had jumped it, her first try!! I shrieked in delight, and slapped her neck.

Then Ralph sent us out of the "start box" to do our "course" of 4 jumps. A brick wall to a gate, liverpool, and then a nice ramped oxer to finish. I kept her in front of my leg, and Zahra surged over all the jumps, finishing cockier than ever.

Love that mare <3
Sophie, wanting to know what's the hold up?? We've got a 5 hour drive ahead of us!!

The Saga of the Blue Tarp

I don't know what it is about ordinary tarps, but my 4 year old event prospect, Zahra, just can't stand them.

Proof that Zahra will jump things
that are NOT tarps!
(c) ShortHorse Studios
She has been so accommodating and wonderful about her training. She figured out how to do dressage and now has even the full time dressage riders oohing and aah-ing at her floaty movement. She learned how to jump and now tackles the 3' oxers like they're child's play. She's happy to go out on trails by herself, and will jump our little cross country jumps while we're out. She's been over small ditches, up and down small banks, and into water. It seems like she's on the path to be a great event horse!

And yet...

She has this overpowering irrational fear of tarps.

I like to do some ground work with all my horses, especially the young ones. Its a great way to establish a partnership, create boundaries, and introduce new concepts. So over the winter with my green-broke then-3 year old, I was doing groundwork once a week. Everything was going smoothly. We were establishing a connection, learning to move away from pressure, and trying new things. Until one day I thought it would be a good idea to bring out the big bad tarp. It's so versatile-- it can simulate water, a ditch, or be just a scary blue tarp!

Zahra completely wigged out. She adamantly refused to go over it, and I was completely flabbergasted. This is the horse that climbed up on the "elephant stand" on her first go, went on trail rides solo, and generally kept a good head on her shoulders-- and yet now she was acting like... a three year old!! I tried to get after her, and it just made her frantic, and LESS inclined to listen.

Keep in mind that this was December/January when all this was starting, so I began to panic a little bit. Sure she can do the dressage and the show jumping, but if she won't walk and/or jump over the tarp, how on earth will I get her into the water or over a ditch??
What I see

So we spent some more time working on the tarp. We slowed way down. I would let her watch other horses walk over it. We would stand in front of it until her blood pressure dropped. I could even pick up the tarp and put it ON her. But still, she would fight when I asked her to walk over it. Usually, if I had a cookie, she would oblige. Once she walked over it once, it became a non-issue and she would walk over it again and again.

As the weather got nicer and we started our introduction to cross country, the tarp work fell by the wayside. She had no problems with the REAL ditches and water I exposed her to, so the tarp fears faded.

What Zahra sees
Until April 1st, April Fool's Day, and Zahra decided to make a fool out of me! I was at a Leslie Law clinic and he had an inflatable Liverpool (aka, glorified tarp) that he was using to simulate the ditch in a coffin exercise. Gulp. We did all the exercises in the lead up to the coffin beautifully, including a big ol' corner jump! When our turn comes for the coffin, Leslie gave Zahra and I a break and invited us to walk around the tarp a few times, and then just trot the Liverpool by itself. And... she didn't. A guide rail was added. A lead horse came in to try to help us over it. Leslie got a lounge whip. Nothing. Well, lots of rearing and bolting, but certainly no jumping. Finally, he said (and I quote!) "Well, I'm not sure I can get her over it either, but I'll give it a go."

For about 10 minutes the rearing and bolting continued, but Leslie DID ultimately get her over it, and once she'd been forced over it twice, it was a non issue and she never looked at it cross eyed again. I got on, jumped through it, no problem.

About a week after that, on a Monday, I decided to revisit the issue. I took out my old faithful tarp and folded it down to a small rectangle, and then covered it in poles. At the other end of the ring, I also set up an unrelated trot pole exercise to complete the illusion. Over the trot poles we went, no problem. Over the pile of poles, no problem. Back and forth we did everything 5-6 times, never a foot wrong.

I was so happy! My plan was working! Now, to remove one pole from the pile and expose just a tiny bit of tarp... But as soon as we walked up to the poles for me to dismount, I felt Zahra tense up when she saw a little bit of blue tarp peeking out. No problem, I thought. She's already jumped it many times, we'll just go jump in once more before I move a pole, now that she knows the tarp is there. She trotted right up to it, and then bolted away at the last second. And so began again the bolting and the rearing. Eventually, I was able to get her to walk up calmly to the poles (but not over them), so I asked a friend to grab my rope halter, and  after a few minutes, got her over the poles.

