Thursday, November 27, 2014

Stay hungry this Thanksgiving

There are a lot of things to be thankful for this year. I've been fortunate enough to have a wonderful new husband, a beautiful farm, and lots of ponies to fill my time. I could go on and on about how great those are, and how happy they make me. However, I'd like to mention something a bit more unorthodox that I'm very grateful for; learning opportunities.

First, I'll mention the opportunity that has come to me in the form of Stübben North America. I started with being impressed with the innovations they showcased at their booth at Rolex, to purchasing a saddle, and ended up getting involved with their saddle fitter program and taking their educational seminar. Not only did this open up a wonderful dream job opportunity for me, but it also allowed me to continue the education and passion for alternative employment in the horse industry that was ignited by earning my college degree in Equine Entrepreneurship. I'm truly excited at the bright future I can see ahead of me for the upcoming years and am thrilled to be a part of Stübben's incredible team.

Secondly, I've had a wonderful opportunity working at Suncatcher Arabian's, a private breeding farm run by some of the nicest people I've ever met. They've been courteous enough to give me the ride on their prize stallion, Gunslinger, a beautiful Polish Arabian trained through 4th level dressage. He's one of the kindest, gentlest stallions I've ever had the privilege to work with and it doesn't hurt that he's also an amazing athlete. After his training, he had some poor farrier work leading to hoof lameness and ending his champion show career at the time, but after a 6 year respite, he feels ready to come back stronger than ever. It's definitely a unique opportunity to come to me, being an eventer that's only shown through 1st level, but I'm grateful for chance to learn more about dressage and polish my skills for the show ring.

I was raised to never be satisfied with my current level of knowledge. There's always more to learn, more to experience, and more to master in this world and I hope to never feel like I know everything. Whether it's earning a masters, learning from experts in their field, or just listening to someone with a a different set of life experiences than your own, always stay hungry.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Two partners, joining together

For those of you that were unaware, I am a gamer. My game of choice is World of Warcraft, after my ex-boyfriend got me into it shortly before college. I grew to love the game play, but more importantly, loved the social aspect of the game. You meet a wide variety of people online and I enjoyed the social interactions with players from all walks of life. For those that aren't familiar with gaming, in "WoW" players can choose to be part of a "guild" where a group of gamers form individual communities and make up their own rules and codes of conduct. I was in a guild when I first started playing, but once I got the hang of the game, I decided I wanted to create my own guild an try my hand at a leadership role. Thus, I created "Firefly."

Once we created the guild, it was time to recruit players to join our ranks. At first, the group changed and morphed constantly, until a couple regular members emerged. As people settled in our group, some had other friends they knew from  "in-game" or real life that they would encourage to join. Nathan had a friend named Bennett that joined Firefly and told him it would be a fun group of people for him to be a part of.

Nathan started trying to track me down to ask about joining and luckily he was very persistent because it took him several days to get my attention. It seemed that every time he sent me a message, I logged off and missed him. Finally, he got a hold of me and I interviewed him briefly before inviting him to join us. He impressed me within the first day with his polite manner, thoughtful behavior, honest character, and sharp wit. Within two weeks of meeting him, I promoted him to officer status and trusted him to help me manage and grow the guild.

We became good friends over the next several years enjoying playing WoW together, but also sharing stories about our personal lives. Oddly enough, we found we had much in common: Nathan and I were both home schooled through high school, we both had extremely supportive and involved parents that we got along with splendidly, and both could kill hours of our lives looking up cute pictures of animals on the internet. We talked each other through difficult times, celebrated the highs together, and kicked ass while taking names in WoW.

Now while all this time went by, Nathan and I were perfectly platonic as friends. He was very respectful of the relationship I had with my boyfriend at the time, and I was nearly 100% certain that neither of us even contemplated attraction to one another.

Fast forward to my 21st birthday. I invited my then-boyfriend, Nathan, and another friend, Matt, onto a group Skype call to celebrate my birthday virtually; with food, hard lemonade, and World of Warcraft. My boyfriend then finally placed the straw that broke my camel's back. I excused the two of us to a private conversation and broke of our nearly four year relationship immediately.

The next couple weeks and months were difficult for me, but the awesome friends I had made online helped get me through. Nathan really stood out as my lighthouse through the storm; always there to let me vent my frustration with solidly well-meaning words of advice. Eight months or so went by and while I was over my ex, a part of me was worried that I had blown my one chance of being in a relationship with anyone. After all, it's hard to get a date when you spend nearly every waking moment in a barn, smelling like horse manure, or on your computer alone in your room.

