Thursday, 20 August 2015

Eureka. There is a nice horse hiding in there somewhere..

And thus began the start of my first full-full training experience.  Well, the first one that actually lasted longer than 30 days (plus of course, 30 days notice).

Sure, I did give it a try with the Frau. You may recall the few thousand dollars better spent at Casino-Rama.

Why did I stick it out this time? I think this is due to a few different factors.

First factor - (and really, this always is first when it comes to horses and their less than gifted riders)  - in the few years that had passed, I had beaten at least a portion of my cognitive bias known as the Dunning-Kruger  effect into submission. For better or for worse. I think those who welcome a big dose of Dunning-Kruger into their lives are such a happy disillusioned lot - oh, how I envy them.

To recap - as I think I covered this before - if you are not familiar with what the Dunning-Kruger effect is, read the Wikipedia page and prepare to be depressed.  It explains why the majority of the bosses that you have hated over the years seemed to be overconfident, totally incompetent idiots.  You know the ones, the big talking gas-bags that have all of the answers in meetings and get promoted, but somehow can't even figure out how to do an email attachment or find the any key.  Science has revealed the answer - it was not your imagination - they really were overconfident and totally incompetent idiots. Thanks for that depressing info, scientific method.

Incompetent people are too incompetent to figure out that they are incompetent

The jig was up. I most definitely knew all of the things I did not know. They were pretty glaringly obvious at this time.  (Even now, I still do not have an understanding of why my horse was supposed to respond better when being yelled at in German than just being yelled at in English. But then, what fun would life be if I had all of the answers).

The important part though is that I was at the right point in this tale to willing to hand over my ego to someone who had a shot at sorting this all out.  I had left the blissful "Unconsciously Incompetent" rung of that "Learning Ladder" thing that coaches always show you, and was hanging out embarrassed and frustrated on the horrible "Consciously Incompetent" step, swearing that I must somehow climb up to "Conscious Competence" come hell or high water, and make a commitment to never return to this depressing place again. (Writes the woman who either tops her ball or digs a trench with her fairway wood repeatedly, yet refuses to leave the club in the bag).

Image not to scale. At most stables in the GTA, the red step is like a giant platform, crowded with many loudmouth people

But I was also a more receptive player this time around because I had the right horse for the gig - and also because Coach C was just such a truly gifted rider and fun person to be around.

Did he make me get a new saddle?  No. I did not hear a word about it. I had by then moved on to a Stubben Juventus (if you are a shorter rider, do give this one a try) - he either crammed his ass into it without complaints if he had to hop on when I was present, or on days I wasn't riding, he used his own.

Did he suggest I get a different horse?  No, partly because he could get on Ms. V from day one, and make her look like a million bucks.  And, he seemed to enjoy riding her to boot.  She was small and hot and took next to no strength or energy to get rolling, unlike some of the other amateur's big oaf like warmbloods, and with his feel and tact she just seemed to do what she was supposed to do.

Did he make me do a chin-up - alas dear readers, much to Motard's disappointment - no. No chin-up.

However, after I had ridden with him for a week or two, he did kind of give me the "alone time" discussion - namely, that progress could be made without me much more quickly than if I insisted on riding as well.

Once again, the stars did seem to align, as Motard and I were already booked on a holiday at that very time, and would be gone for a little over a week (the "sailing during a tropical storm - if your S.O asks if you are going to die, always say NO, even as your mast is digging into the sandy bottom of the Caribbean sea" vacation mentioned in a previous post)

So off we went to crap our pants on the high seas, while Ms. V and Coach C. worked on bonding.

And, dear readers, I am happy to report I came home to an entirely different horse. Seriously - after only one week.

A mare that could not shorten a stride of canter without a hissy meltdown had suddenly transformed into a little china doll rocking horse doing pleasant 10 metre circles without debate. Or at least with very little debate. Even the debates were not very spirited - they consisted of a few seconds of NOOO... followed by... oh that? Oh. Well, that's not so bad. Never mind. Let's carry on.

A horse that had tight little steps and was chompy in the contact was now booming around doing a forward steady working trot, complete with "flying feet" as Motard would say.

And most strangely of all - I suddenly had a horse that the other owners seemed to actually accept as part of their clique. That is not to say that they felt she was EQUAL to their own special snowflake horses - come on now, that would be crazy talk - but they considered her to be a nice horse, that belonged in a FEI trainer's stable.  Sure, they made comparisons between her and their special snowflakes that were gentle, backhanded disses targeted at things not relating specifically to dressage performance - "oh Curmudgeon, Ms. V really is lovely.  Too bad she is so tiny. Detektiv is such a desirable horse because he is the perfect size for so many riders" But nothing was ever said to imply that we were out of our league in the crowd. When Coach C. got Ms. V going well, even those on the red platform described above could clearly see there was a talented horse in there somewhere.

The other reason we were accepted as part of the FEI bound clique was because no one had any reason to think otherwise. When Coach C. was asked what her breeding was, he would just say "she is Dutch or something" and add "wow, these new bloodlines that are winning are HOT!" then carry on. Because really, why was it any of anyone's business? For all they knew she WAS imported from somewhere other than Arva Ontario, and had cost mid 5 figures or whatever a "contender" would have cost at this point in time.

When it comes to horses my friends, I am sure I don't have to tell you - perception is everything.  My perception at this moment in time was that Coach C's barn was the most amazingly happy place on Earth to be riding if you had the right horse and didn't mind kissing all of your disposable income goodbye.

In all honestly - it was the best time of my entire riding career.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

On the road again. Hold on to your hats.

