Thursday 21 March 2013

It may only be one moment in time, but I see two chins...

Curmudgeon, are you seriously never going to show again? That's nuts! It sounds like the worst that happened to you at training level was a few scores in the 50's and some uninspiring judge's comments!

True, and really that is the worst that EVER happened to me, all the way along.  Repeatedly. I never fell off in the mud, or got eliminated, or jumped out of the ring... never missed a ride time or got chastised by a judge for anything other than wearing shorts while scribing.

So, what was it then, that sealed my fate and turned me into "person who never wants to show again..."

Well - it was the time. The money. The hassle.

Also just the fact that I had reached my goal (showing PSG) and I am certain had I continued honing my skills for the next few years, spending money, putting up with the wide world of dressage, I could have brought my mighty 55%'s up to maybe a 63% or 65%... but seriously, what is the fun of that?  A goal is only really a goal if you have some doubts about your ability to actually reach it.

It is kind of like getting to the end of your favourite video game.  For normal people, this means it is time to move on to a new game - spending hours going through the entire process again and again kind of just makes you a self flagellating nerd to everyone you know, except about 5 other similarly nerd minded people. No one I know except for dressage nutbars would even understand why I would be happier to get 55% than 65%, since to people used to the normal world of percentages where 100% is the goal still think 65% sounds pretty fricking shitty.

I know I can break 131590 next time...just give me 3 days!
But there were other, more subtle things that influenced my decision.

For example, I never, ever have to ride a horse in the rain when I don't want to ever again. I will never have to do any type of braids, blobby or otherwise. I will very rarely ever be put in a situation where I have to poo in a port-o-let. And perhaps most importantly of all, I will never be faced with the horror of seeing my white and pasty, puffing, double chinned face captured in 187 frames of online Actionpix photos.  Ever again.

But Curmudgeon!  I LOVE seeing gorgeous pictures of my horse taken at shows when he is all dolled up! 

Oh, don't we all. I love seeing the pics of Ms. V too. But the problem is these photos are always kind of like when you are stuck beside the willowy 5'10" office babe in all of your short and dumpy glory in the departmental photos.  Her beauty only enhances your... lack thereof.

Ms. V always looks beautiful in photos.  Me... not so much.

For example - who wouldn't want to see this beauty hanging on their wall...ridden by...errr...

Some sort of sad looking elf...or is it the eighth dwarf, Druggy?  Seriously, I look bad enough in the morning, do I really need to see this droopy face staring at me while I drink my coffee?  Or really, at any time?

What, me worry?
Or, sometimes, the elegant Ms. V appears to be ridden by a cadaver from the Victorian ages. Is this person dead?  Or just silently praying that nothing goes freakishly wrong. Maybe she is praying she won't die, when something goes freakishly wrong during this class?  Who knows.

Gorgeous horse...

 Puffing freak...

Now, there are some photographers that do try to help, bless them.  I actually bought this picture, and have it on the mantle at Motards Man Cave...

Which on closer inspection reveals the kind of hard-core photoshopping that you probably thought they only used to remove all of the rolls and pimples and tattoos from Victoria Secret models.  Unfortunately airbrushes can only do so much, and they can't stop a severe shoulder tilt to the left, but the artist did give it a valiant effort. I especially like the nice shimmery lipgloss that I wasn't actually wearing in real life.

Now, I realize that I am not the most photogenic person in the world. I have come to accept the fact that, like my distant relative Alfred E, I have non-symmetrical features and a squinty left eye, which according to Psychology Today, may be an early warning sign of the lunatic within.

With time, I have also come to understand why it is that the Curmudgeonly parental units refused to buy my grade 13 graduation pictures.

Thanks Curmudgeons

However, I just really do not think I am as horrifyingly ... horrifying as I come off in my dressage show photos.

