The Comfort Zone (and how I kicked its ass this one time)

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So... I jumped this?

So… I jumped this?

I’m not a super nervous rider anymore… as long as I stay in my comfort zone. My comfort zone over fences is very decidedly in the 2’6″ – 3’0″ range, and as I get closer to 3’0″, the butterflies start acting up.

Tebow is young enough that he still needs miles over the friendly, lower fences. So far, he hasn’t needed me to really push myself. Our goal over fences is to teach him to think for himself, and this is best accomplished over smaller stuff where he can make mistakes and figure things out with minimal risk. My job is to balance and keep him moving his feet.

But he’s getting ready to move up to novice, and he’s ready to be a big boy now and start tackling some bigger stuff. Not every jump lesson or anything, but occasionally.

And that means I need to get comfortable jumping bigger than 3’0″.

Ideally, I’d love to do this on a horse who already knows how to jump bigger fences and can show me the ropes, but I don’t have access to a 3’0″+ schoolmaster. Fortunately, my trainer is here to show us the way. Extra fortunately, Tebow is probably the most honest horse I’ve ever ridden (and I’ve ridden some super honest horses!).

We were working on bending lines and broken lines. Bending line: stay on the same lead. Broken line: should change leads, assuming you have enough time (or angle your fences if you don’t). Tebow did great with both over our usual novice height fences. So trainer raised the second element of the broken line.

Honestly, I was nervous. I wasn’t thrilled with my riding that day anyways: I felt loose in the tack and out of rhythm, enough so that I talked to my trainer about it. Trainer reassured me that it’s because I’m consciously adjusting my equitation right now, and change can feel weird. I’ve struggled with bracing my lower leg, getting in a chair seat, and being too rigid in my equitation, so softening all that may feel sloppy while I learn. Trainer clearly knew I was nervous, even though I never say anything when I start to worry – talking about it makes me more nervous and seems to legitimize my fears, so I shut up and trust that my trainer would never ask me to do something that I’m not capable of.

Basically, the lesson consisted of a lot of me trusting my trainer and taking her word for it that I’m not a totally incompetent bozo on an overly kind horse. Trust is so important when someone asks you to step out of your comfort zone.

The first time through, we knocked it. I think the bigger height caught him off guard. The second time, though…

Success!

Success!

He nailed it.

It felt so awesome. I don’t think I’ve stopped smiling for the past 2 days. He is so athletic and he jumps so fantastic once the fences get to a more respectable size. And he obviously loved it! Trainer joked that we should skip novice and just go up to training level (ha ha ha no thank you please, I am still a coward).

Here’s the video. We almost had the lead change, but I didn’t quite commit enough to it because I was thinking too much about the big fence I was trying to get to – flying changes are still a new development for him; he’s only started to get them this past month. I also sat too early because I don’t have a good sense of timing over bigger jumps yet. For both of us, it’ll come. This felt like a really successful first attempt: we got over it clean, confident, and happy. I was thrilled anyways!

And my trainer’s super sweet caption that she posted with the video:

Grace and Tebow working in their lesson tonight […] on bending and broken lines. And Grace pushing herself that little extra bit to show Tebow how amazing he is.

P.S. I didn’t measure it, but based on counting holes and standing next to it grinning like an idiot a few times over the past couple days, the back rail seems like a soft 3’6″, or as I like to call it, “boob height”.

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We had a visitor! Part 2 of 2

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Our afternoon trail ride, as told mostly through pictures. Friend rode Tebow again and I rode Domino because obviously the 6 year old Thoroughbred eventer is much quieter on trails than the 20+ year old trail pony.

Tebow wants to eat blackberries, too.

Tebow wants to eat blackberries, too.

Finally found the canal!

We found the canal!

Tebow at the big river.

Tebow at the big river (feat. very poor photo skills by me).

Nice cyclist stopped and offered to take our picture.

Nice cyclist stopped and offered to take our picture.

My stable is reasonably close to the C&O Canal, but I have only ever gone there with a group of boarders. There’s definitely a way through the woods and fields, but I couldn’t figure it out, so we ended up riding there down a long, long road. Thankfully, it’s not a very trafficked road – it’s mostly an access road used by cyclists and the occasional motorcyclist, as far as I can tell. They were all really good about passing the horses, and it was good desensitization for them (the horses, not the cyclists).

So it wasn’t a super exciting ride. We walked a long ways down a road, found the canal and river, played around there for a while, then headed back home the way we came. About eight miles total, almost all walking – except towards the end when Domino finally had enough and decided to jog sideways for the last mile or so. Silly goose is lucky I love him.

Overview of our ride!