As luck would have it, Nathan's job brought him relatively close to where I was living in North Carolina and instead of driving eight hours home, he elected to drive eight hours to come meet me in person after all the years we had been friends. Now maybe three weeks prior to this, we had started noticing a slight change in our friendship. We had opened the door for some cheerful flirting, though I never really expected to fall for him so quickly.

He came to the farm where I was working in Tryon, and the first thing I noticed was how incredibly tall and thin he was, but let's be fair, that's hard not to notice. What really impressed me, though, was his kind and gentlemanly manner. He was the most polite and sweet guy I had ever met and within 24 hours, I was head-over-heels, madly in love.

What has followed has been a nearly nauseating stream of love and support. Nathan has been my rock when things have been tough, he's been there to celebrate my triumphs, and has made every moment we've spent together truly special. Without any horse experience, he has jumped in feet first when I've had competitions; keeping me calm, hydrated and providing me with stellar professional photographs of Tristan's awesomeness.  Watching him care for our dog, Lego, is probably the most heart-meltingly sweet thing I see every day. A huge plus is I know that any time we're together the number of doors I have to open for myself is is significantly decreased, as he always jumps ahead to be the well-mannered gentleman he was raised to be.

When I was a teenager, I though love was when you felt like you couldn't breathe unless the one you loved was by your side. I though you depended on one another so fully, you'd die if they ever left. What Nathan has taught me is something I learned as a child reading Shel Silverstein's "The Missing Piece," which is a story of a circle, missing a pie shaped piece out of it's side. The circle travels far and wide to to fill the hole in it's life. It tries all different shapes that don't fit until it finally finds the perfect pie shaped piece to fill the hole. Perfect end, right? Wrong. The piece ends up falling out. What the circle realizes is that it's been whole all this time.

Nathan allows me to be a whole person, and I allow him to be the same. He enriches and enhances my life, without us being 100% dependent on one another. Most simply, instead of two becoming one, we are much stronger as two partners joining together.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Surviving Barn Drama (or even better, Avoiding Barn Drama in the First Place)

Unless you and your horses live under a rock, it's likely you've experienced barn drama at some point in your horse experience. It's virtually unavoidable, but there are some tactics that can help avoid major problems in the first place, and also get through conflict with (hopefully) less damage.

#1 Communication is Key

Seriously, this is the most important part. If, as a boarder, you fail to communicate your needs to management, other horse owners, or, if you're the manager, your boarders, then the whole system is doomed to failure. As a boarder, it is your responsibility to be honest and upfront about you and your horse's needs. If Fluffy needs turnout boots put out in the morning, and her blanket taken off at 2:00 in the afternoon, and all you do is sit boots in front of your stall as a clue, there is bound to be some sort of miscommunication. No barn manager is a mind reader, and you can't expect them to anticipate what you expect to get out of your boarding experience. Also, as management, if a boarder is wearing you down with expectations above and beyond what is offered at your facility, that is your responsibility to communicate with them that they're asking too much and may need to consider moving to a different barn offering more services. There is no shame in admitting that the barn/horse/owner isn't a good fit since everyone has different values and desires. There are plenty of facilities out there, keep looking until you find what fits you best!

#2 Don't Believe Everything You Hear

Boarding facilities are the perfect environment for gossip to run rampant. It's important to remind yourself that there are two sides to every single story, avoid forming judgements until you can hear everyone's vantage point. Try not to spread stories that don't affect you, especially if it can hurt someone else. Another point; if you have a problem with someone, GO TALK TO THAT PERSON DIRECTLY. Don't complain to other people about how difficult Suzie is to deal with, they can't do anything to fix it anyways. The Universe helps those who help themselves.

#3 Just Because You Do Things One Way, Doesn't Make It The Only Way

Horses, like people, are each individual, special little snowflakes. Just because Tony the trail horse can live outside 24/7 with only a sniff of grain to keep him fat, doesn't mean Sparky the TB can follow the same lifestyle. This goes for management, nutritional needs, farrier work, number of vet visits, riding styles, etc. Don't judge another horse owner's methods, just because they're different than your own. That being said, if you see someone being dangerous with their horse, there is a chance they simply don't know any better. Try to find an understanding and kind way to educate them for safety's sake.

