Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Judge Training for the Rider

We've had our first frosts in New Hampshire. The horses are growing fuzzier by the day. And my two dressage partners, Piper & Jeddien, are both having a vacation from real training... for the moment.

Meanwhile, I have just returned from my first weekend of USDF "L" Education Program, Session A, in Vermont. The USDF "L" Education Program is the first rung of dressage judge training in the USA. It's much like the British Dressage Trainee Judge training program which I had been in before.

Why invest in judge training? Well, one, because I really do enjoy judging and in the USA, some states require that judges even at schooling shows have to be "L Program Graduates".

But more importantly, the L Education Program allows me, a dressage competititor, to better understand what judges are really looking for in a dressage test. And you know, as a competitor who wants to have fun AND win, the more I know about this unique sport, the better.

And, the best part ! ..... It's good fun !

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Closing 2008 With Great Success

Such a far cry from where we started the show season, Piper has truly grown as a competition dressage horse.

At his final competition of the year, Piper was a little star! His jockey, Kyle, had only ridden him a few times, and yet they looked as if they had been partners for a long time.

Earning two scores in the high 60's and 2nd place ribbons was super! But the best part was that, aside from a minor hestitation, Piper just got straight down to business. No spooking at sight of the judge's stand. No avoiding "C". No nervous behaviour. He just did the job.

Well done, Kyle! Well done, my little Piper Warrior!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Final Show Day for Piper

The last day of the big show. Sunday. Unlike Saturday, the rain stayed away. The morning was lovely. (Later that afternoon, however, it was Very Hot & Humid. Uncomfortable riding weather.) But for Piper who only had morning tests, the weather was wonderful.

Training Level Test 2 was our first class on Sunday. I like this test a lot. It flows easily, it allows canter transitions to happen within an area instead of at a letter, and it has trot diagonals which show off Piper's paces nicely. In a schooling show, Piper broke the 70% mark with this test.

However, on Sunday, as we started down the centerline, something happened. Suddenly, he was twitching and pinning his left ear, twisting his neck to escape whatever was annoying him. Amazingly, he tried to continue to pay attention to his rider, but it was difficult for him.

An hour and a half later, he had his next and last test of the show. Training Level Test 4. A 2009 Qualifier. For this, he was a star and I could not have been happier. He pulled off a 67.2%, a mere 0.8% from the Open / Professional Rider's Training Level qualifier score. He earned 2nd Place.

And with that, Piper had completed 5 tests at the NEDA Fall Festival of Dressage, with an average score of 64.18%. Very nice. But more importantly, he grew up quite a bit in the four days. And that was great!

Next stop: MRF Dressage in October for one last schooling show in 2008.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Jeddien Does Well, Too!

Meanwhile, by the close of Saturday evening, Jeddien has also completed a few tests. She came 5th in the 3rd Level Sweepstakes, winning $50. She also came 7th in the USDF Region 8 3rd Level Open Championships with a 61%. The class was won by Ann Gribbons with a 67%. And maybe best of all, Jeddien pulled off a 60% score for 4th Level Test 2, a test which pushes her to her current limits.

One cool thing about the NEDA Fall Festival of Dressage show is that they use FoxVillage.COM software and website for their show entries. This means that all of our results are posted online.

It also allows dressage fans to scrutinize scores given by each judge instead of just seeing the final scores... often a source of conversation back in the barn. It is sometimes difficult to understand how 2, 3, or 5 judges watching the same test can give very different scores, but that is part of the nature of subjective sports.

But along with subjectiveness, the dressage competitor also gets 7 minutes of an expert's full attention, their impressions, and their commentary. It is all a good thing.

3 Tests Later

Thursday evening, after the day of competition closed, we were able to school in the competition arenas. We were thrilled to see that judge booths were no longer an issue. And so we just schooled.

Friday morning, Piper and I followed another horse across the bridge and over to the most distant warmup arena were we had a good warmup. We did our walking squares and lots of transitions. Then we headed over to the competition arena were we put in a decent test.

Saturday morning, Piper's eyes were NOT on stalks any longer. He still looked for a lead past the scariest things, but seemed to be looking and taking things in instead of worrying about everything. It felt like a little breakthrough. I was pleased.

The warmup went okay. And the test went well. So, for the first three tests, Piper earned 62, 65, and 68.

3 tests later, sure, we have more work to do. But at this stage, the smile on my face says it all. Piper Warrior has come a long way this weekend and I could not be happier!

Show Time!

And so, here we are in Saugerties, New York at the NEDA Fall Festival of Dressage. Both Piper and Jeddien travelled beautifully and settled into their stalls without problems.

Thursday morning, Piper was up first at 8:24 am for Training Level Test 1. With my own heart pounding louder than usual, we followed Georg across the wooden bridge, past the farrier & vet station, and along the groomed horse path past the vendor tents and sponsor banners to the warmup area. Poor Piper had eyes on stalks as he was bombarded with an overwhelming number of new sights and sounds. But as long as Georg was in front of him, he followed.

