Monday, August 22, 2011

Going Back to My Roots, Cali Style

My parents always taught me that if I didn’t have anything nice to say, then I shouldn't say it at all...hence the reasoning behind the sporadic silent stages within my competition blog. Learning from my past experiences I have found that the “silver lining” is always easier to discern when given time to reflect on past events.

Truth be told this year has not gone as I had originally planned...but then again, what does when it comes to our equine friends or life in general for that matter? After all, there are reasons why we have black flag options and alternative routes on cross country, because “Plan A” sometimes (and more often than not) just doesn’t pan out.

Certainly not a stranger to adversity, once again I have chosen to push forward towards my dream of Olympic rings and medals, despite the capricious nature of the timeline. Al is currently coming back in full work and within the next few weeks I am going to have to decide my plans for the fall and what’s the best path that leads to the podium in London in less than a year. Lyle has very much picked up the slack by moving up to preliminary, and very successfully I might add. Additionally, mom has sent me two more very high quality horses, Model American and Affirminator, both of whom are for sale (much to my dismay).

Regardless where my fall season takes me, I plan on spending ample amount of time with Buck to hone in on the jumping phases, as I do believe that it was my main loop hole in my winter training when it came to my less-than-desirable results at Kentucky. Buck has always had a knack for challenging me enough to push through my nerves, but rewarding my strengths to boost Al’s and my confidence levels. Perhaps that is why I have trained with the man for over nine years...nevermind the fact that the guy could probably ride a broomstick double clear across the country!

Additionally, Kim Severson lessons are definitely on the agenda and in fact, are underway as poor Lyle is currently learning how to carry that very large body of his!

Diego (my dressage horse owned by my dear friend and patron Ann Wilson) and I are undergoing a complete “re-vamping” in our fundamentals, under Kim’s guidance. Before I had the opportunity to ride Diego, a 15.2 hand Andalusian gelding, I had mostly ridden Thoroughbreds with a few Warmbloods (and one, very awesomely cool Cleveland Bay) scattered in the mix. I was always used to using light aids and if I had to make a correction with my leg, a stern “kick” would usually do the trick. However, with Diego this is not so. Being that he is just “thick” (and spooky) enough, a kick with the leg doesn’t go far and the whip only makes him tense which disables me from getting his frame to drop and his nose pushed out. Although his show record has been impeccable, I know that this little creature has so much more to give, and more importantly, I know there are better means of riding him. So off to Kim we go! In one lesson, Kim taught me how to ride like “a German man” (in her own words) by using my leg as a wall and squeezing and holding it against his side for an aid instead of a swift “kick.” Needless to say, when I am not on horseback you can find me in the “legs” section at the gym doing countless squats, thigh strengthening and calf raises, and of course increasing my Wheaties intake.
She also taught me that with horses like Diego, who have an innate tendency to be dull, repetition in the dressage ring is ideal to teach them the aids correctly. It’s amazing how such small nuances that Kim pointed out have made such drastic changes in my riding! Every lesson with Kim is a reminder just how much more improvement needs to be made to my riding to be the very best, and believe me people, I am up for the challenge!

Outside of my own circle of horses, my clinic schedule and student’s horse shows have kept me very busy! I was lucky enough to have Heidi Seigmund come at the beginning of the summer to be a working student, along with her very talented bay Oldenburg/TB mare, High Sierra. Heidi started her summer show season off with a bang, bringing home the blue ribbon in the Novice Division at Surefire HT along with a coveted pair of Royal Rider Flexible Stirrups. Whenever I have to be out and about coaching or flying across the country to teach a clinic, I am very comfortable leaving my most prized possessions in Heidi’s very capable hands. I will sure miss her as she leaves to finish up her final year at William and Mary.

Aside from Heidi, I was very proud to coach some of my other very loyal and talented students who also achieved their personal best results. Alexus Taddonio, who also happens to own my first homebred Seajack, rocked around the preliminary course at Surefire HT to post a double clear XC (at her very first preliminary) of the few who added zero penalties in her young rider division. Bethany Astorino competed at her very first USEA recognized event at Loch Moy and aside from a few minor mistakes in the flat, performed the two jumping phases flawlessly to finish just outside the ribbons! Both of these girls have worked tremendously hard to achieve these results, and my grin couldn't be bigger!

Keeping on the coach’s hat, I recently flew out west to teach a handful of my Cali students (aka: my secret weapons) including my most favorite student of all (sorry guys), my mother! As soon as my plane touched CA soil I was in a teaching whirlwind, traveling from my mom’s farm in Georgetown to prepare my students for the upcoming Woodside HT and shooting over to Loomis to teach a jump/dressage clinic at the beautiful and spacious Dragonfire Farm. I cannot begin to tell you how nervous I was to help both Earl and Jen McFall, as both were idols of mine (and remain so till this day) as I grew up watching them take on various west coasts advanced tracks on tiny Thoroughbreds and Morgans back when my dreams of Rolex involved riding a stick horse across a make-shift track in our house that consisted of my mother’s hamper and my father’s computer desk. Man how time flies...and the memories just keep rolling on.

