Thursday, July 6, 2017

Saddle Fit Basics in Four Parts: Spinal Clearance

*This post is part of a 4 part series on basic principles of saddle fit. Please be aware that there are many other factors often present in saddle fitting for both rider and horse, and it is best to contact a professional to make sure your horse is fitted properly and all factors are taken into consideration. These posts are meant to help the reader develop a basic understanding of saddle fit, and to be able to recognize a situation where a professional saddle fitter needs to be called in. Enjoy!*

Saddle Fit Basics in Four Parts - Spinal Clearance

There are many factors to be taken into consideration regarding proper saddle fit for the horse. I've narrowed down the broad picture into four basic starting points for evaluating proper fit, and beginning to identify issues. We'll begin with Spinal Clearance.

To many it will be obvious that the saddle can not make contact with the horse's spine, especially the wither. A saddle sitting directly on the spinal column (remember these are bony structures) will cause the horse to be very painful and sore and he may refuse to work or act out with bucking/rearing/bolting as a result of this pain. However, once we have clearance what would "adequate clearance" entail?

I've heard lots of rules of thumb in the past, whether it be 2 fingers, 4 fingers clearance over the wither. Others say, just as long as it's not touching you're fine. What's important to consider is if you evaluate your spinal clearance in the aisle with the horse standing statically, you don't have the added factors like a properly tightened girth, the weight of the rider, or the movement/lift of the horses back to consider. Thus the best way to evaluate will be with a rider mounted and the horse in motion.

To get a general base, I do start in the aisle preferably with no pad and the saddle girthed down. What I'm looking for is room to get my hand down the gullet to the base of the wither (assuming the saddle is placed properly with the tree points either directly behind the scapula for a Stübben, or slightly further back for other models, depending on the manufacturer) which is especially important for a horse with a very long wither. We don't want to have clearance at the pommel and then make contact halfway down the gullet since this will still make the horse sore.

In addition to having clearance over the top of the wither, I also want to make sure I have some room on either side as well. It's difficult to see in the picture above, but I can put two fingers on either side of the wither with room before the panel makes contact (I would call that adequate). What people often forget is that the spinal cord and wither is very mobile in the horse and needs to be allowed to move freely side-to-side. If the saddle is too tight on either side, it will restrict the horse's movement and may appear lame or just unwilling to move out and forward.

Notice, I specifically haven't mentioned an exact measurement over the top of the wither for proper clearance. That is because the necessary amount of clearance will vary from horse to horse. In general, I would like to have at least 3-4 fingers clearance over the top of the wither with the saddle girthed and rider mounted to account for the horse's movement, compression of the flocking, and other factors depending on the individual case. However, if I'm dealing with a downhill or mutton withered horse, the amount of clearance may be higher to allow proper balance of the saddle from pommel to cantle. It may look funny to have a lot of room but we'll talk more about how important the balance of the saddle can be on those horses. Essentially if all the other factors are adequate, you really can't have TOO much clearance, but you definitely can be too close to the spine.

This picture above would be a prime example of a saddle with proper clearance above (I have room for roughly 4 fingers), but not at the sides of the wither (I can't even get one finger next to the side of the wither). I would expect this horse to be restricted in his movements. He may not present as totally sore, but may be less willing to move forward and work than he would in another saddle.

 These two pictures show a horse with a fairly high wither. Over the top of the wither I can get about 3.5 fingers and on either side about 2 fingers clearance. This looks fairly good, but with the addition of the rider's weight, I would recheck and see if we need more.

These pictures show a client of mine who is built very downhill and completely mutton withered. I have lots of clearance in the pommel (as shown by my fist) because I'm trying to achieve proper balance from pommel to cantle as shown in the pictures on the right (proper balance in this dressage saddle should be roughly a 1" drop from cantle to pommel on this saddle, which I'll discuss with more depth in an upcoming post on Balance).

U shaped tree
V shaped tree

Excuse the poor artwork but the pictures above are a rough illustration of two common types of tree shapes shown as a cross section of the horse's wither with the head plate/gullet plate shown on top. The V shaped tree on the left is the most common shape you'll find  in a saddle, while it can fit just fine on the shown horse's cross section we are a bit snug on either side of the wither and do not have even contact through the point. In this situation, it may be necessary to go wider with the tree size and add extra padding or a half pad to offer proper clearance, just to allow freedom of movement.

