Friday, September 27, 2019

BVX 2019: Day 1, Dressage and Halter

Following our successful First Level debut at the TBC Dressage show, Annie and I put in a few schooling rides to really solidify the leg yielding and chip away at the lengthenings. We didn't work particularly hard though, because part of me just wanted to play around and enjoy my pony. So... we did just that.

Excellent show prep.
Like a few other bloggers, I was beginning to feel the yearly burn-out mid-August, but managed to kinda push through it until the BVX was over and done with. Annie and I have been busy pretty much all year long (actually, we've been pretty busy these last three years), working hard at solidifying the basics and pushing to creep up a level, and I was starting to just feel kinda... over it. So instead of panicking, over-riding and making myself and the horse miserable, I took the opportunity to enjoy myself, shows be damned.

This meant we did quite a lot of trail riding - both in groups and solo-style. Annie has become such a solid trail citizen, and I'm glad I've taken the time to prep her for that. She still has a ways to go when trail riding in groups of 3 or more, but we're slowly but surely getting her acquainted with large groups and understanding why we're there in the first place. On one particular ride, it took a bit for her to settle - she was a bit jiggy and huffy (altho, so was the one Draft X that came along), but in the end paired herself up with a cute little paint mare and realized she didn't need to be quite so extra. I was pretty pleased, as this was one of the largest groups we've ever ridden with.

It wasn't long before we were staring the BVX in the face - while I didn't feel completely confident in First Level, I knew it was achievable. Perhaps not the most prepared, but we could more or less do the things.

In no time at all, we were packed and well on our way to the grounds, dogs and camper in tow. Like usual, Show Buddy hauled the horses (well, Show Buddy's mom did this year), so we followed her out and although Annie was slightly looky, I was pretty pleased with her overall "ah, this is nbd" attitude as I tacked up. I headed to the ring with Show Buddy, her brother (who would be showing for the very first time at the BVX) and their horses.

She warmed up really well and I didn't push a lot of buttons - just wanted to have her relaxed and engaged. Since she was both of those things, we kept the ride very light and touched briefly on our leg yields, ensuring we still had a canter, and worked a bit of stretchy trot in. I was pretty pleased overall, since I was curious if the hoards of sites and sounds would ruffle her a bit. The activity at the BVX is like none other - concerts, rodeos, 4-H kiddos and animals, regular pedestrian traffic, and a carnival are all jam-packed into the town's fairgrounds. It makes for a very fun and bustling time, but can be sensory overload for some sensitive horses.

We made it!
I also made a cute little stall sign for her, which
ended up getting sopping wet from the overnight rain storms.
Following our successful ride, I took notice that Annie started to gravitate herself towards Show Buddy's other two horses, and seemed to be most content when she was tied next to one of them - especially Hayden. I talked it over with Show Buddy at length, and we came up with a game plan to ensure that Annie would be "buddied up" for the length of the show so as to not overwhelm or cause any accessory issues.

For the most part, she was "alright" at the trailer, but there were a few times she had to be alone. She fussed a lot, kicked out a few times, and pawed at the hub-caps during those times, and by Day 3 I was pretty fed up with her behavior. I think it's one of those things that is going to take time, so I did my best to stick to my guns and didn't reward any negative behavior and disciplined as necessary (as well as ignored when appropriate). As a sidenote, have any of my readers dealt with a horse who is buddy sour and acts like a moron when tied alone? She used to be naughty when I hauled her solo-style and tied solo regardless of having a buddy or not, but now it is moreso to do with when we arrive somewhere with a buddy, she won't just stand there. The irony is that she hacks out alone and has no problem leaving friends while hacking out to go home... she doesn't drag me back to the barn to see Spud... doesn't play up when leaving the barn... It's purely when we are at events, especially when we trailer with someone else.

All settled in.
Anyways, we got the horses bathed and I was happy with how she acted for that, as there was a lot of activity around the bathing station at that time. I let her graze to dry off while Show Buddy and her brother finished up with their horses, and put her up in her stall with hay and water before heading to town for a dinner of our own. She was still nervous and edgy in the stalls, but didn't wig out like she did the first time I brought her to the BVX. My horses don't spend a lot of time in stalls, so it's always "news" to them when they have to spend overnight in one. I was pretty pleased to find new poop stains all over her blankets from the night before, so she took the time to adequately rest and her food intake, although slightly less, was still a decent amount as compared to our first BVX endeavor.

Thursday morning rolled in, and we slowly got up and ready. Show Buddy's brother had offered to feed our horses each morning, so we gladly took him up on that and relished in the fact we could sleep in a bit.

