Thursday, May 31, 2012

One end rears and the other end bucks...

Every newbie, nay (no pun intended) probably every rider, will eventually ask themselves, "what the hell am I doing?"  There is going to be that moment of doubt followed by that moment of truth.  Do I continue down this horsey path?  Little involving horses goes right all the time, 50% of the time, 20% of the time.  Sometimes things go so badly you wonder if you've just made a huge mistake.  Is this a sign?  Should I just give up, sell everything, cut my losses and possibly salvage my tailbone?  After all, this is a hobby (for most of us), we pay lots of money to participate in this sport and its supposed to be fun!!  But sometimes its not so fun.  Sometimes it is frustrating, infuriating and downright painful (figuratively and literally).  I've had this moment (maybe even plural) and each time have decided to stick to my guns, and push onward in my quest to be a good, competent, safe, possibly confident rider.  I don't know why.  Maybe its because I've invested too much thus far to just call it quits, maybe I've caused permanent nerve damage to my butt and I can't feel the pain anymore, maybe I view that 20% fun / 80% agony ratio as just lots of room for improvement or maybe its because I know if I put the time in, invest enough sweat, blood and tears (possibly more tears than sweat and blood) I can do it.  Knowing you CAN accomplish your goals means the only thing left to get there is hard work.  And I am good at hard work.  That little bit of faith in myself, knowing I'm capable of doing this, tempered with my desire, is enough to keep me motivated and to keep me from throwing in the towel.  Newbies!  We can do this!  It won't always be perfect or pretty and we are going to fall, and its going to hurt our butt and our pride, but we will get back on this f*#king horse!  Maybe not right away, maybe after our tailbone heals, after we remove the ice pack from our underwear and we no longer need to sit on a donut, but we will get back on!  That's my motivational speech, inspired yet?  Remember Jim Wofford's article newbies, great riders are made, not born.  That means somewhat good, mediocre-ish, maybe above average riders can be made too!

So Bernie and I continue our quest to become a superb eventing pair by completely ignoring (or possibly trying to forget) the cross-country phase.  Right now we are focused on being ring masters.  This has some setbacks, created by Bernie's need to be ridden everyday and my lack of being able to ride everyday.  Without the daily ride, Bernie seems to lack focus, completely forgetting what we had accomplished on previous rides.  We have no building blocks of progress, no consistency.  We have a great ride one day, and the next ride makes me question if I tacked up the right horse. 

I ride on a rare Thursday, and he was perfect, saintly even.  No spooking, no hesitation, obedient to my aides, we jump around some small fences.  Kerry even says we look good!  I'm excited.  I know I want to ride Friday after work to try and follow through with this saintly behavior, encourage it, capitalize on it and progress to jumping a small course.  I feel like we are ready.  I can't ride Friday.  I'm disappointed, but have plans to ride Saturday and Sunday, so I don't think too much of it.  What is it they say about the best laid plans? 

Saturday arrives, knowing Bernie's propensity towards misbehavior after a day of rest, I lunge him before we get started.  He lunges fine, very quiet.  And we ride.  He's a bit eh, and unfocused, and well, moody.  We hammer home some flat work, work through some small arguments and head down to a small cross rail.  AND he runs out.  And then he runs out again.  Come one Julie, pull this together!  Kerry starts coaching me, even though she's giving other people a lesson.  Third times a charm and we make it over, but he's not quiet about it, lunges for it and is trying to run away after the landing.  We make it a second time, but his behavior doesn't improve.  No small course for us today, the cross rail is challenge enough.  The ring is full of other riders prepping for a show, so I decide to just end with some flat work and not push the jumping issue (wimp).  As we trot down the long side, the evil cross rail is to the right of us.  Another rider is turning for the fence and I thought her horse might be distracted by Bernie and me being RIGHT next to the jump, so we trot forward past.  Her horse jumps fine, no issues.  MY horse takes off bucking at a heady pace.  As I'm being tossed around like Luke Perry in 8 Seconds I start to question my sanity and that of my horse.  Is this the right horse?  This can't be the same horse I rode two days ago.  Am I taking crazy pills?  Is Bernie taking crazy pills?  I manage to push myself back down into the saddle from off his neck, I have no stirrups and a lot of mane and I'm giving this a fair ride (I've often wondered how I would do on one of those mechanical bulls, it can't be harder than an actual horse).  But alas, here comes the turn and Bernie is exuberantly bucking and quite possibly picking up speed, its hard to say.  I seem to be heading for a fall off his left side, but there are railroad ties there and those aren't looking so soft and squishy to land on.  I think I make a mental decision to bail right and I land with a resounding thud, while Bernie heads quietly to the barn.  I am slow to get up.  I can tell I'm not hurt in a major way (everything is moving as it should be, albeit painfully) but I'm hurt.  I landed on my hips/lower back/upper butt area and somehow scraped my elbow.  I just kind of sit there, dumbly staring as others collect my horse and run to assist me.  Clearly I'm not getting back on, shockingly I'm not crying.  Everyone is asking me what I need, as I haven't moved from the ring yet.  What I really want is a shotgun and a backhoe, but that's not something you say aloud around kids on ponies.  I settle for some IB profen and ice.  Kerry and Lori help move me to a more comfortable position laying on my side on a random, but handy, patio swing by the ring.  An EMT from across the street at the show grounds (convenient) arrives to check me out and concludes I'm just badly bruised and supplies wonderful, pain numbing ice packs which I promptly shove down my pants.  Sophie the dog consoles me with attention (I'm on her swing) and pitying glances.  Now to get me home.  I probably could drive, but nobody wants me to.  I have tons of offers from the barn crowd, but I'm trying not be a pain in the ass about my pain in the ass.  My husband is out of town, so who can I call to come get me, have a small chuckle at my expense, all while seriously making sure I'm okay and have everything I need?  Donnie to the rescue.  I call Donnie, and that's when the water works begin, I'm sobbing in the phone asking him to come get me and not tell Vince (my husband) because I haven't called him yet.  Donnie shows up with his wife/my cousin and my uncle and we get me and (wonderfully) my truck home.  Donnie also has to get me more ice (thanks Donnie) and I have my sights set on some left over Vicodin.  And if you must know, yes, the left over Vicodin is from a previous (non-Bernie) horse fall when I badly busted my tailbone, much worse than this particular hard encounter with the ground.  THAT fall concluded with a ride in an ambulance, the emergency room, x-rays and morphine (yummy).  So, overall, I'm ahead of the game with only a convenient EMT visit, and no hospital trip.  Now I just need to call my husband.  And this is when my moment of doubt and moment of truth occurs.  I don't want to call him, he's going to be upset and worried that I got hurt AGAIN.  Maybe I should just stop riding and give up, sparing myself the physical pain and my family the worrying.  And I ask myself, is all this worth it?  And the answer is yes.  And I call him, and I'm crying (surprised?), but its okay. 

