Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Training an Event Horse. For Real.

Summer boot camp with Dan has resulted in a tough couple of months for me and Leo. Physically hard. Dan zeroed in on the gaps in Leo's flatwork training and the real focus for the last 8 weeks has been on strengthening Leo's back and getting him using his hind end properly. Not only has Leo had to change his way of going, but I've had to change my way of riding him.

We've both struggled to pull it together. Leo was continually sore for the first 6 weeks. Dan and Kaitlin monitored him daily and adjusted his schedule accordingly. Every flatwork session was followed by two days of long hacks. Dan handled most of his serious under saddle work to start and left me to do his hacking. Recently it seems the "serious" riding has been transitioned back to me. Luckily Dan keeps a watchful eye on us and even when I am riding on my own, comes over to help me.

Flat Theme: Slow the front-end, Quicken the hind-end
It was clear from the get-go, that Leo was not on the aides to the standard that Dan expected a prelim horse to be. I think Dan actually said he had novice horses more broke than Leo. I don't mind the tough love. Dan clearly knows what skills and education a prelim, ready for intermediate, horse needs to have. He's never looked at Leo and said "I have no idea what to do." He had a plan right from the start. And it started on the flat.

Our re-education has started at the walk. I must slow Leo's front feet while getting him to take quicker, sharper steps with his back feet. This involves half-halting and immediately following with lots of leg, spur and seat wiggling. And repeat. I'm not allowed to trot or do anything until I show I can keep Leo's front end slow and his hind feet sharp. It's hard. And just when I think I did it right and can proceed with an upward transition, Dan will tell me to stop and start over. We're slowly developing better quality gaits.

Jump theme: Establish the proper canter and keep it 
The jumps have stayed very low, mostly 2 1/2 ft, but the exercises have been demanding on both of us. Every jump exercise requires Leo to maintain a powerful 12 ft stride; to engage his haunches and control his body. For me, I squeeze my legs nonstop during my rides trying to generate the power and then squeeze my core nonstop to control how the energy is dispersed.  When we land from a jump, I have to immediate get Leo back in the canter I had approaching the jump. Sounds so easy, such a no-brainer, but Leo loves to land and accelerate and I have allowed the habit all these years. Breaking bad habits is no easy task.

July Highs & Lows
  • July 3: Dan took Leo cross country schooling and he was fine. Some charging at the fences but got progressively better
  • July 9: Dan then competed Leo at training level at Loch Moy. Leo was absolutely horrible in dressage. HORRIBLE. He was bolting, looked like a giraffe. He was clearly sore. His jumping was quite good with Dan. Dan took him in a snaffle and he was relaxed and confident. 
  • For most of July, Dan handled the tough training rides and I got to take Leo on long hacks around Kennett Square. Hermitage Farm is definitely one of my favorite places I have boarded. 
August Highs & Lows
  • Aug 6: I took Leo xc schooling and had some good results and some crappy results. We had runout at the left corner - an old problem of ours. Then had more left runouts at the coffin - in a combination that required Leo to power up a steep hill for 2 strides and then jump out over a skinny. This land-and-power-on problem also showed up in our jump lessons at home. It's a cross country education gap for sure. 
  • Aug 13: I was supposed to compete at training level at Fair Hill, but Leo broke out in hives the day before the show. I only rode my dressage test and it was again, HORRIBLE. Appalling really. Leo was bulging off the rail and carrying on like an idiot. I think the hives were still an issue but who knows. 
  • Aug 26: That led us to go to Plantation Field for their schooling dressage show. We rode Training A and Prelim A. Dan warmed us up and Leo was great! Very workman-like. He was a drastically different horse. I think finally his muscle strength was increasing so he was more comfortable and less resistant. 
Early September Highs
  • Sept 3: I finally completed a horse trial with Leo at Seneca! We finished on our dressage score at Training Level: 40.5. I even rode Leo xc in a french link snaffle - and had control! Our stadium round was solid and really quite nice. He was workmanlike again for the dressage ring and showed real progress. I didn't ride very forward at the start of xc and messed up some combinations but I got my act together after fence 6 and the rest of the round was easy.  
  • The week of Seneca was the first week I really felt Leo go to work and not feel sore and resistant. Note to self: it takes at least 2 months to build muscle strength in weak areas - and that's with constant attention > not hoping it just happens on its own. 
Dan and I talked at the end of August and decided to put our 1-star plans on hold until next year. We both agreed that we needed to focus on Leo's training and Dan was adamant that Leo should get sounder and stronger before attempting a 1-star. I totally agreed. So we're going to aim for Bromont 2017!

