The Art of Being Consistent

Ike at VADACH Aug 2016

Second Level work is H-A-R-D.  There, I said it.  It was such a thrill last year when I rode my first Second Level test ever.  It was a bigger thrill to earn my two Second Level scores for my USDF Bronze Medal.  The biggest thrill is that we are only one score away from Ike earning his Second Level USDF Horse Performance Certificate.  So why after all of these milestones do I feel like I have barely scratched the surface of  being an accomplished dressage rider at this level?  Well, it is because I came to the realization that we are not yet proficient or consistent in our Second Level work.

Merriam-Webster defines the word consistent as, “always acting or behaving in the same way, ” or “of the same quality; especially: good each time.”  You can look at either our marks for the individual movements or even the array of ribbon colors from the shows this year to know that we are still lacking in a consistent performance in our Second Level tests.

Overall, I am pleased with our work at the shows this year.  After our latest show, we came home with a blue, 2 reds, and a yellow.  And while it is nice to have the ribbons to show for our efforts, it is the score sheets and comments from the judges that are the most meaningful in our quest for consistency.  All four of our latest scores were in the 60th percentile.  For us, that is a huge accomplishment at Second Level.

Both of our Test 2 scores hit at or close to the 65% mark.  That is a huge improvement from last year.  Our marks for the two 10-meter half circles are improving, but I still need to figure out how to show more bend in Ike’s midsection as we ride our half circles.  I am finding it challenging to show the correct bend without over-bending the giraffe neck.  We are also successfully holding our countercanter in both directions in Test 2.  These two scores were confidence builders and I feel much more prepared to ride this test at the Region 1 CBLM Championship show in October.

Our marks for the dreaded turn on the haunches are also going up…except for the one when (yet again) the rider turned the WRONG WAY.  Seriously, what the eff is wrong with me?!  I have no doubt that the judge before my next ride chuckled as my husband yelled, “the left hand makes the L, Al” as I trotted around waiting for the bell to ring.  It really does help your overall score when you can get a 6.5 or a 7 rather than a 4 for these turns.  I have learned that the judge would rather see your turns be a little larger with active hind legs rather than your horse’s hind leg getting stuck and pivoting around that leg.  They might like that in the quarter horse world, but pivoting is frowned upon in dressage world.  I am also doing better at maintaining my weight on the inside rather than getting left behind as Ike makes the turn.  Hmm, funny how when the rider finally rides the movement rather than coasting along how the scores go up…

And while there is much improved with our Second Level work, there is still work to be done.  The left lead serpentine of Test 3 is our current arch nemesis.  We are holding the countercanter on the second loop, but it sure isn’t pretty.  I also struggle to get the correct angle for my shoulder in and haunches in – “too much angle,” “stiff movement,” and “too little angle shown” are common comments.  The best way to get those scores higher?  Practice, practice, practice.

Just like with anything you want to master – repetition of the skill is necessary in order to achieve proficiency and consistency.  A baker makes thousands of cookies in order to master a recipe.  A chef will slice and dice hundreds of vegetables to hone his/her knife skills. An archer will shoot arrow after arrow to improve their accuracy. And so a rider must spend hours upon hours in the saddle to master each skill necessary to move up the levels.

And while it would be easy to say it is time for Third Level, the perfectionist in me reminds me to slow down and hone our Second Level skills for a little longer.  Be consistent in our angle, be proficient at countercanter, be stable in our collected trot.  It only gets harder from here, so slow down and enjoy the ride.

alison

Advertisements

Happy Gotcha Day!

Ike medium trot So Heritage April 2016

Photo by Katherine Turnbull

When I was in my early 20’s and looking for gainful employment, I always hated the question, “Where do you want to be in five years?”  Umm, employed and no longer living in my childhood bedroom?  I never felt like I gave a meaningful answer to that question.  At that age, I hardly knew what I wanted to do the following weekend!

Five years.  1,825 days.  43,800 hours.  It can seem like a very long time, but as I have aged (slightly past 21), it seems that time moves faster and faster.  Five years can go by in the blink of an eye.  It is hard to believe that it was five years ago today that Ike arrived in Virginia.  His baby face is gone as are the pencil neck and narrow shoulders; they have been replaced by very broad shoulders and a stately look that can be quite striking when not riddled with battle wounds or spider bites.  I am hopeful that he is finally done growing taller and longer.

