Finally, We Are in Motion Again – In a Sideways Direction

Ike sporting his new yellow polo wraps

Ike sporting his new yellow polo wraps

Ike and I had a bit of a hiatus from work this week.  Or I guess it would be better stated that Ike had a hiatus from work this week while I had a hiatus from riding.  Skipped a day because of the bitter cold and my hands were frozen from fiddling with Ike’s too small winter blankets.  Missed a day because of my job that pays for my fun hobby.  Sat idly by and watched the rain/sleet/wet snow fall for two days (thanks Mother Nature).  Spent Thanksgiving cooking, eating, and spending time with my family.  So finally today, the sun was out, I had a day off from work, and it was time to get my butt back in the saddle with a lesson from Ms. C.

As you can see in today’s picture, Ike wore his new yellow polo wraps.  Ms. C tried to convince me to buy some a few weeks ago, but I balked for fear that Ike would look like a giant bumblebee.  I finally ordered some when I ordered the big and husky sized sheet and blanket.  We unveiled them today at our lesson and I have to say that he does look pretty good in yellow.  I should have listened to Ms. C at the tack store…just like I do during our lessons.  Lesson learned.

Today’s lesson was all about our lateral work.  It is time to start strengthening our sideways motion since it becomes more important once you move beyond Training Level.  Yes!  It is finally time to move beyond Training Level.  Luckily Ike showed us that he is indeed ready for the more demanding work.  The question is:  Am I ready?  I hope so.

We started off with the simple turn on the forehand.  At least, it should be easy.  Turn the hind quarters around the front.  I picked up contact with the reins, placed my weight in the appropriate foot and lightly touched Ike’s side.  Hmm, Ike demonstrated side pass, backing, circles, and some yet-to-be-named movements.  Every once in a while, Ms. C would note when we had a step or two that qualified as a turn on the forehand.  Note to self – add turn on the forehand to our winter homework list.

Next up was leg yield in both directions.  Ike is going to have a dynamite leg yield once the two of us can coordinate my aids with his movement.  I need to learn to keep the boy’s body in the proper alignment.  It is easy for me to correct the alignment when Ike’s shoulders start to get ahead of the hindquarters.  But Alison, can you tell when you’ve let the hindquarters take the lead?  Umm, nope.  Not so much.  Perhaps I need a rear view mirror.  At least for now I have Ms. C to correct our position.  I was proud that we did do well with the exercise of leg yield, to straight line, then back to leg yield.  Phew, all our time spent schooling straightness is paying off.  Patience, young grasshopper, patience.

We then moved on to shoulder in on the short ends to trot lengthening on the long side to collect the trot onto a small circle.  While this tested Ike’s ability, it definitely tested my ability to execute a proper half halt, keep Ike properly aligned on a circle, achieve shoulder in without over bending the giraffe neck, then straightening Ike before asking for a lengthening.  Having been a Training Level rider for most of my dressage career, I’ve not had to execute quick transitions or be as on point with my aids.  This is all very new to me and somewhat overwhelming.  More wintertime homework – less cruise control, more precision driving.

Our canter work today was less Scooby Doo, but still not where it needs to be for First Level.  Improving the canter was already on the homework list, so it will continue to be there for the foreseeable future.  Wax on, wax off, grasshopper.

It is so very exciting to see and feel Ike progressing in his training.  It is tempting to blast ahead and keep asking for more and more.  It is so very hard not to get greedy.  But as I have learned during my equine adventures, continue to be patient and listen to my dear friend and trainer Ms. C.  Our day will come and it will be worth the wait.

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The Big & Husky Boy

A photo of Ike from March 2013 when his sheet still fit him...

