Tuesday 28 August 2018

All the Things

I am very behind in blogging. I don't like to get behind because then my reaction to things that happened in the past gets coloured by my more recent experiences and I can't write properly about my thoughts from the moment. However, I also don't like to skip past events entirely because I like to use this blog as a history to look back on. With those thoughts in mind, here is a brief summary of things that have happened recently and that are coming up on the horizon. I may or may not write other posts going into more detail.

Looking Back

August 4-5, 2018
Cochrane Bronze Dressage Show
- this was my last show of the season (schedule conflicts for any later shows) and it was an awesome show for Kachina and I! I had a lot of fun on the weekend and was sorry to have to end the season
- we finally got components to come together including the contact we had been missing and I loved the feeling I got during some of my warm-up work (talked about here)
- we trail rode around the cross country course in between tests which was fun and educational
- I met up with KateRose from Peace & Carrots and finally got to meet her 3 awesome equines
- we were able to show off some of our newfound good work in the competition ring and ended up winning Training Level high score for the weekend!
- I do have most of a post written up already so I will publish this at some point.
- There were some great show photos but I am a little poor at the moment so still deciding if I can purchase some

Kate Rose, Henry and Apollo (I was holding Mystic)

Beautiful Cochrane show facility

My Winnings!

August General
Barn Anxiety
- Kachina's tension in the barn has been getting worse not better. The contrast between her behaviour at shows (relaxed, respectful, well behaved) and at home (not those things) is pretty black and white.
- I'm trying to strike the right balance between firm but encouraging. It is tough because the behaviour is from a place of fear so I don't want make Kachina more scared, but she is on the verge of becoming dangerous at times with the way she tunes me out and I know I cannot allow that. I've got a few different training techniques in the works but it takes a lot out of me and makes being at the barn not super fun.
- Riding or lunging is still good, it's just all the grooming/tacking up/etc to get to that point that isn't.
- I am thinking about hiring some outside help at this point but finding the right person is another challenge

August 21, 2018
Local Lesson #1
- I kind of want to try a bit of jumping with Kachina as cross-training and to make her more well-rounded which is a thought that has been circulating in my head for years. I also realize that I need some extra motivation to come to the barn and work through all the not-fun stuff above. Finally, I think that it will be good for both Kachina and I to ride with other people/horses (despite moving to a busier barn I still am in arena alone a lot). With all that in mind I signed up for weekly lessons with the hunter/jumper instructor at my barn. The first few lessons will be private and then it will transition to a group lesson sometime in September.
- In preparation for jumping attempts Kachina wears horse boots for the first time ever (non-issue)
- First lesson is August 21 - we do walk and trot poles, both flat and raised. Kachina is a superstar and acts like she has been doing this all her life.

Boots (front and hinds are borrowed here but I just bought some cheap used ones myself)
The hoof boots are actually just so Kachina doesn't wear away her hoof too much by pawing in the aisleway, I've been putting them on in the barn and removing them before I ride (temp solution while I work on training)

August 24-26
Equestrian Canada Judging Clinic
- I attended a three day Judging Clinic taught by the amazing Cara Whitham
- I learn so much but it was very mentally demanding and my brain is still processing
- Clinic was originally supposed to be at a Gold show but the show was cancelled so we did a classroom clinic instead with the use of videos
- Spending a weekend with 18 judges from around the country was enlightening in a number of ways. I was definitely the person with the least experience in the room and I was extremely intimidated to start. However I was surprised to find that once we got into things I didn't feel completely out of place and while I still have lots to learn, my eye wasn't half bad.
- I originally signed up with essentially the thought of just learning, but with the way the clinic was formatted I ended up being tested anyway so I may actually pursue my small r recorded status in the next year (still need to meet some more requirements), still thinking about this.
- Some eventer readers might get a kick out of this: one of the video tests I had to judge for Cara was none other than William Fox-Pitt (I gave him a 68% btw). 

August 24
Lesson on Sky
- While I was in the area for the Judging clinic, I called up a trainer I know and arranged to take a lesson with her on her own mare. I've been feeling very hunched over due to work and wanted a position reset.
- The lesson was great and I was able to work on some valuable connection and stretching as well as working on my position. Sky (the mare) is schooling around First Level but she was a great horse to lesson on because her responses are very honest and consistent. If you ride properly she will go very nicely but she won't listen if you don't ask properly.
- This trainer hasn't seen me ride in a year and a half and was very impressed with how far I have come since then which was extremely nice to hear.

Sky and I (I didn't have my tall boots so had to ride in my cowboy boots)

Looking Forward

August 28/30
Elaine Banfield August Clinic
- Elaine is coming back and I have two lessons scheduled. We've done a lot of work since she was last here so I am excited to hear what she thinks. (this will replace my local H/J lesson for this week)

September 8
Cypress Hills Wish Ride
- I did this last year and it was a lot of fun, planning to do it again

September 15
Side Saddle Clinic
- This is a super cool opportunity that I saw on facebook and jumped on immediately (which was good because it sold out in the first day). A ranch near Calgary is hosting a side saddle clinic with a well known horsewoman. All horses and tack are provided. Also, they are harkening back to the era of side saddle in other ways and the clinic cost includes a formal afternoon tea. I have no plans to take up side saddle riding seriously but this just sounds like a very fun day and good way to give it a try!