In the warmup arena, Piper felt the pressure was off and was able to settle down to do some work. It was promising.

Venturing to the competition arena was easier. 4 of the 6 arenas are clustered together. A gathering place for horses, spectators, and golf carts. Golf carts are not an issue. And people and horses are a comfort to him. So, once near the arenas, he breathed again.

To avoid setting Piper up for failure or stress, we followed Georg past the judge's booth before starting our circuit around the arena. No problem. And the test, with exception to a little spooking near C, went well. Piper earned 62% at his first test at the NEDA Fall Festival of Dressage competition. More importantly, he coped.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Walking Squares with Two Days to Go

Piper's first class at the big New England Dressage Association Fall Dressage of Dressage is on Thursday morning at 8:24. Training Level Test 1. An hour later, I ride Jeddien at Third Level Test 2. The rest of the day is wide open. I'll probably volunteer a few hours of my time to help the NEDA team.

Two days and counting.

Piper was a little star today. He worked well indoors. Today, we did quite a bit of walking squares. These are 12 to 15 metre squares with corners done via the turn on the forehand movement. Snappy reactions to my aids while staying on the bit are what I'm looking for in this work. And I got it.

This work then helps make Piper more responsive to my inside leg, allowing me to quietly push him out more in the canter circles, preventing him from falling in, which he sometimes will do to the left.

Good canter work. Obedient reactions. And so we went for a quick trail ride, the long way around to the outdoor arena.

At the outdoor arena, he spooked a little when riding right up to the judge's tent, which I have to admit is looking pretty tatty after all the wind storms of late, but he was rideable. And that is the only purpose for the tent. It is destined to go in the trash before the first snows.

After a few minutes walking back and forth past the tent, we rode Training Level Test 1. Really well. I was so pleased.

And so, with only two days left to go, I rode Piper back to the barn with a true sense of calm I rarely feel with him. It felt good. I leaned forward, kissed his neck, and told him he's going to be my next dressage star.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

7 Days to Go

Next week this time, we will have completed our first day of competition at the NEDA Fall Festival of Dressage. But that's still 7 days away.

And so we continue training. Transitions, little trail rides, test patterns under the shadow of our scary "judge tent", and night time walks down the driveway.

How Piper will behave on the day is an unknown. But in the leadup, he is getting better and better to ride. Canter work improves. Transitions improve. And playing around with variations in trot tempos have resulted in Piper showing improved submission and response to my aids.

7 days to go. It feels like it is approaching too quickly. And yet it also feels like it is months away.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Snappy Canter Transitions

Summer is zipping by.

This may seem especially true thanks to having a full time job, the garden beckoning on weekends, afternoon thunderstorms, the Beijing 2008 Olympics inviting us all to stay glued to our computers and televisions, and BBQs.

Actually, what more could one want? :-)

Thanks to engine troubles, we failed to get to the University of New Hampshire August dressage show. We were ready. But without wheels, we stayed home. Instead, I weeded the garden.

Meanwhile, Piper's canter work continues to improved in leaps and bounds. (Occasionally including leaps and bounds.) He now transitions into canter immediately upon feeling an outside leg aid. His transitions feel snappy. Whether from the trot, the walk, or a halt, he now fully understands that the canter aid means "canter now". Instead of me giving the aid and thinking, "okay, he'll start cantering... now... or maybe now... or, OH, there's the canter!", we just go into canter. And it's a good canter. Forward, round, obedient.

The difference in Piper's understanding and response is one difference between Training Level (UK Preliminary Level) and First Level (UK Novice Level). Snappy, obedient responsiveness to the aids is expected at First Level.

This little difference is a big step for me, the rider. Instead of feeling like I'm tactfully training & navigating a green horse, I now I feel like I'm in partnership with an up & coming dressage horse.

It's a small thing. It's a big thing.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Picture Perfect

Georg got some great photos of Piper at the MRF Dressage schooling competition last week. View here on PicasaWeb.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

18 Minutes

Today, Piper and I enjoyed a day at MRF Dressage in Nottingham, NH, at a schooling show. The facilities were perfect for the event. The environment was low key. The organisers and fellow competitors were all friendly and upbeat despite the warmth and humidity.

But, once again, Piper wanted nothing to do with the judge's booth! It took following Mary, another dressage rider, walking in front of Piper past the cute little gazebo in which the judge and scribe sat for him to find his bravery. Even then, it was with quiet snorts.

But, in the end, he entered the ring, did the test whilst avoiding getting too close to C (nearest the judge). But he did the test.

The second and third rides, he went past the judge without a lead, but with hesitation and snorts. Progress. And best of all, during the third test, he snuggled right up against C towards the end of the test without resistance or extreme coaxing.