Overview of our ride!

I wish I could say I’ll be doing this again on my own now, but I probably won’t. Pony Club successfully made me very nervous about solo trail rides. The little loop at the beginning is around the perimeter of our stable property, and that’s about as much as I’m comfortable doing without a buddy. But at least now I know the many bikes in the area won’t freak out either horse if we do venture away from the farm. Now I can tag along with the trail riding boarders on the weekends without worrying about either horse acting like a total fool. It’s a beautiful area and I know it’s great for Domino and Tebow (and me) to get out.

We had a visitor! Part 1 of 2

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My college friend and awesome horseperson came to visit a couple weeks ago. She’s both a great rider and a great photographer, which meant her visit was the perfect opportunity to step back and get a sense of where Tebow is in his training exactly. I see him every day, so the transformation can get lost on me. We have breakthroughs and aha moments, and I think we’re getting somewhere, and my trainer’s feedback is overwhelmingly positive, but I doubt myself.

But no! He’s actually consistently going super well. And I haven’t screwed him up or made him unrideable or made him horribly quirky. It was very, very reassuring.

Tebow and friend getting acquainted.

Tebow and friend getting acquainted.

He got right to work for her and they did fantastic together. I know when I ride him, I think he’s adorable and wonderful and perfect, but it’s nice to know I haven’t totally lost the plot and he really is all of those things.

My friend warmed him up while I set fences (and took a boatload of pictures because I rarely get to see him from the ground and I was a little overwhelmed by just how nice he looked). I’m trying to hold back on the number of pictures I’m sharing in this post for the sake of brevity, but… I’m not a very brief person. So sorry.

Tebow can't help that he's a total stud.

Tebow can’t help that he’s a total stud.

Then I hopped on and played over some jumps, mostly to demonstrate his sanity before friend took her turn. Her personal horse has had the same type of lameness issues Domino has been dealing with, so she hasn’t had much opportunity to jump recently.

Oxer out of a two-stride with me. Cute babe.

Oxer out of a two-stride with me. Cute babe.

Tebow was his usual reliable self. We had a breakthrough after Seneca and finally figured out rhythm over fences: instead of running downhill and blowing through the aids, he now very consistently will keep a quiet, easy pace. A harder question might cause him to rush a little, but he’ll come right back with a half-halt.

The trick? If he starts to ignore my steadying aids, we halt. It was awkward for about 1.5 lessons, then the lightbulb went off. Now if I half-halt, he slows down and waits for me to explain what I want from him. It’s awesome. I feel like I’m riding an outstanding schoolmaster, not a reasonably green six-year old.

Suitably convinced of Tebow’s sanity and senses of self-preservation over fences, my friend took her turn. Again, incredibly adorable together.

Fun! Playing with the coop between the grass and sand jumping arenas.

Fun! Playing with the coop between the grass and sand jumping arenas.

I can’t get over how great it was to watch them together. Tebow was his good, reliable self. He listened to her, and he did what he does best: he grew her confidence. I think that skill alone makes him the best possible eventing partner. It took all of two warm-up crossrails for my friend to figure out that Tebow is basically a jumping saint. Point, shoot, smile, and enjoy. I’d lowered the jumps for her while she figured him out, but by the end she’d had me put up the back rail on the oxer out of the two-stride line and they went through it so nicely.

Superstars!

Superstars!

The whole experience made me so happy with where Tebow is and the role I’ve played in getting him there. He really is a nice horse, and while I think most of my ‘training’ with him has been more about not messing up a horse who was born with a fabulous brain, rather than any sort of amazing riding or teaching by me… it’s still awfully nice to know that I seem to be managing that quite well.

Up next: Domino! Yes, he exists and I still love him to death. Friend and I have a not-so-adventurous trail ride adventure.

An overdue update and SVPC Starter Trials recap

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I have seriously not done justice to my “one post per week” or even “one post per month” goal. Apologies! I’ll try to do better moving forward.

Some highlights since my last post:

  • I competed Domino for the first time since his injury in February 2014! We rode Training Level Test 3 at a schooling show at home. He won his class with a 68%. I’m still trying to figure out what this means for us and my plans with him.
  • Tebow also made his First Level debut at the same show and placed 3rd in the First Level+ division with a 65%.
  • Tebow developed his flying changes.
  • I am starting to school more challenging questions with Tebow. He’s doing great.

