half halts part 25748

I have not thought about half halts in a while. Which is abnormal for me, since I was utterly obsessed with them for ages.  (Okay, there’s apparently almost no blog evidence of this. But I talk about them a lot with my friends.)

I just have bigger problems than half halts these days. Like getting my horse to actually come over his back and push into the bridle.


hay fren pls go to the bridle like this always (or more)

Then in one of our recent lessons, Megan was like “okay so push your horse across the ground! go! bigger canter! bigger!” (we were cantering). I was like geez holy fuck that’s really big and it’s a bit scary.

And then she was like “okay great! really great there! now lift his front end up by accentuating the upswing, without making the canter smaller.”

I struggled with it for quite a few circles, but finally found a balance where I could push my horse OUT and then balance him back UP a few strides later and hold that balance until he was juuust about sick of it, and then we would head back OUT again.

“That’s your new half halt!” said Megan. “Right now, I want you to half halt him and his canter should get BIGGER.”

the widest hind legs he’s ever hind legged!

So that’s my new half halt right now. It’s not subtle. It’s not small. It’s my legs going GO GO GO and then my seat going UP UP UP (actually I say out loud “over the ground, over the ground, over the ground, on the hind leg, on the hind leg, on the hind leg” to make it happen, but you know).

And that’s where I’m at with half halts.

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jumping the big canter

Murray and I have not jumped much this year.  Since we got back into real work in March, we’ve probably only jumped twice a month — so 9 or 10 schools? It’s not very many, considering that in previous years we’ve jumped once or twice a week essentially all year long.

When we started jumping again after winter, there was definitely something a little different about how Murray was jumping. He was cantering much bigger and taking off in what felt like massively long spots — so like, normal spots for most horses. There was also a lot of bucking and wall kicking.


K is for kick the wall right here!

But he got back to feeling Murray-normal pretty quickly. Which I’ve now learned means I quickly shut his canter down, turned his hind legs back into chopsticks, and shrunk his stride down to tiny little chips.

All of our dressage work lately has been focused on making the canter bigger and lifting Murray’s withers up. I was interested to see how this would translate to jumping. I’m not very good at riding the big canter yet, and it doesn’t necessarily feel very steerable/controllable. So I was hesitant to point it at jumps. Better to try this in the comfort of my home arena than to wait until after my move to pull out the big canter, though!

Fortunately, it turns out the big canter is pretty jumpable. Better for jumping, in fact (shhhh nobody tell Nicole from 5 years ago that).

cantering big canter doesn’t grant a good release, unfortunately

Murray and I definitely struggled to break out of our little canter/stabby hind legs mold when we first approached each fence. But on the second approach I felt more comfortable pushing Murray out over the ground and encouraging him to really move forward, and we got some great spots!


big canter into the one stride!

Reviewing the video, it was clear to me that the big canter a) needs work for jumping still and b) still requires me to fucking ride properly. Even with a big canter, when I didn’t keep pushing Murray’s stride out to the fence, he still shrank his stride down and ended up chipping in to the fence.  And it wasn’t necessarily a balanced and uphill tiny canter, it was a short, stabby-ish tiny canter. It is going to require more strength and subtlety on my part to hold together the big stride + uphill balance.


big canter into the 4 stride

When I say big stride, I’m not just  looking at how far Murray can stretch out over the ground. I really want his hind legs to come up under his body more, and for his inside hind leg to truly reach forward in the canter.

When I just shrink Murray’s stride down (I’m not sure exactly how I do this, I think by limiting the movement of my hips and preventing them from swinging forward) to the fences, Murray responds by making the stride smaller. But he also puts his hind legs down much closer together, and he shrinks the hind-leg distance down proportionally more than he shrinks the stride down. If that makes sense.

shrinking the stride toward the liverpool — see how close together those hind legs are?

I’m somewhat stuck between a mental rock and a cerebral hard place, though. Because when I let Murray gun it (aka run) down to fences, he’s more likely to stop. So I want to keep his canter slow and under control. But when I make the canter slower by making it smaller and shittier, I force him to jump poorly. And also make it easier for him to stop.

