Forward into the contact: a continuing journey

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Horses are right or left handed, just as we are. They tend to lean on one rein (usually the left) and to be harder to bend in that direction.  

Starlight and I recently attended a Jane Weatherwax clinic where we worked on riding forward into both reins evenly. While it sounds like a simple concept, it’s one that we’re still working on as we train to show Third Level this year.

How hard could it be to keep the contact even? HA!

Looking at the “bad illustration” below, you can see Star is over bent in her neck (too much inside hand), resistant in her jaw (can you blame her?), a bit braced and hollow in her back and hence her neck is a bit high and braced as well.

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This is not a pretty picture.

Solution? Lower the neck, give with the inside hand, straighten the outside shoulder (don’t let it drift), make sure that inside leg stays at the girth if you are circling right (as I think I might be about to) and use your body to turn, NOT your reins. So simple, right? Oh, if only it were that easy. And ride forward to engage the haunches (engine)!

Star’s desire to lean on the left rein is made worse by my own decades long tendency to be rigid with my left wrist. My whole left side tends to have problems: left leg wants to creep up, hip collapses on that side, head tilts that way sometimes. Oh dear.

Star and I have worked out a co-dependent relationship: she will lean on the left rein and I will carry it for her with my stiff left hand.

Only I really don’t want to do that any more so it’s time to change the rules of this game.

Horses, God bless ’em, have long memories but also plenty of forgiveness (most of them). You can change the rules and stop hanging on that rein and pretty soon, the horse will start to carry himself as he figures out a new balance. Yes, this does actually work, I have felt it!

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Star demonstrates haunches-in. Note the mud-coated left foreleg (from kneeling to reach for tender spring grass under fence). My inside (left) leg should be further forward, on the girth, and my left shoulder could be a tad further back to be perpendicular to the fence.

Use suppling exercises such as:

  • shoulder-in
  • haunches-in
  • 10 or 15 meter circles
  • leg yield to shoulder in
  • shoulder in to half-pass

These are useful exercises for strengthening the horse and teaching balance.

Important: don’t hang on that inside rein!

Giving periodically with the inside rein checks that the horse is not depending on it for balance and remains on the aids.

The problem is remembering to keep the inside rein light along with all the other 2000 things we have to remember. And encourage the horse to move FORWARD (but don’t rush!) into the connection…

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Forward into connection with a nice outside rein connection

Should you go to a clinic?

Star and I have struggled a little with finding a steady connection with the bit. Star’s automatic reflex is to raise her neck and brace herself, especially if she is a bit tense or nervous, becoming quick in her gait and keeping her back hollow. Ick.

Of course I would like to slow her tempo, adding cadence and push from her hindquarters, engaging her back, and getting a nice, steady connection with the bit. It’s a work in progress.

Right now I’m in the midst of a three day clinic with Corinne Dorrepaal, a wise and experienced trainer from Holland who comes to the USA for clinics occasionally. Lucky me!

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Much improved connection, thanks to Corinne’s help at the clinic

Clinics are expensive – each lesson usually  two to four times what you normally spend on a lesson – and I found myself thinking about that cost. Is it worth it?

It depends. In Corinne’s case, Yes! Here’s my metric for deciding whether to spend the money on a clinician:

  1. Is he or she an effective teacher?  Many clinicians offer years of experience, having seen literally thousands of horses and riders of all sorts. They draw on that vast resource of knowledge to quickly solve your riding problems.
  2. Does this person treat the students and horses with respect?  A positive attitude with respect for horse and rider is nonnegotiable. They must not drive the horse into the ground with too much work during the clinic (and if you feel the work is too hard, Speak Up!), or use their authority to abuse horse or rider.
  3. Does this clinician offer something different from my current teacher, but not conflicting with her general methods? If it’s just more of what your teacher offers (without further depth), why bother? If it conflicts with what you do at home…you will have a problem continuing the work and either lose all you gained at the clinic, or have conflict with your trainer. Don’t do it.
  4. Do I finish the lessons with practical exercises to take home and a clear understanding of what I need to do, practice, work on, aim for?

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    Starlight in a nice uphill collected canter. She can’t maintain this very long yet, just a few strides and then we let her go bigger for a few strides, then collect again..

  5. Is the clinician open to questions and discussion when I need more clarification?
  6. How did I feel about the lesson(s)? I always try to have my clinics videotaped, as many of the sessions as I can. I’m a visual learner, not auditory, so watching video helps me understand what happened and reinforces what I felt. It also helps me decide if it is worth going back to the clinician because the real question is…
  7. Does this clinician make a positive difference in my horse and me quickly and effectively? 

