Horse show recap

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Pony ring, warmup, and old barn, at the Sedgefield showgrounds

Yesterday me and Rudy went to a ‘C’ show down in Greensboro, NC. The facilities aren’t exceptional, the show grounds is small, and the competition usually lacks…but we always have a great show! Rudy always goes well, the management is great and it’s inexpensive. Always a plus.

We competed in the 3’9 and 4′ Training Jumpers. I had a horse show first, I forgot my course! I usually learn my course a head of time and have a chance to walk it at least once, but the way timing worked out I wasn’t able to walk the course. I turned right instead of left after a vertical on centerline in the 3’9 class. Made the turn into a really large rollback and all was well! No “refusal”, just time faults.

Rudy was a super star. He was right there for me all the way. He was a bit spooky at the first jump in our first class. A square oxer with a solid gate on the quarter line. A bit of leg and spur off the ground set him up to be bold and forward the rest of my course.

The 4′ class was a blast! Some of the jumps looked pretty large to me, but I was confident in my ride and didn’t second guess myself. Rudy gave some fantastic efforts over the oxers and was very responsive in the combinations. I was quick with my upper body at one oxer off of a short rollback that made Rudy hit it hard with his front end and have the rail. Front-end rails are very uncommon for him, so that one was definitely my fault. I was overall very pleased!

I felt like I had my old horse back. Our last show shook my confidence and faith in our progress over the last year. But these jumps were solid and Rudy really tried for me and felt like he was enjoying himself. I know I was!

untitledReflecting on things, I believe the major contributor (outsipe_bigbagde of our confidence building rides and bridleless work) is Rudy’s diet. He got introduced and turned out with a new pasture mate a few months ago. They got along great. Rom is a big older gelding that is very laid back and let Rudy run the show and boss him around. However, Rudy would chase Rom away and steal his food. Rom gets the Cavalor brand food while Rudy gets Blue Seal Sentinel LS. Rudy’s food is a low-starch extruded feed with probiotic and  he does very well on it. Cavalor is a great brand of food, it just doesn’t work for Rudy as an individual.

Upon figuring out that Rudy was stealing Rom’s food, he is now back out by himself (he doesn’t mind private turnout and he can still play with Rom over the fence). He seems a lot more laid back and less spooky. A month later and back to the old Rudy!

It’s funny how much their diet can affect their performance! It shows that you can’t just be a good rider to do well in this sport. You really have to be immersed in all aspects of your horse’s care and well-being. Perhaps I will take the time to write a post on important components in an equine athlete’s diet at a later date…

Unfortunately none of my barn friends were around to snap pictures or video my rounds. But here is a cute picture of Rudy munching hay by the trailer after being such a good boy…

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Quick improvements

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Another great ride today! In just two rides we are already making improvements and Rudy learns extremely quickly. The picture above is to show what we are riding in. You can see he is just wearing his halter and I have tied one longer lead rope to the sides of his halter to act like “reins”. I tied a second lead rope around his neck and that is what I predominantly use (besides seat, leg, and voice) to control him during our rides.  The goal is to take off the halter and “reins” and ride bridleless in order to improve our trust in each other, increase Rudy’s independence, and decrease unnecessary aids that I am unknowingly applying constantly.

There were many improvements from our last ride. Our transitions from a walk to a halt were much more prompt. We worked on halting straight and it still can use some work. I think the straightness is more due to my own crookedness and uneven seat/leg pressure. We walked a series of 4 raised poles I had set up earlier last week as trot poles. Those helped with straightness and our halting afterwards.

When trotting we still had to make many changes of direction and small circles. However, by the end of our trot work we were able to go all the way around the ring twice both directions while maintaining a relatively consistent pace! Small victories are what counts!

Onto cantering…To the left Rudy was tremendous. I was able to continue using just the neck rope and cantering completely around the ring a few times with a consistent rhythm. He responded well to half halts through my seat and even circled and listened to my turning aids.

Going to the right is a little more challenging. I believe it’s actually my own weakness but he feels slightly less balanced when travelling right. I have to use more outside rein to keep him straight through the left shoulder. When I tried cantering to the right with just the neck rope he would build and get faster very quickly. I didn’t make a downward transition but rather just picked up the lead rope reins and worked to the right using the halter and lead rope. We had already made a lot of progress today so I figured I would save cantering on the right lead for another day. But one thing that amazed me is how he felt immediately upon me picking up the “reins”. It was like he immediately when onto the “bridle” and lightened his front end. So it appears our “bridleless” work is already paying off and promoting independence and self carriage!

