Category Archives: dressage

Rebecca and don’t point a loaded pony unless you mean to shoot

One of the many fun things about Cairo is trying to figure her out. She watches me with her bright eyes and I can see the wheels turning in her brain — sometimes plotting and sometimes looking for attention and sometimes just because some part of her is in constant motion, whether it’s her brain, her mouth on the bit or her legs dancing because she’s dying to just GO.

This weekend I figured out just how much she tunes into my eyes. I had a lesson with Kari in order to work on our stadium. It’s nice that after years as a jumper rider, I got a horse who rocks the cross county (my weak spot) and needs work on the jumper round (my strong point, usually).

We finished out of the ribbons at Rebecca because we had some rails in the stadium. I honestly don’t know what place or care where we finished because I was so pleased with Cairo overall — she was so brave and, for the lack of a better word, I’ll repeat where I started — fun. As we were warming up, one of the other horses in the ring launched into a full-on bucking session — back humped and head between his legs. I hopped off Cairo when I saw the rider, who did an amazing job, finally coming off. When I saw the horse begin bolting, Cairo and I slid out of the arena before they could shut the gate.

Cairo handled it well, but she (or possibly I) was just a little more frazzled than usual after that. She schooled well and Meika had me pushing my knuckles into her neck so I followed the rhythm with more flow, and that worked great. We got into the ring and she went after the fences with her customary enthusiasm — I will be surprised the day she actually spooks at a fence! But although she overjumped all the fences, this time she dangled a foot here or there and caught four rails. A couple times she overshot her arc. Basically she was green. Hell, she’s five and Rebecca was her fourth real show and the first one in May was at starter level. She and I have lots of time to work on stadium and I’m just excited at how well she handled everything!

I was pleased with my ride and that was a good feeling. I put her well to the fences and my eq and balance were good. There’s something about Cairo that lets me ride every step of the way and I love that. I think I’m extra conscious of my equitation because she’s so little. Ironically, people who meet her in person who have only seen pictures are startled at how little she is — she rides big, even in photos.

The week after Rebecca, Kristine and went to Inavale to school some more xc. The one fence at Inavale I didn’t think I rode as thoughtfully as I could have was the “Novice trakhener,” aka the log over swale. It’s right next to the Training trakhener that I have fallen at several times and let’s just say I have issues with it. Cairo doesn’t. She sailed over the Novice one and when the time comes, she’s going to sail over the Training one.

Kristine suggested I see how Cairo did jumping off a bank into water. “Grab mane and just walk up to it,” she said. She’s been around Cairo enough to know Cairo’s pretty certain to jump and Cairo did. No problem. “Trot up to it,” Kristine said. So I did. And thank god I grabbed mane because Cairo basically hollered “Cannonball!” and karoomed into the water. Kristine said Cairo landed fix feet out. It was no small splash.

This weekend at my lesson with Kari, we were working on channeling some of that enthusiasm. We were jumping the day after a shoeing where we’d trimmed more than I’d expected — Cairo grew a lot of toe this month! As a result, I thought it would be a good idea to keep the jumps low and that worked well with what Kari had planned. She was incorporating some of the bodywork and physical therapy she’s been doing and basically had me first rotating my body at the canter in a two-point so I looked at Cairo’s tail (why yes, I AM trusting). We did that both directions and stretching both ways and Cairo seemed to like it and relax through her neck more. Jumping, Kari had me keep my hips neutral but rotate my core to the direction we were heading.

We did an exercise with placing poles and once we did it a couple times Cairo was like “Right I GET IT” and wanted to get rushy, which actually let us work on my body even more. Then we added in some fences on a diagonal and that’s when I remembered a clinic with Brian Sabo in which he told a kid who wasn’t steering all that great “Never point a loaded pony at a fence you don’t intend to shoot it over.” Cairo is incredibly keyed into where I’m looking — which explains why sometimes on xc she sights in on some very big fences — she feels me looking at them!

As I rotated my core left around a left corner I turned my head along with my core, essentially my hips were heading Cairo toward the fence, but my eyes were looking away; I was just keeping the fence in the corner of my eye, barely. Cairo cantered calmly to the base of the fence then kind of went “Oops” and hopped over it. She did the same off the right to an oxer (only she leaped the oxer like a scalded cat). I realized that because I wasn’t sighting in on the fences, she wasn’t either. She’s a good girl, so once we got there, she was happy to go over them, but you could tell she’d been waiting for me to tell her something. The next time I kept my torso turned but looked square at the fence a couple strides out. I felt Cairo key in on what I was looking at and we had a great fence.

