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.












Monday, 18 August 2014

Transitions...

Curmudgeon!  You haven't written in forever! Where have you been!

I am sorry, I know I should have called, or written, or kept in touch...my bad...oops...

I keep on saying this. I know you probably feel that the words mean about as much coming from me as they do when said by your self absorbed asshole friend from high school.

The one who routinely calls you when she wants to talk about her daughter's Mensa worthy intellect (incredible, really, for a 4 year old) or something else freakishly positive and brag-worthy. Yet is strangely mute-absent when you phone to talk about any positive event in your own life and says "I am sorry, I know I should have called, or written, or kept in touch...my bad...oops.." to explain why she never returns your calls...

But really I am. The problem is that I have been working on my transitions.

Actually, on second thought - you should count yourself lucky, I think, that I have not come on here to whine about each and every transition looking for your support and validation (as that other self absorbed friend from high school does, the one who wants to explain to you in detail how her slow descent from prom queen to crack whore status has nothing at all to do with her own personal choices, and everything to do with the world around her in general).

Anyway - it really is true, I have spent the last 6+ months transitioning many elements of my life.

Now as dressage riders, we all know the importance of transitions. Equisearch tells me they are "the secret to balanced riding".

We all know they should come from behind (No, not in a kinky porn way. Stop it). And downward ones should be light as a feather dropping to the ground. Maybe a leaf. (Under no circumstances should they be like a coconut or other large fleshy fruit dropping to the ground). We need to prepare-prepare-ask. To jump-jump-sit. Or any other triad of words that lights your fire and implies something other than falling into a heap of horse and rider unpredictably. Transitions must be energetic and instant. But not abrupt. And above all, your timing must be..*impeccable*.

(Great. As if anything in my life is or ever was impeccable).
I found this helpful guide. I have no clue what it means, however I am sure I have executed all of these transitions. Within one dressage test. At training level. 

So, you may now ask - what are these transitions I have been working on, and how successful was I with my impeccable execution?

Well, first - I no longer live at the idyllic (on the surface) 1/2 acre "country in the city" property that I have called home for the last 16 years, surrounded by quaint gardens and rolling lawns and quirky retired schoolteacher neighbours. I have transitioned to a small condo in my hometown.

This transition was executed with the kind of elegance and poise that one observes when watching an eight year old ride a sour school horse from walk to canter. While clinging to the horse's face and flailing their little legs around in some attempt at stirring up some forward momentum at the same time. Actually, I think this is called the trot-trooot-trrrrooot-geeetttt GITTT - cluck - cluck - cluck - GITTTT - cluck - cluck - GITT UP THERE (insert cracking longe whip and running coach here) CANTER transition. I executed this well, in a long and dragged out, painful to onlookers fashion.

What Curmudgeon! Your place was awesome! Who would give that up!

Yah, yah, I know. It WAS idyllic for the first, oh, 14 years or so. The problem was the final 2 years of the 16, that I spent mowing these lawns, and weeding the gardens, and shoveling the length of driveway that it takes to reach the back of a 1/2 acre lot during the never-ending winter of 2013/2014...all under the watchful (read - spying/prying) eyes of the quirky neighbours. One day I woke up with the nearly uncontrollable compulsion to slowly turn that lawn mower in their direction and run unpredictably right at them (perhaps while growling GITTT - GITTT!), and mowing them all to pieces. And hopefully taking down that fucking lemongrass perennial that someone gave me in 1996 without warning me about its impending non-stop invasive attack on all things soil covered in my yard on the way.

(Did you ever see the youtube video where the seemingly placid beaver casually turns and attacks a man's genitals?  (No, this is not a sick Canadian porn joke. It really happens) Well, kind of like that.  Imagine this beaver is pushing a lawnmower and that the person behind the camera is giving the beaver random, unsolicited advice on some aspect of its life. That will give you a pretty good idea of how I was feeling).


These neighbours are all in their late 70's or early 80's now, so I could easily tip them over and hold them down with my foot while making a few passes with the mower.

So far I am liking things in my old hometown, which is now nothing like my hometown since I haven't actually lived there since I was 18. But as I run through the streets (No, no. I realize the place is a little shiftier than when I left but I am not being chased. Usually. I am training for a marathon), now and again some tiny piece of the past shows itself and I feel like I am home.

