On July 8th, we loaded Monarch to spend the next week and a half with Deborah Hindi, my talented, generous trainer. I would be traveling for the next 12 days, so Deb agreed to work with Monarch to keep him fit and ready for our first show while I was away. The show would be held at Colorado State University Equine Center July 25 and 26. I would only have 5 days after returning to Colorado to work with Deb to polish my skills and learn how to ride for a show. (Deb told me several times during that week, “First you learn to ride your horse; then you learn how to ride your horse to show.” ) This made me nervous since we were short on time, though I planned to use the Digital Horse to learn my tests and mentally ride them with the animation feature. As it turned out, during the time I was away, I was unable to get internet, as our lodgings in the rural Shenandoah Valley had a very poor connection. Unable to watch the animated tests, I was glad that I had downloaded the PDF tests with diagrams, so I could “ride” the tests in my mind and on a rectangle of carpet in my condo. On Monday, July 20th I met Monarch and Deb at a clinic in Montrose. I arrived early to watch the other riders. As my ride time approached, I tacked up and we entered the arena to loosen up on a long rein. My back was very tight from all the traveling and poor mattresses. I’ve learned that by following the horse’s rhythm and motion during walk on a long rein, the gentle undulations will loosen a rider’s tight back. Just as our lesson was to begin, the weather turned ominous with black skies and continuous rumblings. There was electricity in the air, and I felt Monarch grow tense. Mary Pat’s husband called to warn us to take cover. He was about 15 minutes away, and the storm was so bad, he had to stop driving and pull his car to the shoulder. We reached a covered stall in the nick of time, with the wind roaring and the skies dumping. With a break in the weather, we headed to the large covered round pen for our lesson. On a large 30 meter circle, Deb focused on me- my position and my aids, first at trot and then at canter. My aids were too strong, particularly in the canter. I had to release and relax my leg to get it off my horse. This resulted in an improved position, and the spur on only when asking for engagement. By the end of the session, Monarch was nicely forward and relaxed, stepping through with a long neck. After the clinic, I followed Deb back to Gunnison where we would work for the next three days in preparation for my debut on the dressage show scene. I was apprehensive; it didn’t seem like enough time. How could we pull it all together? Deb’s family warmly welcomed me into their home. Her husband Beau is a world class cook. Each long day included strenuous work, a hot shower, and fabulous dinners. I fell gratefully asleep in anticipation of what the next day’s training would bring. Tuesday, July 21st was an intensive day of training. We began by getting Monarch forward and through in the warm up. Deb insisted that we needed to get right to work. Gone were the days of leisurely walking on a loose rein for 15 minutes before the work would begin. We began our work at walk, during the warm up, in the “sashay”on a long rein, (not loose). The rider engages her core and “sashays” her seat in rhythm with the horse’s walk, she supples and releases the horse’s back. After about 5 minutes of walk on a long rein, we began our trot work- still on a long rein. I was learning how to ride Monarch with contact on a long rein to get him forward and tracking up. This have been one of his greatest needs. As I built his energy, he came more on the bit and through his back. At this point, it was time to learn the tests. We began with First Level, test 2. I rode the full test pattern several times at the trot to learn the geometry, (as I don’t have a regulation arena at home), to review the patterns, and to supple and connect Monarch. I had to keep many tasks clear in this work, particularly navigating while focusing on improving my horse. I later learned how important this exercise was, as it taught me how to focus on the task at hand when in a crowded, chaotic warm-up arena during a show. While I was building Monarch’s fire and desire to go forward and through, Deb was building my increased stamina and the mental fire I would need to succeed in the show ring. During our first real run-through of the actual test 1-2, our holes were discovered and addressed. I needed to better lengthen Monarch’s neck and lower his head for the trot and canter lengthenings to show brilliance. I needed to encourage a bigger stride and longer neck in the free walk and stretchy-chewy trot circle while maintaining contact on a long rein. This can be particularly tricky in the free walk, because Monarch has a tendency to jig when asked to take longer steps. His walk has greatly improved over the past 2 years, but still needed more scope. Our biggest hole was leg yield, particularly to the right. We spent the final time working to get him to remain parallel to the long side, while moving laterally in his bigger stride. Though we drilled it many times, Monarch was not accepting contact on his outside (right) rein. To compensate, I was making the classic mistake of holding him with an opening inside rein. When I let go of the inside rein, he ran through my outside rein. I had no half halt, so I could not straighten him. Without the outside rein, my inside leg was also ineffective, so instead of moving laterally, he just speeded up and moved diagonally toward M. Deb was relentless in the pursuit of correcting my aids and our communication. It was only after the movement had improved, that she allowed us to rest and end on a positive note. She told me that Monarch can do this, as he had for her the previous week when she was riding him. She insisted that I needed to find my right seat bone. This