Friday, March 30, 2012

Bill Woods Clinic

Today was the clinic with Bill Woods and I have to first say that I am SO proud of my Louie!  He was a rock star; he felt awesome, and fit right in with all the fancy brand asses (aka warmbloods).  He really cleaned up nice too!  I am super thankful too that Kris was able to video tape for me at the last minute so I can share this and watch it over and over to learn all of the things that haven't sunken in yet. 

Also, it turns out Bill is quite the comedian.  I watched several hours of other riders today in the clinic and not only is he an excellent clinician and rider, but he had some of the funniest jokes and stories; he's quite entertaining.  I will have to purchase his book, Dressage Unscrambled, as I have heard it is a great read, and if it's anything like the little bit of his writing he shared with us at lunch today, I'm sure it will be well worth it. 

I could go on and on typing what we learned about, but a video does that so much better.  Without further ado:

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Lesson 19: Stretch

Tonight we worked again preparing for the clinic tomorrow and the show this weekend.  We worked primarily on getting Louie to stretch his neck down.  To do this, I slow him down, use my legs and core, and ask for more bend, sometimes "fishing" and extending a lure (the rein) for him to reach for (lengthen the rein slightly and ask him to reach out for it).  It helps to bend him slightly to the outside, then the inside if he doesn't go just off of the inside leg and rein alone.  By the end we got some nice stretchy circles, and as usual, some nice free walks.  One tip with the free walk- lean back just a bit, it seems to encourage him to stretch down further. 

We ran through a couple of the tests and once again, Julie really liked our "loop."  We need to work on keeping him in the left lead canter, so I'm going to probably need to lay my whip on him a few times during the left lead canter to keep him going.  He is surprisingly lazy and likes to break out of the canter more than he used to.

Two other things that Julie wants me to really work on are to grip with my thighs and calves, rather than my knees and feet- and Julie thinks we need more thigh.  The second is to avoid bending my wrists (I have a tendency to ulnar deviate my wrists despite my wrist braces), and I end up bringing my pinkie finger further back than it should be.  The 4th/5th fingers always need to be closest to the bit, never contracted/curled under.  I also need to bend more with my elbows as I seem to lengthen and shorten my reins from the wrists and shoulders. 

Well, I'm very excited for the Bill Woods clinic tomorrow, I have been planning out our outfit for that and the show, trying to make sure we look as nice and professional as possible!  I should have an update in the next couple of days!

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Look of Eagles

I snapped this picture of Louie with my phone today while I was grooming him.  The horses had been running around their summer turnout pasture, getting their 30 minutes a day as they are introduced to the grass.  When they came back in they were WILD!  And it's also cold and windy today compared to the past week or two.  All of that together made for a little bit hyped up horsie, so I had to lunge him before I could even groom him.  While Louie wasn't exactly confident at this time, he sure has that look!

Lesson 18: Preparing for The Show

In preparation for the upcoming Bill Woods clinic and schooling show next weekend, we worked on a few show-related topics in our lesson last Thursday.

We worked on the shapes of the figures, including the training level "loop" which I like to refer to as a "swerve."  Julie was pleasantly surprised by how well we performed the figure, though she does prefer to change the diagonal on the quarter lines, to go with the change of bend.  I have also been practicing weighting my new inside stirrup before making the change as I think that's a nice "heads up" for Louie.

We worked a lot on our canter- getting the depart (off my seatbone and no legs, not leaning forward, being prompt and balanced, etc), riding the canter, and canter-trot transitions through the diagonal.  Julie noted that the best canter we tend to get is the one where Louie takes a step or two and then breaks to the trot because he's too weak to continue.  Well we can work with that, I'll just have to push him to keep going after the first stride.  He tends to do that more to the left, going to the right, surprise, surprise, he seems much more willing to canter.  Funny, when cantering to the right has always been one of Louie's worst, most challenging obstacles.

We worked also quite a bit on trotting 10 meter circles and turning down the center line.  Julie finds that I turn too late most of the time, so I'll just have to practice really watching where I'm going and turning a bit earlier than I think I need to.  We paid some attention to learning how to salute properly as well.  I guess I never knew there was a "method," but I learned it properly in 5 steps.  1: take both reins in the left hand (and whip if applicable).  2:  lower the right arm down just behind the thigh, hand facing back.  3: bow head down.  4: head up.  5: take the reins and whip in both hands.  Of course don't forget to smile at the judge.

All of this show stuff may seem daunting, but we still managed to work on some lateral work, practicing our shoulder in.  We practiced shoulder in down the long side, then come down the center line, leg yielding toward the diagonal, maintaining the same bend and direction of movement that we did in the shoulder in down the long side. 

Of course, like usual, we worked on our free walk and getting the neck to go down as quickly as asked.  That is coming along pretty nicely, but I think we need to work more on our stretchy trot circle, as Louie is more willing to drop his neck in the walk than in the trot or canter. 