So.

I end up having to fight all of my instincts to slow Murray down toward the fences and keep pushing him over the ground, but also avoid letting him run or get frantic. Basically, to work on balancing the horse uphill while keeping his legs moving under his body.

Which is cool — it’s the focus of all of my canter work all the time right now. I think I’m up to five whole canter strides balanced upward. Five! Five whole strides in my comfort zone.

But what I know for sure is that we are done with that tiny little canter! Cause it results in such ridiculousness as this.

 

the middle will not hold

L posted this blog title a few weeks ago and I was like “oh, this must be about core strength!” It was not about core strength. But core strength has totally been on my mind lately, because it’s something I’ve only just started to need when riding my horse.

I know, I know! You want to sit the trot, Nicole. Don’t you need a core for that?

false! you do not need a core if you let your horse trot like a floppy donut

Yes, I believe you do. But it turns out that when your horse is rather flaccid and toneless, you can crunch and squeeze and ab all you want, but it’s not going to help. And when your horse uses his hind legs more like chopsticks than hocks, no amount of core strength is going to help you avoid getting bumped around and out of the saddle with every stride.

I’ve learned that before I can stabilize with my core, there needs to be something to stabilize. Which means getting my horse moving forward with positive tension, and getting him to reach under with the hind legs and push all the way back with them. (For me this means slowing my post waaaaaay down but keeping the mechanic big and the energy up. Your mileage may vary.)

This is a quite nice picture of us, but is such a good representation of both of our weaknesses. Murray is not tracking up and is generally toneless, in addition to being a little behind the contact and is shoving energy backwards. For my part I’m nagging and letting my cereal box fall forward, and don’t have my glutes actived basically at all.

So now we’ve gotten my horse moving and on the aids. Per my biomechanics instruction I’ve got my thighs on and I’m not letting go of the connection, and keeping my elbows at my sides. I’m doing my best to keep my seat plugged in. And then Murray will burst into a bigger trot — which mostly I want, and usually have asked for — and suddenly I’ll feel my middle plunge out from under my shoulders and bow out forward toward Murray’s ears.

And that is a very new problem for me. I’ve been hollow-backed as a rider before, but mostly in a misaligned attempt to keep my shoulders back while my butt has simultaneously slid a little too far back in the saddle  (I suspect due to over-activated hip flexors). But I’m not used to being one of those riders who gets drug around by her horse (though it is a lot easier to ride when your horse is the one doing the dragging!! at least when it’s Murray level dragging, anyway.)  That’s a combination of kicking and thumping with my leg and desperately trying to keep myself upright and from not falling back. Now, I can actually feel my middle itself caving in when Murray’s movement gets a fair bit bigger.

somewhat squashier — and a nice effort from Murray! I find that I tend to really shove myself down into the saddle when I do anything moderately complicated (like a change of direction ROFL so complex). so at least I have the right instinct starting? cheating with my hands though!

So now I have to add another thing to the biomechanics equation: post mechanic big, thighs on, post slowly, an squash my torso down so that it is shorter and wider, and my abs make a wall. If I’m trying to make my abs a wall but I’ve not squashed down, I can still feel them wavering a bit — the middle will not hold. But if I really think about pushing down — squashing my ribs towards my pelvis and my shoulders down into my ribs — then my abs automagically become much stronger.

My current goal is to squash my torso down so much that I’m basically a toad — just a great big pair of legs coming out of a little squashy ribcage and almost no neck. That seems like the most stable arrangement, honestly.

How do you stabilize and solidify your core when riding? Is there a method other than squashing myself down into a toad shape that you’ve found works well?

BTW I fully expect to have an eight pack if I keep doing this. Will let you know how that materializes.

the times they are a changin’

I’ve always considered myself Very Australian.

There’s a sense of peace that I feel nowhere other than South Australia. The second I step off of the plane, something about the smell of the wind and the salt in the air says “you’re home.”