Score wise, once again Piper demonstrated the dilemma. Scores were 67, 70, and 73. Granted, it was a schooling show, but the judge is "L" rated, so they should be fairly accurate within 5%. It is difficult for a trained rated judge to modify their scoring. Anyway, the dilemma. He doesn't always enter the arena. But when he does, and when he is good, he gets lots of 7's and 8's. 3's and 4's for spooking, 7's and 8's for when he is paying attention. He is one of those horses who, when he gets it all together, will get big scores.

To top of the day, Piper "self-loaded" into the trailer for lunch while I stayed to the left side of the ramp. Later, after our final ride, he self-loaded again, but then unloaded, reloaded, unloaded, reloaded, quite a few times.... I think he sees life as a series of games... But we didn't mind. It was the first time he had self-loaded at a show. More good progress.

Thanks go to Michelle and family and team for a lovely schooling competition. It was a pleasurable day out, and at just over an hour away, a venue we will visit again in the future.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Moonlight Serenade

Yesterday was hot, humid, and borderline horrible for riding. But by 8pm, after the horses had eaten dinner, as the sun was sinking down behind the trees and a full moon was rising in the east, things had cooled down quite a bit.

Starting indoors, Piper and I worked on suppling exercises and transitions. Then we ventured outside, into the cooler evening air.

Piper marched right down the driveway, approached the outdoor arena, did not so much as look twice at the tent at C, entered the arena, and was ready to work! Amazing really.

So, with no bugs, a moon and malibu lights for lighting, we worked on our trot to canter and canter to trot transitions.

Somewhere in the past few sessions, we have magically made the shift from the temporary canter aid I needed to use in May to the canter aid I want to use. Outside leg only. A quick swinging tap with my lower leg. Straight body, straight rider. Balance. Forward. Instant canter. Fabulous.

Hacking back to the barn in the moonlight, I fell in love with the black horse once again.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Trail Riding & Stubborn Streaks

Our outdoor dressage arena now sports a screened tent, placed a mere metre away from "C". Piper has somewhat gotten used to it, but still goes through a period of hesitation and refusal before moving forward. So more work is needed.

Meanwhile, however, we have also been working on mileage and his ability to just keep moving forward. How? Trail riding!

Sunday, we went on a 3+ hour trail ride, the longest one so far, with some friends. Since we have a shortage of riding trails, most of the ride involved walking on the road. However, a good couple miles was on mountain snowmobile trails near Mount Kearsarge.

Piper's stubborn streak reared its ugly little head a few times. While leading the ride, he would suddenly decide to stop, turn around, and "head home". To get him to continue forward, another horse would have to take the lead.

This occasional stubborn behaviour seems to be part of his character and shows in other ways as well, and shows up even when doing things as routine as lifting a hoof for cleaning. The challenge is to get past these stubborn moments... quickly...

In the case of a dressage test, that means within 20 seconds. Work continues.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Adjusting the Goals

The USDF Region 8 Dressage Competition Season whizzes by awfully quick in, especially for those who get started in April.

Actually, the season goes from mid-August to mid-August. Yes, August. And the USDF Championships are in September. However, between October and April, there are no competitions. Dressage shuts down for the winter in New England, New York, and New Jersey.

Piper and I started training for competition in April, a mere 11 weeks ago. With the USDF Region 8 calendar being what it is, we have a very limited number of local competitions to enter. Unfortunately, of those, we failed to get into the two closest ones. Our entry never arrived at one. The other was filled before closing.

And, considering that Piper's behaviour at his first 2 competitions was much greener than expected, we have revisited our goals. Earning a ticket to the 2008 USDF Region 8 Championships with Piper is no longer a goal.

New 2008 Season Goal: 1 hour of competition arena time

At an average of 6 minutes per test, that's 10 tests. And so, we are now entering schooling shows as well as USDF recognised shows. And, even though there are not enough local opportunities to qualify in 2008, Piper will be in Saugerties at the Fall Festival anyway, competing in the Open Show while Jeddien competes in the USDF Region 8 3rd Level Open Championships.

Piper won't know the difference. :-)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Piper's First USDF Scores

Piper finally posted his first USDF Training Level scores. A 3 day weekend at Mystic Valley Hunt Club in Connecticut really threw Piper into the deep end of the pool, forcing him to sink or swim. And swim, he did !

MVHC ran with 3 rings. Rings 2 and 3 had the judges sitting in pretty little gazebos. Ring 1 had the judges sitting in simple functional booths.

We missed Piper's first scheduled class of the day due to a pulled shoe. But we were back in action in time for his second class.... In Ring 1. He warmed up fine on the grass next to the ring and was calm. But when we started our circuit around the arena before the bell, he paniced, spun, did little rears, backed up, and was soon eliminated. I unmounted, walked him past the judge, apologised, left the area, remounted, and went to work in the big crowded warm up area.... which happens to also have a lovely little gazebo at "C".

