Tuesday 29 November 2011

When Engineers and Germans collide. The Chin-up.

Right from the start, Mr. Motard was intrigued by the concept of "full training board".  The engineer in him had to see how the mechanics of this situation were going to work.

He just couldn't accept what was so simply obvious to me - you go there, you ride a lot, yada yada yada - Prix St. George. For some bizarre reason, he thought it was more complicated than this, and felt the overwhelming urge to tear it down like an engine and stare at the greasy parts.

"You are going to take a lesson with this woman EVERY time you ride?  That is crazy!  Aren't you going to get sick of each other!"

"Uh..no.  I don't think so"  (anyone who has been in full training knows the answer to this is... HELL YES!).

"How much is all of this costing you - it must be a fortune!"

"Uh..it is surprisingly affordable"  (anyone who has been in full training knows the answer to this is... HELL YES!).

"How are you going to find the time for this!  Who is going to make dinner?"

And so on and so on... instead of answering an endless stream of questions, I suggested that he be a loving S.O and come along for the ride to help me move.  Don't ask me why this seemed like a good idea at the time.  Probably because I am not good at backing up the horse trailer, I thought at very least he might come in handy.

Frau Trainerin greeted us warmly and helped me to organize my crap, that was all fine, and barn staff made appropriate comments about the cuteness of the Platypus.  Then the tour of "the horses much better than the Platypus" began.

Now to me, this is totally normal.  You could walk into a barn full of three-legged critters with their heads screwed on backwards, and the owner would begin regaling you with the life and times of each special and awesome creature in their care. How they can split the atom with their anus or some other incredible feat that makes them worth 500x their value as meat.  We are horse people. That's what we do.  But I could see the first flickers of Mr. Motard's eyes rolling in his head, as his "oh my god, what bullshit am I submerged in" alarms started to go off.

In this case, most of the horses were pretty awesome, and I was actually really interested in hearing their stories.  But Mr. Motard's final string of polite restraint snapped when we got to the one that looked....like a cart horse.

"Well, WHAT is the story on this one.  Surely you are not going to tell me you imported THIS from Germany.  Or that he has some fancy breeding.  He looks like he should be pulling a plow".

Frau Trainerin smiled wryly and said "No Eee is not Ghaman bred.  Eee is out of Texas by Trailah"

Mr. Motard stared at her blankly.

"Out - of - Texas - by -Trailah!  Out of Texas... by Trailah!  Dees is a joke!  Eet means vee don't KNOW hees breeding.  Eee has come on a Trailah from somwhere, where, we do not know, maybe Texas".

Mr. Motard stared at her blankly.  Some more.  I explained the joke to him.  I then proceeded to struggle to stop him from trying to tell it for the next 8 years.  (No - it is not that funny, honey, really.  And when you ask someone who just spent $50,000 on a Dutch import if the horse is "Out of Texas by trailer" - it is just insulting.  Not funny.  No seriously - stop.)

Then, the trouble really started. Frau Trainerin's next mount was tacked up and ready for her to warm up for her waiting client/owner.  He got that certain smirk on his face that always proceeds his "but honey, I was just making conversation" routine.   The conversation is never, never good.

He mentioned in his wide eyed and "curious" way that he couldn't help but notice that although Ms. X and Mr. Z owned this horse, and Ms. ABC owned that one, and Sue Jones owned these, and so on...Frau Trainerin rode and showed them all.  And why can't Mrs. Smith warm up her OWN horse?  Don't these  women actually do any of their OWN riding?  What the hell is the point of having a hobby that someone else does?  What gives?  Are they too old and weak?

Ooohh... did you have to go there?  Really?  We all know this is kind of the way the competitive dressage world is.  There is most certainly a large contingent of rich horse petting clients.  Part of being a truly awesome full service coach is providing them with the just the right balance of riding  (to be sure that they feel they are entirely necessary to the game beyond just the wallet part) - and not riding (so as not to fuck anything up in the training department).  The business is built on it.  Not that there is anything wrong with that, whatever floats your boat - it is not how I see my world unfolding, but gee, we don't usually stop and point fingers, honey.

It was Frau Trainerin's turn to stare blankly. I could see just a hint of "who is this asshole" somewhere behind her cool and professional demeanor.

"Vell.  You know a lot about dressage, you think, heh?  How strong is YOUR girlfriend.  Vee ONLY have strong veemen here"

"Oh, she is strong.  Really strong"

"Yah? Vell let's see her do a chin-up eef she is sooo strong.  Can she eeevan do a chin-up"?

"Oh no PROBLEM. Curmudgeon - show her!  Do a chin-up.


"Aaah you seee!  She eess not so strang now, heh?"

"Oh she is going to do it.  GO CURMUDGEON.  DO IT!"

Ahh, it took me back.  To another place and time... not a good one.  Back to grade school, when I was the "husky" kid doing the "ParticipACTION challenge".  Where I never, ever got anything other than the shitty "ParticipACTION" badge and the little plastic pin - not even a bronze badge for me - because I could not haul my chunky little ass up and do flexed arm hang for 8 seconds.  And now I had to do a chin-up.  In front of my fabulous new coach.

Sigh.  Again.  I guess I could have walked away.  But I told myself, Curmudgeon, you won't get to PSG by refusing to do chin-ups.  Or something along these lines.

Not another fucking PIN!

I took a deep breath, grabbed the barn beam, and **HUUUUHMMHHUUUUHHHMMMM**  (insert another deep breath here) ***HUUUMMMUUMMHHUUMMM** believe it or not, for the first time ever in my life I did ....a chin-up.

It was kind of like the stories you hear about when a car crushes a woman and her spouse finds some hidden superhuman strength that miraculously enables him to lift the vehicle, saving the life of his beloved. And not anything like when a crazed dressage woman drives her truck and horse trailer right over HER significant other, because she is so annoyed by his behaviour.  Which I can totally see happening too.

Well, that was that, I can't really remember anything else that happened as I think I blew a blood vessel or two in my head trying to haul my chunky little ass up just like back in '78.  I guess we made our way home and I probably had at least 3 glasses of wine to wash away the memories of my truly strange first day at my fabulous new barn.

To this day, Mr. Motard still seems to think this is some sort of bizarre dressage ritual that we do as a form of greeting when going into a new training situation.  Like Frosh week.  He doesn't get that it was just...weird.

