Thursday, December 29, 2016

The best and worst of 2016

On one hand, this year has been a set of incredible highs. If you'd told me on January 1 that I'd be taking Taran to Regional Championships and bringing home a ribbon, I'd have thought you were crazy. But it's also been a year of loss - both Cash and Brego. Cash was not unexpected - he was 28 after all. And while I was saddened to lose my first heart horse, I knew it was time. But Brego's loss left us in shock - he was so young, and so seemingly healthy - I still don't think we've entirely processed it. Some horses leave awfully big holes behind.

Anyway. Instead of looking back month-by-month, I decided to pull some highlights of the year. These are the posts that I look at when I'm bored (does anyone else do that?), and smile to remember.

Reader's favorite post
How much were Brego's shoes? Brego got a set of custom heart-bar shoes after his hoof resection. Readers guessed at how much they actually cost... $600 for a set of two, in case you were wondering.

We still have these.

My favorite post
Back to square one. Again. This post basically sums up the entire struggle of dressage for me.
...When you start something new (like, say, coming back into work after being a pasture puff for a couple of years), your horse is in disbelief. He doesn't want necessarily want to work ("I could spook instead!") and it takes the better part of an hour lesson to convince him of what his job is and that he has to do it. And then, maybe the last 10-15 minutes of your lesson, he starts to really put in some quality work - like a nice, connected trot. And just when it's starting to feel awesome, your time is up. You've been through the wringer (how much inside leg can you possibly NEED???!?!), and your horse looks like he's just run the Derby. You despair at how hard that was and how you'll never be any good and how COULD HE PLEASE JUST TROT LIKE A NORMAL HORSE and jeez. Why do you do dressage again?...

Funniest post
Sh!tt!iest Valentine's Day Present Evar! Yup, husband bought me a manure spreader for Valentines Day. It's been almost a year and I still LOVE this thing. It makes my life so much easier!


Best shopping experience
Austrian tack stores: SO DANGEROUS. My credit card still hasn't recovered, and I really want to go back.


Worst ride
Requisite sh!itty pre-show ride. What happens when you expect too much and don't give enough.

Best ride
Lesson with Grand Prix Trainer. I learned a ton, and Taran was so light and balanced and responsive. I'm hoping to ride more with her (as well as my regular trainer) in 2017.

Taran complains that doing it right is HARD.

Worst show
Sort of second level. We definitely weren't prepared (and still aren't).

Needs to go back to Intro and learn square, on-the-bit halts.

Best show
Regional Championships, Day 2. Because satin.


Worst pic
That epic moment in our first second level test when I asked for a canter-walk transition with too much hand and took my leg off, and poor Taran slammed on the brakes. Too bad you don't get bonus points for sliding stops in dressage.

Look, my horse has two legs!

Best pic
Thank you Lauren for taking this... this is the best memory I could ever ask for.

Here's to a mostly good year, and looking forward to 2017!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Shoulder in is hard, and I suck at it

We've been breaking down the pieces of second level in my regular weekly lessons. Sometimes it seems like there are so many things to work on, we'll never get through them all and be able to put together a decent test. Last time it was canter/walk/canter transitions, this time it was shoulder in.

I don't know why SI is so hard. It's like a leg yield down the rail, but not, because you're on 3 tracks instead of four. So you kind of have to keep your outside leg on so that the haunches don't escape, but not too much or you'll end up straight. You need bend, but not too much or your horse will just fall on his outside shoulder, and/or you'll shut down the inside hind (and you neeed that inside hind because that's what's doing all the carrying work in SI). 

Speaking of falling out on his shoulder because I'm pulling his head to the inside...

Annnnd again...

Bonus if you pull on the inside rein to get that bend, because nothing shuts down the inside hind like pulling on the inside rein. In fact, sometimes it shuts down the inside hind so much that you just end up with the neck bent and the rest of the horse straight.

Like this

Or this

Nope, still going straight. ARGH!

Taran has just given up on interpreting my cues and is just trotting nicely because he's good at that.

Maybe a tiiiiny bit of shoulder fore?