I arrived early at Woodside to help school my kids in the flat when yet another familiar face met my gaze: the great Yves Sauvignon. You cannot call yourself a true California event rider if you haven’t ridden with Yves, schooled near Yves, competed against Yves, or worn the infamous Oakridge XC colors of burgundy and white in which all of Yves’ students proudly display. Yves has brought many young riders along and helped them achieve their dreams of eventing grandeur such as Deanna Hines, Paul Ebersole, Earl McFall, Rainy Sealy....and the list continues to run rampant. While watching him confidently navigate a hesitant young Novice horse around the spooky show jump course at Woodside, I chuckled under my breath as it reminded me of where I learned how to properly use a “stick.” In my book, that man is one of the best coaches alive...his positive reinforcement, skills to challenge, and his uncanny ability to instill confidence in his students and their horses are what makes Yves one of the best coaches still to this day (and someone I strive to emulate). His distinguishable french accent certainly doesn’t hurt either...but I digress.

My Cali kids certainly came back from the Woodside eventing marathon with sweat over their brow but with smiles that could light up an endless New Mexico sky. They all possess many of the characteristics that I often see in myself, and their thirst to succeed is almost contagious. Rest assured East Coasters, when my Cali kids finally make the great pilgrimage out East they will be forces to reckon with. Mark my words.

Being back in CA again always makes me reminisce about the old days and seeing those familiar faces such as Valerie Owens, Valerie Mackey, Brian Sabo, and Derek and Bea DeGrazia makes me miss my native land that much more. Add to the fact that my whole family now resides on the west coast, well, let’s just say I am in a constant state of tug-of-war between my head and my heart. Part of me wants to move back to be closer to the people I care about the most, but the other part of me wants to remain on the east, and to continue to chase my dream. However, due to the firm grip my addiction to horses and eventing has over me, I think we all can predict the victorious side to that least for now. Which leads me to my next train of thought...chasing the “actual” dream.

We all know that this sport of eventing is a tough one, both mentally and physically, but mostly, financially. Being that I have always owned my top horses along with my mother, there is constant financial pressure and lack of funds to show and get seen. In a perfect world, I would be competing in England with a string of four star mounts that couldn’t be counted on one hand. But back to reality, and while we are not as geographically advantaged as the Europeans, we certainly have the horse and rider talent right here in America, most of whom (myself included) just need that extra “push.” That being said, I would love to increase my horse arsenal to prepare for London, Normandy and Rio, and I am vigorously searching for owners who are as avid a horse enthusiast as I. I just need a chance...and I hope that someone out there, anywhere in the world, may read this blog and grant me the opportunity to do so.

So what shall you expect from Laine Ashker Eventing and Crow’s Ear Farm as the fall season quickly approaches? Putting BACK on my coach’s hat, I am traveling back to the west coast at least twice more to coach at Woodside and Galway in between the months of September and October. Next month I am traveling to the blue grass state of Kentucky to teach a clinic put on my Bill Kraatz. My clinic-ing season closes with a trip to Minnesota to teach the Croixside Pony Club in November. I feel like I will be riding a plane more than a horse in spanning the nation to teach these clinics, all for which I am equally amped.

Switching to competition mode, Lyle will continue learning the ropes at the Preliminary level with Mod and Affirminator trying their hand (or hoof) at Novice. The Champ will be back in action soon, but I have not yet consulted with Buck in regards to the best plan of action that sets us on the right track to London 2012. Diego Fuego will continue at Second Level in hopes of achieving a qualifying score for the GAIG (dressage championships) in the Fall and perhaps trying to tackle a few third level movements through the interim. As I dust my britches off, slip on my boots and crack my knuckles I can’t help but feel anxiously excited for what prospects lay ahead for me in the Fall of 2011. Until next time folks, sit back, relax, take a deep breath and EMBRACE THE STRUGGLE...for it’s what shapes our bittersweet success in the future. Cheers!


Monday, May 2, 2011

The Weekend That "Almost" Was...

Anybody that knows me can automatically assume that my results at this past Rolex were certainly not up-to-par with the expectations I had going into the event. Those that know me could also assume that it would probably be better to text me rather than call being that I have a very different way of dealing with my failures.

Truth be told I AM very disappointed with my results this past weekend. From a few unfortunate bobbles in the dressage, to a silly mistake on XC, to one of the most surprising and unlucky rails at the last fence in the SJ, things simply did not go the way I had originally planned. I would like to call this past event the Weekend of “Almosts”.

Allow me to elaborate: From the very beginning of the event (ie: the actual drive out to Lexington), things began to go awry. As mom and I were hauling through Staunton, VA my truck began to shut down during the long climb up the Appalachian mountain range. Once the shifting mechanism began to fail is when I started to get worried. With the help of my friend and fellow competitor William Coleman, I began calling everyone and anyone who happened to be in route to Rolex by way of VA in hopes that they could give Al a ride to the horse park. When I thought all hope was lost and I may have to saddle up Al and ride him to Kentucky, a tiny miracle came in the form of a large lorry slowly gaining on my now feeble and sickly truck. It was Allison Springer who came to save the day! After flagging she and her groom down, we were able to move Alex from my trailer to Allison’s lorry where he happily hauled next to his newfound trailer-mate, Arthur. Thank goodness for the benevolence of Ms. Springer as if she hadn’t come to my rescue, Al and I would probably STILL be in route to the blue grass state!

