Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Joys of Hacking

One of the things that I love about my barn is the access we have to a fabulous network of trails. A short ride through a neighborhood sub-division to the trail head and there is miles and miles of conservation land, with beautiful groomed trails that are maintained by a local snowmobile club. The trails are perfect for a relaxing, meandering ride, for a long sets of trotting, cantering over varying terrain, bits of gallop, a small stream to cross if you want to get your horse used to passing through water, plenty of up and down hills to build fitness and balance, there is even a vast orchard at the end of one trail with hills and open fields and sweeping 360° views ... We really do have access to a little bit of everything on our trails.

Living in New England, however, we do have to cope with quite a bug season during a good part of the Summer. Flies and gnats and mosquitos are one thing, the deer flies are another. When the deer flies are at their thickest, the only way to really negotiate the trails is at a canter and gallop. Anything slower and your horse is just completely swarmed. This has its own element of fun because, during this part of the season, I have to be a bit inventive about the route I take so that I can go at the right pace the whole way to escape the bugs.  There is a fair shot down to a hard-packed sand parking lot that is ideal for a good gallop. It usually takes me about 3-3.5 minutes of galloping on that part of the trail and then in the middle of the trip I would throw in 3-4 5-minute trot sets (with a couple of minutes of walking in between) in the sand lot. Between the walk up & back though the sub-division, the canter through the bit of trail at the trail head, trot down the steep trail to the "gallop" trail, 3-3.5 minutes down to the sand lot, my series of trot sets and the gallop back up the trail (and up the steep hill), it is a fair ride in a pinch. Ruby has certainly enjoyed it. (I did get a little tired of the tediousness of the parking lot trot sets though). And so I managed to make it work during the worst of the bug season while also very much enjoying the fact that I am comfortable enough with my horse to hack her out and gallop down the trail alone.

Happily, about a week or so ago I happened to go out for a trail ride and noticed that the deer flies were suddenly greatly, greatly reduced. Hallelujah! In the past week I have been able to: introduce a barn friend on his new horse to the trail system for quiet ride; a very energetic trot and canter set trail, just Ruby & me; and an exploring trail with another friend on Sunday when we had plenty of time. And so hack & trail season can begin again with a big variety of possible rides in any given week. I think it is so important to intersperse the hacking days with the schooling days in the ring. I find that after a hacking day Ruby is so relaxed and more naturally forward. Working with the terrain changes helps build fitness and encourages the horse to learn how to carry herself at different gaits over uneven footing, up hill and down hill, and teaches me how to ride it as well.

In addition to the usual hacking benefits, I'll also sometimes throw in a little leg yielding and shoulder-in on the trail, I'll do some within-canter transitions and other flat work that we're schooling back in the ring. But one of my favorite things to work on during hacks are trot lengthenings. There is just something about an energetic hack that seems to encourage a great trot lengthen to happen organically, where in the ring it is just ... Not. Happening. It's wonderfully refreshing to just suddenly feel Ruby lift her back, reach down even more for the contact, engage her haunches and just switch into this ground-covering version of trot that I just can't seem to get in the ring (at least not yet). When I get this trot, I just go with it and enjoy. Now to learn how to translate it into the ring!

The other thing I enjoy about hacking is that I can relax about my own riding. I stop thinking about all the stuff that I can't do, or can't seem to do right. I don't think about position or effectiveness or how I don't feel my hands are elastic enough, or how I feel that my leg aids are not subtle or precise enough ... I just ride, and manage to feel reasonably competent while doing it too.

I would never want to replace Dressage or Stadium or Cross-Country for just hacking out in the woods, but I definitely feel that it has a very important place in my riding life and in Ruby's program. I'm very happy to have such great hacking options.

Monday, August 20, 2012


I mentioned before that I am going through a cycle of fear with my riding. Specifically with jumping. There is no real reason for it (at least this time around). Nothing bad has happened, I have not had a fall, or even (really) a terrible jumping round. No, I just haven't been jumping a lot and the less I jump, the more my fear grows. It's unreasonable, and even a bit nuts, but fear is a hard emotion to get a handle on.

