The thing about goals in the horse world…

“A goal is an idea of the future or desired result that a person or a group of people envisions, plans and commits to achieve. People endeavor to reach goals within a finite time by setting deadlines”. -Wikipedia

The equestrian version of a goal: an idea of the future or desired result that a person envisions and commits to achieve in which said person’s horse plots to challenge.  Equestrians endeavor to reach goals within a finite time by setting deadlines their horse stretches to the absolute limits.

When I first realized my goal of Prix St. George with my homebred mare, Petite Belle, it was fall of 2016.  My goal was to ride our first FEI test by the end of winter that season.  I overshot my landing by almost a year.  Aside from being stuck in 4th level purgatory for almost a year, being patient this time wasn’t that hard.  I was excited to wear my tails for the first time on a horse that I brought up myself from the day she was born, but I was willing to be as patient as possible, because it was worth it, and I wanted to do it right.

I could not have asked for a better first try.  Our test was harmonious and respectable, but it lacked the pizzazz and correctness to compete with the big dogs in my class.  I was fine with that.  Room for improvement.

So I continued to enter more shows, expecting to improve upon each previous test, with my eyes already set upon Intermediare 1.  But no matter how hard I worked, I was stuck.  Instead of improving upon my scores, they actually lowered.  And I became frustrated with myself and frustrated with my horse – as perfect as she is.

The problem was lack of patience.  While I know better than anyone that slow and steady wins the race, I was determined to prove myself amongst the sharks in the sea called Wellington, Florida.  The pressure to prove my skills not only to my peers, but to myself was causing me to place unreachable expectations on both myself and my horse.

“Patience is not simply the ability to wait – it’s how we behave when we are waiting.” -Joyce Meyer

I could sense that my 11 year partnership with my sweet mare was being compromised.  My horse who once placed 100% trust in me no matter what, was suddenly nervous and questioning my guidance.

After our last show, frustrated with my performance, I remembered something my trainer, Susan Jaccoma always says: “You aren’t going to the olympics tomorrow.”  (Relax, she’s not implying that I can’t go to the olympics, just that there is no reason to place so much pressure)  So I had to swallow my pride and take a few steps back.  I had to access where the root of my problems were and work from there.

I don’t know how long it will take before I get back in the ring with Belle, but I am in no rush.  Where I am right now, I am learning so much more than I have going down centerline.  I am making an FEI horse, and that is no easy task (as I repeat this in my head over and over).

That’s the thing about goals in the horse world:  You have to be able to dial them down when they aren’t in line with your partner.  The relationship is like a marriage.  You can’t decide to move to China when your partner is happy in Minnesota.

Our Journey to Prix St. George

I didn’t know it at the time, but April 27, 2007 would mark one of the most important days of my life.  It was the day that one of the greatest horses I have and will ever know was born.  Meet Petite Belle!

Belle and Mommy
Petite Belle and her beautiful mother, Farer Belle Nurse, an ex racehorse.

My first time down centerline was in 2007, the year Belle was born. Our first time down centerline together was in 2010, Dressage at Waterloo. We competed in Intro A and received a 62%. That year, I struggled to get above a 65% at training level with belle, even though i was winning all her classes on her 2 half sisters, but I knew she was special. She was athletic with a heart of gold to match.

The following year, I decided to go for the Markel/USEF Young Horse Championships. I’m sure the experienced people around me thought I was nuts and some couldn’t wait to watch me fall flat on my face, but we qualified to compete at Lamplight Equestrian Center against the top 15 four year olds in the nation. I was stoked to qualify, and even more excited when I placed 4th in the warm up against some of the countries top riders.

In the championship class, I was told by the judges that I had not properly developed my horse. If I’m being honest, I flew by the seat of my pants, on Belle’s coattail to get there. I REALLY didn’t know what I was doing. These classes are meant for horses with FEI potential.  I had never ridden above third level, and I didn’t have even 2 year’s worth experience showing dressage, but I was still crushed. While I should have been thankful for the opportunity, I was embarrassed to have tried.  (Imagine that… embarrassed for trying.)

