Better and better

The girls are all going better and better. This intensive training time is so wonderful, because “better” can be frustrating when it comes with one lesson a month. But “better” is incredibly satisfying when it’s day after day. Dressage riders are often thought of as perfectionists. And while that might be true, I am very aware of the detriments of perfectionism. Seeking perfection is a waste of time – you won’t ever find it and you’ll always be unsatisfied. “Better” is what we should be after. Even the very top riders are seeking better. It’s just that their better is pushing an 8 into a 9 or a 9 towards a 10. 10 means excellent, not perfect. 

D’Arcy

Comparison is another killjoy, like perfectionism, which often haunts dressage riders. Your horse may be going ok, but look at that lady with her amazing horse. Or your horse is injured, and it’s so frustrating to watch others do what you can’t. But having these 5 mares here at different stages of training and ranges of abilities is actually giving me good perspective, instead of comparison. Feeling D’Arcy, at 4 years old, make progress by getting over her fear of the blue chairs next to the arena 😲, and getting a little straighter in the canter to the right is a big win. Feeling Blush understand better today how to push through her back for a stronger medium canter instead of quickening is a big win. And feeling an international quality trot on Flow is also a big win. I don’t expect Darcy to feel like Flow yet. And I don’t expect Flow to go like Verdades yet, her new neighbor and love 😍. (Yet!)

Flowy’s new neighbor 💖

My mom and Emme Johnston, my former assistant trainer, arrived today for a few days. It’s so fun to have them here, and of course, my kids are beyond happy to see their Oma. There is a USEF Developing Clinic at Havensafe today through Wednesday. Charlotte Bredahl was just named as the new developing coach. She is taking over from Debbie McDonald, who is now the Olympic coach (or technical advisor, as they insist on calling it 🙄) There are some seriously nice horses and amazing riders in the clinic. It’s inspiring, and I’m so glad Charlotte and Debbie are in these positions. They are both such good horsewomen, excellent teachers and just the nicest people. My mom made the comment today that it was so nice to see so many women at the top in these coaching positions. While I agree with her, I hadn’t actually thought of that, because I think it just seems obvious rather than exceptional, that these two would be who USEF would pick for these positions. 

More tomorrow on my lessons. 

Building the bridge

My lesson with Flow today had so many awesome, albeit annoyingly fleeting, moments. We have found a much higher degree of sitting in the canter with her, and I think she is understanding that and relaxing in it much better. 

Flow sitting more in the canter 

So today I talked with Jen about how I want to find that sitting more in the trot. Flow has a very fancy front leg in everything that she does. It’s part of what makes her a beautiful mover. But it’s also a version of front-wheel drive, and I need rear-wheel drive. I noticed in my video from the other day that see looks very “fancy” in the trot work, but her big front leg is pulling her away from her hind legs, and the result is less degree of bend in the joints of her hind legs. And because she’s always willing to go, she’s a very energetic horse, just getting after her for more power from her hind legs doesn’t seem to be the answer. We have to get her to sit down more and build a strong bridge of her back underneath me. This results in more suspension but actually less front leg action. Which is more than fine, because we have plenty of front leg 😉

A better bridge of the back in trot

What was interesting today was how we found the better bridge in trot. Jen has discovered that if we don’t get it out of a transition either up to trot (from halt or walk) or down to trot (from canter) we can’t usually get it searching around within the trot. It’s like she has to make the first step correct, or she won’t ever find it. Canter to trot has always been a hard transition for Flowy, because her canter is so big, and it’s so easy for her to “splat” in it. But today she did a really super one from the right lead down to trot which resulted in the best collected, swingy, suspended, sitting trot I’ve felt. And I kept it for much longer. It’s so tempting for me to be greedy, because when I find that trot, it is so amazing, and I want to stay in it forever.