But this post is mostly to recap our first event of 2015. I don’t have super reliable transportation so it took until July, but it finally happened last weekend! I competed Tebow in beginner novice – and I evented without my trainer for the first time. As someone who can get show nerves, it was a bit daunting, but I know my trainer wouldn’t let me do it by myself if she didn’t think I could handle it. Seneca has been good to both Tebow and me in the past (it’s where Tebow went to his first ever show as a baby, and it’s where I earned my personal best dressage score of 23.8 with Domino). We had nice ride midday ride times, so we leisurely loaded up and were on our way.

My parents met me there, too, which was fun! They don’t get to see me ride too often and they’d never met Tebow before. Bonus: personal photographer.

Warming up for dressage.

Warming up for dressage.

Dressage

Dressage was definitely the weakest link for Tebow and me this show. I was not happy with the way I rode: my geometry was abysmal and Tebow felt very unbalanced. It was on grass and the footing was not terribly consistent, which made it more difficult than I’d planned for, but I still don’t have any excuse to not ride an accurate 20-meter circle at this point. My trainer also noticed from the pictures that it looks like I’m bracing my lower leg instead of using my thighs and core to post, which definitely wouldn’t have helped Tebow’s balance. Guess who gets to do lots of no stirrup work?!

But we got through the test. Tebow behaved nicely – the overall comments started with “Lovely demeanor!” I’m proud of how rideable he’s become, and I’m glad that shone through despite some mediocre riding. Ultimately, we received what I thought was a very generous score of 34.7, putting us in 4th place (out of 10, I believe?).

X, halt, salute. Pat your horse.

X, halt, salute. Pat your horse.

Show Jumping

Then it was time for the fun part! I went to walk my course and my parents babysat Tebow. They both fell in love with him because he’s just so quiet and easy on the ground. My mom is very scared of horses and even she was saying she liked him.

Show jumping warm-up without a trainer was a little hectic. It wasn’t my favorite part of the day, let’s put it that way. I went over just enough fences to feel like Tebow understood that we were going to jump, then got in the arena as quickly as possible.

Yay, jumping!

Yay, jumping!

The course was very straightforward: a typical hunter-style course with only a couple oxers. Tebow cruised through it, quick and clean. I was happy with our round: he jumped clean and he was under control and ready for more. I definitely think he’ll make the move up to novice show jumping without a problem.

Favorite picture of the day.

Favorite picture of the day.

Cross Country

There was no warm-up for cross country, which kind of threw me off my game a little. I know it’s only beginner novice and he was already jumping nicely coming out of show jumping, but I like to hop over one solid fence before getting on course just to help both of us change gears.

Instead, I decided I’d have to come out of the start box super positive and ride very forward to fence 1. Tebow had no problem with that plan! He charged over the first fence… and the second… and the third… I felt like I was on a freight train: he was going whether I was ready or not. The landing of the fourth fence was downhill, so before that fence I finally sat up and gave him a big half-halt and basically said, “Hey, pay attention to me damn it!”

After that he went really nicely. He was galloping very strong between the fences, but when I sat down a few strides out, he came back to me and was very polite and nice.

Our only problem spot, which I didn’t really anticipate, was the water. I brought him back to a trot so we could both take a breather, and because I know he hasn’t schooled this water element before. Instead of trotting in nicely, he slammed on the brakes. Visions of Domino a year ago – he did the exact same thing. I gave him a tap with the crop behind my leg, then pushed my hands forward and he finally walked in after maybe 5-10 seconds of hesitation. Fortunately, the water was only flagged out, so we weren’t penalized for our entry mistake.

They also took the ditch off course because the footing had gotten bad, but I schooled it anyways because I’d walked it and felt comfortable with the question. Apparently Tebow was comfortable with it, too – too comfortable. He barely saw it, never broke rhythm, and stepped in it with his hind leg (as only Tebow could do). It’s a very small almost faux-ditch, with no real depth to it, so he was just fine. Hey, I’m glad he’s not ditchy!

Last fence on cross country.

Last fence on cross country.

We finished strong. I’d survived my first trainer-less event! Even better, we finished on our dressage score and placed 4th overall.

Takeaways: Work on dressage. School some more water. But I do feel like we’re both probably ready to think about moving up to novice now.

Expanding the toolbox

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Riders have two tools in their tool boxes. One is the effectiveness of the aids and influences, and the other is the knowledge of how patterns and exercises may correct and improve the horse.

Charles de Kunffy, USEF “S” Dressage Judge (Dressage Today, Feb. 2011)

My riding career focused heavily on the former tool for a long time. There were a few training exercises and grids and things I’d play with, but most of my previous trainers were very focused on the rider. Heels down, half-halt, shoulders back, get around the course, ride the dressage test, et cetera. That’s all great, but at a certain point, I needed more. I hit a seemingly common plateau at 2’9″ and training level dressage.

