Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Next Step - A Recap of the TR&HC Horse Trials

Risk is inherent in my sport. Eventing is a dangerous mix of athleticism, skill and sheer bravery. It is with great thought and preparation that we should consider moving up the levels to achieve greater and greater feats. We risk bodily harm and even death of both rider and mount every time we leave the start box. Thus we owe it to ourselves and our horses to put great thought into wanting more challenge. Am I physically and mentally prepared? Is my horse physically and mentally prepared? Are we setting ourselves up for success or failure?

I've been told on multiple occasions that both myself and my horse have been ready to go Preliminary for several years now. However, I believe that up until this point in our partnership, we have not. There was always some tiny element missing from our recipe for success. One small edge that other competitors held over us. This season has done a lot to overcome my suspicions. We started this year with a win at Training level at the F.E.N.C.E. Horse Trials, had only one stop on cross country and only one rail this entire season, and finished our last show in 2nd place only 0.3 points behind the leader. The element we were missing was boredom.

This last show was the most relaxed showing experience I've had since my last run at Novice in 2012. I felt as if I had almost wasted my money competing at Training level instead of Prelim. I was hungry for the challenge and ready to show all my homework. Our dressage has improved hundreds of times over in the past year, we have become increasingly bold in cross country, and it's been awhile since any stadium jump has concerned us. In fact, once our cross country courses reaches a basic point-and-shoot mentality, it's time to find new challenge.

The Superpony is hungry for more and for the first time in several years, so am I.


A recap of our last show - Tryon Riding and Hunt Club Horse Trials


As I said before, our dressage had improved immensely. We nevertheless have our homework cut out for us. Our overall consistency has greatly improved, but we are now lacking in the power department. This lowers our points for lengthened gaits. From recent lessons, we have ascertained that Tristan is perfectly capable of powering from his hind end, it is now up to me to figure out the best way to access that power without making him angry. With the hot Trakehner side and stubborn Connemara, sometimes it becomes almost impossible for Tristan to remain cool while I light the giant rocket in his rear.

I am most impressed by Tristan's overall frame and willingness while in the show ring. I think the days of explosions and bird-flipping are behind us. I can't help but smile now as I come down the centerline, confident knowing that we've done all our homework and have shown up at the event ready to perform.

Our score was 32.3 putting us in second place.


The rain was threatening all through our warm up with mist falling throughout our ride. Luckily we missed all of the massive downpours that occurred later in the day. Even with wet conditions, Tristan warm up splendidly, keeping a very cool head in the warm up. We entered the ring with confidence to spare, even though where I had originally thought there would be two in-and-out complexes, there was now only one triple complex in their place. With no time to walk the course again, I simply told myself that we had done our homework and would adjust in the moment. My trainers, Eric and Trayce Dierks advised me to ride the course at a very bright medium canter as some of the earlier riders had issues due to lack of pace.

We had a beautifully bold round, finishing double clear, still in second place but now by only 0.3 points.

Cross Country

The warm up for cross country was definitely the most confident I have felt before leaving the start box. We knew our course back to front, it was the same one we had won on earlier this spring, the only difficulty was the time. Since I've been preparing for Preliminary all season, I had decided to just ride my Prelim gallop. I did some light trot work to warm up Tristan's muscles, light gallop to get the lungs going, and jumped about 5 jumps (only cross country obstacles, we find the stadium jumps in warm-up a waste of effort). Eric told us to simply put some extra RPMs to the base of the jumps, and after two jumps in that style, we were raring to go. Off to the start box we went.

5... 4... 3... 2... 1... Have a great ride, we'll leave the light on.

Tristan jumped like he could have done the course in his sleep. His gallop was tremendous, eating up the course stride by stride. I used my crop before the water to get his attention. He didn't need me to tell him he was going to get wet.

Fabulously up the bank, up the hill to an upright coop, a hidden ditch, big bench, and then our biggest issue, the big drop. A light wack and down the bank we went, me screaming "Good Boy!" All downhill from there.

The rest of the course went by in a blur. Jump by jump, Tristan ate the rest of the course for breakfast. He felt barely impressed by the obstacles at hand, clearing them like they were Beginner Novice height. We crossed the finish line with a double clear, well within the time. After hyperventilating for half a minute, I realized how easily we had just cleared the entire course. Besides a light overall sweat, Tristan recovered quickly on the walk back to the trailer.

We finished the show, still in second place, still behind the leader by 0.3 points. With a field that close, you can't help but be impressed by your competition. Congratulations to all.

Thus we completed our 4th and final qualifier for Preliminary. I now have no excuse to keep me from competing at the Windridge Fall Horse Trials in October. We are more than ready to move up. We have proved ourselves time and time again. Here's to hoping my stomach realizes this as well.

After such a great season already, no matter what happens next weekend at Prelim, I am unbelievably proud of Tristan. I am also proud of myself, for planning to conquer new challenges. By nature, I am an extremely cautious person and I don't take this next step lightly. It is time for us to see what we are made of.

This goes out to all the people that told me that my horse can't jump, I can't ride, and we'd never amount to much. Watch us go now!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Raising the Bar - Clinic with Ilse Schwarz

Eventers are notorious for hating or being terrible at dressage. Personally, I detest that stereotype, especially since I believe dressage is the most important of all three phases. Without dressage, stadium jumping would lack a great deal of finesse and cross country would be even more dangerous than it currently is. Thus I believe that it is every eventer's duty to practice and attempt to master dressage to the best of his or her ability.