I think I have my trainer convinced now that I can't handle anything "big" and that I hate to jump. This is not really true, however. What I hate is the anticipation of jumping. Once we're on course, I'm usually okay. I'm also better if I go earlier in the rotation, rather than later (if there are three or four people in the class, my nerves are much better if I jump first. If I jump last, I tend to start freaking out more). Once I start a course, however, I'm fairly calm and able to function okay. When I'm looking at a jump course and the jumps are relatively big ("big" for me means around 3 feet), I'll start to freak out, but once we start jumping, I seem to settle into the work. Actually, the bigger ones tend to jump a little nicer, so I might even relax a bit on course with larger fences. Oddly, I am the most relaxed when jumping cross-country. Jumping stadium courses in the ring, I tend to think and worry too much and just want to "get it over-with". Send me out in the field and I'm up for a nice gallop, jumping anything that gets in the way. After a jumping session, I usually feel pretty exuberant, excited that I did it, happy that it went well, a bit of an adrenalin rush. It feels great.

I think the fear is partially physical fear and partially a fear of failure. The physical side of this tends to ebb & flow with how much I’m jumping in any given season and how well it’s going (and, typically, the more I’m jumping, the better it tends to go, things are funny that way). But something I struggle with in many other parts of my life, in addition to riding, is the fear of failure. I can intellectualize the logic of my resistance to starting down an unsure path where success is not assured, but I really struggle with the emotions around this and the resulting inertia. I worry about failure, and so I don’t even try. I worry about looking foolish or stupid. I doubt myself and self-loathing rears its head. It sounds so simple and stupid, just put yourself out there, you don’t have to be perfect! I know, I know, I agree, but it’s just not that simple. It’s an extremely complicated and layered emotional thing. It’s a little easier to see the illustration with something like riding, since the physicality of the activity makes it a little more simple, more black & white, but it’s still there and a very real feeling that paralyzes my willingness to take chances.

Because of my fear issues, in addition to being pretty resistant to jumping in general, I have not been willing to sign up for any competition this year (there is a logistical and time component to this too, but the fear is probably the biggest element). I chickened out on an invitation to go to fox hunting (the opening hunt) this past weekend and I have chickened out on multiple opportunities to go cross-country schooling this Summer. Oddly enough, I have had absolutely no problem with motivating myself to go out hacking alone, including galloping down the trail. Maybe it’s because no one is watching? My horse has been so good in general, that I have reached a point where I really do trust her. I just need to trust myself more. In the meantime, my peers at the barn are all competing and advancing and all doing very well and I am completely left in the dust.

If I am to be honest with myself (and, really, if you can’t be honest on your blog, why even bother?) I will also have to admit that there is another component to my current fear issues. Being significantly overweight and out of shape wreaks havoc on my ability to ride well -- my physical ability to actually do the activity (let’s face it, the tighter and more athletic you are, the more solid and balanced you are going to be careening around a stadium jumping course, and the more solid & balanced you are, the more confident you’re going to feel overall). It also affects my perception of myself, my willingness to take a chance and put myself out there and out of my comfort zone, my concern for looking silly or ridiculous. Hell, when I feel that I am even more porked out than normal, even my willingness to meet new people or interact with people I already know is affected. It’s a vicious circle too. The more self-conscious I am, the more self-loathing sets in, the less likely I am to expose myself to activity and situations where I could look silly or ridiculous or not competent. So, I hide and don’t try new things or put myself out there in general, and of course my activity level decreases. Add to that a 50+ hour a week desk job and any willingness to pursue enough activity to make a dent in my fitness level really suffers. Most weekdays are crazy and I am committed to riding at least three workdays out of five (and both weekend days). I used to be able to schedule gym or running time on my lunch hours at work, but I now have so many lunchtime meetings and commitments, that it hasn’t been realistic in a long time. I am generally at work by 7 and I ride after work, home around 7:30-8 PM and in bed by 9. So there isn’t a lot of wiggle room on these days for fitting something else in (especially something in the mid-day when I will need a shower afterwards). What I must do, however, is make a commitment to do some other activity (running, yoga, spinning, even just a long walk with the dogs) on the days where I don't have riding commitments. Thursdays are a good target (I have lessons on Tuesday & Wednesdays and usually plan to ride on Mondays as well). If could just get myself to run or take a yoga class or go to the gym on Thursdays & Fridays and one day (in addition to riding) on the weekend, I think that would be a great start. It would also really help if could sleep better during the week and not be so unbelievably exhausted by Thursday. Okay, I’m making excuses. I just need to suck it up and make a plan.

