Sharing Our Story with Susan Salk of Offtrackthoroughbreds.com

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Sharing Our Story with Susan Salk of Offtrackthoroughbreds.com

To speak the language of her horse. To listen, really listen; this was the higher-minded goal of Stefanie Rittner…

~Susan Salk, “Chicago Teacher Learns at the Foot of a Mare” (March 2014)

I’m thrilled to announce that Ngugi and I were featured in an article!  What an honor it was to be interviewed over the phone by Susan Salk, creator/writer of Offtrackthoroughbreds.com, just a few weeks ago.  It reminded me that our story of perseverance and patience with each other is special and worth sharing.  Tonight, I’ll pass on the link to the article and let you listen to Ngugi’s Word through a fresh  voice. 

If you are not already following her blog, I encourage you to do so.  Her mission is to honor thoroughbreds surviving the demands of racing and establishing their worth and talent beyond the track.  If you peruse the archives for a bit, you’re bound to land on a story showcasing the partnership between this remarkable breed and the humans who give them a second chance. 

 

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Wrapping Up 2013 & Questions About Blogging

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One year ago I was writing about a major setback that I experienced with Ngugi. For reasons still unclear, she would completely freeze up and not want to move forward–sometimes even refusing to take a step away from the mounting block. It was the most frustrating few weeks of training because it was not clear to me whether it was a physical or mental shutdown. Here’s the link back to last winter’s “freeze” where I wrote

Legs that once moved freely and with agility now stand thick and clamped in the sand.

I wish that I had taken video of those days so that I could juxtapose it with the video here that trainer Laura recorded a few weeks ago. I think it might be unbelievable to some that she is the same horse.
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And yet, I find myself stumbling over what to write these days. I haven’t posted any updates this month, and I’ll admit that I’m typing without direction, without purpose. I’m typing to update, but I don’t feel compelled to write. (Although, there is a HUGE part of me that wants to critique all the faults in my riding in the above video–like my low hands, lack of release, heavy seat, etc., etc.). I wonder why it’s easier for me to blog when things are going wrong? Is it because I need the exercise of blogging more when there’s a problem to solve? I do believe in “writing to learn” and “writing for self-discovery,” so I suppose it does make sense that if there isn’t an emergency in our partnership as horse and rider for me to analyze, my drive isn’t really there.

So I leave my readers with a few questions… Are you more compelled to write when things are falling apart? Does the act of blogging help you feel as though you are tidying up what may have unraveled for you and your partner in the ring? If so, why is this? And how do we get more comfortable and effective at blogging when things are calm and within our control?

The Wars Our Horses Help Us Fight

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It’s official. Ngugi and I are jumping full courses, and I finally have video to prove it.

My dad is my biggest supporter and came out to my lesson this morning to record it all. He knows that my sister and I have adored horses since we were little girls. Although, when I think about it, my love grew as a result of just wanting to copy every thing my older sister did. As adults, we both have horses and bond over our peaks and valleys with our four-legged companions. It is real love for both of us. It’s a love that my dad helped to cultivate. And I think that all this time he has known what horses can do in the lives of people. He understands the long history humans and horses have had–all the wars they have helped to fight (for us), all the fields they have plowed (for us), all the carriages they have pulled (for us)…

More importantly, he understands all the wars our horses (Ngugi, Wes, Lucky, and Clown) have fought FOR US (my sister and me). They’ve helped to build us up and teach us about the fruit of commitment and dedication, repetition and consistency. Horses do that. They beg for us to pick them as our “forever horse,” our “forever friend.” When we make this decision to commit to them, I’d argue that sometimes they end up doing more for our sense of self than what we end up doing for them. I mean, I sure hope I’ve helped to provide Ngugi with a greater sense of purpose. Just watching her in this video makes me think about how much she loves having a job to do. Jumping, that is. She absolutely loves jumping. I can see it in the way her ears perk. I can feel it in the energy she exudes. It’s not a nervous energy anymore; it’s a radiant energy that I can feel transfer from her to me every time we jump. I like to think of it as an outlet for her. She’s certainly the type of horse who will get into trouble if her job is mundane, monotonous, drudgery…

But, she really is helping me build myself. Our time together rewards me with more inner strength and energy for all the best days of my life that haven’t happened yet.

Rittner (Rider) Welcomes Me Back

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I am finding my way back to myself, but the interesting thing is that I didn’t know I was lost. Yes, I am paraphrasing Avicii’s latest hit, “Wake Me Up”, which lately begs to be blasted while I’m driving.

