Sunday, September 25, 2011

Western Riding at Washington State Finals

Never one for sleeping in I hit the road at 6:00am Saturday on my way to Tacoma Unit to watch the Washington State Horseman Finals Show. I was determined to watch the Western Riding, which happened to be the first two classes of the day starting at 8:00am. I very rarely go to horse shows as a spectator, when I do I spend my time longing for my own horse, often miserable that I am there without her. I did not experience that yesterday; instead I was grateful for my decision to give ourselves another show season before participating in a Western Riding class at that level.

When I pulled into the busy show grounds at 7:30am; the place was bustling with activity. Horses in sleezys were everywhere. The wash rack was in full gear with Paint horses waiting their turn to get the green off their legs. From what I could pick up from the announcer there were less than 10 horses in both Western Riding classes. They were using pattern 2 for the first class and pattern 4 for the championship class. Each horse and rider had to enter the arena and wait for the judge to acknowledge their start. The pattern started within a few steps of their starting position. Pattern 2 begins with the jog over a pole, as soon as each horse picked up its left lead I had a pretty good feel for how the rest of the pattern would go.

Several of the horses in the class had what I consider to be a very compromised lope. They were shut down to the point that the natural cadence of the gait was no longer recognizable. Their lead changes were done in a stutter step, and while the pattern was executed correctly, the lope for me was painful to watch. A few of them went across the arena with the horse’s hind end cocked to the direction of the lope. I wasn’t the picture of straight that I had expected to see at this level.

2 horses stood out to me, they were allowed to move out yet were still slower than anything Grace and I have pulled off so far. Their gaits were much cleaner which resulted in a lead change that looked effortless. The top horse in the class performed lead changes worthy of a breed show. He moved along at the lope, changed exactly where his rider asked him to and kept the same cadence throughout the pattern. He and his rider were a breath of fresh air and were awarded 1st place under both judges in both classes. Their scores were in the 70’s and they earned the championship in both Western Riding classes.

I now have a VERY clear picture of what I do and do not want. I’ve never been a fan of the mechanical way of going of many of the Western Pleasure horses. I also am very aware that if I wanted that movement from my mare I would have to severely compromise her natural gait and that is something I have never been willing to do. We have our work cut out for us, but I now have image of the end result planted firmly in my mind. Our first winter series schooling show is October 15th. This year we will enter the horsemanship pattern classes, as well as showmanship and trail. I believe that all of those pattern classes will help us with the precision that we will require for Western Riding. This might be the first time I’ve had a plan for the show season, with a goal set at the end. Now I just need to approach each ride with my goal in mind but without letting an agenda compromise my training.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Lope

I love my horse, but have not always loved her lope. It has been stiff, ridged and difficult to ride at times. For years Grace’s left lead has felt like a sitting on a completely different horse than her right lead. Her left lead was unbalanced, even more stiff and choppy. The “V” made by Grace’s hind legs at the lope has always been small. On her really bad days she would double foot almost hopping behind on the left lead. Like all things Grace related there have been some tremendous improvements to her lope in the last year and a half. There are now days that I cannot tell her left lead from her right, I’ve had to question the direction I was riding in more than once lately. I can now sit her lope; it is quickly becoming my favorite gait. The V behind is larger and more consistent from day to day. Grace lives for lead changes and they often help her loosen up her end even more. Still, there is a stiffness to Grace’s lope and it becomes very apparent in the show pen, which is the last place I want to ride it.

After the trot work at our last lesson Sarah had me bring Grace up to the lope. She asked me to come down the rail towards the middle of the arena. When we hit the center of the arena, I was to point Grace back to the rail, but to keep her on the same lead. The exercise looked like a big on the long side of the arena. We’ve done those before, but not while holding the same lead. Grace and I were both convinced that she could not have her head going one direction while holding her lead going the other direction. Sarah told me to take Grace’s nose back to the direction of the lead as soon as I felt that she was going to change. My goal was to catch it before the lead change. We started on the right lead and I was surprised by my ability to get Grace before she changed. After the second time I found that I could point Grace’s nose to the left for longer periods of time before bringing her back to the right. The third time – I felt something change underneath me. Grace’s shoulder and wither felt like they let go and lifted, the back and forth movement in her shoulder became fluid and her hind end drove up underneath me. All I could say was “Wow!”

