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Allison Howell

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The Doldrums

Photo via Pixabay/CC.

Colloquially, the “doldrums” are a state of inactivity, mild depression, listlessness, or stagnation – Wikipedia 

Hello again, chickadees! It’s been a while since we last spoke. Back in December I was riding the high of a fun-as-heck clinic with WEG gold medalist Devin Ryan. After that experience I had such high aspirations of going to local schooling shows, polishing up my flat work, fixing my position, schooling some higher fences, all while eating healthier and becoming the best me possible. Because that’s all so easy right? Spoiler Alert: I pretty much did the opposite of all those things.

As I’m sure many of you across the country have noticed: it’s winter, and winter, frankly, sucks. Even though I’m one of the lucky ones who has an indoor at the barn (I know, I know, I really have no right to complain) there have been some truly miserable stretches of cold and wind, not to mention the mud that threatens to consume Virginia. In addition to the wretched weather, Tipsy went through a period of not feeling so great. It started when my barn owner let me know that she was walking away from her food and trying to take her pasture mate’s. Okay, we brought her in to eat. That turned into taking a half hour or more to finish her meals. We started treating her for ulcers, and she bounced back pretty immediately, but she had lost some weight in a short period of time so I put her on very light duty until she started to gain weight back.

In amongst all that, I had pulled her shoes after the clinic, which – normally – would have been just fine. But again, the footing kept going from mud, to freezing ground, to mud again, and I think her feet just never had enough time to adapt to one type of footing or the other.  She wasn’t off, per se, just not as comfortable as she had been in shoes.

I started to feel the pressure of all the goals I had set for myself weighing heavily on my shoulders, realizing I had achieved none of them. Add to that all the Instagram videos from those shiny, happy people showing in the sun in Ocala and Wellington, and I was feeling quite in the doldrums.

Finally, the other night, tacking her up in the cross ties after a long week, recent life circumstances weighing heavily on my mind, I took Elsa’s advice and let it go [Side note: I have never actually seen Frozen, a fact of which I am very proud]. My big, beautiful, bay mare, who still tried her best for me even when she wasn’t feeling 100%, was waiting sagely for me to get my boots on to go to the indoor to work. It seems there have been blogs and articles about this ad nauseum, but I really can’t emphasize this enough: no one cares about your goals and aspirations but you. I decided I just wanted to have fun again.

Do you know what happened when I finally let it go? I had a fantastic ride. She was spooky as all get-out at the start, and after I realized that relaxation was something I was just not going to achieve on the flat, I went ahead and started schooling itty bitty cross rails (so much for those bigger fences, right?). It was probably one of my best rides on her in six months. We both had something to focus on, it wasn’t high pressure, and we finally, FINALLY seemed to be getting into sync. I think she was as content with the ride as I was by the end.

After that, something amazing happened. We went for a jump lesson and OMG – WE CANTERED POLES WITH COMPETENCE!! We also jumped with competence, but cantering poles evenly has always been my nemesis. At the start of this lesson series I literally had the thought of “Who let me go out and jump at 2’6”, let alone 3’?!” – so bad was my first lesson. This last lesson, coach Martin Douzant told me to go home and celebrate. Once I took the pressure off and stopped dwelling on everything that didn’t go right with Tipsy, riding became fun again.

I’m not sure this blog post is dispensing any new or particularly novel wisdom. But if you’re out there, despairing that you’re not getting to the barn enough, or that your rides aren’t going well, or that you, too, feel stuck in the doldrums, I’d say take a step back and take the pressure off yourself. Make sure your horse feels 100%. Then give her a hug and – like Marie Kondo says – find what sparks joy in your rides, even if it has nothing to do with the goals you set for yourself. I bet you and your horse will be much happier for it.

Allison Howell lives in Virginia with her two dogs, a tolerant fiance and Danish warmblood mare. She is a passionate advocate for OTTBs, and her 2016 Makeover horse is currently leased to a good friend. Mares are the best; don’t @ me.

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Clinic Report: Jumping With WEG Gold Medalist Devin Ryan, Day 2

Contributor Allison Howell recently took a clinic with WEG show jumping team gold medalist Devin Ryan, and invited our sister site, Horse Nation, along for the ride. Miss out on Allison’s report on day one? Click here to catch up!