How have I discovered that I have been lost, you may be wondering? Without going into trite detail, because it is not in my character to exude negative energy, I have lost myself in a marriage that just recently revealed derailment and betrayal. Divorce accompanies me these days. But I have two options: to either allow myself to be hazed by divorce and abandonment. or stand up to the circumstance and use it as a way to re-define or re-invent myself. I choose the latter, which in past experiences with adversity has created in me a sense of empowerment–and ultimately, survival… I mean Revival.

Tonight, I’d like to share something beautiful that my sweet friend Heather wrote to me just days after my husband asked for a divorce. I share it because it reveals something beautiful, and quite ironic, about my maiden name–the name I am returning to. The night I invited my closest friends over to help me pack up my soon-to-be ex-husband’s things, Heather delivered me the following letter and the chest armor to her last year’s Halloween costume (yes, she was a knight).
armor

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Stef…
I spent some time today researching the last name Rittner. I did this because I think there will come a time when you feel peace and even happiness that life has brought you back into the arms of this surname. You see…Rittner is derived from ‘Rite’ and ‘Ritter”. Its origin is Anglo-Saxon and Germanic, dating back to before the 7th century. It has twisted and turned and changed and still survives today to complete the name Stefanie Charlotte. The name’s meaning has not changed. It translates to rider or ride. Originally, it was an occupational surname given to people who rode horses…predominately to mounted warriors…’cnites’…or as we call them today…the modern knight.
You see Stefanie…this name suites you. It always has. It knows you. This name is you. Rittner welcomes you back gladly. Gladly, because you are a rider. You have been one since childhood. As an adult you twisted and turned and changed, but your horses called your heart back. You heard them through the crazy working woman’s schedule and teacher’s income and all other sounds that detach people from hearing and answering their life’s call. You answered though…you came back to them. You have always known yourself as a rider… and I have always viewed you as one. You may not have always known you are a knight as well…but I have always viewed you as one. You are fucking knight warrior! You are the bravest, baddest bitch to sit in the saddle! As a knight you will not stay knocked down for long! You will get back up, get back on the horse, and god dammit you will CHARGE!
You are your own knight in shining armor and mine too. I love you girl.
Heather
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I am one lucky lady to have my horse Ngugi, who lets me rest my head on her strong shoulders to feel her steady inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. I am even luckier to return back to Rittner with friends at my side.

Cheers to me staying in the saddle and the awakening of my new life.

3 Months at Shadowood Farm

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I am enjoying a solo excursion along Michigan’s southern shoreline this weekend. Sure, I could be experiencing a romantic weekend getaway with my husband or laughing hysterically with my girlfriends after an afternoon of wine tasting, but being alone in my own mind sounded most needed. I never thought I would do this. In fact, I never thought I could do this. But here I am, away from home and alone. Reflecting and reaching in regards to all areas of my life.

This is Ngugi’s Word, though, so I will filter my reflections to meet this blog’s purpose.

It’s been three months at Shadowood Farm and a little over a month since my last post. Ngugi is now jumping full courses with trainer Laura in a hilly field:

And I am learning to flow with her in the field too:

It’s really empowering to be able to ride the way I’ve been riding lately. I’m no longer afraid of my horse, which is allowing me to push myself towards doing more challenging things. Just this past week I cantered into my first jumps–something I remember Laura telling me that I would do once I learned how to balance in her canter. She told me this in September, but I remember thinking, “Yeah right! I’ve heard trainers tell me I should look forward to doing something (like cantering or jumping) in X amount of time and it just never happened. Why should I believe it now?” Well, something has just started to click at Shadowood. I’m not sure what it is. Perhaps a different approach to training–one that involves constant cross-terrain riding and more intense workouts? Perhaps the full-day turnout in 10 arces of rolling pastures? Perhaps that I’m riding more frequently? Most likely it’s a mix of all these things and the simple fact that time has gone by.

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Reconnecting to last post in September, I wrote 5 goals that I’d like to assess.

1) I wrote, “Keep practicing the trip out to the field to bring Ngugi in. Not only is it a good workout up the hills, but it’s so relaxing to visit the herd and see her interact with other horses. Plus, every time I do it, I get less nervous about catching her or her spooking at cows. She seems to like being with me and doesn’t run away anymore.”

This goal is funny. At the time, separating Ngugi from the herd when I needed to get her ready for a lesson was a headache. I would stress at the thought of it because she would use anything and everything to get me nervous–spooking at the neighboring cows, spooking at the horses in the outdoor dressage ring, running away from me! Now, she walks up to me and walks calmly down the hill to the barn. I feel accomplished with this goal.

