A Courtney Angel on my Shoulder

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As a rider, it’s incredibly important to have a trainer and mentor who you truly respect. In speeches directed to young riders, Courtney often stresses the point that when choosing a trainer, you must prioritize that the potential trainer is a good person and not just a good rider. Pick a person who you would like to become more like as a professional and human being and not just by their show scores. Because… well, it’s going to happen. And I couldn’t agree more. Don’t settle! Courtney is the epitome of a good mentor, and I don’t know how to express how thankful I am to learn from her. She’s someone who inspires me to try-try-try by her example as a professional, a friend, her amazing training ability, her ambition, and where her caring heart is every day.

Gumption is one of my favorite words that Courtney has been using lately. When you look it up in the dictionary it’s described with the words: boldness, initiative, courage, guts, spunk… There’s excitement in the feeling of a ride that’s going for something! It makes me think, to have courage I have to challenge myself with something bigger than the typical feelings and exercises I’ve come to know so well; I have to take some risks, be creative, and give myself the opportunity to be courageous. What would Courtney’s goal for the ride be?

When her voice isn’t booming over the microphone and I’m riding on my own, I realize that I find myself asking, What would this horse feel like to Courtney if she was sitting on him right now? I bet it would feel like butter. It would feel like power. It would have purpose! Now what is it that I need to do in order to create that feeling? Often just that decision to ride with purpose and precision is enough to dramatically change the feel of the horse’s body. It’s also very helpful to ride imagining the picture of Courtney’s position and the lovely way that her horses go.

Something I’m still trying to fully get into my own head is that riding with gumption does not mean charging around the arena. Having big fancy movement requires a lot of energy and activity, but it doesn’t mean speed racing. Sometimes I find myself flying around the ring as I aim to accomplish something fantastic, but the horse isn’t really with me. It’s not collection of power if the power is hurling itself out the front door!

“Don’t be crazy!”

That’s something that Courtney likes to half shout, half laugh at me. Well, maybe it’s mostly shout the second or third time she has to say it… Trying hard doesn’t just mean amping up the power and going 99 mph – even though it’s how fast that I like to go! (You were supposed to sing those last words to yourself… Fitz and the Tantrums yo!) Anyway, I may feel like I’m trying hard and going somewhere, but true collection and power takes even more effort. It means I have to settle my mind, trust my horse to keep the power without my chasing, as well as challenge my core to stay strong to support the horse’s collection underneath of me. That’s the real effort!

In a recent lesson on Shanghai Courtney had me think to “Ride him like an accordion.” As we started by cantering around on a large circle with his neck down in a somewhat stretchy frame Courtney would say, “Don’t let his hind legs get any further from his nose.” Meaning, as I shortened and lengthened his strides, I should only let the strides get longer. He should not become sprawled out with his hind end pushing further behind him and his nose should not go any further in front. The back should stretch and round like the smooth arch of an accordion

How do we do that? How do I make his butt go down more and his hind legs stretch under his body – especially when his neck is down? It’s not as if I am sitting behind his tail and can literally push is butt forward. The connection with the seat and leg is all we have! I can only sit myself down in the saddle and decide that the horse’s hind end will do the same. I can feel my core engaging – it’s a firm but supple feeling of support to the horse. My body says, hind legs stay here! while the rest of me says whether to shorten or lengthen the strides.

There’s a distinct difference between sitting on the horse’s saddle, passively following along as a passenger and the feeling of sitting in the horse’s back. Sitting in the horse feels like one powerful connection between your core, the horse’s hind end, your leg, and their front end. Just be careful not to get crazy and lean too far back, down, and hard – I HAVE managed to give myself a bruise to the tailbone in my efforts during one lesson. Oops… Ha. But it’s so worth frequently checking in on your passenger status. One of Courtney’s most used reminders is simply, “Butt down!” It’s easy to lose sight of having that connection even if you know the difference in the feeling!

