Monday 26 November 2012

Ms. V versus The Swiffer...our first show

The STORY Curmudgeon!!  Tell the fricking STORY!!

Oh, sorry. I lied. That was totally a rant, wasn't it. But seriously, it goes perfect with the next chapter of the story.

Ms. V's first show.

Yes, the time had come.  After about six months of walk, trot, occasional canter - circles here there everywhere and herky jerky transitions - we were READY!  We signed up for our very first Bronze show - Intro A and B.

For those of you not in Canada, Bronze shows are the lowest on the totem pole of shows, and really, this makes them the most fun of all to attend.

Anyone can go to a Bronze show and feel welcome.  Purple Troxel - sure. Half-chaps - yes. Is your horse a Georgian Gypsy Commercial Vanteca?  You will fit right in.

Is your horse not only in front of the vertical, but also often in front of the horizontal?  Are you tempted to do your training level freestyle to a song by Sir Mix-A-Lot, in honour of your horses scrambling gaits and/or butt size?  Great.  Come on down.

There are usually happy little prize baskets with carrots and horse shampoo and a lead shank, maybe a saddle pad, and generic ribbons with no year printed on them so they can be used indefinitely.  And of course, at least one or two self important, busybody volunteers who are treating it all like the World Cup has come to Puslinch.

But really their true appeal lies in the fact that you don't need multiple expensive memberships to enter, and the actual entry fees are reasonable.  Yep, they are dirt cheap, in the grand scheme of all things relating to dressage and horses.

And - surprise, surprise!  You tend to get what you pay for in this world, and bronze shows are no exception.  When I arrived on site at some ungodly hour of the morning with Ms. V, The Swiffer, and my mighty entourage in tow, the first alarming fact was that the "Longeing Area" was a slippery square of sloping grass in the parking area, still wet with dew.  Kind of more of a "Legbreaker Area" than a "Longeing Area".  Who's leg? Dealer's choice.

Tip #1 for those of you who always longe your horses before riding - stop doing that if you plan to go to small shows with limited facilities. You need to be able to get on your 3 year old right out of the trailer, when she is high as a kite... first thing in the morning, when she hasn't been turned out yet, at all, and is incredibly confused as to where she is and why.

Instead of longeing - maybe start a training program that involves leaving your horse inside for the day so she is slightly off kilter and nutso when you arrive. Then ask someone to come with you and ride around in the ring on a bicycle, or with a screaming kid in a stroller holding balloons...something, anything totally weird and distracting.  Mix it up. Lastly, drink four RedBulls before you start riding, so you are jittery and distracted and forget everything that you usually might do during a nice normal ride. If you plan to show, practicing under these conditions will help you to prepare more than longeing before you ride on a daily basis.

Live and learn.

The next problem was, of course - the warm-up.  Because during my lessons and most of my in-between rides at Liliput, I either rode entirely alone or with other boarders who were incredibly courteous and stayed out of our way if anything went amiss.  Oh, having issues with your young one?  I will just stay down this end of the arena.

Tip #2 - these people are not at the show.  Instead, the warm-up is an entire herd of people with things going amiss, who all need to stay out of each other's way while trying not to die themselves.

I was no stranger to the show ring, but my last experiences a few years prior to this were at mid-level (Trillium) hunter jumper shows.  The warm up rings there are so refreshingly simple as compared to dressage shows.  Any dressage shows, really, not just the lower level ones.  Everyone just goes around the on-the-rail speedway, left to left... when one decides to jump a fence, they yell out their intentions in the de rigeur whiny sounding hunter voice "heads up owwwt-syyyde..." or "heads up axxx-sserrr" or whatever - and everyone knows what the hell is going on.

Not so in the Bronze dressage show warm-up, where 10 adult women on the edge of having nervous diarrhea are all somehow trying to pack 20 metre circles into a tiny sand ring, without crashing into each other, while staring intently at their horse's necks.  Accompanied by 10 or so pony club kids, who are darting here and there fearlessly with no regard for traffic regulations of any sort.

Right up to the end of my showing career, I never ceased to be amazed by people who would cut you off in the warm-up as though they had no concept of where you could possibly be heading.  Even at the Gold shows. Here is a tip - dressage is just not all that mysterious.  If you see a horse doing a medium trot, just about anywhere... assume they will continue going in a straight line.  Half pass - probably going to head on over doing a diagonal type line.  If someone has been on a 20 m circle for 5 minutes - they are probably going to stay there.

