Friday, December 30, 2011

New shoes.

WARNING: Twirl and sashay at your own risk. 

On my holiday foray to Charlotte last week, I got a great deal on a killer pair of shoes. And, by "killer" I mean: "Those shoes are going to kill you when you fall and break your neck," (quotation courtesy of my mother, of course). But, one thing I cannot resist is a reasonably priced ($29) pair of fancy shoes. I haven't bought any fancy shoes in a long time. I will gladly pay $70 for new shoes for Eddie every 8-12 weeks, but it'll usually be 8-12 months between shoe purchases for yours truly. It's the holidays, so I caved in and I bought. I haven't worn them yet, but I keep hearing the old, "If you build it, they will come" line from Field of Dreams echoing in my head, so I figure that if I wear them, a party will materialize somehow, somewhere!

Cross-country course walking machines. Check out those studs.
And, yes, they are purple!

And, because one pair of shoes would have come home lonely in the bag all by themselves, I had to get 2 pair to keep everyone happy. These are my foot SUVs -- perfect for running, walking, hiking, and trekking out there around cross-country courses everywhere. These were $39 on sale (I know it's tacky to talk price, but I've got to give a great deal it's due). Such fancy kicks for not a lot of cash. Happy New Year to me! 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Letter to Santa.

My little haven, all decked out for the holidays.

Dear Santa,

I know that this is the time of year when you are insanely busy and things are just about at the point of spiraling out of control. I know that you have lots of things to do, places to be, and you've received millions of letters from around the world with numerous requests for presents, presents, presents. But this year, Santa, I'm going to make this easy on you: I'm not asking for anything at all. 

"Not asking for anything at all," you say? Yes, that is right. You see, Santa, at a time when most people are anxiously awaiting something new, something pretty, something expensive, something exciting, I just want to take the time to stop and look at all of the things I already have and be happy in knowing I am very lucky and blessed. 

So, instead of checking your list and processing my order, I'd just like you to sit back and relax when it comes to me. I'm alright and maybe I'll be needy and demanding next year, but not this year. That's because this year, I have all of this:

Loving friends and family. I am pretty lucky to have a family that doesn't fight, grumble, or cause me to want to tear my hair out. My friends are fabulous and although I don't get to see them as much as I'd like, I know they are out there, and they know I am out there for them as well. Whether they are my high school friends, college friends, work friends, or "horsey" friends, I have such wonderful people in my life and I cherish the good times and the memories I hold thanks to my great family and friends. 

A good job. As you know, Santa, I had a rough year or so until I was hired by several local schools to teach this past fall. I had waited and waited for the "right job" to come my way, and I wasn't even sure what that job might be. Would it be a part-time writer/editor for a local company? Would it be bank teller? Store clerk? Babysitter? Doctor's receptionist? Insurance sales? Processing medical records? I considered them all. After being laid off from a corporate job that I both loved (at least the people I worked with were great) and hated, I wasn't sure what would be in store for me next. Of course I've always been a teacher in some capacity, so finding myself back in front of a classroom (5 different classrooms, to be precise) just feels right. It's exhausting and is often punishing, but I had so many special students this semester that I noted something satisfying and rewarding that occurred almost every day. It's good to have a steady paycheck again each month, but the feeling of helping people to learn and to change their lives is something you really can't put a dollar-amount to. 

A warm home. Santa, you've visited my house every year since I've lived here (that's 11 times!) and you know my little cottage is not fancy, big, or chocked with luxurious amenities. Last December, my heating unit finally died and my parents helped to finance a new furnace system. This winter has not been harsh as yet, but it feels good to come in from the barn and have a cozy, warm  place waiting for me. It's nice to wake up in the morning and to find that the heat ran consistently through the night (that didn't happen much the year before) and I am grateful to not have to wear a hooded sweatshirt, wool socks, and gloves while eating dinner or watching t.v. There are many people out there who do not have a warm home, so I have tried to donate a little of my new income to some initiatives around town here that help needy folks find shelter and afford heat this season. As the Lord said: "It is more blessed to give than to receive." I guess this is something that you know all-too-well, Santa!

Finally, I have to say that I've had a good fall season back out there in the world of Eddie and eventing. We didn't make it to a recognized event in 2011, but we had a great October, November, and December. We have placed well in our dressage classes, we rode for two days in Nashville with Kyle Carter, and....guess what, Santa? I got to meet Francis Whittington. Auditing his clinic last month was the best, most enjoyable five hours of my year! But, the high point of 2011 had to be when Eddie and I won our combined test division a few weeks ago here at Penrose Farm (we scored a 26.8!). Can you believe it? A blue ribbon, at long last. That was a great way to finish the season and give me some hope for a productive and positive 2012. See, Santa, I was good this year (and so was Eddie)!

To make a long story short, I have everything I really need right now, Mr. Claus. There are people who need more than I do, so save the gifts for them this week. My gifts can't fit in a box or under the tree, anyway, and I find them all around me, all the time, 365 days of the year. So don't worry about stopping by my house on Saturday night....unless you just want to drop in for a few cookies and some strong eggnog. That's what I'll be having for Christmas, as I dream not of sugarplums, but of warm beds, well-fed dogs, happy family, loyal friends, and one super-duper red and white horse. 