Al seemed to settle in quite quickly at the Kentucky Horse Park with ample hacks and hand walks from the Crow’s Ear A Team (Bronwyn, mom and myself). In fact, on Wednesday following the first trot up and the surprising and exhilarating evacuation of the horses due to inclement weather, I had some of the best dressage work of my career that was met with a high five and a smile from Kim as we formulated a plan for the following day of competition. Everything seemed to have settled down and it was now up to fate and hard work to be the deciding factor come the final round on Sunday.

On dressage day, Al’s first warm up was spectacular as I worked on “long and low” simultaneously pushing him forward encouraging him to use his back and soften at the base of his neck. He even seemed relaxed as we meandered down to the final warm up before our test in the palatial Rolex grandstand. I was mostly happy with his final warm up except for the fact that I never really quite got through to him in moving off my leg and accepting the bridle. I believe that this was the main reason why our winning scores from the trot work in the test plummeted during the canter work. Just that slight bit of tension that I was able to use to my advantage in the trot work simply escaped me in the canter which enabled him to spook in the counter canter and pick up the incorrect lead from the rein back. At any rate, my test went from being historical to “ho-hum” within one swift mistake which made me feel pretty disappointed in the overall performance.
Derek DeGrazia’s course was as big as it was technical. Every line and combination was filled with questions of straightness, precision and balance. It was a true testament of a four star course. However, I felt very confident despite the footing conditions that I could deliver a clear and confident ride...which I did (for the most part.) As I set out on course, my first goal was to keep Al relaxed and in front of my leg at the same time. After he jumped brilliantly into the first water, both he and I took a deep breath and turned our attention to the next question that loom ahead: the coffin. After a tremendous jump over the parallel oxer, I had my pace set for the coffin but before I could get Al’s attention onto the first element, he spooked at something outside the ropes, causing me to begin to pull to find my distance instead of leg him forward as a correction. As we crawled over the first jump, I was sure I could get him to jump over the ditch then quickly take the option for the C element in the coffin. However, the damage had already been done and Alex was extremely offended at my less-than-desirable decision to pull on his mouth before a serious four star coffin question....UNDERSTANDABLY so. I couldn't help but think to myself in the approach to the coffin that I should let go and that I shouldn’t pull but for some reason my reaction time couldn't follow suit. Following the stupid stop, I hopped over the ditch to the alternative C option, gave Al an “I’m sorry” pat on the neck and kicked on. The trouble with having a silly stop so early in the course is that many a time we riders get the “loser’s limp” being that we know we are out of the game so to speak. However, my initial plan following the coffin mishap was that I OWED Al a good ride around the rest of the course and to demonstrate to the selectors that even in adversity (even though it was self-inflicted), I could still keep my focus and finish even stronger than I had started. Al simply FLEW across that course, taking every direct route and making it look like child’s play. Even as we floated across the finish line I was happy to have a horse underneath me who wasn’t mired with exhaustion and fatigue. Thanks to my Crow’s Ear Crew (Abbey, Ann, B, April and mom), Al cooled out in minutes and was able to go back to the comfort of his stall to get some much needed rest.

The rest of the night was a gloomy one for me. Because I take this sport and my dream so seriously, I have a hard time of making light of my mistakes and simply moving on. Instead, I fill my head with self-loathing and criticisms and replay the mistake over and over in my head. Not only is it hard on myself, everyone around me feels the need to walk on eggshells so as not to say anything that may make me delve deeper into my misery. It’s just not right. In fact, that is the one thing that I have yet to learn and probably is what’s keeping me from achieving the greatness I so desperately long for: learning how to deal with mistakes in the aftermath.

Sunday morning I made myself promise that I would finish the event strong. I changed my attitude from self-pity to funnel vision as I walked around the twisty and massive show jumping course. After formulating a plan of striding in the combinations, it was time to turn that plan into action as I sprang aboard Alex and headed down to the Grandstand. I entered the arena confidently and organized as I turned toward the first fence. Al jumped superbly leaving all fences untouched...except one. As we landed from the last fence and crossed the finish line I looked up at the scoreboard to see if I had made the time and indeed had a double clear. I was rejoiced to see that I had added nothing to my cross country score and celebrated my round with a smile and hug to my amazing equine partner. My celebration was met with an unsurmountable cheer from the audience which raised my morale tenfold. It was only when I exited the ring that I learned of the ill-fated final jump where Al must’ve just touched it with his hind hoof. “You’re a work in progress” were the words that Captain Mark Phillips muttered as he set his attention onto another nervous rider ready to take on the tough show jumping course. Indeed, I AM a work in progress, but when will the work be over to achieve the results that I want, if ever? I knew on the XC course the mistake I made while I was doing it, but why did I even make the mistake in the first place? When will I stop having to learn things the hard way? The answer to that my friends, escapes me at the moment. Time and experience will only tell.

We ended our second four star sitting in 20th place and taking home the 10th place national title...a far cry from the top three goal I had originally set. The thing is, I know that Al and I have what it takes and have even demonstrated brilliance in all three phases, I just haven’t been able to connect the three at one time. Frustrating to say the least...

