Friday, 20 September 2019

Dressage Volunteer of the Month

Earlier this month I was named Equestrian Canada's Dressage Volunteer of the Month. Here is the press release:
https://www.equestrian.ca/news/sfFajwZe3dNpdq9gX/siobhan-o-connor-named-dressage

A fellow member of the CC/ADA (Chinook Country area group of the Alberta Dressage Association) was the one who nominated me and I had no idea until people who had seen the mass email from Equestrian Canada started congratulating me on Facebook (to be fair, someone from EC had emailed me to give me a heads up the day before but it was the weekend and I was busy trail riding my horse so I didn't see the email until the next day). I think it's a little funny that they say the photo was provided by me because it wasn't (but I don't mind).

I am super honoured and humbled by this award. I have worked hard at building a dressage community in my area but there are so many other deserving people who should be recognized as well. I especially want to recognize that all the people in the CC/ADA have been amazing and have provided so much support, often without me even needing to ask. The CC/ADA is based in Lethbridge which is a couple hours away from me, their area technically includes the whole southern part of the province but in practical terms their sphere of influence was much smaller. In early 2017 I approached them about the show I was trying to organize, wanting to see if we could cooperate to cross-promote our shows. At that time all I was really hoping for was some help in spreading the word about my show, but they came back and offered so very much more. Not only did they promote my show, they made it an official CC/ADA show which meant I could use their insurance and tap into casino funding from the club to help pay for the judge. They also invited me onto the board in the newly made position of representative for my city. That support has continued and they have also helped me in other ways over the last three years. I enjoy spending time with all the ladies at our AGM or when I go to shows in Lethbridge or Claresholm. I could not ask to be part of a better team so thank you!



Thank you also to the blogging community. Starting this blog has been a great way to organize my thoughts and it really encouraged me to get more involved and volunteer. Sometimes I would start writing a post complaining about how I couldn't do something and that would turn into me figuring out how I could.

The view from C - volunteering as a scribe is always worth it! 


I don't know if many people are nominated each month for this award. It is a nice program to provide recognition though (it came with a certificate, an EC pin, and a $25 gift certificate to the EC website) so if you know any good volunteers in your area please consider nominating them. Even if I didn't have much competition for this award I am honestly prouder of this than I would be for a riding award and I will treasure it.

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

A Re-Introduction

Hello, I am your friendly neighbourhood writer of AutonomousDressage, I know it's been a long time since we last met so you may not remember me :-P

My name is Siobhan and I am an amateur rider in my early thirties, struggling slowly through the dressage levels with my 17 year old grade pinto mare Kachina. Slowly is a key trend around here as I got Kachina in 2014 and we are still not done with Training Level (we showed both Training Level and First Level this season). However in that time I have learned so much about the sport of dressage. Way back in 2012 I was schooling 2nd Level on my first horse Ellie, but looking back there were a lot of holes in my understanding. When I got Kachina after Ellie passed away, I learned that I had really been a one-horse rider and I had to acquire a whole new set of tools for working with Kachina, especially because, while Kachina is sensitive and tries hard, she was pretty green when I got her and almost all of her riding experience was on trails. I called my blog AutonomousDressage because I didn't have access to a regular trainer and had to figure out a lot of things on my own. There is still no regular dressage trainer in my area so creativity is still sometimes required but over the years I have been able to connect with some great clinicians, other dressage riders and not-for-profit organizations that have been of tremendous help. There is now a fledgling dressage community in my area and I hope to see it continue to grow.