Our last ride of the day was in Ring 3, and we got through it. Amazing. And so the weekend was well underway.

We did 3 more rides on Saturday, one in each ring, and 3 more on Sunday. While Rings 2 & 3 never caused him to worry, Ring 1 was still posing a challenge. Thanks to Friday and Saturday evening open ring schooling sessions, Piper came to grips with the setup. Or so we thought. However, the last ride of the weekend was in Ring 1 and he again refused to go near the judge at C during the warmup before the bell. But we got through the test, none-the-less, and that was progress.

Over the 3 days, Piper completed 7 tests. We have sheets from 5 different judges with individual sheet scores ranging from 56.000% to 68.929%. Final USDF scores (some of which are averaged between 2 judges) are posted here on Fox Village.

So, overall, a good start, but now one thing is obvious. Piper needs to learn that when the rider says, "Do this now", the only right response is to say, "Yes, Mamam! Right away!".

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Heat Wave

Few words put shivers down my back as fast as "Heat Wave". I'm not a big fan of extreme heat. And that, of course, is exactly what New England is experiencing right now. Temperatures have been pushing right up against the 100 degree Fahrenheit mark for 3 days running. Humidity has been in the "oppressive" range.

All of our horses have been outside during the day, knowing enough to seek shelter from the sun at the hottest hours. Some of them instinctively stand with their tails to the wind when a slight breeze kicks up. Some stay under the trees. Some prefer the turnout sheds. Meanwhile, the rider has been hiding indoors as much as possible, sitting in the only air-conditioned room in the house... My office.

Piper's dressage training has been put on hold... But will resume when the weather becomes kinder to horse & rider. Meanwhile, I hear the promise of thunder rumbling in the distance. Maybe we will get some relief tonight!

Monday, June 2, 2008

Protecting Dressage Horses

Every so often, I hear some people imply that dressage horses should be "wrapped in wool", kept in the stable 24 hours a day except when being trained, never turned out, and protected from the "dangers" of trail riding.

For our own horses, these are simply not options. And this means that, spooky & timid as he can be at times, Piper goes trail riding.

This weekend, after a working session in a very noisy indoor arena being pummeled by strong winds, we ventured out alone onto the trails. Needless to say, the trees were whipping & crackling and things were scary from his perspective. After a fairly good spook, my husband Georg climbed into the saddle and I jumped onto our Honda ATV....

.... Piper followed me & the ATV around on the trails, happy to see his bright red four wheeled big brother leading the way. A comical sight, no doubt, but yet another opportunity for Piper to grow and be more than just a dressage horse. He was a good boy.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

9 Tests

Today, the entry for Piper's next competition was sent out. Over $700 worth.

We are headed to a 3 day show, with plans of arriving the day before the show starts so that we can take advantage of ring access prior to the competition.

The USDF allows a maximum of 3 dressage tests per day, so that's what I entered. 9 tests all together. Training Level Tests 1, 2, and 4... everyday. And for each T4 test, we paid the extra $10 just in case we actually enter the arena, stay in the arena for the duration of the test, and earn the whooping 68% required to get a qualifying score.

MEANWHILE, our other dressage horse, Jeddien, completed her qualification for the 3rd Level Open USDF Region 8 Championships. So, we are going to Saugerties NY in September. Question remains....

Will Piper be going with us? That is the plan. Or at this point, the dream.....

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Play Time!

Taking off the pressure, tonight was about Play Time! Piper loves to free lunge and jump and tonight, that's exactly what was on the menu.

Put a jump in the arena and Piper goes straight for it. No hesitation. No need to drive or direct him. He just sets his sights and gets down to business. Free jumping with complete ease, varying strides, never missing, never hitting, and often over a metre in height. His little ears and self controlled impulsion say it all. He's playing.

Of course, being a sweetie, he comes looking for praise and treats. It's so easy to have a giggle while giving him a pat, share a mint, then send him away to earn the next mint.

Play time. Or, as some will call it, cross training. Whatever. The point is that Piper's overall training program is not just about dressage. It's about being a horse having fun.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Malibu Lights

Yup, Malibu lights. That's the latest scary monster for Piper.

This weekend, we put Solar powered Malibu lights around the outdoor arena. Lights at each letter. It looks pretty cool!

For many years, I have ridden Jeddien outside in the dark. I find that riding in the dark, with less visual stimulous, it is easier to focus on balance and feel. We have done many hours of training after sunset. But Piper's night work was limited to walking up and down the driveway...

... Until tonight.

Leading him down to the arena, he was calm and happy. Horses can see better than us in the dark and he knows the lay of the land. Lunging, all was going well at the walk. But trotting must have gotten his blood up. Suddenly he "noticed" the light at B, stopped dead in his tracks, spun, and started backing up. And so began the real training.

Time and work progressed nicely. To one direction. Then, since horses are unable to reason that what was safe to the right will be safe to the left, he spooked all over again going the other way. So we worked some more.

