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!


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?


    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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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: (

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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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Riding is a conversation

DSC01800I must regretfully confess that for years I’ve been nagging my horses.

I give an aid and then I keep giving it, thinking that if I stop telling them to trot, half pass, or canter, the horse will stop moving. So I train my horses to expect continual reactivation again and again, and guess what?

Riding is tiring. Because I work HARD. Much harder than the horse, much of the time. But it doesn’t have to be that way…

My trainers over the years have tried to help me with this, reminding me not to nag the horse, to give an aid and expect a response, to keep my aids light, etc., and I’ve gotten much better, but I still have a tendency to cling with my lower leg – I put the leg on and I forget to take the aid off. See this picture below?

Clinging with the calf, pressing, pressing…and bracing with the back. Poor Finn.

Clinging with the calf, pressing, pressing…and bracing with the back. Poor Finn.

At the recent Corine Dorrepaal clinic, from the first moment we worked on this problem for THREE days, and for the first time, I really felt the difference in my horse and in myself when I gave an aid quickly and then let go. Wow! My horse had a chance to respond and then be free! He was so much less braced in his body, because he didn’t have me clinging to him with my legs. Instead, my legs were draping along his sides lightly. I could sit more deeply with a long, relaxed leg.

Corine considers riding a conversation with your horse. When the rider uses the leg all the time, she is doing all the talking and can’t hear what the horse is saying. If she relaxes the leg, then she can receive information back from the horse through her softly draped leg and through her seat.

Information such as Is the horse bending softly? Is there tension is his body? How is his back feeling? Is he responding quickly and softly to my aids? all becomes so much more clear when the legs are not getting in the way by gripping.

Finn and me at Corine Dorrepaal clinic

Finn and me at Corine Dorrepaal clinic

For my next stage of horse education, there is nothing more important I can work on than to learn to converse with my horse through riding with a more relaxed seat and leg.

I wish I would have understood this decades ago when other trainers tried to teach me (and they did try), but I guess when the student is ready, the master appears. Now is the time! Fortunately, my trainer is ready, willing, and able to move forward and will be so happy that I finally have a glimmer of understanding in this area.

My time with Corinne illustrates the benefit of going to a clinic, however. Sometimes going outside your comfort zone and hearing the same truths spoken differently by someone else with different illustrations finally gets it through your thick head.

I found it wonderful and fascinating that this week, as I am thinking about this, I saw several quotes on the same theme, and I thought I’d share them with you here:

As the blind person touches the object before him very softly and lightly with his fingertips in order not to interfere with the work of the sensitive nerve ends by too much pressure, so it is the rider’s first obligation to keep soft and natural those parts of his body with which he feels his horse. If his seat meets this requirement, he will soon feel the movement of the horse’s legs and will be able to distinguish each individual one; he will thus have the means at his disposal with which to control them as if they were his own.”  G.Steinbrecht (1884)

“The overriding theme the first day of the 2015 Succeed/USDF FEI-Level Trainers Conference was just that—that most of the eight participants overrode their horses.”

“Transitions, transitions, transitions are the name of the game,” Clarke said, explaining he wanted the horse to give an electric reaction to Morris’ aids in the walk/trot transitions.

“The horse’s job is to react,” he said. “The rider’s job is to sit and relax.” (It’s All About the Pace, by Sue Weekly, Published in The Chronicle of the Horse)

Finn collecting the canter

Finn collecting the canter

It’s great to get out of your comfort zone

Finn collecting the canter

Finn collecting the canter

Going to a clinic with a new instructor is for me always fraught with some nerves and excitement. I’m excited to have the opportunity to learn, but nervous that I will not understand them, be too slow/stupid/uncoordinated/annoying for them, and that they will yell at me and I will cry. Yes, ridiculous, I know. But these are the things I worry about some times. Among many other things that I won’t go into today.

However, Finn and I are in the midst of a three day dressage clinic, and after Day One, I’m delighted and having a great time!  I thought it would be useful to share a couple of things I’ve learned so far with a few screen caps from the video my husband took. Of course there are many not so pretty moments, but I have editorial license to leave most of those out :-).

