Friday, January 31, 2014

Status Update...

I wrote this on the plane coming home from a business trip.  Seems 6 hours trapped in a plane was the only time I could find to write lately. Yikes!

Greetings from 36,000 feet.  I'm flying home from a business trip to Palm Desert, CA, and given the temps in NJ (aka Siberia) I've never hoped so much for a canceled/delayed flight in my life.  The fabulous weather and location were certainly a draw, but I was really hoping to have an extra day so I could play hooky and go down to HITS Thermal to visit a friend and check out the horse show there.  Yep, the horse addict while traveling - always on the lookout for something that will provide that equine fix we need so badly.

Many of you were kind enough to reach out after I'd posted my frustrations with the interim training situation at my barn, and I hope you'll forgive me for taking so long to provide an update.  Due to the arctic weather we have not been doing much riding and most of our lessons have been cancelled, but I have had two more since I wrote that last post and there's been some improvement.

I think I was finally able to communicate with her the health issue I'm having and how it impacts my riding. Basically, I'm having trouble with the nerves in my spine and legs which result in tingling, burning and weakness from my lower back downwards.  You know when your foot falls asleep and you try to stand on it?  Some days I feel that way all day.  Usually when that happens I'll be riding along and POOF! My legs stop working, or my angle just collapses and feels like it's snapping off.  So yeah, getting weight into my heels is a secondary concern at the point, you know what I'm saying? I'm working with a neurologist and we're trying to find the right meds and dosage and I am try to do some PT to keep up some semblance of strength, but yeah, it ain't making the riding thing any easier.

As a result T2 has been more understanding of what I actually can accomplish and what expectations we need to alter.  She still feels like my position needs a complete overhaul but I'm feeling like she's more willing to concentrate on one or two issues at a time, not 20.  The last 2 lessons were also better in that I felt she was more willing to point out when I was doing something correct or getting close to it.  I don't mind a coach who has high expectations and demands a lot from me, as I expect a lot from myself.  However, even a smidge of positive feedback goes a long way, don't you think?

I still feel uncomfortable when I'm in the position she wants me in, but I also understand that any new habit feels funky until you develop new muscle memory.  My legs feel too far back, and she has me in such a forward seat that I feel like show jumper Rich Fellers.  I love the man and his feisty little chestnut stallion Flexible, and he's a master at that kind of forward ride. I'm a bit busty and feel like I'm going to tip forward onto Sug's neck, complete with a boob hanging on each side of it. (Lovely mental picture, no?)  Of course I realize this means that I have absolutely no base of support in my leg and that my core strength is non-existent.  Sigh.  Guess I'd better see when the local Y is offering their Pilates classes...

Rich Fellers and Flexible winning the 2012 Rolex World Cup Finals

So the position still feels wrong, but it sounds more like the classic, George-Morris- advocated forward seat.  The way she has me bending Sug feels odd as well. She has me really using the inside rein to pull Sug's head around to get more of a bend, and I was always taught to turn more off the legs and less off the hands.  She's asking me to do things this way because she feels Sug is stiff through the neck and she's asking me to exaggerate the bend, but that brings me to the thing that really concerns me: Sug seems as uncomfortable in the new situation as I do.  Where before she'd round her back and move forward onto the bit in a relaxed way, now she goes with her back inverted and head in the air and just feels uncomfortable and tense

T2 has me riding with my hands much higher and in front of the withers, and I do see where it's correct and  it does look like there's a straight line from hand to bit.  I also think of all the George Morris videos and clinics I've watched where he stresses never lowering the hands, especially if the horse fights the contact. And I know that others have occasionally told me to get my hands "out of my lap" before,  so I can accept that this is a valid criticism.  The part that confuses me is that Sug never had a problem with taking contact before.  I'd always thought it felt as though she had 3-5 pounds of contact in my hands.  Now it feels like we have no contact. I know that GM advocates continuing to keep your hands high and pushing through from your legs waiting the horse out, but I'm riding like this as consistently as I can now and Sug has yet to drop her head and round up for me.

So while it seems like things are getting better in some respects, I'm still  on-the-fence about others.  I can absolutely accept that I'm not the world's best rider and have bad habits and that I need a ton of help, but again, trainers like Bernie Traurig, Eric Horgan, and Jeff Cook never made as many corrections when I rode with them. (In Bernie and Jeff's case that could be because they only had me for 3 days at a time and they decided there was only so much they could do in that short timeframe.  Eric's seen me multiple times, and has no compunction about telling a rider if something's amiss, so hence my confusion).     

I can see T2 is having a VERY positive effect on the kids, so I feel I have to believe she has a lot to offer me.  I do also recognize that Sug could be feeling tense and unhappy because things are different and difficult for her, and not because the change is harming or hurting her in any way.