Not all eventers share my love for dressage. It is truly a shame to see how many riders completely disregard the basis of all training in the effort of spending more of their time jumping. I was entirely disheartened to see that at the Dreamcrest Horse Trials this past weekend one rider had a penalty score of 90.0 at Training Level and another scored a 94.5. Honestly, if I went to a show and scored that poorly, it would be time to pack up and head home because I would have clearly missed a couple steps in preparing my horse for the event. I understand that accidents happen, horses will have bad or spooky days, but the amount of things that must go wrong to result in a score that poor is astronomical. Bettina Hoy took Lanfranco to Burghley this past weekend and retired during her dressage test due to his inability to cope with the atmosphere. That is an appropriate response; when something is so wrong that your mount becomes unsafe and unable to relax, it is time to call it a day. Continuing to compete with a mount and rider combination unable to execute the basic training requirements in the dressage test makes the pair a danger to themselves, their fellow competitors, and everyone else at the event. (Thank you, I will now step down from my soapbox.)

Tristan and I had the amazing opportunity to train again with the lovely Ilse Schwarz at Cross Creek Farm in Columbus, NC. Last time she gave me a large array of tips and tricks to combat Tristan's naughty pony side that loves to rear its ugly head during stressful situations (i.e. shows). I was very eager to show her how much Tristan and I have improved in the past 2 months using her techniques and excited to see what new things we could work on.

To take full advantage of the three day clinic, of which I only rode one day, auditing was my best friend. I watched most of the rides on Saturday, and greatly enjoyed taking in the training and conversations with each horse and rider pairing. Many different skill levels attended the clinic, ranging from seasoned Grand Prix mounts, young up and coming babies, green older horses, and green riders. This allowed for incredible listening pleasure as Ilse used her wide skill set to best address each pair.

Dressage is hard!

Here were a few of my favorite points:

1) The importance of tempo

Tempo can be maintained with the rhythm of posting. This is especially important with a horse that rushes forwards and will translate the flat rushing gait into a more powerful lilt at a slower tempo.

With the different types of trot (extensions to collections to passage) don't ever give up the tempo.

2) Ride the young horse like an underdeveloped FEI horse

When working with a young or green horse, just because you aren't putting them into an upper level frame doesn't mean that you need to sacrifice the necessary building blocks to get there eventually.

3) Remember how to ride

Just because you have an instructor telling you what to fix in your riding, don't sacrifice your own instincts and keep your brain engaged while listening. (Lord knows how easy it is to turn into a lesson robot and stop thinking for yourself.)

Here are some of my favorite photos from the first day of the clinic.

Last time, Ilse gave me tools to counter Tristan's ability to avoid working his body correctly. This time we focused on raising the bar and expecting more out of him through lateral work, his gaits, and his self-carriage. Tristan would like me to convey that this is very difficult for him and he would much rather jump 50 cross country fences than do a correct trot-canter transition in self-carriage. Ilse immediately identified Tristan's main problem area; multitasking. He would prefer to only do one of three things. 1) Have impulsion 2) Lateral movement 3) Roundness. Attempting two of those things at the same time, or god-forbid three, is nearly impossible. We spent most of the ride convincing him that he is more than capable of doing all three.

I was very excited at how much improvement I can feel since my last dressage lesson. Our counter-canter has become much more balanced, and his transitions are getting more through every day. We still have a lot of homework to practice before our next event, but the stepping stones along the way are very clearly defined.

My favorite moment in the lesson was when riding the counter-canter through the short side of the arena. Ilse said to me, "Ride him into your outside knee." I visualized that and immediately felt our balance improve. She told me that young horses do not recognize a "right" or "wrong" lead to canter on. Through training, we teach them the correct lead in relation to direction of travel. Once we introduce the counter-canter, we need to abolish the notion that the horse can only travel on the correct lead when traveling in a particular direction. The less we focus on "right" and "wrong," the less the horse will focus on it.

We have two weeks until our next show at Training level, and four weeks until our Preliminary debut. Our work is cut out for us, but I believe with steady practice and consistently raising the bar for ourselves, Tristan and I really have a shot and shining in our next competitions. Not only will we shine, we will do so safely and well within our abilities. 

Go, Super(dressage)pony!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Best Medicine

"In riding a horse we borrow freedom."

~Helen Thompson

I found this to be literally true today. I am currently suffering from what seems to be a small sinus infection but ponies still need to be worked, fed and turned out. I took Tristan for a warm up walk on the trails before hitting the arena for a dressage schooling. My lovely pony and I had a lengthy argument last night over whether it was possible to do canter transitions directly after a leg yield and I was concerned today would be more of the same. However, either Tristan was still tired from fighting with me the previous evening or had picked up on my lack of energy, but he was a perfect gentleman for the whole workout!

Beyond Tristan going easy on me, I always find as long as I'm not too sick to get in the saddle, I will find my symptoms miraculously alleviated! I love that riding my horse will generate better results than all the drugs in the world. It's also amazing to think of how Tristan seems to take care of me when I'm not feeling well. Even as I cooled him out on a short trail ride, we encountered a herd of deer. Instead of spooking as he normally would, all he did today was watch them bound off into the trees.

I love riding, and I definitely love my horse.