Still, I was determined to learn.  We spent the following winter in Wellington, Florida competing at first level with scores ranging from 68-70%.  However, my dreams were crushed once again.  This time, by a vet, who told me she had changes in one of her hocks that were probably too severe for her to continue.

“You can try resting her for a year, but I’ve worked on some of the top horses in her sport, and she’s just not strong enough.”  He told me.

Something told me he was off his rocker, but we gave her a year off anyway.  That fall, I moved to Florida while she stayed in Michigan and I prayed for a recovery.  When the year was over, I sent a different vet to diagnose her.  By this time, we had met many experienced Dressage trainers during various clinics and such, and every one of them absolutely loved her.  I wasn’t giving up because some vet decided it would be a waste of time and money to recover her.  My new vet gave her a clean diagnoses and told my mother we could send her to Florida!

That night she colicked and was sent to Michigan State for surgery.

Her recovery was full of ups and downs and we were not sure she would make it.  For SEVEN MONTHS we struggled to keep hope.  She finally bounced back and I personally drove up to Michigan to bring her down to Florida in October of 2013.  We decided that the changes in temperature and rich grass in Michigan was too much for her to handle and she would be easier to maintain in Florida.

We returned to the show ring that winter for one show at First Level before I was shot down again.  This time, a torn collateral ligament in the hock.  She spent the winter resting, and rehabbing with injections and shock therapy and by spring made another full recovery.

With the help of Sue Jaccoma’s lovely riding and out of the box thinking, we strengthened her hind end and Sue taught her her changes and filled in the cracks of my inexperience.  She taught me how to REALLY engage her hind end, how to properly ride the half pass and most importantly, how to ride my sensitive horse with harmony.  Season of 2015 was upon us and we were ready for Third Level.

Just as season was about to start, I received a call from Kim Jackson, the owner of May Faire Oaks, where Belle lives that she had been pawing in her stall and was very uncomfortable.    I rushed to the farm, but by the time I arrived, she didn’t even want to stand.  I didn’t want to waste time waiting for a vet, so we loaded her in Kim’s trailer and rushed her to Palm Beach Equine.

She practically took the trailer down on the 25 minute drive there where they had a stall already set up for her.  All I could do was hope that we wouldn’t be faced with the decision of surgery or worse.

My mother and I had talked about if this had happened again and after such a difficult recovery the first time around, we didn’t want to put her through that again.

But it was clear when she immediately laid down in the stall with her head pressed against the wall, too weak to move into a more comfortable position, groaning with every breath that we had to decide if we were going to say goodbye, or take a risk and spend thousands of dollars to save our sweet beauty.

If you’ve ever met Belle, you can understand why goodbye was not an option.  She is playful in the field, yet serious and focused under saddle.  I have never sat on a horse that will do nothing but try, no matter what the situation, the way she does.  Snuggles are her favorite thing.  I could put a baby on her and she would make sure it’s safe and then take her galloping full force around the loop of White Fences.  She is athletic and talented and if you touch her, you fall in love.  We have all been blessed to have a little bit of ‘Miss Priss’ in our lives.

That night, I waited for the surgeon to arrive.  I waited while they prepared her table.  I watched as they lifted her, belly up and sliced open the already drawn line on her belly from her first surgery.  I watched them remove all her intestines, purple from lack of oxygen and untwisted her colon.  I stayed while they carefully pieced her together and placed her in the padded recovery room to wake up.  I waited until she woke and helped them take her to her stall.  At 3:30am, I kissed her nose and said “See you in the morning.”

I came everyday, 4 times a day to check on her.  When I snuggled her, she rested her head in my chest and took deep breaths, just as she always had.  We walked and she grazed and sometimes, she got a little bit of carrot, because, well, those are her favorite.

Her recovery was smooth and the only worry she gave us was the hernia that developed on her belly from the incision.  Two years later, she still has that hernia.  It’s our everyday reminder of what we’ve been through, and what we’ve overcome.  I’ve grown to like it.

