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 perfectly...la, 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 right...now. 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.














Tuesday, 28 October 2014

I feel just like Forrest gump. Only more bitchy.

I hope you all know how much I love your comments. Even the haters usually make me smile. As the saying goes, the opposite of love is not hate, but apathy. 

But I got a comment yesterday that actually tied in with some thoughts I have been having over the last week. 

My most prolific commenter, Anonymous, wrote:

There's a fascinating thread on UDBB right now in which a "purist" decries modern competitive dressage at the international level, but cites a pony walk-trot test performed by a 5 year old as a test that she admires. With video. I can't tell if she is actively insane or not, but it makes for hilarious reading.


Well who could resist that juicy lure. And when I clicked over to the Ultimate board, I was not disappointed. Even the title of the thread is so concise, clear, and easy to understand in this crazy dressage world of travers and renvers and tempis and other weird lingo you need to figure out if you want to sit around and snipe at a clinic with the other ladies while not actually riding your horse... "I can't stand to watch competitive dressage anymore" - ahh. I get it. I get exactly where this person is coming from. Even if I think that place is fucking nuts. 

Now, I did try to watch the video in question. But I just couldn't do it.  I knew my little pea brain would not be able to hang in until the bitter end the moment I saw that the test ran 6 minutes long, and nothing had happened 30 seconds in other than the fascinating spectacle of a very small child on a fluffy white pony moseying around a ring, complete with that irritating wind sound that comes with most homemade videos. (But come to think of it - adding some inspirational classical music or the theme from Frozen as some enamoured parents might have done would have irritated me even more).  

I totally folded once I heard the parent not only perform the duties of reader, but also add a liberal dose of coaching and clicking, and waved her arms around wildly with test in hand in order to get old Cottonball to give trotting another go. 

So, admitting that I did not watch to the end - so perhaps Cottonball banged out a line of ones, or showcased the three P's just to really put a fork in it at the end, and I just missed it all - and also admitting that I am a barren spinster who has zero interest in children, or any of the apparently adorable things they do posted online (Jimmy Kimmel's I ate your halloween candy ones aside..) - I cannot possibly imagine why anyone would use this video as an example of something to watch instead of the horrors of competitive dressage. Because... call me crazy, out in left field... but it IS NOT DRESSAGE.  It is a video of a five year old displaying riding skills typical of a five year old who's parents have enrolled them in horseback riding instead of dance, or soccer, or whatever this five year old's friends are doing somewhere else online, in videos that their parents have posted. I am not being critical or hating on this kid. It is just an unremarkable video. 

Anyway... usually I would just let this pass.  But as I mentioned at the start, this stupid and unfortunately often repeated thread fits perfectly with something that has been bothering me for a while this week. 

Why are dressage riders so incredibly fucking mean to anyone who puts themselves out there and TRIES to do things, in the generally accepted "competitive" fashion. Especially when they do it to the very best of their ability, yet still really, really suck at it. Do the incredibly fucking mean people think that people who really, really suck are doing it on purpose? Because they enjoy moments lacking in harmony or whatever it is they are apparently doing wrong?

And the reason this comes to mind is that I ran in my very first, (and I am betting pretty strongly at this point in time, very last) marathon.


Now, I am sure most of you know about as much about marathons as the majority of the population knows about dressage. You may not know it involves running for 42.2 kilometres (that is 26 miles if it helps). Contrary to what you may remember from pop culture, it does not necessarily involve having your cavities probed by an insane dentist as a form of torture, however around 35km I was so fricking bored of running that I think the pain associated with dental work, or maybe some light waterboarding, would have been a welcome distraction. 

You may also not know that the world record for running a marathon is 2:03. The winner of the marathon I was in finished in 2:08. And, as you can see, I ran it in 5:04.  Wow, am I slow. I really, really suck at running for long periods, at a fast pace. 

This winner guy could have left the race, driven to the airport, cleared customs and been on his way back to Kenya before I even finished. 