From L to R: New BFFs Allison Howell on Tipitina, Devin Ryan, and Dr. Malora Roberts on #tbmakeovergraduate Cassie — who can canter a vertical just fine. Photo by Brenda Howell.

Why, why, why, WHY is cantering over the tiniest, most adorably swishy, inviting (did I mention TINY?) vertical at a canter the hardest exercise ever invented by mankind? Day two at the Devin Ryan clinic began much the same as day one: I met with my super-supportive mother and friend to watch the big jumper group before we rode later in the day.

Devin warmed the group up, had them lengthen and shorten within the gaits as he had on day one, had them drop their stirrups for a bit and then dug into them at the shoulder-in: “You must do this properly, it’s like going to the gym, it’s a strengthening movement; if you don’t do it properly, it doesn’t work.”

After that, he had them go through three trot cavaletti. Here Devin focused on contact again, imparting that “dropping them in front of a jump is abandoning our horses. Learn to have a light contact throughout the course … some horses need more of a release, some less, but keep a contact.” He then had the big jumpers canter for eight strides after the cavaletti, then transition back to trot, emphasizing “courses are all transitions!”

Then, as a warm-up, he introduced the vertical. Placed very unassumingly in the middle of the arena on the short approach, I watched the riders canter over it in circle, some taking off a little long or a little short initially. Once they were jumping from the appropriate distance, Devin had them place both reins in their outside hand and put their inside hand behind their back “to make your reins more united” and work on balance: “balance is never in your hands!”

And at that point I had the audacity to think “oh, I am going to be so good at this.” I had been practicing a good amount of cavaletti and short turn work in our indoor at home…

Spoiler alert: I was not so good at this.

Dear Kama: if there is a pile of little blue matchsticks in your arena where that friendly, blue, adorable, little swishy jump used to be – IT WAS ME. My mom, my wonderfully-supportive just-trying-to-help-me-get-better mother, videoed every attempt I made at that wretched vertical, to the point that when I was scrolling through the videos and thinking “dear God, woman, just give up already!”

I just could NOT seem to get the approach to this thing right. In spite of my efforts to

  • count from 8 strides away,
  • establish and maintain a good canter,
  • and keep my horse in the appropriate amount of flexion for the circle,

I pushed poor Tipsy for the long spot time and time again. Devin was level-headed throughout the whole clinic, but at this point I could hear the frustration begin to creep into his voice as he sagely repeated “when in doubt, wait it out.” The only slight consolation was that my partner in this exercise seemed to be having similar difficulties. Finally, FINALLY, I sat up and waited for that extra heartbeat and got in that extra stride to the jump. “You must trust her!” he commanded. “Easy for you to say, gold medalist,” I quipped back… in my head.

After that torture session was over, Devin had us start working on a course. This course started at the top with the vertical we had jumped the day before placed on the short side, serpentine around to the Vertical-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named, then around to the end of the ring and up over a teeny-tiny natural vertical, then halt after. (The halt at the end of the line seemed to help the one mare in our session that liked to get a little “wahoo!” to the jumps.)

For some reason, Tipsy decided to jump the little vertical like it was on fire. She has a tendency to jump things a little big every now and again, I’ve gotten in the habit of slipping my reins when she does this to try and avoid grabbing her in the mouth. I expected to get an earful from Devin for landing in a heap, but he was actually okay with the fact that I didn’t punish her for a big attempt.

After everyone performed the warm-up course satisfactorily, he had us incorporate the outside line backwards: we came in over the vertical, three strides to another vertical, one stride to an oxer, roll back to the vertical at the top of the ring, then around the whole ring to the other outside line – an oxer to a vertical in four strides. For this course, the focus was REALLY on maintaining the canter: there were nice long stretches up and down the arena where we had to focus on keeping the same canter rhythm, not fading in the corners and then accelerating in front of the jump. This was a good reminder for me to pay attention the whole time, as I tend to get a little casual if I’m not focused on a jump a few strides ahead.

Next: The Full Course – with liverpool! He asked who had jumped one before: Tipsy has done it with a pro, but we were dealing with some confidence issues this summer and I did not want to introduce an element that I wasn’t completely prepared to handle at the time. I had some trepidation but figured “eh, if I really mess this up, there’s a WEG gold medalist here who can fix her,” and off we went. The nice thing is he knocked it down to basically nothing the first time we did this course, and Tipsy sailed over it like a pro.

