The dude is going places!
Last week, Izzy and I worked with Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, at a neighbor's house. I can't even begin to express how proud of him I was. He started off curled into a little ball of tension, but within five minutes he was listening and trying.
He gave one or two spooks in the far corner, but after that, he was all business. I asked Chemaine Hurtado, if I could just ride while she offered feedback. Izzy's been working so well at home that what he needs most right now is the opportunity to work somewhere that's not home. Chemaine readily agreed.
I basically rode him like I would if I were alone at home. I asked for the leg yield, haunches in, shoulder in, and then played around with some baby canter half pass. The more complicated the task, the harder this horse works. Chemaine encouraged me with comments aimed to reinforce what I was already doing or offered suggestions for improving the connection and stretch down.
Izzy never said no. Sure, he was a little tense, but he kept his focus on me and tried to do whatever I asked of him. The longer he worked, the looser his back became.
Speedy needs to get his rear in gear. Izzy's butt is always in gear, but he holds so much tension in his top line that he has trouble opening up his stride.
For the past several months, that's all I've really worked on - stretching his back. A few weeks ago, I started asking him to ever so slightly lengthen his stride.
I am not getting an actual trot lengthening per se, but his stride is getting longer, and he's spending a bit more time in the air.
When I saw this attempt at lengthening his stride, I squealed. This is what I've been able to get at home by myself, but this is the first time he's offered such a relaxed trot away from home.
The dude is going places!
I had lessons with Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, earlier this week. I told her what I've been working on - riding with no stirrups, and told her that I had no agenda other than continuing the work we've been doing. Good thing I didn't have a plan because she had one outlined already. Call it operation Move Your Booty!
The biggest piece of the puzzle that we're missing right now is an active hind leg. This does not come as a surprise to me as Speedy loves to be downhill and curled under. We've been working on it, and he is beginning to carry his poll higher, but Chemaine feels that we can do better.
Her plan was to get Speedy's hind leg active at the walk first, and then carry that idea into the trot work. Essentially, she wanted me to feel him lift up as opposed to forward. It wasn't easy. We started at the walk with Chemaine walking alongside. She had me think about piaffe but at the walk. She told me to put my leg on without allowing him to trot. The instant he ignored my leg, Chemaine tapped him with the whip.
When she felt that I had the feeling, we moved on to the trot. Once again, instead of allowing him to crawl forward with his front legs, she encouraged me to insist that his withers come up as a result of pushing off from his hind end.
Each time he tried to initiate the movement from his front end, I half halted and tapped, tapped, tapped with the whip to remind him of what his hind end should be doing. Before too long, Speedy started to develop some new gears.
While Speedy really is a good sport, he's not without his opinions. He doesn't mind being told what to do if that's already what he was thinking about doing. Ask him to do something that he's tired of or that he thinks is too much work, and he'll flip you the proverbial bird.
While Speedy's sassiness looks hugely dramatic, it's actually quite easy to sit and creates no sense of fear. I nearly always laugh because his attitude is just so danged funny!
According to Chemaine, our canter work is where it needs to be for Second Level although she did tweak my position a bit on the counter canter. She had me adjust my shoulders so that they stayed turned with the lead rather than turning in the direction of the counter canter. So if we're on a left lead canter, my left shoulder needs to stay back even when we track right. I was turning my upper body towards the direction of travel.
We have two shows coming up later this month. I am feeling more confident than I was in March, but I know we still have a ways to go. We can do the movements in isolation, but we need to get better at them so they run together more harmoniously.
As long as we keep seeing moments like the one above, I am happy to be at Second forever. The work we're doing right now is giving me a very attractive horse.
Not that I am biased or anything.
I keep saying this, but man is Izzy really starting to figure things out. I know it's more interesting to read about train wrecks and disasters, but we just aren't having any. That doesn't mean that we don't have stuff to work on because we do, but it's all starting to be fun rather than just holding on for dear life.
Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, says lots of things during a lesson, but sometimes I don't really get it until later. A few weeks ago, I heard her say outside leg and rein ask for the canter. In the moment, I did what she directed, and sure enough, the canter departure was much smoother. I was riding Izzy.
A few days later, I was trying to get a decent trot to canter transition and those words came back to me. I bent Izzy to the inside to put him on the outside rein (another thing she says to me over and over that I finally understand) and then I put my outside leg back, used my outside rein to get a half halt, and scooped a bit with my seat. And there was our canter.
Holy smokes. How can something so simple make such a big impact? I've been riding the canter transition as though it comes only from my inside leg while essentially ignoring my outside aids.
It's amazing what can happen when your aids get better.
I've lamented my lack of a nearby dressage trainer since ... forever. For a number of years I've been making the long trek to Simi Valley, a 5 hour round trip, to ride with Chemaine Hurtado (owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables).
For the past six months, I've been able to round up enough interested riders that I was able to put on twice monthly clinics here in Bakersfield with Chemaine teaching. Having a lesson twice a month gave Speedy, Izzy, and me a big upward boost in our training. Then, Chemaine bought a house in Bear Valley Springs, an equestrian community just an hour east of us.
