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!