Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Of Progress and Body Awareness, Setting Goals

I think the key to becoming a good rider (and, actually, a good horse trainer) is being aware of what your body is doing. The only times I can ever begin to fix my position is if I know what's going on. Oftentimes, the cycle is set in motion by looking at horse show pictures. This is how I discovered my lower leg slipping back after the jump. Then, at my next lesson, I began concentrating on the feeling of my leg slipping back.
The next step was to go back to the Bible, aka George Morris's Hunter Seat Equitation, THE guide to equitation over fences. Studying pictures of what you want to look like over fences is a really great step to not only discover ways to fix the problem, but aid in fixing it by visualizing the position you want to have. If you've ever read Jane Savoie's book, That Winning Feeling!, you know as well as I do that if you visualize yourself jumping in perfect form often enough, it can actually make a real difference! And don't you want all the help you can get?
I tend to analyze a lot during lessons. I'm a very intellectual rider, and I really have to have time between rounds or during flatwork to process what just happened, whether it went well, and how it could improve, either on my part or my horse's. It does really help; it helped me figure out that in order to counteract the forces that sent my leg flying back, I needed to really sink my weight into my heels before each fence. It's still a work in progress, but it's getting stronger every day!
Next, I found that though my leg was staying put more, I was still really throwing my upper body forward, and for those of you who don't ride hunt seat, this is called getting ahead and is a VERY VERY bad thing. Not only do you throw all of your weight onto your horse's forehand (which I think we can agree is a bad thing across the board) but you're also in a very precarious position should something go wrong. Your weight isn't under your leg. Now, my leg was beginning to come back under me, but it still wasn't effective because I wasn't balanced over it. And since I couldn't use my leg, I braced against my hands, causing a stiff-armed look that Blue couldn't have appreciated. Luckily, today I showed some improvement on that. I really do enjoy making progress like this; it's one of my favorite parts of riding - well, after those awesome connection moments, of course!
We had more of those today, too! I can feel it most after canter-trot transitions; he's on the bit from the transition, but really striding out and reaching. It's a high that I'll bet beats drugs any day.
I think when it comes to working with horses, you also have to have body awareness. There's a clear difference in the behavior of a horse handled by a confident, poised handler and a horse handled by a timid, wimpy handler. Even if you're not confident, try to present yourself as if you are! You'd be surprised at the difference! I think the most important part of any horse-human relationship is mutual respect - something Mugwump has said for awhile but bears repeating. The best part is, after you gain your horse's respect, you gain their trust - and that's when a bond develops. Not all horses are the cuddly, friendly types - but if you have their trust, you've definitely got something.
This progress is getting me all excited. Our next scheduled show is on Labor Day Weekend, the big county show. There will be tons of horses and riders who show more regularly there; I'm not in it to win, but I'd like to turn in a respectable performance. We'll see how preparation goes!

PS: I don't know how many, if any, people read this, but please share your experiences! I'm eager to hear them!

Monday, July 28, 2008

Just in Time for the Olympics - Gymnastics!

Of the equestrian variety, of course!

Our final week of horse camp began this week with building a small course. One of the primary features of that course? A gymnastic! I love gymnastics...I love being able to feel my horse analyze and figure out the striding, and of course I love the fact that I can work on my toughest challenge - doing nothing! A great opportunity to work on position over fences!
I hadn't ridden Blue in over a week, though I did get a ride on Tex, an aforementioned OTTB who is probably the equine equivalent of my personality - very cautious, a perfectionist, eager to please, but can't really overcome himself without an authoritative partner. It was a good experience - Tex is a pleasure to ride on the flat, and he really helps me get my eyes up over fences. Then, there was the trail ride, which was relaxing but definitely a workout (2 hours posting in a Western saddle!).
So it's the first time I've been on Blue in awhile, and you'd have thought I'd never left. I'm beginning to maintain a solid connection, and there have been some moments that have bordered on...nirvana. You know, the moment where you can finally feel the horse and yourself working together, and you both understand what each other is asking? Yeah, that one. =D
The gymnastic went well. My smart boy settled right into it, and I have been working on slipping my hips back over jumps. This has the effect of keeping my upper body from climbing his neck, and pressing my weight into my heels. This position thing is like piecing together a puzzle - each time I turn the piece, I see a place where it can fit and make the whole picture a little bit clearer.
We ended the day learning how to identify lameness. It's still pretty challenging, but I figure it's one of those things you learn by experience. I'll keep you posted, I promise.

Friday, July 25, 2008

So Lost In Thought, I Couldn't Blog...

...or something like that. ;)

I'll make a long story short. For the past two weeks, I've grown more confident than I believed I could. I realized that if I kept my heels down, sank my hips back, and looked up over a fence, Blue would jump it.

