The Old Guard

Last night, I volunteered to do night check at the barn, as I had time to kill before picking the BF up from soccer (sometimes I try to be a good girlfriend and arrive early to watch some of the action, but I feel about amateur soccer the way a non-rider feels about watching Training Level dressage tests: OVER IT.) I thought I’d give you a tour of the some of the horses that remain at home while the A-team is on the road at the horse shows. It’s a pretty illustrious gang, all in their late teens: between them, they have jumped a LOT of big fences! Think of the stories they could tell…

First, Larry, the king of the barn, my trainer’s most recent Grand Prix horse, who was packing a junior around the 1m10s this spring before injury caught up with him. Larry is the coolest horse: he has a number of GP victories under his belt; for an upper-level jumper, he’s pretty straightforward to ride; and he’s also extremely mischievous. (He once escaped his stall while I was throwing him hay at night check. How does a 16.3-hand horse escape out of a gap the width of two flakes of hay?!) Larry has been to the Canadian Championships, the International Ring at Spruce Meadows, and a Nations Cup in Argentina, where he earned my trainer her first Team Canada red coat. Now he mostly causes trouble for whoever is assigned to flat him.

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Larry in his heyday in Argentina

Larry in his heyday in Argentina

Then there’s Cash, my trainer’s first Grand Prix horse! I had the privilege to ride Cash a bit in university; he is the most responsive horse I’ve ever sat on. I felt like I could jump the moon on him. He is a terror out in the field (most of the time, he shares a pasture with Schmoodle, who he alternates between loving on and bullying) but a total gentleman under tack. He has also shown his share of young riders the ropes in the 1m15-and-under divisions, but is now permanently retired.

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Eddie – another ex-GP horse who was imported from Italy where he did the 1m50. I also rode Eddie quite a bit back in 2009 – man, he was really tricky. My trainers’ assistant showed him in the 1m20 one year; they would literally either win or get stopped out. I think Eddie had a bit of tough life before coming to us, and he still has a couple of screws loose. Eddie also lives in Schmoodle’s field and ALWAYS wants to come in and be ridden. In fact, one day a beginner student on the university equestrian team that’s based at our barn mistook Eddie for one of the school horses, brought him in and started getting him ready. Luckily they caught her mistake before she got on – she would have been in for the ride of her life!

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Lookin’ fly a few years ago

Pete was imported by Eric Lamaze and was meant to be a Young Riders/1m40 horse. Alas, his owner quickly discovered that he hates horse shows and is another one of those win-the-class-or-fall-off-at-the-first-fence types. Pete will jump around at the top of the standards at home but refuses to play at the shows – even our in-barn Nations Cup was too stressful for him. He is an awesome teacher at home, though – I rode him a lot before Schmoodle was in the picture. He’s super fine-tuned on the flat and has the best hind end over fences I’ve ever felt (I can barely stick his jump – it’s like a bouncy ball.) He packs the university team kids around all day, though if you’re not careful you’ll end up ass over teakettle as he shows off his white belly spot – he packs a bit of a buck. He’s been ouchy all summer so we’re not sure if he’s also headed for retirement.

PETE

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“And me,” says Schmoodle. “I am fabulous.”

Schmoodle

We’ve had two great rides since our unscheduled dismount. I used my favourite bending and balance switchbacks four-jump exercise last night – he was basically perfect in one direction and only needed two repetitions the other way. I’ll take that as an apology.

“I’m going to park myself under this apple tree until you pick an apple for me,” says Schmoodle.