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Next exciting news…we jumped again! I usually only jump once or twice a week, but the other day I literally jumped once off each lead. Today I jumped the brick wall once off each lead and then jumped the blue and white gate pictured above once off of the right lead. Eek! I am having so much fun.  I should jump without tack more often. I felt myself effectively use my upper body before the jump and really felt tight in the air.

I hope Rudy is enjoying himself as much as I am!

I am taking my good friend from college on a trail ride tomorrow. Rudy can enjoy a leisurely hour-long walk!

Now if you need a good laugh…here’s a barn cat napping in a water bucket.

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When building trust, sometimes less is more…

Based on previous posts, it is fairly obvious that I strongly believe we can all, as horsemen, learn something from different disciplines. Although I predominantly ride jumpers, I find it refreshing and helpful to draw from hunters, dressage, eventing, hunting, reining, cutting, vaulting (yes! vaulting), etc. I haven’t been exposed to all the disciplines out there, but I do what I can to take advantage of every opportunity to learn something from a discipline I am not familiar with.

My most recent post discussed how horse’s teach us humility. Me and Rudy had a not-so-stellar competition our last time outing which really shook my confidence and trust in him. I believe because his behavior and the outcome of the show was similar to struggles we dealt with in the past is why it impacted me so much. It has been hard for me to just brush it off and leave that ride in the past. I am not sure if it impacted Rudy’s confidence as much as mine, but that will be tested at our next lesson (this coming Tuesday) and our next show (next Sunday).

Anyway, in order to regain my trust in him and his trust in me and himself, I decided to take a different route. My good friend, Allison, is a trainer that uses a lot of Natural Horsemanship influence. Like I said, I like to draw lessons from each discipline and apply them to my own training. I am not going to go out and buy a carrot stick, but will try to be more in harmony with my horse and encourage him to be more free and confident in his movement.

My focus hasn’t really been on ground work as I believe I already use the “philosophy” of Natural Horsemanship even if I am not leading my horse with a rope halter. When I say “philosophy” I mean the whole “herd dynamic”, be the “alpha” horse, move away with pressure, be a confident leader and they will follow, etc. mind set. My horse still is on individual turnout (he kept stealing his buddy’s food), has steal shoes, I ride with a crop and spurs, etc.

The focus has been on riding with the Natural Horsemanship “mindset”. Allison is able to ride her pony in just a piece of bailing twine tied around his neck. She was able to train a difficult and hot jumper mare to go the same way, bareback and bridleless. I have decided to try and teach Rudy to do this.

What I am trying to accomplish by being able to ride Rudy bareback and bridleless is

  • Build my trust in him. Allow him to carry me.
  • Improve his confidence in himself and independence. Rudy has a big heart, but he seems to be almost fearful if I am not there for him 100%. He needs to move more freely and independently without constant help from me. Trust his own athleticism and previous training to take care of us even in no-so-perfect situations.

Today I rode Rudy bareback. He had his halter on with his lead rope clipped to one side and tied to the other (like a pair of reins). I then tied another lead rope around his neck. The halter and lead rope were only there just in case. We already confidently do up to Level 2 flat work bareback in a halter and lead rope (small brag). The ride consisted of me only using the neck rope at the walk and trot. I didn’t feel confident cantering just using the neck rope just yet.

At the walk we practiced steering and halt/walk transitions using just the neck rope. In order to steer I would first rotate my eyes and upper body where I wanted to go. If he didn’t respond to that I would apply leg pressure to “push” him in the direction I wanted him to go. If that still didn’t work I would use a neck rein with the rope and pull him in the direction I wanted to turn. By the end  of the ride I could simply turn my eyes and body at the walk.

The halt transitions were difficult. You think your horse responds really well to seat and leg aids…and then you try riding him using a rope tied around his neck. It took a few tries for me to understand how to ask him. I had to exaggerate and really relax my seat muscles and sink into him. I had to be sure when I brought my upper body back as an indicator for a downward transition, to not accidently drive with my seat. This element was not perfect by the end of today, but definitely improved. A few times I had to go back to using the halter and lead rope so he would understand what I was asking. But with a deep seat, tall upper body, and slight pressure on the neck rope, I was able to get him to halt multiple times. Don’t ask me if I got him to halt straight…Ha!

