Sunday, July 24, 2011

Do the Big Girl Pants come with a Big Girl Belt?

I hit the wall with Grace this weekend. I found myself back at a crossroads that we have visited in the past. I again had to ask myself why I was doing this. Why haul to horse shows, putting in time and money, only to once again feel like I have no business being there. I enjoy riding my horse at home, we have beautiful rides and have improved by leaps and bounds, yet it still seems to all fall apart at the horse shows. In the past when we came to this intersection, I went the other way. I chose different disciplines for my horse; Drill Team, Barrel Racing, Cowboy Mounted Shooting. For some reason I keep coming back to the show ring, and then I hit this point where I wonder what in the hell I was thinking. I don’t plan to walk away this time.

The show wasn’t all that bad. Grace and I actually won under both judges in one of our trail classes. The pattern was set very tight especially for an open show. We did well in the walk jog classes, but the lope class was more of a challenge. The pattern started with loping over a set of poles right after coming in the gate. Grace loped the poles, but with her head in the air. There were more poles later in the pattern and the same thing happened. I then used too much hand and not enough leg and could not get Grace back to me after that. At the time it felt that if I had used more leg to ask Grace to pick up her back she would have only run through it. I did not feel tense in the ring, but I clearly was not riding as well as I do at home. We had a walk jog class later in the evening. Grace warmed up well, I had high expectations going into the ring, walk jog classes are a walk in the park for Grace. When we walked into the arena she popped up her head, almost like she was looking for the trail obstacles or barrels. She was looking out of the arena. Again, I knew the answer was leg to get her head down, but she also felt like she would run right through it. She did settle down when we changed direction, but it was too late, we were already at the bottom of the class.

I was very frustrated after the class; I knew Grace and I could do better, much better. I realized that I don’t have her at a place where I can add leg and she will lift her back and drop her head. I MUST get that piece of the puzzle if we are to continue down this path. What frustrates me more than anything is that I know that I have this incredibly talented super smart horse, who is amazing, but lately only seems to be that way in my back yard. Which brings me to another point; I ride alone 9 times out of 10. I only have my last ride to compare to. What I think is wonderful at home isn’t even competitive at the shows I haul to. The horses are much slower and are worked on a draped rein, and while I don’t like the way many of them move, I am starting to appreciate how shut down they are in the ring. I have a tendency to think that taking away Grace’s opinion under saddle is being mean, as though I am taking away her personality. After this weekend I could do a little less with her opinion and personality under saddle!

We had our Western Riding class on Sunday, after Saturday’s rides I didn’t have very high expectations. I used too much hand, but I did not get run away with on pattern this time. The pattern was set surprisingly tight and was not measured when it was set. Our line changes were the best they have ever been at a show. The side rail commentary was repeated back to be by one of my barn mates. The comment was made “what is this, speed Western Riding?” and a few seconds later followed with “but those flying changes are to die for!” Grace wasn’t as fast as she was at the last show, but it isn’t near what it needs to be in the show ring. This tells me that once again I have a fancy button on the mare and lack the foundation to back it up. Sarah reminded me that what I am looking for will require strength in Grace’s hind end. I will have to be consistent with the work and be willing to push Grace past her “I couldn’t possibly” moments. For me the biggest step will be to believe that I can do this, trusting that I am not out of line when I correct my horse. It looks like I am going to need a Big Girl Belt to hold up my Big Girl Pants.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Video - Western Riding Pattern 3

Grace is getting a much deserved day off tomorrow. She hasn't had one since last Wednesday and she had 2 lessons in that week. I've seen a big improvement in only a weeks time and I am starting to feel like we are ready for the show this weekend.

 My wonderful husband came out to the arena tonight to get some video and pictures. I rode the pattern twice, once before he got there and then right after he showed up. I have to say the first time was better, but what I have to show you here is a BIG improvement over what it has looked like lately. My first concern when seeing the video was that it looked like I was doing way too much with my rein hand. On closer look, that is actually my free hand which I have no clue what to do with. Glad I saw this, so I can get that figured out!