Loving our time here 

I also want to take a moment to say how grateful I am for this experience. It’s been so much fun to watch my students learn as well.  Stacey has been doing such a wonderful job in her lessons, and she has been soaking up every moment down here. She watches every other lesson, takes videos and pictures, asks questions. It’s so exciting how being in a setting like this can help people learn in so many different ways. Of course, Stacey has her lessons with Jen, and those are fantastic. But then she gets to watch all these different horses go with me and hear all the discussions about the training. And then we also get to watch lessons like Lehua Custer’s with Debbie McDonald. And watch Jen ride her top FEI horse, Handsome, each day. And then Stacey can watch the video of her own lesson in the afternoons. Especially when someone is a visual learner, like Stacey, this is so incredibly valuable. Watching top riders on video at home is great, but it’s not the same as seeing them in person. And being able to feast your eyes on really good riding every day, like we’re seeing down here, improves your own riding almost through osmosis. It’s exactly what I was hoping for, both for myself, and my students who are lucky enough to be here. On top of all that, I am so lucky to have Stacey with me – she is a great cook, my children adore her, and she even babysat one night, so my husband and I could go on a date!! Doesn’t get more dedicated than that 🤣 

Stacey and Lily loving Florida 😎

Changes!

Four of the five mares down here are working on flying changes. They’re at varying stages and have varying levels of natural talent with the change. With most of my previous horses, I’ve felt quite good at changes. I’ve been lucky enough to have a few FEI horses I trained, who easily learned the changes, and I very rarely had any trouble with late changes. Many of these mares here do have some trouble with changes. And while it’s frustrating, I’m trying to look at it as a learning opportunity. I feel like I’m learning a deeper, more biomechanical understanding of changes because these girls require that from me. It’s not that they aren’t talented for changes in the long run, but they each need a different combination of collection, straightness, height of frame, etc etc. You can’t coast through changes with any of these girls. 

I also got to watch Lehua Custer’s lesson with Debbie McDonald today on the fabulous F J Ramzes. Their lesson was almost a carbon copy of my lesson with Jen on Flowy only an hour earlier. Strict, strict attention to keeping control over the shoulders, keeping the horse squarely between your aids, with no bulging or leaning, so that they will really sit onto their haunches. Both Ramzes and Flow are so fancy up front, but we can’t let them motor forward from that. 

In watching my video from my lesson (above) I still need to be much more elastic through my left elbow. Even when were working on flexion R, I pull Flow’s neck back to the L all the time, and therefore pull her down onto that shoulder. 

With Lily today, we went back to really, really clarifying the walk to canter. Lily wasn’t born with the best canter, and it’s been a long process to teach her a muchore balanced, clearly three beat canter. So while she knows a walk to canter transition very well, she often has just a tiny hiccup in someway – half a trot step, short behind I’m starting out, a little crooked, etc. Jen reminded Stacey and me that the walk to canter is exacy the same as the flying change. If she can’t jump crisply and straight into the canter, there’s pretty much no chance of a good change. As we were working on it, Jen said to think to myself – “That was a clean change!” – when Lily did a really good walk to canter. And when there was half a trot step – that was a late change. And when it was short behind for the first stride – that was a “together behind” flying change. 

Blush is quite on the forehand naturally, due to her conformation. So she has to really be willing to keep sitting down as I approach the flying change. When she anticipates and pulls forward and down or runs a little through me, I have to be able to push her a bit sideways off my outside leg, and sometimes she really doesn’t appreciate that! 

Tomorrow I will ride with my left hand forward, if it kills me!! 🤣

Harnessing power

The last few lessons have been about keeping my new and improved connection and then using it – using it to ask for more sitting, ask for more power, for more collection overall. Sometimes I think “collection” is really not a great word. It makes most people think of getting horses to take smaller steps and have a shorter frame. I don’t know what word would be better. But while a shorter frame (hopefully from the back to the front) and somewhat smaller steps are part of it, the real collection is of energy. We want to gather more and more energy from powerful hind legs and keep it, have access to it, like a superpower, to put it towards a medium or a flying change, or a piaffe, or just a really good trot to walk transition. (My son is 4, so everything right now is about superpowers and ninjas…)

And having this incredibly steady, reliable, elastic but firm connection is what is going to allow me to gather that energy and create my superpower. And while I don’t feel like Superwoman quite yet, I am having many moments with all the mares of much more power and true collection. And it’s such an awesome feeling!!