I started to develop quite a complex about this whole affair. For the longest time, I actually had a picture on my desk at work where I had cropped my head off.  (I told people it was supposed to look artsy, but I think it just came off as weird). And it affected me to the point that, before entering the ring for my very last PSG test ever.. the cherry on the sundae, the last hurrah, whatever you want to call it...

I did not think of "getting horse more thru over topline" or "riding more precise figures or movements" or "allowing horse more freedom to move up and out..." or any of the other suggestions that the judges had given me in my collectives over the years.

My entire thought process was focused on one thing.  Get out of that fucking ring with at least one picture to hang on your wall where you do not appear to have a double chin.

Done and done. Let's call it a wrap.

Saturday 16 March 2013

Aim Low. Reach your goals. Avoid disappointment

Hands up - who among the office dwellers reading the blog today has ever been subjected to... Career Coaching.

Sorry, I know the phrase is kind of repulsive, I should have given more warning. I hope I didn't just make you throw up a little in your mouth.

For those of you who have missed this pleasure, let me summarize. This is when a consultant...who really knows nothing about your office, or the nutbars within, or the politics, or the challenging brick walls you face daily... drops by, tries to earn your respect by wowing you with a long list of vague credentials somehow related to doing something wow-worthy, then leans in with their clipboard, looks deeply into your eyes and says "how would you like to work with me take your performance to the next level".

Wait a minute - I guess I could just summarize it by saying the Career Coach is kind of like the hatted clinician of the office world. Is he or she there, every day, helping you to slog through the flowing stream of bullshit?

NO. Absolutely not.

Is he or she there, once every six weeks or so, to provide you with some great "enpowering" concepts to try, before waltzing out of the office (well, not before collecting a paycheque which is likely much more than yours will ever be for a full day, after doing only 60 minutes of work) and leaving you to struggle in vain on your own to implement whatever teambuilding or assertive communication techniques they suggested? On your cohorts who could care less about either thing and really only show up for the free coffee and paycheque?

YES. For sure.

Will they be back next time to start the cycle of hope, followed shortly afterwards by despair...

YES. Undoubtedly.

I am sorry to report that recently my boss tried to make me go to career coaching, and I said NO. NO. NO. I won't GO. GO. GO.

I warned him that I was uncoachable, just ask any of the Five People I will meet in Dressage Hell that have already tried to coach me. (Actually, there will be more than five of them there, but after talking to five - maybe just four. Three?  you will want to jump straight into a pit of molten hellfire or get gored senseless by a trident to end the torture).

But he insisted. It is such a great opportunity Curmudgeon. Dr. Nick will really help you!


And so, off I went to Career Coaching.

And I listened patiently to the "wow" speech, nodded at appropriate times, furrowed my brow a bit and tilted my head just a few degrees to the side to give the impression of "interested listening", and said "SURRREEE" when the gift of "next level performance" was lobbed to me.  "Let's DO IT!"

"Great. Now..Tell me, Curmudgeon..." asked Dr. Nick, pen poised above clipboard "What strategies do you use today to help you to deal with co-workers who you feel are underperforming and not helping the organization to reach its goals..."

Oh! Wait! I knew the answer to this one! I remember feeling a burst of misguided enthusiasm. "Dr. Nick, I TOTALLY used to struggle with this, but now I have the solution!"

I was going to ace this test, and it was all because of Dressage!

I explained to Dr. Nick that the best technique to use to deal with teammates that are underperforming, even though you knew they could do much better.. teammates that are totally oblivious to how much work and sweat and effort you are putting into whatever endeavor you are currently undertaking, and merrily go about their business driving your train of success off of the rails not because they are malicious, or hate you, or have any particular axe to grind, but just because they are who they are... had been thoroughly ingrained in me while becoming a dressage rider.

The answer is... LOWER YOUR EXPECTATIONS.  Right down. To somewhere around rock bottom.

Then - if your expectations are met - you are not disappointed.