I know there are people out there that get really riled up about the fact that social media allows their frenimies to craft an alternative reality. Some sexy and exciting persona to put on display for others, allowing them to portray themselves in a funner, richer, more appealing light than reality offers them.

Well, yes. Undoubtedly. Who doesn't have the friend that you have removed from your Facebook feed because you are so sick of seeing only the wonderful, none of the nasty. 

However I do think that social media gets kind of a bad rap, because the motivated among us have been putting forth an impression of non-reality to wow bystanders for years.

I always have to remind myself that one can image craft in the real world too, no need for the internet. With readily available knock-off everything from China, and BMW base models that cost less than well equipped Toyota Camrys, and "warmbloods" that are "imported" from PMU farms in Alberta - it is easy to present a magical tale of something that is not actually what you and your net income can support.

As an added bonus, stir in some horse folks that have no qualms about boarding somewhere they absolutely cannot afford for a few months, falling far behind on their bills, then disappearing into the night...well, these assholes can keep up a really good appearance of living in the fast lane and making you feel like you are on a tricycle on the sidewalk.  For a period of time, in any case. 

Although the year was 2006, and Facebook had just barely expanded beyond its original goal of helping nerds get laid, when I pulled into the drive for my first visit to Coach Costly's facility, I felt as though I had just surfed into a perfectly managed profile page. Tinkling fountain, cobblestones, horses with heads stuck over half doors, etc. Before I even stepped out of my 475,000 km, rusty paneled (but fully paid for) 1995 Honda Civic I had already convinced myself that everyone I would come across within the joint had their much more expensive shit, much more together than I did.

In such situations it is easy to feel like you are the only person in the equine world who is not independently wealthy, or supported by a fabulous spouse or parental units, isn't it. 

In fact - Exhibit A was riding that very morning. Let's call her Debbie Dubai. She was everything I knew I was not at the time. And I immediately felt a little lost. 

  • Middle aged woman, maybe 50, no helmet and a bouncing bob (as was the style at the time), and a nice little Pikeur riding suit.
  • Schoolmaster effortlessly tooling around doing extensions, stiff but clean changes, halfpasses - he looked a little long in the tooth, but regardless - making things look easy for the rider. 
  • Slightly older, slightly paunchy and grey, proud new husband on the sidelines.
  • Coach Costly on a stool somewhere around E, smiling as always and chirping out little pointers now and then that the pair easily followed, or asking questions - "how's your bend on that circle?" or, "did you lose his haunches around that corner this time" and whatnot.

Picture what Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes might be like as an adult, and you will have a pretty good picture of Coach Costly. Chipper, cheerful and a bit mischievous. Big grin. Or at least he had one at this point in time. 

Bend!  More Bend!

And hey, why wouldn't he?  He was a short listed dressage rider - "A" list, kids, not the big long rambling "B" one. He had just sold his star horse for what I heard through the grapevine was a mid six figures price. He was heavily involved in the Young Riders program, coached the majority of the team and may have even been the Chef d'equipe that year - don't quote me on this one. And, to top it all off, he had a beautiful, funny wife, and an adorable set of children.

Actually even in recounting this now, I wonder to myself again why I felt I belonged in this environment, at that point in time - this all seemed very out of my league. Why would he want me and my nutty horse as clients?

I stood quietly off to the side, not wanting to interrupt Debbie Dubai's lesson, and not yet realizing that there were not lessons per se at Coach Costly's stable, but just a constant watching eye. All the time. Any time you got on your horse. (Many nights I thought he was busy on the phone in his office, paying no attention to my bad riding, only to hear the little window into the arena slide open and have him yell out "why not try a quarterline!  Get off the fricking wall for a while!" or some similar thing, followed by window sliding shut.)

So, when you rode there, you didn't get your 1 hour slot where Coach C fed you a list of things to do in sequence, using the aforementioned obligatory droning coach voice. You were expected to figure this out yourself based on how your horse was doing on any particular day - and if you didn't, he would ask you what needed improvement, and how you planned to go about fixing it.  If at that point, you didn't know, or were executing poorly - he would provide you with ideas, and expect you to try them. If you were not able to get a result - he might hop on and demonstrate.  And so on.

I don't know if you have ever ridden with a coach who worked this way, but once you have, it is hard to go back to the standard recipe lesson. It just makes so much more sense. Why would we work on pirouettes today if I don't even feel I can do a good 10 metre circle?  If I don't feel my horse is properly warmed up in 15 minutes, what is the advantage of moving on with the lesson other than the fact that it allows us to pack some interesting goodies into 60 minutes?

The other nice thing is that you can then be riding with 4 other people, all at different levels, and learning from their lessons too. The Coach can help you through a good shoulder-in or whatever, then turn around and help a more advance student do tempis while you have a walk break and watch and learn. Forget auditing clinics, at Coach C's barn, every Saturday morning at any given hour, you could see bits of anything and everything from green to GP all riding and being coached at once.

Most important of all - it forces you to use your brain.  You are not being fed a set list of cookie cutter exercises to do. He expected you to be riding around doing something constructive - which he could then add to and improve - not to be wandering around waiting for someone else to feed you your dressage pablum.

Nom-Nom-Nom... mmm Half Pass.

Really, I have no idea why all dressage barns don't work this way.  It is so much more conducive to actually learning to ride.  When I win the lottery, then get struck in the head and develop amnesia so that I totally forget that I never want to be associated with dressage nutbars again, then open my own fabulous training facility - we will use this coaching method at my stable.  

I will let you know when this all unfolds so you can get on my waiting list. 