That was the last straw. I sent my good friend Ruth, natural horseman extraordinaire, a message that night that said HELP! I may have just taught my horse to never trust me again!! We agreed on a game plan where she would do some ground work with her, and then at the end of the week, I'd take a lesson to learn how to fix the problem.

After the first day, I got a message from Ruth saying "She started out REALLY upset. After an hour she would follow me over stuff." I found out later that "really upset" meant she walked into the arena, saw all the tarp stuff set up, and took off running around the arena trying to escape.

Ruth working her across the tarp.
Photo (c) ShortHorse Studios
Throughout the rest of the week, Ruth worked with her a little bit during the day, and I would ride her a little bit after work. On Friday we met up for our lesson. She had several tarp obstacles set up, all of them intending to be jumped over. Since I really don't need her to be able to actually walk over a tarp, we zeroed in on making her comfortable with jumping the tarps, and who cares if she ever walks across one?? So, we started with her following me over a pole wrapped in a tarp. No problem. Then I walked across a piece of plywood with a tarp underneath. No problem. Next was a folded up tarp with barrels on either side, and a bit of wood across the middle of the tarp. She opted to jump the barrel the first time ("That's ok! She's following you into pressure") but then the second time hopped across the tarp. I was so impressed!
Following me across the pole wrapped in a tarp.
Photo (c) ShortHorse Studios

The next step was for her to go over these obstacles without me. So I walked next to her, encouraging her forward and out, on a 10m circle. She willingly walked over the pole, then the plywood, but at the tarp and barrels, she stopped. I calmly walked in front of her, hopped over the tarp, and she came too.

As soon as Zahra jumped over that tarp by herself, she got a big reward of treats, and she was done with work for the day!

That was Friday. Sunday, at a Ralph Hill clinic, we had a fake ditch (read: tarp) for our indoor cross country school. I explained the problem to him, and we took baby steps. First standing quietly next to it, then jumping rails on the ground next to it, then, towards the end of the lesson after she had jumped a few other things well, he said "Ok, now canter your liverpool!" I gritted my teeth, squared my shoulder, and put my leg on in a death grip. Zahra surged forward, and we jumped it!!

We're still on the road to recovery, but I think I see a light at the end of the tunnel!!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Meeting the Triplets

At the clinic last weekend, I made my first concentrated effort to get to know the triplets a little.

The "triplets," for those who may not know, are the embryo transfer foals of Caryn Vesperman's Grand Prix Dressage mare Salope. She flushed 3 embryos and got 3 babies, which I understand is quite rare, but obviously very very lucky!!

So, the triplets are now 3, and the time has come to start sitting on them, which is where I come in! Caryn and I developped a good rapport starting her 2008 filly, Rosie, last year, so I know we're on the same page about expectations, which I can say is a HUGE comfort!!

Before my ride on Saturday, I went and said hello to the girls-- Cali, Zeza, and Dot. My first impressions (which are sure to be proven wrong!) was that Zeza will be the easiest. Everything about her seems to say "I like people and I want to be a dressage horse!" I can already picture her trying her heart out to take her first half steps in a few years!
Dot seemed inquisitive, but also a bit aloof. This could go one of two ways--either she will be super easy and be very business-like in her training, or she'll give us the middle hoof!
Which leaves Cali. She came across as very people oriented, but also a bit of a brat about her sisters (lots of ear pinning!). She was the one initiating all the trouble it seemed. So, possibly she will be the one that is the most difficult to start, but once she gets going, I think she will be the most fun!

Stay tuned, and we may find out just how wrong I was!!
Photo by Touchstone Farm. From the left: Dot, Cali, and Zeza

Monday, April 9, 2012

First Dressage Clinic, or RHYTHM!

Well, I'd been in Chicago all week for work, so I had to come into my first lesson with Alex with low expectations. But luckily, although she was indeed a bit tense, Alex focused in on me and my position. He was encouraging me to sit up and sit back. I'd been leaning forward a bit to try to be gentle on her back. No more! he said. He explained in his very thick German accent that since the horse was built uphill (and then he showed me how she was built in a heil-esque gesture), I should not lean forward because then I just overload her shoulder with my tall upper body, forcing her to move her front legs like an egg beater. As soon as I sat back, she became much more elegant in her movement, and never lost a beat in her balance as I re-positioned my weight further back, so clearly the time had come to stop babying her in the flatwork!!

Next up came the Q&A with Professor Alex, where I came across as dyslexic at best.  "What is the horse's comfort rein?" he asked. I knew this one!! She's more balanced going to the left, so I said "Left!"