Because as you likely do know, there are some countries that excel in creating great marathon runners, and some people have a genetic predisposition to being freakishly better runners than I do. Just as with horses and riders and dressage - that is just the way it is. 

If you decide to become a competitive marathon running person, hold onto your hat and get ready to have your ass kicked by people who are just naturally good at it, and then dedicate their entire lives to becoming the best at it that they can possibly be. 

But the funny thing about running, and really the majority of other sports that are not dominated by catty middle aged women...somehow when these running type people do this.. we don't begrudge them for being insanely fast athletes, or suggest to them that they are taking the easy way out. Or bitch that If they REALLY wanted to experience a marathon, they should try being short chunky legged 44 year old Canadian broads who only started running a few years ago, and take 5 mind-numbingly dull hours to slog though a marathon. Yah, that is REAL running, assholes. 

If I am not happy with this 5 hour result - I don't go home and decide to create a new version of marathon running. One that allows you to employ a scooter at 500 m intervals, or ride on a skateboard, because it is more harmonious. 

I don't decide to run only 5k races for the rest of my life because I am generally pulling off fairly respectable times at this short and easy distance. Better to stay at a lower level forever looking good than try something a little more difficult and come in last...

I don't assume that all top runners are on steroids, even if we know that some of them are. I assume that some people are just awesome. And astronomically better than I am. 

I don't decide to stay home from races forever and just tool around on the local nature trails, being my own special star in the backstreets of Brampton, claiming to run faster and better than any of those assholes trying to qualify for the Olympics...

What - you have never run a marathon?  Well then, I would like to think that you don't sit by your keyboard scanning the results and cattily say that all of the runners that can't get their assess across the line in under 3 hours really should drop down and only do half marathons, as they evidently were not ready for the full. Because what do you know - maybe they really thought they were ready, and trained for ages, and really, really did their very best - but unfortunate shit hit their fan the day of the race. Or maybe they just had a goal to run a marathon, come hell or high water, and your opinion is really not of any importance to anyone. 

And I want to hope that you most certainly do not post videos of cute little 5 year olds running around enjoying themselves in the playground and then declare that THIS - THIS is true marathon running. Because that would be fucking idiotic. 

But really that is not my only point. 

My other point is this. If the winner finished in 2 hours, and I finished in 5 hours, It takes me 2.5x longer to get across the finish line. 

Now, let's pretend we are at a dressage show now, instead of a marathon. Assume this is a Prix St. Georges test, and convert the results accordingly. And, for argument's sake, say a really awesome person shows up and blows away the competition, winning the class with an 80%, which really never happens in my neck of the wood, even the best people are usually in the high 60's but whatever.  My equivalent score would then be... 32%

Ok, now walk back to the barn with me. I have just spent 5 YEARS training this horse - and at least $50,000, likely more, and that is ignoring the purchase price of the animal.  I have just accomplished something that probably 95% of the people wandering around at this horse show will never, ever accomplish, even if they give it their very best try, and spend even more money and more time, since what I have done is REALLY FRICKING HARD.  

So how proud am I of this accomplishment?  Well, after I finished my marathon in a relatively shitty 5 hours, every complete stranger I came across at the finish like congratulated me, told me I did a great job - even the people 500 metres out were cheering me every step of the way. A very hot young Quebecois guy ran with me for about 200 metres somewhere in that final stretch, encouraging me with his sexy little accent "come on Ste-fa-neee, you caaan dooo eeet"  (I noticed as I was leaving that he did this with every woman running in that he could...so hey, it wasn't all about me, but I still appreciated the effort) Every friend, every co-worker - everyone - made a point of telling me how awesome it was that I actually put in the time and effort to train for, and run a marathon. 

Just like the when you put in your very best effort at a dressage show. Right?  Now where were we... walking back to the barn. 

