Friday, March 11, 2011

Sentimental Journals

While looking for something completely different, I came across some of my riding journals from my college years. As part of my major, I took riding courses and as part of those courses, I had to keep a journal of the lessons. Journal entries had to include what the lesson was about, exercises we did, the theory behind those exercises and what we felt and learned during the ride. What we did not have to include was sarcasm, whining or silliness. I added those for free.

The journals I found were from my Junior and Senior years (1993-1995) and my instructor was new to the University. He knew what he was doing riding-wise, but he had no idea what he was getting into when he signed up with us. We were a group of mostly girls, there were only 2 male riders in the program, with varying levels of experience. Some of the riders thought they knew better than this new instructor. Some of them, like me, waffled between thinking we knew everything and wanting to quit because we thought we were failures. The poor man put up with a lot. I have since written him an apology.

The school had horses to use for lessons, but I also was lucky enough to have the use of a horse from a neighboring barn. The owners wanted him exercised so I got to ride the horse for free. This horse was a big gray Irish Thoroughbred named Wall St Whiz but called "Floyd". Floyd was a disagreeable old sod who was talented but also had major resistances. He was a nice jumper, other than the time he did a dirty stop at the last fence in a line of 4' bounces and I somersaulted over his head. That's a whole story on it's own though.

We were graded on our journal entries and surprisingly, my instructor did read them and made comments as well. My entries were often filled with discouragement as I struggled to grasp the mechanics of Dressage and dealt for the first time with uncertainty with jumping. After one particularly down-hearted lesson, my instructor begged me to try to find the positive parts of every ride. So after the next lesson, which was on my very favorite school horse (Welkin, a Dutch Warmblood) whom I was supposed to ride in an upcoming competition, I began my entry with, "I will try to be positive. I did not put draw reins on. If I ride Welkin with draw reins, I will not be able to ride him without them for the test and quadrille. I am positive of this." I always hated using draw reins but they were a common tool used in the program.

Another horse I rode few times was Star Trek, a stunning dark bay Thoroughbred who was unusually uncoordinated. A lesson with him resulted in one of the most original excuses I have ever come up with. We were supposed to be doing shoulder-in and using the mirrors to look for the three tracks of the movement. Shoulder-in was always my nemesis in school and here is one reason I gave for not knowing whether I got it right by looking in the mirror: "Star Trek is very dark so he blends in well with the wall and footing. I had a hard time telling where his legs were."

A lot of times, I didn't want to write about my lessons because they went poorly. An entry after a jumping lesson begins with "What a rotten ride. I Hate writing journals!" Part of this was my desire to ride the horses that were difficult or that no one thought I could ride. A noble pursuit, but an exercise in frustration most of the time. After one ride on Floyd, I wrote, "I don't feel like I have any control over this horse's body. He plows around swinging his haunches around as if they weren't attached to him." An interesting visual, if nothing else.

Jumping lessons seemed to take on a theme. The next jumping lesson entry begins with "I HATE WRITING JOURNALS." The very next entry, also a jumping lesson, deals with a problem I had with keeping my leg down in place thereby losing my balance forward. I wrote, "It all seems so simple when I think about it. Just keep your heels down, then your balance will stay back and you'll be able to follow the horse. HA!" This is followed by a sentence completely scribbled out and then in parenthesis "I decided not to be sarcastic."

Not every lesson had a negative reaction. After one lesson with Floyd I began my journal entry with "FINALLY! I broke through the crust surrounding Floyd's brain and actually got some quality work out of him. It was unbelievable, the drastic change in him from the beginning of the lesson to the end." Of course, the very next line is "The lesson began horribly." It was at that point, I was starting to get to know the curmudgeon a little better and despite the difficulty in riding him was becoming fond of him and began to develop pet names for him and included those in the journals. The entries following list him as The Gray Horse, Weasel Face, Ford, Pin Head, Rocket Butt and Raisin Brain (not because his brain was small but because he loved raisins).

I also was able to see a little bit of humor in my struggles. One thing Floyd was good at was being a longeing horse for mounted exercises. Usually. An entry for a longe lesson goes like this: "The problem was at the trot, Floyd couldn't decide if he was going to do Western Pleasure or harness racing... It's a little hard to do exercises where you take your legs off or hands go up or out when your horse keeps leaping out from under you.... Usually, when Floyd is walking or trotting he gets into a rhythm and sings a little song in his head. You've probably heard it before, it goes like this, 'Do you know the Muffin Man...' Well, today he was singing, 'Do you know the MUFFIN MAN!...' We did leg lifts, scissors, helicopter things, arm circles, pointing both hands up to the ceiling and pulling the ankle up to the hip to stretch the thigh down at the walk and trot. It's a really good thing I'm not writing this for English class because that last sentence was grammatically incorrect. In fact, it was so incorrect that if it were a walk trot rider, it would be on the wrong diagonal. But who really cares. We don't get graded on grammar in riding class. Or do we...."

It's considered, is what I found out. We also get graded on content, particularly the theory, which had been lacking in my entries. The rest of this day's lesson continues with, "I can sit better on Floyd when I have no stirrups than if I do. Are you allowed to drop your stirrups in a Dressage test? What would happen if you did? It doesn't say 'A- enter working trot sitting with stirrups'. I think that if they don't specify it we should be able to do what we want. I vote for no stirrups so you don't bounce. I guess I better stick some theory in here pretty soon so I can get an A."

"THE THEORY PART When you do leg lifts, you're really doing a half halt because you are sitting into the saddle. BUT, it can't be a real half halt because you take your legs off. You can't come down the center line and just before x, do a couple of big ole leg lifts. Your horse will halt with his hind legs at D and his forehand at G."

