Tuesday, December 31, 2013

I Wish You Enough

I've seen this poem and some version of a corresponding story multiple times on Facebook but cannot find where it originated.... In any case, I think the poem has a lot to offer.

I wish you enough sun to keep your attitude bright.
I wish you enough rain to appreciate the sun more.
I wish you enough happiness to keep your spirit alive.
I wish you enough pain so that the smallest joys in life appear much bigger.
I wish you enough gain to satisfy your wanting.
I wish you enough loss to appreciate all that you possess.
I wish enough "Hello's" to get you through the final "Goodbye"

I like the sentiment of "enough".  Not more than you need, not more than your neighbor, not more than is humanely possible to achieve.

I am frequently asked how I am involved in so many things and still "keep it together".  How I manage running a business, attend my three kids' events, volunteer on multiple boards, write this blog and still have a bit of time to ride my horse.

The truth is I don't keep it together.  Most of the time I feel like I am on the edge of a cliff with one foot over the edge, hoping the other holds on.  And I have compromised on what I used to feel were important things to get done.

For example, right now my sink is full of dishes but instead of worrying about it I am writing.   I am fairly certain they aren't going anywhere.  

A few years ago my husband came up with ingenious idea to stop folding clothes.  Instead each person in our family has a large bin in my walk in closet.   I go straight from the dryer to the bins and throw the clothes in there -- no folding required.  Its up to each person to take their bin to their room to put away their clothes.  And if they don't?  Well, they are putting wrinkled clothes on straight from the bin.

I can cook.  I cook pretty well actually.   But our family eats way too much fast food during sports seasons.   Sometimes three or four days go by without me cracking open my oven.   My entire house is rarely clean.   A room or two yes... but never the whole thing.

Last week I had a fancy party to attend and when I went to get dressed, I realized the dress I was planning on wearing was on top of the dirty laundry pile.   After a two second hesitation, I threw the dress in the dryer with two dyer sheets and a sprinkle of water.   That isn't much different than dry cleaning, right?

The point is that I am far from "having it together".   And I don't think that I am that different from most of my friends.  I hear from so many of them the disappointment they have in themselves. 

Just today I watched a friend's lesson and it was fabulous.   Her horse has come so far and its completely under her direction.  When she bought the horse, she was a gangly under-muscled horse with little training.  She has brought the horse to a beautiful, well-muscled horse who does a haunches in like its butter.  She is schooling third level and today they were such a fluid pair I couldn't tell where the aids were occurring.   But five minutes after the lesson she commented that she wasn't totally pleased with the medium trot.   Why can't we celebrate our success?   Why do we always want more from ourselves and our horses?

I recently attended a clinic with Steffen Peters and this was a theme of his clinic -- good enough.  When you have tested the movement, its time to move on.  There is no reason to school it over and over again ... or even necessarily complete the movement.

I've been thinking of this for a bit now in regards to Golly.   I had wanted so much to "get" the canter confirmed this year and in the process I realized that I need to celebrate what he CAN give me.  It doesn't mean that I can't continue to achieve and try and strive for more.   But I need to also celebrate what we have achieved and what he can offer.   He is sane.  He is loving.  He has a steady tempo and good trot.  He gets fabulous scores on halts which sounds like it should be easy but lots of people DON'T get good scores on halt!   I can't say I will be perfect on this resolution but I intend to do my best to celebrate him for what he is while we strive for more.

As my life became more busy I came up with a justification for why my house was not perfect.  While I used to freak out if my baseboards weren't clean for guests, now it became okay if toys were strewn everywhere, dishes were in the sink and crumbs on the table left over from last nights dinner.  My justification was that I was doing a service to my friends.  Rather than leaving my house feeling less about themselves because their house wasn't up to par, they could leave with the thought that they weren't all that bad...   their house wasn't all that different from mine.... maybe even better.  And I hope that my friends feel comfortable in my house -- free to put their feet up on the coffee table and relax with a cup of tea.

