Sunday, April 26, 2009

Working Through Fears

I know other people have talked about this sort of thing before, like Very Large Colt and Mugwump. I know it's pretty common in so-called 'adult re-riders,' which I can say because my mom is one ;)

But, guess what - I'm 18 and crazy, and I still have to deal with fear. Maybe it's not the same kind, maybe it's easier for me to push through, I don't know.

I'm going to write about it anyway, if only to share that not all teenagers think they're invincible.

As I've ridden Pandora in more and more eventing-related things -- a hunter derby, an eventing clinic -- I've gradually met a realization that was a little startling to me: I'm a little afraid of galloping.


Yeah. I mean, I love galloping. I love going fast. When I did the western gaming events with McKinna in OHSET, she hauled butt on the way home from pole-bending or flags. That was probably the fastest I'd ever gone, and it was a blast. But, that was in a manicured long arena with a horse who knew her job was to run hell-bent for leather and then pull up and walk out. And it was on a straight line.

I've never really galloped anywhere else.

But when I'm out in an open field, I tense up. I want to cling to the reins. I want the comfort of knowing that I can close my thighs and hands like I do in the arena and my horse will change gaits for me. I look down at the ground 10 feet in front of us, and in my head I get terrible visions of my horse catching a heel and sending us both flying.

The memory of my little slip-stumble-fall in a field on McKinna this last summer, which led to a broken ankle, certainly doesn't help matters.

That being said, I do actually like galloping, and I do actually plan to get somewhat good at eventing one of these days. So, this is obviously something I need to work through.

Friday, I spent some time on it. A friend and I took our horses into the big mare pasture and practiced. We walked a big lap, then trotted a little and picked up a hand gallop. Pandora and I started in a steady canter, then I tried to relax as we cruised past the other mare. (Hey, the other one's a sweetheart, plug of a QH.) We pulled up, walked a lap, and repeated.

I was a little surprised at just how nervous I was. Our first canter/gallop, Pandora was about as tense as I was, blowing on every stride, kind of ignoring my half halts. As we went on, I forced myself to sit up, reminded myself to look ahead of ourselves, and relax my death grip on the reins. I found that once we hit a rhythm, I could keep the gentle, light contact we're both used to, without her trying to speed up.

After a few initial sessions, Pandora figured out how to go mostly straight, without going almost sideways or really trying to bend to the outside. This is definitely something to practice.

I practiced big, looping circles, allowing myself to breathe and trying to avoid images of her leaning on the turn too much and crashing to the ground.

I practiced pushing her forward into a pretty decent gallop (going AWAY from home, at first!), then setting my shoulders, closing my legs, and asking for a lower gear. And what do you know, it started to work! We even were able to pick up a canter heading home, move up into a gallop, then ease back and circle without her trying to blast on full-speed ahead to the barn.

When we cleaned out extra tack for the tack sale, I stumbled across a pair of really nice rubber reins. Pony sized -- my mom had purchased them for McKinna (who, yes, goes in pony reins) but decided she didn't like the rubber. They were dreamy. So easy to keep my hands in the same place, so easy to grip, long enough to walk on the buckle but short enough that they're convenient for gallop work. They are definitely mine now.

One thing I loved about Pandora's attitude? The let-down. My friend and I would gallop for maybe a minute, then walk a lap or two, then do some more canter-gallop work. The moment we came back to a walk, Pandora was on the buckle, relaxed, swinging forward in a great walk. She even stayed there if the other horse picked up a canter and ranged far away from us. If we galloped toward or away from the other horse, Pandora didn't seem to care.

It was like we were both so wound up and nervous about it, that once we practiced a little, relaxed a little, and got back into our normal communication, everything worked itself out.

Before our workout, she was dancing around the cross-ties and didn't want to hold still for mounting. Afterwards, she had this soft, quiet look in her eye, and stood patiently and relaxed even while we stood and chatted. That's her normal attitude of course, but still.

Anyway, I just wanted to share that. It was hard for me to let go and trust Pandora out there. I came in with a huge smile on my face, but I had to CONSCIOUSLY push myself. I was literally muttering to myself, "Okay, let her GO, move OUT, look UP, relax, breathe, circle, and NOW you can half-halt and bring her back."

The experience was so worth dealing with my fear. My trust in Pandora has increased, and although I can't ask her for her opinion, I'm pretty sure her trust in me has increased too.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Constructive Mindset

Trotting at Karen O'Neal clinic, 4/19/09

I've been thinking a little bit about what you can do when you ride with a constructive mindset.

Tuesday evening, it was raining hard. In the arena, it sounds loud, no matter how lightly the rain is falling. Pandora had some extra 'go.'