We are very excited for the clinic this week.  It will be the day after my lesson that I ride in it, so hopefully we'll be ready, well practiced, and not too fresh!  I ride in the morning, so I may have to do a little warm up first if it's cold or windy outside.  I know both Julie and I are excited to hear what he has to say about Louie and my riding, and what ideas he will have for helping us to get better.

As for the show, I need to learn all 3 training level tests over the next week.  I've printed them out and run through them in my living room, but when you're remembering 3 different tests, it's really easy to get the movements mixed up from one test to the next.  I think I must have a reader again this year, as that really helps, especially when you're riding more than one or two tests.  I need to focus so hard on getting my horse moving right and my own riding that I hardly have enough brain function left to remember the next step in the test.  And, from the sounds of it, we're going to have a cheering squad, so the pressure is on!  Whew!  I just hope that I am able to get somebody to video tape our rides.

Over this past weekend, following my lesson, I had two really nice rides on Louie in the outdoor arena, which is bigger (regulation size) and has awesome footing.  I really like riding out there and I think Louie prefers to ride outside, as he is much more relaxed and things tend to come easier when he's not jumping at the sounds that the weather outside makes on the indoor arena.  Granted, that is good for him to get used to, but it just makes for a more peaceful, relaxing ride without it.

Now to squeeze in one more ride and some tack cleaning before my lesson and the clinic later this week!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Lesson 17: Stretch Over The Back

Louie and I had a great ride tonight!  One of the other instructors was there to watch again and she was super impressed with how great we did tonight, and how much progress we made from 2 weeks ago.  I think it helped having Julie ride Louie a few times. 

The weather was awesome, I rode in a tee shirt!  We worked on all 3 gaits, and stretching the neck forward and down.  We worked on 10 meter walk and trot circles, getting Louie to stretch down with inside leg and inside rein.  He has it figured out pretty nicely, but we still need to work on getting him just a bit deeper (using legs/whip, but using my stomach to encourage him not rush), and we also need a fast response to get that stretch into the free walk right when asked.  Our walk-trot transitions were pretty nice, and we worked on the sitting trot-canter, which was surprisingly very easy to transition him just by positioning my legs and sliding my inside seat bone forward and up.  I still need to work on keeping myself from "wiggling" a bit in the canter and sitting trot.

We worked on a little bit of shoulder in, working on looking for opportunities to release and give, and focusing on posting straight forward, not off to one side. 

We also worked on getting my shoulders back and I showed Julie my "shoulders back" strap system that I recently purchased and she liked the results we got wearing it.  She is hopeful that if I keep wearing it, it will help me to avoid some comments from judges regarding my forward shoulders when I show.  I think I should just wear it 24/7.  We worked on the "exercise of the week" also which is to occasionally lift the foot up out of the stirrups to make sure that I'm not bracing in the stirrups, which I tend to do when Louie gets "looky."

Throughout the ride, we kept coming back to the concept of asking Louie to stretch over his back and lengthen his neck.  He starts to get a little "curly" in the neck/behind the bit when frustrated or when I ask him to do something difficult, so we spend a 20-meter circle or two "making up," quickening the pace, and getting him to stretch back out to the bit again.  He seemed to do quite well with this.  Julie also thought that he had a very nice frame tonight and was working over his back nicely.  She likes the frame that we've developed over the past few months, and she thinks that the judges will be in for a treat to see a Saddlebred with such a nice beginning dressage frame (as she said not many of the Saddlebreds out there competing in dressage really get their necks long and low).

Julie figured out in her rides this week and last that Louie is challenging, and he likes to be inventive and change the game just when she thinks she's got him figured out.  So I'm guessing this is where my experience with him and hard work will come in, as now I think Julie is more equipped to help us, but I think I need to keep trying to ride and push buttons and try to feel out how Louie is responding and what he needs to learn what he needs to do.

Overall, we had a really nice ride, and I was very happy with Louie, especially when Julie said "Jill wants to ride your horse!" in the middle of my ride.  That's always a good thing when an instructor likes your horse, though I don't know why anybody wouldn't want to ride a beautiful nice Saddlebred like Louie!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Happy 6th Birthday Louie!

Louie is 6 years old today!  We are having an un-seasonably warm weekend here too, with temps in the 60's and sunshine.  Louie got his blankie off yesterday so he can relax and lounge in the sun without overheating.  Too bad I can't be there to celebrate with him as I've been working all weekend.  Tomorrow we will have to celebrate with a few horsie muffins.  Happy birthday Louie!

Here's an older picture of Louie as a baby. He hardly looks like the same horse now! 

Monday, March 5, 2012

Lightbulb Moment: In Front of the Leg

Today was one of those challenging spring days with the ice and snow melting off of the roof of the arena.  It was windy and noisy, filled with loud crashes and bangs due to the ice sliding down the roof, melting in the sun.  Naturally, this made for a difficult atmosphere for a horse like Louie who tends to react to such noises in a not so positive way (as he did two days ago when I rode him in similar conditions). 