On the right, I show a rough drawing of the shape of a Stübben tree. You can see that there is more room on the sides of the wither (still keeping clearance over the top) and the tree points are making more even contact with the horse's side for better bearing surface of the tree. In general I prefer this method of fit, though some horses can work fine in V shape tree I tend to find better comfort and results in a U shape instead.

To recap: we don't want the saddle coming into contact with the horse's spine especially on the top and sides of the wither. Adequate clearance may vary from horse to horse depending on his build, but should be reevaluated with the saddle girthed down and rider mounted to ensure proper clearance. When in doubt, call a certified saddle fitter to help evaluate your horse and take other factors into consideration.

Coming soon, Tree Width, Balance/Stability, Bearing Surface, and other notes!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Thanks, Eric.

I'd like to share some thoughts about a very dear friend of mine that I cherish greatly, and after his accident last week I've really spent some time thinking about how much he's impacted my life. I first met Eric Dierks at a clinic in Ohio while I was in college. I remember being very nervous for my lesson with him (I'd heard so much about him through the grapevine in Illinois and ridden with nearly every family member of his back home, but never Eric before) and it amazed me at how well organized his thought process was within his training mantra. He broke down his system into bite sized pieces we could all understand, take home, and practice on our own. We spent much of that lesson focusing on the rhythm of the walk, something I'd never really given much thought before and I went back and practiced for months until Eric's next clinic hoping to impress him.

By the second trip he made out, I was absolutely hooked. I spent every moment of the clinics by his side drinking in every word he said and watching all the riders and horses progress in the partnerships under his tutelage. He's always been well spoken, firm but fair, and always on the horse's side to improve the rider's communication. When the third clinic rolled around, I nearly begged Eric to take me on as a working student. He agreed.

During my time as a working student
As soon as I graduated college, I drove back to Illinois to pack up nearly all my belongings into trailer and SUV and made the trek down to North Carolina with my mom to help me get settled. I ended up working at Renovatio Farm with Eric for 7 months and he truly changed my life. Not only did I find the perfect geographic location for me to settle down and make my home like the Chicago suburbs had never felt to me, but I had found someone who could really shape me as a horsewoman.

It wasn't easy. Being a working student means working hours well past sun up to sun down, night checks, pitching in on your days off, catching horses in that random 3 am thunderstorm and sometimes finishing a day where cereal was all you could eat because the idea of standing up to cook was exhausting. Eric took me apart to my basic essentials as a rider and started over, building me back up piece by piece. Am I a upper level professional now? No, but I never expected to be, with a pony cross I was told "couldn't jump" and my own fears and insecurities. What I have become is a much more compassionate rider, able to listen to what my horse is telling me and react in more appropriate ways.

I went from an ok Training level rider, to having some pretty crummy shows at Training level, to leaving Eric's farm to get a real job and having time to let all my education from him sink in and get fully absorbed, to winning our next Training level the following show season on our dressage score (our very first double clear) and eventually completing a Prelim event which I had never even dreamed possible. Eric pushed me to believe in myself, to believe in my horse, and to be able to rely on my own instincts as a rider.

I only have the budget to go lesson with Eric a handful of times a year now, and I try to squeeze every last drop of education I can out of every visit. We had the good fortune of riding with him the day before his water heater explosion accident, and once again he expertly coached Tristan and I around XC schooling at Windridge farm. The weather was perfect, Tristan jumped everything we put in front of him and we all just had a marvelous time together enjoying our four legged friends.

Eric, you have been a life-changing force to me and I can never repay you for how well you shaped me into a fairly respectable horsewoman. I hope you are teaching me lessons until you're at least 120 years old and then you might be able to think about retiring, but definitely not before then. If you really need a vacation, next time just ask, the airlift was a bit overkill. You have the whole equine community of Tryon and beyond rallying for your swift and full recovery. Thank you for all you've done, and I know you've touched many lives beyond mine too.

Thanks, Eric.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Struggle Is Real

Boots; the classic equestrian footwear. I remember as a kid taking lessons, I had a number of sturdy rubber dress boots that I rode in every week. They were hot in the summer and cold in the winter, wore out quickly, had very little support, but you could stomp around in puddles and mud up to your knees and keep your feet dry. I definitely wasn't winning any fashion contests wearing them, but especially as a kid going through growth spurts they were an excellent choice.
Just like these!
Now as the eventing world has embraced the Dubarry fashion trend (mimicked by nearly every boot company worth their salt), riders can have stylish and more supportive footwear while still keeping their feet dry! Which is great! Unless...