Around and about at Hermitage Farm...

Monday, June 27, 2016

Eventing Bootcamp Begins

Moving to Dan Clasing and Kaitlin Spurlock's farm has got to be hands down the best decision I have ever made for my riding. In just one lesson, Dan managed to peel away all the bullshit and magnify  the key problems in Leo's training and development:

  • Improper connection in the bridle due to an unengaged hind end and a lack of leg by me
  • Underdeveloped canter
  • Lack of strength to hold himself to a 12-ft stride
I think his list would have been longer but he probably didm't want to be discouraging in the first lesson! Dan is confident this can all be corrected. Whew! He admitted training any horse to the upper levels in hard - it doesn't matter how experienced you are.

In lesson #1, Dan watched us trot for a loop of the ring and then stopped us. Right away he didn't like Leo's inconsistent contact in the bridle and lack of engagement.

Stage 1: Develop connection at the walk by engaging the hind end
  • The walk must be kept very slow and deliberate
  • Use an insane amount of leg; pressure must be even to prevent lateral movement 
  • Cluck
  • Move your seat
  • Squeeze core and knees to prevent trotting or a faster walk
  • Hands cannot come back; they must remain in a forward position
  • Horse must remain straight even on a circle
This was really difficult for us. The whole exercise really emphasized our lack of straightness, Leo's evasion tactics, my bad habit of trying to correct Leo with my hands not my leg. 

Stage 2:  Adding trot

We moved into the trot and introduced changes of direction and transitions between walk and trot. The trot was still more on the collected side - and I had to keep it energized with a lot of leg. Leo wasn't allowed to fly away with me. He had to channel the energy and settle into the contact. I was not allowed to pull back on the reins or use the reins for any corrections. This was a theme for the entire lesson. Leo had to carry himself through the transitions and I had to use my core and legs to create a better quality connection and gaits. 

Stage 3:  Collected canter

Then we moved to canter and Leo again had to maintain a collected, connected, straight canter without me touching the reins. When I say collected, I'm really just talking about a 12-ft canter stride that maintains an even steady pace and has power. 

More and more leg. More and more core. This was really an exercise in producing a better quality canter. Leo had to stay engaged and hold himself in a 12-ft stride. I had to encourage this performance by holding the canter step with my core and creating the impulsion with my legs. This was kind of a fail for us to be honest - we really struggled to complete a whole circle in the right canter. This is a huge hole in our training! 

Stage 4: Riding a collected canter over jumps

The progression continued with the addition of a small cavalleti exercise. Three fences were set up on a circle. Each fence was 18 ft apart, middle-to-middle. The fences on the end were maybe a foot off the ground. The center fence was maybe 2 - 2'6". Small. To start we did a figure out over the exercise, just jumping the last 2 fences on each approach. We started at the trot. Leo had to maintain a collected trot into the first fence, canter one short stride over the second fence and then repeat. Then we moved onto canter the exercising. Again, when approaching the first fence Leo had to maintain a collected canter. I couldn't pull back on the reins. He couldn't change his stride length. 

At the end we cantered a circle over all 3 fences in succession out of a collected canter. No reins. All core and legs. Leo got tired very quickly and Dan said the exercise showed not just his lack of training but also his lack of strength to hold that quality of canter. 

So wow, do we have a lot to do this summer! But I'm excited for the first time in a long time to ride and learn. Dan and Kaitlin are running their farm at a very high standard - far superior to anything I have ever experienced before. I can't wait to watch and learn and see how the pros run a training establishment. Clearly, they have a program for training event horses and I want to know what it is!

Leo in his stall! Swanky!

Hermitage Farm

The barn at Hermitage Farm

The farrier schedule!! This blew my mind. 

The most organized feed board ever

Sunday, June 12, 2016

MIA in PA...

This spring started off pretty great. Leo had a very solid run at Plantation in April and his training seemed in order. He was more adjustable jumping then he has ever been before and we were in sync. But as is common with Leo and me, just when things appear to be going well, SOMETHING goes wrong in a big way.

Two days before MCTA on May 8th, I had a jump lesson with Becca. It started off really good. Nothing in particular was happening. I was hitting all my distances and getting the right striding in the related lines. Then I missed coming into an oxer-vertical one stride combination. Leo chipped in, jumped the oxer but couldn't get out over the vertical. He jumped up and then slammed on the brakes. I flew face first into his neck. It's been a really long time since I've gotten knocked around riding. I think the last time was nearly 5 years ago when Leo bucked me off. My head was ringing from the collision between my face and crest of Leo's neck. I thought I broke my nose, but I was just blinded by pain. There was no blood. I took a minute to get my mind back in order and then we jumped through the combination again. It was fine. But after that, he started charging his fences.  And charging at prelim height, leads to refusals because he gets too deep and can't jump out of the distance. Not good.

