2 days to go

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Willard’s face as he sees me eating HIS apple.

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“I did that one stride like a champ.. and this is how you reward me?!” I know.. I’m a jerk.

Had a fantastic lesson with M&C tonight. Which is exactly what I needed coming up to Wheat City this weekend. I am really starting to get a hang of this whole riding thing, it seems. I’ve never felt stronger in the tack, and my legs stay where they need to be and find the distances for me. We even did a one stride tonight, to finish off. One strides used to be a terrifying thing for me, but I realized tonight that I really don’t have anything to fear anymore. As long as I support my horse, he will get me out of there. For the most part, tonight, I was probably overriding through the combo. The thing is though, you’re moving so fast that you don’t even have time to think about things as they happen. The two main thoughts for me were, okay- legs on, shoulders back, jump in- one- out. After take off of the first jump, there are no thoughts. Only rhythm. Which is what my last post was themed around. Tonight really came down to just that, all over again. Getting to that first jump with a rhythm- everything else is taken care of after that. There is nothing you can think in that period of time to fix anything. Leading up to the vertical in was C’s voice creating a pace “da dum da dum da dum” as she does, and all I could hear past that was hooves leaving the ground- silence- one stride- silence- and landing. It’s nice to not have to think so hard about everything. It’s even nicer to feel a more concrete trust forming between me and myself regarding my ability to not slip into bad habits and not let old fears take over.

Progress, I love it!

I also have to say that my horse is still managing to surprise me with skill and power that just seems to keep coming year after year. He is jumping fantastic this season. So fantastic that tonight C actually stopped mid-sentence out of distraction after he took a beautiful jump over a vertical. C, speechless. That doesn’t happen often. But, I’ll stop bragging about my horse now…

The evening ended with M saying “You’re getting good at this.” and then “If you keep riding like this we might let you ride jumpers more often!”. Now if that’s not encouraging (especially for those of you who know M), I don’t know what is.

Without thinking

I had one of those lessons today where things went from amazing to stressful in about 30 seconds.

Maybe stressful isn’t the right word. Challenging? Thought provoking?

Riding is a sport where things can change pretty quick. As most sports are. However, this sport adds in the wild card of being seated on a 1200lb creature with a mind of it’s own, pointing it at a fence and saying lets get there and over it while keeping a steady pace, leaving from the exact right spot, and making a tight turn afterwards. As a rider you have to  be able to react in a hundred different ways over a span of a few strides between jumps. You have to keep that balance between aiding your horse enough, but not so much that signals get mixed.

I’ve written about the role of trust before. The last time I wrote about it I was exercising steeplechasers in Napier, NZ.

Every muscle in my body is sore and tired, and I’m way past the point of exhaustion. But I’m still saying yes to another ride out and smiling as the horse races up the hill on the way to the work out trail. In this kind if situation you have to be able to build the trust quickly. You don’t have months or years to build a relationship. You have seconds, maybe minutes, to trust the horse you’re on and establish a confidence.

Click here for more from that post.. 

Over the course of this competition season, Willard will be moving into the jumper ring more. This has been a long time goal for me, and I’m very excited for the new challenge.

I’ve been working with M&C for a few years now, and have very high trust in their abilities as coaches. Tonight was one of those nights where things may not have gone as well if that trust wasn’t there. Lots of new challenges are being thrown my way this year, both within the sport and outside, and while I take them all on as best I can- I would not be able to do it alone. Will is a fantastic horse, with loads of potential- but right now he is still in that excitable spring thoroughbred phase that I’m pretty sure most horses that got 6 months off are in right now. You ask him to do a roll-back to a tiny oxer and he assumes we are in the jump off of the CN International. Drama queen.

Through the exercises I worked on tonight with M&C, the issue of trust kept floating through my mind. For some reason there was a small communication issue at times between Will and I. Where he wanted to rush towards jump, I was saying hold on. Where he was saying lets make this turn tighter, I was saying lets go out one stride more. Where I was saying relax, he was saying “this is so exciting!!!!!!!!!!!”. These are all little things. In no way was any of this a disaster. Just a little less graceful then it could have been. However, it took a lot of trust between me and my coaches, and me and myself to not get overwhelmed and frustrated. I had to keep reminding myself that I knew what I was doing. To stay calm, be patient. If I’m not confident in my abilities as a rider, what right do I have to ask my horse to do what he’s doing? The trust I have in M&C was also a huge part in being able to remind myself that I was okay. I knew all along that they would never ask me to do something that they didn’t think I could do. Knowing that helped keep me confident that things were going to be okay.