An exercise that has been very helpful to me applies both in trot and canter, but I want to explain it in the canter. Courtney has me ride a shortened canter all the way through a corner – almost a “pirouette canter” which would be cantering on the spot, and then I push the canter bigger as I half pass across the arena. Channeling the power before the sideways movement exaggerates a half halt. It puts the horse way back on his hind end underneath of me and allows me to support his collection as I push for the beautiful jump in the half pass rather than having it be fast and flat. (aka crazy!) It allows me to direct the collection that I already have rather than struggle to create it after I’ve started the movement. Woohoo!

Since Courtney has had her sweet second baby, Bailey (Congratulations beautiful mommy!!!) there were a couple of weeks of alone time for me and our horseys in the 20×60. It makes me so aware of how extra million bazillion thankful I am to have such a precise, consistent, correct coach in my head that I can hear her voice loud and clear even when she’s 20 miles of country roads away. You’re a gem, Court!

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Till We Have Faces

 

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Her jaw dropped when I answered her question that I’ve been working for Courtney just over five years now. I know, it’s starting to sound like a big number – at least in comparison to the years I’ve been trotting around this world. I mean, that’s like being well into grad school. All she said was, “Wow, I’m really surprised. It’s just that you’re both still so excited!”

I had to smile. I love that our excitedness abounds and surprises! It makes sense expecting things to dry up, but maybe we’re just like wine baby, getting better with time. Ooph. Yea, it hurts to leave that cliché written. Ha. It’s true that we’ve spent a whole lot of time together. We’ve been around long enough to learn a lot of weird little details about each other. But to me that’s when things start to get really good. I don’t like just scratching the surface. I like to stay. I want to know all about you so that I can love you more fully. I want to stick around long enough that my walls start to let down and I’m fully me. Deeper is richer. I’m guessing it’s fairly rare to have such a gem of a person as a trainer and mentor… I feel really lucky to have someone who really cares, who’s really invested both professionally and personally. That in and of itself should be enough to stay excited!

Courtney is great at keeping the communication lines open as a trainer, as a friend, and as a public figure. I think that’s one of her super powers. Me on the other hand… I’m hungry for openness, honesty is royalty in the land of my priorities, but I’m more afraid to be seen. Keeping a lot of thoughts to myself hinders a lot of things including learning… both in and out of the saddle. I’m discovering that I simply need to say exactly what I’m thinking out loud in order to open the door for growth. Complete authenticity brings clarity to thoughts that are muddled when kept inside. It reminds me of a quote that I love from one of my favorite books Till We Have Faces.

 “‘Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.’ … I saw well why the gods do not speak openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”

I climb the unnecessarily tall mounting block and swing my leg over to settle into Shanghai’s saddle. The coffee hasn’t quite kicked in. My back is a little stiff and sore from the combination of the cold and my last string of lessons, but my first thought is, This seat feels like home. Shanghai, you feel like home. I start to think about our last conversation about his training in a lesson with Courtney.

For far too long Shanghai has had an unreliable right lead canter transition. I can’t guarantee that he’s going to stay round in either the transition from walk or from trot. It’s not even subtle enough that I would be able to hold him together in a test if I needed to. He either decides to be good or he decides to fight it. Basically, he’s the boss.

It’s not for lack of trying to fix it. Trust me, it’s an embarrassing little hole that I’ve spent a lot of time trying to fill in, but all I’ve done is make the ratio of good transitions to bad transitions a bit more in my favor. I kept coming up with new theories of where he needs to be more supple, where he needs to be straighter, how I need to set him up so that it’s completely natural and easy for him to make the right choice to stay round. With all that babble I made more good transitions, but I still couldn’t count on it. I couldn’t count on conditions being perfect enough every time.

I was determined to solve the problem by the time Courtney got back from New Zealand. But alas, in our first lesson back I hung my head saying I still haven’t fixed that transition and it’s driving me crazy! Why is this still an issue? We’re bigger than this. He’ll be showing Second Level this year. We’re grown up enough not to have this problem!