The full course was 13 jumps – 13! As someone who deals with wicked nerves while competing I was more than a little worried I would blank in the middle. Happily, I did not! I tend to get lackadaisical when riding courses and am frequently told to “look!” for where I am going next (so much so that I now hear the words “look” and “stay organized” in my coach’s Hungarian accent – thanks David!) so having the course in the indoor with so many elements was an excellent mental exercise, as well as physical practice. The added task of counting eight strides away, and then counting the strides down the lines, made it that much more cognitive, but also helped take the focus off my nerves once I got started.

Takeaways:

  • It is never an option to accelerate in front of the jump – when in doubt, wait it out!
  • Every top rail has a bullseye – pick a spot and ride to it
  • Pace, track, and distance are the keys to good jumping
  • Corners have shape and bend!

I had a blast at this clinic. Other than the “counting eight strides away” exercise, there was nothing totally new or innovative that I hadn’t seen before, but the way Devin was able to establish big themes, and then pick on the details to make everything more cohesive was what left me most impressed.

Additionally, his ability to split his focus and attention between the six riders in my group was also impressive. We’ve all been to a clinic where one rider gets the majority of the attention and everyone is left feeling shorted. We had a really talented but spicy mare in our group who started the weekend thinking that the line of cavalettis was a timed event, and ended the weekend with some of the softest turns and most athletic efforts over the jumps, and he didn’t really spend any more time on her than he did the rest of us. If you have a chance to ride or audit with Devin Ryan, I highly recommend it!

Allison Howell lives in Virginia with her two dogs, a tolerant fiance and Danish warmblood mare. She is a passionate advocate for OTTBs, and her 2016 Makeover horse is currently leased to a good friend. Mares are the best; don’t @ me.

Clinic Report: Jumping With WEG Gold Medalist Devin Ryan, Day 1

Allison and Tipsy. All photos by Dr. Jamie Shetzline.

Contributor Allison Howell recently took a clinic with WEG show jumping team gold medalist Devin Ryan, and invited our sister site, Horse Nation, along for the ride. Read the original article here.

Before we get started with this whole thing, I should probably explain that I’m a pretty typical amateur: I work a full-time job, have a side hustle at a winery for show/lesson/vet bill money, and also work off some board one day a week at my barn.

I am also a bad amateur. I don’t really keep up with the rankings lists or where in the world the big jumpers are this week, so I had virtually no clue who Devin Ryan was before I saw the post for his clinic come across my Facebook feed. However, after reading his bio — he’s, you know, a WEG gold medalist for Team USA — and getting the okay from my coach (who has already fled south for the winter) I signed up for the clinic, and I am so glad that I did.

Devin (can I call you Devin? We’re friends now right?) is probably one of the top three clinicians I have ever had the pleasure to watch or ride with, and I was fortunate enough to see Karen Healey teach an EAP clinic one year. I would describe him as firm but not mean, demanding but not demeaning, excellent at conveying the concepts he was trying to get across, and he was certainly willing to acknowledge that each horse is an individual and his program might not work for every horse. He kept a near-constant commentary the entire two days, which was extremely beneficial to the auditors as well as the riders.

Side note: one of the amazing things about this clinic was the facility, Ohana Equestrian Preserve, located in Aldie, Virginia. This place is bonkers: heated viewing area, state-of-the-art sound system piped into both the viewing area AND the arena, and an indoor with footing so nice I briefly wondered if selling a kidney would be enough to finance an indoor of my own.

Back to the clinic: the schedule was formatted so the biggest height went first, and dropped with each following group, so we were able to watch the big jumpers go before we got ready. The schedule was pretty typical for a jumping clinic – flatwork and gymnastics the first day, then course work the second.

Devin watched us warm up at the walk, then called us over to chat leg position. Some memorable takeaways:

  • Stirrup should sit at the ball of your ankle, and he had riders shorten two holes for jumping
  • The lower leg is your “seatbelt,” and he drove home the importance of keeping your lower leg straight, not broken at the ankle (either rolled in or rolled out)
  • And for me – he wanted my leg back approximately three feet, or so it felt. I have a tendency, due to either many years of riding dressage or trying to appease a hot horse, or who knows what reason, to want to put my leg too far forward. Devin had me work on keeping my leg back, and more securely under me, basically for the whole clinic.