Last year we started competition at Third Level and quickly moved to Fourth where we torchered each other at 5 shows.  (If you’ve competed fourth level, you know what I’m talking about.)  Every ride, I walked out of the show ring, unsure if I would receive a score above 60%, and sometimes I did not.  But I learned a lot.  Mostly, how to let go, both in the saddle And in my mind.  This was the struggle I had to face in order to ride an FEI test.  I can’t say I ever mastered a Fourth Level test, but my riding improved exponentially.

Finally, during a lesson last month, Sue says to me, “I’m almost tempted to say enter Prix St. George at Adam’s! (White Fences Equestrian Center)”

WHERE DO I SIGN UP????!!!!!

So this weekend, I did it.  I rode down centerline and completed my first FEI test.  Not on Belle’s coattails, but in someone else’s because the coat I ordered wouldn’t be finished before the show.  But that’s ok, because I earned those tails!

My class was filled with 18 of the top riders in Wellington, including Lars Peterson and Jaun Matute.  I received a 64.7% placing me 14th.  Years ago, I would not have been satisfied with this score, or this placing and there is no way I would share the video for fear of being judge by some armchair equestrians.  Through my struggle, I am no longer entitled to great scores and top placings.  I’m working my way through the seaweed like Nemo looking for Dora in a sea full of sharks.  I am grateful for the chance to have this experience and I appreciate my failures.

Needless to say, Belle gets the VIP treatment these days.  From special diets, to acupuncture, magnetic blankets and every Back On Track product made.  She will be with us for the rest of her life.

I’m almost afraid to publish this, so I’ll just knock on wood real loud before I hit the big blue button, and if you’re still reading this, maybe you should knock on wood too.

I almost choked on my own pride watching this video, so, without further ado….

ENJOY!

Gridwork with Grady: Using a Swedish Oxer

Here we have a grid set with a vertical to a one stride, to a Swedish oxer, to a one stride, to a vertical.

A swedish oxer includes 4 standards and at least 2 poles.  The poles on the front set of standards are set with one side higher than the other.  The second set of standards also have one side set higher than the other on the opposite sides from the front.
The swedish oxer helps to improve straightness because the lowest part of the jump is in the middle. The higher points on the sides also encourage the horse to pick his legs up higher.
I did not do much height with this exercise since Grady has not been jumping much since hurricane Irma.  It took a while to drag all the jumps back out to the ring and it is still a work in progress.
If I were to add height, I would have left the verticals lower and used them more to place my horses stride away from the oxer and give him room. You could also replace the verticals with cross rails to create more of a chute and encourage even more straightness.

 

Try this exercise at home and let us know what you think!

Gridwork with Grady: Trot Poles

Trotting Poles is a very basic exercise and underestimated exercise that is very beneficial to young and older horses alike.  I felt the need to include it in our gridwork as it seems to get left in the dust even though it’s a great exercise used almost daily.

For one, it is a great tool for strengthening the horses hind end.  It requires the horse to bend it’s hocks and stifles more than a usual step.  For the jumping horse, it can be used to warm up the hind joints before jumping, and for dressage horses, it can supple the hind end, creating more ease for exercises from leg yield to Piaffe and Passage.

Many young horses can have issues with their stifles as they grow.  They can be as mild as just a stiffness that creates a toe drag or they can even lock, prohibiting the horse from moving forward when he has been standing.  Trotting over the poles is somewhat of a stretching exercise, encouraging the horse to lift his hind legs higher and bend the joint then straighten repeatedly through the poles.

The exercise also requires a bit of precision and attention which can be a great ‘half halt’ for a distracted or overly forward horse.

Grady has very straight hind legs, so this exercise is a must for him to encourage his joints to move in the proper manner to build muscle.

In this video, I use 4 cavaletti , placed 3 feet apart, starting at the lowest height.  If your horse is new to this exercise I recommend using 3 poles or cavaletti.  Four can be a bit overwhelming and if you only have 2, your horse may just decide it’s easier to jump them.

I start Grady at the walk, otherwise, he gets excited and tries to awkwardly jump through.  I give him a very loose rein and leave him be so he can figure out where to place his feet.  At the walk, your horse will need to take 2 steps in between each pole with both front and hind legs.  If you want to make it even more basic, you can set them 2 feet apart and then spread them out when you trot.