This is the first time I have ridden Western Riding Pattern 3. The BEST part was that Grace did not know that pattern, which is very clear at one point near the end, because she thought we were going left when we were going right. Over all I am really happy with were we are at this point.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Putting on my Big Girl Pants

After the show last weekend I set up a lesson with Sarah. I knew I wanted to nail down the rushing on pattern issue before the next show. The counter canter was helping, but I still held a certain amount of dread when envisioning how our Western Riding class at this next show might go. Once again it took Sarah a matter of 30 seconds to get down to the bottom of things. I still have this fantasy that I will show up for a lesson and Sarah will spend the entire time telling me how great I am. I understand how delusional that is – the whole point of working with a trainer is to improve, not pay someone to blow sunshine, but still it always amazes me that it takes her no time to pinpoint the issues and get down to the bottom of things.

Grace was still not straight; she would swing her left hip out and fish tail. When I would try to correct her she would lift her head and drop her back. My response has been to back off and start over or ask another question. I have never really pushed Grace beyond her point of resistance, I tend to change the subject or look for another way to ask the same question. The result is a horse that tenses up in the show ring and takes over, a horse that thinks for herself because she knows that I won’t do it for her. Sarah and I traded horses so I could get the feel and so she push Grace past the stopping point.

When Grace resisted Sarah didn’t back off the pressure she kept asking the same question until Grace gave her the correct answer. After some initial “I couldn’t possibly” Grace moved forward, unlocked her loin and gave Sarah some of the best lope I have ever seen out of that mare. When I got back on I had a different horse underneath me. Her back was lifted, I could sit her lope and she listened to my direction. We had a line with 10 strides that were better than anything I have ever felt from this mare before. This was the horse I wanted to have in the show ring.

Sarah and I discussed at length my previous unwillingness to push Grace past her brick wall. I always talk about wanting to have a partnership with my horse, but I tend to forget that partnerships are not all rainbows and unicorns. Grace needs me to step up and lead at times, and I don’t do that. Sarah pointed out that I compensate for Grace’s resistance and she is absolutely right. In the show ring I tip toe around the mare afraid to breathe for it might make her get tense and rush. My fear has been that my riding wasn’t good enough to ask Grace to step it up to the next level that my imbalances were causing her imbalances and while that is true, the mare still doesn’t get to run off with me. I asked Sarah if we could come back for another lesson on Saturday. I wanted to capture this before the show – I didn't want things to go back to the way they had been.

On Friday Grace was the most “shut down” I think she has ever been. She was carrying herself with her back and wither lifted, she was responsive to my small corrections. It was the ride I wanted in the show ring. I was actually concerned about it at first, what if this wasn’t good and I only thought it was? It felt good, but I started to second guess the ride; it almost felt too easy. I loped Grace over a pole and things fell apart, she dropped her back, lifted her head and rushed off – that was the horse I knew! I got her back together and now had a very clear feeling for what I did and did not want.

It was pouring when I got up on Saturday but there was no way I was going to miss my lesson. I had to build on what we had done for the last two days. I knew I needed to capture the feel in my body and I needed Sarah’s eyes to make sure I had it. The rain stopped just in time for our ride, we picked up where we left off at the last lesson. At one point I had to push Grace through the same wall that Sarah did on Thursday. I could feel that point where I had backed off in the past, where I had believed that Grace couldn’t possibly do what I was asking, this time I knew she could. Grace stopped going forward and went sideways. I kept the same amount of pressure on the reins and increased my leg, bumping Grace’s sides to make it clear I wanted forward. After realizing that I wasn’t going to back off Grace stepped forward, lifting her back and dropping her head. I released the pressure and continued on with our lope. It wasn’t a big deal. Sarah had me ride a few feet off the rail asking Grace to change her lead every 8 strides. I was amazed how the quality of her lope improved and how much better my seat became throughout the exercise. We also worked on straight lines down the middle of the arena where Grace only got to change her lead if she was perfectly straight, if she drifted one way or the other, she had to continue in the same direction.

I have my marching orders for this week and a very clear feeling for the horse that I want underneath me. My only goal for next weekend’s show is to have a horse that waits on me in the show ring. The only way I will achieve that is to expect it every time I get on her back at home. I have to remember that leadership is a part of partnership; it is my job to show my horse how to best do her job. Time to put my big girl pants on.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Counter Canter – Just What the Trainer Ordered

I pulled Grace out of the pasture on Sunday with a new determination. I knew I had to step up and become more of a leader in the saddle. I still had my show ring embarrassment from Saturday fresh in my mind, but I knew better than to carry that over into my Sunday ride. Grace lives in the moment, and if I am to have any success with her I must live there as well. I usually don’t plan my ride ahead of time, I see what horse I have that day when I get on and I take it from there, but Sunday I knew we needed to work on counter canter.