Frieda working hard

With Blush, we’ve been working on this more at the canter, since that is her weakest gait. She is not built uphill, but she’s incredibly short backed, so it’s hard for her to stay really sitting without getting very tight. We’ve been using a lot of haunches in  to keep the collection while trying to keep her somewhat looser through her tight, little topline. She’s really improving, and the quality of the canter is getting better and better.

Florida girl 🤩

Today Jen sat on Flow, which was wonderful. I’ve had people hack Flow, and I’ve had a couple students ride her once or twice for brief periods. But I’ve never let anyone really ride her. It’s not that I’m so overly precious with her, it’s more that I just want any mistakes to be my mistakes. Training a horse at this level is like creating a piece of art. And letting someone else do some of the training would feel like letting someone else do part of your artwork. It’s so personal. But I recognize the difference too, and I want the best for Flow, so I wanted Jen to ride her some while I’m down here. Flowy looked gorgeous, of course, and Jen liked her a lot. And then when I got back on I could feel a significant difference in the even-ness of the contract and how Flow was pushing forward to the hand. Yay!! Hopefully I can make it happen on my own soon 😀

Stacey and Lily working in the field today.

Commitment to Connection

I am so enjoying my lessons. Not surprisingly, we work on similar things with each mare. (Couldn’t be me, could it?! 🤣) Mostly the theme is connection. We are all seeking that steady, elastic, even connection with our horses, and it can always be better. With all of them, I tend to get stiff on the L rein and too busy/light with the R. Since most horses are stiff L and hollow R, this is not helping them to connect to that hollow R rein, and also not helping them reach softly to that stiffer L rein. Jen has been really picky that I keep the connection on the R rein, and if they are going to come up and brace, try to hold the R so they hit that rein, the hollow rein, instead of hitting the already stiff L side. 

This can be confusing for me, because since they already feel hollow to the R, I’m hesitant to bend them that way. But while they are often positioning their neck to the R, that doesn’t mean they’re really bending to the R, and moving off of the R leg correctly. When they really bend around that R leg and reach and soften the L side of their neck, then that L rein becomes less stiff feeling.

Frieda enjoying the sunshine

While the themes are the same with each horse, the particulars are quite different, since Flow is very soft through the neck and light in the hand, and Lily and Frieda can get quite strong and rigid feeling.  But if I stay committed to the same ideas about connection, Flow gets stronger in a good way, and Lily and Frieda get softer and softer.

Today Flow was already much improved in the connection from the get go. Or really I should say, I was much improved. It’s amazing how once you really focus and commit to your end of the rein, the horses get so much better on their end. Maybe 30 more years, and I’ll get that 🤦

We then worked on testing that good connection with Frieda and Flow through more collection, both in trot and canter. I was so happy with Flow today, we worked on bringing her back in trot and making her a bit hot, so that she was really eager to go out – to “release” that coiled spring. The trot with Flow is so incredibly regular, Jen was reminding me to “disturb” it every now and then in a good way. Because luckily I don’t ever have to worry about her having a rhythm problem. In canter we worked on the same idea by using some head to wall leg yield to quicken that outside hind leg. Once she was a bit sharper we collected the canter more and let her hang out in that more instense collection until she relaxed a bit. I need to remember to not “save” her with my leg when she’s getting a bit slow. When she gets to the point of almost quitting, Jen wants me to sometimes let her make the mistake and then correct her a bit more sharply, so that she understands it’s her job to keep cantering and keep the quicker tempo. 

Frieda and Blush also found more power in their gaits once their connection was really solid. Stacey and Lily have had two lessons where they worked on similar concepts. They are looking awesome. 

Lily and Stacey looking fabulous! 

