Winter weather and the transition of moving added up to a winter of very little riding, but there was a benefit in not having a goal.
I feel like the ongoing theme of my riding in 2016 was the lack of goal. Breaking my finger, coming down with pneumonia, work, moving and more. I reminded myself (daily, it seemed) that I don’t ride for ribbons or scores. But it’s also frustrating. I am relatively achievement driven. I had to embrace a different metric for evaluating my rides.
My family is finally starting to feel somewhat settled here in Kentucky. This week, I sat down with my calendar and started making a plan for more regular rides. I would like to show at the Kentucky Horse Park while we’re here. I want to take advantage of the many clinic opportunities available within a two hour or so drive. I’d also like to continue pursuing my USDF Bronze medal. But, those learning opportunities are the biggest draw.
While I work back into a more goal oriented work schedule for Elf, I’m finding that those lessons I learned while I didn’t have a goal still apply.
Slowing The Tempo
Way back in February, Elf and I participated in a dressage clinic with Melissa Allen that was enormously helpful. She emphasized the importance of being able to set the tempo of Elf’s walk and trot.. If my seat and leg aids can’t effectively impact the tempo, they won’t be able to successfully execute more complicated movements. During my first ride this week, on Tuesday, I found myself getting frustrated with Elf’s tension. We’re largely working on fitness and responsiveness right now. His refusal to settle made it difficult to work on transitions as I had planned. I realized that my frustration distracted me enough that I was letting him set the pace. His trot was rushed and strung out resulting in lurching transitions and turns like a 2×4.
So I took a deep breath (ok, maybe more like four or five). I spent a few minutes encourage a long, loose walk on the buckle . Then, I spent a solid 15 minutes on trot figure eights. We trotted full arena figure eights, half arena figure eights. Those figures went smaller and then back out again. We crossed the arena on the long diagonal, then made precise 20m circles. Elf stretched, pushed into contact and a frame, then stretched again. I put my plan on pause. We spent 15 minutes on something that he knows how to do well. He found a comfortable place for us to work together instead of fighting over whether we would work today.
From there, we were able to move into his canter work. We did transitions within the trot and leg yields on the circle. He settled enough to calmly do canter loops. The tension popped back up working the left (his jaw & neck are always tighter to the left) but we worked through it. He expressed tension without losing his mind and went right back to work.
This is a lesson straight from 2016’s lack of a specific goal – it’s ok to put the plan on pause or change directions.
Maybe it’s me
I didn’t ride again until Saturday. We’ve had more than a week of snow, then rain. The roads, the ground, the people – everything is completely saturated. It turned out, Elf is too.
Mud. All the mud. Elf is generally a clean horse. His socks stay bright white. He doesn’t lay in the messy parts of his stall. When he decides to have a mud bath, he’s exceptionally thorough. Today, I spent several minutes wiping crusted mud off of his eyelid. It took a bath, his cooler and almost an hour until we could even tack up. Fortunately, my husband and son were happily watching play off football and I had no where else to be.
Once we finally got going, I took a page out of our Tuesday ride. We started with the same figure eights that worked so well before. It absolutely did the trick…until we started canter work. Elf was tight and a little reactive, repeatedly breaking into a trot. I was working through my repertoire of tools (with a horse as reactive as Elf) you gather a pretty extensive variety) when I realized I was holding my breath.
Another one of those walk breaks while I concentrated on taking a few deep breaths. I picked up a dressage whip so I could support Elf’s hind end. He needs a tap in canter transitions to keep from throwing his haunches to the right. With the whip, I don’t need to shift my leg as much while I concentrate on my position. Sure enough, when I focused on me and breathing through the transition – no issues. It took us a minute to get organized and I can feel Elf’s lack of fitness in the canter work, but the bulk of the problem was me bracing with my core. We spend a lot of time talking about the need for core strength as a rider, but flexibility and control also play a role. Back in Texas, there was one dressage lesson where my trainer was repeatedly asking me to “hold” with my core to encourage Elf to lift his shoulders and sit more on his haunches as we asked for more collection in the canter. After struggling for several trips around the arena, I finally stopped and asked what exactly she meant.
“I’m ALWAYS holding,” I told her, reminding her of Elf’s exceptionally mobile back and the ab strength it takes to stay with his bigger movement.
So we spent a while working on the timing of when to relax my core. Without this feel, I didn’t have access to the full impact of a half-halt.
So, today, I revisited this lesson. Basically, as I was getting irritated that my horse revert right back to tension and evasion after a really good warm up – it was me causing the tension. I tend to hold my breath when I’m concentrating. Note to self: more yoga, more breathing.
Next week, I’m aiming for three rides. Low expectations, I know. But for now, we’ll just focus on getting back into the routine and improving fitness. And I’ll embrace these little learning moments and reminders along the way.
Does winter weather change your riding goals?