We are now two thirds of the way to our USDF Bronze Medal.  My gangly 3 year old who couldn’t canter without threatening harm to my knees on the fence is now a strapping 8 year old who can canter a 10 meter circle.  We are on the threshold of beginning Third Level work in earnest.  Whhhaaattt?!! Our progress has been more tortoise like than hare, but it is steady and on an upward incline.  And truth be told, I am the weaker link in this partnership, but thankfully Ike is a patient partner and is gracious when I make mistakes.

I thank my lucky stars that I have the privilege of owning and riding such a willing partner.  I am thankful that I have a supportive husband who stands by me on this crazy dressage journey.  This adventure would not be possible without Ms. C’s unwavering support and knowledge. Thank you to everyone who cheers us on when we win and provides moral support when we falter.

Here’s to another anniversary on Ike’s centerline adventures!

alison

Sweaty Pants

Ike Aug 23 2015

“Can someone please turn down the heat?

So it has been hotter than Hades these past few weeks.  I will admit that I do not function at 100% when the heat index is over 100°F.  I am certain that neither does my horse – there is a certain lack of pep in his step when the temperatures soar.  So what is one to do when it is just too hot to put in any strenuous riding?  One goes on vacation!  Spent a week on the shore with family fishing, horseback riding on the beach, and amusing fellow beach goers with my feeble attempts on a standup paddleboard.  If you think riding takes good balance and a strong core, just try standing on a paddleboard while trying to paddle and steer.

 

077

Hatteras Island beach ride

 

And while I had a fabulous time soaking up the sun while floating in the cool ocean waters, Ike stayed home and had some one-on-one time with Ms. C.  He is not good at keeping our secrets and was obviously rather plow horse–like in his work with her since I received the following message:  “Rode the giant, too heavy in everything!!!!! (yes, there were that many exclamation points.) So we had some ‘enlightening’ right away with no leaning on hands, legs or [in] the movement.”

I am now not the only one paying the price for Ike’s actions during my absence.  During my first lesson after vacation, Ms. C first informed me that because of her work with Ike, that unless you are out for a hack and a relaxing ride, all of her students were now expected to actively ask for uphill balance…no more accepting lack of engagement or plodding around on the forehand.  If we accept that during our training rides, then why wouldn’t our horses believe that it is acceptable in competition.  Train like you are in the competition ring with a judge at C.  Train for excellence and not for mediocrity. I have asked Ike to apologize to everyone, but he is rather unrepentant.  So as his mother, I am truly sorry for Ike’s unapologetic behavior and half-assed work for Ms. C.

Achieving real uphill balance, having hind end engagement, sitting on the hind end, picking up the front end, making the forehand lighter, ending the plow horse movement, getting off the forehand.  Whatever you call it, it still means that you will no longer carry your horse’s oversized head yourself.  He is going to have to shoulder that load. It means that he will no longer bully you with his massive shoulder when resistant to the leg aids.  I understand the concepts, but putting those concepts into practice can be challenging.  It is much easier for me to achieve it with a double bridle, but for the time being, that toy has been taken away.  “You need to be able to do this without the double.”  Aaarrggghhh, but it is soooo much HARDER.  But I knuckled under, tacked up with my snaffle, and worked on lightening Ike’s forehand.  Ms. C provided me with a new visual to help drill in the concept of how to half halt effectively to achieve the desired result– Pretend you are pulling on a pair of wet riding pants when you are sweaty.  Now there is an image to haunt your dreams…

But the funny thing is, that the image worked for me.  My first solo ride after my lesson, I actually felt like Ike was sitting on his hind end more and moving like a real Second Level horse – not just a poser who gets lucky with good scores every now and again.  It is that uphill feeling that we will need to make the transition to Third Level; I’m almost certain that plow horses do not achieve high scores at Third.  So the next time you see me making a funny face while I am riding, you will know what is going through my head – “Must. Get. On. These. Sweaty. Pants.”

alison

The Show that Almost Didn’t Happen

Second 3 Dover Medal Ride June 2016

What do you get when you mix one part horse lameness with one part work and one part family obligations?  You get a hot mess of a rider and a lot of sweat from worrying if you are going to make it to the June show or not.  Of course, this all starts to ramp up just after the close date for the show which means no refunds.  It also meant that there was not a significant amount of schooling done in the two weeks leading up to our second licensed show of the year.

