I must have missed a sacrificial moment or forgotten to give homage to one of the gods of something - probably the weather god; he's always annoyed with me, because the stars did not align for me this weekend.
Horses. What are you going to do?
I'll admit that I am a little bit superstitious. Back when I was endurance racing, there was one, and only one, t-shirt that could serve as my pajama top. I am also careful about what I wish for. Jinxing yourself is a thing. I sort of feel like tempting fate, or the Universe, is pretty stupid, but black cats, broken mirrors, and Friday the 13th have never spooked me.
With horses though, it's best to honor all of the weirdo gods, the real one, too, and offering sacrifices whenever possible can't hurt either. You know, like not stepping on cracks, always take time to pet a dog whose tail is wagging, and don't hesitate to go back to double check that gate one more time.
I must have missed a sacrificial moment or forgotten to give homage to one of the gods of something - probably the weather god; he's always annoyed with me, because the stars did not align for me this weekend.
Early in the week, my friend Jen, who organizes tons of shows and clinics, texted and asked if I wanted to come and do an Erika Jansson Cavaletti Clinic on Saturday. I tried to do one earlier in the year but something came up. I hesitated for a few minutes - was I comfortable jumping into something again without a plan?, and then I threw caution to the wind. "Sure," I told her. "Sign me up." Izzy needs all the show miles he can get.
While we were at the schooling show the weekend before, I noticed that one of my trailer's tires looked a bit low. I made a mental note to ask my husband to bring out the air compressor and fill it up. Of course I forgot to do that, so on Friday afternoon, as I was loading my tack, I noticed the tire again and realized that it was more than low. I popped on my tire gauge. Instead of 40 pounds of pressure, like the rest of the tires had, the gauge read 10.
Reggie, the ranch's fixer of all the things, brought out his air compressor and filled the tire back up. Even though we couldn't hear or see a leak, I just couldn't drive 6 hours round trip with a questionable tire. I gave my favorite tire place a call, Les Schwab over on Buck Owens Boulevard, and asked if they could work on a tire that was still on the trailer.
Not only could they, but they have a large, covered bay for just that purpose. I was told which entrance to use and easily found the enormous covered parking for servicing large rucks. The manager, Justin, came out to greet me with a jack in tow. In less than 15 minutes, he pulled the tire, found the nail, patched it, and had it back on my trailer.
When he said I was good to go, I reminded him that I still needed to pay for the repair. He quickly shook his head and explained that they never charge to fix a flat tire even if I hadn't bought the tire there. Wow. That's amazing customer service. On a personal note, fixing a horse-related problem at no charge earns you my business for the rest of my life. Got a tire or brake problem? Check out Les Schwab on Buck Owens Boulevard; they'll treat you right. I headed back to the ranch feeling much better about Saturday's long drive.
But it was Friday the 13th, and like I said, I must have forgotten to sacrifice something because when I rolled into the barn at 6:00 a.m. on Saturday morning ready to roll, Izzy was missing a shoe and his leg was hot and swollen. Turd. He's fine, but I didn't get to do the cavaletti clinic after all.
Horses. What are you going to do?
Making plans is the easy part. You peruse Facebook and click interested. You open your email and read over the show premium or clinician info. You click add event to your calendar. Suddenly, you've made plans.
I tend to keep my plans pretty close to the vest, especially so if they're important plans. But lately, I've been a bit more forthcoming about my plans. Plans like earning a bronze medal. Plans like riding with Lilo Fore. Plans like showing Izzy. So far none of those things are happening.
In my experience, talking about things that haven't yet happened as though they are a "done deal" somehow makes them even harder to achieve. This is especially true lately as the Universe and I aren't on particularly good terms.
Speedy's health issues have made that bronze medal look much farther from my grasp than it did in October. Lilo Fore? Had to cancel that. Izzy at a show? Well, no, not yet.
And yet ...
Ooh, look! I just got the info on an Erika Jansson Cavaletti Clinic that's being held in May. This would be a good outing for Izzy. Sign me up!
I hate to make big announcements before they're a sure thing, but this one just can't wait. Each year the California Dressage Society (CDS) hosts adult amateur clinics in each of three regions - North, Central, and South. I have been selected twice in the past - you can't participate as a rider two years in a row, and I was chosen again for this year's event!