Sorry, I am on a tanget as usual, aren't I.

After D.Dubai was finished riding, and I heard all about her darling husband and how he had bought her the horse of her dreams, and how she was hoping to show third level next year even though she hadn't been riding long (blah blah etc. - she was actually a very pleasant woman, but had evidently read the book on "What to Expect When Expecting to Look and Talk the Part at a Dressage Stable") I showed Coach C. a few clips on my video camera to give him an idea of what he would be dealing with, and much to my relief and slight suspicion, (remembering the Frau's enthusiastic acceptance of the Platypus, and hoping I was not walking into another bait and switch) he nothing but was totally supportive.

By the time I left, I was all set to move in following my (anyone - anyone?) that's right, 30 days notice.

How did the 30 days go?  Actually, surprisingly well.  All three parties (boarder, coach and barn manager) were pretty much onside that things were just not working out.  Kind of like a conscious uncoupling or whatever the hell the fashionable word is these days for mutually dumping others in your life.

When the time came to leave, I packed my things and horse in the red rocket, then thought I would be courteous and say bye to Lana one last time, obligatory handshake and whatnot.

And there were no hard feelings at all, she smiled and shook my hand with a caring look in her eye. "So glad everything is working out for you, Curmudgeon" she said. "You will be so much happier once you get rid of that horse".

Thanks for the support Lana.  As usual.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Yes. I am still out there somewhere.

Yes, I know - I am not writing at all. Again. Sorry about that.

Actually I have had thoughts of my blog, and dressage, and horses in the last while, but just haven't made the effort to sit down at the computer and share.

Back in February or so, God or the Aliens or whoever it is that transmits warning messages to me telepathically did send me a quick and friendly reminder (Currrmudddgeon... stay awaaaay from horrrseeess).  I went riding with a friend who insisted that once I smelled the amazing aroma of horseflesh I would weaken and try to yank my Cavallos onto my winter-fat calves in a desperate frenzy to get on her horse whist freezing in an arena in February. Very serious longshot, I thought to myself - (to clarify - boots fitting, or riding her horse? Actually both longshots) but I attended to humour her and also she promised to make good soup for dinner when we got home. I like soup a lot.

Just as her ride finished up and I headed back to the barn to thaw out my toes while she wandered around the arena with her horse and a pitchfork picking up freezing turds, I heard the unmistakable sound of a scrambling cast horse - accompanied by the freaked out "woah - woah - easy" panic of a twenty-something stablehand.

Long story short - after about an hour of the three of us trying to get old Stormy to his feet without getting our heads kicked off, we succeeded only to find that his leg was dangling from the hip. Driving home I had to break it to my friend that no, visiting the barn with her that night did not make me nostalgic for the utter heartbreak and crazy vet bills associated with horses.

(No, Stormy did not make it. RIP).

In March - I joined a private golf club. As the salesperson gently explained the financial commitment involved in being a GOLD member (it will run me approximately $600 - $800 per month, depending on how much beer I drink) all I could think was - pfft... isn't there a PLATINUM level I can sign up for?  Maybe DOUBLE DIAMOND or something? This is a fricking bargain versus owning a horse...

(You will be happy to hear that although my leisure venue of choice has changed, the nutty women seem to be the same - my very first day hitting balls I was informed by a member that my pants were inappropriate. I checked with the Pro and he said perhaps the 80 year old member who commented didn't share my fashion sense and would not be caught dead wearing Rickie Fowler inspired orange, but the pants were technically just fine).

Next April - the month which officially marked the anniversary of the final "yes she is actually really and truly gone, and I am fairly certain she is not coming back" sale of Ms. V - came and went without any particular pangs of nostalgia, or anything else noteworthy.

Then, in early May - I went to see Cavalia - yes I know, I am possibly the last "dressage" person on Earth to attend the show. How did I like it? Well, I knew the magic of "the three P's" was really and entirely gone for me when I spent more of the show wishing I had those springy feet things on so I could jump over 3 foot high fences than wishing I was riding the upper level horse during the finale. Trying in vain to execute clean changes while splashing around in a giant puddle was just a bit too reminiscent of horse shows I had wasted money on in the past.

(I do recommend the "RendezVous VIP" Experience if you go, where you get to sit in a lounge during intermission and eat shrimp on a stick and drink champagne. Still much, much more economical than actually attending a horse show, and I think I was able to down at least $47 worth of small cups of Haagen Dazs to offset the cost of the ticket. Apparently you can visit horses at the end of the show too, if that still lights your fire).

Usually when you find yourself upside down over an oxer it is a bad thing. Not with these springy feet things.
So I am not sure what the rest of June and July will bring to dissuade me from ever riding a horse again, but I am sure there will be something. Pan Am games are just around the corner too - I bet CBC will do their best to keep me out of the saddle with some awkward "get to know dressage" broadcasts. (No one will ever bring dressage to the masses the way Colbert did..)

Colbert Does Dressage

Actually it is the Pan Am games that bring me to write my post today, as I am doing a little stalking of the Canadian riders list... hmmm... hmm... a few of the usual suspects, but also a few notables missing.

Two people who are not on the list are the two riders who I was choosing between back in 2006 or whenever it was that I had to pick a new trainer.

Coach #1 - is missing for a very obvious reason.

Coach #2 - is missing - but I have no idea why. I know I read an article a few months back indicating that he was definitely going to try to qualify for the games, and was on the Dressage Canada Short List with not one, but two horses.

Did he have horse issues? Sponsor issues? Health issues of his own?  Did he decide Pan Am games are stupid, since when it comes to dressage, they are essentially the Canada US games, so why bother?

