Friday, June 29, 2018

Retiring Leo



Horses and riders speak a weird silent language and it took me a while to hear what Leo was saying. Leo was sound, healthy and appeared to be happy so retirement simply wasn't in my consideration set. I think Dan was hearing Leo. I look back at some of his conversations and I can see he was preparing me for this as a potential reality.

When I finally heard what Leo was saying, there was only one decision. Leo's days of negotiating were over. Here's how it all played out...
  • Following the Virginia Horse Trials, the vet did an evaluation. Leo was developing arthritis in his front pasterns/ankles but he was totally sound behind. For years I struggled with hock and stifle issues but in the Clasing program, Leo is sounder than he has ever been at any age. Must be all those hour long walk hacks that I dread in the summer with the bugs. 
  • The vet said the ankle arthritis shouldn't be causing the unwillingness to jump, assuming he was confirmed at his current level of competition. There was some debate about whether or not Leo could be considered confirmed at Prelim given his ups and downs over the last 4 years.
  • Bottom line, it didn't appear that the root cause of his refusals was something physical. We put him on a course of Adequan to help with the arthritis and he got his front ankles iced for 20 minutes following every jump school
  • Post-virginia he had several good jump schools at home with no issues. We practiced forward riding, turning combinations that simulated xc. We practiced cavalletis and large oxers. I practiced some simple course work on my own. Everything seemed relatively positive and I entered Essex Horse Trials at Training.

Then...

  • We went to Windurra for a XC school a couple of days before Essex
  • We warmed up over some novice fences to start. That went well. 
  • Dan gave us a course of gradually bigger fences. We jumped 3 training/prelim size tables then approached 2 decent-sized houses on a one stride angle. It was a solid prelim question but one we had jumped before. Leo wouldn't jump out over the second fence in the combination. We tried 3 times with no success. He would jump them separately but never together, where the physical effort was bigger
  • Then Dan gave me another course to ride: table to a corner to a half coffin. Leo jumped the first fence but dirty stopped at the corner. I didn't want to reproach. The refusals had sucked the confidence right out of me and I didn't want to jump anymore.
  • For some reason I wanted to end with the water because he had a refusal there at Virginia. Dan had me jump a novice sized fence to get him going again then jump a small log at the edge of the water. Leo was super sticky at the first fence - which was a nothing fence - and then refused to jump the tiny log into water. 
  • It was over. Our eventing career together was over. 
  • There is no triumphant end to our competition career together. We faded out. It was so decisive. Leo's communication was so strong. Dan stopped the xc school and we walked back to the trailer. By the time I jumped off, I couldn't control my tears. Yes, I was a grown woman crying in front of Dan. 

It was a super sad ride for me. Looking back at Virginia, on xc, Leo was jumping but his heart wasn't in it. He wasn't looking for his fences. He wasn't hungry for them. Normally he is anticipating the next fence, eyeing them up - trying to figure out which is "his." Normally he is fighting for control to get to (and over) the fence - though on his terms. Normally, he is quick off the ground and enthusiastic in his jump. But he was no longer that horse. His enthusiasm had been waning all spring. Now, he would no longer get me to the other side of the fence and there was nothing I could do to change his mind. It was a devastating realization. He was the same horse, but different.

Is this normal? Do horses just change as they age? 
Dan says yes, older horses go through changes both mental and physical. Sure, some horses will keep going into their 20s, others stop at 12. Dan told me about a horse of Philip Dutton's that retired at 12, not due to injury, but simply because he stopped performing. He told me about another horse that was winning everything at intermediate and 2*, then had an injury and time off. When the horse got back to competing, he was totally different. Unmanageable. Tantrums in dressage, which he used to win. He was eventually retired without ever returning to his former glory. Dan's first advanced horse, Yardley, started stopping at age 15. No real physical reason and Dan retired him to a lesson program. The stories go on and on.

Dan said to really listen to rider interviews at the end of the season. Riders with seasoned campaigners hedge about plans for the next year - not just because of the unpredictability of the sport but because as a horse ages, you never know how he will come into work each year or what horse he will be. Even Michael Jung said of his world champion, Sam, that he would let the horse tell him if he wanted to keep going. I never really understood that until now.

I thought I would be in control of when Leo would retire, but actually Leo forced that conversation and he led that conversation.

15 years old seems too young to retire. I convinced myself that I would be competing Leo until he was at least 18. I wasn't ready to give up all the visions I had in my head of competing more with him: achieving competency at Prelim, finally doing the 1-star, and moving up to Intermediate.

