Did you ever have one of those days (or weeks, or months) where you just can't get something right? Your coach gives you the correction and yet the more you do what she tells you, the worse things get?
Here's a tip from me: if doing what your coach tells you makes the problem worse, consider checking whether what she means is actually what you think she means.
Long story short, I could have saved myself and Gus (and Debbie too!) a lot of aggravation if I realized that while circling to the right her instructions to lead with my right shoulder actually meant "keep your right shoulder ahead (i.e. leading) of your left shoulder," and not "put your right shoulder back." Doh! Hopefully realizing this will now prevent the sideways movement I get lately with every 15 metre circle attempt. I hope so anyway, since canter half pass is not required at First Level!
Body awareness and position is a big struggle for me, as it is for a lot of rusty stirrup riders. We've been working a lot on the lunge line for the past couple of weeks, riding without using my hands in order to help improve my balance, build core strength, and develop a more independent seat. And it's working (or at least it was until today's brain fart). I'm definitely feeling more secure in my position and more confident in the saddle, which translates to a happier horse who is much steadier in the contact.
Perhaps not surprisingly, mounted exercises to improve balance and strength is the topic of my next training article in Horse Sport magazine. Debbie provided the expert advice and my friend Holly kindly served as both guinea pig and model, performing the exercises on Gus and her own horse so I could photograph them. Keep an eye out in the upcoming issue and let me know what you think.
It seems the old adage is true; the more things change, the more they stay the same - at least as far as Equestrian Canada is concerned, anyway.
Every day my news feed is filled with complaints from members, athletes and insiders. Board members are resigning like rats fleeing a sinking ship; an online group has been established and has hired legal counsel to try and oust the current CEO, and EC sends out regular reminders telling us that everything is hunky dory and threatening to pull the licences of anyone who publicly paints the organization in bad light. The National Post even covered what it described as the sport's "dirty laundry." When's the last time you saw equestrian sport mentioned in one of our national newspapers?
Honestly, I have no idea what's going on and whether the current administration is doing a good job or not. Certainly a lot of people with far more knowledge than I don't think so. My only involvement with the association of late is the annual purchase of a Bronze sport licence so I can compete in local one-day Cadora shows.
Once upon a time, however, I was a board member at what was then the Canadian Equestrian Federation. Back then (in the dark ages of the early 1990s) each provincial association president had a seat on the board, giving each province direct input in the decision-making process.
A lot of what has happened in the past few years seems eerily similar. In those days, we saw the ouster of then Executive Director Basil Collett. There were enough complaints about internal staff - not athletes - making decisions on behalf of entire disciplines that groups such as Jump Canada and Dressage Canada were formed. The organization's name was changed from the Canadian Equestrian Federation to Equine Canada; at the time we felt it was more inclusive and recognized that we represent all aspects of equine involvement from recreational riders to horse welfare and not just equestrian sport.
The wheel has come full circle and now Equine is gone and Equestrian is back in their name. Expert groups like Jump Canada are apparently losing much of their powers as discipline related decisions get handed back to EC staffers. Did any of the changes, both then and now, make the organization any stronger or benefit the equestrian community? I wish I knew.
Sometimes a small change is exactly what you need. A fresh set of eyes, a different perspective, That's why it's so important to learn from as many people as you can. In addition to bringing in "big name" clinicians several times a year, my coach Debbie also offers students the opportunity to lesson regularly with her coach. It's a great way for Debbie to confirm that her training programs are on track, and the chance for us to learn something new or - more often than not - learn something old in a new or different way.
I had a lesson with Debbie's coach Jill Stedman last weekend, and it provided exactly the butt kick I needed to shake off the winter blahs. In just 45 minutes Jill helped me unlock a problem I have been struggling to fix, no matter how many times Debbie shows me how. I feel like I'm back on track and excited to get ready for show season.
Debbie and Jill are among those riders, coaches and trainers whom I like to call the "unsung heroes of dressage." There are hundreds of them across Canada from coast to coast. They play a valuable role in our sport, yet unless you live in their local area, you've likely never even heard their names. They are talented teachers and riders, and many show successfully in the FEI levels. Others may not show at all, choosing to focus instead on the coaching and training side of their business.