Breaking the Streak

How to Break Your Fourteen-Month No-Falling-Off Streak

  1. Choose a day when the temperature outside has plummeted ten degrees Celsius. It should also be a day when your horse has had a week off without any human contact outside of feeding time.
  2. Decide that this is the day you want to work on relaxed huntery cavalletti lines.
  3. Get lulled into complacency by your horse’s good behaviour on the flat. Wow, nice bending and topline relaxation!
  4. While cantering and preparing to approach your first fence, observe the neighbours at the barn across the street beginning to repair something outside, accompanied by their big leaping dogs and the clanging of lots of metal tools. Horse’s head shoots up and canter immediately becomes tense and four-beat-y.
  5. Decide that today of all days is the day you’re going to ride through the spook and git er done. No wimpy defusing the situation! Cowboy up!
  6. Jump your first single, circle out of the line, horse’s body feels like a block of wood given his determination to stare at the source of the scary movement and noise across the street.
  7. Come back around to jump into the line. Rev up in the corner a bit – remember, we’re doing huntery lines on a long stride today! No adding!
  8. Continue down the line in a bold six strides, as the intermittent noise from across the street gets louder. You got the numbers! (Though not the relaxation!)

    Oh man, Schmoodle, you're right, that looks hard /sarcasm

    Oh man, Schmoodle, you’re right, that looks hard /sarcasm

  9. Land from the second jump and feel the acceleration continue.
  10. Sit one big buck. This is one consequence of having a very athletic horse who you’ve been training all year to be stronger and rounder. Congratulate yourself!
  11. Horse says NOPE to your sitting his big buck, sticks head in the air, leaps and twists hard left.
  12. Fall off. Luckily, land on the area of your body that has the most padding, a.k.a. your ass.
  13. Get up, growl “Schmoodle!!!” at horse as he beats feet for the barn. Horse looks at you like Ah, the provider of treats is still alive – that’s good and promptly starts eating grass. Hope the guy across the street didn’t see you fall off.
  14. March horse back to mounting block, get on, boot horse into canter, put horse on the bit, jump the jump again.
  15. Porpoise-leaping continues. Jump the jumps many times over until you can add, double add, and get the numbers without risking your life afterwards. Insist to horse that he is able to canter in a circle without craning his neck to stare across the street. While walking out, consider the fact that the bucking, combined with the sticking his head in the air and scooting, combined with the twisting, is a lethal combination.
  16. Bathe horse. Take “angry” selfie with horse.

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Attempt to take kissy selfies with horse.

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Ignore horse’s nasty sun-bleached coat.

17. Do not feed horse his usual mint. Walk horse back to paddock while he sulks about this. Turn horse out and he RUNS AWAY in a huff.

18. Reconsider your life choices.

Horses I Have Loved: Rosie

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The first thing people ask me when I tell them I ride horses is, “Does your whole family ride?” Alas, I’m the only one of us to have been bitten by the horse bug. My mother is basically terrified of horses and thinks they are all identical, and while my dad likes them in theory and faithfully accompanied me to many years of childhood riding lessons, his liking for the sport waned in direct proportion with how much it began to cost as I began to take it more seriously. Thus, a horse of my own was never in the cards: the cost of upkeep simply boggled my parents’ minds.

Fast forward to 2007: my trainer and her family had purchased their own farm that spring; I had just come off a successful summer showing my dear Artus and was looking for something new. All my friends seemed to be buying horses all of a sudden, as our competitive goals began moving out of the school-horse zone. One day in September my trainer brought in three young horses from a breeder in Ontario for a friend of mine to try. One, a fancy grey, was nice but overpriced. The other two, a four-year-old bay gelding and five-year-old chestnut mare, both unraced Thoroughbreds out of the same dam, were cute but very green and raggedy: they could go, stop, steer, and pop over a crossrail, but their feet had clearly never seen the attention of a good farrier and they were each missing a good few pounds. My friend took a liking to the bay, Brownies, who would go on to make a lovely 2’9 hunter for her (showing under the name Skye Ransome – any Saddle Club fans in the house?) I was told to ride the mare, Rosie, for the week until the breeder came to pick up the remaining horses.

Riding green-as-grass babies is not that exciting, and Rosie wasn’t anything to look at and had no personality to speak of. However my coach saw something really special in her  – or more accurately, in us as a pair – and convinced me I needed to find a way to buy this horse.