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

One of those is blue!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Jumping the Brick Walls

This past semester, I had the pleasure of teaching a Liberal Studies seminar to nursing and business students at my alma mater, King College. The class focused on Stewardship and Ethical Responsibility and we read some fabulous texts, watched a film, read/enacted several plays, and spent one emotional class period viewing and discussing Randy Pausch's "The Last Lecture." There are so many ways that we could have explored this topic, but you know what they say about so much to do and so little time....

Each week we met (a total of 5 times, or once every 3 weeks) this term, the students would submit a reflection or response paper regarding the material they read and studied leading up to that particular class period. One of my business students was a vision-impaired gentleman who was able to access audio versions of most of the work we covered, but not all of it. For his final reflection paper, he asked my permission to write on his journey through college, since he had not been able to obtain the book. I enthusiastically agreed and he gave me his paper on the last night of class. 

His paper talked specifically about an experience he had about 8 years ago when he traveled to North Carolina to help the VA test visual aid equipment. One of the experiments he encountered required him to use a certain piece of equipment and to try and walk the local streets unassisted. He was accompanied by two sighted guides who would ensure his safety as he traveled along. At one point, they were talking and did not notice as he approached the side of a nearby building. As my student wrote, "The next thing I found on my journey was a brick wall. The guides were talking and not paying attention and I literally walked face-first into a wall. Did this stop me? No, I looked at them and said, 'Just another obstacle I have to overcome!'" I was very touched by this paper and the connections my student had made to facing physical and psychological challenges in his quest to attain a Bachelor's degree. I also could not help but to make comparisons to "jumping walls" in my own life.....literally, on the back of my horse. 

When we talk as equestrians, particularly eventers, we discuss many of the jumps we face on cross-country or show jumping courses as "obstacles." These are part of what we put in front of ourselves and our horses to test our skill, courage, athleticism, and accuracy. But, these obstacles also test our mental preparedness, bravery, and heart. Not too different from what my student faces as he enters each of his classes every new semester. There are many obstacles we face in life and I always feel as though I approach these questions as a rider: looking ahead, leg on, riding to the base of the jump, and kicking forward upon landing.

As he ended his paper, my student wrote, "I know that the devil is always putting brick walls in our paths. The question is, what do you do when you reach the brick wall? Do we stop and let the devil win, or do we figure out how to go over the wall? My goal in life is to be a wall jumper." After reading this paper, I smiled and thought to myself that -- like this amazing student -- I, too, endeavor to always "be a wall jumper." 

Saturday, December 10, 2011

RANT: USEA convention

Let me preface this by saying that I am not bitter because I'm not there this weekend. My decision to skip out and not participate wasn't due to limited finances (for once, if you can believe that); it was a conscious decision made after thoughtful consideration.

A month or so ago, I fully intended on attending the USEA annual convention in my own home state of good ole Tennessee. How exciting, right? Nashville is a great city, it's only 3 hours from me, and tons of my eventing friends -- not to mention my sister -- live there, and it would have been such a fabulous trip. But, as I realized that the meetings started on Wednesday, and I teach Monday-Friday, I began to wonder how much I could realistically attend. I teach for a college that does not allow sick days/time off for adjuncts without reducing their salary accordingly for each day they miss class. Say what? Yep, you heard me correctly. If I were to cancel class (for any reason at all, including death or hospitalization), my contract salary is docked for every day I do not meet with my students. With the convention falling during the last 2 days of the semester, this made finding a substitute to meet with my classes very difficult and all but pointless. My only option was to consider attending over the weekend (Friday evening through Sunday afternoon). So, I planned to do just that.

As the weeks progressed and I got excited about the trip to Nashville, I pulled up the schedule of events for the convention and I was deeply disappointed to realize that other than a few random sessions on Saturday and relatively none on Sunday, it would be ridiculous for me to make a 3-hour trip for very little involvement or participation. In addition to that, the cost of attending was in excess of $100 per day. Of course, there is a bundled fee of about $200+ for the entire convention (not including the banquet or the many $10-$12 cocktails I would need at the end of each day), but when the majority of the activities fell on Friday-Saturday, that's not much of a discount over the daily fee. But, I'll get to that shortly.

So, let's say that I had cancelled my classes for Thursday and Friday, took the subsequent pay cut, hired a farm sitter, made the trip to Nashville, and paid the registration fees. Let's see what I would have gotten for my efforts:

Thursday, Dec. 8

Continental Breakfast Sponsored by Rebecca Farm  Irrelevant
USEA Trade Fair  Irrelevant
USEF Eventing Technical Committee Not attending
USEF Eventing Technical Committee Committee Members Only 
Membership Committee Committee Members Only
Course Advisors Committee Committee Members Only
Area Affairs/Chairs Committee Committee Members Only
Professional Horseman’s Council Would attend
USEF Active Athletes Open Forum Not a USEF active athlete
Classic Committee Committee Members Only
Eventing Course Designers/Builders Committee Members Only
Rider Strength and Conditioning Workshop  Would attend
USEA Xentry: What's Next? Irrelevant
USEF Event Owner’s Task Force Irrelevant
Eventing Licensed Officials Committee Committee Members Only
Is your Horse Fit to Finish? Irrelevant
Board of Governors’ Reception Irrelevant
USEA Executive Committee and A&F Joint Meeting Committee Members Only
Friday,  Dec. 9