Sure, there is the off chance they will suddenly whirl around and head off in some totally unexpected direction, but play the odds and figure they won't - don't suddenly do some asshole maneouver right in front of them just because the voice of God (or your coach) is being piped directly into you headphones and told you so.

Anyway... once she got over her initial shock and awe at the fact that other people had the nerve to show up ride in her private little space and she settled into a groove - things actually went very well.  The ring at this particular venue is tucked into the "U" shape formed between the two barns and arena, so it is very quiet and private, and when we headed into the ring, Ms. V sighed a huge sigh of relief (ahh, those assholes are gone!) and went to work.

The result?  Sevens for our trot circle and free walk.  Sixes everywhere else except our centreline / halts - fives.

Collectives - seven paces, six impulsion, five submission, six rider.

Overall score - 60%. No ribbon, I think we were sixth or something .

Comment in just about every square, the reason we got sixes instead of sevens (the scribe should really have come up with a shorthand) - unsteady in contact.  For a three year old in Intro A. I guess I have to tell myself, what else do they possibly have to say?  There just isn't that much going on.

And so, with the Intro classes over - I knew at that time the most important part of the day was not the actual showing, but getting Ms. V out and about and seeing the sights to make being off property less frightening and mysterious. I brought along a sidekick who then walked her all over the grounds exposing her to this and that, while I took The Swiffer in the Training level classes.

We won both handily, with glowing comments and scores in the high 60's.

In retrospect, this experience pretty much sums up dressage shows, judging, and moving up the levels.  Talented young horse showing in an age appropriate class, with age appropriate issues - not likely to win or score high.  Topped out at training level senior citizen going through the motions for the 98th time in his life without batting an eye...smokes the pack.

Your scores at the lower levels tell you NOTHING about the likelihood of your horse to progress in dressage.  Although this was so long ago that the results are no longer online so I can't be sure, I would hazard to guess with some confidence that Ms. V was the only horse in the 2004 Intro A/B division that went on to school Grand Prix. No, not because she was the only talented three year old in the county, but because I was the only owner stupid enough to bother showing Intro A/B at a bronze show.

It is hard to be objective when you arms are bundled with carrots and leadshanks and shampoo, and you are basking in the glory of kicking the ass of other sweating middle aged women on their sweating middle aged horses, but really, that should have been it for me and showing.  Even at this rinky-dink show, with the troxels and halfchaps, the concept was very clearly laid out for me. I should have said "AHA! This is a stupid racket!  No wonder the big dogs don't bother fritzing around at training level!  See you guys at PSG!".  But I didn't.

And hey - what would I have spent those thousands of dollars and lost weekends on, anyways?

Saturday 24 November 2012

Airbrushing and the Art of Dressage.

Thanks for indulging me in one of my periodic rants. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Kind of, anyway.  Because something very timely caught my eye over at Chronicle of the Horse (COTH) that brings to light another rant, or re-rant as I have already touched on this once.  

But let's back up first.  Ms. V. Learning to drive standard.  Aids on / aids off.  

Release the clutch!  Release the clutch, for pete's sake!
I am not going to even begin to make excuses for the fact that Ms. V was way too reactive to the leg, to the point that every time you put leg on, she spurted forward / sideways / where ever.  This is not a normal problem that most people have, and it should have been addressed much earlier than it was. 

However - having inconsistent contact at this stage of the game is actually pretty common. 

I would say almost every young horse I know, ridden by a less than perfect rider (and even many of those ridden by riders who are perfect in their own minds), either has contact that is too light, too inconsistent, heavy as lead, too low, too BTV, not even on both reins... please add your favourite variation of this theme here.  

Because young horses are learning.  i.e - they don't know how to do it right yet.  

It is just not easy to get perfect, quiet, light yet solidly "through" contact developed in a young horse, which is just one of the reasons why it is so incredibly irritating to hear the armchair Ankys of the internet world critiquing people frame by frame on video for every dip or bobble in a horse's head carriage. 

(Not to mention that they expect horses to be able to do it in a double AND a snaffle, while executing perfect everything lightly and in harmony, whatever the hell that means.  Of course).

No problem Curmudgeon... if we go to shows and compete against other horses that are also working on the same concepts, at the same level of training, we can see how we are doing by getting the judge's feedback. 

