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Gifted Memorial Fund for Adult Amateurs Recipient: Leah Strid (Region 4)

Make plans, and the universe laughs, right? I first found out about the Gifted Memorial Fund for Adult Amateur grant about four days before the application closed in 2021. I had recently (as of about six weeks) been riding with a new trainer, and one of her students had posted about their experience with the Gifted Fund grant. I assumed it would be best to wait a year and do a better job gathering my documentation, but the student told me “Carpe diem!” – and so I did! It was a bit of a mad scramble, but I pulled together all the documentation, submitted it, and then impatiently waited to hear the recipients announced. 

I still remember the moment when I opened my email to find out that I had been selected – I screamed so loud a coworker came down the hall to check on me. I was ecstatic! And then… 2022 happened. My original training plan was to ride every day but also to set things up for a mock run-through before my first recognized show. Lessons were going so well in early 2022 that at the last minute, I decided to take a stab at recognized showing, but there wasn’t enough time to fit my grant week boot camp in before it happened. I shrugged and assumed we would find time a little later in the year before my next recognized show attempt. And then my trainer left her previous barn to build her own barn. And then I broke my ankle. And then my husband had major back surgery and was on a 10-pound weight restriction for three months, so I couldn’t leave the farm. And then construction on my trainer’s new barn was delayed. And before I knew it, it was 2023…. 

Luckily, the stars aligned, and we managed to get it on the schedule for the first week of March.  

Wednesday, March 1 (day one) –

Due to some circumstances beyond my control, I didn’t get a chance to pack until the day I left for my grant week – it worked out okay though, my first lesson was in the afternoon. I managed to get everything on the trailer and the worst of the mud hosed off Ruby, and I set off for a week of training with my trainer, Brianna Zwilling at Infinity Farm. 

The first lesson was great – we’d had about 10 days off since my last lesson (very damp winter here in Missouri with only an outdoor to ride in), but Ruby showed up to play. She was super chill, and I actually felt like I needed to kick her up to KEEP her in the canter, which is not our usual “MO.” I’m sure it helped that it was warm, and she still has a full winter coat, but I’m not complaining. Knowing that we’d be riding every day, my trainer kept things easy – although we did introduce the concept of leg yielding from the quarter line to the centerline, which blew Ruby’s brain a little. We had some good ones, and some NOT so good ones, but that’s horses! Overall, the theme for day one was to keep it consistent. We are capable of some really nice moments, but currently stringing them together (particularly in a test) is tough – but practice makes perfect!

After Ruby’s lesson, I got to watch my trainer ride her upper-level horse (schooling Intermediate 2/Grand Prix, shown through Intermediate 1). She helpfully mic’ed up so I could talk to her while she schooled, and it was super interesting for me to see that the things I struggle with are similar to the things she struggles with at the very basic level – having a horse who occasionally wants to make their own decisions on adding power without waiting to be asked or trying to run off in the canter. Those building blocks just continue up and up and up, no matter what level you’re riding. Of course, at her level, the movements come so much faster and you have to be so much more coordinated, but the basics are the same – can I keep the horse between my aids, are they being responsible for their portion of self-carriage, am I letting them trick me into holding them up?

She had more horses to ride after her personal horse, but I ducked out to grab some groceries and dinner and check into my hotel. It had been a rough few weeks at work and with projects on the farm, so a week of uninterrupted dressage time came at the PERFECT timing. I wanted to get to bed early to be up and at ‘em bright and early for day two!

Thursday, March 2 (day two) – 

Day two was LONG! Lessons started at 10:30 am and ran through a little after 9:00 pm – my trainer is superwoman! I was the second lesson of the day, which gave me time to arrive early to the barn and give Ruby a good rinse in the heated wash rack – such a luxury! I also got to shampoo and condition her tail, which was full of mud dreadlocks and basically made her look feral and unloved. Our lesson was a continuation of the day before – chipping away slowly at that consistency, making her let me set the bend and the tempo. I thought she might be a little “up” after the day before (minimal turnout, since we traveled), but she was extremely relaxed and focused – maybe a little TOO relaxed, as every time I half halted in the canter, she broke gait! Good reminder to ride the horse I have TODAY, not the horse I usually have. We worked some more on leg yields, which are either spectacular or truly a dumpster fire, there isn’t much in between. We also had to have a discussion about the right rein – she REALLY didn’t think I should be allowed to touch it at the canter, and I REALLY needed to be able to so that I could influence the bend and tempo. 

After our lesson, she got to enjoy some turnout while I watched 10 more hours of lessons (with only a quick break to dive into the sandwich supplies I had the forethought to buy, so I could make lunch and keep watching without missing any minutes of learning!). I watched lessons that ran the gamut from a green baby working at the walk and learning how to steer and not hang on the reins, to two very different and very talented Intermediate 1 horses. Again, I was reminded that we’re all just chipping away at the very same building blocks, it’s just that they get to do much cooler things with theirs.