So, I had to change the name and purpose of the blog. Especially after I rode the chicken OTTB cross-country and he almost galloped off with me and I stayed on and lived. Maybe acknowledging the fact I was chickenshit in the blog helped me accept and move past it?

Or, more likely, I've reached the end of a long plateau. Time to move up the steppe now.

What I've discovered are that most of the problems I have with Blue, his owner also has. Granted, these problems only show up when she has a bad day, but at their core they are the same. Which has helped me accept them, and that we may never eliminate them altogether. The horse is, after all, 11, and old dogs can only learn so many new tricks.

But we can certainly try to improve. It's happened already. You know my short-strided guy? He got the normal distance down a line, and then left a stride out.

No, I don't expect ALL our progress to move so quickly. It's just that a lot of analysis and work have gone into this progress, and you know I'll keep you posted on the next batch. When I remember to blog, that is.

Oh, and did I mention I galloped Blue bareback in the field in a snaffle? Yeah, comfort zone expanding and all that. =D

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Three Rides in Three Days

I got a bit caught up in the events of the last couple days, so I'll condense the accounts of my last three rides on Blue.
THURSDAY - Sara had to leave camp early due to an emergency, and we had to wait to ride until the farrier finished up with the horses, so I had full access to Blue. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, our flatwork was rushed, meaning that Blue was a bit dull and late to respond over fences. Nothing horrible, but it could've been a lot better.
FRIDAY - The end of camp culminated in a mini-horse trials. I rode the dressage part on Mia. I thought she was pokey so I didn't restrain her head at all for fear it would interfere with her impulsion, though I was told later she seemed to be going at a good, consistent pace. She bent around corners and circles well, and overall I was quite pleased with how far we'd come in just three days. After the dressage test, I put Mia up in her stall and prepared for our cross-country course.
This course was a thing of beauty. Our farm encompasses four fields, three adjacent to each other and one just a bit away. The "starting box" was the arena, and the challenges on-course involved jumping from the arena, jumping obstacles placed where the pasture gates would be, and odd challenges such as jumping water buckets. Blue is such a brave boy - he jumped everything the first time. Blue and I cruised through the course to set the fastest time. But the part I was happiest about was the fact that I was never truly intimidated by the course. I stayed with Blue's jump for the most part, and overall I think it was a course well-ridden! In lieu of the stadium round, we chose to do the course again, since it took so much effort to put up (though I had voted to continue to stadium!) which produced similar results. We ended up winning the event, and Blue got a nice, bracing liniment bath.
SATURDAY - But you know what they say about horses? They don't really tolerate ego strokes well. Which is why Blue did a great job of showing me that I really am not done learning yet. On the contrary, I've got quite a ways to go.
I rode in the field with spurs, which upon reflection was a good idea. Unfortunately, since I wasn't used to it I underestimated the effect it would have over fences. I guess first I should mention that flatwork went fairly well, though I must be careful to avoid nagging Blue with my legs - he was quite perky but I have a hard time accepting anything less than my ideal, which I'm working on.
A spook before the warm-up jump (a vertical in a hollow, so both directions meant a downhill approach) made us both tense. Blue has a disdain for trotting jumps in the first place.
Increased Momentum Downhill + Tense Horse = Cantering the Jump
Both of us eventually settled down, and we trotted the jump a couple of times.
For the figure-8 course making its appearance again this week, it went pretty well until a downhill vertical. I asked for the big jump, and then didn't think I'd get it, so I got left behind when Blue followed my advice. See, the spurs sharpened the aid and I wasn't used to such a prompt response, but Blue got the signal loud and clear. Spurs are proving to be an education for both of us, but at the same time I am getting results from Mr. Non-Responsive that I never would get otherwise with them. In other news, the rest of the course went pretty well (when I looked up and got into proper jumping position) except I need to stop ALWAYS asking for the big jump. I guess I need to start learning to adjust Blue's stride BEFORE the last three strides, but that comes with experience.
We moved the jumps into the ring for the barn's student show next week, which I'm not riding in for various reasons (it's going to be one of Sara's last shows before college, finances, I want to see what kind of horse show photographer I can be) but I'd like to see how riding in the field has translated to my courses in the ring. Believe me, I'll let you know as it happens!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

I'm Too Old For This (But Too Young For the Consequences!)