But I am letting go. I have no choice. It's a partnership after all. All those goals, I'll have to tuck them away and save them for the day when I have another competition partner.

It's incredibly disappointing but I am so very grateful
I was really distraught for a couple of days realizing that I needed to retire Leo. I see him 6 days a week. Training Leo, making progress with Leo, seeing Leo come running over to me in the field, practicing my work presentations to Leo on our long hacks - Leo is part of my life in a big way and I know that will change now. I know I want to continue eventing. I know I will get another horse. I know I will have less time for Leo. Leo is forcing my life to change - just when I was starting to think I was in control!

I've contemplated Leo a lot in the last week. I started this blog nearly 8 years ago when I bought Leo and he has competed continuously during those 8 years from beginner novice through to prelim. I've learned a ton about horses and horse management and riding thanks to him. That was to be expected. Leo unexpectedly brought many amazing people into my life.  I was a lucky girl to find him.

Here are some of his career facts:
  • Leo competed in a total of 53 horse trials
    • Beginner Novice: 4
    • Novice: 9
    • Training: 25
    • Preliminary: 15 
  • His competition record is far from clean! There was a lot of education happening for us!
    • 43 clean xc jump rounds 
    • 15 clean stadium jump rounds 
    • 3 stadium eliminations - all at prelim
    • 2 xc eliminations - one at training, one at prelim
  • Leo competed in 8 states: South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey
  • His lowest dressage score was at prelim: a 35.7 (it felt like a miracle anytime we broke 40) 
Leo will stay in light work with me until I find another horse to ride. Then I'll figure out the next phase of his life. I'll do my best to enjoy our down time together - even though neither of us is very good at relaxing. Maybe we can learn how to do that together too now.



Leo running Prelim at Plantation in May 2018, the last event we completed.










Sunday, May 27, 2018

Surgery & Return to Competition

2017: Health and Surgery
2017 was a rather difficult year for me and riding took the back seat to dealing with health issues. I debated with myself for a long time about whether or not I should talk about my health problems on my blog but the whole ordeal had a direct impact on my riding and I don't want to pretend it didn't happen.  And who knows - maybe there are other riders out there who have gone through or are going through the same ordeal!

In early 2017, I went to the doctor after I could no longer ignore my health problems. After several diagnostic tests & procedures, it was determined that I had a condition known as diffuse uterine leiomyomatosis. It was not cancer, but the walls of uterus had been replaced with "countless" benign fibroid tumors that had caused my uterus to grow into a very large, hard 7-in mass that was pressing against everything else in my abdomen. For comparison, the average uterus is 2-3 inches in diameter. The solution was a hysterectomy.

I have never felt any desire to have children but I also wanted control over the decision. Losing control over that decision was more difficult than I expected. Plus, the hysterectomy was considered major surgery because they had to cut open my abdomen and touch a bunch of organs. I hated the idea of more scars on my body. I hated the idea that I would be sidelined from riding, running and everything else physical I do. I hated the idea of being away from and not in control of work. But I also hated the side effects and discomfort I currently had with this mass in my abdomen. I knew I had to do the surgery. It was just a lot of mental stuff for me to deal with unexpectedly.

In hindsight, learning how to lose control might be the hidden lesson in this story.

That was April. I put off surgery until the end of summer in the hopes that I would be able to get back to competing at Prelim before I was sidelined. Leo and I completed one horse trial at Flora Lea in May at Training level which was followed by a minor leg injury which required him to take a couple weeks off. I didn't make it to any more competitions that year.

I had surgery in August and Dan and Kaitlin took over competing Leo for me. With those two in the saddle, Leo got several great prelim rounds down throughout the fall.

Recovering from surgery
I went into surgery as fit as I could be. I was running 45 miles a month and doing T25 workouts on the days I wasn't running. My doctor said I could start riding again 8 weeks after surgery but to take things slow as they had to do a lot of internal reconstruction when they removed my uterus. And to top it off, they had to make a 7-inch vertical incision through my lower abdominal wall - not great for a sport that relies on core strength. The general sense was it would be a year before I was 100% again.

Naturally, I thought my doctors were just overly conservative. They said to consider taking 8 weeks off from work; I went back at 4 weeks. In regards to riding, I thought it would just come right to me without missing a beat. But it turned out those expectations were not realistic at all.  The pain wasn't the problem. I have lots of titanium in my body from breakage and physical discomfort is somewhat normal for me. It was the lack of energy. I was tapped out all the time. It sucked.

