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.

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

Gridwork with Grady: Trot Poles to an Oxer

One of my favorite exercises for strengthening a horses jump: Trot poles to an oxer. Engages the hind end, sets the pace and assists the distance. I like to put considerable height once the horse understands the exercise. Grady is only 5 and a little behind the learning curve so 2’9″ is plenty difficult. Soon, I would like to get to a 3′ square oxer. Some of my more experienced horses would trot a 4′ square.

Make sure that your horse understands how to trot through poles, otherwise he may try to jump them, in which case, you better hope your horse is coordinated.  For first timers, use just a ground pole in place of the jump and work your way up when your horse is sure where to place his feet.

If your horse gets anxious, like  Eager Beaver Grady,  he may still make a bounce out of the trot poles his first time.  I walked Grady up to the poles and picked up the trot over the first pole so he could figure out it what I was asking.  Unfortunately, I did not get this debacle on video.  🙂

Share your experience trying this exercise, or your favorite gymnastics exercise in the comments below.

The Faith to Win

I know many amateurs who get anxiety just thinking about filling out an entry form.  They don’t sleep the night before a show.  They can’t eat the entire day before they show and the only thing crossing their minds before they go into the ring is how badly they are about to embarrass themselves.  They focus on all the things that can and will go wrong.

I know this feeling.  I’ve gotten myself so worked up before a class that I almost puked.  I blame my anxiety for my drop from 4th in the warm up(right in front of George Williams and horizon: My claim to fame.) – down to 14th (last) in the 2011 USEF Markel 4 year old championships.  (Yes, I have to write out the entire class name.  You know.  Pride.)  I couldn’t get my head on straight that day.  All I could think about was how I didn’t deserve to be there with all of those huge names on beautiful imported warmbloods whose papers alone cost more than my car.  I knew it was going to affect me because I have never gone into the ring with that attitude and not been chewed up and spit out at least 5 times before leaving the ring.  Add to that, the fact that my horse is half thoroughbred and can read my mind and you get my most embarrassing moment to date.  For those of you who don’t know, these young horse classes are scored by 3 judges who announce their opinion of you over a microphone for everyone to hear.  People were there from all over the nation to compete and to watch the future of dressage.  I wanted to crawl in a hole and die.

I could have decided that I suck.  I should quit being a professional.  That I don’t have what it takes.  And I did for a moment, but that’s not how I work.  When I get knocked down, all I can think about is how I can redeem myself.  I focus on how my next move is going to make people forget about my failure.  The reality of that is that it is hard.  People tend to focus on the negative, so I most likely will need 5 positive events to cover that one negative ride.  It puts a lot of pressure on every ride, but I have faith.  Faith that I can do better.  Faith that I am better.  Faith that even if I fall, I can still rise another day.  Before I go into the ring, I try to focus my anxiety into excitement.  I’m so excited for my chance to win.  To show everyone my talent.  I’m excited to improve upon my last ride.  That doesn’t mean it always turns out as good as I hoped, but I’m not ready to puke before I go into the ring.

I think many people believe that if they don’t hype themselves up that they won’t have to deal with the disappointment of failure.  When have you ever come out of the ring after a bad ride and thought, “well, that’s cool, I knew I was going to suck.”  You’re still disappointed.  You’re still embarrassed.  The reality is that you set yourself up for failure.  You’ve stamped into your head that you aren’t capable – and so you aren’t.

People often despise cocky people like Donald Trump – “It’s going to be great!  It’s going to be Huge!” Or Rhonda Rousey whom they were so excited to see finally knocked out by Holly Holmes because she was an expert shit talker.  What they don’t realize is that they are announcing their affirmations out loud, to the world.  That’s brave!  If you’re over 30 you probably remember Stuart Smiley from Saturday Night Live:  “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it!  People like me!”  Yea, we laughed because it sounds ridiculous, but it works!  Ask any successful person.  Their affirmations may be subconscious, but they definitely never tell themselves they can’t.

Believing in yourself is not some special talent that only certain people were given.  It’s a learned habit.  Some people have learned to question their talent.  It’s understandable.  When you first started riding, maybe you thought you were good.  Until something happened that convinced you otherwise.  Maybe in your younger years you could compete and win, but now you just aren’t as good.  At some point, you told yourself that you could do it and you failed.  You lied, right?  And maybe you still thought you were ok, but then you failed again.  Lied again.  If a person lies to you more than once, you probably question everything they say from that point on.  Eventually, you will think everything they say is false.  Additionally, what happens if you are always around someone who tells you you aren’t good enough?  Someone who ridicules every single mistake you make over and over?  It would be hard not to believe.

What if you changed your perception?  What if you forgave your mistakes?  What if, instead of looking at your mistakes as a failure, you see them as a gift?  What?  That’s like wrapping up dog poop in a pretty box and calling it a gift!  Well, if you turned it into fertilizer, it could be!  The fact of the matter is, no successful person got where they are WITHOUT making mistakes.  What made them successful is what they did with those mistakes.  Those who choose to beat themselves up don’t grow, in fact, they shrink.  Those who choose to use those mistakes and build another step on the ladder grow more with every oops!