Don't be impressed by being "selected" as there is no skill requirement in being chosen. If you're a CDS member in good standing and can walk, trot, and canter, you're eligible. My CDS Chapter says they pull the names out of a hat. I am pretty sure my name has been the only one in the hat as I am generally not that lucky.
The first year I attended was in 2014. I rode with Marisa Festerling. You can read about it here and here. There's also some video that I had completely forgotten about. Wow, but have we come a long way!
For the clinic in 2017, I rode with Hilda Gurney. That was a very ... intense clinic and nothing like the first one. If you haven't read about it already and care to, you can find it here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.
The clinician for this year's series of adult amateur clinics is none other than Lilo Fore. When I saw who the clinician was, I put in a "self-nomination" before our chapter chair even made the announcement. And then I prayed fervently that no one else was eligible or wanted to attend. The universe must think I need some additional help with my riding because my name was indeed selected.
The central region's clinic is at Templeton Farms near Paso Robles in mid-April. You need to check out this facility. Holy Moley, is it ever swanky!
Of course, a lot can happen between now and the clinic. Speedy is just now recovered from two abscesses. His Cushing's could cause other problems that I am not yet aware of. Or, heaven forbid, some other random thing could strike preventing us from going. And no, Universe, I don't need any more drama at this time, thank you.
Any Lilo Fore fans out there?
But first, a little bit of a backstory ...
I've had migraines since I was a little kid. As I got older, they got worse like they sometimes do. For the most part, they had been manageable with the right prescription ... until last summer. My insurance plan took my prescription off the "approved list" and substituted it for a less effective generic.
Over the summer, the headaches got worse, so I did some investigating. I got my eyes checked - new glasses were ordered, and I tried a bunch of different migraine medications. None of them worked. About 2 weeks ago, I got a migraine that lasted for 10 days. I missed a number of riding days and lived in excruciating pain. On Wednesday, I saw a neurologist, and on Thursday I had an MRI.
Even in pain that was so severe that I contemplated a lobotomy, all I could wonder was if I'd feel well enough for Sunday's show. The whole yeah my arm is broken, what does that have to with riding? thing. No, I can't see past the ring of fire that is searing my eyeballs, but my horse knows where C is. You get the idea. Once an entry is paid for, I am showing.
Fortunately for me, the neurologist got the pain under control, and by Friday I was feeling closer to normal. On Saturday, a group of us met at the show venue for a Ride-A-Test type clinic with Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables.
If you'll remember, I shared this post about being the local hack. It was written tongue in cheek, of course, but there was definitely an element of truth to it as well. So there I was already feeling way out of my depth, and then on top of that, my brain was so fuzzy that I could barely tell you my name.
Chemaine finished up with her first student and called me in. It had been more than six months since I'd schooled in an actual dressage court, so I really wanted to work on some of the trickier movements from Second Level: the three loop serpentine with simple changes at the center line and the 20-meter counter canter half circles.
I am not going to lie. I cried. I was just so overwhelmed by all that I needed to fix that I felt defeated before I had even heard the judge's bell. My brain just couldn't get the whole left lead, track right thing. I don't know how Chemaine keeps so positive when she's faced with such a pathetic mess.
But. I am not a quitter. I learned that while riding hundred mile endurance rides. You suck it up, you grit your teeth, you get it done. Chemaine finally got me to use my outside rein to balance Speedy, and suddenly, our counter canter was balanced, and our canter to walk to canter transitions were a bit clearer.
The next morning, as I was driving to the show venue, a song by Jarrod Niemann came on the radio. I have an awesome horse in Speedy G, so when I heard the chorus, I knew it was going to be okay.
Girl I got this
Don't got to think too hard
It's a can't miss
I know right where to start
Yeah the only thing I'm needin' is a girl to play the lead
In this cool movie that I'm dreaming up right now
And if you're down with that
I got this
Yeah, I got this
And Speedy? He's definitely got it!
Taking two lessons a month rather than one every six weeks has really helped me tackle Izzy's special ... uh ... "needs". If Speedy and I see Chemaine for "marriage counseling," Izzy and I see her for behavioral therapy. His, not mine!
In a nut shell, we did one exercise for the entire session: bend for lateral flexion, half halt for vertical flexion, wait until he begs for a stretch down. Here's why we needed to do that.