Ah, great point.  Because all of the horses progressing up the levels will pretty likely be going through some personal phase of "taint right" with respect to contact.  One would expect that a judge will observe, comment, mark fairly, and send the riders of these horses don their way with great feedback regarding what they have seen before them. 

After all, they have taken the L program, as described in Lauren Sprieser's recent blog post over at COTH.

Pretty is as Pretty Does - A Day at the L Program

Basically the gist of this post is this... Lauren Sprieser (who I don't know from a hole in the ground, I have no axe to grind with her in particular...but she is apparently a Young Rider superstar, now up and coming coach, training with big dogs, blah, blah, blah...good for her) decided to help out with an L program training session by bringing her hot young prospect to the course to show off the fact that a horse that looks pretty is not always working "correctly".

She knows it will be nerve-racking to be shot full of holes by learning judges, but does it for the good of the sport, to help them learn.

A-HA!  This sounds like it will be a good read, I thought to myself, and may be in line with exactly one of the points that I am trying to make in my blog - don't panic if things aren't perfect all along, just keep on progressing.  It is great that this woman is getting out there and showing them what that pupal stage looks like.

And so she does.  She writes about the fact that her horse's contact is less than perfect, that he sometimes goes behind the vertical, and that "an authoritative connection to the hand is hard" for her horse.  Oh, how my heart warmed.  She is human, her horse is equine... she is showing judges that this is how the real world of working with talented youngsters look.

But then... this.

I'm glad that the future judges of the world are on the lookout for these things...(blah blah blah)... It was a good pat on the back for not showing him yet, even though he's putting together pieces of the upper-level work and could certainly show third level with nice scores. I don't want nice scores - I want to be brilliant, which means the connection needs to be beyond reproach.

Yes, that is what we should do.  Even though we think our horses are heading for upper levels... we should hide them in the closet because they aren't perfect yet. Wouldn't want anyone to see THAT!

And, we should train judges to attack the faults of horses that aren't working perfectly at the mid levels, who have some inconsistencies in the contact or bobbles here and there - because they aren't "brilliant" yet. Even if the trainers working with these horses think they are exactly on the right course in the big picture of things.

WTF?  Way to go girl.  Big pat on the back.  How does this make any sense?

ARRRGGHH!  Why aren't we instead focused on helping people understand what is NORMAL?

Properly trained horses are always light and perfect in the bridle at all stages of their training. And this is what women look like in bikinis
I guess it comes back to the whole discussion on the purpose of showing.  Is it to:

A: Confirm that horse, having begun to develop whatever the hell it was he was supposed to have begun to develop at the previous level, now demonstrates an increase in whatever the hell it is he now needs to do to continue heading on his merry way to Grand Prix


B: Show off that a horse that is 3 years older than it should be in the given level, based on objective of getting to Grand Prix before it dies of old age, can prance on through the test blindfolded

To be fair to the L program - in this post, we don't get to hear what was actually said regarding how this horse would have been scored in an 3rd level test.  Was there a discussion regarding the fact that everything this horse does is totally normal for a progressing superstar?  Possibly.  Was there another 3rd level horse shown that was dead broke and bottomed out to show the difference between imperfect potential and perfect dead end of the road?  I can't tell from the blog post, but if not, something is terribly wrong with the training program.

If this horse really IS headed for upper levels, there must have been lots of things the instructors of the course could have picked out to show the students.  Kids...scrape away the "small stuff" on the surface - sometimes btv - sometimes unsteady in contact - and focus on whatever it is that this horse is displaying that leads Ms. Sprieser to believe that she is headed for Grand Prix.  Presumably some sign of this greatness to come must have been on display, along with the faults, and THAT is what judges need to see, and to understand, if showing and the feedback received at shows is REALLY going to help us at all.  Who cares about the blips along the way?

Otherwise showing doesn't give us feedback - it is just another airbrushed pageant of perfection. Why bother going at all? 

To be fair to Ms. Sprieser - I can't blame her for not wanting to show her imperfect horse.  Because who wants to work with an up and coming coach who's horse isn't scoring 70's at 3rd?  As we sit at our computers surfing , we can't see if a coach got 60% on their test because they scored 8-3-8-3-8-3  - pure brilliance interrupted by moments of nerdy young horse... or 6-6-5-6-5-6 boring end of line performance.