I wasn't riding until near 1 o'clock, so took my time getting everything organized and getting myself together. We did have a Halter class near 11:30, so I brought Annie up from her stall nd started to knock out the plentiful of shavings in her tail, check her braids and add elastics if necessary, and popped her bridle on. She was being downright rotten at the trailer, which was unfortunate, as it only increased the amount of tension between us.

Pictured: the brief moment wherein she was not a butt head.
In the ring, she was a bit of a butt-head. Consistently whirling her head around, refusing to stand set up, etc. I did the best I could, and tried to keep her brain in it's basket, but it wasn't a great start. Towards the end of the class, she stood and started to get her shit together. I knew we wouldn't place well, but it was good to do for practice and for simply getting Annie into the ring. We placed 5th out of 7.

 Once the class was done, I headed back up to the trailer to get ready for Dressage as I wanted to be on just over 30 minutes before our time to make sure Annie was as relaxed as possible and to also give us enough time to work through any issues. It may not seem like a lot of time, but Annie is a very confusing horse. She can be very high energy at times, which requires a good deal of warm up, but using her powers for evil also zaps her residual energy and we end up having a very tired pony after settling an argument or disagreement.

Waiting for our turn. Warm up ring behind us, Dressage ring in front of us (off camera).

Keeping this in mind, coupled with the fact that Annie was not behaving at the trailer, I meandered down and popped on, using an arena harrow covered with plywood as my mounting block. She felt good - but forward. I attempted to insist a stretchy walk, but Annie shuffled along, arching her spine and curling at the neck, clearly not quite ready to relax down and into work. Being mindful of the other riders around us, we moved into a trot and I attempted a stretchy trot. Nope, not happening. She was just very locked, and any effort to get her to soften down was met with an angry shuffle of steps. So, I simply picked up my reins and we went to work.

I'm not a huge fan of skipping a good walk lap or two, but in this instance, it felt warranted. So, we worked quite a bit at the trot and I played with our canter transitions a bunch, attempting to entice a bit of naughtiness (lest we have it in the arena). She was good though, a bit bracey, but eventually started to soften and we ended the ride with about 10 minutes to spare.

Our first test was First Level 1, and unfortunately, the wheels just fell off the bus - for both of us. I could feel as we broke away from the little traffic jam of horses around the arena, that Annie's brain was starting to leak out of her ears. She started to gravitate back towards the other horses, and was not a fan of having to do The Things while the other horses got to stand and watch.

Our entry into the court was straight and prompt, garnering us a 7.
As a result, I had a very tense horse who argued with me on nearly every single thing. We had missed leads, angry head tossing, and... the return of the angry cross-firing. And unfortunately I was in my own little world, and turned right at C instead of left. Oops, -2 right off the bat.

I did my best to keep a lid on it, and it was one of those tests where you kinda had to abandon certain things and school through the basics. For example, I still asked for her to do all the things, but I didn't push her to complete them. The name of the game was trying to get her less animated, and if that meant we barely showed any change in our lengthen trot, then that is what we did. I still tried to navigate the test as usual, as the show must go on, right?

I knew by our lack of stretch, we were headed for trouble.
We earned a 6 for this movement, with comments reflecting the lack of stretch.

An attempt at lengthen was made.
Note the worried eyes/expression. She was starting to get a bit rigid on me, but at the
same time was trying to keep a lid on it.
We earned a decent 6.5, noting the quickening of her steps vs lengthening.
Free walk had a very modest stretch, enough for the judge to give us a 6.5.
And then I knew we were fucked, because she gave my cameraman (Jamie) this look,
"You watching? I'm about to fuck shit up."

The unfortunate thing about this test is you start off in a lengthened canter,
which probably wasn't the best thing for a hot/tense horse right off the bat.
She kinda balled herself up into a firey pit of angry energy and then
it kinda just tumbled from there...
The judge gave us a modest 6, stating "bum high" (aka: angry Annie).
The 15m kinda came together at the last second, enough that the judge gave us a 6.5 for the movement.

We lost our canter up by A, due to swapping leads, and it resulted in a very messy
trot at X (4.5, ouch) and resulting transition at C for our canter.

We didn't canter at C, but we cantered kinda somewhere around 5m off the track
near M, but the judge liked it enough to give us a 6.5.

After a conservative lengthen, we garnered a 6.5 on our 15m circle.

And then we trotted.
My face is a mix of relief and exasperation, as the test was coming to an end.
She finally let out a breath and started to settle at the end,
so I gave her an encouraging pat for the efforts.

A final turn down towards centerline, and she was ON the aids for a 7.0.