They suffer through Canadian winters with the rest of us, spending hours in freezing arenas trying to teach the magic of the half halt and the power of the outside rein. They share their knowledge with students of all ages, experience and ability, on horses of every breed and type. And they get the job done.
Don't get me wrong - I am always impressed by the accomplishments of our national team and top international riders. I am in awe of their talent, the work that goes into their success and above all, the jaw-dropping abilities of their horses. But what impresses me even more? A coach who can help a busy adult amateur rider reach his or her goals on an average horse.
The phrase "average horse" is not intended in any way to be a put down. In fact I think 98% of riders should be riding and purchasing average horses. You know the ones I'm talking about - the horses of any breed or any size who have three quality gaits and a superb brain, solid citizens that amateurs can ride and enjoy themselves, without the need for daily pro rides or extensive prep before a show.
The unsung hero coaches have proven their ability to work with amateur clients who juggle work, family and life obligations and don't always have time to ride 4-5 times a week. They take them and their "average" horses - Warmbloods, Thoroughbreds, draft crosses and even a Connemara in one case I know of - up through the levels as far as they want to go, even up to Grand Prix.
While our Olympians and CDI competitors will always be my idols, the dedicated Canadian coaches who keep riders like me motivated and progressing are my heroes.
Anyone who knows me knows that I hate winter. Correction. I LOATHE winter. I despise it with every fibre of my cold, aching body. And yes, I know this is Canada and winter is what we do. I don't. I don't ski, or skate, or enjoy the sight of freshly-fallen snow. I like sunshine and sweating and stifling humidity.
Every winter my motivation disappears with the warm temperatures. A lot of it is mental. The idea of putting on 8 layers of clothes, driving 45 minutes to the barn, grooming a furry yak, tacking up with frozen fingers, dealing with winter spooks and sillies...it all just seems too much.
Since Christmas I have struggled to ride even three times a week. And of course since I'm not riding as much, Gus and I aren't progressing as much. And when I have crappy rides I lose motivation. When I lose motivation I ride less, and have crappier rides. It doesn't help that my schedule has also only allowed one weekly lesson lately. Within that hour I get back on track and feel like maybe, just maybe, I'm getting somewhere. But when I ride on my own, more often than not it seems to fall apart.
Part of the issue is physical as well. Though the knee fracture I sustained in a fall last summer has healed, the soft tissue damage is still causing me problems. So is the arthritis I have in my knees thanks to several years of running in my younger days and a substantial amount of cartilage loss, which was somehow aggravated by the fall too.
My body hurts. My knees, my hips, my back, my neck. By the time I finish the stalls which I muck in order to be able to afford to ride, I am too sore and tired to ride. In the summer I can take a 10 minute break and feel ready to go. In winter I just want to hobble home, soak in a hot bath with Epsom salts and crawl into my bed.
On the days when I do have a plan, feel energized and can't wait to go ride, the universe laughs at me. A client has a crisis. One of my kids throws up. Gus gets an abscess. There's a freezing rain storm.
Are you tired of my whining yet? Me too.
I'm trying to remember that it's not the end of the world if riding takes a back seat to life for a couple of months. Gus and I are not going to the Olympics, ever. My biggest plan for this year is simply to show First at a few Bronze shows and not fall off in front of the judge (again).
So today, as I try not to succumb to the stomach flu that took out one of my kids and my riding plans earlier this week, I will enjoy quality time with my computer, catching up on work with a dog on my lap in front of the fire. Gus doesn't care if he has another day off - he doesn't care if he has 10! I'll ride in my lesson tomorrow and once again, will have that glimmer of hope that someday I'll figure this whole dressage thing out. The weather will get warmer; the days will get longer and I will start riding and progressing again.
The second CDI of the season is underway at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival and there's plenty of Canadian action to follow.
Competition kicked off this morning with the CDI Prix St. George. Four Canadians were in the field, including Jessica Rhinelander making her CDI debut on Dimanche. Jessica purchased this talented 9-year-old KWPN gelding as a youngster, and has brought him up through the levels herself. Definitely a pair to keep your eye on! The maple leaf was flying on the judges' panel as well, with Canada's newest 4* judge Lee Tubman doing the honours at B.
