Monday, June 29, 2009

Life at Ironhill

Dow, BJ, Charisma, Frisco, & I settled in to our digs in Alberta in short order. We arrived on Monday, June 22nd, late in the evening. By Thursday, I was packing up to attend the Calgary Area Alberta Dressage Association's Annual show with the gang from Ironhill, this time serving as groom to my friend, Irene Hill. Irene and I met during a Tom Dvorak clinic at Horizon Equestrian Centre early in 2006, hit it off and quickly became fast friends. She and her husband were in the process of building a new facility, which is now very close to complete, with only odd projects left. Here is a link to Irene's website: The horses and I are really enjoying the benefits of the Hills' vision of a high end dressage facility. There are acres of rolling pasture, turnout fields, aspen groves and evergreen stands, and miles of prepared trails. Irene is showing three horses this year: Montevideo, an 11 yr old Hanoverian gelding she has trained to Intermediare I herself; Moxie, a 6 yr old Hanoverian mare, half sister to Monty, she also trained herself, to Third level; and Valentino II aka Rudy, a 7 yr old KWPN gelding that Irene bought as a re-training project.
I have been taking lessons with Irene, as well as with the head trainer, Shelley Malbeuf, and I've had the privilege of not only riding Charisma with them, but also Monty and Moxie. It's been a fabulous learning opportunity. I also watch other lessons, and with three riders in the barn riding at advanced levels, it is extremely inspiring and helpful for my own growth as a rider. With only six weeks left to go in our stay, I'm trying to absorb all I can. Charisma's strength and straightness have really come along. Frisco has spent the summer with the herd of yearlings, and Dillon is his best friend. They are all getting fat off the lush stand of grass.
Next weekend I will go with the Ironhill gang to serve as barn groom at the first CDI*** to ever be held in Alberta.
That will be an exciting opportunity to see the top riders and horses in Western Canada and I'm looking forward to it!
Below are some notes I've taken from my lessons so far. I'll have more to add in the next six weeks, but enjoy these for now.
  • Establish a more honest bend(check the right shoulder for better right bend) before transitions, and keep the bend through the transition.
    Keep the bit moving, keep the jaw softening, keep the arms soft.
  • If it isn’t done in shoulder-fore, it isn’t dressage.
  • Slow the tempo, so as to allow the hind legs to catch up, and ultimately, to carry.
  • Do not use harsh rein aids no matter how much the horse is bearing down, it simply doesn’t work. Instead, MOVE the bit, as well as the jaw, via the arms. The “take ten teeth out” methodology is not acceptable in correct riding. Use your mind, not your might.
  • The rein connection must remain dynamic in all transitions, but especially downwards.
  • While the leg must stay on the horse, it must just drape. NEVER pinch, hold or clamp. Give a couple of big slaps with the sides of the calf if the horse is dull to the driving aids, and teach the horse to work from the smallest leg aid and mostly from the seat. Tempi changes won’t happen if you can’t ride off the seat.
  • To collect, stretch tall from belly button up(chest up-shoulders back & down), sit very deep with seatbones, repeatedly-tuck the belly button in towards the backbone, tightening the glutes, and keep the legs soft and long. Stay light with the reins and active with the fingertips. Ask each stride at first, then encourage the horse to hold it on its own. Ask-RELEASE.
  • Tempi changes: “1-2-3-Aid-Change”=Four tempi’s. “1-2-Aid-Change”=Three Tempi’s. Use canter one stride, walk one stride, to get the feel of the rhythm for two tempi’s. Unless the horse responds instantly to the aid, the count will NOT work. Sharpen the horse up to the seat & leg first.
  • Half Passes-do not hold with the aids. Ask-release, ask-release, and get big responses to little aids. This holds true with everything, but half pass gets especially stuck if you hold with any aid-reins, legs, seat, all must ask/release in the rhythm.
  • The lightest aids yield the best results, because then the rider can keep her position correct, therefore being a better help to balance the horse, and the weight aids become very heightened in their effect.
  • Keep the elbows bending and soft, and keep the horse very round no matter what. Only add difficulty so long as you can keep the roundness.
  • Hands light, “carry” them out over the wither, keep the reins short and keep the bit moving. Do not give her one split second to settle onto the bridle.
  • Ride the corners and turns very carefully, keep the outside leg guarding and don’t let the haunches lose the line of travel by falling out. Losing the haunches to the outside in turns and corners gives away critical power.
  • Ride off the rail, in shoulder-fore and/or shoulder-in.
  • When riding flying changes across the diagonal, keep the new outside shoulder pushed away from the new outside leg, so she doesn’t try to suck to the track, compromising the straightness and thus the quality of the change itself.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Goodbye Mystic

