I am so glad that I didn't sell Sydney this past fall. I am even more grateful to Hubby for encouraging me to stick with him. I am absolutely head over heels in love with that Kiwi from down under. Thank you New Zealand Racing for sending this very lovely horse to the USA.
Sydney's race name is Pick a Card; click image to look him up.
As I was preparing Speedy G for the two-day HDEC show, Sydney had eight days off. He was turned out plenty, but he had no under saddle time. I got on him for Monday's lesson, a little apprehensive; eight days is a long time off for a healthy OTTB. No worries - I was treated to a very well mannered boy. Tuesday was much the same, but an appointment and a sick day kept me from riding on Wednesday or Thursday.
Pick a Card - I'll take this one!
I worked a short day on Friday which gave me sufficient time to ride both boys. Even though I still wasn't feeling well, I hopped up on Sydney anyway (Speedy, too). I was so glad to find my boy just as relaxed as he had been on Monday and Tuesday. Each time I rode him, I worked on a small circle to the right to encourage Sydney to stand up and fill up my outside rein. He got better each day.
I enjoyed a very pleasant ride on Saturday. His left lead canter is something to die for. He has become so light in the front end that I can put him anywhere I want to. One difficulty that I've been having is using too strong of an outside rein. When I do, he drops back to a trot. On Saturday, I really focused on following his motion so that when I wanted to pick up his shoulders to move, I asked when he was already lifting his shoulders. AHA!
Wow. What a great feeling. By fine tuning my feel at the canter, I was able to get him even more collected. It was like flying ...
On Sunday, my plan was to work the right lead canter again in the small circle to help him balance and learn to move out. He foiled my plans by picking up a very balanced right lead canter without the need for the small circle. Now that he and I have finally connected emotionally, he is working so hard to do the right thing for me. Over the last few months, he has developed a keen sense of what I am trying to ask. If he thinks he knows the answer, he will volunteer before I can even ask the question.
During our loose rein warm up, the neighbor boy b-b-b-b-bounced around on his roller coaster car, startling Sydney. He gave a give "scooty" hop over, but then quickly returned to his pleasant trot with an ear flicked to me as if to ask, everything okay up there? I gave him a good boy pat and reassured him that everything was indeed, okay.
I have fallen in love with this horse ...
I really need to find a more entertaining way to write about the progress I am making with my Thoroughbred. Since it has become dull for me to write about how well and fast we are progressing, it must be equally uninspiring to repeatedly read, We Cantered! I obviously need another lesson on him so that we can work on something new.
Repetitive as it may be, it is far more fulfilling (for me at least) to write about our new found success than to feel the need to unburden myself about my old frenemies, Fear and Self-Doubt. I haven't seen those dudes in quite a long time to which I say good riddance anyway! If you're new here, or are only an occasional visitor, Fear is a gigantic elephant who likes to occupy the room or arena in which I am working. Over the past six month, it seems that I have kicked his ass to the curb and the taxi that was there waiting. And Mt. Self-Doubt, while still a geographical feature of my learning field, is slowly eroding and being washed away. I've summited it many times now and find it easier and easier to do.
So, monotonous as it is, we had a lovely right lead canter on Saturday! My rides on Sydney now all begin the same way: one walk lap around the outside of my "dressage court" with my hands planted in my thighs; a variety of circles, half circles, long side work at the trot with my hands still in my thighs; and then we canter. I always canter left first as that direction is very relaxing for Sydney. We spiral in and out, go down the long sides, and finish with another circle or two. I bring him back to a trot where we do a little spiral in and out and maybe a change of direction across the diagonal.
After our work to the left, we track right. Since he's already warmed up, we do some spiral work, and then I ask for the canter. Just two weeks ago, getting a canter that was somewhat in a forward direction might take 5 tries. And before we could even think about cantering, I had to work hard to get him rolled outward so that he wasn't leaning/falling in on my right leg and hand. Only when I thought he was properly balanced would I even try for that right lead canter. Most of the time we weren't successful until the 5th or 6th attempt.
