Thursday, June 28, 2012

Less Grey, More Black and White

“Oh Grace, this doesn’t look good for you” I told the mare when I saw Sarah putting her spurs on while I tightened the cinch for our Monday afternoon lesson. Sarah undid the stirrup hobbles on my saddle so she could utilize the full length of the fender, another indication that she meant business; she usually keeps her feet free in my saddle because my midget length stirrups sit at least halfway up her calf. This lesson was my idea; Grace has spent the night at Sarah’s on Sunday after we arrived home from a horse show, and I planned to pick her up Monday after work, but wanted to get a lesson in to absorb what we had learned over the weekend. 

The biggest success of the show for me was my ability to stay present throughout each one of my classes, even the rail classes! We had a good ride Friday night considering how long Grace had been in the trailer that afternoon. I rode her again Saturday at lunch break, it wasn’t until the end of break that I noticed all the busy traffic I had been riding in. Trail classes were at the end of the day Saturday. When we entered the arena for trail schooling, Grace took over bringing up her head and dropping her back when she saw all the poles we were going to lope over. What the heck Grace? Where was the nice horse I was sitting on earlier? I took her back out to the warm up pen to get her back into her body before our classes started. Our trail runs went well especially our lope class; still Grace wasn’t “obedient” to my cues. She was still thinking for herself on pattern, I was just lucky that we had the same idea on most of the obstacles. On Sunday she warmed up well, loping off on cue as I prepared her for our pattern class. When I asked for the lope on pattern she let out a squeal, lifted her head and leapt into the lope. Really mare? 

 Sarah and Grace had several “Come to Jesus” moments during their Monday night ride. When Grace sped up without being asked Sarah made it clear to Grace that she has made the wrong decision. When Grace moved into pressure when Sarah asked her to move her hip, Sarah again made it clear that Grace needed to move off the pressure, when Grace dropped her back and lifted her head Sarah made her pick up her back and drop her head. I stood there impressed by Sarah’s timing, she knew exactly when to add pressure and when to reward. I watched as Grace’s expression changed from “I can’t possibly” to “oh, you mean this? I can do that”. Sarah now owned the mare’s feet it was her decision as to where and how fast they would travel. When it was my turn to ride I was pleased with how lifted Grace’s back felt. She was no longer dropping me into the hole that she makes out of the left side of her back. I was able to feel when the rhythm of her gait quickened and improve the timing of my corrections. I could feel the difference between when gave me her hip and shoulder and when she dropped a shoulder or swung her hip. Sarah had me push into my stirrups with the ball of my feet instead of my heel. She reminded me to make sure to bring the weight down starting from my hip. My low back immediately softened, as did my seat. My mare lifted her back into the space I had created and softened her foot fall. “Wow that feels really good! So that’s what stirrups are for” I shouted out to Sarah like I had just found the lost link. I had an equally good ride on Tuesday night before giving Grace and I a much deserved day off on Wednesday. I found that I was able to push Grace up into the bridle on Tuesday without her rushing off from my leg cue. She was lovely to ride; the word “obedient” came to mind. Her missing attitude allowed me to focus on my leg position and my seat. I found that when placing the weight on the ball of my feet it put my leg directly beneath my hip and allowed me to use my seat as an aid. In the lope I was unable to jam my legs out in front of me, they remained lined up with my hips and I was now free to use them to shape my horse. 

It is now very clear to me that I did not believe that my horse could do what was asked of her. When my horse drops her back or throws her head in the air when I ask for something my initial reaching is “oh that’s just Grace, she has a hard time with this”. I make excuses for her and then tip toe around her asking a question that she can answer. It seems that I have been changing the subject to avoid confrontation. While I am by no means advocating being rough with my horse or treating her unfairly my passive approach to her has been a disservice. I created the horse the takes over in the show ring by not asking enough from her at home. I also have not believed that I as a rider had what it took to be the leader that the mare needs. I often blame my body imbalances for her poor way of going and while my imperfections in the saddle defiantly contribute to her tension, I am amazed by how much easier it is to get in my body when my horse’s back is lifted and she is waiting on me. I no longer spend my ride anticipating that she will surge forward when I ask her to move a body part. I look forward to continuing this journey with a horse that is not opinionated or intimidated but who is a willing partner. For my part I will do my best to be clearer in my communication and I will start to believe that we really can accomplish the goals that I have set out before us.