Friday, May 25, 2012

Who is jumping that fence again?

Let's talk about jumping.  First, let's define WHO is jumping.  This may seem silly and a bit "master of the obvious," but I seem to exhibit some confusion in this area.  The horse is jumping.  I am not jumping.  The horse and rider are not even jumping together.  Just the horse.  What's the rider doing?  Riding.  The horse.  Who is jumping.  So, when a rider is riding a horse who is jumping, what is the rider's job?  To sit the f*#k still and let the horse do his job.  At least, that's what this rider is trying to do.

Hi, my name is Julie, and I have fence anxiety.  I could go into some details and theories as to why I have fence anxiety, but to keep this blog post out of the book category, let's suffice it to say I fell into a green rider + green horse cycle which did me no favors in the jumping arena.  It did however teach me what I believe to be a fundamental rule: between the two of you, horse and rider, someone has got to know what the hell they are doing.  Millions of dollars later (I jest, not millions, definitely thousands, but sometimes it feels like millions) several green horses that didn't work out (shocker), lesson learned (eh) and I land Bernie.  More on Bernie later, back to jumping. 

Now that we have defined WHO is jumping, what are my goals as a rider riding a horse who is jumping?  As a newbie, my goals are pretty simple: try not to interfere with the horse as he figures out how best to get both our asses over this fence.  At this stage, I can do very little to help a horse as we approach the fence.  Better riders can judge their distance and see the mythical "spot" and adjust speed/gait to the fence to help the horse reach that spot and not have an awkward fence.  As Steuart Pittman said to me (sage words alert), "Once you can feel and know where the horse's feet are underneath you, you can easily adjust to a fence the same as you can easily adjust your own stride when jumping over something."  To illustrate his point further, he pointed to a small cross rail and asked me if I was to run and jump that (me, on my own two legs) could I adjust my stride to accommodate the jump?  Of course I could.  Makes sense, sounds easy, I bet its not. 

So, as we approach the fence, Tom has given me two jobs: leg on and stay straight.  Leg on is me riding forward and telling the horse "yes, we are going to this fence."  The sensibility of keeping the horse straight to the fence and its crucial role in getting us over said fence, I hopefully don't have to discuss.  These two jobs are my active role in getting us to the fence.  In addition to these two jobs, Tom has given me two more as we reach the fence: give the horse his head, and sit the f*#k down! These latter two jobs fall into the "non-interference" category.  Stay out of the horse's way, let him carry you over the fence.   It sounds simple and straightforward, so why I am utterly convinced I need to be doing something at the fence to help the horse jump it?  This is a 1,000+ lb animal, I cannot physically, actively do a damn thing to help the horse (or make the horse) jump.  Good riders help their horses get to the fence correctly, even encourage them and give them confidence in front of the fence with their aids, but once there, they have to sit down and let the horse do the work of actually jumping.  I refer to my above statement that the horse, and only the horse, is doing the jumping. 