Who knows, not me, I am hopelessly out of any loop of gossip or factual information for that matter.

Coach #2 was not on any lists whatsoever back in the day when I called him up looking for a new gig - he was still a "sometimes seen at Silver shows" kind of guy, with a few nice horses and riders who did not seem like nutbars, including one with a horse at a similar level to mine who seemed to be a really nice woman, based on our very limited interactions (I never did meet or get to know her, but from a distance she seemed to be someone who I could see riding with without having to wear an ipod to drown out her voice).

And even with my limited knowledge I could tell at that time that he was a good bet to go all the way. Not only was he an elegant rider, but he was approachable and nice, and smiled, and, well - didn't seem like a self absorbed asshole.

What could possibly go wrong here?

Well, nothing really. Other than the fact that the exact moment I contacted the man, he was in the throes of having to change barns, because he did not have his own place, but was one of the many nomadic coaches in the area, struggling to share barn space with others all while playing nice.

And we all know how well that typically works.

As I recall, he had just been given his walking papers and told to pack up his little troupe of riding ladies and move on to - wherever he could find someplace that could fit them all in and was in driving distance for the majority. Actually, I continue to be amazed at how sucessfully coaches manage to uproot everything and do this. I guess there are some fixed amount of barns with 10 - 12 available stalls and decent arenas, and all of the nomadic players in the game just rotate around in some version of equine musical chairs and trade places.

I had caught him just as the music was playing... and he had not yet rushed to sit down, while kicking some other person in the legs to slow their progress to the free stable, or smushed his ass and hips down on the chair with more force than the other less desperate candidates, or whatever the horse world equivalent is of nabbing the best free seat in the musical stables game is before you and your students all wind up out in the cold.

Sure, he told me all about a great new place called BerryDrive Stables over on Highway 6 he was sussing out - looks promising, think it might be a fit... eeek. EEEKKK!  The thought of a new coach, at a new barn, struggling to work out his own "fitting in" issues while I tried to deal with mine was just too much for me right then.

In retrospect - it was a good call on my part on staying away from BerryDrive Stables - as I don't know a thing about the place other than the fact that I don't think any coach ever stuck it out there, although the curb appeal is good.  In fact, I think Coach Ritenau did a stint there as well somewhere along the line later in time...

But was it a good call on my part to not stick it out with Coach #2, maybe follow him around to a few disaster barns until he settled at his own place (which he eventually did...)?  Hmm, I will never know, will I. But if I were to name points in my journey where if I were to do them again, I might have chosen differently - this would quite possibly have been one of them. I think Ms. V would have turned out at least as good if not better than she did. I don't think he would have given up on her because she was a little bit nutty and hot. Or me either, for the same reasons.

But the main reason I am sometimes sad I didn't try harder to make things work well with Coach #2 is that I then wound up with Coach #1, who I loved very very much, just like everyone else. Well, maybe not everyone. If only he had loved himself more, maybe this part of my story would have a happier ending.

So, after about 5 or 6 back and forth calls to Coach #2 - I thanked him for his time, and called up Coach #1, who was friendly and welcoming and told me to stop by to chat and we could make plans for my move.

Ugggh... I still felt I wasn't right for this environment. I prepared myself to be more FUN and SOCIAL and to EMBRACE the culture I was about to enter. The full training experience. Come on Curmudgeon, I said to myself...prepare to be made to feel awkward and unimportant by people you don't even really want to hang out with in your spare time, while spending lots of money. You can DO IT!

Actually, it was good preparation for the world of private golf too. The skills I learned are not totally going to waste, even if I never ride again.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Dear Dressage Trainers. My condolences. Really.

The one thing that was true for sure at this point in time - I was in a much better place for coach shopping than I had been in the past.  After hanging out at shows for the last three or so years, I really did have a good picture of who was available, who I would be able to stand listening to for a few hours a week, and whether or not they were likely to be able to help me on my way up the levels.

I had now witnessed some of my "oopsies" from the days of trying out bad coaches - and no, it was not just me. None of them would have been suitable if I had stuck it out long term. I am adding Coach Ritenau to the pile of course. (Hindsight is always 20/20 as the saying goes).

For example - Time Machine Schoolmaster woman gave off the impression of being someone who is actually in the game at higher levels - but although she has a lot of nice horses, and appears to have a lot of parental money backing her up - she has not yet had a lot of success in the FEI sense of the word. Which is too bad, and as I have harped on about already, dressage is not easy - but if with all of that going for her, she is still kind of in the backwoods, it is unlikely she would have been the one to help a less endowed rider such as myself.

Limpy's owner has the country's finest PSG Arabs - all two of them. So, I guess she deserves some credit. But there was just something about her horse's way of going that seemed off to me - they looked tight and miserable. I knew how to make a horse look tight and miserable - all on my own - so paying her to help me do it better seemed unnecessary.

Also - she only showed higher levels at breed shows. I feel a pro who expects to be paid for training your horse should show up in the ring at a recognized show at least once in a while as well. Sure, breed shows are better than not showing at all, this is true, But come on now - get out and get into the game properly. Claiming on bulletin boards that the reason you don't play with the other kids is because of breed bias and the high cost of showing gets kind of old. If you can cart your Arabs all over North America to attend congresses or whatever it is you Arab people do - you can foot the bill for one show at Palgrave. 

Now, the one coach on the pile that I know COULD have definitely brought us up the levels was of course Frau Trainerin. No doubt in my mind - she would have gotten the job done. 