So as we enter a new year and think about New Year's resolutions, I challenge you to lower your expectations for yourself.   Celebrate your achievements and the achievements of your horse.  I wish you enough.  Anything  beyond is gravy.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Sharing the Joy of Golly

Golly may not be the most athletic horse, especially when it comes to dressage, but he does have a multitude of talents.   One of the best is his brain and his ability to bring joy to others.  Its not every horse that you can share with others - safely and without reservation.
Yesterday I had the daughters of a coworker out to visit Golly.  They had grown up taking hunt seat lessons at a local barn but it had been almost a decade since they had regular lessons.  As young adults, they missed horses and all the joy they bring so I thought they may enjoy some time with Golly. 

I started off riding him so he could complete his required "homework" and so I could talk them through what I do when I first start my rides.  After a half hour, I invited them to hop on.    Although it had been some time since they had ridden I could tell they had very strong basic skills and their bodies remembered the mechanics.  Their hands were steady and gentle which was my primary concern.  They had a giving and forward seat that encouraged him to go forward.   All good things for him.  I don't care if someone hops on Golly for some fun as long as they don't mess up what he and I are working on during our sessions.
They both were able to walk trot and canter him and he seemed to have a good time and they certainly loved getting back in the saddle.   They would like to come back out to ride him again and I think it will be good for him to have some extra rides, especially ones under a young person who wants to go forward and have fun.  Go Golly!

Golly enjoying some loving from his new friends

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Journey to the US Dressage Finals Championship.. A story of perservance and patience

Dressage takes patience.  And I can't think of a better story than Stephanie McNutt's that proves that fact.

Stephanie, Stella and Coco at home
I love her story because it gives me hope for all us struggling backyard riders.  The regular Joe's without sponsors or steady expensive trainers.  Most of us won't get to the US Dressage Finals but certainly her story gives us hope that we can continue to succeed and learn and move up the levels.  It reminds us that setbacks happen and the only thing we can do is brush off our breeches and get back on for another 20 meter circle.  And she is just darn nice... it does the heart good to see the nice people in the world succeed.

Its a long story but I promise the ending is worth it so stick with me.

Stephanie started her dressage journey with a true OTTB (off the track thoroughbred) right from the track.   They are typically a good choice, especially for a budget conscious amateur as they have the ability without the high price tag.   Unfortunately as their training started progressing, the gelding got his foot caught in a fence and he needed over 6 months of rehab to bring him back to soundness.  After his rehab she was able to adopt him out to a local farm.

She then found another OTTB - but this time she found one with a bit of training under his belt from an event barn.  He did well at home but did not handle the stress of shows and would come completely unhinged.

Stephanie and Merlot / Photo by Dorothy Anderson
Around the same time she found Merlot, a 4 year old gelding in Holland, and fell in love with his potential.  Sight unseen, she imported Merlot and began working with a local trainer more extensively who encouraged her to enter recognized shows.   With  her new horse working out well she found a home for the TB and thought she was on her way to learning dressage with a good partner.  In addition to working with her steady trainer, she also began attending regional clinics with top talent and Merlot and Stephanie steadily moved up the levels.  

It was difficult to find the time to ride as she was holding down a full time job and assisting her husband in his business but with a good partner, it was worth it.  Things were looking up!

Things were going so well she decided to breed her next mount and Vinny was born in 2004.    He was a "stunning black beauty" and a disposition that showed lots of promise.   As a colt, he had an infection that required him to be stall bound for 2 months.  The extra care and attention he received during that time proved dividends later as a horse that trusted his human family and craved their attention.  At three months old you could body clip him without a fuss.

In 2005, she bred again as a hopeful investment and little Levi was born.

Then disaster stuck.   At 13 months Stephanie noticed some odd gait changes in Vinny and by the time he was 15 months he was diagnosed with severe Equine Wobblers and was put down.

Then Merlot coliced.   And coliced again.  And again.  Two years of chronic colic followed along with numerous visits with the vets, trips to specialists and vet hospitals and lots of meds.  It became impossible to train because even a short ride in a trailer could set him off.

In 2008, after a visit to the regional vet hospital and a diagnosis of a thickened intestinal wall, he coliced a final time and he was put down.    Stephanie believes that he was "probably miserable his whole life but he did all he could to work for me" and hid his pain until it became too much.