I am however, SO thankful to have above all, a happy and healthy horse while on my drive back to Virginia. My happy and healthy horse is currently being pulled by a recently fixed Dodge truck that just keeps tickin’ despite the 250,000 plus miles I have managed to accumulate on it. My amazing mother who rides with me through every course, combination, and movement and who can personally feel the disappointment in my heart when things don’t always go as planned. To my father who is slowly gaining back his faith in the event world after swearing against it over three years ago. To my steadfast grandparents who would travel to the ends of the globe to watch me achieve a dream that I so vehemently chase after. To Bronwyn for knowing when to give me my space and take Al for a graze. To my students and friends, for their devotion to my passion and my cause. To Dr. Douglas Berry, for donating his time and helpful anecdotes in order to push me along the path to success. To my friend and vet, Dr. Sarah Gold who made sure Al and I were “taken care of” despite our whereabouts and differing locations. To my farrier Ben Zook, for his open mindedness and yearn for perfection in the art of horse shoeing. To Tom and Jennifer Newton for putting my dreams before their needs. To my sponsors and supporters, for keeping both my horses and myself looking and feeling at our prime. But most of all, I want to thank my horse, Anthony Patch. It is only when I am aboard that tiny little creature that I feel limitless and unbeatable. Thank you Al for allowing me to feel like Bettina Hoy on a daily day, I WILL do you justice and your talent WILL be noticed. Until then folks, loosen your girth, undo the throat latch....and in the lyrical words of Pam Tillis, “Let that pony RUN!” Cheers!

Lainey Ashker

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Wake-Up Call!

There are two types of people in this world: Those who do as they’re told, and those who just have to learn things the hard way. I, my friends, am CLEARLY a member of the latter group of hard-headed characters. As many of you have probably noticed by now, my results at the Fork did not quite go as planned, but isn’t that what eventing is about after all: Knowing all of your alternate routes in case the direct line doesn’t seem to pan out? I guess it’s not only an eventing lesson, but a life lesson no doubt!

Dressage day at the Fork was one of mixed reactions for me. I had a wonderful warmup on Al, an even better dressage test, followed by one of the most memorable moments of my life when CMP gave me the coveted “high five,” then I was brought down to earth when Brian O’Connor announced my score of 33.0. Ahhh such is life! When you think you’re up, you’re down and vice versa. Upon later review of my test, I was ecstatic that EVERY flying lead change was clean and my corners were used and movements well executed. Whether the judge saw it the same way as I felt it is obsolete at this point: My lessons are finally starting to register! To date I believe it is the best test Al and I have ridden...the key words here being, “TO DATE.” That’s right folks, we are saving our best efforts for two weeks down the road...

Cross country day brought a few clouds looming overhead scattering some rain here and there but the footing held up for the horses throughout the day. I had a phenomenal round in the morning aboard my sale horse Rising Spirit, who laughed her way around the intermediate course clocking in precisely on optimum time. Being that May is such a “forward thinking” horse, she really encourages me to “settle” in my riding early in the course, as her rhythm rarely changes. When I set out on Al, I pressed myself to parallel the same feeling I had earlier aboard May.

As Al cantered down to the first fence, I felt nothing but confidence and wind between my Heritage gloves and Al’s webbed reins. In fact, the whole course went so brilliantly that at the final double corner combination, I softened just a bit too much to the second, thus giving Al an open door for the run out. Being that our nearly PERFECT advanced cross country record was now marred due to my overconfidence, the walk back to the barn was a very, VERY long one (Valerie Ashker can certainly attest to this)!

For the rest of the evening and throughout the night I replayed the run out over and over, wondering what I could have done better and why I could have let this happen? When all of my responses came back insignificant and somewhat inane, I decided to listen to my mom tell me the answer I did not want to hear. “WAKE UP CALL!” Truth be told it has been a long time since I have had a refusal on a cross country course and perhaps the Fork was the ideal time for me to learn yet another, difficult lesson: Never get too comfortable. Being that my round felt so confident and easy aboard Al, I let my guard down and softened the reins ASSUMING he would hold the straight line that I placed him on for the double corners. Tisk tisk Lainey Evion! One should NEVER soften to a corner, let alone an advanced level one! What was I thinking?! And to this I would refer my students to the old adage, “Do as I say, not as I do!”

The point being here is that we are all human beings. We all make mistakes. Although my mistake cost me a twenty penalty markup to my dressage score, I hope it will give me that added encouragement when the next set of double corners present themselves in Kentucky! Consider this a lesson learned!

The final day at the Fork was a tough one for some, including me. Although my intermediate horse jumped a flawless round to finish second in the class, I was unable to show jump Alex due to a twisted shoe on course the day prior (probably a result of my misgiving...or lack thereof). The farrier fixed the shoe just fine, but I just couldn't risk an injury being that Rolex is now so close, so I figured I would save the Phenom for another day...preferably two weeks from now.

I am happy to write that the horses have all been moved in and are settling in superbly to my new barn at Rockville Equestrian Center. Lynn Woychick and her lovely daughter Caitlynn have been overtly hospitable which has made the whole moving process an enjoyable one. As the clock keeps ticking my focus now turns to maintaining Alex’s fitness while snagging some last minute lessons from Kim to perfect those tiny 8 meter circles! Until then folks, tighten up those shoulder in angles and perfect that 5-loop canter serpentine! We’ve got a four star to win!