So why didn't I give her another try? Simply because she snubbed me in the stir-fry line? Sure, she seemed to be kind of a stuck up or socially awkward person, but if I had showed up with my $1200+ in hand every month, I bet she would have turned that frown upside down in a hurry... She was undoubtedly located the closest to my home out of all of the contenders (I could have ridden my bike there if motivated)...and I knew for sure from watching her at shows and coaching others as well as riding herself that she was truly the real deal in terms of FEI trainers...

Why did I reject even the thought of returning to her with Ms. V?

Well, this brings us to kind of an interesting turn in my story - the point where I stopped feeling like the horse owning customers were always getting the shitty end of the stick.

Somewhere around this point in time, it began to dawn on me. Being a dressage trainer is really a tough gig. I would never wish this fate upon anyone.

When you are at a mixed bag barn, or a hunter barn with a few dressage riders, or any of the other barns that I had been up to thus far - you get a little bit of a mixed bag of people. As much as I complained about the folks out at Muddy View Acres, there were enough sane ones stirred in there to make life bearable. Lana Acres had a few teens, and eventing people. There was a balance of sorts.

But when you go hard core, all-in dressage - there is one demographic that dominates above all others.

Crazy, type A women, with lots of disposable income, who think that because they can afford nice horses, and expensive coaching - they are somehow entitled to act like total bullies, or mind-fucking ninnies.

Is Aschwipen all warmed up?  Because I am READY TO RIDE, Coach!

And - they don't always come alone. The ones that are not actually riding themselves bring along their entitled ninny children, all unique and special just like every other child, and all hell bent on attending NAJYRC (North American Junior and Young Riders Championships)

Watching the dynamics between clients and coaches in the stable areas of horse shows, or listening to clients on the sidelines revealed the most terrifying side of choosing my new barn. I was wading into the territory of hard core, nutcase dressage clients. I would commit to doing my very best not to be one - but could not avoid the others already in attendance.

And the Frau had a doozy. Loud, pretentious, in your face - and to make matters worse, she was a holistic nutritionist who hawked dubious "natural" supplements everywhere she went - which, as a real nutritionist, was also blood curdlingly irritating.

The thought of dealing with being in her presence (and hearing about the miracles of magnesium or whatever shit she was on about on any given day), after a long day of work was too much to bear. Because of her, I eliminated the Frau from contention.

(But no worries. You won't miss the fireworks. She catches up with me later).

I also eliminated a nice young couple that trained together from contention - because they had a barn full of pre-menopausal high maintenance ladies. As someone who is still menstruating, I felt it was a little early for me to join the hand wringing, obsessive horse owning but non-riding lady club.

(But again - fear not. We will circle back here too. Even though I do continue to menstruate, I was not able to escape this fate. Double whammy).

Which left two good candidates in the 50km radius / seemingly tolerable club. Both were easy on the eyes, and both had good, biblical names. How could I go wrong?

Coach #1 was short listed - which I figure meant expensive - and extraordinarily charismatic - the kind of person you saw from a distance and wanted to get to know. He was always surrounded by a gaggle of people, and most seemed to be having a good time.

Coach #2 was more up and coming - a little more subdued - but was very friendly and gracious, and seemed to have pleasant, sane students who were progressing nicely.

I decided that I would start with the more low key option. I wasn't entirely sure I wouldn't get bulldozed by all of the fun hanging out with Coach #1.

I am, after all, a Curmudgeon.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

I am sure the people on the Apprentice feel the same way after having to put up with Donald Trump..

Now as a person who considers herself to be a trained scientist, I do my best not to be swayed by bullshitty things like chance, or superstition, or of course my favouites, coincidences.

Hey, who can argue with any of this shit. Sounds like me alright.
However it was really hard at the time to not think that some alien force was on my side as the "I am leaving - hey, me too" stars aligned. I started to merrily consider my options for my next dressage coach, and I can remember feeling a boost of positive energy towards my riding for the first time in a really long time. All signs were pointing to an exciting new phase in our dressage "journey"... new coach - and hopefully a new breakthrough - and just maybe some real progress after a solid year of drought.

And hey - let's be honest here - I bet Coach Ritenau was feeling the same way. When I told her that I was moving on, I am sure she went home, cracked open a nice bottle of red, and slid into a hot tub, thinking to herself "ahh... never again do I have to try to solve the problems of that nutty horse and her hopeless rider...All signs are pointing to exciting new students... "

I have been fired from a job or two in my day, and no matter how much you hate the job, packing your bags and walking away from money is never easy. However - the sigh of relief you feel when someone puts their foot to your ass and pushes you out the door is oh, so satisfying. I bet the Coach felt this "ahhhh...hhhh...hhhh" big time when I broke the news.

I did attempt to present the parting to her somewhat diplomatically - first, I asked her what her plans were for her students once she left Lana Acres we all became coachless waifs (no plans...nice, nice...that made things easy).  Next, I said that I understood where she was coming from with respect to life being easier for me with a new horse - but even if the two of us were destined to be together without Ms. V, I felt that a second opinion was warranted. I would be moving to a new coach for at least a few months to get some fresh input.

As I recall, she took this all in perfect stride. (Again, a pretty strong sign she was already dreaming of that Valpolicella and bubble bath).

Ahhh... now let's see - Chapter 1. How to find students that are not insane..

I am pretty sure that at the time, she thought I would pack my bags, head out to a big ticket trainer, her assessment of our potential to go on would be validated, Ms. V would be sold, and I would continue on with another horse.

Which, as you know, is not how things shook out.