That said, there are lots of things a rider can do to hinder or interfere with a horse at the fence and I'm quite sure I am guilty of them all.  My offense of choice is the forward lean.  At best, I make my forward lean as the horse is jumping, so its somewhat forgivable (forgivable by the horse, not Tom).  At worst, I make my forward lean WAY too soon, forcing the horse onto his forehand (and off balance) and making him work harder to get over the fence.  I'm working with small fences here, so a VERY forgiving horse will save my ass and still take the fence.  Why, for all these years, have I thought two-point was something I needed to "get into" in front of/over a fence?  I need to start changing my thinking.  Two-point is a position the horse PUTS me in as we go over a fence.  Well, that's what would easily happen if I could stay a bit more fluid and mobile through my hips, allowing the horse to move me and "fold" me.  This is where kids have the advantage, they're all loosey goosey, the old person stiffness and resistance hasn't crept in yet.  I have actually asked other riders, "how do you know when to get into two-point?" I'm sure a got lots of different responses, but the answer is, that's a dumb f*#king question. Because I don't "get into" two point.  I sit down and try to relax (maybe have fun) all while keeping my leg on.  I actually find it difficult to keep tension in one part of my body (squeezing my leg on) and relaxing the rest of it so the horse's motion can move me.  Seems like I'm all relaxed or all tense and stiff.  Maybe I need to do more yoga. 

So, as I am actively trying to sit still (that makes no sense) in front of the fence and sit down and not lean forward, I get a bit stiff and un-relaxed and end up staying a bit too upright with my upper body (but I'm sitting down!).   I'm resisting against the horse and not allowing myself to kinda fold in half from the hips.  Tom assures me this is the next progression of our jumping form and after I eventually master sitting down and not leaning forward, we shall move on to this next offense.  It amazes me how incredibly hard it can be to NOT do something.  The silver lining in all this: I know when I've done it correctly and I know when I've mcuked it up (shameless plug).  I don't necessarily have the presence of mind to correct myself all the time, but I do at least KNOW what I've done (or not done as the case may be) and if it was correct or not.  I'm hoping this makes me a good student because I can practice on my own and know if I'm getting it right.  Maybe Tom would agree about the good student part, maybe he wouldn't.  It seems to be taking an inordinate amount of time for me to break my bad "forward lean" habit, but maybe the upside will be when I finally do break it, its gone for good. 

The bottom line is, I'm thinking about it too much and my need to do SOMETHING at the fence is a result of all this over-thinking.  I tried a horse at Dodon Farm recently (more on that in a later post) and Steuart Pittman agreed its all in my head.  And I quote, (Steuart Pittman) "You are right, its definitely all in your head because you have good balance approaching the fence."  That made me happy and frustrated all at once.  Way to over-complicate things in front of Steuart Pittman.  Tom has an interesting approach to quieting my inner monologue:  he makes me take fences off sharp turn approaches.  His reasoning is it makes me think more about the turn than the fence.  I have less time to think about the fence and screw it up.  We make that turn and the fence is there, and bam!, you just go with it and its natural.  A long approach gives me an opportunity to stare down that fence, over think it and make 50 million unnecessary adjustments.  And he's right.  I don't think Tom reads my blog, so don't tell him I said that.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Mounting! Concerns that is....

So what has become of our little rearing episode?  Well, nothing.  It was decided Kerry et al. would ride Bernie across the street as much as possible, with and without other horses.  At a time when we (Kerry, Tom and myself) feel it is appropriate, I will make a second attempt to ride him across the street again.  That hasn't happened yet.  Apparently Bernie takes major issue with the cross country course across the street and riders better than me are trying to work it out.  The worst thing for his progress right now would be for me to take him over again, get frazzled and self-destruct and let him win, again, thus reinforcing the bad behavior. 

After the "Arnie-the-mini-pony is sneaking up behind Bernie" rearing incident, I'm not surprised by Bernie's rearing behavior.  That day, with that first little rear, showed me rearing is in Bernie's vocabulary, his bag of tricks.  Some horses have a deeper bag of tricks than others.  Apparently Bernie's is pretty deep. 

So, in spite of our rearing issues, I still very badly wanted to ride Bernie in the upcoming Derby Cross.  (I will admit, I did not necessarily feel Bernie I were ready for this, okay, I did not feel I was ready, but if Bernie was quiet, I thought I could grab some mane and give it a go).  For those newbies unfamiliar with a Derby Cross it is a series of jumps, stadium intermingled with cross country, set up in a ring or multiple rings.  In the case of the Derby Cross at Loch Moy farm, a series of different rings which the horse and rider go back and forth between.  (And I have no idea if these characteristics are global to all Derby Crosses or just the one and only Derby Cross I've witnessed).  Sounds fun right?  Fun and a little scary.  If you will remember, Bernie and I practiced over only one of these jumps when Kerry was testing the course, and we remained on edge the entire time.  And at this point in our training as a team, I'm not sure we had strung more than three jumps together for a course.  So, a course of 12+ jumps, consisting of some crazy looking jumps we had never done before, and my very first show/event EVER was a bit intimidating.  But, I still wanted to do it if Bernie was quietly game.  I'm trying to push comfort zones people!  So I screwed my courage to the sticking spot, which has got to be somewhere far away from my over-active brain and showed up ready to ride.  Here was the plan: Kerry had two entries for elementary (a step even below Beginner Novice, I mean seriously, I could probably give someone a piggy-back ride over an elementary course, this was perfect). Both horses she was planning to ride/school ended up selling.  So, she was going to ride Bernie through the course first, if he was good, I would ride him through the course again, for the second entry.  If not, Kerry would just take him through again.  Not a bad plan.  And so Kerry rides him through both times.  Apparently the whole thing looked worse from a spectator point of view than from Kerry's rider point of view, because to me Bernie looked a bit crazed and I'm quite sure I could see the white's of his eyes the entire time.  At the start, Bernie gives a little tiny rear of protest, but Kerry gets him forward. She turns to the first fence and Bernie is so distracted/spooked by a tent set up outside the ring but right at that first turn, he almost runs right into the fence.  Luckily the fences are so small he can step over them.  She gets him going, and he is jumping everything (one stop at one of the cross country jumps, but she circles and gets him over it on the second effort, some pause-then-leap situations over others) and its clear she is the one holding this team together.  She is riding the shit out of him to every fence.  I never would have made it, there was nothing quiet about this ride.  All parties agree Kerry takes him again for round two.  This round is remarkably better, no stops, but its certainly not brilliant or quiet.  Kerry is still the only link keeping this train from crashing; Bernie, at best, seems to be an unwilling/unsure, but somewhat obedient participant.  I was really hoping Bernie was going to knuckle down and show up for work that day, proving to us all he is/can be the business-like event horse I was hoping for in my newbie naïveté.  Instead it was kind of a hot mess, disastrous being avoided only by Kerry's professional riding expertise.  At one point the announcer even said, "It looks like Kerry is schooling a young horse, trying to get some miles on him."  Heh.  Nine is not THAT young and "schooling a young horse to get some miles on him" is not exactly the description a newbie wants for her first event horse.  Kerry was more optimistic about the situation, saying he felt rusty, like he just hadn't been out to an event in a while.  I was encouraged by this appraisal, but the questions and doubts still started to creep in.