MCTA got canceled because of rain, which I was kind of relieved about. A couple of days later though we went XC schooling with Sally at Fair Hill and Leo started showing the same behavior. Charging his fences and then refusing. He did jump some things quite well, including a massive ditch and bank on the Intermediate course which scared the shit out of me riding up to it. It just got bigger and bigger the closer you got. But then he wouldn't jump a bank and brush training level combination at the water. Super weird.

I had the vet come out and turns out his hocks needed to be injected. We did that, he got some time off and then he went back to work. Only he was no better. He was crazy under saddle. Still charging his fences and stopping. I withdrew from Fair Hill in late May. Following the fatalities this spring, I just couldn't bring myself to risk me or Leo in light of how poorly he was going. I'm not a pro and this is supposed to be safe and fun for me.

We decided to treat Leo for ulcers because he didn't come out of winter in good condition and this particular behavior was linked to ulcers before. Then most recently he bruised his left front sole. So basically nothing has been happening.

In light of all my training problems, I talked things over with Becca and we decided I needed more advanced, consistent help with Leo. So I've decided to relocate Leo to Dan Clasing's farm in Kennett Square this summer. I worked with Dan in Maryland during the winter when Sally was in Aiken so he has some familiarity with Leo. My hope is that given Dan's experience at the 4-star level, his experience bringing along OTTBs to the upper levels, and the tutelage and influence of Phillip Dutton, that he can help me identify the gaps in Leo's training, get us back into competition form and ready for the 1-star at the end of the year.

In all of my riding career, I have never actually boarded with an active upper level event rider/pro. Sally doesn't have a boarding business except in Aiken. Those weeks with her are always invaluable so I am really hopeful that Leo and I will get a priceless education with Dan. Interestingly enough, Dan already thinks my jump problems are likely flat-related. Oh boy!

Leo moves in with Dan July 1st - maybe sooner. I'm super excited! Be on the look out for some insightful training posts!

In other news, I got to meet American Pharaoh
when we were in Lexington for Rolex! Incredible!

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Bringing Mindfulness to the Competition Arena

My theme for moving forward with Leo is "go with the crazy." No better place to really put it to the test then at our first competition of the season, Plantation Field.

The competition started off with Dressage and Stadium on Saturday. I thought Leo did a very nice test. Even though we only scored a 39, I was pleased with his effort! Stadium was going great until I missed my distance coming up hill into the double. I got there on a half stride and Leo struggled to make it out of the combination. The rail on the second fence got caught between his legs and I found myself staring at the ground for a second. When I realized I wasn't going to fall off, I kicked on down the line to the next fence. We finished the rest of the course without fault. It was a damn impressive recovery for me! Two years ago that would have destroyed my round and Leo's confidence. Not now! I'm happy to have experienced that problem and to see how I was able to handle the situation. It gives me enormous confidence in myself and Leo, which is strangely more valuable than a clear round.

I walked the cross country course first with Becca and then with Sally. The course was straight forward, though some of the fences were quite big. Probably some of the biggest prelim fences I have jumped. This is the first time I have ridden the prelim course at Plantation and it involves, jumping a bank complex at the barn ruins. For some reason I found that combination intimidating but Sally and Becca both said it always rode very well. I didn't think too much about the course on Saturday. It was a long day with Becca riding in the novice division and by the time we got home, I was just too tired to think.

On Sunday morning, as Becca and I got on the road, we turned on the radio and just happened to find ourselves listening to a news broadcast about a teacher at a local school that taught her second grade students mindfulness and integrated the exercises into daily class work. The teacher explained that she focused on breathing in order to get the children back into the moment, and often instructed them to find their "sound" when she wanted them to focus in the present. The sound could be anything - a bird, leaves rustling, a fan, etc.

Listening to this broadcast, Becca and I just got to talking about our lives in a bigger way. We actually stepped back and took a moment in the car to look at the big picture. Here we were, driving a $70,000 rig, loaded with a couple of wonderful horses, to a prestigious horse competition where we would ride in the same ring as Olympians. We are both employed, have homes, and enough income to support one of the most expensive hobbies out there. We have the emotional support of great friends and family. We also have a wonderful network of fellow riders on the circuit who participate in our journey. We've done really well for ourselves. It's really quite incredible.