That changed everything. All of a sudden, I started getting a lesson once a week. Today is lesson day. I am so thrilled with how much Speedy and I are learning. Last week, we tackled the shoulder in - ask me sometime how to ride it completely WRONG. Now that I see Chemaine every week, we can work on finessing little stuff instead of always tackling one huge issue at a time.
Today I am hoping we can do some work on travers (haunches in) - Speedy's a little braced and definitely heavier than I think is right. And like the shoulder in, I am probably going to find out that I've been doing it wrong anyway.
I'll let you know!
I am probably falsely optimistic here, but I feel like I somehow just made Second Level my B*tch. All of a sudden, the level doesn't intimidate me any more. Don't worry, we're not jumping to Third any time soon, but I am starting to actually enjoy Second Level. What the heck?
I mentioned this already, but Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, was here for a clinic two weekends ago. Rather than have everyone travel to my barn, which is on the far east side of town, we all met at Amy's house; I was the only one who had to really "travel." While her dressage court is a teensy bit short, it's 20-meters wide and marked with letters. Swoon!
Right now, I really need a court to help me with the serpentines at Second Level. I told Chemaine that the counter canter was my priority for the day. By the way, I had tons of great pictures, but I accidentally deleted them before I downloaded them to my laptop. Grrrr....
Pictures or no, we covered a lot of little things that have really helped smooth out the rough edges. One of the first things we worked on was getting Speedy soft much more quickly. He and I have been duking it out for the first 20 minutes of every ride which then leaves ten minutes for real work.
Chemaine suggested I do the "fighting" at the walk. She had me visualize touching an electric wire - to do so gives you a zap! Instead of tugging and pulling on Speedy, she had me zap him when he got heavy. When he leaned on me, I gave a quick, sharp snap of the reins to say "no, you can't lean on this. GET OFF!" It worked like a charm!
Once Speedy was lighter in the bridle, we got him more in front of my leg. That's been my number one problem at Second Level. When I ask for collection, he breaks gait, particularly at the canter. It also makes the simple changes nearly impossible when he's not in front of my leg.
Most of you know this already, but for those of you who ride the same struggle bus that I do, the more in front of your leg the horse is, the better he can sit into the walk or push off into the canter. To get Speedy thinking forward, we worked on collecting him, but the instant he tried to stutter and lose the canter, I popped him with the whip. That got his hind leg much more active.
The three loop serpentine was next on my list of must conquer. Speedy can hold the counter canter, but I just couldn't get it on the serpentine. Right away Chemaine was able to diagnose the problem; Speedy has the habit of falling on his right shoulder. When tracking right on the right lead, I have to really work that inside rein to get him to let go of it.
For the left lead serpentine, Chemaine had me look at E as we came out of the corner - I had been turning toward K. By turning my shoulder to the new bend, I could then lift Speedy's right shoulder with my right rein, straighten him, and then push his haunches to the left (think renver) to pivot him around my inside leg.
You can see in the video that it took me a few tries to get it right. We've since been riding it at home, and Speedy is getting lighter and lighter. We have a USDF show this weekend. I'm still riding tests one and two which don't have the single loop serpentine, but knowing how to ride Speedy through the counter canter will still help us for the 20-meter half circle.
I can't believe my attitude toward Second Level has changed so quickly, but I am actually looking forward to this show. I feel like we have a better handle on the movements. We might not score well this time, but I am confident we're on the right track!
Judges are like cops; they're never around when you need one. Yesterday I shared a blooper moment. Here's a completely different kind of moment from a few minutes later. Talk about a judge-worthy frame!
I didn't have to "cherry pick" that instant either. I just hit pause and grabbed the screen shot. He didn't start the day looking like that, but it didn't take long to achieve it.
It had been at least seven months since Izzy had been ridden anywhere but home, and he'd only been in the trailer to go to the vet. Even so, he and Speedy loaded up like perfect gentlemen for the 40 minute ride out to Amy's place.
Amy has a beautiful piece of property. The turn out paddocks are nicely laid out, the barn is ample and roomy, and the arena's footing was great. The one draw back is parking. We had to park on the road. Even though she lives on a super quiet "street," I opted to tie my boys in one of her paddocks so that they were always in sight of one another. I didn't trust leaving one out on the road alone while I rode the other.
Even with all of that newness, Izzy never batted an eye. He stood tied while I rode Speedy and when it was his turn, he marched into the arena like he'd been doing it every day. He was a bit tense, but he went right to work.
Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, told me that my big take away for the day was to now keep thinking forward while I make adjustments to his frame. I know that sounds like a no-brainer, but Izzy hasn't been able to handle more leg with more hand. Recently, he seems able to deal with me pushing him forward into the bridle without having a melt down.
We're not "there" yet, but we're really starting to pull it together. Here's a short clip of us schooling some trot to canter to trot transitions. You'll see that at the end he starts to get tense and pop his shoulder. I don't have video of it, but I ultimately got him to settle back down and listen for the correct lead.
He's sure fun to ride!
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 ...