My doctor explained that my body had a lot of internal healing to do and when the body is healing most of its energy is going towards that process, hence there isn't a lot of energy left for other things. She expected me to sleep a lot and go slow with everything. Everyone was telling me to take it easy but I'm terrible at taking it easy.

I started riding in October but the rides were really short. I didn't appreciate how much core I use when riding until I had no core strength to use! Just posting the trot for a couple circles around the ring was hard. After a couple of weeks, I had a jump lesson. Dan kept everything small and Leo took care of me. I just pointed him and he went, which was good because riding was a struggle. I could tell his educated had advanced a lot with Kaitlin and Dan in the saddle. His canter was more well balanced and he had self control over his body. I think I had one more jump lesson in the fall and then winter hit. 

In Dec, I tried T25 workouts again, but my abdomen hurt too much to do it. In Jan, I started running again. Ugh, if I thought riding was hard post-surgery, running was even harder. I was probably over compensating for something when running because I screwed up my achilles after 4 weeks of running. That resulted in being benched from running for 6 weeks so I started pilates. That probably worked out for the best because it helped me focus on my abdominal strength.

The health diagnosis was hard because it felt like my body had betrayed me. Then post-surgery, it felt like my body was betraying me again because everything that used to be easy was hard.  

Leo's Progress
Meanwhile in Dan and Kaitlin's program, Leo is the soundest he has ever been. His weekly schedule includes hour long walk hacks and 25 minute trot sets. In addition, every flat workout is proceeded with a hack. Because of this, he hasn't required any joint injections in the past 2 years and his hindend  movement has exponentially improved. 

Leo finished 3 prelims in the fall of 2017 with clear xc and stadium rounds at Loudon, Flora Lea and Radnor. 

Leo went with Dan and Kaitlin to Aiken from Jan to March. I visited twice for 2 long weekends but it was far less riding than I expected to be doing. Dan competed Leo in the Training Division at Pine Top. He just barely kept the lid on during Leo's dressage test but he put down a great stadium and xc round. 

2 weeks in the saddle: Competition #1 Fair Hill (Dan - Prelim)
The long story made short: 

  • Dressage Test: "Tense"
  • Stadium: Elimination
The longer story...

Leo came back to PA at the end of March and I took over all of his rides. Our jump schools at home were not going great. I was out of practice and still building up strength. Leo is never very generous when it comes to my errors and Leo started refusing - very similar to how things were progressing before I came to work with Dan.

Dan ran Leo in the Prelim division at Fair Hill in mid-April as a precursor to my return to competition. Leo had to perform his dressage test in the international ring which did not go well according to reports. After warming up for stadium without issue, he went into the ring and Leo shut down at the first fence and refused to jump. Elimination in stadium hasn't happened in competition since our very first attempt at Prelim back in 2014.

Leo was sound but I had taken over his jump schools at home. Could I be the problem? Dan didn't say I was. He thought that in hindsight, he hadn't been jumping Leo big enough at home and the prelim size stadium course was a surprise to him.

3 weeks in the saddle: Competition #2 Plantation (Mindy - Training)
The long story made short: 

  • Dressage Test: "Tense"
  • Stadium: 2 rails
  • XC: Clear with time
The short, long story...

I was nervous to compete Leo at Plantation after he quit at Fair Hill. We went xc schooling that week and Leo felt amazing. He felt confident and like he knew his job. We completed Plantation without issue - not a lot of style, but no refusals or eliminations!

But I still wasn't jumping prelim height at home and I knew I needed to get back to jumping 3'7" if I was going to be able to feel comfortable at prelim.

Training Focus: Quality of the canter and connection...
Back at home, Leo and I still struggled to find a partnership when jumping, particularly as Dan raised the fences and introduced harder lines. I was failing to commit to striding, ride aggressively, and just simply dig in. We were supposed to move up to Prelim but I was questioning whether I was ready. Dan said I needed to do it and I knew he was right. I was over analyzing. If I delayed it, I would just continue to doubt myself.

In the last 2 years our focus has really been on the quality of Leo's canter and getting him to accept a connection. This has translated into a very different approach to our jumping. The goal is maintain a round connection with Leo throughout our jumping rounds - and even on course country. Dan doesn't want Leo inverting and bracing against the bridle when approaching a fence. The new approach is hard for Leo and hard for me.