So years later, when I finally went back into full training with a different FEI coach, you should have see the disappointment on his face when we got ready to go after dropping off my mare...

"What?  We are leaving?  But he hasn't even asked you to do the chin-up yet!"

Monday 28 November 2011

Mr. Motard helps me move.

**Alert** Contains more graphic language than usual.  But I swear it really happened.

I bet I know another thing we have in common.  How many of you have a significant other that thinks you are ENTIRELY INSANE for even participating in this sport?

Anyone?  Oh come on, don't lie.

We will call mine, Mr. Motard.

Yes.  This is really a picture of Mr. Motard.  It is not Liz's boyfriend.

Of course, when choosing a partner to compliment one's horsey lifestyle, the ideal would clearly be to find one that is really rich and fairly busy, so you have plentiful time and money to go about neurotically pursuing the hobby.

Easier said than done, there are only so many of these to go around and they are difficult to find in the first place, let alone capture.  Count me among the failures in this department.

So I know a compromise many of us have found works relatively well is to find a S.O with a hobby that is equally as time consuming and expensive as Dressage.  Thus, the prevalence of motorsports, sailing and aviation among spouses.  That way, you can agree on a "don't ask don't tell" policy regarding expenditures, and keep relative peace in the household.

Sailing and Aviation are preferred I think because they also have monthly fees associated with either the hanger or the slip, similar to boarding a horse.  Unfortunately for me, motorcycles are quite content to hang out in the basement gathering dust and not accruing any costs all winter, which doesn't make for quite level playing grounds.  Still, not a bad compromise.

But no matter how level I may be able to convince Mr. Motard the playing field may be in terms of obsessive hobbies, time, money - I can't even begin to put a dent in his hard wired perception that the people of dressage are all nuts.  It doesn't help that Mr. Motard is a bit different himself - he is an Engineer, after all, and is a bit like Sheldon Cooper, only better looking and more interested in sex.

Part of the problem is that he doesn't come out to the barn a lot, but only shows up for special occasions.  He doesn't see us do all of the normal things we do.  Like conversing with cats in goo-goo voices, apologizing to our horses for poking them in the eye while putting on bridles, or arguing with our boots re: NO our calves are NOT getting fatter and how maybe THEY are the ones with the problem.  Totally sane and rational daily stuff.

Instead he sees the extreme things.  Like the Christmas parties where the barn manager is riding around drunk and backwards on the resident shetland pony.  Or any horse show, where grown women are walking around crying or yelling. In fact, sometimes that woman is me.

A favorite instance was a time where a totally out of control horse ridden by a beautiful blonde Young Rider in full top hat and tails came barreling up the hill to the back stable ghetto at Palgrave at a flat out gallop, with the rider leaning back and hauling on all four reins while screaming "FUCKINGGGG CUNTTT!!!" at the top of her lungs.

Mr. Motard paused, then said "Now that can't be the horse's real name.  Does it actually say that on the little brass plaque on its halter?"

He often asks me if I see Cunt at shows, and if she is doing well.  And also why I picked such a boring name for my horse.

And this all really started... the day he helped me move the Platypus.  Due to the incident involving the chin-up.

Friday 25 November 2011

It's time. Shit or get off the pot, Dressage Curmudgeon...

First, I want to thank all of you for your comments, it is really fun to know that people are actually reading the blog, whether you hate it or love it.

I really did start it just to make my friends laugh.  Also - because I am kind of sad about selling my horse and am not sure what I want to do next in the equestrian world - it is a fun outlet for me.  I do seriously hope that if nothing else when reading you get a feeling now and then that you are not alone when faced with the total weirdness that seems to permeate our hobby.

Perhaps if you don't find any common ground at all, and think that I am just a vitrol spewing bitch - I would suggest that in some instances, you too may be able to see the various Emperor's penises (or labia depending on gender) if you look a little bit harder. And for the record, I say this entirely tongue-in-cheek - in case anyone out there isn't on side with my humour, and based on some of the posts I have read, I get the feeling there just may be a few of you out there.  So don't get too excited. (due to their lack of clothes - get it?   No real genitals were involved or displayed, I am just messing with you).  

But then on the other hand, maybe you are much better off than me if you don't.  I often do think to myself how much easier life would be if I could see the invisible shorts too, and there are many days I really wish I could.  Unfortunately if there is an ass or a dick out there, I seem to be able to spot it.  It is stressful, really.  Maybe Valium would help.  I am open to suggestions.

I see naked classical dressage instructors.  They are everywhere, walking around like regular people....

Anyway, enough of that. Back to the story.

It had now been probably 3 or 4 months since I started trying to find the right dressage coach.  The one option that is fairly obvious that I had not yet tried was to ante up and go to one of the big name, competitive coaches in my area.


There are a few issues with this, as I am sure some of you can identify with.

First and foremost - there is the associated expense.  Now, if I was starting from scratch again today, I kind of know the scene well enough that I would be able to find a good coach stationed out of a barn that does not require a full training program, and we are fortunate enough to have some excellent options in my area.

But at the time, I was not as informed, and the people I had tried had..well, you read it... they sucked.  I wasn't taking any chances.  I was going to go whole hog - full training or whatever was required to get hooked up with a known, proven FEI coach.  And they don't come cheap.

To address this lack of finances issue, I did what we all do.  I started on a hard core program of self delusion, telling myself that it totally made sense to spend $1000++ per month on learning to ride.  Who wouldn't?  I would be an idiot not to, really, don't you think?  What's that?  Did I hear you say YES?  I thought so.  

I still may not be able to count tempis to save my life, but I must say, (if you can allow me to brag just a little), that my financial self delusion program has been beyond successful, and I can probably soundly kick anyone's ass in this department.  Shazam!  Take that.

As just one example, I proceeded to drive my 1995 Honda Civic into the ground for the next 5 years and 500,000 km because I really, really loved it.  Errr...yah, that's it.  Pfft, who wants a NEW car.  I loved "Old Blue".  It had nothing to do with lack of funds... noooo, noo, nothing at all.

"We've got a thing, and it's called, Poverty".  Wait, wait - I meant to say  "Radar Love".

So that was that.  Which brings up the next issue - would they want the Platypus?