It's such an ugly picture that I hate to even show it. As Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, explained it - the movements are easy for this horse. Stretching down is not. She's not kidding; he can do anything you ask. Lateral movements are cake for him. Collection is a walk in the park. Shoulder in, haunches in ... to where and for how long? However, letting that neck get long and low is not in his play book.
While I cringe when I do this exercise, lateral flexion with vertical flexion, it has become very easy to see why it works with this horse. I know it always looks as though I am jamming Izzy's nose into his chest, and you probably thinks that's why his stride is so short and choppy - let the horse move out! - but it's really him putting himself into that jammed up neck frame. I can drop my reins, flutter my reins, shake my reins, and he keeps his chin to his chest.
To get Izzy to want to stretch forward and down, Chemaine had me over-flex him to the inside while firmly half halting on the outside rein so that I created a boatload of vertical flexion. Think rollkur flexion. I know, ugly, right? Stay with me though.
The outside rein did four tasks: 1) it slowed him down, 2) brought his outside shoulder in, 3) it got him round over his back, and 4) it helped him focus. Stride after stride I asked him if he wanted to stretch forward. The moment he said yes, please let me stretch, I fed him as much rein as he would take.
Since Izzy is so powerful in his hind end, the canter work is much easier. We worked on much the same thing, but at that gait it's more about telling him that he doesn't get to "take me," - I'll let let him know what pace I want. Enter the outside rein. As in the trot work, I flex him to the inside, but then I take that outside rein to slow him down, tuck his shoulder back in line, get him round over his back, and redirect his attention back on me.
So that's my homework for the next week. Over bend, half halt, and ask him if he wants to stretch down. When I rode him on Monday, he gave the stretch down immediately. Now, we just need to get it when he's excited.
If you'll remember, I was pondering our difficulties in the 10-meter canter circle. Speedy was pretty sure that a 10-meter canter circle meant that I wanted a canter/walk transition. Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, was here this weekend, so we were able to tackle that particular issue (only ten million to go).
Chemaine's visits are like therapy sessions; I always come prepared to talk about my issues. I explained the problem, confident that she'd have a way to help Speedy and I work it out. Lately though, she has had us start working on something that is not my problem. I've learned to just go with it.
After checking in to see that Speedy was indeed working with a longer, more reaching neck (our homework after our last session), Chemaine had me come back to a walk which was definitely not the 10-meter canter circle I was expecting.
She had me put my whip in my inside hand and then had me ask for the walk. When Speedy didn't step out smartly, she had me tap him behind my inside leg. An issue that Speedy and I struggle with is his tendency to curl. With a longer neck, he's no longer doing that as much. With that issue "fixed," he needs to better engage his hind end.
Once I was getting a more marching walk, we did walk to trot transitions, but only from a marching walk. If he started poking, I was to tap him with the whip to remind him to use his hind end. Almost immediately his trot transition was 100 times better. I'll be honest, I need to ride this exercise a few more times to really get it because somewhere in there, I also moved my hands forward to keep his neck long without giving away the connection. It was a real feely-feely exercise.
Just when I thought that Chemaine had forgotten about my 10-meter canter issue, she asked for the exercise at the canter. I should have known she had a plan. The reason Speedy was having so much trouble with the canter was because he wasn't engaging his hind end well enough. He was carrying too much weight on the forehand which is why my half halts had to be so strong which is what told him to walk.
And of course, that solved the problem. In order to get a more balanced walk to canter transition, the horse must work over his back and engage his hind end. Once Speedy's hind end was working, he was able to hold the 10-meter canter circle. To help him even further, Chemaine had me over bend him to the inside to get him firmly on my outside rein. Then I moved my hands forward and drove him forward to the bit with my seat. It was the first time I was able to drive forward into the 10-meter canter circle.
After he was marching into the canter, we put it all together for the simple change. Once I get the canter to walk transition, it takes way too many walk steps to rebalance and get the new bend for the new lead. Insisting on a marching walk straight out of the canter helped a ton. Chemaine really insisted that he keep thinking forward even as he came to the walk. He'll only think forward though if I insist on it.
We're not done with this issue yet, but we are chipping away at our obstacles, and they're getting smaller. We might not be confirmed at Second Level, but we're working at it!