First Days of Training

This trip has been a long time in the making. Before I applied for the Lindgren grant from TDF, I was daydreaming about how wonderful it would be to have some really dedicated time for training. Then when I filled out the actual application, I had to get more concrete about my dreams – what’s my training plan, what’s the budget, etc. And then when I was lucky enough to win the grant, I had to start planning – what barn do I rent, find a house for my family, organize the shipping, and on and on and on. 

And now we’re finally here, we’re settled, and the girls have had enough time to recover from the trip, that I finally begin with the lessons that we’re part of my initial daydream so long ago. 

Lily and I are ready! 

I’ve worked for and with Jennifer Baumert on and off since I was 14. I so admire her riding and teaching, and I trust her 100% to always be kind, to work through issues thoughtfully with horses rather than through strength. And hopefully I’m mature enough (finally!) to not dump all my months of daydreaming and my hours of planning onto her and expect miracles. I’m here for 6 weeks of training, which is amazing, but it’s still not long enough to fix every problem. 

Flow working on moving her shoulders in the canter

With all that said, I’m really pleased with the insights I’ve already gotten from my lessons. We did Flow, Lily and Frieda on Friday and Flow, Blush and Darcy today. With all the mares, it’s apparent that I tend to be too busy with the R rein, throwing it away, 5taking it back, and a bit too stiff and hanging on the L. Flow is very light in the hand, so when I get her to stay connected on the R rein and reach for the L, she gets a little firmer in the contact in a good way. Lily is the opposite. She is not always well connected on the R rein, but she really hangs and can be very heavy in both reins, but especially on the left. If I stay really focused on keeping the right rein connection, and think about both of them reaching on the left, the contact improves with each mare.  If I’m too quick to grab the left and throw away the right, Flow backs off and gets very light. Lily bears down and gets very heavy.  It’s so interesting for me to work on it with every horse, since clearly I do it with all of them! 

The first lessons have been 30 mins and more of a chance for Jen to discuss each mare with me and for her to have time to watch them go. 

Darcy got body clipped!! 😎 

I am so impressed with how Darcy is settling in. I was hoping we wouldn’t have to clip her, since she didn’t have much of a coat yet, but she was SO tired and sweaty as soon as we got here! So two days ago we fully body clipped her. She is much happier now but a little wild in the canter! We worked in a baby way on the same connection issues with her, and she was so lovely and swingy at the end! 

I’ve enjoyed the really focused time to get all these girls settled in, get everything Kate and I need, and establish a routine. I’ve especially loved having so much time with Flow – just grooming, hand grazing, cleaning her stall, all of it! I have the most wonderful two assistant trainers at home (thank you Kate and Hannah!!) and so I don’t usually get to do any of that. And as much as I’m grateful for that, I really do miss it. 

My husband and kids arrive tonight, and I have literally been counting down the hours. This is about 3 times the number of days I’ve ever been away from my kids. I know Jonathan is an amazing father, and we have wonderful friends and family helping, but I was going a bit crazy without them. 

Tomorrow will be a day off for the girls and a beach day for my family! 🏝️🌞

Meet the Girls!

We’ve had two days now of beautiful weather and light, easy rides for the girls.  The last two nights it’s gotten down to the low 40’s.  And everyone here thinks it’s the end of  the world!  Today was a high of 79 – just glorious.  

I thought I’d introduce the 5 mares I have down here.  They are all so special, and they each have such different personalities, it makes the training really fun.  First up, we have Flip Side, aka “Flow,” who is the one horse I have at Havensafe.  Flow is an 8 year old Hanoverian Mare by Fuerst Romancier, out of a Sir Donnerhall/Prince Thatch xx dam.  She was bred by Marcia Boeing from Camden, SC, and she is owned by the Flip Side Group, LLC.  I put together a syndicate which purchased her as a 2 year old.  I defy you to tell me something wrong with this mare.  Of course, I’m 100% biased.  I know there are plenty of things to improve, but I think Flow is out of this world.  She has everything a dressage trainer dreams of – beautiful conformation, three world class gaits, the sweetest and most willing disposition, and she’s a looker.  She’s sensitive and yet totally sensible.  They just don’t come any better.  

