Sunday, June 19, 2011

Mental Toughness at May Daze

Flo might have been chilled out but before my SJ round, I was NOT. I had to ask Lauren if it was cold out because I was shaking.

Let me back up and tell you why I was so nervous.  During my last XC schooling, Flo and I had a bit of a wreck.  It was a simple stop at this fence below (although it was attempting it from the other direction) that had a very dramatic consequence. I've jumped this trakehner (ditch with a log hanging over it) before, this picture was taken in '09, but it scares the hebee jeebees out of me every time.

Apparently, Amy told me later, I saw the "long spot" meaning that instead of focusing on the line, tempo and energy of the canter (the 3 things I'm responsible for) I was focusing on a distance that Flo should take off from (her job) which was too far away for her liking.  I KNOW that this mare loves to add a little skippy step before a fence to make her feel comfortable.  Being nervous, I jumped ahead and didn't allow her that extra step and she stopped while still carrying XC pace momentum toward the fence.  She skidded to a stop, turned left, and put her front feet into the ditch and fell on her side. I fell off, and she continued to flip all the way over to her other side.  

When she stood up, she was covered in gravel dust and hanging her right hind in the air.  When I scampered to my feet and saw her like this, I freaked out thinking she had broken her leg.  She was fine.  She had just scraped up her stifle a bit and was totally sound.  I got back on and jumped the ditch a couple times and a few other jumps.  She didn't think twice about anything and seemed fine mentally and physically.  I, on the other hand, had a cry while Lauren, Amy and Stace sat on their horses in a semi circle in front of me and gave me a much needed pep talk.  I was embarrassed and frustrated.   

Life went on.  I went to Walnut Trace and did a CT and jumped a clean SJ round.  I took River to Chatt and Poplar.  I had a dressage lesson with Amy and it was very obvious that Flo was due to have her hocks injected. I had her hocks injected and two weeks later had a jump lesson with Amy. Flo's jumping confidence was in the pooper.  She stopped several times and then totally shut down when pointed at the liverpool.  Flo is a stopper, but it has been a long while since she has stopped several strides out and repeatedly refused to go over something. You know what is even more surprising?  I didn't even remember the ditch debacle.  I didn't put two and two together!  I chalked it up to her having time off after having her hocks done, being in heat, and not having jumped in a couple weeks.  This is a mare that gets a little loco if she's not jumped at least once or twice a week.  The next day, the day before leaving for May Daze, I planned to jump her over a few things thinking about what Amy and I had discussed during my lesson: keep her round, keep a dressage quality canter plus a little pace, get her quiet and straight before each fence.  These were great intentions! Instead, she stopped at several fences and I had to take several "breathers" so I didn't completely loose my mind the day before driving to Lexington to show her.

On Thursday, I picked up a horse in Clarksville that needed a ride to a surgery center in Lexington and then headed to the KHPark and settled Flo into her stall.  She was instantly happy.  Flo is a show horse.  She LOVES napping in her stall, watching strange horses walk by, and being hand grazed next to warm up arenas.  She travels well, eats and drinks and sleeps well...she's happiest at a horse trial :)  I love this about her! 

My dressage warm up was focused on getting Flo relaxed and supple.  She was tight and slightly distracted due to being in heat.  We had some good lengthenings and she came in front of my leg and more in focus as the warm up went on.  After a mix up with the warm up steward and lots of walking around and waiting, I eventually went into the arena all smiles and reminded myself to stay in the moment. This has been a mental toughness strategy that works for me in dressage.  To keep myself relaxed, I smile and think of how amazingly LUCKY I am to be doing what I love...which actually does include dressage.  We had a very decent test.  I had recently watched a Conrad Schumacher dressage clinic where he told his students to practice "uberstreichen" to test the horse's self carriage.  This image of temporary release reminded me not to hang on Flo in nervous micro-management.  Jim Graham first pointed out my tendency to anxiously hang on her mouth during tests and taught me to make many small adjustments instead of restricting and then over-correcting. 

My friend Tracy Kujawa runs Angel Heart Farm, a place where terminally ill kids and their families can find refuge with horses, came to cheer me on along with her friend Andrea AND gave me a comfy bed to sleep in. They helped me get tacked up for stadium and watched my warm up.  Tracy owns and shows some very beautiful Arabians so skinny TB's are not exactly works of art to her.  After my warm up she says to me, "You and Flo are the prettiest ones out there!"  Amy quipped, "Pretty is as pretty does."  That, my friends, is trainer talk for "I care more about how well you ride than how pretty you look." 

Flo was wonderful in warm up.  To be honest, I wanted to look pretty.  I wanted to feel and look like we were a team: controlled, rhythmical, and harmonious. Amy encouraged me to ride her forward to the base of the jump.  I'm still struggling with finding a balance between not chasing her and making her strides longer and not picking at her and sapping her forward-mindedness.  In other words, I am still learning to create a quality canter to each fence.    We did most of our warm up, took a break to see where I was in line, and decided to jump a couple more before I went up to the show arena.  I jumped a vertical and came to an oxer.  She stopped.  All I remember is Amy saying, "See?"  The nerves had kicked in.  What did I do? What happened?  It was a wake up call to STAY PRESENT and mentally tough. When I don't stay in the moment, my body reverts to old habits and doesn't react to what I feel. 

Flo put in a very ridable round. We had a rail at the first fence in the in and out.  It came on a long left handed approach.  She hesitated and left the ground past her distance.  Combinations REALLY back her off and, in this instance, I didn't give her enough leg support to maintain the canter.  The same thing happened at the next combination and I had to go to my bat between fences to keep her going forward to the last fence.  On the other hand, I was very happy I was able to keep her quiet instead of allowing her to speed quicker and quicker into a franticly weaving bay mare fireball.  I forced her to slow down and come into a rounder shape between fences.  Combinations will be our next opponent!

Lauren and Brandy also only had one rail down.  Look at this drafty mare jump!

Lauren and I walked cross country.  She took this picture of a ramp on our course.