And there was something really big and beautiful in that moment, when we took a second to reflect on what we had created out of our lives. I decided I was going to be in the present that day. When I was a kid, I wanted to jump the biggest and scariest fences. Somewhere along the way, I forgot about the pure joy that jumping a horse gave me. As an adult, I feel the joy when it's over....when I am looking into the past. I want to move that joy into the present.

That morning I didn't allow myself to worry about the course. I walked it twice the day before; I reviewed it in my mind to make sure I knew what lines I wanted to ride and what the striding was. Then every time my mind wanted to worry about the height of anything, I stopped my train of thought and came back to the present moment and reminded myself that in that moment, I was not riding the course. I told myself I knew what I needed to know and that until I was on course, I didn't need to think about it. I wouldn't know how anything was going to unfold until I was in that moment, riding at a fence. It worked. I felt no nerves.

At the 1-minute call to the start box, I found my sound: some birds chirping. I took conscious deep breathes and listened to that sound. I gave Leo a pat. I kept listening to those birds right up until they said "15 seconds." Then I let my mind turn to the course. We had a great ride - even when I messed up one of the bank combinations.

So next competition day, when the anxiety starts to rise, try it out...

  • Conscious deep breaths
  • Stop to notice a pleasant sound (birds) or even a pleasant object (flower) - and take a moment to focus on nothing but that thing
Massive brush table, landing was downhill 

Leo making nothing of that table

Skinny Log, 3 Strides down the bank into the ruins, gallop across and jump the stone wall out the other side
Leo into the ruins
Second bank combination - Skinny, 3 strides to bank, 4 short strides to a brush skinny (Leo really worked to get out of this combination; that 4th stride buried him at the third element)

Table 6 bending strides to a corner

Photo opp with Sally's new puppy Thomas!

Friday, February 19, 2016

Mind. Blown.

I was writing a blog post about how I am struggling to achieve straightness with Leo. But this is way more important. I was just catching up with a fantastic friend and I literally just had my mind blown...

I was talking about Leo and mentioned that he would be much more successful with a better rider. My friend, John, replied:

"He’s much happier with you than he would be otherwise... a girl who gets to dance like crazy versus a strictly trained ballerina." 

John just completely changed my perspective on my relationship with Leo.

Leo wants to dance like crazy. And there is no one better at dancing crazy than me! We are one in the same, me and Leo. He has no ambition for his career, just like I don't have ambition for my own career.  Sally always said I needed to train to his personality. I guess I just needed the right analogy to hit home the point. I need to have more fun with Leo. Expect the crazy dance. Celebrate the crazy dance.

This year I am going to dance like crazy with Leo.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Horse Care Habits I can't live without

When it comes to horse management, I rely on a lot of people for guidance and advice....farrier, vets, trainers, saddle fitter, fellow riders...The list goes on and on. But when I got to thinking about my personal horse management habits, these 3 habits of mine really stood out to me.

Lunging to monitor soundness
Leo has a weak left stifle which results in a toe drag. He has had some minor lameness issues over the years with that leg which led us to putting him on monthly Pentosan shots to manage his soundness. But I am still always concerned a large-scale lameness will blow up in my face. I consistently have this stressful moment when I'm in the saddle - right before I begin to trot - where I hesitate to trot because I don't want to experience that moment where I feel a lame step.

I like to be proactive or maybe I am just a control freak. Either way, ever since he lameness issues came to light in Maryland, I took to lunging Leo in order to watch his movement and monitor his soundness for any changes. I lunge Leo religiously, once a week. I've imprinted his trot into my mind so I know what normal is for him. I have to say there is something very calming about watching the rhythmic and even steps of a horse as they trot circles around you. It's a weird stress reliever for me because watching him on the lunge, I can be completely confident in his soundness.

When I first got Leo, he couldn't lunge for the life of him. We both hated it, but when he was younger, lunging him was the only way to wear him out a little so he was more rideable. Eventually, he started to like his dates with the side reins and surcingle. Even now, it's really the only time I can get him to go in a long and low frame. I discovered yesterday, that Leo is now a lunging pro beyond my wildest expectations...

Currently, Leo has a mysterious edema on his stomach which is preventing me from saddling him. It had been raining buckets so the horses weren't turned out. I went to the barn with the intent to let Leo gallop around the riding ring and blow off some steam. Turns out, Leo would not gallop around the ring at all. When I clucked at him and moved the lunge whip, he proceeded to trot circles around me. I discovered that Leo is so well schooled on the lunge that he will walk, trot and canter circles around me on command even without a lunge line. Who would have thought!