Because as cute as I thought he was - it all goes back to the invisible shorts thing and how I never see them - I knew the truth.  He was not what most FEI level coaches dreamed of having in their barns.  Forget what the bulletin boards say about "a good horse is a good horse" blah blah blah... there is no way, no how, breed bias doesn't exist.  I will get into this discussion at many points in the future, but for now, I am sure you can identify.

So, I figured the best way to deal with point #2 was just to lay it all on the table.  I called up the biggest, hottest name in my area and asked if I could come for a ship-in lesson to discuss the possibility of putting the Platypus into a training program.

Sure!  Come on over!

So I loaded up the red rocket and off we went, and had the BEST LESSON YET!  I was so pumped.  She was an awesome coach, kind of funny in a dry way, the arena was beautiful, the horses were beautiful, barn was beautiful...

And best of all, she did not recoil in horror when I asked if we were welcome.  Of course!  Come and start in our full training program next month.

Finally!  The stars were aligning.  I was about to really get started.  FEI, here I come....right?

My brush with... sort of somewhat celebrity.

Ok, I took one last kick at the cat (I can't recall whether it was a true kick, or more of a "boxing with my legs".  Like Lisa Wilcox.  Regardless).

Through some convoluted series of contacts that I made on EMG but are not interesting enough to review here, I found a new coach who sounded fabulous to me (at the time).

Credentials included:

- Hunter / Jumper background with some top U.S riders - niiice, niiiice.. she should be able to better understand the challenges I am facing versus Coach Crabby
- Recently imported $$$ horse that she fully expects will take her to the top of the sport shortly..
- Currently in full training with short listed rider - good, I like that

Uhhh... wait a minute.

Reading this now, it is clear - this person hadn't actually done ANYTHING dressage wise, other than buy a horse and find a coach.  She was essentially ME, but with lots of parental money backing her.   So why I actually paid her money to share her ignorance - gee, you got me, she sounded really impressive on EMG - add another one to the stupid choices made column.  For some reason in this horse game, I am not sure why, I think sometimes we have a lot of trouble separating out what one can BUY versus what one actually can DO

(The classic example is the plethora of newly minted "Young Riders" who are hanging out their coaching shingles, thinking they are now ready to give some tips to the likes of Edward Gal... Not to be a curmudgeon.. oh wait, I am one... but I wouldn't be too pumped up on your expertise unless you actually took an active role in getting the horse to that level yourself (and I know some did).  Bought from a pro and all ready to go doesn't quite cut it if you are trying to convince me you are a trainer.  It is a great start no doubt buuuut....)

Team this up with the fact that when an "outside coach" comes to your barn, you don't even necessarily get to see them DO, whatever it is they say they can do.  Even if they can get on your horse (always a nice option), the combined sum of knowledge in the realm of dressage possessed by you and your horse may be so limited that you can't really tell what the hell is going on anyways (ahh I see she is teaching him to leg yeild away from that mounting block, how interesting - whhaa...hey, wait a minute, is that little bugger spooking AGAIN?)

(Which again takes me back to - don't ride with people you have not actually done a thorough stalking on in person).

Now in fact, I really don't have anything much either positive or negative to say about this young woman.   She was nice enough, the chatter was pleasant, I felt like she actually had enthusiasm for teaching.  I remember that we did some walk squares (good exercise), spiral in / spiral out, stuff like that, sure.  Nothing inherently bad.  But - I remember that I just wasn't feelin' it. (Possibly because there wasn't much "IT" to her lessons, since she wasn't actually an experienced dressage rider). If it was a romance, she would have been tall and blond, when as we have already reviewed in an earlier post, relatively short and dark  is more my type.  There was no spark, it was just blah.  I can't even remember one memorable thing that happened that is mock-worthy.  Sorry.

So that would have been that...if it weren't for Mrs. Curmudgeon and her sudden interest in "UnStable" on CMT quite a few years later - maybe 2009.  She said I HAD to watch!  So I did.


To fill you in quickly if you can't be bothered to watch - it is a painful reality show looking at the day to day lives of catty backstabbing Hunter Jumper people.  Including... ta da!... this particular coach.  So somewhere along the happy trail to the top of the sport on her fabulous dressage import, she took a freakish detour and was now slogging it out with a strange little bunch of riders in Southeastern Ontario to see who could be the biggest bitch around.

After seeing this - I did a fairly intensive internet stalking on her and found that she had barely shown dressage at all, ever - the fancy import never made to the upper levels - and the furthest it did go was while being ridden by a true pro. I guess this could have depressed me, seeing what a sucker I was, but honestly, it just made me laugh.  It was actually a testament to just how far I had actually come.  Oh my god, I took lessons with HER!  Ha ha ha.  Oh, DC you moron.  It is a miracle you didn't quit then.

As a post script...scribing last summer, I heard a name I recognized - it was UnStable's import, doing a very normal looking 2nd level or so test at a Silver show.  Nice horse, well mannered, and a well ridden test.  I think her and her new rider are lucky to have each other.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

UDBB! How's it goin' eh?

The picture is of me, circa 2010.

But that Liz person must be one hot babe on a fine looking horse.

Monday 21 November 2011

No. Seriously. "Hunter" does not equal 1st Level

Another question that cropped up frequently during my early days of "dressage" was "Hey, DC, you like your hunter coach.  Can't you just keep on riding with her?  After all, dressage is really just flatwork.  All hunters can do dressage up to first level".

No.  No.  No.

If you are a hunter person, here is a tip.  You sound like an idiot when you say this.  So don't.

Yes, I know.  We have all seen instances where "Bieber Fever" (registered name at time of importation -Teufel Laich), an 11 yr old stopper - oops!  I mean hunter! where is my brain... hunter showed up at a Bronze show and kicked ass in training level 3 with scores in the 70's or something and is now advertised as a "dressage prospect" for $50,000.

"Dressage Prospect"

You see!  Hunters can easily dominate in the dressage ring.  Dressage is just "flatwork".

This is just so wrong.  On so many levels.  Let's start with the "scores in the 70's" part.

The directives for training level are as follows:

Purpose: To confirm that the horse is supple and moves freely forward in a clear and steady rhythm, accepting contact with the bit.

Not exactly rocket science and acrobatics.  It is no magic that aged hunters do well at training level.   Remember - if a horse is going to actually "progress up the levels" in dressage - they should be 3 or 4 and green as grass in training level.  Forward / clear / steady and riding past the judges booth without having a serious meltdown are actually impressive at this age.  Not so much in a seasoned hunter with no other career options beyond dressage and Dog Chow due to lack of initiative to jump 3'. The bar is pretty low.

