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.

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