Wednesday 27 January 2016

Dressage Weekend Extravaganza

I am super stoked for this weekend, because I have dressage lessons! And yes, that is plural!

I was really disappointed when my regular instructor decided to stop teaching a few months ago (she decided to re-join the ammy ranks). Our weekly lessons were really helpful for me. Also, she was the only dressage instructor of any kind in the area so I didn't have anyone else to turn too. I've been feeling a bit stalled in my riding lately. I have lots to work on but we don't seem to be improving very quickly.

However, I have decided to stop feeling sorry for myself and embrace the opportunity to mix up my learning opportunities. Without the cost of weekly lessons, I can pool that money towards more expensive lessons every once in a while. For me, that means achieving my dream of riding with someone who has competed up to the Grand Prix level.

I'm only working with Kachina on training level right now, so why do we need an upper level instructor? Well in truth we don't *need* one, but here's why I want one: I'm finally in a place in my life where I can focus on riding, and I feel I have a horse with great potential for dressage, so I want to go for it and try to progress up at least a few levels. I absolutely don't intend to rush anything or skip fundamentals, but I don't want to spend the next 6 years getting back to second level either (That's roughly how long it took me the first time). I personally know how changing horses, changing cities, dealing with injuries, random life crap, etc. can derail plans, but that just makes me want to "make hay while the sun shines" and work hard now while I can. Also, my thirteen year old horse is in great shape, but she's not a young horse and that's a factor.

Ellie, my last horse as we started to move up the levels
(Also me minus at least 30 pounds compared to now!)
All this means that I want an instructor who has the medium levels in mind while teaching me the lower levels. For example, we're working on canter transitions now, so now would be a great time to learn what the best specific aid is to ask for canter so that it won't get confused with the aid for haunches-in or half-pass in the future. Also, I want to learn how to harness Kachina's great forward energy with collection and extension in mind, rather than just trying to damp it down for training level, etc, etc.

There's some suspension and reach here!
So, I found two high level dressage instructors in Calgary, Problem #1, that's 300km from me. Problem #2, it's January in Alberta. (Some people are happy to haul far in the winter, but personally I find it stressful and there's too many things that could happen - just because roads are good when I leave on Friday doesn't mean they'll stay that way for coming back Sunday). Luckily, I have some super cool solutions:

A) Dressage Simulator!

Many thanks to Karen at Bakersfield Dressage, because I totally didn't know this was a thing until I read her posts on it here and here (these posts are from 2012 but I just read them last month). After seeing that I started googling, and much to my surprise, there's a place in Alberta who has one! Dream Ride Equestrian It apparently just opened recently. So I called the place, and guess what, they have a Grand Prix dressage rider who will give you lessons on the simulator! I booked three, 60 minute sessions on it over three days this weekend. If it goes well, there's the opportunity to bring Kachina with me next time (when it's warmer) and do a combo weekend of simulator lessons and real horse lessons. I'm really excited for the simulator because I think it will be a good way to focus on my position and build up some good muscle memory that I can take back to my own horse. Maybe I'll even get to play with the high level buttons on the simulator :-)

Photo credit: Dream Ride Equestrian

B) Schoolmaster Lesson!

I have never ridden a dressage horse other than my own, and so I've never ridden a horse who knows more than me. But I was doing some more searching and found this lady in Calgary who teaches private lessons, group lessons, skype lessons, and schoolmaster lessons. I managed to book a schoolmaster lesson with her for this weekend (since I'm in Calgary anyways). If it goes well and we seem like a good fit, I will try and do semi-regular lessons with her through Skype when I'm at home, and then come to Calgary for occasional schoolmaster lessons in the winter and haul Kachina up for occasional normal lessons in the summer.

Pretty, but not ideal for driving
It may seem like overkill to be doing 4 different lessons this weekend, but by the time I pay for gas and hotel, I think it's actually the most cost effective. Plus the total cost for the whole weekend will be about the same as a rated dressage show.

I'm so excited for this weekend to get lots of saddle time and learning without the stress of hauling my horse far in the winter (also, gas for just my car will be a whole lot cheaper than the truck and trailer!). I will definitely do a couple review posts when I get back.