Day one of the Corinne Dorrepaal clinic, within 15 minutes she had my horse looking so much better! Of course, in my lessons at home, this happens too. A little warmup and some coaching does a lot of good. But I felt we made some important strides forward in the area of getting a good connection over the top.

What I took away from my first day:

  • The gray areas matter: always pay attention to the little things, don’t be sloppy. Every transition, every moment.
  • Keep asking Star to lower her neck (from the base of the neck) all the time. Be wary because she starts to bring it back up and you don’t realize it. Especially in the transitions, lower the neck, it improves them and also makes her stronger.
  • Slow the tempo down in trot and canter. Keep the energy through frequent transitions within the gait (“almost walk, trot on”), but keep the tempo fairly slow.

More insights in a few days! And here is a small portion of the lesson video, focusing on collecting for a few strides, then lengthening for a few strides exercise, all while keeping the neck low to engage the back. We begin with a little walk work and proceed to trot.

 

 

 

Growing pains

It was a cold and breezy day, and young Starlight was full of Vigor and Vim! She was at her first dressage clinic at a brand new place, and WOW WAS IT EXCITING!!!

Her mind could not take it all in fast enough, and she trotted around tensely, resisting the bend and chomping on the bit. Soon, the instructor suggested we try a canter. With some trepidation, because I could feel how high she was, I gave the aid.

WOOHOO! I was riding a dolphin, not a horse, as she took three giant leaps up and down. She just could NOT contain her exuberance. Here’s our unplanned levade/canter depart:

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You can’t hear my squeak of dismay, but you can imagine it…Fortunately, my kite soon came down to earth and stayed there.

From flying, Star decided that instead of cantering she would be a Pogo Stick.

Bounce, Bounce, Bounce, around the circle we went, with me laughing nervously.

It was kind of funny, but not terribly useful in a dressage lesson. Ah well, we got through it, and after a few minutes she settled. The instructor, Major Miguel Tavora, took us through a series of exercises designed to relax and supple the horse. Things such as trot/a few steps of walk/trot on; shoulder in on the circle; small circles at the walk focusing on getting a soft bend from the horse, and more made a big difference in how Starlight carried herself.

And look what we ended up with: a beautiful dance with a supple and obedient horse. 

Yay for my lovely horse, and Yay for Major Miguel Tavora, who patiently talked us through the steps to get from worried and distracted to more focused and supple. We look forward to the next two days and hope we don’t have to go through the Kite/Pogo stick part tomorrow…

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Experimenting, making mistakes, and learning

Screen Shot 2015-07-12 at 1.05.06 PMSome days it feels like I am banging my head against an immovable brick wall of lack of progress in my riding. But continuing to do the same thing while expecting different results is foolish, fruitless, or just plain nuts. Something’s gotta give.

I ask, “How can I change the equation here? What’s not working? What needs to be different? What experiment or exercise can I try?”

Sometimes just hitting pause for a moment and letting my horse walk around on a loose rein while I ponder the mysteries of training gives me enough mental space to figure out the problem and solve it.  How about if I try it this way? (Nope). This way? (Ugg). How about this? Yes! Often I can solve things myself based on experience, past lessons and study (reading/watching videos), but when I need more help, I ask for it.

Giving myself (and my horse) the freedom to experiment and sometimes look awkward, silly, or unbalanced is essential to learning. If we do not try and sometimes fail, if we worry too much about always getting it right, we are still automatons who growth and joy are stifled.

Awkwardly attempting a canter pirouette during warmup at a recent show

Awkwardly attempting a canter pirouette during warmup at a recent show

Of course we all need trainers and eyes on the ground as well as our own commonsense and experimentation. None of us is sufficient unto herself. Even professionals need lessons occasionally, and those of us who are amateurs generally need them more often. A lot more often. Whether we profit from what we learn when facing trials and tribulations in our riding – and they will come, I promise you – depends on our mindset. I ran across a fascinating article on learning mindsets which very much applies to riders:

 In her influential research, (Carol) Dweck distinguishes between people with a fixed mindset — they tend to agree with statements such as “You have a certain amount of intelligence and cannot do much to change it” — and those with a growth mindset, who believe that we can get better at almost anything, provided we invest the necessary time and energy. While people with a fixed mindset see mistakes as a dismal failure — a sign that we aren’t talented enough for the task in question — those with a growth mindset see mistakes as an essential precursor of knowledge, the engine of education.  http://www.wired.com/2011/10/why-do-some-people-learn-faster-2/

I’ve been in both camps: despising myself as the worst rider of all time, hopeless, just give it up and find some other way to spend my money (and imagine how much money I’d have if I gave it up!), or thinking, o.k., I’ll work harder and smarter and we’ll get there!