When I am ready to trot, I wait until Grady begins to step over the first pole before asking for trot.  This is due to his anxious demeanor that has him convinced he must jump everything underneath him.  You will see his first time through he jumps the last cavaletti, but the second time he has it figured out.  (He has done this exercise before, but we have to start from scratch every time.)

If your horse is lazy, you may need to approach the poles with more energy to keep the momentum through the exercise.

I included a few slow motion, close up clips to show exactly how your horse should place his feet and demonstrate the exaggerated bend of the joints.

When your horse has mastered this exercise, you can begin to raise the cavaletti to create even more bend and push.  This was Grady’s first time trotting raised cavaletti (I know, where have we been, right?) so I only raised 2 alternating cavaletti up one level (one turn of the cavaletti).  Like I said, eager beaver likes any excuse to jump, so I have to go slow with him as to not create any confusion, plus, I don’t want to strain his hind end.

When Grady saw the raised cavaletti, I felt him push harder as he was attempting to jump so I stopped him, backed him up and walked to the first  rail and asked for trot.  FOILED AGAIN! As you can see, his second attempt was marvelous!

I ended with another slow motion clip of Grady’s hind legs over the slightly raised rail.

What are you waiting for?  Grab your breeches and boots and get to trotting!  And don’t forget your helmet!  Safety first!  (Insert WaWaWaaaa… sound effect here.)

 

 

 

A Break for the Young Horses

We’ve had record highs theses past few weeks which have made just standing still pretty unbearable. I’m typically soaked in sweat by 8 am and by the end of the day I’m verging on having heat stroke.

While I can handle it, especially knowing relief is just around the corner, I’ve decided to give the youngsters a break from work before the busy season hits here in November. They’ve worked hard all summer and I want to make sure they don’t burn out during the most important time of year – WEF 2018!

We may go on a few hacks and gallops just to stretch their legs, but no real education or work for the next two weeks!

Miss Belle will continue her training as time off has never really served her well. We are entered in the White Fences Summer Fun show next weekend which will hopefully be out last attempt at 4-3 before finally making our Prix St. George debut. Wish us luck!

I’ve always made a point to give my horses, especially those 5 and under, ample vacation time throughout the year. I never worry about what type of horse I will be faced with after their break and I’ve never been given reason to worry. Sure, they may be a little excited day one, but they are smart. I’ve already taught them the difference between work and play, and they tend to respect that. And they enjoy working, so they are always happy to get back to it.

In the meantime, I will most likely be posting some older content on my horses. Maybe I’ll even pull out some videos from horses past if I can find them. I will also be including some guest horses and trainers, so the site will continue to stay active.

Stay tuned and stay cool!

Gridwork With Grady: Feeling and Setting Leads While Jumping

Today’s exercise is quite simple and great for both horse and rider.  It is also very flexible.  You can adjust the grid to whatever strides you prefer and you also have the option of setting it to trot in, or canter in.  I like to trot into grids most of the time because I like that my horse is positioned on his hind end, and it also sets a more relaxed tone for horses that may have a tendency to rush a combination, like grady sometimes does.

I set this grid trotting in with 3 trot poles to a cross rail (helps you to start out in the center of the combination and encourages a square front end) to a bounce (15′) to 3 strides to my left or right lead option.

The purpose is to either feel your lead, and pick the option on that lead -for example, if you land on the right lead, you would choose the right option – or decide upon entering the combination which option you will choose and try to get your horse to land on that lead.

This exercise is pretty easy for myself and Grady because Grady is a mind reader.  If I think left, he will land left.  If I think right, you know….

Its still a great exercise for him because it encourages him to land on both leads and it also just reinstates the settle communication between us that makes us a great team.

Try it at home and let us know how it went!

Does the Perfect Trainer Exist?

I think it’s safe to say that I feel we have a serious issue revolving around trainers in our sport if you read ‘Raising the Client-Trainer Standard‘ where I discussed the expectations each side should hold each other to, or A Letter to my Former Trainer about my experience being let down.  Which raises the question: Does the ‘perfect trainer’ exist?

