Playing with Half-Pass

Yesterday we got to ride in the outdoor ring for the first time this spring! Wooooot woot! The sun felt SO GOOD as we bopped along.

I asked my trainer to take a little video of our lesson, mostly to document the fact that I am still riding at 26-weeks pregnant. We were playing with trot and canter half-passes, and although Clay and I are both still new to this movement, it’s starting to come along and it’s really fun.

Clay tries so hard, and he’s coming to work in a very happy and relaxed way right now. He’s not such a wiggle-worm anymore…the progress in his straightness and honesty has come so far over the winter, and I’m thrilled about that. Brittany Davis is a fantastic, positive trainer, and I feel so grateful to have enjoyed a whole winter of regular lessons with her.

I think I was grinning for 90% of this ride. 🙂

Happy spring, everyone!

Martin Kuhn, Again

Clay and I got to ride in another clinic with Martin Kuhn this spring, and although we only had one ride this time around, I took a ton away from the experience. He is such a fantastic teacher, and–like I said last time–fits a TON into a 45 minute lesson. It’s a real workout for your brain, but man do you walk away feeling like you got every penny’s worth out of his lesson fee.

The guy is tireless…He taught something like nine lessons back to back without a single break on the first day of the clinic. I was one of the last rides of the day, and he was just a “on” as he had been at the start.

Clay really tried his heart out, and I felt like we were both in a really good place to receive such intense instruction and get the most out of it. We’re both pretty fit after a winter of consistent riding, and despite being 5-months pregnant, my brain is “in the game” much more than it was a year ago when I first rode with Martin (those were still the heavy sleep-deprivation days of early parenthood.)

Here’s a video of the beginning of my lesson, if you’re interested…

As you can see, I make some mistakes as we’re getting warmed up, but Martin is gracious about that stuff and gives me repeated chances to figure out what he’s asking for. He assumes/expects that you have an understanding of the geometry, movements, and terminology present at your level. If you find that you’re missing a piece somewhere, that’s your homework.

Things started to click for us a little better as we went along in the lesson. Here’s a bit more of our trot work, and some of our canter work…

If you get a chance to ride with him, I highly recommend it. I’m so glad Spring Hill had him back again this year, and I hope it becomes an annual thing. It was a fun little day-trip to that beautiful farm, and I couldn’t have been happier with how Clay handled the whole thing top to bottom.

I say this all the time, but having a horse you can feel safe with and have fun on while you both learn is P-R-I-C-E-L-E-S-S. If you’re not having fun with your riding, what are you doing?

A Wonderful Winter

HI! It’s been a minute since I’ve updated the blog. Sorry about that! Life took over this winter, in the best of ways…

First and foremost in the news department is that I am pregnant with Child Numero Dos! Yes, very exciting. We’re all thrilled and looking forward/bracing ourselves for the big change coming this summer.

I am due at the end of July, which is a great time to have a baby, but also means no horse showing for me this year. It’s OK. I knew I wanted to take a year off from competing anyway, so that we could be solid Third Level with changes by the time we came back out. I didn’t want to show Second Level again, but am not ready for Third yet. Taking a year to focus on training, and oh yes–have a baby–is the right decision.

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Anyway, I have been riding through this pregnancy just like I did last time, and have been feeling pretty great. I thought I did some of my best riding during my first pregnancy, and I feel that way again this time.

I don’t know if it’s the Relaxin hormone working its magic to allow my seat to be  deeper, or if it’s the mental focus that comes with knowing you’re going to have to stop riding at some point for a while so you better take advantage of the time you have, or if the baby bump just forces me to SIT BACK DAMMIT….It’s probably all of the above.

Once again, Clay has been a total rockstar and hasn’t stepped one toe out of line while I have been pregnant. I feel SO grateful to have a horse this sensitive and intuitive and safe, who can also Dressage his little ass off. If he were any other way, I wouldn’t feel comfortable taking the risk of riding while pregnant.

Of course, I’m still being more careful than usual…No spring trail rides (boohoo for me, but I will let someone else go have fun with him in the woods so that at least he doesn’t have to miss out on the fun.)

It just feels great to be able to do the thing that makes me feel most ME during this time of great change. I am so, so grateful for the winter we just had. It was full of lessons, learning, and peaceful bonding time with my pony. I can’t believe I am saying this, because winters usually suck around here, but it was a wonderful winter.

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Why was this winter so much different than winters past? Well, for starters, I have been boarding at a heated barn since fall. With a wonderful full-time dressage trainer at my disposal. And regular monthly clinics with Kate Phillips. Hallelujah!