Final halt at G.

Basically, every time she offered the wrong answer, I didn't punish her for it or make any big changes to my riding. I simply asked her for a behavior, and if the wrong one occurred, I simply sat quiet and redirected her to the right path. It's kind of hard to explain, because while I could have given her a boot for making a mistake she knows not to make, I had a feeling that if I made things unpleasant for her, she would reciprocate.

Our ride felt a lot like this:

Me: *asks for bend and canter*
Annie: *doesn't bend, wrong lead*
Me: "Okay, let's come back to a trot and try again. Nbd."
Annie: "It's a HUGE deal." *breaks to canter in lengthen*
Me: "No problem, a little half-halt for you and back on track."
Annie: *flails head*
Me: "OK, I feel ya, but let's just keep doing this 10m circle mmkay."
Annie: "I want OUT of this arena."
Me: *Outside leg on* "Let's just finish it up, we're almost done."
Annie: *breathes, finally*
Me: *pats* "You're alright."

Truth be told, I think the old me would have come out of that arena mortified, crying, and carrying on.

This time?

I left the arena (albeit pretty annoyed), shrugging and wandered our butts back into the warm up ring to reschool some of our issues. A few riders who saw the entire shit-storm gave me proverbial pats on the back, commending the fact I just continued to ride the horse without participating in her mental sabotage. Our reschool in the warm up ring went super well and it I had precisely zero issues. It was almost as if when we left the Dressage arena, our problems went with it. So, I guess A+ for that?

Smiling in the warm up ring as Annie performs as if that entire shit storm
didn't just happen. Okay, thanks mare. Thanks so much.
I didn't go check my scores for a long time, mostly because I knew whatever score I received would be a score I fixated on and if it were a particularly bad score, I'd punish myself for it. So, I simply ignored the fact the tests were out and available on the ribbon table. Show Buddy's Mom at one point asked me if I was going to go collect my test and I told her my plan to not look before my second ride. She smiled and offered to go grab it and my ribbon. I stood there, kinda gobsmacked and repeated, "Ribbon?" "Yes," She said, "you got a ribbon." I shook my head, "I still don't want to know just yet."

The judge, who was the exact same judge for the show we did in Early August, gave us a 61.38% and seemed to sympathize with me, as her comments reflected Annie's unfortunate set of outbursts. We placed 5th out of 6 riders. It was a tight class, with the highest scoring rider sitting at 67.76%.
Overall, a few big mistakes which cost us quite a few points.

Judges comment: "Well ridden - unfortunate distractions today. Keep leg on
and do your best under these circumstances."
We had a good two hours until our next class, and I can't even remember what we ended up doing, but I remember getting back on and wanting to lay down a good test. Not for the ribbons and not for the score, but for my own personal best. I didn't necessarily need a fluid and completely willing partner, but I just needed her to work with me a bit more.

We headed into the ring and Annie had similar feelings, although not nearly as severe. I was able to maneuver her a bit more without having to be act as though I was the Captain of a glass ship. I appreciated this and verbally praised her during the portions of my test I felt she adjusted herself for. It was still a long ways from being our "best", and I still felt a bit of disappointment when I left the ring, but overall I was pleased that she was actually trying and not so worried about what was happening outside of the ring and fixating on that.
A good start to this test with a more supple horse.
Our entry earned a 7, despite some abruptness in the halt.

Heading into our free walk, looking a bit more relaxed.
Our medium and free walks earned a wonderful string of 7.5, 7.0 and 7.0.

A much more amicable canter, although still a bit bracy.
We had another bobble with our lead, but in the
Judge's eyes, it was good enough for another 7, though! 

Heading towards B (7.0) for our stretchy circle (6.0).
We earned a 66.85% for this test, and placed 6th out of 10 riders.

I've thought about this behavior for a long time, as it is something that keeps cropping up in the Dressage ring for us. And it all kind of points to one thing - confidence. Annie is a pretty insecure horse by nature, and although isn't what I would call a textbook buddy-sour horse, she shows quite a lot of immaturity when asked to deal on her own. I'm not sure how I can advocate for her, or help her overcome this, aside from continuing to Do The Thing and providing a consistent and tactful ride. Anyone else have helpful hints, or words of wisdom for horses who are not the most confident in the Dressage arena?

Quite pleased with the string of 7s we earned after
our first disaster of a test!