#4 If There's No Contract, Head For The Hills

Major red flag! If you do business with a barn manager, horse seller, etc, and they don't want to sign any sort of contract stating the exchange going on, RUN. FAST. There's most likely a reason for them not being interested in a binding document, and none of those reasons are good. Another place where contracts can really come in handy, are when exchanging work for board or lessons. If it's on paper and both of you have signed that you understand the exchange of goods and services, people are less likely to get hurt in the end.

#5 It's A Small World, After All

The horse world is tiny. If you badmouth someone, it will get around and most likely get back to the person you were talking about. Even if it's true, eventually it will only make you look bad for talking negatively about people. Also, since there are cases where you're really just done and want nothing to do with a person or situation anymore, be 150% sure before you burn a bridge with someone. Trust takes years to build, seconds to break, and forever to repair.

#6 Stay Mobile

There is nothing worse than being in a bad situation, and literally not having transportation to get yourself out. If funds allow, own some sort of small horse trailer, even if you very rarely use it. If you can't own a horse trailer, make friends with someone who does. Communicate with that person, that they are you emergency contact for evacuation or even emergency vet visits. Be sure to offer them gas money and tips/free dinners for helping you out, especially if it's at short notice.

Happy picture to signify end of rant!

Barn drama happens, but if you try to use as many tactics to be a good boarder or good barn manager, you can try to avoid major conflict as much as possible!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Why the Windridge Stadium course and I don't get along

***WARNING!!! Some of the images below include injuries around the eye and may be graphic to some viewers***

So Tristan and I have taken a pretty light summer to get comfortable at Prelim using local shows for practice. I haven't shown since FENCE Horse Trials this April, and figured we needed some warm up before the Tryon Riding & Hunt Club Trials in September. Thus, the Windridge Schooling Show sounded like a great idea to get us prepped for the fall. Unfortunately for me, this was the same showground where Tristan and I parted ways in the stadium ring last fall at our first attempt at Prelim.

We started out on Saturday schooling cross country with Eric Dierks in some pretty miserably hot weather. Eric has been working on our formula for producing efficient, powerful jumps every attempt, and I will say we started out a bit rocky. I swing between being overly assertive as a rider and being too lax, trying to find the middle ground that makes me more accurate without becoming anxious over the size or difficulty of the obstacle. Once we got on a roll, we produced some really nice jumps, even through some difficult questions. I'm particularly happy with the ability of my new Stübben Zaria Optimum saddle and how much easier it is for me to maintain a proper leg position over a variety of jumps!

A bold effort on the first attempt at the Trakehner

Tristan took a little encouragement for this AB skinny

We had a nice pat-the-ground stride in before this skinny after an upbank. Very thinking and cat-like of Tristan!

Bold effort on the downbank, plus my position stayed pretty great!
After a productive practice, we prepped for an early morning the following day for the schooling trial. We put in a fairly decent dressage test despite having to perform in a sudden downpour, in a spooky ring, with a stray dog wandering about during our test. We still need to work on the fluidity of our left bend and more impulsion in our lengthened gaits, but overall finished with a 35.9 and a very workmanlike test!

Then followed stadium. Our warm up was alright, but Eric thought we needed more power to a collected stride, and we also ended up running out of time and having to go in the ring a bit unprepared. For what followed, I take full responsibility. When I become anxious at events, my seat takes over and I begin to over-ride Tristan, which ends up either scaring him, or putting us in bad spots for jumps. We made it through the first three fences, but I got us in a bad take off for four. What followed seemed to pass in slow motion: first I thought we were going to have a stop, then suddenly we were mid-air over the oxer and I remember looking down wondering how we were going to clear the spread. Tristan made the distance by tossing his head mid-arc, meeting my face, and we landed on the other side with me immediately seeing stars. I was cupping my right eye, stunned and trying to figure out what had just happened. I heard someone call for the sidelines, "Are you ok?" and I pulled my hand away from my face to see blood dripping down my glasses with an unknown source.

It's always strange to be bleeding, but not actually feel pain, or know where it's coming from. For a brief moment I considered continuing on my course, then realized how stupid that would be and replied "I'm bleeding!" and quickly left the ring, starting to panic over the source of the blood. First concern was, is it my eye? No, I could still see from both. Then where was all the blood coming from? Turned out that when Tristan's head struck my face, the rim of my sunglasses had broken and cut deeply into my eyebrow and more superficially into my eyelid. Besides being stunned by the impact, I couldn't feel the cuts at all, which was very bizarre.