Bear in mind it had never crossed my mind to purchase a horse at this point. I was 18 and had just moved two hours away to university, and I still didn’t have the money to pay board and expenses. My trainer, however, made me a deal we couldn’t refuse: my parents would put up the mid-four-figures purchase price; she’d board the horse free of charge; and we’d split any profits we eventually made on her sale. Sweet deal!

Except I didn’t really love the horse. This wasn’t how I imagined buying my first horse: there had been no careful shopping process, no trying cool exotic horses; just a few rides on a strung-out baby, followed by a vet check during which Rosie put on quite a display of babyish frustration and temper, rendering flexion tests nearly impossible. I remember my parents, driving home having just signed the sale agreement, thrilled to have been able to give me what I had always wanted; and me in the back seat, trying to feign more excitement than I really felt.

Yeesh. Not super pretty.

Sept 2007: Not looking like a world-beater.

Every Friday, I would get the train home from university and head straight to the barn (thanks for the endless rides to the barn, parents!). Rosie started getting fatter, fitter, and better-looking. We pulled her mane and shod her and taught her to lunge. By the time the approaching winter weather sent us into the indoor for the season, she was growing on me: at least she was demonstrating some interest in my presence rather than totally ignoring me. I began to feel a bit of excitement (though I must admit, the most exciting thing of all was choosing her show name, after YEARS of making lists of horse names for the day I finally, FINALLY got my own horse. I chose Bold As Love, though my dad would have preferred Daddy’s Dollars.)

Woohoo! Baby jumps!

Woohoo! Baby jumps! Apologies for the terrible photo quality.

However, green TB baby with a big stride + tiny indoor all winter = problems. Oh, did I mention she was a chestnut mare? Rosie’s Terrible Fives hit with a vengeance that winter. Cantering and jumping quickly became very hazardous undertakings. My little horse was turning into quite the athlete – but she had discovered she could use her powers for evil! Our lessons did not resemble jump schools so much as rodeos. Eventually it devolved into walking for fifteen minutes as her only warm-up before jumping, in the hopes of increasing my chances of surviving until the jumping portion of the lesson, because Rosie DID NOT LIKE cantering, and she let us know this frequently and with great emphasis. It turned out her previously sweet half brother had the same hidden temper, so his owner and I were relegated to the 9:00 am Saturday lesson, when there were fewer clients around to gasp at the antics. Somehow, I stayed on through a winter of bucking, twisting, porpoising and general degeneracy, but there were some terrifying close calls. Suffice it to say the approach of show season filled me with dread: if she was like this at home, how could I bring her to a horse show?!

In April, Rosie stepped one foot into the outdoor ring for our first ride outside, took a good look around as I braced myself for an explosion, heaved a big sigh, and cheerfully trotted off without a care in the world. It was like the switch had flipped in her brain: outside = good horse. She literally never misbehaved again in the time that I owned her.

After Evil Rosie had disappeared in favour of Good Rosie

After Evil Rosie had disappeared in favour of Good Rosie

In fact, Rosie just kept getting better. She went to her first horse show, and although we couldn’t really steer, and I was too nervous to do her any good up there, she clocked around like a champ. (We were still VERY green. I remember going back-to-back in the order with another [uber-fancy] horse whose trainer was instructing them to “think about the quality of your canter to create a rounder jump.” Meanwhile, I was going to be thinking about staying in one gait the whole time and attempting to jump eight jumps in a row, which I don’t think we’d ever done before.)

Rosie turned out to be exactly what you hope for when you buy a hunter prospect: a horse who loves going to horse shows. She had a beautiful careful jump , a naturally huge stride, and a perfect automatic lead change. She had a very classic hunter movement that many judges loved: we won a lot of hacks at our B-circuit shows. If anything, she became too quiet: our biggest problem was our penchant for the deep distance. She was the same horse every day, everywhere, from crowded warm-up rings to jumper derby fields.

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Though we still had our baby moments.

Though we still had our baby moments.

