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Fay Seltzer: 2018 Region 1 Gifted Grant Recipient

WOW what a difference!

My goals with Maire (Hot Date SFH) were fairly simple:

  1. getting my confidence back in the saddle,
  2. getting closer to being ready for the show ring and
  3. keeping Maire happy and sound.  My plans for this grant were for a week of training in April/May.  We had a nice spring this year, so I was able to start her back to work with lunging and ground work in mid-April.

I hadn’t realized how much confidence I’d lost until the first day that I mounted.  I stood on the top step of my 3 step mounting block and felt somewhat afraid of heights.  No, wait a minute, nearly 30 years ago I helped to put the roof on our barn 25’ up, and now I’m worried about a 3’ mounting block. WOW, menopause and dealing with my previous horse had really changed my way of thinking!  Since I really wanted to do this and we had a time frame, I pressed on.  Each day was easier, and eventually we trotted and cantered at home.  I knew I needed help, and really started to look forward to our week at Sewickley Farm with Emily Donaldson. 

As the big day neared, I had so many thoughts running thru my head, as well as never ending lists of what I needed to pack. I started packing on Sunday, May 26 to be ready for our afternoon ride time. 

Gifted Scholarship - Background info 

Wow. It was several months in planning, and we've just completed our first day of the The Dressage Foundation Gifted Fund Grant. A little background info that leads to why this grant came at such a good time in my dressage journey.  

I applied a few years ago to take my homebred heart horse, Doodlebug, to work on Third/Fourth Levels, but we weren't the chosen ones for that year. That was one of the last years that I competed Dood. She was showing some signs of slowing down, and I would rather retire her from competition sound and happy and change my focus to my next promising partner, my young ISR, Sam I Am. His future was bright, but as time would show us, he had a debilitating condition that caused me injury and dampened my confidence in my riding ability. After being forced to retire him, I began the search for a new partner. I knew it would have to be a diamond on the rough, because money to purchase a horse was not built into the budget.  

After months of searching, I found a 9-year-old Hanoverian mare with a questionable background in Virginia. She had some lumps and bumps, but I felt we could do something.  The first month was touch and go and I wanted to take her back -- it was just an emotional roller coaster. And did I mention menopause? 

I spent the first winter just getting to know her and trying to find info on where she had been and what she had done. It was a Black Beauty story -- injuries, breeding problems, more injuries, I estimated that the year I got her, she had at least 5 owners, probably more. She lacked as much confidence in people as I did in her. In 2018, I was able to get back into a riding routine, and get her to a few lessons with Emily Donaldson. Emily rode her once and I explained to her everything that I was going through. We had things we could work on, and it made a difference. I rode in my GMO's George Williams clinic and made the decision to apply for a Gifted Fund Grant. 

The winter of 2018-19 was time off for Maire (registered name - Hot Date SFH), and when spring came, I noticed a change in her. Fewer wrinkles over her eyes; maybe she has realized that she may get to stay in one place for a while. She was less worried about the other critters on our farm - geese, peacock, chickens and the ugly guineas, but she still watches them just to make sure they stay on their side of the fence.  

When the weather finally allowed me to ride, it was a mental challenge for me to get into shape. For the first time ever, when I was standing on the mounting block, I was afraid of heights. Oh, did I mention, she's 17 hands, and I'd never had anything more than 16.1. Yes, it's only a few inches, but I had a goal and we needed to get to work, so I gave Maire a few treats and just walked around the ring a few times. Each day was easier, and I just kept building. It was good for Maire to start slow too. A week of walking and small lateral movements, and then a little trotting, and even a few strides of canter. As we do more, both of us are gaining confidence.  

In mid-May, I took a big leap of faith and took her to my GMO’s schooling show. It was just a test for both of us, and after we finished our tests, I took her into the indoor for a little canter and then cool down. The scores were not bad, but I had hoped for more consistency. The judges’ remarks would turn out to be the same as what Emily would work on in our lessons the following week. 

Time for Training 

Maire knew something was up.  When she came in from night turnout as a solid mud ball, I decided it would be easier to give her a bath than to spend hours grooming her. She did NOT want to get on the trailers, so I told her I would bring her home if she was a good girl and we were going on a week-long vacation. 

The basic idea is that I have to take control and not let her talk me into things. I have to help her with her confidence, and not let her push through my hands. Lots of shoulder fore, and until she's using her hind end better and staying straighter, we can stay under the pace. She must also allow me to position her body and not be rude about the reins. One step at a time! 

I little light bulb moment - hands stay steady, but the fingers do the talking. Don't accept any popping up above the bit. Keep the control, stay soft and playful in the fingers. “Party Fingers.” And the same old things - sit up, look up, sit tall, elbows in and bent. We'll get there! 