Monday, April 4, 2011

Mind Over Matter

This week’s Katie Prudant clinic was an extremely informative experience albeit a humbling one. To be quite honest, I can’t say I remember being so nervous to ride for an instructor since Buck freaked me out in Hong Kong 2007 upon the looming arrival of the infamous George Morris. After polishing my bits and bleaching my saddle pads (and my teeth), both Al and May (and their pilot) were poised to show their stuff! Thus, Day One of lessons with the Queen of the Poles began!

I have always been an advocate of visual learning. Lucky for me I got to watch my group partners Phillip Dutton, Will Faudree and Doug Payne tackle Katie’s tough yet educational SJ exercises. In both lessons we started with about thirty minutes of flat work, perfecting (or trying to in some cases) the flying changes from the SEAT, collection to extension work, and finding a distance over a series of poles placed on the ground. Surprisingly enough, when we began having to fit a certain number of strides in between two lonesome poles on the ground, that’s when the hard work began! Allow me to tell you from experience that it makes the exercise a whole lot harder when your horse (ahem...Al) tends to jump the inanimate pole on the ground as if it were a four foot oxer! However, after a few test runs Al finally realized that the pole really wasn't a trick question and that it was indeed just a pole lying flatly on the ground...doing absolutely nothing.

After we conquered the evil pole drill, we swiftly moved onto our course work. In one particular exercise, Katie set up a line of three fences across a crooked diagonal that rode in a variety of steps, which (here comes the hard part) we had to decide BEFORE riding the line. Knowing that I need to work on balancing from my seat without allowing my horses to fall behind my leg, I took on the line in a steady five strides to five strides, bending it out if I needed more room. Wallah! My plan of attack worked wonders and both my horses jumped like rockstars!

Day Two with KP met us with a deluge of rain! Fortunately, the wonderful Peter Barry was generous enough to donate his breathtaking farm and convenient covered arena to avoid any jumps and/or trainers floating away. My first lesson with May went spectacularly as we honed in on grid work and depth perception. My second lesson was equally as informative but was constantly being interrupted by random downpours and violent bouts of lightening and thunder. At one point in my lesson I remember adjusting my gaze outside of the indoor and seeing Matt Flynn, who also happens to board at Peter’s barn, doing a trot set aboard a talented and unsuspecting young horse literally in the midst of a downpour. Matt’s eyes squinted trying to dodge the angry rain that pelleted down on his helmet as his horse obediently kept the buoyant rhythm and frame despite the weather. I came to the realization from Matt’s act of determination and fortitude against Mother Nature of why I love this sport so much: We eventers are simply resilient...

Looking back on both days’ lessons, the common reminder that Katie would unhesitatingly shout was “THINK through your course.” There is never any excuse to miss a distance or approach a fence unbalanced and that although we have the tools to execute a clean show jumping round, eventers (or other normal human beings) lack the actual PERCEPTION to deliver. It’s what I keep reading over and over in Mind Gym people, MIND over MATTER. Perhaps Mrs. Prudant owns a copy of this irreplaceable competitor’s bible? Speculate as you wish for the world may never know...

And thus April is upon us. Which can only mean one thing...or two...or three rather. For one, April plays host to two of my favorite events, the Fork and Rolex. And finally, my time in Wagener is up. I will miss hearing the constant bickering of the hens in the morning over the premiere sun-bathing spot. Or watching Sarah feed the baby lamb his daily formula, which he is happy to remind you about once every five minutes. I will miss driving into the barn and watching all of my beautiful horses poke their heads out of their stalls one by one to greet me with nickers and neighs alike while awaiting for the start of the work day eagerly and happily. I will miss the sand roads, the random fox hunt of about ten riders who boisterously would traverse the property...I will miss my beloved Guppy toy... and so it’s safe to say guys, I will miss Shadow Lane Farm. I will miss Wagener.

So as I bid adieu to South Carolina, both mom and I are excited to enter the North for the Fork. The horses and I will arrive a few days prior to competition for some helpful “ringmanship” sessions with the Captain, who I am hoping will see a trend of progression in both Alex and myself. This weekend Al is set to run in the Advanced class and May in the Intermediate. Until then folks, elbows in and heels down! Here’s to some floaty trot extensions and immaculate show jumping rounds!

-Lainey Ashker

***Above photos courtesy of Pamela Eckelbarger of Thank you to Pamela for capturing some great moments at not only the KP clinic, but many of the other Aiken Training Sessions as well!

Monday, March 28, 2011

A SmartPak Cooler and A Blue Ribbon to Ring in the Month of March!

OK, I officially receive an “F” for updating my blog as promised. Truth be told, this past month has gone by with epic speed therefore rendering me useless when it comes to spending time alongside my laptop (unless it involves logging onto FaceBook of course!)

So, let’s see...where to start? In order to avoid a drab and tedious account of the past month’s happenings, I’ll provide a quick update on each horse and then jump to the most recent of shows, Southern Pines II.