In training level, any horse that enters the ring, does some semblance of forward, contact, not freaking out like an idiot should immediately earn a 60. Do all of this while looking somewhat  competent - 65.  On a big shiny nice moving beast like Bieber Fever - 70 is a cakewalk.

And when we look a bit deeper at Bieber Fever's situation - it is clear that "Teuffy" is no spring chicken.  He has at least one ringbone encircled foot in the grave.  The days of a long legged German dude in a bowler showing off his prancy little trot at the Verden auction were just so long ago.

Now, his teenage owner who was once so excited to see him step off the plane (thanks, mommy and daddy!) is more interested in a $15 pasta stirfry and flirting with a man who even Teuffy can tell is screamingly gay than actually learning to ride a decent course of jumps without ripping his teeth out over every fence.  He has spent his last 6 summers standing ringside in the blistering Caledon heat (when there isn't torrential rain) sunrise to sunset with golf carts and Honda CRF50's narrowly skimming his ass - pfft, a few flowers in a cone with a letter on them?  Bring it on.  Nothing phases him.  If all you ask of the poor guy is to plod around  in a clear and steady rhythm with his face on the vertical (or nose just slightly in front, if you are a militant UDBBer), hey, he is happy as a schwein in scheibe.  A few transitions?  What the hell. No probs.

However... our goal in dressage is supposed to be progression, and just because Teuffy can cut the daisies around a 20 m circle really doesn't mean he is going to show much enthusiasm for, say, collection.  Or doing a flying change - when YOU decide to do one.  Remember that pyramid I mocked earlier?  Well really, as much as it kills me to admit it, it does make sense.  And while calm and obedient can take you through training level, and maybe even first - after that, you actually have to have a foundation to build on, and most hunter trainers (I won't say all) just don't have any clue how to build it.  Why would they?  It is not their game.

THEY don't know this of course, and when you meet them at dinner parties or wherever it is you happen to cross paths, they will not respect what it is you are slogging away to do whatsoever, and will tell you that good flatwork is good flatwork...and that really, we are all doing "dressage".

My recommendation at this time - instead of driving the plastic holly stir stick into their eye - is to have more egg nog and smile blankly.  Hey, how about those Maple Leafs!  Do you thing Reimer will be back soon?


Friday 18 November 2011

An afternoon with Coach Crabby. Uh.. make that half an afternoon.

Alrighty, back on track.  Who was next in the lineup.

Oh, yes.  Coach Crabby. 

As mentioned earlier, the Platypus was still residing at the hunter barn he had called home for the last few years.  However - the woman who owned the barn happened to have a passion for dressage.  She suggested that the two of us team up and get her favourite dressage coach to come in to teach both of us.

Uhh - ok.  What are her qualifications?  (Good question eh - see?  I am learning). 

Why she is a JUDGE!  And has been for many, many, years.  Since the dawn of dressage here in Canada.

Well that sounds awesome.  A judge must really know her shit.  Right?  This is going to be perfect.

Oh, Dressage Curmudgeon.  You were so innocent back then.   Assuming that judges that have not actually ridden or shown themselves in eons are a sweet, sharing bunch, full of enthusiasm about the sport that has earned them their living, excited and happy to help newbies to the sport excel. 

Ha ha, ha.  Ha.  Haaaa..

(Oh, give me a sec to wipe the tears from my eyes, haven't laughed that hard in a while).

It didn't begin well.  At all.  (But you knew it wouldn't).  Coach Crabby showed up with a cold or some sickness, I can't remember what it was, but enough to giver her an immediate excuse (in her special world) to be surly and gruff, and to seek sympathy and some sort of high-five for making it out to teach the lesson.  (Again - that's why they call it..work.  I can't imagine starting a conversation with one of my customers by bitching about how much it sucks to have to help them out when I have issues of my own).    She barely said hello before stomping on out to the arena and plunking her ass down on a chair - her interest level in me, my horse, my goals - all somewhere around zero, or below. 

And so, we headed out on to the 20m circle.  With some spooking on the part of the Platypus.  Every time we went past the mounting block, he would throw his body to the inside, totally ignoring my leg or attempts to maintain bend on the circle. 

Well, we all know, from reading stuff or whatever it is our coaches have said to us in the past, that when your horse is spooking at something on the rail, throwing himself to the inside and losing all bend, we should ride in "shoulder-in" position past the spooky object.  Right? 


However I now also realize that probably 99% of the riding population has no clue what a shoulder-in actually is.  I was solidly in this majority at the time, and my "shoulder-in" was actually a face crank back to the inside with an indirect rein, boot-boot-boot with the inside leg, and shove the horse back onto the rail and sideways past the spooky object in whatever fashion seemed to work.

And truthfully - even now, the concept that one could elegantly float past something horrifying on the rail, even mounted on an extremely well schooled horse in a correct shoulder-in is pretty optimistic.  Laughable really.  If the object out there truly is spooky - there is usually some serious debate with the horse beyond "dressage in harmony" that must occur to schwung on by. 

Well, Coach Crabby did not like my technique.  At all. 

"Go back around and ride that again.  Ride straight.  Use your shoulder-in.  Don't cross your inside rein over his neck"

Great advice.  If you are optimistic enough to believe that telling someone taking one of their first dressage lessons on a hunter pony is likely to have any fricking clue on how to execute it.  Annnnd sooo....Platypus proceeded to scoot to the inside of the circle again.  And again.  And again.  As I tried to ride straight, use my shoulder-in, and not yank him back to "inside bend" by crossing my inside rein over his neck.  Again, And again, And again. 

"Do it again!  You are NOT listening!  Stop crossing your rein over his neck!  Ride a shoulder-in!  Use your outside rein to keep him straight!"  Blah - blah - blah...It was beyond futile. 

Looking back, one of three logical things really should have happened.  None of them did.  Coach Crabby could have said:

1. "Look, this isn't very productive.  Why don't we move the 20m circle to the other end of the arena and work on something else"


2.  "Hey, how about I move this object.  Your horse finds it scary". 


3.  "Ok, let me get on and show you how it's done".

