Monday, January 26, 2015

Positive Baby Steps

What a weekend. What a weekend. *shakes head*

For those not in the know, I work my "real" job Mondays through Thursdays. 4-10s (four ten hour days) so I can always have 3-day weekends. During the winter months, I work at two ski resorts on Fridays and Saturdays as a pro patroller (red/black jacket with white cross if you've been on a ski mountain in the US). Typically I work double shifts of 13 hours or so. Sundays are my days to myself - often chores around home and horse time consumes these days.

This past weekend I took it pretty easy Friday during my double shift. I had a ski clinic (basically private ski lessons through patrol) scheduled for the following day. I didn't know how that would pan out, so I figured it would be in my best interest to take it easy.

I'm glad I did.

- My feet need to be more hip-width apart (left to right stance)
- My front to back stance needs to be more narrow (hips over rear ankle)
(it's not too bad here, I tend to be too deep usually)
- I need to loosen through my hips and be more forward; my upper body
angulation needs to match my lead leg angulation between knee and ankle
Positives? My hands are up! That used to be a huge problem for me. My skis
are also on edge. I have upper-lower body separation, too.
The clinic ended up being pretty rough. I'd not anticipated having instructors for telemark skiing (a free vs. locked heel style of downhill skiing), but I did! I was one of two involved in it, which was great for more one on one instruction. I'd anticipated on having my ass handed to me, but goodness, not quite to the level I did. I know I'm far from perfect, but I didn't realize (according to them) how bad I am. In so many words, one of the instructors noted, "You're a beautiful skier. So graceful. It's so fun to watch you ski. I don't know how you do it though, your stance is both too narrow and too wide, your body positioning is off, and you skid all of your turns. You do everything wrong but you make it look pretty because you're young and strong." ...oh.

So I have A LOT to work on to meet patrol standards for the next level. I'm happy I know and I'm very much going to work on things. But still... Receiving SO much criticism in such a short time period (6 hours) wasn't easy to take! It's always so hard to set pride aside and hear about all of your short-comings. I nodded and "okay'd" my way through, noting how contrary some things were to what I'd come to understand and been told from folks previously. I was certain to note that I didn't in any way mean that prior teachings were "right" and that the new-to-me information was "wrong", just that, wow, so black and white different. It's a lot to wrap my head around.

I was very downtrodden at the end of the clinic. I curled up in a mental hole for awhile. However, I'm out now, and the fire to improve is lit.

Another patroller put the whole thing in perspective for me:

You did good today, so don't be upset. It's not easy being on the river with 4-5 instructors observing and commenting.  If it was easy everyone would do it, right?, certainly doing it on tele gear makes it a whole lot more challenging.

Also, having folks who have never watched you ski, then being at the mercy of "critique" is something most folks never go through; or choose too. So I encourage you to forge ahead you have the ability, the toughness, and persistence.

I guess it is kind of admirable to have chosen to jump into the lion's den? Character building for sure.

My saving grace in it all will definitely be my stubbornness. I will only stay down for so long before I jump up fighting again out of spite and pure stubborn ferocity. It's the redhead way!


Sunday I made a goal of getting Q out on a mini trail ride. I wanted to do the 3.5 mile loop. I didn't care how long it took, I just wanted to do it with a horse who had a better mental status than the last time we'd done a solo ride in September or October. (Yes, it has been that long!)

Attributing factors building up to a mare with a better head on her shoulders:
  • time off since Fort Valley 50 in October 2014
  • ground driving work
  • hiking with her on trails
  • dressage rides
  • a jump session
  • a trail ride with another horse
  • ponying session
Additional changes to the old norm for Sunday's ride:
  • S-hack
  • I carried a dressage whip 
My thought with the dressage whip was to help encourage her to go ever forward. She respects it a lot, reminding me so much of Stan who used to act up and test me unless I had a crop in hand. I rarely had to use it, but its presence in his mind meant that there would be no nonsense and he would work. Q isn't as extreme as Stan, but the presence of the dressage whip certainly seems to help.

Leaving the barn, Q was hesitant (as always) to leave her friends. *tap tap tap* on her hind quarters with the dressage whip and she settled into the forward direction. Her body language dictated that she wasn't thrilled with this decision (head and eyes shifting often toward the herd, gait hesitant and awaiting the tiniest opportunity to stop and turn home), but she was going forward.

As we crossed the creek and entered the back field she pepped up a lot with regards to leaving home. She picked up a trot through the back field, popped in a few strides of a slow, collected canter until I brought her back to the trot, and then kept a slow (5 mph), steady trot for the next mile or more. (Through our first year to year and a half of training, I could count on her entering "work mode" once we had entered the woods on the far side of the back field. She knew then that there would be no turning back.)

