The Barn at Arroyo Del Mar
Thanksgiving is the day we celebrate what we are most thankful for. Friends, family, life, love, happiness, and horses are the things I am most thankful for. This Thanksgiving I had a life changing experience that I will be thankful for years to come. This Thanksgiving I was invited to Arroyo Del Mar, the home and training facility of the number one ranked rider in the world, Steffen Peters, for a week of training.
It is hard to find words to express my experience at Arroyo Del Mar. Life changing. Inspirational. Honored. Big-time world class. Blessed. Eye opening. Those are a few that come to mind.
Let me start first with Steffen. Everyone always says he's a nice guy. Well there are lots of people out there that people say are a nice guys. Steffen is not just a nice guy. He is one of the most gracious, inspirational people I've met to date. The way he handles himself, they way he runs his operation, the way he rides and the overall feeling you get being around him. And he seems to invest himself in the people that work with him. At least that is how I felt. You quickly realize why he is so good at what he does. He is a real horseman and very professional about it.
When we (Scott, MP and I) arrived to Arroyo Del Mar on Monday the 23rd we were intimidated to say the least. The facility is exquisite. Everything is top notch from the grounds, to the footing, to the barn and management, to the equipment, and then the horses. I made sure everything we brought was spotless including myself and Miss MP, but that didn't help. Walking through a barn of 75 horses, which are some of the best in country and world, makes you feel like a peanut and a little bit like a hillbilly. Seriously, I thought I heard banjos playing behind us as we drove in. I quickly started to notice small dust particles in the stitching of my halter, or the small manure dot on MP's shipping wraps, and where she blew her nose on the back of my shirt. Panic set in. Because going into a facility like Arroyo Del Mar you immediately think that everything is going to be high stress and there is going to be a tremendous amount of pressure to be perfect. And you immediately conclude that everyone you encounter from then on must be uptight for this place to be so nice. We couldn't have been more wrong.
Our first encounter with Team Peters was Lauren. Lauren is like a pogo stick, bouncy and bubbly and all smiles. And she was extremely welcoming and friendly. She helped us find Dawn, Team Peters member number 2, who graciously got us set up with a stall, a place for tack, and anything else we needed. Over the course of the next five days we met the rest of Team Peters who are all very unique and exceptional at what they do. They were all welcoming and kind and they were people you'd love to have a beer with. Like good old friends. It was eyeopening to see a facility run so well, top notch horses, riders, equipment and care and have the people holding up that standard be so warm and friendly. I wish more in the horse business, especially dressage barns, would operate in this way. You can be the best of the best and be cool calm and collected all at the same time.
I'm not going to lie. We barely got off the 20 m circle on day 1. Steffen wanted to see us cold from the start so he could evaluate us from the ground up. I was 4 strides into my warm up trot when he asked me to come over to him so he could explain a few things.
Explaining the basics - "keep it simple, don't over complicate"
Uh oh. Even though you know you are riding with the best rider in the world to improve your own riding, you still want to impress them. But all ego immediately went out the window. We were here to learn and become a better team. Steffen immediately saw right through us. I'm doing too much and essentially dulling MP out. I'm overusing my leg, my right rein and shes not responding to anything I'm doing. He wanted her a little more deep and round in the frame during the warm up and wanted her to be really forward. He said it would make collecting her and bringing her into competition frame easier. So we spent day 1 learning the basics. Or as Steffen said, "you are on the crash course." If I use my leg, something should happen. She should stay in front of the leg, if she doesn't, make it happen. He wanted me to make mistakes, not cover them up. Make them, use them as a training opportunity and move on. Don't be afraid to not be perfect.
Trot work day 2
Day 2 started off much improved from day 1. I was able to warm up with Steffen's suggestions so that we were ready to go when our lesson started. We worked on the same basics but included more suppleing and movements. We worked on halts, corners, centerline, straightness and preparation for movements. Less "riding around" more planning and accuracy. He said this needs to become part of our daily workouts. He also wanted to try MP in a solid short shanked curb. Her curb had a mobile mouthpiece and he thought it was not appropriate for a soft horse like MP. Being Steffen, he also refused to let us go buy a new bit and gave us the curb that was right for MP. Like I said, he's not just a nice guy...
