Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Thar Be Pirates About!

Freestyle Work Begins Again

Friend and fellow dressage rider, Jutta Lee of Appledore Farm invited me to her farm to view the first FEI Intermediare 1 freestyle / kur she was working on for a dressage competition which was three weeks away.  The music she selected was straight from the Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, was deep and powerful, and sounded like it was performed by a full orchestra.

Some of the music was wonderful.  However, some of it just didn't feel right.  As Jutta expected, I was honest in my opinions.  We both have enjoyed success in freestyle competitions, so we starting sharing ideas....

Since I have more musical training and enjoy the challenge, I offered to create the Pirates kur for her.  With a copy of the soundtrack loaded into my iShuffle, I listened to the music several times and agreed she had selected a song that was great for her canter work.  However, I found nothing wonderful for the walk and trot.  We were going to need to look elsewhere for more Pirate music.

Hurray for iTunes!

On YouTube, we found other dressage freestyles that used "Pirates of the Caribbean" music.  One was fairly good (viewable here on youtube) and encouraging in the sense that it proved the Pirates music could be used fairly successfully for dressage.  This particular kur included music from other films.  A few iTunes purchases later, I had the soundtracks from three other Pirates of the Caribbean movies - Dead Man's Chest, At World's End, and On Stranger Tides - loaded into my iShuffle and I immersed myself in Pirates music for the next few days.

Using Pinnacle Systems's Studio 10 software, I watched video loops of Jutta and her horse, Glorious Feeling, performing the walk, trot and canter portions of her freestyle while listening to the music, most of which is composed by Hans Zimmer.  I listened for hours on end.

Finding ideal music for a horse and rider is an inexact science at best.  First, one needs to understand and accept the musical tastes of the rider.  After all, it is she who will have to listen to the music over 100 times!  I knew Jutta wanted to stay clear of Spanish guitars, vocals, and death marches!   :-)

Searching for music, luck certainly helps.  And patience.  And keeping an open mind.  Fast forwarding after a few seconds of sampling a tune is NOT a good idea!  For example, one of the Pirate songs, at first, did not sound suitable at all.  But, at the very end, there were a few measures of truly beautiful walk music!  A couple minutes into another song, I discovered entrance music which Jutta and I both liked.

Music is 10% of the Score

In USDF / USEF dressage freestyles, from 1st to 4th Levels, the music makes up 20% of the total score.  At FEI level, the music of a freestyle only accounts for 10% of the overall score.  However, at International Level, the quality of the music is expected to be very good.  It also must be pleasurable to listen to and even the horse needs to accept it!

Leave the Chippy Choppy to the Chefs

One key to making a good freestyle lies in a deep desire to avoid what I call "chippy choppy" transitions which can insult the ears of the audience AND JUDGES.  You know what I mean.  When a piece of music abruptly and prematurely ends and another follows.  Smooth musical transitions are very important to making the music more enjoyable, more entertaining and simply easier on the ears.

While cutting and editing music, maintaining an even beat in the music must also be considered.  An incomplete beat during the trot, for example, will cause a blip which can cause the whole picture to appear unbalanced for a moment.  It will also throw off anyone who was happily tapping their feet to the music.... something we hope judges will do while enjoying the performance!

It's the Rider's Music

In the end, the music belongs to the rider.  She must love it, live it, sleep it, dream it, hum it and become one with it.  And so the rider's input into the composition is critical.

In the end, we create a Pirates of the Caribbean freestyle which flows smoothly from movement to movement, matches Glory's graceful lightness and powerful impulsion, includes the sounds of ship bells and cannons, and left one member of the audience at the July GMHA Show - USDF Vice President Beth Jenkins - with goosebumps!

The Debut CDI

After a few "trial runs" with the freestyle at schooling and USDF shows, Jutta and Glory made their Concours de Dressage International debut at HITS on the Hudson in Saugerties, NY.  They won the freestyle class!  And were written up in World Dressage News!

Next stop, the NEDA Fall Festival and CDI-W ! If you are there, come say "Yo ho" to the Pirates!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Babies

After a winter siesta, the dressage competition season is now resuming. For many of us, our individual competition calendars are pretty well decided, we've started sending in show entries, and the end of the year goals are coming into focus.

For me, for the first time since 2007, my dressage goals do not include qualifying for and competing in the USDF Region 8 Championships. In fact, I may not even enter a USEF / USDF show at all.

Piper, with whom I was already half qualified for the 2012 Championships, has been sold to a wonderful family. I look forward to seeing him and his new owner competing in New England this season!

Now, there are two horses who are getting the majority of my attention this year. Young horses who have been quietly standing in the wings, waiting for their turn to be center stage: Bea Yewtee & Big Ben.