The trot proved difficult. The first time I asked Rudy to step into the trot from the walk he “took off” cantering (it was more like a very lovely canter depart). That got me thinking…perhaps in my forward transitions under tack I don’t have enough give in my hand and therefore I have to use even more leg. I picked up the lead rope attached to the halter. Halted. Backed. And asked again…more gently this time. Rudy proceeded to trot but would get faster and faster. I believe he was searching for the constant light contact that he goes so well in. To fix this, I did constant circles, turns, changes, of direction, etc. I also realized that I need to think about my seat. I was unknowingly sending Rudy forward with the strong grip and constant leg I was using. I focused on relaxing my seat and lower back and really going with the motion of his trot. We would do this for a few minutes, return to the walk, do some turning and halting, and then go back to trot. I would say we definitely made progress. By the end of the ride I was able to do a larger circle (like half the ring) and we maintained a consistent pace and relaxed trot.

On to cantering. I decided to pick up the “reins” but still try to ride as if I was only using the neck rope. Riding with such little amount of hand and a relaxed seat really allowed Rudy to have a powerful forward canter. I loved the feeling of it. He would turn promptly when I looked with my eyes and turned my body. The only thing that needed improvement was that I still needed a lot of outside “rein” when traveling to the right to control his left shoulder.

Next exciting thing…we jumped! Bareback in a halter and lead rope. We only did a single fence once off each lead, but still. It was a blast! It was a 2’6-2’9 brick wall that was set up as an end jump. Not standards, just the wall. My position felt secure and Rudy didn’t blink an eye! Granted he has jumped this before, but it certainly boosted my confidence and was fun! And I felt like my jumping position was tight as a tick even though we were bareback.  Sounds like a small victory to me.

What I took away from my ride today that can be applied to jumping and competing…

  • I had fun! Not sure Rudy had as much fun as I did but I sure hope so
  • Sometimes less is more. Apply the turning aids I used today when I jump. Use my eyes and body to turn more effectively before using my hand.
  • ALLOW forward movement. This kind of goes with the above point. Instead of constantly adding more leg, I need to first soften my feel. I don’t want to throw away the contact, but be loser with my elbow, shoulders, and hips.
  • Encourage Rudy to be independent. This means softening my hand, stop over-managing every stride, and providing more “support” through my seat and leg rather then my hand. I have been experimenting with different jumping positions, recently going into a lighter seat. I think Rudy is more confident when I am close to him in the tack but soft on the reins as opposed to the lighter seat I have been using.

Sorry there were no pictures! It’s hard when you ride on your own (don’t worry, someone knows I am riding and I keep a cellphone on hand).

 

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What horses teach us…

There are a lot of articles, blogs, interviews, etc. on what horses teach us. Not just in riding and horsemanship, but those valuable life lessons. I am going to try and keep this post short, as I think this topic could be covered in a whole novel…or more truthfully, a whole series of novels. One key teaching that I was reminded of recently was humility.

I recently attended the NC State Fair ‘AA’ show at the Raleigh Hunt Horse Complex. Let it be known that me and Rudy have had some horrible experience in this indoor coliseum at this venue. There is something about it that doesn’t sit right with him. It is frustrating to say the least. Anyway, I feel as though we have made tremendous progress in the last year and even the first day of the horse show, although not perfect, I felt was a triumph. And I was whole heartedly excited for the second day thinking that it would only improve from our already minor victory…wrong.

We were excused after two refusals. At least it wasn’t two refusals at the same fence and I did jump one more courtesy fence before exiting (silver lining?). It was heart breaking. I felt like we had made full circle to how he behaved at this very show last year. And worst of all, I felt his stopping was not due to fear or pain as it previously was. It seemed he just did not want to jump. It took everything for me to wait until we got back to the trailer before breaking down. My trainer was very understanding. She has been with me through the whole training process and knows the time and effort I have put into Rudy…but what struck me (and it didn’t come until a few days later) is that Rudy doesn’t know the amount of effort and sacrifices I have made.