I started off with a 10 minute Connected Groundwork session, not only for Grace but also for me. I find that I am more focused, more grounded by them time I get on. I love watching Grace out on the line when she works in the Connected Groundwork halter, she starts out in her short choppy jog behind, but within a few combs of the line she goes back out on the larger circle lowers her head and neck and starts to use her hind end. The result is a beautiful moving horse that looks like an absolute joy to ride. Once I have her in this frame, I know it is time to get on.

Once in the saddle I walked and jogged with lots of transitions and direction changes. After loping each direction I gave Grace a walk break and mentally prepared myself for the counter canter. We were in the large outdoor arena so we had more than enough room for a figure 8. It has been several months since I last worked on counter canter; I have a bad habit of moving away from foundational work when I am having fun with buttons like flying lead changes. I mean why work on counter canter when my horse can change leads in her sleep? I started on the right lead, which is easier for Grace. I had to keep my body absolutely correct when coming across the diagonal of the figure 8 to keep her from thinking about a flying change. She keep the counter lead on the large circle and when we came back to the circle going to the right I was amazed by how she slowed down and rocked back on her hind end. I also noticed that I was sitting straighter, more correct in the saddle. The quality of her lope improved each time we came off the counter lead. After another break we changed direction and went to the left.

Months ago when I attempted to do a counter canter on the left lead Grace almost got me off. When I asked her to cross the diagonal in the figure 8 she locked her jaw and ran to the rail. She was convinced that there was no way she could possibly lope that direction while being on the opposite lead. I was pleasantly surprised on Sunday when she didn’t put up the usual fight. She did attempt to switch leads, at which point I brought her to an immediate halt making it clear to her that thinking for herself was no longer an option. We continued on in the counter lead and just like the right lead each time she came back to the circle her lope improved. I again could not help but notice how much I had improved, I had to be ultra aware of where I sat in the counter lead, I have a tendency to lean to the left and I knew she would change leads if I did. Each time we came back to the circle I was sitting correctly with my horse underneath me.

Back at the trailer after I ride I noticed that Grace was standing square. It is common for her to rest her left hind leg as soon as we get back; I expected it considering it was the day after a show. It seems like a small thing, but in Grace’s world it is a big deal to see her posturing differently behind. We had a similar ride on Monday evening. This time we were in the smaller arena with less room for the counter lead then I had allowed on Sunday. Now the circles would be about the same size. The right lead was easy and again the lope improved coming off the counter lead. On the left lead Grace wasn’t convinced she could hold the counter lead on the smaller circle. I stopped her when she switched her lead and backed her up. I asked for the counter lead again from where we were and Grace told me “No!” I asked again and Grace reared up making it very clear that she was convinced that she couldn’t possibly pick up the counter lead from there. My reaction kind of surprised me. I didn’t get upset or scared that she had reared. I did not feel the need to punish her. I knew her reaction was the only way she saw out. I had asked her to go forward in the counter bend. She was convinced she could not go forward so she went up. I went back to the circle on the left lead and then brought her across for the counter lead. I was very aware of my body and made sure not to use too much hand. This time Grace held the lead the entire time. I made a big deal out of her letting her know that she had done the right thing. From there it only got better; she now knew she could do it. Once again I’m not sure if I am training this horse, or just out thinking her.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Extra Flying Changes Do Not Equal Extra Credit!

I love my mare without question, I have her portrait tattooed onto my arm in case there was any doubt, but some days I wonder if I would be better off with a less intelligent horse. She reminded me today why I don’t always enjoy showing her. Not only do I have to ride every stride, but I also have to out think her while she is working to out think me.

When I saw that we would be using Western Riding Pattern #1 at the show today for our pattern, I saw all the areas of the pattern that I could use to get my horse back to me. At the last two shows she started to rush while on pattern and by the end we were both frazzled. I’ve been working on it at home and the result has been a much more organized ride and a cleaner pattern. I have yet to have a ride in the show ring that is as good at the ones we have at home. I thought I had it figured out today when I came up with my plan to utilize my corners and turns. Grace in the meantime was working on a plan of her own.

