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!

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.

Going Solo: My Gamble in the Jumper Ring

I’ve been riding as a professional for a while now, but it isn’t typical that you will find me at a horse show without a trainer  This weekend, I decided to step outside of my usual box and brave the WEF Summer series sans trainer.  This isn’t because I’ve reached a place where I feel like I no longer need help – I don’t believe that day should ever come – but because sometimes I just need to do it by myself.  Because I’m tired of paying someone to tell me to stop making the mistakes I already know I’m making.

I’ve always been the type of person who HAS to make my own mistakes in order to learn.  If someone tells me not to do something, I have to do it anyway, just to see.  This isn’t always a conscious thought.  When my father told me not to max out my credit cards, I didn’t think “I want to find out what will happen if I exceed my limit.”  It just happened.  And at 23 years of age, I had to deal with the consequences.

When a trainer tells me not to override, it’s not that I enjoy overworking and getting minimal results, but somewhere along the line, it became my instinct and it takes a lot of concentration to catch myself AND reverse habits.  A level of concentration that is hard to keep with a 3′ jump coming with no distance in sight, a voice yelling in the background “Give! Give!”, and the voices in my head telling me I’m about to F*** up royally, accompanied by visions of poles flying everywhere as I crash my horse into the jump.

Besides, there is a certain feeling that you get when you make a mistake and you dust yourself off, try it again, and succeed.  It’s called confidence.  And confidence is one of the major building blocks to becoming better at anything.  If you have confidence, it’s easier to get up after a fall.  You forgive yourself for your mistakes and you try again because you KNOW you can do better, and you won’t give up until you reach your potential.

I’ve struggled with confidence in the jumper ring.  I make mistakes that I KNOW I shouldn’t be making and I kick myself for doing so.  The fact that making those mistakes had become a subconscious ritual for me, was making me a bad rider.  I expected to fail, and hoped I would succeed.  When a jump is coming at you in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, you can’t just hold on and hope that it works out.  You have to know that you have a the correct stride and impulsion and time to make a proper correction without overdoing it.

How many of us can agree that 90% of the mistakes we make over fences come from an “Oh Shit!” state of mind?  Either you didn’t act at all because you were too afraid, or you put your hand in a hat and pulled out a solution and threw it at your horse as quick as you could without contemplating the circumstances.  Panic makes you kick and pull, confidence gives you the ability to stay steady and know that you have time to contemplate the right choice AND trust your horse to react.

So this weekend I decided to have a leap of faith.  Faith that I would ride with focus, certainty and patience.  Faith that I would not judge myself or be distracted by the judgments I presume everyone is making of me.  Most importantly, faith that I would accept the outcome and learn from my disappointments and become better as a result.

So here’s what happened:

First of all, I did not ride any worse, or any better than I would having a trainer present, but I saved about $255 (assuming a rate of $85/day, which is the average of trainers I would work with in my area).  Since I trailered in, my show fees were only $193, so I cut my expense by over half, but that’s not the important part.  That is just the icing on the cake.  The important part is that I was not thrilled with my ride on Friday, but I took all my pros and cons and used them to improve on Saturday.  I went into Saturday’s ride with more confidence than I had on Friday because I didn’t hold Friday’s ride against myself.  I knew where I needed to improve and that I was capable of improvement.

Insecurity was definitely riding on my shoulder both days.  More so on Friday, but even Saturday she put up a hard fight for the reins.  She is a beast that I have vowed to mute, but the only way I can win is to get in the ring and fight.

So the point of this blog isn’t to tell you to fire your trainer.  It’s to encourage you to bet on yourself.  What have you been dreaming about, but have been afraid to do?  What have you told yourself you can’t do?  If it’s something big, why can’t you take the steps to get there?  What’s holding you back?  Tell me why you can’t, and I’ll tell you why you can!  I dare you!