Unless you have oddly proportioned legs and ankles. I have been cursed blessed with very narrow ankles and calves, paired with larger and very flat feet. As a teenager, we discovered the main reason I had terrible shin splints and leg pain was due to my feet containing extra bones, which aren't very helpful and throw everything out of wack dooming me to wear orthotics and supportive footwear for the rest of my life. (No wearing high heels long term for this non-fashionista)

Enter the Dubarry "Galway" boot
But then Dubarry gained popularity and I got starry eyed at their display during Rolex several years ago. I pined and pined over their boots, but they were always too wide when I tried them on (ankle and calf). I dreamed about being able to walk my cross country courses in the dry comfort of leather boots (including the water complexes). Previously I would have to decide on either a) being comfortable and wearing tennis shoes or b) being hot and sore wearing rubber muck boots that could brave the water. Lucky me, Dubarry eventually released their "Clare" style, which was a tad narrower in the calf and ankle than their original boot! 

The Clare!
I managed to snag myself a pair and after a brief break-in period, I was in love. I would wear theses with shorts, dress up and wear them out to dinner, they were perfect barn work boots, and I took better care of them than I would of a child! (It's true) Unfortunately after having them for several months, I noticed something strange when walking through water with them. While they were still keeping my feet dry, the GoreTex liner seemed to be separating within the toe from the leather outer shell giving me the feeling of a bubble of water forming over my feet. I'd had some friends with less than savory experiences with Dubarry's customer service, but as soon as I contacted them with my issue they quickly and easily replaced my boots with a new pair! But... after having those for a few weeks, I discovered that there was an area that was stitched improperly and was coming undone. I met with a Dubarry rep at a trade show and again, their excellent customer service took care of me and replaced my boots yet again!

Which brings me to the current pair I own. They're waterproof, they're beautiful, but something is just different from the previous boots I've owned. Both the other pairs I've had, after a short break in period fit like a second skin. The newest pair I have (which I've babied) never fit quite like the previous pairs. The right boot especially allows my heel to pop up and down, causing nasty blisters. After a lengthy period of time hoping for the fit to improve, I've finally come to the conclusion that they just don't fit my skinny little ankles.

Now I'm aware that Dubarry has newly released a "narrow" version of the Galway boot, but comparing the with of the ankle to the original, I'm 99% certain it's only really narrower in the calf. "But Katharine, there are loads of other brands with similarly designed waterproof leather boots!" Which is great, except they all have a wide ankle

This has lead me to continue my search outside of the equestrian shopping experience! I was very hopeful when I first started, but as this has dragged on for several weeks, I find myself thoroughly disappointed. Truly "waterproof" boots for women are few and far between, unless you can comfortably fit in a rubber boot (which I can't due to the wide ankles). Here's the closest options my search turned up.

I know, I know, they're pretty gaudy and out there with the camo and the name, but as far as something to fit snugly through the ankle and calf I was pleasantly surprised how comfortable these were! Plus they have Cabela's version of GoreTex called "4MostDryPlus" and since they're meant for hunting (and protecting the wearer from snakebites which is a plus) they feel very sturdy. The downsides were the thick insulation, which I can't imagine being comfortable walking courses in 90+ degree weather, and the sizing runs a bit small so I wasn't able to try the correct size in the store. For almost $200 I definitely wanted to give them a thorough test.

2. Merrell Captiva Buckle Up Boot (Normal retail of $220, but on sale many places for about half)

These boots from Merrell caught my eye. They have a similar look to "equestrian" styled boots, boast a waterproof membrane, and the biggest complaint on product reviews were that the ankle and calf were too narrow! My biggest holdup is that the inside has a full length zipper, so how can they possibly be waterproof? I called Merrell HQ and asked their product division just that, and the answer I got is that they will "stand behind their product". I was also able to find them on Nordstrom Rack's website for $105, less than half of their list price with a great return policy if they don't work out. I took the plunge today and ordered them!

I tried several other styles of rubber boots too since North Face had one that looked narrower in the ankle, but alas everything I tried was still too wide. I hope my search has come to an end with Merrell, but I'll have to wait and see when they come in. In the meantime, my beloved Dubarry Clare's are going to make their way onto EBay to hopefully sway the cost of new boots. I'm very disappointed that they can't work out for me. Ah well, first world problems.

Monday, December 7, 2015

What they didn't teach us in college: Love and Loss

When I was a kid, people would suggest I turn my love of horses to a veterinarian profession and I shied away from the thought. Not only did the idea of gore, needles, sticking your arms up various bits of the horses, turn me off, but there was always the calls to put horses down that made me know that a career path in medicine definitely wasn't for me. So instead, I opted for happier work like boarding, training, retail, and saddle fitting, thinking I'd be safer from grief except for my own horses.