That was before. Before what I am not exactly sure. I suspect it has to do with my deepening understanding of the outside rein. You know when you read, the outside rein controls the bend? those masters really meant it. The outside rein does control the bend. Sydney was falling in at the canter and I was helping him by not using my outside rein to control how much bend he had to the inside. The outside leg also helps by not letting the haunches drift out. So by controlling the bend with the outside rein, and keeping his haunches underneath him, he can now go forward into the canter rather than spin and fall into the canter.
I can read it 1,000 times, but it doesn't make sense until I actually feel it.
On Saturday, it took one request to get a nicely forward trot-to-canter transition. And then, since it was so nice, I decided we were ready to try canter to trot to canter transitions. I couldn't even think about doing those before as just getting one trot to canter transition took all day. I was so pleased with the transitions he did. I can see where we have some work as they weren't as smooth as they need to be, but at least I was able to keep him straight in the departures instead of falling in.
Here's to continued monotony and repetition!
I rode Sydney again on Wednesday evening, but this time, he was terrible (compared to Monday). I mean head jacked up, body stiff as a board, and every muscle in his body shrieking, RUUUUN! You OTTB!
But he didn't.
I said, noooooo, we're going to beeeeend.
He didn't ...
at least not for about 23 minutes. When he finally did bend, the ride was over.
It sounds simple, but it wasn't. It sounds scary and hard, but it wasn't. Instead, it was a fabulously, wonderful opportunity for me to add to my sense of feel.
As soon as I knew that this wasn't going to be one of those canter-so-that-he'll-move-his-feet rides, I focused completely on my aids. I quieted my hands, lightened my seat, and worked through my core.
For the better part of 20 minutes, I placed my left hand on my thigh to say you can bend while my outside rein said no faster. Any time Sydney loosened his neck and relaxed, I gently gave him the inside rein by lifting my hand back to a regular position. Without fail, he squealed and tried to jerk his head away. He was just having none of it.
I continued on with my hand planted in my thigh and encouraged him to soften his jaw, neck, and shoulders. I even said it out loud. I kept my seat light, but my legs on. When he gave an ounce of softness, I softened every part of my body. When he stiffened back up, usually in the very next stride, I lengthened my back and put my leg back on.
Just a few months ago, I would have been pretty nervous about his desire for an explosion, but now I feel no fear (bye-bye Elephant. Hasta luego!). Chris Cox was right. When we replace fear with knowledge, we have confidence.
As we continued, I started to worry that it might get dark before Sydney finally relaxed and gave me some sequential strides of softness. I doubled my efforts and really focused on what I was trying to achieve. Sally Swift talked about riding with soft eyes. She felt they remove tension from our bodies. I softened my eyes and looked inward. I turned my ear to Sydney and really listened for where the tension was coming from.
I suddenly felt that my outside rein wasn't working together with my inside softening rein. All at once, I felt something click in my brain, and a new AHA hit. In order for the half halt to be effective, the inside rein had to be steady. OOOOHHHHHH!
With a giving inside rein, my half halt was simply wagging his head from side to side. I stiffened my inside rein, and said HALT with the outside. Oh, hallelujah, I got a halt! I asked for a walk, he sprang into a jig, and I repeated the halt. We repeated the exercise several times until he knew what I wanted.
The softness that I'd been searching for happened within just a few minutes. All of a sudden, I understood that I could ask for softness and bend with that inside rein, but I also needed to be firm when I said no faster with my outside rein. The coordination between the two reins suddenly felt like a dance.
No longer was I was "sawing" back and forth. I could genuinely feel the difference between the two reins. One was asking for softness while the other was slowing down the outside shoulder. We were truly connected.
And it was AWESOME!
So here's where we are.
Yet another "borrowed" internet photo.
We're making forward progress. We obviously have a long way to go, but the good news is that we are on the right road.
Just a few months ago I was feeling really, really frustrated. I just couldn't see any forward progress at all. I would think that we had made progress, but then the same crap would present itself again and again. I watched a video from my first ride on Sydney and was so discouraged to see that we looked better on that ride than we do now, a year and a half later.
I started looking at how much I was spending on a horse that was turning out to be a bad fit for me. I wasn't afraid to ride him anymore, but I just didn't seem to be a good enough rider to really ride him well. Selling him seemed like the smartest thing to do. I placed a very lean ad on an online site and decided to leave the whole mess in the Divine's hands. Seriously.