My trailer - sturdy but not light

Monday 25 January 2016

2016 Goals

I know I'm late to the party in terms of posting goals for the year. I did actually write down all of these goals at the beginning of January but just getting around to posting them now.

2016 Horse-Related Goals

  1. Participate in at least 8 horse shows or clinics
    • We need exposure to going new places so it's no big deal. If you look at my event plan for 2016, I have 12 events I'm planning to bring Kachina to, so even if we can't make all of them we should reach this goal
  2. Achieve at least 62% on a training level dressage test
    • I've waffled back and forth about what number to put here. Ideally I'd like high 60s but I recognize that show environments can cause extra tension and so I think 62% is a more reasonable goal. This means I'd like to do be able to do 70% quality work at home. 
  3. Be schooling all of 1st level
    • By the end of the year I want to be schooling all of the movements so we can put it together and show First Level next year
  4. Ride 100 times or more in 2016
    • I generally ride 2-3 times/week but it's amazing how a few weeks of bad weather, lameness, etc. can bring the average for the year down so much. I need saddle time if I want to make progress on the other goals.
  5. Go to the barn 150 times or more in 2016
    • Sometimes it is legitimately too cold to ride, but I can still get my butt out to the barn to do ground work etc.
  6. Get to the point where I would be comfortable cantering every ride, anywhere
    • Our canter has come so so far in the last year, but I'm still at the point where I will decide to not canter some days because she's tense, something new is going on, I haven't ridden in a while, etc. The excuses need to stop. We can canter.
  7. Teach Kachina to consistently ground tie or stand tied at home
  8. A good ground-tying day - not always like this
    • This has been a long term goal of ours. Sometimes it's two steps forward and then two steps back. I've started using clicker training as a new approach, I'll do a separate post on that soon. 
  9. Have Kachina consistently stand still for grooming/saddling/bridling/mounting
    • Consistently is the key word here
  10. Trail ride somewhere other than home
    • One of the reasons I love my barn is because of the miles of open fields and the tractor trail that we can ride on out the front gate. I really want to haul out to try trail riding on some different terrain though. I have a couple things in the works for this. 

      Our normal tractor trail - love this...

      ...but could also do some more of this

  11. Be able to complete a trail class or cowboy challenge type course
    • I believe in teaching horses versatility. I think this will help us learn skills and confidence that will help us for showing etc. 

Saturday 23 January 2016


"Heels down!", "Shorten your reins!" I'm sure we've all had certain instructions that our trainers have told us over and over and over again. What about when you're riding alone? Do you have a mantra you repeat to remind yourself of all the things you should be doing?

I use these kind of mantras all the time. I find it helps me to keep focused. Also the more I repeat something the more I develop the correct muscle memory so eventually I start to do it more automatically.

This week my mantra has been:
"Sit back, hands up, elbows soft, go with the motion"

I find it interesting that the same words can have different meanings depending on how you interpret them. "Sit back" might mean shoulders back to one person and sit deeper in the saddle to another. Whatever words work for you personally to know what you mean are what you can use in your mantra.

For me:
Sit back = Mostly means tip my pelvis back so I'm sitting more on my back pockets. Also shoulders back but don't arch my back.
Hands up = support the weight of my hands up in front of me, part of helping me keep my weight back and in a defensive position so I can stay relaxed if Kachina tenses. Also keeps me more centred from side to side if I bring my hands in.
Elbows soft = keep elbows bent and really think of my elbows being the joint that allows my arms to follow the motion and keep soft consistant contact with the bit.
Go with the motion = when I'm thinking of all the other things to do I can get stiff in my body so I use this to remind myself to keep my hips and joints soft to follow the motion of Kachina's back.

Of course there's a million things I can work on but I find 4 is a good maximum number to focus on at a time. I'll switch up my mantra every few rides based on what I feel is most important at the time. Sometimes they'll be more horse focused like "inside bend" or "keep slow rhythm", but lately I feel my position is what needs correction. So for now, "sit back, hands up, soft elbows, follow the motion"
No related photo so here's just
one of Kachina being cute

What about you, do you have a mantra? What is it?

Thursday 21 January 2016

2016 Tentative Horse Event Schedule

First off, I think this should go without saying for anyone who knows anything about horses, but this plan is tentative. Entirely subject to change based on how we're progressing through the year and if we have to deal with any unexpected injuries etc. (fingers crossed we don't).

