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!

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.

“They say the eye is the window to the soul…”

IMG_0198When I meet a new horse, one of the first things I look at is the expression in the eye. A kind, interested eye attracts me. A suspicious eye repels, a frightened eye concerns, an aggressive eye is a red flag: be on your guard with this one.

A horse whose eye is soft, interested, and inviting? He invites me to walk right up and become friends.

Elizabeth and Fundador

Elizabeth and Fundador

Just like us, horses’ eyes change to reflect their current feelings. Your sweet natured mare may narrow her eyes and look like a she devil when some other horse comes into her personal space bubble. Your good ol’ gelding becomes beady eyed when you ask him to do something he doesn’t really doesn’t want to do.

My usually kind gelding sometimes has what my friend calls “the look of Dragons.” It’s that expression horses get when they are either calculating or adamant about not wanting to do something.

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On the other hand, his bright, open eyes can be incredibly soft and interested, especially if he thinks treats might be involved, as below…

Is there a treat for me?

Is there a treat for me?

Reading eyes and expression on a horse happens over time as we spend time with them. Pretty soon we know what they are thinking (plotting) almost as well as if they were saying it out loud. I’m sure people walking down the barn aisle must laugh to hear the one-sided conversations I have with my horses. I can “hear” what the horse is saying, and I’m keeping up a steady stream of conversation on my end. “No Finn, please don’t nibble my butt. Yes, I’ll be with you in a moment. I have some things to do first. You go play for a moment, o.k.? Outside, by yourself. NO, do not steal your brushes, that is NOT cute…Yes, I know you’re hungry, you’re always hungry. But it’s not time to eat now, that’s AFTER we work. No, we are not doing trick or treat, that is not cute. Go on, get out of here. You’re cute but you’re becoming obnoxious, get out of here!…Yes pony, I still love you… NO, do NOT come back in here. Ponies!” It’s all an amusing game to Finn, of course. And, yes, of course I enjoy it or I wouldn’t play it, now would I?

As my kids remind me, I pick my mischievous ponies because they amuse me.

So the ponies and I converse, me using voice and gesture, them “talking” with eyes, ears, and body language (and occasionally a soft whicker).

Horses speak without words, using eyes, ears, facial expressions, and body language to communicate. As horse people, we must pay attention.

Communication begins when we look at their eyes and read the expression. Eliana, in the picture below, is batting her blonde eyelashes and saying, “Please come be my friend! I’m the sweetest mare you’ve ever met and I love to snuggle. By the way, my nose is kissable, and all treats are gladly accepted.”

What do your horse’s eyes say to you?

What do your eyes communicate to your horse?

Horsemanship is all about the RELATIONSHIP with the horse, and relationships thrive on good communication.

Eliana's lovely, inviting eye

Eliana’s lovely, inviting eye

Do you have horse PTSD?

If you’ve been around horses long enough, you have your share of horse war stories.

Niki and Ellie out for a gallop

Niki and Ellie out for a gallop

  • The time you were out for a nice Spring canter, enjoying the day, when and SOMETHING rattled in the bushes and in the twinkling of an eye, there was no horse underneath you and the ground came up hard.
  • The time you were jumping and the horse ducked out at the last minute but you kept going straight…into the fence.
  • The time you were leading an excited horse and it reared up and almost got you with its front legs – or maybe it did get you.
  • The time you were riding in a crowded arena and another horse came close to your horse, who panicked, whirled and bolted.
  • The time you don’t even know why, but suddenly your horse did a 180 and he went East, and you went West.

Probably nothing quite so dramatic as this picture, though. We’ll save these wreaks for the professionals:

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We all have long lists of minor and major things that happen with horses. If you’ve ridden for long, you’ve fallen many times and been kicked, stepped on, bitten. Yet we still love them, of course, because usually they don’t mean to hurt us but are reacting out of fear.

Depending on personality and the events surrounding the event(s), we may have some degree of mental trauma to go with the physical trauma. The body wounds heal for most of us – although some of us have lifelong horse derived aches and pains – but what happens inside?

I realized recently that I had more interior wounds than I had realized.

My horse Finn had enjoyed several days off and it was crisp and chilly. He is body clipped and was feeling good and remembering what it had been to be a stallion (before they gelded him four years ago, that is). I mounted and entered the jump arena on my way to the dressage court, which is on the other side. As I crossed the ring, a girl came jumping down the line toward me but began falling off midway through an in and out. I watched with consternation as she held onto the horse’s neck and slid sideways as the horse jumped the second part of the in and out, and I thought, “that horse is going to bolt right towards us as she falls at our feet,” because that was the trajectory. I shortened my reins and sat deep. As the girl fell and the horse bolted, Finn spun a little and leaped…and then just stood. That was it. No bolt, no dramatics, and we walked on our way (the girl was fine, by the way, and the horse didn’t go far).

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Finn is trustworthy under saddle. What a good boy!

Finn is trustworthy under saddle. What a good boy!

I patted and thanked Finn, and shook my head, thinking how differently this could have gone. Then I noticed my heart was pounding and I started crying. It was an uncontrollable autonomic response. Why? My horse had been perfect and nothing happened – but it was a near miss, like being almost hit by a truck while riding a bicycle. Things could have gone so differently for me. We were just feet from the open gate of the arena and the very hard road, and I have a very fast, athletic pony. If he had spun and bolted, maybe I would have stayed with him, and maybe not. Maybe Iwould have fallen in the ring, or worse, on the road. Thinking about the maybes is of course foolish – and yes, when I’m out on the trail sometimes I think, “if my horse spooks right now, I could be impaled on that fence post!” – silly, really, and a waste of time. I was struck by the strength of my emotional reaction to this non-event, and I realized I’m still carrying all the other times I actually have been terrified or hurt by horses. Of course my horses spook occasionally and normally I’m o.k. with it, but for some reason, this particular event triggered my memories. It made me realize the trauma runs deep.

If you or I have some minor or major emotional trauma around riding, how do we go forward? We want to keep riding. Of course it depends on how fresh and how severe the trauma is. But here are a few general principles that have helped me keep riding every day:

  • Choose a horse who will try to take care of you (remember sometimes sometimes even the best will just be horses). Life is too short to ride a horse who does not feel trustworthy. Find a horse who does not get tense if you do.
  • Be sensible about which horse activities you pursue. Push your boundaries just outside your comfort zone but not to the terror zone. If jumping scares you but you long to jump, perhaps start with some trot poles and move on to 1′ jumps, etc. Take a calm buddy to accompany you on the trail, and so on.
  • Find a safe instructor and community which are supportive. Hanging out with wild and crazy riders who mock your caution is not going to help; neither will hanging out with people who are all afraid. Find a group who encourages each other to do their best but understands that we all have limitations emotionally as well as physically. Show each other compassion and grace, but encourage each other to grow at the rate each can go.
  • Be honest with yourself and your instructor about your fears and limitations. You want to be pushed some, but not into the panic zone. Help your instructor know how far is enough.

If any of this describes you or a friend, you might want to learn more about symptoms, causes, and treatments. Here is an excellent article: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/index.shtml

Go on the trail with a safe buddy on a horse that feels trustworthy.

Go on the trail with a safe buddy on a horse that feels trustworthy.

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: https://horsesage.com/category/instruction/clinics/

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.