Do you know what happened? Within a DAY of posting that ad, I had one of the best rides I have ever had on Sydney. Of course. I immediately thought about pulling the ad, but then I didn't. One good ride couldn't change a year and a half of not really getting anywhere. I continued to look at him as a sale horse, but I reasoned that I might as well learn what I could from him while I waited for the right interested buyer.
I felt good about my decision and was absolutely honest about giving the issue to the Man Upstairs. I quit "outlining" what I wanted to happen. I never even revisited the ad to see if anyone was showing interest. I simply let the whole thing go.
Hand your problems over to someone else, and all of a sudden you're free of the burden. Figures. Since placing that ad, my rides on Sydney have gotten really, really good. That's not to say that he's soft and round as soon as I get on, but within just a few minutes, he is bending and moving away from my leg, and we are cantering every day.
On Sunday, I rode him in the "scary corner" where little Tommy was climbing the tree right next to the arena. Tommy and I were chatting about how many gifts under the tree were for him while Sydney and I cantered around and around. Take that you puny, little elephant!
After Tommy disappeared to do little boy things, Sydney and I continued to work. I asked for a right lead canter and got a whole lot of oh, my - that's not right. I brought him back to a trot and just focused on rebalancing him to the right. I focused on pushing him sideways, sideways, sideways as we worked on a 20-meter circle. After a few minutes I realized that he was nicely balanced and hitting the rail at exactly the right spot.
I asked for a right lead canter and was pleasantly surprised by what he gave me. At first, I needed to sponge the outside rein to keep him straight, but then I was able to switch to sponging the inside rein to encourage a bit of flexion. It was a lovely, balanced canter. His downward transition was soft and quiet and he immediately stretched his neck down at the walk. I had a huge smile on my face and realized that I had made all of that happen.
So where are we? Sydney is still for sale until he isn't. God will let me know if something changes. My shoulders feel a lot lighter since I ditched that burden of worry. Sydney's demon seems to have been defeated (or was it my own?), my elephant seems to have moved to a new home, and Mt. Self-Doubt is suffering from erosion. Today, all is right in my world.
Our weather is sinfully lovely, low 70s with a brilliant blue sky. With four full days off, I am using every one of them to put some serious rides on both my boys.
I haven't really shared much on the Sydney front lately as we've just been motoring along pretty steadily. Some days I am frustrated by his inability to relax, and other days I am encouraged when I recognize how much better I am riding him. I know that our problems are actually my problems. Sydney doesn't just give it up; he makes me earn every balanced step.
I can't say it enough times; that simulator changed the way I am riding. My sense of feel has gone supernova. The stiffness in my right wrist is disappearing and my elbows have finally moved to center stage. My core is way more engaged, and I feel like it is stabilizing more and more each day.
This new body awareness has helped me ride Sydney much more effectively. We now canter every ride. We're better to the left, no surprise there, and even though it's not even close to pretty, we're also working on the right. Fortunately, Sydney and Speedy G share the same body issues. Both boys are stiff to the left and limp to the right. This is a god thing as what I learn on Speedy G can be used with Sydney.
Over the last month, my rides on Sydney have gone more or less like this: walk on the buckle one time around the arena. We then begin our trot work with a fairly loose rein, although the rein length is getting shorter each day. Our warm up includes a trot lap in each direction with a change across the diagonal. After the perimeter work, I do a three loop serpentine in each direction. I follow that with a couple of repeated passes across the diagonal and then a canter circle in both directions. By the end of the canter circles, Sydney is usually moving more forward and is ready to start bending.
I spend the rest of the ride asking him to supple his neck and ribs by doing a variety of exercises: random loopy circles, spiral in and out, 20-meter circle with a 10-meter circle at the top, and so on. On Wednesday, I decided to try some canter work after our suppling exercises. I haven't done this with him before as he tends to be anxious about the shortened rein already, and I know asking for anything else leads to blow ups.
I started left and was delighted that he picked up the canter without any fuss. This was a huge accomplishment. For me. He obviously just needed me to ride him better.