Better not risk it, Lauren. Hide that horse at home.

Monday 19 November 2012

The Stretchy Circle. Like the nipples on batman's suit.

I probably don't have to point this out to you, since you are all dressage nutjobs as well, but I do have a somewhat obsessive compulsive streak to my personality.  Once I develop a habit, it sticks with me and is hard to shake (if you have ever seen my bloody and disgustingly bitten thumbnails, or seen me biting said thumbnails right after cleaning a stall or picking some hooves, you know what I am talking about.  Nothing stops me.  I like to tell myself it builds my immune system). 

My most recent obsessions are going to the indoor driving range (which you already know about), and listening to podcasts while I do just about any activity that does not require listening to the drivel going on in world around me.  Driving, mowing the lawn, running, having dinner with Motard - I pretty well always have the ipod going with some stupid podcast on. (I haven't yet tried listening to a podcast at the indoor driving range.  Hmmm... )

You can listen to a podcast on just about any subject.  Did you know that Nazis are living beneath Antartica?  Neither did I, until I got into podcasts.  I also know more about American politics than most Americans (you poor, poor people), and am right up to speed on the "PetWell" affair (if you don't know what this is - you should listen to more Slate podcasts).

One of my favourite mindless and stupid podcasts is "How to Do Everything".  It is a National Public Radio offering during which two guys answer listeners questions on how to do a variety of stupid things, like how to stop your cats from licking out your earwax while you sleep. (Yes. This really was one of the questions. I am not making this up).

On a recent episode they covered the topic of Skeuomorphs.

I thought I had no idea what Skeuomorphs were, but once they start talking about them the definition is obvious - they are design elements with no functional purpose, that are retained for purely ornamental reasons.  So, for example - when you touch the keys on your ipad and they make a little clicky sound like a typewriter - that is a Skeuomorph.  They could be silent, or make the sound of howling wolves or laser beams or whiny hunter jumper coaches - but the designers have maintained the old fashioned sound you expect a keyboard to make.  Wood grain on your laminate floor - Skeuomorph.  The fact that the "save" icon on your computer looks like a floppy disc, even though kids these days don't even know what a floppy disc is anymore - Skeuomorph.  

The most excellent example given in this particular podcast that really illustrates the principle of the skeuomorph is the fact that Batman's suit has nipples and abs moulded into it - a showy yet functionally unnecessary display to let us know that there is a ripped human in there somewhere under all of the foam rubber. (You can tell that the scientist explaining the concept is not entirely comfortable with this example, but it really appealed to me). 

This, my friends, is how I see the stretchy circle. When I see a "dressage rider" reel out their reins at the end of their ride and let their horse plow around on the forehand with it's nose dragging on the ground (usually while giving smacky theatrical pats, maybe making that brrr-p noise or cooing "GOOOO-OOOD BUUOYYYY!" in an irritating smoochy voice), what I am really seeing is a big rubbery nipple on a batman suit. 

Yah, yah - we get it. Just like the Batman abs and nipples tell us that there is someone strong and manly within, capable of kicking Joker's warped and twisted ass, we get it that you are a master of Drass-hagge, who has aced the art of having your horse follow your soft and giving hand into impeccably correct contact.  Brav. Braaav-oh.

There are only a few problems with the "10" stretchy circle - that is "allowing the horse to stretch forward and downwards" as a badge of honour. 

First - just as not all men who could potentially save Gotham City have exactly the same conformation as Batman - not all horses are ideally conformed to do a big, dramatic, draping double coefficient stretchy circle.  

For example, quarter horses can't generally sit right down and piaffe by design, but they can typically do a mean stretchy circle.  Conversely, a horse that is born and bred to be uphill (with sperm-meet-egg planned with dressage in mind) may have a natural predisposition to NOT plow around with their head way down by their knees and their nose poking out..

If you think I am smoking crack and need some concrete evidence - consider that the FEI 4 and 5 year old tests give a nod to the fact that a horse should be reaching into the contact by asking for 1/2 circle (from F to K or whatever) of "Let horse stretch on a long rein".  Fair enough. I would hope we are all in agreement that a horse that is held in a "frame" is not going anywhere fast in the world of dressage.  

However - for our lower level tests, this quick check of correct contact is not nearly enough.  