A photo of Ike from March 2013 when his sheet still fit him…

Well, it is official.  I knew that this day might get here sooner than later, but I can no longer deny the truth: Ike has now transitioned from the normal horse clothing to the Big & Husky sizes.  I now have an 84 inch turnout sheet and an 84 inch medium weight blanket looking for new homes.  They no longer are able to adequately cover Ike’s burgeoning 5 year old body.  Seeing Ike in his way-too-small winter attire made me laugh.  It was much like seeing a young child trying on last year’s winter coat – there is just no way you can make it work.  Sadly I know that they fit him back in March…a mere nine months ago.

I optimistically tried them on today since temperatures have started plummeting into the 20s at night and the high temperature on Sunday was a balmy 35 degrees before the wind chill was factored into the equation.  If Ike was to stand perfectly still, he could have worn either the turnout sheet or the mid-weight blanket.  They would have been very snug around the shoulders and a bit short on the sides, but at least he could have stayed a bit warmer.  But I know that wasn’t going to happen and I envisioned the sheet creeping up his shoulders and bunching around his neck as Ike cavorted with his brother.  The bunching blanket would have caused blind panic with the sheet somehow getting ripped and tangled around his legs.  Sadly, this is how it played out in my head.  The blanket’s fit was no better, even with the belly straps let out 9 inches.

So Ike got to be naked all day and will remain so until I can get a larger sized blanket shipped to me (the local tack store does not carry anything in the Big & Husky sizes.)  Don’t feel too bad for him.  He now has a decent unclipped winter coat, obviously more weight and mass, and will spend his nights in his toasty stall.  If the weather during the day doesn’t suit his highness, a hissy fit ensues and Ike usually will get to have a nap in his stall.  Can you say spoiled rotten?

I’ve been in the saddle a few times since my grandmother passed away.  Riding is very cathartic for me.  I learned many years ago to put aside the cell phone, the to-do lists, and the million other random thoughts that are on a constant loop in my brain.  Just like other sports, riding requires you to be present and be mindful.  It is good to put everything else on hold for an hour and just enjoy my horse.  There were no breakthroughs with our training, just steady, happy rides.  Who could ask for anything more?

Gallop Away the Tears

Photo by High Time Photography

One of the photos of Ike and me that my Grandmother loved. Photo by High Time Photography

There are tears in my eyes as I write this post.  My grandmother has had a couple of difficult weeks, and we just received the news this morning that she passed away peacefully in her sleep last night.  I am heartbroken.  She was an amazing lady who almost made it to her 91st birthday.  Earlier this year she moved from the home where she had lived for the past 70 years, 60 of them with my grandfather who built the home.  She was a strong woman with strong opinions.  I can only hope to be half the person that she was.

She was my one of my biggest fans and always enjoyed hearing of my equine adventures.  I would send her DVDs of my rides so she could see us in action.  I recently came across a photo of Ike, myself and my husband that was taken by a friend and sent it to my grandmother to let her know I was thinking of her.  My mother told me that it brought great joy to my grandmother in her final days.

My animals have brought and will bring me great comfort as I deal with my grief.  The dogs and the horses each have their own way of putting a smile back on my face.  The dogs lick my tears from my cheeks and curl up with me on the bed.  The horses softly nicker and nudge me with their noses.  I stroke their necks and ears and share my memories.

I wrote the following a few weeks ago when I was feeling down about her failing health.  I am no Maya Angelou or Emily Dickenson, but it is written from the heart and dedicated to the memory of my Grandmother.

Gallop Away the Tears

I want to gallop away the tears

They just don’t seem to stop.

My heart is breaking and the tears are streaming

Drip, drop, drip, drop.

I escape to the barn

And there I privately cry;

The neck of my trusted steed is wet

As I tell him how hard it was to say goodbye.

He must sense my sorrow

For the only sound one hears,

As I methodically move the brush

Is the falling of the never ending tears.

I want the move with the wind

Hooves pounding the ground below

And gallop away the tears

That flow and flow and flow.

The shared moments and happy times

Are kept in my memory to stay.

I will keep you in my heart always,

It will get easier with each passing day.