But - if something good happens - your expectations have been exceeded!  When people ask you "how was the horse show this weekend!"  You can answer "GREAT!  We did much BETTER than I expected!"  Oh, what a feeling. What a rush.  I sat back, smiled, and waited for my pat on the back.

BZZZZZ - wrong again, Curmudgeon.

What actually happened was that Dr. Nick said he felt sad for me that this is how I choose to go through life. Very sad.

He said that by working with him, I could learn new techniques - ways to go through life without the starting assumption that the very act of being is by nature, a buzzkill.

"Curmudgeon, what do you say. Can we work together to change this?"

I said NO. And left. Long story short - I turned the "gift" of Career Coaching into a CLM*.

The saddest thing is that I seriously thought my answer was really good. It totally works. It is not easy for me, and sometimes I fail, but life is just so much happier when you make "AIM LOW" your mantra.  It is the only thing that gets me through many a day. (No, the irony here does not escape me - I had high expectations that this was the right answer to the question)

Blah Blah Blah Curmudgeon - you are supposed to be telling us about training level. Remember?

I am - seriously, I am.

You see the thing is, I didn't adopt this "rock bottom expectations" philosophy until only a few years ago.  Back in 2005 when I was showing training level, I still was a fool who believed that hard work, perseverance, and a great positive attitude would bring you all of the joy you deserved.

And also allow you to break 65% at every outing, every show, at training level.

BZZZZZ - wrong again, Curmudgeon.

In my memory - We had many a disappointing show. Almost every show was a disappointment, in fact. Thinking back, I remember the freak-outs. The shying. The riding off course. The wrong leads.

In the judges words, the "some resistance", the "quarters swinging out", the "strung out" and the "against the hand".  The reminders that "horse must be immobile in the halt".

We sometimes "lacked purpose", were "stiff" and "abrupt", and were "tight through back" (me? or Ms. V? not specified).  And yes, we were "fussy" yet again.  Also "hollowed" sometimes, which made me think of pumpkins.  We needed to be "more attentive"

Most of all we needed to "work on throughness to improve gaits and self carriage" Great tip, Judge Nobrainer. (next up - "practice breathing in and out to avoid dying of asphyxiation").

After probably a few thousand dollars, and according to my passport, five Silver or Gold shows where we rode in 12 different classes, my take home message at the time was that despite all of our hard work over the last year or so, we really pretty much sucked. I shoved all of my tests in a binder, compiled all of my video clips on one VHS tape which is now growing mold in a cupboard somewhere, and have done my best not to think back to this era for the last seven years.

But for you, faithful readers, I have unearthed the collection (well not the video tapes, I am not that much of a masochist). And with my fabulous new "rock bottom" goggles on, I can see a different story emerging.

Actually - for two absolute beginners to dressage, we really didn't do half bad.

We had lots of "nice departs". We were often "fairly obedient", which is no screaming hell, but still better than "disobedient" all the time. We received many an 8 on our free walks, with "good stretch and overtrack".  We were usually "active", sometimes "fluid", "lovely", "elegant" and were always "a nice pair",

My favourite comment in collectives... "just need time and patience".  Which I guess is really as much of a no-brainer as "work on throughness", but somehow it just seems less condescending and DUH.

The best part of all, which I never really noticed before..

Our very highest mark for the year was a 65.0% - and placed us first in the training level 4 class at the 2005 Western Ontario Trillium championships.

Our very lowest score for the year was 52.1% - which put us dead last in the training level 3 class at the 2005 Western Ontario Trillium championships.

Win some - lose some - sometimes at the very same show.

Had my expectations of how we might do during this first year of showing been appropriately low, I might have come out a dressage superstar in my own little pea brain.

In all seriousness, what I really did miss was the most important clue to what we needed to do to advance, and to be fair to the judges, a lot of them did provide this clue to me.

"Keep the aids on more securely"
"Use aids more consistently"
"Use aids to establish steadier contact"
"Maintain impulsion with each stride for better acceptance of contact"

They were watching me drive standard - gas / clutch / brake - they knew that if I kept this up the car was going to stall out. At first level.  And they were correct.