I cannot express what a luxury it has been to be able to take lessons weekly and do clinics monthly. After years of being largely on our own, with only occasional clinics with Gina and Kate to keep us going, I can really appreciate the benefits of having access to consistent, quality instruction.

And did I mention HEAT? It made it so that I could consistently ride all winter, no matter how wickedly cold it was outside. Hallelujah x2!

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Another difference was that Child Numero Uno is now in daycare twice a week, leaving me with two whole days to get my work done, meal plan/prep, do any errands that are difficult to do with her along, plan learning activities for the days she is home with me, and still have time to visit/ride my horse a couple times. This is called balance, and it’s a very elusive, nearly impossible thing to achieve in one’s life. We got a little bit closer to achieving it this winter, thanks to our wonderful daycare. My husband even took up running, because he had time to do something for himself for once. The mental-health benefits for our entire family have been REAL.

Lastly, I wasn’t teaching lessons this winter. This decision made me sad, but it was a necessary one for many reasons. The downside is that I miss my students and I miss doing something I really love to do. The upside is having a lot more time for my family, and not standing in a FREEZING cold barn for hours every day, feeling the energy being zapped out of me.

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Clay seems a lot happier too. I’m not projecting here. He has gone through several periods of being incredibly hard to catch in the pasture over the past couple years. It happened again right after we moved to the new barn. He seemed like he wanted to avoid work at all costs, and it was really disheartening.

I talked the issue through with my vet, my trainer and several friends who have experience getting through to the quirkier horses of the world. We ruled out anything medical, so I spent several weeks just grooming him and doing lots of gentle ground-work with him.

My goal was to better establish our connection on the ground (our connection under saddle has always been amazing, but he’s a bit of a different beast on the ground). I also moved him to indoor/outdoor board (rather than exclusively outdoor), so that he would get into the routine of coming into the barn daily rather than just when he’s getting worked.

Within a week of these changes, I saw a completely different horse emerge. He’s not avoiding work, he’s coming to the pasture gate to greet whatever human is approaching, he’s turning to greet us in his stall instead of hiding in the corner, and his demeanor both under saddle and on the ground is more relaxed and cheerful.

Once I am far enough along in this pregnancy where I need to stop riding, I plan to continue the ground-work/connection work with him several times a week. I think it makes a huge difference. I’ve come to realize that he’s a little high maintenance when it comes to how much attention he needs in order to feel relaxed, trusting and bonded with a human.

If you disappear from his life for a few weeks, he’s going to be skeptical when you show back up. He needs routine. And he’s a tiny bit diva. He knows he’s worth your time and attention, and he kind of holds a grudge if you’re not delivering. I’m glad I know this about him. Now I can make sure to give him what he needs to be his best self.

So, that’s the update from around here! I’ll do a post soon about everything we’ve been working on in our lessons and clinics. So much exciting progress!

Thanks for checking in and following along on our journey. I hope everyone out there has weathered the winter well. Happy spring!

Peace, love, horses,

Tonia

Bit Fitting Clinic

Last week we adventured to Duluth for a bit-fitting clinic. I was on the fence about doing this…the weather wasn’t great for traveling, it required my husband taking the day off work to stay home with Pehr, and it was expensive.

But, I have been riding in the same bit since I started down the dressage path, and I’m pretty sure it’s not ideal for Clay (I bought it because it’s what everyone uses, not based off of any knowledge.) I know nothing about how to pick a bit or fit one correctly. It was info I really wanted to have in my arsenal.

So we made the 1.5 hr trek to the beautiful Spring Hill Farm to see what we could learn. I went with a tiny bit of intel under my belt already, having had the chance to try a couple different Neue Schule bits during my lessons recently.

I felt an incredible difference in Clay when I tried the Neue Schule Turtle Top bit. My half-halts felt super clear and therefore could be more subtle, and he wasn’t getting offended by them like he normally does (which he shows by stiffening his neck or coming above the bit for a second). His shoulders felt more lifted, and the bottom of his neck soft (two things we typically struggle with). So I knew I wanted to try that one at the clinic for sure.

When it was our turn, we warmed up in our old bit and then the clinician, Kim Gentry, asked me some questions about what we’re working on and what some of our struggles are. We then dove into trying different bits. The first couple we tried made Clay stiffen his neck and jaw, especially to the right. With one of them I had no right half-halt.

Clay looks THRILLED to be doing this.

On to the next. The Turtle Top. Right away it was like butt-ah…Clay was so soft and accessible, and his canter had hop to it. He felt relaxed, steady and comfortable. We swapped it out for the Tactio version just to see how he liked that, and I felt like he was back to being offended by my half-halts with that one. We swapped it for a bit by a different brand that is similar to the regular Turtle Top but with a little more tongue pressure….NOPE. He doesn’t fancy tongue pressure.