Instead, the Training level tests AND First level tests in our Dressage Canada handbooks ask for a FULL 20 m circle, and a circle of not just "stretching on a long rein", (which could be interpreted in a way to allow for many different permutations of a relaxed and stretching topline depending on the conformation of the horse), but "allowing horse to stretch forward and downward", complete with a little cartoony illustration of a peanut rolling horse with his nose poked out, and a wide handed forward slouching rider, in case any judge is unclear on what this movement is supposed to entail.  And the nipple on the rubber suit is of course that this maneouver is a double coefficient in all but one of the first six tests, training through first. 

Suzie! Lean forward - FORWARD! Drop those hands and WIDER many times do I have to ask you to round your shoulders. Look at yourself in the mirror and channel your inner hunchback, my dear.  

The problem then becomes that the up and coming stars are being evaluated using a different set of benchmarks than the horses ridden by the rest of us.  While we are busily mastering the art of getting our horses to tank around on the forehand for two years, the 5 year old horses are moving on to things that show a propensity towards the upper levels - medium canter, collected canter, simple changes of leg...By the 6 year old tests, the horse is expected to display self carriage by NOT stretching when the reins are given for a few strides - something that doesn't show up until Third level in mere mortal dressage. 

Worse still - (just a sec, I need to put my flame suit on here) - once you get out, about, and work with some more experienced coaches with better horses - you cant help but notice that a rewarding stretch for an uphill, upper level horse does NOT actually look anything like Test 3, Movement 13 illustrated above.  It actually looks more like this... 

with the horse's poll only slightly lower than the withers, and the nose typically behind the vertical.  

My GOD!  How can that POSSIBLY be correct?  Has that man not seen the cartoony pic?

Somehow, our system of rewards has spawned a whole league of lower level riders that are validated in their beliefs that a happy, peanut rolling, double coefficient scoring training level horse is somehow working more correctly than a horse that prefers to stretch in a more "low deep and round", behind the vertical outline. 

This whacked out logic is of course supported by bulletin boards dedicated to trashing coaches that are working with highly talented horses that are being warmed-up by stretching into the contact in a way that matches their conformation and level of training - namely low, deep and round - versus wrestling their faces down to their fetlocks and throwing them onto their forehands for no particular reason other than the fact that it is rewarded at the lower levels..a design element with no functional purpose. 

Get out your protractors, people.  We need to study that cartoony pic, and be sure our horse's faces NEVER go behind the vertical.  We wouldn't want anyone to accuse us of being Devil worshipping Rollkur fanatics, now would we.  Oh, and by the way...nice nipples, Batman. 

Thursday 15 November 2012

If the student ain't happy - ain't nobody happy. happy and stagnating. It is what we all want. Right?

Wait a second here... you were not "self teaching" yourself.  You had Coach Ritenau helping you!

Yes I did.  She was right there at my side for 2 lessons per week or whatever it was at the time.

And herein lies the problem with many lower level, starting out coaches, working with many lower level riders.  I will of course never know what she was really thinking, but if I were to guess, I would say it was something along the lines of..."Curmudgeon read a book, she thinks she is doing what she is supposed to be doing... I will stay out of it and let her continue on her merry way".

I am sure if I had said at that time - "hey, let's try a horse communicator" - answer would have been...great idea. "Bitless bridle?" Sounds like a plan. "New saddle?" great. "Horse and Rider Pilates pole dancing?" that should help. "Chiro, massage, and flaming marshmallows?" let me get the matches for you. "Stuffing jalapeno peppers up horse's butt?" Why not. Whatever you want to try, my dear student, let's give it a go. If it will keep you feeling engaged, intelligent, and like pulling out your pen to write that cheque - I think it is a marvelous idea.

You can google just about any phrase and find a picture to go with it. The internet never ceases to amaze me .

(The other alternative is that she had no idea that things were amiss, and really didn't realize that we were in the process of creating a Faberge egg of a horse that would eventually become very confused and offended when the time came to put the aids ON. I will give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that this was not the case).

I know Dr. Phil does not usually bring up the topic of dressage on his talk show.  Actually, I even searched his website just now to be sure, seeing as a topic about an insane wife spending all of the family's disposable income on buying and training a dressage horse wouldn't be totally out of the question as a subject for a show...("WHAT were you THINKING!").

But if Dr. Phil did decide to broach the subject of why it is so many adult amateur dressage students are spending so much time and money on truly mediocre coaching, even when they live in areas with lots of good instructors... he might say the reason is "if momma ain't happy, ain't nobody happy".