On Friday, I decided to test my new-found skills. We started as we always do: walk, loose rein trot, canter, and then on to more connected work. This time, I started shortening the rein early into the warm up. I focused on keeping my fingers closed, especially my ring finger, and I made sure my elbows were moving at my side. I also focused on moving from the elbow as opposed to moving my hands or wrists.
Right away I felt more balanced and much more secure in the saddle. As we rode, Sydney did his usual sometimes balanced, sometimes flipping his nose routine. I continued to move from the elbow asking him to soften to the inside while moving him away from my inside leg. All the while I paid close attention to supporting him with my outside rein; no running through the outside shoulder, please.
As we were nearing the end of the ride, I again asked for the canter. He made the transition willingly. But as I asked for a slightly more uphill canter, he gave a squeal, tossed his head and blew through the outside shoulder. For about three steps. I slid my inside hand down the rein, pulled straight back with my elbow, and bent him around my leg while insisting that he go forward.
My new found strength and balance surprised him and energized him at the same time. All of a sudden he rocked back on his hind end and gave me the most fabulous uphill canter. He also started giving the most adorable race horse snorts. Frankly, he rocked the canter! We made a few circles and transitioned down to trot. I immediately did a change of direction, which when he's anxious is a guaranteed way to get a blow up, but I brought him to me and sat deep on the pull. He made the turn and then gave me a brilliant and connected trot. He was uphill, on the bit, and fabulous. I just sat there supporting him.
We came back to a walk, and I praised him hugely. I hopped off and gave him a big smooch, which he loves, and hoped he felt as good about his work as I did. I wish I could convey how frustrating it has been to have a horse that I can't ride. Oh, don't misunderstand; I ride him all week long. I mean really ride him and make it look pretty.
Every other week I decide that I should just sell him to somebody who can do a better job with him. Then we have a decent ride and I think, well, maybe I can do this. I hope this is more than one of those times. I hope this is me really getting good enough so that he is hearing me and working with me. Either way, my elephant is a pretty distant memory, and Mt. Self-Doubt is looking smaller and smaller.
Can I get a hallelujah, Sister?!
Internet photo - I've never actually done this.
Saturday's ride was crowded. As I summited Mt. Self-Doubt, I had to squeeze past my elephant Fear AND a whirling-twirling demon. The good news? I made it!
An explanation is needed. Mt. Self-Doubt is always in my vicinity. It looms large and in charge when trouble rears its head. It's a steep climb filled with narrow ledges, and slippery sides. There's the I Am an Idiot Step, I am a Terrible Rider Face, and the always terrifying I Hope No One Can See Me Zone. On Saturday however, I zipped right past each of the obstacles and made it to the top without a single mis-step.
When I saddle and bridle, Sydney is always relaxed. He lips the bit into his mouth and sighs. He stands rock solid while I mount. He enjoys working. Keeping that in mind will help me defeat his demon.
I started Sydney out on the same loose rein trot and once again had to kick, kick, kick him around the arena. We did the long sides both directions and 20-meter circles both ways. I kept it in my mind that he needs to feel a sense of well-being with no pressure. While he was still relaxed, I asked for a left lead canter and was rewarded with a nicely controlled gate. We went around once and then walked. All of this came with lots of praise and neck pats.
I then shortened my reins just a bit and started in on the 20-meter circles with a light to medium contact. The demon resurfaced, but I was prepared. No matter what Sydney tried, I was ready for him. When he reared, I cranked his head to the side and gave a loud, NO! I rocked the reins so that he had nothing to lean on, and I kept my legs on him so that I could control that outside shoulder.
I've ridden horses my entire life; I don't remember my first ride. This ride, I'll remember. I had the most amazing sense of feel that I have never experienced before. I knew exactly what he was going to do before he did it. As JL said later, I kept him in the conversation even though he wanted to leave in the worst way.
Throughout the ride I kept picturing what my core and seat should be doing. My rib cage was knit together, my knees were bent, and my heels remained low. My seat was as solid as it has ever been, and I was glued to his back.
This was the first time that I have been able to analyze his scary behavior while also riding. What I saw was that he was certain something bad was going to happen when I shortened his frame even that tiny bit. It seemed as though he was sure I was going to cram him up to the bit in order to "soften and round" him. I could feel that that was what he thinking.