*Career Limiting Maneuver - When you do something stupid that can potentially cause you to never move up in the company

Thursday 14 March 2013

I am not kidding...I swear I saw alfred hitchcock come out of that port-o-let

I have spent a lot of time this week humming and hawing about how much detail to go into regarding our first summer of showing training level.

Because the truth is - although you all pretend to be very interested in the story here, nothing is more mind-numbingly boring than listening to a play-by-play of a series of training level shows.  NOTHING exciting ever happens at training level.  Even the freak-outs are usually pretty tame, compared to amateurs crashing through hunter fences etc.

Not that we didn't try to spice things up a little now and then.  But for the most part...zzzz....

So, I have made the executive decision to condense our entire 2005 training level show season into one post. It's ok - admit it - you are sighing a big sigh of relief ("ahh, we might get to hear some good stuff before we die of old age", you are saying. I know).

I think the very best thing about this first season of dressage competition for me was the very "The Simpsons" like quality of showing up and seeing my favourite characters from earlier episodes going about their business.  You know what I mean... "Oh, look, Disco Stu is in the bachelor auction" or "Ha, Captain McAllister has passed the real estate exam".  Sure, at some point in time, these characters all had episodes where they were the stars of the story. But now, they are not the focus of this particular episode, you just notice them in passing, and these little memory lane moments are an important part of what makes The Simpsons so entertaining.

She says you should "ride forward and make him straight". You paid $75 for that? What the hell does it mean and what practical steps do I take to accomplish it it in real life? Maybe the machine isn't working or something. 
Same deal for dressage shows.  While the true focus of the episode is on the riveting drama unfolding in your own world (cliff hangers such as "where is my glove" or "should I enter left..or right"), you can't help but get excited when you see old friends and check them off of your bingo card.

And they were all there.

(Well, I guess not ALL. No hat-wearing pro clinicians. Or Senor Cavellero. They were at home being Classical, I will assume).

Hey! Over there! - There is Mr. Limpy's owner - with a death grip on her new horse's face.  Hmm..weird how Mr. Limpy never wanted to move FORWARD...

Wow - there is the time machine schoolmaster coach, sawing away merrily at her horse's mouth! (time machine schoolmaster herself was never seen again, BTW).

Oh look - there is the Reiki master dude, who's very best horse is topped out at 2nd! (Actually only ever saw him once before he went hard core classical)

Over there - it's Clubby Club Foot's sire!

And look who is judging my class - Coach Crabby!

And so on. BIN...GO!

The very best moment was, of course, seeing the Frau out of the corner of my eye watching me warm-up a very forward, very fancy trotting Ms. V. (you know, the big, active, beautiful trot that you can only do in warm-up, on a circle, but can't actually take into the ring without rhythm mistakes and freak outs).

Take that, Frau.  Is this "you need a better horse to become a dressage rider" enough for you?
And that's why they call me...The Curmudgeon. 

I don't know why this "cameo appearance" effect seems to be greater to me at a dressage show than at h/j ones.  I think it is due to ride times - at a hunter show, the entire class is left standing around for hours at ringside waiting for the mystery of when they might be required to go in the ring to be revealed... and because of this, there are no "sightings".  Everyone is just stuck in the same place in a big, miserable, usually sweaty or muddy clump.  Maybe both.  For hours.

But at dressage shows - people come and go during relatively small windows depending on their ride times. So seeing someone mounted up and sawing or kicking or yanking away is much more special somehow, not a sure thing.  Kind of like birdwatching.

You see, Curmudgeon - it is absolutely ESSENTIAL to go to shows FIRST - and observe these people in action before making any decisions on coaching or training. 

