Tuesday 28 October 2014

I feel just like Forrest gump. Only more bitchy.

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

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

My most prolific commenter, Anonymous, wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But really that is not my only point. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which is really depressing, isn't it. 

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

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

Friday 3 October 2014

Oh, the humanity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Build! Build on your pyramid, Curmudgeon!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry, where was I.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, who knows.

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

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

Oh, the humanity.

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