By the time I dragged myself out of the barn at quarter till 10, my brain felt like a soup sandwich – I did prop my eyes open long enough to jot down some thoughts and impressions, so I didn’t lose the whole day, but then I crawled into bed and dreamed about doing it all again the next day! 

Friday, March 3 (day three) – 

On day three I was DRAGGING – I got up, did a little work (I am the only person in my program so taking a completely cut-off vacation is tricky), then crawled back under the covers for another hour. It was a late start, and a miserable day with pouring rain, so I didn’t feel too guilty about it. Three straight days of lessons are more work than I’ve done in MONTHS between the weather and not being able to haul in, so we did a ton of lateral work at the walk. I learned a valuable lesson – my horse will go forward off my right leg, or sideways, but apparently forward and sideways at the same time is IMPOSSIBLE. So, that’s our homework between now and the next recognized show in a few weeks. Everything else was lovely – in fact, we had some truly lovely canter and I wish our cantering at home was 1/10 as nice as what I’m able to accomplish in lessons. We also touched on the teardrops (still got it!) and some stretchy trot, which was not as bad as it usually is! I have been working really hard on influencing her with my body and not the reins, and I feel like we are finally making some progress. We are really getting the ability to transfer some of that power and channel it for good instead of sass, and I’m so excited. It’s a little bittersweet at the same time – this grant week really gave me a taste of what it’s like to be in a program and MAN DO I WANT THAT LIFE, but realistically, it’s not compatible with my life right now. So, I will just keep chipping away at home and maybe once a year or so I can work out shorter boot camp/clinic-style weekends – these back-to-back to back lessons are SO immensely helpful. 

There was one other lesson after mine, which was super interesting to watch, and then we traveled out to some of my trainer’s other clients at a different barn. Again, the clients ran the gamut of lower-level horses working their way up to one rehabbing sort of mentally fried upper-level horse, who was so relaxed and swingy through the trot it was awesome to watch. I am really finding myself picking up useful bits and pieces, like watching one canter half pass and mentally thinking “I feel like it could use more haunches” and then hearing my trainer say the exact same thing was really, really cool. This is really giving me the chance to train my eye in a way I’ve never had access to before and may not get a chance to again. It’s also interesting to see how many horses share such similar evasions, and some of the exercises my trainer comes up with to overcome them. Watching her be able to devise exercises on the fly for whatever was going on with each particular horse was so valuable! Again, another day ended very late, but this time I had to be up early for the (equine) chiropractor, so off to bed!

Saturday, March 4 (day four) –

After the disaster that was day three in terms of leg yields, day four was night and day difference. I was feeling much more refreshed and ready to go after “sleeping in” (and not having to check work emails in the morning), and Ruby was relaxed and ready to go. It was also super nice to have a friend there and ready to take pictures! My trainer commented on how much better I was in my shoulders (not sure she had to tell me to sit up a single time when usually it's every few minutes). My friend commented that after four days of lessons, my legs probably felt like noodles, and I agreed, but my trainer told me they looked great. 

We jumped right into leg yields, and then canter and worked our butts off – we finished up with some good stretchy trot. Ruby is really getting the hang of stretching down while continuing to let me set the tempo with my seat and legs and not just running off into the sunset. Everything just felt so EASY and attainable.

After the lesson, we also had a chance to hop in on a barn chiropractic visit. This chiropractor had seen Ruby once before, last March when tracking right was IMPOSSIBLE for her, and she’d rather chuck you into a wall than canter politely on the right lead. With one adjustment, I had my horse back. I was excited to see how she felt after an adjustment that she didn’t come into broken. Ruby was stuck in the same right shoulder, and the chiropractor showed me a few exercises I should be able to do between visits to help keep Ruby a little freer through the shoulders. After watching a bunch more lessons and horses getting adjusted, it was board games and pizza with some of my barn family. It was so nice to be able to hang out with them without time constraints (normally I am rushing home to get my horse back), so it was super fun to feel like one of the gang for the night. 