Thankfully Ike’s lameness turned out to be the need for his annual Equithane application.  For those of you who are wondering, it is basically a custom gel pad to keep his highness’ feet from getting too sore on the hard ground.  This is now the third year that he has needed it, so I should just put a tickler on the month of May to get it done and stop waiting for the pain to appear.

We went to the show with high expectations that we’d continue to earn scores in the 60th percentile as we have for most of the year.  Ha ha!  I should learn to stop setting the bar so high since there are just too many things that are out of my control – like sloppy footing, unexpected spooks, and a judge who just didn’t seem to care for us as a team.

It is hard to not take the low scores personally, but when you see most of the scores as 4.5, 5.0 and 5.5 in a test, you can’t help but feel like a failure.  I’ve shown enough to have a sense of what my score will be when I complete my final salute.  It is devastating when you see a score that doesn’t mesh with your expectations.  I think all the competitors were feeling the same as I did when they saw their scores from this judge.  After the particularly brutal beating we got after our Sunday morning ride, I took a walk to clear my head, shed a tear or two in frustration, and to try to get myself ready for my final ride of the weekend.

Our final class of the weekend was the Dover Medal class – Second Level Test 3.  All adult amateurs are eligible for this award; the award goes to the high score adult amateur in the class as long as the score is greater than 60%.  My goal for the class was to get at least 60% and to hold our countercanters in both three-loop serpentines.  I wasn’t even worried about my placement.  We had to warm up on our own without any adult supervision.  Ike felt a bit tired, but he was calm and on the aids.  I didn’t school countercanter since we’ve found that it can fire him up and encourage him to show off his flying change skills.

It was finally time for us to head down centerline.  I love it when we make the turn at A and Ike puts on his game face.  He knows it is time, and we can usually make a good first impression on the initial halt and salute.  I was doing my best to breathe and to keep him supple in my hands.  Our medium trots were two of our best for the weekend and we got solid scores on our 10 meter circles.  Frankenhorse did not make an appearance and we got a 6.0 and a 6.5 on our turns on the haunches.  Yea for us!  Our simple changes were not our best, BUT I am happy to report that we held our countercanters in both directions.  Hallelujah!! Especially since they are a double coefficient in the scoring.  We did our best and now just had to wait for the final tally.

While we waited for the score, we got Ike hosed down and our tack loaded on the trailer.  He and my husband were going to head back to the barn to get Ike some afternoon paddock time while I gathered our test once the class placed.  Amazingly, we heard our score right before the boys departed.  I knew I’d done well when I heard the announcer share the news that we were the recipients of the Dover Medal.  What?!  Never did I think that I’d be able to claim I owned one of these medals.  It was such redemption after the challenging rides we’d had all weekend.  Our score was a 63.049%.

My only wish was that Ms. C had been there to watch our ride.  Thankfully my husband recorded our ride so she would be able to see it for herself.  This medal is as much hers as it is mine.

 

Get Smart

 

Ike at the Meadows May 2016

Photo by Melana K.

 

If you are of a certain age, you have probably watched the television show Get Smart starring Don Adams and Barbara Feldon.  Younger generations are probably more familiar with the movie of the same title starring Steve Carrell and Anne Hathaway.  Maxwell Smart’s famous tag line was, “Missed it by that much.”  That line pretty much sums up  our first licensed show last weekend.  It is that wee little bit that costs you dearly.

The weekend did not start off well given that Mother Nature had decided that we needed 15 straight days of rain leading up to the show.  I was so desperate to squeeze a lesson in before we went that I rode in some light rain.  We traveled to the show grounds in the rain, unloaded in the rain, and then sat in the barn listening to it rain even harder.  The covered arena was in use by the breed show, so most of us tacked up and rode in the rain and slop and prayed that Saturday would dawn a clearer day.