Wednesday 15 August 2018

4 Years

Today is the 4th anniversary of when Kachina officially came into my life.

Progress is slow but we are progressing. More importantly we have build a solid foundation of trust and we have a lot of fun together. I'm really happy with where we are at right now and excited to see where we go from here.

Miss Kachina coming to hang out with me in the pasture

Happy Gotcha Day girl! 

Tuesday 14 August 2018

Floppy Ears and Fun

The recent Cochrane Dressage Show was a turning point for me in a few ways. I have a full show recap in the works but still waiting for photos from the pro photographer.

A small but interesting development for me was seeing Kachina develop floppy ears. I've often found the floppy ears of top dressage horses intriguing. On some level I thought it was a warmblood feature more than one of dressage training. During my warmup on Sunday at the show I suddenly noticed that Kachina's ears were doing that relaxed flop as we were trotting around. I've never seen that from the saddle before. It's a fairly superficial thing but it was cool to me and said we were doing something right. Does anyone actually know the physiological reason behind "floppy ears"?

The other turning point was finally getting the contact piece that I was missing before as I talked about in my last post. We still need to improve the consistency a lot but we finally had some really good moments during the show, especially in my last 2 tests of the weekend.

As Megan at A Enter Spooking recently posted about, "You Don't Win Dressage". That is a true statement, dressage really is all about the journey and you have to enjoy the journey. I do enjoy the journey overall, however I think it is fair to enjoy certain parts of the journey more than others. Now that I finally have the contact piece that I was missing on Kachina, I am in the part of the dressage journey that I find the most fun.

As I wait for new media, lets take a look back at some less fun moments in our journey to date...
Here is massive ducking behind the vertical from February 2016

Hollow giraffe running (aka a canter transition) from June 2016

I was first introduced to dressage on my last horse Ellie. While I didn't know anything about the sport of dressage specifically, I had already ridden Ellie for several years and we had the basics to a number of disciplines. That meant that I had a lot of the basics needed for dressage as well and it didn't take us too long to be able to really focus on things like connection and impulsion, and even collection and lateral movements. That didn't mean we progressed quickly, my own lack of knowledge held us back, as well as pesky external factors like university, work, and lameness. However I loved the type of work we were doing and it's what made me fall in love with dressage. It was an addicting experience the first time I felt the preliminary versions of collection and throughness. I was happy to spend time working to slow down lengthens, adjust our shoulder-in angle etc, because I loved that feeling of having my horse between my aids and everything else felt possible (except flying changes, those alluded me despite the best efforts of several people).

Long before Ellie and I did dressage we did English Pleasure,...

... jumping, ...

... Western Pleasure, and more English performance classes 

I have so few photos from my dressage time with Ellie but this is circa 2007.
At that time we were getting reasonably good scores at First Level but more importantly,
I could consistently ride my horse between the aids and that felt amazing

When I got Kachina I thought that I would be able to get back to that point fairly quickly, after all I had already been there once before. Unfortunately that was far from the truth. For starters, Kachina was a very different type of horse and it seemed like very little that I thought I knew was transferable. Additionally, both Kachina and I had a lot of holes in our basic foundation, more than I expected, and it took a long time to fill those holes. I don't think I appreciated enough the level of training Ellie had had before we started dressage. It didn't help that I was a different body type and had to relearn my position from scratch, or that we didn't have a regular instructor to work with. It's been 4 years to the week since I bought Kachina now. I hardly resemble the rider I was 6 years ago when I last competed in First and Second Level dressage. I've forgotten so much but also learned so much. The one thing I didn't forget though is how great it feels to have a horse truly between the aids. At the show I finally felt that with Kachina for the first time and I'm so excited to be back in this part of the dressage journey that I love so much =D

Tuesday 7 August 2018

Connection Forest

This post is about my July lesson with Elaine, but also about some related revelations that I have had about connection.

If you remember, at my last show I found out from my low scores and from watching videos that I did not have proper connection with Kachina.

Let's start at the beginning, and some definitions (from the USDF Glossary):
(note: please don't feel patronized by this, I'm just taking you through the thought process I needed to go through, I literally looked up the definitions of these terms because I was getting way too hung up on the extremes of what I didn't want to do that I lost sight of what I was actually trying to achieve, I lost the forest for the trees)

The reins are stretched so that they form a straight line, not a loop. “Correct contact” or “acceptance of contact” is determined by the elasticity of the connection between horse and rider.

The reins do form a straight line, I knew to take the slack out, but I rode the edge of looseness.
The reins didn't have any weight/stretch/elasticity in them so it wasn't really contact or connection.

State in which there is no blockage, break, or slack in the circuit that joins horse and rider into a single, harmonious, elastic unit. A prerequisite for throughness.

Acceptance of contact (without resistance or evasion) with a stretched topline and with lateral and longitudinal flexion as required. The horse’s face line is, as a rule, slightly in front of the vertical.