The most common way to school the shoulder in is from a 10 m circle or volte. But tracking right, I often fail to ride the last quarter of the circle, so T throws his haunches in and shoulders out, which is basically a recipe for how NOT to set yourself up for success. So instead we did a 12 step program for shoulder in:
  • Turn onto the quarter line (because if we're on the rail, I forget to use my outside leg and let the rail do my job for me).
  • Get him straight. Straighter. STRAIGHTER. Maybe a step or two of leg yield to engage that inside hind.
A step of leg yield. This we can do.
  • When he is REALLY REALLY straight, move BOTH hands to the inside. Your hands control the position of his shoulders.
  • Turn your shoulders to the inside so that they are even with the angle of your hands.
  • (Note: the rest of this is theoretical. I sort of flop around and lean and collapse and flail.)
I don't even know what I'm doing here. Poor Taran.
  • Apply inside leg to keep the bend and engage the inside hind.
  • Apply your outside thigh to push his shoulders to the inside.
  • More inside leg.
  • MOAR.
  • Don't forget your outside leg.
  • Check your angle. 
WAAAY too much angle. Also, nice job leaning.

Still too much angle (4 tracks), but hey, Taran is straighter! (Unlike me)

STILL too much...

  • Don't forget to straighten before you run out of arena.
I finally gave up and we went to a walk to try to get it sorted. I'm just not fast enough with all the body parts to make it work at a trot yet. It also helped when we changed direction, because he's WAY better to the left. I was able to feel what we were going for and then apply it to going right.

Straighter (both of us), AND (mostly) on three tracks. You can see how hard the inside hind has to work here and why you want to avoid shutting it down.

Getting the hang of it!


We need about a million more lessons on this so I can get the feel of what's correct, and I need a LOT of practice setting him up - and sitting correctly - to make it happen.

What are YOUR favorite tips for riding a good shoulder in?

Thursday, December 15, 2016

A year of Taran conformation shots: How far we've come

This time last year, Paddy had just re-injured himself (soft tissue in RF), and Brego, who was my plan B riding option, had just ripped off a huge chunk of foot that we were going to have to wait for months for him to grow out. I wasn't about to not ride, so I pulled poor Taran out of the pasture and he became my primary riding horse.

He was a pretty rough customer, since he hadn't been ridden consistently in quite some time. He was muscled upside-down, and had no topline at all. 

December 23, 2015

After just a month, his topline had improved dramatically and his butt was starting to fill in.

February 1, 2016

By March, the giant muscle on the bottom of his neck was becoming less prominent as his topline continued to fill in.

March 6, 2016

He started looking more like a normal horse in April, although this particular picture looks even better because his neck is stretched out...

April 10, 2016

Our May pic was kind of awkward, but you can see that he's continuing to fill in. The area right in front of his withers continued to be a challenge.

May 22, 2016

He spent most of July with my trainer since I was out of the country, and she evidently fed him extra as well as worked him: 

July 16, 2016

I think he backslid a little in August (you can especially see it in the base of his neck) since I was trying to figure out how to ride him more over his topline and not doing a great job of it.

August 20, 2016

He looked a little slender in the October shots, but this was after four days at Regionals where he didn't eat very well. The top of his neck, right in front of the wither, STILL hasn't filled in much, and you can see the hollow right behind his wither too.

October 9, 2016

Since October, we've been working on a lot more collection and laterals in preparation for 2nd level. I'm finally getting the idea of fluffing up his shoulders and really riding him through (sometimes, anyway), so this has helped fill in the muscles behind his withers and the top of his neck in front of his shoulder. His butt is looking more rounded and beefy, too!

December 14, 2016

Let's just have one last comparison look, shall we?

Damn. He doesn't even look like the same horse, other than the cute, kind expression!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Weird things non-horse people say

Twice a year, we have a party at our house for my husband's grad students and their significant others/friends/whoever wants free food. One of the highlights of the party is when we all go out to the barn and let folks pet the horses and give them treats (note, this is also Paddy's favorite part, because in addition to getting ALL THE TREATS, people are usually holding beer bottles and he likes to lick them). It's often many people's first time being really close to a horse, and everyone always has lots of questions and comments:

Them, when they meet Paddy for the first time: "Oh My God HE'S SO BIG!!!!"
Me: "Yup, all 14.3 hands of him. He's huge."

I think the floofy forelock makes him look bigger.

Them: "Do you ride Western?" (Obviously we must do this because we live in Texas)
Me: "No, dressage actually."
Them: *puzzled look*
Me: "That fancy prancing thing that Stephen Colbert did a couple of years ago."
Them: "OHHHHHH!"

Image result for stephen colbert fancy prancing

Them: "What kind of horse is he?"
Me: "He's a Haflinger."
Them: "Oh, because he's half one color and half another color!"
Me: "..."

To be fair, I can see their point...

Them, offering Paddy a treat: "Will he bite me?"
Me: "Probably not."
Me: "Well, he's got teeth, so it's possible."
Note that Paddy's never bitten anyone. Yet.

Them: "Can I ride him?"
Me: "No, it's past his bedtime."
(Seriously. They believe this.)