This is where it comes in handy to have friends you can count on at events. I quickly dismounted outside the ring, Eric and his wife Trayce both took Tristan back to my trailer (luckily he was unscathed by the whole ordeal), took care of him and prepped him to leave, while my fiance Nathan accompanied me to the ambulance. I was fine until someone said the word "stitches" to me, then I started to panic. I have an irrational phobia of needles, and the idea of getting sewn up, especially when I couldn't see how badly I was hurt, was absolutely terrifying. The EMTs cleaned me up and decided that, while they seriously recommended I go to the emergency room to get stitched up, I was in good enough shape to at least take my horse home and go take some Xanax before I headed over to the hospital.

Leaving the show, all wrapped up by the EMTs
 Once we were at the hospital, I got the guts up to actually look at the cut that needed stitches (I had been trying to convince the EMTs to shave my eyebrow and tape it shut, to no avail).

Not as bad as I was expecting!
It was definitely gaping, but not nearly as bad as it was in my head. Sometimes it does help to look!

Post stitches!
 The stitches were by far the worst part of the whole ordeal in my book. I honestly feel terrible for Nathan having to sit through me screaming like I was being murdered while they were sewing me up (and that was with one Xanax and two Ativan in my system).

Looking back at the entire event, I'm dissapointed I wasn't able to finish the show (I was really ready to show that XC course who's boss!) but at the end of the day, you always have to count the positives. Besides going to the ER, I walked away from the show on my own power, Tristan is 100% ok, and we live to ride another day. I've discussed what went wrong with Eric and we've decided that the best course of action is to move back down to Training level for the time being to help improve my accuracy and lower my anxiety level. It's not worth continuing at Preliminary right now with our current track record in stadium (which oddly enough has become our most difficult phase) until we can walk into the show ring 110% confident that the level is beneath us. This time, a bad miss left me with a colorful shiner, but next time it could be another concussion, an injury for Tristan, or far worse. There's nothing to say we won't be back to competing at Prelim soon, but there's also no shame in admitting that we need more time to seriously prepare for the level.

On the bright side, now we can really give the Training level riders a run for their money at Tryon Riding & Hunt Club, so watch out!

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Spring Tree: #1 Reason to Go Stübben or Go Home

Firstly, I'd like to extend a huge thank you to Jim Ehrman, President of Stübben North America, and the folks at Stübben for hosting such an educational seminar at their headquarters in Troy, VA, and inviting myself and the other participants to learn about their incredible products. I was able to walk away from the clinic with a better understanding of saddle fitting, and an intense feeling of excitement at becoming part of their extended team of partners. Stübben leather goods have been a staple of equestrian sport since 1894, and they continue to create products with two simple values in mind.

1. Comfort for the horse above all else

2. Value of product to the consumer

With those values in mind, Stübben's spring tree remains the number one reason to invest in their saddles over another brand. Their revolutionary design focuses on the comfort of the horse's back by allowing the tree to bend and flex with the horse's movement and properly absorb the rider's weight while transmitting the rider's seat aids through the saddle to the horse's back.

Stübben starts off with the frame of the tree.

The blue sections of the tree are made of a molded composite (not plastic, wood or fiberglass) that will not break under normal circumstances. Jim spoke of an instance where a dually truck accidentally backed over one of these trees at a show, bending it pommel to cantle, popping most of the rivets off the steel but left the composite unharmed!

Steel makes up for the rest of the framework, including recessed stirrup bars strategically attached to the points of the tree to distribute the rider's weight evenly across the horse's back.

Within the pommel, the steel plate designed to protect the horse's withers has ridges to add strength and help eliminate the possibility of a properly fitted saddle ever damaging the horse's spine.