Well, actually - wait - rewind. I am probably not walking back to the barn at all. I am probably still in the port-o-let crying, and embarrassed to show my face in the ghetto tent city stable. Because although I am trying to compete in an Olympic discipline, just like marathon running - and although I am your typical average everyday middle aged woman, spending her time working for a living and trying to make enough money to pay for an average everyday horse... for some insane reason, I am expecting to be right up there with the equestrian versions of the Kenyan marathon runner. Or at very least to qualify for Boston. (I would have to run a Marathon in 3:45 minutes to do this - which would equate to a dressage score of 50% or something in this exercise. I think I hear this person crying in the port-o-let next to me). And I know that if I don't crack 60% - people will not cheer me on. They will think I failed. 

Which is really depressing, isn't it. 

Long story short - competitive dressage people, you are way too hard on yourselves. Any time you show any level that is difficult for you - you should be proud of yourself. Even if things go horrifically wrong. I wish we could all be as supportive of each other as strangers were of me when I ran a molasses slow marathon. 

And if you have  chosen to drop out of the "competitive" lane and have decided to putter around doing whatever floats your harmonious boat - great. Enjoy your Zettl clinics or Wessage or whatever it is that brings you joy. But how about you bugger off and stop insisting that it is superior to what the very best riders in the world are trying to do?  





























Friday, 3 October 2014

Oh, the humanity.

Because it has been a while since the actual events described below occurred in real life, I decided to peruse the bulletin boards to bring back to mind the challenges I faced at the time, by reliving them through others.

(Peruse - this has been one of my favourite words, ever since I mis-spelled pursue on a resume, and instead of pursuing new opportunities, I had written that I was perusing them. I got the job, and was never questioned about my interesting choice of verbs. And, with the way my career has gone, it is now pretty clear that this was not an error, but was actually psychic foreshadowing).

Question to be answered: Was the process of learning canter-walk-canter transitions really all that painful? Is anyone else out there making the same non-existent progress that I was at the time?

You COTH*'ers were no help whatsoever. The bunch of you have really migrated towards the practical and factual. "Where to buy saddle x". "Has anyone tried bit Y". "Do I really have to buy the shadbelly that makes me look like Bib the Michelin man with my biggest roll sticking out in the middle". The closest I found to anything that might start a multi-page, classical versus competitive debate was..."How are your green beans"



Why thanks for asking. Mine are totally delicious and ready for use in a Caesar. Or two. This is what happens when you sell your horse, folks. You find the time to coat things with vinegar and stuff them in jars, which then sit in your cupboard for years, and make your friends laugh nervously when you shove one in their drink and say "No, seriously. Your odds of getting botulism from my home preserves is really, sort of fairly low".

(Hey it is October - so here is a timely question. Which is more likely to kill you - Halloween apple with razor blade, or Fall harvest preserves made by your somewhat senile 90 year old neighbour. Hard call, isn't it).

So, I had to turn to Ultimate Dressage instead. I knew I could rely on them to shed some light here.

Bingo. Second thread. Eleven pages long. Seat aids for "canter to walk"

Wow. I have to admit I didn't make it past the first page. I felt my eyes rolling back in my head and had the urge to flirt with death by preparing and eating some low-acid fruit without a pressure canner to end the agony. My God. My pain has been relived. Mission accomplished.

And best of all, the totally incomprehensible descriptions of correct aids provided by the usual suspects on the ultimate board are being described in such a way that I presume the horse in question must already knows how to execute canter-walk-canter. Really, really freaking well, in fact, to decipher what the hell is going on as per UDBB*.

Which, as you may recall, I found a challenge about a year before this. And I had not really practiced since. And I was now trying to recreate this muddle of aids on a horse that had no clue what I wanted. (Welcome to my world, at least 80% of you have just muttered...)

But Curmudgeon - you had already shown training level by this point in time, and as I recall, got some halfway decent scores (intermingled with the nutty nutbar ones). How bad could your transitions have been? Did your preparatory steps up the pyramid not prepare you to develop great canter-walk-canter transitions seamlessly? 