That is, for a great percentage of adult ams out there - if they feel useless because they can't accomplish any of the things the coach is suggesting... it is only a matter of time before they find a coach that likes whatever the hell it is they ARE doing, making themselves temporarily happy.  Until some life altering event occurs to open their eyes to the sad state of reality - like seeing a video of some jiggling slouchy rider flopping around on her horse and realizing with horror exactly who that person is.

A coach like Ritenau knows that if you aren't happy - ain't nobody going to be happy, because you are likely going to pack your bags and go elsewhere. To be temporarily happy, then unhappy with some other coach and start the cycle all over again.  When you are just starting out with only a few students, you don't want to do anything which might scare any of them away, you just can't afford it. Really, an adult amateur with a 3 year old who can get on, ride around and execute circles and whatnot without being terrified or close to death is a relatively good catch, in the grand scheme of things.  Beggars can't be choosers.

So I am sure when she watched us go around creating an overall pretty picture 95% of the time, save for a few herky-jerky transitions and moments of unsteady contact, she told herself that things were just fine.  Happy horse, happy rider, no resistance on anyone's part.  Looking good.

You of course recognize my situation, and know at least 10 people who are in it, or have read about them on a bulletin board, since it is so incredibly common.  Here I was, obsessively going to clinics, reading, critiquing total strangers and coming up with ways to avoid their fate - while not realizing at all that I was comfortably settled into exactly the sort of enabling relationship that would ensure I was right there with them, mastering the 20 metre circle forever.

If I had had the time, I would have put the cherry on top, I am sure, and gone onto UDBB to tell everyone about my fabulous new mare, then proceeded to explain to everyone how lightness, harmony and love were going to take us up the levels, just as the masters had promised.

(And yes, to answer your forward 10 years down the road to today... when you see my post titled "Help! I need the perfect stallion to breed my stuck at 1st level mare to..." OF COURSE this has been my plan all along, silly!)

Saturday 10 November 2012

Read - Execute - Totally fuck up. Welcome to self taught dressage

So what were these things that a 3 year old horse was so eager to perform that I was able to label her as an "overachiever" even at this young age?

Go. Stop. Turn.

Really, what else do you do with a 3 year old?

Well, actually - I should be more specific.  Because being horseless, I have been riding an assorted mixed bag of loaner horses these days and during this process, have been reminded that really these things can only be easily defined on a "macro" level (i.e. if horse is no longer moving = stop.  Horse moves = go). 

Once you get a little more granular in your evaluation (throwing that buzz word in there just for the office dwellers... don't you hate when your boss says "granular"?  It always makes me think of sugar, then I get hungry.  Or I start dreaming of being on a sandy beach) you quickly realize that there are fifty shades of go and stop.  And maybe 150 shades of turn. And people out there who think none of these 250 shades of anything are required to execute a course of fences, which amazes the living hell out of me, and is the main reason that I always tell people "I LOVE perfecting flatwork!" when they suggest I try jumping their horses. 

(They probably think it is because I am old and frightened.  I am good with that). 

What I was deathly afraid of back in the day was screwing up GO with Ms. V- since this was the fundemental issue with the Platypus (who on very good days still gave the equine equivalent of sigh/eyeroll before GOing), and also with most horses I had observed at clinics etc .  Right from the first time I climbed aboard, I was very commited to this idea of - put your leg on, horse goes forward immediately.  If they don't - rain of hellfire until they do, followed by petting and other niceties to cement the correct reaction in the noggin.

I also really wanted my horse to have that kicksled / skateboard quality that Kyra talks about in her book - i.e. once the horse does GO, you back off and let them cruise along, you don't keep nag-jab-kicking just for the hell of it.  When horse is not going forward enough for your liking - leg on and GO again, then ease off on the aids.

And, with these two ideas in my head - instantaneous go, followed by release of the aids - I proceeded to merrily instill an incredibly irriating habit in Ms. V, that somewhere down the road would require much work to undo. What was not entirely clear to me when reading about how to teach this kick-sled phenomenon was the fact that YES, you stop kicking.  NO you do not remove all traces of the aid from the horse and leave your leg sort of hovering on her side , such that once you do touch her again with your calf you surprise the hell out of her and she blasts forward as if shot out of a cannon.  Especially if she is an overachiever.