Lyle has been improving his flat work and jumping skills tremendously. However, I must keep reminding myself that he is only five years old, as his aptitude for learning towers over most OTTBs that both mom and I have had the opportunity to train. He is a serious horse for the future, without a doubt!

Two weekends prior from now, Diego finally had his long-awaited opportunity to strut his stuff in DQ land! At his first recognized show, he took home the blue for his superb test in Second Level Test One and fourth place in First Level Test Four. Always a perfectionist, I still would like to get him in the seventy percentile range as opposed to the upper sixties but strength training and conditioning are always done over a long period of I am very confident that they too will come.

As many of you know I recently was given the ride aboard Rising Spirit and since I have had the opportunity to ride this amazing mare to sell for Sarah Heffron, my confidence has paralleled that of her “Breyer Horse-like” name. She has now competed successfully at her first two intermediates, placing third in the first and fifth in the second. On the off chance that she doesn't sell immediately, I really am hoping that I will somehow stumble upon a patron who is willing to purchase the mare for me to ride...that can catapult us to international stardom!

Now, onto the champ himself. What I love about that little horse is his ability to make things look so seemingly easy! From the countless shoulder ins down center line that Mark makes us perform to an Advanced cross country course in the pouring down rain, Al always seems to handle the pressure with ease, despite his pilot’s decisions, or lack thereof. I was very pleased this past weekend to have led from start to finish with Al. I believe that finally, our hard work and beloved grant money (which is rapidly disappearing from my bank account) is beginning to pay off!

One of the biggest changes in my dressage has been my attention to detail, which both Mark and Kim have really helped me to identify. At Southern Pines, my primary goal was to perform an accurate dressage test and try to leave no stone unturned, and no corner untouched. Although my changes still need some honing, I am quite pleased with the lateral and extension work aboard my wonder boy.

Cross country at SoPo was a whole other scene from the sunny day of geometry tests prior. I was lucky enough to stay relatively dry on May’s spectacular intermediate XC round which I was happy about considering I was wearing white britches! However, as I began to put in Al’s studs for XC, my original small grass tips were suddenly replaced with mediums as the rain began to pour down with conviction! Soon enough, Al and I sucked it up, tightened our belt (and girth), and headed out for the start box in the midst of a deluge. After about fifteen minutes of warming up (which was really quite an oxymoron at this point), our number was called and we began to circle the start box with anticipation and excitement of what was to come. Although I knew I was lying in first place before XC, I did not plan on going for the optimum time as it was both Al’s and my first advanced back of the year, and I was wanting to provide a confidence instilling round, rather than just a fast paced one!

As we set out on course, my original plan to start off slowly was somewhat amped up due to the inclement weather. Being that the rain was pelleting in both Al’s and my eyes in the approach to our fences, I found that Al was a bit stickier in the beginning of the course than usual. I therefore started riding him a bit firmer after the first couple fences, to ensure he wouldn't lose confidence despite the angry weather. After fence four, we were well on our way and I was able to scale back and allow Al to settle with plenty of pats in between the jumps throughout our gallop lanes. The advanced track at SoPo was a bit “twistier” than previous years, with many opportunities to interrupt the XC flow if the rider began to ride too backwards! Being that this is one of my weak points with Al (because quite frankly, he listens to me way too intently) I am very happy to report that I am greatly improving in this area as Kentucky begins to creep closer.

As we crossed the finish line, I was met with a boisterously cheerful greeting squad of my mother and Sophia Zeier, who flew all the way across the country to enjoy the downpour on the east coast, as if the California rain wasn't enough! Both Al and May spent the next two hours swapping positions in the Whirlpool boots and we ended the cold and wet day with an hour or two of hand walking and grazing, much to the horses’ delight!

However, Saturday wasn't a great day for all...quite the contrary actually. I would like to express my heartfelt condolences to Arden, Michael and Nat with the loss of their spectacular mounts. Losing a horse is never easy; losing one that you share each day along side and on top is demoralizing. However, Mandar and Dekorum are in greener pastures now running and jumping with the likes of Frodo, Jamie, Peewee, and of course my beloved Guppy. What a sad, sad day for eventing.

The weather didn't help the already melancholy atmosphere at Southern Pines on Day Three. Although it was immensely colder, I think we were all relieved to finally be dry and kept our fingers crossed that Mother Nature would find it in her heart to fend off the Rain Gods for the time being. I was worried that the new SJ venue comprised of grass footing would be torn up after one prelim, two intermediate and two advanced divisions had a go of it before Al had his chance. However, when I set out over the first obstacle in Sally Ike’s tricky show jumping course, I was reminded that the Southern Pines sand is no stranger to rain and soaks it all up making the footing quite cushy without being slippery! Al jumped like his normal freak self with a classically clear round to hold onto our three day lead in the Advanced B class! My, that boy has wings!!!

This week will be one of the busiest as May and Al and I not only have multiple lessons with the show jumping legend herself, Katie Prudant, but we are also packing our life up to head north back to VA, by way of the infamous Fork! We will be arriving at the Fork early where we will have the opportunity to ride under the watchful eye of CMP before competition commences on Thursday. In the meantime, to avoid boredom and over grooming my horses, I will set out a plan to find Kellie Pickler and educate her on the dynamics of C-A-L-A-M-A-R-I! Until then folks, shoulders back, eyes forward, and keep your eyes on the prize!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Air Up There

"Are you able to get enough oxygen up there?"