TRAINING - DAY 3 (Thanksgiving)
They have a pretty serious schedule at Arroyo Del Mar. All the horses get ridden in the morning by Steffen, Shannon and the assistant trainers. The barn is buzzing by 6:30 am with the horses already fed and grained. So it did not go unnoticed when only a few horses were ridden on Thanksgiving and I seemed to have the only lesson. I was very grateful and honored that Steffen put me into his schedule.
He wanted to see me ride through the new 2010 FEI Para Individual Test. The previous day he asked me to recite it to him so we could ride it the next day. I had to do the "ah, I haven't quite memorized it yet." He didn't make a big deal of it or even say a word but I upon return to the barn I promptly printed out the tests (thanks Dawn!) and began memorizing like crazy. That's the thing about the atmosphere there, it inspires YOU do to better. No one has to tell you to do better. Your expectations of yourself change. More on that later...
Steffen and Betty supervising
Steffen and Betty supervising
With a little warm up and a little help from Steffen (and Betty too) we were ready to ride the test for the first time. Here I was on Thanksgiving day, with Steffen Peters - did I mention he's the best rider in the world - about to ride the new tests for the first time and I haven't even practiced a single movement. I memorized the tests the night before, including a 3 am wake up to go over my canter tour, I wasn't sure I really knew them. "This is going to be a disaster," is what I was thinking as I was trotting down centerline.
Guess what? It wasn't! It actually wasn't half bad! In fact it was quite good. Could it be better? Of course! Perfected? Definitely! Were some elements sloppy? Yup, but all in all much improved over my test riding from the year before. You can view the test here on YouTube in HQ.
Again, it did not go unnoticed when Steffen told me to be ready to ride at 7:15 am. He had a busy day in front of him. He needed to get his horses ridden and needed to get on a plane to fly to Florida to give a clinic. Again, he had put me into the schedule. So there I was at 7:15 ready to roll. He used the last day to solidify the things we had been working on all week. Less is more, get in, get out, get the response, forward yet supple, keep it simple.
He directed me to go home, work on these things, work on my corners, halts, centerlines, walk pirouettes and of course straightness. I'm to try and eliminate the busy right hand (which was better already) and get a better response from my leg to keep MP fresh and in front of my leg (go figure it also makes me sit more straight in the saddle). And I'm to do this 5 days a week for no more than 30 mins a day with a two day straight break inbetween. And ride the tests!
As I said before, visiting Arroyo Del Mar and working with Steffen has been a lif changing experience. I feel so honored that he has been willing to help coach us to the next level. Just being in the Arroyo Del Mar environment for 5 days and watching the horses and the riders and trying to absorb it all like a sponge has changed my expectations. I think my baseline has changed for the quality of work I should expect of myself. And to see the teamwork that goes into operating a world class training facility. Team Peters is truly unique and they have to know that. There were horses and riders from all over the country there to train with Steffen and Shannon. I feel blessed that I can now be counted among them.
Next on the agenda is to work at all of this at home with Ellen and come back in March before the Del Mar CDI. The plan is to come for some training and Steffen has offered to coach us at the show. The Del Mar CDI will be a big deal for the US Para Team because we will have another opportunity to get our certificate of capability and riders from Canada and Mexico will likely be showing against us. I'm really looking forward to the events leading up to the WEG. I think having Steffen and Team Peters in our corner is just what we need to help us to the top.
I'd like to thank Steffen and Shannon and the rest of Team Peters (Kate, Dawn, Lauren, Rafael, Ashlee, and anyone else that we didn't get to meet but who is part of their success), Rebbecca and Tessa for letting us "crash" in their tackroom, and of course my wonderful husband Scott (aka horse show husband) who sat there and watched endless circles all while taking 600 + photos and hours upon hours of video. I love you honey!
Scott proves he was there