Many riders divide themselves into the talented or the not-talented category, which is a FALSE DICHOTOMY. They think you’re either born with it, or you’re not. Not so: riding is not inborn, it is taught.

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Edward Gal and Totilas. Not many riders have his physique (look at those long, draped legs). And not many horses are Totilas, either. Well, we can’t all be at the top of the bell shaped curve.

 

Now it is true that some people have more advantages for riding than others: long legs, shorter torso, slim elegant body, blah, blah, blah. And of course learning to ride as a child is an advantage. But everyone improves by applying themselves body, mind and soul to this impossibly engrossing task – rather, passion! – of moving in harmony with your horse. And no one gets there without hard work. Even the greats of the horse world worked very hard to get there and to keep themselves there.

As long as we are happy together...that's really the point, isn't it?

As long as we are happy together…that’s really the point, isn’t it? Oh well, yes, I’d like to make progress, too…and we are! Because Finn and I work hard at it.

In the end, what we all want is harmony with our horses, whether you trail ride, jump, ride dressage, or western.  Here’s a beautiful example from one of the great masters: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w1YO3j-Zh3g

Ideally, Inspiration and motivation are what we feel

Picture this: a stunning horse and rider pair moving in harmony. Clearly, the horse cost more than a year’s salary, moves like a dream, and is trained impeccably. This horse makes you sit up and pay attention, yes, drool a bit, and think a bit wistfully,

“what would it be like to ride a horse like THAT?”

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And off we go into fantasies of ourselves floating around the ring on this gorgeous horse, doing everything effortlessly. Of course, the rider on top has (usually) earned this horse. She’s in shape, she knows what she’s doing, and although she makes it look easy, guess what? It’s not. Sitting that big, expressive trot with ease and flair? Ha! Most of us would bounce right off. Going from extended canter to collected canter with invisible aids and then into a canter pirouette, all while remaining in beautiful balance, no tugging, no grimacing or grunting, no leaning forward/backwards/sidewards? Brava, rider! I’m impressed. I know how hard this stuff is, because I’m just beginning to learn it.

It’s tempting to think, “if I only had THAT horse, I could ride that elegantly, effortlessly, effectively!”

While it certainly is very true that some horses are much easier to ride than others (no kidding!), all horses require an educated rider to bring out their best.  In our second year together, I have finally caught up to Far Above Par (“Finn) and we showed Fourth Level earlier this season. In a few weeks, we’re going to take a step of faith and go for Prix St. Georges, something new for both of us! Plus a new and updated Freestyle. Yes, yes, two new things at a show (stress meter edging toward red now). I’m crazy, but as my husband tells me, I’m never happy unless I’m pushing myself.

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Far Above Par and Edie in Medium Canter

Meanwhile, I appreciate deeply the opportunity I have to learn from my patient, humorous, educated schoolmaster pony. We’re growing together and having fun! 

If it’s not fun, why are we doing this? If you’re not having fun: change the equation.

Keeping up with the big horses in the warm up ring

Keeping up with the big horses in the warm up ring

Finn makes me laugh. When I see that BIG FANCY HORSE floating across the diagonal in six strides (and it takes us 14 strides), and all of us gasp in amazement, I’ll just think to myself: I have the perfect pony for ME. And then I’ll go out and see if we can get just a little more elegance and reach into our trot extension, a little more jump in our canter, and a whole lot more sit in our canter pirouette. Working on it, working on it…

Attempting a canter pirouette during warmup at a recent show

Attempting a canter pirouette during warmup at a recent show

If I only had a brain (I could remember what I learned)

With a sense of the clock ticking for both me and Finn (“Far Above Par”) – Finn being in his prime work years, and me being, uh, not so prime but still able to work sort of hard – we’ve been signing up for clinics and applying ourselves hard to the study of dressage.

That is, I have been applying myself hard: reading articles, watching videos, attending the World Cup, taking lessons. Finn goes along for the ride and will work for treats, bless his pony heart.