And if you are wondering.. yes, Coach Ritenau is also fully aware that this is not how things went down. The horse community is small. I saw the Coach many times after we parted ways and Ms. V and I continued to struggle our way up our lopsided and pathetic pyramid. Our interactions were always cordial but not cozy (but really, our interactions were always pretty much like this, even at our very closest times) so I liked to think that she had shrugged, said "huh - guess I called that wrong", moved on, and that was the end of that.

Which would have been fine. And not weird. But then...

At my last show ever, one of Coach Ritenau's students who I knew from the Lana Acres Epoch approached me early in the day to let me know that the Coach and her students would be on the sidelines with their popcorn to watch me attempt to show PSG later that day.

It was an awkward moment - I wasn't sure how to take this news.

If Ritenau intended to make a point to watch my ride (and really, who makes a point to watch Adult Amateur PSG? Parents, and judges and coaches who are being paid to do so - no one else. Maybe masochists I guess.) she could have, at any moment in time, put down her hose or pitchfork (I could  see her across the yard at that very moment, going about her horse prepping business) and wandered over to shoot the breeze, congratulate me on making it to PSG, said she was going to be on the sidelines to cheer me on...any or all of this would have been normal. Hearing second hand that she planned to watch my test in a stalker-like fashion - with her students - was weird. Actually - it really bugged me.

No worries Curmudgeon, I told myself. She probably doesn't want to make you nervous. Once you complete the test, I am sure she will come by and congratulate you. Or exhibit some other behavior that is similarly professional and classy in nature. You are being paranoid.

And so, I went in, saw her sitting in the stands, rode my test, got 4's on horribly ridden tempis as usual and had a few other bobbles here and there but had an otherwise sane, sensible and unremarkable test - (got a score of 57%)..came out to the cheers of a huge crowd of 4 stablemates - with Coach Ritenau nowhere to be seen.

She vanished. Without a word.

You are probably also wondering if Coach Ritenau really had the skills to get any horse to PSG, and if the combo of me and V was just an unfortunate outlier that didn't fall within her area of expertise. Well, it is difficult to stalk how someone's students are doing, so for all I know she has stableload of up and coming stars and I just don't know their names, having been out of the loop now for a solid year or more.

However - stalking her own results on Equine Canada - since we parted ways in 2006 or whenever it was, she has done a kickass job of bringing several horses as far as First or Second level, and a few further than that - but has not had personal success in returning to Grand Prix or even PSG.

This could be due to many factors, as we all know, that have nothing to do with her riding ability. Horse soundness is a huge one, and I know she has had some tough breaks in this department. Time, money, inherent talent of the horses that are sound... all tough hurdles to overcome.

All of the same hurdles that I would have had to overcome, had I given up on Ms. V as per her recommendation. As a trainer, she has had several shots at it with client horses and STILL not found the magical combo to get her up to being competitive at FEI levels again.

Which just goes to show how the deck would have been stacked against me.

Anyways... putting that all behind us... let's carry on, as things do begin to get even more interesting now. The next few chapters in the story will be difficult to write, as those of you who know me in real life will understand (and yes, you will all understand eventually...) but let me see what I can do.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Ooooh I'm DYIN' again... First Level, take II

Well, I would love to be able to tell you all that I went home from that last show, regrouped, carried on doing exactly what I had been doing, and made a dazzling jump to second level in 2007, wowing all 3 spectators in attendance at our first show.

Alas, dressage just isn't like that, is it people.

Oh, some parts of the statement are true. The part about regrouping and carrying on doing exactly what I was doing - yah, that is pretty much accurate.

But how does the saying go - insanity is expecting new results from the old inputs?  I am generally in agreement with this, but in fact with horses - old inputs do actually bring new results. That is, if your old inputs are so incredibly irritating to your horse that she gets a little more frustrated with each ride. Soon, lucky girl, those old inputs produce a new, tenser, tighter more pissy horse than ever before. Because of this, it is not actually accurate to say you are stuck at first level. You really only appear to be stuck on the macro level. Like a glacier. On the micro level, you are actually digging your trench a bit deeper every day / week / month you continue on doing things poorly.

I thought a bit about how much depth to go into regarding this wasted year - and decided the least painful route to take for all of us is to essentially skip right over it. Sure, there were the crazy co-boarders who got kicked out, and the teenage daughters did irritating things. There were other adult amateur women, struggling with their horses as well, and in fact thinking back - one who was having very similar issues but at a lower level - which should have been a flashing neon sign that perhaps Coach Ritenau was not the person to be working with hotter horses.

And there was another disastrous show season at First level.

One bad season - ok, I was able to chalk it up to being green, and needing more experience. But when Ms. V started to melt down at every show - no, not because of flags, or port-o-lets, or mud, or that water tanker truck thing spewing water out of its face in the ring next door - but just because everything I did seemed to annoy the hell out of her - well, that is pretty hard to rationalize. I felt like Bugs Bunny in that cartoon episode where he undertakes the challenge of returning the little ice skating penguin to the South Pole, only to find he is from Hoboken. I was on some harrowing journey and when I got to First level, it was pretty obvious I had reached the wrong destination.

When I had one of my post-show discussions with Coach Ritenau, in tears and utterly frustrated, she shared with me her thoughts on the way to solve the problem.

Anyone - anyone?

Did she say "Wow. This isn't working. You seem to be a relatively competent rider, and you have a sound, sometimes sane horse. So, the problem could be that I am just not the right coach for you. Why don't you try going to a new trainer. Based on the problems you are having that I don't seem to be able to solve, I think Coach Jones might be a good fit. Let me give him a call and discuss your challenges with him and see if he agrees, and can fit you into his program."