State in which the rider’s aids/influences go freely through to all parts of the horse, from back to front and front to back (e.g. the rein aids go through to reach and influence the hind legs). Prerequisites for this state are good connection and positive mental/emotional state.

State in which the horse carries itself in balance without taking support or balancing on the rider’s hand.

Bottom line: in order to have contact or connection, I need tension on the reins. Period. That may sound super basic and it is, but I needed that clarification. I also need connection in order to achieve throughness. Previously I had to learn to stop pulling and that took a lot of work especially when Kachina and I used to carry a lot more tension. I have worked that a lot and I've now successfully eliminated pulling for the most part. However, having "no pulling" circulating in my head so much, combined with "self carriage", "don't force a horse into a false frame" and "you don't want your horse leaning on the bit" had me believing that I was aiming for some feather-light, barely-there feel on the reins. That in turn made me think that the feel of Kachina above the bit but steady, and my reins on the edge of looseness was correct. It was not.

Reviewing the Dressage Pyramid is also always a good idea

Let's go back to some of those terms that were circulating in my brain, the metaphorical trees that were distracting me from the forest...
- self carriage is something that you move onto after the basics of contact, so I shouldn't obsess about it now, leave this until later
- self carriage means the horse is not balancing on the rider's hand, doesn't mean there isn't tension in the reins.
- pulling is a backward movement, I can have tension on the reins while using a holding motion rather than a pulling one. Create weight in the reins by pushing Kachina into the contact instead of pulling back to take up the slack.
- yes, it is correct that you don't want a horse who leans on the reins or is heavy in the contact, but that has never ever been my problem with Kachina. She has ducked behind the bit, held herself above the bit, and tried to wiggle sideways out of contact, but she has never leaned her way through it. Therefore, it is insane for me to place such strong emphasis on avoiding leaning that I don't let/promote her reaching for the bit. Kachina is not a horse who leans so just delete this worry entirely for now.
False Frame:
- Another extreme that I was trying too hard to avoid. I know that it is incorrect to artificially force the horse's head to be in a frame without also working on the other basics, but somehow I warped that idea into thinking that the only way to achieve a true frame was to do it all from the back end, encouraging relaxation, impulsion etc. That's not how it works. The concept of "back to front" is worded that way for a reason, things have to come from the back but there must be some rein tension in the front to channel things and create a frame. A horse's head is never going to stay near that vertical position if there's slack on the reins (unless you train them by bumping them there with a curb bit like in some western events, but that's a whole different kettle of fish).

My lesson with Elaine started with some brief discussion on the above. Elaine is not one to go intensely into terminology and theory so it helped that I had already come to a lot of the above realizations on my own, but it helped me a lot to have her give quick confirmations that a) I need weight in the reins, b) heaviness is not a problem with this horse, and c) I need to develop the connection first before I get too concerned with improving impulsion, self carriage, or bend, those things are important too but we will come to those later.

We spent the rest of the lesson at the walk and trot having me hold contact. This was a new feeling for Kachina so she struggled at first to figure out what the correct answer was. First I had to convince her that she could move forward with weight in the reins. Then she tried to wiggle out of it by moving all parts of her body from side to side. I had to keep contact on both reins but use small adjustments in tension to encourage her to stay straight between the aids (think elastic side reins). She also tried going faster or slower. Despite the evasions, this lesson showed me that Kachina is ready for this type of work. She never once got freaked out by the contact or hid behind it, she just tried different things to find the right answer and the process got faster and faster to get to the correct response. It was a big mental task for me to not throw the contact away when she gave to it. I needed to reward her response by being quiet with my aids, not by releasing them. I still need to fine tune my understanding of this part. It was a mentally tough lesson for both of us but it was clear to me that getting this contact needs to be our priority and we can accomplish it if we are consistent.

The other thing I got Elaine to do in my lesson was to tell me when I had a moment where things were correct. I don't know if I've explained any of this well on paper, but ultimately this was about re-evaluating my feel and adjusting what type of feel I am aiming for. I think I achieved that. As long as I know what feel to aim for, I can do a lot of work on my own so that is always what I try and get out of a lesson (especially since my situation means lessons are at least a month apart). 

Note: I have to give Elaine credit, she tried to teach me this lesson before, by using terms like "don't throw away the contact", "give smaller releases" etc., but I just didn't fundamentally understand that that meant keeping some tension/weight in the reins at all times.

Finally, another thing I tried to avoid to extremes was the use of training tools. I have heard and read so many bad stories about the use and abuse of training aids, that I shied away from the idea pretty hard. However, the more I went over this lesson in my head, the more I realized that I needed to create the feel of side reins with my hands: elastic and always there, but gently allowing Kachina to find the easiest position to stay in. If I wanted to feel like side reins, wouldn't side reins be a useful tool to help Kachina learn the concept with taking my own imperfections out of the mix? I messaged Elaine a week after my lesson to ask about side reins and she agreed that this was a good application for them. I've done a few brief lunge sessions with them since and it really has helped propel both of our understandings about what we are looking for under saddle.

Have you ever had a major revelation about something that you feel you should have already known, or avoided an extreme to such an extent that you ended up at the other extreme? Have you ever gotten lost in the connection forest?