A long and rambling post to my conclusions … I absolutely know what some of these things are that are holding me back, in life, in general, but in riding in particular. But how do I overcome them? That is really the meat of the problem. I can blather about it all endlessly, I can self-analyze with the best of them, but what I really need is a concrete action plan. Hmmm, more on this in future posts, I think …

Monday, July 30, 2012


I was streaming some of the NBC Eventing Dressage coverage from the Olympics yesterday and found myself quite inspired for a different reason than the inspiration I normally will get out of watching coverage of (for lack of a better term) "pure" Dressage, or even Eventing cross-country or stadium jumping. The Eventing Dressage seemed almost ... in my grasp. At least many of the movements are movements that I am already schooling, or thinking about with my horse. "Pure" Dressage is a pleasure to watch. But, let's face it, the odds that I will ever accomplish anything even approaching tempi changes, piaffe, passage, pirouettes, etc. are pretty remote. But Eventing Dressage at the Olympic level? Counter-Canter? We're almost ready to school this. Shoulder-In? Check (maybe not well-done, but we're working on it). Extended Canter? We're working on Medium now. Extended Trot. Not sure if Ruby will do Extended, but we're working on Lengthen Trot, and Extended is not outside the realm of my experience. Flying changes? I'm beginning to believe that could happen. Half Pass? Side Pass, anyway. All the movements I watched on the streaming coverage seemed familiar and even somewhat reachable (at least to a degree).

Grand Prix Dressage is an absolute joy to watch. But from a "pie-in-the-sky", not in my wildest dreams-type of perspective. Advanced Level (and, well, let's face it, anything over Training Level) Eventing cross-country or stadium? Same thing, jaw-dropping to watch, but completely out of my reach, of course. Eventing Dressage, in comparison, was almost comforting in how feasible it actually seemed.

Thus inspired, I blew off Sunday Galloping Day and decided to do some dressage schooling instead (I'm sure if Ruby had had a calendar to consult, she would NOT have been pleased).  After her usual warm-up, some shoulder-in at the walk and then some spirals at the walk, trot and canter, I worked on some change in gait at the trot and then at the canter. Her working-medium-working canter transitions to the left were very nice, to the right is still a bit shaky, but she is trying. To the right we did some more walk-canter transitions as I feel this will really help to strengthen her in this direction, and then also some more spiraling in and out at the canter. Finally, I waited until we had the ring to ourselves and I worked on some big leg-yielding at the canter. When I say "big", I mean that we turned down the long side close to the center-line and leg yielded all the way to the track. We did this a few times very nicely to the left and then we tried the broken-line exercise that we had worked on with Trainer earlier in the week. This also went very nicely, so I decided to try for the right side (always our wonky side). First we did the leg yield exercise and that went fairly well. Not as great as it was to the left, but again, she was trying. I had to use all my strength to support her, and use my inside leg correctly, and to try not to just muscle her over with my upper body. That is my challenge to the right with Ruby. Less rein, more leg. Less rein, more leg. Support with the outside rein, inside rein needs to be MINIMAL. And then we tried the broken line exercise. And, SUCCESS! It was not as nice as it was to the left, but I have to say that it was a solid effort, especially considering that we had to be pretty precise to avoid all the jumps set up in the ring. I decided to call the schooling a success and end on that positive note (after a little walk on a loose rein). Ruby is such a trooper.

And so, I have found very concrete and actionable inspiration out of these Olympics so far. It is always exciting to watch an international competition and to see something that you can actually do (or "almost" do). I mean, watching gymnastics or figure skating is fun sometimes but, I might as well be watching Cirq de Soliel or something. It's entertainment, but not something I can even remotely relate to. Watching Eventing cross-country will be exciting and I can perhaps relate to it on a small scale (and it will be interesting to see how everyone handles what looks to be a very trappy course), but it is also so outside the realm of anything I will ever realistically ride myself. If I was to be honest with myself, I would admit that I will also watch the cross-country with some amount of relief that I will never have to attempt anything at that level.  I will also enjoy watching some of the Dressage event. Knowing how much I struggle at my low level will give me an even greater appreciation of the feats of the Dressage olympians, but I will also watch it with the knowledge that this too is far beyond my grasp. So, the Eventing Dressage phase has become somewhat inspirational for different reasons for me, and I will take whatever motivation I can, wherever I can get it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Owning a Horse: The Antidote to a Bad Day