Build! Build on your pyramid, Curmudgeon!

Answer - No. No can do (or could do, seeing as this all happened in the past).

Oh sure, for Training level, my transitions were just fine.  Halts were generally good enough for a six, or maybe seven now and then. They were sometimes "a little unsteady", or "not quite straight", or suffered from "off contact after halt". The biggest challenge was usually "not immobile in halt" which I told myself is preferable to way too immobile. Or, preferable to total lack of mobility on centerline, ever, at any point during "X-halt-salute".

The sequence of trot - canter - trot is really not all that bad to execute either, especially with the level of precision expected at training level. It is essentially every canter transition a hunter person ever does, even though they insist they are cantering in and out of the walk.

And don't even get me started again on the transitions contained "within the gait".. a.k.a the stupid stretchy circle or nose dragger walk exercises. Seriously, I don't even consider these "transitions" in the true sense of the word at all, but almost more exercises in obedience. Or, deception. For me, they usually involved shortening the reins without Ms. V noticing what was going on, until they were where they needed to be for me to put my leg on and go from stretchy into working without any steps of jigging. It was kind of more like playing Operation, or Wacky Wire at the CNE than actually executing dressage... eaaaasy...eaaaaasy now Curmugeon... creep those fingers forward - genntttly...don't touch the sides...

My brother could not half pass his way out of a paper bag, but he is one hell of a Wacky Wire expert. 

As time went on and I got more strategic in my training, they became drills - walking around the arena was free walk - collected walk - trot - working walk - free walk - extended walk - free walk - ad nauseam, mixing things up so much that Ms. V really had no hope of predicting what was coming next, and therefore had to wait for my aids. If I were a classical person, I would call this "correct training", as the horse should always be obediently awaiting your aids.

Personally, I like to think of it as a kind of equine mindfuck. Whatever.

Sorry, where was I.

So forgetting about these party trick transitions - even the jump from Training to First level just adds some lengthening transitions within the gait - but  the backbone of the test with respect to the between gaits transitions is pretty much the same. Trot - halt - trot - canter - trot - walk...

And we were ready for all of that, heading into the spring of what would be our show season #2, and our First level debut. But progress doesn't stop just because show season is here does it? And besides, if you are showing First level, you should be training Third, since one always wants to be schooling at least two levels higher than they are showing, right?  You are all doing that, I assume. Perhaps dabbling in changes and half steps, and whatnot, while also preparing to wow an r judge at a schooling show at First on the weekends. Right?

(Ha ha, ha, haa... people make me laugh when they say this. Because it is an oh-so realistic generalization for the average adult amateur showing First. Not).

Quite seriously, in my freakishly optimistic mind which had "one level per year" drilled into it by reading bulletin boards, there was absolutely no reason to slow down for us. We were not about to just hang out in a leg-yielding, canter-trotting rut perfecting our stupid stretchy circle. We needed to push on, and begin introducing the next elements on down the road in our journey.

And the worst of these elements was...by far. No comparison.  No contest.

Canter. walk. canter. And boy, was it ugly.

In fact, I contend that this movement is really, beyond sitting trot, beyond trying to morph the leg yield into something more shoulder-inny - is the reason people have trouble making the jump from First to Second level. Doing this transition well is really not easy. Well it wasn't for me in any case, and based on my scribing experience, it isn't for others either.

What it all boils down to, in my "what the hell do you know" opinion is that the real difference between First and Second level - the screaming, can't be faked movement - is the simple change. And the reason is that it requires both a level of finesse on the rider's part, and ability to collect on the horse's part that most of us will never obtain.

And, if this first stage of collection is not obtained, instead of that leaf like flutter to the ground, you get a mixed bag of propping on front legs, hopping behind, and a whole lot of equine WTF middle finger as you try to jam on the brakes as the horse is merrily cantering around the arena, doing exactly what they have done and gotten rewarded for for the last two years, starting the confusion in their little walnut brain. Then reapply the gas sending the horse blasting forward, and yanking on their face unintentionally as they do and you fall behind the motion, thus completing the confusion in the little walnut brain.

