Friday, February 24, 2012

Visual Aids

So the video of Dante and I at Rocking Horse II has now been posted.

Watching it back, I'm absolutely still thrilled with his trot work. The judge generally agreed, giving me largely 6's and 7's, with her main comment being that he needs to be more uphill. She's right, he does. That is still an Intermediate frame and I need to get him to push more from behind and lift his withers more to obtain the Advanced frame. It's mainly a matter of building strength at this point.

The canter work wasn't nearly as bad as it felt. Obviously we picked up the incorrect lead, but I think in all likelihood I only gave him vague cues, and so he just picked a lead. I need to be certain to stick my left leg far back and leave my right firmly at the girth, something I can sometimes be lazy about. And then obviously, I got the flying change instead of walking again and picking up the correct lead. My bad, now I know. (Secretly, I just wanted to show off how awesome Dante's changes are. It was a preview, if you will.)

Obviously, he definitely lost his composure a bit after the medium canter. It didn't look as much as if he were running from me, but he was definitely a touch out of control. I felt as if we were careening around the short side. I think much of it had to do with the fact that I'd barely practiced any medium canter at all the previous two weeks, thinking that he was so confirmed in it that it didn't matter. Mental note to self: must practice medium canters so as to keep Dante bored with them!

All in all, I'm pretty happy with the test. I think we can knock five points off his score by a) pushing him more uphill and b) keeping composure in the trot work!

The stadium speaks for itself. It was awesome.

The cross country video is interesting as I didn't feel it was nearly as smooth as it looked. When running, I felt as if I were chipping in time after time to the galloping fences. In the video, it merely looks as if we are getting right to the base, without it being short. I'm gratified to know my eye wasn't nearly as off as I thought. Apparently I'm just picky about the definition of a perfect spot now!

The video also illustrated just how hard Dante looked at the bank bounce out of water. I definitely felt him suck back but at the time, no one watching seemed to notice and said they didn't see it. However, I can see a definite pause in Dante's demeanor exactly two strides through the water, and it caused us to be pretty far off the bank. I definitely need to keep that in mind, and ride harder through the water if the element out might give Dante pause.

And now, for your viewing pleasure, a photo comparison of Dante as a Beginner Novice horse and as an Advanced horse.

(Dante at May-Daze in 2007, where he won his first BN on a score of 26.4)

(Dante at Rocking Horse II in 2012, where he finished fourth at his first Advanced on a score of 44.1)

Sunday, February 19, 2012

What Lies Within Us

In late 2006, I made a big decision in my life. After years of riding lesson and sales horses, I finally decided I was in a position to be able to purchase a first horse. I had been riding for ten years at that point, and the concept of having my own horse was almost foreign. My competition career had been limited to Novice or below due to a variety of horses like draft crosses, ponies, and saddlebreds who were physically limited to Novice, and OTTBs who generally were sold before we made it that far. As happy as I was to help develop these horses, I was itching to do more.

I started my horse search in September of 2006, and on January 2, 2007 I wrote a check for a 2002 chestnut thoroughbred gelding named Aiken Pike, hoping he would take me through Preliminary.

Boy, was I wrong.

Dante and I have officially competed from BN through Advanced together as of Saturday.  He has never been competed by another rider. I have never ridden above Novice on another horse.

He jumped so over the shoulder at the Training level that the move up to Prelim was a leap of faith that he needed bigger fences to be impressed.

He did.

Then I thought he would top out at Prelim, thanks to his habit of always tap-tapping the biggest tables on the cross country course. At our first Intermediate, I missed to the third fence, a huge table, and he took off long and just soared over it without a sweat. Dante only ever jumped as big as he needed; he always jumped as big as he needed.

I stopped worrying about scope.

When the horse absolutely ate up the course at Jersey Fresh, my coach and I knew he could run around the Advanced. We waited until winter to move up so we could try to get my CCI** qualifier in the fall, but were thwarted when Dante spiked a 104 fever the day before XC at Galway and were forced to withdraw.