Aah, Games Day! The one day of camp where acting like a total idiot doesn't screw you over for the rest of the week.
Bet you can't guess who I was riding. That's right - Mia! And let me tell you, Mia was less than thrilled to be a games pony. She'd much rather be getting a poop facial or making faces at the boys or anything more productive. You know, mare things.
But alas for Mia, today she was games pony and she had to live with it.
First up was the Ice Cube and Spoon Challenge, so named because we were lacking eggs. Now I don't know if you know how long it takes to melt an ice cube in 85 degree heat (hotter if you count the sun reflecting from the arena sand!), but when that spoon has got a nice pool of water under the cube, it makes for an interesting time! I think I've mentioned before that Mia hasn't been gifted with a long, smooth stride - so I was supposed to somehow compensate for this choppy motion AND control her destination simultaneously.
The first round, we didn't do a sitting trot for ten seconds before almost everyone lost their cube (Emily lost hers at the walk!). We learned posting is much easier on the cube, and you can hold onto the cube for longer by doing so. Not only did we manage to hold onto our new cube throughout both sitting and posting trot, but we even cantered both leads before I lost my cube. It sucked, because I was stuck behind Sara on Blue (Sara also leases Blue - it's kind of hard on me this week, not using him but also having to watch someone else ride my baby) who was not going very fast. We were taking on a new challenge - jumping with the ice cube on the spoon (there were three of us left by that point) but Mia tripped and I lost my ice cube before we got to it. Dammit, but I move on.
Simon Says involved me cantering with both reins in my left hand and my right hand on my hip jumping a teensy jump without stirrups. I won this game because I was the only one stupid enough (er...I mean brave) to do it.
Musical dismounts = worst game in the history of the world. I am not very agile, so even getting on 15.2 hh Mia was difficult. I feel really old, because I could not swing my hip up to get my foot in the stirrup, and the one time I managed to do so, her saddle slipped! Which sucked, because I had run out of holes on the billets. So I was out first. It's OK, I reasoned, I hate this game anyway.
Musical buckets had the added bonus of using the bucket to mount once you pushed some other oxygen sucker off your bucket. Of course, me being too nice caused me to lose this game, too - but being on bucket removal detail was fun!
I had really hoped to swindle Blue for a little bit of barrel racing (he and I won the event handily at the last barn show) but I had to settle for pole bending with Mia. Here's where her reluctance really hurt me - actually, I'm not sure it was reluctance so much as she didn't get the concept. She did the pattern correctly, but not quickly, partially because the other school horses are very accustomed to how the games work and don't need to be told what they were doing. Lots of hugs and pats for Mia, anyways, and then she was put away and we used the ickle ponies for bareback relays.
Luckily, I got to ride the former gymkhana star turned schoolmaster, Desi, so there was pretty much no way I could fail. And we didn't. Our team won each time, and I'd like to think it was due to teamwork and my teammate's agility rather than the fact that the other team's ponies either didn't want to canter or tried to buck with their riders.
Games day is fun, but I much prefer actual, challenging work. So, $5 says I ride Mia again tomorrow, and we'll see how we do jumping again. God help me if we decide to do some of the cross-country jumps, as Mia was less than sane last time THAT happened. For that escapade, I want my Blue-Boo back. :(

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

I'm Not a Runaway - I Just Like to Run!

So I rode Mia again today, and we were on decidedly better terms. But my instructor and I knew that we were undertaking the ultimate test today - jumping in the field with Crazy Horse. We upped the ante in my favor - draw reins to help Mia learn to use her head and neck, and (less so) an insurance policy should the mare throw her head up in the air and refuse to listen to reason.
Mia went very well under saddle, and I think this is the first time I've gotten a shoulder-in from a horse with so little effort on my part. All I needed was to keep her from overbending (she started moving in four seperate tracks) and she would happily keep up the work. Normally with Blue, shoulder-in is a battle, in that he will overbend his neck so it appears that he's making an effort, but he keeps moving in two tracks. It takes a lot of sophisiticated signalling to convince him that yes, shoulder-in does mean actual effort.
I still hate her canter. I actually got her working very well at the trot, and she is beginning to understand the concept of contact, though she has a ways to go. Her canter, however, is still bouncy and short-strided and it really works my lower back to avoid slamming down on her back each stride.
When it came time to jump, I was a bit nervous. Mia very clearly needed no forward aids, but aside from that was being a star. She's got a very nice natural jump, and I'm not sure whether she always finds the right spot so easily or whether my holding her made it pretty clear. The only times she got fussy and quick were when we were approaching a downhill jump. At the last jump, an uphill "fun fence", she began to get very antsy and tried to gallop a bit. Luckily, some handy half-halting made her come back to a reasonable, though still quick pace.
I realized the fundamental difference between Blue and Mia is that while Blue needs constant corrections, Mia only wants direction. She won't have the constant feedback I'm used to giving. She only wants to know what jump she's going to, where she's going after that, where she's supposed to take off, and when her lead needs to change. She'd much prefer that I, aside from answering those questions, stay off her and let her do her job. Which is refreshing, as I get told that so rarely.
All in all, I'm actually starting to enjoy riding Mia. Sure, she likes to take charge on the course, but it's not like she's running away with me; her response to the half-halt today shows she's still with me mentally, and if I can convince her that my idea is a good one, she's apt to agree with me. Tomorrow's Game Day at camp; so we'll get to run around the barrels and poles and have some fun! (And work on position...you know you can't ride those barrels unless your heels are down and you're looking up! :) )