Ha ha, that last one is funny isn't it.  Because the most arrogant, know it all instructors do seem to be the ones that would not get on your horse if you held a gun to their head.  Instead, Coach Crabby came over, grabbed either side of the bit and wiggled it around in Platypus' mouth until he submitted to pressure, then told me to get back on the circle.  To this day, I have  no clue what this bit waggling was supposed to do, but what it did do - was absolutely nothing.  Around we went, and surprise!  Platypus spooked, I crossed my rein over his neck to yank him to the inside, and the yelling started.

WHY are you crossing your rein over his neck!!  I have TOLD you SEVERAL times now to STOP - WHY do you insist on DOING IT!

Uhhh.. because I have been doing it... forever.  And it is not that I don't agree with this advice - no, not at all.  But after 15 years (or whatever) of riding in the hunter ring, where a finessed indirect rein was preferred to an obvious opening rein when all else failed,  having one woman tell me 5 or 6 times to STOP really had no impact on my neural pathways whatsoever.  I didn't even know I was doing it, I am sure, it is just what I *did*.

"Stop doing what?  I am not doing it.  What?  Am not"

And in fact, after 8 years of dressage - although I have proudly overcome the indirect rein entirely - I still do not:

a.  Sit back
b.  Keep my reins short enough
c.  Sit back
d.  Keep my thumbs on top
e.  Sit back
f.  Elbows in
g.  Keep my shoulders down and back
h.  Look in direction of movement during half pass - oh wait, depending on the coach - look where horse is looking during half pass

Etc. etc. etc.  In retrospect, it was so incredibly stupid of this woman to think that by telling me to cease and desist that I actually would.  On what happy planet did she usually teach on, where telling someone to do something a few times magically eliminated a deeply ingrained bad habit?  Wish I was there, I really do. 

But I guess as a judge, pointing out errors is your forte.  Actually having the patience and knowledge to fix them - not so much.

And so - I did what I should have done during my lesson with the 4 year old schoolmaster.  I got off my horse, and together we left, with Coach Crabby nattering some shit as we did so.  That was that, after about 20 minutes.  A relatively quick and painless end to Coach Crabby. 

Somewhere down the road, on my new horse, I did actually get judged by Coach Crabby, and I thought my marks were very fair, generous even.  So I don't think she is a total jerk on purpose, just for kicks. Well, maybe not, anyways. 

Monday 14 November 2011

Dressage Curmudgeon... you are a downer.

Ok, I have received some feedback on my blog...  Apparently some of you find it just a tad - negative.  And you would like me to write something more uplifting.

Not to nitpick, but....


 [ker-muhj-uhn]  Show IPA
a bad-tempered, difficult, cantankerous person.

It is not like I tricked you into it.  However - I am up for the challenge.  

Let's see, did anything good happen during the period of Platypus transformation.  Uhhh... hmmm... oooohhh... No.  Not really.  It really was depressing.

To make matters worse - I wasn't a bad hunter rider - no, I wasn't turning to dressage because I was afraid to jump, as is sometimes the case.  Someone had even loaned me a beautiful hunter horse to ride, and would have done so again for the next season.  So it isn't like I was wallowing in suckage before this whole affair began.  I truly thought I was relatively hot shit. 

This all made it even more difficult to show up at the barn each night and have well meaning people ask me "Soooo!  How is the... "DRESSAGE"... going!"  No one wants to hear you whine about how you are failing, especially when they have no fricking clue why you have changed course in the first place.

But I thought about it, and I can remember one "lightbulb" moment that did occur around this time. 

I rented "The Half Halt Demystified" by Jane Savoie.  And I learned what a half-halt actually was.

Up until this point in my riding career, I must admit - I had not the slightest clue what instructors meant when they said "half halt".  

As a child, it seemed very clear to me.  HALF - HALT.  When I want to HALT, I pull on BOTH reins.  When the coach says HALF - HALT, I pull on ONE rein.  Half of BOTH.  

Makes sense, doesn't it.  

The fact that I rode from the age of, oh, eight, until maybe fifteen, without a single coach saying "why the HELL do you keep yanking your horse's face to the outside (or inside, depending on my mood of the day) every time I say "half halt"!"  tells me pretty clearly that THEY had no idea what I was supposed to be doing, or the effect this aid was supposed to have either. Which is scary, but not entirely surprising. 

As I got older, I did refine my yank-one-rein technique to more of a subtle "make horse slow down" sort of maneuver, which seemed to satisfy my instructors, but really I still had no idea what the mechanics behind this mysterious aid were.  So when I saw the "half halt demystified" video on the shelf at Bahrs,  I was intrigued.   I rented it secretly, hiding it under some $180 full seat breeches I think, and snuck it out of the store like it was porn.  Who wants to admit to having no clue what a half halt is at this point in their riding career?  Loser!  It was like renting "how to find your clitoris" or something.  

Now if you have never watched a Jane Savoie video, I will warn you of a few things.

First, she does look a bit like Freddie Mercury, before his gay biker phase.  Not that there is anything wrong with this, Freddie was a good looking guy.  But you may find yourself singing Bohemian Rhapsody for a while after watching the video.  Just so you know.

Secondly, she does have that strange, drawling, eastern seaboard accent that drives me a bit to distraction.  She would say "haaakey"  to describe what the Leafs try to do.  But then I say "eh" and "aboooot", so who am I to judge.  

Lastly, she stares intensely at the camera.  All the time.  It is a bit unnerving. 

However, this is an educational video, not an Oscar nominated masterpiece, so just get past this and try to learn (and actually, I liked her better than Helen Hunt in "As Good As It Gets").

I won't go into details of what exactly she covers in the video - because I really don't remember - other than to say she breaks the half-halt down into 3 steps.  I forget precisely what she calls them, but basically: 

1. forward when leg is applied (hmm... exactly what that coach who never returned was getting at... must be something to it..), 
2.  Capture energy with outside rein, and 
3.  Bend with inside rein.  

It has been a while since I have watched it so I am not sure if I would be quite as enthused by it today as I was then, but it really was a big revelation to me at the time, and I do think, along with the clinic, it made an immediate difference to my riding.  For the first time, I was trying to put the Platypus together by riding forward, not slowing down.  

There was only one issue.  The Platypus didn't particularly like going forward.  Which would be his Waterloo, (just outside of Waterloo), very soon.