Canadians finished 1-2 in this very competitive class with Jaimey Irwin and Donegal V taking home the blue ribbon on a total score of 70.746%. With 69.605%, Lindsay Kellock was close behind in second place on Royal Prinz, a 2001 Oldenburg stallion owned by Teresa Simmons.
***Update Sunday, January 29 ****
The rest of the weekend proved just as busy and successful for Canadian competitors. So much I wanted to comment on, from Jaimey Irwin and Lindsay Kellock sweeping the top spots in the PSG and I1, to 14-year-old Ava MacCoubrey winning the FEI JR Individual, to Laura Graves' 80%+ performance and Jacqueline Brooks' new freestyle choreography...but I ran out of time! Sorry!
One thing I do want to ask: Is it just me or are scores trending higher this year? And if so, is it because judges are more generous or the quality of performance has improved? I don't have the knowledge or an educated enough eye to see the difference between a 70% Grand Prix test and a 75% one. Perhaps someone who does know can weigh in in the comments section.
CDI results are all listed below; for the sake of time I haven't even touched on the many Canadians who shone at the National show. Please check out all their results here.
FEI Prix St. George January 26
1st Jaimey Irwin & Donegal 70.746%
2nd Lindsay Kellock & Royal Prinz 69.605%
5th Evi Strasser & Rigaudon Tyme 68.026%
8th Jessica Rhinelander & Dimanche 66.491%
FEI Grand Prix January 27
7th Brittany Fraser & All In 71.020%
12th Jill Irving & Degas 12 69.680%
13th Megan Lane & San D'Or 69.640%
16th Jacqueline Brooks & D Niro 68.700%
FEI Young Rider Team January 27
3rd Alexandra Meghji & Rigo 64.579%
FEI Jr Team January 27
3rd Ava MacCoubrey & Pablo 66.432%
FEI Intermediate I January 27
1st Lindsay Kellock & Royal Prinz 70.132%
2nd Jaimey Irwin & Donegal 69.649%
5th Jessica Rhinelander & Dimanche 67.588%
6th Evi Strasser & Rigaudon Tyme 66.930%
FEI Grand Prix Freestyle January 27
4th Brittany Fraser-Beaulieu & All In 73.838%
8th Jacqueline Brooks & D Niro 70.702%
10th Jill Irving & Degas 12 69.548
FEI Grand Prix Special January 28
5th Megan Lane & San D'Or 70.000%
FEI Young Rider Individual January 28
2nd Alexandra Meghji & Rigo 66.579%
FEI Jr Individual January 28
1st Ava MacCoubrey & Pablo 68.526%
FEI Intermediate I Freestyle January 29
1st Jaimey Irwin & Donegal V 75.475%
5th Evi Strasser & Rigaudon Tyme 68.950%
6th Jessica Rhinelander & Dimanche 68.300%
8th Lindsay Kellock & Royal Prinz 67.600%
FEI Young Rider Freestyle January 29
1st Alexandra Meghji & Rigo 68.708%
FEI Jr Freestyle January 29
2nd Ava MacCoubrey & Pablo 70.917%
Did Gus NEED a new winter blanket? When it comes to tack and horse equipment, "need" is a very subjective term. The only thing I like better than buying horse stuff is buying horse stuff massively on sale. So when I found out that Net Equestrian was having a huge clearance on Rambo blankets right before Christmas, I couldn't resist.
The Rambo Duo from Horseware of Ireland is advertised as a 2-in-1 system. It comes with a 300g stable liner, 100g waterproof outer shell, and a detachable hood. When fully assembled it's warm enough for even the worst of Ontario winters, and offers the flexibility of changing layers depending on the temperature. Rambo blankets are well-known for being tough and durable, and are backed by a great manufacturer's warranty. They are also known for being really, really expensive.
Major Canadian retailers have the Duo regularly priced from $550 - $570, way outside my budget, even for a horse who is pretty gentle on his blankets. But Net Equestrian was offering it on clearance for $219 U.S. A quick Google search turned up a promotional code for an additional 10% off (FACEBOOK10 in case it still works!) and with 87 being one of just three sizes they had left in stock, Gus' new snowsuit seemed meant to be.