Continental Breakfast Sponsored by Rebecca Farm Irrelevant
USEA Trade Fair Irrelevant
Smart Business Practices for Eventers Irrelevant
USEA Board of Governors Meeting Not attending
EMSA Board Meeting Committee Members Only
Course Designers/Builders Open Forum Would attend
The Development Of SJ Courses At The Modern Olympic Games Not attending
Horse Parks, Hay Fields and Hack Lanes: How to Protect our Interest Would attend
Equestrian Sports Psychology Seminar Would attend
Dress Your Event For Success Irrelevant
Rule Change Open Forum Time conflicts with psych seminar
PRO Annual Meeting Irrelevant
Developing Your Eye: Judging YEH and FEH Conformation Irrelevant
The Latest in Eventing Safety Sponsored by Point-Two Air Jackets Would attend
Eventing Licensed Officials Committee Members Only
Area Treasurers/Chairs Working Session Committee Members Only
FEH Open Forum/Panel Discussion Irrelevant
Organizers Open Forum Irrelevant
Get The Most Out Of Your Pre-Purchase Exam Irrelevant
Young Event Horse Committee Members Only
Training Solutions from Top Event Riders Would attend
Competition Calendar and Rules Committee Committee Members Only
Raising the Bar on Barn Safety Time conflicts with riders forum
USEF Eventing High Performance Committee Members Only
USEA Endowment Trust Committee Members Only
Eventing Affiliates Irrelevant
PRO Year End Awards Pointless
Young Riders Coordinators Session/Comm. Meeting Committee Members Only
YR Dinner Sponsored By: Gallops Saddlery, Fleeceworks, Kerrits, and
VTO Saddlery Irrelevant
Saturday, Dec. 10

Continental Breakfast Sponsored by Rebecca Farm Irrelevant
USEF Eventing High Performance/Tech.Comm Joint Meeting Committee Members Only
USEA Trade Fair Irrelevant
Adult Riders Open Forum Would attend
The Road to The NAJYRC… Making Sense of It All Irrelevant
EMSA Open Forum Time conflicts with AR forum
Navigating Through the World of Joint Treatments Sponsored by Adequan Irrelevant
Eventing Calendar Planning for 2013 and Beyond Irrelevant
Colic: The Deadly Killer sadly know more about this already than ever wanted to
Young Riders Open Forum Irrelevant
Success Factor: The Influence of Tack on Biomechanics Sponsored by WEB Maybe
Where Does Your Entry Fee Go? Would attend
USEA Annual Meeting with Keynote Speaker Clayton Fredericks Yes, definitely
Pan Am Games Review Yawn
American Horse Trials Foundation Probably not
Cocktails and Live Auction Would need drinks by now, if had any money left
Year-End Awards Dinner NO WAY... too expensive on top of daily registration must be joking.

Sunday's "offerings" don't even merit listing here.

Does this bother anyone else besides me? As you can see, after I had done an in-depth analysis, it was almost ludicrous for me to give up my students on their last 2 days of class, lose that income, spend money driving to Nashville, spend money registering for the convention, and actually muster up the enthusiasm to mill around the Sheraton for 3 whole days attempting to mingle and participate in something that, on paper, appears to be designed with very little thought given to me at all. And, who am I? I am one of the lower-level amateurs who competes BN-T (hopefully), is an active member of the USEA, loves my sport, volunteers often, adores my fellow eventers, has a devotion to everything eventing, worships my horse, respects our professionals, supports local events, works hard to accomplish whatever I manage to accomplish, and never causes trouble nor complains about much at all. Why am I so unimportant? At first, I was surprised that none of my eventer friends (many of whom LIVE IN NASHVILLE) were even remotely interested in attending the convention. After much thought, I can now see why. I have only attended the USEA convention one time (when it was in Charlotte several years ago, mainly because I turned it into a 5-day visit with my best friend who lives there). I was initially so excited it was coming to Nashville this year, but I'm really frustrated now. I'm frustrated that much of what was offered was not relevant or open to my inclusion. I'm frustrated that it would have cost more to attend a few choice sessions over the span of 1 or 2 days than it would cost me to actually enter and compete in a USEA-sanctioned horse trial. I'm frustrated that I wanted so badly to attend, learn, experience, and participate, but it just wasn't worth it. And, I'm frustrated that out of dozens of USEA members, competitors, ammie/professional riders, and eventing trainers I know in the Nashville area that only ONE person is actually attending. What is wrong with this picture? Just think, if they had created more opportunities on Saturday/Sunday for people with a Monday-Friday job, and made the cost more affordable, I would have been there. Instead, I didn't go, didn't participate, and the USEA got $0 from me when they could have gotten $50, or $75, or even $100 if things had been priced differently. I'm not a math genius, but I do know that some profit is better than none. least Eventing Nation John is there reporting back to everyone via EN. I appreciate that so much. It certainly makes my decision to sit this out a positive one on my part. But, doesn't that mean there is something wrong with this scenario, when I am content (almost forced) to participate from afar?????

UPDATE: 12/11/2011
My blog is automatically posted to my profile on Facebook, and after this entry appeared last evening, a great discussion ensued on my page, and I am -- unfortunately -- not alone in feeling as I do. Here are a sampling of most of the comments.