As athletes we do so many things without thinking. We’ve done these things so many times that our brains run on autopilot. Not to say its easy- having the ability to not only do these things without thinking about them and also the confidence and trust in the other factors like the unpredictable animal you’re on, yourself, and that person telling you to point that animal at, and jump over, an object it is traditionally supposed to stay on one side of.. is not an easy thing to do all the time. But, imagine if we as riders had to consciously think about every thing we do on course? Riding up to a jump would go something like this…

…shoulders back, hips forward, eyes up, inside leg/hand with slight pressure to control bend, outside leg/hand slight pressure for speed, balancing horse, slight squeeze on outside rein before jump, both legs positioned approximately at girth line, heels down, flex in elbows, appropriate contact on horses mouth, keeping pace steady, finding the right distance, using leg pressure to keep that distance, waiting for horse to jump to you, hands follow horses mouth over jump, shoulders still back, slightly closed hip angle, eyes looking towards next jump, middle of arc opening hips bringing shoulders up and back preparing to land, legs maintaining pressure at girth line, bringing hands out of release (all while maintaining steady contact on reins), open shoulders, balance horse, slight squeeze with fingers on inside, steady contact on outside, looking for line to next jump still, turning and balancing with legs and hands, maintaining steady pace, present horse to next jump, repeat…

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That’s all happening in about 5 seconds. I guarantee I’ve missed about a hundred other tiny things. These are habits that are automatic for us, made that way by years of practice. Experiences good and bad teaching us that even though all common sense says you are crazy, find a saner hobby, this is what we love doing- and while that is bound to come with some doubt occasionally, trust is what gets you trough. Some of those things we still may think about- but for the most part, I know for me anyway, my head is pretty quiet while I’m riding a course. Quiet of those thoughts anyway. At times, like tonight, I am reminding myself that I have trust in my horse, my coaches, and myself. That is the only thought I need to get the job done. Everything else follows.

“Just do what you do best.”

I don’t know if any of that made any sense. So good luck figuring that out, I’m too exhausted from that 90 minutes of course work to make much sense of anything right now.

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A Flash In Time

I’ve always held the belief that we learn from every experience. From every person we meet; coaches, friends, family, teachers, to every sight we see; a busy cross walk, a sunrise, rush hour. Sometimes it takes some tough love from the universe for things to sink in. Sometimes it takes years to find what we didn’t know we needed.

For athletes, there is always one coach they will say taught them the most- or a fellow teammate or opponent.  Something that stuck with them- good or bad, bad or worse- the experience leaves a mark that becomes a part of who we are. For equestrian athletes, there is lessons learnt from each horse we ride- and always the few extra special ones that stick with us.

I’ve personally had many different coaches, teachers, horses, and experiences-good and bad- that have left their mark on me. I can’t honestly say one has shown me more than another, or that one holds more value, because that would be going against what I stated earlier. But certainly there are more experiences that come to mind at different points in life.

The phrase “tough love” definitely comes to mind when I think of many experiences I had with one of my most memorable equine teachers, Flash. I can’t count the amount of tears this horse made me cry. She was frustrating, and heart breakingly stubborn, all while being talented, beautiful, and full of heart. From day one she made it clear that if things were going to go well, it was because she decided they would. She was a complete jigsaw, until you figured her out- cracked her hard exterior- and knew how to read her. If you were patient, she’d give you clues. Weeks of frustration, and then she’d give you an inch. Any of you who have rode or worked with a “chestnut mare”, you’ll know exactly the feeling I’m trying to get across. She taught me how to be a better loser, and as a result a better winner. She showed me that things are probably not always going to work out exactly to plan, and that that’s okay, because sometimes what you really need is a step in another direction anyway. She taught me how to laugh at myself; horses keep you humble- afterall. She gave me a determination that has gotten me through things that could have easily brought me down. It wasn’t always a case of getting off in a better mood with her, but, I always ended up with a different perspective. Because of her I ended up on the path that brought me my current mount, Willard, who has turned out to be a wonderful partnership as well. And the right one for where I’m at.

With the year I’ve had, it would be easy to look back on the years Flash and I were abusing trail class patterns and say that was nothing compared to this. But it’s really just a statement of how much I’ve grown from those experiences, and been able to handle the new ones. There were competitions with her where she would have me in tears from the halter classes until the last class of the day. And yet we kept going into the ring, both stubborn enough to keep pushing each other, and at the end of the day our bond was even stronger then before.

It was through her that I proved to myself that even when things don’t work out, even when nothing goes right- pushing through that brings you strength to deal with anything. Through this horse I began using the phrase “If I can do this, I can do anything” when things got rough, as they have and as they will. Nothing easy is worth having. Sometimes the best memories are made during the toughest times. It does nothing to compare yourself to others, because even the best have bad days. Be humble, be determined, and open your heart to everything you can. Everybody, everything, everyday has something to teach you.

