Monday, February 24, 2014


I've been thinking a lot in the off-season about posture and attitude.

Posture is something our society as a whole has let slip. I sit at a desk all day and slump, slouch, and hunch my way through the day. These positions are comfortable (for now), and relaxed. They are easy.

But attitude is conveyed through posture as well. When I slouch, slump, and hunch, I am conveying that I am tired, bored, or irritated. Maybe I am, maybe I am not, but that is the message I am giving the rest of the world.

Riders as a group are much more interested in our posture, and in improving it, than general society. We know that good physical posture can improve our riding skills, particularly on the flat. We know that good posture helps the horse to move correctly and freely. We also know that posture conveys a certain picture for the judge.

If we slouch, slump, or contort our bodies in an effort to get the horse to do what we want, we are telling the judge that we think dressage is difficult, that we must push our bodies to the limits to get the horse to go correctly. On the other hand, the rider with upright chest, proud shoulders, and quiet hands conveys harmony and confidence in training aids.

The posture conveys the attitude and the attitude fuels the posture.

For me, this has always been easier said than done. I understand the concept, but to get my body to not contort in an effort to perform a movement correctly is difficult. As a result, I see photos and video of my shoulders rounding, my hips uneven, and I think, 'I look uncomfortable, dressage must be difficult for me.' By thinking that, it becomes so, and so I push harder in an effort to make it better, which further contorts my body.

Here's the funny thing; Dante and I are actually quite capable at dressage.

In fact, Dante and I are quite capable of being great at dressage.

We often have excellent dressage schoolings at home and in lessons. At clinics, he is impressive and I am at my best. At schooling shows, he shows potential. He has won the warm-up at shows.

And yet, over the years, I have slowly convinced myself that we are both nervous and tense in dressage. We start circling the ring and bam! I've lost the lovely trot I had all through warm-up and my hands are slowly drawing a chokehold on the reins. Surprise! We end up in last place in a huge division.

And then I slink back to the barn and tell my barnmates exactly what both they and I are expecting to hear.

"We're just not good at dressage."

"It's not our thing."

"Thank goodness that phase is over with."

"We both get nervous."

Over the years, these things have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We get a bad score, I say it happened because we are nervous, and the next time, we are even more nervous.

No more.

From here on out, I am going to have swagger. I am going to be overconfident, brazen, and even a bit self-delusional about how we are cool, confident, and excited to be in that sand ring. All of that is true at home, it will be true at the show. Eventually, I am going to convince myself how good we are at dressage so instead of false confidence, it's legitimate claims.

Behold the swagger. Watch out, 2014.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Fat and Furry

The title says it all. Nearly two months post Fair Hill, and the pair of us are fat and furry. (Well, I'm not so furry. I think.) (And I'm not fat so much as squishy. Hey, don't judge, it's the holiday season!)

Dante had his shoes pulled the day after Fair Hill, and his feet are looking phenomenal. I gave him more time off than I had planned, mostly because the weather took a turn for the worse and stayed there right at the time I wanted to start bringing him back. Since there is no particular hurry, I just let sleeping dogs lie and only got on him for the first time this past week. The ring was frozen, but we just spent some time walking in the snow, which will probably be the menu for the next week. I won't put any shoes on until he indicates that the ground is too hard for him, I absolutely love that he doesn't snowball up when he is barefoot.

The downside of him having so much time off is that he has now gotten bored and begun playing games with himself. According to the barn owner, one of his favorites is to gallop once or twice around the field, stop at the gate, then crow hop in place, buck buck buck buck buck. Then he's done.

Another is to take his halter and lead rope if they are within reach of his field and just toss his head about holding them. 

The final game is to grab a persons arm by the coat cuff (a favorite activity of his every winter) and to pull the person over to one side of him. Then he grabs the other coat cuff and pulls the person back to the original side.

So glad I exist for your entertainment, horse.

(Dante surveys his wintery kingdom.)

I'd be annoyed with his antics, but he's so obviously amused by himself that I can't really hold it against him.

Thursday, October 24, 2013


Everyone in sport knows that while competing, you sometimes find holes in your training. Sometimes these holes are just a little dip in the ground; you can fill them in with a little bit of footing and never worry about them again. Sometimes, the hole is a shallow depression that you work on evening out over time, and eventually it goes away.

And sometimes, you step in a hole so deep that your foot gets stuck and you face plant.

I've spent a lot of time filling in holes in the training of both my horse and myself. He has trailering holes that need constant repair and maintenance. He had a massive hole with water when he was younger that we managed to repair, but need to double check it to make sure it doesn't reopen. He had holes in his show jumping training when he thought colored sticks were fun to knock down. All of these holes were worked on and smoothed over. While, they may need maintenance, they are generally not an issue anymore.