Honestly, Rosie’s biggest hindrance was me as a rider. I showed her in the 2’9 Baby Greens, a class that was 95% professionals riding horses for their junior clients. To gain experience (and as a point of pride), I wanted to do all Rosie’s riding and showing myself rather than having our pro take her around her first classes. I remember being so nervous before our first show that I distractedly polished the inside of my boots right before our first class, resulting in me basically slipping backwards off my saddle at every fence. Whoops. After my mid-season crash with my other horse, I clambered back on Rosie at the next weekend’s horse show, literally shaking in my boots; she couldn’t have cared less. She had become a true seasoned show horse, and a joy to ride at that. I shake my head now thinking about all the ways I could have done better by her as a rider; but honestly, it just didn’t seem to bother her.

Yep.

Yep.

By the end of the season, we had had some great results, and I had big (secret) plans to take her on the A-circuit the next year for our big 3′ debut. But all good things must come to an end. My trainer’s agent had seen her go at a horse show (at which we swept the division to come Champion) and told us he had a client in mind for her, if we were looking to sell. Bearing in mind the expense my trainer, her co-owner, had borne over the last year in boarding her at no cost to my family, we consented to putting her very casually on the market. We decided on a price we thought was outrageous, and told the agent that if the buyer accepted that price and not a dollar less, Rosie was hers; otherwise, we’d keep her for another year and do her in the Pre-Greens.

The buyer and agent came to try Rosie on a weekday while I was away at school. Our very good pro rider showed her for them…and ended up falling off my horse at the buyer’s feet when she went for a verrrry long distance and Rosie sensibly but awkwardly added another stride. Our pro was mortified when she called me to tell me the story – but I was overjoyed. Surely this was it! The buyer would walk away, and Rosie would be mine for another year!

Except the buyer called my trainer and said, “I loved the way that horse stopped and waited for your rider to get up off the ground and come get her, then came back around as if nothing had happened. I will take her at your asking price, no questions asked.”

So that was that. We shined Rosie up and waited for a fancy air-ride trailer to come take her six hours south and a few social classes up. I cried the day the left, twelve short months after grudgingly taking her on as my scrawny project.

A much prettier horse than a year ago, a much sadder owner.

Our last day together. She earned many nicknames in her year with me, chief among which was The Lemon, which was bestowed upon her during her winter of delinquency for reasons that should be obvious.

I snuck in one more ride on her in the indoor arena, though. Of course, she threw in a good buck as I cantered down the long side, for old times’ sake.

Our last jump school together!

Rosie went on to a successful career as a Children’s Hunter and 3’3 medal horse on the A-circuit in New England. She found her niche as a move-up horse for riders moving from ponies to the horse divisions. I caught up with her through some posters on the Chronicle of the Horse forums who assure me she’s in really excellent hands. She is 13 now and has the bulk and muscle of a mature show hunter, but I can’t help but notice that she never grew out of her scrawny little throatlatch!

A couple of years ago with her then-owner

A couple of years ago with her then-owner. Looking sharp!

In the end, Rosie was a real diamond in the rough. A few things really stay with me: her beautiful rhythmic canter, and how soft her face just below her forelock was. The first and only horse I’ve ever owned, she really was a girl’s best friend.

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Dog Days of Summer

I’m lacking a bit of inspiration in my riding at the moment, likely because I’ve been out of town three out of the last four weekends, and Trainers M and L are still on the road for another week – thus, it’s hard to have any sort of consistency in my schedule.  I’m hosting a huge group of friends at our family cottage this weekend, so this week has been devoted to menu planning and grocery shopping, as well as a few social things, so Schmoodle has been slightly neglected.

It’s been really hot all week to I had intended to just do a bareback hack-n-graze yesterday, but by the time I got to the barn it had burned off a bit, so I stuck the saddle on.

Mistake #1, I had no real plan beyond getting Schmoodle forward after our lacklustre performance in that area in our Saturday lesson. Honestly, the less said about this ride – our only ride of the week!! –  the better, as it did not accomplish anything good. For the sake of posterity, here is what sucked about it:

  1. No real progressive plan of well-thought-out exercises.
  2. When I did decide on an outcome – more forward – I tried to solve the problem I was having on Saturday, rather than riding the horse I had under me today.
  3. Halfway through, I changed my mind and decided to work on consistency in the bend and frame. Too bad I hadn’t set myself up to actually achieve that, through a progressive plan of well-thought-out exercises.
  4. When Schmoodle got stroppy and resistant (likely due to my POOR RIDE PLANNING), I increased the pressure rather than changing his mind. Dude. Fail. Especially as it was still pretty hot and he was likely just tired and fed up.

