As Winter Wears On

The cold, dark days of winter are slowly getting the tiniest bit warmer, and it’s staying light a little bit later each day.  I’m staying positive, but I face reality each night as I tread carefully across the snowy, icy parking lot and start up my truck, immediately turning on my seat heater to start thawing out my body.  Yes, it’s still winter.  And we still have another month and a half left.  But, on a positive note, a lot has been accomplished already, and there’s still lots of time to make even more progress before show season.

Liam, of course, continues to amaze me with what he is capable of.  This horse has the hugest heart ever endowed to an equine.  Whatever the challenge is, he wants to try, and every day he gives me 110%.   His canter was his weakest gait last summer and fall.  It was hard to bend him, and keep him on the bit, and darn near everything else.  At least part of the reason, as well as another problem in itself, was his 4 beat lateral canter.  The transitions from canter to trot were also really rough, he always fell on the forehand.  This winter we have worked HARD on the canter, and it has developed into an entirely different gait for him.  Our transitions into it are not 100% yet, but most of the time he steps into the canter by lifting his shoulders and staying round, and then he maintains an uphill, round, balanced canter the majority of the time, and wonder of wonders, he is starting to do it on his own.  It has become just the way he canters, instead of something I have to work very hard to ride out of him.  From this improved canter, the trot transitions are much smoother.  And we have started to work on canter to walk.  These he can get easily if I use a small circle to collect the canter first.  If I try to collect the canter without using a spiral into a small circle, he still will often take my half halts as trot transitions instead of continuing to collect the canter.  I think this is mostly because it is relatively new for him and he is just not strong enough yet to hold it together.

We have focused a lot on the canter work, and it has made him much stronger.  Now I find the trot work is improving immensely.  He now has a much more adjustable trot that goes further down the spectrum towards collected trot, and further up the spectrum to lengthened trot.  Both the collected and lengthening I think will continue to improve as he gets stronger, but he is able to offer them with ease, really using his back and back end and holding himself together, and can easily transition between the two.  I’m also really pleased with his lateral work.  The leg yields are easier and more balanced, he stays round and floats sideways instead of falling on the forehand and getting quick.  He can easily do shoulder in’s, and on and off we are able to do haunches in or haunches out while trotting.  The other improvement to note is contact.  He has become soooo much lighter in my hands, I don’t need a tight noseband (or any at all as I’ve found on occasion), nor does he need the tight flash.  He has learned to carry the bit and accept it as a line of communication, rather than leaning on it for balance. For him I feel this was partly a training thing, but also largely a strength thing.  Because he is not the ideal conformation (or movement for that matter) for a dressage horse, and on top of that he has physical limitations from his years as a race horse, it was very important to take the time to build him up so he can comfortably do what I’m asking of him.   Now that he’s beginning to look like Hercules, everything is easier with him.  For other horses that  find dressage more natural, it might be a faster process or not as important a piece of the process, but for Liam it was a key.

Cava, what can I say, she is spectacular.  She has the best mind, the most beautiful movement, and just finds the work easy.  As I was riding her the other day, snow fell off the roof of the arena and landed with a huge crash on the ground right outside.  Cava froze, then turned to look at me with big eyes, “Mom, what happened?”  I reassured her that we were fine, and we went on with our ride as if nothing happened.  How many young tb’s have a mind like that??  This is a special one.  We are working on making the canter more adjustable (to get ready for canter lengthenings) and it’s coming along nicely, and she is easily doing walk-canter transitions.  She does leg yields in the trot, and is getting the idea of shoulder-in.  Counter canter is no problem for her, and the canter-trot-canter transitions are happening quickly and easily now.   She is going happily in a rubber D ring snaffle.  It was a bit of a job finding a bit she liked, but for her the thick rubber seems to do the trick, as she has a super soft mouth.  A few of the girls taking lessons with me have had the opportunity to ride Cava and have just loved her, and I think she really enjoys the girls as well.  She especially loves when they spend lots of time grooming her and combing her tail, and she looks very pleased with herself when she can show one who’s never done dressage before all about it.  I’m thinking she may need a girl of her own soon, she’s ready to trot someone down the center line!