The left lead was understandably more of a challenge. Once again both Grace and I were convinced that we couldn’t possibly keep the nose to the right while holding the left lead. Each time I moved her nose to the right Grace changed her lead. Sarah told me to use more right spur and to make it very clear to Grace that she was not to change lead, she pointed out that Grace had to get in trouble for changing without being asked. It took a couple of laps around the arena and one princess fit before it happened, but Grace moved her nose to the right while keeping the left lead. It wasn’t long before I was able to move her front end all over the arena while she continued to hold the left lead. With each stride the quality of her lope improved. The V behind became larger as Grace kept her hoofs in contact with the ground for longer periods of time. Grace’s left lead was lovely to ride. I’ve practiced the exercise a few times now since the lesson and each time the lope improves. It makes me wonder; what else do Grace and I think we can’t possibly do?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

"Technically" I didn't fall off my horse

If I wasn't on the horse yet it isn't technically a fall off the horse, right? I went to jump on bareback today from the wheel hub of the horse trailer and slipped. I landed square on my right back pocket, which is one I keep my phone in. Needless to say I will be unreachable by cell phone for the next few days.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Results under saddle

My legs not only make sense to me now when walking, but it has translated in the saddle. For years I have been told to close my leg on my horse. I had a tendency to keep my lower leg off my horse; my legs were often jutted out in front of the girth. My leg position has improved tremendously over the last year, but I won’t lie to you, it has been a lot of work. I had to consciously think about it every time I rode. I first had to take the arch out of my low back,breathe,  soften my lower back, breathe, focus on my abs, breathe, reposition my seat, breathe, and then I could find my leg position. I had to correct it several times throughout a ride. Just as soon as I thought I was getting somewhere it would be time to lope and it would all go to hell. Still with a 6 day a week riding schedule, regular lessons with Sarah and the occasional lesson with Peggy, I’ve really made some progress. My butt no longer slaps the saddle in the lope, something I thought I might never overcome. The biggest difference I’ve noticed in the saddle after my sessions at the Strength Lab is that I don’t have to work near as hard to achieve a balanced, efficient position in the saddle.

I rode Grace when I got home from the cranial sacral session with James. For the most part I didn’t ask anything of Grace, I really just wanted to see what my body would do. As soon as I settled into the saddle I noticed that my legs were in contact with my horse’s side. My feet were pointed forward, just like on the ground I couldn’t quit staring at them. I was in awe of the fact that I didn’t have to force them into this position, it was natural and comfortable. My ankles, knees and hips were all soft and relaxed, ready to absorb shock, just as they were intended to. For the first time ever I was able to utilize the “come along” leg cue that Peggy Cummings taught me. It has been a source of frustration for me for the last 6 months; I had finally decided that it just wasn’t for me or my horse. Even with Peggy standing there I wasn’t able to get my leg to do the subtle cue without becoming tense and losing the softness in my back. Now for the first time I understood exactly what she was talking about when she told me that she should not be able to see the movement in my thigh when I moved them within my jeans for the cue. This time when I gave the cue Grace’s hind end seemed to wake up underneath me as she lengthened her stride behind stepping up into the contact. Gone was the ear pinning and head toss that had been her answer to me every time I had applied the cue in the past. We were getting somewhere.

Grace has been lovely to ride since her appointment with the dentist, but on the ground she has been less than pleasant. She’s been biting at the halter when I bring it towards her face, she bites at the air when I brush her and tack her up. If I didn’t know this mare so well my response would be to immediately discipline her, going after her total lack of respect. But I do know my mare, and when she behaves this badly she is screaming at me that something isn’t right, it’s her way of saying “fix it dammit!” Sarah had mentioned that Grace could use some cranial sacral work the week after her dentist appointment. I had let two weeks slip by and I was pretty sure I was paying for it. I set up a time to have Sarah work on Grace. I couldn’t help but notice that during her session Grace didn’t bite at the air, the halter or at Sarah. Grace can be very untrusting about having work done on her head and face, but she was totally into it, she was more than ready for uncovering this layer of the onion.

Sarah had me get on Grace after the session. When I arrived at the barn Sarah was riding Joe, one of her rehab horses. She was working him at the jog, constantly changing directions. From there she put him into the lope. Joe’s movements became more fluid with each bend. I noticed at the lope that Joe holds the ground longer with his hoofs, the mechanical movements that he arrived with in Sarah's program are now gone. Sarah had me practice the jog exercise on Grace. I was to change directions while really asking her to bend, and keeping her driving up from behind. The exercise had to be fluid and forward, the goal was to not give Grace a chance to stiffen her jaw while changing from one direction to the other. After a few reminders from Sarah about keeping my body soft, holding the ball in my lap and breathing, it started to come together. The softer Grace became in her face, the bigger her movement was behind. When she forgot to stiffen her jaw she also forgot to stiffen her hock. Never one’s to leave well enough alone we moved onto the lope…..