And the one big problem that reared its head: controlling my emotions. When Schmoodle gets yucky in the contact, refuses to hold the bend, or insists he’s never heard of a half-halt from the seat before, I take it personally. Rather than slowing my roll, taking a break and thinking of a better way to achieve what I want, I get more and more insistent, almost mad. This usually means a heavier contact and seat and more emphatic leg aids, which always, without fail, winds Schmoodle up and, even if I get the result I want, he is not relaxed about it. Then I feel like a sad, bad horse mom 😥

A couple of things I try to keep in mind, many of which I have gleaned from insightful Chronicle of the Horse Forums posters, but on which I obviously need to be concentrating more:

  1. If a bystander watching your ride is seeing a lot of dramatic flailing on your horse’s part, it’s not necessarily the end of the world, as it’s possible that he is just having a moment. But if this bystander would be seeing a lot of dramatic, flailing aids on your part – that is NEVER good. No matter what outcome your aids have, they should always look and feel tactful and sympathetic.
  2. There’s a difference between a horse saying, “Yes, ma’am!” and being afraid of you. I don’t ascribe to the theory that the horse should be more afraid of your consequences than of spooking at the jump or whatever. Stay your horse’s friend: a herd-leading, moral authority-wielding type of friend, but still – friend, not tyrant.

I showed my remorse (lol, no, I know horses don’t understand apologies) by giving Schmoodle an extra-long shower and an extra mint. And I let him hand graze, or more precisely, bareback graze, as really should have been my whole plan in the first place.

Sorry, silly man.

Sorry, silly man.

It’s all good, I know I haven’t ruined him, but still. Can’t wait to get back to our normal schedule next Tuesday.

Anyone else have these struggles with mental composure? Any handy tricks for those moments of madness?

Lesson Time: Hitting the Gym

Trainers M and L were home for a couple of days this week, so I grabbed a lesson at the ungodly hour of 9:00 this morning. Unfortunately, that meant Schmoodle and his fellow outdoor horses hadn’t been grained for breakfast when I went to get him. He was NOT PLEASED. (Actually, neither was I. I definitely think the girls should have grained them before 8:30, especially as two of them were on the board for a 9:00 lesson. But I digress.)

Additionally, M is our farrier in addition to being our trainer – he does really amazing work, but sadly, as he’s away at the horse shows for so much of the summer, the horses that stay at home fall to the bottom of his to-do list. Schmoodle is about a week overdue for shoes, and has begun tripping quite a bit. Combine that with today’s sloppy footing and humid weather, and I didn’t have a happy horse.

The course build was ongoing while I warmed up, so I found myself having to stop and start a lot to keep out of the way. Long story short, I never really got Schmoodle on my aids as well as I’ve been doing lately. Sometimes I find in lessons I’m more tentative with what I do in my warmup, when really I should do the opposite – try a bunch of different things and invite critique! By contrast, last lesson Schmoodle came out a bit high, and I knew we would be jumping a course with lots of scary filler, so I concentrated solely on getting him as concentrated and sharp off my leg as possible. Today he lulled me into leaving him feeling a bit lazy, and I paid for it when we started jumping.

We worked on a gymnastic line today, which technically is supposed to be pretty straightforward, as the horse should be doing all the work. I don’t love doing gym lines on Schmoodle because he has a tendency to back off, hang in the air and land quite shallow, making the exercises difficult even though he has a big natural stride. Fully built, the exercise was: canter in over the cavalletti; three strides to the first set of bounces; two strides to the next set of bounces; three strides to the cavalletti out.

That blue splotch is a puddle. The rest are verticals.