I’m finally breaking past it with some awesomely helpful exercises my trainer has been having me do with Tebow. So, here is one of the dressage patterns and one of the jumping grids we’ve done recently because they both ended with great a-ha moments.


Leg yield into canter transition

The goal of this exercise is to improve the canter transition, particularly its straightness.

  1. Leg yield from the track to the 1/8th line.
  2. Straight forward 2-3 strides.
  3. Leg yield from the 1/8th line to the 1/4 line.
  4. Canter.

The horse’s canter departure should start with the outside hind leg. Leg yielding into the transition sets up the horse so that he basically has no choice but to step off on the outside hind. This exercise ensures that my aids are timed correctly and are clear to Tebow; he can’t rush through the transition.


One stride to bounce

I love this grid. Love it. Tebow is long and he can get fast and flat when we’re jumping. This really gets him landing and thinking and listening instead of running through my aids looking for the next jump.

One stride to bounce.

One stride to bounce.

We started it out as a simple one-stride, then added the bounce element. We kept it low initially because it’s intentionally a little tricky, and unsurprisingly, the first time he sort of crashed through the bounce element. But that’s what grid work is for: letting the horse figure out the footwork for themselves. The second time was great, so we bumped up the height to get a bit more effort. Tebow responded wonderfully and got this awesome jump where he actually rocked back onto his haunches and got his shoulders up.

The challenging part about jumping Tebow is that he’s a good jumper and he knows it. He doesn’t always want to listen or put in a ton of effort, because he doesn’t need to. He’ll get over. I could let him gallop around on the forehand over a beginner novice/novice course and he’d get through it. But that’s not good enough anymore. I see a lot of bounces and one strides in our future in a variety of combinations, but this one in particular seems super helpful for getting him landing and sitting back and not rushing.


He's also starting to look pretty great from all this work!

He’s starting to look pretty great from all this work!

We do still talk about the aids and their effectiveness. Actually, that was another really useful moment in our last lesson – in the canter, my trainer explained that I had to half-halt as the mane was coming back towards me. That corresponds to the point in the stride when you can actually influence the gait – as the outside hind is landing. Figuring out when to do something had a pretty immediate impact on Tebow, which was really exciting.

Learning these new things is making Tebow a much better, more rideable horse. I’m really excited to see how the next few months go!

A fun (but tough!) exercise to strengthen and connect

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Lately, I’ve been working on building Tebow’s strength. Since the weather hasn’t been cooperative, that’s meant lots of transitions, and to shake it up we did a tricky serpentine exercise that was really useful. Here’s a basic (poorly drawn) diagram of what we did.

circleserpentine

So: multi-loop serpentine with small circles as we reached the track. We started out doing it at the trot, using 10-meter circles. It really helped get Tebow using his hind end and working into the aids instead of running through them.

After that was going well, we made it trickier by adding 1 stride of walk as we crossed the center line. Quick transitions are hard work for Tebow anyways, and putting them into a difficult pattern really made him work.

My trainer explained that she really likes this exercise because it makes the horse work for the rider. On the one hand, I could bust my ass trying to connect a horse who’s as long as a bus and possibly still confuse him. Or I could do something like this where the exercise itself makes him connect for him to be able to do it successfully. Tebow’s trot is definitely his weak gait – he has a really upright shoulder and gets very choppy and strung out – but this got him nicely uphill and powering through.

To finish, we tried it a few times at the canter. Confession: When my trainer said, “Okay, now we’re going to do this cantering,” my first reaction was hahahahaha. But I pay her to make me do stuff I wouldn’t have the guts to try on my own, so… off we went!

For cantering, there are fewer loops and the circles are 15-meters. No transitions across the center line – just a simple change as we returned to the track. This is really hard! At first Tebow was running through my aids and leaning, but I stuck with it. There are a couple tricks to doing it right: 1. Turn with the OUTSIDE aids, and 2. Think ahead (quickly!). It really made me plan and coordinate.

But all our canter work is paying off, because Tebow totally nailed his leads. Just a couple weeks ago he was very inconsistent about picking up the right lead, and now he’s basically entirely reliable even in a really tricky exercise with lots of changes where I could easily forgive him for slipping up.

And while it felt wonky at first, towards the end we were getting a few strides of awesome work where he actually rounded over his back and my trainer was really impressed. She thinks this is going to really help him start making the leap to more advanced work, so we’ll be doing lots of this for the foreseeable future…

A word of advice to anyone who’d like to try this: Tebow & I are moderately fit, and we were both pretty beat by the end of our 30 minute lesson. It’s definitely something to do in moderation when you’re starting out – we only did it cantering three times and that was plenty for an introduction to the exercise.

