The Crooked Way

ike-and-alison-at-culpeper-aug-2016

Photo by Melana Krivitsky

 

We are all crooked in some way, shape or form.  Your left side is more dominant or maybe it’s your right side. Maybe you have an old or even a new injury that causes one leg to be weaker than the other. Maybe you had a Big Wheel accident as a child and chipped a bone in your wrist.  Or, perhaps, like me, you have some minor scoliosis that for the most part is a non-issue…until you are trying to train a horse.  And let us not forget we also ride half ton animals that have their own crookedness and stiffness to manage.

Add the two together and you have a recipe for a challenging, crooked path up the levels…a path that looks like it was cleared with a plastic butter knife.  The talented riders know how to compensate for their body’s issues and can easily address the issues of their horses…but where does that leave the rest of us?

There have been a multitude of books and articles written about straightening the crooked horse.  I particularly like the image that Lilo Fore paints in her article for Practical Horsemen of the horse moving in a “crooked, crab-like position.”  I have ridden that crab and left many points in the sandbox due to that crookedness.  Reading about how to straighten your horse is one thing.  Actually putting those words into practice can be much more challenging.  How can you effectively straighten your horse’s shoulders when you are collapsed to the left/right due to your body issues?

My scoliosis is not a new issue for me. It has been a lifelong conformation fault.  But it is only recently in my riding that I noticed my imbalance and it’s effect on my riding. Guess it took developing an independent seat to realize that the range of motion of my left hip is different than that of the right hip.  It comes across most in my struggle to help Ike with the left lead countercanter. Try as I might, I cannot move my left hip as easily as the right. While we can earn 7’s for our right lead countercanter serpentine; the left is a hot mess with me flailing about and praying that Ike can interpret what I want. Even when I consciously try and make my movement more pronounced,  it is still barely enough. I often wonder how this will affect our progress to the other levels.  Our goal in dressage is to show straightness and equivalent movement on the right and left sides. Hmm, when you don’t have the same range of motion with the left hip that you have with the right, how do you compensate when your seat is such an important piece of the puzzle? Ugh, the struggle is real.

There is no quick fix for this issue and there will be no cumbersome back braces to correct the alignment. I practice yoga which helps me focus on my body alignment and balance. Yoga quickly exposes your “weaker side” when you are balancing on one leg.  The wall has saved me more than once.  But if you fall down, just get right back up and try again.  Eventually the balance poses get easier (only took me 7 years to master scorpion pose…) Yoga helps me to maintain my flexibility, and I focus on deepening the hip stretches to increase the range of motion.  The warrior poses are all in my repertoire; and pigeon pose (http://www.yogajournal.com/article/beginners/pigeon-pose/) and I have a love/hate relationship.  Pigeon pose is the ultimate hip opener especially as you move towards the bound king pigeon pose.  Lotus pose (http://www.yogajournal.com/pose/lotus-pose/) is for those days when you just don’t feel as flexible.

I will continue to try Ms. C’s patience as she repeatedly screams, “move that left hip!”  For that, I must apologize.  Thank goodness she is a patient trainer!!  Acknowledging the problem is a start, and making an effort to minimize its damage on our progress up the levels is the goal.

Time to go practice that countercanter!

alison

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The Art of Being Consistent

Ike at VADACH Aug 2016

Second Level work is H-A-R-D.  There, I said it.  It was such a thrill last year when I rode my first Second Level test ever.  It was a bigger thrill to earn my two Second Level scores for my USDF Bronze Medal.  The biggest thrill is that we are only one score away from Ike earning his Second Level USDF Horse Performance Certificate.  So why after all of these milestones do I feel like I have barely scratched the surface of  being an accomplished dressage rider at this level?  Well, it is because I came to the realization that we are not yet proficient or consistent in our Second Level work.

Merriam-Webster defines the word consistent as, “always acting or behaving in the same way, ” or “of the same quality; especially: good each time.”  You can look at either our marks for the individual movements or even the array of ribbon colors from the shows this year to know that we are still lacking in a consistent performance in our Second Level tests.

Overall, I am pleased with our work at the shows this year.  After our latest show, we came home with a blue, 2 reds, and a yellow.  And while it is nice to have the ribbons to show for our efforts, it is the score sheets and comments from the judges that are the most meaningful in our quest for consistency.  All four of our latest scores were in the 60th percentile.  For us, that is a huge accomplishment at Second Level.

