Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Finding Your Inner Zen

I don't know about you, but I'm particularly guilty of trying to fit 36 hours into a 24 hour day. This is sometimes a bit inevitable, as I currently have a part time job Bartending in downtown Chicago in addition to a full sales business with 8 horses currently in my program. And I'm trying to show my personal horse in my spare time... So I inevitably try and squeeze in whatever I can, whenever I can. For those of you like me, trying to get the most out of your day, here's a lesson on trying to ride rushed or stressed.

Just last week, after finishing a 10 hour hauling trip for a client, I really needed (or so I thought) to school up two of my horses before a show, so around 9:30 at night I hopped on the first one. This was my first mistake as I was QUITE exhausted, grumpy after dealing with crazies on the road, and really quite ready to be home. So to say my patience with my mare wasn't where it should be is an understatement. I got easily frustrated with her lazy canter depart, which was MUCH more a result of my crummy preparation than her not listening, and I then made my second mistake of the night. I kept going and decided to school her over some fences, despite having a terrible warmup on the flat, with a serious lack of straightness. And wouldn't you know? She didn't jump very straight either. 

Bad Quality Warmup Results

Much Better once I slowed down and focused more on straightness and quality.

My first blog on here was about really focusing on what you write in your horses book of training. And here I was writing a bunch of jibberish. Ugh, Bad Shannon. 

About how well I felt I was riding

So at this point in my ride, I had already been on for 30 minutes of terrible riding on my behalf, (we all have those daysa), and I decided to take a deep cleansing breath, smile, and spend 5 minutes walking around working on a lovely stretchy walk. Then I picked her up, did two beautiful walk/trot/walk transitions off the rail and incredibly straight, made a HUGE deal of her, and hopped off. Was it the perfect ride I was hoping for? Absolutely not. However, at a certain point as riders we need to learn to cut our losses for the day, accomplish one very positive thing, and get off.

 Our horses don't know we're having a bad day, all they can feel is your frustration and nothing is more cruel than letting them believe that it's their fault. There are days when we need to realize as much as we'd love to get on and ride off into the sunset, let it wipe away the stress of the day, that maybe it's not going to go so smoothly. Maybe our lovely mare has had a bad day too and doesn't particularly want to ride in the direction of the sun. Will you be able to laugh it off and fix the problem slowly? Or are you going to loose it and try and kick and pull her all the way down that road? Sometimes the ride will only add to our stress. Those are the days to spend 45 minutes grooming, going over every inch with a fine tooth comb, clean your tack, scrub your buckets, take your horse for a hand graze, and let simply being there at the barn take away the stress.  Never get on your horse if there's a chance that you're going to pick a fight that never needed to happen.

"There are only two emotions that belong in

the saddle; one is a sense of humor and the

other is patience." - Unknown

With this in mind as well, I find so many riders that fall into a "forced" schedule. I understand the need for structure in a training program, especially for upper level type horses. But this should never be at the expense of quality. I have had riders come for a jump lesson on jump day and get bent out of shape that I never let them do more than a ground rail that day because their horse wasn't going well enough to jump. If it's your jump day, and your horse isn't going straight, relaxed and forward on the flat, you have no business pointing it down a line. Make that day a flat day, and fix the issue so the next day, you can have a quality jump school with a straight horse. I should have NEVER jumped my mare that day, but let myself get caught up the "schedule". She knows how to jump, I'm not going to train her any fancy new tricks in one day, especially not if I didn't already have her going correctly on the flat.

Ah well, she went on to win almost all of her classes at our schooling show the next day, so thankfully I didn't do TOO much damage O_o.

I'd like to do a shout out to my sponsors, County Saddlery of Illinois, Turning Point Design Custom Bonnets, Genuine Ranch Brand, ISellTack.com, and Cavalor for their continued support of my business, and my clients for continuing to believe in me and my training! Looking forward to my next show here in a couple weeks!! And as always, please check out my website for a list of Sales Horses available, or to inquire about lessons, training, or consignment. 

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Dressage Experiment - part 1

I will preface this blog with the thought that I am NOT a dressage queen. I love jumping in any and all forms. Dressage does not come naturally to me. I feel that people who typically do well in dressage are more relaxed, methodical, and meticulous people. I'm a color outside the lines in a wild and erratic fashion kinda girl myself. For years, I would simply freeze after I left a beautiful warm up and trot circles around and around until the judge blew the whistle, and then I would complete my test in record time. My dressage coach growing up probably has more than her fair share of gray hairs form these experience. I have manage to end up in the top ribbons in years past due to generally clear rounds from saintly horses at break neck speeds. 

As I've gotten older, and started working with more and more horses, riders, and fabulous coaches, I've begun to really see the value in a quality dressage base (ESPECIALLY for jumping). One of my recent horses and I even ventured so far as to 2nd level with some mixed success, as most of it was trial and error on our own.Though I did manage to qualify for regionals at Training, 1st, and 2nd over our adventures. I've now set it as one of my goals to get my bronze medal over the next couple of years... Optimism right? Ideally on my OTTB or home started WB mare (2 scores down, 2 to go!) Excited to have found a fabulous coach in my area as well to help me realize these goals!  So now the real question: How does one do Dressage well when one is not necessarily on the nicest moving, flashiest, or talented of horses that simply waltzes around for us scoring 9's and 10s effortlessly?