I was in a terrible, pissy mood yesterday. Just various irritations and problems at work all loaded on my head that added up to a foul, black temperament by the end of the day. I had a dressage lesson scheduled last night and, up until about 5:30, I wasn't even sure if I was going to be able to get out from under work stuff to be able to go, but I managed to get everything done in time and headed out.

It was hot and sticky with the threat of storms pretty much all day. I wasn't sure how much energy we'd be able to muster. I also had to strap my BlackBerry to my leg in case something came up with work, so I really wasn't starting off the ride on the best possible terms. Still, any day where I manage to ride is a good one, so already Tuesday was improving. After a warm-up on a loose rein, Ruby and I got to work and right away I felt that her stride was energetic and that there was a good swing to her back. I didn't need to do much warm-up or suppling to encourage this, it seemed to happen pretty freely. This was a great sign that we we were going to get some very good work done. Trainer had us do some significant lateral work at the trot in which Ruby was very responsive. We moved on to lateral work combined with transitions during which Ruby was very focused and engaged with the effort. Trainer took advantage of Ruby's willingness and by the fact that I seemed to have garnered enough energy to hold it all together (believe me, sometimes that strength is fleeting) and had us work very hard, first on leg-yielding across the ring at the canter combined with working-medium-working canter transitions, and then on riding a broken line at the canter. Now, this sounds simple enough, but Trainer stressed that this is our first exercise towards developing a counter canter. The broken line took a lot of concentration and focus from Ruby and a lot of concentration, focus and core engagement from me to hold it together, keep the correct bend, keep the quality of the canter, the roundness, the engagement from behind, and the connection through the bridle. It was a lot of moving parts all at once and just knowing what every muscle in my body was doing, while knowing what every muscle in Ruby's body was doing all at the same time was far more than enough to make my crappy work day float completely away. Our efforts to the left were quite nice and I feel that we did the exercise correctly. To the right? Well, that still needs work. Still, I am extremely encouraged when I think of where we were a few months ago when I could not get even a few strides of acceptable canter to save my life. Now we are working on fairly advanced work (advanced for Ruby, and, well, for me).

Just the fact that Trainer felt that we were ready for this and that we were able to pull off some very good moments left me very happy and almost glowing by the time the ride was done. Oh yeah and I was as limp as a rag by the time it was all done too.

My bad, stressful, irritating day at the office? A distant memory. There is plenty to be said for the peaceful hack on horseback and how it "soothes the soul" or some cliched sentiment, but I have to say that a very good, intensely focused session of work with a horse has an incredible amount of merit in my book too.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Another Catch-Up

I have not written in a very long time and for months have thought about abandoning this blog. However, I do miss writing longer posts about the happenings in my life and the brief status updates on Facebook are just not as satisfying to me. So, I am going to attempt to reclaim this space, if only for my own chronicle, irrespective of whether anyone out there is reading.

A big part of why I have not kept up with the blog is that the past year or so has been pretty crazy and overwhelming at work. A number of team members left or went on to other roles which meant that, for nine-ten months or so, another team member and I had to rotate on-call duties every other week. It was shear Hell for me and a lot of things fell out of my life last Summer as a result. Additionally, there have been a number of consuming projects at work that have also sucked up a lot of time and energy over the past year, all contributing to a lack of time and a change of focus. With all that said, however, my efforts over the past year have been noticed and rewarded (very, very good reviews, resulting raise, etc.) and I feel that I have also grown quite a bit in my professional expertise. As painful as the past year has been at work, I think it has also put me in a good place professionally. In other words, the end result was worth the pain.

Things have now quieted down some. Although, there is still plenty going on at work to cause me ongoing anxiety and worry, I think I just have to resign myself to the fact that this will most likely always be the case. I am a worrier. I also have major issues with confidence and self-esteem, so this is just something I have to fight on a daily basis. But work is not quite as “frantic” at the moment, which has given me more wiggle room to once again try to achieve balance in my life.