That blue splotch is a puddle. The rest are verticals. Three of the orange/brown were initially removed, so we started with cavalletti – 3 strides to vertical – 7 strides to cavalletti.

I had a total Charlie Foxtrot moment my first time coming through: we came off the right rein up towards the ingate, and Schmoodle’s engine totally died as he skirted the big puddle in the corner of the ring and waffled through the corner. We caught the first cavalletti totally underpowered; had to gallop up the three (which was set at 40′, hello, embarrassing) and then keep coming up the seven.

Well, I knew it was a seven, with a gap on the way out. Schmoodle thought it might be an eight, but that either way, he didn’t trust it at all and stopped dead. Ouch! Nothing like a stop at an 18″ plain white vertical to polish up the old ego. I came around again and, of course, overrode the shit out of the three AND the seven and ended up with a VERY strong horse by the end. Not good, Bob.

Luckily, M knows that I have two modes: panic mode and decent-rider mode. He basically just told me to calm down, lighten up and ride like a normal human, trusting my horse to take care of himself. We proceeded to do the exercise successfully a few more times, then added the bounces in really well, too. I managed to sit really quietly and keep my hands forward throughout the gymnastic each time. I don’t know about you guys, but I struggle majorly to not take a feel of my horse’s mouth upon landing. I can force myself not to do, but I have to spend 100% of my mental energy on that one task. #AmateurBrain.

The last few times through, we added in the bending five strides to five strides over the three verticals on the other side of the ring. I gotta say, we nailed it every time, even the time Schmoodle slipped and almost wiped out totally on the way out of the gymnastic and I had to regroup uber-quickly. Our last time through, I found a nice spot at the base coming in, sliced the first five a bit direct to compensate, then shaped the second five so that I had a beautiful identical rhythm all the way through. You know, like you’re supposed to do: no panicking, no hauling on the mouth. Then we quit and headed back up to the barn, with Schmoodle glaring at me balefully, because, in case I had forgotten, HE HADN’T EATEN BREAKFAST!!!!!

Even though the lesson started off a bit rough, we recovered really well, and my horse ended more confidently than he began.

Things to change for next time:

  1. Try to ensure Schmoodle gets shod on time. This is the problem when you don’t actually own the horse: hard to control these things. Less tripping, less sliding will mean more willingness to go to the jump on a big step.
  2. Do a proper warm-up, with a focus on forward! Insist that Schmoodle feel like he is really taking me somewhere. Sometimes I err on the side of ‘not pissing him off/winding him up’ rather than ‘cowboying up and getting shit done.’ Bad choice.
  3. If things go wrong, keep working on not panicking and then overriding. It’s a work in progress, but we’re definitely getting somewhere on this one. Today, once I remembered how to be soft and not feed into Schmoodle’s tension, our result improved tenfold.

    Schmoodle:

    Schmoodle: “No, idiot. What to change: MAKE SURE I GET MY BREAKFAST. That was NOT cool.”

A Letter of Apology

Dear Schmoodle,

I feel that I must apologize for my conduct of yesterday, in which I spent the whole ride convincing you that you were not, in fact, in danger of being eaten by a predator hiding in the jumps stored on the side of the ring. I appreciate that you allowed yourself to be persuaded by my forceful application of inside leg and my muttering under my breath of, “Keep the proper shape in your body, you big chicken!

Alas, I regret to inform you that you were, in fact, not too far off the mark, as evidenced by the BIG BLACK BEAR I saw running onto the barn property as I drove away last night.

NO, this isn't him. Come on, I was too busy shrieking to take a picture.

NO, this isn’t him. Come on, I was too busy shrieking to take a picture.

You might appreciate that my actions upon sighting this bear were essentially the human equivalent of your spooking: slamming on the brakes and screaming “Oh my God! Oh my God! Ahhhh! Don’t eat my horse!!!”

[Editor’s Note: Schmoodle lives outside with three other geldings. AHHHH!]

I have been informed that you and your companions survived the night, for which I am devoutly grateful. Anyway, Google tells me bears don’t eat adult horses, but still – stay vigilant!