The vision for our jumping:

  • After landing from a fence, I  re-establish Leo's connection in the turns using supple elbows, flexions, bending to the inside, leg-yielding out, using an insane amount of leg pressure and holding it all together with my core. 
  • Coming out of the turn, I use my legs and supple arms to maintain the connection and ride forward on a powerful 12-ft stride (with forward head carriage) which allows Leo to move to the fence without raising his head in the air, bracing, falling behind my leg or running away with me.

It sounds simply and logical but its been a hard adjustment for me. All of the steps and reactions requires a skill level I haven't achieved yet. I hold too long; don't use enough leg and a million variations as a try to develop the right feel and judgment.

  • If I fail to use my leg with my hand, Leo drops behind my leg and I get a bad jump
  • If I am to rigid in my elbows or I hold with the reins rather than give and release, Leo falls behind my leg and I get a bad jump
  • If I drive only with my leg and no hand, I don't have the connection or quality of canter and we don't get a bad jump

6 weeks in the saddle: Competition #3 Plantation (Mindy's Return to Prelim)
The long story made short: 

  • Dressage Test: "Disobedient"
  • Stadium: One stop but pretty good overall
  • XC: One stop but good recovery
The long story...

So I put on my big girl pants and moved up to Prelim again.

Leo imploded again during the walk work, but honestly, as long as I didn't get eliminated, I just didn't care all that much about the test.

Dan was not able to warm me up for stadium so I had to do it myself. I really had to put on the big girl pants! Leo felt a little sticky off the ground in warm up but overall jumped well. He felt sticky at the first fence, a vertical, and then backed off the second fence, an over, and stopped. This was go time. You only get one stop at Prelim. The second stop, anywhere on course, is elimination. I got him over the fence on the second attempt and he proceeded to jump clear.

Dan walked the XC course with me the day before and it was BIG. Dan said it was probably the biggest prelim course I would see all year - Plantation loves to pull out the big jumps that make your eyes pop out. The combinations were generous though as all but one was on a straight line. There was a skinny, 2 strides to a bank down, 4 strides to a corner. It was an intimidating combination for me but it rode great. There was the bank complex in the ruins which we have jumped before. Leo did that great. He was sticky into the waters but jumped them. The place we had a problem was a skinny combination: 2 skinnies on a bending 5 strides with undulating terrain. I got a messy jump in and lost Leo in the turn. He stopped at the fence coming out because of my sloppy ride.

We finished, jumped all the enormous tables without issue and that was exciting! But I knew we had to get the jumping in a better place.

8 weeks in the saddle: Competition #4 Virginia (Mindy's - Prelim)

The long story made short: 

  • Dressage Test: "Explosive" 
  • XC: Rough with one stop
  • Stadium: Elimination
The long story...

It was a rough couple of days at Virginia. The dressage is super disappointing because I realized that if I cannot make it through the walk moves in the Prelim HT test without a meltdown, I will never be able to get Leo through a 1-star test or Intermediate test. He's mentally maxed out right now. 

But the reality is our jumping is shit right now and so the meltdowns in the dressage ring don't really matter at this point.

The xc course intimidated me. It was bigger and more technical than the prelim course I rode there 4 years ago, but after a second walk, I knew it was within our abilities. 

I thought I started the xc course off right, but Kaitlin said afterwards I wasn't attacking the first few fences like I should have been. Leo stopped at the fence going into the water at #6, which Kaitlin said was just a bad ride by me - again because I wasn't riding xc as xc needs to be ridden. We barely made it through a tough combination after the water which consisted of a big table downhill, 4 bending strides to a brush fence. The next 2 fences were sloppy and then we finally got our act somewhat together around fence #10 to finish the course and make it through 2 tough corner combinations. 

A lot of fences were at the top of a hill and I kept messing up the distances. Our rhythm was terrible. We had no flow. I was really disappointed in myself afterwards and I knew I didn't set us up well for stadium jumping the next day. 

Kaitlin gave me a pep talk and said Leo was there to give me experience and the only way to get experience was to be out there competing. There's no way to simulate a competition at home. This is part of the learning and training process. I was out there getting it done and that counts for more than I know. She also said I didn't pick this sport because I ever thought it was going to be easy. People are attracted to horse sports for the challenge and if I want easy, I need to find something else to do that doesn't involve the horses and the physical and mental demands of eventing. Something more like knitting. 