RIP Flash, and thanks for all the tough love you gave me.

Trust

“Firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something”

It’s something almost everybody struggles with at one point in life. Something that’s so hard to gain, but can be lost in a split second. As a rider, I’ve learned many times how much trust can have an influence on results. It’s often a deciding factor between success and disaster in our sport. As much as any team needs to be able to trust one another completely, horse and rider have to have the same connection.. Except without words.
Something I knew before, but am very aware of now, is how much every horse varies. Just like people, horses have very distinct personalities. Some will be easier to build a partnership with, while others will be standoffish for quite a while before you really get to know them.
When I first began riding, I was put on a big black beauty named Otis. My first ride on him was bareback, being led around the back pasture at Bluebear. Not long after that you could find the two of us galloping across fields chasing geese. He was the first horse I trusted completely. That being said its much easier to trust when you’re 7 years old and have absolutely no fear. Nonetheless we formed that special partnership that all equestrians will know of.
I’ve been through many horses since Otis. Washington, my mom’s horse, and I never quite got past the despising each other part. Monty, the loveable little appy who took me to my first provincial show and taught me oh so much about staying in the saddle before and after jumps. Then there came Flash, a chestnut mare who very much lived up to the stereotype of chestnut mares. Flash and her previous owner had been in the same 4H club and teams as I had (with Monty) for a few years and we’d seen Flash win everything in site, as well as be a complete bitch here and there too. When we bought her, we knew she had issues- but what horse doesn’t? This beautiful girl became my closest friend and my worst enemy depending on the day. She was a horse that was hard to trust, I can’t lie. We had some pretty rocky days. But the relationship we built was rock solid. She took me to many wins and taught me almost everything I know about trust, and how to handle chestnut mare syndrome. Unfortunately she developed some soundness problems in the last couple years I owned her, which made competing much more of a touch and go scenario. Eventually it became painfully (literally) clear that she was sick of the show routine and was ready for the next part of her life. She enjoyed demonstrating this by bucking, rearing, and playing games in the middle of classes. Our last show together was Carman Fair 2010 where we had a less than ideal show, which ended with her rearing, me bailing, landing very hard on my shoulder- ripping my favourite show shirt, and the judge finally looking our way. Since selling her was too hard and we wanted to know who would own her, she was traded back to her original breeders- who still remembered her as the first horse who ever made them money in the show ring (she was 2nd in the ’97 50/50 futurity). In return we got Felix, and the right to one more of their foals.
In comes Willard. Another horse who it took me a long time to build trust in. It took so much to get him to where he is today (or where he was in August of last year anyway). I grew up a lot in the process. In order to build trust, you first have to have confidence enough in yourself to build your horse’s confidence. This was the case with Will. He needed me to be the confident one as he was as timid as a mouse. You’ll find a lot of horses are this way, especially green horses. If you knew me when I was younger, you’d know that I wasn’t the most confident. As I got older and more involved in athletics, theatre, and progressed in my riding, this changed of course. And it got easier to ride Will- and thus Will began to grow up too- becoming what he is now.
When you really think about it, it takes so much trust to do what we riders do. Hopping on a 1100lb plus animal and expecting it to listen to you let alone jump around a course of big obstacles sounds insane to a lot of people. But personally, and I know many will agree, I could not imagine doing anything else. The past few days I’ve been exercising race horses at an extended trot around the pastures of Airhill farm. These thoroughbreds are all on average about 16.3 or bigger and are some of the best race horses/ jump race (steeplechase) horses in New Zealand. Galloping up steep inclines is at its best a little terrifying but I’ve found that I’m absolutely in love with it. Every muscle in my body is sore and tired, and I’m way past the point of exhaustion. But I’m still saying yes to another ride out and smiling as the horse races up the hill on the way to the work out trail. In this kind if situation you have to be able to build the trust quickly. You don’t have months or years to build a relationship. You have seconds, maybe minutes, to trust the horse you’re on and establish a confidence. As I said earlier, each horse is different. Yorkie, one horse I exercise, is quiet and likes to know I’m there with him, and needs more contact on the reins.. While King is quite hot to start out, will not stand still and needs a more relaxed contact to relax himself. All these little things need to be picked up on quickly if you’re going to have a successful ride.
I’m getting pretty excited to get home to my own horse, as much as I love riding all these talented horses in this beautiful landscape- there’s nothing quite like that feeling when you’re on a horse you have that special bond with. I’m sure Willard will present me with some new challenges, as he’s become quite the spoiled brat in my absence. I’ve gotten myself back in shape, now it’s hammer time for Mr.Willard. Poor guy. His leisurely days of lazy life are nearly over!

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