But the reality is that I haven’t lived in Australia for more than a decade — closer to two. We moved to California in 2002, I did a few years of high school, and promptly landed myself in a place whose landscape was very familiar and comforting.

sunrise in Davis

I’ve always been attracted to a certain type of landscape.

the view out my bedroom window in Congo

I’ve lived in Davis as long as I lived in Australia — if you don’t mind the year I spent living in Kenya and Congo. This place is more my home than anywhere in California. The formative years of my life have been spent here.

sunrise over Mt. Kenya — this was a good year too

I got my horse here. I built my barn family here. I found a kitten and got a dog.

And now, we are leaving. Murray and Jelly and my partner and I are moving. Not far. Just a little ways (600 miles) up the road, to somewhere rather a lot different.

Image result for aurora, oregon

Most of the kinks are sorted. We have a place to live, I found a place for Murray to live. We move in a little under four weeks.

piglet will miss this!

It’s a big change. Not a small item in the “cons” list of this move was leaving my barn family and amazing friends. But we’ll always have the internet, and couches to crash on. And a 9 hour drive isn’t thaaaat bad. I’ve done it before.

So bottom’s up for new life adventures!

word noodles

This summer, I’ve been teaching a couple of lessons each week to the student I have been tutoring for the last two years. (We started with the tutoring relationship, but she has recently decided she wants riding lessons and since she’s a total beginner, we’re doing okay.)

It’s fun — I get to try out all these teaching ideas on a kid with whom I have a pretty good teaching relationship already (she trusts me, and I know how she learns). There are some things that I’ve always wondered about with the way we teach riding.

toddler riding purpose-bred horse — see how she steers with both hands?!

For example, why do we always teach people to turn a horse by pulling their nose around when as soon as you get moving faster than a walk (and sometimes not even then), yanking the nose around becomes a markedly ineffective way to turn them? So I taught the kid to turn a horse like she’s steering a bike — point her chest in the direction she wants to go, and make both hands move evenly. I thought this would give her a passing familiarity with pressure on the outside rein during turning and make the idea of pushing a horse over with the outside rein and outside leg a bit easier to swallow when we got to it. It was only moderately successful. It seems that turn-by-pulling-their-nose-in-that-direction is a behavior that just kinda comes pre-installed on humans.

That’s okay. We can uninstall it. I think.

I’ve also had a chance to try out Mary-Wanless style suggestions to the kid. She has the typical-beginner problem of her hands and elbows floating up, up, up as she rides. So a couple of rides ago when we were at the halt I put my fingertips under her fists and pushed up, asking her to resist my push. She pushed back down and boom! Low hands. Now when I see her hands floating up I can just say “resist my push on your hands” and they go right back down — and usually stay there. Prior to trying that I’d told her all kinds of things — let your knuckles touch his withers, push your hands down, don’t let your hands float up, etc. etc. — and gotten little/no response. It’s extra neat to see something that has such an immediate and useful effect.


she’s a biomechanics savant >< — the kid makes me laugh

Another fun thing I’ve been doing is having her recap our last lesson to me at the beginning of the next one. It makes her think about what we’ve been working on lately, and tells me what she’s got in her head that will stick around for this lesson.

I have also tried to be really precise and specific in my language when teaching. I know that horse people use a lot of jargon that doesn’t translate immediately, but we also say things that just straight up don’t make sense. From a horse-person perspective or not! Some of it is metaphor (making a horse “round” or “bouncy”, getting a horse “off the leg” or “on the aids”), because we don’t necessarily have a word in English that describes what we’re talking about. Some of it is just downright lazy or imprecise language.