As the saying goes, perfect practice makes perfect. Perfect practice was most certainly not what Ms. V and I were doing together.

It is also not what coach Ritenau was doing when I watched her ride either, as she seemed to make no more progress with the exercise than I did. Why not, you ask?  Was she doing a poor job of trying to install this button? Or was I just fucking up any traces of the button so seriously every time I rode that my efforts totally obliterated any small amount of progress she made in my absence?

Hmm, good question. I don't really remember, and to be honest, I was probably so ignorant of what should have been happening at that time that I would not have been able to spot the faults in any case.

So, who knows.

The bottom line is that between the two of us, we set up the foundation for a horse that really, really hated canter-walk-canter transitions, and crashed down and blasted upwards if your aids were not perfect. Every time. Forever.

"Sit her back! She is croup high. You will never get a soft downward transition until her hind end is underneath her". 


Oh, the humanity.


*COTH - Chronicle of the Horse
*UDBB - Ultimate Dressage Bulletin Board























Sunday, 7 September 2014

I want to die peacefully in my sleep like my Grandpa (not screaming like the passengers in his car).

Actually, I forgot - one other transition has occurred. The one that actually brings to mind the horse world in some ways.

I bought a new car. I call it - Raging Bull (bonus points to the first reader who knows why.. yes it is red.. annnndd...).



I have learned a few things since this transition.

First - I have been informed several times since my purchase that Subarus are the automobile of choice for lesbians. And secondly, WRX STI's are the hot rides of many a 21 year old man/boy's dreams. As a result, I have left those around me wondering if I am switching teams, or gearing up to become an Uber-Cougar.

I will leave you guessing as well. There is of course a third option, that I just needed to buy a four door car for my job and decided that I wanted something a little more wild and crazy than the standard issue midlife SUV that my fellow women co-workers seem to be drawn to. But that option is much duller than the first two, isn't it.

The next thing I have learned is if you are a 40+ year old woman who suddenly on a whim decides to buy a 300+ horsepower car to toodle around the 'burbs... the same model that has just broken the Isle of Man TT race record for cars, driving an average speed of almost 120 miles an hour through crazy twisting turning roads and small villages, you hear a familiar narrative. You might recognize it from such places as, oh, your local dressage barn filled with catty middle aged women.

To my face, it is fine. "Oh nice car, I love the colour".  But I know what people are saying behind my back. If I had to keep my car at a car boarding stable, instead of in the underground parking garage... the chatter would go like this.

"I can't believe she bought that car. That poor, poor car. 

It will never reach its potential NOW! Even if she takes it to a track day, that car could go PSG and she will barely be able to putter around at first level with her driving skills.

Sure she can drive standard, but in a fake, false, spank-n-crank type of way. I bet she can't double clutch her way out of a paper bag when the time comes to really ask for the performance that car is capable of. She needs to drive Raging Bull FORWARD!  Not be riding the brakes into turns. Let it go!  Let go of it's face! (No, no, she shouldn't actually let go of the the steering wheel. I am speaking metaphorically here)"


It is weird, when I take my customers out to lunch, they never let me drive. Even though I have four doors now.


Even the guy at the dealership asked me if I really needed the STI, when I was unlikely to even push the base model WRX anywhere remotely near its performance limits. You know things are bad when a car salesman tries to talk you out of spending money.

So - yes. I know. I have officially become the automotive world's equivalent of a horse petter. The woman who buys the imported warmblood schoolmaster, and hopes someday to show Grand Prix. Or at very least, canter while not attached to the longe line.