Getting a bachelor's degree helped prepare me for my career path and opened my eyes to new facets of equine care; farm design being less about aesthetics and more about ventilation, drainage, and safety. Planning schedules for veterinary and farrier appointments, maintaining pastures, fencing, arenas, proper electrical considerations to protect against barn fires, all in the name of the safety and health of horses under our care. We learned how to recognize and treat illness and injury in horses, how to identify various lamenesses, and properly condition to prepare for competition. All in the name of safety.

But life doesn't always follow the rules. Even if you offer the best care, top of the line service, and your client's horses thrive under your care, tragedy can and will still strike.

Nothing we learned in school prepared me for the moment I saw that my best friend's horse had sustained a life ending injury in a freak accident. Nothing prepared me for the panicked phone calls to local vets to get help as quickly as possible. Nothing prepared me for telling my friend her horse had passed before she could see him. Nothing prepared me for the grief over a horse that was never mine, but had still managed to leave a huge impression on my heart.

But life goes on. The rest of the farm still needs care, the other horses need to be fed, stalls need to be cleaned. Seeing the other horses seeming to process the loss was the hardest. My horse Tristan was most closely attached to the horse we lost, and he never once called out to him. I caught Tristan gazing from his stall at the spot where he passed, but not a single whinny.

We take solace in the things we can. The injury was dealt with immediately, he wasn't in pain for long. Nothing could have been done to foresee the accident. We are lucky to have the support of wonderful friends and family that have offered love and shoulders to lean on. I will always live with some small amount of guilt. What if I had caught them to feed five minutes sooner? Would it have never happened? Would it have still happened but in the middle of the night under worse circumstances? We'll never know, but I've been over and over it in my head enough to know I did everything I knew to protect him. It just wasn't enough this time.

Appreciate every moment with your horses. For being such strong and graceful animals, they are so very precious and fragile.

We will be ok eventually, things will go back to normal. Life goes on. For now, there will still be some grief.

Rest in peace, Bear. Once by our side, but forever in our hearts.

The three amigos from this summer: Bear, Paco, and Tristan

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Becoming Infatuated with Rhythm: Part Deux

Earlier this year I wrote a blog discussing the concept of "rhythm" and its importance during all three phases. (Available here - Becoming infatuated with my horse's rhythm in all 4 gaits has been a major goal of mine over the past 8 months, but I can honestly say we finally had a "Eureka" moment about the concept very recently. We were guided to that understanding over not one, but two days of schooling cross country with my trainer, Eric Dierks.

Day One - Windridge Farm

I'd had a jumping lesson with Eric about two weeks prior, but was feeling pretty rusty after our hiatus from showing this summer. (Last show was in April! Yeesh!) We planned to meet at Windridge for their schooling day, but decided to skip the show on Sunday remembering last year's debacle. Managing to be the first horse and rider on course we had a wonderfully private warm up. Starting out, we tested out the trot, canter, and gallop, focusing on that all-important concept of rhythm. Eric said, "Taking straightness as a given, we have to focus on the horse's tempo, length of stride, and cadence to produce rhythm."

"Taking straightness as a given" was an important place to start. I found as we did some warm up gallop sets up and down the hills on course that the straighter I rode Tristan's body, (occasionally suppling him through the withers with my thighs) the more energetic and powerful his gallop felt, regardless of the mpm we were traveling. Another great term that Eric used for that feeling of power was thinking of it as your RPMs coming into the jump.

For a warm up, we worked over small, beginner novice and novice fences at a trot and after we had rhythm and energy at the trot, we moved on to novice, training and prelim fences keeping the same concept at the gallop. This idea produced better energy, more scope, and (here's the big one for me) a more predictable take-off spot. Eric has discouraged me from counting strides because he knows my obsessive brain would focus on that, and only that, coming into the jumps. Focusing on rhythm (remember; length of stride + tempo + cadence = rhythm) helped me be a more active rider in between jumps and less dictative of Tristan's take off point (because honestly, after 9 years he should start seeing those for himself).

As the schooling progressed, I felt more confident of my distances, regardless of the size of the jumps. Plus, if I did some counterbending to the outside of turns, I could improve my straightness and, more importantly, the energy and rhythm coming to the jump. I only had 2 jumps the entire lesson where I "missed"; once over a trakehner in the woods where I lost my focus and intent to the other side of the fence, and once over the prelim water complex where I got too anxious about the bank up to look for my out over the 3rd jump of the combination. Both errors were easily fixed the second go around.