This winter (2012) was the first winter since I got Ruby that I did not send her south to SC. This was something that I really went back-and-forth on, but I finally decided that I wanted to re-establish my riding focus during the season (especially coming off of a long stretch of time where work interfered with my ability to get out and ride consistently) and I also felt that Ruby didn’t need to go down for more training. It was more important to get my momentum back, as well as to continue to build the bond and relationship between us. During the winter I was able to take a private lesson once a month with a FEI Dressage coach. I also attended two barn lessons each week, in addition to the schooling I did on my own. I probably averaged riding four times a week (sometimes five). It was not an intense schedule, but good enough to keep us both going. We had our struggles though. I really struggled with my own riding competence (basically, I went through a couple of months of sheer incompetence) and Ruby struggled through some very unbalanced flat work. It was almost as if we both were back at square one. I think a big part of this was due to a real slacking off on my part over the months leading up to the winter with my work schedule. There were large gaps in the work I did with Ruby over the second half of 2011. During that time, due to my crazy work schedule, the few times I did get out to ride I kept to mostly fun or casual rides. Very little actual schooling work was involved. The lack of real focused work really showed up as we entered the winter season and tried to get back to into the swing of regular riding.

Usually the first thing that falls apart with Ruby when not in regular work is the right lead canter, followed by the canter over all. Then we lose overall impulsion. There might be moments of round relaxed trotting, but most of the session would be fraught with long periods of tension and resistance. Add to this frustration and general incompetent flailing on my part and, well, we’re pretty much a mess. Ruby’s canter became somewhat hollow and we could not get in more than a couple of strides of right lead canter before she would switch behind to cross-canter. I also seemed to lose all confidence in myself to get around a jump course adequately. Any jump session was met with terrible nerves and hyperventilating.

It was not all bad. I got quite a lot out of each session with the Dressage coach. I would see significant improvement by the end of each ride and I had many takeaways from my time with her that stick in my mind even now. Ann, the assistance trainer who had me for Thursday night lessons, probably saw the worst of me during the winter. But I did have a major breakthrough with her one night too, and she may not even realize it. She talked me through establishing real contact with Ruby one night. Something that I think I probably used to do correctly (at least some of the time), but with all my slacking off had lost along the way. I think I had forgotten the real feel of it and needed to have it hammered back into my head. That one session, by the end of our lesson, I once again felt the connection through real contact and it was like a light bulb went on in my head. It did take me a while to be able to establish and keep it on my own again when riding after the lesson. First ride I was able to get it for a while, and then it faded on subsequent rides for a while. But that’s okay, now that I had the feel and knew what I was striving for, it was something I was able to once again work towards, even if I was only able to get it at first for a few strides here and there.

Mike, the Wednesday night trainer, also was able to help me quite a bit in some jumping exercises. One session in particular he had me for a private and we worked on jumping two jumps on a 20 meter circle, just establishing the rhythm and a good canter and pace to each jump. It was a simple exercise, but it calmed me down, steadied me, steadied Ruby and got me to think about jumping as more of an extension of flatwork, rather than something to just get done (and over with). I still think this is an exercise that I should be doing regularly on my own. If I could convince myself to jump more, that is.

In March I decided to take Ruby’s canter completely back to basics. I decided that for the canter, all we were going to work on were transitions and nothing else. This is what I did when I first got her and could not reliably get her to canter at all. During that time, I worked on transitions for my own purposes, to take the anxiety out of the movement to the point where I knew I would get a canter, ANY canter. Well, the transition was still established. In even our worst work over the winter, I could still always get a canter. The canter I would get just usually wasn’t one I wanted to keep. So that’s where we started. On a 20 meter circle, ask for canter, canter a couple of strides, downward transition, trot for a couple of strides, canter again. Rinse, repeat. Trot-canter-trot-canter, etc. And then walk-canter-walk-canter, etc. For the month of March and into April, I don’t believe I asked Ruby to canter more than a couple of strides in her flatwork at all.

She started getting stronger and able to hold her canter correctly to the right for longer periods of time. Her left lead canter started getting lovely and round. To the right she stopped swapping behind, the head-tossing lessened and we were able to string together more and more round, organized strides. I added in full circles of cantering and then spiraling in and out at the canter as things improved. Her transitions also became much sharper and cleaner, she would just jump right off of my leg, by the time this exercise was fully established.