Here's the place to start.... or... maybe not 

A few weeks ago, I got a call on a Thursday asking if I was interested in running a sale horse at Beginner Novice that weekend for a client. I love showing so that was a silly question. Polish the boots, grab the coat.... Off I go. That night, I sent a message to a good friend of mine Carrie Meehan (If you're in the MO/KS area, look her up, she's amazing) and asked her "How do I win Dressage?" She seems to do it a lot (actually, she just wins the whole event too, not just dressage. Her record includes multiple AEC wins at different levels on different horses) , so why not ask her?

Here was her response: 'People are always SO CONCERNED about keeping the horse round, but when you give the horse a solid unwavering connection with your hands, and think of just riding up and out, it does WONDERS for their movement. I focusing on making the horse stay in a happy place where he can't curl past my contact or go beyond it. Then i just ride the energy up and out, from the hind legs forward. I also hold my hands a bit higher than is comfortable...and think you're holding a tray full of glasses on your wrists. It wont like turn your fingers up...but THINKING it makes the perfect angle"

Simple right? I should be good for Grand Prix next week. But her message is a really good one. So often, people let their horses fall behind the vertical line of poll and nose, in the attempt to control the horses tempo with their hands (instead of their seat and their post rhythm) and try to make it "round", and at the expense of a swinging, relaxed back. The horse cannot achieve throughness and contact without first having a quiet and consistent rhythm and    relaxed back. One can't achieve that if they're swinging their horses head back and forth in an attempt to get them round, "wiggling the bit" or by holding their head to their chest ala Rolkur style. The best movement comes from a horse that is moving up and out (from behind, not from the forehand , a quiet rhythm with the rider continuously encouraging the horse to come up in the poll and into the bit, not onto and behind the bit.

The ACTUAL training scale

Here's a perfect example of me focusing too much on round and not enough on UP and into a connection. You can see that this results in a tight back, and a lack of reach from the hind end. 

Versus here where I've asked the horse to really come from behind and up to me, instead of letting him come down. I could even stand to have my hands up a bit more, and in front of me to better guide him. PS if anyone is looking for a LOVELY dressage horse, this horse is TOO cool. I rode him down in Florida this winter and he is available for sale down there through http://www.jsdressage.com/Sales.html

Best part about her advice (that I tried to follow to the best of my ability)? It worked. I managed to guide the mare (Parker) to a win in our class of 20! With a 29 to boot! It does help that this is one of the most talented horses I've had the pleasure to sit on, but really focusing on riding her up into the contact allowed her already stunning movement to really show through!


The result! (She is for sale by the way! This is a seriously cool horse... jumped around double clear and won on her first show out for the season! Can't beat that!)

So as I move forward on all of my horses, I have been really focusing on SLOWING down the rhythm so that the horses feet have time to keep up with the rest of their body, and a focus on up and out, opposed to allowing them to come down and in. I've also been working on pushing the hind legs up to the front shoe prints, to develop better drive from all my horses. This is not to say I don't work on "long and low" but when I do, it's with a forced attention to not allowing the horse to curl in on our stretch, but rather to reach out for those carrots... :)

Run fast my friends! And check out my current list of sales horses on my website, InfinitySportHorse.com

Friday, July 5, 2013

Courage For our Cowardly Lion

" The Suspicious Pony"

Meet Millennium Qui or "Qui" pronounced 'Key' - An 8 year old OTTB as of maybe a month ago now, purchased by one of my clients off of an East Coast Canter add as a horse for me to bring through the levels! This horse is going to be really, REALLY cool.... He easily has some of the most scope and best gaits of anything I have in my program right now. However, he is is what I like to call HIGHLY suspicious. Not spooky in the traditional turn and run philosophy that might have kept him alive in the wild, but more of the mentality that everything (and most everyone) is actually just out to get him. That pole? It's highly likely to spring up and grab him, so instead of simply trotting over it, he'll leap like his whole life depends on it. The X? After weaving back and forth nervously, we'll leave 2 strides out and tuck our hind end like it might try and grab him. Trail rides are a matter of a lot of puffing, a lot of stopping, some shaking, and many attempts to leap like a ballerina. Heaven help me if I needed to catch him in a rain storm, or if I tried to brush him too quickly. These resulted in terrified running around a paddock, broken cross ties, or more shaking. Now knowing he came from the track, and was a claims horse, tells you a few things. 1. There probably wasn't a lot of babying, treat giving, or cuddling. He was there to make his money, and go home. 2. Because of this, he really learned to fend for himself in any and all situations. Better safe than sorry mentality. He's brave, and he'll try, but because he knows his job. He hasn't had anyone he's truly wanted to work for, as there hasn't been much consistency in his life.

I mean, look at this trot after only 45 days under saddle!!