Our first ride was great and I loved how my horse felt (and I so appreciate how good he is in new venues). He was cooperative, forward, and we were able to do most of the things the clinician asked us to do – not always perfectly, of course, but we felt like we made progress as the lesson progressed. But when I watched the video, I, my own worst critic, cringed at first. Who is the horrible sack of potatoes bouncing on top of Finn? I had no idea I bounced THAT much at the sitting trot. Finn does have a very springy trot (unfortunately), and I’ve worked very hard to learn to sit it. I just thought I was further along and was rather horrified to see it was pretty ugly at times. Poor Finn, he’s very tolerant of me, but he deserves someone who can sit his trot. Sigh. Still working on it.

But as the video progressed the clinician helped me get him rounder in his top line, in front of my leg (which means responsive to light seat aids instead of needing a lot of leg), and then she gently but firmly insisted that I stop using my legs constantly. I have a terrible habit of nagging. Here, I’ll include one ugly shot to show you what THAT looks like:

See that braced position with heels up? Yuck. Working on eradicating that from my life.

See that braced position with heels up? Yuck. Working on eradicating that from my life.

Her insistence that I drape my leg, allowing it to relax and hang, and get it away from his sides, balancing on my seat bones and allowing my seat to rest on his back…made a HUGE difference. Finn went more smoothly, I sat more elegantly (I felt it, and the video showed it), my hands became more steady, our connection became better, and EVERYTHING was better. When I bend my knees and bring my heel up (as in the picture above), it pops my seat out of the saddle and I bounce. Yep. So, lengthening my leg and using my seat rather than my leg for most aids allows me to sit even a BOUNCY trot. Yahoo!

Now I just have to be consistent about this, because Finn is very happy to lure me back into doing all the work…More clinic reporting after the next Two Days. I can’t wait to see what Finn and I learn next! And how we perfect the draped, relaxed leg, and the “go from the seat and stay in front of the leg” feeling!

More canter! Go Finn, from the haunches! I should be looking more straight ahead, not to the side, even though we were on a 20 meter circle.

More canter! Go Finn, from the haunches! I should be looking more straight ahead, not to the side, even though we were on a 20 meter circle.

Beginning to dance with my horse

All my life I’ve dreamed of being able to ride Piaffe and Passage. Dancing with my horse, in perfect harmony, one in body and spirit.

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I can’t quite say that we can do that…not yet…but almost! We only look like Charlotte and Valegro in our dreams, but Finn the Wonder Pony is learning and does steps of both piaffe and passage with the help of a ground person (videos at the bottom of this post). It’s fun! It’s bouncy and super springy! It’s exciting! A little too exciting sometimes, as Finn occasionally WAY overreacts to the sight of the piaffe stick, throwing himself about histrionically. Alfredo calls him “A little Napoleon.” The little diva has to throw a little tizzy fit before he gets down to work, and then he’s just fine and I think he enjoys the challenge and variety from his usual work.

Fortunately, we have been working on this with the help of Alfredo Hernandez, who does occasional clinics in our area and has been teaching piaffe/passage (and other facets of dressage) to horses and riders of all shapes and sizes for decades. Finn and I were introduced to Alfredo and  P/P in October and have schooled a little piaffe with our trainer at home since then. You can read about our earlier clinics with Alfredo here:

We returned to do some more work on collection and P/P with Alfredo recently at American Sporthorse in Watsonville, CA. The videos below show Finn doing some baby piaffe and then passage with the help of the bamboo. Use of the piaffe stick or the bamboo requires perfect timing and care as it can be dangerous to the handler – you can get kicked! In other words: don’t do this at home unless you REALLY know what you are doing. It’s easy to mess up the horse mentally or get yourself hurt, so please: go to a clinic with someone really experienced like Alfredo, and learn to do it correctly.

Piaffe and Passage require several years (perhaps as many as four, according to some experts) and careful training, strength development, and repetition before they are really confirmed. Finn and I are just beginning, but we are enjoying the lessons and the work benefits our other work. As an example, notice how beautifully Finn walks out after he does the Piaffe work, with a long overstep and a stretched neck.

One last thought from this clinic: the value of an experienced and talented trainer cannot be overstated. Alfredo pushed us just enough but not too much, knowing when to ask for more and when to give the horse a break so that he does not become frustrated.

Because of his experience, we were able to achieve not only some steps of piaffe and passage, but also steps of canter collection far beyond what I thought Finn could do. Lesson learned: it’s good to get out of your comfort zone and go to a clinic occasionally and learn something new! We can do more than I thought we could and my instructor at home will be so happy to hear that I have finally begun to figure this out…

Here, Finn does a few steps of Passage: fun and bouncy!

In this video, you’ll see and hear Alfredo instruct Carol in how to help me work with Finn on Piaffe.