I worked hard, I've had my bath. Now feed me. I can't believe how slow and ineffectual my mom is about getting her chores done and getting to the important part of the day: LUNCH! How a pony suffers for his art.

I worked hard, I’ve had my bath. Now feed me. I can’t believe how slow and ineffectual my mom is about finishing her chores and getting to the important part of the day: MY LUNCH!              How a pony suffers for his art.

Finn continues to be an excellent schoolmaster, performing beautifully when asked approximately correctly (ha!), very safe and sane. A little occasional sluggishness is excusable as the price I pay for such safety and general good nature about putting up with my learning curve.

Finn and me working with Miguel Tavora

Finn and me working with Miguel Tavora – this looks like medium trot on a circle, I think. We did a lot of shoulder-in to medium trot that day.

Having moved barns to get to better, more consistent footing for training, I now have access to some new clinicians, too. What I’m finding comforting is that everyone pretty much says the same thing, with variations. These are the current challenges, as we continue our dressage journey and debut at 4th level this year:

  • Consistent uphill balance
  • Better engagement from behind
  • Consistency! Every transition clear, planned for, balanced
  • Maintaining balance all the time – through the extensions, transitions, corners, etc.

If I could do everything in that list,  4th level test 3 would become simple and I could just move on to Prix St Georges, right? RIGHT?

But we’re not there yet, no, not by a long shot…So, how to get from here (inconsistent) to there (balanced and consistent)?

Here’s what all the clinicians (and my trainer) are saying:

1) Don’t nag! Give an aid, get a response, get your leg off of him.  He must become very light to the leg and responsive to the seat as you go up the levels. You can carry a horse through lower level tests. Not so as you get higher. Things come too fast and the demands are too great. The horse has to carry itself and be responsive to your seat and your light aids. Train it to be so. Finn is happy to be trained to be either dull or responsive: my choice. And while I’d MUCH rather ride a responsive horse, it’s amazing how quickly I slip back into nagging and I dull him. This is my constant battle but I’m improving. I worked on activating the horse in January with another clinician and am STILL working on it. If you also struggle with this problem, you might find this article useful: (https://wordpress.com/post/75277491/496/)

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Look at me nagging! See that leg curled up with the spur pressing in? Disengages my seat, tightens my leg, and dulls his side. Not to mention my reins are too long and my hands too low, my eyes looking downward rather than ahead. I think I am posting here and that’s why I don’t seem to quite be sitting in the saddle.

The details matter. Where my leg hangs (closer to the girth vs too far back), how I use it and take it off. What kind of spurs I use. At my latest clinic, Miguel Tavora told me to get swan necked spurs instead of the Prince of Wales ones I currently use, because Finn is small and my leg is long. This will help me keep my leg long and off him rather than being tempted to have it curled up and pressed into him (as above).

Swan necked spurs. Useful for riding short horses if you have longer legs. These are the only spurs that you may wear pointing UP.

Swan necked spurs. Useful for riding short horses if you have longer legs. These are the only spurs that you may wear pointing UP

2) Keep your leg long and draped! Don’t grip. Open your hips. Sit soft and deep in the saddle. Do you know how difficult this is? Yes, I’ll bet you do. Especially on a pony. It actually IS harder on a pony. O.k., enough whining. I love my pony. I can and WILL do this. Let me recommend you start with a saddle that fits you (and your horse) well. This is impossible to do in an ill-fitting saddle. My saddle fits and I have no excuse.

3) Give forward with your hands – without losing the contact! This takes feel and timing. Keeping the horse on the bit, moving forward, and yet having a forward/giving feeling is a great feeing but I have to think about it. Otherwise I can tend to have a backwards hand which put the brakes on for the horse. Charlotte Dujardin is my role model here:Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 7.03.14 AM

Look at Charlotte – leg long and draped, hands forward and yet maintaining the contact. A teensy bit behind the vertical with her torso if we’re going to be nit-picky, but if anyone ever got such a nice picture of me, I’d blow it up into poster size and put it on my wall to say, “Look, I did it right for one brief shining moment!” She’s a lovely and effective rider.

When I practice with Finn these days, I have mantras running through my head: reins shorter and higher! Leg long! Don’t nag! Give him space, don’t hold with your hand (but don’t let him off the contact).

“Remember to reward often,” Finn says. We horses appreciate it.

All this and keep the horse and yourself in balance. Oh yeah, and memorize a couple of tests, too.

Dressage is for crazy people, don’t you agree? 