I had a thought during these first few minutes of the ride that in the past I would have acted on, She's doing so well! Wow! Maybe we'll just tack on a few extra miles and take advantage of it. Except, with my previous day's experience having my ass (and pride) handed to me 10-fold coupled with the past several months of working this little mare into a better mental place, I followed the first thought through with, No. Best to keep it short and sweet. We're more likely to have more success that way. I want today to go well so that she attributes good things with solo riding again. She needs to build up. She needs to have the reward of doing a good job and not experiencing something negative. I don't need to be so hard on her; after all, it didn't feel good to have people coming down so hard on me yesterday! I'll make today as good as possible for Q so that the stage will hopefully be set for even more success down the road.

Any time she was hesitant about something on trail, I *tap tap tapped* her with the dressage whip encouraging her to keep moving forward and praising her as she did.

We had two bursts of canter on two steep sections, trotted all the good footing, and walked areas I knew to be slick and areas following a burst of canter.

She hesitated a fraction of a moment every so often, opening the opportunity for me to allow her to turn for home; I denied each time. Her hesitation in these moments was so slight that I don't think it is something I would notice if I didn't ride in the treeless saddle where I can feel the slightest of changes in her back and body.

Two grouse flushed as we linked the ridgeline trail to the haul road. The flushed as politely as you could hope a grouse to unexpectedly flush, and Q was a star about it. Her head went up a fraction and her ears strained forward hard, but her step didn't falter. She was very attentive about the areas they'd flown from after one and then the other flew up out of the scrub, but she was still forward moving. Good mare.

As we hit the haul road and struck out on our return journey, Q pepped up considerably. I expected as much. This was the reason I'd taken the loop in the direction I did; I knew this wide-open haul road area triggered more spooking behavior for Q and if we were going to take advantage of the good footing, I wanted her very focused on moving down the trail and not on looking for monsters. Striking out toward home would definitely provide her with more purpose and incentive to move forward down the trail and not seek out monsters. I set her up for success the best way I knew how.

And, by and large, it worked! She was forward and motivated and not seeking monsters.

Except this one dead wingstem stalk...

It wasn't even on my radar. I had my eyes trained forward and up, listening to my music, refusing to even look at the ground and let myself form a thought like, Oh there's something. Will she spook? What about that? and throw her off with my own subconscious body language.

So, when she slammed the breaks and dodged hard (but not as hard as she is capable of) left, my body rocked forward and onto the far right of her neck. She didn't drop her shoulders/neck/head as she's done before, but I still couldn't stay on. She took a hesitant step to the side as I was forming the thought, Can't save this. Hitting the ground. and I did the slowest motion front somersault over her right shoulder to the ground, making a very conscious decision to NOT LET GO of the reins or dressage whip as I went. *flop*

I jumped right back up, furious at first because things had been going So Well. The prideful side of me wanted to scream and hit and yell at her for spooking, but I forced myself to exhale, reminded myself that I throw her off MORE by staying silent and hopping on and making her move out as if NOTHING happened than if I lose my temper. And so I hopped on as fast as I could (the mental decision process taking milliseconds), and gave her a hard *pop* on the rear with the dressage whip and we launched forward past the offending wingstem stalk.

Gazing toward her friends upon our return to the barn; blanketed in preparation
for 12 hours of rain --> several hours of freezing rain --> many hours of snow.
No shelter on those 40 acres; I'd rather my horses be dry and warm and use their
hay calories to keep weight instead of keeping warm through shivering!
Part of me wanted to circle her back and go past the damn thing a second time for emphasis, but I cut that thought off as soon as I'd formed it. This horse needs to learn to go FORWARD at all costs. No slamming on the brakes. No stopping. FORWARD. And so we continued on our path.

Q asked to canter and tried twice, but I brought her back into the trot both times. Clearly if she could let her mind wander to find a monster and spook, she didn't need to be moving forward faster. Her goal was home. My goal was steady forward motion sans spooks.

As we neared the last of the good footing, I slowed her to a walk. We maintained this walk for the next mile or so, only picking up a trot when we were in the back field at home. Here, I popped her over a cavaletti twice, just to remove from her mind the idea that she would get to go STRAIGHT home and cease working once we'd returned to the property. She wasn't as "up" upon our return as she'd been the last ride where I'd schooled her to not rush home, but I didn't want to provide an opportunity for her to associate the idea of  being "done" with being within sight of the barn. It was an extra 60 seconds of work, but it seemed to do the trick.

Despite hitting the dirt, I'm calling the ride a Huge Success. By and large I had an unspooky, forward moving mare who was much more confident than months prior. It's a baby step, but it's a baby step in the direction I want to go. Bonus? She didn't even break a sweat! She's retained some kind of fitness it seems...

I'm going to strive to get in one trail ride a week on Q for now. The length of the ride isn't as important as the Getting Out and Doing.

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