This weekend was one of the best of my life. I had never dreamed that Dante would take me to Advanced, and to be honest, no one else did either. He was the horse no one thought would even do Prelim. Now he just finished on his dressage score at his (and my) first Advanced. What an incredible journey.

Dressage was one of the better tests in recent memory. His trot work really felt lovely, and the judge generally agreed with me, scoring it with 6's and 7's and positive comments. I need to bring his frame up a bit more for Advanced, but otherwise his trot work was fantastic. Unfortunately he became quite wound up in the copious amounts of walk, and we picked up the wrong lead to canter. I made the mistake of fixing it through a lead change instead of walking and cantering again. Our half passes were decent except for the right canter half pass which was haunches trailing a bit. One change was quite good, the other a bit crooked. The medium canter came at the very end, and I basically lost control through it. He ran through my requests to slow down, ran around the short end of the arena, swapped leads before our ten meter circle onto the centerline, swapped back, then swapped again right before the halt.

Obviously, relaxation is still an issue.

However, it was a much better test than it could have been, and I was extremely pleased with his trot work. I did breathe a sigh of relief to see my score was a 44.10, as scores were a bit high at first and I was worried about getting a qualifying thanks to Dante's undesired additions to the test. Luckily, the trot work saved the test.

After our 9 am dressage test, I then had to wait until almost 4 pm to ride stadium. This gave me a chance to watch the Intermediate and Preliminary show jumping, who both had similar courses. The design of the course was quite good, with lots of tight turns with options to go outside or inside certain fences. I got on early enough to watch the first few riders in my division jump, and saw that unless you took at least two inside turns, you would have time penalties. There were three main options for inside turns, only one of which I definitely planned on. I decided to go ahead and do my second choice as well so long as the jump before wasn't a flier.

During warm up, Dante felt absolutely amazing. I moved up to a good distance to a big oxer, and he jumped me out of the saddle. I only jumped about five jumps total before I headed over for my turn. In the ring, it seemed that the chatter died down as I cantered to the start. There had not yet been any clear rounds, although my stable mate Sidney had gotten an extremely cheap rail at the final oxer when her horse barely breathed on it. As I made the turn to the first fence, I took a deep breath and briefly closed my eyes. Opening them, I saw my spot and rode to it.

The rest of the course flowed like water. Every turn I rode according to plan, every line I made the right decision. Every spot simply came to me. I didn't try to push Dante into any frame, and let him be between the fences. He rewarded me with fabulous jumps at every fence. Halfway through the course, I noticed how hushed the audience had become. It seemed that I could hear every whisper of Dante's hooves through the air.

Over the final fence, I could hear Dante ever so slightly brush the rail. As I landed, I held my breath, listening for the rail to fall. There was a moment of silence, and then there was a great cheer from the crowd as Dante and I delivered the first clear round of the day. It was the kind of round that brought tears to my eyes because it was so perfect. As I exited the ring, the first thing I see is my coach with a huge grin on his face and his hand up to give me a high five. I exclaimed, "That was freaking awesome!" and gave him the high five. I knew without asking there was nothing about that round that could have made it better.

I was on cloud nine for the rest of the day.

So many people came up to me to tell me how lovely my round was that I lost count. I was so unbelievably proud of my horse, but I was also incredibly proud of myself, which is a rare occurrence. I usually think of something that could have been better, or know there was one fence where he saved my ass. That show jumping round was the culmination of a five year partnership, where we each delivered perfectly. On that round, we moved from 20th to 8th.

I was so happy about that round, that I almost forgot to be nervous for cross country the next day. I was much less worried about the XC, simply because that is Dante's forte. He is so dominant in that phase, and to be honest, I expected nothing less than a clear round.

Of course Dante delivered.