I've mentioned this about a million times before, but Bakersfield is the biggest small town you'll ever find. With a population of about 350,000, we rank as California's ninth largest city. In a state with 40,000,000 people, that puts nearly 10% of the state's population in my backyard.
With those kind of numbers, you'd think that dressage would be somewhat represented. You'd be wrong. Bakersfield feels like a town of more like 35,000; too small for the glamour of piaffe and passage. Great food and friendly people, but dressage oriented we are not.
For several years, I've been putting on what I like to call Casual Clinics with Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables. Based in Moorpark, Chemaine has been willing to make the trek to Bakersfield. The purpose has always been to introduce dressage to riders of all disciplines. I am preaching to the choir here, I know, but dressage benefits all horses. It's been tough to get riders to come on board, but our group has slowly grown.
This weekend, we had a great turnout. We had lots of friends show up to audit, and it finally felt as though riders from different disciplines were connecting and coming together as a community. The Golden Empire Arabian Horse Society is once again putting on an Open Dressage Show on March 18th. The show's manager and several members of the show committee were there. In no time at all, great ideas started flying.
The weather was beautiful (bummer as we need the rain), and everyone really seemed to have a great time.
One of the things that I love about our clinics is how "user-friendly" Chemaine is as a trainer. She very often will get on your horse (if you'd like) and work on something for you. She usually gets on at least one of my boys each time she comes.
For the last clinic we held, our lunch time break included a yoga ball lesson. This time, Chemaine treated us to a musical freestyle.
Since the GEAHS's show is small and filled with nearly all lower level riders, the show committee came out to watch Chemaine's freestyle with an eye to adding it to the show as a lunch time attraction.
The afternoon concluded with the neighbor once again riding Willy, but her 13 year-old niece joined in making it a group lesson.
I always try to ride Izzy at the end of the day as most people have cleared out by then. I missed out on the great photos, but it was nice to have a quiet lesson.
We have a second February clinic scheduled for the 19th, and dates in the works for March. If you're somewhat local and want to join in, give me a holler. We'd love to have you!
More tomorrow ...
Over the weekend, Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, was here for a Saturday clinic. We had some new riders, and this time, Chemaine was able to do a yoga ball clinic in the middle of the day. With the yoga ball, she explained seat aides and rider position. She also showed us a series of stretches to do before we ride. The yoga ball portion of a clinic is a fun and relaxing way to work on your position.
I rode Speedy in the morning before everyone else arrived. I put Izzy last on the schedule because he can be a bit of a handful, and I didn't want him spooking the rest of the horses. He was a little nervous, but nothing like in the past.
The truth is, it would have been a boring lesson for anyone to audit. In fact, it was so repetitive that Chemaine finally sat down and just kept repeating herself - more, MORE, COMPRESS, more, more, compress, COMPRESS ... you get the idea. Weird as it sounds, it was a great lesson.
Izzy is finally to the point where I am not trying to keep control. His steering is good, the spooking is nominal, and he knows I am up there. The next great hurdle is getting him to unlock the base of his neck so that his back can swing so that he can take a bigger stride.
When he's tense, which is less and less, he locks his neck and tightens his back. If I ask for a longer stride, his short, choppy stride just gets faster and faster. No amount of leg will lengthen that stride.
For the past month, Chemaine has had me compress him instead. When he won't stretch his neck, I flex his neck, add leg, and hold the half halt as long as I need to until he offers to stretch his neck. As soon as he softens, I release by moving my hands forward and sending him forward at the same time. And like magic, his stride lengthens.
Since the stretchy stride only lasts for a few moments, I compress repeatedly, achieving a longer neck each time. Unless he relaxes his neck, he can't build up a bigger trot. So every time he rushes or gets short and choppy, I compress him and slow him down until he softens his neck. Sometimes that means he evens comes back to a walk.
I rode him on Sunday, and all of Saturday's tension was gone. Of course it was as we were alone as usual. Even so, I was delighted with how quickly he wanted to stretch down when I compressed him.
Now that he's getting broker, he's a lot more fun to ride. When he's not worried, he's a great listener with a huge work ethic. He loves to get the right answer. I am eager to see how far we can get before Chemaine comes back in February.
