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!)

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Community

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Most educators would agree that building a sense of community in a classroom is essential.  As much as we cater to our students as individuals with varying needs, abilities, learning styles, talents, interests, etc., we must also be aware of what we are doing to bring the group together. 

We must ask ourselves: To what degree are my students connected to other learners sharing their space?  Do they believe they have something to teach and learn from others?  How sensitive and compassionate are they to others?  Am I creating a space where respectful social interactions are modeled, practiced, and then maintained?  Does every individual in the classroom believe, to some degree, that he/she has a responsibility to the well-being of the group, the whole, the community?

These questions are at the forefront of my mind each year I teach a new set of students.  But it’s interesting how community has been on my mind lately.

Just last week I spoke about community while welcoming an audience to my piano students’ summer recital.  In the weeks leading up to the recital, I had thought a lot about how different of an experience it is teaching private piano lessons as opposed to teaching writing to a classroom full of 13 and 14-year-olds.  In the private piano studio, my students miss what I find to be so profound and invigorating in the classroom.  They miss this sense of belonging to something larger.  Even the instrument in discussion here, the piano, has a reputation of being played as a solo instrument (perhaps in someone’s living room). I know for me, studying piano taught me how to be content in a solitary space–a space where I might spend an hour analyzing and correcting the arch in my hand until my glissando really did sound like a waterfall. Unlike a classroom setting, I never wrote a reflection or shared my discoveries with peers. I simply waited until my next lesson to show off my newly-developed technique to my teacher. Again, very private. So hosting a recital for my students broke the solitary nature of studying piano. For that night, as fleeting as it may have been, I know they felt connected to others, to a school of learners.

Community hasn’t just been on my mind because of the recital. I’ve also thought a lot about community as it relates to blogging. Sure, we as bloggers write to inform, reflect, negotiate new ideas, entertain, and learn, but the rather unexpected reward that I’ve found in blogging is the sense of community. When I first started writing about my experience re-training Gugi, I felt like I was, more or less, writing in a vacuum. Perhaps the vacuum being my own mind. I didn’t have any horse-loving followers, nor had I started following any other riders’ quests with their horses. But lately I’ve found myself hooked on reading both the posts complete strangers write on their own horse blogs and the comments they leave on my blog. Link to my last post Liebster Award to see some of my top reads. Ngugi’s Word is starting to actually be read by people–people I may never meet–and this feeling of being connected with others who can relate to my experiences and emotions is something quite powerful. The networking and overall support is something I certainly would be deprived of had I started writing Ngugi’s Word in a journal, or never at all.

And so I close tonight with a short excerpt from a comment I received on Peaks and Valleys. It’s the type of comment that speaks to my post on community and belonging to something larger. Exechorseluver wrote,

Trust in yourself-you are a competent rider with a solid seat and hands. Accidents will happen, do not over anaylze. Even if you never canter this horse again, or it takes five years, enjoy her trots. Do what you are confident in instead of worrying about what you are afraid of. Be successful at the trot. It will breed confidence.

Given my struggles with confidence lately, Exechorseluver‘s comment could not have come at a better time. It’s true. I need to focus more on what I CAN do, rather than what I CAN’T do YET. Thank you, WordPress community. I feel ya’!

Peaks and Valleys

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I’ve been thinking a lot about my confidence–how it’s created, how it sometimes gets crushed, and how I take certain steps to rebuild it. Just when I think I’ve reached a peak in my riding, some new challenge creeps in and seems to test my commitment to Gugi. I suppose it’s part of the cycle of highs and lows, peaks and valleys, pride and humility, laughter and tears…

My last posts in March point to a recent peak / accomplishment: being able to canter Gugi. As much as I’d love to say that the past few months have been spent developing a softer canter than the previous videos I posted, I can’t even say that I have cantered intentionally at all. I’ve actually been dreading this post for about two months because there’s no way I can write without mentioning my first fall off Gugi. And I can’t not write about it because I think it’s part of the reason why I’ve been struggling to gain back my confidence. By not writing about the fall, I haven’t fully reflected on what happened and how I can move past it with deeper understanding. Sure, I’ve replayed the whole scene in my mind a thousand times, but that just feeds the reactive, emotional side of me. It’s like my mind’s eye has sensationalized it and labeled it with some exaggerated headline: “Malicious Mare’s Rear.” Yes, that’s exactly what I saw flashing at the bottom of my TV screen mind! So rather than re-casting the event as some huge tragedy, I’ll give basic details of my fall and then focus more on what major take-aways or lessons I’ve learned.

I was in a lesson with trainer Kim and we were working on my less balanced, and therefore more difficult, direction at the canter: the left. I got Gugi into the canter, but then started clutching with my legs and not allowing her to move forward. Hands and arms locked and got tight on her mouth. Her canter felt stiff and short-stepped, almost spiraling in towards the center of the ring. Instead of allowing her to move out and forward, I kept bracing myself against her, never finding her rhythm. She rightfully got upset with me and started tossing her head a bit and crow-hopping. What I should have done at this point was an emergency turn in a tight circle, disengaging the hindquarters, but I just kept pulling back causing her to rear up and flip to the side. Luckily we were both uninjured–unless, of course, we count my crumbled confidence as injured.