Ridges for added strength and stability in the steel
In contrast to most saddle companies that carry a small assortment of tree sizes (usually Narrow, Medium, and Wide), Stübben's entire line has 7 different tree sizes (27 centimeter to 32 centimeter, and an additional extra wide) to accommodate everything from narrow, high-withered thoroughbreds to broad draft crosses and warmbloods. Most other companies try to fit a wider variety of horses with a limited number of trees by simply adding more padding the the panels. The best way to understand why the tree size is so vitally important to the horse's soundness is to consider a long distance backpacker buying gear. If you were to purchase a backpack for a long distance to carry heavy equipment, you would be advised to consider a backpack with a rigid frame in place to help distribute the weight of your gear across your back. A soft backpack with lots of padding and cushion will allow shifting and movement to occur, stressing the back and leading to soreness, even if it feels lighter and more comfortable in the store. However, if you use a backpack with a rigid frame, and light padding to help protect your muscles, the weight will be distributed evenly and allow you to go longer with less stress.

Once they have the molded composite, steel frame and variety of sizes, Stübben's next step is to tension the tree and add strapping.

To tension the tree, it is bent from pommel to cantle and strapping is strategically positioned on the frame and stapled in place. The whiter strip in the picture is used for the billets. Stability and longevity is added to the billet straps by attaching them in this manner. As depicted in the image, four main straps are used to tension the tree; two from pommel to cantle, and two across the deepest point of the seat (where the rider will ultimately sit). This allows the rider's weight to be properly absorbed by the spring of the tree as the webbing works with the steel frame. Also, once girthed down, the saddle can bend and flex with the horse's back and movement.

Once the saddle is placed on the horse and is properly balanced, the circle in the above image will become the deepest point of the seat. This is where the balance of the saddle becomes very important; a rider to far in front or behind the deepest point of the seat will not allow the saddle to distribute the weight across the horse's back.

Additionally, the cantle can move in a twisting manner, consistent with the horse's motion of his back, while staying stationary at the pommel and protecting the withers.

There are a lot of saddles out there, many will be very viable options for you and/or your horse. Some manufacturers forget that the main goal of creating this vital piece of equipment should put the horse's comfort above all else, and instead focus more on their profit margin. Stübben is strongly dedicated to designing, producing, and distributing quality products for both horse and rider where the horse comes first. After all, it's hard to stay in business for 120+ years by providing saddles and strap goods in barns across the world that don't live up to equestrian's expectations for quality equipment.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Prelim: who would have thought?

A couple years ago, if someone had told me I'd be sitting here today writing a blog after having completed an event at Preliminary, I would have laughed in their face. I cannot even describe the anxiety I felt, especially after walking the cross country course at FENCE on Friday before the event. A million questions swirled in my mind. "Have we prepared enough for this? Are we going to get hurt? How can I tackle this course when I don't even know if we can jump fence 7? Am I even brave enough to be an eventer, or should I hang up my jump vest and be a dressage queen?"

Luckily for me, the jump to move up the levels has come after years and years of preparation. With the right motivation from my coach, Eric Dierks, I was gently reminded that we have all the pieces of the puzzle to have a safe and fun show. All I needed to do was realize, #1 we can actually handle jumping the big tables, #2 don't focus on the course as a whole, tackle each fence individually, and #3 Eric wouldn't tell me I'm ready for Prelim if he thought I couldn't do it. I cannot stress how vital it is, especially when conquering new territory, to have a coach that you trust and can motivate you to perform at your absolute best. This past weekend would not have been possible at all if not for Eric calming my fears, helping me approach the questions systematically, and believing in me and my horse. (It also helps to have a support group of parents, fiance, and large system of friends rooting for us!) Thank you to all involved for making this weekend a success!

We started out with dressage early Saturday morning. I found myself oddly calm, a clear departure from my last prelim dressage up-chucking masterpiece. Tristan warmed up like a rockstar, very bright, forward, and balanced in our counter canter. We put in a workmanlike test, but were a bit tense in the early trot work. After the first lengthening, we loosened up a little, and the counter canter was actually quite nice! Our score was a 41.4, not great but not too bad.

Time passed quickly from the end of our test to the start of cross country. By the time I had cooled Tristan out and put his studs in, it was time to tack up and head over to the warm up. I felt like my stomach was jumping out of my throat (I usually can't eat before dressage, and was so nervous I couldn't stomach any food before XC either). Thankfully, with Eric's great advice the previous night, I was no longer in a blind panic. I had ridden the course 100 times while trying to fall asleep the night before and had a solid plan for the approach of every obstacle. I was focused on the track before and after every jump, allowing the jumps to become immaterial to the gallop. Tristan warmed up strong and bold, giving us lots of confidence heading towards the start box.