About a month and a half ago or so, I noticed that our contact had greatly improved. The periods of tension had lessened, Ruby was more consistently even in the contact and reaching for the contact in all gaits. She seemed overall much more forward, fluid, rhythmic and relaxed. Offering more consistent forward impulsion at the trot meant that I could stop working so hard trying to establish the momentum and that I could now work more on elasticity and adjustment of stride and pace through my seat. Her canter was getting so nice that I started cycling halt-canter transitions into our regular work. I also came up with a warm-up script: after about 6-8 minutes of trot & canter on a loose rein, a few minutes of lateral work at the walk, then we do transitions. Walk-halt-walk-halt, etc. (with some side-pass and turns on the forehands thrown in at some of the halts). Then trot-walk-trot-halts, etc. (mixing it up so it’s not always the same pattern). And then trot-(almost)walk-trot (so, kind of a ¾ halt). And then we’ll move on to some walk-canter and halt-canter transitions. Once we get through all of this, Ruby is usually consistently and delightfully on the aids, even in the contact, round, willingly forward and very sharp with her transitions.

I am at this stage riding pretty consistently six days a week (sometimes we will go seven straight days and then take a day off). We’re now working on transitions within the gait. Her working-to-medium-to-working canter is coming along very, very nicely. I don’t seem to be able to establish as much adjustability in the trot work, surprisingly. However, we HAVE had some beautiful trot lengthenings on the trail, I just can’t seem to get the same quality in the ring. Anyway, it’s a work in progress and very satisfying work it is. I feel that we are finally at a pretty good place in our flatwork where I now have something to work with. We have our good days and our bad days, but I feel that the progress is so considerable that I am very, very happy with the work and encouraged overall. In addition to the flatwork, we have jumping days and hacking/gallop days, so Ruby’s program is pretty well-rounded right now.

My biggest stumbling block with the jumping side of my discipline is my own mind. I seem to go through cycles of bravery and fear and right now I am in a fear pattern. I believe it most directly relates to how much I have been jumping or, more accurately, NOT jumping within any period of time. Since I haven’t been jumping a ton, I am right now more fearful than I was about a year or so ago. The solution is to jump more. I know this, but I have to be coerced! I had a private stadium jumping lesson last week and it went very well. Ruby jumped beautifully, we were jumping almost up to our previous heights, we did full courses, including a two-stride and a triple bar, my position was great, I rode well and I actually thought about each part of the course as I came to it, rather than just trying to hurry through and get it over with. I need to now take that away and jump more often so I don’t become such a freak every time I have to jump in a lesson. Which means that I have to force myself to jump more on my own. Which means that I have to get over myself!

An additional note on jumping: As a side benefit to all the flat work we’ve been doing, Ruby’s course work has also improved. Jumping has always been her strong suit, however she also likes to motorcycle around a bit and blow off the rider’s aids in the corners and around turns. Last week in our jump courses, she was much more responsive on the turns, more willing to listen and bend into the corners and much more round, nicer canter overall.

About competing. Well, I decided to put that on hold for now. Last year I successfully moved up to the Novice division (for non-horse people, if you’re still reading, in the Eventing discipline, this is approximately 3-foot jumps). I eeked it out on very little riding in the month leading up to the event in July. Afterwards I was riding so little that competition was not something I would even consider. This year I have certainly been riding enough to participate in any competition, but my desire has not been there. I think that work has just been so busy and so stressful, and after putting in about fifty hours per week, I just dread the thought of adding the stress and unbelievably long, exhausting days of a competition into the mix. I need my down time on the weekends. Ruby DID, however, go to The Groton House Horse Trials with my trainer’s working student about four weeks ago. They finished on third on their dressage score of 28.5! Proof enough to me that all of our flat work really has paid off.

So the past year and a half has had many ups & downs for both my work life and my riding life. I feel like I have made a lot of progress though, and am happy for where I am. With the riding, I have been enjoying my horse even more than ever and really do feel like the journey is so incredibly satisfying. Just seeing the progress in dribs & drabs and then looking back to see where we were only a few months ago is exhilarating to me.