Which I don't think is fair, really. Had I bought a 1992 AstroVan no one would have expected me to fill it with children and go to soccer games. Come to think of it - when you buy a $500 Quarter horse at the auction, no one scoffs and asks when you plan to herd cattle on the plains of Alberta. You are allowed to aim as low as you want without stirring up any eye-rolling. Just don't put on a show that implies you may someday achieve pretentious things that are far beyond any limits of reality.

But it has left me thinking a bit about the similarities between learning to drive a performance car, and learning to ride a performance horse as well.  For example, if the gold standard of a beautiful hunter round is to ride a horse that makes it look like you are doing nothing while the horse floats you effortlessly over the jumps, then I guess the car equivalent you would buy would be a big BMW M series sedan or something similar that is admired by your grandfather.

However, if you want to make it around the Isle of Man without T-boning a quaint stone wall and dying, it is all about lightning fast acceleration and deceleration and overall handling when things get hairy. In other words - it is really about the transitions.

Just like in dressage.

I have no idea what became of my test book during my move (probably collecting dust at Value Village with the truckload of other possessions I could not be bothered to cart along with me), but as I recall from scribing, the most often repeated whisper to the judge during a day of sweating your crotch off in long pants is "uhhh...mark for transitions?".

Judges often forget that they not only have to come up with a score and something pithy to say about the fact that the rider's extended canter looks exactly like their collected canter, and both closely resemble whatever plain old canter the horse in question is likely to offer up given his choice of gaits... but also must elaborate on the non-existent differences as the rider makes some sort of a show out of transitioning from one of these states to the other.

Transitions are big. And this is reflected in our dressage tests. Adding a separate line to score transitions enables the judge to ding you not only for doing things poorly one at a time, but also for the fact that you can't even string together your clusterfuck of errors with any amount of admirable chutzpah.

And, one thing that was becoming evident to me as I toiled away trying to move the dial on Ms. V's progress from training level to - uh - something beyond training level - was that although having a "sensitive", "hot off the leg", "responsive" horse is a lot more pleasant a lot of the time than having something that requires more effort to get rolling - doing a smooth transition with such an animal is a lot more difficult than doing them on a horse that breathes a little less fire.

You know all of that stuff about "timing of the aids" and "leg before hand" and "ride every stride"... well sure, you need to do all of that while you are cruising around every time you ride, in every gait, blah, blah, blah. However - the time that the fact you are no Anky really shines through the brightest (or am I supposed to say Charlotte these days?) is when your hot horse either flops on her face during a downward transition with not enough leg, or nearly bursts out of her skin during and upwards one with too much leg - or actually does both during one transition, as you try in vain to patch things up mid-way into your bumbling effort. There is just so little room for error.

There is a reason big, slow, lumbering old school warmbloods still have their huge fan base. They are just so comfy and easy to ride, and if you are not doing anything requiring split second reactions, they are really your best bet. Also, if you are showing any dressage level where the transitions can be "through walk", or even a level where they can't - but a step of something weird and tense looking is likely to be punished more harshly than an also incorrect lingering semi-comatose transition (and let me tell you - it almost always is) well, old Eis-Eis-Kindskopf the 25 year old Hanoverian is probably your best bet here too if you are dreaming of a brag worthy score.

Yes, yes, of course - you will be the one laughing when the time comes to teach your fire breathing dragon horse to piaffe or passage or do anything else requiring more go than woah. I know this, you are totally correct. Just keep telling yourself that as you read the comments on your first level tests through the tears.

Bottom line - transitions can really be a bitch on a hot horse.

As is the case with cars.

Ask yourself - when is the last time you saw grandpa stall his Oldsmobile at a stoplight, then be angrily honked at by 5 impatient drivers before he is able to get the sucker fired up again and herky-jerkily drive away, chirping his tires on the pavement as he pops the clutch and gives himself whiplash?

The answer is ..never. Ever.

Now ask yourself - when is the last time you saw Curmudgeon doing all of that while driving to the office in Raging Bull. If you happen to live in the GTA, the answer might be Wednesday.