Both of our Test 2 scores hit at or close to the 65% mark.  That is a huge improvement from last year.  Our marks for the two 10-meter half circles are improving, but I still need to figure out how to show more bend in Ike’s midsection as we ride our half circles.  I am finding it challenging to show the correct bend without over-bending the giraffe neck.  We are also successfully holding our countercanter in both directions in Test 2.  These two scores were confidence builders and I feel much more prepared to ride this test at the Region 1 CBLM Championship show in October.

Our marks for the dreaded turn on the haunches are also going up…except for the one when (yet again) the rider turned the WRONG WAY.  Seriously, what the eff is wrong with me?!  I have no doubt that the judge before my next ride chuckled as my husband yelled, “the left hand makes the L, Al” as I trotted around waiting for the bell to ring.  It really does help your overall score when you can get a 6.5 or a 7 rather than a 4 for these turns.  I have learned that the judge would rather see your turns be a little larger with active hind legs rather than your horse’s hind leg getting stuck and pivoting around that leg.  They might like that in the quarter horse world, but pivoting is frowned upon in dressage world.  I am also doing better at maintaining my weight on the inside rather than getting left behind as Ike makes the turn.  Hmm, funny how when the rider finally rides the movement rather than coasting along how the scores go up…

And while there is much improved with our Second Level work, there is still work to be done.  The left lead serpentine of Test 3 is our current arch nemesis.  We are holding the countercanter on the second loop, but it sure isn’t pretty.  I also struggle to get the correct angle for my shoulder in and haunches in – “too much angle,” “stiff movement,” and “too little angle shown” are common comments.  The best way to get those scores higher?  Practice, practice, practice.

Just like with anything you want to master – repetition of the skill is necessary in order to achieve proficiency and consistency.  A baker makes thousands of cookies in order to master a recipe.  A chef will slice and dice hundreds of vegetables to hone his/her knife skills. An archer will shoot arrow after arrow to improve their accuracy. And so a rider must spend hours upon hours in the saddle to master each skill necessary to move up the levels.

And while it would be easy to say it is time for Third Level, the perfectionist in me reminds me to slow down and hone our Second Level skills for a little longer.  Be consistent in our angle, be proficient at countercanter, be stable in our collected trot.  It only gets harder from here, so slow down and enjoy the ride.

alison

Happy Gotcha Day!

Ike medium trot So Heritage April 2016

Photo by Katherine Turnbull

When I was in my early 20’s and looking for gainful employment, I always hated the question, “Where do you want to be in five years?”  Umm, employed and no longer living in my childhood bedroom?  I never felt like I gave a meaningful answer to that question.  At that age, I hardly knew what I wanted to do the following weekend!

Five years.  1,825 days.  43,800 hours.  It can seem like a very long time, but as I have aged (slightly past 21), it seems that time moves faster and faster.  Five years can go by in the blink of an eye.  It is hard to believe that it was five years ago today that Ike arrived in Virginia.  His baby face is gone as are the pencil neck and narrow shoulders; they have been replaced by very broad shoulders and a stately look that can be quite striking when not riddled with battle wounds or spider bites.  I am hopeful that he is finally done growing taller and longer.

We are now two thirds of the way to our USDF Bronze Medal.  My gangly 3 year old who couldn’t canter without threatening harm to my knees on the fence is now a strapping 8 year old who can canter a 10 meter circle.  We are on the threshold of beginning Third Level work in earnest.  Whhhaaattt?!! Our progress has been more tortoise like than hare, but it is steady and on an upward incline.  And truth be told, I am the weaker link in this partnership, but thankfully Ike is a patient partner and is gracious when I make mistakes.

I thank my lucky stars that I have the privilege of owning and riding such a willing partner.  I am thankful that I have a supportive husband who stands by me on this crazy dressage journey.  This adventure would not be possible without Ms. C’s unwavering support and knowledge. Thank you to everyone who cheers us on when we win and provides moral support when we falter.

Here’s to another anniversary on Ike’s centerline adventures!

alison

Dear Mr. Spider,

Spider Bite 1

I am writing to you today to thank you for the extensive damage that you have wrought on Ike’s face.  You probably thought nothing of the consequences when you decided to bite poor Ike on the left side of his face.  Ever since you did it, I have not been able to stop thinking about it.