My first ride on Saturday was Second Level Test 2 – the qualifier for the USDF Region 1 CBLM Championship.  I needed a 62% to be qualified for the fall.  You only need one score and to be a member of one of the group membership organizations.  We’d been able to get some scores over the minimum at the schooling shows, so I was hopeful that we could get our score at this show to take some pressure off at future shows.  Heads up, watch my face closely as we make our first turn off centerline:

First Attempt at Second Level Test 2

When your horse decided to show his medium canter rather than a medium trot, spook at the judge/scribe/plants/invisible boogey men, and then show his pivoting skills rather than a correct turn on the haunches, you end up with a score of 61.795% – a mere 0.205% away…yep, missed it by that much.  I would have to wait until Sunday to try again.

We also attempted to obtain that magical 60% in Second Level Test 3 that I need in order to try my musical freestyle at a licensed show.  This test has continued to vex us even though we are stronger in all of our Second Level work.  We have yet to ride it without a bobble or two, but I took a deep breath and headed down centerline.  Well, let me tell you, we did manage to ride both canter serpentines without breaking in the countercanter, but we again demonstrated our ability to plant Ike’s hind legs in the turn on the haunches.  Our score?  A 59.5%…sigh, another swing and a miss.  Since we only signed up for this test on Sunday, the coveted 60% will have to wait until June.

Finally, it was time to try Second Level Test 2 again.  This test would be ridden in the covered arena…and guess who never schooled in the covered arena.  We’d just have to hope that Ike would maintain his composure, and let’s admit it, it was fingers crossed that I could maintain mine as well.  Here is the ride:

Second Level Test 2 Dressage at the Meadow

We had the one little bobble in the right lead countercanter, but after a quick prayer, I was able to get Ike back into the right lead so that we could demonstrate our simple change just a few strides later.  Phew!  Overall I was pleased with the ride; I had to just hope that the judge felt the same way.  After a 30 minute wait, the score was finally available online.  Drumroll please!  65.128%!!  We did it!!  Qualified!!  What?!  Ooohmmaahhhggeerrrrd!  What a huge relief.  Finally, we didn’t miss out by a hair or a nose.  There is hope for us yet.  We had many very good movement scores in this test.  I am proud to say that we earned a 6 and a 7 for our turn on the haunches (the secret is to nag at the caboose the entire time).  Our simple changes also were strong.

So now I can breathe a huge sigh of relief.  Don’t worry, I’m sure there will be plenty more misses on our way to the championship and plenty more comedic relief moments as well.  But that is part of the journey.

alison

 

 

Finally, the Hiatus is Over

Feb 4 2016

When I was a child, my family owned boats – a daysailer when I was very young, then we sized-up to a 25 foot sailboat, and finally, we shifted to motorboats which were better for fishing.  My mother used to call them “holes in the water that we throw money into” since it seemed sometimes that the boat spent more time at the dock than on the open water.  But, even when the boat was stationary, there were still expenditures that drained the bank account.  A few years ago, my parents finally plugged the last hole and got rid of the boat.

Now that I own horses, I better understand what she was saying.  When I am forced by powers beyond my control to cease all riding, it can be very frustrating.  Even when I cannot ride, there are still board checks to write, vet bills to pay, and apple expenditures.  So after 15 days of no riding, I finally got my butt back in the saddle and rode Ike through the slushy remnants of the blizzard.  Desperate times, people, desperate times.

Fortunately, some warmer temperatures melted those last stubborn traces of the snow and the ring was back to its pre-snow condition.  I took full advantage of the situation and scheduled a lesson with Ms. C.  She had warned me that the horses had displayed their naughty wintertime behavior earlier in the day.  One of the horses she rode decided to exhibit her airs-above-the-ground skills.  So with that cautionary advice, I heaved myself onto Ike’s back and began my warm-up.  Just when I was lulled into a false sense of confidence, Ike reminded me that he could at anytime be in charge of our ride.  Luckily I kept my ass in the saddle and quickly regained control.