To take advantage of free shipping within the U.S. I had it delivered to a mailbox service I use in Lewiston, NY, just across the Queenston / Lewiston bridge near Niagara Falls, about an hour's drive from my home. I picked it just in time for a nasty cold snap with bitter winds and lots of snow - perfect time to test the blanket out on my freshly clipped horse!
The outer liner looks very well constructed with a tough 1,000 denier nylon. The navy blue colour with reflective trim is simple and looks great on a handsome chestnut (if I do say so myself). The 87 fits well lengthwise and gives good rear coverage, thanks to an oversize tail flap, and good belly coverage, thanks to the leg arches and three belly straps. The liner is surprisingly lightweight for something with 300g of fill.. The blanket arrived with the liner already attached to the shell, and the hood was easy to secure to the shell with two velcro closures. The hood provides ample protection for his neck - important to me since Gus has a trace clip in the winter.
Because of the flexible layering options, durable construction and attractive design I think the Rambo Duo is a very good product. If you can find it on super sale, Gus and I recommend it - so far. We'll see how it weathers the rest of the winter and let you know if anything changes.
In the land of palm trees and sunshine, it's the para dressage riders' turn to shine with the first CPEDI of the season underway this weekend. They don't often get the same attention their able-bodied fellow riders do but make no mistake, at this level these are international calibre athletes and horses competing at the top of their game.
Canada was well represented in the Grade 1 Para Team Test today (Friday). Robyn Andrews took home top honours aboard Fancianna with a score of 69.702. Toronto's Jody Schloss was second with 65.952 on her new mount Lieutenant Lobin.
Both of these riders have represented Canada at the Paralympics and both have Canadian coaches. Jody has been with Jessica Rhinelander for a number of years, while Robyn has recently joined forces with Brittany Fraser-Beaulieu.
Jessica is a native of St. John's, Newfoundland, and is now based year-round in Wellington, where she owns and operates Rhinelander Equestrian Services. In addition to her coaching duties, she is an avid competitor herself with a lovely young KWPN gelding named Dimanche. With scores over 70% at Prix St. George in last week's GDF National, this is a pair to keep your eye on.
Brittany is best known for her success in the competition ring, particularly after last year's silver medal-winning team performance at the PanAm Games with All In. Originally hailing from New Glasgow, NS, she has been based with Ashley Holzer for many years and divides most of her time between New York and Florida. Brittany has recently begun to develop the training and coaching side of her career and travels regularly to Ottawa and Montreal for clinics. (I should mention that she's also booked to come to Equestrian Dreams for a clinic in May. Hurray!)
CPEDI action resumes tomorrow with the Individual tests. Check back here and I will update the post with results.
***** SATURDAY UPDATE *****
Robyn and Jody finished 1-2 again today in the Grade 1 Para Individual Championship. Robyn and Fancianna scored 70.393 while Jody and Lieutenant Lobin earned 66.488. On to the freestyle tomorrow!
Robyn Andrews scored a hat trick this weekend, winning the freestyle with 73.056% to sweep all three classes in the Grade 1 division. Jody Schloss continued her super weekend as well, earning 66.944% for second place. What a fantastic way to start the season!
A couple of readers have suggested I should tell you all a little bit more about me and Gus so here goes! I have loved horses for as long as I can remember. When I was a small child in Calgary the best days ever were the rare occasions we'd go visit a friend's ranch and I'd be allowed to pat, brush and even ride the horses. But since I was allergic to horses, my parents thought riding was a poor choice for a hobby. It took me until the age of 14 to wear them down into agreeing to a weekly lesson.
Well you all can appreciate that weekly lessons are just the gateway drug into full-blown horse addiction! I progressed to two weekly lessons, then part boarding, volunteering to muck, feed, sweep and clean tack, and working as a counsellor at summer riding camp. At the age of 17 a lifelong dream came true and my parents agreed to let me buy my own horse. It was no fairy tale, however and here's why:
I grew up in a part of the country where we had no certified coaches and no professional trainers. The instructors we did have were wonderful people, passionate about horses and about teaching kids to ride. But when I look back now and realize how much we didn't even know that we didn't know, I'm amazed we all survived. Case in point: As a 17-year-old, still fairly novice rider, the horse my coach helped me buy was a green-broke, rising 3-year-old QH x TB. I think even then I knew in my heart he wasn't the right horse for me, but he was gorgeous, he was sweet and I LOVED him.
