photo by
Tales of Taco the Wonder Horse and his ammy rider on their way to a Training Three Day

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Have I mentioned that I hate wind?

I've gotten better, but I still hate wind.  When I was a kid I don't remember caring about it.  Now that I'm older and more cautious, wind blowing up a horse's tail causes a chill to go down my own spine.   I did manage to have a nasty fall a couple of years ago on a windy day, and sometimes the memory returns unbidden.  So on windy days I really have to be smart and focused.  Taco will instantly figure out that I am anxious and will add his own editorial comments about what we should do that day.

Well, today he got plenty of comments in.  The wind was blowing at around 25mph, according to Weather Underground.  Maybe it would have been smarter to work on long lining or something else.  But the footing was perfect, and in this wet winter and spring that is a rare commodity!  And-- I hadn't jumped since Full Gallop.  And I felt like such a big shot at Full Gallop, riding around that Training course.  Hah!

So I tacked up...
Ready, Stace?

And went up to the jump field.  Right away, we ran into problems.  The neighbors (the same ones that honked at me from the other side of the fenceline when I was galloping past one day) have a new dog, and they cannot seem to keep the dog on their property.  He came joyfully bounding over, and my constant companion Crescent was thrilled to play.  That did not last, however, because Amy's dogs had seen him from the porch of her house and came whizzing down to the jump field in an outraged pack.  Taco jumped into the air and scooted away.  My heart did a tap-dance.  I decided that I had better dismount while the dog situation resolved itself.  The neighbor did come and scoop the dog into the back of his pickup.  Amy saw me standing on the ground and came to check on me, and I assured her I was fine.

Round two: I got back on and picked up trot right away.  I thought we had done enough walking, thankyouverymuch.  At the trot it is of course much easier to focus for me and therefore I can insist that Taco focus too.  We did some passable trot work, and then I picked up canter to the left.  And found myself shooting down one of the sides of the field!  Taco thought that would be fun, or he was worried the dogs would burst out of the treeline on that side.  One of the two.  Yeehaw.

At this point I was thinking that maybe I should quit while I was ahead.  But I am the pilot, not a passenger, dammit.  And I am a Virgo, and I do love symmetry, and I needed to canter the other way.  So we went to the right.  Not bad-- I maintained the focus and he felt pretty good.  So I talked myself into doing some jumping after all.  There was a little crossrail I could try.

I trotted toward the crossrail and committed a fundamental error:  I decreased my speed and impulsion on the way to the jump.  He was still fresh and spooky, and in the back of my mind I was afraid that he would land in a bucking spree and toss me like a ragdoll.  No, he has never done this to me before.  But I was not being entirely rational.  What ended up happening was that he reached the crossrail with nearly zero impulsion.  And I thought to myself, "well, I am getting Taco, who never stops, to stop."  Wrong!  The most honest horse I have ever known jumped from a near standstill, I landed in a heap on his back, and he jogged away from the jump, with a look of exasperation on his face, I'm sure.

Lesson learned.  The horse MUST have sufficient impulsion to be able to jump.  You will get a far worse jump if you pick down to the base than if you keep your leg on and your hands quiet.  With that knowledge fresh in my mind, the second attempt was considerably better.  He did overjump it with a good bit of enthusiasm, but the feared bucking spree never occurred.  Same with the third and fourth.  Then I called it a day.  Carrots for Taco and reflection for me.

I get frustrated with myself for not fearlessly riding through whatever happens, as I recall doing when I was in my teens and twenties.  Not only do I need to work on my technical skills, but there is this whole other mental layer that I must deal with.  I didn't make wonderful choices today, but I learned some things and lived to think about them.

By way of conclusion, here is Taco enjoying the spring sun.  We still have to feed hay outside, but you can see the greening grass in the background-- and not a moment too soon!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Rainy Day Learning

It's raining today, and Taco has had a light week.  He had two days off after getting home on Monday.  I did some light flatwork on Thursday and he felt really good-- nice and supple and happy.  But the last two days have been just walking for him, since he seems to have banged one of his front ankles with the other foot, leaving it a little swollen and painful to touch.  He is a very exuberant guy in his turnout and did this very thing last summer, only to the other ankle.  So he has gotten some Surpass and cold therapy and easy walking to get keep the circulation moving.  He was sound on it yesterday and the swelling had gone down but today it is raining sideways so he gets another day off.