For example - the Sword 'n' Shield with the grammatically incorrect Foxxes Den for ladies and Bottom's Up Cabaret for the gentlemen is long gone (Somehow "Foxxes" was spelled just so wrong it seemed artsy but I never got over the apostrophe in Bottom's. Did one of the dancing ladies within actually manage to purchase the club using the power of her impressive booty alone, such that her bottom actually had possession of the the "Up Cabaret"? ).  Where this all stood, there is now a clean and shiny looking Days Inn. If Sword 'n' Shield were a horse, we could say it has executed a transition of sorts.


I never cease to be amazed what you find when you Google random things.  Photo credit SSTUDIO Samuel Bietenholz 

But Sonny's Drive-In remains frozen in amber. Transitionless.
I actually never, ever ate here because urban legend when I was a kid indicated that they made their burgers out of cats. If they are still in business after all of these years, it must be a very delicious cat recipe so I think I should at least stop by and give it a try.

"Why Curmudgeon - why did you finally break into canter and start running after 16 years" you may ask?

Well, if you have read Eat Pray Love, or suffered through it in the form of a Julia Roberts movie, I am sure you can figure out transition #2, as it is really kind of a cliche for middle aged women these days. I will not be eating in Italy though (see above - Sonny's is in walking distance and I will save a lot on airfare). Being an atheist, I will probably skip the pray part altogether (although I must admit I do sometimes pray that that the loser in the condo next door will turn down her music and find a way to stop her dog from whining...). Love is yet to come, however I was contacted by a Peruvian millionaire on Match.Com and that is pretty close to Brazilian businessman as per the book. He had a faint aroma of catfish about him right from email #1 so I decided I was not ready to live the life of a South American princess just yet. Maybe next week.

Transition #3 - well, you know a bit about this one. Are you familiar with the application of the pulley rein to stop a horse that is madly running forward towards a cliff, or a barn door that is low enough to swipe off your head, helmet and all?  That is pretty much how this went down. WOAH - WOOOAHH - WOAAAHHH - please WOAH and make it STOP...

Ms. V has - finally - officially been sold to a new home. After 3+ years of trying what seemed like everything, and feeling as helpless at many steps of the process as the rider above feels while whipping around the arena applying that pulley rein, and with just as many railbirds yelling out advice (Soften inside! You are pinching with your seat! Sit back! Have you tried Parelli?)

It is a wonderful home where I know she will do well, and be loved - and it has been about 4 months now and I have heard not a peep from the new owner, and when it comes to horses, I am a big believer that no news is good news.

Hopefully I am not jinxing myself by typing these very words.

So, now you are back up to speed on today - and all I can say is that transitions are more difficult than they seem.  I guess I would have known this had I just done a search on COTH Forums*.  Apparently Podhajsky said you must do many - 50 a day or some shit like that - in order to master them. Whew. I am worn out after just 3 major ones.

But the good news is - sitting in the sun and drinking coffee on my balcony, with not a blade of grass that I am responsible for mowing anywhere in sight - I now have ample time to continue on with the story. Where were we again? Somewhere around 2007?  Level 1? Oh yes, it is all coming back to me.

And yes, transitions really were something of a concern at the time then as well.

*COTH - Chronicle of the Horse Forums










Thursday, 10 October 2013

Abracadabra... Half Pass. Welcome to fantasy land, population no one.

"Curmudgeon - seriously. Why did you even bother with leg yield?  The dressage masters don't. You should just move right into shoulder fore / half pass".

Yah, yah, got it. Thanks Anonymous. I read that book too. It was one of the toilet library collection, circa 2005.  And I do totally agree - just leg yielding around for the hell of it really doesn't serve a lot of purpose, other than impressing people who are very easily impressed.

And we all know, from a purely practical point of view, the reason we North Americans must bother with learning to execute a perfect leg yield (shoulder just slightly leading, steady angle and perfect rhythm all the way from K to X then back to H, just a whiff of flexion off of straight through the jowl)... is not for any reason relating to the mastery of dressage per se.

It is simply because if we hope to show 1st level, we are required to execute a generous serving of leg yield with a healthy side of useless nose dragging stretchy circle (which I have already bitched about, so I will save you the repeat rant here).