Day Two - Gibbes Farm

Feeling pretty big for our britches and finally "getting" the idea of rhythm, Tristan and I came into our clinic group fairly cocky, if a bit sore from the previous day's school. I seemed like we struggled with applying the concept a bit more the second day than the first, but it was good to practice over a a wider variety of jumps and situations.

After we warmed up with the same exercises, trotting and then cantering small fences with the same feel of rhythm, we started challenging that rhythm with the introduction of hills and related lines. The pictures below are a good example of the challenges that came up. Eric put together a small course of a hanging long to a five stride combination (table to skinny), then a hanging log with a huge groundline (or baby weldon's wall) to a 2 or 3 stride combination (depending on your length of stride; we were instructed to not dictate the distance, just ride the rhythm). First time through this course, I had an oops moment that sent me off course.

Fence #1

Fence #2 Table at the start of the 5 stride line

 Fence #3 Skinny out (aka Oops)
First time into the combination, we had a great big leap in (not pictured) and I slipped my reins over the fence so I wouldn't catch Tristan in the mouth on the back side. 5 strides isn't a lot of time to get your reins back, so I only managed to get my left rein before the skinny, thus the awkward jump out. I took a bit too much contact on the right rein by bringing my elbow back, and continued to try and organize after the fence, causing me to miss jump #4 on our course completely. What's the one word I didn't use to describe that attempt? Oh, right. Rhythm. I got so drawn into "seeing a distance" to the table coming in that I completely went into neutral and stopped riding Tristan's rhythm to each jump, and then lost focus on my line to jump #4 and went off course. After a breather and watching my comrades jump through the same course, we gave it another go with much better results.

Fence #3 again

Fence #4
 Much prettier picture this time around. Focusing on rhythm gave us a better distance and line to the following fences. After popping over the hanging log up the hill and pointing towards the downhill 3 stride line, I was able to feel the rhythm, support to the base of the first log, and keep the RPMs revved to make the 3 strides work without depleting our gas tank and running at the second fence. The ability to see what needs to happen to the strides before and between jumps is something I've never been able to feel and accurately accomplish so I'm very proud of that little lightbulb moment.

After some successful coursework, we moved on to banks and water. Both those words give me more anxiety than I'd care to admit, but with the building blocks of rhythm and balance it was much easier to gauge whether I was coming to an up or down bank with an appropriate canter and, if not, what adjustments needed to be made to rectify the situation. We ended with some pretty nerve wracking water combinations, (a log, two strides to a three foot drop, gallop through the water to a three foot bank out) but as long as we stayed focused on rhythm instead of getting drawn into the anxiety of the more difficult jumps, everything went smoothly. I was happy to hear from my husband (the genius behind the camera on all these amazing pictures) that Eric commented that my position over the banks has improved dramatically and was almost perfectly where he wanted me to be. I've gone from being scared sh*tless over banks and water to logically thinking through any combination we are pointed towards.

Nice log before dropping into the water.
Jumps in the water present a challenge to maintain energy and rhythm along your track.
The biggest takeaway I had from schooling, and a general theme to Eric's teaching style, is that the more you can focus on having correct basics and a tactful frame of mind, the more you can handle every situation in front of you with calm and logic. To achieve rhythm we first need to be sure the rider is in an effective position, has a proper engine and power, and finally a prepared track (which also includes straightness). Put that formula together and you can achieve a balanced picture over any fence and achieve that cool competitor look that riders like Michael Jung and William Fox-Pitt portray so well. Instead of obsessing over the little anxieties, become infatuated with rhythm.

Until next time!

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Blockhouse Steeplechase Amateur Race - Plus Helmet Camera Footage!

My first love is and always will be eventing. Nothing gets me going like executing a harmonious dressage test, followed by a bad-ass cross country ride, and polished off with a graceful stadium round. However, recent budget restraints have helped me start to think out of the eventing box to get my thrills and give me goals for exercising and training my horse. We started with Hunter Paces this spring; lucky for me, moving to South Carolina has opened up a great big world of paces I never even knew existed, thanks to the urging of our horsey neighbors and the Western Carolina Hunter Pace circuit. Hunter Paces are fun, casual, usually fairly bite-sized distance rides over varied terrain and trails. If you're preparing an event horse for show seasons, I highly recommend them as an excuse to get out in the open and just ride.