And that’s exactly where I found myself when I was trying to teach my kid to push a horse out on a circle as he spiraled in over his left shoulder. She kept trying to pull his nose to the outside, and as a result his shoulder fell in more. So they trotted and trotted in a wayward and disorganized fashion, and I hear myself saying such meaningless phrases as “really hold that outside rein” (I am holding it, Nicole, it’s in my hand) and “take a hold of his mouth” (with what, exactly?) and “push him to that outside rein” (the outside rein is in my hand, how can I push a horse there?).

just say NO to outside reins

I said all these things that I knew the kid didn’t understand, but they were what I would do if I were riding the lesson horse. What I wanted her to do was prop his shoulders up underneath him, get his left hind leg under his body and pushing to the right rein, and make the circle bigger. But she doesn’t know how to do any of that. Yet she still needed to regain control over the size of the circle. And in response, I apparently resorted to meaningless platitudes that accomplished nothing.

We paused and I regrouped in my mind. What did I mean by saying those things?

It meant I had to back up a couple of steps and admit to my poor student that I’d been teaching her a short cut all along. Instead of steering her horse with the reins, I now wanted her to steer with her legs. I want the reins to have some tension in them — yes, tension is what I taught you stops a horse. That’s also true. But there’s a level of tension you can have that lets you communicate with the horse’s mouth through the bit but doesn’t totally stop them — that’s the amount of tension you want. Yes, it’s not easy. No, you can do it. Yes, I am going to make you.

We did end on a (ever so) slightly larger circle going to the left, but at least my kid had reins that were a more appropriate length and had learned how to push her leg into the side of a horse to steer. It’s going better this week as we focus more on leg steering.

The lesson for me is that I’m not immune to meaningless horse-training words, and I need to stay vigilant about my vocabularian precision!

feels like makin’ progress

The last few months have been heavy hitters in terms of changing the way Murray goes. That’s not a totally fair characterization, as a lot of that work has been about changing how I ride in order to change how the horse goes. But since we’re measuring progress in terms of pony skills here, and I still can’t sit the trot, we’ll focus on the horse. And specifically, we’ll focus on the gaits themselves.

I have had, for some time, a pretty big first toolkit/second toolkit problem. I know what it is my horse is supposed to be doing or doing better, but I don’t have the rider skills to get him to do those things. I know my horse needs to take bigger steps, and that he needs to push into the bridle, and that he needs to bend his hocks and take weight behind. Because I’m also human, and that means that I’m bad at listening to my trainer even when I know I should be, I wasn’t getting out of lessons what I thought I should be. Honestly kinda sounds like I have a thinking problem. But with some good new eyes on the ground and some reinforcement from my main trainer, it feels like pony is moving at light speed through some of these concepts.

cherry-picked trot from April

First, Alexis got me thinking about posting like a piston and actually sitting in to my horse. Kate emphasized the importance of getting my horse to accept the aids instead of trying to shake them off. Of course, it meant that I also had to accept the contact instead of shaking that off too… There was a pretty pivotal ride in there with Kate where she helped me manage my hands and the connection in every step. Literally rewarding Murray for moving in the correct direction with the connection without giving it up, every time he did that. I’m not trying to diminish the importance of those people and those rides, but I’ve already written about them, and a couple of recent rides have built on them even more.

If we back up to quite a few weeks ago, before Camelot, Megan came over to help me prep for the dressage test and balance the canter-trot transitions. At the risk of messing things up, she also played with our trot a bit. The lesson emphasized getting the bend correct on the circles, while keeping the connection to both reins (Murray wants to duck away from the left rein), and lining my horse’s limbs all up with one another correctly while still sending as much energy as possible forward and into the bridle. We also worked a lot on transitions within the trot. Taking Murray’s mincing little trot — the one he comes out with and wants to pop around with all the time, without articulating his joints hardly at all — and stuffing it full of energy so that even while the steps are small he’s still tracking up, and then pushing him out over the ground so that the energy has a place to go.

pretty representative trot from May – not really moving out much at all

Pushing Murray out across the ground has always been hard. It’s easier to move legs faster/canter/fall apart/buck/just not. But when I added energy and articulation (through slooower, smaller posting but still leg and whip) first and then let him out, he actually moved out over the ground. Megan also had me push a little past that, and really keep that post slow+big as I added energy. She wanted me to post slower in the “lengthened” trot than I did in the working trot, to really get even more push across the ground instead of faster leg movement.