When he was completely and utterly calm on the lunge, I got on. With a bit of insistance on my part, we got past the last couple of spooks and then did some very nice 20 metre trot circles and trots along the long side, passing each Malibu light as if we'd been doing so for years.

Next, our new judge's canopy styled screen tent goes up. That's gonna be exciting!

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Debut

After one more successful training session with Piper, the weekend arrived... the weekend of his show debut.

Saturday, Jeddien competed first. With blowing winds, flapping judge tents, and a snapping flag overhead, she managed to put in a good showing. We won the 3rd Level Test 3 class with a qualifying score and came third at 4th Level Test 1 with a score that gets me a step closer to my USDF Silver Medal.

Sunday, the wind continued and the warmup was busy. So I decided to avoid the big warmup area and warmed up in the quieter staging area in front of the 4 arenas. Piper was a little star! He was coping much better than we expected him to. And he stood quietly at the end of our arena, watching the lovely coloured cob mare and her rider who rode before us.

But when it came time for him to enter the arena, he was having NOTHING to do with it. He was totally panicky over the idea of approaching the judge's tent.

After elimination for failing to even reach X for the initial halt, we moved to the big warmup area. The FEI horses were warming up. Horses were passaging and pirouetting while we walked, spiraling closer and closer to the end of the area where the concessions were placed. More tents.

It took an hour. But by the end, Piper was coping with the environment. And so, instead of risking having our second test result in another failed entry, we decided to end the day on a very good note.

Horses are interesting creatures. In demonstrations, Piper has happily walked over and even worn large blue plastic tarps that would scare even the calmest of horses. But, that is because he was slowly introduced to tarps over a period of 15 or 20 minutes. Given time and space, Piper learns to accept things.

But in a show situation, horses have only a couple minutes to accept a new dressage arena setting. They need to accept that the rider is putting them into a safe environment. This is where work with Piper needs to continue.

We learned a lot about Piper at this show. And, with exception to his panic attack, he actually was a pretty good boy. But there is lots of room for improvement. :-)

(Thanks go to Carole MacDonald of Equine Photography in Westboro MA for capturing these great moments with her camera !)

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Party Time Approaches

Sunday looms. Piper's first competition.

At this point, after a couple more sessions and satisfying work at home, my expectations for the Sunday competition at NEDA's Spring Dressage show are quite simple.

Get there. Cope. Survive the warmup. Present our tests. Use the show stabling without stress. Get home safely.

No, I'm not looking for certain scores. I'm not even terribly worried about whether we get all the transitions and movements called for in the tests. No. I just want a pleasant debut experience.

The final result: I want Piper to be okay with the whole first experience so that we can go out again and again throughout the 2008 season. THEN we will start to give the competition something to worry about. :-)

So for for now, we are just going to a party!

Monday, May 5, 2008

Frequent Flyer Miles

At this early stage in preparation for competition, Piper simply needs to do time working. Not hard work. And not overly stressful work. But he does need to put in his.... Mileage.

With Jeddien, my dressage partner of over 12 years, the last thing she needs is long haul mileage. Oh sure, like all horses, she needs a careful warmup of the muscles and suppling exercises. But after that, ring work involves reminders of what is expected of her. Her brain knows the work. Her muscles quickly remember the work. And even when she has had a month or two off, a good rider can climb on board, ask for, and get reasonable work from her without too much difficulty.

However, that is not the case with Piper. He does not have the experience, nor the miles of training that Jeddien has. He has not done thousands of transitions. He doesn't do 20, 15, and 10 metre circles in his sleep. He doesn't halt squarely and in balance out of sheer habit. And he does not yet know that he should be paying full attention to his rider until the segment of work is complete.

These are things that Piper, and all green dressage horses, have to learn as part of their dressage education towards competition.

For the rider, this is where patience and a good sense of humour comes in handy. Sure. When Piper is good, he can be wonderfully good. But, when he is acting like the less experienced green horse that he truly is... well.... it just makes one's eyes roll.

Lots of patience, lots of work, and lots of miles. It will all come together, in time. It always does.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

More Canter Work

Tonight, Piper and I worked more on the canter. In nearly each session we have, he gets a little bit better. But tonight, we hit a nice little milestone...

...I could get after him for losing the canter without him getting upset and having a reaction OTHER than getting back into canter. And with each correction, he got better and more consistent in the canter. His willingness and ability to hold the canter until I asked for a return to trot also improved.

Sometimes these little things are really quite big. For a novice horse, this was good progress. A lot of mints were munched tonight. :-)

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Perfect Fit

In the 1980's, while living in the Los Angeles area and first learning about dressage, I was like many less experienced riders who purchased saddles pretty much based solely on how they felt when we sat in them in the tack store. Brands selected had more to do with who else was using that brand than what the saddle offered. And so, I went through the same brands as many others in my area. County Competitor. Crosby. Passier. Albion.

