With Christmas falling on a Monday I took advantage and took the Tuesday off as well, initially I just wanted the day off, but in typical fashion I realized my favorite dressage instructor, Heidi Hauri-Gill of First Choice Riding Academy, might be teaching, and I might actually be able to get a lesson with her. Heidi has many accolades to her name that are all deservedly there, but I also credit her with giving me the bravery to bring Pi places when he was still fully a ticking bomb. I of course had a brain, and brought him to her and she blew our minds by challenging his brain and finding my lovable horse that disappeared when we left the farm. Fast forward to starting with Packy, I was feeling stuck and hopeless with dressage and a session with Heidi proved that somewhere tucked inside Packy there was the ability and capacity to relax and go correctly.
Now with Heidi being as terrific she is, she has a strong and vibrant program that makes her nearly impossible for me to fit into her schedule with my schedule. So going to ride with her is like a serendipitous event. Luckily the serendipitous events with Heidi always leave me feeling recharged and much more in love with dressage every time I leave her farm. So I was gleefully excited when Heidi emailed back that she had time on the Tuesday.
Fast forward to Tuesday morning, I’d hitched up like normal but when I tried to pull forward and onto my track to pull around I was stuck. With some creative backing I got partway out, but then my wheels spun and I needed help from Anna on the tractor to gently push the truck back. I managed by the skin of my teeth to get the trailer off of the top of the hill, and then loaded a worried Packy into the trailer. She’s not stupid, and when it takes me more than ten minutes to come back after she gets her breakfast she knows something is up. She still loaded beautifully and we got over to Enfield with time to spare and luckily Heidi has behind so we had plenty of time to get ready and warm up before we started. I went into the lesson with four questions/zones of focus.
- My body would start feeling twisted when I was riding. It could very well be related to my SI, but I wanted to make sure it also wasn’t me being wonky.
- Was it reasonable to lengthen my stirrups a hole? I can sometimes end up riding too long, and wanted Heidi’s input.
- The canter. It’s still Russian roulette.
- Continuing to find and create consistent connection with Packy.
Heidi quickly zeroed in on my hips and torso not being aligned and quickly made some key adjustments to help resolve it to some degree, she had me push my right hip back farther, and then pull my right shoulder forward and down as I lengthened the left side of my rib cage. I knew I’d been crooked, but no idea I was that crooked. It felt weird at first, but I felt so much more secure and effective with my aids.
Heidi then started having us focus on a widening step on the right front, Packy will happily pull along with her left shoulder and lean heavily on it so by almost think of a yield out to the right Heidi had us taking “wide” steps. They helped to expand Packy’s chest in a correct way, and to have her use her right side more. This translated into a much more correct and free trot where Heidi had me focus on how I was making my connection. Heidi happens to be the queen of connections.
It’s so easy to try and pull the bit back to make connection, but it’s the exact opposite of what needs to be done to find true connection, and is what I’ve spent so much time undoing for Packy. Heidi told me to imagine the bit like the barre for ballerinas, a support to gently lean on. She told me to “push” the bar forward and see if Packy would reach for it. I think I moved my hand forward an inch and holy shit Packy moved for it. Heidi caught me shaking my head after that moment happened and asked why I was shaking my head. I explained that it still just delights me that Packy has become so game and feels confident and safe enough to relax.
It may sound strange that I find delight in something so simple, but from where we’d started this has truly become a a different mare, a mare that instead of making cranky faces, goes looking for cookies and pats. It simply makes my heart full.
Heidi relayed her understanding and equal enjoyment at the change in Packy from the times she’s worked with us and started to work on our canter. The canter is still a crap shoot when jumping isn’t involved. When jumps are involved her canter is normally much more consistent, but I still have issues where I feel like she’s motorcycling and bowling around with her left shoulder.
So Heidi smiled and told me to make a slow trot, a trot so slow she was nearly walking, we struggled with it and once we got it Heidi asked us to immediately move off with more power and energy. Oh, boy, that was hard. Packy’s go to has become the powerful trot that is apt to get quick versus slow, so to slow and truly find a half halt was hard, but a good hard. We worked on that and when the lightbulb went on Heidi asked for the canter. We went around a bit as Heidi watched and after I relayed what I was feeling (motorcycle all day long) and knowing I couldn’t use her head as much to really fix it. Heidi agreed about needing to focus on the shoulders, so she told me to repeat the process of getting to the canter and then counter bending and asking for the widening step to the right again. Holy tamole, it was hard, but it was exactly what we needed to do. Suddenly Packy wasn’t barging around with her left shoulder and the trot we found on the downward was so much more balanced and powerful an I could feel Packy pushing into the bridle on both reins. Heidi had even caught Packy bracing on the downwards and had me starting massaging the rein through so she couldn’t brace and it was amazing.