So I guess the upshot of this update is that there has been slight improvement, but still not enough experience to say, "Yeah, this is gonna be great!" or "Nope, this is not a fit for us and it's time to move on."  So I guess we're gonna keep at it for the foreseeable future unless something changes drastically.

If you've managed to stay with me all the way through this, God love ya!  You are a tremendously patient soul, and I thank you.  If you have any insights to offer, please feel free to do so, even if it's to tell me to "Suck it up, Buttercup!"

Hope all is well in your world and thanks for sharing mine with me!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sweetest. Mare. Ever.

Sugar kisses from days gone by.
The way I heard it told, when Sugar was imported from Holland she was given the name barn name "Sugar" because she was a big sweetie and because her registered name, Obottie, just doesn't roll off the tongue.

Time after time she's shown why she she deserved her name, and today was no exception.  When I get to the barn and enter her stall she likes to say hello, sniff me up a bit, and lick me.  " Kindof like the equine version of "Hello.  How was your day?  What have you been up to?" She doesn't like to have her halter put on or her feet picked until we've gone through a proper hello.  Today when I walked in we went through the normal routine and even after 5 minutes of her licking and me scratching her itchy bits she wasn't ready to get started.  She wanted to keep licking.  She licked my hands, then my breeches, then she started licking my jacket and pulling my zipper up and down.  I laughed and let her do what she wanted for about 10 minutes.

When I went to pick out her feet, she swiveled her head and blocked me, eyeing me sideways.  I tried to approach from the other side, and her head swiveled around to block me from that side as well.  She wasn't being aggressive, she was just telling me she wasn't ready to get down to business yet.  Okeydokey, I thought, we can play some more.  So I made a move to go back to her left side, and she blocked me, looking almost like a cutting horse with a cow.  I moved to the right, and she blocked me again.  No pinned ears, no hard eye, just a clear communication that she wanted to mess around.  So I played my roll, trying to get around her and letting her block my attempts.  I'd feint right and then juke left, and she'd swivel her big ol' head to keep me at bay.  I was laughing like a loon, having a blast just goofing around with her.  We must have played like that for close to half an hour.

I was a little tense when I got to the barn, and I think Sug knew it.  She's done things like this before; once when Noah was upset over some things at school she kept him in her stall and licked him silly for about 20 minutes until he was helpless with giggles. Once she was satisfied that he was fine she went back to eating her hay.

We had a nice ride, and a few minutes before we finished I noticed that the children's pony camp had come in to the viewing room and were pressed up against the window watching the riders.  I waved at them, and when I left the ring I stopped and stuck my head into the viewing room and asked if anyone wanted to pet a very sweet horse.  Quick as a wink 10 wee ones, probably none of them more than 6 years in age, lined up ready to pet the Sainted Mare.

It was one little girl's birthday, so of course she was first in line.  I showed her how to say hi to Sug, with her hand held out, palm up as if she were giving Sug a treat. I told her that Sug likes to give kisses, so to be prepared to feel a tickle wet tongue.  The little girl stepped up and shyly he'd her hand up.  Sug's big head came down and she gently sniffed the little hand, the stuck her tongue out and licked.  This elected giggles and ear-to-ear grin.  She moved off so the next child could meet Sug, and one by one each little cherub stepped up and was greeted with a kiss.  It was simply precious.

Any one of them could have walked under Sug's belly, they were so small, and Sug must have looked enormous to them.  None appeared scared though, and I imagine it was because of how gentle she was with them.  When I moved the walk her away she pulled back and turned, putting her head down and making one last sweep of kisses down the lineup of little ones.  They giggled, and some even pressed kisses on the velvet nose in front of them.

I was so very proud of her, and amazed all over again at how lucky I am to have such an amazing creature.  My big mare positively made those children's day, and I'd wager instilled a lasting appreciation for horses in them as well.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

A Slice of Humble Pie...

Warning: There's a bit of a whine coming up. If that's not your cup of tea, or you're just not in the mood for it, feel free to skip this post.  No hard feelings.  Really.

It's winter, which means that our trainer heads South for warmer climates.  Budget constraints, and educational and employment obligations keep us up North, freezing our tuckuses off.  No biggie.  As my Nana always said, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

Our trainer made arrangements for another trainer to teach us while she's away.  Before she left she had this interim trainer come and give the kids lessons so we'd have a sense of what to look forward to.  I was impressed by the new trainer's attention to basics and felt our time with her would be a positive one for the three of us.

Fast forward to last week, our first lesson.  Holy crap, what an eye-opener that was!  I went in to the lesson expecting to get some correction for bad habits.  What I did not expect was to come out of the lesson feeling like the world's worst rider ever.  Not that I feel I'm a particularly good rider, but I did feel I could be considered to be fairly adequate.  Let me tell you, I was disabused of that notion, fast and in a hurry!  I knew I had issues, but did not expect to have more than my kid did. (And yes, I am completely aware that makes me sound like the world's worst mother, but hey, I'm trying to be honest here, and you guys know I've never been afraid to admit I'm far from perfect.)