This happens all the time in life - people really and truly think they are doing the right thing, but instead, they are driving off on some crazy tangent and just making life more difficult for themselves.  The brain is always willing to fool us. It is the reason I still sing the lyrics "I'm hot, chicken feet, from my head to my feet" to myself when I hear the song Pour Some Sugar on Me. No matter how hard I try to stop. It seemed to make sense at the time, however in retrospect, is so totally ridiculous. How could I have thought this was correct?  Why would someone have rhymed "feet" with "feet".  Or sang a hard rockin' tune about Dim Sum?  Come on, Curmudgeon.

Yaaah!  Sing it, Joe Elliot!
And nowhere is this more true than in self-taught dressage.  The slogan for self-taught dressage should be ...Read it in a book - execute incorrectly on your horse - fuck up totally. 

As I am sure you can imagine, this same approach of - apply aid and back off when horse responds - can also make a real mess of a horse's steady contact.  There is a fine line between "softening" the contact and "dumping" the contact all together.  And when you are riding an overachiever, it takes only a very few corrections to create a horse that shoots forward like a rocket when you put the leg on, and assumes what feels like a nice light contact in the mouth when you even touch the reins, creating a lovely eye pleasing picture of a big forward trot and a lovely headset...without actually being "on the aids" at all. We were superstars in my mind.  Was that easy, or what?

I did get some glimpses of issues still to come, but of course at this point, when the "big stuff" seems to be going so well, the small things don't seem particularly relevant. 

The first one was - riding Ms. V was a bit like learning to drive standard. (Please don't say "hmm, I never learned to drive standard, I can't relate to that one at all". Women who can't drive standard are an embarrasment to the species. Do me a favour and humour me...just lie and pretend you can, and hope no one ever calls you on it like George Costanza on the Marine Biologist episode). 

The Curmudgeon family learner vehicle.  Three kids - three clutches

Remember how you would give the car too much gas and let go of the clutch and the car would jettison forward and burn rubber?  Or, not quite enough and it would do a stuttering jerk-jerk-jerk stall? Yah, that was kind of the feel  you got when riding Ms. V. Aids were all or nothing - you were going, or you were stopping.  And both things happened as suddenly as back when you were learning to drive that car, and getting yelled at by whoever was crazy enough to try to teach you. 

But much like learning to drive standard, once you were in the groove and rolling along- ahhh, it all seemed so easy.  It was just the application of the aids part that was as bit... uh... abrupt.  That will all smooth itself out. Right? 

She was also incapable of standing still - because every twitch / shift / nudge of any part of my body was interpreted to mean GO by the overacheiver.  An actual halt required me to sit absolutely immobile which really is not as easy as it seems to be when you are vegging on the couch.  Of course in that day and age, the absence of a halt was easy to ignore - it didn't stop people from winning Olympic medals, so why would I fret about it here doing walk-trot on my greenie. 

The other thing that was not developing quite like it should was... anyone... anyone... yesss, that's right kids. Two marks for stretchy trot.  But actually, I think the subject of stretchy trot is worthy of an entire rant post all of it's own, so I think I will save it for later.  Suffice it to say - when you can't put your leg steadily on your horse, or take a feel of their mouth - stretchy trot can be a bit of a challenge. However, being a kick-ass master of stretchy trot in and of itself doesn't mean you are doing things right either, smug reader (yah, I know you are out there, acing that double coefficient at training level), so don't get all proud of your peanut rolling downhill horse tripping around on the forehand.

I guess in retrospect, it still was a better place to be in than having a balky 3 year old that had a hissy fit and kicked out at the leg when asked to go forward - Or one with a mouth of iron that yanked me around the arena like the time machine schoolmaster from way back when.  I generally didn't get any negative attitude at all, unless I rode for too long or drilled something more than I should have based on our stage of training, which did sometimes happen. 

We all need to have something to fuck up when starting our first dressage horses. On the grand scheme of things, I think issues that stem from excessive willingness to please were pretty good problems to have. 

Monday 5 November 2012

Ottawa. It should not be a Double Coefficient.

Aha!  So you see, Curmudgeon - it really is all about temperament. I have said it a million times on bulletin boards. Ms. V's overachiever attitude made her a natural to succeed in dressage. 

Oh surrre it did.

