I've been in Florida a whole whopping week, but it's been enough. All the doldrums, all the lethargy and stagnation I felt before coming south are gone. The fire's back in my belly. And it is Good.
The trip down was easy, as was the move in. The horses' trip was slow with crummy weather, but once they arrived, I couldn't believe how quickly everyone rallied. I gave them all the first 24 hours off, of course, and just hacked everyone around on Day Two, but by Day Three everyone was revved and ready, and I started up my lessons with Michael right away.
With Ella living at Camp Barisone, and therefore taking all of my training funds, I haven't had more than a handful of lessons since I left Florida last March. I'm perfectly capable of riding everyone on my own, and I've made progress, even with Fiero (who I've only had since Thanksgiving) and Dutchy (who I had for about two weeks mid-summer, and then taught in my southern Virginia clinics with his owner aboard).
But there is nothing like having eyes on you to get your tail back on fire.
I rode Johnny in my first lesson, worried that the others would be exhausted (they weren't) and thinking that he'd have more energy than anyone (he did). Michael and I are engaged in a Battle of Wills (it's not much of a battle - the kind you fight with Nerf guns, not actual artillery) about whether or not I should strive for the Young Horse Classes with him. His case, which I must confess I agree with, is this: a) the Five-Year-Old Tests, with their mostly long-straight-lines, look nothing like Grand Prix tests, full of turns and sideways, and b) success in the Young Horse classes is, as of yet, a pretty dreadful predictor of Grand Prix success. My case, for what it's worth, is this: a) Johnny's already almost 100% capable of the stuff that's in the Five-Year-Old Tests, so I can school all the things he's not yet good at (sideways and turning) at home, and then go bang out a test without really needing to work on that stuff, and b) while obviously the long-term plan is World Domination at Grand Prix, they're going to put a ribbon on someone at the Five-Year-Old Finals, and it might as well be me.
Negotiations remain ongoing, but no matter who wins, we have this: Johnny's a rockstar. Nine months' maturity has done wonders for him, not only in his rideability and trainability, but in his overall look. He's grown into his doofy head, packed on a bunch of muscle, and stopped being so orange. Other big achievements of 2013 include the ability to go away from home and wear Big Boy Pants, and the ability to whinny on the bit, which he does at least once a ride. He demonstrated both of these qualities and then some in our lesson, during which we worked on leg yields and shoulder-in, which Johnny thinks are very hard, but is keen to try anyway.
I brought Fender over the next day, and he, too, got rave reviews on all fronts - better trained, better organized, and WAY better looking. He's finally shed his baby look; Michael's staff hadn't seen Fender since March 2013, and when I brought him over in his double bridle, one had to ask me who he was. Victory! Fender's got almost the whole Prix St. Georges together, in a baby sort of way, which is cool. But the thing that's really cool is his progress in his ability to really accept the pressure of more collected work. Fender used to really, REALLY hate it when I pushed my leg on and drove him really up from the hind legs to the bridle, and would express his displeasure with some often very colorful acrobatics. Those are a thing of the past, and I smell a test in a tailcoat on the horizon.
Today I brought two horses over for lessons. Fender got called up again, this time in the snaffle, and I had Michael take him for some in-hand work on half steps. Fender's not as easy about half-steps as Ella or Midgey were, and Michael's way more coordinated than I am about the work in-hand, so I'm going to let him do the heavy lifting on this for a bit. But I can't begin to tell you how much better they were today than they were a year ago, and after Michael worked him, I hopped back in the tack and got a few glimmers from the saddle.
We're obviously years away from Grand Prix, but there's no time like the present to start this sort of work, especially as the things that make a good piaffe good are also the things that make a good trot good, a good canter good, a good canter pirouette good… and on and on. Even if he doesn't make Real Authentic Piaffe for another two years, it can only do good things for all the other work.
Piaffing was in the air, as I brought over Dutchy for my second lesson. Dutchy has shown the Grand Prix with his previous owners, some very dear friends of mine, but the piaffe wasn't a highlight for him. My primary purpose with him this winter is to keep his rideability top-notch, and keep him the best he can be for his owner, but if I could also make some progress in the piaffe, that'd be gravy. And boy, did we ever - Dutchy's progress in one day knocked my socks off, and he definitely Won The Tiara today ("winning the tiara" is a Michael-ism stemming from his Colbert Report performance from Summer 2012. If you've been living under a rock and somehow missed such a thing, you can see it online here and here.)
Dutchy's got a pretty freakish talent for passaging on the spot which, while cool, is not actually piaffe. He's so gorgeous and talented in his basic gaits that he got away with not really sitting and taking the pressure of the leg, which was the name of the game. After some confusion and metaphorical hand-wringing (he's a Jazz, he can't help it), he got on board and, by the end, offered some really quite respectable nuggets of piaffe. If he can come that far in one day, I'm thrilled at the idea of what he'll look like by March.
Fiero hasn't made it over for a lesson yet - I'm writing this blog from the airplane back home to Virginia, where I'm teaching for the weekend, so he'll get into the lesson rotation next week. But the upward momentum's been contagious, and he's been super all week in his schooling. Another fun thing about Florida is that the arena at the farm I'm at is right next to the road, which means folks are always riding and driving by. And as stupid as this is, as vain as I know it makes me seem, having random passersby watching me ride makes me ride better. I sit up straighter. I keep my leg where it needs to be. I shorten, for the love of all that's holy, my freaking reins. Vanity, thy name is Riding In Front Of Others And Not Wanting To Look Dumb. I'll take it where I can get it.
I have the run of the smaller of the two stables on the property; the other barn is almost completely filled by the horses of another trainer, and he and I are pretty much the only ones around all morning, quietly and calmly going about our work. He's a lovely rider on nice horses, which doesn't hurt. It's a pretty damn delightful experience. This farm is right next door to Michael's, so I can pop over and watch Team Barisone school and teach whenever I find a gap in my day. It's high-level education, and the stakes are high, but it's also quiet, tranquil and methodical. Leg on, hand closed and low, back to front, horse after horse after horse.
There's an electricity here, not the kind that makes the horses nervous and jumpy, but the kind that makes you not need a cup of coffee in the morning. It's good, really good. And it's just the beginning!