My sweetest Flowy

Next up we have B-Sanfrieda.  “Frieda” is stabled at Centerline Farm, very close to Flow, along with the other mares.  She is a 12 year old KWPN mare by Sandreo, out of a Zeoliet/Donnerhall dam.  She was bred by Saskia Pouwels from the Netherlands, and is owned by Kevin McNeilly.  Kevin purchased Frieda a little over two years ago as a schoolmaster, and she has been wonderful.  She is a beautiful mare, very much a “ladies’ horse” in that she is refined, light off the aids, and super comfortable.  I have been showing her 3rd and 4th level in 2018, and Kevin got her bronze medal at her first shows in the US with Frieda this year!  Go Kevin! 🙂

The supermodel, Frieda.  Photo by Britt Gillis

Then we have Fuerst Blush, owned by Ashley and Jackie Powell.  Blush is a 7 year old Westphalen mare, by Fuerst Picollo, out of a Matcho Son dam.  Blushy’s owners had another one of their mares at a Mare Performance Test with me years ago at Emerald Springs Equestrian Center.  Little Blush was a weanling and kept coming up to the fence to shmooze.  She was so friendly and so adorable, they just decided to buy her right then and there.  Although she never grew very big, she has a lot of personality and is my little “sports car” to ride.  Super sensitive, very opinionated, and highly athletic.  This mare could excel in any disclipline.  And who knows, maybe one day Ashley’s daughter will do jumpers with her.  (Ashley is due with a baby girl in January.  So my plan is to get Blush to FEI, and then her daughter can have the world’s fanciest first “pony” to learn on!) 

My Pocket Rocket – Blush 

The next fabulous mare is Lily B – a 15 year old Knabstrupper, owned by Stacey Quaranta.  Lily was a circus horse in Belgium (I’m not kidding) then was imported to Ireland to try her hand (hoof?) at eventing and then made her way to America, where she was deemed NOT a good jumper and settled into a career in dressage.  She is wicked smart. Every now and then I press some strange button and get some serious airs above the ground.  Not sure if that was her role in the circus?  She is a beautiful, spotted Knabstrupper, and she really turns heads wherever she goes.  Stacey and Lily moved to my barn a year ago and have been such good students.  We’ve really made progress towards the FEI, which is the ultimate goal.  I just showed Lily 3rd level and won with over 65%, so we are optimistic about getting a bronze medal for Stacey, and getting Lily to PSG before she gets too old.  This mare is such fun to ride – super energetic, always thinking, and strong.  Maybe we wish she wasn’t quite so strong sometimes, but that’s what we’re here to get help with!

Lily showing off her new trick – clean flying changes!!

Last, but in no way least, is the youngest member of the bunch – D’Arcy.  This gorgeous young mare is by Dante Weltino, out of a Davignport mother.  Bred by Rebecca Arnold and owned by Kevin McNeilly, this girl is destined for great things.  She’s only 4, but she already has a long list of accomplishments.  She’s won most every class she’s entered this year at Training Level and the 4 year old test, consistently scoring in the 70s.  She is drop dead gorgeous and very athletic to boot.  Kevin bought her at 2 as a fun project, wanted me to start her and get her going, and then sell her eventually.  Someone is going to be very lucky to get this mare.  I’m so excited to see where she will go.  

D’Arcy cruising to second place at BLM Championships at 4 years old.  

So what’s my thing with mares, you ask?  Honestly, I didn’t go out seeking mares instead of geldings.  I like geldings too.  But I do love mares.  I love them a lot.  And I don’t understand people who have a bias against them.  Every complaint I hear usually makes me think the complainer needs to work on their own horsemanship, not blame the mare for their shortcomings.  I know plenty of geldings who are “difficult,” “temperamental,” “hyper sensitive,” “herd bound,” etc.  Plus, when your gelding hurts himself and is irreperably lame, what are you going to do with him?? At least these girls could all go on to have a second career making stunning babies.  Or maybe they can do both.  They’re modern gals, they could have it all 😉