It was all about equestrian fashion in the dressage world.

Later, after I moved to England, I gained a great appreciation for the art of saddle fitting after having encountered problems with a poorly fitting saddle on a young horse. And accordingly, I now ensure that all of my horses' saddles fit well and comfortably. Their comfort is key to successful & happy work.

Today, I ride primarily in Wintecs. I like being able to change the tree width instead of buying a new saddle as my horse grows & develops. And the price makes it much less painful to purchase a saddle for each horse, a saddle which will be custom fitted for each individual. I also like not worrying so much about riding in the rain.

But, I still have my saddles custom fitted and checked regularly. This is important. Tomorrow, even though the last fitting was only mere months ago, our fat unfit competition horses will be seen again by top saddler Anthony Cooper for checks of their saddles. And then we'll do it again, later in the show season as they become more fit.

I've learned the hard way that a little investment in saddle fitting is a helluva lot cheaper than the costs of having to deal with sore backs caused by ill-fitting saddles. So, I view tomorrow as a money saving investment.

Saturday, April 26, 2008


If there is anything predictable about horses, it is their unpredictability.

Competing with a green, inexperienced horse, this unpredictability easily becomes a distraction for the rider. Instead of focusing on a test or a specific movement, the rider also has to maintain an extra high level of awareness of the environment and things that might distract the novice horse. Or worse yet, things that might cause him to spook, run out, or decide he has an excuse to completely misbehave.

Many agree that competition itself is the best way to get a horse used to competition. Nothing like the real thing. However, anything to help prepare the horse before competition is always a good thing.

Today, while training outdoors, the horses in the two nearby pastures decided to play up. One minute they were all quietly grazing. The next, their tails were up, they were racing up and down the fence line, and there was a lot of snorting & kicking.

"Oh, oh. This is it!", I thought. "Piper is going to lose it." But bless his little hooves! He looked, hesitated, started to react, but then got back to business as soon as I gave him an assertive squeeze and a verbal reminder to pay attention. The horses continued to play up for a minute, then peace returned. And Piper was fine.

The chickens provided the next distraction, venturing closer and closer than usual to the arena. Again, Piper looked, but kept working. Next, a car came down the driveway. Then the dog came to rest by "C". Lots of distractions today and yet nothing that stopped the work.

Piper is showing the early development of a good work ethic. How absolutely fabulous!

Two weeks and counting to our first show.....

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Work Life Horse Balance

I have failed to mention so far that while I am considered a "Professional" horsewoman and competitor in the eyes of the United States Equestrian Federation, and that is in contrast to holding "Amateur" status, I actually do not fill my days doing horsey things as some "Professionals" do.

Engaging in equestrian activities all day might be interesting, although I imagine it would be much more harder work than I am accustomed to. You see, I actually have a full time desk job. In fact, I have been in the computer industry since 1976.

Working with computers as a programmer, a service technician, a support engineer, in various management roles, and now as a Director with Sun Microsystems, has helped support my horsey habit.

Now, what does all that have to do with getting to the USDF Championships?

Well, my work life is one part of the whole balancing act. Balancing work, home life, and horses. It's a balancing act that many amateur and professional dressage riders alike must learn to perform.

Last week, I spent most of the week in California on a business trip. That meant no training. No riding. No progress. It meant shifting to what I call "Weekend Warrior" mode. Riding on the weekends only. Ugh.

And this week, I took a few days off from work in order to spend a lot of time with my 2 year old colt. Trailer training for two days. Trailering him over to TNT Equine to be gelded. Picking him up the next day. Hand walking. Hosing down. Extra stall cleanings. Tons of hours just slipped away.

As the youngster recovers with box rest, his neighbor and buddy Piper is staying indoors with him. They play, nibble, and talk over the short stable walls. So for a couple days, it looks Piper is having a wee bit more vacation. Tomorrow night, however, we are back to training.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Outdoor Practice

Piper's only two dressage competitions, which were many years ago, were both at Merrist Wood College near Guildford in the UK. Merrist Wood sports one of the largest indoor arenas in the UK, at 30 x 90 metres in size. This comfortably holds two 20 x 40 metre dressage arenas, allowing for two lower level classes to be run indoors concurrently. Since Piper was stabled at Merrist Wood, it was "home turf". He was comfortable there.

So, in two and a half weeks, Piper will be competing outdoors for the first time. So, accordingly, this week, we had our first outdoor session in our own 20 x 60 metre arena. This is in view of the road, in view of traffic travelling up and down the driveway, and in view of two pastures. So, there is usually something for a lookie-loo kind of horse to get distracted by.

Fortunately, Piper was interested in getting raises, pats, and mints, and was on his best most attentive behaviour. This is not the same level of dedicated work mode as Jeddien, but it will do.