Kachina and myself at the CC/ADA Summer Dressage Show in June 2019

I've previously gone by SarahO on this blog but Siobhan is my actual name. Siobhan (pronounced Shi-vawn) is not exactly phonetic so for years I've used a pseudonym of Sarah for little things like Starbucks orders, booking taxis, restaurant reservations, etc. I chose to use Sarah on this blog as well, partially for simplicity, and partially for anonymity. I grew up in the time where kids were told to never use our real names or locations on the internet and that has kind of stuck with me. I of course share photos and real stories about my riding life so I'm not fully anonymous, but I initially liked that people would have to do more of their own homework/already be part of the local horse scene to figure out my identity. I started reading blogs to get training tips and insights into dressage when I was sorely lacking in education opportunities. I started this blog to be able to participate in the blogging community. I still have somewhat mixed feelings about how much one should share with the internet (and will continue to be careful about some aspects of my life), but I've also seen the power of what communication and making connections can create. Through reaching out to horse people, in real life and on Facebook, I have made many new friends, found out about clinics to ride in and organized a few of my own, became part of the Alberta Dressage Association, and I also successfully started the first dressage show in my town which has now run for 3 years and counting. As my dressage profile has grown in real life and as I have started to feel closer to some fellow bloggers, the partial divide between my two identities has started to feel more awkward and less comforting. I've been thinking these thoughts for a while now but a recent press release about me and some soon-to-be-published recognized scores of mine are the reason for making this change at this time (blog posts about both are coming!). I want this blog to be an extension of who I am in real life, not just a separate semi-anonymous depository for horse stories. So with that in mind: Hello, I'm Siobhan, writer of AutonomousDressage, nice to meet/re-meet you!


Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Blog Hop: 10 Questions for September

I can't believe it's been more than 5 months since I last posted. It's not that I haven't been doing blogworthy things, in fact I have been riding lots, have gone to multiple events and have more media than ever.

I fell off the blogging train because of being super busy with work in the spring (like being at work from 6am-1:30am kind of busy), something had to give so I gave my notice and went straight into a new job but adjusting to a new role in a new company has been a different kind of busy. Things have somewhat settled now but being away from blogging is a vicious cycle, the longer it has been since my last post the harder it is to know where to start again.

I have so so many things I want to share but I'm going to start simple, with a nice and easy blog hop courtesy of L.Williams.


1. Favorite quirk your horse (or a horse you’ve spent time with) has?

I know it's not really a good thing and I have been working on having other people handle Kachina but part of me kind of loves how Kachina will walk up to me but is almost uncatcheable for other people. 

2. Three adjectives that perfectly describe your horse?

Hardworking, sensitive, submissive

3. Plan your next ride. What will you do/work on?

I want to do some work on canter transitions and cantering in general where I focus on keeping my seat in the saddle and my upper body back and centered. This has been a focus for the last while and it is helping a ton so I want to keep at it. I also want to go back and reinstall the fundamentals for lengthenings, this is likely to make Kachina over-reactive initially and things will probably get worse before they get better so I wanted to wait until after my last show.  

My go-to canter position: tipped forward, seat out of saddle, lower leg forward
I am working really hard to not do these things


4. Have you ever trained an OTTB? If yes, what was the biggest challenge?

No, though I have ridden a few while horse shopping. They were all quite different from each other. 


5. Have you ever groomed or worked for a professional rider?

No, I think it would be an amazing experience and part of me would love to do it, but a bigger part of me likes the stability of my current non-equestrian career and realizes that what I am doing now is more capable of financially supporting my amateur horse-habit. 


6. Favorite horse and rider combination?

My favorite riders are generally ones who can recreate the same kind of harmony with multiple types of horses.


7. Have you ever ridden a horse at the beach?

I did a beach ride on a horse in Mexico once but I always feel a little awkward riding in those type of tourist trail rides. I would love to ride my own horse on the beach but the 1300km separating us from the ocean makes that unlikely. 

Does a riverbank count as a beach lol?


8. If you could experience the equestrian community (i.e. ride and compete) in another country, what country would you choose and why?

I would ride in Ireland. My family is Irish and I like connecting with that part of my heritage. Plus riding out in the country there is so physically different from here (no snow, no gopher holes, entirely different kind of grass, higher density of horses, etc). I would be scared to encounter traffic on their narrow twisty roads though. 