He’s just a horse. And to him, I am just his person…his person who occasionally wants to make him jump over obstacles with no set destination. He doesn’t think like I do. He didn’t do this maliciously. I have to move on, not take this personally, learn from it, and continue on the track that has been steadily producing us success for the past few months.

Horses can be so humbling. Just when you think you are doing everything right, they remind you that you are working with a living animal with his own mind. Horses ground you (sometimes literally). It is what makes this sport different from any other.

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Barn shopping: what constitutes quality?

Well folks, me and Rudy will be starting a new adventure soon. I will be attending Purdue University for a Master’s in Entomology come January of 2014!  The luxury life of living outside 24:7 and occasional days in the 70s in December will be over. Time for this Southerner to experience Indiana winters.

About a week ago my parents and I took a long weekend trip to search for apartments for me and barns for Rudy. Shockingly, we had more barns to look at then apartments. 9 barns to be exact. Good new is, I was able to find the right fit for both of us! Which proved harder to do in West Lafayette, IN than expected and I had to do a lot of evaluating and weighing what factors are more important to me then others. I have listed my top 5 of what I believe constitutes a good boarding facility.

1. Good personnel: To me, you can have the nicest facilities in the world, but if the people that run/own the facility do not have exceptional horsemanship and passion for horses I won’t even consider you. The reason it was harder to pick a barn for Rudy over an apartment for myself is because I have to trust these strangers with the care of my horse. That isn’t easy for me to do. I want to be at a place where the manager is in tune with the different horse’s personalities, know when something “isn’t quite right”, how to handle emergencies, etc. It was apparent to me within just a few minutes of conversation whether I was being “sold” the facility or the owner/manager was genuine and allowed their facility and their own horse knowledge to sell itself. The horse must be put first. This can be applied to a quality trainer as well (although that was not my top priority as the jumper scene in West Lafayette is slim to say the least).

2. Turnout: My horse lives outside right now but he has been exposed to various turnout situations from only 3-4 hours a day, 10 hours a day, over night, or 24:7. The more the horses are turned out the better, in my opinion. I appreciate a place that values turnout as much as I do. However, I also believe there should be turnout options. Not every horse can be turned out in a large herd. I encountered a lot of barns where they were steadfast in their opinions that a herd dynamic is better. That’s fine, it’s an opinion. And we all know there are a lot of those in the horse world. But when I am getting a tour of a facility and ask about private or semi-private turnout and the barn manage proceeds to give me a lecture on how a herd system is better and that my horse will adapt, I am immediately turned off. There may be truth in that, my horse may adapt, but there are always exceptions and I like for a place to have options for those exceptions. The quality of the turnout fields is also vital. There were a lot of facilities that it was clear there were too many horses on the property. The turnout fields were dirt and would likely turn to mud and freeze come later in the winter season. Many claimed there was a drought this past summer, but there was a few facilities that had beautiful green grass despite being 10 minutes away from the others with dirt pastures.

3. Ventilation: This may be lower on the list for some people, but Rudy has previously experienced allergies prior to adjusting his diet and moving him to a stall with higher ceilings and better airflow. Because Rudy will be shifting from being outside 24:7 to being stalled a lot (since we will be moving in the winter turnout may be limited due to weather) a comfortable stall with adequate ventilation was important to me. Related to this, I preferred the stalls to be bedded with shavings as opposed to other more allergy prone materials. Many farms used sawdust. One barn used this pelleted material, that was cool and seemed like it would be OK (but it was too far). A lot of the farms were older, as a lot of aspects of the West Lafayette/Lafayette, IN area are. Coming from Raleigh, NC that was a bit different. Many of the barns had low ceilings and the hay was stored above the barn. I also preferred AT LEAST 12’X10′ stalls. 12’X12′ or larger would be ideal, but did I mention most of these facilities were older? Rudy is 17H and has a long body. He is perfectly comfortable snoozing in a 10’X10′ stall at the horse shows, so I figured a 12’X10′ stall would be fine to live in at home.