The bite seemed innocent enough at first.  I dabbed it with anti-itch cream and headed home.  By day two, Ike had multiple bumps on the entire left side of his face and the hair started falling out.  By day four, most of the left side is now hairless and he has rubbed a few spots raw.  None of the topicals we have applied have stopped the madness.  I am now buying Zyrtec by the case (Ike needs 10 pills twice a day) in hopes of tempering the itching as the reaction subsides and heals.

Please note that if I ever find you or your offspring, there will be immediate consequences felt.  There will be no trial.  I will be judge and jury rolled into one maniacal package.  Punishment will be death by shoe/boot/brush/broom/any other inanimate object within striking distance. I will feel no remorse for my actions.

I am not looking forward to the disapproving stares and snide comments by the DQs at this weekend’s show.  I have started to work on Ike’s Phantom-of-the-Opera-style mask to hide the damage; I feel certain that the TD will accept it without question.  I might add a cape for dramatic effect.  The first person who asks, “Why did you let this happen?” will be pummeled with my piaffe whip.

You have fair warning Mr. Spider.  You’d better pack your bags and find a new home.

Alison

Sweaty Pants

Ike Aug 23 2015

“Can someone please turn down the heat?

So it has been hotter than Hades these past few weeks.  I will admit that I do not function at 100% when the heat index is over 100°F.  I am certain that neither does my horse – there is a certain lack of pep in his step when the temperatures soar.  So what is one to do when it is just too hot to put in any strenuous riding?  One goes on vacation!  Spent a week on the shore with family fishing, horseback riding on the beach, and amusing fellow beach goers with my feeble attempts on a standup paddleboard.  If you think riding takes good balance and a strong core, just try standing on a paddleboard while trying to paddle and steer.

 

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Hatteras Island beach ride

 

And while I had a fabulous time soaking up the sun while floating in the cool ocean waters, Ike stayed home and had some one-on-one time with Ms. C.  He is not good at keeping our secrets and was obviously rather plow horse–like in his work with her since I received the following message:  “Rode the giant, too heavy in everything!!!!! (yes, there were that many exclamation points.) So we had some ‘enlightening’ right away with no leaning on hands, legs or [in] the movement.”

I am now not the only one paying the price for Ike’s actions during my absence.  During my first lesson after vacation, Ms. C first informed me that because of her work with Ike, that unless you are out for a hack and a relaxing ride, all of her students were now expected to actively ask for uphill balance…no more accepting lack of engagement or plodding around on the forehand.  If we accept that during our training rides, then why wouldn’t our horses believe that it is acceptable in competition.  Train like you are in the competition ring with a judge at C.  Train for excellence and not for mediocrity. I have asked Ike to apologize to everyone, but he is rather unrepentant.  So as his mother, I am truly sorry for Ike’s unapologetic behavior and half-assed work for Ms. C.

Achieving real uphill balance, having hind end engagement, sitting on the hind end, picking up the front end, making the forehand lighter, ending the plow horse movement, getting off the forehand.  Whatever you call it, it still means that you will no longer carry your horse’s oversized head yourself.  He is going to have to shoulder that load. It means that he will no longer bully you with his massive shoulder when resistant to the leg aids.  I understand the concepts, but putting those concepts into practice can be challenging.  It is much easier for me to achieve it with a double bridle, but for the time being, that toy has been taken away.  “You need to be able to do this without the double.”  Aaarrggghhh, but it is soooo much HARDER.  But I knuckled under, tacked up with my snaffle, and worked on lightening Ike’s forehand.  Ms. C provided me with a new visual to help drill in the concept of how to half halt effectively to achieve the desired result– Pretend you are pulling on a pair of wet riding pants when you are sweaty.  Now there is an image to haunt your dreams…

But the funny thing is, that the image worked for me.  My first solo ride after my lesson, I actually felt like Ike was sitting on his hind end more and moving like a real Second Level horse – not just a poser who gets lucky with good scores every now and again.  It is that uphill feeling that we will need to make the transition to Third Level; I’m almost certain that plow horses do not achieve high scores at Third.  So the next time you see me making a funny face while I am riding, you will know what is going through my head – “Must. Get. On. These. Sweaty. Pants.”

alison

The TV Did It

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Ike prior to the latest round of facial injuries

 

When I was in my formative years, I was always injuring myself.  There was rarely a question about how I did it – I fell in the gravel driveway and tore up my knees, I jumped off the handlebars of my friend’s bike and scraped my hands, elbows and knees, I was walking and simply tripped and twisted my ankle.  Poetry in motion.  And if there was a parental question about how I obtained my injury, I would always tell the truth no matter how embarrassing it might be…My brother on the other hand, he was notorious for his bold-faced lies.  How did you slice open your hand? “The T V did it.” (My father did not have to investigate long before he found the pocketknife and bloody Lincoln Log.)  How did you tear your brand new sneaker? “The sweatpants did it.”  (He is taking the truth about that one to his grave.)