With the Derby Cross behind us and practicing cross country out of the question, Bernie and I are relegated to ring riding.   We are doing okay, slowly getting better (me) but lacking in any substantial progress (aka me feeling comfortable enough to slightly bump up the fence height).  I can't ride every day (see side bar about regular 9-5 job and add some nights for job number two) more like every other day, and that day of rest in between seems like just enough for Bernie to lose focus on our work.  Our rides are becoming a little like Ground Hog's Day (movie reference) and I feel like we take one step forward and two steps back.  He likes to pause and look at new fences the first one or two times over, and then jumps them nice and easy the rest of the ride.  Its like he's gotta eyeball that f**ker, determine it is definitely not going to make a move for his underside, and then he will jump it. I guess Bernie has a comfort zone too.  I would like him to take them easy, without the pause, all the time.  If we miss a day of riding (and jumping) even if it is a fence we've been over a thousand times two days ago, he still needs to pause and look, like it's an unfamiliar fence.  This is only an issue because I am a newbie rider, and lack some confidence going down to fences.  I know I am "letting" him pause, I need to ride aggressive and strong to the fence and push him through the pause (that's what a better rider would do).  But for some reason, I interpret this need to pause as "he's unsure about going over this fence" which makes me unsure about the fence, which then makes me back off (newbie, hello!) the EXACT opposite of what needs to be done.  All this results in some very awkward first fences, him jumping from almost a stop and me lurching forward with my shoulders.  And while this situation calls for some more aggressive riding, which IS what I need to learn, I am not stepping up to the plate and am frustrated.  Here's why:  I need some more confidence before I can be more aggressive.  I do realize that forcing myself to be more aggressive could lead to confidence building.  Unfortunately, my inability to force aggressive riding is having the reverse effect, eating away at my confidence.  This situation is not entirely Bernie's fault.  If I was even a little better rider or if I could just conjure up a little more confidence to push through the pause, we could progress.  But I'm not, and that ever important rider confidence remains elusive for me.  Kerry and I discuss this fence pausing and both agree he is much better, with less pausing and looking, when ridden, and jumped at least a little, every day.  I struggle with the feasibility of this, because I cannot logistically ride every day, nor can I afford to have Tom and/or Kerry ride him every other day.  And while some concerns are fair (i.e. Bernie rearing) and some are unfair (i.e. my lack of ability to push past the pause) my Bernie concerns are mounting.  

So, forgetting the rearing for a moment, as a newbie, there is some argument that Bernie's "pause and look" jumping style is a good learning tool for me, to hopefully push through and overcome.  There  is also some argument, that because the current status of me NOT pushing through and overcoming is eroding my confidence, maybe Bernie is not the best learning tool.  The jury is still out for me.  It is a bit dejecting for me to think Bernie isn't the right horse simply because I can't muster the balls to ride him in a manner that would resolve the problem.  But I am a newbie, and these are the things I struggle with.

Friday, May 11, 2012

And We Ride! And Then We Cry....

My first ride with Bernie went surprisingly well, he was fine to tack up, stood nice and still for me to mount (which I love) and went around the ring w/t/c very much like a gentleman.  There were some other boarders preparing to ride and I was secretly torn between wanting them to stay in the ring, in case Bernie needed some horsey companions to keep him calm for our first venture, or hoping they might leave for a hack so if I had some overt display of rider ineptness, no one would be there to see.  My happy medium was them leaving for a hack, but the morning barn-chore person, a very nice lady named Julie, watching us go in the ring in case some bad shit went down.  It didn't, so eventually Julie was able to resume her barn work.  Our ride ended how it began, quiet, and I was pleased.  Actually, I was elated.  Tempered only by the fact that I knew, eventually, our "moment" would come.  I will at some point discuss in detail the "moment" also referred to as the "come to Jesus moment" by Kerry Blackmer.  A brief definition:  when the horse deliberately tests the rider with purposeful bad behavior to see what he can get away with.  He knows it is bad and he's not supposed to do it, but will my new rider know that and correct it?  We are establishing hierarchy here, is the horse the boss or the rider the boss?  But again, more on this later.  Bernie was not settled or comfortable enough to start testing me on our first ride, but in time, it would come. 