Maddie is my new project that I started just before Christmas.  Well, rather re-started.  She was a racehorse in past life, then was retrained for dressage and actually did a few shows, then had time off for various reasons (past owner’s personal life issues, then a minor injury, then more owner life issues, etc) and now she’s ready to go again after almost 2 years of doing pretty much nothing!  I’m really excited about her, she is big and pretty, and has the softest, sweetest eyes.  She is a sensitive type, and a little low on self-confidence right now, and needs consistency to help her relax, and a job and a routine she can settle into.  I’ve been riding her a few days a week, and spending a lot of days when I don’t ride just grooming her, walking her, or lunging her.  I wanted to take the time to get to know her, and let her know that she can trust me.  She seems to be taking well to this approach, and really likes being groomed and fussed over.  In the last few rides, I feel like she is settling into the work routine and getting the idea to reach into the bit and carry steady contact.  She is starting to put on a little muscle and develop a healthy sheen to her coat from all the grooming.  I see SO much potential in this one, I can’t wait to see what she looks like come summer!  Right now it’s just short walk/trot rides with lots of big easy circles and figure 8’s, but she’s doing well!

In addition to my own 3 horses to ride each day, I’ve been doing a lot of work with Jag (and his mom Sarah), and Atlanta (and her mom Cathy).  Jag and Sarah have been on the blog a lot in the past, and currently Sarah is on stall rest with a broken hand so Jag and I are getting lots of time together.  We are working on trotting slower (which tonight went REALLY well), and bending correctly into the outside rein without losing shoulders or haunches.  He continues to improve, and I think will continue as he gets stronger.  This horse has long legs and a long, elegant neck.  It’s so easy for him to contort himself different ways, I think these basic steps of getting him (and keeping him!) connected are going to be the hardest, and once the basics are solid he will advance quickly.  I’m really bummed Sarah is laid up, but it’s not for too long, and hopefully it will give me time to cement some of the basics real solid into Jag for her.  Atlanta is almost Jag’s opposite.  She a beautiful chestnut Hannoverian mare.  She was a Grand Prix jumper in her first career, then 8 years ago switched to dressage.  She has some really solid training in her, and is now teaching her mother.  The current challenge with Atlanta is getting her more supple, and teaching her to relax and wait for directions instead of being 10 steps ahead of her rider all the time.  This horse is a thinker, and too smart for her own good!  Cathy has done a great job with her (especially since she recently made the switch from jumping to dressage herself), and they have improved immensely already this winter.  We are doing exercises to keep Atlanta’s mind busy, keeping the routine changing and the exercises varied.  This is hard when we want to work on something like canter transitions by riding lots of them, but the shortest way to a quality transition is to establish a quality trot first, and variety seems to do the trick.  We’re all excited to see this fancy pair in the show ring this spring.

Kim and Frankie have been hard at work, and Frankie’s been doing double-duty with shareboarder Amanda as well.  Physically, Frankie looks awesome from all the work.  He’s losing the belly and putting on great topline muscle.  His neck is filling out, and he’s getting good muscle over his back end too.  Both riders have been fine tuning the transitions, working on keeping him stretching out into the bit, and  getting him to use himself correctly.  It’s not that he needs training (he used to be a 2nd level horse), he just needs reminders to do as he’s been trained, and to build up the fitness and suppleness for the work.  Both ladies have been doing a great job bringing him along.

Diamond has been keeping busy as well.  His schedule is getting pretty booked with lessons 6 days a week.  Mary, who showed him last fall, has been making great progress and practiced a training level test in her last lesson.  He has a few new riders too, some totally new to riding, and others who have ridden for many years but are new to dressage.  Diamond, the wonder horse, the secret weapon, the best school horse ever, always seems to know exactly what a rider needs and is able to adapt immediately and act accordingly to offer the rider exactly the amount and talent and training they are able to handle.  He, in return, gets more carrots, apples, peppermints, scratches, and kisses than any other horse in the barn.  No one can say he didn’t earn them though.

This update wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the progress made by Peaches, Dolly, Clyde, and Boomer.  They are all learning dressage with their riders, and have a great start on the basics.   As these horses, and their girls, will tell you, the basics are the hardest part.  I’m so proud of all these guys for having the dedication to stick with it through the boring (walk, halt. walk, halt.) and the frustrating (halt! darn it, I said halt!), and it’s been great to see how far they’ve come recently as we’ve started to ride through some intro level tests.

Hopefully the worst of the weather is behind us and spring is just around the corner, but that’s not real likely yet.  In the meantime, we will stay thankful to have an indoor arena and a well insulated barn, and keep on keeping on, cozy with the knowledge that one day at a time we are really getting somewhere.

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