Now, it's finally time to go back and fully fill the holes in his dressage.

By the way, Dante is fairly good on the flat. He has a lovely collected trot, a quality half pass, fantastic lead changes, a steady counter canter, and a jaw-dropping extended trot. Dante is a horse who should easily score in the fifties (FEI) every time out. I've been told by Olympic-dressage clinicians that Dante could be competitive with the best horses in the world if we could correctly work every time out. And I believe him, after seeing the video tape from the clinic. Dante is a horse who 'has all the pieces', apparently.

Except the mental game inside the white box. 

All I can say is that Dante can practice at home, ride in lessons off his farm, and warm up beautifully at the show with the best of them. But as soon as we ride down centerline, it's like something clicks in his brain and he loses focus, takes any excuse to ignore me, and generally goes about above the bit. It doesn't always happen; he was quite well behaved at Millbrook. But at Surefire, Plantation, and now Fair Hill this year, we showed that this hole in his training needs to be fixed before we can move on.

Fair Hill in particular is frustrating, as I calculated later that literally one more point on any movement or collective mark from either judge would have put me at a qualifying score. It's satisfying to get through a CCI2* finally with no problems at either jog, no pneumonia, no worries about too many rails. But I definitely lost focus after getting a non-qualifying dressage ride. I ho-hummed around cross country, and shrugged about the SJ. I'm proud that even with an off ride from me, we still made it around clear on a division that ate half of the competition. But this past weekend was still supremely bittersweet.

In the past year, Dante and I have actually made huge strides in dressage; his canter is more true, his trot is more bouyant. His lateral work is more flexible and his frame is more uphill. By every indication, we should be improving in our scores.

And yet, Dante seems to know. We've gone to schooling shows, and while a bit of tenseness occurs, it seems that Dante saves his truly bad behavior for recognized shows. So this winter, we will come to the schooling shows dressed to the nines, clipped tails and braided, shadbelly and white gloves. I will go to every measure to make sure Dante thinks it is a real show and we will do test after test this winter. If there isn't a schooling show that weekend, I will pay a schooling fee to use someone's dressage ring and do the whole thing without a judge. 

Next spring, we will come out and go to Jersey Fresh CCI2*, and we will showcase our new ability to stay relaxed in the ring. And we will live up to our potential finally.

See you next spring.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Destination Millbrook

Last week marked a number of firsts for me for a show. It was the first time I took legitimate vacation days from work. It was the first time I was trailering my horse more than a couple of hours with my rig. It was the first time I had stabled overnight without being part of Gold Chip. It was the first time I was getting coaching from Stephen Bradley. Hell, it was the first time I'd stabled since Colorado in June 2012.

It was awesome.

Amanda and I set out ridiculously early on Thursday morning. It rained the entire drive, then cleared an hour before we arrived, then began again as we were unpacking the trailer. We sat in the truck for maybe 45 minutes to wait out the pouring storm, then mustered up the gumption to ride later. I'm testing out different methods and my new thing is to not overkill the dressage. As Dante has gotten worse and worse in the ring, my previous method was to flat him more and more and more. Now, I'm into the opposite. I don't even like to ride in my dressage saddle and bridle the day before the test. We ride in our cross country bridle (which he absolutely loves on the flat) and jump saddle and go on a hack, with some light trot and canter tacked on at the end. For warm-up, I walk for 20 minutes, then spend 12-15 minutes working on throughness and transitions. There's not a whole lot too it, but we try to work on focus and quality.

Apparently, it is working. Best dressage test at Advanced yet, and probably one of our best tests ever, period.


I walked cross country three times, so that I would make sure not to skip a fence, or jump the wrong one, or anything of that variety. The course looked great to me; tougher than our first Advanced at Rocking Horse, but softer than Poplar's Advanced. That was made me quake in my boots. Millbrook had a challenging but fair course, and I didn't feel too nervous about any particular combination. I headed out of the start box confident, but wary of being too cocky.

My faith was well placed, as Dante tackled the course with major aplomb. At first, I was disappointed with the large number of time penalties I had come home with; I was hoping to come home with around 10 penalties, not 20. However, once the results for the full division came in, I saw how tough the course had ridden. There were a large number of stops, retirements, and eliminations, and not one person came home within the time. In fact, only six riders even had single digit time penalties. For a green pair, to come home clean with around 10 more time penalties than the leaders was a great accomplishment.

(Dante galloping around the turn. Photo by Abbie Golden of Eventing Nation.)