Bea Yewtee

Bea is out of my retired 4th level mare, Jeddien. Her sire is Da Vinci, who was a lovely grey FEI dressage stallion who stood at Cornell University after retirement from competition.

Bea was a little foal, when compared to Ben who stood at 11 hands high at birth! She is and has always been fiesty. Sharp. Edgy. She's a fast learner and a nice horse.

Riding Bea is interesting as she has trouble standing still for any length of time. I call her my "Energizer Bunny". A little trotting machine with a lot of "hock action". I suspect she is hovering around 16 hands and in many ways is a lot like her dam. Compact and powerful, for starters. Bea is a liver chestnut with 4 white socks. Very pretty.

Big Ben

Ben is very different from Bea. First, he loves to canter. However, he would really rather stand around and chat all day. His first riding lessons began with him having to learn that he was not allowed to have a roll in our indoor arena with the rider (me) in the saddle! He's cuddly and friendly.

Second, he is BIG. He wears a size 36" girth and my leg only goes 3/4's of the way down his side! I've not measure him yet and am not sure I even want to know.... I do know, however, that I could use a 4th step on my 3 step mounting block!

Ben has long smooth supple strides and a surprising amount of natural suspension for a big guy. Ben is out of Marja, a Burggraaf mare we imported from Holland while she was carrying Ben. Ben's sire is the talented Dutch show jumper, Tangelo van de Zuuthoeve.

Both Bea & Ben were imprint trained and handled daily since birth. I started both of them when they were 3, and then left them to grow. And grow they did! They continued to be lunged... occasionally.... and put through groundwork training... occasionally... and ridden indoors and outdoors.... occasionally. But nothing regular and certainly not to the extent so that their training is where it should be or could be at their age.

Yup, they have some catching up to do. However, both young horses are well behaved, past their terrible 3's (and 4's) and eager to learn. And, both are super comfortable. That's an extra bonus!

So, my goals for this year are to focus on both of "the babies" and to get them out to schooling shows. After earning awards and titles through 3rd Level, it seems odd to set my sights on Introductory Level, but that is exactly this years goal. Easy tests and lots of experience away from home.

Realistically, if all goes well, I will enter GMHA's October show, which is part of the USDF 2013 Show Season. If I do that, I will aim to for qualification at Training Level. Woohoo! Gotta start somewhere.

And so, the journey starts all over again.:-)

Monday, October 17, 2011

2011 USDF Regionals

Wow! Where did this year go? Another USDF Regional Championship has come and gone!

Walking through my barn late at night, I say "Hello" to lots of happy equine faces peering out from their cozy stalls. This year, 2 of those horses contested USDF Region 8 championship classes. One is a boarded horse. The other is my husband's "Piper Warrior". Next year, I hope to see at least 3, maybe 4 of the horses on our farm qualify and travel to the Regionals.

For some, competing at the Regionals is an important required finale for the show year, satisfying the goals and objectives of their businesses or their riding careers. For others, it is a dream goal, sometimes achieved, sometimes not. For my own horses, it is something in between. We work throughout the year with the goal of earning qualifying scores in all competitions. Riding and placing well in the Regional Championships is more of the dream goal.

This year, we really only tried to qualify for 1st Level Open and 1st Level Freestyles. (Earning that very nice qualifying score in our 2nd Level debut was not part of the plan!) Training Level was "off limits" according to he who pays Piper's entry fees. In the end, we only qualified for the latter category. However, we still managed to do fairly well (but not great) in Year End Awards at 1st Level Open.

The Regionals this year brought the usual mix of weather. We managed to compete in fair weather all weekend, but bore witness to some monsoon style dressage. (We had our fair share of foul weather rides in April and I truly don't relish going through that again anytime soon.) And this year's competition had a very wide range of scores! Unprecedented high scores were earned by a few of our fellow competitors. Scores in the 80%. Wowwee! Very well done.

Two Freestyles

As done in previous years, I entered my freestyle partner in Saturday's "Freestyles - Level of Choice" class. Or as I call it, the "cocktails & evening entertainment" class. This class is always scheduled during cocktail hour in Ring 1. The spectators will be enjoying their VIP seats, sipping wines, munching on hors d' oeuvres. Some even watch the rides. The following morning, the USDF Freestyle Championship classes take place in the same ring.

Riding in front of an audience does not faze me, nor my horses. So, once Piper got used to seeing 5 judges booths instead of the usual spooking 1, Saturday evening went okay. We earned a fairly good score of 67.167%, enough for 3rd place, and half qualification for next year's championships. However, the next morning, while there were less spectators, there was much more activity at the FEI ring in the distance, distracting Piper to the point where being "on the bit" was not of much interest to him. He wanted to watch what was going on 500 yards away. (Horses. Sigh.) And so, with my equine dance partner popping above the bit whenever headed towards the FEI ring, we earned a 65.667% and 4th place in the USDF Region 8 First Level Freestyle Championships.