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The magic of counter canter

Finn practicing counter canter

Finn practicing counter canter. My position is less than ideal with my heel up and my hands a bit braced and flat, but note that because we are in counter canter (left lead), so my right leg is maintaining the bend by being behind the girth, and Finn has a slight bend to the outside of our 20 meter circle.

Who would have thought that counter canter would turn out to be my favorite exercise?

I thought I had left it behind and would only revisit occasionally, but lately I find I’m using it almost every day. Counter canter is the Swiss Army Knife of exercises! It balances and strengthens the horse in a way that seems so much easier for both of us. A quick definition: counter canter is cantering on the “outside” lead. So, if I am circling to the right, my horse would be on the left lead. This requires strength and balance and is a good test of obedience, too. (Note: Finn is in counter canter on a 20 meter circle in all these pictures, even though it may be hard for you to see which lead he is on. These are screen shots from a video and he was on the LEFT lead on a RIGHT circle.)

A month ago I was struggling with counter canter. Finn and I are beginning to show Fourth Level dressage this year, but…4th level test 3 has 10 meter counter canter half circles which were our undoing. The rest of the test – not too bad – the counter canter exercise: hopeless. Which is ridiculous.

Finn is small, well-balanced, athletic, strong, and trained. There was no reason we should be struggling so much with 10 m counter canter circles. Nonetheless, we just couldn’t get it.

Smart girl that I am, I asked for help. I had a clinic scheduled with eventer Matt Brown (http://www.eastwesttrainingstables.net), and in about one minute, Matt had identified the problem: ME. Oh big surprise. I was working way too hard (as usual) trying to hold Finn in position and on the counter lead, since Finn’s usual evasion is to do a flying change onto the other lead.

I felt I had to manhandle him onto that counter lead and carry him around the circle lest he change out of the lead. Wasn’t working well. We both were tense and stiff and it wasn’t pretty.

Matt had me pick up the counter canter on a 20 meter circle, and just relax, relax, relax. Relax my seat, my leg, my hands. Finn changed leads. O.k., walk, pick up the counter lead again. Now relax. Six strides later, Finn changed leads. O.k., walk, pick up the outside lead again. Relax, and canter. Within about a minute, Finn realized that he was going to have to stay on that outside lead or keep picking it up from the walk (gee, that’s a lot of work!), but that counter canter wasn’t going to be hard, I wasn’t going to push him, we were just going to softly canter around together. Amazingly, he began to balance on his own (you mean, I didn’t have to carry him? Nope). Sometimes he switched leads, sometimes he broke to the trot. I just picked up the outside lead again, from the walk, very calmly and in a relaxed manner. I had to let him figure out the balance and make his own mistakes, rather than trying to fix it all for him and muscle him through it.  We began the counter canter all strung out and on the forehand. We ended nicely balanced and jumping off the hindquarters, able to canter a smaller circle with balance. Hallelujah!

See how the "jump" improves with the counter canter?

See how the “jump” improves with the counter canter?

We’re still working on it, but what a difference. The counter counter improves the regular canter, too! I find if I do counter canter early in our work session, the rest of the canter work is better balanced, less strung out, and has more jump. It’s as though the counter canter on a circle fixes everything for me without me having to do any pushing or pulling (which I shouldn’t be doing anyway). I just guide him onto the circle and sit in a relaxed, following seat, keeping the impulsion and roundness, but not doing a whole lot more. I aim for the feeling that Finn is doing pushups with his hindquarters. That’s the strength building exercise I want. Recognize that this does take strength and don’t overdo it at first. Give frequent walk breaks and build up to it slowly, as you would any new exercise.

Struggling a little with balance here, but look at how he is coming under himself! Doing pushups with those hindquarters.

Struggling a little with balance here, but look at how he is coming under himself. Doing pushups with those hindquarters.

This works with less advanced horses, too. I tried it on Ellie, who is currently schooling at 1st Level, and it worked beautifully. Ellie sometimes struggles to find balance on the left lead. I thought left counter canter would be very difficult for her, but to my amazement, she found it very easy! In fact, her left counter canter was much better than her regular left canter. Something about the counter canter circle straightened her and helped her to get her hind legs under her more effectively. So my latest exercise for her is to do a couple of large counter canter circles, then canter out of it into a regular circle – trying to maintain the rhythm and quality of the canter – then back to the counter canter circle, and so on. Counter canter is my new GO TO exercise, along with shoulder-in, which I do all day long…

Happy (counter) cantering!