After that, he had the riders warmed up in earnest. Takeaways:

  • Devin starts with a short rein. He does not necessarily ask the horse for flexion or to be on the bit right away, but he started every session by asking the riders to “choke up on the reins” so the reins weren’t too long when you pick up the trot.
  • A theme that emerged through the clinic was Devin’s focus on correct flatwork and incorporating dressage principles into his jumping. He almost immediately started asking the riders to shape their turns more and ask their horses for some flexion around the corner. Here again, I appreciated his attention to detail, as he explained a horse that is straight or counter-bent through the turn is unable to step under themselves, shortening their stride and losing power before a jump.
  • He also had the riders come off the rail, explaining that in a competition you do not have the benefit of the rail for the horses to drift to, so he almost never rides his horses on the rail.
  • High hands! It seems that coaches like it one way or the other, and Devin is in camp “raise ’em up!” – going so far as to say he prefers a broken line from the mouth to the elbow with the hands too high, rather than too low, as low hands create a place for the horse to lean.  He also explained that this is to keep the bit on the corners of the horse’s mouth, and not the bars (a point he re-emphasized both days).
  • Oh man, this guy really likes dressage – “the more you do with your hands, the more you mess with the horse’s frame” and “a shoulder-in is three tracks, not two-and-one-half, not four!”

We moved on to some cavaletti. The first exercise was three very innocuous-looking cavaletti, set to three strides between. Devin offered that in an indoor, a horse will sometimes shorten its stride, so I believe he said they were set a little short. He said he liked this kind of work for a few reasons:

  • It forces you to achieve something in a certain amount of time
  • It’s easy enough for horses of all levels
  • It’s good for flatwork
  • It develops the horse’s depth perception and the canter needed to find the distance to the jump

I will admit, it was nice to see that even riders who typically show over pee-your-pants-sized fences struggle with the “easy” stuff too. Some of the riders did not have enough canter coming into the exercise, and struggled to get the right number of strides; if they did have enough canter, it was not smooth. That was another of Devin’s big points: he wanted everything to be smooth and consistent. For the more advanced group he had them ask for three strides over the first and four strides to the second, working on rideability. For my group, he just had us work on getting absolutely smooth through the exercise.

And then here, my friends, is where he really made you think. We all, at some point in our jumping career, have probably been told to count the strides between fences. But have you ever, my dear little chickadees, been told to start counting when you’re eight strides out? And not backwards from eight — that’s cheating, because you try to make them fit, for which I was chastised not once but twice. I thought I had been doing this long enough and read enough articles and watched enough George Morris horsemanship clinics and had a million lessons to have seen most everything, but this one was new, and mind-boggling.

I think we all basically just picked a distance we really, really, really, hoped was close, and then calibrated from there. He had us repeat this exercise to the fences in between the gymnastic (I’ll explain later) and then on Day Two in our courses. This exercise was extremely beneficial for me: it helps you keep your pace, works on your eye so that you can (eventually) reliably find the distances, and has the added benefit of forcing you not to hold your breath.

After everyone got their horses through the cavaletti well enough to satisfy Devin, it was time for the gymnastic. It started with trotting into a cross rail, one stride to a vertical, one stride to an oxer, and two strides to an oxer out. One point Devin made here that he stressed multiple times through the clinic was his dislike of round placement poles – he doesn’t mind square or raised poles, but had a horse step on a round pole which rolled, resulting in an injury.

The gymnastic was pretty typical, but he did have riders halt at the end of the ring for the first few trips. He explained that this was “so the horses know they can go to the end of the arena” and are not tempted to cut in on the turn. He also encouraged riders to maintain their balance in their two-point the whole way through.

Once all the riders were satisfactorily through the exercise, he had us serpentine over the verticals and bounces dispersed between the jumps in the gymnastic. Here again, he had us count when we felt that we were eight strides away, careful to maintain our pace and track so we would get a good distance. Another point he made here (and several times, sometimes in a slightly raised voice… at me…) was to NOT accelerate the last three strides towards a jump. This all came back to starting and maintaining the appropriate pace at the canter, and not throwing the horse off in the last seconds before a fence. The counting really turned into a source of amusement, as the disappointment in our voices was apparent when we got to the jump at “seven.”

I think everyone finished the day feeling like they had accomplished something, and ready to tackle courses on Day Two.

Allison’s clinic report will continue next week with Day Two! You’ll see it first on Horse Nation.