Splash and I had a lot of ups and downs over the next few years but also learned a lot. Our barn started bringing in regular dressage clinicians, and hired the very talented Stephanie Gow as our in house coach. I spent a summer in Nova Scotia as a working student and finally started making real progress with my horse. Unfortunately at about that time I had also finished university, was starting my career and didn't have the time or money needed to focus on riding. I made the difficult decision to sell, and my beloved Splash went to live with a lovely family in NS.
As happens to so many of us, riding became something I used to do. I got a second degree, got married, moved to Ontario and started a family. I had a job, mortgage, children and no room in my life for horses. I didn't even go to the Royal once a year - being around horses was like running into an ex-boyfriend you still loved with all your heart.
For close to 20 years I didn't put my foot in a stirrup. Imagine my excitement when my then 8-year-old daughter asked for riding lessons! Turns out it wasn't to be her thing, but me walking in a barn on that first day was like an addict walking into a crack house. It wasn't long before I was telling my husband that weekly riding lessons would be a great way to get some exercise. Poor guy had no idea what that really meant...
Before long I found a great coach in Debbie Dobson at Equestrian Dreams, and started mucking stalls to get fit and earn extra time in the saddle. Does any of this sound familiar? When the time came to buy another horse, I knew I'd be smarter this time. Something with plenty of miles, buttons already installed. Older and needing a little maintenanc was fine, as long as it was bombproof, big enough to carry my weight but not too tall. So what did I buy? A 5-year-old, 17.1 hand Oldenburg cross.
I swear I'm not crazy. Really! I met and fell in love with Gus on my very first visit to Equestrian Dreams. Debbie had purchased him as an unbacked 2-year-old and and carefully been training him herself. Yes he lacked miles but made up for it with an exceptionally quiet nature and super brain. Knowing this time I had the help of a professional trainer to keep us from going too far off the rails, I somehow talked my poor patient husband into agreeing, and in January 2015, Gus officially joined our family.
We showed in the walk trot classes that first year at a local schooling show series. I never imagined at 43 I'd be going in the show ring again but we did it and had a blast. In the summer of 2016 we moved up to Training Level and Bronze shows. Our first show was a great success, winning both our classes on scores of 68 and 69, and taking home the home the high point award. Second show Gus decided to get abcesses in both front feet, so no show for us. Third show we had a spooky fist test but settled down in the second half of it for a score of 64. Unfortunately the day went downhill from there when Gus encountered his first bicycle, I fell off and fractured my knee. So much for the rest of my show season!
I was out of the saddle for three LONG months and just started riding again at the beginning of December. Slowly but surely things are starting to come together again and at the moment, we still plan to show First Level this summer. Knowing how poorly plans and horses go together though, I think we'll just take one ride at a time for now!
A few posts have come across my Facebook feed this week that made me realize we are witnessing a changing of the guard in Canadian dressage. Several of our top level horses are retiring from elite competition and / or moving on to new owners, making room at the top for fresh talent.
Belinda Trussell shared a lovely post this week about the difficult decision to retire her Olympic partner Anton. "When I came home from the Olympics, the questions about Anton’s next steps kept entering my mind. Along with all the emotions! My gut told me our time together in top sport competition was over. What more can I ask of a horse that has been to 2 World Championships, 1 Pan American Games, an Olympic Games and set new records for Canadian dressage? In Rio, he gave me everything he was born with in the ring. My heart told me to stop while he is at the top. He deserves to finish his International career as the top Canadian dressage horse." Belinda happily reported that Anton is being leased to her student Abbey Simbrow and his enjoying his new role as professor of dressage.
Belinda also posted a sales video recently for Chrevi's Capital, best known as David Marcus' mount at the 2012 Olympics in London. Though we haven't seen him competing much in the big ring lately, this superb athlete has a lot to offer as an upper level schoolmaster. I do hope he goes to a Canadian rider who can take advantage of everything he has to teach. (Truthfully, I hope I win the lottery so I can snatch him up for myself!).
