Saturday, May 23, 2009

Chasing the Stars

Sometimes, it feels like everything in life is conspiring against you. Nothing works out, everything's falling to pieces before your eyes and you can't do a damn thing about it. (Though maybe that kevlar reinforced duct tape they're coming out with could help you put it back together again..) You can't stop it from happening even as your dreams crumble before your eyes in slow motion.
This entire year has been one of those for me. I went to a college that didn't work out. I ruined my riding to fit into a clique. I damn-near ruined my horse to make him into something that he could never be. I tried to suck it up, and it didn't work. I tried to go back, but I got so hellishly sick that I had to come home.
I am a college drop out.
Last weekend was one of those weekends that just keeps on building the debacle of my life. My first event was supposed to be on Saturday. Beginner novice, all signed up and paid for. Working on getting my horse ready, we were show-ready, groomed and nearly set for perfection. Mane and clipping of whiskers/ears/legs was all I had left. Unfortunately? Life, as it is wont to do, intervened. I got the flu. Wretchedly sick, really. Fever that wouldn't stay down, I was throwing up, couldn't keep anything down. I was dizzy and had a headache. It was unfortunate.
So I didn't get to go to the show.

On the other hand, looking back from even a week later, I realize that maybe it was for the best. Diane, my instructor, rode him on friday. Apparently he was phenomenal. She was nice enough to school him for me on saturday, too. Monday, I rode him before my mother's lesson. (First time riding since thursday).

We went outside in the sand and didn't have a horrible ride. It wasn't phenomenal-there were horses galloping around in the pastures alongside it, he didn't want to stand still, he was fussy about contact-and there was a horse that got loose and I got off and on again which interrupted the flow of that ride.. but I really made strides in realizing when I had a problem. When Eagle canters for an extended period of time, his head goes down and his nose comes in.
Voila. Problem.
When he gets fussy and isn't allowed to go forward, he'll try to move sideways. When you don't let him do that and don't give him somewhere to go, instead of standing (as per expected) he might go up.
When your contact is inconsistent, his head is inconsistent.

So even though our ride wasn't, by any means, fantastic.. it was productive. And apparently later on, he was phenomenal for my mother's lesson.

Stupid horse was good for the wrong person! Nah, not really. I bounce better than my Mom does, I think-and I'm a stronger rider. Sometimes I think he acts up more for me than her because I force issues that she lets him get away with.
Kind of like a toddler. Go figure.

Sometimes, on moments like those, I wonder if this isn't all in vain. Why do I bother? I'm not ever going to 'get there'. I won't ever be as good as I want, as strong as I thought-but in the end, I was just too stupid. I couldn't keep from falling in love, with horses, with the atmosphere. With the serenity it gives me.
'Dressage' is literally translated into 'training'. It is a constant evolution of horse and rider. There is no 'end point' for anyone. There is always more to learn, a higher level to reach. Something new to do. It doesn't matter where I am, or where I may or may not get to. It isn't, I realized, where I end up that matters. It's what I learn along the way. And that is why I love it so dearly.

We are, forever, those poor fools chasing the stars. We constantly grasp for that which is out of reach, praying for some bit of their majesty to be bestowed upon us. And even when we never touch them, we are not disappointed because in the end, it is the dreaming that is enough.

And sometimes, though they are few and far between, we are lucky enough to be graced with a moment to realize that, as far fetched as the very act of dreaming is (Honestly, whoever told children to "Dream anything and it can become real!" ought to be shot.) sometimes, they can come true.
And that makes it all worth the while.

On thursday, I had an absolutely phenomenal lesson. It was hard, I won't lie-the temperature was about 87*, which is obscene. It isn't even summer yet! However, we started out just warming up, just trotting around, working on rhythm. I was trying to get his head in 'a place' (bad me!!) and it was not working particularly well. Go figure.

Diane came in (she had a lesson just prior) and told me to halt. I went to pick up the slack in my reins (working on 'long and low' relaxes Eagle) and she stopped me. "Without," I was told, "your reins".
Well, damn. No contact and halting? Bah, humbug! The first ten minutes was filled with downward transitions from trot to walk, walk to halt, without rein contact. Using as little contact, rather I should say, as possible. We're still not to the point where he stops with just my seat but by the end he had figured it out a little bit.

Absolutely shocking, to be honest. And so we trotted a bit again, circles and whatall to work on rhythm.
One of Diane's favorite exercises are shallow loop serpentines. We started going to the left (counterclockwise) as it is his favorite direction. Go figure. After two repetitions of a normal shallow loop, we threw in a few 'loops'! At the beginning in the first corner, we made a 10m. circle to the left, before starting our loops and then at the top of the 'middle' loop, we made a 10m. circle right, and then went back to finish the last half of the shallow loop with a final 10m. circle to the left. It's a lot of bending, balancing, working on rhythm and where my body was in relation to his.