  • [Area III adult rider and USEA member/owner]: thanks for taking the time to write my sentiments KERZACTLY!!!! Happy that all who could go and get together did so, but couldn't even BEGIN to muster an itty bitty bit of real regret in not going...let's have our own convention soon though, ok?
  • [Area I adult rider and USEA member/competitor]: Did not break this down in my head like this... Really good points...
  • [A convention-attending USEA member/competitor/T3D rider from Nashville]: I was there... and I hear ya. I did not feel like I got my money's worth.
  • [Local USEA event organizer, venue manager, volunteer coordinator, USEA member/competitor parent, and USEA member/competitor herself]: My thoughts exactly! Was planning on going, staying with a friend,(trying to cut down on cost) and looking forward to learning and being with fellow eventers and organizers. Then I saw the price. For me it WAS about the price. Out of the question. So how can it be a convention for me/us, members of USEA, when it excludes so many of us?
  • [My response to all of them]: [Name of previous commenter], It's almost like they should have all of the committee meetings on Thursday/Friday, and then lots of fun, informative, and interactive sessions for riders, owners, organizers, and course designers on Saturday/Sunday. I know they can't make everybody happy all of the time, but it sounds as though -- resoundingly -- I am not alone in my frustration! [Name of above respondent], you're right. This is about the third or fourth USEA convention agenda that I've looked at the past few years where it seems as though the offerings continue to move further and further towards administration and select participants, and further away from pulling in the people out there running competitions, managing venues, and entering/competing at events. It also irked me that there were NO SESSIONS (as far as I could tell) that discussed improving volunteer involvement. And, there was the "Pan Am Games Review" session, but where were the forums for riders who participated in the Classic 3-day in South Carolina this past spring? Or, the T3Ds across the country in 2011? I also didn't see ANYTHING that looked interesting for younger riders (our JRs, who constitute a lot of the lower-level membership and generate just as many dollars as you and I do). Kind of shameful, the more I think about it. Grrrr.....

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Friday Favorites: Alexandra Green

Alex at the Fair Hill International CCI2* 2011
Photo by Shannon Brinkman

Once again, I have a fabulous and fun rider as my "Friday Favorite." Alexandra Green is a lovely and talented young eventer from Knoxville. For the past several years, she has acquired a solid and impressive record at a number of competitions in Area III, as well as various sites up and down the East Coast. Recently, she and her horse, Fernhill Cubalawn, finished 3rd at the Red Hills CIC1* and she galloped round the Fair Hill CCI2* just two months ago. Deservedly so, she was named last week to the USEF 2012 Developing Rider List. I think it is safe to say that she and Cuba have a very exciting future together!

Not only is Alex a gifted rider, but she is also a positive and enthusiastic ambassador for our sport. At the conclusion of Fair Hill, she recapped a challenging run in an honest and humble entry on her blog: " Always listen to your horse. 
Cuba has been cruising around the Intermediate the last five months, making me very optimistic about going out and having a speedy round at Fair Hill. Unfortunately, Cuba’s fitness was not ready to endure the deep footing and cold weather compared to his hard ground and warm breeze back home. He was a pretty tired pony by minute seven, and I had to take off the gas and nurse him around the last third of the course finishing with a bit of time but atleast I had a horse to show jump the next day. If I had kept kicking for time, there could have been a good chance I would not have made it through the finish flags. That would have been a long drive home if I had kept pushing for time, and I’m glad I took care of my horse out there and helped him when he needed it.

Alex and Fernhill Cubalawn, Fair Hill 2011
Photo by Shannon Brinkman

And now, here's a little more about Alex and some of her favorite things:

1. Favorite name for a horse:  Jakey (Maybe because I have a bit of a crush on the horse Jacob Two Two)
2. Favorite drink:  Milk
3. Favorite vacation destination:  East Coast kicking it in my LQ's trailer of course. Horses aside, I love the mountains and hiking.
4. Favorite book:  Harry Potter
5. Favorite reality t.v. show:  America's Next Top Model
6. Favorite pair of shoes:   I have a weakness for beautiful heels, but I probably love my Brooks running shoes more then life itself.
7. Favorite high school subject:  Government
8. Favorite pizza topping:  All of the veggies
9. Favorite city that you've never lived in:  New York City
10. Favorite motto:  "You can always do more, be more, live more."

Alex and Cuba, Fair Hill 2011
Photo by Shannon Brinkman

Monday, November 21, 2011

Goodness Gracious!!!

....with the operative word here being "gracious." As well as, "polite," "intelligent," "approachable," "kind," "talented," "genius," "elegant," and "funny." These are all adjectives I overheard in regards to the one-and-only, Francis Whittington, during the clinic this past weekend at Chattahoochee Hills. I, of course, was thrilled to audit the clinic, meet Francis, and observe him ride and teach in person. But, it was gratifying to see the other participants also become ardent fans of Mr. Whittington, as well. And, before you even ask, NO....I did not at any time, in any way, under any circumstances refer to Francis as "Francy Pants." Well, not in his actual presence, at any rate. :-)

I was the only official auditor there (shame on you, GA folks, who did not come out and at least watch!), but there were a nice group of riders -- mostly from Lexington and Birmingham -- and a small group of viewers that included riders from earlier/later sessions, and family members who had accompanied riders. All in all, there were about 4 or 5 riders, and 4 or 5 observers, at any given time during the Saturday sessions while I was there. This meant everyone had close proximity to one another (observers, riders, horses, and Francis), but don't y'all go panicking and jumping to any conclusions. I was so well-behaved. It's not exactly as if I were my neighbor's 14-year-old daughter who burst into tears when she randomly encountered Justin Beiber at Target, clutching at his sleeve and having to be escorted from the premises by security. I mean, please.....I'm an adult. Most of the time. My dog, however, did make quite a dramatic scene not 5 minutes after my arrival. Oh well. You can't say that I didn't make a lasting impression!