This is a truly logical question that could be addressed to someone who happens to be on a plane or in a parachute. Someone could even answer this question who is attempting a bungee jump from a skyscraper. I am sure Dr. Sarah Gold could even answer this question when she easily finagles her way down slopes of the Alps via snow skis. But how can this question be applied in a jumping lesson? How can one possibly reach such high altitudes while on the back of a horse? Well, my friends, the answer comes in the form of a very small equine, dainty in stature, who's large eye and dished face makes him seem more of an Arabian than a Thoroughbred. The answer is: Anthony Patch.

Truth be told, the particular aforementioned question came out of Captain Mark Phillip's mouth after Alex and I completed one of the first courses he set while in the final leg of the USET Training Session a few weeks prior. I don't know if it was because I was overly focused on preparing for CMP's next course or perhaps I was too busy trying to hold on for dear life, but the humor in the question eluded my senses at that very point in time. It was only on the forty-five minute drive home from Three Runs Plantation that I realized what we had just accomplished. Al and I are officially one step closer to living a dream that once seemed a fantasy on my bedroom ceiling.

Aside from nearly crippling myself in trying to beat the infamous Doug Payne and Jennifer Brannigan in the squat section of our USOC Fitness Assessment (where I placed a dismal third) the whole experience, from my lessons with CMP to meeting with the USOC staff, was a fruitful and informative one.

The following weekend was one of transitions. This specific transition came in the form of a worn-in western saddle placed on the back of a very small unassuming red cowpony, accompanied by a rather handsome cowboy. Oh yes my friends...the annual Make-A-Wish Challenge had finally arrived. Ever since that brisk evening in February of 2010 when Joe and I finished second in the Challenge, I had been vehemently yearning to take back the title that dangled in front of our thirsty palates. Oh yes, it was time for Chuckie Waters to meet his maker(s)!

I arrived in sunny Ocala the Saturday prior to the Valentine's Day Challenge in order to get a few lessons from my cowboy coach, Joe Harper. Being as competitive as his eventing student, Joe graciously brought two cowponies for me to try out, Jethro and Sparky. Being that Joe won multiple classes that weekend at a Reining Cow Horse Show with both ponies, the odds were in my favor to match up with one of the two stocky quarter horses. Eventually I chose Sparky, a petite red mare standing only fourteen and a half hands tall. Where she lacked in size she made up exponentially in speed and athleticism; we WERE the ones to beat!

The pressure was on as Joe executed a glorious jumping test aboard Pistol (one of Aaron Vale's ex jumpers) to finish his section in second place. As I entered the ring to begin my reining pattern, I visualized the coveted belt buckle, adorned with rubies, gold and silver, which laid claim to a competitive english versus western charitable championship...oh yes...she would be mine! Aside from a big mistake made in our cow work, Sparky and I took the lead from ole Chuckie...and Joe and I never looked back! By the end of the Challenge, Joe went home with his new custom bit, and I drove back to Aiken wearing my new sparkly belt buckle! It was a pleasure to work with such a talented and knowledgeable horseman such a Joe, and to bring two worlds together that share the same passion in order to raise money for charity makes the winning all the more satisfying!

Soon when I got home from Ocala, I was brought back down from cowgirl heaven as preparations were in order to get Lyle ready for his second training level event, and May (aka Rising Spirit) ready for her first show of the season in the preliminary class. Being that I only had a few days to get to know May, I wanted to give her a confident ride to start her event season off on the right pun intended.

The weekend went by smoothly, with both horses executing solid dressage tests, jumping clear cross country rounds, and aside from Lyle's rider adding one too many before the triple combination, the show jumping rounds were relatively flawless. May finished a respectable fifth place at her first show back in a year and Lyle finished with an exuberant head shake and tail boy is starting to grow up!

This weekend will be Al's first show of the year. I am starting him off at Prelim, where I hope to perform a lovely dressage test, and use the jumping phases towards his fitness plan in preparation for KY. May will also try her hand (or hoof) at prelim once more before her move up to Intermediate at Full Gallop. I am very excited to be in the midst of my show season. Between the bi-weekly USEF Training sessions, weekly dressage lessons with Kimberly, earnestly working on perfecting Diego's flying lead changes, and continuously searching for the greenest bananas in the produce section of Piggly Wiggly (and to no avail), my free time has been squashed to a minimum. But all in all I'm a happy camper...I've got amazing horses, a busy schedule, a fancy belt buckle, and a cowboy hat to boot! What more could a girl wish for? Until next time folks, eyes up, shoulders back...and RIDE RIDE RIDE! Keep your eye on the cow...errr, the prize! Cheers!


Saturday, January 22, 2011

Wagener is the NEW Aiken!

Hmmm let's see here, where shall I begin? Between the haunted house, my mother's hospital visit, the fifteen hundred pound hogs and the endless sand roads, my perception of reality and a nightmarish fantasy somehow became intermixed...

Yes ladies and gentlemen the road to Aiken (ahem, Wagener to be exact) South Carolina originally started as a smooth one, for the horses that is. However, the human transport was the catalyst for the eruption of scary, slightly intrusive and extremely offensive situations of what lie ahead.