I jogged Dante Saturday night on the extremely hard gravel road and he was sound as a dollar. He has been extremely sound ever since he had time off, but as always, I am extraordinarily paranoid. I shouldn't have worried, he was great.

On Sunday, we had to wait, and wait until I got to go. Amanda was lucky enough to be early and jumped a fantastic round; she and Toby had a phenomenal go this weekend as well. As the hours ticked on, and the spectator crowd grew, my stomach started churning. I calmed down a bit in warm-up....until Dante seemed very behind the leg. I was worried he was tired; in reality, I believe that the tiny warm-up ring with many horses was backing him off. I starting revving him up and up so that he wouldn't chip in once we were in the ring.

I got in the ring and galloped forward, something I used to do last year. But revving him up and then galloping forward was a bit much. I found long spots to the first two fences and concentrated on keeping him forward through the rollback to the vertical at three. After the long spots, I needed a half halt more than a kick, and had the rail when Dante jumped flat at three. Finally, after three I half halted and started getting the jumps I wanted. 

I then got the really long spot again to the triple bar and didn't half halt down the line to the vertical. And shockingly, had the vertical down. Lather, rinse, repeat. I pulled myself together for most of the rest of the course, the only other mistake happening when I got yet another long spot off of a roll back to a large square vertical. Again, half halt!

Still, even though I cracked a little under the pressure, I am thrilled with the way Dante was jumping. And in the end, I really made the same mistake of not half halting multiple times. Time to get my half halt on.

Thirty minutes after I got off Dante, it started to pour just as we started loading up the trailer. We got the horses loaded, changed our clothes, hopped into the truck, and just then, the rain stopped. So much fun.

At this point, we are now onwards and upwards to the Plantation CIC3*!

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Big and the Little

Just like every other competitive athlete, I am the type that makes goals for everything I do. Goal making is recommended by pretty much every sports psychology book I've read. From what I gather, it's also a good practice for making progress in any portion of life, and it's something that comes pretty naturally for me.

For every show I enter, I make two types of goals, what I term as Big Goals and Little Goals. 

Big Goals are the purpose of why I am entering the event. I don't enter an event just to run; each event has a purpose in the grand scheme of things. Whether to gain experience at a level, or to get qualifications to move up a level, the Big Goal is the specific reason that I am spending my horse's legs. He only has so many jumps, so I am careful about why and where I run. Big Goals generally have short term implications.

Little Goals are the individual goals I have for each phase. These goals are generally feedback on whether my training regimen is working. I try to pick achievable goals for each phase, marking baby steps in my march towards improvement. Little Goals are ongoing and generally have long term implications.

Both my Big and Little Goals for Loudoun Prelim in April and Waredaca in were very similar. The Big Goals were identical; get my qualifier. The new USEF rules require at least one QR within a year. Since Dante hadn't competed in almost a year by Loudoun, and had last gotten a QR in February of 2012 (thanks to my appalling SJ riding at both Poplar and Greenwood last spring), I needed a Prelim to run an Intermediate, and an Intermediate to run an Advanced. This being the natural progression of an Advanced horse coming back into the work, I wasn't put out at all, as this was what I had planned anyways. However, it did put a touch more pressure to not make any stupid mistakes.

The Little Goals for both events varied slightly for dressage. I generally pick improved relaxation as my goal for dressage, which I evaluate by how I feel after the test as well as my score. Dante knows all the movements very well and can generally impress in the warmup. His relaxation is the only barrier to us scoring much better, so the better the score generally, the more relaxed he was. For Prelim I wanted to score under 35, and for Intermediate I wanted to score under 40. These are scores that I have rarely previously achieved, and Dante has been achieving a maturity in his work that I have never felt before, so I thought them very doable. For show jumping I wanted to not choke, and jump clear. I'm fairly certain that jumping clear is pretty much everyone's goal for this phase. For cross country, I wanted a confident run and to make sure all the rust was knocked off. 

At Loudoun, I achieved my Big Goal and none of my Little ones; I got my qualifier so I could run Intermediate, but Dante spooked in the ring after a stellar warm-up and became quite tense in the dressage, scoring a 39. We had a rail in SJ when I let him get down in his shoulders to a square oxer with a long approach, and while Dante was game for XC, I made a few rusty decisions that bothered me. I left Loudoun feeling a bit down about our results, although we had achieved our Big Goal.

Waredaca was the opposite; we had another stellar warm-up for dressage, and translated a good portion of it into the ring, only becoming a bit tense. We scored a 36.8, which is his best score at the level to date, and were placed 5th out of 15. I had a great stadium round and jumped clear; then Dante and I were gangbusters cross country. At least, we were until I was pulled up after fence 10 for jumping the wrong trakehner at 6A....And yet, I left Waredaca feeling quite positive about our progress, even though we hadn't gotten the qualifier.