Monday, June 18, 2012

I Want It That Bad!

I’ve been telling myself that I should run or work out for over a year now. I would go to the gym in the mornings when I was at my last job, but haven’t been for 18 months now. Sarah tells me all the time that running is good for riding; she’s been encouraging me to do it for years now. When I went to the gym the instructor of the class I took ran when she wasn’t working out and she looked amazing. Still, I just didn’t want it that bad. I dislike cardio, all that getting sweaty and out of breath. Even my upcoming high school reunion wasn’t motivation enough for me to get moving, I don’t really have to attend it do I? Then the idea of hauling to Novice Championships became a reality and what do you know, motivation appeared!

I started running last Thursday and I have run every other day since then.  I have 120 acres of amazing trails right outside my back door. There are tons of hills and long stretches to conquer. The first day I was disgusted by how out of shape I was I had no stamina at all. Still, I pushed myself a little further before each walking break. On day two I was actually able to run longer in between breaks. Tonight I walked in the door from work and changed right into my running clothes ready to hit the trail with Belle my dog and running partner.

I’ve been able to time running before my rides. By the time I pull Grace out of the pasture I’m feeling the after effects of runner’s high. When I get into the saddle my hips forget to tense up, my back then stays soft and relaxed. I found out tonight that I was able to let go of my upper thigh in the lope and use my lower leg more, something I couldn’t do two weeks ago when Sarah asked me to in a lesson. My right hip isn’t getting stuck in lead changes either. Come to think of it I’ve had some really good rides in the last week. I wonder if I will ever listen to Sarah the FIRST time she tells me to do something.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

115 Days to Noivce Championship not that I'm counting

24 hours ago I had no intention of attending Novice Championships. It was nice to say that I had qualified but that was it. I mean get serious a horse show in Las Vegas? Besides there will be good riders there, the kind that actually show AQHA. Still, I found myself checking the driving distance and route from my house to Southpoint Hotel and Casino (20 hours). I was just getting ready to log off for the night when Sarah IM’d me. She mentioned that she knew someone who had a layover farm in Idaho, which just so happens to be on the route to Vegas from here. Before I knew it the conversation turned from me telling her why I shouldn’t go this year to us discussing all the reasons I should go this year. Like the fact that they are offering a flat rate entry fee of $275 which INCLUDES stall! OMG I think we are actually going to do this! VEGAS!

Monday, June 11, 2012

WSQHA Rookie Show

I should have read this article when I was at the show. I found it today in the free copy of the Equine Chronicle that was in my competitor’s gift bag at the WSQHA show. The article talks about the importance of mentally preparing for the show ring and one exercise is to sit down and watch a goldfish and only think about the goldfish. If another thought pops into your head you have to start all over again. The exercise begins in a quiet room and eventually progresses to a busy space. The end result is to teach you how to find your show ring “bubble” where you can close everything else out. Sounds like I need a goldfish!

Before I drone on about how horse shows make me think that I might be mentally retarded, I want you to know that I had a great time at the WSQHA Rookie Show this past weekend. I met some great people and even had a lady ask about Grace. She had a mare that was similarly bred and we were amazed by how much a like they are. The clinics on Saturday were set up with a boot camp theme complete with dog tags and camouflage. AQHA professional horsemen were the platoon sergeants who broke down the patterns for Sunday. I learned a ton just by watching the other recruits and I am now a bit more interested in Showmanship then I was a week ago. During the trail clinic I found out that I hadn’t been working the rope gate correctly. I took what I learned on Saturday into my class on Sunday and had the smoothest gate work of all time!

The horsemanship clinic started with the trainer taking a few minutes with each rider to work on position. I jumped right into line and was the second person she worked with. Somewhere in the time that I walked out of line and in front of the trainer I became a retarded monkey. Grace’s head shot up into the air and I ended up hanging back. My beautiful bridle less horse was gone and I felt like I had just lost 6 months of work in an instant. In hindsight I should have taken 2 seconds to take a deep breath to fix myself and then the mare. My pattern wasn’t much better and I finally told the trainer that I get nervous at shows and my body gets stiff. She said it was good that I was aware of the issue and I just needed to keep practicing. I didn’t ride in the trail clinic, I had been in the horsemanship clinic for over 2 hours when Sarah found me and I proceeded to have an emotional breakdown all over her. She ordered me back to the barn so I could take a break; get some food with a promise that we would fix it after dinner. We had a great school that night with Grace’s lope getting better and better and me finally finding my body again. We practiced our horsemanship pattern and by the end of the night Grace had a pivot that I didn’t know she was capable of. I went to bed that night feeling better but still had no expectations for Sunday.