The stadium course was maxed out and Dan said it would be a challenge to get Leo around. But I pepped talked myself that morning and Leo's jumped around a lot of big prelim stadium courses. Including a big one at Virginia in the Coliseum no less. I was determined to get it done, but I didn't get it done. Leo wouldn't help me out. He stopped at the third fence - which was similar to the one he stopped at during our Plantation round. He was looking past the fence to all the people at ring side, watching. I got him over the fence the second time and then approached the double . I got him over the oxer in, and it was an easy 2 strides out over a vertical and he stopped at the vertical even though the distance was there. 

After xc I felt like I let Leo down. After stadium, I felt like Leo let me down. I was pretty pissed about the whole thing afterwards. 

No margin of error

Sally always said that to event, you need a margin of error. You need to know that your horse knows his job well enough to pick up the gap when the rider makes a mistake. Leo won't fill in the gap for me which makes us terrible partners. He's competition record is long and nearly continuous for 8 years. He should know his job is to get to the other side of the fence. I'm not such a terrible rider that I am putting him in unjumpable distances. They just aren't perfect and they rarely will be. He has to make an effort. I'm not a pro - I ride one horse, once a day. I'm always going to be making more mistakes than not. 


So now what? Enter doubt, confusion, and frustration
I'm not sure what the next step is, but we're back to were we were 2 years ago when I stopped competing Leo because he was doing this same thing at home. Leo is 15 now and maybe the reality is, much like in dressage, perhaps he is mentally maxed out. I know I need to dig in when the going gets hard, but I need Leo to dig in too and perhaps he just can't. Even though he is sound, I'm going to have the vet check him over and see if she finds anything. Then we'll go from there. 


All these doubts are exponentially disappointing because I turned 40 this week. I am making slow, slow progress with my riding. Partly because I have a difficult horse, partly because riding just doesn't come all that naturally for me. I wanted to keep competing Leo for the next couple of years, assuming we'd be making progress up to a 1-star and intermediate. I don't want to just ride at training level. But if I need to start over with a young horse, I won't be riding at this level again until I'm much older! And seriously, how successful will I actually be with the next horse as my body gets older and I continue to lack the necessary experience and skills to help a horse out?? 

Well, those are just thoughts that come and go and this is an really long catch-up post. The good news is I am healthy and Leo is healthy. And we're both actually quite happy despite the disappointment expressed in this post! 









Monday, May 29, 2017

Where have we been?

It's been nearly 9 months since my last blog post! Sheesh. I started a new job in November which has taken up a lot of my mental energy,  so my blog has fallen through the gaps. Let me try and catch up!

Anti-Climatic end of 2016...
Leo and I ended our competition season last year at the Radnor Horse Trials in October. We ran training level again so I could practice our rideability without stressing about fence height and complexity. Turns out whether it's training or prelim, I still get a good dose of performance nerves. Leo was a spook-devil in dressage, but managed to keep his head on in stadium, and had a very easy xc round.  Dan isn't a believer in calming supplements, so Leo goes all natural now. We manage him through his work schedule and training. At 14, it's clear he is always going to be a hot-headed horse. There's no sign of that changing.

We spent November and December just working on basic flatwork and doing A LOT of trail riding.

Winter
The goal for spring 2017 was to go down to Aiken and start the competition season early. Only that was not meant to be. Leo bumped his leg around New Years and got the smallest of scrapes. In 24 hrs his leg blew up from pastern to elbow. He went on oral antibiotics immediately. Then within 48 hrs the infection blew out through his pastern. He ended up spending nearly the whole month of January at New Bolton. The strain of cellulitis that he had was only susceptible to IV antibiotics and they needed to be administered around the clock, every 4 hours. His entire leg was poulticed and bandaged from foot to shoulder. It was quite a look. New Bolton was great though - they sent me pictures of his leg progress (I was never able to be there when they were actually changing the bandage), and let me come after hours as needed if work got in the way of visiting hours.

Leo at New Bolton

Site of the sbscess


When Leo was finally ready to come home, the wound from where the abscess blew out still wasn't healed; nor was all the swelling down in his leg. He had to stay on stall rest until the wound was healed and the swelling was back to normal. He was actually a really good patient and tolerated being stall-bound surprisingly well. He didn't require any sedation at all.

It was tempting to try and rush the process but I've seen wounds take forever to heal when horses are in work and I didn't want to deal with this for months on end. The constant bandaging and stall rest was annoying but I'm glad I followed doctor's orders. After another 4 weeks of stall rest, the leg was still slightly swollen but the wound looked pretty good so I started turning him out. The first day he got turned out he was very excited and I brought him in after 10 minutes of craziness. But the next day he was fine. After a week of turn out, we started walk hacking him and eventually introduced trotting again. By the end of March, he was cantering.