In the meantime, then, I have been doing some studying.  I came across this series of two Lucinda Green clinic videos on Horse and Country TV(a UK site).  Each of them is a little under half an hour, so they were easily digestible.  None of the concepts were brand new to me, but she explains them in a very vivid way.

Lucinda and Regal Realm at the 1984 Olympics Image:

In the first episode, Lucinda teaches a group of riders on fairly inexperienced horses.  Two of her points were very useful to me.  First, cross-country training is about increasing your horse's ability to read and answer progressively harder questions.  At first they take a long time to puzzle over a simple question.  As time goes by, they are able to process far more difficult questions far more quickly.  While Taco is not green by any stretch, it helps me understand what makes him tick.  And I also understand my job as presenting him to questions in a way that allows him to solve them correctly (there is that energy, line, balance thing again-- which, by the way, is a concept that Lucinda constantly emphasizes).

Second, she explains that horses initially get up in the air to jump by lifting their front ends.  Then the back end propels the horse upward and forward, but it is the lifting of the front end that is the crucial function at the moment of takeoff.  So... it is really counterproductive for the rider to allow her body to tip forward onto the horse's front end at that very moment.  Again, another concept that I already was aware of, but the way she put it is so commonsensical and crystal-clear.

Here is the first episode itself:

In Episode 2, Lucinda uses two groups of demonstration riders to further explain some important concepts. "Fundamentally," she says at the beginning, "a horse that goes eventing has got to believe that wherever you want him to go, he can go and he's not going to get into trouble."  This is exactly how Annika trained Taco, by the way.  She always asked him to do things that she knew he could and would do.  That is, I am sure, one of the main reasons he is so honest and confident today.

She also has good ways to explain the use of aids. I really liked how she explains the use of the legs in steering and supporting the horse.   When steering, our legs are like cling film (Saran Wrap) around a sandwich-- not too loose and baggy, but not squishing the sandwich.  Or in my case, not squishing the taco! But then when the horse hesitates before takeoff and/or we're jumping something difficult, those legs can go ahead and squish the sandwich (or taco) in order to make sure the horse keeps going and support during takeoff.

At the end, she works with the riders to put together engine, line and balance over some straightforward gallopy fences.

I'll leave the rest of it for you to discover yourself:


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Team Taco Leaves Aiken via Full Gallop

We're all home again in Nashville.  I am just now blogging last weekend's event because Taco and I were on the road for much of yesterday and today was a long day at work.  But now I can reflect on our first outing of 2010.

Our dressage was on Saturday, fairly early.  We warmed up *fantastic* and then got in the ring and... I got tense.  I am glad that, in my tension I thought Forward instead of shutting him down, but I dropped the connection and as a result he was uneven in the bridle.  Then in the lengthening he broke to the canter.  So I need to keep practicing my half-halts and balancing.  The score was 37.3, tied for 4th.

Both showjumping and cross country were on Sunday afternoon, back to back.  It took some effort for me to get Taco rolling in the warmup and develop that positive canter that he jumps so well out of.  But Amy kept after me and eventually I did it.  I went into the arena and Taco was fabulous.  I was OK-- I rode well to some things and not so well to others.  I gunned him into the two combinations (a two-stride and a one-stride) a little bit, and did not have enough canter for one oxer, but I rode a good track and I was able to tell when I was riding supportively (energy, line, balance!) and when he had to step up and help me.  We added one time penalty to our score.

Then it was off to wait for my XC time.  I walked around for a few minutes and then jumped a couple of last fences before heading out of the box.  Taco was thrilled!  He did one of those sproings!! out of the start box and we were over the first fence before I knew it.  He flew over everything I pointed him at, including the corner after a turn in the woods where I could have had him between my aids better and given him a better warning about what was coming.  The course was very nice and had quite a few jump-into-space fences, so I was glad we schooled those at Jumping Branch during the week.  I also did my first double banks up! I felt myself jump ahead at a few fences, but most of the time I felt like we were a team working together. Taco's fitness seemed great and he was barely breathing when we got off the course.

We finished on a 38.3 which put us in 5th place.  It was a good first run, and now I have more information on what I need to practice.  Waiting to my jumps (yes, again), and a solid connection between my aids in all three phases.