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Integrative Neurosomatic Therapy - Results Part 1

I’ve had 2 sessions now with James Bowman at Strength lab since my initial measurements. I’ve been wearing the lift in my left shoe and sitting on a lift under my right seat bone for 2 weeks now. When I went back to the Strength Lab for my first follow up appointment I was fully expecting to be given a series of exercises that would involve pain and sweat. Much to my pleasant surprise that visit involved massage and simple stretches. I brought the saddle that I am currently riding in just to make sure I had the lift on the right side of the seat set up correctly. After measuring my saddle rack with a level and getting it just right, James had me sit in the saddle to check if I was now level. After more detailed measurements I was given the all clear on my seat lift.

At the beginning or our session James asked me where I was feeling any tension or pain since using the lifts. He then went to work on those spots, first getting the muscle into a relaxed state and then holding the neurological point of it for 90 seconds to get it to release. I was amazed on how he found areas that I didn’t know where holding. When he talked about addressing the muscle from a neurological standpoint I could not help but thing of Peggy’s work .The stretches he gave me were for my neck and scalenes which were adjusting to my ever decreasing head tilt and for my back, any time it was tight. He also recommended Epsom salt soaks to help the muscles. I had no problem complying with the rather relaxing protocol.

My next appointment was this last Wednesday; I couldn’t wait to tell James some of the changes I was experiencing. I knew he would understand what was going on, as I was just starting to grasp it. On my way home from the trail ride on Monday I could feel this strange sensation on the right side of my head. It felt like something releasing, a muscle – but it was spreading out along side my head like a fan. I was so fascinated by it that I looked up the muscles of the human head when I got home and sure enough I found the Temporalis Muscle which is shaped just like a fan! When I repeated this story to James along with the change I had seen in Grace since her dental work he said it was the perfect time for cranial sacral work. When James got to the Temporalis Muscle on the right side of my head I was amazed by how tender it was. Even with his light touch it felt like I had sustained a blow to the head. He had me follow his finger so I could feel the tight band running through the muscle. These are the same tight bands I look for when doing massage work on Grace. James continued on even doing muscle releases inside my mouth and tongue. That was quite the experience! I had no idea just how many muscles were inside the mouth, luckily they all released quickly. My jaw felt amazing, I don’t think I could clench or grind my teeth now if I tried.

When the session was finished I stood up slowly not knowing what to expect. James had explained to me how the cranial work relates to the hip joints; this explained why I kept getting chills in my quads while during the session. He had me stand square so he could take a hip measurement; only this time standing square did not feel foreign to me, it actually felt quite comfortable. The hip measurement confirmed that my pelvic tilt was now at 9 degrees, only 2 weeks before it had been at 14 degrees. When I stood at the front desk on my way out I could not help staring at my feet, they were underneath me and I was standing on both legs comfortably. This sounds elementary, but for years I have always stood with one hip cocked or a knee bent, standing on both legs at the same time is out right painful most of the time. I also noticed that my teeth were lined up. Gone was the offset position of my jaw. This lined up centered feeling was downright odd!

The next day I really started to notice the changes. I am in total awe of my feet. For the first time I can feel the ground under the arch of my foot when I walk. I even go out of my way to walk on uneven surfaces so I can feel the sensation. My foot lands heel first and almost all of my foot makes contact with the ground at some point in my step. My hips, knees and ankles are all relaxed and fluid. Standing is much easier now, I am able put the same amount of weight on both legs. Gone is my past stance of always having one hip cocked or one knee bent. I am starting to feel like I am for the first time starting to use my body in the way it was designed. The real magic happened two days after the session I climbed back into the saddle…….

Monday, September 5, 2011

Labor Day Trail Ride

Grace and I headed out for a much needed trail ride today with our favorite trail partners Jeanni and Jasmine. Jasmine and Grace have been best buddies for years now, one time Jeanni and I compared their papers and found out that they were cousins! A few years ago Jeanni and I would meet every Saturday for breakfast followed by hours out on the trails. Our rides together have become too few and far between. It was great today to catch up, just us girls.

Jeanni now lives in Chimacum, it's a 40 minute or so drive from my house. Chimacum is a small farming community full of vast pastures, farming land and beautiful trails. Every time I visit, I want to move there with every fiber of my being! Jeanni and her family have a beautiful farm and I have told her more than once to not be surprised if she finds Grace and I camped out her property.

One of the many beautiful farms in Chimacum

Grace and Jasmine in the pasture.