It really worked for him. We did it in both directions (that was our trot work for the day). Instead of trying to use my hands to 'force him' into a frame, like I sometimes can get (egg beater hands!) the idea is to use consistent contact to get him to come down and relax into a better place with his head and neck. It really worked, too. It might not have been as obvious as when I 'pull' him into it-but it felt better.

And so from shallow loops (right at this point) we did a right lead canter. And it was balanced! And then went down the long diagonal at a point and did a downward transition. It's hard to get him to trot, but he did it! I was about ready to give it up. And then he picked right up into a beautiful left lead canter.
It's a bit surprising that he has, all of the sudden, abandoned his little rushy issue in the span of two or so weeks, at the canter. Maybe it's just that he's finally realizing he has the muscle and can use it, but it's a beautiful sensation.

We were cantering poles, which happens to be my nemesis. Seriously. I do not like poles, Eagle does not like poles. They are just-overall-not a good thing to work with. Diane had two poles set, and we were cantering over them. Without a fuss. He did knock the front pole (in both directions) a few times which I credit to him being lazy/not picking up his feet. However, unlike normal when something "Doesn't go quite right" he didn't get huffy and rushy. He trusted me to rebalance him and pick him up and settle right back down.
It was, quite frankly, a breakthrough of the greatest proportions.

And jumping.
Herein lay the huge thing.

We have been trotting Eagle to fences for a very long time. It's something he just 'doesn't do'. Not well, not at all. He'll chuck in canter strides at the last moment (and you had no idea he could fit one in) and rush. Or he'll stick his nose up in the air, damn you to hell and do it his own merry way! For this reason, he has a tendancy to jump inverted. Rather deer like, actually.
Part of the problem is it's just how he wants to do it. Part of the problem is me-I hold his face to keep him 'slow' (and we end up losing impulsion so he gets to launch himself over anyway) and then I don't release over the fence.

Thursday though, something happened-and I don't quite know what, but there was a click.

We were trotting to the base of the fence. Even though it's just a small X (and later, a small vertical) he was using himself. He was coming down over the fence and rounding with his back and lifting himself up, and really using himself. It is quite the astounding thing. Eagle has never had to use himself over fences-even over 3'6, he can muscle over them without any effort.

To have him trotting to the base of a fence, lift himself up over it, and land-balanced-and let me bring him back after? Consistently? Is astounding. It's a huge thing, and he never once rushed a fence. He never once got out of control behind. I don't know what it is, but there's something in my horse that has just 'clicked' (he's been like this for the past week and a half). I don't know why, but I'm not going to argue.

And to all of those who say that dreaming isn't worth it.....

I'll keep chasing the stars. Because for all it's worth, all the agony you gain from broken hearts and shattered dreams, the moments where they touch you with their grace, if only for a moment, makes it all worth while.
I will keep my dreams.

Friday, May 22, 2009

I want to live it up, Just because

Well, I've been remiss in updating this blog, unfortunately. However, there is much to say about almost everything!

Since my last update in april we have: Gone on a trail ride, galloped out of an arena and off a track, done XC schooling, managed to canter poles without wigging out, trot peaceably to the base of fences and actually using himself over fences.

We'll start with some of the stories. About a week after my last update (4/8) there was a weekend where one of my barn friends (younger, just got her first horse in december) had really been wanting to go on a trail ride with me. Everyone in the barn knows, she is dying to get out on trial. With anyone, at any time-doesn't matter if you just walk, or walk trot, or go faster. She just wants to get out.
Unfortunately, like most large barns, mine has it's cliques. We have the hunter girls who are, unfortunately, very much like the stereotype. Self-entitled little snots who think they're the best at everything because they can perch on a deadbroke horse with pinched knees and heels up in the horse's flank.
We also have the group of eventers who are, for the most part, very nice people. These are also mostly the 'working students' in the barn.
Then there's the dressage people, the older re-riders and the like. Unfortunately, this girl-we'll call her L-was being excluded. Everyone else in the barn was making it very obvious that they were doing a trail ride, and she wasn't invited. I pulled up to the barn that saturday and she ran to my car in tears, telling me all about it. I wasn't really gunning for a trail ride (I had been putting it off) because Eagle had been so inconsistent. I told her that if I went with her (just the two of us) we might end up just walking.

She said that was A-OK and off we went? I put his brushing boots on and a standing martingale (at that point, was a part of his tack) and I led the way out. It was slightly muddier than we thought it'd be (rained 4 days earlier) but we kept going. There were two little ditches that Eagle jumped over (Silly thing doesn't walk through water. We jump.) and essentially walked for about 10 minutes. He was a bit fast to start out with, very nervous.
it's the first time I've ever taken him on trails, and the first time he was out of an arena since last september. Surprisingly, there was no stupidness. There was a hole (8 inches by two feet, four or so inches deep) had been dug up to make a mound of dirt that he 'looked' at. But that was about it! No problems with bunnies, ect. After about ten minutes we broke through the trees (forest preserve) and came to the 'gallop field'. It's essentially the space of two foot ball fields with four to five inch long grass. The footing was phenomenal!
There's a slight incline up one side and a decline down the other, but there aren't any huge holes. I walked Eagle while L& her horse trotted and cantered. I even started trotting him a bit, and he was super good. I was rather surprised he wasn't more forward. However, when L cantered by Eagle, he decided to canter!