I forgot an anniversary!

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So much for one post per week – sorry guys. Winter is boring.

I didn’t realize that 2014 marked ten years since Flambards and I won our junior dressage championship in South Africa. I feel so old. I never had a ton of showing highlights, but that was definitely one of them. Our wins qualified us to represent our region at a national-level competition – we couldn’t go because our yard had to go into quarantine the week before, but qualifying was a big enough deal for me. I still have the saddle pad and browband in our regional colors and actually still compete in them occasionally…

Yep, that's the saddle pad (Tebow modeling).

Yep, that’s the saddle pad (Tebow modeling). Cornflower blue & red forever!

I was 14 years old and had owned Flambards, my first horse, for about a year. Flambards was one of the coolest horses I’ve known (which doesn’t mean a lot coming from me because I love all horses, but he was genuinely a really great animal). He was a 16.2-hand chestnut Thoroughbred gelding with a star and hind socks. To this day, that remains my favorite height-color-breed-gender-markings combination on a horse. Flambards picked up the pieces of my screwed up riding confidence and put them back together by having the kindest, most forgiving nature. When I panicked, he’d roll his eyes and take care of me. When I got too big-headed or complacent in my riding, he knew exactly how to put me back in my place without scaring me.

I’d stopped jumping competitively at the time of this show; it scared me too much and I was happier focusing on dressage. Of course, my teenage friends all thought that this was totally stupid and couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t want to jump (yes, I was the chicken of my friend group). It wasn’t until this show that I realized that dressage made me happy, and I enjoyed doing it, and I was fairly good at it, so forget what everyone else thought.

I know showing isn’t the be-all and end-all of riding. I like to think I would’ve gotten my confidence back eventually without the help of some extrinsic motivation and competitive success. But it honestly helped a lot – at the time, it made me want to keep riding, even though everyone else told me the stuff I wanted to do was being “boring” and “easy”, or that I was overthinking things.

Ten years later, I realize I’m the only one of my high school barn friends who still rides on a regular basis. I ended up becoming a super confident horseperson through Flambards and, eventually, Domino. It took ten years, but I’m proud to say I’m a very brave rider who trusts herself and her horses. And even though now I event and participate in some of the higher-risk parts of the horse world, I still love my “boring” dressage.

flambardswin

So thank you, Flambards, and thank you, dressage, for helping me stick with the horses.

Crooked fences, straight lines

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After a long break, I finally got to have a lesson with my trainer this week. I can’t get over how great she is. My new favorite line…

“If you wouldn’t do it in the dressage arena, don’t do it in the show jumping ring.”

Basically, flat downhill crazy-person canter ain’t gonna cut it anymore.

We spent most of the lesson working on establishing and maintaining a soft, steady canter to our fences. It was really helpful and productive.

At the end of the lesson, since I have a show coming up, we played with some wonky questions to make sure Tebow remembers the whole “listen to the rider” thing. We jumped crooked fences on a straight 3-stride line: first verticals, then small oxers. Trainer took a video so I figured I’d share – as good an excuse for a blog post as any, right?

I don’t know. He’s just so cute I can’t handle it. I can’t believe this is the same llama-creature I started riding last August. There’s still little quibbles with the consistency, but he’s really turning into a horse who is a total pleasure to ride.

Help a friend out: My Horse My Life contest voting

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Vote for my friend in the My Horse My Life contest!

My friend is an incredibly talented photographer, and her trainer is an incredibly talented dressage trainer who does awesome work with off-track Thoroughbreds.

Case in point: Here is said trainer schooling some lovely third level work with a horse she bought off the track 4+ years ago:

Mr Painter schooling at home

Mr Painter schooling at home

We all talk the talk about how awesome OTTBs are and how much we need to support the development of American-bred talent instead of relying on European-bred Warmbloods: help someone who’s really doing it on the front lines walk the walk and get some more fantastic, American horses out there.

If my friend wins the contest, the money will go towards buying tack for OTTB resale projects for her trainer and towards equipment for Chicago’s only therapeutic riding program.

Seriously, they're super badass.

Seriously, they’re super badass and deserve this.

And you can vote every day!

If you’re interested in the trainer’s work and want to know more about her journey with Mr Painter and her other horses, please check out TB at X (also linked in my blogroll). They’re a fantastic team. You will feel good about yourself if you vote for them. I promise!

Vote for my friend in the My Horse My Life contest!

Vote for my friend in the My Horse My Life contest!

Vote for my friend in the My Horse My Life contest!

And we now return to your regularly scheduled blogging. Thank you!