Judge's comment: "Well done! Much better test! Prep sooner for canter
at A for more accuracy. Straighter in leg yields."
I was quite happy overall - there was some rust to knock off and Annie's confidence took a bit of a nosedive but she seemed to redeem herself overall and we hung tough with most of the competitors. It makes me happy in a way, because seeing our "not great" is pretty enlightening and encouraging that we can be better and that we can be competitive. The show venue for the BVX, like I have said, is very electric and busy. Annie reminds me of me in a lot of ways - bold and outgoing in the right circumstances, and withdrawn and self-conscious in others.

Regardless, I was happy that we hit over 60% in both tests, as that was my tentative goal. Second, despite the silliness in the arena, I was proud of myself for remaining calm, continuing to ride, and going back into the ring for our second test with a positive and progressive attitude.

Stay tuned - Day 2 of the fair features: Dressage Freestyle and Flat Classes! 

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Five Years with Spud

Half a decade of owning this sprightly, talented, and personality-plus gelding.


I've officially owned him for nearly half of his life, and I have also owned him the longest of all my current and previous horses.

I remember the day I bought him - it was after months of searching for a suitable driving mini to double as a companion for my senior Quarter Horse mare, Suzie. A kind woman with a plethora of driving experience and knowledge had offered to help me look, lest I find something incompatible or completely inappropriate for my skill-level (read: none).

She tagged me on an ad of a portly and kinda ugly gelding a few times, urging me to give him a chance and to explore his ad and potential further. Truthfully, I scrolled past his ad several times, not interested in an unbroke and inexperienced miniature who looked as if he literally were a potato.

Still, I found nothing, so I reached out and within 24 hours I committed to purchasing him and sent him to the very woman who helped me find him.

It all worked for the best, as terrible as the entire situation could have gone, and Spud spent two months being broken to cart and associated with all of the things a proper driving horse should. I was able to visit him during Month 1 and was able to drive him for the very first time. Oh, how far we have come since those days.

How far we both have come...

In the middle of November, and a winter storm, Spud officially came home.

It started out as a rocky relationship - long-time readers may remember the rearing fits in harness, or the incomprehensible amount of spooking and spinning which took place. It was a challenge, and while I was decidedly NOT an educated driver, I absorbed every ounce of knowledge I could. From e-learning sessions with his trainer, to hoards of books, youtube videos, and even throwing ourselves into clinics, I started to get more comfortable with the aspect of driving and in turn, Spud became less uncertain and shy.

Not shy anymore...
I remember when I first brought him home, he was a very uncertain, suspicious, and flighty animal. Things like walking directly towards him, shoveling poop (especially if you were scraping manure into a pile near his feet), scraping hay with a pitch fork, and even loud noises (coughing, etc) would send him into a literal tail-spin and off he'd gallop.

He was also very, very difficult to catch. I learned very quickly that jerky movements trying to get the halter on, or tossing a leadrope over his neck and/or back would spook him so bad I'd spend upwards of 30 minutes trying to catch him. He'd visibly tense and arch his back, as if expecting a heavy blow during sudden movements and if he felt threatened, he'd make sure he got away, and fast.

Some of these anxiety-ridden behaviors are still ingrained - if I slip in the paddock or trip over my own feet, 7/10 he will tense visibly but does not resort to fleeing - and instead of attempting to change him or force him to be OK with things, I allow him to decide for himself. He's incredibly intelligent and talented, and understands the difference between danger and a scare.

Make no mistake, he is still treated like a big horse. I don't tip-toe around him, but I do know his tolerance level is quite low for reprimands. Interestingly enough however, he seems to be more tolerant under harness of physical and mental pressures. There have been a handful of times he has lost his brain in harness and I've had to re-mend that physical gap, but for the most part, he thoroughly enjoys being pushed and does not mind being corrected.

Above all, Spud has taught me about patience and persistence. He's a little fire-ball, but it took a lot of time for him to recognize his own persona and allow himself to embody how he felt. It's amazing to think of who he was before, and how he's evolved. He leads the charge in most gallop-parties, and is happy to kick out at Annie's face should she get to close. His best friend is a half Arab Paint, and the two take great delight in playing bitey-face and running laps at our local outdoor arena.

Best bros.
He's exceeded all of my expectations and has taken to everything I put in front of him with an open mind and an eagerness he had not had when I initially brought him home.

The last five years have been an adventure, and although he does not necessarily get the amount of media coverage as Annie, he holds just as special of a place in my heart and in my barn. The lack of driving community in our area continues to be one of our biggest hurdles in progressing and continuing with my driving experience and our "show record".

That being said, he owes me nothing and if we happen to get down south to compete some day, I'll be as happy as if we spend the rest of our days casually driving the back properties and old ATV trails.

Happy 5 Years to the very best potato there ever was.