Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Money, Fame and Fortune could never compete

So it's on the eve of thanksgiving. I know, I know. Just another holiday that involves way too much food (blasphemy!), too much family and too much liquor. Okay, x-nay on the last bit. The only time you can drink too much is when you're thinking about it the morning after. Really, I understand. I wrote an entire essay on "How to Survive Thanksgiving Dinner with Family". (I kid you not.)

Anyway. If your family is like mine, some obnoxious soul will stand up and clank on his glass (so cliche) and demand you take a second to think about what you're thankful for. If your company resembles anything like the Kids Table (To which I have been long since banished to, being one of the youngest three or four in my family) you (and company) will roll your eyes, fall silent, staring gluttenously at the food placed in front of you that you really want to eat, but are not yet permitted to. It's kind of like having a sugar cube in front of your horse, but popping them in the nose every time they go for it.
So the point is, you probably may give a passing thought to things you're 'thankful' for, but you probably give the half-assed answers that everyone has. Family. Health. Friends. That you still have a job/home. If you're reading this you are probably one of the few people who follow this, to which I'll invite you to take a moment to really think. What are you thankful for? What in the past year has happened that has enlightened you, taught you and pushed you to grow?

I'll let you know what I'm thankful for.
I'm thankful to be in a barn where I have a fabulous instructor on hand who is accessible to help me whenever and if ever I need it. If she's not there, there's other people who are always so willing to give me a hand.
I am thankful that I'm at a barn where I can take it 'at my own pace'. It isn't about making the cut, the ribbon or the grade. I am not expected to be able to do certain things that may be within my capacity, but am not quite prepared for them yet.
I am so very, incredibly greatful for my overall wellness. This year has been up and down-I fell off on a rear that, had it gone differently, might have ended with a horse on top of me. My back relapsed and for a while there it looked really bad with the prognosis. However, PT and time has improved that. I can still ride, and I can get on a horse without being in pain.
More than that, I am thankful that I have been blessed to be around horses. So many people never have the opportunity to interact with them, wish they could but don't have the means or the opportunity. Not only can I, but I have been gifted with the ability to call one of these incredible creatures my own. I've been taught to value not only patience, but have been given lessons every single time I'm out there on compassion, understanding, tolerance, keeping my temper and how much the simple things really do matter.

So this thanksgiving, I am thankful for so many things-but more than anything, I am thankful for all of the things that I have learned this past year. That I can do what I set my mind to, that there are people behind me-no matter what my decisions are. The only person keeping me from doing what I'd like, is me. And that it's not all about what other people think-it's about seeing where you've come from, and realizing where you stand now.
(Feel free to post what you feel thankful for, what your horses have taught you or revelations you've had in the past year!)

Anyway, sappy mentality aside, the horse was good for our lesson today. I had last week off (lesson wise) as Diane was sick. It was a nice break, but I definitely feel it now! The horse was very, very good.
Perhaps the oddest thing about my riding experience to date (the past week or so) is that I have been having to use my leg. I know, it's a normal, average little thing. Leg to sustain a gait? Open it up? Yeah, typical. For so long to transition up with Eagle I just had to give him an opening to go. If I wanted a 'bigger' gait I just had to open up a little bit (ease up on contact, seat saying "Whoa") and we were there.

However, as I said, this new experience has been showing up since about a week ago. Diane and I have really been working on getting him to support himself, particularly at the canter. With the aid of ~10/12m canter circles he's having to carry himself-I'm not hauling his face and neck around anymore! We're almost at the point where touching his face at the canter is a no-no. He's so responsive to turning off the leg that I can effectively drop his face and say "Take care of yourself, sucker".
With the help of circles (Randomly thrown in at the canter-anywhere and everywhere) he's actually really reaching under with his inside hind. I guess his canter before was so likely to get quick because for much of the time, I was holding onto his face to hold up his head and neck and shoulders. Hanging onto him that way, he never could really use himself fully to balance himself. Now that he's balanced, he doesn't need to go fasterandfasterandfaster to avoid falling on his face.

It's the catch-22. When a horse goes fast, you want to take their face and say "Whoa". On the other hand, the more you try to get their face the more quick they're likely to go because they can't use themselves correctly to regain their balance. That is still my biggest problem with Eagle behind fences. When he gets quick I want to start 'water skiing'. My leg comes infront of me and I lean back, holding on his face. I don't keep 'dancing' with him.

So with Eagle finding his balance, I'm actually having to ride with more leg that I'm really used to. It's slightly surreal when I have to leg him up at the canter to get him to open up. (Sanity? DO I FEEL IT COMING ON?) A slightly surreal moment, to say in the least. Today we had some beautiful flat work, though there were no particularly 'eureka' exercises or moments. It was just solid and consistent, which has been a first.

Also a first today was cantering fences. I do not canter fences. If they're in a line, I'll do so but for the most part Eagle will get so excited and 'whee!' that we focus on trying to solidify him (and me) trotting to the base of a fence and then bring him back right after. He was good enough today that we ended up cantering to fences, and cantering related distances.
Started out really nice, but a fudge with arena traffic really wound him up. I also have discovered I am not at all forceful on a 'whoa' on the backside of a fence. I'm so aware of touching his face (I used to be horrible about catching him in the face) that I do not want to be firm about it.