2) I wrote, “Get those elbows in.” My whole position has changed when I compare videos from the past. I used to hunch forward and stick my elbows out from where my hands were anchored on Ngugi’s neck. Now, although they do creep out occasionally, I sit taller and farther back, which naturally results in my elbows staying closer at my sides.

3) I wrote, “Relax those legs–seems easier now with new boots.” Yeah, this is an on-going goal. When I get tense or worried, I grip. I think I always will. So I need to keep riding confidently and calmly so that my legs hang down and only apply pressure when needed for a cue.
4) I wrote, “Work on straightness and centered riding.” I love using the mirrors in the indoor arena because I can see when Ngugi’s hind legs are following directly behind her front legs. I’m getting better at noticing and feeling straightness. In terms of centered riding, I tend to put more weight in my right leg, causing my left stirrup to be shorter and my left toes to stick out. Again, I am using the mirrors to check this and re-adjust.

5) I wrote, “CANTER, CANTER, CANTER!” With lessons on Tuesday, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, I get a lot of cantering in. Wednesdays I usually aim for a “stretchy, chewy trot” after Laura does an intense jump session out in the field, so Tuesdays and Thursdays are my canter days. Lately, the canter has been leading us to cavaletti work and jumping! Probably my most advanced ride on Ngugi was this past Thursday when we did a good half hour cantering over a small vertical to the left and then one to the right, ending with a tight right turn over a jump along the diagonal. It was very unexpected and showed me that Laura was right when she said jumping would be easy once I got the canter!

With 3 months of training complete at Shadowood Farm, we are headed toward our debut in the show ring come spring or summer of 2014! I’d like to end with a link to a post that a friend at the barn shared with me. I instantly saw much of my own story in this story. Thoroughbreds are remarkable animals that, when given the correct patience and love, can take their talents far.http://offtrackthoroughbreds.com/2013/10/11/an-american-ottb-goes-4th-level-this-weekend/

Reflect and Reach

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Something I often have my classroom students do is a quarterly activity called Reflect & Reach. Simply put, it allows them to reflect on their learning and progress while also pushing them to reach for new goals. Ngugi and I have been with trainer Laura at Shadowood Farm for about 7 weeks now and I thought it would be advantageous for me to assess our progress and goals in a similar fashion.

REFLECT:
As I reflect on my learning and progress, I want to revisit the way Ngugi and I looked back in a video from “Peaks and Valleys.” I just studied this video from back in the spring in comparison to these more recent videos:

The first thing I notice is Ngugi’s willingness to partner with me more under saddle. Back in the spring, she was quick to toss her head and brace herself against contact. Often, her body felt inverted. Instead of rounding up, she moved in a hollow frame. I could barely get around a full circle without her resisting something. In the recent videos, I am proud to see her much more accepting of my contact. As Laura says, “She’s looking to you to hold her.” Maybe it’s the change of bit–we did switch her from a 3-piece eggbut to the pelham. I don’t know. She just looks happier in the mouth and less annoyed with me.

With better roundness, she is moving with her head down more and actually using her back. She feels different to me now. It’s hard to describe, but I can really feel her pushing off her hindquarters, stretching up through her back, and then reaching out through her front. I can feel it most on the diagonals when I ask her for a bigger trot through a more assertive post. Whereas six weeks ago the big trot scared me, now I can’t get enough! In fact, I’ve learned that the pokey “western pleasure trot” we were doing so much of may have been what caused the stiffness in her legs early this summer. Thoroughbreds simply aren’t built for that type of work.

Since Ngugi feels different, it’s also worth discussing how she looks different. To me, she looks more like an athlete–a little slender in the body, but muscular. Laura says her topline is developing nicely and her hind end is strengthening. Soon, we’ll even see definition in her abs. Could this transformation happen to my body too please?

Reflecting on my own progress, I recognize my confident demeanor the most. Back in the spring I really looked stiff in the neck and back. I almost look like I’m preparing myself for something horrible to happen. Now, I seem to be sitting taller and finally sitting back to send Ngugi the message that I am the lead mare up there! My elbows are starting to come in more at my sides and I’m learning to sit centered without a death grip around Ngugi’s sides. There are moments in the recent videos where I do look off balanced, but I’m really working on correcting this, especially since I’m back at riding the canter! Yes, that’s right. Last week I felt ready enough to ask her to canter. We were actually outside in the dressage ring trotting over cavaletti when the moment seemed right. I practiced the signal of right leg back to pick up the left lead from a round trot, and off we went. I sat the canter and marveled at how balanced she felt. No longer does the canter mean racing around and leaning in around turns. Her canter feels leveled and light, rhythmic and calm. I don’t have my recent canters recorded yet, but I will this month.