Recently, I attended a pace at the FENCE showgrounds, and as part of the course, we were directed to ride on some short sections of their steeplechase track. The foxhunters riding with me were willing to go at a good clip of gallop, so we had our own little mock race between the four of us. Tristan immediately went into racehorse mode (weird for a 15.3 hh pony cross who's never seen a racetrack in his life) and got super competitive with our buddies. Not crazy, definitely rideable, and a whole lot of fun.

Shortly after those little escapades, I found several posts online from the Blockhouse Steeplechase that an amateur race was open to the public for horses and ponies alike. This was just a flat race, no fences to worry about, and especially with a money purse, (not required to peak my interest, but winning is extra super fun when there's a check involved) what did we have to lose by giving it a shot? At $50 an entry, it was a lot easier to chew than a $250 show bill for an event (not counting food, hotels, travel, etc.).

Ermahgerd. Gergles.
We attended several rider meetings to go over the requirements of our tack (I did have to go out and buy a racing overgirth to keep my saddle firmly in place, plus jockey goggles to help protect my eyes), how to properly condition our horses, and even got to walk the track with a retired steeplechase jockey to help ensure our safety. The group we had pulled together for the race included a husband and wife barrel racing team (veterans to the amateur racing scene with 5-6 starts for each of them in previous years), a trail rider looking for some fun, and a fellow english show rider.

When race day arrived, a hurdle I never anticipated became quite apparent. They had told us at the rider's meetings, that we absolutely needed to have at least on person at our stalls at all times during the race day. The reason, we soon discovered, was not to keep an eye on the horses, but to keep an eye on the many, MANY spectators in attendance. I swear we saw several hundred people visiting our stalls, wanting to pet the horses and take pictures with them. From small children to the quite elderly, a love of horses was in the air. Many people looked like they'd never interacted with a horse so up close and personal before, while some would ask about breeds and what disciplines we rode in. If just one little kid left today with a newfound love of horses and the equestrian lifestyle, I believe our work in inspiring a new generation of horsemen and women was fulfilled. Tristan not only tolerated all the affection, he simply hammed it up between naps and peppermints to reward him for his exceptional behavior. He gently allowed the smallest children to leave him with a nice pat on the nose, and inquisitively peered into the many alcoholic beverages paraded past him by the adults. I was filled with pride by his super attitude all day.

The time finally came to head to the start, so we promptly tacked up and headed to "the paddock" to be instructed when to mount, warm up, and line up for the race. After waiting all day, the moment had finally arrived to see if a Connemara/Trakehner cross could be a legitimate racehorse. And they're off!

We may not have won, we may not have come close to winning, but I learned some new things about Tristan during this fun race! Firstly, when four horses start galloping at full speed right next to us, Superpony gets downright competitive! My original plan was to have an easy gallop on the first uphill, let him stretch out on the down, go easy around the turn at the bottom, then let it loose on the homestretch. That plan went out the window the second the flag went down. The closest parallel I can draw is to imagine sitting on a lit rocket, with minimal steering, absolutely ZERO brakes, and no seatbelt. Plus, you're loving every second of it as soon as you get over the sheer speed you're traveling at. I honestly didn't know we had that gear!

Whee! Go Pony, go!
 It was a bit disappointing to not stay with the big kids in the race, but we came out to have fun and try something new and that's exactly what we accomplished. The bottom turn came up quickly and was quite sharp, so I preferred to use the little brakes I had to ease up around the turn and come home safe, rather than run at breakneck speed and risk falling or hurting Tristan. So we gave up our fourth place position by playing it safe. Plus we got to enjoy the last haul to the finish line with the crowd screaming "COME ON NUMBER 3! YOU CAN DO IT NUMBER 3!" We crossed the finish line dead last, but I had a huge smile on my face and Tristan was ready to do another lap. (I swear, if we had another two laps on the course, we would have out-enduranced the whole lot of them!)

Still fresh and perky post- race - Photo courtesy of Eric Dierks
An exciting event like this truly isn't possible without the help from all the wonderful volunteers. We were graced by the presence of the divine Annie Lane-Maunder, a fellow event rider and amazing equestrienne, who helped us all tremendously throughout the day and got us all to the start in an orderly manner. Many volunteers were posted to man the gates and keep horses, jockeys and spectators safe, and facilitate a fun and action packed day at the races.