As a barren spinster, I get to witness the exploits of my friends and their children as an impartial observer. I have determined that nothing is a bigger pain in the ass than an overachiever as a child. As a dressage rider, I have learned that this is true for both humans and horses.

It brings to mind a dinner gathering a few years back which included a friend - let's call her Mrs. Momzilla. M'zilla happened to be the proud mother of an overachiever, and on this particular night, she recounted the horrifying tale to us that has now gone down in Curmudgeon folklore as "Ottawa - it is not worth two points".

I forget all of the fine details of this story, but the crux of it was.. this woman's overachieving 4th grader or whatever she was had to write a test on the capitals of Canadian provinces, and the bonus question - the Capital of Canada - was worth *TWO POINTS*.

Here is a tip for you canuck kids - if you get St. John's and Saint John confused - Just remember that "stupid" is spelled with an "S". And Newfies live in Newfoundland. Thus, by using triangulation, we can determine that St. John's spelled with an extra "S" = Newfoundland. It is not politically correct, but you won't mix them up again.

Well, Princess blew the Ottawa question.. losing two marks in the process, due to Ottawa being worth *TWO POINTS*..whereas any other error would have only dinged her one.

Being an overachiever  she was, of course, distraught.  M'zilla only had two choices. She could have told Princess to turn the frown upside down, suck it up, buttercup, or some similar catchy phrase that an irritating mother might say, and that would have been the end of that.

Or - alternatively, she could have gone to the school and gotten into it with the teacher regarding the framework of the test, and the total idiocy of making Ottawa worth..*TWO POINTS*.  Which is of course what she did. Eventually teacher saw the error of her ways (aka - wanted M'zilla the hell out of her office), made Ottawa worth the one measly point it rightfully deserved, and Princess gained a mark.  Thank goodness, justice was served. Take that and shove it up your beaver tail, you stupid canal skating, MP pocked city.

M'zilla then went on to explain to us that if the Canadian education system insisted on hiring only people with Master's degrees to teach our children, this sort of travesty could be avoided.

Having had just enough wine to be open with my opinions, but unfortunately not quite enough to be oblivious to the annoying conversations around me, I told her that as someone with a Master's degree, I would rather burn in hell than have to have some bitch of a mom come in and cry the blues to me regarding Ottawa being worth *TWO POINTS*.  Forget summers off.  I would have driven a letter opener into my heart right in plain view of her and princess, just to end the pain of listening to her whiny voice.  I almost wanted to do it right there, and then. At the restaurant.

(I guess I actually should have said that the topic of overachievers brings to mind a dinner gathering a few years back which included a former friend).

Anyway, the reason I bring this up is not just to firmly cement the "former friends" bit, on the off chance that M'zilla happens to read my blog, but also to stress that overachievers do not make for easy times for either parents or horse owners.  It is instead very likely that child and parent, or horse and rider, will feed off each other and both will eventually morph into balls of hard-core irritating whiner who have such amazing power they can even suck the joy out of a dinner that includes both red wine and Tiramisu.

To succeed as the parent of an takes a delicate balance of allowing them to indulge in just the right number of drama fits, when they are trying to achieve and failing (which will happen many times in dressage) while at the same time, still gently pushing them enough to someday help them to understand the right course of action.    If you don't indulge them at all and only punish the drama  - you will cause their brains to explode and they will give up trying.

But overindulge - and you become the horse owner we all know, with the talented youngster (who is only 14, still just developing), who can't canter on both leads without some gorgeous version of unscripted Cavalia type leaps and spins as a prelude.  Sure, he can't do a through transition to save his life, but look at how athletic he is! He is a genius!

These overindulgers and their overprotected babies typically wind up in classical barns, where they do things "correctly", never push their horses past (or even anywhere within eyesight) of their limits, and never, ever show - why bother, when the judges just won't understand their delicate, sensitive horses.

I think this is possibly the equine equivalent of having a 30+ year old musical genius child living in your basement "creating sounds" or whatever until they are finally "discovered" (possibly by the police, after being notified by the neighbours about a strange smell coming from the backyard, where the children have buried the parental bodies so they can continue collecting their social security cheques).  But unfortunately, whining to Linda Zang and friends that stretchy circle and free walk should not be worth *DOUBLE COEFFICIENTS* probably won't get you as far as harassing an Ontario civil servant.  However, should anyone decide to try, let me know.  I think it will be fun to watch.