Normally my warmup is pretty relaxed. Walk a little, trot a little, bend a little. This time I decided I needed something to focus on. We started walking serpentines. On the straightaway, I insisted on, well, straightness. Even weight in both reins, even feel between the legs: straight.

It was harder than it sounds.

It felt like she was a pinball going back and forth, almost bouncing between the reins. After a few loops, she understood, and settled in nicely straight. I requested a forward, marching walk -- come on, girl, let's act like we have somewhere to be!

When we picked up the trot, she was feeling the Thoroughbred half of her breeding. That is, she was Forward. More so than she usually is, and more so than I'm usually comfortable riding. I tend to be a little bit of a control freak, because I had so little in the way of half-halts and speed control on my first horse. With Pandora, simply because I can control her momentum with half-halts, I do it too much.

But this time I decided to work with what she gave me. I took that energy and said, "Okay -- let's go." I asked for a big, powerful trot, then asked her to come back to me and compress her stride. I insisted on correct bend. I would push her forward through the corner, accelerate, then come back. We did some leg yields. When we picked up the canter to the good direction, she powered right into it. To the left was still a bit unbalanced, but I'll take what I can get.

The most important part of this was that I came into the ride with a constructive mindset. Sure, she was a little hot, and maybe she wasn't too focused when I mounted up. But I took what I had and I decided I would do something with it -- so we had a really nice ride.

It's important to me to take some benefit out of every ride, no matter how many things didn't go as planned.

I applied the same concept to a clinic I rode in this weekend.

We ended up spending two and a half hours in the saddle - probably an hour and a half in the arena, then another hour on cross country. The arena is beach sand. Lovely and soft, sure. But have you ever gone running on sand? It's hard work.

So I was already stressed about the demands on Pandora's fitness. I know, I worry too much, she's half TB anyway. But that made me a little tense to start with.

Then we rode forever and ever and ever. The clinician was great and had some really good advice, but sometimes it was unclear when we could give our horses a break and when we should keep going.

THEN we went outside. Between struggling to keep a tired Pandora up off her forehand, fighting with her about adequate brakes, and a little confusion about what exercise we were doing, I got pretty frustrated. I did keep my mouth shut and do what I was told, because the way I see it, you go to a clinic to learn, not to argue. ESPECIALLY not to complain that you're tired and so is your horse.

So I kept at it. And you know what? I got some really valuable lessons out of it. Towards the middle of the XC session, I finally understood what she was trying to get me to do with my hands and seat at the base of the fence (I was dropping Pandora, again, sigh). When I started riding right, Pandora started going very very well, as usual.

I found that, even after 2 hours of hard riding in the heat, when I was exhausted and my horse was pretty tired, I could still get around a course of obstacles without Pandora falling on her forehand -- provided I rode correctly.

That is GOOD knowledge to have. That means that when we've been riding for an hour, I know better than to think 'Oh, she's so tired, it'll be impossible to jump without falling on the forehand!'

Nuh uh. I need to start asking more of her. This is a big weakness of mine. I just don't push hard enough.

Anyway, I just wanted to get that out there. There's always a valuable lesson out there, even if you're hot and sweaty and grumpy and tired ;)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Event Derby


So you guys know there's a reason I love eventing, right?

Well Cross Country is it.

Don't get me wrong. I love Dressage - I love gymnastically developing my horse, deepening the connection and communication between us, and gradually learning to influence all parts of her while she's in motion. I love Stadium - the tight turns, the bright fences, the relative low risk.

Our dressage test was mediocre at best. Clearly I have been putting a little too much focus on our jumping work. She was a little nervous and looky, didn't really want to focus. She wasn't trying to take off, and she completed all movements, but was very stiff to the left and in general just kind of unresponsive. Time for more schooling.

But I love XC. I don't think I will ever find anything else that rivals the rush of galloping in an open field, coming up to (big) solid obstacles that I fully trust my horse to get us over. It's fantastic. I was grinning like an idiot the whole time. Mmmmmmmmmm it was amazing.

Pandora, for the record, was awesome. I've no idea how much actual XC experience she has. She was boarded at Inavale by a girl who evented her (they have a record for 1 recognized event), so I'm assuming she got plenty of schooling.

But still. It was my first time going XC with her. And she was fantastic.

Since it was an eventing derby, XC and Stadium were combined in a big field. The first several fences were stadium fences, and most of the rest were solid XC fences. She was not too sure about the stadium fences at first! But she went over, and by the time we hit the first big log, we were rockin' and rollin'. We weren't really galloping, but we had a big, forward canter. She figured out all the striding on her own. Sometimes it was a little tight, but oh well.