I don't know if flexion is Chemaine Hurtado's word of the month, or if Speedy and I are finally at a place where we need more of it. Either way, both of my horse's did a ton of flexing this weekend with instructions to do it about a million more times.
I am pretty sure I haven't shared this yet, but Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, recently moved to Kern County which is where Bakersfield is located. Don't get too excited. Kern County is the same size as New Jersey, but at least she's closer. That means I've had lessons twice this month with two more on the horizon. It's been amazing.
Over the weekend, she helped me see why Speedy and I have been struggling with some of the work at Second Level. The super short version is that he's lost some of the suppleness in his back that we had before he was laid up. Since he's not stretching over his top line, the canter work, particularly the simple change, has been hard for him.
That means I am going to be spending the next several weeks getting him to stretch over his top line. Basically, that means a ton of over-flexing. What Chemaine had me do in the trot work was over-flex him to the inside, always too much, and lift the outside side shoulder. When he softens, I need to push my hands forward and push him forward into that open space. In this way, he takes a longer stride and lengthens his neck.
We did a lot of the same work at the canter, particularly in the 10-meter canter circles. Speedy has been having trouble with sort of stalling out. To help that, she had me over-flex as we went into the turn but then release the inside rein while sponging the outside rein. This created a softer neck while putting him on the outside rein.
By the time we finished up the lesson, Speedy was stretching his neck forward while also taking a much longer stride. He felt better than he ever has! Hopefully, I can get the same level of suppleness on my own.
Either way, the good news is that Chemaine should be back in two weeks to continue helping me turn Speedy into a Second Level horse.
When I shared with Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, my Second Level blues, she quickly reassured me that my troubles were everyone else's troubles, too. Getting the horse forward while still getting him to sit is what every Second Level horse and rider team struggles with.
That made me feel better. I think.
Like she did with my ride on Izzy, Chemaine introduced two exercises. The first was a version of the race horse game, and the second was more of the over-bending exercise.
Before we started any of that though, we ran through a bit of shoulder in, haunches in, turn on the haunches, and rein back. As I'd suspected, our rein back and turn on the haunches are good. Chemaine helped me clean up a bit of stickiness on the haunches in, but she felt I could continue that work on my own.
The "move it" exercise is exactly what it sounds like. You had better move off my leg, or you're getting a stronger aid. In order to get a simple change, Speedy needs to get sharper off my leg. In the collected canter, he wants to stall out and drop down to trot. He needs to be convinced that I mean forward when I say forward.
The exercise went like this. From the halt, I asked Speedy to trot forward. If he didn't, or if it wasn't sharp enough, Chemaine snapped the whip. After a few strides, I brought him back to halt and tried again. It took him no more than three times for him to jump forward when I thought trot. And really, Speedy is so respectful that just having Chemaine standing there with the whip did most of the work.
Chemaine stressed that bringing the horse back to walk in this exercise is critical as it allows the rider to re-establish roundness and balance. Once we had convinced Speedy that he needed to move when I asked for it, we repeated the exercise but from walk to canter.
To finish off the exercises and reinforce in Speedy's mind that the second ask was going to come from me, we repeated the exercise but with the dressage whip in my hand. When he didn't jump forward from my seat and legs, I popped him with the whip. It took one tap, and he was nicely forward.
From there we put together the bending exercise with the go forward and worked on the medium trot and my ability to sit it. I am not there yet, but in early October, I couldn't sit the medium at all. So yeah for me.
Over-Flex to Have Something Left Over
The last thing we worked on was the simple change. Left to right, he's pretty good. Our collected canter on the left lead is easier for me because he wants to carry his haunches left. The trouble comes in picking up the right lead because he wants to take the bend away from me immediately.
To remedy that, Chemaine had me go back to the over-bending exercises. If I over-bend him, he'll take some of the bend back in the transition, but I'll have enough built in to maintain some of it which puts him on the outside rein. If I have him on the outside rein, my half halt will go through for the canter to walk.
We didn't get it perfectly, but we had some really good moments, like this transition.
If the judge gave points for trying, we'd win for sure. In the meantime, we're going to capitalize on our strengths, and keep chipping away at our weaknesses. I love this last shot. This is Speedy pushing off from the walk into a left lead canter.
I am staring you down, Second Level!