Love,

Liz

P.S.: I will note that, in your consistent aversion to the pile of jumps by the side of the ring, you were actually spooking towards the direction in which the bear came. So maybe work on your situational awareness a bit.

Pink, Flowery Danger

Aha, I thought to myself on Friday evening.

Rather than struggling to move heavy cavalletti*, I will create today’s exercise using readily portable flower boxes.

[* I feel like I complain about this a lot; it’s not because I’m a huge weakling, it’s because someone {ahem} broke my wrist as I fell off him last year; my wrist has never really recovered its strength and gets really painful when I try to carry heavy things while bending it.]

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Like this.

We will work on all manner of things, I thought, lulled by Schmoodle’s weeks of excellent behaviour. Halting in the middle of a line, cantering in and trotting out, simple changes in the middle of the line, 10-metre circles in the middle of the line…

My first inkling that my plan might not work was the minute we stepped onto the field and Schmoodle stopped dead, his ears pricked violently towards the flower boxes. I could practically hear the thoughts running through his little horsey brain: HOW DID THOSE GROW OUT OF MIDDLE OF THIS PRISTINE GRASS FIELD since I was in here yesterday?! Are those flowers…SWAYING IN THE WIND?!?

Needless to say…my plan didn’t exactly come to fruition. Our ride consisted of, first, trying to approach within a ten-foot radius of the flower boxes without skittering sideways; then riding like an eventer facing the deepest, widest ditch in the world on our initial approach to the 12″-tall flower box; then ratcheting down our speed on landing from “Holy God Panic Mode” to “I Am Not Running Away With You Any Longer But Will Still Throw In A Few Exuberant Lead Changes To Show the Flower Boxes Who’s Boss”.

I decided to quit once I got the correct number of strides in the line (i.e., without the tiny stutter step that Schmoodle kept wanting to put in, the better to inspect the monsters in the flower boxes), didn’t overjump the boxes by four feet, and cantered away with some semblance of control, Schmoodle heaving and blowing like he had just run Rolex.

I got off up at the barn and Schmoodle looked at me with wide eyes like, “You’re lucky I saved your ass from those pink flowery things. A ‘thank you’ wouldn’t be outta line.”

Pseudo (and real) Dressage

I sure got lucky last night with the weather – it was just starting to sprinkle when I arrived at the barn and by the time I hauled Schmoodle (me running, him dispiritedly jogging) into the barn, it was a full-on thunderstorm.  It was one of those vicious summer storms that’s gone as quickly as it came, though, so by the time we were tacked up, the skies had cleared, and I had perfect, beach-at-tide-level footing to play in!

Alas, I took advantage of the virgin footing to analyze Schmoodle’s footprints and realized that, despite how good he is being re. relaxation and suppleness, our straight lines are still more like a micro sine wave depending on where is focus is. So I set out so have a real straightness-oriented workout.

Schoomdle: "A dog on the left! A jump on the right! A bird on the left! An uneven patch of sand on the right!"

Schoomdle: “A dog on the left! A jump on the right! A bird on the left! An uneven patch of sand on the right!”

Backtrack: last winter, when trainers M&L were down in Florida, leaving the rest of us up here to freeze our buns off, I decided to start taking dressage lessons. As I’ve mentioned before, I loooove a good flatwork sessions and had always counted myself pretty proficient. I prided myself on my ability to get on pretty much any horse and have it going round, straight and relaxed. Little did I know, I was basically in a state of unconscious incompetence: in 2011 I moved to England and started riding with a bunch of Intermediate/Advanced level eventers (more on that at a later date), and realized how woefully inadequate my capital-D Dressage skills were compared to theirs. So when the opportunity came around to remedy this, I jumped on it.

I would say I have now progressed to conscious incompetence?

I would say I now tend to fall squarely in the conscious incompetence category?

I began riding with a local dressage trainer, Robin, who runs a full-service show barn on whatever the dressage equivalent of the A-circuit is, but also has lots of lesson clients. I explained to her that I wanted some new flatwork tools for my toolbox, and we started weekly lessons.