Her 'diving' tendency came back quite a bit- on the takeoff and landing side she had her head and forehand down as if looking at the fence. She used to do this a lot doing regular jumping in the ring, and it's gone away with miles and fitness, so I'm not too worried. Riding that course was definitely a challenge to her fitness, and we did it twice. We've simply never had the space to canter/gallop for long distances before. I am hoping to work more of it into our schedule if possible, and our long road hacks (once the weather lets up a little!) should help as well.

We had one stop. My first round, the second-to-last fence was a maxed-out coop. So it was 2'7 (I swear it was taller), probably 3' in depth, and it wasn't a super wide fence either. On an uphill. I could have forced her over it, but for some stupid reason I decided to wear gloves (because everyone else does??) and I couldn't get a good enough grip on my right rein to keep her straight. No big deal - circle around and we jumped it fine. The second round we were more confident and cruised over everything, though she was getting a little tired.

One of the fences was about 3', too -- hay bales. There was a lower option, because I think the taller option was for the level above us, but oh well. It rode really smoothly.

I was so proud of my girl. I'm going to a clinic next weekend at the same location - we'll spend the first half on dressage and the second on jumping, so I'm excited to get some good schooling done (for both of us). Now that I've got a baseline established and I know what she's like going around a course, I want a pair of eyes on me to make sure I'm not doing anything stupid with my position whilst caught up in the adrenaline rush.

I even sponged her legs, back, and chest down with a little liniment-water afterwards. She probably didn't need it. And it probably didn't really do anything. But dang, it made me feel good! And the spearmint smell is wonderful. didn't think I'd leave you without a little video, did you?

Here you go. Hope your weekend was as awesome as mine!

Edit: the video was looking really weird and grainy, so I took it down for the moment. I'll get it back up tonight when I get home.

Here's a few things I see. I'm doing a pretty good job of not jumping ahead, though I still did it a little. This is the first habit I regress to when nervous or trying new things, so it's understandable.
I need to allow her to have a more forward pace in order to hit the fences in a good rhythm. This means I need to practice riding at speed more so I can get A. more comfortable and B. more aware of what speed is appropriate.
Steady, steady, steady is what we need. I think we can get it if we can just get some time riding outside somewhere.
I'm also going to install some lead changes sometime, or at least start asking her for them more over fences. I didn't want to fuss with her and make her do an interrupted (through the trot) change, so I either let her do a flying change on her own (which she did) or just go around on the wrong lead, which we also did. It got irritating though. So I think I'll start asking for leads over the fence or even asking for the change -- if I don't get it, no worries, but maybe I'll get some.

In a couple days, expect some more in-depth training posts. I've been thinking a lot lately. And when I think a lot, you get thoughtful posts ;)

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Goals Progress

To start, here's a video of one of my courses at the clinic on Saturday. After my first round, where I backed her off too much and flailed around a little bit trying to see my distances, I got a gentle scolding, got my head on straight, and let Pandora come forward to the fences. It was a really fun ride.

I see some things I need to fix. I'm pumping a little too much with my upper body, and I jumped ahead the first time I took the brush. And I'd prefer a longer release. But all in all, my position is *so* much better than it was earlier this year. Sometime I'll post pictures from when I first started jumping so you can laugh ;)


I want to write an update on my goals with Pandora for the year, and check in with you guys to see how you're doing.

My goals have changed a little. For one, I've decided that it's simply not in anyone's best interest to sell Pandora this summer. The option is still there for a possibility in the future, but for now, there's no reason to sell her - she's doing well, I'm learning a lot riding her, and it's nice to have two horses so my mom and I can ride together.

Second, though our goals have pointed us toward Inavale's Horse Trials, the expenses for the summer (camps, small shows, clinics) are adding up fast. To me, $200 is way better spent on 3 days of eventing camp with several lessons and a lot of learning, than spent on one eventing competition. I know I need to get out. I want to get out. But I think my money this summer is best spent on learning as much as I can.
That doesn't mean I'm not going to the HT. But I might not, either.
If I don't go, my focus point for my goals is probably going to be either my C-1 rating in September or, if Inavale puts one on, a schooling HT in September. We'll see.

Here's my evaluations of monthly goals so far.

End-of-January goal: Relaxed w/t/c with established half-halts, working towards lightness and pushing from behind in all gaits. Good lateral work. Transitions downward should come from a steadying seat and lightly closed hand, not from pulling.