Well, none of us are perfect, but I believe I have found the perfect trainer for me.

So what is it about her that makes her just the right fit?

First of all, she gets me. I understand that I can be difficult. While I am very eager to learn and willing to put in the work, I also have to challenge everything I don’t understand. This is not because I don’t trust her – in fact, I think she’s quite a genius and her techniques have never failed me. But I’m a Mare, and I want everything to be my idea. So when I huff and puff because I’m frustrated and can’t make sense of something, she doesn’t take it personally.  She either finds a way to work me through it, or she finds another way to show me.

She’s way too laid back to let this get the best of her and even when dealing with the horses, if her training is challenged, she stays calm and collected, but persists. If she still isn’t getting through, she will find another solution, and always with a giggle and a smile.

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She has a way of projecting her joy of training onto horses and students alike.

Which brings me to my second point: my horses LOVE her. Because she is so tactful and patient, my horses trust her and enjoy working for her. They even enjoy my lessons with her.  I have lessoned on horses she has never ridden, but they just seem to know I am going to ride better that day.  Her voice alone has the ability to relax them if they are tense at a show, and during our lessons at home, I can sense them looking for her approval as we trot past the gazebo where she sits.

Third: her tool chest of techniques and exercises is never-ending.  There are days where I am trying to overcome a problem that I feel is monumental and will take months to fix.  Sue comes along, tells me to put their haunches here, or their shoulder there, turn here, or move my leg there and POOF!  Problem solved!

Which is why number four is no surprise:  She can turn a 4 into an 8.  I have seen her get on a horse and make it unrecognizable (literally, I have to ask who the horse is, only to find out it is a horse that I have known for years) because she brings out the best in every horse and every rider she trains.  Sure, we’ve all seen auction riders get on a horse and spin it around in a forced frame and push the biggest possible movement the horse can give for a 30 minute ride, but she takes her time.  She puts in the work and makes the results last with patient and methodical training.

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Coaching Carmen Franco at Global Dressage

Number five is most important and almost makes reasons 1-4 irrelevant:  She believes in me.

When I met Sue Jaccoma, I had decided I was the baby whisperer.  That is the niche that I had found worked for me, and I settled myself there.  I love starting babies and I’m good at it, so I had given up my big dreams of FEI and Grand Prix and Sue brought me back to my place where nothing is impossible.  A place I had allowed neigh-sayers to push me out of and a place that brings me to life.  I’m not sure she even realized it, and she may be kicking herself in the *$$ for waking the lion, but I feel like Jasmine on a flying carpet and Susan is singing “I can show you the world!”

O.K, it’s not really that romantic, but Sue has been an inspiration, mentor and friend.  When I get down on myself and I think I’m no good, in her motherly way, she will kick me in the rear for being ungrateful and remind me of how far I’ve come, the achievements I’ve made, and that following my dreams is no easy task.

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Trying to be like Sue

She has never put herself on a pedestal and tried to pretend she is perfect.  She knows who she is and is incapable of being anything but genuine and always candid about her aptitudes as well as her insecurities.  Her attitude about the trials and tribulations and the highs and lows that come with being an equestrian is always positive and forward thinking.  Tomorrow is a new day.  She’s not in this sport for anything but the love of the animal.

So, thank you, Sue Jaccoma, for being the perfect trainer for me.  Thank you for all the time and effort you have put in to molding me into the rider I am today.  Thank you for supporting me and for all the opportunities you have provided me, from showing one of your young horses, to allowing me to learn on your own prized possessions.  While you are only there for me in the Dressage Ring, you have made me an overall better horseman and rider and even my jumpers thank you!  I look forward to many years and ribbons ahead!

I’d like to give special thanks to Queca Franco for capturing all these moments that so perfectly represent Sue’s carefree personality.  The time that you have committed to the May Faire Oaks Team, capturing our highlights – and some of the lows – and tending to us at the ring when you aren’t showing and could be at home, resting, has not gone unrecognized.  We couldn’t do it without you