And just like that, we have to say goodbye to Mystic. My sincerest sympathy to Kayla. She was fine at 11:30 am today, noticed rolling just after noon, but she was in full colic by that time, and by 4:15, her heart could take no more. She'll be with Goldie under the big juniper in their field. Rest in peace little grey girl.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Brenda & Ruby Are Adult Amateur Reserve High Point at Utah Summer Games!
Brenda and Ruby did very well at the Utah Summer Games under Judge Thann Hanchett, earning a 60+%, and a 64+%, on Training Level Tests 3 & 4, good enough to be the Reserve Amateur High Point. Ruby is proving herself to be a wonderful, reliable, happy show partner at a very young age.

Jennifer Campos and Brendijs, a Latvian Warmblood, also earned very good scores, in the low 60s, on Training Level Tests 2 & 3. This is a fairly new partnership, and Brendijs has a very special life story that instantly won Jenny's heart. He won my heart as well, the minute I sat on him. I'm so glad the two of them are together. Here are links to their videos.

Karen Martz and Tanner turned heads too! They are a gorgeous pair in their show garb. Karen has now officially joined the ranks of the horse show gang and we are thrilled to have her. Karen rode in a locally popular class called Cowboy Dressage...when in Rome!! They rode Training Level Test 1 and Tanner was a very good boy. Karen is thrilled to have progressed so far in the last couple of years, and I could not be more proud of her. I do believe she's also caught the show bug!
Now, not only did Tanner perform like a good boy for Karen, but he was then recruited by me to help catch his barn mate & next door neighbor, who had escaped at the show. I honestly do not think things would have ended so well had Tanner not been willing to march up into the woods to find his friend. Bella came right to him, and he helped her calm down enough to let herself be caught. I can't thank Karen enough for turning his reins over to me and trusting me to bring him back in one piece.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Kayla Volksen and Mystic are JR/YR High Point at the Utah Summer Games!

I met Kayla when I kept Charisma at Al and Anita Painter's from July 2007 through March 2008. I had moved Charisma there so she could have pasture during her pregnancy. Kayla rode Anita's mare, Goldie, a Celle Francais that had competed very successfully in the past in Dressage & Jumpers. During that time period, one of the horses I had in training was Mystic, who belonged at the time to Rachel Stratford. Mystic is a very athletic Thoroughbred mare who had done a lot, and had not had the easiest of paths. I rode her for four months, and on some days, I could ride everything in Second level. On other days, I couldn't get a canter depart. I just patiently tried to show Mystic a new way of reacting, and show her that her efforts would be rewarded. I even showed her in one schooling show, and she did in fact leave the arena, something she'd been known to do in the past. She didn't get punished, I just re-entered the ring, thanks to an understanding judge, and schooled her tactfully, then, rewarded her for getting her head back in the game. I knew she could blossom under the right rider. I promised her I'd find that rider for her. As the universe would have things, Kayla watched me ride her in a clinic with Gail Alterwitz, and it was love at first sight. Kayla has a gift for working with sensitive horses. She is patient and kind, and a very tactful rider. So, arrangements were made, and Mystic became Kayla's horse. That was last summer. Since then, Goldie passed away, breaking Anita's heart. But, Anita never lets life get her down, so she and Kayla set about to change Mystic's mind about life and work. I gave Kayla a few lessons last summer, and then again in preparation for the Utah Summer Games. We agreed that she should only ride one test, and she should practice it a million times, so that Mystic knew exactly what to expect. We came up with game plans to reduce tension at every step, and by the time the show rolled around, Mystic was very confident in her job. Kayla rode beautifully through Training Level Test 1, under Judge Thann Hanchett. Mystic gave it her best, and the pair came away with a remarkable 69.56%, at Kayla's first dressage show. Here is a link to the video of that ride.

Many people who had known Mystic for years could not believe they were watching the same horse. I'd say this little grey mare with a giant heart has found a person with equal heart to bring out the best in her. Kayla will be entering her Sophomore year in college in the fall, and will be moving up towards Salt Lake, taking Mystic with her. Anita and I are just glad we'll get to see them in the summers.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Article Submitted to the Utah Dressage Society Newsletter

In accordance with the terms of my award of a Training Scholarship, I prepared the following article, which will be published in the next UDS Newsletter.

“Ride like a Pro, Stacy. Don’t leave that corner to chance.” These were the words Charlotte Nord-Nielson left me with as I entered the arena on March 7th to show Second Level Test Four under the esteemed General Jonathan Burton. Brilliant. Deceptively simple. Charisma had spooked in that corner repeatedly during our schooling session with Charlotte the day before. The old Stacy would have just hung on and hoped for the best, and the old Charisma would have, without fail, spooked in that corner. Not this day, and never again.