Before our first ride, I had bought Bernie a spiffy new figure-8 bridle.  Having never used this type of bridle before I was a bit unsure how it should fit, but the nose pad or nose disc, I guess, looked way too low, so I asked some of the young boarders if it looked low and could it be adjusted?  The answer is yes and yes.  To adjust it you just scoot it up and pull the straps through more.  It really couldn't have been easier or more obvious.  Graciously, these all-knowing children kept straight faces.  Now don't laugh at my ignorance here, this bridle had already proven itself a complicated puzzle earlier in the week.  You should have seen me putting it together when I first got it, its not like they come with instructions.  If I was even an ounce less intelligent than I am, I never would have figured it out.  Finally, I got all the pieces to come together with the BROWBAND (newbies, take note) and it looked right.  I would like to thank Leah Groner for posting photos of Kodiak on her Facebook page with his figure-8 bridle on.  This proved to be a very helpful reference.  I included this story in my blog post so other newbies, new to eventing, and possibly new to figure-8 bridles too, don't feel alone in their ignorance of this leather contraption.  You are not alone, you can come sit in my boat.

Moving past bridles and on to more riding.  Now that I had Bernie, I promised myself I was going to push my comfort zone whenever possible, try and do some things normally I might find intimidating.  This is how you progress and get better and move on to new things.  I had been taking some lessons on Bernie with Kerry (Tom was out of town for a month) and was doing okay popping over some small fences, getting Bernie to pay attention to my aides, and I was feeling pretty good about our progress.  There is one small instance that sticks out.  We were riding in the ring, and one of Kerry's boarders came running up behind us with Arnie, the mini pony, on a lead line.  Apparently Bernie thinks minis miniature ponies, or wolves, or something scary.  Bernie spooks and rears.  Just a little rear, but a rear.  We overcome and move on, but a red flag went up in my little brain.  (Ironically enough, Bernie now gets turned out with the mini). 

I get my first chance to push my comfort zone (this is so silly) when Kerry and another boarder are planning a hack across the street (I board across from the MD Horse Trials) so Kerry can test out the Derby Cross course.  I am invited and accept.  I am inwardly FREAKING OUT, Bernie and I haven't been out of the ring yet.  Deep breaths, calm yourself, you can do this, its just a hack, don't be nervous because you will make him nervous.  We were a little nervous. Bernie's head was definitely on a swivel and I subsequently bury his nose in the horse butt in front of us.  Bernie was just fine with that, and well, Rocky (the horse butt in front of us) was at least tolerant.  We hold it together and even jump one of the elementary jumps, a roll top or barrel or some cross-country looking thing I've never jumped before.  We did it three times (third time's a charm) before we got it looking nice.  Okay, I admit it, the only reason we jumped anything is because Kerry told us to.  I mean, I really did want to, but was kind of being a pansy about it, Bernie and I were already on edge a little bit.  But then Kerry tells me to jump it and I can't go being all pansy-ish and chicken shit in front of Kerry. So we jumped it and it turned out okay.  Later that evening I wished we had jumped more, but I did step out of my comfort zone if only a little.  Newbies, even if it is just a little step at a time (I personally take baby steps), with lots of retreating, you have got to push the comfort zone to get better.  I'm not making this up, Jim Wofford says so here in News Flash! Great Riders Are Made, Not Born (well, I guess Geoff Colvin says so in Talent is Overrated, but Jim Wofford agrees).  We have to push out of our comfort zone, into our learning zone, but not so far into our panic zone.  I actually really appreciate this article because it means there is still hope for me with lots of hard work and perfect practice, since clearly I was not born a great rider.

Getting back to comfort zones, I am a slow, methodical pusher of my comfort zone into my learning zone.  I don't want to be anywhere near my panic zone. Comfortable jumping that fence height?  Okay, we shall move it up one notch until my comfort zone has expanded to include said higher notch and then we may move it up one notch again.  And so on and so forth and one day we will be at 3ft.  And here is how we discover my panic zone.....