Wintertime Homework

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Here we are just a little over a week away from Thanksgiving.  There is a lot to be thankful for this year, but while I give thanks for everything and everyone who have been a part of my journey with Ike, I also have taken some time to reflect on what needs to be done over the winter in order to continue forward progress on our dressage adventure.

More bending – We received a lot of comments this year for the lack of bend shown on circles, half circles and trot loops.  I guess we looked like a board making an octagon rather than a supple horse traveling on a circle.  When I did manage to bend the front end of Ike, the hind end would still fishtail and swing out onto its own circle.  Hmm, perhaps Ike’s rider needs to connect that front and hind end a little better…

Better half halts – This one is all on me.  My timing is still not ideal and my attempts are not always loud enough to make any noticeable change in Ike’s movement.  “Where was your half halt?!” is probably the one statement I hear the most from Ms. C during my lessons.  “Not enough!” is a close second.

Engage the hind end more effectively – Ike is a big boy.  Most likely he has surpassed the 17 hand mark (have not measured since springtime), and he has definitely grown into an 86 inch blanket this year.  There is a lot of horse under me, in front of me, and behind me.  Sometimes as we are trucking along, Ms. C lets me know that I’ve left the hind end trailing behind.  [See above for why the hind end can’t keep up.]  Our lesson last week focused on getting Ike to get those long hind legs under his body and teaching me how to get those legs in the right place.  Phew!  That is a lot of work getting Ike to sit down and really engage.

Improving Ike’s canter rhythm and stamina – The Scooby Doo comment really stuck with me after the last show.  I know that Ike is capable of a better canter, but the boy can scoot when he gets scared or the wind blows up his tail.  The better canter did come out during our First Level debut, but it was still quick.  By the end of the test, it was all I could do to keep him from falling out of the canter.  Luckily, the cooler temperatures will make it easier to school canter for longer periods of time.  Ike is also doing his part to improve his stamina by performing wind sprints with his brother during turnout.

Master Sit Trot (or make an attempt at improving) – Well this is probably a pipe dream, but I am going to continue my efforts at improving my sit trot on Ike.  There are days that I can and days that I can’t.  I definitely cannot sit that trot lengthening stride yet.

All this wintertime homework is predicated on the hopes that we have another mild winter with little frozen precipitation.  I’m hoping that the Farmer’s Almanac is wrong. 🙂

Ike’s One Man Skit of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

191Show season is now officially over.  The schooling show yesterday was a mixed bag of results.  I naturally assumed that we’d kick butt at Training Level and have our bobbles during our first attempt at First Level.  Well as the saying goes, never assume anything.  Ike made sure that I will never again assume anything as far as his performance.  I had two tests to ride and two completely different horses to ride.  A Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde skit played out in the dressage ring.

The First Act – Mr. Hyde’s performance.

Warm up was stellar.  Ms. C was there to school us and I felt confident that we could go out and hit the high 60’s or perhaps even clear that 70 percentile mark to end the season.  Our trot loop was too loopy, but the real trouble started once I asked for the left lead canter.  There was a lot of horse under me and I did my best to tame the wild beast.  Well, once we completed the circle, Ike shifted into a higher gear.  Pretty certain that the judge and scribe were fearful of Ike ending up in their laps as we headed toward the short end.  We careened around past C and Ike’s hind end skidded out from under us and took down part of the dressage arena.  That then sent him into a blind panic and he bolted down the long diagonal.  The fifth movement of the test calls for a trot transition at X.  Ike performed a canter-walk transition at A.  We somehow managed an average (6) free walk, but once we transitioned to trot and then to canter, surprise, the jets were turned back to high and we blasted through the remainder of the test.