4. Quality feeding program: Hay. Hay is important as a forage component for horse’s nutrition. Especially for Rudy to successfully adapt from being on grass 24:7. Currently Rudy is on a very high quality first cut grass hay twice a day (despite being out 24:7 he still gets hay! I hate to leave my current barn.). It’s a vibrant green and smells delicious. I always took a peek at the prospective barn’s hay. It didn’t have to be a grass cut, some had an alfalfa mix or something else, but if it smelled nice, looked green and healthy, I was sold. I am not a fan of round bale in the pastures, I think it just sets up horse’s to fight over it and the hay really isn’t high qualiy any way. The second aspect of a good feeding program is grain. Rudy does very well on Blue Seal Sentinel LS. It is a low starch extruded feed with added probiotics for easy digestibility. Since switching to this grain Rudy has improved tremendously, becoming bolder to the jumps and more confident. I desired a facility that would allow me to continue to feed him this. I didn’t expect a cut in board price, I know most places have a select grain that is supplied in your board (or some have a few different options but of one brand) and any additional supplement or different grain must be provided at the owners expense. However, a lot of  facilities when I brought up bringing my own grain they would again attempt to lecture me on how their grain is sufficient and their horse’s do well on it and that grain is not necessarily essential to a horse’s diet. Yes, I agree. Forage should make up the largest portion of a horse’s nutrition but this is what works best for my horse and if it ain’t broke don’t fix it right? Again, the horse should come first, not loyalty to a brand of food just because you get a discount.

5. Footing/riding areas: My horse is an athlete so I want to be able to keep him in the best shape possible. To me, a big fancy ring isn’t necessary. I am more then happy with a flat grassy area to set up some jumps. An indoor in Indiana was important though. As long as the footing is good, I am happy. I also preferred area to ride outside of the ring. There was a lot of options for that in Indiana. It was so spacious. Many places had field to ride in, trails, etc. The place I ended up choosing actually had limited outside areas to ride, but because it met my criteria for the top 4 attributes I had to compromise. There are turnout fields I can bring horses in from if I wish to ride out there and I believe I can find my way to the perimeter of the property and ride around. Good enough for me!

Any areas that appeal to the human’s comfort are of second interest I am not interested in a high-end lounge or beautiful potted plants every where. While those things are nice, they aren’t what I focus on when choosing a facility. Even my dad, a non-horsey guy, understood this. The most expensive facility we toured was beautiful. It had a very large indoor ring, large outdoor with great jumps, paved aisle ways with little rose details, and a huge extravagant lounge with flat screen TVs. Upon arriving our tour was immediately started in the lounge and I was told I wouldn’t even want to ride any more because I would just want to hang out at the barn. Red flag! Tour proceeded and we were show the turnout areas with no grass, and horse’s that looked fed but were not blooming with exceptional care. When going through our decisions my dad said he didn’t like that place because there wasn’t enough emphasis on the horse. Smart man. Cross that one off the list…

Ultimately, Rudy will be going to a terrific place with a barn manager that I adore. She reminded me of myself and appeared to have a tremendous work ethic and love for horses. She also lived on the property which was a plus. It’s a privately owned place with just a few boarders and only a 15 minute drive from my new apartment. And the other exciting part is that there is a hunter/jumper trainer that comes every other week! That was an added bonus. I am very excited for our new journey! Minus the cold…I could do without that.

A follow up post with pictures galore will come once we move in January!

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Dressage and developing a good seat

Today I asked my best friend to help me on the flat to improve my seat. She is an eventer and, in my opinion, has very good dressage work. I trust her as an extra pair of eyes on the ground. It also helps that she is an athletic trainer and is able to help pinpoint where my physical weaknesses are in my riding.

I have been fighting lower back pain and stiff hip flexors for quite some time. I noticed recently that this has begun to affect my seat at the canter. My seat tends to “pop” due to tight hips and lack of fluidity in my seat to follow my horse’s motion. I explained this to Kelly so she suggested I try riding in her dressage saddle and do some stretches in the saddle before beginning my ride.

Kelly’s dressage saddle is a CWD monoflap with a thigh block and slightly deep seat. The higher cantle of the dressage saddle and the large thigh blocks put me in the exact position I need to be for higher level flatwork. My bad habits were quickly exposed when I rode in her saddle. The thigh blocks helped me to stretch my thighs down, open my hips, and really wrap my leg around my horse.