I finally poured out all of my thinking… I explained my suppleness and straightness theories that have helped adjust the ratio… but that it just isn’t reliable. She told me that I just need to tell him NO. He has to understand that it is a mistake. I’ll have to be a little tough telling him to stay round and that he’s simply not allowed to come above the bit. I understand the concept, but for some reason this little turkey with the hold on my heart has me convinced that I’m not allowed to push the issue in that way.

I’m realizing I might be loving him to a fault. I think sometimes the big red hearts in my eyes (I know you know the emoji!) keep me from seeing straight when I’m on him. I question whether I would have the same thought process on any other horse? It’s perfectly natural to make him sensitive to my leg to go forward or sideways, but when I tell him to respect the bit in that transition he gets really offended and sort of says, You yelled at my mouth, so I don’t like you and I’m not going to try anymore – not this time OR the next time! Courtney listens to my reason for hesitation but looked at me a little funny as if that’s really not something she can picture being a reality with this horse.

She said for us to just try the N-O word, and that we’ll see what happens. He has a more subtle evasion in the transitions within the canter going to the right, so we start there. When I push him forward, he braces a little instead of suppley pushing into the bit. So when I told him to go forward I was proactive with my hands instead of passive saying, you WILL be round enough and you will go INTO the bit NOT above it as we transition from normal to bigger canter. It’s the same rule he needs to know in the transitions between the gaits. Courtney and I regrouped after the canter work… “So that worked, right?” she asks.

Now is when I have to lay out all of my concerns. Just spit out whatever is clouding my instincts. It’s the only way I can clear up my brain to believe in the solution when I’m working on my own. I explained, “Yes, that worked well, but sometimes when I’ve tried making that correction on my own he will get mad and start to back up as an evasion. Flashes of screwing up his future take over and I back off and change my approach. I’m afraid of making this horse ever think backwards.” Even just saying things out loud make them clearer. Courtney pointed out that by avoiding the problem, giving in when he goes backwards is exactly what teaches him to use that as an evasion. Whereas if I just calmly hold my ground and insist that he needs to be round even if he’s backing up, he realizes that backing up doesn’t change anything. Obviously his rider doesn’t care about where he’s going, he just needs to be round in the process, so he scratches that evasion off the list. Duh. Big red hearts getting in the way much??

Since I’ve changed from too often saying, “It’s ok Honey Pie Sugar Cookie, I know you didn’t understand that, let’s try again and do better this time!” to saying, “Hey, that was a mistake. This is where you went wrong. Do it right this time.” He has complied with the rule and has stopped making the mistake. Simple.

I don’t need a life full of cheerleaders and neither does my horse. This is where it’s so valuable to trust someone to listen to my babble. Listen to exactly the thoughts that are swirling around in my brain, and then go ahead and slap my cheek if it needs it. Be direct. Be literal. Instruct. Show me where I’m wrong. Help me see my ridiculousness so that I can see past it and fix it. Encouragement is important, knowing when you’ve done it right is essential, but a storm of pom-poms doesn’t get us anywhere.

No more hiding. No sugar coating. No editing to sound like someone else. Just my thoughts or lack thereof. What do I have to lose? I can’t build on what I know unless I lay out the bricks that I already own… there for me to see and there on the ground for others to see and help me stack. No guessing games. No invisible bricks. We have never had to be alone in building our houses.

Train ’til the Light is Pink

Apologies for the quality of my screenshot!

Here is Shanghai. Apologies for the quality of my screenshot!

Grace. Power. Teamwork. Inspiration. Truth. Clarity. A breath of fresh air. That’s what I experienced at WEG that Friday afternoon for the Musical Freestyles. My Roomie and I were able to pretty spontaneously hop over to Paris and then to Caan when a dear soul gave us her tickets to WEG a few days prior. Being in awe was a constant state of being for those three days. Admittedly, I practically lived inside of the movie Sabrina (the newer one with Harrison Ford) in the couple of weeks surrounding our Paris trip. I thought Sabrina’s letter home to her dad in New York was perfect when she spoke of a song being played across the street from her in Paris.