Donna Miller and Francis compare notes as they
watch another rider jump.

One of the most surprising things about Francis is how, in a humongous arena like the main ring at Chattahoochee, he could be heard almost anywhere, although he spoke with a calm and encouraging demeanor. He doesn't yell, furiously repeat instructions, holler, or scold. Plus, he's got a great accent. Am I right?

Although I wasn't able to take Eddie with me, one of the girl's from Birmingham had a big chestnut that reminded me of Eddie (yes, yes.....he looked "just like Eddie") and he ("Will") had some of the same issues I deal with. After they warmed up on the flat, the rider seemed a tad flummoxed as Will got a bit fussy and anxious. She said more than once, "He is never like this," and I could tell she was a bit bemused that he was acting up away from home. As they trotted a crossrail to get started, her horse would pop the jump, rushing on take-off and landing. She resorted to a perfectly understandable defensive mode of tight rein on approach and a quick "deep seat" upon landing to keep her horse from rampaging from jump to jump. As she kept working with him, she hoped he would start to get tired and become more workable. But, it seemed as if the more she jumped him, the more he wanted to run. Finally, Francis hopped on him and worked him some on the flat. He quickly determined that some of the issue was that Will is weak in the hind-end and was having trouble carrying himself without just barreling. Kathleen (his rider) nodded in agreement, and all of a sudden, a familiar lightbulb went off in my head. Aha....yes, I've heard this before. One of the things I work on a lot is strengthening Eddie behind to keep him from pulling along on the forehand because he's just not strong and balanced enough to push forward underneath from behind. We've overcome this a good bit through our year of dressage, so I could almost see Kathleen and Will as an echo of where Ed and I were about this time last fall. I started paying close attention as Francis worked Will in canter circles and started giving him more and more rein. Before we all knew it, the horse was lightening up, carrying himself more, and stepping through under himself. And, this was within mere minutes of Francis getting in the saddle. 

Kathleen observes as Francis rides Will on the flat.

Kathleen was very pleased to see this transformation in her horse. I know she was exhausted and a bit surprised Will was so flighty, but as she herself said: "I've never seen him behave this way, but I'm glad it's here where I can get help with him!" If I were in her shoes, I would have absolutely felt the same way. After about 15 minutes working consistently on shape and balance, Francis turned Will to one of the oxers everyone had been jumping earlier and they jumped it nicely, if still a bit excitedly. But, Francis is such a phenomenally quiet and forgiving rider. He hardly moves in the saddle and his contact is consistent, but light and following. I was mesmerized (again, stop with the is well-deserved admiration, I assure you). 

After several more exuberant passes over the oxer and a vertical, Will started to settle down, so Francis began asking for a halt after each fence. On a big, excited jumper, this isn't easy. But, he never hauled on the reins or yanked back on the horse's face. He was asking for cooperation, not bullying the horse into submission. "Bullying" is not a word I would ever in a million years associate with Francis Whittington. Everything is very subtle, fluid, and flawless. As soon as Francis asked for the halt, he would sit tall and ask about 85% with his body, and about 15% with the reins. Not long after, Will was jumping with a little more control and waiting for Francis' instruction....not just flying at the fences like they were in a race. Francis returned Will to Kathleen and he had her get back on and work him some more in quiet circles to help loosen him further and have her focus on a long rein, allowing him to use his neck and back (not just his shoulders). After a few more minutes, I could tell Kathleen was much happier with her horse and felt more in control.

The next horse that Francis rode was a huge, dark bay foxhunter that a rider from Kentucky had competed twice at Novice....after stealing him from her husband who hunts him during the season. He was a gorgeous thoroughbred, with a big sloping shoulder, long back, and huge stride. For a big horse, his rider was able to control and compact him well, but she was using a gag and a running martingale, which Francis wasn't wild about. The first thing he did before getting on was to take the reins off the gag and just fasten them directly to the bit. Next, he removed the running martingale and got on. After about 10 minutes of just working him on the flat, the horse was so light and elevated.....really moving forward and a way that one would never imagine a heavy TB to be going in such a short time with 1). less artificial aids, and 2). a strange rider. But, that is why Francis is so amazing to watch. He doesn't get on a student's horse and ride him the way that Francis would ride, and then explain to the owner how to do it exactly his way. He rode each of these horses off in the arena away from the rest of us, getting a feel for the horse and riding that horse in the way that it needed to be ridden. We were all just holding our breath as we saw this horse go from a slightly disorganized puppy dog into a 4-star horse right before our eyes. You could have told me that horse had galloped gamely around Badminton this past spring, and I would have totally believed it. Francis has this ability to quietly read a horse and ride it as if they were not a horse and rider, but rather as if they were having a mutual conversation: the horse talking to Francis, he listening then speaking back, and the horse -- in turn -- listening to everything he said. It was just incredible.