So two events, opposite results. At Loudoun, I accomplished my Big Goal, but none of my Little Goals; at Waredaca I walked away having accomplished my Little Goals but not my Big Goal. I felt happier and more confident about my day at Waredaca than at Loudoun. My training regimen is working, I feel prepared to run Advanced again. Unfortunately, thanks to the big TE, I still need an Intermediate qualifier.

So Advanced just needs to wait until Millbrook now, instead of HP of NJ at the end of this month. In the meantime, we'll hit up Surefire, which is only 10 minutes from my barn. 

Monday, May 20, 2013


And so the familiar chorus goes, I've been a very bad blogger. Loudoun has come and gone and Waredaca is a mere two weeks away, yet it's been almost six weeks since I last updated.

When I graduated college, I knew that my free time was largely going to be a thing of the past. I'd had it largely cushy time-wise for the four years I rose through the levels. I was planning on fast tracking my way through my second degree the way I had my first, but the fact was, with no math under my belt since high school, I had to take eight semesters of classes thanks to prereqs. However, because I had a degree under my belt, I didn't need any core classes. So there I was, scratching for credits just to be a full time student, and coasting through four years with lots of free time to compete.

It was great, I'll admit it.

As I said, I knew when I became a Real Person and had a Real Job, that all this free time would go away. The days of thinking that an 8 am lesson was early in the morning would be over. And sure enough, when I started having to wake up five days a week at 5:30 am, I thought it was rough.

I got used to that.

Then I started getting up at 4:45 am, and I thought it was rough.

I got used to it.

Then Dante arrived, and my energy levels plummeted.

I haven't figured out how to eat yet to keep my energy up; I bounce between starving and lethargic. Some weeks I mainline coffee all day and sometimes I'm bouncing off the walls from too much sugar. When Dante wasn't here, I was able to eat right after I go from having lunch at 11 am and then not eating anything else until dinner at 8:30 pm.

So there's that to figure out.

I still can't quite get the knack of going to sleep prior to ten or eleven either, which means I end up running the day on five to six hours of sleep per night, which is not really enough for me. I've been trying hard to go to sleep earlier, and to make an effort to make sure to get at least one long night of sleep every weekend.

I'm slowly becoming acclimated to my new schedule of working, riding and/or trailering out to lessons/gallop, then possibly running. For the first time since Dante has arrived, I finally feel under control again. After two plus months of working and riding, my body is hopefully calibrated again.

From here, onwards and upwards!

(Dante being his beautiful self at a Stephen Bradley lesson this spring.)

Sunday, March 24, 2013

A Day in the Life

4:10 am: My first alarm goes off. Blearily, I press the snooze. It continues to go off every ten minutes.

4:40 am: Second alarm joins the chorus. I spend the next twenty minutes rolling from side to side to press snooze.

5:00 am: After finally dragging my butt out of bed, I spend five minutes staring angrily into the mirror. I am not a morning person, in case you can't tell.

5:25 am: Dressed and ready for work, I get on the road.

6:25 am: I arrive at work and spend the next thirty minutes to an hour answering emails.

9:00 am: Breakfast time! I spend fifteen minutes eating a banana and writing down details about my ride the night/day/session before and detailing goals for my ride that night.

9:15 am: Back to work.

11:00 am:  Lunch time, take a mental break, and read a book. Sometimes it's dressage theory, sometimes it's pure entertainment.

11:45 am: Back to work.

3:00 pm: I start thinking about getting on the road. D.C. traffic is not too bad if I leave by 3:15 pm.

4:30 pm to 5:00 pm: Arrive at the barn sometime in this time frame. It always depends on whether there's been any accidents. And whether it's Friday. Occasionally, I even get there by 4:15 pm. First change out of work clothes into riding clothes. If I'm jumping, I go down to the arena to set up fences. Bring in Dante, groom, tack up, get on. Choices are generally jump, hack, or flat, although I'm about to throw trailering out for lessons into the mix too. Lessons will be late nights for sure. Untack, groom, and clean tack before I can leave the barn.

(Middleburg sunset hack.)

7:00 pm to 7:30 pm: Leave the barn, arrive home 7 minutes later. Thank goodness I live close by.

7:30 pm: Watch The Daily Show and Colbert Report and possibly a sitcom if I have time while eating dinner. Set out all my work clothes for the following day, make my lunch, and reset my riding clothes gym bag.

8:30 pm: Get off the couch to go shower and get ready for bed.

9:00 pm:  Bed time! Read a book until I fall asleep around 9:30 pm.