I really want to ride Bernie in the upcoming Derby Cross (Pause: this is a major comfort zone push.  If for some reason you were questioning my beginner status, here are some qualifications: I have never shown before, never even been to a show before.  I had to Google what eventers normally wear for the cross country phase.  I have no show clothes, or show boots, no vest, armband, etc and I have no idea how to braid the mane.  At this point I'm lucky I have boots, half chaps and a helmet.  And Tom has already made fun of my boots because they have a westernish leather decor to them and admittedly I did purchase them in college when I was riding western trail horses.) so, Kerry and I are taking Bernie across the street to practice over some cross country jumps.  I'm OKAY, but it did cross my mind this is only Bernie's second trip across the street and his first trip alone, with no horse butt in front of us to bury our nose into.  We cross the street with some minor dancing on the way over, but once we get there Bernie starts spooking at everything.  That blade of grass, the dog, the log, that grass-less patch of dirt, etc...  He is employing that simultaneously jumping and bracing action horses do so well.  We hold it together, but now I'm having my doubts.  We make it over to the water jump, to give us something to walk around.  We are walking and looking and then Bernie starts some little rears.  I only freak out a little, I've been on rearing horses before, we push forward through some more rearing and finally at Kerry's request, manage a trot.  The ugliest, choppiest, barely moving trot you've ever seen, but a trot.  We trot through the water with little incident.  And then we are back to rearing and Bernie rears big.  I'm frazzled, this horse won't move forward, he's not paying attention to me and Kerry is looking at me, silently telling me I need to do something epic here to get this horse to move forward, but I am not epic, I am still baby steps, and I don't have a whip because the previous owners told us Bernie doesn't like being hit, and I haven't tried it yet, but I wish I had one because I would put it in my mouth right now, bite down really hard and brace myself for the impending disaster.  And then she says it, "Come on Julie, you can do this, you're a good rider."  Okay, I am not a good rider on my best of days, and right now I am freaked out, frazzled, Bernie is having his way with me and I'm wishing I was anywhere but on this horse.  But it's what I needed to hear.  It gives me an ounce of confidence and we get our ugly trot back.  Kerry wants a canter, but I can't do it.  Cantering is panic zone right now.  I'm positively convinced cantering will lead to him running off with me, and we, or maybe just him, will end up back at the barn.  So we move on to another area where there is the most innocent looking log Kerry wants us to jump over, step over, anything to try and focus Bernie.  I can't even get Bernie over there.  He's rearing and won't move forward and just plain ignoring my feeble attempts to control him.  And that's when I start crying.  He has done it.  He has completely unraveled me and I'm crying because, well, I'm upset, and I'm a crier, so that's what I do.  But once I start I can't stop, because now I'm crying in front of Kerry Blackmer and that's embarrassing, so I start crying over that too.  But most of all I'm crying because I know this was our "moment."  It was Bernie testing me to see who is boss, and I failed miserably.  I did not rise to the occasion.  Kerry concedes we are done, because how do you tell a crying person over the age of 7, who is on a horse to continue?  We walk back across the street to the ring, Kerry asks if I want her to hop on and in a pitiful mess of tears, I nod yes and she goes to retrieve her helmet from the barn.  Mercifully, it is the middle of the day and the only other person to witness my tears and breakdown is Kerry's working student, Kate, who is really nice and offers to ride back over with us, which in retrospect probably would have been a good idea, but I can't.  I'm beaten and I'm a mess and all I can do is cry as I watch Kerry ride the shit out of Bernie in the ring, making him work and jump everything in sight. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The General Idiocy of It

As promised, my second post will (still) be about choosing your first event horse, and I will attempt to coherently breakdown, defend, and ridicule my list of "requirements" for my first event horse (again, conformation and soundness issues aside).  If you missed it from the first blog, below is my list of requirements and Bernie's qualifications:

My Requirements      =          Bernie's Qualifications

 1. Some eventing experience = 2 BN events, check (not specific enough)

 2. 16H or larger (I have long legs) = 16.1H, check (maybe too specific)

 3.  NOT chestnut = Liver chestnut, sorta check (way too specific)

 4. Under 10 years old = 9 yrs old, check (too specific)

 5. Quiet = had a quiet trial ride, check (not specific enough)

 6. No breed preference = Thoroughbred, check (perfect amount of not specific)

 7. Straightforward to fences = thinks about going over the fence more than he thinks about not going over the fence, check (not specific enough)

So, #1 doesn't seem so bad.  Having never evented myself, having a horse who has done some eventing is downright genius.  However, I should have been more specific about my rather generic "some eventing experience" requirement.  In glorious retrospect, what I need(ed) was a training level packer.  At the very least, a solid novice horse.  A horse who has done two BN events does not scream "experienced."  It does not say "I know my job, I love my job and I will tackle this log, ditch, bank, drop, water, etc...with confidence, because I've done it before, lots of times."  And let's face it, unless you are an experienced rider crossing over into eventing from another discipline, us newbie eventers need a horse that has done it all before, a lot.  Now, stay with me here, because things can get a bit fuzzy when trying to follow my logic (I use the term logic loosely).  I considered a training level packer, but I actually felt bad looking at training level packers who were ready to move up to Prelim.  I would be asking them to move DOWN, way down, to Beginner Novice.  Somehow that didn't seem fair.  Maybe that sounds silly, but it's honestly how I felt.  These horses ready to move up to the upper levels deserved a better rider than me, someone to take them up, not down.  Back to glorious retrospect, what all horses really need is a loving home and a loving owner.  Like the horse is going to be upset he didn't make it to Advanced, I've somehow squashed his ambitions by purchasing him.  We all enjoy seeing horses reach/compete at their potential, but what we all enjoy even more (I hope) is seeing a horse get a good home.