After he returned the thoroughbred to its owner, she was so pleased. She got back on and was instantly able to feel the difference in her horse. As we gathered back around Francis, the rider came over and I could see the admiration and hear the murmurs of appreciation rippling through our tiny group. I just sort of stood there and smiled. The one rider thanked Francis and complimented him by exclaiming what a "lovely" and "elegant" rider he was. Of course, Francis took this praise very politely and humbly, but it started a positive chatter of adoration from everyone. It is one thing to appreciate a good, talented rider from afar -- by watching them on a dvd, or seeing their photographs online, accompanied by successful results at competitions around the world -- but to see that rider manifest right in front of your eyes and absolutely ride a horse in a way that very few people can....well, that is quite memorable. Francis finished the day on Saturday with a healthy handful of happy, smiling riders, and I was so pleased that he was as amazing in person as I'd always imagined. Yes, he's got a great smile. And, of course he's just as cute as can be. But, he is a friendly, bright, and fun person to learn from, so I am crossing my fingers he had a great time and will be back in the U.S. to teach again soon. I must introduce him to Eddie. Eddie will love him!

Now, what on earth will I be like, should I get to ride my favorite horse in the world (EDDIE!) with one of my favorite riders in the world? That is a day I eagerly await!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Attention All Passengers: My Horse is a Saint!!!

A young participant discusses her ride with Kyle.
(Photo by Catherine Efinger/Lauren Romanelli)

We are home again after a busy, successful, bustling, and very WINDY weekend riding with Kyle Carter in Nashville, TN. The clinic was amazingly successful and very well-attended. There was a nice mix of experienced eventers, newbie eventers, upper-level riders, lower-level riders, youngsters, oldsters, ammies, pros, and sweet ponies galore. I think that everybody had a great time and learned a lot. 

(Photo by Catherine Efinger/Lauren Romanelli)

I rode late on Saturday afternoon in the last group of the day, and dark fell much faster than any of us had expected. But in that time, I had the chance to work some on the flat and I had mentioned to Kyle (in our group introductions) that Eddie and I had primarily done nothing but dressage this past year and I was hoping to make the transition back into jumping by using our newly-found skills. Previously, Eddie thought dressage and jumping were two completely different things. The sandbox was a place to clench his jaw, tighten his back, and put his nose in the air, while plowing through the test by performing according to what he thought should happen when....and I was just an innocent victim. Now, there is synchronicity in our tests! I ask, he gives; I tell, he does; I smile, he prances. Thus, I am hoping to inject some supple ridability, control, lightness, and softness into his jumping phases as well. As we started off trotting through poles, Kyle asked us to be round into the poles, and I got frustrated and grabby when Eddie approached the poles roundly, then stiffened a bit to find the spacing as he trotted through. It wasn't heinous, but Kyle gave me the most spot-on advice: "It doesn't have to be perfect. It just needs to be better each time." Yep, that's me! I feel if it isn't perfect instantly, then we might as well give up (forget the fact that trotting through poles fairly competently is something we didn't do successfully over a year ago, so anything decent this weekend was a Godsend). I kept forgetting that we hadn't jumped in over a year and we are RUSTY right now. I felt like things needed to be perfect while riding with a coach of the caliber of Kyle Carter, so for him to acknowledge any positives, and to encourage progress, was a welcome reward. 

Me and Eddie (on the right), my sister and Molley (on the left), wait our turn.
(Photo by Catherine Efinger/Lauren Romanelli)

After several more increasingly improved trips through the trot poles, we moved on to a canter turn to the left to a small vertical off the rail. I was nervous about this, since last year's jumping efforts ended in a wild leap and landing bucks over even the littlest stuff. As we cantered up stiffly to the vertical, Eddie bounced a quick one, two, three strides and popped lightly over the vertical, and landed moving forward eagerly. It felt soft and effortless, and I was feeling more confident than I have in a year. The several other riders in my group (including my sister) rode through the exercise a few more times, but Kyle didn't have me do it again, since it was getting dark and I hadn't massacred that initial effort too badly. As dark fell completely on the arena, he caught up with each of us briefly in preparation for the continued session the next morning. Kyle reminded me that my horse is very nice and I need to soften and let him move forward more. He had instructed me to keep more energy and adjustability in the canter (when we were working on the flat), so I need to transfer that same soft bend and impulsion from the flat into our approaches to the fences. 

Kyle works with Lauren (clinic organizer) and Brandy.
(Photo by Catherine Efinger/Lauren Romanelli)

The next morning, I rode in the first group (again with my sister) and this session focused more on jumping bending lines (approaches, turns, pace, and control). I started off the group by trotting through the poles again, to a left-hand canter turn to the same little vertical from the night before. I felt like this was going to be alright and we could succeed in this exercise, so we cantered down the rail and made a slight left turn. As we jumped the jump, I kept a tight hold of Eddie, expecting the over-jump and possible buck....but he just hopped over it and cantered away. I was pleased, but Kyle called me out (rightly so) for my clenching hold on the reins that flattened Eddie's jump. We also drifted off to the right on the landing, and he asked us to stay more straight as we rode away from the jump. I came around again, and the approach was lighter and I softened more, but we took the exact same line upon landing. I was so worried about the pace and my control on the approach that I completely forgot his previous instruction to move left on landing, so he informed me that our jump had been better, but the ONE thing he'd told me to do, I hadn't done. DRAT. I didn't want to get rattled, but I was also worried about not appearing to be very I'm someone that takes 5 or 6 failed attempts before I can actually do it right. I made a point of letting Eddie move up on the approach and staying WELL TO THE LEFT on landing, and Kyle gave me the "OK" sign after I finished. So, we stood by and waited for the others to work through the exercise. 