Then I rode with Alexis, and had a whole walk-trot lesson all about making my legs quiet and very meaningful. (Kidding — we cantered like three circles.) Doing this for weeks and weeks after the lesson was… painful, to say the least.  But it meant that by the time Megan saw us next, the leg was more meaningful. And then we really got to work.

not-really-trotting with Alexis, but at least I’m not totally giving up on the contact

At the trot, Megan really wanted me to get Murray over-tracking. Which is basically unheard of for us, since he barely tracks up usually. But we worked at it with the same technique as last time — add energy to the little mincey trot, and push it out across the ground. We spent less effort on adding energy to the little trot this time, and more time pushing out across the ground.  Or maybe it just felt that way because our basline has already shifted a bit. I don’t remember exactly what Megan’s words were (not as important since I remember the feeling a bit), but the result was that it felt like the trot was FLYING across the ground and then she’d be like “great, now add a little bit more energy to it” and there was still energy to be added.

It was extremely exhausting to keep that much tone in both Murray’s and my bodies and post slowly and keep the energy and and bear down.


camelot trot. this one’s actually nicer than I expected it would be.

In the canter, she pushed us forward until the canter was taking big steps — probably like normal, 12 foot, horse sized strides! Once I’d achieved the big horse sized stride, I could balance the canter uphill a little without taking it back or upwards. I’ll probably write more about this later, as the feeling still needs to be finessed a little bit. Plus she told me that the bigger canter was my new “half halt” which was pretty much blew my mind.

The best part of all of this is that it’s been extremely replicable in my own rides. I get on my horse and we do some walk-halt-walk-halt transitions (per Alexis). We move into the trot without letting Murray shake off the leg aid (Kate and my trainer), and just let it hang out for a bit (Alexis). And then when I go to add energy to the trot — BAM. It’s right there. It’s not that weird little trot that just moves faster, it’s a bigger trot that pushes Murray into my hands and into the bridle.

It was like between one ride and the next, Murray suddenly learned this trick of pushing into the bridle and trotting out over his back. Not that it just took one ride for it all to come together — this is the cumulative effort of lessons from all of my various people all Spring. But now it’s right there at my fingertips when I ask for it. I don’t even have to ask much. When I rode on Sunday, I barely had to put my leg on in the kinda-pokey warm-up trot and Murray sprung to action into a proper trot.

*almost* as good as it’s felt lately!

I’m not too worried about working on or practicing than the connection and these bigger gaits right now. Which is a first for me. (I’m always like, when can I canter-walk? when can I leg yield? when can I second level? AM I READY NOW?!?!) But within and between each ride I can feel how much progress we are making in the gaits, getting them stronger, smoother, more solidifed, more natural. I’ve not felt this much progress from Murray from day to day to day…. ever, really.

I’d not even describe it as dull. It is routine, but it’s also major progress! And it’s awesome.

the problem with hills

There’s this thing about hills. It happens to me all the time.

You see a hill in the distance and you’re like “That’s not so big! I could totally get to the top of that! That would be so much fun!” So you run off through the grass to mount your new obstacle.

Only, hills are always much bigger than they appear from afar. And you’re always more afar than you first thought.

So you climb and you climb. It’s tiring.

There’s so much more hill to go. Climbing hills sucks. Your legs hurt. Your brain hurts. This was the worst idea ever.

At some point, it seems like it might be worth just giving up on this stupid hill. By then, you’ve usually gone far enough that looking back, the beginning seems very far off and rather small. And you know how long that distance really is, now. You’ve come a ways. Might as well continue.

So you huff and you puff and your quads burn and you make it to the top of the hill. Finally! Joyous day! Hallelujah! Carpe the dayum hill diem!

You turn to survey your surroundings. Everything the light touches is your land!

And there, just behind you, is another damn hill.