Sophie and I rode together, and as expected the new trainer, who will henceforth be known as T2, commented on and corrected a few of her form faults, such as her hand carriage and her leg position. Now, normally I'd have considered myself a slightly better rider than my kids.  If you'd seen our joint lesson last week, you'd have thought Sophie was the accomplished rider and I was the rank beginner.  My legs were in the wrong position, my hands were a nightmare, my seat was too heavy, my elbows locked, and my body moved way too much, like a sack of spastic potatoes, while I was jumping.  There was a whole laundry list of other issues as well, but I can't remember them all.

On top of that, T2 did not like Sugar at all.  She thought Sug was heavy on the forehand, stiff as a board, and unwilling to work.  I'll admit I actually took this worse than I did T2's assessment of my own skills.  I may suck, but every trainer I have ever had has loved Sug, finding her supple, light in the hand, and extremely willing willing to work.  All of them have commented that of the horses they had to ride in the course of their day, Sugar was one they looked forward to sitting on.

When I've ridden in clinics before, every clinician (Bernie Traurig, Jeff Cook, and Eric Horgan) have all loved my mare.  One of those clinicians is an Olympian, one was a top show jumper who won numerous grands prix and represented the US on many Nation's Cup teams, and the other was assistant trainer to George Morris for a number of years, a successful rider in his own right, and a frequent contributor to Practical Horseman magazine.  My point here is that is these guys liked Sug, so she couldn't be too bad, right?

To say I was a bit taken aback is an understatement.  And yeah, I realize my ego was bruised, and yes, I know I was in a strop because of her assessment of my horse.  I couldn't figure out if this lady just didn't like me for some reason or if I truly do suck, in which case, why didn't any of my other trainers point this fact out to me? Had they just given up, feeling I was beyond help? Is T2 right in her assessment of me and my other trainers did me a disservice by allowing me to continue as I had been? Or is she wrong and the other trainers right?  I had some serious soul searching to do, and I needed to try to take my ego and outraged horse-mama self out of the equation and look at the reality of the situation.

The way I saw it, I had a couple choices:

1)  I could say we were not a fit and discontinue working with her while my kids my kids continued to lesson with her.  After all, I'd only be on my own for a couple months.  Not ideal, but hey, you can say that life is too short to deal with something that doesn't make you happy or makes you  uncomfortable.  Especially as riding is supposed to be fun.


2) I could do a couple more lessons with her, see what happened, see if there was improvement, and reassess from that point.  I was a swimmer in college, and played softball, basketball, and soccer during my school days.  I know that anytime a coach adjusted my stroke, swing, shot or kick it felt awkward as hell for a while until I broke my bad habit and retrained my muscle memory.   I could tell myself that T2 has trained many people in our area successfully, so odds are she has something to teach me.

I'm going with option 2, at least for the moment.  My bruised ego and I will stick it out for a while and see what happens.  Option 1 feels too much like giving up and quitting to me, and that's not how I roll or what I want to model for my kids.  I don't want them to think that when things are different or uncomfortable that you just get to throw in the towel. I'm willing to concede that I'm having an issue because this situation is uncomfortable for me, and that there is a very real possibility there may be something positive that will come of this.  So I'm hanging in there for now.

I've since had another lesson, and while I still felt like a remedial rider, there was some improvement.  More importantly, I've seen how her attention to detail has improved the kids' riding, so if she can help them, well, I have to believe she can help me.  I have another lesson today, and I guess I'd say I am cautiously optimistic.

Many thanks to those of you who read through this whole whine and for allowing me to self-therapize.  I'll keep you posted on how this goes.  Feel free to comment with your thoughts, even if it's just to tell me to pull my big girl pants up. I can take it.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

A Master Reading List...

A little light reading.
I am addicted to horses.  I spend as much time as I can with them.  When I am not with them I like to watch them, either on any of over 40 DVDs I have, or my FEI TV subscription, or on USEF Network.  When I am not watching them, I am reading about them, either in the 5 magazines I subscribe to, or in one of the 30+ books I own, or on various and sundry websites.

Single-minded much?  One-dimensional?  Maybe.  However, when you are passionate about something you immerse yourself in it as much as possible, right?

Anyway, for Christmas I received several Barnes & Noble gift cards, and was messing about on the internet researching equestrian books on which to spend them.

While I was touring the Interwebz, I came across these articles in The Horse magazine, an Australian publication.  If you're anything like me and love to read about horses and the great equestrian masters, you might enjoy them as much as I did.

Happy reading!

Four Show Jumping Masters Part 1: George Morris

Four Show Jumping Masters Part 2: William Steinkraus

Four Show Jumping Masters Part 3: Bertalan De Nemethy

Four Show Jumping Masters Part 4: Gordon Wright