So there you have it - something positive that happened, as I drove to and from the barn, feeling like a loser for ever deciding to take up "dressage".  I rented a 5 dollar video, that taught me more than most of the crappy instructors I had encountered thus far.  

Thanks Jane!

(Don't worry!  It gets better soon.  In about 80 more posts or so).  

Sunday 13 November 2011

Coach's Credo - the customer is always...

What followed next were a few lessons, with a few coaches that were, frankly, a total waste of my time.  I am not even going to pretend that my dressage ignorance had anything to do with them, they were just bad.

Let's face it.  When you are residing in a primarily hunter barn, and are looking for some impossible alignment of an available  outside coach who doesn't suck, a little bit of arena time, and a 20m circle that isn't packed with jumps and assorted other shit, your options are not really that great.

(I am sure at least a few of you are thinking "been there, done that".  Perhaps you still are there.  My condolences).

I will call these lessons - Fun times with Coach Crabby, and Coach Clueless.  Details to follow.

But let's start with an overview.

I think the biggest take home from this short period is just how awful the customer service skills of many coaches out there truly are.  Now, I already knew this from the hunter side, of course.  But at least I do have some sympathy there - these poor people are usually dealing with an arena full of children or teenagers - who are themselves grappling with all of the challenges that children or teenagers face (or whatever it is that makes them act like such a bunch of irritating whiny little ninnies most of the time).  I am sure it is difficult to keep a positive, energy charged attitude when faced with this day after day.  Adopting that naggy "whah-whah-whah-Suzie.  Whah-whah-whah-long spot.  Whah-whah-whah-did you count your strides" version of Charlie Brown's teacher is pretty much inevitable.

However the typical dressage coach is teamed up with one adult, one horse.

One adult who is typically pouring a large part of their disposable income and also their fragile self esteem into this endeavour, which is supposed to be a relaxing and enjoyable hobby.  Strangely, some coaches appear to think that what we would really light our fires - after a long day of kissing OUR customer's butts to  rake in the money to pay THEM - is to come out and be treated like we are insufferable Epsilon semi-morons.

I know, I know.  It must be very depressing for them.  They thought that after they made the jump from Young Riders to Pro Riders, or became Judges, or rode in the 1932 Olympics, that only the cream of the dressage crop - fit, nubile riders, with big bucks to spend on perfect horses - would come their way.

Instead... they get... the Platypus.  And me.  Honestly, we are doing our very best.

Now maybe somewhere, out there... there is the exception to this rule, and we just haven't met yet.  But as it stands, I don't know of any Adult Ams who are driving to the barn, after their long day at work, ready to spend $50++ on a lesson, who think to themselves..."Hmm, hey, you know what will be fun?  I am going to totally fuck with my coach's mind.  Everything she asks me to do - I am going to do the shittiest job of executing it that I possibly can.  Until she wants to tear her hair out because I seem so stupid and incompetent.  Forward?  How about NO.  Canter transition?  When I am good and ready.  You want some bend eh?  Well, how about a hearty outside shoulder pop to go with that.   Sitting trot?  Wait until you see the action here!  Black eyes coming up, baby".

(If you are actually out there, give me a call and let's do lunch, because I am sure it would be entertaining),

I know, I know, you feel like giving up.  If that is the case, how about you stay home.  Don't bother coming here and pretending you want to teach me, just to get your hands on $50.   And - trust me.  I have had equally depressing jobs - have you ever had to talk at length about pet diarrhea with a screaming cat owner, debating whether or not the company you work for is responsible for footing the bill for any associated carpet cleaning?   No?  Well, maybe if you did, you would have a fresh new attitude towards earning money by helping me to learn to ride.  Really, it is not that bad.

No coach should ever have to sigh deeply and audibly, make a tsk sound, use sarcasm teamed with the drawling know-it-all tone, roll their eyes... etc...etc... Like Mrs. Curmudgeon always told me (and still does today) - if it was all fun and games, they wouldn't call it WORK.  Suck it up.

Or, if you hate it that much - find another job.  Because I know I will find another coach.

Tuesday 8 November 2011

Realization #3 - The first law of saddle dynamics...

C'mon now - hands up.  Who's coach has told them to buy a new saddle?

Yep, I knew it.  There is no way I could be the only one who has slithered down this slope more than once.

So, as I was mentioning last time, during my one episode lesson program with the coach who never returned, I of course wanted to get started off on exactly the right foot - which I knew involved trading in the old close contact for a true dressage saddle.  The platypus and I left the building with detailed instructions on precisely what we needed... the Stubben Tristan Special.

(It also goes by some sexy sounding German name, which I can't pronounce, and can't even spell well enough for Google's intuitive powers to figure out what the hell I want.  Maybe someone can help...).

The first hurdle I encountered was that since both the Platypus and me were small in stature - there were not a lot of suitable used dressage saddles around.  Uhh, ok.  So new it is.  (cha-ching).  I wasn't cutting corners here, I needed the right saddle.

The Stubben fitter came out, plunked several saddles on the Platypus, I rode around, every single one felt awkwardly terrible - because of course I had never ridden in a dressage saddle so had entirely no frame of reference other than during my few awful "schoolmaster" lessons.  But I trusted the woman, and ordered myself up a Tristan.  (She did talk me back from the ledge a bit, and I went for the one with "pencil knee rolls", not the hard core monoflap).  Oh, and of course, I went for the upsell bridle and fancy girth.

Alrighty, I am READY.... right?

Well, no.  I now know that this saddle is believed by many to be some sort of medieval torture device.  No problem, I like torture as much as the next guy, but it also requires someone with a deep, effective seat.  Who can ride well.   And doesn't need kneerolls to wedge themselves in place during any sort of lengthened gaits.  Apparently the coach who never returned had high hopes for me, which have yet to materialize.  Eight years later.

But no worries, because the saddle did not have a hope in hell of staying with me for eight years anyways.  Because the minute we showed up at a new barn just a few weeks later ... The saddle was deemed to be so incredibly, unacceptably awful by the resident coach, it was sent right to the trunk of my car not to return under any circumstances... I needed a Schleese.  (which I couldn't afford at the time, and mercifully, never did buy).  Then - I needed something smaller with deeper kneerolls ... then I went to another "house of Ishoy" escapee who rode in a Tristan, but of course my Tristan was by now long gone...then came the Prestige...

You know the drill.