Ugh, this is so true - but so much more difficult that it sounds.  The problem is, as it always is with dressage and so many other aspects of life - you don't know what you don't know.  And so, if coach Sawsall wins whilst sawing, you just see the ribbons hung on the fancy stall curtain.  You don't hear the deep, frustrated sighs of the judge who feels compelled to give 6's and 7's for things which are not glaringly wrong, yet still not really right.  And if it is training level or first, you would have to come back in a few years to find out if the horse ever progressed.  If only there really was a time machine...

You can't really judge by the students either, since most coaches can't afford to only keep the ones that are actually talented, with good horses, and lots of money to blow. Especially since this amazing trifecta of features occurs in only one out of every 500,000 students or so. Money from Ms. Sweaty Flopsalot pays the bills just as well as from anyone else.

And lastly, you can't totally judge from just looking at the horses, since well trained can be bought for coach Sawsall. Perhaps by Ms. Hatted Spendswads, who aspires someday to sit ringside at the Olympics, neither sweating nor flopping, but just beaming silently with pride while watching her elegant tax shelter dancing lightly across the court.

It takes a good few years of experience, wasted money, and a nice dollop of frustration of course before you can really train your eye to tease out who actually knows what. Have fun with that. I am here to commiserate with you when you need me.

Of course, I also saw new characters who's episodes had not yet been written. And oh, how I looked forward to meeting them someday. Ahh, yes, these were the good old days. When there was still, in my delusional mind, a whole host of normal, sane dressage friends and coaches still to be explored.  There - I see them over there, passaging around elegantly in the main ring, front and centre...

(not off in the Ring 5 and 6 mosh pit with me and the host of coaches yelling out strangely similar instructions to strangely similar students, in their naggy voices full of just barely disguised contempt. (Or..maybe it is despair. With a side of frustration). While the students make their concentric circles all around each other, trying not to collide, while never taking their eyes off of their horse's necks. Sit back. More bend. FOOR-ward, more FOOR-ward!!  Should I ever win the lottery, I have a whole host of coaches in mind who will receive beautiful headset + microphone kits from an anonymous donor - A gift to the poor, tortured whippers-in across Ontario, forced to listen to this for 8 hours a day... (first on list...blonde braid woman, whoever you are)).

Why you should never let your non-horsey spouse hold your horse while you put on your jacket and remove your wraps, seconds before entering the ring
Some day, I will be there too, I told myself (unconvincingly). In the ring full of competent, sane people.

I am still looking for that ring. No - I take that back.  I have given up. But I have now accepted the fact that the crazy makes things more fun anyways. 

Sunday 3 March 2013

Don't worry...about a thing. Cause every little thing... gonna be all right. I mean LEFT..Left at C. I knew I should have used a reader.

Curmudgeon, do you get really nervous when you are getting ready for horse shows?

Gee, that is a hard question to answer, isn't it.  I guess I get kind of nervous - but do I get really nervous? More or less nervous than other people?  Who knows. 

And how much does the degree of nervousness I feel affect my performance? 

Again - who knows.

Psychology Today says that nervousness comes from our fear of looking foolish in front of others, feeling vulnerable, or a fear of standing out inappropriately.  I don't know if this is really what causes me problems at horse shows, because really, I am not particularly good at caring what other people think about what I say or do (which is a constant source of problems in my life, but on the bright side it does enable me to speak in front of large crowds without having to resort to picturing them naked. Most people are better imagined fully clothed).

That said, I do definitely think that my riding is affected enough by my "show nerves" that my horse is left wondering what the hell is wrong with me, and his or her performance or lack thereof reflects this. But I would say the net result of this nervousness is more of a jittery stressed out effect, than a gut-wrenching, "get thee to the porto-let" kind of thing.

You know what I mean - I am not a queasy, bumbling bag of worry - I can pretty much still eat overpriced stir-fry without any fear of vomiting. From the exterior, I look pretty much as normal as I ever do - people around me might not think that I am nervous at all.