When he tried to speed up, I added a ton of outside leg and rocked the inside rein to get some bend and the outside rein to slow him down. As soon as he slowed down, I stopped asking. When his head shot int the air, I sat up tall and rocked the reins all while keeping my legs on. The instant his head came down, I quieted my hands and opened my legs the least little bit.
In half the time that it took on Friday, I had him going around nicely to the left. His trot was very slow, but it also felt very balanced. As we circled, the worst of the tension left his body. When he was very quiet, I asked for a halt and praised him. When we changed direction to track right, I expected to repeat the whole process, but he surprised me by being much more willing. It didn't happen right away, but within a few minutes, he was accepting the bit and moving better than he ever has.
We finished the ride with a walk on the buckle and then lots of walking while I bent his neck in each direction. He looked tired when we were through, but he was happy and relaxed. I hope he gives me some trouble today so that I will once again have all the time in the world to work on it.
It's much harder to fight a demon as the dark approaches!
Last spring, I felt certain that my relationship with Sydney had to come to an end. I was clearly not the girl for him. After nine moths together, our rides were quickly deteriorating. The rearing and bolting were getting so scary that I had to quit taking lessons on him. Each day I was more afraid to ride him than I was the day before.
One evening, I told Hubby that I thought it would be best if I sold Sydney. I am not sure why Hubby didn't secretly do a happy dance at my news while consoling me with thoughtful platitudes, but he didn't. Instead, he encouraged me to keep trying and not give up. He must have known that a failure of this magnitude would have made me very difficult to live with.
I've written about this before so you know that I changed my outlook with Sydney and started riding him in a different way: no expectation of showing, loose reins, just have fun, etc. Six months later, Sydney is a new horse. My ride on Saturday was everything I had hoped for when I bought Sydney: fun, relaxing, "dressagey", and safe.
We have finally arrived at the point where I feel like we are an Intro Level pair. That's good because it means we can eventually become a Training Level pair and then First Level will be within our sights.
I can now reliably and safely hack Sydney around the arena on a loose rein. Just a few months ago, the scary end was simply too scary, and I usually avoided it at the walk and always at the trot. I can now trot on a loose rein anywhere in the arena and guide him with just my seat and legs - no reins to make the turns! We can trot 10 and 20 meter circles, shallow loops, and cross the diagonal without the thought of bolting. We've even made it to a show. Elephant, what Elephant?
I have learned that he needs to move and that he DOES NOT LIKE to feel trapped. If I use too much hand too soon, he becomes worried. So I don't use too much hand. If he is worried, we move in a small circle that requires him to move in a very controlled manner. He wants me to be in control. He wants me to make the decisions. So I do.
While working in his stall this weekend, he stood right behind me nuzzling my hair and arms. It was clear that he wanted to be close to me and that he enjoys my company. Right back at you, Dude, right back at you!
Let the craziness begin, again. I can't believe how tired and burnt out I already am from work. I've been getting to school 2 HOURS early each morning just to try and stay caught up. Out of necessity, this post has to to be quick.
I rode Sydney in the afternoon on Tuesday for the first time since May. I fed him right away so that his food alert alarm wouldn't be activated. I took the lunge line out to the arena just so I would be prepared. It was 100 degrees. I hoped all of that would enable me to have an easy, relaxed 15 minute ride. Nope.
I hopped on and as soon as I tried to shorten my reins he got tense. I sent him forward and rocked the rein to remind him that I wouldn't hold on. He set his jaw and refused to bend to the left.
I immediately hopped off, grabbed the lunge line, and sent him around. And around. And around. Each time he tried to look to the outside, I swung his nose back to me. This started a round of bucking, rearing, squealing, and general disrespect. Each time he "shenaniganed," I jerked him back towards me. It took some time and a lot of sweat, but his expression began to change. I could see him trying to figure out just how in the hell he got in this predicament, and more importantly, how could he make it stop.
I gave him a chance to walk and praised him. I stepped closer and started pushing his hind end over while sending him forward. He finally, finally gave in. He was pretty sweaty, but not blowing hard, and I didn't care. This was his choice.
I hopped back on but felt the same tension. I planted my inside hand and just kept sending him around my inside leg. A couple turns around, and then I changed the bend. I again asked for a nice circle. Every time he fussed or got tense, I repeated the small circles.