The judge’s oral comments included the phrases “Scooby Doo” and “white knuckles.”  Hmm, not the comments one expects to hear.  She also commented that she feared that we’d not slow down before reaching the fencing of the adjoining paddocks.  Little did she know that while I was less than amused with Ike’s behavior, I was not fearful at all.  Many years of riding my whack-a-doodle Thoroughbred had prepared me well for any antics of my young horse.  While Ike can be very powerful in his spooks, they lack the feline quick spin/buck/bolts of Ike’s predecessor.  We gladly accepted our sixth place ribbon for the class.  My husband dubbed the ride the day’s comic relief.

Sir Ike then had to face Ms. C to explain his behavior.  He just batted his big brown eyes and begged for a peppermint.  Sorry, big boy, there is a lesson you must learn before your next ride with canter lengthenings…you must be patient, wait for your rider’s instructions, and then listen to the aids rather than blow through them.  You are expected to respond when Mom half halts.  Ike spent 40 minutes working on: Trot, more trot, halt.  Walk, canter, halt, reverse, trot, halt.  Trot, extend, halt.  Walk, canter, lengthen, halt.  The boy was a bit sweaty, but was listening well and on the aids when our next ride time arrived.

The Second Act – Dr. Jekyll’s Turn.

Finally time for the long awaited First Level debut.  Deep breath or as deep as I could with my cold.  As I gave my number to the scribe, I also said, “Round Two.”  The judge responded by asking that we not make her knuckles turn white again.  That might be a tall order, but we’d try our best.  The two 10 meter half circles were not great, but big boy still isn’t stellar with bending all 86 inches of his body.  Managed a 7 on our first trot lengthening and an 8 for our stretchy trot circle at the judge.  Phew, a third of the test down, and we were still in control.  Next up was the dreaded walk-trot-canter transition…squirrel pulled off a 7.  The canter circle was too big for a 5 and the lengthening show no clear comeback so that earned us a 5.5.  Stinker pulled a 7 for his left lead canter transition and a remarkable 8 on the left lead lengthening and comeback.  Best of all, we were still in control and the ring was still standing!  Our final halt found me beaming and giving Ike’s next a huge hug before we left the ring.  Thank you for that Ike.  Mom truly appreciates that effort.

The final score was a 63.793% (getting high marks for the movements with a coefficient helped the bottom line).  It still put us fourth of four, but that wasn’t the concern.  We survived our first First Level test, cleared 60% which was my goal, and best of all, we recovered from the disastrous first ride.  I think that last achievement was our greatest feat for the day.  It is how you weather the bumps and the rough rides that truly mark your progress as a rider.  No rider and no horse is perfect.  Just keep putting your foot in the stirrup and keep riding.

Our First Level Debut…

Ike dressed and ready for one of his lessons.

Ike dressed and ready for one of his lessons.

This Sunday is our last show of the year.  I thought the regional finals would be the end, but I got a bit of an itch to give First Level a go, so we are headed to one last schooling show to try First Level Test 1.  It should be an interesting afternoon.

We signed up for Training Level Test 3 as well.  The comfort zone.  I would love, love, love to cross that 70% mark.  We came oh so close once this year with a 69.4%, but then we kind of found a comfort zone in the 64%-66% range.  If we could just have once error free ride, we might actually be able to accomplish this elusive goal.  No spooks, no shies, no falling out of the canter, no eyeing the horses in the distance, and definitely no hand galloping.  All that nonsense ends up hurting us in the collective marks, which we all know, can kill any chances of crossing the magical 70-mark.  This is my last ditch effort to achieve the goal I set for myself at the beginning of the season.  Please keep all fingers and toes crossed; I know I am.

We are just hoping to stay in the ring and survive the First Level test.  No real expectations for a high score.  Just hoping to not completely embarrass ourselves or make the judge regret getting out of bed that morning.  Throughout this year, we have played with lengthening the trot, but we really didn’t spend a lot of time schooling it on a regular basis.  The focus was a connected working trot with a steady connection.  Our work this year has Ike in top notch condition – when we work on lengthening the trot, he isn’t even breathing hard while I stop discuss what Ms. C saw or did not see in our work (and to catch my breath!).  The problem comes when I get a bit greedy with the lengthening or use a bit too much leg or whip without the necessary half halt to rebalance Ike’s movement.  Imagine a toddler running down a hill.  They get faster and faster and you can see the fall unfolding.  They just don’t have the body control to stop themselves…well Ike has the same problem.  If I’m not there to help him hold things together, he loses his hind end and stumbling ensues.  Graceful as his mother.