The course was quite technical, but extremely fair, with nice striding everywhere. He was a little surprised at the Weldon's Wall appearing at the third fence, but jumped it with encouragement. At the double corners, which came sixth, he was quite green, wiggling heavily through the middle. I knew he would jump it though, and guided him accordingly. At the angles and the coffin he was fantastic. The turning tables were a mistake on my part. I uncharacteristically forgot that his stride lengthens quite a lot outside the ring, and rode the turning tables on the inside track, getting there on three and three quarters of a stride. Dante packed a tight one in to make the four and I apologized to him for my doubt. He jumped the trakehner great, and then we headed to the first water which was a hanging log, six strides to a log drop in, four across to a bank out and bounce to a large brush.

Knowing Dante's habit of backing off to water and taking an extra peek, I rode him solidly forward after the log, determined to make the six and not allow him to chip in for the seven. Apparently he no longer looks at water, as we did it in a forward five, landing closer to the bank than I thought we would. Halfway through the water, I felt him hesitate upon seeing the bounce, which ended up putting us off the bank a bit. Dante knew what to do though, and took off while I basically grabbed mane, jumping the bounce like it was nothing.

(Dante leaps over the log to the first water.)

The next big question was the sunken road, a bounce down to a one stride, up and then two strides to a wedge slightly offset. I basically aimed Dante at the wedge from the beginning and then held on as he navigated the question. I was pretty much exactly on my minute markers, and I could feel him tiring slightly at the fifth. He jumped through the second water well, but I could feel his jump form lacking as we jumped the out. Luckily there were only two more easy fences, so we cruised to the finish. I checked my watch and was happy to find it reading 5:52, which was optimum time. I knew I had started it slightly late, so thought I came in one or two seconds over time.

The humidity was pretty oppressive, and Dante didn't really start to recover until I began hosing him off. Luckily, he recovered quite quickly after that, which is his typical reaction to humidity. I began icing him, and checking the results.

When I later discovered I had finished fourth, I was ecstatic. I was a little surprised to see that they calculated my time as 5:05 though. I knew there was no way I was that close. The TD later ended up coming to my coach to ask about the time, but he knew I hadn't been anywhere near that. The TD discovered a math mistake and found that my time was actually 5:53, exactly what I had guessed. Still, I had to continuously fend off comments about my incorrect time, including doing some damage control on Eventing Nation and the Chronicle Forums.

At the end of the weekend, I felt that this show could not have better highlighted the incredible partnership that Dante and I have. We've been together for five years and we've taken every first step together. I can't wait to see what the next ten years brings.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Awakening of Butterflies

The past few weeks in Florida have simply flown by. I have spent as much time simply learning and watching as possible.

The week after Rocking Horse was a bit frustrating, riding wise. Dante seemed to become even spookier on grounds and the Wednesday after Rocking Horse I, we had one of our worst dressage schoolings in recent memory. He got spooky, I lost my temper, and we became one big ball of frustration. We couldn't canter, couldn't trot, couldn't do anything. You know it's bad when your trainer suggests that maybe you ride again in the afternoon, after the pair of us had both calmed down. Originally I had planned to go watch the High Performance training sessions, but I agreed with Mike and stayed on the farm. Went for a run, took a shower, cleared my head. Later that day, I got back on Dante, this time in the double bridle, went for a hack twice around the field, and managed a quiet, simple dressage school that was greatly improved.

(The view of the lake I see from my run.)

On Thursday, we jumped, then Jessica Pye and I headed out to watch the training sessions, her for the second time and me for the first. It was wonderful to watch Captain Mark Phillips, who really is a great trainer. He insists on perfection on a simple twenty meter circle before he allows you to begin the more advanced movements. One thing I really took from his lessons was to always, always, always ensure your horse is coming through from behind. We watched Heather Morris ride Slate River, Becky Holder ride Can't Fire Me, Buck Davidson ride Absolute Liberty, MLM ride RF Rovano Rex, and then got to see Buck Davidson jump The Apprentice, who has a HELL of a jump!

Friday Dante and I braved dressage again, beginning in the double bridle and switching to the snaffle after warming up. We were much calmer and patient and were much improved. I really concentrated on pushing Dante through with every single step, which meant I was using much more leg than I usually do. It seemed to work, especially at the walk which is by far our toughest gait. I was undecided at that point whether I would use the snaffle or double for the test. After the lessons, Jess and I headed out one more time to Meredyth South, this time watching Heather Morris and First Mark and then MLM and RF Rovano Rex on the flat.