Luckily she still had Levi and of course the thought of selling was out -- he was going to be her new mount.  Shortly after Merlot's death, Levi was broke to ride and they began their dressage journey.

He was a pleasant horse and things were going well.  The only issue she was having was struggling with bending.   As a precaution she had him vetted and was given a shocking diagnosis.  He had severe arthritis in his neck.    It wasn't a definite no go for riding though.  With growth and muscling he may be able to continue as a dressage mount. 

So she continued training and worked hard to get him fit enough to continue.  It was a no go though.  With the increased work, the inflammation only got worse and his dressage career was terminated.  He now lives the life of leisure as a pasture ornament in her yard and the occasional pony ride.

She'd given it her best.  She had the patience and drive.  She had the talent.  She had scrimped and saved to buy the farm to provide a good home to her dressage horses.  She had gone the route of OTTB. She had gone to the expense and risk of importing.  She had risked even more by breeding.  

And she had failed.

So she stopped.  It just wasn't worth the heartache anymore.  She couldn't stomach getting excited again over the possibilities and then the crushing disappointment and sadness that came from having to put down a horse -- your friend and your dream.  Levi would remain in her field as a souvenir of her dressage days but she was hanging up her spurs.

But she couldn't.

Slowly she started to "just look" at the horse ads.   Not to buy... just to see what was out there.

And then she saw her.   Stella.   A beautiful Oldenburg mare.  The ad picture was of her as the 5 year old Champion mare at Devon.   Still not looking but it wouldn't hurt to look at the video, right?  That was even better.  It wouldn't hurt to pay her a visit, right?

Stephanie and Stella - Photo by Pics of You
All the other horses in Stephanie's life were good horses but with Stella, the first time she sat on her it just felt right.  No other way to say it.   Sometimes its just love at first sight.

Stella could do some 3rd level work but was only showing at 1st level.  There was a lot of work to be done but there was no hesitation... Stella was coming home with her. So in May of 2010 Stella came home and almost immediately they began their showing career by attending Lexington in June where they did 1st and 2nd level.   They finished the year as 1st level BLM champion.

Stephanie cautioned me that Stella is not an easy horse.  Despite knowing that she was the one for her, she has evasions and sticking points like every horse.   But she beamed, "when we both get it and it lines up right, there it is!"

But this relationship hasn't been without its own set of speed bumps.  The first winter home, she noticed what felt like a "parking brake" on when riding.  There wasn't lameness but she knew there was something wrong and after a series of blood tests, she found Stella had Lymes disease.  Luckily after the standard treatment, Stella came bounding back to her normal self.

Changes also were difficult.   After a successful 2010 year showing at 2nd and 3rd level, Stella was getting more anxious each time a change was anticipated.   "If you even thought change, she got emotional."  Stephanie decided to stay home in 2011 and "do my homework."   Her current trainer, Scott Hassler, encouraged her by letting her know, "they are in there, she just needs time."   He gave her a series of exercises to do at home and Stephanie schooled them over and over again so Stella didn't have time to worry about them.  Every horse is different and Stephanie has found that Stella is a horse where you need to push hard and "go to the wall" before she can push past her stumbling block.

She has also found that Stella hates coliseums so Stephanie prefers multi day shows where there is time for her to walk her MANY times around the coliseum to show her the ring, the judges stand and anything else that might scare her.
Stephanie and Stella - Photo by Pics of You

Although she visits Hassler Dressage when she can, for the most part due to geographics Stephanie trains at home alone with her mirrors as her guide.  I asked her how she records what she learns in lessons for her schooling rides and she said that she is very good about keeping the lesson in her "memory files".  While she tacks up she comes up with a lesson plan for herself and decides what she is going to focus on for that ride.  But of course, she also laughed that sometimes you have to "change the plan" because your horse has a different idea.

She rides 5-6 days a week and the length varies as she rides until its right but usually its 30-60 minutes each day.  Stella is not a bubble wrapped horse -- she goes out to pasture at least half a day but Stephanie does make a concession when it comes to a pasture mate for safety as she is with an adorable little mini named Coco who has minimal chance of harming Stella.