No. She did not.

Instead, she suggested that I might find riding less frustrating and more rewarding with a different horse. Sure, she knew of instances where people had worked through these challenges and wound up with a nice horse in the end, but really, it didn't seem likely in my case.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I see where she was coming from. And I do agree. I do think, to this day, that life at that very moment in time would have been much less hair-pullingly, screamingly, awful if I had sent Ms. V packing and spent my time with a calm, cool, "what-evah" type horse.

But I knew this wasn't the right answer.

At this point - I am going to do something entirely uncharacteristic. I am going to thank you, bulletin boards. Yes, UDBB and COTH with all of your crazy posters - you helped me to make the right decision here.

Because of you, I may have wasted money on shitty classical clinics and schoolmaster lessons and other assorted stupid activities and items, but I did learn one thing as I read the same story posted by different people, again, and again, and again.

Sure, my journey might be easier with a different horse. Or, alternatively, and much more likely - it might be non-existent. Or perhaps history will just repeat itself. Because as we board stalkers all know - although the story of people ditching their horse and getting a new one is extremely common - the story of people ditching their horse, getting a new one, then having everything work out perfectly is very rare. And the tale about someone selling a disgruntled first level horse with many scores in the 50's for any amount of money that allows you to buy a better version sometime within the lifespan of said horse, and before any profits are eaten up by board and training - also not a story you read about often on any bulletin board not dominated by pathological liars. This whole scenario sounds good on paper as the saying goes, but something seems to be a little tricky in the execution.

As proven by the prevalence of the other story...the one about about getting a new horse, and discovering an exciting new roster of issues or lamenesses.  Or getting a wonderful horse with no issues at all.. but quickly recreating the same issues as you had with the first horse. This version of the story is really not so hard to find.  Sure, sometimes you have to look past the flowers and rainbows but it is there...(I knew Sofakissen's calling was to top out at first and be a broodmare, from the moment I paid $$$ to fly her over from Germany! Things are working out, la, laa)

And so, I found myself sitting at my desk at work... planning my exit strategy. No, not from my horse, as per Coach Ritenau's recommendation. Coach Ritenau was no longer Time to move on.

Now the good news is...fate did throw me a bone.  I was spared the awkward moments of "its not me, it's you" or whatever conversation I would have had to cook up to get the hell out of my current situation. In fact breaking the news that I was going somewhere ended up being much less painful than I had anticipated.

As I had been engrossed in my own problems, I failed to notice that the Coach had problems of her own. Whereas I was only subjected to the "my way or the highway" management style of Dr. Lana for an hour or two per day, Coach Ritenau had to live it on an eight hour per day basis, which I can't imagine having done for a week let alone two years. But even a saintly polite and quiet person like Ritenau can only take so much. The dream team was folding, and the Coach was packing her bags and moving out.

Ahhh...HA! So the escape hatch was open - I could painlessly slip away as well.

Where to go next - hmmm... hmmmm.... well, that still needed to be worked out.

(P.S... yes of course the chestnut cutie is the Platypus!) 

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

What is the difference between being "stuck".. and not moving on purpose?

Good morning to all, or afternoon, or whatever time of day it is you have decided to blow here on the Curmudgeon Blog.  In the spirit of an annoying co-worker who always feels the need to say some self important bullshit at the beginning of every snooze-inducing meeting, I would like to begin today with some "housekeeping issues".

First - I see we have a lot of new members to the party which is great, welcome one and all. However - if you made it here by way of my bitchy Forrest Gump post, I would like to recommend that you stop reading now, and start at the beginning - because you may or may not have figured out that this is a Chronicle of the Horse described below. Like - seriously - a real chronicle. Not some website of strung together news stories and bulletin posts, but an ongoing history of Ms. V. So you should really go back and start from the start, as we are already about three years into the story.

The beginning of the story

Secondly - I will mention that if you do follow along, at some point in the heap of posts, there is actual video footage of me riding Ms. V. So, if you are one who enjoys a good spoiler, dive in and find it.

Lastly - for those of you who have been following along, I would like to share a picture of an absolutely adorable little hunter pony I found on Facebook. Is he a cutie or what? Maybe when I get back into riding I will buy one of these.  Looks like more fun than dressage, doesn't it.

But now...back to our story - today is brought to you by our ostrich moment.. errr, perhaps I should say our first ostrich moment.

Or as some might like to call it - the early days of being stuck at first level.

Curmudgeon! You just decided to step back and concentrate on your show season, then resume your journey towards collection in the fall.  I hardly call that being "stuck". You made a reasonable choice.

Yah, sure, I agree with you to some point. However, the passage of time just sort of sneaks up on you slowly. And as many of you who are stuck at first level can probably attest to - then one day you find ten years have got behind you. No one told you when to run. You missed the starting gun.

Really, the fact that we were hitting a wall at this point in time should have been a huge red flag. I should have left the jacket in the dry cleaner's bag and figured out what the hell was going wrong. But I didn't.  Hey, I wanted to get out there and show! That is what all of the cool kids were doing.

Well, not all of the cool kids. The actual pro riders who were training their horses with FEI levels on the brain weren't out slogging around at first level.  They were at home. Working through these problems and solving them. They were not putting on the brakes and patching up any hurt feelings or misunderstandings on the horse's part well enough to do a respectable leg yield and a lengthen trot. With the exception being those who had the goal of getting a client owned horse in the ring and finely tuned so that said owner could then ride first level forever ad nauseam, in a safe and sane fashion.