I started Sunday with a walk/jog rail class which was actually pretty good, but still felt stiff and not as fluid as it could. In our first horsemanship pattern I must not have set up correctly for the lope because Grace picked up the wrong lead. My heart just dropped as this was exactly what I didn’t want to do at this show; completely embarrass myself. Our second horsemanship pattern was much better, but I was still on Grace’s face during the lope on the rail. Even though I was beyond frustrated I had a glimmer of hope for the Western Riding classes later that day. For some reason every time I envisioned my Western Riding class in my head the lope looked relaxed. I was actually looking forward to it.

We had 3 Western Riding classes at this show the Rookie Amateur, Rookie Open and Novice Amateur. They used pattern 1 for all 3 classes which have the line changes before the crossing changes. Of the 3 classes my 2nd pattern was by far the best. Grace jumped the pole at the lope in all 3 classes which surprised me because we lope poles at home all the time and I loped on in the warm up between classes. There is some definite room for major improvement in my Western Riding class, but I had fun on pattern. I felt relaxed the entire time and honestly was too busy thinking about setting up for the pattern to be stressed about anything else. I had the best line changes of all time thanks to Sarah who gave me a great tip before going into the ring. Line changes are now my favorite! There was only 1 other rider in my Western Riding classes and I ended up winning all 3 classes including the Novice Amateur.  I received a free class entry for Novice Amateur Western Riding for Regional Experience and I automatically qualified for Novice Championships. Yes, I am as shocked as you are!

By the time the trail classes started Grace was good and tired. Like now ready for a pleasure class tired. I was thrilled with my rides in trail. There are a few things we need to clean up but overall they were our best trail patterns to date. We won the Rookie Open trail class, but more than that I was having a great time and was finally smiling while showing my horse. There was a huge shift in my mood during Western Riding that continued into Trail. Clearly I need to continue with the pattern classes and go out and get a goldfish.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Grace is a Really Nice Horse!

Grace and I are as ready as we going to be for the show this weekend. We leave on Friday to overnight at the show grounds so we can particiapate in the clinics on Saturday. I ended each ride this week with a big smile on my face while repeating the words “that’s a really nice horse!” The mare continues to impress me by how cool and collected she is each ride, this is as level headed as I ever remember her being. Oh wait – maybe I’m the one who finally settled down. Either way it’s working.

Tonight I brought the Liberty Neck Ring with me with plans to reward the two of us with some bridleless work. There were two other riders in the arena finishing up a jumping session, which is a rare treat for us as we usually have the place to ourselves. Grace and I behaved ourselves and kept our tack on while the other riders jumped an oxer in the center of the arena. I stayed out closer to the rail and was pleased by how steady Grace remained when we started loping. She never once got excited or tense about what the other horses were doing, but then again neither did I. It gives me hope that one day we may be able to handle a pleasure class at the lope in an arena full of traffic.

I kept Graces bridle on when I slipped the neck ring over her head. The other riders were finished, but still needed to move out their jumps. I tied the reins to the horn, with no intention of actually using them. I always tune Grace up a little with my spur stop when I go to the neck ring, I’m sure it’s not the same methods that other people use, but for me it establishes my emergency break and ensures that I will not have to go to my hand. As we jogged off I felt Grace drift out with her right shoulder. With no rein to pick at her with I stopped her and made her do a 360 to the left with my body. I was thrilled with how she stayed in the ground and didn’t step out in the turn. She jogged off straight on my cue and made it halfway around the circle before I had to correct her with another 360. When we changed direction she dropped her right shoulder in so I stopped and did another 360 turn to the left. With each correction she held her shoulders up longer. That is the  exercise that I am supposed to be doing in the bridle, but I still find myself making small corrections with my hand. Without the bridle I feel the change in her shoulder much sooner and I have no choice but to stop and fix it or things will go downhill quick.