was especially evident when our leg yield to the left was noticeably better than our leg yield to the right. I needed time to process what my body was doing to confuse my horse and what I needed to do to clarify what I wanted. After our lesson, I thought about everything Deb had said, reviewing her feedback with what I was doing. I practiced riding leg yield zigzags on the ground without my horse. It was then that I realized I stay in my left seat bone whether I am leg yielding left or right. -LIGHT BULB- Now I could practice the outside half halt, shift my weight to the outside seat bone, put my inside leg on the horse, and yield over. I practiced this all the way up the road from the arena to the house, mentally rehearsing what I would do with my horse the following day. I was also doing some remedial re-patterning of muscle memory. Wednesday, July 22 More work on the leg yield. It was becoming more honest, as I began to find and use my right seat bone. I also needed to be clearer with my right half halt to put him in connection with the outside rein. We had to slow the movement way down for Monarch and I to process the correct aids and to break our bad habits. This did not please Deb, as the slower rhythm shortened his stride, and he was no longer tracking up. However, it did help me learn a new movement pattern and develop some muscle memory. Deb told me that when we are under pressure, we grab any muscle memory that happens to come into our brains without processing what we are doing. To ensure that we are grabbing the correct memory, we want to deposit far more correct patterns into our brains, as opposed to incorrect patterns. This is why it is so important to never practice a movement incorrectly, as we are patterning the wrong muscle memory for both ourselves and our horses. The big lesson for me was to be very disciplined and correct when training, (and of course every moment with your horse is training.) When I feel that the movement has become labored and out of balance, I should not continue to practice. I should leave it alone until I can get guidance and direction to avoid creating ingrained bad habits. Only when I am correct, can I correctly train my horse. Thursday, July 23 Our last training day- we still had not practiced First Level test 1 as Deb could not find a copy of this test in her barn. Luckily, I had this test well memorized from the Digital Horse print outs. We rode the test well, our lengthenings were balanced and rhythmic, the stretchy-chewy circle was well ridden, and Monarch’s free walk was showing scope. One last day to practice the leg yield. With a better feel for my right seat bone and a better connection in my right hand, the leg yield out of center line to M was certainly passable. Time to give Monarch some rest, clean my tack, and pack for the “big show.” Friday, July 24 Up at 5 am, we loaded 4 horses, tack, and sundries into Deb’s trailer and hit the road. We had a caravan with Team Hindi in the big rig and with me following in my truck with pop-up camper. We arrived in Ft Collins around 12:30, checked in with the show office, found our stalls, and began the process of moving in for the next 3 days. With the horses settled and everything unpacked, it was time for our final rehearsal. Schooling was allowed in the main arena. Since it was relatively early, the arena was uncrowded, and we had the time and space to work out the kinks. Monarch found the spooky spots, and Deb told me to put him right to work. “Give him something else to think about,” was her advice. This worked well. In the electric environment of a show arena, it wasn’t long before he came on the bit, tracked up, and connected with me. We practiced a few lengthenings, brushed up on the geometry of 15 meter circles at P and V in canter, practiced a few leg yields, and finished with a stretchy-chewy trot circle. Marissa, my daughter who lives in Ft Collins came to give me moral support and to help me bathe Monarch. It takes some time and elbow grease to get a grey horse sparkling, and with the help of the “purple” shampoo, he began to transform. Monarch has a huge, thick tail and mane. It was especially hard to get the inner parts clean. Repeated shampooing, conditioning, and brushing did the trick. When we were done, his tail was huge. It blossomed like a floribunda rose! We decided to take the risk and French braid his mane that night, with the thought that even if it came loose, it would be easier to re-braid than starting from scratch in the morning. We also braided his tail, just to keep the shavings and manure out of it, knowing that when I brushed out his tail braid in the morning, it would add more body for the show. I admired his glowing silver coat before putting on a clean sheet and tucking him in for the night. I spread an extra bag of shavings to help him stay pristine. Before leaving the barn, I touched up my tack. It was as spotless as my horse!
Marissa took me to the grocery store to stock up for the weekend before dropping me at my camper. I “popped up,” got settled, then began preparing for the next day. I unpacked my show clothes, Monarch’s show blankets, and the pdf diagrams of the tests for a last review. I meticulously drew up a timeline of what I needed to do and where I needed to be from the moment I woke up until I rode my last test. I was ready, I was tired, it was late, but sleep would not come. Though I worked hard to stay calm and not give in to nerves, I was experiencing some pre-show anxiety, anticipation, and excitement. I planned to get up at 5:15 am to be ready for an early test. I had my ducks in a row, and it was time to show the judges where we were on the continuum of training. I reminded myself that I was not competing. It didn’t matter whether I won a ribbon or even placed last. What mattered is that the judges deemed our tests to be worthy of 60% for qualifying scores at First Level.