At one point, my room mate, Rita came home with me for the weekend. Apparently I had not done my homework before leaving because the next entry begins, "I really did plan to write my journal entry right after my lesson so that I would remember what we did. Honest, I planned on doing it. But then I went home for the weekend and I rode my pony and I never got around to it. I could tell you what I did when I rode my pony! We Galloped! A lot! That's about all we did! Rita galloped too! She rode Lady! And Ivy (a little)! It was fun! My pony is good at galloping. She doesn't want to be a dressage horse, she wants to be a Race horse."

I did learn things in my lessons. Things that I am trying to teach my students now. One of the most important lessons was about down transitions. "Part of Floyd's down transition is my fault. I find myself pulling too much on his mouth and not anchoring my seat into the saddle as I should. Floyd gets so strong on his forehand that I resort to sheer brute force to stop him. This is bad." The first part of learning how to do something right is recognizing what you are doing wrong!

Unfortunately, my struggles with jumping continued. Most of my trouble came from falling badly, again another story on its own, but also from the snide comments of riders in my lessons who felt they were much better than I was. They probably were better at riding over fences than I was, but I let their mean comments undermine my confidence which caused my riding to get worse, not better. The last jumping journal entry is no different from the others and begins, "Have I mentioned that I HATE WRITING JOURNAL ENTRIES!" Hence, my love of Dressage began to take over.

There are some other journal entries that are amusing or interesting enough to share but this post is approaching ridiculous proportions so I'll end now and write another at a later time. Unlike writing journal entries, I do not hate writing blog posts.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Good Sports

There is a story I feel like sharing because it has to do with poor sportsmanship. There have been some wonderful displays of good sportsmanship at some shows I've been to and I'll provide a couple of examples of those as well. No matter your level of expertise, the value of your horse or the rating of your competition, good sportsmanship should be part of your game plan. Good sportsmanship includes being polite to your fellow competitors as well as your trainer, your parents, your students, and certainly the judge and show staff, but also to your horse. Unfortunately, I have succumbed to pressure and nerves at horse shows and been snappy and whiney on more than one occasion but have always been very sorry and felt like a complete troll afterward. For the most part, I try (and sometimes it's not easy) to be a Golden Rule participant.

This one situation came to mind as I was writing about some of my shows with Raffles. We started participating in a series of shows mostly populated by Arabs, Morgans and Saddlebreds. In particular, I started participating in these shows to do the Road Hack class. With Raffles big trot, and Dressage horse adjustability, I *thought* we would be a shoe-in for the blue. What I didn't factor in, was Raffles' giant ego and spontaneity. If you're not familiar with Road Hack, it's basically a pleasure class judged on the horse's manners, gaits and tractability. Along with the normal walk, trot and canter, the horse also has to perform an extended trot, hand-gallop, halt and rein-back (backing up). The horse has to do this all obediently but with the equivalent of stage-presence.

In every Road Hack class we had entered something not only kept us from winning, but sometimes kept us out of the ribbons altogether. Raffles would either break from extended trot to canter, or buck during the hand gallop, or spook, or throw in a couple of lead changes because he's fancy like that. It didn't help that the class was always held late at night under the lights which not only inflated his ego but exaggerated anything he might consider spooky also. Road Hack became my albatross. We were totally capable of winning yet couldn't quite get there. We watched a lot of familiar horses take the blue time after time.

Then there was one night, when I had been having a perfectly miserable day/show/week when we put in the ride of our lives. Raffles was spot on. He was flawless. He moved with power but grace. He responded to my slightest aids. He was consistent, stunning and perfect. Despite all of this, while waiting for the placings to be announced, I was still having not just butterflies but pterodactyls in my stomach. You never know, at these type of shows, whether the judge likes your horse (despite a stellar performance) or whether any of the other competitors performed even better than your horse, or whether the judge even noticed you.

When the announcer called Raffles name as first, I just about cried. We had finally won the class after years of trying. There was never time when I needed that win to lift my spirits more. I was relieved and bursting with pride. I knew that we had earned the win and was on cloud nine leaving the ring.

There was an ice cream social for all the competitors after the Road Hack class which was the last one of the evening. After tucking my horse in with lots of extra carrots, I joined the crowd and heard many congratulatory remarks from Raffles' fans as I made my way to a seat. I sat next to one of the more well-known trainers and she, as many others did, congratulated me on my win but then, in the same breathe said, "You wouldn't have won if my horse had been in there."

My little euphoria balloon deflated and puddled around my feet. With that one remark, she belittled everything I had worked towards for years. What's worse, is that I let her remark take away my joy. It may have been true, or maybe not. Her horse was also a very talented animal, but like Raffles, also had a habit of showing a little too much exuberance in Road Hack. So in the future, fellow equestrians, please remember to pay a compliment and then zip it.

Now, I'll leave that behind me and share some stories of exemplary sportsmanship. My favorite comes from a little fun show for some pony-campers, all about 5-7 years old. They played relay games and Mother May I and were awarded their ribbons. After the classes the kids would all mill around and trade ribbons so that they each got their favorite color.

At another show, one of the horses I was bringing for students to ride, injured herself in the trailer. 2 people at the show offered to let those kids use their horses instead. The kids rode the borrowed horses, that they had never ridden before, and did not complain. They didn't win anything, but they were thrilled with the opportunity to ride some new horses.

At several shows, I have shown up without a girth or Dressage whip or boots and there has always been someone willing to loan me the needed items.

For every curmudgeon or naysayer out there, there are three other people that restore my faith in the equestrian community.