I’ve been trying to get a ride with Charlotte since the first time I attended a show hosted at Cooper Ranch, the barn in Las Vegas, NV, where she is the head trainer. I watched her students compete, and earn very good scores, and every one of them, to the rider, rode like champions, no matter what level. Some rode very talented horses. Some rode horses less Dressage-suited. But it didn’t matter about the horse, because every one of them rode up centerline boldly, leaving nothing to chance. That is the brilliant, deceptively simple, secret to riding well. Leave nothing to chance.

Two weeks prior, I took a lesson with Charlotte, the day before a show. It was my first lesson with her. Was I crazy to ride with someone new the day before a show? No, because, I knew I had to make major changes, if I was to make progress. What did I have to lose? I wasn’t even scoring in the 60s yet. I was in the saddle, walking on a loose rein, when Charlotte walked up. She asked me to go ahead and take up the rein. Right away, I got the usual “no” from Charisma, pressing up with her giant neck and getting a-rhythmic. Charlotte immediately asked me to start paying attention to the rhythm in the walk before I did another thing. Once again, deceptively simple. Why would I let this slide? This should be easy. Some trainers have asked me to be very aggressive with this horse, but, this is a boss mare. Like Kyra Kyrklund says, you have to make three applications, and after 11 years of riding her, I’m rather used to having my applications turned down.
After sorting out the walk rhythm, Charlotte asked me to trot on. Right away, she asked me to pay attention to the rhythm, to keep it steady, and, to slow the tempo down. Charisma tends to hurry the trot. Charlotte said that when she gets too quick, she loses the expression in her trot. I know this, but, I always ride like a passenger, wondering why my horse won’t just offer a slower, more cadenced trot. I showed some of the slower, more expressive trot I’d been working on at home, and Charlotte said it was lovely. I said I’d been working on that, but wasn’t sure if it was right. She said I needed to trust my instincts more. Charlotte made me pay attention to every footfall, make note of where the hind legs were at all times, and be very clear about my expectations. Inevitably, Charisma would press up, or carry the haunches in, all to avoid the real work. Each time, Charlotte patiently asked me to correct the haunches, and keep her round on both reins, even when on a circle or in a lateral movement. I’ve been told all these things, but, Charlotte’s presentation is unique. She will ask the rider to correct something. She will ask nicely. She will repeat the request, nicely, until you do it, and then, she’ll say thank you. And she’ll tell you to thank your horse. Interesting.

We then moved on to the canter work. Right away, Charisma used her neck against me in the canter. I’m so used to having my applications denied, that I’ve developed this system of spending a long time on the canter, being popped out of the saddle because of tension, and hoping it will just get better if I just keep holding on and hoping for the best. Wrong. In response to Charisma’s denial of my application, Charlotte didn’t do the usual “Get in there and make her do it!” routine that has yet to work in 11 years. This approach of Charlotte’s was a pleasant departure, and I was so grateful. Instead of asking me to force her head down, she patiently instructed me to keep thinking of riding her haunches on a slightly larger track than the shoulders, and she kept saying it quietly, until, I did it. Also, she repeated as many times as necessary that I was to keep her round on both reins, especially the right rein on the left canter, our nemesis. She was so gentle and patient with her voice that I finally wondered to myself, why I didn’t do what she was asking the first time?! It would take being more demanding of myself as a rider, and, it would require that I expect, from now on, to have my applications accepted by my boss mare. I suddenly got her round on BOTH reins, with the haunches traveling correctly in line with the shoulders, and voila, the canter was round enough, slow enough, engaged enough, and straight enough. A beautiful, melodic, “THANK YOU, STACY” was my reward from Charlotte.