Here are the Hoofclix photos of the weekend. Any votes on ones to buy?

And here is Carol's video.  Unfortunately she did not get showjumping (technical problem) but she did get some of the warmup.  You can see that I did not ride perfectly... but Taco was perfect!

Since Amy did not ride until late on Sunday (Baby Flo was 6th in her division!), we made a stop at Lynda's Run For It Farm in Covington, GA.  It was fun to catch up, if only for a quick moment.  Lynda's Jack Russel Arlo got to meet Amy's beagle Supah Tex.  Arlo was a little bit more enthusiastic than Supah, I must say.  The horses and people slept very well tucked into their comfy stalls/beds.   Then it was on the road again, through Atlanta and Huntsville.  We finally arrived back at Panther Springs in the late afternoon yesterday.  Taco took off as soon as I let him go in his field.  I feel the same way.  It's good to be home again.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Aiken: Friday Videos

Tomorrow is our first event of 2010: Full Gallop Farm Horse Trials!  My goal is to have a positive first outing.  I want to improve my lengthenings in dressage while preserving suppleness and forwardness.  In the jumping phases, I want to continue to improve my role in creating energy, line, and balance to the jumps.

We did a short jump school today to review and fine-tune.  I was having some ridiculous problems changing leads, but other than that it was a great session.

Then Taco had a lovely roll in the paddock.  Back by popular demand, here is Taco in the sand-- this time showing off his athleticism.


The dogs had a great day.  Crescent found a new toy: a pine cone.

And finally, Amy jumped her homebred mare very successfully.  She goes Beginner Novice this weekend.  She's a six year old Percheron/ Thoroughbred, sired by Karsh (CAN; JC name Secret Secretary).

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Midweek Report

It is hard to believe that we are already at the midpoint of our Aiken adventure.  Although I must say that everyone is sleeping well because we are all so tired!

Taco has fallen in love with Flo.  They are not terribly friendly at home, but they seem to be having a vaction fling, so to speak.  Taco is usually quite unconcerned about other horses coming and going, but when he is separated from Flo he is very sad.

As promised, I will update on my lessons with Amy.  Yesterday we worked on my dressage test for Full Gallop, Training Test B.  Since the tests were rewritten for 2010 it was a new one for me.  For some reason I started out with a lot of tension in my shoulders that I never quite overcame.  I think it is beginning-of-the-season nerves.  I revert to that defensive position when I am tense.  However, it was a productive session.  We ran through the test twice and the second time, while not mistake-free and still featuring my hunched shoulders, was considerably better.  Amy emphasized elasticity in my arms and creating some bounce in his step.

Then today we did a cross country school at lovely Jumping Branch.  It now seems obvious that our technical skills are up to the task.  We did the first half or so of last year's Training course and the number of times when Taco has to step up and fix my mistakes was very small compared to a year ago!  My main problem is-- surprise-- nerves, and I was very anxious before the session.  So the point of today was to build my confidence and get me galloping over things.  I'm happy to report that it went quite well!  By the end of the session I had done several things that had looked scary to me, and Taco made it clear that he is still his wonderful bold self.  We warmed up, then did an assortment of gallop fences, then some downhill/ terrain questions, and then wound up at the water practicing a four-element combination.  Amy wanted me to really work on keeping Taco between my aids and I felt a wonderful connection on the approaches to the fences.  I felt silly for having been so nervous at the beginning, and ready for whatever is on the course this weekend.

We barely beat the rain today, and tomorrow is supposed to be rainy, too.  We'll try to get a light ride in in the morning.  Now to bed-- and I am sure I will be asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Thumbs Up!

And I don't just mean that I give Aiken a Thumbs Up, although I do.  I have been enjoying myself quite a bit and it is such a treat to be here.  No, what I mean is that a bad habit of mine has been brought to my attention: my hands, especially the left one, like to turn over so the knuckles of my fingers are up.  The ideal position, however, is with the thumbs on top.  There is something about having your hand in this position that allows the arm to move and act in the proper way.  On the other hand, the knuckles on top position creates tension and lack of elasticity at least all the way up to the shoulder.  I had thought that I had dealt with this tendency of mine, but apparently it's still there.