Again, it took some time, but I finally outlasted his tantrum. He gave up. He didn't work as nicely as he has been doing in the mornings, but the melt down was far, far less dramatic, and the recovery was much quicker. Once he went to the left for a circle or two without being tense, we walked a bit and then worked to the right. He started out tense this way, too, but quickly gave up. I asked for several circles where he moved off my inside leg, and then we were done.
I was ticked that we were back to this fussy way of going, but I was thrilled that I called his bluff and made him work anyway. I never got mad or scared. I just kept bending, bending, bending. Hopefully I am on to something here. It's going to get cool before too long, and it will be a lot harder to convince him that my way is easier if he's not soaked in sweat!
Happy 4th of July! We're heading out of town for a few days where we might or might not have internet. See you Friday at the latest.
Working Sydney five days a week on warm days has helped his brain ... a lot. I really think he enjoys getting out and working although I think he is a bit bored by the 20 meter circles, but bored is way, way better than bolting.
Since school is out, I have nothing to do BUT ride so that's what I do. Speedy goes first since he doesn't particularly like the heat while it's that same heat that helps me feel safer on Sydney. Hot weather helps curb the desire to bolt and rear.
Each day has been better than the one before with the exception of the last gardening day (Thursday). I've decided that we'll either lunge with the side reins on Thursdays, or I'll just ride Sydney first. When I rode on Monday I realized that we were making the turn of the 20 meter circle with no fussing. Sydney wasn't particularly round or soft, but he was turning off my outside leg and he was staying off my inside leg. Ride the barrel of the horse and not his head - check!
It was time for some changes of direction. Changes are hard for Sydney because he loses steam in the turn and quite often loses his balance and drops down to the walk. Since we had a good, steady rhythm going, and he was mostly between my legs, I figured we could make some 10 meter half circles in preparation for an entry at A or for a turn at C. I pictured the turn, slowed down the outside shoulder and gave him plenty of leg to oomph him through the turn. We kept the trot going (yah!), but we lost the little bit of connection we had. No biggie. Repeat.
We did a few more 10 meter turns and they got a bit better. His turns are nowhere even close to Speedy's, but considering the fact that just a couple of months ago Sydney was blowing through my outside aids while attempting 20 meter circles, this felt like an accomplishment.
Oh. My elephant? I haven't seen his big butt in a while. Mt. Self-Doubt? Numerous pitons are in position and we're moving upward.
I have a tiny confession. Do you remember that I JUST wrote about not having to deal with fear anymore with Sydney? Apparently I jinxed myself because the very next day after posting that, Sydney and I had a less than perfect schooling ride.
To his credit, it was a problematic day to ride. The gardener was there weed-eating the perimeter of the arena. The weed-eater is loud and spooky even to me.
The back corner of the arena is scary. On the other side of the fence there is a chicken coop, a travel trailer, a jeep, and a lot of large trees and bushes. It's a cozy little corner of the neighbor's property that generates all kind of spooky sounds. Most of the time it's okay. We've learned to deal with the noises that come from that corner.
But. On Thursday, the neighbor (who I adore) was doing some work with a ladder. I even jumped at the weird screeeeech sound that shrieked across the arena. Sydney almost jumped out of his skin. I was able to get keep him under control, but there was a lot of squirting to the side, an occasional squeal, and lots of high headedness.
To say I wasn't a bit nervous would be a lie. I held it together though and continued working, but after a few minutes I knew it wasn't worth it. We had put in some good work before the shrieking ladder so I felt it was okay to call it a day. I was disappointed though.
All was forgiven on Friday. I had a great ride on Sydney. My recent lesson on Speedy has given me even more tools to use with Sydney. I am really using the idea of water skiing at the walk. I know I am testing Sydney a little bit with the increased contact, but he is accepting it and working with me. Yah!
We spent our time on Friday working on big circles, first at the walk and then at the trot. I asked for more forward and actually got it without the sense of an imminent bolt. Again, yah! I kept the image of a water skier in mind and sat back and squeezed when I felt Sydney try to drop the contact.
I am really pleased with where we're heading. I am also totally digging the opportunity to use my toolbox with him and see positive results. This is starting to get fun!