The weekend was filled with so many great things:
- Getting some great feedback on things that I've improved on Fender
- Getting the confidence to move forward with other parts of his education
- Watching a terrific array of young horses and riders
- Great fun with great friends, old and new.
But the best part of it all was watching Steffen Peters ride my horse.
Yeah, THAT happened.
First, let me say this: In addition to being a brilliant horseman, Steffen seems like one helluva good guy. He was approachable, funny and sharp. He wasn't afraid to kick a little rider butt, but always in the most cheerleader of ways, never in a way that made you feel dumb. He was as down to earth as anything, and he seemed genuinely excited to be in a room of young horse trainers for three days. And every time anyone tried to praise him, he turned it right back around to praise horses, either the horse he was riding or the horses in his life that have made him. Talk about classy. We got great riding eye-candy, too, but I think it was a tremendous lesson in professionalism and grace.
But yeah, the riding eye-candy was awesome. Fender was Mr. Fabulous all weekend, but something that I'm struggling with is achieving the next level of oomph from his hind legs. When I ask for more enthusiasm and push from behind, Fender usually gets frantic in his rhythm, and I was unclear as to whether it was something I was or was not communicating well, or whether he just wasn't ready to give the answer.
We all agreed that I should be using Fender's canter—his highlight—to improve his trot, his current weakness. And Steffen had me play with the idea of a ginormous not-even-really-a-pirouette pirouette to both get the hind legs crackin', but also to improve Fender's coordination which, bless his heart, is still a lot like watching an intoxicated teenager try and walk up the stairs on roller skates. And it made a huge difference, which was awesome.
And then Steffen said, "Hey, can I sit on him for a minute?" Does anyone tell him no when he asks that question? Really. It's like Stephen Hawking or Jane Austen asking if they can help you with your homework.
So up he went, and Fender mercifully continued to be perfect. (New experience for me: watching the Great Hope of U.S. dressage hop on your horse nine months pre-Olympics and thinking to yourself, “Please, God, do not let him get bucked off.”) He did the same stuff at canter for a bit and then went to trot. And he got the same answer I got: When you press Fender for more, he gets dorky and loses rhythm and essentially looks very flustered.
But here's the difference, and the biggest ah-ha of my weekend: When I hit that place, I keep the pressure calmly and cooly on until Fender returns to normal trot rhythm. Steffen kept the pressure calmly and cooly on until Fender returned to normal trot rhythm AND gave more hind leg. I was rewarding a good answer, but not the answer to the question I'd actually asked.
It certainly wasn't a magic cure—Fender's still 5 and still needs the muscle and maturity. But the answers got better and better, with less flailing about every time. The "now what?" place is no more. I have a new plan.
Other things I was really happy about: Fender's walk. Fender has a good walk, but not the huge, sweeping, swingy walk that Ella and Midge have. And Fender gets a little claustrophobic in the collected walk at the moment. But I've been SLAVING over it at home, and I was praised for the walk all three days. Feels really good.
I also got a pat on the head for his connection, his out-to-the-bridle-ness, another thing I've really had to earn. It was particularly great to hear Scott say it, because he's known Fender nearly as long as I have and has therefore seen the improvement. But to have a room full of people seeing him for the first time say that the connection looks solid was really terrific.
He was such a gem on Days 1 and 2 that he was picked as the guinea pig for some in-hand work on Day 3. I've spent a little time on the idea of half-steps with Fender, all from the saddle, and in truth he hasn't really grasped the idea. He doesn't put a toe out of line, doesn't get scared or flustered; he just also doesn't do much. I am totally non-plussed by this, by the way; Midge, who has this preposterous talent for piaffe, couldn't take one step even in the right direction until he was well into Year 6. But since I don't have help from the ground very often, I was really excited to see if we could make some forward progress towards clarifying what half-steps are.
Steffen and Scott both played with us a bit, trying new methods, seeing what worked. Steffen started by having me halt and just touching Fender with a whip very lightly one leg at a time to see if he could teach him to just pick up his leg from the whip. Fender thought that was very silly, and we really didn't get very far, so then we tried from the walk. We didn't get terribly far that day either, but both Steffen and Scott encouraged me to keep trying from the walk. Their reasoning is that his trot is so BIG and swingy, he'll find it much trickier to compress that monster trot down that he would just quickening the walk. I agree 100 percent, though I'm still not always so confident in his comfort in the collected walk, so I think that might be something to play with six months out.
He was most successful from the trot—no surprise, that's where I've been working it—but then Scott had me hop off and just played with him without the rider, and he got some pretty cool answers by the end. It's still light years away from piaffe, and that's OK. They're all different, and they all figure it out on their own time. I'm in no hurry.
I'm SO thrilled with all that we learned and so grateful to the event's incredible sponsors, John and Leslie Malone of Harmony Sporthorses, for making these symposia possible. Their generosity is tremendous and much appreciated by all of us who attend every year. Thank you!
Fender and I busted loose early Sunday morning to head up to New Jersey to get Ella, who looks ABSOLUTELY AMAZING and I can't WAIT to get on her, OMG. And I was whistling dixie down the highway coming home last night, so happy with how everything went, when one of my trailer tires pretty much exploded. After my heart returned to my body, having catapulted out of my throat, I pulled over to change it, pulling out my TrailerAid and my spare and… I have no lug nut wrench. It's in my four-horse rig. I'm just far enough from home that I'm in an area where I know NO ONE.
What. A. Genius!
I curse quite a bit, call AAA—who won't help, even when I lie and tell them it's a truck tire, not a trailer tire—curse more, and call Tina, my amazing massage therapist friend, who lives somewhere in West Virginia, which is a surprisingly big state. Tina doesn't even bat an eye; she and her husband are both in the car and on their way to me in minutes. What incredible, wonderful people you both are; thank you, thank you, thank you!
Naturally, as soon as they're on their way, a good samaritan swings by and helps me, and I'm ready to go just as soon as my friends show up. Doh! But they were very gracious, and we made it home in one piece. Ella's been with me for a trailer blow-out before, but between the flat and the MD-NJ-VA tour poor Fender ended up standing on a trailer for nine hours yesterday. What a nice reward for all his hard work! Phooey. He got LOTS of scratches and loving, and he will get some much-deserved down time.
So, my education for the weekend: Keep doing what I'm doing, and then some. Keep the picture of Steffen's hands in my mind as my new inspirational picture: low, always keeping the connection alive, no knee-jerk reactions. And go get a second lug nut wrench!