Karen Pavicic bid an emotional farewell to her Grand Prix partner Don Daquiri as he moves on to lucky new owners and a new career. "Today I did not say goodbye to my heart horse Don Daiquiri, but instead 'see you soon my friend.' We have spent countless loving hours together over the past 9 years and it has been worth every moment. I am so blessed to have had the opportunity to have this once in a lifetime horse in my life (thank you Jayne Essig). Dono has greatly impacted my life, taught me many lessons that I am grateful for, and fulfilled many of my lifetime goals. He is an extraordinary horse and he will have a place in my heart forever. Thank you to everyone who has helped and supported Dono and I over the years, it is truly appreciated!!! Congratulations to the new owners, Beth Palmgren and Sahar Daniel Hirosh and thank you for honouring and respecting everything that Don Daiquiri has to offer you on your journey together. I am looking forward to seeing what the future brings and I am happy to help and support you along the way."
In related news, Chris von Martels recently announced that Divertimento, the Grand Prix gelding he leased from Tinne Vilhelmsom for the Olympic qualifying season, has been sold to new owners as well. "We are so pleased to have found him a wonderful home and look forward to seeing him bring as much joy and success to his new rider! Here's to a great 2017!"
These horses have provided dressage fans with some marvelous memories to cherish and though it's sad to think we won't see them competing with their famous riders, I love the care and respect the riders and owners are showing for these horses by retiring them from elite competition at the top of their games. By allowing these special horses to share their talents as schoolmasters, the riders and owners are supporting future of dressage in Canada and hopefully, helping make more riders' dreams come true.
As for Belinda, Karen and Chris...well they won't be out of the spotlight for long. Chris has his PanAm mount Zilverstar waiting in the wings, among others. I'm very excited to watch the progress of Belinda's up-and-coming gelding Tattoo, and Karen Pavicic's young Totilas stallion, Totem.
Who else are we likely to see in the GP ring in the next few years? Both Jaimey and Tina Irwin are poised to make a big splash. Jacqueline Brooks has a handsome Negro youngster currently showing at Fourth Level. Though Caravella is still at the top of her game, Megan Lane has some serious talent in the barn, including the lovely San D'Or. There are many, many more...too many to mention here. The future looks pretty bright for Canadian dressage!
In my last lesson, Gus and I had a major breakthrough - at least I thought we did. For some reason (and after 40 minutes of super patient coaching from Debbie) everything just seemed to click into place.
Instead of me holding him in a frame, Gus was truly reaching into the contact and I was actually allowing him. Instead of me nagging him to go, go, go and keep going, Gus felt forward and powerful, without being strong or heavy.
A whisper from my leg sent him more forward. The slightest resistance with my core or slowing of my posting brought him back. The tiniest vibration with my fingertips was all I needed to keep him soft and responsive in my hand. I felt this amazing wave of energy from his hind end, over his back and spilling down from the poll into my hands like a waterfall. It was incredible.
It was short-lived.
I couldn't wait to get on and experience the magic again. Unfortunately, the only magic on display today was a disappearing act - the complete disappearance of any ability on my part to communicate with my horse. He grabbed and I grabbed harder. I held too long and he gnawed and chomped at the bit. He felt like a piece of stiff board. My body felt awkward, unbalanced and ungainly. It felt like I was riding some hybrid cross between a giraffe and a motorcycle while using someone else's arms and legs. I can only imagine what it felt like to him!
Debbie thinks that sometimes a great lesson or a breakthrough can actually have a negative effect. We are so anxious to repeat it that instead of allowing the lovely moments to happen, we try to make them happen. When they don't we get tense and things get worse. The worse they get the harder we try to fix it. At that point she often suggests switching to something easy where we can finish on a successful note, or doing something fun like cavalletti work or a hack, to give both horse and rider a mental break.
Golf is the only other sport I've tried where I go 10 steps backward for every two steps forward. I never seemed to pick up where I left off in terms of hitting the ball well. Looks like dressage is going to be the same for me but I know progress doesn't always occur in a straight line. When I look back at a year ago, our best efforts then weren't nearly as good as our best work now.
At least I got to snuggle my big boy at the end of the day and will try again tomorrow. And the next day...and the day after that...
About the author
I'm a middle-aged, overweight, rusty re-rider who refuses to let any of that get in the way of my passion for dressage.
Follow me on Instagram @dressageaddict.ca
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