Confidence. It really is a complex and fragile thing. On the day of the accident, I thought I’d never get to the point where I could try cantering again. I was completely defeated. But, with careful attention to details, I spent a good two weeks really feeling her again at the walk. I became very interested in all the finer footwork (especially disengaging the hindquarters) that could help me in future emergency situations. Overall, though, it’s my feel on her mouth and finding the rhythm through my arms, core, and seat that I’ve been forced to pay closer attention to now. I’ve learned that some falls need to happen to force you to learn something louder and clearer, so to speak.

Peaks and Valleys.

To end this post I’ve been actually dreading to write, I’ll close with two clips that I would call peaks.

Both videos are of us trotting again for the first time after the fall. I think it was only 4-5 days later. These are from a lesson with visiting dressage trainer Bridget.

The Right Fit

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One Year Ago, I was in trouble. I owned a horse that terrified me. Every time I was around her, it was as though I was reliving my first year of teaching. I felt inexperienced and spineless, and I always had this severe pit in my stomach. Being around her made me feel insecure–so much so that my voice quivered and I became tongue-tied even trying to speak. It was like I was 21 again, teaching a room full of 18-year-old seniors. I felt lost and defeated.

One Year Ago, I made Skyview Farm Ngugi’s new home, and I put my trust into Kim Selby’s hands. It was a desperate attempt to keep Gugi and protect her from being passed to someone with inhumane intentions.
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One Year Ago, I would find myself browsing Dreamhorse.com because I had anything but my dreamhorse! I loved the idea of rescuing her from neglectful hands, but I didn’t like her. I didn’t like the way I felt when I was around her. Part of me was hoping just maybe Kim would really like her. Then I could just give her away and find my forever horse in the Dreamhorse classifieds.

One Year Ago, Gugi and I found the right fit. And it saved us.

This post is a dedication to Kim Selby, owner of Skyview Farm and Wellspring Riding Academy trainer located in Kankakee, Illinois. I hope to not only celebrate the gift Kim has with training challenging, special-needs horses like Gugi, but also speak to what Kim calls her “marriage counselling” between horse and rider. Here’s a picture from last summer of Kim and Gugi:
Flyer 1st Draft

Within the first 5 minutes of meeting Kim, you will learn two things: 1) Her love for and connection with horses is palpable, and 2) she loves to talk. This works out great for me because I went to Kim for help on partnering with Gugi, and also, I know that I learn best from talking through concepts. I will always need the instructor who breaks down the big WHY?, the big SO WHAT?

Thinking back to my first conversation with Kim over the phone, I knew then that she’d be that instructor for me, for us. I remember her explaining the mantra that stands at the core of her training: “Ask, don’t tell; soft, but firm; repetition, persistency, consistency.” I remember her telling me, “God gave me a gift with people and horses. It’s my goal in life to be a positive influence on the lives of the people and horses I meet.” I remember really believing in her. I remember counting down the days until I could bring Gugi to her positive environment (even though it’s nearly an hour and a half from my home).

And now it’s been a year. We’ve made so much progress–even if it’s been slow and steady. They say a horse mirrors her owner, or the owner mirrors her horse. Well, that’s how I learn. I may not be the first in the group to learn a new concept, but when I get it, I see things that others miss. Kim gets this about Gugi; she gets this about me. So while so many “talkers” don’t listen, Kim is an anomaly. She listens to both human and horse. And what the human isn’t understanding from the horse, she translates.

On the Wellspring Riding Academy Facebook page, you’ll read the following description:

Kim has developed a philosophy of balanced riding and a more natural approach to connecting and communicating with your horse.

I close with what I believe makes Kim Selby and Skyview Farm the right fit for Gugi and me:
1)Horses at Skyview farm either live outside year-round or spend the day outside with suitable paddock/pasture mates.
2)All riding disciplines are welcome.
3)Even at a busy horse show, Kim is still able to make everyone (even me who just brought Gugi there for the experience) feel important.
4)Kim welcomes diverse clinicians (she most recently hosted a dressage clinic, and will host a Natural Horsemanship clinic in April), and encourages students to analyze their riding through the lens of another trainer’s critique.
5)The farm is a work in progress. It is not one of those static farms that never grows or changes.
6)Cliques don’t exist. All riders are viewed equal regardless of whether they own a horse, attend shows, etc.
7)Lessons are truly opportunities for riders to try new things, take risks, go outside of their comfort zones, etc.
8)Lesson horses still have spirits.
9)Kim is the type of trainer who calls me after a training ride just to tell me how amazing my horse is.
10)Kim develops in her students not just good riders, but confident people.

And now I ask you to reflect on where your horse is stabled and who trains both you and your horse…
I would love to hear what makes it the right fit for you OR what you would add to your own top 10 list of what makes a good barn / trainer.