And one does not want to interrupt a Nappink Haffie.

And my personal favorite:

Them: "Does it hurt when you get hit while jousting?"
Husband: "Here, put this armor on and let me show you..."
(Whack-a-grad-student is basically the most fun a professor gets to have all year!)

What's your favorite weird thing a non-horse person has ever said to you?

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Lessons with a Grand Prix trainer

Last weekend, I was invited to bring Taran up to a clinic with a local-to-Texas Grand Prix dressage trainer. Since the weather was nasty and I wasn't going to be able to ride at home, I figured I might as well go somewhere with an indoor and take lessons from someone new. And I'm really glad I did!

There are a million couple problems that are keeping us from progressing with 2nd level. We're working hard on these at home, so I was up front about things with GP trainer. Might as well air all your dirty laundry right off, you know?

  • I love to pull with my left hand (this is a theme)
  • Taran tends not to be even on his right shoulder, and as a result, he's not really in my right rein and therefore not really straight. I'm constantly trying to manage this and not doing a very good job of it, but it's our biggest problem right now because not being straight and even makes everything else 2x harder. 
After watching me WTC, GP trainer asked to hop up on T to see how he rode. I'm all for this, because sometimes what you feel from the saddle is very different from what you see on the ground. She was super complimentary of T, said he was trained very correctly and that she could feel what I was talking about. However, she felt that the issue with his right shoulder was more that he carries BOTH shoulders to the outside when tracking right. I could easily see what she meant in the videos, and when we addressed that issue, suddenly he filled up my right rein and everything felt more even. She also stressed how important it is to ride T with his poll at the highest point, so that his shoulders free up and he doesn't dig himself into a trench. 

First up, trot work. She wanted him to go with his shoulders to the inside and a little leg yield on the circle, but my problem with this is often that he tends to throw his haunches out and that's not correct. She wanted me to manage his steps so that he didn't have the chance to throw his body around, and we did a LOT of asking him to slow the trot from my seat. You can see in the video how he gets a little quick and on his forehand and then I sit and he comes back, back and forth, because I'm not so great at managing that slower, more collected trot yet (why hello, abs, it's so nice to meet you owwww).

Slow that waaaaay downnnnnn...

You'll also hear her talking about "moving the bit", and by that she means just a tiny flex of my ring finger. I get really stuck and stiff with my left arm (pulling, anyone?) and Taran responds by setting his jaw and poll on the left side. Simply flexing that one finger reminded me to stay loose in my left arm and as a result, he stayed much more supple. At 1:00 you can see me try to do a 10 m circle right, but it took me forever to get him off the track to do it because he was so stuck on the left rein. In my next 10 m circle at 1:45, my left rein/arm is softer and we're able to execute the circle much more easily.

She also refers to "fluffing up his shoulders," which is kind of like fluffing sheets when you make the bed. I bring him back with my seat, keep my hands up and light (NO PULLING), and add inside leg to encourage him to step under (explanation is at 2:10).  

For the canter, I uh, learned that I've been asking for the canter wrong for my entire life. Did anyone else not know that you cue with your inside leg when the inside hind is reaching forward? Bueller? Right. So uh, need to fix this so that my canter transitions don't suck. 

Note angry ears and mane shake, because cueing correctly means he has to sit down and do the transition correctly too. And that's HARRRRD.

His canter, y'all. It was SO NICE at times. He felt so balanced and steady. Annnnd then he would get tired and/or I wouldn't "refresh" the canter enough and we'd lose it. Or I'd forget to turn his shoulders, or he'd get quick, or something. He's really trying with this new canter, but it's super hard for both of us. Basically I need to constantly ask him for a baby leg yield to keep the inside hind working, but then wait with my seat (AND DON'T PULL) so I don't let the canter get bigger.

If you want to see a great example of shoulders falling to the outside, check out the canter depart at 1:03. Or here's the handy still sequence, where you can see juuuuust how much his shoulders aren't in line with his haunches:

Finally, we did a little work on medium trot (well, we also worked on shoulder in, haunches in, and half pass, but that that's not on video). To set up, we did a lot of forward/back with "small steps" - again, no pulling, but all off my seat and keeping his poll up. 

Although our mediums mostly sucked, there were a few steps here and there, at the very beginning of some of the lines, where you could see his shoulders really lift up and out (1:26, 1:58). That's totally new for him - normally his mediums feel like he's plowing a trench. But the combination of keeping his poll UP and having him take shorter steps off my seat made for some sort of magic where he could actually use his shoulders. GP trainer made the comment that he's not quite sure what to do with himself, but if we keep asking for a few steps here and there, he'll get stronger and understand that he can use his body better.