So, on to REACH:
This month, I’d like to write out 5 goals–in and out of the saddle.
1) Keep practicing the trip out to the field to being Ngugi in. Not only is it a good workout up the hills, but it’s so relaxing to visit the herd and see her interact with other horses. Plus, every time I do it, I get less nervous about catching her or her spooking at cows. She seems to like being with me and doesn’t run away anymore.
2) Get those elbows in.
3) Relax those legs–seems easier now with new boots.
4) Work on straightness and centered riding.
5) CANTER, CANTER, CANTER!

And get closer to being able to do this… (this is Laura riding in the field with Ngugi for the 1st time PLUS Ngugi’s first course EVER!)

Tilt-A-World

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Learning is not always linear. If at times it feels like a straight path where approaching lessons come into focus quickly and we can almost anticipate our next step, then we must remember it is fleeting. Soon enough we’ll be thrown in a new direction, perhaps even feeling lost, uncomfortable, and afraid. Sometimes this step in the whole process of learning is a good thing. Maybe we need to be challenged because the straight path we are on isn’t really going anywhere. Maybe spiraling off from what is familiar to us will help us find the knowledge needed to fill gaps in our learning–gaps that we did not know existed. And so we spend time spinning. Spinning. Spinning. Spinning. Not unlike a passenger on Tilt-A-World, we grab a little tighter as we feel surges of new information send our minds in motion. But there’s real movement and implusion to our learning now. We can feel ourselves being lifted to a new level as we make sense of everything that is new and negotiate its placement within schemata of old knowledge. Time in this spiral is necessary–no matter what the lesson. It breds maturity, stamina, and ultimate character.

I am on the Tilt-A-World with Ngugi right now.

Just last week I decided to have her hauled to a farm much closer to me. I felt as though we were on a bit of a straight path lately–kind of stuck and not really making any headway. In Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success, he argues that mastery of a skill takes 10,000 hours of practice. Presuming he is not completely off base, I would never reach my goals with Ngugi riding her only 2-3 times per week. I need more hours in the saddle to feel completely confident with her. She needs more hours with me as her rider to feel completely confident with me.

At Shadowood Farm I can make this happen, plus offer Ngugi this: (At 0:49 I swear she looked back at me and said, “Don’t you ever take this freedom away from me!”)

It certainly wasn’t easy finding a new home for Ngugi. To my friends with kids, I told them it’s like finding the right daycare. I needed to find a farm within 45 minutes of my home to allow me to ride at least 5 times a week, but most importantly, I needed to find a patient trainer experienced in working with difficult horses (and sensitive riders like me). It is only week two at Shadowood, but I know I made the right decision.

In trainer Laura’s program, I take 3-4 lessons per week right now. I say that I am on the Tilt-A-World with Ngugi because switching trainers (especially to one with dressage background) automatically sets you into a spiraling motion. Horse trainers have different ways of explaining things, different philosophies, and, of course, different experiences with horses that help to shape their pedagogy. After a few training rides and an evaluation on Ngugi, Laura’s program will entail extensive work on building Ngugi’s balance. She hasn’t been using her back and hind end properly, which I’ve learned can result in unwanted, but self-created lameness.

So this week’s lessons began with teaching me how to lunge with a purpose. No longer will I be using lunging as a way to let her “get her energy out” because that just perpetuates bad habits in the way she uses her body (i.e. head up, hollow back, feet scrambling below her). Lunging is now done with side-reins to help her learn to accept contact and stretch her head down and out, resulting in a more rounded and powerful back. And transitions, transitions, transitions have been our focus. Then, depending on the day, either Laura gets on first to warm her up and demonstrate techniques for me to practice next, or I get on first so that Laura can end the session pushing Ngugi beyond her comfort zone. Either way, we have focused mostly on walk-trot transitions with Laura trying a bit of the canter.

Here’s a clip from Laura’s 2nd ride after we switched to a three-piece loose ring snaffle bit:

And so I end this 2nd week of training happily on the Tilt-A-World–wide-eyed and grinning like a kid nonetheless. I have a lot of new theories to work out in my mind and then put into practice during my rides, but I’m already seeing major improvements in Ngugi’s acceptance of contact and efforts to round her back. Enjoy the freedoms of the field this weekend, Gugs!

*I am consciously using Ngugi (as opposed to Gugi) more to remind me of why I picked her name in the first place. Maybe somewhere on this straight path I’ve forgotten to listen to Ngugi’s Word. *

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