The pattern started with jogging over a pole, then picking up the left lead. The first series of changes were line changes that started on the other side of the arena. I planned to use the first corner that we came to keep Grace together. I had that in mind as we picked up the lope after jogging over the pole. Two strides later Grace threw in a flying change. What?? I didn’t ask for that. I changed her lead back on the next stride and continued to the corner. On our way to the first cone Grace changed her lead again and then back a stride later. We were not even to the first change on pattern yet and she had executed 4 flying changes. Her line changes were actually not half bad; she started to rush on the last one so I used my corner and the turn to the first cross change to get her back to me. The cross changes felt good, in the past this is where she has rushed in the pattern but this time she stayed in a rhythmic lope. I had to be very clear with my body in order to keep her from changing early. I thought we had it under control, but as we circled around the last cone to come down the center of the arena she started to run. I stopped her in the middle of the arena where the pattern asked for a stop. It was an ugly stop; Grace threw her head up in the air when I added my spur to her girth. She backed up crooked while I was cursing her under my breath telling her that she wasn’t allowed to run away with me on pattern. This was when I remembered why I had stopped showing. It was this moment of utter embarrassment as I walk out of the arena with everyone looking on. I know that Grace is better than that, we both are.

I started to wonder why I was there. Why am I showing at all? It would be so much easier to just perfect it at home, or maybe just go back to trail riding or cow sorting. It just seems like a lot of work for another crappy performance. Luckily Sarah was just a phone call away. I let her know I was in need of a pep talk. I asked her if I should even been showing at this point or was I just wasting my time. Sarah reminded me that the issues happen at shows so we need to haul to them to get it worked out. She pointed out that I have Grace sound and straight now, so it is due time to get some respect from her. I’m sure there was a time where Grace had to think for herself when I rode her, but in the show ring I need her to wait for me, and the only way I will achieve that is to get it at home first. Sarah suggested that we no longer practice flying changes – Grace clearly has those down. Now is the time to go back and practice counter canter and not doing changes. I will need to make it very clear to Grace that she is not to change leads unless she is asked. Sarah even suggested practicing the Western Riding pattern in counter canter. Sarah also pointed out that I may not be doing enough in my warm up. I admitted to her that I intentionally take it easy; for fear that I will have no hocks left on the mare for my classes. Sarah suggested tiring out Grace’s mind and not her body prior to my classes, lots of transitions and counter canter. Grace needs to be ready to wait on me when we walk into the arena; Sarah’s guess was that she was still too fresh.

I am going to give it another shot at the next show in two weeks. As much as I wanted to walk away from it all at one point today, I want to conquer this even more. I love that little mare and I know her potential. It frustrates the hell out of me that it doesn’t show up in the show ring. I really don’t want to be the only person on earth that knows what Grace is capable of. I have my marching orders and a lesson planned before the next show. I swear if I ever get this mare figured out, every horse I sit on after this will be a piece of cake.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Coyote Trail Ride

I hauled Grace and Belle out for a much needed trail ride today. The trail head is about 20 minutes from my house and gets us access to over 8,000 acres of heavy forested logging trails. I left early to beat the rush and assure myself a good spot to park the trailer. There was one other trailer and a few cars in the lot when we arrived. I kept Belle in the truck until I had Grace tacked up and ready to go. I go out of my way to be cautious with my dog as I know that not everyone else out there appreciates her like I do. With that in mind I headed out to a less active logging road, further away from the main trail head to reduce the chance of running into people who might be walking their dogs on leashes.

Grace and Belle perked up when we came off the muddy trail head and hit the wide dry logging roads. Belle zigzagged along the side of the trail following the scents of the variety of animals that had been out the night before. About 20 minutes into our ride I saw a coyote cross the trail in front of us and jump into the bushes. Belle took off after it, but came back to me when I called her out of the woods. I had my helmet camera on and was disappointed that I didn’t get any film of it. Little did I know that I would soon grow tired of capturing a coyote on film.

I swear the coyote that I saw go into the woods had dark fur on its back. Within seconds of passing that spot in the woods, a taller lighter color coyote started to follow us. I stopped to look at it, this time turning on the camera. Belle caught sight of it and chased it back to the spot in the woods where it came from. I called her out of the woods and we headed on our way. The coyote started to follow us again and they played the same game of chase. I started to feel uneasy about it; I have heard stories of coyotes luring dogs into the woods where the rest of the pack then ambushes them. I knew I was dealing with at least two. I told Belle we were getting out of there and proceeded to lope up the hill.