Tea-Clenz to prevent Rain Rot
Leo notoriously gets horrible rain rot and this year I am desperate to stay ahead of the problem. I visited my local tack store way back in spring and went through all their fungus solutions. I ended up buying a tea-tree based body wash, Tea-Clenz Anti-Microbial Concentrate. When I took it up to the counter, the woman working said she can't live without the Tea-Clenz product so I had hope even before I left the store!

I really wanted to step up my horse care game this year. Leo hates to be fussed with and especially hates grooming so I have developed a bad habit of rushing through this part of my ride. Fussing with him after my ride is also not very welcomed, but dealing with rain rot year after year is no longer acceptable in my mind.

Tea-Clenz is supposed to help keep a horse’s skin properly balanced to prevent rain rot from developing. The solution gets diluted in water and is sponged over the horse. Any excess is simply scraped off the horse and the rest just stays on to dry. I applied this to Leo anytime I hosed him down after riding starting in April/May. I used it all the way through September/Oct and not a sign of rain rot developed on his rump this year. His legs were clean and pristine - no sign of that gross, grubby, black stuff. Plus, the Tea-Clenz left his coat super shinny! I'm definitely sold on this product and will be using it again in the spring.

Perfect Prep Training Day to manage a spooky, flighty, hot-headed horse
Leo hates it, but he gets Perfect Prep Training Day in his feed daily. I forget now how long he has been on it, maybe two years? It took me a while to find the right calming supplement, but this turned out to be the one. When Leo is not getting this supplement, he is barely rideable. He spooks literally at everything, has no focus and forgets his entire education. It's really amazing how quickly he regresses back to a fresh-off-the-track state.

The worst part about Leo without Perfect Prep is that it negatively affects his jumping. I always know that the flat work will be hard even with the Perfect Prep, but Leo loves to jump! Without Perfect Prep Training Day, he's behavioral deterioration eventually translates into the jump arena. He will start charging his fences, ruining the distance, get himself into situations he can't get out of and that scares him, which then leads to stopping. It's awesome.

You'd think I would know better by now and never run our of the stuff, but noooooo....At least once a year, I run out of Perfect Prep and there is a delay in the restock. A week without it is typically ok, but Leo gets progressively worse the longer he is off this stuff.

Well, this fall I ran out while I was dealing with the house stuff. Leo was off the supplement for 3-4 weeks and boy did I pay the price. By week three,  I could barely get Leo over a fence without incident. He was back to charging fences, scaring himself, then refusing fences....we were a mess. Then, when I got the Perfect Prep, Leo went on a hunger strike and stopped eating his grain. Now we're administering Perfect Prep via syringe and Leo is back to being settled again.

Note to self: Never, ever, ever, run out of Perfect Prep Training Day.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Coming Full Circle

Well, it took a few months, but I finally found my house! When I first started the house search, my goal was to find a small place with an inexpensive mortgage. The object was to reduce the amount of money I spent on a place to live in order to free up more money for competing. I got off track along the way in my house search and started chasing the American standard: a larger 3-bedroom home, which would not have reduced my monthly bills at all. Thankfully, those houses didn't work out.

Just when I thought all was lost and I would have to go back to renting, a small cottage came up for sale right around the corner from Flying Horse Farm. I was skeptical after seeing the pictures. It was cute on the outside and a hot-mess inside. At a mere 700 sq ft, it was not a home most people would be interested in. But when I went to look at it, it was good. It was better than good; it was perfect for me. Yes, it had leopard print carpet and a Jackson Pollock inspired paint splattered kitchen, but the furnace and water heater were new. The roof still has some years left in it and the basement was more or less dry. It was a single family home, on half an acre, adjacent to a stream, that only required cosmetic fixes, and came with a mortgage $500 less than my rent. I was sold.

I got the keys this past Thursday!

Putting the competing on hold was hard, but it was just a short-term "setback" so I could set myself up better financially. Now, I'm ready to start 2016 fresh and re-energized from my break!

Leo is good and a little bit fat around the belly! I applied to ride in the William Fox-Pitt clinic which was ultimately canceled. Then, Leo and I were invited to participate in a clinic with Mary King - who they got to take the place of WFP. Unfortunately, that clinic got canceled as well. I was super disappointed because I would have loved to have had the chance to ride with either of those Brits! Hopefully, I will have something riding-related to write about soon!

Here are some random pictures from this fall...

Fall trail rides with Leo

My new cottage! 

The ugliest kitchen ever?

More trail rides...View up to the barn

Pleasant Hollow Farm Reunion 2016!

Hacking at Valley Forge National Park

Plantation CIC 3*

Plantation CIC - Guy McLean