Megan Corbett leaps through a gymnastic.
(Photo by Catherine Efinger/Lauren Romanelli)

After everyone made improvements over the single vertical, Kyle added another vertical to the right of the first one, making a 3 stride bending line to the new jump. Again, we started by trotting the poles, cantering left off the rail to the first vertical, then turning right to the quick second vertical. I was so worried about the bend that I grabbed the reins after landing from the first fence, turned my head/body to the right, and wrenched Eddie's face toward the second vertical. We almost overshot it to the right and we ended up trotting the last half-stride and jumping from almost a stand still. Oops. Kyle's VERY ACCURATE assessment of "That was brutal. Just brutal!" was much-deserved. His point was that as I anticipated the second jump and turned my head, Eddie was actually responding without me even noticing, and my "extra guidance" had caused us to over-turn and almost miss the jump to the inside. As we cantered around again, Kyle said "soften and just stop pulling him." The second attempt was better, but I was still all over the reins. As Kyle prepped me for another attempt, he said that the way I was all in Eddie's face, he "should dump me on my butt and gallop off for the barn." Instead, my sweet horse puts up with me and he jumps whatever I ask -- and goes wherever I yank him -- time and time again. Man, did I feel like the worst rider in the world! I watched my groupmates go through a few times and then I tried it again. I just let Eddie go and I tried to turn with my body and leg (not the reins). It wasn't picture perfect, but that next time was a big improvement. I think we did it one more time fairly decently, so showing opposed to horrifying regress......was a nice feeling!

A view of the beautiful setting for the clinic, Southern Promise Farm.
(Photo by Catherine Efinger/Lauren Romanelli)

The final exercise of our session was to go out of the arena and onto the side of a hill to practice jumping a bending line uphill on uneven terrain. We cantered around a clump of trees at the top of the hill, turned right as we cantered downhill, then came back up the hill to jump over a 4 stride bending line consisting of two small verticals. I was worried about the canter down the hill, since Eddie thought we were going foxhunting when we went out into the field and he was literally jigging on air. But, as I sat quiet and we turned to listen to Kyle explain the task, Eddie settled down, pricked up his ears, and patiently observed the question. When it was our turn, Eddie cantered softly around the trees, went lightly down the hill, and lifted back up into my hands when I half-halted. We came up to the jumps a bit bouncy (I was just too much in his face still with my hands) and, although we jumped out fine, we lost our line a bit through the bend. Kyle told me to come around again and to just leave Eddie alone once we made the turn up the hill to the jumps. So, I did just that, and Eddie jumped lightly and quietly like a star, cantering on enthusiastically after the second fence. When I pulled up and turned back for Kyle's comments, he said, "Your horse is nice and wants so badly to do whatever you ask him. You need to do about 60% less of whatever you're doing and just enjoy the ride." I smiled and said, "Thank you. I'm glad you said that. I keep forgetting this is supposed to be fun." He started to laugh and said, "YES!", then he turned and said, "Well, now, I didn't say anything about FUN." But, we all know that isn't entirely true. Kyle is Kyle, and if anyone can make a job and a lot of hard work "fun," it's Kyle.

Not Eddie, but a lovely "look alike": Grace, ridden by Jess, the daughter of the
farm owner, Anita Scott (in the teal hat in the foreground behind Kyle).

(Photo by Catherine Efinger/Lauren Romanelli)

And, I did have fun! I wasn't the most talented rider there. I wasn't the most accomplished and my horse wasn't the fanciest. But, we made more progress in 2 days than we have in ages, and we left feeling confident and ready to build on that instruction in the coming weeks. I enjoyed being there with my horse, my friends, my sister, and many fellow eventers. A large amount of the satisfaction in a good clinic is the information gathered and the lessons learned. But, there is also a decent amount of satisfaction that comes just from having a good time and leaving with the confidence to pick up where we left off when we get home and resume schooling on our own. I'm hoping that Kyle will be doing a clinic again in the spring, because I have lots to work on over the winter and I'd like to ride with him again to see how much I've progressed. And, the operative word here is "I." I am the one who needs to work on improving myself, not my horse. Eddie just needs to do nothing more than keep on being Eddie!

My sister, smiling as she jumps through the hill exercise at the end of a
very windy morning session!

(Photo by Catherine Efinger/Lauren Romanelli)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Coming Attractions!

There are some fabulous activities in my near future, and I'm really looking forward to them! This next weekend (11/12 and 11/13), Kyle Carter will be in Nashville for a clinic, and I'm riding in it with some of my friends (and, my sister!). Check out the entry form I've included here (below), if you might be interested. The entry deadline of November 3rd has passed, but I know they have 2 or 3 slots left, so if you would like to ride with Kyle on Saturday and Sunday, contact Lauren ASAP.