My mistake during the 2011 USEF/Markel Young Horse Championships (yes, every time) was doubting myself and trying to change my ride as a result.  I didn’t get there by mistake.  It’s good to improve a little with every ride, but what was I thinking trying to look like Edward Gal and Totalis overnight when I got there looking like Melissa Wanstreet and Petite Belle?  I had many trainers who hated my attitude.  My first dressage show, I wanted 70’s which I was told was impossible.  My dreams were always too big and needed to be dumbed down.  The one time I decided to see myself the way they saw me, I became just that.  Incapable.

So here’s my call to action: What if you told yourself how great you are?  What if, before you entered the ring, you visualized your excellent ride, over and over?  When you are learning your course in the jumpers, imagine your approach to each jump.  Imagine your horse moving forward and straight, you finding the perfect distance, waiting, jumping with balance and precision as you plan your next jump.  When you are reviewing your dressage test, imagine your prep before each movement, imagine executing each movement precisely.   Imagine a balanced and steady ride all the way through.  Imagine it 10 times over before you go into the ring.

If you’ve gotten this far and you think this is all a bunch of cheese, good for you, go back to hating yourself.  I was just trying to help.  But if you think there is even a 1% chance that this could help you, what do you have to lose?  What could you possibly lose by complimenting yourself?  What could you possibly lose by envisioning yourself winning?  Try it, and if it turns out to be the worst experience you’ve ever had, you can come back here and comment about what a idiot I am.

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Developing the Young Horse Series: Part 1 Personal Space

When most people think about starting a young horse they probably think of groundwork.  Maybe longeing, maybe in hand.  Many horses come to me who have already been on the longe.  They may have been bridled, or felt the saddle and girth or even side reins.  Unfortunately, many of these horses know nothing about personal space.  I take them on the lead and immediately they are pushing their shoulders into my personal bubble.  If you watch a herd of horses in a field, you may observe how they will run into each other as they spook from a strange noise.  If you see two geldings playing, you may notice how they move their chest or rear into another horse to move it away.  Now imagine a horse doing this to you, very abruptly.  Imagine you are holding a young horse and you haven’t even begun to start working, but a plastic bag floats by and their immediate instinct is to run right into you.  It’s innocent, but it’s dangerous.  In my field of work, it’s safety first.

So the first thing I teach is personal space.  Depending on the horse and it’s living situation, this could be done in 5 minutes, or it could take a month.  I teach it to my foals, but they typically live in a field from weanling to 3 years old, at which point they will need a refresher.  If your horse is being handled by someone else who allows it to go anywhere and doesn’t correct this unwanted behavior, it will take longer for them to understand that when you are handling it, it must respect your space.   If you have a horse at any age that doesn’t respect your ‘bubble,’ you may want to go back to working on the ground.  You may thank me one day.

How a horse handles on the ground is paramount to a successful and positive first mount and personal space is easy to teach.

First, when you have the horse on a lead take note of where it is standing.  I have been jumped on and ran over enough times in my career that it is second nature to know when a horse is in a dangerous spot.  The horse should leave you enough space that if he spooks, you have time to react.  If they are ‘in your bubble’ you will not be able to see enough body language to predict a sudden move, nor will you have time to react. My bubble is an arms length all around my body.  When the horse is facing you, this distance is from the horses nose – NOT their chest or shoulder.  (I hope I don’t need to point out the distance needed from the hind legs or you aren’t ready to be handling any horse)  Many horses don’t seem to understand that their head and neck extend at least 2 feet from their body when lowered and by standing with their head tall and alert when facing you, they think they can get a little closer.  I also feel this body language is about being taller than me and is slightly aggressive if not dominant.  It may also be that they are insecure, but it’s time to learn that they will be ok on their own as this is a dangerous place if their front feet decide to come off the ground.

This is a perfect time to teach a horse ‘back.’  If practiced enough, it will also come in handy when mounted as they will already know the voice command.  I use pressure on their chest with my thumbs to ask them to move away while saying ‘back,’ which typically leads to a multitude of reactions, none of which is ‘back.’  Remember that this is a part of the learning process.  You asked a question in another language, and they gave you an answer.  We must also remember that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results.  So I ask again, and if I don’t get the desired result, I follow up with a waving movement of my arms.  This will typically spark some sort of movement away from me in which I reward with a pat on the neck and ‘good boy/girl!’  I may need to use a crop or a whip – gently.  Sometime an upright wave of a dressage whip will wake a stubborn or confused horse.  I repeat this process until I get the correct answer to pressure on the chest and the horse stays back.

Exercise done.  (I will explain personal space while leading in the my next blog.)  This is a very important key to training a young horse.  Don’t drill.  They are typically smarter than us and you will have plenty of time tomorrow to reinforce your training. If this process took 2 minutes, you can move on to the next phase.  If it took anything longer than 5 minutes, put the horse away.  You just taught your horse the most valuable lesson of it’s career.  MOVE AWAY FROM PRESSURE and don’t fall back on it.

How many of you have a horse that takes excessive leg????  This is one of the tiny details that I never let go.  Many of my clients will watch a first session of this and a short lesson in hand and wonder what the heck they just paid for.  Trust me.  It all fits together just right in the end.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Working in Hand.