Now to do lots more of the same. Like it says on the shampoo bottles... Rinse. Repeat.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Piper the School Horse

Friday night, we repeated the work of the night before. Much to my delight, I found that I could get nice round trot to canter transitions immediately on demand via a quick series of aids. A shift in my weight, a little more inside bend, inside leg forward, outside leg quiet, no pressure applied. While not the final aids I want, they will do for the moment to help make the transitions more reliable. Shifting to new aids will come with time.

After I rode Piper, I asked a student if she wanted to try him. She had ridden very well in a lesson earlier and stayed to watch me work Piper. So, why not?

Piper has had many riders over the years. He has been ridden bareback at all gaits by one of our staff, hacked on the trails, schooled over small jumps, and done a bit of dressage training with me. However, he is not "push button" nor can he be called a schoolmaster. Anyone riding him has to have a fair level of skill to be successful.

So, this young woman, after only a moment of deliberation, agreed to try him out. And sure enough, what a star he was!

Piper works in a big fat KK "nugget" bit, the same one I started him in. He has the softest mouth I've ever felt and likes to go round on soft contact. Consistent with this, he gave the rider a lovely feel in the trot and a wonderful image in the mirror for her to enjoy.

But maybe best of all, when she asked for a little less trot, she was able to find a trot that allowed her to discover more about how to successfully sit the trot. She was able to feel his hind legs reaching under her, lifting, and pushing. She was able to follow his back and suddenly found herself sitting the trot instead of bouncing the trot.

And I got to see Piper in motion under a dressage rider. What a pretty picture!

Canter Work

I remember the first time I cantered with Piper when he was 3 years old. Unlike his trot, which always seemed to be so well balanced, his canter was all over the place. So, we waited several more months to let him grow up some more before trying to do more on the canter.

To say he has the canter of a young horse would not be far from the truth. Many who see him can easily imagine him being ready to compete 2nd Level... until we canter. That 's when they can see just how green he really is.

In Training Level, the canter must be presented. Transitions from trot to canter are done between letters. Canter transitions at the letters are not required until First Level. And canter work at Training Level is kept to 20 metre circles and short straight lines. No diagonals. No complete long sides. Less chances to get "run away with". Training Level tests are designed to have pretty safe canter work for the true Training Level horse.

However.... it still depends upon your horse & his training.

Piper's early canter work included bucking and kicking into canter right. To the left, he was usually pretty reliable. Of course, like many horses, he would fall back into trot or sometimes cross canter. But to the right, his stiffer side, he would often show his objection to the aids.

So, as part of his re-training to prepare for competition, a LOT of trot to canter transition work will be needed. And a lot of finesse from the rider when asking for canter right.

In our 3rd session, which was last Thursday, we did a lot of transitions after warming up at walk & trot, leg yielding and shoulder in positioning as usually. Then, we started our canter work.

Jan Hansen, a well known Dutch trainer and fabulous early influence in my dressage training in the 1980's, once asked me during a clinic why he always had me start our sessions travelling to the left. I admitted that I did not know why. He replied that one has to start in SOME direction, so he chose left.

This made me laugh, and still does today. But he also cursed me in a way, as more than 20 years later, I still ask myself the same question when I get on the horse. Which way will I start and why?

In our warmups at walk & trot, our direction is constantly changing. Serpentines, half circles, teardrops, leg yields. But when the real work begins, it is decision time.

With Piper, I always start his work to the left. Not because Jan started our lessons to the left, but because Piper is better, more supple, and easier to get into "work mode" to the left. And getting him into a happy work mode is important for a productive session.

So, starting to the left (easy direction first) on a 20 metre circle, we went round and round, doing half a circle in trot, half a circle in canter. Over and over. Again and again. Transitions at the same spot every time... over the centerline.... so to avoid using the wall as a crutch.

Now... maybe because Piper is not brave, he seems to thrive on such predictable, repetitive, yes even boring, work. After a few circles of the same thing over and over, he anticipates the transitions and prepares himself for them. He goes into the canter easily, then drops into a trot with more balance and confidence with each circuit of the 20 metre circle. It's great. My job is to show him the aids I want to use, support him with my voice (for now) and praise him for being such a clever horse.

After dizzying work to the left, time for a mint and a walk.

Then, we did the same to the right. Predictable. Uneventful. Obedient. Imperfect, but sufficient for now. Low pressure is still the key. With Piper, confidence & connection to me as his rider are the most important foundation building blocks needed if we want to be successul.

With a full winter coat which is only now starting to shed out, I make it a point not to get Piper sweated up. But, we both got warm enough that night! And so after some good quiet work, we ventured out into the dark night, hacking down the driveway and back, and cooled down a bit. I think we both felt pretty good about the work. And when we got back to the barn, Piper's eyes had that look horsemen know, appreciate, and find difficult to express to non-horsemen... You know the look... Soft happy equine eyes.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The First Two Sessions

The First Session

Getting started. The day I chose to get started in my training program with Piper, the winds were blowing from the west, gusting over 25 mph. Now, I have nothing against wind. But the sounds it can create when slamming into the 170 foot long west facing wall of the indoor arena are pretty impressive. And when the wind causes the big doors on the south side to flex and swing a little bit, it adds to the overall ambience.