With this in mind, we begin the process of "retraining" and installing courage and confidence. I think this is something MANY horse and rider combinations struggle with, whether it's in the form of a stopper, a rearer, a bucker, a bolter, a biter, barn sourness, heard boundness, or extreme tension in dressage. These horses exhibit strong signs of lack of confidence in their person or "Alpha". Now I'm not hear to preach to you about how to get your horse to stand all four feet on a tree trunk, to bow down, or to ride around with a rope around it's neck and nothing else. But I am here to remind you that your horse is a heard animal. They should want to work for you, not out of fear or necessity, but because YOU ARE IN CHARGE. These are 1200+ lb animals that we work with on a daily basis, and in my world, there can't be a question of who's in charge. If they mow you down to get to the grass or to their stall, they don't have respect for you. When push comes to shove on cross country, you are disposable to them.They are going to be out for the self preservation. When we are on cross country, we ask them to do things that COMPLETELY disregard natural instinct, and I want my horses to trust me 110% when I ask them to blindly jump off a bank.

 Maybe this is a little harsh, but I've watched too many people baby their horses, and end up in a hospital when "Fluffy" just wanted a bit of grain and broke their foot. Respect starts from the ground up, from Day 1 to forever. Every day, you write in your horses book of training. In pen. Make every experience that you can a positive one in the right direction, towards the horse of your dreams. If you don't teach it them to behave, they won't learn. Does this mean beating them senseless over a mistake? ABSOLUTELY NOT. Does this mean correcting them when they're dancing in the cross ties and being firm about standing still? Yes. This means when you stop, they stop. If they walk past you, stop them and ask them to back up, and try again. There should not be a pulling game of your horse dragging you down the aisle every day. I expect my horses to stop without me even touching the lead rope. I expect them to stand in the wash rack nicely while being bathed. I expect personal space when we're walking around the grounds of a show. I expect them to get in a horse trailer with just me, no whips, no contraptions, and with little hassle every time.

I even expect my 3 yr old to stand nicely in the cross ties. Pictured is Miss The Logic, another OTTB sale horse in my program.

For Qui and his lack of trust, I spent a LOT of time in the first month working on getting him to move away from pressure on the ground, getting him to stand still for a few minutes at a time, getting him to stop when I stopped, to back up nicely on command. All of this was very hard for him to understand. He wanted to run me over, he wanted to run away, rear up, leave ext. I put him on a lunge line, grabbed a set of sturdy gloves, and pushed off everything else on my calendar. I wasn't in a hurry, and he needed to know that. I've learned that if I don't have the time to do things correctly (and completely) I don't have the time to work with that horse for the day. If you only have 20 minutes for a ride, don't ride. Groom them, work on ground manners, work on relaxation on the ground, make it simple and easy, so you don't start something you can't finish. Nothing is worse than not having the time to fix a problem that arises once you've started.

After 2 weeks, I really felt like Qui was relaxing in our day to day ground work, so I tossed a saddle on him. I wasn't exactly nice about it, maybe a bit surprising, but wouldn't you know it he stood like a brick. I took the saddle off, praised him like we just ran around Rolex, and put him back out for the day. He was like, Really? That's It? That's all I have to do is be good and you're done?? You know who showed up at the gait the next day? Without me standing in the middle watching him make laps around me at Mach 5? Qui. And guess who walked in quietly and started to work?

When we started working over poles, I started on the ground. Made it simple and easy to do the right thing. I made it hard for him to do the wrong thing. When he walked over it? He was THE best horse ever, and the issue was over and we moved on to something else. And then we went back to it again after a bit. I see some people represent over and over and over again right in a row, but to me this doesn't give your horse a chance to process that going over was the correct and easy answer. I did the same thing under saddle, walked him right up to it, let him stand in front of it for a minute, and then walk over. We did some dancing, and then a flying leap, but he went over like I asked. Try and  not let the horse walk past it or around it, as that's evasion of the question. Same thing with jumping. A run out is a rider error. A stop is a misunderstanding of the question. That we can fix. Once he quietly leaps over the pole, I make a big deal of him and go back to something that's easy for him, like a circle. Then after a few minutes, I re-approach the pole or jump. This time, it's a little less dramatic. Each time becomes less exciting, as he begins to trust I won't set him up for failure. Another big thing is make sure you are as out of the way as possible when working with a horse like this. If that means getting a belt or old stirrup leather as an "Emergency Grab Strap" do that. I jump my guys in a breast plate to make sure I have something to grab on to, and make sure that I don't fall onto their backs too soon on a big jump. Nothing hurts confidence more than grabbing their mouth to re balance your self. http://www.an-eventful-life.com.au/eventing-news/training-tips/neck-straps-are-not-just-beginners-says-william-fox-pitt If you don't trust me, trust WFP :) 

Slightly Over Dramatic

Nice and Relaxed, focus on the reward.

Much more relaxed.

With a horse like him, I also focus a lot on keeping it simple. Walk it until it's easy. Trot it until it's easy. Canter it until it's easy. Then add another element. Make sure at this stage that the exercise can always be broken down and simplified if they get nervous. 

Ok, enough from me for this week. Hope this helps for those working with horses lacking in confidence!!


Qui's first XC experience! Great to see our little Lion man out running and jumping!