Now he gets turned out in 4 boots and only gets turned out by himself.

Finding my competition mojo again
Leo came back into work in March but then I caught bronchitis and had the hardest time breathing and riding. After multiple trips to the doctor, changes in medicine, learning how to use an inhaler, it was a full 6 weeks before I was better. Ugh.

After a problematic 2016 and then a crappy start to 2017, I wasn't much in the mood for competing.
Obviously, Bromont was not going to happen for us. Leo and I started jumping again in April, and luckily Dan and Kaitlin prodded me along. They were basically like: we think you should compete at one of two events; which do you want to do? I picked the later one: Flora Lea Horse Trials.

All spring, we've been working on Leo's canter and my discipline with getting him relaxed in the bridle before asking for the next thing. Dan has to continually explain that Leo's resistant in the bridle has a direct affect on his back and overall soundness. So before I ask for trot, he has to be soft in the bridle and coming through from behind. Same with trot to canter. It sounds so simple, but it's so hard for us. But we're learning and improving and, since coming back from the cellulitis, Leo is the most sound I have ever seen him. He physically looks incredible right now. Check out this sexy beast!


Leading up to Flora Lea, Dan started putting the jumps up from 2 ft to 3 ft (finally). Amazingly, the canter work actually held as the fences got "bigger". These have been our lesson themes:

  • Be disciplined with my track work. Stay straight after the fences. Get the right bend through the turns. Pay attention to where I am going between fences. 
  • Adjustability in the canter - I have to be able to collect (canter in place while reeving the RPMs) and then ride forward into the bridle without resistance.  
  • During a course, I practice collecting or adjust Leo's stride at strategic times (not 3 strides in front of the fence). And then I ride forward to the fence - not on a lengthening stride but on a proper 12 ft stride and I hold the canter with my leg
  • I use a ton more leg now than I did a year ago. Everything is LEG. LEG. MORE LEG. MORE LEG. Want to slow down? Leg. Want to move up? Leg. What to fix anything at all? Leg. 
I'm not going to lie, I still wasn't feeling up to competing before I went to Flora Lea. But we went and of course it was great.

Flora Lea May 2017
Leo and I competed in the training rider division. Our dressage test was manageable. We broke 40 which was good for us! We were 18th out of 20 after dressage, so clearly a 39 isn't a competitive score in dressage these days.

Of course I was nervous before the jumping phases. I don't know why. I know Leo can manage training level pretty easily. I think it's more of the mindy-don't-screw-up nerves. Leo was losing his mind before stadium and I could barely get him in the ring for my round. He ran into the fencing and I thought he was going to take down a tent, but somehow we got in the ring in the most ungraceful way possible. Then I think Leo started hopping up and down...I can't really remember because I was trying to figure out how to get him moving and plan my way to the start. Dan wanted me to approach the first fence on Leo's left lead which is his stronger side, but the course wasn't really set up for this approach. I finally got Leo going in the a direction - any direction worked for me - and we managed to find our way to the first fence. Once he was jumping he was fine! We actually had a professional round. One rail and time faults. I don't know if I took too long to get to the start or if I went too wide in the turns but it was a good round for Leo.

Cross country was super easy. Leo was totally on game. He went in the french link snaffle again and I could easily bring him back when I needed to. Yay! At the end of the day, we had moved up to 7th. Not to shabby.

Dan or Kaitlin is actually going to move Leo back up to Prelim at his next event. I want him to have a good confident round and if that means trading off rides with Dan & Kaitlin, I'm cool with that.

I joined a syndicate! 
In other news, I joined my first horse syndicate. Dan imported an Irish Sporthorse last year, MW Gangster's Game aka Frank aka Franklin. It looks like he has serious potential so Dan syndicated him. Both my mom and I bought a share. Frank just moved up to Intermediate and placed 4th! He goes to Bromont for the 1-star and he looks like a serious contender for a top 10 finish. Dan is aiming him towards the Fair Hill 2-star in October. This is really exciting stuff - imagine if Frank makes it to a 4-star some day! That would be amazing.

Dan does a great job with the syndicate too - he publishes training videos so we can all see what he is working on with Frank and learn about Frank's strengths and weaknesses. Plus Frank has an amazing personality - he loves to snuggle and be sociable. It's all quite fun!

MW Gangster's Game (Frank)



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!