However... The thing I find most amazing about the first law of saddle dynamics is...that, no matter how horrid my coach tells me my saddle fits me or my horse...no matter how quickly my existing saddle has to go...no matter how many times I am forced to struggle trying to make conversation with whatshisname from the saddle store (who yah, yah, he is a hottie, whatever, but not exactly a firecracker), while he uses the saddle fitting tweezer thingy on my mare to try to make the whole process seem scientific and worth the call fee (but really, I am not fooled)...magically, the coach always has one saddle that they LOVE riding in, that miraculously fits EVERY HORSE IN THE BARN.  There is nothing conformational that a wedgie pad can't overcome.

Why can't I just get one of those?  In fact, it has been my experience that this magical saddle often fits my horse so well that the coach wants to ride in IT - instead of the $4000 saddle they just convinced me to buy, which is supposed to be the equine equivalent of the custom fit Miracle Bra for my ass/horse's back.

Now to be fair, the coach is riding horses all day, every day... and comfort is pretty important to your sanity.   If you made me go to the office every day and sit at every whacked out chair in the place, even the stupid large ball thing that the one girl insists is toning her abs while she works (I haven't actually squeezed her or seen her naked - HR can be such downers - but just eyeballing her, I don't think it is effective) I would find excuses in a hurry to only use my chair too.  You like what you like, it fits your butt, it is comfortable...why try to ride your best in something else?

I just wish that this understanding could be extended to me as well and that as long as my horse is happy, they would just piss off and let me ride in whatever floats my boat.  If I haven't learned to sit my ass down properly yet (and..I accept the fact that I haven't), it probably isn't happening ever, in any saddle, no matter how many vacations I pay for the Bahr family to go on.    

For the record... the Prestige is now... in the trunk of my car.  New coach doesn't like it.  Ebay, here we come....again.

Monday 7 November 2011

Finally! A good intstructor! A lesson program! (Psyche!!)

By now, I had wasted over a month dicking around with trying to find some Utopian version of "intro to dressage".  Time was up - the Platypus was back in my hands, and the two of us had to work together to get this show on the road.

What to do, what to do.  Well, several options presented themselves to me that I worked through in sequence, with varying degrees of success.  No, that is not quite accurate.  With really no success at all when taken individually,  but the final outcome was the right one, a few months down the road.

First up... a local barn, maybe 15 minutes from where the Platypus was currently residing, was holding a series of dressage clinics with an excellent instructor.  No, seriously!  I am  not being sarcastic.  Someone I still think, to this day, can actually teach.  They were going to be two weeks apart or something, I don't really remember - he would be coming on Saturdays to teach a group of people, and I could get in on the deal.

Wow!  Sounds great.  Only one thing missing -I didn't have a trailer, so I immediately ran out and bought the cheapest, ugliest piece of shit on 4 wheels I could locate, just to get this show on the road - that is how committed I was to the plan.  (Those of you who know me, know I still own and use "the red rocket", and it is currently rotting in a field of soybeans somewhere in Highgate, waiting eagerly to someday return home so it can rot in my backyard in Kitchener).

For the record, if there is one thing that earns you more "shock and awe" looks than kakhi TS breeches and field boots at an upper level dressage barn, it is rolling into the parking lot with your PSG horse in ... the red rocket.  Because the quality and appearance of your trailer is directly linked to your riding ability.  Or something.  I guess.

I am not sure when the transition occurred, but sometime between when I stopped riding as a teenager and started again as an adult, a move swept the nation to "pimp the ride" of our horses.  I missed the memo.  No more travelling around in a little steel bumper pull lugged by your Dad's station wagon with the wood stickers on the side (ahh, the smell of burning transmission still takes me back...).  No, no - everyone has a big gooseneck aluminum slant load monstrosity with a dressing room up front - god forbid your horse see your undies while you change into your breeches in the back with him.  Someone told me that this happened when the switch was made from Thoroughbreds to Warmbloods - Warmbloods being to stupid to back out of a trailer, and so they need to be able to turn around and walk out.

Ironically, one of the only trailer rollovers I have heard of in recent years was a Brenderup that got blown off the road by a stiff breeze.  I think the Red Rocket could get hit by an incoming Scud Missile and still maintain an upright posture and a horse inside going "What was that?  More importantly, why don't I have a haynet?"

I also bought the white polos AND... the $800 Cavallo boots.  Yep, I was ready.

I got the trailer, got the Platypus, and limped gingerly off to the clinic, band-aids on the backs of my knees to stop the blood from seeping through my breeches.

Now if I can be serious here for a moment - well no, I will start by being a smartass like usual, then move to serious.  You have been warned.  Things started off well - If you ride in Ontario, you know that our advanced level male dressage rider population consists of a flock of 30/40-something, fairly short, fairly hot looking dark haired men (and one tall German guy).  Until I got things straight, they were all pretty much interchangeable in my mind.  They are all excellent coaches, easy on the eyes, and although they do not have a European accents, they could all easily pull off the wool cap look.  So, even if the lesson had been a complete disaster, at least there was eye-candy.

And so .... what did we learn.

Well..we spent the entire lesson - at the walk.  Nope, no second level, walk-canter transition miracle for me.  He walked beside the Platypus, with a whip behind his butt, asking us to stop-forward-stop-forward, expecting instant reaction to my aid and backing it up for me with the whip if I didn't get the appropriate response.  My homework was to go home and practice this.  Go.  Stop. Go.

Well, at the time, I was a bit...underwhelmed.  But no problem, at least we had homework, and would be building on this next time, when he returned!

Which, of course, never happened.  Shortly thereafter, something went wrong with the relationship between him and the barn owner - who knows, I wasn't privy to the details - and the instructor never came back.  It could be that while sitting home that night with a glass of wine, he said to himself "my god, I am never going back to the mind numbing self flagellation which is also known as teaching beginner dressage".  I like the other explanation better though.


But even to this day, I do think this lesson was so important to my understanding of one of the first principles that you must get right when you are starting a dressage horse - the horse has to GO immediately forward when you put your leg on.  And keep on GOING until you tell them otherwise.  No "pretty please, kick, nag, kick, come on, kick, nudge, kick, nag, cluck, cluck, cluck..."  Sounds simple, but wow, it doesn't seem to be that popular in practice.  I also think, good for him for making me do the world's most boring clinic to really get this principle slowly drilled into my brain, without worrying about whether I was being dazzled by my amazing progress and would be back to spend more money next time.