Ok, wait, what? I could have sworn she feels more balanced to the left...

He then asked the same question six more times in six different ways, and by the end I realized that when he said "rein" he meant the physical rein in my hand, not the direction of travel. Oops.

After 5 minutes of confusion, we're back on the same page, speaking the same language (although his accent is still cooler than mine).

So, she's more balanced to the left, and she looks for that balance (/comfort) from my right rein, which is the outside rein to the left. Ok, that all makes sense.

Now where it gets tricky: when I go to the right, the right rein is still the comfort rein, so right now for this horse, I need to actually balance her on the inside rein when going to the right!! Just to illustrate his point, Alex had me trotting down the long side and asked me to float my left rein. No change. Right rein? *Thump!* my stirrup hit the wall.

Photo Courtesy ShortHorse Studios
Similarly, when we would canter to the left, she would spook a little at the auditors at the far end of the arena and drift to the inside. If I tried to correct her with the outside (right) rein, she would happily swap leads! Alex told me to float that right rein and allow her to drift into a circle. We're at the bottom of the training scale, so we need to teach her to maintain RHYTHM right now, and every lead swap is a loss of rhythm. We'll get to acceptance later!

On the second day, we carried forward this topic of the comfort rein on the right, and how that affected my right lead departs. At the clinic last weekend, Leslie Law really gave me the proverbial "keys to the kingdom" when it came to Zahra's right lead canter. If I took the time to activate my right leg before the transition, I got it almost every time. Alex took it one step further by saying yes, activate the right leg, but drop the comfort rein at the same time. If I try to hold the right rein, she can use that to balance into the left lead. In one small change, Alex took the "almost" out of the equation!

I feel so fortunate that I've been able to work with this amazing instructor for so many years. He sees things and understands them in ways that is just boggling!

As we're walking out of the arena, he asked, "Zo, does it jump?"
"Oh yes!" I told him. "She loves it!"
"Well, she will certainly do the dressage."
High praise indeed from the German! :)

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Leslie Law Clinic

Another weekend, another adventure with Baby Z!

I was a little trepidatious when I headed out Friday night. She's in a growth spurt and a little unbalanced right now, and Leslie Law is definitely the kind of person I would want to put my best foot forward!

She loaded into the trailer much better this time, after my friend Ruth really got after her last weekend. She found the same thing I did when it comes to Zahra-- she's not phased by being forced to back up quickly (as in "you don't want to walk forward? Fine! Let's try backwards!!). Its almost like she thinks "Ha! couldn't get me over the tarp / in the water / in the trailer, so I win this round!" And, obviously, that's not what I want her to learn! If you keep the pressure on her, she relents, and then, not only does she relent once, but she will then march right through the water / on the trailer / over the tarp over and over again. You get this girl once, and she says "Ok, you win." But you have to earn every one!

This theme came up again when on Day 2 of the clinic, there was a LIVERPOOL!!! Throughout the session, I kept trying to stand next to it and let her sniff it, hoping she'd be ready to tackle it when the time came. Well, I was wrong. Leslie had us first just walk around it, as close as possible, and then walk away and come at it in trot. She got no where near it as soon as she realized I wanted her to go over it!! We used leg, a guide rail, the crop, a lead horse, and a lounge whip before Leslie finally said "I'm not sure I can get her to do it either, but I will try." And then he got on.

I felt a little justified that at least he had to work for it! She would stop, crow hop, and generally refused to go over it, but all the while, he was reinforcing a set of aids to make her actually do it. And eventually, she did!! After the fifth time over it, she no longer even cared about it! She started stepping on it with her back feet, which while not ideal, is a step in the right direction!

So, what did Leslie do differently?

When I came to the Liverpool, I came in with a "we're going over this come hell or high water!!" attitude. She would NOT turn away, the only way out of the problem was to go forward, over the Liverpool. So, direction first, forward second.

Leslie on the other hand allowed her to run off from the tarp, and let her run into the wall as an alternative. He wanted her to go forward when he asked, regardless of direction. So, forward first, direction second.

Of course, "direction second" still means he was in control of where they were going. If they didn't jump the Liverpool, they ran into the wall. And on their way to the Liverpool, he would make her bend one way, then the other, but ALWAYS going forward! Leg was king, for sure. Hands just decided if they would go left or right with that forward energy. Once you stop, they're useless. As Leslie said later in the day, "A stop is a disobedience of the leg. I never get into my horse's face after a stop, because they did not have a disobedience of the hand."

This was such a good clinic. I'm going to try my best to ride with him again as soon as possible!!