 

Raising the Client-Trainer Standard

I have often said that choosing and keeping the right trainer is like dating.  When you first start riding, you probably pick the first one you find, not knowing what to look for.  As you start to learn a little more about the sport, you begin to broaden your horizons.  It may be that your first trainer is limited as to what he or she can offer you – Maybe their own knowledge is limited, or they aren’t going to the shows you’ve discovered you would like to attend.  It is also possible that you no longer agree with their training methods.  Maybe they are too harsh, or they have one method for every horse and every rider.

So you search for someone new.  Someone who better fits your current needs.  When you find them, it’s like the honeymoon period.  They are the best!  You’ve learned so many new techniques, your confidence is up, your horse is going better.  They may even help you find a more suitable horse with whom you move up a level or even two and win even more ribbons.  Everything is fabulous.  Until it isn’t again.  Maybe you plateau, maybe they don’t show up to school you at the show because they’re too busy with ‘more important clients’, or maybe you find out they have been ripping you off.  We all know the plethora of reasons for trainer-client break-ups.  At this point, you either decide to look for a new trainer, or a new trainer finds you.

Some repeat this process multiple times over and earn the label ‘Trainer Hopper,’ a stigma that most riders want to avoid.  However, I have to ask, why should you be frowned upon for having high expectations for yourself and for your trainer?  Why shouldn’t you desire the best match?  Your trainers job is to teach you to be a better rider.  If you don’t feel you are getting that result, then you need to change something.  Otherwise, what are you paying for?

I hear trainers getting frustrated with their riders because they tell them the same thing over and over again and the client doesn’t change.  Is that how you train a horse too?  Do you dismiss everyone that doesn’t respond to your methods of communication, or is it only the ones who are paying your bills?

As a trainer, if you are exhausting every option and not getting anywhere, maybe you need to explore the idea that it might be that you aren’t a great fit for your client.  And that’s ok, not everyone is compatible forever.  Or, maybe you are just stumped on one particular problem and you need another set of eyes, with a different form of communication to come in and say pretty much what you’ve been trying to convey all along – just different – to get you over the hump.  Maybe you just need to do a little research to find an exercise to give the rider a better feel.  But don’t blame your 3 foot amateur who spends $4000 a month just to have fun for being incompetent.  Embrace the challenge and find a better solution.

I’m not saying trainers should pamper their clients and make everything sunshine and rainbows.  That irritates me just as much.  They longe the horse before the client arrives, have it groomed and ready for the rider to just insert their foot in the stirrup and have a perfect lesson where they hardly break a sweat.  If the horse puts a foot out of place, take the rider off, put the horse back on the longe, or give it a school, place rider back in saddle.  When the horse finally refuses to work for the amateur after being yanked and poked and constantly asked impossible questions, he gets sold and a fresh ride takes his place.  The cycle continues and the only thing that changes is the horse and the number in the trainers bank account after all the commissions.  How about you teach the rider how to ride?  If they want to just sit there, give them directions to the local fair and have them ride the merry-go-round.  An equestrian who doesn’t want to learn their craft is the equivalent to a boxer who is afraid to get punched.  This is a sport – “an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment (Oxford Dictionary)”

I always tell my friends when they are dating: “Your low expectations are setting the standard for everyone in the world.”  The same goes for riding:  It is just as much the clients responsibility to raise their expectations as it is the trainers responsibility to meet them.  It works both ways;  you shouldn’t want to work for someone who isn’t working for you.  And the more clients settle for less, the less trainers will give.  The more trainers expect less of their clients, the less clients will feel they have to give.  But hey, everyones making money off it, so what’s the big deal?

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Disclaimer: I understand that there are older amateurs out there who we want to keep safe.  The joy of our sport is that it is the only olympic sport with riders competing over 50.  I know a man who rode into his 90’s and still jumped 3 foot.  He looked like a sack of potatoes riding a 17 hand warmblood, but he was good!  This is an exception.  This man could have run over a small child with his Cadillac and not even know it, but he could probably beat me in any hunter class.  However, I still would have like to seen him wrapped in bubble wrap when he was mounted.

 

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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