Sunday, March 5 (day five) – 

Today it was Ruby’s turn to be tired – which is fair! Even in the height of summer we rarely work five days in a row, and usually then at least one of those rides is just a bareback toddle or an easy trail ride. I’m not sure she’s ever had to do five consecutive days of hard work – lucky pony! She wasn’t resistant tired, or belligerent, just required more leg than usual to keep in the canter (and as my legs are still quite tired, we had lots of breaking in the canter). We worked leg yields at the walk again and discovered that yesterday’s improvement hadn’t carried over and the leg yields off my right leg were a disaster again, so we really dug into what was going on. What aids I was giving, how Ruby felt, how she was responding to the aids, and what my trainer could see. Eventually, after some frustration on my part (mostly because I was struggling to really clearly elaborate on my aids and what I was feeling), my trainer commented that I was collapsing my left ribs and basically my entire left side, so I wasn’t standing Ruby up on that side at all, leading to things crumpling up and limbs going in five different directions. When I thought about sitting tall and even through my ribs and really pushing her over into my left leg, things got significantly better. I think part of the issue as well as in the trot I don’t have so much time to overthink my aids and I have more of a tendency to just make it happen, but in the walk, I am overthinking everything and somehow just making it so much worse!

After my lesson it was off to the local GMO’s “On the Levels” presentation, going over the new tests and changes from last year’s test, with a judge answering questions. Quite a few other riders from my trainer’s barns were there, several planning to make a move up the levels this year, so I think we all got really good information out of it. For me, it was valuable to watch them live score several First Level tests and get a better feel of what good looked like – last year I was mostly focused on just getting through the tests, this year I think I have a much better chance of making them flow because we are doing significantly better work in our lessons and I have a much better chance of making decisions rather than just sort of doing a Hail Mary during my tests. I watched through Third Level and then headed back to the barn for the evening. This was the day it really started to sink in that my week would be closing up soon, and was again, very bittersweet. I have been learning so much and it’s been so valuable that it’s going to be so hard to go back to my “hopefully once a week but possibly once a month” schedule – to stave off those feelings of disappointment, I made sure to write down Ruby and me on several of the show sign-ups – hopefully, this year is better than last year! 

Monday, March 6 (day six) – 

I stayed at the barn for 14 hours, and it wasn’t enough – I never wanted to leave! This trip has been such a dream come true, and day six just completely solidified that it was worth every step to get here and get this grant and take the time off of work. We ran through every element from the First Level tests I’d like to show in a month, and it was EFFORTLESS. The leg yields were absolutely worlds better than anything we’ve been able to achieve thus far. I did four from the centerline to the wall and waited impatiently for my trainer’s feedback… “well?” nothing, they were great! I was speechless. All the things that I felt so unsure about last year I now feel are very solid and completely attainable. it didn’t work out for me to use this grant week before my recognized show debut last year, but hindsight being 20/20, this would have made things so much easier and less stressful. 

Tuesday, March 7 (day seven) – 

I woke up early to pack up and check out of my hotel, get out to the barn, take my lesson, and then get back on the road and to reality. This lesson ended up being similar to what I had envisioned for my original grant week application, in that we ran through all the First Level tests after I was warmed up to make sure I was ready for the first recognized show of the season. First Level tests one and two are rock solid – I feel great about them! First Level Test Three is… a slog. Our canter isn’t quite ready for the loops, and the test has a very odd flow. Even so, I’m glad we ran through it because now I know what areas we really need to work on for the future. It was vet day for my trainer’s barn, so no other lessons to watch, so I very sadly put Ruby on the trailer and headed home. 


Was I able to meet my original goals?

Yes and no – between when I applied and when I was able to schedule my grant, my goals changed a bit, but I was still able to get so much out of this week of dressage boot camp. 

What expectations did I have for my training? Were they met?

My expectations were just to get a chance for consistent work with my horse, and a chance to train my eye at levels above what I’m currently riding and both of those expectations were met above and beyond! Riding seven days in a row was amazing, and the chance to see the same issues day after day let my trainer really dig into some positional fixes and exercises to help us strengthen our weak areas. And I got to watch more upper-level riding than I ever have with any consistency, and it wasn’t in a show ring, it was riders working through issues in lessons, just like I do, which was super fascinating to watch. 

How has my partnership with my horse improved as a result?

Absolutely – having nothing to focus on but her and my riding was great for both of us. With so much to do on the farm, a lot of times grooming is perfunctory, and I don’t get to spend much time with her just for the enjoyment of it. But having nothing to do besides watch lessons, learn, and focus on her gave me time to really relax and not be in a hurry. It sounds cliché, but I really got to live in the moment.

If I didn’t meet my goal, what events caused me to not meet it?

If you look at things from a strict standpoint of meeting the original goal, I set out in my application 18 months ago, no. But I’ve found that with horses, the quote “be stubborn about your goals but flexible about your methods” is a good mantra. In the time since I wrote the original grant application, my goals have shifted slightly, and this grant week definitely met and exceeded my current goals, even if they have changed since 2021. 

I am so exceedingly grateful to The Dressage Foundation and all of its donors for making this experience possible for me and Ruby. It was a life-changing week, and I am already looking forward to helping other members of my GMO and barn family complete their own applications for future grants.