Stupid Stretchy Circle

And I would say for many Oragami Saddlepadders, this why the effort begins, and as a result is where the adventure ends. Because if this is your motivation - you really don't get what it is we are doing when we are teaching the horse to leg yield. And I am not saying this to be some superior bitch, because I don't think I did either.

If I get on someone's horse now, (after all of the time and money I have wasted in my useless pursuit to become a "dressage rider"), I would say the things that I am most amazed by is how many people's "dressage horses" don't go forward when leg is applied (and keep on going) - and secondly, how many horses do not move off the leg laterally when applied - two basic buttons that I can't imagine how someone can possibly ride their horse with any level of enjoyment without installing.  Well, realistically, I do know - I know because I did exactly this for many years - as the saying goes, you don't know what you don't know.

I think part of the problem is that - just as with the conundrum previously described as "psst...what is a half halt anyways, and can you help me find my clitoris" (The Half Halt) - for those of us coming to dressage after many years of doing some other sort of riding, taking a big step back to deconstruct what the hell it is we are trying to accomplish here as a "dressage rider" because really, we have no foggy clue - is embarrassing.

And coaches don't want to embarrass their meal tickets, and so as a team, we sweep this ignorance under the rug and try to muddle through with whatever level of competence shows up for the ride. "Good, Suzie, GOOD!  You had some steps there where Stormy was really crossing over (when he tripped and struggled to regain his balance as he sidled on over to the rail with his head cranked at that awkward angle)".


Nice, Suzie, NICE! I really like the level of activity, he is really stepping through.

Ideally, if the horse is in full training, the coach can work behind the scenes to secretly install these buttons and will only have to deal with the pushing of them by the hapless student. Wow!  Leg yield was a snap. On to half-pass...

However, since the majority of people who are stuck in the mud somewhere in the swamps of first level are not in full training - if no one takes the time to say "hey, maybe it's just me... but your leg yield exercise is looking more like a head tilting diagonal line exercise - just a crazy thought, throwin' it out there, brainstorming here - can you actually get your horse to move his quarters around at a halt - ever?  Dismounted? - In the cross ties? - Anywhere?"

(One of my favourite poorly executed exercises has to be the "spiral in / leg yield out".  Or, more accurately described in most cases, "spiral in /drift on back to the rail with horse's nose cranked to inside" exercise")

The whole reason leg yield is important - why it becomes useful for all of the reasons often spouted on bulletin boards etc. - is because if you cannot move your horse around - front / back / sideways - at will, any time, any place, bend in / bend out, no debate - you have no hope in hell of ever getting the horse straight. And as much as I like to make fun of the pyramid, this actually is pretty important.

So my advice to you, is stop thinking of leg yield as a "thing" and start thinking about the fact that your horse should move willingly off your leg, wherever it is you tell them to move.  And, if you are a smug classical dressage person, stop telling people that leg yield is useless an we should all move on to shoulder fore, because I promise you, if someone cannot make their horse move sideways in some obedient leg yieldy fashion, they are not going to be able to magically pull a shoulder fore out of their ass either.


You see, it is easy. Just keep the elbow macaroni in the trapezoids, and everything will be fine. 













Friday, 13 September 2013

Things seem to be going a little bit sideways...

And what exactly was it that was so rosy on the riding side?

We were finally starting lateral work. My very favourite work of all. (Incidentally, all of my moves at work tend to be lateral as well - coincidence? Hmm... I just don't know)

The good news is that beautiful half passes, once you learn how to do them and when mounted on a horse that is up for the task, are easy. Really. Nothing is more therapeutic to me now after a long day of doing whatever it is that I might do in a day that I don't enjoy than riding a nice tight little 10 m circle (no Bullit-esque fishtails)- shoulder in - 10 m circle - half pass (which you may recognize as parts of the beginning of our current PSG tests).

No No NO!  Weight should be on your INSIDE seatbone

Sure, it doesn't have the flash of a line of tempis. But whereas tempis have always felt lumpy and awkward and confusing to me (you have to move your legs and count for Pete's sake - too much like work), if you set up your half pass correctly (establish correct bend during your circle, sitting in the direction of travel, forward as always is key), and your horse has been schooled to know what the hell this all means, you just get to sit back and enjoy the ride, with only minimal pilot input required.