“I’m always surprised at how it moves me. It means seeing life through rose colored glasses, and only in Paris where the light is pink did that song make sense. But I’ll have it in my pocket when I get home, and I’ll take it with me wherever I go from now on.”

Seeing life through rose colored glasses maybe sounds a little bit like a lie… just pretending the world doesn’t turn the way it really does. But then really being in the light, living in the light that is pink, now that’s experiencing rare and true beauty.

The quality of the horses and riders was unlike any other show I’ve experienced in person. Valegro earned every bit of that 92% freestyle. I’ve never seen so much power, precision, and obvious relaxation all bundled together. Telling people about it at home gave me goose bumps for days! And then there was our Laura Graves who put in such a fantastic ride, we were all hooting and hollering when she finished. Being there, seeing and feeling that just makes the dream seem so possible.

It wasn’t the same for me as the other big competitions I’ve been to over here. I didn’t go to the WEG in KY, but I’ve been to the Masters a few times and our big qualifiers. Honestly, those competitions often have the opposite effect on me. I get a little bored. I see the top riders and think, this is the best it can be? All of the blood, sweat, tears, and years and this is the top? I mean no disrespect to our riders, horses or competitions. I know it’s a freaking hard sport, and I’m certainly not at that level. It’s just that the light isn’t pink. BUT it exists. And now I’ve breathed it in.

Courtney referenced the dressage scale at a clinic recently. She had one of the riders raise the bar saying, “Make your expectations like an 11.” It made me think about riding at NEDA Fall and talking to Clair about her test the day after winning her regional championship class. Someone asked her if she won today, why would she go back to do it again tomorrow? Her response was to ride a mistake free test, that Courtney wants perfect. She wasn’t delusional about getting a 100%, but she wanted to improve. The goal isn’t just a blue ribbon, it’s the training.

I’ve ridden with someone in the past who got excited about a 62% or even a 60% at a certain level. This is not an amateur or young rider, this is a trainer on a fancy horse. The “professional.” So in training, basically the goal was achieving a 7 (fairly good). An 8 or 9 would be a miracle and time to pop open a bottle of champagne! Sooo if the goal is a 7 and we’re creatures that constantly fall short, we’re probably going to end up with a score sheet of 5’s, 6’s, and the occasional 7… maybe an act of God gracing us with an 8. However, when the goal is Grand Prix, when the goal is a 10, or like Courtney said, an 11, when the goal is to make a perfect test even after winning regionals, perhaps getting 70 and 80%’s becomes more than possible.

Shanghai my little love is Francine’s 5 year old Oldenburg. That little rascal has a serious grip on my heart. He’s the good boy who wants the cool dude/bad boy persona. I can just see him in a black leather jacket and dark shades helping a grandma with her groceries on the way to his motorcycle. He can be sort of a grump… he’s just very honest when he has a complaint. But when he understands something new and you tell him that you love him and that he’s a rock star, he’ll try his hardest to make you proud again and again.

I’m realizing that he’s a big kid now. He may be just a teenager, but he’s prepping for Harvard and he’s going to get his PhD. We took him to NEDA Fall for his first real horse show at First Level. He started off by jumping errr clamoring out of the ring in the middle of his canter lengthening. Ooops. I was thinking, Well, yea. That just happened. Hmm. I tried to finish the test, but the judge didn’t have the time for it and we were thanked out of the arena. Ha. Ohh dressage. He was worried about the new show setting, but each test he grew a little more confident. The last day he seemed like himself – barely half awake as I hand walked him around his show arena in the A.M. instead of dragon snorting and snooting along the way. He so lit up in the warm up. He was feeling proud and worry free. Feeling the ride, smiles and giggles were poking their way through my ready for business attitude. Man is it fun when it’s right! That test he wrapped up the show by winning with a 76.6%!! I’m beyond thankful for the opportunity to ride him. And just so excited about that little dude!

Here’s to shooting for 11’s. The harmony and power that comes with that standard of dressage training appears to be nothing less than a miracle. I want more than just a taste of that miracle!