Ike falls somewhere in the middle.  Sadly, the big fellow can also be a bit of a klutz. (Ssshhh, I can hear some of you noting that he is just like his mother.)  And while he may not exactly lie about how he injured himself, he is also not always forthcoming with how the injury occurred.  I swear that he shrugs his shoulders when asked what happened to cause the loss of hair/blood/lameness/odd lump.  Sometimes I can tell that the injury was inflicted by his brother.  Other times I can locate the offending bug bite that started the itching and severe loss of mane.  Last weekend I watched him misjudge how far away from the fence he was and bang his head on the fence post.  I feared he’d hit his eye, but thankfully upon removal of the fly mask, he’d only scraped some hide off his face right above his eye.  Most times though, I have no idea what caused the injury and all I can do is triage the damage and pray that we have some hair growth before the next dressage show.

And the cause Ike’s lameness a few weeks ago will forever remain a mystery.  We had a stellar lesson one day, a solid training ride the next, and emerged the next morning clearly limping.  What the?!  We had been working hard to strengthen our countercanter and develop a more powerful collected trot.  I had been doing my best to teach him to reach more in his medium trot while trying to maintain my position in the saddle.  He went from 100% sound to the walking wounded overnight.  You could see him limping even at the walk and the problem was definitely the left front.  No obvious signs of a problem; he only flinched when you touched the bulb of the hoof.  My best guess is that he laid down to sleep and then whacked himself with one of the hinds as he flailed about to get up.  There were no televisions nor any sweatpants to take the blame.

We were lucky and after a week off from work, Ike came back completely sound.  Amazingly he did not seem to lose any of his fitness or stamina from the down time.  Wish I could say the same for me – a week out of the saddle always leaves me a bit rusty and slow to react with the necessary aids.  We now work with polo wraps, pastern wraps, and bell boots to protect his legs and hooves.  I’m still debating the merits of bubble wrap for turnout.  Keep your fingers crossed that we make it through the second half of our show season!

alison

 

 

Equestrians Know It’s Hot When…

Ike in the shade

Can we just hang in the shade?

So there have been numerous articles published in the local newspaper to let us know that the dog days of summer are here.  Oh, really? Someone needed the newspaper to tell them that it is ridiculously hot? Umm, any equestrian could have told you that weeks ago.  We have our own ways of knowing it is hotter than Hades outside with a dose of subtropical humidity to make it more insufferable.

Equestrians know it is sweltering when…

 

You are on your third change of clothes and it is only 10 AM.

The sweatband in your helmet is so saturated that the sweat just runs into your eyes and blinds you. Thankfully your horse is smart enough not to run into your trainer.

They postpone a horse show for the safety of horses and riders.

You sweat through your gloves and can no longer half halt efficiently since the reins are sliding through your fingers.

Your horse is soaking wet even before you start grooming and tacking for your ride.

You dread stopping somewhere on the way home from the barn for fear someone will surreptitiously take a photo of you and mistake you for a Pokémon character.

A bug flies into your face and sticks to the sweat. Hey, at least it didn’t fly into your mouth this time.

You remove your clothing off like a banana peel.  Raise your hand if you have had a wrestling match and a few choice words with the sweaty sports bra that really doesn’t want to part ways.

It feels like you are squishing when you walk, but it is just the sweat pooled in your black leather boots.

You sweat so much that your gloves turn your hands a rainbow of colors from the dyes. Another show of hands for those who have gone into the office with this new “accessory.”

You accidentally hit yourself in the face with your horse’s sweaty saddle pad. Bleh, that doesn’t taste so good.

You seriously debate the merits of riding up and down the barn aisle rather than braving the sun.

You place your helmet on your head and sweat from the day before drips onto your head.

Your clothes are wetter going into the washer than when they go into the dryer.

You use the word “moist” a lot in conversation and you have not baked anything since the holidays.

You Google “places with cooler summer temperatures” but then realize that your 18 hand dressage horse will be a bit out-of-place at that dude ranch in Banff, Canada.

Stay cool and safe everyone! This heat wave can’t last forever…

alison