Who wouldn't want to ride in this idyllic place

9. In your opinion, what is an item of tack that is given unnecessary hype?

Horse boots or wraps for dressage. I understand that some horses benefit from them due to interference etc. but I do not understand why they are so ubiquitous. 

10. What was the first horse you rode called? Are they still alive?

The first horse I rode (sat on would be a more apt description) was one of my cousin's broodmares. I don't know her name. She would not be alive anymore considering that was 24 years ago and she was not a young horse. 


Monday, 1 April 2019

2019 Q1 Goal Check Up

I decided not to do quarterly goals this year but instead I will do quarterly updates on my annual/ultimate goals. Here's how Q1 went:


Ultimate Goal #1
Be fair to my horse, both on a day-to-day basis and ensuring her future health and happiness

2019 Goal #1A
Make Kachina a more solid citizen so her future is protected in case my circumstances change.

What we've done this quarter
  • We've made improvements in both dressage and jumping under saddle. The jumping definitely helps Kachina become more marketable for either being sold or used in a lesson program. To be clear, I am not planning to get rid of Kachina, this is just to guard against future uncertainty. 
  • Changing up Kachina's bridle has made her easier to bridle which is an important life skill.
  • I did a ground work session with a new horsemanship trainer at my barn. I'm not sure all her suggested exercises will work for us but I got a few solid tips. 
  • I signed Kachina up to have someone catch her 2-3 times a week for the month of April, just to bring her in, feed her and let her out again. Hopefully this will give Kachina positive associations towards being handled by new people. 

2019 Goal #1B
Be fair to Kachina on a day-to-day basis and look after her well-being

What we've done this quarter
  • The cold weather necessitated trimming Kachina in the barn on a day where she would be alone inside. I knew this would be stressful for her so my farrier and I talked and we made the decision to drug her (oral dormosedan) to make it a calmer experience. The meds took longer to kick in than we were expecting but it ultimately worked well. I now have two tubes on hand that can be used in the future if needed. 
  • I listened to Kachina about her growing dislike for the Micklem bridle and set up a new bridle for her which is working very well for both bridling and riding. 
  • I attended hoof and mouth presentations at my vet's education day so I am a more educated owner.
  • I bought some Excel EQ to add to Kachina's diet in the hopes that it might benefit her, jury is still out on health benefits but she does like the taste. 
  • I started ignoring some of Kachina's less harmful behaviour in the barn to make our grooming and tack-up routine less drawn out. It's not that I'm giving up on groundwork, instead I am simply recognizing that spending too much time trying to redirect tense behaviours just adds to the tension and I need to pick my battles. 
  • I've increased my generosity with treats. 

All of the above choices seem to be putting me on a better path. Kachina still has deeply ingrained tension inside the barn but she has shown some improvements like she will now finish 80% of her food in her stall before she paws her food pan away (before it was generally less than 50%).


Ultimate Goal #2
Enjoy horses and riding

2019 Goal #2
Find my horsey joy as much as possible

What we've done this quarter
  • Relaxing some of my ground work focus has made trips to the barn less stressful for me as well
  • I have made the decision to ride more often than doing ground work and riding is really fun right now
  • In a few of my jumping lessons I have requested pole work as I freaking love pole work

I still have not figured out any fun specific winter activities. It was a freakishly cold February and while there is an open field at the barn, I am scared to ride in the snow because of hidden gopher and badger holes. Luckily the end of winter is finally within sight.


Ultimate Goal #3
Make a positive impact to the horse and dressage community

2019 Goal #3
Make a positive impact to the horse and dressage community in 2019

What we've done this quarter
  • Participated in meetings for the CC/ADA and ADA
  • Started some show organizing prep

I've been slacking on this goal this quarter and have done the bare minimum. Time to step it up for the rest of the year. 