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

Fences 1-5 were a piece of cake, great jumps to get the gallop rolling and get the horses thinking to the other side of the fence. Fence 6 was the first tricky obstacle on course, a big scary fallen tree with a two stride to a red barn. Tristan was giving it a good look, so I put my reins in one hand, gave him a pop with my crop, and ended up jumping both A and B jumps one-handed! We galloped away to Fence 7, the biggest table I had ever seen on a course. I was absolutely petrified of the jump, but believed if I could just clear it, the rest of the course would be a piece of cake. Oddly enough, coming down to the table at a forward gallop, it suddenly didn't look that large anymore. We focused on jumping the height and letting the width (almost 6 feet!) take care of itself. Tristan cleared it like he'd done it a hundred times before. Good boy!

Fence 6 AB

Fence 7
On to the water, a rolltop at the top of the hill, down an almost 45 degree hill to a drop in, then a 90 degree turn to a rolltop out. I planned on jumping at a right to left angle to give us flatter landing room on the other side, but ended up making the angle too tight and letting Tristan get distracted by the crowd. He stopped. No big deal, we weren't there for a ribbon anyways. Second time he took it like a champ. Down the hill we went, but I didn't have enough time to prepare him for the drop in. Again, no big deal, as long as he doesn't stop anymore, we can just school the rest of the course. We made a quick circle, popped into the water, and easily came out over the rolltop. Fence 9-10 were easy gallop fences up the great big hill to the bank complex. We had a nice big up bank, one stride on top, down bank, to a skinny brush. Tristan didn't bat an eyelash but I accidentally dropped my whip while letting my reins slip through my hands for the down. Whoops, better not let him stop again!

Fence 8 A
Fence 8 B
Fence 9
Next was the half coffin at 13! I had an issue with a similar fence at Southern Pines a few weeks earlier, so I opted for trotting the ditch, allowing me to keep a full, supportive leg to the base. "No big deal," Tristan told me, "I've got this, mom!" After we'd gotten to this point on the course, all the other fences were very straightforward and Tristan just rocked along, taking each jump in stride. I couldn't even start to contain my excitement, breaking down crying before we'd even crossed the finish line, but we'd made it and we were safely home. I've never been so proud of anything as that moment! I don't know what I did to deserve a horse like Tristan, but somebody out there likes me.

After a nice afternoon of turnout, and a softly bedded stall for the night, Tristan was fresh and ready to tackle the stadium course Sunday morning. He was definitely a bit more fatigued than usual after cross country, but he still had enough gas in the tank to show off his tight knees around the course! It rode fairly straight forward, and we only had a slight bobble at the B element of the triple combination were his stride got a bit weak and he refused. Instead of riding for time (which would be silly when we were already dead last), I took a nice big circle to get his canter fresh and motivated, and we finished the rest of the course with ease!

Fence 4
Fence 8 B

Fence 10
My biggest fear with moving up to Prelim, was that I was going to make a mistake and hurt my horse, or myself, or worse. Even with all the years Tristan and I have worked together, I wanted to be 150% sure when we made this leap together that there would be no doubt we were ready. Besides some tenseness, a couple easy stops, and some time, Tristan and I proved to ourselves that we were more than prepared to tackle these new hurdles. This is probably the happiest I will ever be with a penalty score of 152.80 after an event!

We have already achieved more than I ever thought possible, and now I'm excited to open this new chapter in our careers, becoming established at Prelim and polishing up our rough patches. I'll probably give him a light show season this year, go to lots of clinics and schoolings, and maybe throw in some dressage shows, but plan on returning to FENCE in the  fall for the TR&HC Horse Trials again at Prelim! For now, Tristan has earned a couple days to eat grass in the field and go out on some nice hacks in the woods...

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Boyd Martin on "Riding the Horse Underneath You"

After being born and raised in the chilly suburbs of Chicago, I was excited to move to Greenville, South Carolina and put Tristan and myself smack dab in the center of all the equestrian events and training in the southeast! It also helps to befriend local trainers, and I have made (hopefully!) lifelong friends out of my trainer, Eric Dierks, and his equally talented wife, Trayce. In addition to having access to their beautiful farm in Tryon, NC, Renovatio Farm, they're also the type of horse people that know everybody. I mean everybody! Last week, I got wind on Facebook that Trayce was putting together an impromptu clinic with the one and only Boyd Martin! I think I texted her hoping for a riding spot within about 10 seconds of hearing about it. Never, ever pass up an opportunity to ride with a well-respected trainer, especially if he/she is an Olympian!