But show nerves do sort of take away my edge. Not in a catastrophic way, but in a "drip-drip-drip" kind or erosion of any edge which I might have ever had.  I am just not good at mentally dealing with all the stuff going on around me, all at the same time.

Kind of like the parent who is lugging 3 strollers and a car seat through security, while asking in a sugary sweet voice for little Lucas to "stop - stop now - don't do that to your sister... no, stop" like a spineless ninny. She is preoccupied with diaper bags and passports and liquids and gels, and so her parenting techniques are a little on the semi-flaccid side, leaving us all to wonder how on Earth she puts up with these kids 24/7 without killing them.

But really - you know that if she was in her own home, she would be calm. She would likely do something firm and decisive and non Super-Nanny approved, and Lucas would cut the crap, pronto.  Kids aren't stupid - they know when to pick their battles, and the best time is when your opponent is slightly distracted and also doesn't want to look like a psycho-screaming childbeater in front of their peers.  I try to tell myself this, and cut these parents some slack (while saying my prayers to god and allah and the aliens - whoever is listening - in hopes that they will not end up seated beside me on the plane). 

Yes, we realize that your mom could hide a weapon in your shoe if she was a dedicated member of Al-Qaeda. We just don't want to listen to her debate with a two year old for 20 minutes about whether or not they need to take off their shoesy-wooseys.  We are willing to take the risk of hijacking to avoid this form of torture.
I think horses are a bit like this too.  There is just so much going on in my little pea skull at horse shows (Do I have all of my stuff? Where is Grandma? Did I gas up the cooler?) that I don't have the brain cells left to respond to any tiny misbehaviours or missteps made by my horse in a snappy fashion.. and this delay is just enough that errors start creeping in.  And joining forces,  And snowballing into moments of "some disturbance...2".  And when these disturbances do occur, I am too timid in my corrections because I don't want to stir the pot and make matters any worse... as if they possibly could be (when meanwhile, out in the stands, people are clucking and air-half halting,  riding the benches and desperately trying to psychically send you some sort of signal to ride like you mean it and get your test back on track).

Since horses are simple creatures, with simple reward-punishment type logic built into their noggins, doing something the easy way, (like a strung out running canter transition, or googling around at interesting things instead of staying focused and on the bit), and not getting corrected for it immediately, in the moment it is occurring equals ... good times!  I never get to do this at home! Wheee!

I don't think I can really blame this on nerves, per se. I think it is actually called "bad riding".

Now, I am not the snappiest rider in the first place, which is exactly why I will never be a world-class equestrian - for example, I can ride all of the pieces of a test perfectly by themselves, but stringing them together is just too fricking difficult for me (and is why people who "school XX level" without ever having shown it are really kidding themselves if they think it is the same thing).  When the littlest bit of nerves bump this lack of snappiness up to the "long moments of catatonic" level - well, things go off the rails fairly quickly. My brain just can't keep pace with the action.

Shoulder-in left, volte left 8m. Half-pass to the left, on centreline, track left...

This is especially true when riding an overachiever of a horse.  I think there were many times when Ms. V waited patiently for me to snap out of this catatonic state and give her an indication as to what was coming up...then eventually gave up on the waiting thing and made a decision all on her own as to what might be a good next step in our test. "Well, I like medium canter a lot, and there is the long side - why not".  Only to be confused and frustrated when her rider finally came to her senses and yanked her onto a circle, or in some other direction that she did not anticipate, causing many a "disturbance - 2".  And adding "some tension" to many squares on the scoresheet, as Ms. V pranced along thinking "what-what-WHAT?? WHAT DO I DO NEXT!" instead relaxing and waiting to get clear, confident messages from her rider.

Apparently, Psychology Today says that "yoga, combined with cognitive restructuring, which includes developing positive self-talk" can help to solve the problem of nerves. Who knows. Should I ever show a horse again, I think I am going to try "Bacardi, combined with Coca Cola, including a twist of lime".  I don't really think either thing will make a difference.