Every time I ride with Heidi I leave feeling so good about myself and where I am with my riding. Sure, Heidi finds all of the holes and issues, but she so tactfully and kindly addresses them with solutions and exercises that you leave feeling confident and hungry for more dressage. I also immensely enjoy spending time with Heidi because she expresses the changes that have happened with Packy in this past year. Heidi continually looks for the positives in any situation and that type of positive energy and focus is something I admire and attempt to do on my own. It’s no small surprise I keep choosing people to ride with that are continuously working for the positive and good versus the negative.
So after cooling down one sweaty little pony we loaded and and headed home. I had the delightful discovery that the power was out at the barn, but I made it work and put Packy in the cross ties with a different cooler on her to finish out the last little bit of drying while I went to unhitch back on the dreaded hill. I was still happily putting along after my lesson and with some oomph in four wheel low the truck got the trailer into place and I happily unhitched. I pulled away on the top of the hill to turn back towards the farm house and driveway to have the horrifying experience of suddenly sliding and ending up partly on the hill and getting mired in the snow.
Cue the call to my dad who came to help drive the truck while I used the tractor and the tractor couldn’t pull the truck up, to compound things my dad was now stuck in the truck.
Cue calling multiple tow companies and waiting.
I did however have productive waiting, with an arctic cold front (yay Vermont) coming in I needed to change blankets and close up the remaining Dutch windows on the barn. I also had to take care of Packy.
So one double layered pony later, two thoroughbreds properly blanketed and hay thrown, our second tow company came to the rescue after the first blew us off, and had the truck out in about five minutes.
Later that night turning in and feeding Packy came over to snuggle and I started thinking about how she’s become my bucket list pony of sorts, and how much better of a rider she’s made me.
In the beginning I was admittedly mad, and resentful of not being able to ride Pi, I’d just spent the past few years taking Pi from the useless ticking time bomb to a semi-steady citizen who had clear boundaries of what he found acceptable, or not, and we were completely in sync as partners.
Eric Smiley defines partnership as “Two individuals who know their jobs that come together for the greater good.”, and Pi and I were truly partners. So it crushed me when I couldn’t rehab him from the final mystery injury. His brain was still game, but his body wasn’t and I couldn’t ask Pi when I knew he would say yes despite the pain.
Around that time our lesson program at the barn had finally come to a close and Packy’s previous lessor left, and Packy needed a job. So I took her on with Bonnie’s blessing while we hoped a few months off would heal Pi, and found myself staring at angry partner that had no idea what I was asking or why. So I took a pause and decided we needed to learn how to walk together before we could run, let alone dance.
Somewhere in there I stopped resenting Packy, she stopped resenting me, and we started to learn the dance steps for our partnership. Somewhere in there Ashley said, “let’s go gallop on the beach, it’ll be fun” so I took Packy and crossed off a bucket list item. I started hauling more with Packy to do little adventures and crossed of the bucket list item of being able to just load up and go have fun, a big thing after Pi who required lots of planning and mental fortitude.
Then I spent the winter hauling up to Andrea Monsarrat Waldo and Mary Brust who taught me to trust Packy and learn to jump again, while working through the grief and knowledge that Pi would never be able to return to true work again and he was retired.
Suddenly the spring rolled around and it was time for the first event of the season and Packy and I started our season with the goal of not only moving up the level to Beginner Novice, but also making the step to run our first recognized event. A major change of pace from rocking around Introductory, not only in the amount of obstacles in phases, but also a height difference of 13-7″ depending on the horse trial.
In the midst of the season starting we spontaneously slipped down again to gallop on the beach and this time Packy boldly led where before we’d hovered mostly in the background. Then our season started rolling along, not without hiccups like an abscess, but it was rolling.
I crossed another bucket list item off by finally riding in my towns Fourth of July parade with Packy, who Hayes tinsel, but loves to look pretty for a crowd more.
I found Daryl, well I suppose I didn’t really find Daryl as much as worked up my nerve to ask about lessons which was silly because Daryl is incredibly kind and welcoming, and started learning from her, even as Packy wasn’t quite thrilled about suddenly having the bar raised from her offered level of effort.
We finally made our goal of moving up to Beginner Novice at Huntington, and didn’t do quite so terribly for our first try at it. Although it was in part from Ashley not realizing how petrified I was about cross country, telling me to get on my horse and jump the damn jumps.
We then traveled over two hours away to get in another run at Beginner Novice, which left me with doubts and a need for a sounding board before entering what would be the goal of the year, but also knowledge that Packy is an incredible traveler.
Finally after one last Daryl lesson with a solid pep talk and game plan, Packy and I tackled our year long goal of going recognized. The satisfaction of walking away from the event not only knowing that we had been successful, but had held our own was immense.
It ended up being the end of our eventing season with Packy getting sick for a week with anisplasmosis, but I was still incredibly proud of what she and I had accomplished in such a short time, and on a cold fall morning as we got going for fox hunting (another bucket list item), I realized just how much I loved my little mare.
So as I snuggled Packy closer and she begged for more cookies, I could feel a joy in my heart. Perhaps it’s corny, however, I can’t help but love my bucket list pony.