I like both that she’s so keyed to me AND that when I don’t tell her anything, she’s smart enough to make a decision, and the decision is to go over it.

I’m still pondering what to do with what we figured out. My current take away is that this core stretching exercise is great for getting Cairo relaxed and me stretched, and that if I want to shoot my loaded pony over it, then look at it. In dressage the judges comment that we need more bend on the circles and I’m curious to see if stretching and rotating my core helps with that.

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Double Clear XC at Rebecca

Two months ago I had butterflies the size of flying squirrels in my belly as I prepared to ride Cairo in our first horse trials over itty-bitty little starter fences. I was delighted when she didn’t make an attempt to jump out of the dressage arena. Now, only a short time later, we zoomed gleefully through a double clear cross country at the Event at Rebecca and judging from the photos, Cairo would merrily have jumped even higher.

We didn’t finish in the ribbons, but we finished happy and had good rides and a lot of fun, and I’m just blown away at how far my sassy little mare and I have come.

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Hmmm, now to get her to have that same respect for the stadium fences.

Kristine and I got to Rebecca on Tuesday night and pulled in with the Polestar crew. Cairo was a gem. OK mostly. She trailered great — drinking, eating and pooping up a storm — the whole 11 or 12 hours it took us to get to Montana. She attempted to eat not only her hay but Tucker’s too and learned how to open the chest bar in the trailer.

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Tucker is giving her a little side-eye here, but really put up with her antics with great patience.

Schooling Day

Wednesday morning Meika gave me a dressage lesson. To my horror, she handed me a dressage whip to hold parallel between my hands to help keep them up and level. I immediately had flashbacks to trainers past who used all kinds of “tricks” to “help” me while I rode horses that bucked, spun, charged and otherwise misbehaved. Because hell, if you can’t fix the naughty horse, at least you can work on the rider’s equitation, right?

Luckily, Meika’s goal was to actually fix the horse who needed me to be more even and up with hands, as well as my equitation, and it worked beautifully. Thanks to that and to Leslie’s schooling before I left, I got a 7 on rider position, which is the best I’ve had all season.

All the work we did to help Cairo stand up through the shoulder paid off — Meika thought she looked stronger than she had three weeks before at Inavale.

After dressage schooling, we course walked. The course at Rebecca is gorgeous and the  2’11” Novice fences looked solid but fun. From bird fences to a Western town where we jumped the hitching post, the course at Rebecca is lovely.

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Cairo did give this osprey the hairy eyeball, but jumped it with no hesitation.

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The Western town and

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the Indian village were among the cool fences on course.

The day ended, like so many of the good ones at shows do, with whiskey sipping and good conversation.

Show Day

Thursday was our big show day. Rebecca is such a large show that it gets spread over more than the traditional three days, so some did dressage Thursday and the upper divisions competed dressage on Friday. The Novice folks did dressage AND cross country Thursday. My dressage was at 9:54 and I got up early for coffee and a course walk. All was well, hungry Cairo was chomping hay and slurping water and groomed to the nines, until I tried to braid her.

I have Raynaud’s syndrome, and between the cold day and my show nerves, my hands went numb. I was failing dismally at braiding with bloodless fingers when Meika dropped by to put a cool compass rose on Cairo’s butt. Thankfully, she and her working student Fieka stepped in and braided Cairo’s mane and gave her rump some decor.

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(This is actually Tucker’s rump but you get the idea).

Our dressage was good … for us. Cairo had some lovely moments. And she had some “Mooo oom I’m sooooo bored of trotting 20 meter circle” moments. I think she might actually have sneered during our free walk. Her good moments gave me insight to what she can do in the future and her less-than-stellar head tosses and eye rolls led Meika to suggest that Little Miss Thing has gotten bored with dressage and we need to engage her speedy little mind more. Lateral work it is, Leslie told me when I got home and filled her in.

We got a 43.5 and slid into … not quite last place. I didn’t care (much), I just felt excited to be there and feel those good moments … also my xc was at 12:08 so I was more concerned with changing tack and clothes!