The Turtle Top was the clear winner. Kim measured Clay…All this time, I thought he was a medium (5-5.5) but he is between a L and an XL (5 3/4)! Whaaaaat! Turns out his tongue is large and his mouth is fleshy, which is why he is likely happiest in a bit that gives lots of tongue room and doesn’t put pressure on his soft tissue. I bought the Turtle Top in XL, in the bradoon ring size so that I can use it with the double bridle when the time comes.

Kim also said his Cob sized bridle was too small for him and he needs something cut back more around the ears. I guess I have been stuffing him into too-small everything. Sheesh! I was planning on finding a used double bridle on eBay this winter but now it looks like I need to budget for a bigger snaffle bridle too…

Now it was time to find a curb bit that complimented the snaffle. Knowing he likes lots of tongue freedom, Kim nailed it on the second try this time, with a Bemelmans (it has a wiiiiide channel for the tongue).

OMG OMG look how handsome in his big boy bridle!!!! I am dead.

It was Clay’s very first time in a double, so I didn’t ask for much right off the bat…we just walked and trotted around a bit with a slightly longer neck, so he could get used to all that metal in his mouth. He was super steady and relaxed, with a soft lower neck. I was thrilled!

After a few mins I started taking up the contact more and asking him to go forward into the bridle. He felt lovely and comfortable. I sat the trot, tried a little lateral work, a couple transitions from collected trot to medium and back, and cantered a little. Wow. It all felt amazing. Kim said it looked great, so we called it good at that.

Clay seemed really comfy in the bridle she let us try, but I can’t afford two bits AND a brand-new bridle right now, so I didn’t order the curb bit or the bridle yet. I’ll be making that purchase later this winter when we actually start doing double bridle work. Either way, it’s a relief to know which curb bit to get when the time comes, and also that it works well together with the Turtle Top.

Overall, this experience was an expensive one (a top-of-the-line bit, the fee for the clinic, and my own travel time/expenses definitely added up quick…), but the clinic saved me SO much time that would have been spent messing around with buying and returning random bits.

Anything that makes my horse more comfortable in his work and my aids more effective and quiet is a worthwhile investment.

Thanks to Spring Hill Farm for hosting, and to the wonderful Erin and Heather who spent lots of time organizing this opportunity!

What We’re Working On: Straightness, Balance & Feeling Right from Wrong

We had a great lesson with Kate Phillips this month. The primary focus was straightness, and maintaining better balance in our canter work.

The videos above are cell-phone quality (sorry), but if you’re interested in watching, you can see the exercises Kate had us do, and you can watch us struggle our way through them. I always cringe when I share videos…I am critical of my riding. No one likes to air their imperfections, right? But I have learned so much from watching myself and others in lessons, so (gulp) here you go.

The trot work we began with REALLY prepped Clay well for the canter work we did. He was so off the seat and right under me by the time we got to the canter, thanks to all the lateral stuff we did at the trot.

I have probably mentioned this before, but Clay is a surprisingly really wiggly dude. It’s surprising because he is very square-built and compact, and typically horses built this way are very easy to keep straight…Collection and straightness tend to be their strong-points. Clay, however, almost always tries to “cheat” true straightness and collection.

If you’re thinking about his hind legs tracking evenly and taking more weight, he’s almost surely pushing out through his ribs or dropping a shoulder. If you’re thinking about lifting his shoulders, he’ll almost always swing his hind-end one way or the other to evade the collection. Keeping him all together is much harder than it seems.

In fact, an “S” Judge trainer once yelled at me during a clinic because I was trying to explain what I was feeling (that he was wiggle-ing all over), and she thought that was totally impossible because “this type of horse just doesn’t do that.” Ha! I would have liked her to get on him….It’s OK–the trainers who have ridden him and know him well know exactly what I am feeling and dealing with.

Because he is talented and gives a really nice feel (he stretches into the contact and stays soft and round in the bridle, and he is nice and forward) it can be really hard to feel whether he is actually correct or not-quite. Learning to feel the difference between correct and not-quite-correct has been a long process for me, but I feel like I am finally consistently getting it.

Now that I am riding with correct feel more often, Clay is strengthening in the right ways and trying to cheat less. It’s actually amazing how quickly he gave up some of his favorite evasions as soon as I “closed that door”. This is a huuuuuge key to our progress.