Evaluation: First part: success! We have a steady and relaxed w/t/c. We occasionally get glimpses of that coveted hind-end push, but most importantly we are coming up off the forehand.
I haven't spent much time on lateral work, but she does maintain smooth bend. I need a pair of eyes on the ground to check my leg-yield and shoulder-in, so maybe I should check that this month.

The half-halts are truly coming along nicely. I can get a trot-halt with a light request, and we’ve begun to incorporate half-halts into movement. Overall, a good month.

End-of-February goal: Going smoothly through grids, jumping single fences easily at 2’9, and developing a steady canter.

Evaluation: We have not schooled grids (shame on me, I know). We have not jumped single fences at 2’9, except for once at a clinic at the beginning of the month. We are, however, developing a very smooth and steady canter – it’s getting nice, especially to the right.

End-of-March goal: Coursing smoothly over 2'6 with a calm, smooth, and balanced w/t/c. We should be able to significantly control our rating at all 3 gaits.

Evaluation: We are certainly getting somewhere. I have ridden a course set at 2'3 to 2'6 pretty smoothly and am developing an understanding of what it takes to maintain a smooth, steady pace around course. Rating at the walk and trot is there, and I can FEEL the beginnings of canter adjustability. We can do a tiny bit of lengthening and shortening without falling on the forehand or breaking gait. I have a tiny half-halt at the canter without breaking gait. It just needs to be developed!
I spent more time working with grids this month, and jumped single fences.
She was fantastic at the Rally and proved to me that she will jump scary fences even when she is frightened, AND that she's willing to put the effort out when I ask her to push her comfort zones in terms of speed and tight turns.
Overall, I think I can declare this month a success.

Current [April] end-of-month goal: Schooling consistently over 2'9+, riding calmly in the open at w/t/c (gallop if we can find the space). Willingly walk through water. Create passable dressage tests at Training level.

As you can see, we've pretty much been meeting our goals every month, except the month I didn't school what I wanted to. I'm working hard toward my April goals - a couple days ago I rode out in the big mare pasture and got some w/t/c in, though it was too mushy for galloping. I've ridden down the roads alone, and she was fantastically well-behaved. We also have an eventing derby this weekend - my first real cross-country experience with Pandora. Hopefully I don't get run away with! There's also an eventing clinic the 19th, which I'm very excited for, because the instructor is very well-liked.

Basically, we're progressing more smoothly than I ever would have thought possible. Maybe I've always made progress at this rate but I've only recently begun keeping very close track. Or maybe she's the fastest-progressing horse I've ever ridden.

I'm inclined to believe the latter.

She's making my job easy, pushing me to think hard. As long as she understands what I want, she'll try it, no questions asked. She never, ever says "no" just because she doesn't want to, though she'll let me know if she's nervous or unsure. Conversely, this means that if she's getting upset or resistant, it's pretty much always my fault. This keeps me honest and makes me a better rider.

She's polite in all situations. She's not "mare-ish," whatever that means, in heat or otherwise. She never pulls anything stupid, even if she's scared. She's always got my back - she meets every question thoughtfully, ears pricked, expression soft and curious.

I'm amazed that back in January, my only goal was to get a balanced w/t/c without falling on our faces - and I wasn't even sure if I'd get it. Now in April, at all times but her most tired, I've got an 'up,' balanced, and forward horse at all 3 gaits. When I sit her canter, I might have to work a little to hold it together, but it feels light and easy, not like holding up a baby grand piano going downhill.

Back in January, I could barely string a few fences together in good form (that's my good form and hers). Now, as long as I keep my brains together and ride decently, we can create a smooth and flowing course at heights from 2'3 to 2'6.

I look at my April goals and I know I can reach them as long as I get access to appropriate open riding areas. She's always up for trying something new. I think even the walk-through-water goal will be easy. When I was riding in the field, just to see if she would do it, I asked her to walk up to a large-ish puddle. (Just so you know - I'm not a big fan of asking horses to walk through puddles. They can't see, it's muddy and bad footing, and you don't know what's in them. Completely unrelated to asking a horse to go through a water complex while eventing.) She walked up. She made it clear that she didn't want to go through, but I could tell that if I was patient and pushed the issue, I could have made her. Instead we got some nice steps forward, walked around it, and left.

How are everyone else's goals going? Leah Fry, is Poco more comfortable away from his buddy? Stella, is your mare jumping and learning to tie and all the things you mentioned?

For reference, here are the comments with everyone's goals. How about everyone that didn't comment on those - what were/are your goals? How's the progress coming? Have you had to make an adjustment to your goals, like I did?

(PS: I added some new gadgets to the side table. You can now see our upcoming events and monthly goals for the year!)
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