On Tuesday, Maire blessed me with a mostly clean body. A morning rain gave her a bath, and she stayed clean, so a quick brushing and we were ready to go. She was more controllable today, even though she started out being fussy with her head. We again put her together and asked for smaller slower steps that are easier for her to control. As she was staying steadier in those steps, I could ask for a bigger step or two, but then go back to the basic trot. Emily also is making me aware of when to sit heavy and soften.  She sees it just before I feel it, but I think I'm starting to feel when it's happening. Good news is, Maire does really seem to be responding to my weight aids. I am learning to refine my body language to communicate with her. A few times during Tuesday's lesson, I had her a little too under power and then she seemed to get stuck, and then I almost over-rode her out of it. Emily noticed that she carries her shoulders more in front of her right hind. It's really nice to have the mirrors to see what is happening, and why the correction in each direction is different. 

Wednesday was better than Tuesday, except for the impatient muddy horse and the heat! She was so dirty that we started the day with a bath, then a hand walk and graze to relax her mind. I still missed some mud that I could only see when I mounted. (Bad mommy!) We took a few more walk breaks for both of us to catch our breath and the work involved more of the same. I feel like I'm really making progress in feeling the trot we need for where we are right now.  

I used to ride hunters (yes, 25 years ago), and I was always riding for that big swinging long and low trot, but I need to change my posting to get a trot that Maire can handle – slower and taller in the saddle. This will help immensely when I get home as my ring is NOT level and she feels like she is losing her balance when we go downhill. To build the collection and get her to really use her hind end, she needs to be in a controlled trot, not too much and not too little, and if I post for that trot, it really makes it easier for her. Don't go big, at least not yet! Go for soft and engaged - both of us! Also, remember to use my core to sit her hind end down to stop the fussing and keep her soft. Use the weight aids to ask for everything. She's more balanced at the canter, so if we really own it at the trot, the canter will come naturally. Each gait will improve the other gaits, and the transitions will improve the gaits. 

Thursday. Wait, day 4 already? The more things change, the more they stay the same. That's the way it goes with Maire. When I arrived, I found a brown horse in the stall.  Oh wait, same size as Maire, under that layer of mud there was my black mare. We again worked on submissiveness and soft contact. She's not happy with the increased level of work and she does intimidate me at times. It was good to have Emily to talk me through the resistance. We can do this. Tomorrow we're going to try lunging her first to see if we can improve her acceptance of the bit and contact. 

Friday's lesson started on the lunge.  We are hoping this gives her a chance to settle into work mode. It was evident from the start that she was with us today. Then some light in-hand work to concentrate on bending and stepping over with the hind. Not as much fussing today, but she still tries to unseat me to push/root down thru the bit. I need to sit back a bit more and post slower than the rhythm to settle her better. A little trouble with the right lead canter, but she seemed to get it better if I keep my inside leg closer to the girth. The transition to left lead canter is mostly a thought, the right is a thought process. 

Other riding notes for Maire: careful she doesn't move the shoulders left or right to avoid going straight forward into the next gait, and in downward transitions, use a little leg yield to help the transition, lots of half halts and softening of the inside rein then the outside rein, then allow her to fill up the other rein, but not so much that she roots. It's a fine line with her. 

Friday was the best day so far, but I scheduled two additional days, Monday and Tuesday the following week. Monday and Tuesday allowed us to confirm the work that we were doing all week. I was able to feel what I needed to do before being told to do it. The two days between gave her some home time with her pasture mates and allowed me to practice without Emily in my ear. I missed her voice, but I must do my own thinking. 

The lessons this week were about me keeping control and keeping Maire occupied with shoulder fore, half halts, and the weight aids. I need to stay back in the saddle so I can stay stronger when she gets heavy in my hands. We need to keep practicing those transitions. As we get stronger, the balance will improve and then she won’t feel the need to fall on my hands. 

The difference between the first day and the last day was amazing. Last week, Maire would root the reins out of my hands every few steps, even at a free walk. On the final day this week, she didn't do it at all. We could maintain the trot wanted for longer periods and her attention is staying with me in the sandbox.  

Final Thoughts 

One thing I remarked on this week is that Maire makes me feel like a total beginner to dressage. I’ve gone back to square one to learn what she knows.  She's a very different horse from my Thoroughbred and Thoroughbred-cross homebreds. She uses her size to work against me. We concentrate on getting her to carry herself and not run thru my hands. 

Did I reach my goals for this training grant? YES! I am getting my confidence back and we have now gone to two schooling shows, and Maire does seem to be happy with me.  The last one is the most important!  When I come out of the house, she watches me, and when we were away for training, the staff noticed it too. While I'm not going to be venturing down center line at a level where I was with Shorty or Doodlebug, Maire has her own talents and they will develop in time. We have work to do so that we can become a competitive team, in time, due time. I'm already thinking of ways that I can do some extended training stints for the future. 

A huge thank-you to Carol Lavell for setting up the Gifted Fund Grant with The Dressage Foundation, and to TDF for selecting us to receive the grant this year. Also THANK-YOU to Emily Donaldson and the staff at Sewickley Farm for making us feel at home and dealing with Maire’s nervousness.  It was an enormous help to get me back on track in my dressage journey.  I’m now just on a side track and we’ll get back to the main line in our own time.