My pyramid is the one on the left.

(Note that this is not the same population as the other people who were not showing - those who felt that the horse gets to dictate progress on their own schedule. Since any sort of transition or "up the levels" related activity has the potential to stir up moments of "loss of harmony" with their equine partner, for this group, progress must often be slowed to a halt. Trail rides ensue. Followed by pithy bulletin board posts.  But I think I covered them in my last entry, so I will skip that for today).

But what is the problem with a little showing? It is a great idea to get out there and get the opinion of others. 

I totally agree, 100%. We should all show. Nothing is more irritating that someone who goes on about how they have mastered level (insert level here) without ever having taken it on the road and proving it.

However, the problem with first and training (as I have gone on about before, so please excuse me for the repetition) is that the things that are rewarded are important, but not necessarily reflective of where you are headed on the journey in the big picture of things.

And so by shelving my efforts to introduce the little bits of collection required for the canter-walk transition, and instead showing and working with the feedback I received - I essentially spent another 6 months rewarding Ms. V for tuning me out the minute she understood the mission at hand and enthusiastically tooling around doing the things she naturally did well. (What? you want a  big forward canter - no problem!... You say rumour has it judge likes "Energetic" trot - yes! 7 coming your way. I got it Curmudgeon, sit back and enjoy!) 

Now I don't think this attitude was all wrong or bad. Her general mindset was correct for eventually being able to be "in self carriage"and far preferable to a horse that was on auto-pilot just because they don't give a flying fuck about anything the rider has to say at all (and there are lots of these out there). Her translation of the phrase "self carriage" at this point in time was just a little to literal, She wanted to just carry me off at the slightest of aids to wherever she felt we needed to go at the time.

Overall, this lead to scores that ran very hot and cold - as in, they tended to be mid to high 50's or low 60's, composed of 6 and 7's rewarding these energetic, forward gaits, with dings here and there for moments of tension - usually during the "easy" things, like walk transitions. We could do everything well at any given time - but generally speaking, not all in one test. And the judges comments usually reflected this - lots of talk of "potential" and "elegance" and "athletic" and other positive indicators of good things coming our way on the horizon once Ms. V did a little maturing in the mental department, and I did a little improving in the "wear the pants and actually ride your horse" department.

The troubling part was that these decent scores with variation within the test were intermingled with total meltdown low 50's for the tests where I decided to exert a little more influence on things, only to have Ms. V say "woah..woah..woah..what the hell was that? I though we covered this during those stupid canter-walks - things go better when we do things MY way, Curmudgeon..stop with the interfering. Did we not just get a 7 on my most awesome forward canter?  The judge and I know our shit, lady". 

You see, I think the most unfortunate part of our fail and retreat on the "up the levels" front was that it introduced some lost debates into our riding equation. Whereas up to that point in time, the Coach and I had pretty much been able to finesse compliance out of Ms. V all along the way, after this attempt at greater things, we had given her a glimpse into the world of NO. Which is never a good thing with horses. As we all know if you lose too many debates, the horse is bound to figure out you are a little soft 130 lb. blob trying to rule the life of a big meaty horse and eventually has a Sandra Dee moment of her own.

The real key to "riding in harmony" isn't to never ask. It is to be able to ask in a way that your horse never sees this world of NO, and thus your request is never rejected. Simple, right? (ha, ha, ha....haa..)

Also unfortunate was that the prescribed cure for this inconsistency by most of my circle of friends and advisers was - more shows. And more riding at the shows. Because, as the theory goes, the more a horse gets out and about, the less things like flags or port-a-potty doors flying open, or other horses freaking out in the warm up will cause them to flip out. And - when you go to more shows, enter more classes. Every test of choice, every class - warm up early in the morning, mid-afternoon, and again, right before you ride... show show show... ride ride ride...spend spend spend...

So not only did I shelve progress and show - but I drilled the hell out of first level.

And our scores did not get better. In some instances they got worse. It was like some agonizing form of expensive self torture. What was that "perfect practice" saying again?  Well whatever it is, we were not doing it. So I guess it really doesn't matter, does it.

Should I have showed training level again? (I will ask the question on your behalf since I know at least one of you is thinking it). I truly don't think this would have made a difference, since there wasn't any component of the first level test that was particularly difficult for Ms. V - it was the act of stringing movements together while still paying attention to my aids that was the issue. In fact, the more boring training level test might actually have made this problem worse, since there was less to do.

When I made the anal spreadsheet thing that is sometimes recommended by anal riders - the one where where you list out all of the different movements and your scores on them, and see where the weaknesses lie - there was no real area of "weakness". It wasn't like we never got 6+ on leg yields or transitions or lengthens ever. It was more like there was a thin layer of dorky young inattentive horse spread all over everything,  (spook here, misbehave there...).and no authoritative pilot aboard to scrape it off with some sort of spatula of competent riding (rider score was often 5, with "effect of aids" underlined).

Mmm... am I the only one who can almost taste cake batter while looking at this photo?

I was seriously so pumped to show that summer, and so convinced that we would be superstars. It was extraordinarily disappointing. I really tried to stay positive, but to be honest, I think I did cry a little at every show. As I recall I skipped the last Gold show, wrapped the year up with a halfway decent Trillium performance where we managed to score over 60 both tests - then packed it in for the year.

I had a whole winter ahead of me to get back on track. To start back at my "one level per year" progress, and master that fucking canter-walk transition. We would be superstars, uhh, next year. At second level.

Get back at it, Curmudgeon, I told myself. FEI is just around some corner. Somewhere. I think. Maybe.