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I trotted Rudy around for a bit to warm him up, get used to a longer stirrup length, and get used to the saddle. We then started at the walk on a 20 meter circle holding the reins in my outside hand and doing various stretches. I would reach across Rudy’s neck with my inside hand and reach down to touch the point of his shoulder. Then I would reach back with my inside hand, look, and turn my body towards Rudy’s tail and reach for his outside hip. Each time when I was as deep into the stretch as I could get, Kelly would remind me to take a deep breath in and exhale completely before slowly returning back to my centered riding position. We did both of these stretches at the walk in both directions and at the trot at both directions.

After stretching, we worked on being fluid with my hips and lower back. She told me to over exaggerate and go with Rudy’s side-to-side motion at the trot as well as the up-and-down motion. I think because I am so tight in my hips and back it is easier for me to remember to follow the up-and-down motion because that comes mostly from the knee and ankle joints. However, Rudy has that desirable swinging hindend motion at the trot. I need to remember to follow that motion as well. As I became more fluid through my hip and back Kelly said, “That’s better! Now your back is starting to have some motion to it. And when you follow with your seat and lower back, your shoulder is more still”. Ah-ha!

We proceeded to do some shoulder-in and lengthening work. All while thinking about following with my seat. I carried that idea into my canter work. Doing some counter canter and lengthening. My seat felt much better at the canter. I am not sure how much of that is due to the stretching, trot work, or saddle itself.

I will try to ride in Kelly’s saddle once a week. Overall I was happy with the ride and felt as though it was productive and can be applied to the flatwork I do in my own saddle.

In other news, we just got two new permanent jumps put in! There is a training-level ditch and a training/Prelim level bank. I am very excited to school those later this week. Rudy has not done either. Put your big boy pants on Ru!

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Lesson recap: Break it down into steps…

Lesson today! Rudy was great. He was a trooper jumping around a few extra times in order for me to learn something.

We started off the lesson with flatwork, per usual. At the trot we focused on frequent half-halts in order to slow down Rudy’s front end while engaging and thinking about speeding up the hind end.  Rudy is not actually speeding up his hind end, but rather stepping farther under himself with more engagement and impulsion. My trainers likes to focus on the mental aspect of riding. Thinking speed up the hind end tricks me into using more leg and focusing on riding back-to-front. Lengthening and collecting transitions were incorporated into our focus on the half-halt at both the trot and the canter.

At the canter, I tend to go immediately to my hand to collect. That’s not the answer. This causes Rudy to lock his jaw and drop behind the bit and behind my leg. My trainer focused on the collection coming from my upper-body first, sinking into my seat, and closing my leg into a firm hand…sounds oddly like a strong half-halt.  Reflecting on it now, I need to work on this more and break it down into the steps I just listed. Rudy is very responsive, so even breaking it down into steps I would still be able to achieve a prompt transition from lengthening canter to collected canter within 4 or so strides. This process in my collection needs to become habit before I can expect Rudy to collect immediately. After I achieve the collection I often forget to go back to a soft following arm. I need to remember to lay off the clutch once I have already shifted gears! I received a lot of  “Now follow!” or “Now soften!”. Softness and self-carriage are always the goal. I can’t expect Rudy to be soft if I am not soft. I guess I should consider “now soften!” to be the final step of my collection “process”!

From there we moved on to a course of canter poles. Working on lots of tight roll-backs that require me to maintain my leg and contact throughout the turn. The canter poles turned into jumps but the concept remained the same. I have listed a few instructional quotes below that stuck out to me and are sort-of my “take-homes” for the jumping portion of the lesson…

“You will always be able to slow down or check your breaks. You have to start with a little more at the beginning of your course. Your horse does not naturally build throughout course or want to take you to the jumps. You need to create the impulsion and set that tone from the beginning.”

“That tighter turn requires a more put-together compact canter. You need to realize that, adjust your horse, but maintain the contact and motor through the turn”

“Make your adjust back here. Then trust that you have made that adjustment. Stop continuing to do stuff.”…sounds familiar (see above regarding canter collection)

“Your hands need to be quiet in front of the jump”…I tend to make last minute adjustments. Which are more often then not completely unnecessary…Light bulb moment! Perhaps if I think about my hands being quiet in front of the jump then I will naturally lower my hand and follow more with my release like I have been talking about? I shall experiment!

Here’s a funny picture to make you smile…

Mean Girls George Morris

Mean Girls George Morris

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