Well today we warmed up on the lunge with the side reins on, attached down to his girth rather than at his sides and I practiced a new way of getting him to step under himself with his hind legs.  I gently flicked the lunge whip and tapped his hind leg/hindquarter with the whip while walking on the lunge line.  When he sped up and broke into a trot, I brought him back to the walk and we tried again.  After a few times, he figured it out and started stepping under himself more when I flicked the whip at him.  We worked on this in the trot and it seemed to work well, instead of kicking out at the whip like he would sometimes do, he tucked his butt up under himself just a bit, and reached forward with the hind legs. 

So after a long warm up (due to the crashing of ice all around us), we worked on this same principle from in the saddle, with an idea from a discussion with a friend earlier in the day.  From a halt, I asked him to step forward with one hind leg by using one of my calves lightly (the same leg as his leg that was back), just behind the girth.  This worked pretty well at the halt, I could bring his lagging leg up under him so that he would halt square, so I tried it at the walk and then the trot.  It seemed to really work and get him to step up and use his hind legs more when I just nudged him lightly with the inside leg (and reinforced with laying the whip on his side once in a while as needed) and after a while I felt that same marching feeling as I did during my lesson last week.  (When we tried this whole idea a few days ago by applying a lot of leg and stomach it was a miserable fail compared to when Julie was there to help coach us through it, so I'm glad I figured out a way to do it differently- at least so it seems). 

The other thing I did differently today was I tried to not use my hands at all.  In doing this I realized that I don't really need them for anything, they're almost more of a prop than anything else, just holding the reins to hold up the suspension bridge.  Louie naturally relaxed his head down pretty well on his own and seemed a little more consistent/confident this way compared to when I am constantly on his case with my hands. 

Throughout the ride, I tried to focus on having my horse in front of my leg- which means he is moving sufficiently forward with light aids and not being dragged along with heavy leg cues.  The feeling of having him in front of the leg is incredible- it feels like it's supposed to!  His gaits are more forward, free, and engaged.  Also, when he is in front of the leg, any little spook or shy is much smaller than when he's inverted and behind my aids.  When he sees something scary, all you need do is just concentrate on getting him to step under with the inside hind leg, and it's like the rest comes together on its own regardless of the situation (now I'm not saying he was perfect, but overall, it was much more pleasant than it could have been with the conditions the way they were)! 

The other thing I tried, on the tip of a friend, was to weight the new inside stirrup before changing directions (when doing a figure-8 or other change of bend).  It helped Louie to kind of know what was coming ahead of time and help him change his bend more easily.  

I rode in my dressage saddle today (and two days ago) and today I really felt good in it, I felt like I was sitting up tall, had a nice open hip, and was using my aids more effectively and lightly. 

When I rode Louie a few days ago over the weekend, I had so much trouble getting him to step under himself that I nearly gave up.  So frustrating. . . So since I have to miss my lesson this week due to a conference for work, I asked Julie to ride Louie instead in place of my lesson.  I'm going to also have her work him a couple of other times over the next two weeks since I won't be out to do much with him due to a very busy work schedule.  At first I felt like I was giving up on myself as an amateur-trainer by asking her to ride/train him a few times, but I think having a professional put a few rides on him will help us get past this hurdle much quicker.  And at the end of the day, after 4 rides by a professional, I'll still be the one who mostly trained him!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Lesson 16: Engaging the Haunches Take 2: Marching

Tonight our lesson started out working on my posture and shoulders back, then quickly turned into working on getting Louie to engage his haunches.  We modified our method from last time just a bit, and in the end came up with the concept of squeezing tons with the legs (calves), laying the whip on his side as needed (right side primarily), and holding with my stomach and hands (light as possible) until he lowers his neck and brings his hind end under him. 

This was not easy and took Julie riding him for about 15 minutes before he'd do it with any degree of predictability.  After a while I got on and I could feel his hind legs marching up underneath me in the walk- what an awesome feeling.  We worked on it quite a bit at the walk, then at the trot, and I think in the end, we needed a little faster tempo in the trot to get it, but we had at least a lap or so of really nice forward, round, and through trotting.

I'm not sure I'll be able to reproduce it on my own, but that's my goal for the week.  Push him forward into the contact and watch for him to *ask* to lower his neck down, then give (but not completely or he'll get behind the contact). 

We also had a little bit of an adjustment in my arm position.  Julie noted that I'm using my wrists still- even wearing the wrist braces! in that I'm ulnar deviating them (closing the pinky side).  I need to remember to always have my pinky being the closest finger to the bit, and have light fingers for him to take the contact into.  If I need to make a correction, I make a big one from the shoulder.  Also, my hands need to come up and out just a little bit so I'm not pulling down on his mouth.

Well, the idea of engaging the haunches is a challenging one for a horse who always wants to lift his neck up every time he feels me tighten my legs, but after a few minutes of Julie riding him and just pushing until he gave, he started to figure it out, so it's up to me now to see if I can do it on my own.  Louie is extremely smart, so I have no doubt he'll figure it out, but I feel right now this is the missing link that is holding us back from getting anywhere.  So Louie, I really need you to figure it out buddy!