Thumbs on top, therefore, has been a theme in the last two rides I've had.  Yesterday, I had the much-anticipated privilege of my CANTER Mid-Atlantic auction lesson with Jennie Brannigan.  Jennie was very gracious to donate a lesson to the organization for their annual fundraising auction, and I was delighted to be the winning bidder!  Taco is a CANTER horse so it was all very apropos.  Anyway, I managed to find Red Oak Farm, where Jennie works for Phillip Dutton (a.k.a. PDutty), and got tacked up in my jumping saddle.

The idea was to start out with some flatwork for us to get to know each other, and then move on to some jumping.  Jennie welcomed me and met Carol and Amy, who both came along for moral support/ dog wrangling/ photography/ sports psychology.  And then we got down to work.  Jennie's style is very focused and she is quite descriptive about what needs to happen, which I appreciated.  And she immediately zeroed in on my position, especially my hands (thumbs on top!), arms, and shoulders.  "Ride every day as if you are at a show," she said, meaning that my position should get as much attention and be as correct as if I were in front of a judge during all of my practice sessions.  She also worked with me on straightness and on filling the space just in front of the withers with energy from the hind legs.  Taco went really well and I got some new ways to think about these important basics.

Then we moved on to some jumping.  As usually happens when I start jumping, my IQ dropped a hundred points when she had me trot the first little vertical.  I got a little flustered and forgot about some of the straightness and forwardness things I had been doing.  I calmed down and started thinking again, for the most part.  Jennie really emphasized adjustablity, pushing on between fences and then coming back but keeping the RPMs on the approach.  This helps to get him to the base of the fence and power nicely over it.  Then she had to remind me to release as he takes off.  Here we all are practicing those things.

As you can see, I got really spastic on the way to the skinny and Taco was very generous to jump it.  So Jennie had me do the line again a couple of times.  She wanted me to sit up and keep my leg on after the triple bar. I got better at this, I am happy to say.

All in all it was great fun and a good thing to do.  The things that we worked on meshed well with what Amy has been teaching me.  And Amy was able to come watch, so she knows what we worked on.  Of course, now she has backup for the various issues that she has been on my case about!  She was merciless about the thumbs on top today, geeesh.

I am very sleepy and tired and unable to write more now, but I will write later about the very constructive dressage lesson Amy gave me today.

And on a parting note, here is Taco's favorite part about Aiken: naps in the sun and sand.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Aiken Arrival

We pulled into Jumping Branch last night at about 6.  It was a fairly uneventful drive, and Taco was his usual quiet self in the trailer.

Hazel riding in the truck (Crescent was in the car with Carol)

We settled him into his stall and went to find our hotel, the Hotel Aiken.  FYI, it is a major bar scene on Saturday nights, and the pet friendly rooms face the entrance to the bar.  Luckily we were able to drown out most of the noise with the HVAC unit under the front window.

I've been out to feed and turn T out this morning, and he is bright-eyed and cheerful.  He immediately rolled in the sand pit in the middle of his paddock.

Then he surveyed his domain.

Hi Mom, what's next?

I'll get on him this afternoon and we can hack around and explore.

And lastly, Crescent is having a good time.  He stood guard while I cleaned Taco's stall this morning.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Aiken Preparations

The day after tomorrow, Saturday March 6, Team Taco is going to Aiken!  Aiken is a small town in South Carolina that becomes a major center of eventing each winter.  The footing is excellent and there are many places to school and compete.  We went for a week last year and it was such a great experience that we decided to do it again in 2010!  It would be lovely to be able to go for longer, but I do have a job, after all.