Renovatio Farm is nothing if not incredibly picturesque, and that's just the house!

I know lots of eventers go gaga over Mr. Martin, due to his dashing good looks, Australian accent, and sincere love of his horses, but I'm selfish. No matter how many accolades a rider has, they're of little use to me if they can't teach me and my horse a way to become better, safer competitors. I am happy to report that Boyd is probably  an even better clinician than pretty face for magazine covers!

We started out by discussing stirrup length. Boyd said there should be three distinct lengths; one for dressage, one for jumping, and one for riding (flatwork in a jump saddle). The flatwork length is going to be somewhere in between your dressage length and jump length, and should fall just above your ankle bone. After our stirrups were up to snuff, we did a light walk/trot/canter to warm up, with the focus being on the horse responding to the leg. While working at the trot, we sectioned the arena into three areas with square turns in each corner, allowing the horse to focus on straightness and impulsion instead of putting a huge effort into creating a bend. At the canter, we put all the horses into a light hand gallop before attempting to try any collection, thus allowing them to stretch out their backs before compression. This started all our mounts out with a great, forward thinking mindsets before we started jumping.

Then back to the stirrups. We took a moment to adjust to our jumping lengths, and Boyd introduced a new concept regarding stirrup position. While the traditional position of the stirrup bar is across the ball of the foot, Boyd had us scoot our feet out a bit further so just our tip-toes were on the pads. He said this was easiest to do with wide-tread, plastic stirrups that have cheese grater pads. The goal of this positioning was to create a deeper heel angle and fuller contact between the rider's lower leg and the horse. This tactic was especially useful on jumps requiring extra support to the base of the fence, like banks on cross country, or spooky stadium jumps.

Then to warm up for jumping, we set up two raised cavaletti in a figure-8 pattern. We started with a large, looping figure 8 for the first 4-5 jumps, then cut the turns in half to a tight, turning figure. This got the horses to start thinking on their feet before we started over larger jumps. From the figure 8 cavaletti, we turned down a long gymnastic line of a bounce-two stride-bounce-two stride-bounce, which was progressively raised from small cross rails to larger Xs.

Now on to the bigger stuff. To go back to practicing the deep heel and secure lower leg, we worked over a vertical fence with a turn back to an oxer with a v chute.

Tristan and I over the V
Eric Dierks and Puff

I liked the feeling of the deep heel coming into the base of the fence. I have a tendency to take my leg off entirely a couple strides before the jump, but having my heels pushed down helped make me more conscious of my leg contact into the base.

We then put some small courses together, and Boyd focused on everyone's individual issues. My biggest problem is something I've been working on for almost a year. Sometimes, when I start encountering problems on a course, (missing distances, lacking power, too much power, etc.) instead of reacting and adapting to the situation, I will instead sit there and go "Oh dear God, I hope this works out! Tristan take the wheel!" Well... not quite that bad, but my body goes into a neutral state instead of fixing the situation.

We were working on a one-stride to a 5 stride bending line to a Swedish oxer. I came through the line 3 times and each time, ended up with 6 strides. Boyd stopped me and said simply, "You're doing it wrong. You need to take the inside turn and make it 5 strides." So we came around again, I gritted my teeth and put my strong lower leg in effect. Tristan powered through the one-stride, we landed, I set the inside turn, and we made the distance in not 5, but 4 strides! The "Little Horse" stepped up his game! This was, of course, not the ideal reaction, but Boyd was happy that we had made the change to a more powerful, direct route, rather than losing energy while adding strides.

Making that inside turn happen!

When you ride with different trainers, you always gain a little more perspective. Sometimes you find out that they have very similar ideas to what you've already had yelled at you for hours on end learned, other times you pick up entirely new concepts. From this clinic, I know I need to refocus on "riding the horse underneath you," as Boyd put it. He told me it's very important to react to what the horse is telling you, since issues early on in a course could spell refusals later on, or worse. Also, I'm going to practice scooting my feet further out of the stirrups and allowing my heel to sink further down and create a fuller connection with my lower leg. This show season, I don't want to continue making the same mistakes, but let every past failure breed future success.

***Thanks to Erik Olsen for taking video of the lessons!***

***Thanks also to Linda Valerio Stenzel for taking photos of the entire clinic! Her album is available here***