Kristine’s dressage was at my xc time, so Letty and another of Meika’s students, Susan, helped me school and they were great. I don’t know who asked “Is it time yet? Can I go NOW?” more often, me or Cairo. We hopped a couple fences and Cairo was ready.

XC was a blast. Cairo was quiet in the startbox and when they said “Go” she struck off into a confident canter to the first fence. I think I was grinning wildly by fence three (that would be the rolltop she’s soaring over in the first picture).

Coming to fence six, which was before a water obstacle she hesitated slightly — it looked at first like you were jumping into water — but she popped over it when I put my leg on. I landed slightly in a heap but Cairo merrily zoomed through the water and up the bank on the other side. I took a second to get oriented,and find fence seven, a ramp. She leaped over that and turned for eight, a little cabin in the trees. I didn’t steer quite how Meika told me to, which resulted in my getting whapped in the face a little by one of the trees. Duly noted: listen to your trainer.

Worried I’d lost a little time during my brain fart, I galloped her a little between the next fences. As it turns out, I was almost a minute under optimum time, so I don’t think I need to worry that I’m slow with Cairo’s big strides! She sloshed through water and happily leaped through the Western town and Indian village. She was still over-jumping at the end, as you can see by this picture of the second-to-last fence.

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The last fence was a train — we jumped the log car while the Advanced riders would later jump the locomotive — and I am just smiling hugely as we sail over it, double clear and we moved up into 15th.

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And I’ll finish the rest of Rebecca tomorrow — it’s time to get away from the computer and go ride Cairo!

Dressage prep

Leslie fit me in for a dressage lesson last night so we could work on those holes that came up at the schooling show Cairo and I went to.

Cairo has come such a long way. My first lesson with Leslie was when I was still trying the mare out and Cairo was not on her best behavior that day — she was tense and fighting me, and Leslie said something mild about perhaps I was a little tall for Cairo. (I suspect what she was thinking was “Oh hell no you are not buying this crazy animal.”)

As I said in an earlier post (and I reference in the name of this blog) when I was horse shopping, people said to get a horse that likes to canter. Cairo adores cantering. Trotting she finds beneath her. She’s actually not prone to jigging, which is nice. I suspect she doesn’t see the point in attempting an intermediary gait when she just wants to canter.

So the next lesson I hauled her over to Kari’s barn (which is where Leslie boards) and rode there.  Cairo remembered the LAST time we were there we jumped. She was like AWESOME, let’s GO.

You can imagine her disappointment  when she figured out it was a dressage lesson. She spent the whole lesson trying to leap into the canter. I spent the whole lesson on a 20 meter circle trying to keep her at a trot. We worked on loosening her base of the neck and getting her to relax. Then Leslie informed me I’d be trotting for the next two weeks. She very tactfully did not ask  “How long til your trial is over and you send the horse back?”

By the third lesson Cairo and were getting our flatwork groove on. It was still an uphill battle, with head tossing and tail swishing galore, but Leslie could see why I liked the little mare, so she wasn’t too horrified when I told her  I was buying her. That was late December.

I knew that while Cairo had some nice gaits in there under all that tension, it was going to take a while to get her to be at all dressagey. Becky warned me of that before I took her on — the mare’s athletic but if you’re shopping for a dressage horse, that’s not Cairo’s area of expertise.

Fast-forward to today when I realize that while Cairo and I are scoring in the upper 30s at the shows (that’s lower 60s in regular dressage), we are doing as well or better than Huey and I used to.

So I’m OK with heading to Rebecca with stuff to work on — I’m just excited we’re going! — because we’ve come so far so fast, but as I told Leslie, I’d like to go feeling like I did all I could to do well.

All the work to get Cairo to stand up through her shoulders last lesson paid off for this test, which has some sharper turns in it as you change directions across the middle. Leslie had us slow and half-halt before the corner, which helped.

We also worked on my position — feeling where my leg should be underneath me so that if Cairo’s tense, I don’t jam it forward but rather keep it where I can ask her to lift her back.

And we worked on my halts. When Kory and Flash had a crooked halt in their first test, I had her even her legs and hands. Boom, next test, a square halt. That didn’t work for Cairo. Making sure my seat was relaxed has helped the whole tap-dancing at the halt thing, but she still wasn’t square. What it was was the standing up through the shoulder thing. Leslie pointed out that Cairo leans more on her right shoulder and surmised that was affecting her halt. Next time down the center line I added extra right leg, and suddenly we got much straighter.