You'll see that most of this list is made up of shows. I want to attend as many clinics as possible this year as well since I don't have a regular instructor to ride with but the shows put their dates up much farther in advance so we'll plan out clinics as they get announced. I've asked to be put on clinic mailing lists for a few dressage barns in the province so we'll see what comes up.

Jan 29-31 - Simulator Clinic - Airdre, Alberta
(Not with Kachina) Three 60min sessions on a dressage simulator being coached on my position by a Grand Prix rider/trainer

Feb 28 - Cowboy Challenge Clinic - Cluny, Alberta
Mounted and un-mounted clinic teaching horsemanship and working on obstacles. Hoping to increase Kachina’s confidence in new environments before show season.

Mar 12-13 - Carrots and Cocktails I - Calgary, Alberta
Unrated dressage show

Apr 16-17 - Carrots and Cocktails II - Calgary, Alberta
Unrated dressage show

Apr 21-24 - Mane Event - Red Deer, Alberta
(Not with Kachina) Huge horse expo over 4 days, going to watch demos and spend too much money

May 7-8 - Carrots and Cocktails III - Calgary, Alberta
Unrated dressage show

May 21-22 - Pinto Spring Show - Olds, Alberta
No dressage, but tons of other classes and Kachina is a pinto so want to try it out at least once. Dates only based on last year

Jun 3-5 - Calgary Area Gold & CDI Dressage Show - Calgary, Alberta
(not with Kachina) Will go to scribe, watch, and help out my friend who is competing

Jun 11-12 - Chinook Area Bronze Dressage Show - Claresholm, Alberta
This is the first rated show I’m shooting for this season so I’m hoping we have it together for a solid training performance

Jun 25-26 - Taber Horse Show - Taber, Alberta
Unrated show with both dressage and rail classes

Jul 1-2 - Swift Current Horse Show - Swift Current, Saskatchewan
Unrated show with both dressage and rail classes

Jul 9-10 - Give it a Go Bronze /Gold Dressage Show - Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
This is a bit farther than I’d normally go for a show but Brenda Minor (FEI 4* judge) is judging so interested in being able to get that level of feedback in a bronze show

Jul 22-24 - Medicine Hat Horse Show - Medicine Hat, Alberta
Unrated show with both dressage and rail classes

Aug 6-7 - West Calgary Bronze Dressage Show - Cochrane, Alberta
This is the peak of my season. It’s a well-run show in a beautiful facility. I really wanted to go last year but Kachina came up lame right before it so I had to scratch. If I can only do well at one show this year, I want this to be the one.

Aug 6-8 - Arthur Kottas Clinic - Calgary, Alberta
(Not with Kachina) May go to audit depending on how my ride times work out at the Cochrane show

Aug 13-14 - Edmonton Area Sparkle and Spurs Gold Show - Edmonton, Alberta
Go only if getting really good scores

Aug 27-28 - Saskatchewan Dressage Provincials - Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
Ride only if getting really good scores

Sept 4-7 - Calgary Area Gold & Provincials Dressage Show - Calgary, Alberta
Either scribing or riding depending on how the summer goes. Ride only if getting really good scores.

Sept 10 - Alberta Wish Ride - Cypress Hills, Alberta
A guided trail ride for charity through the beautiful Cypress Hills

This looks like a lot but I'm pretty happy with how it's shaping up. I have a few shows and events early on where we can just go for exposure and figuring out what we need to do for shows in terms of warm-ups etc. Then in the summer I have three solid bronze shows (Claresholm, Saskatoon and Cochrane) to aim for and figure out how we're doing at training level. If the season is going great by then, we'll upgrade to Gold and do a few more shows, and if it's not we'll turn down the stress and I'll just go to watch and scribe and learn for next season.

Other than the three bronze shows, if good clinics come up on show weekends, I may well choose the clinics over the shows. I want this to be a good learning year and I can't afford to be out of town every weekend. 

Interesting note: As it stands now, the above schedule would mean 10,996km of driving! (6833 miles). That's more than driving across all of Canada from coast to coast! At least not all of it will require hauling a horse.

