July 3, 2009

on set with Julie Goodnight

my time with Julie Goodnight was awesome. On Wednesday, after a frantic morning bathing Cookie, prepping myself, and packing the trailer, my friend Allison and I arrived at Tanz-Pferde, the beautiful Oregon City dressage barn that served as our shoot location. What a place! A huge, beautiful indoor dressage arena, immaculately clean stalls and walkways, a REAL bathroom, amazing paddocks -- I could go on and on. While we love our boarding barn, Allison and I couldn't help being beside ourselves with envy. I mean, AIR CONDITIONING!!

When I arrived I was greeted by a grip, June, who brought me up to the arena viewing room (complete, may I add, with leather couches and a KITCHEN), where I signed one billion waivers and received the first of several free gifts -- a shiny new Troxel Reliance helmet! I have been desperately in need of a new helmet -- mine actually has SKID MARKS on it -- so I am totally thrilled.

There was a ton of time between our arrival and the start of our episode shoot, so we walked out to the upper outdoor arena, where they were in the process of taping episode 4 (I was episode 6), about a 15-year-old girl whose horse was, basically, a giant asshole: bucking, rearing, crow-hopping, and doing everything he could to avoid actual work. To her credit, Claire rode the crap out of that horse, but it was clear she needed help. Her problems also eclipsed any problems I had brought with Cookie. (Allison turned to me, wide-eyed, and said, "I feel so much better about my horse now.") It was fascinating, and great fun, to watch the process of taping the episode -- the number of takes they had to do, the way they would call out to the rider what they wanted to see ("okay, pick up the canter at that corner, please"), and how Julie was busy making her verbal assessment at the fence line, murmuring into her body mic.

Later, we watched as Julie worked with Claire's horse in the round pen, doing some fundamental ground work exercises to get him to submit to her authority. To our surprise, very early on in the process the horse, in a last-ditch attempt to avoid work, turned and jumped the fence, stopping immediately on the other side as if he had startled even himself. (The action had momentarily stunned all of us into silence). He was easily caught and maneuvered back into the pen, and we watched as, for the next ten minutes, Julie put him through his paces, making him change direction and gait frequently to mimic the way a dominant horse will control the movement of the submissive horse in a herd. Finally, the horse's head dropped in contrition, and from there on out he was a much better worker.

The rest of the afternoon was mainly spent waiting around and observing others. When it finally came time for me, I slipped quickly into my clean, staff-approved riding clothes and headed up to the arena with Cookie. I had been very nervous that she would be a perfect angel, making it difficult to justify even being there -- she's shown drastic and sudden improvement in the last week -- but fortunately it was decided, in the end, that we would work on her head carriage and on my equitation, both things I had wanted most to address. We shot the first day's footage quickly, because it was late in the evening and the shadows were lengthening so fast in the arena that multiple takes were just not possible. My interview was done in one take, and we were released.

The next morning we arrived on the set at 7 AM; I tossed some hay to Cookie and walked over to the barn, where they asked permission to use her for a few commercials they were shooting in the afternoon. (These are very brief segments shown in the middle of the program, as well as, I think, on the internet). Obviously, I complied! As before, there was a great deal of waiting around, but Allison and I were glad to watch the conclusion of Claire's episode. Because they worked so much on groundwork, they didn't address her problems under saddle at all in the "after" footage, but once they were done with her, Claire threw on her saddle and tested her horse. What a difference! I had been skeptical that just two days of groundwork would do anything for her under saddle, but he gave just one little buck and then acted like a dream. It was a really emotional moment. She was cantering around the ring, doing flying lead changes every other lap. Her mother turned to us and said, "She hasn't been able to do that in a year and a half." It made me feel so good about the whole process. I felt a little teary-eyed. I'm sure Claire was home today, riding her heart out!

The alternate trainer -- there to help while Julie is busy filming -- came over later in the morning and worked with me on the stuff Julie had suggested. We worked primarily on getting Cookie to hold her head in the correct position -- tucked in rather than with her nose poking out -- and also on my equitation, which has clearly gotten sloppy over the years. She left us to practice as they began to film the last segments of episode 5. After a LONG wait -- more than two hours -- we came up to the arena to film the last part of our episode. Cookie was a dream for the pre-film practice session; I beamed inwardly as Julie walked past and said, "She looks beautiful! Much better." We had to film several takes, and after the first one Julie turned to me and said, "Hey, hop down, let me school her a little. She was so good for you in practice but she kind of lost it in that take." So I watched as Julie rode my horse around in a picture-perfect head carriage and frame. Ah, if only my camera battery hadn't died! It had occurred to me only the day before that never once had I seen another rider on Cookie; literally no one else has ridden her since the first day I rode her last August. It was so gratifying to see how beautiful she is and how wonderful she can look. Clearly the problems I'm having are rider-related and not horse-related!

We shot several more clips, going back to redo certain sections, and took a couple of still shots, and then my portion of the episode was finished. We untacked, and as I let Cookie crop grass I listened as they shot Julie's intro of our episode, "about a lovely part-Arab mare who just needs a few extra tweaks," and then they fitted Cookie with a gaited Western saddle for one of several segments they shot with her and Julie for commercials. As we stood there the wardrobe gal asked me where I had bought Cookie. "I just love her," Cheryl said. "I would buy a horse that looked just like her. I love that refined face! I have a dun but she's darker. Your horse is just beautiful." It never gets old to hear!

And then we were finished. As we were walking back, Heidi, the show's producer, asked me to come see her after I had everything all put away. "We have a little something extra for you," she said. At the barn, she came out with the saddle pad they'd had me use for day two, a nice black Toklat pad, and handed it to me. "We don't usually give all this stuff away," she said, "but you've been so patient, and such a trooper in this heat" (it was 95 degrees on both days) "that we wanted to send you home with a little something extra." She paused. "So please take this ... but you might want to take it home and put it right in the wash. There's nothing wrong with it, it just ... might be a little stinky."
I smiled. "Did the cat spray it?" (A barn cat had been spraying everything in sight.)
She smiled sheepishly and nodded. "Maybe?"
Then she handed me one of Julie's DVDs, on collection and refinement -- what we'd been working on. She explained that Julie had asked them to pass it on to me, as an extra thank-you for letting them use Cookie for the commercial shots. "We didn't have another horse to use," Heidi explained. "None of the horses at this barn would have looked right in a Western saddle."

And that was a wrap. What a crazy two days! It was hot; I got sunburned; we waited around forever; I wasn't even sure I should be there. In the end it was just what I needed and it really helped. Amazing how much you could accomplish in just two days. Today I went back to the barn to clean stalls, and ended up joining a pre-existing lesson. I was wearing shorts and a tank top, and sneakers. Not dressed for riding at all! Everybody was impressed with how much improvement we had already made. At the canter, Sarah, one of the 4-H girls, cried out in anguish, "Ahhh, she looks so beautiful! I'm so jealous!" I can't wait to keep working on it, and to try our hand again at another show.

The show, I believe, airs in August. I can't wait to see it!

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