After spending over a day and a half hopping from airport to airport, Delilah finally landed in Richmond, Virginia; with mom in tow. Being that neither my mom or the dog had slept on any of the flights (yes, flights as in plural in FOUR flights to get from SAC to RIC, all accompanied with four hour plus layovers..thanks mother nature!), I decided to delay the trip a day, so that mom could get some much needed rest.

On early Thursday morning, mom, D and I were "up-and-adam," making the pilgrimage from north to south with four horses in tow, one too many luggage pieces, two cell phones, and plenty of sugar-free Red Bull! Like I said before, the road trip to Wagener couldn't have run smoother, and highway 95 couldn't have been more welcoming. After eight hours of singing, chatting, NOT texting while driving, and stopping to check where Al placed his grooming halter from time to time in the trailer, the Crow's Ear crew pulled into one of our final destinations: Shadow Lane Farm!

What a site for soar eyes! The glorious yellow courtyard-shaped barn overlooked an immaculate cross country course and beautiful rolling pastures. On the other side an all-weather sand footing dressage regulated arena just teased me as I stood gazing at it's buoyancy and proximity next to my four-stall shed row barn. As I turned the boys out for the night in their spacious pastures, I felt so relieved to have a place as wonderful as this to train and prepare for the upcoming spring season. After a couple hours of snorting and prancing, the boys began to settle into their new winter home. All was good. NOW for the fun part.

Next stop: my humble abode. Now I must make a side note that I never actually SAW this house in person nor did I take the words "slightly rustic," "a little out there," or "blood-stained couch" seriously as I meandered from one sand road onto another. My bursting excitement from seeing my horses' new digs suddenly began to wane (similar to the bars on my AT&T iPhone) as I drove down Bluffwood Rd. As the door creaked open sounding like a scene from a Freddie Kruger movie, I was happily welcomed by two smiling and familiar faces, Coren Morgan and Kate Samuels who would be my roommates for the rest of the winter, if we made it out of the house alive that is.

"There is going to be some serious character-building," said Coren as mom and I creeped across the peeling linoleum floors and hopped over the puddle of water coming from the base of the oven, which Delilah thirstily lapped. Being that no television existed, the internet connection on my Verizon Mi-Fi was spotty at best, the microwave was unresponsive and the shower was big enough to wash off just one of my legs, I'd have to agree with Coren that some sort of building, be it character or nervousness, was absolutely in store. Nevertheless, we were finally in Aiken, and we we there for one thing: to train, train, train.

Now, let's just take a step back for a moment. When I say I'm in "Aiken" I don't actually mean the small town in South Carolina which plays host to fine dining such as Golden Corral or Ryans. I don't actually mean the town that has paved roads and a Kroger, Starbucks, CVS and a Marble Slab. NO WAY! When I say "Aiken" I am referring to the town of Wagener, which is nearly thirty miles east of the real McCoy. And when I say "Wagener" I mean the town that has ONE Dollar General, ONE take-out Chinese food restaurant, ONE Piggly Wiggly grocery store. When I say "Wagener" I mean the town that has ONE street light and ONE random hardware shop in case you need to buy a rope to tie up your neighboring Big Foot. Yes, my friends, Wagener South Carolina is where my horses and I reside, probably the ONE place where my coveted iPhone 4.0 clearly reminds me of my social isolation when it reads "NO SERVICE" in white bold lettering. Character building, my friends....Sheer. Character. Building.

After about a week in Bluffwood Shack (although Kate has a much better name for it which will remain undisclosed on account of the children), Coren, Kate and I had enough character-building and opted for the two-story lake house securely nestled in the woods of a very GATED community just five miles away from Shadow Lane Farm. I don't know whether it was the incessant howling of the hellish hounds ALL NIGHT LONG, the fumes from the leaking propane tank outside, or the heaps of possum feces spread around the entire house that greeted us one morning, but it was either the shack or me...and the shack aint feeding the horses every day. In all of about five minutes, the girls and I were packed, and speeding down the highway to our new, more sophisticated digs in the Edisto Lake community.

So from the start, the road to Aiken (or Wagener) has been that of a hectic one. However, as I am now starting into week two and thus becoming far more settled, I am slowly discovering why it's worth braving the cold instead of basking in the glorious sun of Ocala (where I have spent the past seven winters!) Where the endless sandy roads come in handy is for the long, arduous trot sets that lie ahead as our spring three days grow closer. Three events at which I'll be competing are all within a five mile radius of one another, and less than ten miles from Shadow Lane Farm. The kind and laid-back nature of the locals add to the tranquil atmosphere of this humble, hospitable horse community. And although it is "really OUT there," I have the honor and opportunity to live with two other fabulous horse women, who are not only great roommates, but encouraging friends when times become tough. So all in all, I'd say this has been a change for the better. Heck, I'll even venture so far as to say I think Aiken, or Wagener is even growing on me. The final word will come when I begin my show season and training sessions, which begin in a little over two weeks. Until then folks, pull on those gloves, zip up those boots, and grab a horse...we've got a trot set to explore! Stay tuned for more from the Wagener saga!