I was worried that Grace wouldn't want to come home after spending time at Jeanni's

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Exorcising Stupid in the Show Ring

I went to a horse show this weekend and actually enjoyed showing Grace. Since the last show the only goal I’ve had was to overcome the tension in the show ring. Of course no plan of action would be complete without throwing a bunch of curve balls at myself ahead of time. First there was the rebalancing of my body with the program from The Strength Lab; there are times when everything feels upside down and backwards and times where I feel perfectly balanced. My body seems to almost fight the changes, and then it accepts it. My balance affects Grace’s balance; I will say she has been very kind to me during this transition. The second change came on Wednesday when Grace had her dentist appointment. The dentist found that Grace was only able to masticate from side to side but not front to back. The way her teeth lined up prevented the movement. He explained that this would make it difficult for her to telescope her head and neck. He also found that she was very “locked” on the left side. Now that her teeth were rebalanced she had freedom in her jaw which must have felt totally foreign to her. The improvement in her movement was immediately noticeable. It makes sense, if she was locked in her jaw it would translate to the rest of her body.

We hauled up to the show on Friday to give the horses a chance to settle in. Grace was moving much better in our ride that night than she had at the prior show. She seemed to come off the trailer in better shape. At the jog her hind end had so much spring to it I told Sarah that I didn’t know how to ride it. She suggested lots of turns, moving the hip staying off Grace’s face and allowing her to stretch after the long trailer ride. Grace’s lope was phenomenal! It was balanced, rhythmic, clean and I could have ridden it all night long. I noticed that her head was higher going to the left, but the movement was so clean I didn’t want to mess with it. Just as I was thinking it Sarah addressed it, she said that Grace would lower her head on her own once she figured it out. She agreed that if I forced the head set it would compromise the movement behind. At that point I really didn’t care about the classes I had scheduled for the next day, I was just enjoying the ride in the present moment.

I decided to add a reining class to this show so I could get a pattern class in ahead of time and get the “stupid” out. We haven’t worked on spins, stops or rollbacks so I wasn’t looking to place in reining; I just wanted to get in the arena to deal with my issues before the classes that I actually train at home for. Grace warmed up well, her left lead transition was the one thing I picked on and by the end of my warm up it was where I wanted it. Going into the class I remembered Sarah’s words of taking my time for each maneuver. I thought I had Grace set up but when I asked her to lope to the left she picked up the right lead, she also picked up the left lead going to the right. Our circles were huge and all over the place, we had cornered the market on stupid! I had added the novice class to fill it and was now grateful for the opportunity to get back in the arena. The novice class was not a very novice pattern, but did allow for two hands. I decided to ride two handed so I could get the correct leads when I asked for them since the show pen is the only place Grace picks up the wrong lead. Our spins were all over the place, I almost forgot to finish the first set. Grace picked up both leads this time, our circles were actual circles, and the transition from large fast to small slow felt really good. Grace’s lead changes drew cheers from the crowd, she felt great, and I could tell she was having a good time which allowed me to relax in the arena. This was the ride I wanted after getting stupid out. To my surprise we had the highest score in the class and placed first under both judges.

Sarah had me enter in a walk jog class; she’s been encouraging me to use rail classes to work out my show ring issues. I didn’t want to touch Grace’s face in the class, and when she became tense which I’m sure happened because I was tense I was at a loss for how to get her back to me. Sarah explained that I had to put Grace together and not be afraid to collect her during the class. This was what she wanted me to accomplish at the show. My goal is to get the collection from my leg, but I will need both hand and leg at this point to establish it. We entered the stock seat equitation class, which was a lope class. I put Grace together going into the class and actually rode the class instead of just being a passenger. Grace’s lope was the best it’s been in a rail class. We placed 3rd under both judges but best of all I finally understood why Sarah wants me to do rail classes; I need to remember to ride every stride of the class.

Trail was our last class of the day. The first thing I noticed on the pattern was the box that would be used for lope overs. This was something I had been practicing since the last show. Sarah instructed me to look to the left when asking Grace to move her hip to the left in both the side pass and backing through the cones. I was pleased with the class Grace loped the poles in rhythm, there was no rushing or running off on pattern and she picked up the left lead when asked. When I was backing through the cones at the end I heard Sarah say “where are you looking?” When I looked the opposite way of the turn Grace stepped right where I wanted her to with ease. It made sense, looking to the left put my body in the position to ask my horse to step to the right. It was a nice way to end the show; we placed 3rd and 4th in a class of 10.

I made the decision a few weeks ago to skip the Finals show later this month. We are not ready for that level of competition. If I went it would turn into a somewhat expensive schooling experience. When I asked myself what it would feel like if I didn’t go, I felt like I had taken 20 pounds of pressure off my shoulders. I’ve said for some time now that I ride my best when I don’t have an agenda. For me the Finals show with its shiny belt buckles was very agenda driven, not the kind of pressure that I want to ride in just yet. For now we have a winter series of fun schooling shows on the calendar. Hopefully this winter I can overcome any remaining show ring tension and leave stupid behind once and for all.