I found it remarkable that Stephanie is doing this on her own.  There is no regular trainer and in fact, the only person who has sat on Stella since her purchase was Scott Hassler and that was just once for a short evaluation.  She is certainly not a passenger on a horse trained by another.

Its been a whirlwind for the pair this fall.  For a woman who was once overwhelmed at the thought of doing a recognized show at 1st level, she has come far.  In mid October they were the Region 1 Region Reserve Champion.  At the BLM Championship the first weekend in November, Stella had a blow up at the E judge stand and lost focus.  Despite that they were able to pull a 4th place finish at 4th level.  And then the big finish for the year....

Stephanie and Stella - Photo by Diane Ritz
After returning from the BLM disappointment, just four days later they packed up to go to the US Dressage Finals to compete in the Adult Amateur 4th level.  After experiencing a flat tire on the multi-state trip, they arrived in the midst of a rain storm.  The stalls had canopies blowing in the wind terrifying the sensitive Stella and Stephanie felt she made a mistake coming to the show.  What if she coliced?  Was she pushing her too hard so soon after the blowup at the BLMs?  

They were third to last to complete the class and thankfully it went well.  Well enough that after her ride, she was in first!   After her class, she and Stella returned to their stall to apply polo wraps for the award ceremony so they missed the last rides that would confirm her final placing.  While they were waiting to enter, a staff member checked her number and then asked her dismount.  Looking at him with some disbelief, he confirmed it -- "Yup.  You won.  I need you to get off so I can get the cooler on!"

And so they began their victory gallop! 

Congratulations Stephanie and thanks for inspiring the rest of us!

Here is the long list of accomplishments for the pair:

#1 USDF ISR Oldenburg NA at Fourth level
#3 Fourth Level AA in USDF
#3 Prix St. George at Dressage at Lexington, VA
Champion  Adult Amateur Fourth Level US Dressage Finals
#4 Fourth Level at BLM
Reserve Fourth Level at Region 1 Championships

BLM Division A Champion Third Level
Region 1 Fourth Level AA Reserve Champion

Champion First Level at BLM

  Stephanie and Stella - Photo by Susan Stickle

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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Steady Rein Contact

Earlier this week I was reviewing some videos of my riding and I realized that when I ride at a show it appears my hands are moving up and down and not staying steady.  It bothered me so I discussed it with my trainer.  She said I don't usually do it during lessons but when I do, it was usually when I lost my deep and centered saddle position. Made sense.

Another thing that bothers me is that while Golly gets a wet slightly white mouth when I ride, its no where near what happens when my trainer rides him.  Within ten minutes of her getting on, he has a mouth full of white lipstick and froth is dripping to the ground.  Since a wet frothy mouth is a sign of bit acceptance, I have to assume that he "enjoys" her hands more than mine.

I was reading another blog this week and it got me thinking about another reason why both the hand moving and lack of moisture occurs.  The blog was http://horselistening.com/2013/12/01/why-a-straight-rein-is-not-a-bad-rein/ and it was about keeping a steady but short rein so you could maintain contact.

I tend to ride with a fairly loose rein and this article discussed how that is not really the most kind method of riding.  By giving and taking and not maintaining steady contact, its more annoying to the horse than a steady contact.   Another issue I have is that when I do have a more firm contact I don't give enough with my hands.  The hands SHOULD be constantly moving -- not up and down - but in motion with the horse.  So as the horse's head moves forward and back, your hands should be doing the same in time with the motion so that you can maintain a steady contact.  I do this to a certain extent, but my trainer of course does it better.

So during tonight's ride I focused on keeping a steady contact that moved with him - not releasing the rein pressure but keeping it soft and moving with him.  I do this well until I have to do a correction and then I get a little too much pressure and not enough give.  This dressage thing is a very fine dance in the nuances of gray.  Give .. but not too much.   Steady... but move with him.

I am not sure if I got more moisture in his mouth but I did have a very forward horse tonight, much more than his usual.   Maybe it was coincidental or maybe it was the improved rein contact.   Time will tell.

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