Wednesday 20 January 2016

Dressage Memberships Canadian Style

SprinklerBandit ( and Karen at Bakersfield Dressage ( recently covered dressage memberships in Idaho and California respectively. I've recently been sorting out my memberships for the year so I figured I would add a post on how it works this side of the border.

First: Alberta Equestrian Federation (AEF)
This is mandatory, you can't even sign up with Equine Canada until you have an active provincial membership. Fortunately, I don't mind this at all as AEF has some good perks and is reasonably priced.
Individual Membership is $50/year
If you have 3 or more people in your family who ride you can benefit from the family price of $110/year (this does not apply to me).

What does AEF membership include?
- automatic basic liability insurance - for this reason many clinics and schooling shows require AEF membership. This insurance also can cover you for things like something happening while you are hauling a friend's horse (which I do regularly).
- Alberta Bits quarterly magazine
- optional programs (at extra cost)
Logo of Alberta Equestrian Federation Ride and Drive Program
AEF extras
I chose to pay $20 extra to be part of the Ride and Drive Program. This is a program where you log your hours in the saddle and get little awards for successive milestones (25, 50, 100, 200 hours...). This is my second year in this program, it has nothing to do with dressage but I like the extra incentive it gives me to log my rides.

Second: Equine Canada (EC) / Dressage Canada
I was surprised to learn that Americans have to have separate memberships for USEF and USDF; in Canada, Dressage Canada is a branch of Equine Canada so only one membership is required.
Logo of Equine Canada
Equine Canada has three categories of rated shows: bronze, silver and gold. There are actually four categories of individual membership: bronze, silver, gold, and platinum which you need to compete at FEI levels. All dressage shows are designated as bronze, silver or gold so it is fairly easy to look at the show schedule and figure out what level of membership you want. Other than the type of show you can enter, the only difference between the memberships is what kind of year end awards you are eligible for (bronze-regional, silver-provincial, gold-national). Of course the higher the membership, the more expensive it is, both membership fee and show fees.

My show plan for the year is mainly for schooling shows and bronze shows so I just went with the bronze membership. This costs $25/year.

Amateur Status
Equine Canada is also who determines amateur status. This costs $15.

Third: Alberta Dressage Area Group
Logo of Alberta Dressage Association
There are a few different area groups for Alberta that seem to cost $40-$60/year to join. As I mentioned before, there isn't much dressage in my neck of the woods so we don't have an Area Group here. I haven't yet encountered a show that you need to be a member to attend so I'm not sure what the benefit of joining would be. If anyone knows please feel free to enlighten me. Anyways as it stands now this cost me $0.

Fourth: Possible Upgrade
There are a few Gold shows later in the season that are tentatively on my calendar. If we are doing really well by then I will upgrade my membership to gold at that point and go to compete. If we're not doing so well we will stick with Bronze for this year and I will just go to the gold shows to watch, learn and scribe. I scribed at a few Gold shows and even a CDI*** last year and it was a super educational and fun experience.

Anyways, if I choose to upgrade my membership from bronze to gold it will cost me $100 but I can do that anytime.

Additionally, for silver and gold shows, horses need a passport to compete. A passport is $68 to apply for initially and then $12/year to keep active so it would cost me $80 for the first year as Kachina doesn't have one yet.

As I said, these costs are only maybes for me at this point but good to know about in advance.

My total memberships for 2016 cost me $110.
It could've cost me $340 if  I went for Gold and an Area Group membership so I'm feeling pretty good about what I paid
(For any Americans reading, these costs are all in Canadian Dollars so the way things are going they would cost mere cents in USD =-P )

Sunday 17 January 2016

About Kachina

My horse is a 13 year old grade pinto mare named Kachina. I bought her in August 2014 after losing my long-time heart horse to colic a few months before.

