Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Reigniting the Passion - My Carol Lavell Adult Amateur Gifted Scholarship experience

In addition to developing new horse feed products, one of my other great passions is riding dressage. I was fortunate enough to be the recipient of the Dressage Foundation’s 2013 Gifted Fund scholarship for Region 3. This scholarship was established in special remembrance of Carol Lavell's great dressage horse, Gifted, and is offered to adult amateur dressage riders to allow them to “set aside quality-time, in concentrated training away from the daily pressures of job and family”. And boy, did I need that! This was an experience of a lifetime, and below is an excerpt of my report on the experience (you can read the full piece posted at the Dressage Foundation website). I encourage any fellow amateur dressage riders to learn more about the program…it is a wonderful opportunity!

Roman and I on the first day of training
Nearing the end of 2013, I was at what I call a “riding crossroads”. I was having difficulty finding both the time and motivation to keep my 19 y/o OTTB Roman in regular work. Between my full-time job, my 2 year-old son, and other life and family obligations (including building a new house), my time in the saddle was getting less and less. Roman and I have been through so much together over the past several years. He took me from first level to Prix St. Georges, and I earned both my Bronze and Silver medals on him. He is a horse that gives his all and is definitely my “horse of a lifetime”. He is not ready to retire (he still thinks he is 5 most days) and I will never sell him, but I was beginning to contemplate leasing him to someone who could learn from him and devote more time to keeping him in shape. At a time when I was unsure of the future direction of my riding career with Roman, spending 5 days training with Erin Brinkman at Valhalla Farm was exactly what I needed. Thanks to the Dressage Foundation, this opportunity completely changed my mind about where Roman and I are headed together, and the passion I have for dressage has once again been reignited.

Erin took me back to the basics, and we focused first on my warm-up routine. Depending on how he felt coming out in the morning, we did lots of walking in the beginning. I incorporated leg-yields and other lateral work to help get him through on the right shoulder (his “problem area”), all while focusing on keeping a steady contact in the bridle. Some days we went to the trot or canter early if he was feeling sluggish. During the trot warm-up, she had me go on a 20-meter circle and allow him to stretch over his back and take his nose all the way to the ground. He loved this work, and I made sure he stayed bent around my inside leg. We started the canter on a long rein as well, and she had me stay in a light seat to encourage his back to come up. This gentle warm-up helped loosen him up more quickly than what I had been doing previously.

Throughout the week, we continued to focus on exercises to loosen him up in the right shoulder and to get his right hind coming more through in the canter. Basically, she wanted me to be able to put any part of his body anywhere I wanted it to go at any given time. We did shoulder-in, haunches-in, renvers, and counter-bending A LOT…on the long side, on the short side, on a circle, on the quarter line, etc. Wherever he felt stiff or blocked, that is the part that I would ask to move. Addressing these weaknesses through suppling exercises was crucial; because once I got through to that part, it was so much easier to do everything else. I figured out that when cantering on the right lead, I must keep him in a shoulder-in to keep him straight and keep his right hind coming under my seat. When working on flying lead changes, he tends to swing his haunches to the right when switching to the left. Erin had me ride my line of changes in shoulder-in right no matter which lead I was in, and this helped immensely. She also had me leg-yield off my right leg during the changes if he got ahead of himself, and this also helped to keep his attention on me and reminded him to respect my aids during the changes. Another exercise at the canter she had us work on was to go on a circle and half-pass to the inside, then leg-yield back. Also when half-passing to the inside of the circle, I would bring him to pirouette canter and ride a pirouette, which really helped keep him more supple and over his back compared to when I approach the pirouette from a straight line. At the trot, she reminded me to stay more aware of the rhythm and to keep him solid in his connection. He was only allowed to go medium trot if the rhythm and connection we right, and if not I would bring him back to working trot. In the half-pass, I asked him go with a more slow and animated stride to accentuate the rhythm and to “get the big muscles working”. If he came out of the connection, I would take him in a circle. I tend to baby Roman just a little and let him get away with not putting 100% effort in, and it was great to have Erin there to remind me what he is capable of and when to ask him for more.

My love of dressage runs deep, but I had let life get in the way of fostering that passion. The Gifted Scholarship brought me back “home” by giving me the chance to immerse myself into the sport that I love. Roman is healthy and sound, and at 19 years young I know that he and I have much more time together to keep improving. Every time I ride him I have fun, because he is that special. And now that my passion for dressage has been re-ignited, I am making a point to have as much fun as possible with him!