I forsee a new exercise. Canter, trot. Canter, trot. Repeat. Incessantly. He does have a very nice transition, but most of the time it's once we've cantered for a bit and have it settled in. The backside of a fence is not so 'settled in', which means he's much more interested in "More? We'll do more. Thanks." We started out on a figure eight-trot to canter out, trot, and then trot to the second fence. Once we had done that a few times, trot in, canter out-if you're on the right lead, continue on to the other fence. He'd consistently land on the left lead, but did not want to land on the right lead. So we kept having to "Whoa" and then pick it up. Blech.
Not so fun.

All in all, it was not a particularly stellar lesson-things kept interrupting us, between another person jumping the fences that I was starting to work over on a green horse (I ended up walking the horse for about 15 minutes-dropped the reins and worked on steering with legs) and then the arena traffic got the horse jazzed up. However, I do not dare say that it was a bad lesson! We've come so far. Even a month ago I would have called someone crazy if they said consistently cantering to fences would be possible. We're not quite on the level to really do a solid course, but we're getting there.
Isn't that the story of life, though? We're always getting somewhere!

Happy thanksgiving, everyone.

"Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out."
-Robert Collier

Friday, November 13, 2009

made mistakes, but we found our heart

Well it's been a good long time (again) since I've uploaded. In August I was already talking about improvement and whatnot. Since then, we've only gone farther. There was a CT show (second place, beginner novice) up at Fields and Fences. he was amazing. We've gone through bits (my mother is riding him in a pelham-featured here for photo opportunities. I know, I know. So lame-putting it on him because it's pretty..) and for the most part I'm riding him in a happy mouth mullenmouth. (From the slow twist D.) As it gets colder we may have to put him back in the slow twist just to keep things settled down. He's still very strong jumping in the mullenmouth, though he flats wonderfully in it.
Lots has been going on beyond that little 'floof' update. In September, he was breaking out in hives from bugs (Sad) and had runny eyes, we suspect from reactions to it. So he got a fly mask and an antihistime which did the job. As christmas gets closer, I'm looking at getting a new saddle. (A CWD has my attention right now.. I can dream!) Really, Eagle has just been maturing so well in the past few months. Inevitably we'll have our two steps back from time to time, but the fact is that now we can canter down the long wall of an arena without our canter falling to pieces. That's a huge step. For the longest time, I relied on circles and couldn't go more than 10 meters or so on a straight line.

Lines are, as always, our biggest issue-he sees the space (cantering down the long wall or jumping a line) and decides that he just wants to go. It's hard because I need repetition so I can learn to see distances, but the more we repeat things the more aggressive Eagle gets. It's a catch-22, but we're slowly getting there. (Cantering a fence on a circle is good Stuff, and switching directions over a vertical on an angle is another good way to keep him paying attention to me.)

That's a picture from Fields and Fences directly after our dressage test. We were going straight into our jump warmup. It was quite an experience, truth be told. He was going so well that day, though, it was astounding. You can find a video of our Stadium round loaded on SilhouetteMind's account on youtube (titled "Stadium"). Also there are videos I've finally loaded from various points in time.
"Eagle Montage" is a video that was originally intended to show a high school class ("companion animal" project-a friend asked me to go in and speak) however the footage was from about a week after the Fields&Fences show and it just ended up looking nice enough that I wouldn't mind showing the world.
"At the beginning" features video clips of me riding Eagle from March, 2008-I had him about a month and a half at that point. Hopefully, you can see the improvement!
"October schooling" is from the same night as the top picture in this update. A little bit of flat work, a little bit of jumping.

More than anything, it has struck me recently how absurd I can be. I have been told by a friend that I have an absurd notion of what correct riding is. I've been trying to downgrade bits (From a slow twist to a mullenmouth, though I'd settle with a french link) in the quest to have a horse that can do just about anything (and everything!) in a mild bit. Flatting Eagle in anything more than those two bits is percieved as 'cheating'. Having to jump in the slow twist is a percieved failure. It's interesting to think about, and I think, in large part, this determination to do the best I can with as few 'outside aids' as I am able to achieve, has really helped our growth.
Time shouldn't be a reflection upon success. There are some horses that may take years to amount to anything to anyone other than the few people involved in their growth. While Eagle is 'pretty', and certainly talented, it has taken a very, very long time to get to this place where I can actually say that I am proud of where we're at.

It has been a very, very long road and there are still challenges. It won't be easy, but then again, it never has. In reflection, I suspect that Eagle was a poor choice of a horse for me to buy at that point in my life. I had never really dealt with a 'hot' horse. Green horses and off the track horses and polo ponies have 'go', but none of them really have the mind that I've encountered with mine. Repetition is supposed to calm a horse down, not wind them up. He was 'too much'. Too much heart, too much mind, too much talent. I took him to a place that wasn't really able to utelize his mind to everyone's mutual benefit and because of it, he soured.
It's taken a half a year to get my horse to the place where he can canter down a long wall without having to hold onto his face and whittle his canter away.