Kachina got a late start in life and wasn't started under saddle until she was 8 years old. She was then used as a pasture ornament and occasional trail horse by her previous owner. When I bought her she had never worn English tack, rarely been inside a barn or indoor arena, and couldn't canter on anything smaller than a 40m circle.
First ride

So, older horse of unknown breeding, and zero dressage training, sounds like a great dressage prospect right?
I like to joke that I never have to worry about Kachina being stolen from the barn. Especially at this time of year when she is shaggy and covered in mud, she does not look like a very impressive horse standing out in the pen. It doesn't help that she is always dirty. No matter how well I groom her she will roll the instant I turn her out and grind dirt into all of her white parts.
Majestic Dressage Beast Right Here

However, everything changes when Kachina starts to move. Instantly she has all of the presence, grace and power that is hidden when she stands. She naturally has great hindquarter engagement and uses her body well. My jaw still drops when I watch her do an extended trot at liberty. Her elevation and reach is seriously impressive (she can overtrack by more than 2 feet when she really gets going!) and I can't wait to someday experience that under saddle.
A normal trot for Kachina, tracking up is easy

Check out the hock action

Buying Kachina was a bit of a gamble on my part. I was horse shopping completely on my own with no trainer or even dressage friends that I could get a second opinion from. Only time will tell whether the judges agree, but I truly believe Kachina had the best dressage movement and conformation of all the horses I tried, even purpose-bred warmbloods with pricetags more than twice as high (to be fair, the warmbloods in my budget weren't exactly the creme de la creme).

Additionally, she had two other important things going for her.
The first was responsiveness to the aids. On my test ride I played around with asking for different types of lateral work. Kachina wasn't trained and didn't know the movements but she gamely tried to understand and it was relatively easy to independantly control her shoulder, ribcage and hip. That may sound basic but it was more than I suceeded in doing with a number of other horses I tried.
The second element Kachina had was trail confidence: Kachina is stellar trail horse who will go over water, ditches etc without hesitation and go the exact same speed away from or towards home. While I love dressage, I also love going for trail rides. That wasn't something I was ever able to do much of with my previous horses so I wanted a horse that I could hit the open range with and not need a babysitter. I felt comfortable starting dressage training on a horse but I knew I didn't have the guts or knowledge to instill trail confidence myself.
Open spaces not an issue

Checking out the herd of antelope out to the right (too far away for cell phone camera to capture)

So that's the story of who Kachina was when I got her. Over the last year and a half we have been working to learn dressage. We are at training level and focused on those bottom tiers of the dressage pyramid: rhythm, relaxation and connection. When it's too cold to ride we work on groundwork manners, and when we start getting frustrated with 20m circles we go ride across the open fields by ourselves or with friends. There's been ups and downs but I've enjoyed getting to know Kachina so far and I'm excited for what we'll do this year.
Between tests at our first show

Thursday 14 January 2016

Hello World, About Me

My name is Sarah (I actually have a different legal name, but thanks to my immigrant parents, no one in North America can really spell or pronounce it, so I go by Sarah for simplification). I am in my late 20s, I live in rural southern Alberta, Canada, and I ride dressage. I have ridden up to second level dressage but I’m currently back working at training level with a new horse.

Alberta is a fascinating place for equestrian interests. We have world class facilities and competitions for almost every type of equine event, from show-jumping, to polo, to rodeo, to dressage, to western pleasure. However, Alberta is a large area and different types of riding have their own pockets of influence. I was first introduced to dressage when I lived further North for school, but where I live now is most assuredly not in a dressage pocket. In 100km radius of where I ride, I only know of two other riders who focus on dressage, and neither is at my barn. I used to haul out to get weekly lessons from one of them, a lady with a great eye called KD, but she decided a few months ago that the meager income from teaching me and a couple beginner riders wasn’t worth losing her amateur status, and so she decided to stop teaching. I fully understand and respect her decision, and we remain friends and show travel buddies, but it means I’m now on my own for training.

Besides dressage, I also enjoy trail riding, volunteering, travelling, dragonboating, and relaxing at home with the SO and our two cats. I pay the bills with my engineering job, which is a pretty standard 9-5 thing (though actually 7-4). I regularly overuse parentheses (sorry).

In the last year I’ve started following several blogs. I love hearing about new training exercises and also learning about how horse-keeping varies across the continent and even the world. I decided to add my voice to the conversation as I continue working towards learning dressage, autonomously. 

Autonomous: au’ton’o’mous (adjective) self-sufficient – existing, reacting, or developing as an independent, self-regulating organism
(note: for this definition, I count the combination of me and my horse to be the single organism)
Dressage: dres’sage (noun) the training of a horse to carry out a series of precise controlled movements in response to minimal signals from its rider