We worked on our shoulder in, travers & renvers, as well as our walk turns on the haunches, and, our simple changes. Another teaching method of Charlotte’s is to ask her riders to “Ride the belly”. Now, when you are done laughing at how silly this sounds, I’ll explain. All done? Okay, here’s what she means. Charlotte wants the rider to use her legs to hug the horse’s barrel, keeping her leg on at all times, so she can feel what the horse is going to do before it is too late to correct. She wants the rider to focus on what’s happening behind the saddle. Are the hind legs responding to the leg aids? In addition to this, she reminded me frequently to keep my seat plugged into the saddle, so I could use it to guide her, and not get pushed out of the saddle. Keeping my legs working correctly made this task much easier. It isn’t that I didn’t know these things, it was just that I would isolate the seat as being separate from the legs, when, it’s nearly impossible to ride with a deep seat if the legs have to stay in constant contraction to get an aid through. She had me using my legs so much more effectively, that I was able to keep the hind legs working with light aids, and then I could use my upper legs & seat to guide Charisma much more smoothly through the lateral work. And here’s the most interesting side effect of “riding the belly”. In all the years I’ve taken lessons on this horse, I have probably been told no less than one million times to shorten my reins. Why is this? I have quiet hands, I keep my fingers closed, the reins shouldn’t keep slipping through my fingers. It’s because, Charisma can be so very strong in the bridle that it would take Arnold Schwarzenegger himself to keep the reins the correct length, if Charisma’s hind legs are not engaged. Charlotte only had to ask me once, but by the end of the thirty minute lesson, my reins stayed the correct length simply because my horse was engaged enough behind, and slow enough in her tempo to maintain balance, that she was not pulling them through my fingers. She hasn’t asked me to shorten my reins since. And when I ride on my own, I see that, when the hind legs are engaged enough, I frequently find myself riding with nothing but the weight of the reins in my hands. Now when I apply a rein aid, it actually goes through, because I haven’t been hanging on for dear life trying to keep her head down. My right shoulder is thanking Charlotte every day now. So is my horse’s mouth. All this that I’ve discussed was covered in thirty minutes. I am accustomed to riding for an hour trying to get half this amount of work accomplished. The interesting thing is that it was all so simple. It was not EASY, I was glad the lesson was only thirty minutes, but, it was so simple. No pounding sand, no aching back, no numb fingers. Ah, lightness. It took a couple of days for everything to come together, but by the last ride of the weekend, we improved our scores dramatically.

Over the course of the show weekend, and the ensuing two weeks until our next lesson and show weekend, I faithfully applied the laundry list of principals set out in a scant thirty minutes. I used video to ensure I was doing everything right. By the time I saw Charlotte next, she was very pleased with the improvement in the canter, and Charisma was MUCH steadier & softer in the bridle, while remaining in a better uphill balance, more engaged behind. It was during this second lesson that we were able to deal with the Mr. Hyde side of Charisma-that spooky dominant mare who is always looking for danger.

It was a windy day, there were mirrors in this arena, and, faux ivy in the letter boxes, waving around in the wind and reflecting themselves in the mirrors. Nearly every horse was spooking, but the difference was, once they saw it and dealt with it, they moved on. Charisma has always been one to continue to spook even after she’s been allowed to see the scary object several times. She’s an intelligent, kind horse, not terribly hot-natured, so, there must be a rider reason why this continues to be a problem when she is nearly 15 years old and has seen far more of the world than most horses. Charlotte handled this issue with her usual diplomacy. Her sing-song voice quietly, patiently, instructed me through it. I was to ride her “in position” when approaching the known scary corner, and as I rode through the corners, use as much inside leg as it was going to take-LOTS-to keep her bent correctly through that corner no matter how scared she was. I was to keep her round on BOTH reins, even if I had to ride the short side & corner in shoulder fore. I was to keep my legs around her belly, feeling for changes before it was too late, scanning her body for fear, and replacing it with gentle, firm, & precise aids to keep her bending around my inside leg and paying attention to my requests. I continued to employ this method throughout the weekend as Charisma found more scary corners in the warmup ring. By the time I rode up centerline and saluted General Burton, I knew what to do. I knew Charisma was not going to counterbend, or press up with her neck, or jump sideways. How did I know? Because, I rode that belly. I kept her round on both reins. I rode like a pro. I didn’t leave that corner to chance. I rode every step of it. My legs scanned her barrel for tension and asked her to release it before it was too late. Application……ACCEPTED. The second she released the tension, I thanked her with softening muscles. I even spoke quietly under my breath, so the judge couldn’t hear. What did I say to her? “Thank you, Charisma.”


According to the Las Vegas Chapter of the California Dressage Society current rankings, Charisma and I are, at this time, listed as Reserve Champion, for the Open Second Level division.

I have also, thanks to Ruby and Charisma, now earned enough scores to achieve a USDF Training Level Rider Award. This just goes to show-never throw away your old tests!! I've held on to Charisma's Training level tests all these years, finally to have Ruby help me earn my fourth and final score some eight years later.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Ruby and I Earn Open Reserve High Point at the Las Vegas Dressage Spring Fling II!

While Brenda was away in Germany with her daughter, I took Ruby to the show in Las Vegas. This was Ruby's first recognized show. She behaved like an old timer, earning solid scores for her debut: 60.4(despite a miscue in the first canter depart and a spook at some flowers waving in the breeze) on Training Test 3, 62.8, & 61.2, both on Training Test 4. Ruby is staying with me for the month, while Brenda is away, and so that she can prepare for the Utah Summer Games June 12.