The other interesting outcome of this clinic was... the saddle.  And the beginning of the my understanding of the THE FIRST LAW OF SADDLE DYNAMICS...which states that whatever saddle you have now, your new coach hates it.


Friday 4 November 2011

Schoolmaster for sale. Just add Time Machine.

You probably think I gave up on schoolmasters after the circus trained Lusitanos and Mr. Limpy.  Nope, not me.  I kept on keepin' on.  Let's see, what else does EMG have to offer...

Hmm, this sounds promising.... advanced level schoolmasters, FEI level instructor, only 2 hours away... I am IN!

(Dressage Curmudgeon drives across Toronto during rush hour.  Again).

I arrive at a gorgeous stable - I would imagine that it was built by a Master, from some European country.  Possibly Holland.  Is there someplace to change?  Damn straight, a bathroom more beautiful than my own at home.  Looking good, high hopes....

La Girafon is a lovely bay, well groomed, sleek, with a gorgeous head.  Instructor explains that she is a Selle Francais, with many Olympic calibre juicy fruity siblings, which meant absolutely nothing to me at the time but seemed impressive since I was used to round after round of generic "warmbloods" in my world, which basically meant anything fat and chunky crossed with an OTTB.

The good news just kept on coming - La Girafon stayed entirely sound even after I walked around on her for a while.  I must have learned something on Mr. Limpy after all, seeing as she was not instantly "rein lame" like him.  I guess I am just naturally gifted.

But then... the trouble began.  I picked up the reins - and she instantly transformed into La Girafon, the yanking chomping schoolmaster.  There was no soften, no yield, just lots of ...yanking and chomping.   On the horse's part.  Oh, but Dressage Curmudgeon, we all know it takes two to pull!  Screw right off.  Properly schooled horses don't pull or yank, they yield nicely when you ask, then wait to see what's next.  When I put my leg on - horse plowed forward, straight through my hands, and took off.  Yanking.

And thus began 45 minutes of having my arms ripped out, while tearing around the arena at mach speeds.  During this escapade, I recieved nuggets of wisdom from the instructor, such as:

"Set her back!  Use your half halts!  HALF HALT INSIDE!  You are not BENDING!  Now COUNTER BEND!  Come on now, get her to BEND!  HALF HALT OUTSIDE!  You are too STIFF!  Set her back AGAIN!  Bend and COUNTER BEND!"  

I tried a variety of things involving pulling reins here/there but really had no fucking clue what this woman expected me to do.  Not once during the entire ride did I get the horse to do anything vaguely resembling being "in a frame".  Or "on the bit"  or connected, or through, or anything other than - racing around like a crazed piece of shit.  Somewhere around 15 minutes in, I stopped and said  "Wow.  This seems way too hard.  I am not getting it at all"  earning myself a "this isn't the hunter ring any more, my friend, you need to learn how to really RIDE"  followed by another round of:

"Set her back!  Use your half halts!  HALF HALT INSIDE!  You are not BENDING!  Now COUNTER BEND!  Come on now, get her to BEND!  HALF HALT OUTSIDE!  You are too STIFF!  Set her back AGAIN!  Bend and COUNTER BEND!"  

After 45 minutes, I was done.  Sweating, defeated, and pretty close to tears.  I really sucked.  To put the icing on the cake, the instructor said "well, I can't let her finish off the ride without ever having come "through".  I have to get on her for a while".  Her disgust in my pathetic riding was evident, I was so bad horse could not even go back to her stall after I rode without some re-tuning.  Nice.

And so, off she rode... and finally, I got it. I really GOT IT.  It clicked.  BEND = WIG.  COUNTER BEND = WAG.  Now continue on in rhythm.  Wig-Wag-Wig-Wag.  Horse curled up like a snail and "no-no-no'ed" its way around the arena.  A little more dramatic than your typical hunter, but the concept was the same.  Had she just said "ride like a really bad hunter rider in the Trillium Hack division", we would have reached an understanding immediately.

Soooo, back to the crossties we went.  I was gobsmacked.  I couldn't believe that is how I was supposed to be riding, and yet... this was an "advanced level schoolmaster".  Right?

Welllll, not quite.  She is a very talented mare, and will undoubtedly reach FEI levels with the right rider.  She WILL be a schoolmaster in the future.  But what level is she schooled to NOW?  Well, she is in full training now.  Full training..at what level?  Well, she IS only four.  So Training level.

I paused.  Four.  Training level.  I am new to dressage, perhaps I am missing something  "Hey so when you say she is FOUR, and is schooling TRAINING LEVEL... in the absence of a time machine to tap into her "future potential"... that makes her an "advanced level schoolmaster"... how?"

Well, in fact, not in any way, shape or form.  The instructor heard that I was taking up dressage, had this beautiful four year old for sale (for much more money than I would have to spend, even when I did start shopping) so she thought it would be great to have me ride HER instead of the schoolmaster!  Makes sense, doesn't it!  So we could fall in love, I could hand over $35,000 and off we could go, wig-wagging into the sunset.

Yep, that's right.  I drove 2 hours, paid $75, had my arms ripped out for 45 minutes... all to try out a sale horse, something that you typically get to do entirely for free.  And you get to stop after 10 minutes and leave if you hate it, while making up some polite excuse about how lovely she is, but you really have to talk to your coach first.

I was pissed.  I chose speechless over "in your face screaming banshee", which was another option I could have easily pulled off too that day, and have used on other occasions.  (deep breath)  Good...Bye...I...must...leave...now.... Instructor could see I was on the edge and wisely gave me back my money.  Off I went.

By the time I got home, there was already an email waiting, saying that she thought I *really* wanted to learn to ride.  Not just to do *tricks*, but if all I wanted was quick fixes, sure, I could come back and ride the "advanced level schoolmaster".  So, even after all that, it was still MY fault.  Gotta love being a customer in the horse world!

Well, many years have passed since then, and I have seen that instructor wig-wagging around the warm up ring many times here and there, and thought to myself  "what on earth possessed you to take a lesson with her?"  Answer - I was a naive idiot.   I would say that this experience really taught me the importance of going to shows, watching, and getting to know the players before choosing a coach.  Scribing can be very educational too, if you like sweating your ass off wearing long pants in July.  But that is a story for another day...