On Saturday, most of GCS had jump/XC lessons, but I chose instead to enter the Rocking Horse schooling show, for both dressage and SJ. Dante and I performed the Advanced A test twice for the judge, first in the double and second in the snaffle. I didn't do any trot work before going into the ring, as I did at RH1 and he was a bit surprised at the first lengthening which occurs right away. He stayed calm throughout the test though, and in the double I was able to give him more rein during the extended walk while maintaining control. I also informed the judge that I would be doing my changes late, and waited until we were along the side of the ring instead of doing them across the diagonal. We scored a 35.3 in the double (add 5-10 points for a recognized show!). In the snaffle, I felt I had less control, particularly over the walk and the canter. At the very end, Dante grabbed the bit hard during the medium canter, so I brought him back to collected canter and then sent him forward again, this time with an improved attitude. He also ran down the final centerline, so I realized I needed to work on that. We scored a 39.4 on the second test. It was really great to get in the ring twice, as well as practicing our test.

Later that afternoon, I rode Dante in the 3'9'' jumper class and the 3'11'' class. The course was almost the same as the show from the weekend before. It was quite hot, and Dante was definitely getting tired. I was also trying very hard to put him in a frame between the fences, and he was not thrilled about that. When we get into the jumper ring, it often feels as if he isn't paying any attention to me, which is why I was trying to get him to use his body between the fences. However, on this day it felt like a disaster, and I became very frustrated again. He would barely listen at all to me, and then we fought so hard with each other that I would completely miss my spot. Mike and Jessica told me that he looked between my leg and hand most of the time and the only time it didn't was because my reins were too long, which is not at all how it felt. Obviously there was a giant disconnect with what I was feeling and with what everyone else was seeing. Mike felt I was trying to micromanage Dante and control him too much, but I felt as if I had absolutely no control at all to begin with and was trying to wrestle at least a little bit of say from Dante.

Needless to say, I was once again very frustrated.

However, on Sunday Mike sent us all to watch the Grand Prix at HITS. Wow, this was a big help. I was able to see how almost none of the jumpers cared about where their horses' heads were, so long as they met the jump correctly. I realized that I was possibly trying to squeeze Dante into a box that he just wasn't going to fit in. He's never going to be a Grand Prix horse (let's face it, not many of our eventers are!) and tops out around 4'6'' in all likelihood. While that's enough scope to compete in eventers at the highest level, it's obviously not in jumpers. Therefore I need to realize Advanced is a bit like a Grand Prix for Dante, and let him go how he needs to in order to be able to jump his best. It may not be picture perfect between the jumps, but just like the Grand Prix horses, it will help him be picture perfect over the fences.

(Grand Prix at HITS Ocala.)

Monday we went to Universal Orlando, which was the bomb. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, don't you know. And when Gold Chip plays, we play hard. 

The past week went by quickly, until most of GCS headed to the Florida Horse Park for Ocala II. The Advanced horses going to RH2 stayed behind to do fitness on our own. We went out to watch and support our crew on Friday and Saturday, and in particular got to see our JYOP crew be particularly successful, with Tori winning and Claire placing third. Ellie also successfully competed her two horses at Prelim for the first time, so we were extremely proud of her as well. It was great to see Lynne's face after her First Mark won an OI division over Mr. Medicott with Heather aboard as well. 

Now we're headed into the final stretch and I can feel the butterflies in my stomach start to awaken. I'm practicing my mental game for dressage, running every day, and prepping myself for our first Advanced. When doing gallop fences out in the field yesterday morning, I got a first peek at some of the new Advanced fences, including both waters, and it looks fantastic and fun. I'm the first to admit that I've been a bit bored at Intermediate this fall (although CCI**'s still are a blast), so it's a bit exciting to be getting that nervous feeling in my stomach again. I'm ready to ride hard and kick on!