Ultimate Goal #4
Work through the Dressage Levels to reach Prix St. George, achieving scores of 63% or higher under high level judges

2019 Goal #4
Achieve a score of 63% or higher at First Level and start schooling Second Level

What we've done this quarter
  • Increased number of dressage-focused rides (compared to Q4 last year)
  • Had monthly clinics with Elaine.
  • Focused on homework between clinics.
  • Videoed some of my rides and determined my weaknesses myself (upper body position and posting mechanic) and took initiative to ask for help on those things.
  • Improved my feel for how round is "round enough".
  • Improved my posting mechanic.
  • Improved my upper body position in the sitting trot.
  • Improved my hand and arm position.
  • Re-introduced shoulder-in
  • Increased number of canter transitions which is making them smoother
  • Improved my containment of the canter (influence on size and path) through canter pole work
  • Made half halt more effective through use of upper leg
  • Improved straightness of centerline halt through use of upper leg
  • Did one flying lead change over a pole (this is not something we are ready to school regularly and I don't want to mess with it but I'm thrilled Kachina showed the ability) 
  • Worked on taking up and lengthening reins more regularly (so that hopefully we can do it in a show without completely falling apart) 
  • Started some low-key counter canter practice by waiting a little longer to come down to trot if Kachina picked up the wrong lead after a jump
  • Started riding tests and test movements again (just in March)

I still definitely need to do a lot more test riding and practice actual test movements but our basics are improving and it is showing in the consistency of our rides these days.


Ultimate Goal #5
Become a dressage judge

2019 Goal #5
Make some progress towards my recorded judge application

What we've done this quarter
  • Nothing

I have no progress to report here but that's okay at this point


Ultimate Goal #6
Achieve some competitive success in riding (what that looks like may vary from year to year)

2019 Goal #6A
Earn an ADA Horse and Rider recognition award (63%+ at 3 rated shows)

2019 Goal #6B
Start earning scores towards Bronze Medal (65%+ at Silver or Gold show)

What we've done this quarter
  • See progress for Goal #4 as well
  • EC Horse Recording for Kachina has been completed (requirement for Silver or Gold shows)
  • EC Gold Sport License purchased
  • Payed and signed up for lifetime EC Dressage Award Registration (needed to do before any scores can count towards medal)
  • Planned 2019 show season including Gold shows and more than 3 rated shows
  • Submitted vacation requests at work for Fridays prior to planned show weekends 
  • Discussed level to show at with Elaine

This goal setup really helped me to stay focused on what was important this quarter and I feel like we made some good progress!

Thursday, 21 March 2019

Vet Learning Day

My vet's office held a client appreciation learning day last month and I went for a few hours to watch the teeth and hoof presentations.

The oral health presentation didn't tell me much that I didn't know but it did confirm for me that I will always get my vet to float my horse's teeth rather than the questionable "equine dentists" that travel around (I got taken in by one of these a few years ago despite trying to do my due diligence, they do talk a good game, but I know better now). My vet did the presentation herself and she is clearly up to date with recent research about impact of different types of tools on the health of the tooth and that's something I appreciate.

Presentation was set up in the cattle handling side of the clinic

The foot presentation was very interesting to me. I never did catch the presenter's name but he is a farrier from Florida. As well as working on many competitive horses, he is also the farrier that a few veterinary hospitals refer to for corrective shoeing so he has seen a lot.