So, while I was letting my guilt run unchecked, terrified I would purchase a horse destined for Rolex, and thereby robbing him of Rolex with said purchase, what I should have considered was an older horse who was on his way down to Training level from the upper levels.   Unfortunately, idiotic requirement #4 blocked the possibility of an older, schoolmaster type eventer.  Most horses under 10 years old, who are at Training level, are moving up the ranks, not back down.  So I settled on a horse with "some," translate little, eventing experience.  And here is my justification for that.  I have a great trainer in Tom Waters.  With his help giving me lessons and riding Bernie himself, a horse lacking a ton of experience will work.  And it almost has.  Here's where I erred and have been unfair to Tom.  We weren't looking for a project horse to "bring along."  A horse that Tom needs to jump on and ride to knock off some rust, or school some complicated dressage maneuvers I can't even pronounce, yes.  A horse that needs significant Tom Waters (and Kerry Blackmer) training time under saddle just so I can hack around outside the ring, no.  I made a decision based more on the skill of my trainer (Tom can do it!) than my own, admittedly lacking, riding ability.  My expectations for Tom to magically turn Bernie into the eventing schoolmaster I actually needed, were just ridiculous.  Tom, I'm sorry. 

This is getting long (again) so I will blow through the rest of my requirements and then give the moral of the story:

#2: 16H or larger.  Okay, I can't ride a pony, I DO have long legs.  But my first horse (see picture in side bar) was a 15 hander, and I did just fine on her.  15.3 is not that much smaller than 16.  I would have been fine expanding my search to some smaller horses, who may have even been less expensive because a lot of people fall into the 16H size trap like I did.  Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems like that 16H+ size mark commands a higher price.  Bigger isn't always better, its less height to fall from and you don't always need a mounting block. 

#3:  NOT Chestnut.  Really?  This is so dumb a requirement I don't even know how to comment.  The color of the horse does not matter.  We all have our preferences, but don't let it actually dictate the purchase.  If the right horse is the wrong color, he/she is still the right horse, end of discussion.

#4:  Under 10 years old.  Don't get hung up on age.  I believe I had an age minimum requirement of 6 years as well.  I should have looked at a larger age spectrum or possibly no age at all.  For some reason, I felt anything over 10 was old and seemingly on its last leg.  This is stupid (I am running out of synonyms for ridiculous, dumb and stupid in this blog post).  A lot of the upper levels horses are well past 10.  I looked at the Rolex entry list for this year and one of them was 17.  Horses older than 10 still have plenty of years left in them to carry me around a BN, Novice or Training level course.  Tom tried to suggest some nice experienced 12 or 13 year olds and I said no.  Biggest newbie mistake ever is not listening to your trainer.  On the flip side, we want to equate age with experience, but that isn't a safe bet either.  Look at the experience and the personality of the horse, then the age.  For a better explanation on age from a more respected source, check out what Steuart Pittman has to say on the Dodon Farm website under "Steuart Says..." and "Buying younger vs older horses."  While you are there, read the rest of his entries, because they are all good.  Link here:

#5: Quiet.  This is a good requirement, but riding the horse one time, in his comfortable environment, at home, is not a good indicator of his behavior away from his comfort zone.  Somehow, you need to push the horse out of his comfort zone and see how he behaves.  Maybe you can see him at a show, or the seller will take you out on a trail ride off the property or even do a trial.  At the very least, try the horse several times, take a lesson on him with your trainer, and if possible have him do all the things you expect of him with you aboard.  A lot of event farms have cross-country jumps to school over.  Do it.  I took this requirement too lightly with Bernie because he was being used as a lesson horse and being ridden by (and had competed with) a young rider.  I'm not saying I am a better rider than young or junior riders, I'm sure there are 5-year olds that ride better than I do, but let's face it, mostly sane people don't put kids on crazy horses no matter rider skill.  Bernie's young rider status led me to believe he wasn't crazy, and mostly he's not, mostly.  I also made some assumptions that a lesson horse is generally bomb-proof.  Huh. 

#6: No breed preference.  This is the only requirement I was spot on with.  I had no preference here, if the horse was right, he was right.  I should have taken this mentality and applied it to #3 and #4. 

#7: Straight forward to fences.  I discussed this a lot in my previous post.  I wasn't as specific about what "straight forward to fences" means, but Tom was.  And Bernie is, very straight forward to fences and keeps a very nice easy rhythm, occasionally on the slow side, just like what Tom wanted.  He has his cheeky moments, but when we head down to a fence, 95% of the time, I'm sure we will get over it.  If I'm straight and riding him forward to the fence, its 99%.  He has taken weird angles, meandering approaches,  long spots, short spots, and a lot of "rider unbalanced" fences for me.  He has run out on a fence a handful of times.  Each time I feel it was to teach me a lesson, it was him telling me "hey, you do need to ride me to this fence and do more than point me in the general direction."  I say this because most of his run outs have been in front of a small cross rail that we've jumped more than a few times and he's completely unfazed by it.  There was one run out in front of gate we'd never jumped before and I was a bit unsure, so he took that as his cue to exit stage left.  Straight forward does not mean automatic, there is some level of actual riding involved.  It does mean (to me) a horse who knows his job is to go over the fence, is willing to do it without a big argument, doesn't need a lot of fussing with and doesn't employ "the dirty stop" just to f**k with you. 