Kyle Carter clinic entry. Lauren's contact info is listed at the bottom.
(Click on this image for a larger version)

Following on the heels of the Kyle clinic is one of the highlights of my year. Francis Whittington will be teaching a two-day clinic at Bouckart Farms/Chattahoochee Hills. I've also included the entry for this clinic (below) and I know there are some spots left. What a wonderful opportunity to have Francis teaching here in our own backyard! Plus, the price is phenomenal (includes stabling, all facility fees, lesson costs, and a dinner on Saturday night). Fantastic! Auditors are also welcome, with a fee of $25 for both Saturday and Sunday. I will be there as an auditor and I am really looking forward to this clinic!

Email Samantha ASAP if you are interested!

On December 3, Penrose Farm here in Knoxville will be hosting a schooling dressage show and combined test. If the show is well-attended, they hope to hold more of these schooling events often throughout the winter. So, anyone in the Knoxville area who needs to get out and put in a little work before taking a break over the holidays, get out and support Penrose! If you want the entire entry/release form, let me know and I'll be happy to email it on to you.

Prize list for Penrose Farm schooling show.

Last, but not least, the annual USEA convention will be held in Nashville this year, so I clearly must be there. I'm looking forward to getting the chance to attending with some of my friends.....enjoying an eventing activity that doesn't involve a truck, trailer, tack, horse, and tag-a-long dogs. The one time of year we all get to gather without the stress of a competition weekend!

Monday, October 31, 2011

Winning on the Inside

Are we there yet?

Well, we are home from Kentucky and it was a wonderful trip! Eddie seemed to know that we were back in action, and he loves the horse park, so he was in a good mood all day Sunday. I handwalked him around the barns and out by cross-country on Sunday morning, and he was about a mile high and so excited (he knows what it is that we do!). I was worried he might get irritable doing all the dressage, dressage, dressage, and no jumping, (since dressage is not typically what rocks our world). But, he knew that I meant business when I picked the burrs out of his tail, scraped the mud off his hocks, and took the scissors to his mane. We may not arrive looking sleek and stylish, but I do what I can when the clock is ticking! 

As we made our way down to the dressage rings, the sun was shining and there were horses and riders milling around everywhere having a good time. The dressage-only classes were scheduled for the afternoon, so things were not as crazy and warm-up was pretty quiet. We warmed up for about 30 minutes and I was really proud of how well Ed was moving. Based on past history, I self-consciously stayed over to the side and we kept to ourselves. However, I got the strangest feeling that we were being watched.....and, we were! I noticed people looking and smiling as we floated past and it was such a shock. I'm not used to people observing us warm-up, and smiling. I took this as a good sign and walked over towards our arena and waited for the rider in front of us to finish her test. I was momentarily rattled when I realized the girl in the ring was not riding USEA Beginner Novice Test B, as I'd assumed (oops!), so I quickly pulled USEF Training Level Test 1 out of my breeches pocket and refreshed my memory last minute. Nothing like reverting to my former scrambling-ness to remind me that we haven't come that far!

We had a nice little test, and I was very pleased with Eddie's stretchy-trot circle (we got an 8 on it!). As we finished up after our final halt, the judge stopped me and told me what a "lovely horse" I had and she commented on how light and forward he moved after I let him go into the stretchy trot. She told me to let him go more and not try to keep him up and lofty, and I thanked her for her kind advice (I don't have a trainer, so the judge's feedback is really why I was there!). She complimented me again on my nice horse and my good riding, and we went on our way. The next test was the Beginner Novice Test B in another ring, so I headed that way, feeling pretty positive and capable. We haven't ridden a dressage a legitimate over 2 years, so this was all coming back to us in a rush. I felt much more confident about the BN test, since we had already ridden one test, so we went into the arena and performed very decently in a percentage class (with most everyone else riding USEF tests, not USEA tests). I was happy with Eddie -- no matter what the results ultimately were -- and I left the arena thinking we had gone through a low spot the past year or so and we have come out on the other side. We're back! 

As we hacked up to the barn, Eddie walked along softly and contentedly on the buckle, and I closed my eyes and felt the warm sun on my face. As I listened to the clip-clop of horse shoes on pavement, it felt like there wasn't another soul in the world; it was just me and Eddie. I smiled and I thought to myself, "This is what I've been missing. This is what I live for. I am a winner on the inside, today."

Thursday, October 27, 2011

On the Road Again.

Our very first event together, at Octoberfest back in 2005.
This is the final halt, before he grabbed the bit and jammed
his nose into the dirt (almost pulling me through his ears).
Such sweet memories.

This weekend is {drumrolllllllll} my and Eddie's return to competition. Now, before you get all excited and set your calendar reminders to tell you to check Facebook every 20 minutes for exciting event updates, I'll just tell you that it's only dressage. With that being said, dressage is famously our worst phase, so the "only" in that preceding statement is very tongue-in-cheek. We have been spending a lot of time the past year on our flatwork, so I am excited to see how we do back in a legitimate competition setting. I am riding the Beginner Novice Test B, the USEF Training Level Test 1, and the USEF First Level Test 1.

All y'all dressage queens out there? YOU CAN STOP LAUGHING NOW. My cow horse can be fancy, when he wants to.

Wish us luck!