The Big Breech Round-Up

I farmed ya’ll for intel a while back, to see if anyone knew of a great pair of breeches for $100 or less. You were all super helpful, and I tried a bunch of different brands and styles–some that were suggested and some that I just randomly stumbled upon. The verdict, after all that testing, was yes and no…

I say yes, because decent breeches do exist at that price point. I found a couple pairs that I really like, and I will elaborate more on them in a sec.

I say no, because most of the breeches I tried at that price point got returned. And ultimately, my favorite pair of breeches–the ones I reach for every time unless of course they’re in the wash–cost more than $100. More on those in a sec too.

First, a couple pairs that were around/under $100 that I did NOT like:

  1. Dover Saddlery Riding Sport Tights  $59
    These were made of very cheap-looking fabric that I could tell was going to stretch out and lose its shape in one or two rides/washes. I liked where the seams were–they looked like workout leggings and were flattering and comfy, but there was no way they were going to last a year.
  2. Horze Grand Prix Full Seat Breeches  $119 (or two pairs for $99)
    A lot of people love these–they got recommended to me a lot–but I personally didn’t like the wintec-y fabric. And the sizing was just off for me…the fit was baggy in some places and tight in others, and just unflattering overall. I do see the pros of this type of fabric–it repels stains and hair/dirt doesn’t stick to it, but it just felt weird and uncomfortable to me.

A couple under $100 that I do like:

  1. Smartpak Piper Full-Seat Silicon Breeches $80

Pros:
–Very sticky silicon seat (might be too sticky for some peoples’ liking, but I like having one pair of breeches with extra stick in my arsenal for when I need em).
–The fit is nice, the rise hits me in just the right place, and I like the classy styling with no gaudy logo or piping or embellishments anywhere. They look nice with a belt and are clinic/show quality.
–The “classic” version with a suede seat is on Clearance right now.
–Can serve as a year-round breech because the stretchy fabric allows for adding a base layer underneath for cold-weather riding. They’re a little on the thick side for the hottest part of summer, but I have other breeches I wear when it’s really hot. I like that they’re thick enough that I can tuck a shirt into them without it showing through.

Cons:
–The cotton-blend fabric attracts every piece of lint or hair in a 5 mile radius, and I have to make sure to select Extra Rinse on my machine when I wash them or they come out with every last piece of laundry fuzz stuck to them in gross streaks.
–The crotch seam is not sewn flat. It sticks up. So it took some (ahem) getting used to. It was downright painful to ride in these until…I guess I toughened up?? Yikes. I dunno. But they’re fine now, a dozen rides in.

2.   Ovation AeroWick Full Seat Tights  $53

Pros:
–Nice fit, comfy to ride in, and has belt-loops even though they’re a “riding tight”.
–Perfect amount of grip (not too much) in the silicon fullseat version.
–I have had them for a year and although they’re starting to look worn, they have not stretched out or lost their nice compression-like fit.
–Perfect weight for summer–thin but still supportive.
–I got them in an olive color that I love (not a fan of the new colors for spring)

Cons:
–The fabric has started to degrade in quality over time with many washes. I guess for the (amazing) price I guess I did get a lot of use out of them. They’re still useable, just not “clinic quality” anymore. The fabric looks a little worn out, the silicon has started to rub off the seat, and there is some fraying of the seams. I know we’re not long off from actual holes forming.
–They’re definitely not a year-round breech…Way too thin and tight to add a base layer underneath.

All-Time Favorite (over $100 but worth it):

1.  ProRidingGear Silicon Full Seat Tights €150 (about $170 US)

Pros:
–Amazing fit, super flattering. The wide waist band is comfortable and hits in just the right place (mid to high rise). They hug you but don’t restrict your movement. The seams are in all the right places…no rubbing/chafing.
–High quality fabric that retains its shape, is sturdy and holds up to wear but is thin enough to be comfortable in hot weather (seems to wick sweat, too.) They repel dirt and hair, so I don’t need to wash them often. And when I do, they wash up great (I air dry them just to be safe) and look brand new again. No fading or visible wear so far.
–The silicon gives the perfect amount of “stick”.
–Great pockets in the right places…I especially love the zipper pocket on the back of the waistband–it’s perfect for putting the battery pack for the mic/headset if your trainer uses a system like that.
–The inseam is the perfect length for me. Hallelujah! Finally a breech that isn’t way too long. I am 5’1″ and ordered a Small. Keep that in mind if you’re taller than me…
–The color options are all beautiful. I chose the army green ones, but I want them in every color!