Piper does not like these things. And, since he was already feeling a bit on his toes from not being ridden in a few weeks, he spooked a couple times, and even kicked out at the door when it flexed inwards while we were trotting by... even though we were a good 20 feet away from it.

But, otherwise, the first session was fairly good. We reconnected a little. We walked around. Trotted. Did a bit of leg yielding in the walk. And we stopped and listened to the wind... during which I tried to comfort Piper and tell him he was safe.

"Here, Piper. Have a mint. Everything is okay. Try to relax."

Piper is not the bravest horse I know. For example, he is the only horse in the barn who won't eat during heavy rainstorms. He stands wide eyed listening to the deafening noise of the rain pounding on the metal roof. He wants pats and comforting. And often gets it.

So, our first 20 minute session was a little bit of a test, but a chance to reconnect.

The Second Session

That evening, the winds died down after the sun had set. So, I saddled Piper and rode him a second time. This time, he was much more attentive, interested in work, and happy.

Again, we walked and trotted, then moved on to leg yielding and shoulder-in positioning.

Moving away from pressure is something I teach horses as soon as possible. It starts with the ground work. Preferably right after birth. Both of my 2 year olds know the aid to move over. They know the words "move over" and know the touch of a hand (or the occasional pointed finger when needed) where my leg will one day rest when I ride them. Leg yield comes easily to horses trained this way and helps facilitate the lateral work, bending, and suppleness early on. All good things for the dressage horse.

So, that evening, Piper worked nice and quietly. Politely & happily. And, as done in the morning, we only worked for 20 minutes. Long enough to do just a little work, avoid sweating up, enjoy a few mints, and keep it all stress free.

Might not sound like much "training" going on, but with Piper Warrior, whose name is bigger than his bravery, 40 minutes of TLC from a rider on his back is an investment in the work sessions to come.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Setting A Big Goal

Like many dressage riders, I work best with a target in sight... A goal. The goal can be a specific movement, a certain feel, a certain behaviour, a date on the calendar, or a milestone in the training program.

This week, I created a goal. A really BIG GOAL. In this case, it is a competition on the USDF Region 8 calendar. I entered Piper into his first competition in the USA, his first competition since he was a young horse, and his first competition outdoors. No pressure. :-)

The competition is May 11th at the NEDA Spring Dressage Competition in Marshfield, MA. We entered Training Level Tests 1 & 4.

The goal is multifaceted, as many are. It includes:
  • Getting to the show without incident
  • Surviving the warmup without Piper panicking about other horses
  • Getting into the competition ring without trouble
  • Completing at least 1 of the 2 tests successfully
  • Getting home safely
All joking aside, it is important to remember that Piper is a timid horse who, despite being 11 years old on May 12th, has the training & competition experience of a youngster.

To help ELIMINATE as many unknowns as possible, I will be competing at the same show the day before with Jeddien. We will contest 3rd Level Test 3 and 4th Level Test 1. More importantly, I'll be able to scope out the showgrounds, figure out where to park, settle into the environment, and then be able to bring Piper down the next day knowing what's what.

So, step one done. We have a BIG Goal.

Next, on to training !!!!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Meet Piper Warrior

"Piper Warrior". It's a strange name for a horse, a fabulous name for an airplane. :-) But when Piper was inported as a 2 year old from Holland to the UK, I was a student pilot. As a KWPN Dutch Warmblood with no registered name other than "P", like so many other 1997 foals, Piper was named after the aircraft in which I was training.

My goal. To fly with Piper.

The reality. He sent me flying... to the ground a couple times. Then he spent a couple years off due to various illnesses and injuries. And so, because he's so sweet, he became a pet more than anything else.

But before his extended early "retirement", he was a little star at a Christine Stuckelberger clinic as a 4 year old, competed with me at Preliminary Level at 5 years old, and half qualified for the British Novice Championships with Robert Pickles, FBHS, later that year.

Now, Piper is just getting back to serious work after several years off..... with the goal of competing and earning a ticket to the Championships. But first, we have to compete and do well. And for Piper, who is basically a shy horse, just going to a competition is gonna be a big challenge in itself.

The Road to the USDF Championships

In September 2008, I plan to compete at the United States Dressage Federation Region 8 Championships. Now, considering that I have not ridden in any qualifiers for the 2008 season, this is a helluva statement to make.

And the primary basis of this new blog.

It is here that I invite my fellow dressage enthusiasts, riders, competitors, and wannabees to read the "Travel Logs" of my journey on the road to the 2008 USDF Region 8 Championships.

Welcome along for the ride!