We finished off working on our walk. Cairo has a huge walk and overreach (to go with her huge canter stride,  she’s got a 16.3 hand canter on a 15.1 hand body Leslie says)  and if I keep it steady and don’t let it get hectic, I think we can get some decent scores there. We’ve gotten some 7s on our medium walk and I’m thinking given that 6 months ago she didn’t walk without tossing her head and shaking her booty, that’s pretty good!

This weekend I’m thinking a Saturday jump outdoors and a relaxing trail ride Sunday. I’ve already started packing!

Demon Hussy

Demon hussy is what I call Cairo when she goes into heat and gets to be sassy-on-steroids. I rode her in the outdoor Monday evening and she bucked (which she never does) and spent the entire ride attempting to leap out from underneath me or just leap. The next couple nights we worked inside and she was slightly more chill. Slightly. Tonight we worked in the outdoor again and she started the session with a squeal and some overly expressive swishes of her tail.

Ironically, given I spent most of the ride trying to get her to give and use her topline instead of brace and try to leap into the canter, when we did transition up into the canter, her transitions were lovely.

One week until our first beach ride, I’m very excited. And one month until I move her to the same barn Flash is at and have both my horses in the same place for the first time in more than a year.

In media res, sort of, and always at the canter

At some point I’ll start more at the beginning, but for now, I’ll start with today and just a little background.

Cairo turned five on Monday, March 24 and I’m pretty darn sure she’s not going to grow much taller, but I really don’t care. When I began horse shopping, after painfully selling Baby Huey, my sweet and silly 16’3″ hand thoroughbred, people asked me what my dream horse was. I kept saying I didn’t care about height or gender or color, I just wanted a horse who though he could jump the moon. The most specific I got was thinking I’d like a draft cross or an Irish horse because Merlin, the horse I loved to jump, was an Irish draft and I loved his spirit and boldness.

These parameters, or lack of them are more of less how I wound up buying a sassy bay 15’1″ hand Irish sporthorse filly, who thinks she can jump the moon.

Cairo was bred by my friend Becky, and I used to watch Cairo’s dam, Ruby Contessa at events and point out how much I liked her. Because Becky is a good person and because Cairo is little and way too sassy, I lucked out and got Ruby’s baby for myself for Christmas.

My event trainer, Meika, told me something to look for in a jumper is a horse that likes to canter. Well, that’s Cairo. I think she’d rather canter than eat. When Meika met Cairo, she gave me her blessing, albeit with a furrowed brow and the caveat she had hoped I’d find myself an easier horse. Kari, my jumper trainer and Leslie, my dressage trainer had similar reactions. I’m lucky I ride with incredibly talented and incredibly supportive trainers.

Cairo is not easy. She tosses her head; she swishes her tail; she chomps the bit and demands we stop walking around and just CANTER. But at four she just felt so balanced and so bold, I loved her. Becky let me take her on trial and after a trip to the mountain trail course, a horse show and a group trail ride, all of which she did happily and boldly, I was sold.

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She’s come a long way since October, when in our first dressage lesson all Leslie would let me do was trot on a circle because Cairo was such a wild thing. I tried her in a Micklem bridle and that helped the head tossing. When we started, she was avoiding the bit — tossing her head mouthing it, but never contacting it. Now in the Micklem and with a thin Herm Sprenger duo mullen mouth rubber bit, she’s wanting to grab the bit and strong-arm me into what she wants to do — canter. So today we worked on getting her to give up the bit. and pick up her back.

Certain words tend to resonate with me and today it was keeping my hands dynamic. Outside shoulder back, seat even in the saddle, open the inside rein, ask her to go deep, but not low, and give up the base of the neck, all the while keeping my hands dynamic. By the end of the ride, Cairo was releasing through her neck, picking up her back and reaching way under herself with her hind legs. One minute I’m cantering, and her head’s tossing and she’s up against the bit and the next minute, she uses herself and gets it. Then suddenly for three or four 20 meter circles she’s cantering and really using the muscles of her back to lift and rather than just cantering, we have a gait that feels relaxed and powerful. Now to just do that again my next ride without Leslie chiding me in that Texas accent of hers …