We moved up to the lope and Grace was as quiet and relaxed as she had been with the bridle. Her transitions were much smoother as my hand wasn’t there to get in the way. I used my body to control the pace, following Grace’s rhythm. We worked around the people moving jumps out of the arena with Grace never missing a beat. Just for fun I threw in a few flying changes and was once again left in awe of how relaxed and rock steady Grace was. We ended the ride with a nice smooth stop followed by lots of big pets and lots of praise for the “really nice horse” I was sitting on. As excited as I am about this weekend I know that we’ve already won at home.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

CranioScaral Therapy – Incredible Results

At the end of our lesson on Monday Sarah had me untack Grace so she could give her some CranioScaral Therapy. Grace has many telltale signs of TMJ discomfort; she gapes her mouth when she is stressed, we know she had head trauma from being roped as a foal and she can be pretty darn snarky most of the time. Grace relaxed as soon as Sarah started the CranoSacral touches and was fairly quick to release. Sarah explained each touch to me along the way. At one point both of Grace’s eyes puffed up, it was one of the strangest things I’ve seen. She also made some very odd sounds through her nasal passages. At the end of the treatment Grace looked like we had sedated her. Sarah had me turn her out to graze before taking her home. When I pulled her out of the pasture both of her eyes were back to normal and looked softer, more relaxed then before the treatment. The next day Grace was just much more pleasant to be around. I could feel a shift in her energy, there was a tension that was missing. I was now looking forward to our group lesson on Saturday when Sarah planned to teach her students how to do CranioScaral Therapy on their own horses.

The horse that Sarah used for her demo had never had CranioScaral Therapy administered. She showed us how his tongue spilled out from his teeth, almost like he didn’t have room for it in his mouth. He also had some overdeveloped muscles on either side of his bridle path which were rock hard to the touch. Sarah made sure that we each had a feel for the amount of pressure she was using on each touch. She really put my mind at ease when she said that there was no wrong order for the touches and we were not going to screw anything up on our horses. Her demo horse would get really antsy right before a release and then he would let go, licking and chewing. At the end of his session his body posture had completely changed, he was now standing underneath himself. By placing a hand above his tail I could feel the wave of spinal fluid flowing from his tail to his head and back again. Sarah talked to us about the wave and reminded us that we sit on it when we ride. Any time we are out of balance or stiff in our bodies we split that wave, interrupting the horse’s natural pattern. I let that idea sink in as we went off to work on our own horses.

Grace was very receptive to the work, after an opening pass and leveling of her sacrum I went to work on her head. I had to remember to say in my body and make sure I was breathing. It didn’t take long for me to find her rhythm; I found my own energy changed as I became more grounded. Grace was quick to release in some areas and more resistant in others. At times she would gape her mouth and bite at the air right before letting go. While waiting for a release with my hand on the front of her head, my arms started to burn. I had to let go and shake them out a few times before Grace finally took a deep breath and let go. At the end of the session Grace was relaxed and calm; her energy had shifted to the point that she didn’t take notice of the horse running in the pasture to her right.

Sarah has us all get on our horses so we could feel the difference in their movement. I noticed that I was in a much better place in my body. I had a much better feel than I usually do in the saddle. Sarah had me slow Grace’s walk by slowing my own rhythm. Missing was the usual forward surge from Grace that I tend to get from her anytime I try to change in the saddle. Her jog was phenomenal, her hocks had so much bend, her head was steady and her rhythm never changed. I could have ridden it all day long. Onto the lope Grace surprised me with one of the nicest transitions of all time. Again there was no tense surge, just a rocking motion from behind and we were loping. I followed her rhythm and Grace gave me the best 10 lope strides that she has ever done under saddle. I seriously considered getting off her back right then in fear that I would only screw it up. Sarah has us continue to lope, each time I was surprised by the quality of the transition. A few times Grace went to the left with her shoulder, maybe it is always that way but for the first time I could really feel it. The left lead was more difficult, on account of my body being tense. Sarah worked with me until I got the feel and was able to again follow Grace’s rhythm.  

I was amazed at the end of the ride by how little effort it took for both of sync up together in each gait. My plan for the week is to do CranioSacral Therapy before each ride and then focus on my energy under saddle. I’m looking forward to one day turning those 10 perfect lope strides into an entire Western Riding Pattern.