I really enjoyed my lessons and got a TON out of them, and I'm hoping to attend clinics with her regularly in the new year. She's about 2.5 hours from me but sometimes teaches closer. Her methods are very complimentary to my current trainer, and I think that learning from both of them would really allow us to progress even more quickly. Plus, she's hilarious (sadly not caught on film), which adds an extra element of awesome to any ride. 

Poor Taran. Life as a pasture ornament was so much easier than that of an aspiring 2nd level horse!

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

World's cutest Haflinger strikes again

We were at a medieval reenactment event this last weekend, and I caught Paddy lying down napping. OF COURSE I had to go snuggle with him... how could I not? He's basically a giant teddy bear in Haffie form.

Nappink Haffie

Gotta love that nose resting on the ground

So snuggly!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Show photo selection - I need your help!

Alright, guys, I need some help choosing which pro photos to get from the Region 9 Championships.

Since I'm not one for stealing pics, you'll have to go to this web site to see them:

I'm DEFINITELY getting #10 because HOLY CROSSOVER BATMAN. Taran looks like a legit dressage horse! I only wish I was wearing my coat, but that was the test I almost passed out in, so it's probably a good thing I wasn't.

I'd love to get a picture with my coat too... I think #67 is my fav (lookit that taillll). Are there others? I kiiiinda like #74 but I'm really more for action shots... there are almost too many to choose from!

What are your favorites?

This one is my fav but I took it so I can totally post it here.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Clinic with Alfredo Hernandez: Day 3, half pass (!!!)

Day 3 of the clinic started off with a brief in-hand session, and then we got right in to haunches out on the circle, followed by renvers on the circle. Alfredo really wanted me to push Taran for even more than he had done the previous two days, but Taran was feeling tired and a little stiff. Taran gave it all he had, but when Alfredo asked for more,  things started to spiral downward.

Don't laugh, but this is Taran having an epic meltdown, complete with mini-rears. 

Stiffness became stopping and mini-rears. I got after him, and he tried again for me, but we just couldn't seem to get it right despite repeated requests for "more".  I could feel that Taran was doing all he could but that in that moment, he simply couldn't give me any more (and I wasn't helping him any either). Finally, I told Alfredo I needed a minute and asked Taran to walk. I got yelled at for quitting before we had gotten it right, which made me kind of mad, but I took a deep breath and let it roll off me. I knew my horse needed a short walk break to reset, and I knew I needed one too. Yelling at us wasn't helping, and I needed to advocate for my horse. So we walked.

This is a fine line that we riders have to navigate. I like being pushed to perform - it's how I get better and how my horse gets better. I try really, really hard to do what I'm being asked to do. I'm lucky that Taran also tries really, really hard, even when I'm not sitting right or I've gotten handsy and am not making it easy for him. However, as riders we have to determine just how far past our comfort zones we are OK with being pushed - and we have to be able to say that we (or our horse) has had enough.

Fortunately, a short walk break got Taran and I back on the same page, and we were able to continue on with renvers on a circle and perform it correctly. Which turned out to be super important because it got him all engaged and bendy and then we did this crazy thing and rode a TROT HALF PASS.

No really, we did.

I mean, the half-pass right isn't great, but that side is always a struggle because he's not always solidly into the right rein. But it looks kind of legit!

We did lose some of the bend but CROSSOVER!

And then we went left, which was kind of amazing:

Also, lest you think that Alfredo does nothing but push, you will hear him get on my case for not rewarding Taran IMMEDIATELY with a walk break after he performs the first half pass. He's really just looking for those one or two correct strides and then the horse is rewarded. You just need to be able to produce one or two correct strides!

Like this 

Also like this (do you SEE his abs and butt muscles working?)

We ended the session with a little canter. You can see in places where he's really engaged and the canter is slower and more collected (and I'm like, sitting up and riding it?) and places where he's not. We need more of that slower, collected canter for second level work. It's in there though!

Major take-aways for day 3 include:
  • More bend
  • More bend
  • A little more bend would be good
We probably learned something else, but that's really all that comes to mind right now. Oh and slow down.

So there you have it: the good and the not so good and the really effing amazeballs. Alfredo is a tough guy to ride for, and he's definitely focused on having the horse perform correctly rather than on rider biomechanics. I will absolutely ride with him again next time he's in town, but I'm also looking forward to going back and working with my regular trainer on the things I have learned in the clinic. The good thing is that I've walked away with a new appreciation of Taran's capabilities and how to unlock them, and a better understanding of what I really need to move up to the next level (hellooooo more bend). Such a great experience!