Last year at about this time, Timmy and I had finished up our show season and the results were fairly good. We had some good dressage scores and some really nice outings but we also had a couple of epic failures.
Me being me, it was the failures I focused on. I actually had to scratch from one of the last shows because from the minute Timmy got off the trailer, he was just awful. It was disappointing but at my age, you learn to pick your battles. I have since learned that when going to a show, my horse prefers to have an early ride time, so we can get to the facility first and he can establish his turf. When he arrives after everyone else, he has a need to scream at everyone and let them know HE has arrived. Black leather jacket on, he turns into the Timminator and there is no turning back.
As I started to plan for 2013, it became abundantly clear that it was time for a change. It was time to leave behind Intro Level and all the things that were not working. I was tired of placing in the top 3 or 4, but getting the same comments from the Judges about needing more impulsion, needing to work over his back and NEEDING MORE BEND!! How was it that we were in the ribbons, but lacking so many foundational skills? We were still at the bottom of the pyramid and I could NOT go through another year lacking the skills we needed to move up a level.
I made the decision then and there, that 2013 was going to be a training year. No showing until I learned the skills necessary to properly communicate with my horse. He still knew more than I did and somehow, I had to catch up with him. It was time for ME to take charge and send the black leather jacket to the cleaners. I had a heart to heart talk with my trainer and let her know my decision. She was totally on board and very encouraging. She correctly advised that this wasn’t a race. My only goal became being a better rider. Suddenly I was able to breathe again. Without the added pressure of showing, I could relax and just work at improving things. Sure, I had to explain time and time again to everyone that would ask if I was going to a particular show, that no–Timmy and I were not showing in 2013. Believe me when I tell you I got some weird looks and I’m sure there were comments made when I wasn’t around, but I didn’t care. I knew I was doing the right thing and never took my eyes off the real prize—ending the year being a better rider.
I take regular weekly lessons and my trainer is fantastic at building skills. It was a slow process, dropping back to basics, but the first thing that happened was my horse was getting more off my leg. Timmy has always had a lazy streak, but working on lots of transitions was suddenly showing results. Now that he was more forward, we had to work on getting the dreaded BEND! That took a lot of work and a lot of faith, since it involved spurs. My sidebar on spurs was that my first trainer had me wear them before my leg learned it can’t jump all over the place. As a result of my lack of finesse, I spurred Timmy hard one day and ended up on the ground with a torn rotator cuff. It is a testament to my current trainer that I trusted her judgment and put on a pair of benign Prince of Wales spurs and learned how to quiet my leg. I learned how to quietly put the spur on it when I needed a bend and then take if off when he was responding. So now my horse was off my leg and bending (at least most of the time). Along the way, my seat was really improving and my confidence was growing. Just before I could get too proud of myself, we moved into canter work.
For most of you, that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but for us “older riders” who are inexperienced, this is a big thing. For me, it was HUGE. Sidebar #2, is that the only other time I fell off my horse (other than the spur incident) was at the canter. Timmy went one way and I the other and injury #2 was a compression fracture in my back. I absolutely dreaded the canter. It scared me and I was terrified to get hurt like that again. Enter my fabulous trainer. She would start by saying “just try to give me two steps of canter”. I would try and try and Timmy wouldn’t do it. Why? Not because he couldn’t…but I was giving him mixed signals. I would ask for it, then haul back on the inside rein because I was scared. This went on for weeks. My trainer was patient and we inched forward.
Finally I had to give myself a talking to. I read The Mind Gym a few times. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this book, it centers around visualization and positive thinking. My trainer was so encouraging, telling me my seat was fine and I COULD DO THIS if I would only TRUST MYSELF. I ended up throwing caution to the wind and what do you know?? The canter started to come. At first, Timmy would do a canter depart and I would be so stunned I got it, I would stop riding him and he would break back into the trot. As my confidence grew, so did the circles. I was cantering at every lesson and having a ball. Wow, it was awesome.
As months went by, I did a couple of clinics. I actually cantered in those clinics although that canter work wasn’t pretty. I just wanted to show myself that I could canter in front of someone other than my trainer. At the last clinic I did, the clinician was really fantastic. She was a “S Judge” and I had ridden in dressage shows where she was the Judge. I knew she was infinitely fair and truthful. My trainer knew her well too and as I rode in that clinic, we knew what the next training step had to be. Timmy absolutely HAD to work over his back and get his head out of the air. My horse is a gawker. He likes looking around and for the 7 years I have owned him, I have indulged his need to work like HE wanted to. Consequently, he wasn’t working over his back. My trainer decided it was time to drop back again and correct that.
For the last month, we have done less canter work and more work at the trot, ensuring he was RELAXED and stretching down. It became my goal to get him working over his back and engaging his inside hind. Other than the expected hiccups, Timmy is finally “getting it” and the feel is tremendous. I finally know what it is to have him soft in my hands and really working like he should. You know what happened next??? His canter work improved!! It’s amazing how much better we work together and how much less tiring it is to ride.
As we come to the end of 2013 and I look back to where we were a year ago, I am really proud of Timmy and of myself. We worked hard all year, listened to our trainer and practiced the skills we needed to get to our goal. I reached my goal for 2013—I AM a better rider than I was a year ago. I have also made myself a promise that I wouldn’t put Timmy in front of a dressage Judge until I can get the canter when I ask, sustain it as long as I need and have it be a proper canter. We are so close now. I am hoping 2014 is the year we come out at Training Level and finally earn some better marks and comments. I don’t care about the ribbons. I care about the skills and how we have improved as a team.
I will keep you guys posted as we head into the new year. I hope I have lots of good news to report. Maybe that black leather jacket is gone for good. In the meantime, we will continue to work on our skills, drop back when we need to but also push forward BECAUSE WE CAN! The biggest part of DOING is BELIEVING YOU CAN!!