The hardest parts of the First One test are the transitions, i.e., free walk to medium walk at P to trot at F to right lead canter AT the letter A.  It all happens really quickly and unfortunately has a coefficient of 2 in the scoring.  We have practiced repeatedly, but it will still be a crap shoot on show day.  All the canter to trot transitions are also at the letter (with a double coefficient as well), and usually right in front of the judge.  Please Ike listen to me when I ask for the down transition.  Down transitions are not optional in the test.

The other tricky part will be the canter, only because there is so much of it in this test.  Poor Ike is exhausted when we are done with our lessons that include all the canter work required for this test.  Canter, canter circle, keep cantering, lengthen the canter, show a comeback from the lengthening or attempt to show one, canter to the appropriate letter for a down transition…Yikes!  It is probably a good thing that we are starting this work in the cooler weather and not in the wretched heat of summer.  I too would be as exhausted as Ike is at the end of our lessons except for the fact that the USEF test writers kindly made sit trot optional at First Level.  A big shout out to the person or persons who made this call.  You are now some of my favorite people.

I’ve got my bet on what our score will be for our First Level debut.  Anyone else want to throw a number into the mix?

Look Out! It Is Bridle Hunting Season!

Ike sporting his new Vespucci bridle from World Equestrian Brands.

Ike sporting his new Vespucci bridle from World Equestrian Brands.

And the best part is, there is success in our hunt for the elusive species!  We have hunted down a bridle that actually fits Ike’s head without having to piece together various parts from three different bridles.

Where did we find the elusive bridle?  We found it with the help of Robin from World Equestrian Brands (http://www.worldequestrianbrands.com/).  I had talked with her while at the regional finals.  She let me try a few of the bridles she had on hand, but none of those worked quite right.  Robin kindly provided her business card and told me that if I sent her some measurements of Ike’s head, she would look through her available stock to see what they could do to assist our search.

I measured not once, not twice, but three times to make sure that I had my numbers correct.  How embarrassing it would have been to send erroneous numbers.  Finally, when I was certain that I had my numbers correct, I typed up my email, hit send, and waited with high hopes that Robin had a bridle that would work.  I was worried that she would have nothing and that I’d have to keep trudging around the roads of Virginia or website on the internet to find just the right bridle.  Was not relishing the thought of buying, trying and returning ill-fitting bridles while spending precious dollars on gas and shipping fees.

The candidate that Robin found was a closeout Vespucci bridle – black with white trim.  I provided my payment information and the next afternoon, Ike’s bridle arrived.  It was tempting to run out to the barn that evening to give it a try, but I controlled my excitement and waited until the next day.

Watching me assemble a bridle is much like watching me hook up the new TV…several mistaken starts along with many inappropriate words.  For some reason I am always unable to correctly connect the bit.  Yeah, I’m that clever.  Finally, there is success and I put the bridle on Ike.  I play with the buckles and stand back to assess the fit.  Could it be?  Is this the one?  There is room behind Ike’s ears.  There are the correct number of wrinkles in the corners of Ike’s mouth.  None of the cheek pieces even come close to his prominent cheek bones.  I am giddy at the thought that the hunt is over, but it has one last hurdle before we can declare success….Ms. C’s eagle eye and opinion.  I stand by holding my breath and waiting.  It is much the feeling I had waiting for my master’s committee’s decision after my orals.  Ms. C pulls and tugs at the various pieces and finally declares that it passes inspection!  Woohoo!

So glad that we can scratch “find bridle” off the to-do list.  Next up?  Riding our very first First Level test.

eek!