In my lessons, we have dabbled with flying changes and half pass in preparation for Third Level, but the focus is mainly on the basics – is your horse through and working over his back?  Is your horse straight?  Seemingly simple concepts in theory yet challenging when you add motion and power.  Ike can certainly give the outward appearance that he is through at the trot, but I know when he is faking it.  The challenge is then to correct the lack of throughness.  There are times that the only way to establish it is to go back to the walk.  It is usually easier for me to win the argument while moving slower.  Once we achieve the throughness, we then are starting to add more power.  Note to self:  You had better get into better aerobic shape in order to ride that powerful trot!

Straightness can still elude us at times…well, for full disclosure, it happens more often than not.  Yes, we can regularly trot a straight centerline, but straightness at the canter and on a circle or bending line?  Hmm, I struggle to know what is going on with the caboose.  I can think we are going straight, but if you look at photos or watch videos, you can see Ike’s hind end is not quite on the same track as the front.  And while I know that we should be cantering with a slight shoulder fore position, I struggle to know if I have achieved that correct positioning.  Ms. C frequently asks me if I think I have a straight horse; I frequently respond with, “Maybe.”  Needless to say that is not the correct answer.

Things get even more challenging when I try to recreate the throughness and straightness when I ride on my own.  Do I have it?  Should I praise Ike?  Or did we completely miss the mark and I’m rewarding the wrong thing?  The struggle is real, but thankfully, I have learned that I am not alone with this struggle.  I’ve found a group of like minded dressage riders on Facebook.  We lament working on our own and worry that we are doing more harm than good.  Luckily some riders with more wisdom reassure us that our horses are forgiving creatures.  Most of them want to please us.  Stop worrying about making mistakes – it is part of the learning process.  Just enjoy the journey even when you end up on the long road.

So the plan is to enjoy the unscheduled time off from riding to just enjoy my horse’s company and stop kicking myself when we make mistakes.  Success comes when you dust yourself off and try one more time.

alison

 

You’ve (Not) Got The Look

My best view while riding.

My best view while riding.

I love looking at photographs of other riders and horses, especially those who compete in the upper echelons of the sport.  The talent, the beauty, the power is awe inspiring no matter which discipline you select to admire.  I enviously look at their correct position in the saddle and how relaxed they appear.  I try to commit the images to memory to recall while I am trying to get Ike to elevate his front end while trying to keep my hind end securely in the saddle.  The riders aren’t inadvertently leaning forward or pushing themselves out of the saddle.  They are actually looking where they are going and not at their horse’s withers.  When you look at the riders’ faces, you can see the determination and focus.  In many photos, the riders are even smiling.   

Sadly, when I look at photos or videos of me riding, I look like I am in pain, constipated, or distressed.  I scrunch my nose as if I just sniffed milk past its expiration date.  I can look horrified as if I’m an actress in the new blockbuster horror film. Thank goodness Ike does not mimic my facial expression.  The judges would eliminate us in a heartbeat if he looked as pained as I do.  A Glamour magazine “don’t block” just might be necessary…or someone with some wicked good Photoshop skills to replace my pained look for a more pleasant facial expression.  I am not expecting any modeling contracts to be headed my way anytime soon. 

That "I smell something bad" look

That “I smell something bad” look

This wretched look is on my face no matter how the ride is going.  Even with my good blue-ribbon rides, I distort my face.  In the rare photo, I can conjure a neutral face – not happy, not sad, not pained, just mannequin expressionless.  Even with my final halt and salute photos, you see more relief and surprise than joy. 

Ms. C tells me that it is due to the fact that I am concentrating.  While that may be the case, why can’t I concentrate with a less distressful expression?  She said that we can certainly work on it during my lessons, but there are so many other issues to work out that it will fall far down in the list of things to think about while riding.  It is all I can do to think “half halt,” “turn,” “put my weight in my left/right  stirrup,” “where is my leg supposed to be,” and “BREATHE and RELAX.”   

I doubt this is something that I will fix anytime soon, so in the mean time, I will ask everyone to focus on Ike in the photos.  Big man can almost always look peaceful and focused, even when his mother is not.

alison