It's very easy to stay in your box, ride in just your favorite discipline, well within your comfort zone. What I love most about event horses and riders, is we create an athletic partnership based upon versatility. It's not enough to have excellent weightlifting and body building in dressage, or to just be a daringly bold jumper in cross country, and a agile show jumper. You need to cram all those talents into one horse and rider and accomplish these incredible feats back to back in a stressful, judged environment surrounded by your peers. Thus, we are a scrappy group of athletes capable of a great many things. Step outside your comfort zone, do a pure dressage show against the DQs. Try some distance riding to work on your endurance and your horse's partnership with you. Ride in a race and feel what it's like to go at a flat out gallop. Heck, go ride western once in a while and work some cows if it suits you. Gather those experiences and apply them back to your preferred discipline.

Tristan's going to enjoy a couple days off to munch on a good bit of pasture while I narrow down our next challenge, whatever it may be. Until next time.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Focus and Intent

Training horses is something not achieved in one day, one week or even one month. Achieving one's goals is something that takes years, decades and even a lifetime to accomplish. Tristan and I have been on this path together for nearly nine years, but I have found the accomplishments from the past month to be truly remarkable in our progress.

The most recent eureka moment started at a clinic with our longtime trainer and friend Eric Dierks at the Gibbes Farm in St. Matthews, SC. We were a bit dissapointed to arrive Saturday morning and find that it was raining too hard to ride the first day, even with the sandy soil drinking it in; but Eric found a way to help us all get our money's worth out of the weekend by throwing together an impromptu three hour lecture! When I say three hours, Eric encouraged us to take notes, and I have seven full pages filled with ideas and wisdom he imparted to us. He covered everything under the sun, from his own personal training scale (1. Rider's Position 2. Energy 3. Track and Straightness 4. Rhythm [made up of length of stride, tempo and cadence]), to Eric's thoughts on why we are seeing so many horse and rider falls in the upper levels, and even why we as riders train and compete in the first place (which should be to improve the horse's longevity and suppleness through proper development). The biggest points he drove home during his lecture and the cross country lesson the following day was this; Focus and Intent.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, rider's obviously should be focused on what they're doing on horseback. How big of a concept could this really be? Well that's partially true, we all focus on different things as we develop as riders. As a child, it's pretty simple; heels down, eyes up, post on the correct diagonal, chin up, and smile! As an adult, we get more into the details; find the correct distance, suppleness to the bit, activity and responsiveness off the leg, engage the hindquarters, etc. Sometimes we focus too much on the arbitrary goals (like I need my horse to keep his head down in front of the dressage judge, or I don't want a bad jump in front of my trainer and all my friends at the show) and forget the overarching purpose of training and showing in the first place; to show the harmony and communication between horse and rider.

As we practiced our focus at the clinic, Eric had us warm up by all four riders in our group jumping a single vertical together following one another in a circle. Now instead of focusing on the jump, we were focused on keeping equal distance from the horse in front of and behind us on the circle and needed to be aware of our horse's speed and track, as well as maintaining the proper energy to the base of the fence. What this was encouraging in our riding was to care less about the actual jump, and more about our rhythm and straightness, especially the track before and after the fence. After warming up, we schooled over several different questions to challenge our focus and play with the new concepts we had discussed the previous day. I finished the schooling with my interest peaked in the topic, but felt like we hadn't really internalized the lesson and applied it to our riding. As we prepared for the upcoming shows at The Fork and FENCE Horse Trials, I tried to keep the idea of focus in the back of my mind.

The week before The Fork, I really felt like I was desperately in need of a dressage tune-up. I trailered over to Eric's farm in Tryon, NC to take a lesson, and the concept of focus came up again. But what should I be focusing on in the dressage phase? Keeping Tristan from executing his flawless giraffe impression? Making good transitions happen? The movements of the test themselves? Eric had me run through the test once without commentary and then asked me my thoughts on my ride. Frankly, it was a terrible attempt, very jerky and mechanical, difficult transitions, and low quality of gaits. But what was I doing wrong? Tristan is really quite a nice mover, why aren't we showing it off when we perform and actual dressage test. To fix it, Eric had me ride the same test again, but this time he talked me through it. "Ride actively to the next letter, make your circle. Pretend there's a jump at B that you are actively riding to." He broke down the test, movement by movement, until it was merely a geometric jump course with no fences, which encouraged us to ride energetically from movement to movement, completely focused on each individual part of the test. We removed focus from the arbitrary "picture" of a round and pretty dressage horse, and instead intently focused on the actual training and riding at hand.