And finally, the moral of all this long-winded rambling: choosing a horse is always a crap shoot; above are mistakes I feel I made or avoided.  Please don't let what I've written be the end-all-be-all for choosing your first event horse.  I've shared my experience and my opinion in hopes that maybe, somehow, somewhere, there might be SOMETHING in this post that is useful information for a person in newbie boots, like me.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

My Square One

My square one is an OTTB named Bernie.  He is 9-years old and had two Beginner Novices under his belt (before I got him) with a young rider, placing well in both events I believe.   I've had Bernie for about three months now and will post other stories about our rides together, but I want this post to focus on choosing your first event horse.  In trying to think back to what was on my requirements list (conformation and soundness issues aside), I realize in some areas it was too specific and other areas, not specific enough. 

My Requirements        =          Bernie's Qualifications

 1. Some eventing experience = 2 BN events, check (not specific enough)

 2. 16H or larger (I have long legs) = 16.1H, check (maybe too specific)

 3.  NOT chestnut = Liver chestnut, sorta check (way too specific)

 4. Under 10 years old = 9 yrs old, check (too specific)

 5. Quiet = had a quiet trial ride, check (not specific enough)

 6. No breed preference = Thoroughbred, check (perfect amount of not specific)

 7. Straightforward to fences = thinks about going over the fence more than he thinks about not going over the fence, check (not specific enough)

That's about it for me.  Now, in choosing my horse, I did have help from my esteemed trainer, Tom Waters.  I don't know the exacts of his list for my first event horse, but he did have one seemingly innocuous requirement, and this is probably the only piece of sage advice in this blog post:  Tom wanted a horse that keeps an easy rhythm, maybe even a bit slow to fences, and needs a kick, rather than a horse that picks up speed to the fence, running for it, and needs to be pulled back.  Sagely indeed.  Let's not confuse this requirement with my #7.  Newbies (me) tend to ride a bit tentatively, hesitatingly to fences (when you have no idea what you are doing, tentative seems reasonable), in most cases, trying to do too much in front of the fence.  More specifically, too much with their (my) hands. 

Now, as a newbie, riding to fences is already a little scary.  A horse that accelerates to the fence can FEEL out of control and make me freak out, frantically pulling back on the reins to "regain" control, I mess up his rhythm and spot to the fence because I have no concept of distances yet, we reach the fence with no pace (because I've pulled him back) so now I'm throwing the horse his head and lurching forward, hoping that by throwing myself forward, it will encourage him to continue forward, over the fence, too. You can imagine how pretty this fence looks (sarcasm).  It either results in a stop, because let's face it, we are practically at a stop any ways, or the horse mercifully, yet ungracefully, lurches himself over the fence with an extremely unbalanced rider.  This is my normal reaction to a horse that is strong to fences.  The other scenario is for me to hold on and allow the horse to run to the fence, uncollected, as he pleases.  On the surface, this might look better and turn out better than me frantically reining him in, but it will never do for (future) larger fences and could be downright reckless for cross-country. Tom would never allow this any how.

In contrast, a horse that keeps a steady rhythm or is even slow to fences will teach a rider like me to be more aggressive and ride forward (leg on) to the fence.  I do little to nothing with his mouth (no frantic reining in necessary) and get to experience encouraging the horse forward with my leg instead of the dreaded forward shoulder lurch.  Having to kick a horse to the fence also builds my confidence.  Aggressive, forward riding to fence = I'm telling the horse (and myself) "yes, yes, yes, we're going to the fence, I'm sure we can do this = confidence; freaking out and pulling him back at the fence = "no, no, no, something is wrong, the fence is scary" = insecure.

I'm not saying horses that are strong to fences are bad, I'm just saying that at my riding ability (beginner-ish) horses that are strong to the fence can create some bad reactions in me (and maybe other newbies too?) and hinder the confidence-building I need.  I am not skilled enough (yet) to tell a strong horse "yes, yes, we are going to the fence, I'm sure we can do this, BUT you need to wait a sec and listen to me."   At this point my communication skills are "yes" or "no" the "buts" will have to come later. 

Okay, this got long, so I didn't get a chance to breakdown my pre-purchase check list and discuss the general idiocy of it, so that will have to be blog post #2. 

Also, for those new to eventing (like me) below are the different Eventing levels and subsequent fence heights (according to Wikipedia).  Don't feel bad, I didn't know either and had to Google them.

In the United States:
Beginner Novice:  2 ft, 7 in
Novice: 2 ft, 11 in
Training: 3 ft, 3 in
Preliminary: 3 ft, 7 in
Intermediate: 3 ft, 9 in XC; 3 ft, 11 in Stadium
Advanced: 3 ft, 11 in XC;  4 ft, 1 in Stadium

International Events: These are Concours Complet International (CCI) events
CCI*: roughly comparable to US Preliminary level
CCI**:  roughly comparable to US Intermediate level
CCI***: roughly comparable to US Advanced level
CCI****: really f***ing big.  Wikipedia  doesn't give the fence heights for the 4star event, just says "the very highest level of competition"