In fact, I would say that if you ever find yourself straining during a half pass - if you are ever swinging your leg so far back that you poke yourself in the ass while trying to get that aid "behind the girth"...if your saddle pad is all folded up into an intricate series of pleats like one of those towel origami things they put on your bed at all inclusive resorts in Cuba ...if your horse is doing a big beautiful, booming trot around the arena, but then decelerates to a dust kicking shuffle when asked to move sideways... you are doing it really, really wrong.  Just like lots of other people.

Honey! Look! Someone has been riding shitty half passes on our bed.  Isn't it beautiful!

I don't know why there is such a monstrous abyss between "beautiful lateral work" and "horrific sideways stumble with horse's neck cranked in some direction, and a toe out, heel in spur gouge".  But, being a horse person on the internet, I will take a stab at explaining something on which I have no true knowledge with an air of authority. It's what we do, right?

We have already covered several of the terms that you will want to include on your "things coaches yell out to clueless beginners" bingo card - things like "half halt", and "bend through the jowl" and "did you feel that?".  You will definitely want to add "leg yield" to a corner or two of your card, as it is always on the list of pithy advice that is barked at the riders of board stiff, dum-de-dum school horses as they plod around doing the same shit they have done for the last 15 years, with little regard for anything the rider may or may not be attempting to execute up above.

In fact, a quick surf of our favourite bulletin boards shows that the leg yield is such an important item on this bingo card that it is the go-to solution used to cure a wide range of problems that the average horse might face - and not just in the dressage ring either.  Bolting, overbending, failure to pick up a desired lead, inability to change leads, pulling on the bit, rushing through courses, falling souflees, impotence, crab lice - yes, having this one little tool in your toolbox can help you to turn just about any arab cross into Hickstead, if you just know when to apply it.

Which is great news.

The part that is a bit frightening is that when you actually look for information on "how to leg yield" - things get a little foggier. As with the half halt, there seems to be the perception that horses and riders are born with the innate ability to move smoothly sideways at just the right angle, shoulders leading slightly. Very little time seems to be dedicated to explaining to the rider - or the horse for that matter - exactly how the hell this is accomplished.  As a rider, you are just supposed to magically know where to sit, pull, poke - and when.

I do think most of us can blame this on our origins as hunter / jumper riders, because I don't think there is a h/j person out there who will believe you if you tell them "your horse cannot leg yield", just as 99% of h/j people bopping around with draw reins or a chambon clipped to their pelham think you are just being a catty DQ if you announce that their horse is not really "on the bit". (And come on, you kind of are. Polite dressage riders avert their eyes and shut their mouths, then slam their h/j friends on bulletin boards). 

But the truth is - most of them can't - well, not in the dressage sense of the word in any case.  And I don't think anyone notices or cares.  I once attended a BNT hunter clinic where a group of about five 12 year olds on sour faced ponies were instructed to "shoulder in down the long side".  Hey, call me a Curmudgeon but I think his request was a tad on the optimistic side - or conversely, on the "what the hell, it is a clinic and I will never see these people again, let me throw out some juicy instructions to wow them, who cares if these little wanks even know what it means" side. You can pick.

So - if like me, you have this foundation in place, and you come from a world where as long as your horse was drifting somewhere in some fashion, while you pulled on a rein or dug in a spur, you were deemed to be "leg yielding", and crab stepping up the long side was "shoulder in" - you may find lateral work to be a challenge at first. Just like connection. And sitting trot, and ...and...and...and...(insert various aspects of dressage here).

Now I am not saying that there are no tips at all on the internet to help explain the mysteries of the leg yield.  For example, I found a site that promised to teach you how to leg yield in 14 easy steps.  Here is an excerpt:

With your core muscles, lighten the seat bone which is on the hind leg that you want to cross over. For example, if you are leg yielding to the left, lighten your right seat bone by scrunching up the right side of your core, making sure that you keep your upper body straight.

A-ha. Makes perfect sense, no?  In my books, this advice does get points for using the key dressage words "core", "lighten" and "seat bone" all in one sentence, along with the no doubt classically inspired term "scrunching".  You don't see that every day. I must also point out that this was not the first step in successfully executing your leg yield - it was somewhere down near number 14.  There were other preparatory steps early on, such as #2 - mount your horse.  Huh. Good tip. 

Now after that -if things start going a little sideways - well, we will know it is working.

P.S - Happy Friday the 13th!