Cons:
–The price. I really wanted to stay under/at $100 because I needed to be able to afford several pairs of new breeches to replace my old ones that were falling apart (I ended up getting three new pairs total…the Ovations, the Pipers, and these.) At $170, these are edging into another price-tier where it’s maybe not even fair to compare them to <$100 breeches…but, they’re definitely higher quality than the other pairs I bought, and it’s nice to have one higher-end option in my rotation.
–PRG is based in the Netherlands, so international shipping charges apply unless you wait for one of their free international shipping promos to come around (which is what I did). They announce sales and promos on their Instagram account, so keep an eye out there.
–While they’re mega comfy, riding tights are a little less versatile than breeches. They don’t have belt-loops and look a little more casual. It looks better to leave your shirt un-tucked with most tights. However, these PRG ones look so nice that I have ridden in them at clinics and received compliments on them. If PRG comes out with a breech next, I’ll be all over it.

So, as with most things, you get what you pay for with breeches/tights. I am grateful for the brands who are pulling off a decent product for <$100, because it means I can own more than one pair of breeches…But I also don’t mind spending a little more for something that looks amazing, feels like they were made for me and will last forever.

What are you riding in and loving these days?

New Barn Who Dis

Hey! Did ya forget about us? It’s been a minute. We’ve been busy getting all settled in at our winter home…the beautiful Big Rock Ranch.

Clay loves it there, and I love that I can lesson with great trainers regularly; in-house trainer Brittany Davis, and visiting clinician Kate Phillips who comes monthly.

As I’ve mentioned before, I pretty much made it through the past year without any lessons. We did our best on our own, and I am proud of myself for eeking out as much progress as I did–and made it through two successful shows with no coach–but there is no doubt that we could have advanced more quickly and in a more linear fashion if we could have had more lessons.

Now, in just one month of weekly lessons, many of my bad habits are being corrected, and Clay feels amazing. It is so priceless to have educated eyes on the ground.

Majestic, isn’t he?

Looking ahead to 2019, I am pressing pause on making any horse show plans or goals, and am instead spending my show budget on as many learning opportunities as I can swing.

We’re signed up to clinic with Martin Kuhn again this winter, and I hope to make it to a Paul Belasik clinic in the spring, too. We’re also heading to a bit-fitting clinic in a couple weeks, to get Clay a new snaffle and hopefully set up with a double as well.

Flying changes will hopefully begin this winter. We’re knocking on the door of Third level, and I’d ideally like to be solidly Third level before we show again. If that isn’t possible next summer then we will wait until 2020.

Enjoying a trail ride with our new barn mates, back before the snow!

Another big change to update you all on…I decided to offer my student Abby a partial lease on Clay this winter. She does chores at Big Rock, so she is there all the time anyway, and her lease on Piper was up in September so she was horseless. It has been awesome for everyone involved…Clay gets more exercise than what I can offer him by myself, and Abby is learning a lot and really enjoying him.

I call Abby my student, because that was my original relationship with her, but actually I am not teaching right now and she has been taking dressage lessons with Brittany Davis instead. It’s really fun to watch her develop her skills further with another trainer, and to watch her form a connection with Clay. I am very proud of the rider and horsewoman she is, and I think of her more as a peer than a student these days.

As an instructor, nothing is more rewarding than seeing your “kids” fly the nest, so to speak. I do miss teaching every day, but I am also grateful for this moment in time where I am free to really focus on my own education and riding. With my actual kid at an age where she is more independent from me and in daycare two days a week, AND with a heated barn to ride in now, I am looking forward to a winter of being able to train regularly for the first time in years.

And, winter it is! This week we were blessed with the first snow. Quite a bit of it, too! I am off to the barn now to switch out Clay’s turnout sheet for his winter blanket. I am not going to complain, I am not going to complain, I am not going to…But in all seriousness, I am feeling pretty grateful that snow and cold are the only down-sides of living where we do…

Our friends in CA are currently evacuating their homes due to wild-fire, and worrying over their horses’ safety. They could possibly lose their homes. What a scary reality. My heart aches for everyone affected, and I have been holding my breath waiting to hear that everyone we know is safe.

If you’re looking for ways to help, here is a list of some of the organizations supporting the relief efforts:

American Red Cross is setting up temporary shelters and food sites across the state. Donate to the efforts by going to their website or by texting REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation. You can request your money go towards CA relief efforts.

The Los Angeles Fire Department Foundation supports the first responders fighting on the frontlines of the wildfires. They are currently requesting donations to put towards hydration backpacks for the firefighters.

The CCF Wildfire Relief Fund supports immediate recovery efforts for major California wildfires, as well as long-term preparedness efforts.

The Humane Society of Ventura County is accepting animals evacuating from the Hill and Woolsey fires. You can donate directly to the organization via their website.

Thinking of you, CA friends.