I'm in Alberta, so of course cowboy hats were aplenty

He went over a lot during his presentation but these are the points I wrote down that really struck me as new or interesting:

  • No bone in back 1/3 of hoof
  • Hoof wall is malleable, it distorts
  • Heel and toe should be same angle
  • Only finite number of fibers in wall around foot, so any distortion takes fibers away from the heel
  • String line from cannon bone should hit foot at ground level
  • Shoeing is a process, not an event (i.e. takes more than one cycle)
  • Finger width back from tip of frog should be the center of the hoof
  • Shape of foot should be the same at the coronary band and the bottom of the hoof, otherwise there is distortion
  • Hind feet and front feet are generally different shapes (look at photo of front shoe vs back shoe)
Top is hind shoe, bottom is front shoe
  • Navicular is a created problem (horses aren't born with it)
  • Hoof, pastern and shoulder should all be same angle
  • Frog doesn't distort so it is a good reference for straightness and symmetry of foot
  • Natural balance shoe (shoe with corners) causes collateral ligament damage
  • Rocker in shoe is helpful for horse with a "broken back hoof-pastern angle" - gives immediate relief but eventually want to improve shape of hoof
  • Heart bar shoe good for horse with distorted feet and under-run heels
  • Interference can be caused by bad shoeing
  • Front of hoof should be at least 3.25" long from coronary band to ground (because the bone structures etc. need at least that much room)
  • Can't straighten a crooked leg in an adult horse, only when they are very young (talking about windswept horses)
  • A rasp will last about 1 week for a full time farrier
  • It is most cost and time effective to use pre-made shoes rather than making them from scratch
  • Be wary of farriers trained using a 6 week program as it means they can't see cause and effect of shoeing the same horse over multiple cycles. 

At the end of the presentation he did some Q&A and I asked him about his thoughts regarding barefoot vs. shod. His answer was one that I had never considered before. He said that barefoot was fine, but when you have hoof problems that you are correcting with a trim, a barefoot horse will wear down their hoof to "get their problems back" but when you trim and stick a shoe on, the problem stays fixed for 5-6 weeks. You have a much better chance of creating lasting change to the foot when you use shoes. While obviously a bit simplified that was one of the most intelligent and concise answers I have ever heard about the shoes/barefoot debate. I plan to keep Kachina barefoot for the time being as it is working for us but it will give me a better way to assess in the future if we need to add shoes. He also said that he thinks it is fine to shoe only up front or only on the hinds depending on the horse's needs. 


After the talk portion he then did a quick demo trim on one of the vet's own horses.


The crowd watching

Midway through, right feet trimmed, left not touched yet

Overall it was a really good learning day and I'm glad I went! Does your vet or farrier ever put on presentations like this?

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

February Clinic with Elaine

I had another two lessons with Elaine on the last weekend of February.

Since the last clinic in January I have really been working on using my upper legs in my half halt and down transitions, and also using my inside rein more to supple Kachina. Both of those things have been going well.

This time around we added a few new things to work on.

First, we worked on improving Kachina's roundness and uphill balance by keeping the reins very steady and letting Kachina find the softness in the contact herself. When it worked I could feel Kachina slow down and become more deliberate with her steps. Elaine assured me that Kachina was lifting her withers at these moments and loved what it did to her walk and trot. I felt the deliberateness more than the lift so I will have to keep training my feel.

Next, I requested that Elaine help me with my upper body position. I have been pleased with the improvement in my hand and leg positions over the last couple years but my upper body still tilts forward despite years of work. Every time I think it's where it's supposed to be, video or photos prove me wrong.

First, we worked on it while posting because that's where I can feel myself that I get thrown out of whack. Elaine had me think about pushing the top of my head up into a shelf above me. That's such a simple visual but it's exactly what I needed! Somehow being told to "straighten up", "shoulders back" or "think tall" would tend to make me arch my back too much, but thinking of "pushing" into something above me had me think "up" + "strong" and that seemed to be the trick to having me keep my upper body straighter while still keeping my core engaged properly. This also tied into me holding the reins more still and letting Kachina find the release herself. As an overcorrection from my previous pulling, I now try to release too much to Kachina and I do so by compromising my own arm and upper body position. I can keep my position much better if I focus on keeping my elbows by my sides. It did feel at times like I was too stiff in the contact but Elaine said it only feels stiff in relation to what I was doing before, I still naturally have some elasticity in my arms and that's all I need so that's the feel I need to look for right now.