That first dressage lesson kicked my butt HARD CORE. I don’t know how you dressage riders do it, honestly. Even now, with about twelve months of dressage lessons under my belt, I can’t say maintaining a dressage-y leg and seat isn’t a constant struggle. For my first couple of rides, my victim chosen mount was Franklin, a 3rd/4th level schoolmaster type. Franklin accepted my flailings as I learned that a) I didn’t know how to get a dressage horse to canter; b) my sitting trot muscles were seriously underdeveloped; and c) although I thought I knew what a half-halt was (basically, hold the outside rein harder?), I actually didn’t. At all.

To paraphrase the Dowager Countess: "Is this a saddle, or an instrument of torture?!"

To paraphrase the Dowager Countess: “Is this a saddle or an instrument of torture?!”

Mercifully for him I moved on from Franklin to Billy, a QH who, though basically stiff and earthbound, could plug out a really solid 3rd Level test if you rode him correctly; then Lady, a former 2* eventer, who fulfilled all the stereotypes of a flighty TB mare but who gave a really good feel if you could just calibrate your aids subtly enough. I took a hiatus for the summer then returned to Robin’s this winter, when she presented me with a new horse to ride: Cedrik, her first FEI horse, now 21 and enjoying life in his paddock.

Even at 21, Cedrik’s power, sensitivity and energy were waaaay beyond my skill level at that point. Our first lesson together consisted of him lugging me around at what felt like Mach 10 – at the trot. I realized I had better shape up pretty quickly if I didn’t want to spend every Monday evening feeling like an idiot (a very sore idiot: every muscle in my body hurt after those first 45 minutes on Cedrik.)

After a couple of lessons, Robin offered to put me on a different, easier horse. It was tempting, I’ll admit, as Cedrik had basically totally demoralized me; but I’m so glad I stuck with it. Thanks to Robin’s patience, good humour, and generally great teaching skills, I learned how to half-halt, apply a dressage leg, coordinate my lateral aids, and most of all, really ride from my seat. Cedrik began to take a liking to me and although I still finished every lessons with many huge pats for him for putting up with my ineptitude, I began to develop the ability to actually influence the “conversation” in our rides. The best part was the moments in which I could tell I was doing it right, and Cedrik gave me a feeling I have never felt before or since: real collection, lightness and balance. (Then I would do something stupid like pull on the reins and it would all go off the rails again.)

Cedrik in his heyday. He is a lot furrier now, but still adorable!

Far from our bumbling beginnings (Robin, at one of my last lessons: “Hahaha! Remember when you couldn’t steer? That was hilarious!”), by June Cedrik and I had done half-pass, three-time changes, and canter pirouettes (dressage riders: pirouettes feel AWESOME and I am jealous of those of you who get to ride them regularly.) I was even able to do renvers without collapsing into a pretzel! (Incidentally, straight talk: renvers is the dumbest and most confusing dressage movement ever. In my humble opinion.) More importantly, I learned so much about connection, balance and straightness that I now try to being to my rides with Schmoodle.

So: today with Schmoodle, I put my pseudo-dressage-rider hat on: we did lots of serpentines, lengthenings across the diagonal, and stretchy trot circles; lots of leg-yield, followed by shoulder-in and haunches-in in each direction; canter voltes at each letter; center lines; and counter-canter patterns. I focused on the balance and angle of my lateral work, and the quality of the connection in our transitions. I concentrated on riding up into the bridle, rather than using my hands to create the shape I wanted. I ended the session with a much straighter and more supple horse – success.

Homework:

  1. I’m still struggling with Schmoodle wanting to swing his haunches out or in to avoid truly carrying himself, mostly in canter. I will bring a dressage whip to our next ride to attempt to nip this habit in the bud.
  2. I’m not sure if I’m really uneven with my shoulders/ribcage. I suspect that one shoulder is usually higher than the other. I need to document this and then correct it. Wish I had the ability to videotape on something other than an iPhone – or that we had arena mirrors.