As horse people, we are responsible not only for our own safety and an awareness of the situation around us (other riders, horses, circumstances that may create problems for anyone involved), but we are also charged with the responsibility to do the best thing for our horses. This may mean confronting a farrier who is late on trims, or a vet who is lax on hygenic standards, or initially unwilling to help us do the best thing for our horse. It also may mean taking our horses away from trainers we want to trust, are even programmed to trust. Owning horses will put you out of your comfort zone, but if you aren't willing to do so, then you shouldn't have a horse. It's on me, what happened to Eagle last year.

However, as much as Eagle's condition-jazzed up and stressed out-coming out of school is on me, I'm also a huge part of where he's come to. We've grown up, and grown together. With the help of a trainer who is familiar with both of us, Eagle and I have really shaped up.

Other developments.. He's always been a bit on the slender side. He's a thoroughbred, 'fat' isn't really in his vocabulary. However, he's on 2 scoops 2x a day of grain (approx. 8 lbs-half 12% protein, pelleted content and then the other half is sweetfeed) and then 12 flakes of hay. On top of that, he gets beet pulp. The BP is a new addition to his diet and finally has made a noticable difference! No more ribs! He's also on a supplement with biotin & omega bran fatty acids.
Beyond his weight, after about three months of consistently working correctly-reaching under from behind and lifting his back and shoulders up-he's getting muscled in the correct places. The most noticable improvement has occurred through his neck and right around his withers-his back just feels so much broader.

While Eagle has always been a charismatic presence, he seems to have grown-he's just 'big' to be around. It's humbling to work with him, and there are moments when I am struck with the realization that, while getting him was without a doubt, an incredibly stupid thing to do, I am also extremely lucky. I have a horse with mind and heart that, when you ask him right, will do just about anything.

On a less dramatic note, something that's struck a chord with me during my lessons has really helped me improve my riding. My instruction is fond of saying "Don't stop dancing with him!" when things start getting tight. As I've mentioned before, Eagle has a habit of opening up in the air over fences. There isn't much I can do about that other than stay calm and let him find his own feet and his own balance, but the hardest part for me is that on the back side of fences I want to 'water skii'. My leg comes forward, I open up my hip angle and I lock in my back and shoulders. In effect, I 'stop dancing'.
However, when I stay relaxed and just breathe through it and let him do what he's going to do, but stay there to pick up the pieces after, the effects are dramatic. When I lock up, I stop the conversation. With any horse, riding should be a constant conversation-even if it's just keeping them between your legs or saying "not quite that long" with your hand, or just saying "Yes. This is it." with your seat if you have 'the' canter. Stopping the movement, the dance, is shutting off the conversation.

Since then I've really been trying to work on just remaining fluid, regardless of what happens. A wider fence? Don't lock in my hips and try to 'snap' up over the apex of the fence (an old habit of mine). Getting quick in the approach? Sit up and breathe and say "No" with my seat and hips. It's so hard for me. I am not really a 'natural' rider by any means. I'm a little too long in the leg and too short in the torso, my shoulders are too broad and my bust inhibits my arm position just a little. My leg doesn't really sit well on any horse-Eagle's a better fit than most, but it would take some warmblood tank or a draft cross to really 'eat' up my leg. The canter is, inarguably, the hardest gait for me to work at.

A myriad of issues come into play-my leg is too long and isn't particularly secure on his side, my saddle doesn't fit me spectacularly well and that, on top of all of the other issues, makes for some interesting moments. When we're having a good day, none of it really is an issue. However, when we're trying to work on something or Eagle is feeling his oats, I am not very stable.
Today was interesting in that I had my first experience in a really nice dressage saddle on my horse. I've ridden other horses in dressage saddles and it's always been fun, but my instructor has a semi-custom Amerigo dressage saddle with a very deep seat. I've got much longer legs than she does so I had virtually no stirrup to ride with, but it didn't really come into play overly much.

I have to say, we had it. The canter, moving off my leg at the canter, I was good, he was good-it was just there. I was quiet in the saddle and in my hand, and he, in return, was quiet.
Eagle has always been, effectively, a mood ring. What I do, he will reflect. It's good and bad-he's quite the tattle tale when I'm doing something wrong, but it makes moments like 'this' all the more special. We're getting there.

It's been a long, long time coming-but things are coming together and falling into place and, more than ever, I realize that I wouldn't trade this for the world.
I've made mistakes but I've also done the best I am able to correct them. With the help of staff that's really put in 110% to get him 'fat' (hunter people seem to like chubby ponies! I doubt Eagle will ever get there, but they're trying!), of my instructor who has put countless hours into training rides (once a week and more frequently when I'm sick or gone) and lessons for me (I ride once a week in a lesson and my mother rides Eagle twice a week in a lesson) we've built a community of individuals invested in this horse. I can't take all the credit for getting him where he's at.

But I know that, at least, he reflects the changes and growth in myself that sometimes I can't always see when I look in the mirror. He is, without a doubt, showcasing the very best of me-and we've both come a very, very long way.