The other part of posting that we focused on was resisting the movement a bit by slowing my posting. Elaine had me think of tightening a screw to stiffen my hip joint and that was another good visual for me. Doing that had an immediate effect on Kachina and her trot slowed. We even did some work of posting into walk, where I kept slowing my posting down until we were walking.

Next we worked on sitting trot. I know where my upper body should be in the walk so I assumed that my upper body was correct if I recreated that feeling at the sitting trot. Wrong! Elaine had me lean back, lean back, and lean back some more before she let me know that I was straight. It honestly felt like I was leaning back in a beach lounger. Correct at the trot feels MUCH farther back than correct at the walk. I don't know why this is but that doesn't really matter. What matters is that I know the feeling I am looking for now. Having my upper body in the correct place made my legs swing forward a bit and I lost some of the pressure in my stirrups but that's okay for now. Once my upper body position feels more natural I can go back to fixing my leg. Part of the reason I can't get both correct right now is likely due to my tight hip flexors so I need to work on those. I haven't done a lot of sitting trot lately but my seat still knows how to absorb and go with the motion so it didn't feel too bad.

During the lesson, there was quite a bit of time where I was 100% focused on my position and didn't have any brain power to use on what Kachina was doing. That meant we lost the bend a few times etc. but for the most part Kachina went around very nicely even while I wasn't actively riding. I guess this is what is meant by "baseline gaits" and it seems like ours are improving.

All of these things were covered in the first lesson. The second lesson didn't add a whole lot but helped me both clarify some of these concepts in my mind and also helped me to cement the new position feelings into my body so I could recreate it on my own. We didn't even canter that weekend (which I was a bit disappointed about) but it was still very valuable.

At the end of my second lesson I took a few minutes to ask a question I have been wanting to ask for a while. I started by saying that it was a great weekend and I really appreciated working on these basics. I know that basics are so important but ultimately I do also want to show and compete. I asked Elaine what level she saw me showing in 2019. I was careful to not lead the question by including my hopes, I wanted an honest answer even if it wasn't what I wanted to hear. Secretly I feared that Elaine would tell me that we were finally ready to show Training Level, after all our lessons include a lot of 20m circles. I was pleasantly surprised when she said that we had come a long way since she first saw us; she could see us at First Level now and that Second Level wouldn't be too far away. I think that may of been a slightly optimistic response but I will take it and work to make it a reality!

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Short and Sweet

I am a rider who generally has fairly long rides. They average about 53 minutes long. Throughout the years I have found that Kachina does well with long warmups, multiple repetitions, frequent long walk breaks and a long cool out, all of which adds up to a long ride. I don't ride every day and my rides do have a lot of breaks which limits the physical and mental demands. Kachina has a great work ethic so the long rides don't bore her or burn her out, and they give her time to release the tension she naturally has.

Last night I got to the barn later than normal so I only had time for a quick ride before the arena lights would automatically shut off and plunge us into darkness (it's happened to me before, it's a very effective way of making sure boarders don't overstay their welcome lol). It was a good ride, we worked on getting Kachina rounded and lifted and I worked on both my posting mechanic and my upper body position in sitting trot. We did all of that in 25 minutes.

The best ears
(It's blurry because her walk is pretty forward and active
and over her back even during cool out, can't complain about that!)

I looked at my watch after our first bit of really nice trot and realized that we were only 8 minutes into the ride! Progress seems glacial sometimes but the fact that Kachina and I could achieve similar quality work to our last lesson in only 8 minutes speaks volumes to how far we have come. I still like long slow warm-ups but we no longer need them. Mentally and physically Kachina knows her job and comes out ready to do it. My own aids are more effective and I need less time to communicate to Kachina what I am asking from her.

I tend to just do ground work or let Kachina loose in the arena on days where feel like I don't have enough time to ride, but I think I need to re-evaluate that, turns out we can have a great ride even when we are short on time.