He wasn't really willing to come back down (I brought him to a trot a few strides after but he kept trying to break up) so I decided that I'd let him go on my terms. Mostly that was just because he had been so good in the few steps of canter that I had gotten. I was astounded at how good he really was. Needless to say, we ended up galloping up the hill and he willingly came back down to a canter, down the hill-and a balanced one at that.

Trail ride: Success.

The weekend after that was our XC schooling. I was going over beginner novice & novice fences (going BN this year). It was..interesting. He was better than last year in that he wasn't getting so behind the vertical. I ditched the dutch gag bit last fall for a slowtwist D ring snaffle which really seems to help. However, he was getting sticky off my legs-he didn't want to turn away from fences and kept trying to rush them.
It was, in some ways, a success. We went through everything without a refusal and came back behind the fences fairly well. On the other hand, I really figured that I needed to work on releasing, and getting him to move off my legs better-not just go forward.

Took some good lessons away from that.

After that I've actually been going on him with spurs (little prince of whales nubs). It works well because my leg (calf/ankle) doesn't really want to touch him when I ride comfortably because my legs are so long that they hang past his barrel anyway. It's really been improving our halts because he always seems to try to move out (his butt) through my left leg. Leg yields and circles are also going better.

People think I'm demented for riding my already 'forward' horse with spurs-but that's the thing, isn't it? Spurs aren't just aids to go forward. They are aids to key a horse in to the cues of your leg.
My leg doesn't tell him to go forward all that often. My leg tells him to stay straight, or bend, or move your shoulder in, or haunches in.

In that same vein, I got-for the first time-a 'soft' trot. On a twenty meter circle, my instructor marked out the 'compass points' from the center. (North, South, East & West) Instead of a circle, make it into a diamond-straight between the points but bending just before and just after the points. Make the changes of bend gradual enough to encourage softness. Through this, Eagle never really had the opportunity to shove his shoulders (or haunches) out and about to avoid using himself.

There is a horse at my barn-a big, black draftX who looks like a tank. When she's riding around you though, you don't hear her coming. She's absolutely silent when she moves because she's so soft over the ground. That's the feeling I got with Eagle for the first time that day. He wasn't 'stabbing' the ground with his hooves, but floating them down and over. It was a beautiful sensation.
In that moment, I could truly use my seat to lengthen and extend my trot-higher in the post and he lengthened his step like a dream. The true "Ahhah!" moment came when he shortened it when I slowed my post.

Had enough of Eagle the dream-pony? (If you're still reading, I'm assuming that means no. Which is a good thing, because this is a classic 'But wait, there's more!' moment.)

I've been riding him bareback. It really should be a "So, what" moment for most people reading this. Bareback is no real step, no huge achievement for almost any person on almost any horse, who know how to ride. I do know how to ride, I have ridden bareback successfully. I enjoy it. (or did?) However, Eagle is, in a word, reactive. Leg touches him? We go forward. Foot swings? We go forward. Air brushes from leg moving? We go forward.

So taking away the barrier of the saddle is almost death to me. Or at least, could be. However, I've been riding him bareback to cool him off. So far, we've just done walk/trot work and then a cool-down. He really softens his back and listens. It's a bit unbalancing when he tries to lurch forward into a trot, but if I just use my voice we're getting better upwards transitions.
Unfortunately, I'm having trouble relaxing my arms and following his face which lends him to coming a bit behind the vertical. It's not as bad as it was the first time-at least there's improvement-but it's still frustrating, to say in the least! Something that we've finally been getting over is 'coming back' when I change the equation. I don't suppose I should be horribly surprised (my riding reverts to being very tight and defensive) but it is a bit of a let down.

At least we're getting somewhere, though!

Eagle's other 'job' is as a lesson horse. Not in lessons, but he's teaching my mother how to 're-ride'. She's been taking lessons twice a week for the about three months previous to may. In the last month she's been riding Eagle for me after I ride, to cool him off-and she has a lesson on him once a week. She's only recently gotten to "All clear" to ride him on her own!
I'm very excited-my mother used to show on the Hunter A's (catch rides) about 35 years ago. Well, more than that-she stopped riding about 35 years back. As a fifty year old, she's finally getting back into riding and I couldn't be more thrilled that she's back in the saddle again. It might mean fighting for posession of my saddle (!!) and time for my horse but..if I can give her back something that she lost a long time ago, then I'm more than willing to sacrifice it.

Eagle is growing in leaps and bounds. We can canter, balancedly. We can jump cleanly without scrabbling for balance. We're getting down rhythm at the trot, and sensitivity to cues from hands. There's no more head flipping. He isn't coming behind the vertical nearly as much any more (though he still does get 'low' and does have trouble poking his nose 'out').
All in all, my horse is growing up.
And it is, in my opinion, about damn time!