I was happy to find when schooling dressage the day before the show, Tristan was happily performing our dressage movements with suppleness and obedience I could have only dreamed of before. We performed the test the following day with one of our best rides to date, only lacking a bit of energy for true pizazz in the lengthenings. However, when we went on to our stadium course, we got a bit drawn in to the crowd, excitement and colorful jumps, and reverted to starting out flat and running, but right around half way through, we found a good rhythm and and focused better on track and straightness to finish with just one rail down. Starting to understand the concept of focus, and how revolutionary it was going to become in our competitions, I felt like I had direction for our improvement on the cross country course.

The jumps on the Training course were fairly standard for the following day, and with nothing revolutionary to keep me up at night, I was focused on my plan; making sure to get Tristan in front of my leg early on in the course so all I would have to do is support the stride to each obstacle. As we left the start box, I reached back to give him a nice hearty smack behind my leg with the crop to get the gas pedal started when our plan was utterly destroyed in an instant by my stupid, buttery fingers. I dropped my whip before the first fence. Oops.

Tristan is a wonderful horse and I love him dearly. However, he is a pony cross, and I have learned over the years that if a pony catches wind that you have nothing to back up what you're telling him to do, you've got nothing. Tristan knew immediately that my whip was gone, and my focus immediately when to "Oh sh!t, now what." I had no back up plan. I tried using the end of my reins to flip over his neck like a western rider, but to no avail. What I did notice, was through the more difficult jumps (the trakehner, half coffin, and giant brush at the bottom of a hill) we were fine. I stayed focused on my track and energy, and we jumped through just perfectly, but on more simple questions, I would lose focus on my track and had a stop at the B element of a turning question early on, as well as a log in the water when we got distracted by the rest of the water complex. Basically, this show drove home the fact that we had plenty of homework to reflect on for the following weekend at FENCE.


Our plan for dressage went fairly well the last time, so I aimed to give us the same ride with more energy. Again, Tristan showed up for work, happy, supple, and willing with my improved focus of riding the test like a jump course and we were thrilled to put in one of the best rides of our lives (minus a bobble after the canter lengthening that the judge luckily didn't look too harshly on) scoring our very first sub-30 dressage score ever with a 28.8!

Feeling strong, we moved on to cross country with my whip FIRMLY rubber banded to my finger to keep from slipping it through my hand again. Eric's advice for this very forward uphill course? Ride like Tristan offended you. Not too difficult, I was still dissapointed in our performance from the previous weekend. We came out of the start box, teeth gritted and determined to jump the hell out of this course. What followed was the strongest, most fluid and satisfying cross country rides of our lives. Every jump came directly out of a strong forward stride, Tristan didn't bat an eyelash or put a foot wrong the entire course. Instead of worrying about the perfect distance or a perfect jump, we were focused on rhythm, track and intent to the other side of the fence. We finished up with just a couple seconds of time to add to our awesome dressage score. I was very proud of our teamwork and how we had been able to execute the plan on course.

Warming up for stadium the following morning, I tried to make sure to get Tristan in front of my leg right away, but he still felt a bit sluggish and unresponsive. Eric pulled us aside and said "Don't just ask him to eventually get in front of you. Ride 3 or 4 strides of a strong, forward gallop, and then bring him back. Then 3 or 4 more forward strides. Keep playing with the back and forth." We adjusted our ride and immediately felt a huge improvement. Now the plan was to play it smart around the stadium course, and almost ride it more like a dressage test, focusing on the track before and after each fence more than getting perfect distance to each jump. Our ride wasn't perfect, but something I gained was the ability to think through the course, just like I can now think through a dressage test. The internal dialogue goes something like "OK that was a big jump over that oxer, let's package the canter again around the turn. Straighten out our next line and ride the track. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, OK and now the inside turn to 4, keep up the energy into a packaged stride around the turn..." and so on, and so forth. Previously, I would get so caught up in the course as a whole, it would be difficult to break it down jump by jump, movement by movement, but by shifting our focus internally on what makes a better round instead of "Gee, I don't want to look like a bad rider in front of my friends" we ended up having more rhythmic, beautiful rounds! We finished in 2nd place with a 30.8.

The end result is this; when you go to a show focusing on things like making the judge like your horse, looking good in front of your friends/trainer/any pro riders that may also be competing, or the actual results, you lose sight of the big picture. We compete to exhibit the training we've worked very hard for at home. You should be riding to show yourself you can have the same results under pressure as when you're all alone in your own arena. Eric gave me a great phrase that I found myself repeating all weekend, "I respectfully don't care what anyone thinks." Stay focused on what's really important and ride for yourself and the joy and pleasure of being with your horse. At the end of the day, nothing else really matters.