Belle stayed with me all the way up the hill, I even got some good video of her running alongside Grace. When we reached the top of the hill to where I thought we must be safe, I heard the sounds of both a dog and coyote yelping. Belle was no longer with me. That damn coyote had chased us all the way up the hill. When I caught up to them Belle’s hair on her back was all raised and she was backing away from the coyote. She seemed really confused about the fact that it wasn’t scared of her. I put Grace between them and convinced Belle to move up the trail. I then set Grace after the coyote, screaming like a mad woman the entire time. The coyote dove into the bushes and I headed back to Belle. She didn’t seem to be physically harmed, but she was out of breath and still seemed to be confused. I’m not sure that she had fully accepted that she had gone from being a predator to prey.

Grace swung her head around to look behind her and sure enough, that coyote was there again. Now I was afraid to run from it. I knew it could keep up and the last thing I wanted to do was to tire out my dog. I started to regret my decision to go out of my way to avoid people. I was far from the trailer and all my screaming at the coyote hadn’t attracted any attention. I kept telling Belle to stay in front so I could at least keep Grace between the coyote and his potential meal. I let Grace chase him again when he got to close, but he only went into the woods to run parallel beside us. This went on for miles. Belle in front, Grace and I right behind her and the coyote several yards behind.

Belle stopped to wallow in a cold mud puddle. I parked Grace right beside her for protection. As we walked on I saw the coyote stop and urinate in the puddle that Belle had just been in. It got me to thinking that he communicated through smell and maybe he didn’t know yet that I was a human, I have heard and seen on our own trails how coyotes don’t seem to be as skittish around someone on a horse as they are around a person walking on foot. I’ve been told that it happens when a person is no longer a “two legged” being. The same phenomenon happens when they follow the farmer’s tractors. I spit on the ground as we were walking, at the same time I could hear fireworks and the sound of a road off in the distance. The coyote stopped, almost like he had hit an invisible line that he could not cross. I wasn’t sure if it was the scent I left behind, or if we had really hit the end of his vast territory, but I was relieved to not have it stalking us anymore.

The rest of the ride was fairly uneventful. Belle perked up along the way and started to wander down side trails again looking for trouble. I checked her all over back at the parking lot and couldn’t find a scratch on her. Grace was calm as could be during the entire incident, she was more than happy to give chase every time I asked her to.

The video didn’t turn out as well as I had hoped; the coyote is a small speck on the screen. I apologize in advance for my foul language after our run up the hill, I was convinced that I was going to lose my dog and was pretty fired up at the time. I think from now on we will stay on the more populated trails. If you see someone out there spitting from the saddle every 5 strides, it’s just me keeping the coyotes away.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Looking at progress not perfection

I set up the camera to take some video of my ride today and was again reminded that while it is not perfect, we have made a ton of progress. I will admit I get really down on myself when I go to shows. What I think is wonderful at home doesn't even come close to good enough in a competitive show setting. I have to remember that nothing will ever be “perfect” so I might as well enjoy the ride that I have each and every day.

My favorite part of this video is the first lead change, it is going right to left, from Grace’s easy lead to her hard lead and she does it like it’s no big deal. It was one of those moments again where I almost wasn’t sure of my left from my right. Grace’s left lead is almost as good as her right. I never thought I would say that! If I had any doubt of our progress all I had to do was go back and watch the video from the reining show in November.

In the last 6 months I have found neutral pelvis and I am finally able to keep my leg on my horse and use it at all three gaits. Leg before hand is something that Sarah has been stressing to me for as long as I can remember. Last week I read Liz Grave’s blog where she talked about using leg to create contact and it really spoke to me. It was the same concept that Sarah had been teaching, but Liz painted a mental image that stuck with me. She talked about the position of the rider’s feet while using the leg. Liz pointed out that pressure in the stirrups told the horse’s spine to drop down away from the rider. It occurred to me that every time I had used my legs, I had jammed them down into the stirrups. No wonder my horse always seemed to drop her back and run. In the days since I have been able to go to my leg first and ask Grace to lift her back. I have kept my foot soft in the stirrup and used my lower leg to ask my horse to come to me. I was surprised the first time when I added the leg at the lope and her reaction was to lift her back and lower her head. Ridding with one hand just got a whole lot easier. I am curious to see what the next 6 months will bring us, but I will continue to enjoy each and every ride on my way there.