Now, Piper's freestyle to "All of Me" and "A-Train" is retired. Next year..... Maybe Queen. Maybe Abba. Not sure yet. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Selecting A Trainer


Online, in books, and in DVDs, there's a vast array of information from which dressage riders can learn about the art and sport of dressage. However, one dressage topic that seems to be light on suggestions is selection of one's dressage trainer. Maybe this is because it's such a personal and subjective thing.

For the past 6 years, since moving back to the USA after 12 years in England, I have been working and training alone. My husband, who thanks to auditing several European dressage clinics & lessons, attendance at shows, and viewing training videos / DVDs with me, is my primary "eyes on the ground". While he's able to tell me what he observes, he often does not know to ride corrections or make improvements. However, sometimes he comes up with great suggestions and exercises that work well.

So for the past 6 years, I've basically been going it alone without a trainer. With the show results I have enjoyed, I like to think I've done pretty well. But I want to do better. Much better.

Last year, I started looking for a trainer. And with that effort, I began to realize I definitely had selection criteria that were important to me, important for the trainer to meet.

While searching, I found that there are a lot of perfectly qualified dressage trainers in New England, and several within 100 miles of my farm. Some have impeccable competition credentials. Some are USDF Certified. Some are judges. Some actively compete. Some will travel for lessons, coming to Warner. Some do not. Variety is certainly not a problem.

The selection of a trainer can be approached several ways. Word of mouth is a good starting place. Signing up with a best friend's trainer is not unusual. Selecting the trainer who is closest may be another option. Personal economics might make price important. Watching lessons before taking lessons is one method I often recommend. Forums, social networks, blogs, clinics, and shows are all potential sources for making more contacts and learning who's who. Yup. There are lots of approaches.

But what to look for in the trainer? That is the question! As I got deeper into my search, I found there are several things I seek in a trainer:

  • First and foremost, the trainer must have utter respect for the horse and it's nature. (No huggy, kissy, baby talk to my horse, thank you!)
  • Before I sign up with a trainer, I need to see the trainer in action with their students or their own horses, either in lessons or at shows. I need to have respect for the work I observe as well as a fair level of agreement with the approach, methods, communications, and demonstrated outcomes.
  • The trainer will have had a lot of dressage training themselves and is interested in updating their own knowledge and skillset.
  • During the first few lessons, I like to sense there is structure. I need to know what we are working on, what the targets and purpose are. Not just what do to, but why. And I need to be able to envision how that work leads into future training.
  • For a long term relationship, the trainer must be willing to get on my horse, match what he sees with how it feels, and come to understand my horse better. And ideally he should be able to ride my horse better than I.
  • Price will not necessarily limit me taking a lesson, but will limit the frequency of lessons. However, at the beginning of the relationship, a higher frequency is important to reach a successful level of communication, so price is a factor.
  • Finally, this last criteria is surprisingly critical to me. When I train my horses away from the watchful gaze of my trainer, I often hear his voice and guidance in my head. Therefore, his voice and words need to be of a quality which I am happy to have bouncing around in my head for many hours between lessons.

Last summer, I had developed a short list of potential trainers to consider. However, it was through a series of shows that I had several opportunities to observe another dressage rider, someone I did not know anything about, in action. She was not just competing in the same shows as I, but was also handling young horses (I'm currently working two youngsters who were born on my farm), cleaning stalls, and interacting with her clients.

We exchanged polite hellos the second or third time we bumped into each other, as one sometimes does when recognizing a fellow competitor at consecutive shows, and eventually spoke briefly while riding our respective horses around the main competiton arena the evening before a show, she on a young horse, me on Piper.

My initial "Blink" reaction was completely positive. Watching her work with her horses fully supported it. Before winter set in, I contacted her, made an appointment, and trailered Piper 60 miles to her farm for one lesson. Just one. To see how it would go.

It went great. I selected a trainer. She accepted a new student.

This summer, we resumed lessons on a (mostly) weekly basis, weather and other interruptions permitting. It's still a new relationship, but it's progressing really well. Already, I can feel how my riding is evolving and where the guidance will take us. It's all good.

There are no self-help books on how to select a dressage trainer. Instead, each rider has to write their own book.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Back in the Saddle Again

Ever wonder why you ride?
Ever wonder what your life would be like without riding?
Ever imagine what you would be doing instead to fill your time?

Sometimes I wonder these kinds of things. And for one week, I got a taste of what that would be like. And it was not fun at all.

After a week of rest and cuperation, I climbed back up into the saddle. And, oh my, how great it felt!

So, if all goes well --- KNOCK WOOD !!! --- the competition season will now resume for me and the boy, and it will finish off nicely without further incidents. One can hope. Meanwhile.....

....Yippee!