We have a packed week planned...
  • Saturday: We will arrive in the late afternoon, get Taco settled in his stall at Jumping Branch Farm, and go find the people hotel downtown.
  • Sunday: Easy flatwork and hacking.  Amy (our provost) arrives in the afternoon with her homebred mare Flo.
  • Monday or Tuesday: Lesson with up-and-coming eventer Jennie Brannigan.  I won this lesson in a benefit auction for CANTER Mid-Atlantic-- thank you Jennie for donating it!!  On the day that is not a lesson with Jennie, we will work on our dressage test.
  • Wednesday- Friday Cross Country School, another hacking day, and polishing whatever we need to do (showjumps or dressage), under Amy's supervision.
  • Saturday: Dressage and Showjumping at Full Gallop Farm Horse Trials.
  • Sunday: Cross Country at Full Gallop Farm!
  • Monday: Home again
I am feeling very ready to go, and Taco feels fantastic.  We had a very productive jumping lesson yesterday in which I started to feel like we could jump anything.  Amy kept reminding me of the basics: energy, line, and balance.  The right energy feels like a little bit more than is comfortable, and I have to be extremely careful not to take any away as I approach a jump.   As I create my turns and find my lines to the jumps, it is often helpful to think of a slight counterbend (his outer eyelid just visible if I happened to look down).  As for the balance, I must, must, must keep my body tall until he has taken off!  It is all too easy for me to allow my shoulders to tip forward and my leg to drift back.  When I stay upright and engage my core muscles, things are so much easier for Taco.

That's it-- the rest is Taco's job, and I need to let him do it!  One of the best things about this lesson was that I really started to "get" the division of labor within our partnership.  I can't jump for him-- and throwing my body at him is actually counterproductive (Amy started us out trotting a tallish vertical so that I could feel how he could jump up to my body when I waited for him to).  I can trust that he is able to do his job-- and he is so very good at it.

See you in Aiken!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Let the Fear Make You Smarter

I've been planning this blog entry for a long time, and have just been waiting for a chance to write it.  I had been planning to write about Taco's monthly can't-catch-me game (inflicted on a poor, unsuspecting friend of mine), and our last lesson, in which I struggled with my galloping and jumping position.  I also was planning to incorporate insights about galloping and jumping gained from watching upper-level riders over the weekend, because I made my annual trip to the Wilsons' lovely Pine Top Farm to volunteer for some of the nicest and best organizers in the eventing business.

But yesterday, cross-country day, was one of the toughest I have ever experienced with horses.  I witnessed not one, but two, serious falls at the fences I was judging.  These falls were horse falls which, as common sense would dictate, are more dangerous than falls in which only the rider meets the ground.  Worse, they were what are known as "rotational" falls, where the horse does not gain enough altitude in the takeoff and hits the fence somewhere on the forearm, causing it to somersault over the fence.  These thankfully rare falls are the most dangerous kind, to both horses and riders.  Luckily, both horses in the incidents that I saw seemed unhurt and were led off the course.  The riders, however, were seriously hurt and taken to the hospital in an ambulance.  I do not know their current conditions, but I am praying for them both to heal well and quickly.

I was very shaken.  I have been present at events where serious falls have happened, and have known someone who was paralyzed in a rotational fall.  But I had never witnessed one in person, let alone been standing next to the fence at which the fall occurred, or been all by myself with an injured rider at my feet, or helped the EMT carefully reposition that rider so she could be transported on a backboard.  And I hope I never ever have the chance to repeat it.

Under the circumstances, it seems incredibly selfish to worry about how I will maintain my confidence in my own riding.  But reality is that I have an event coming up in two weeks, and unless I scratch, which I believe would be detrimental, I will need to get back on the horse and figure out a way to ride through the fear.  So I list some pertinent information here.
  1. The risk of horse falls per number of starters at Training is very low, and rotational falls are very, very rare.  This is because the fences are low enough that the horse is far less likely to catch his forearms on the fence.  I can live with this quite small level of risk.  And I have a very savvy and experienced horse, plus an extremely capable instructor.
  2. Given that I choose to live with this level of risk, what I can do now is to mitigate my risk as much as possible.  This means that, in addition to having a wonderful horse and instructor, I can work on my own physical and mental fitness.  I need to continue my workouts on the rowing machine and my core exercises, even though work and household tasks constantly intrude.  I also will be using the services of Carol, the Team Taco resident sports psychologist.
On this last point, sports psychology, I received a wonderful gift yesterday from John Staples, a former international eventer and a current member of the USEF Safety Committee.  He shared an experience with me that he'd had at Rolex, in which a close friend of his had fallen badly, very shortly before John himself was due to leave the start box.  It was very difficult to summon the courage to head out on course, but the conclusion that he drew was that he was going to be as smart and sharp as possible as he jumped around cross country that day.  He let the fear make him a smarter rider.

So I will end with that insight.  Let your fear make you smarter.