professional pony prancing plan

Because I have a well-documented inability to multitask when it comes to riding, now that my show season is over I am back on the dressage bootcamp train.  This isn’t dressage bootcamp like “let’s make our circles really circular and exactly 20 meters in diameter!” or “deep cornerz biatchezz!” but more like “how about we really bend around that inside leg, eh?” and “let’s stop holding our body crooked so we don’t have to use that right hind” or “for godsake lets get a consistent half halt button on this horse pleaaaaaazzzeeeeeeeeeeeeee”.

IMG_1963What is this “connection” you speak of….

To this end my “weekly” dressage lessons have been very helpful, except that the first week I could schedule one I was so hot that I nearly puked on Murray in the middle of it and called it quits.  And since then either B or I have been out of town during any time I could have scheduled another dressage lesson.  CURSES.

However, in that first lesson we started working on something important that I have so far neglected: the outside rein.  Tina’s training method for young horses encourages longitudinal stretch through lateral flexion, and I really grabbed on to that idea — it worked well with Murray.  Unfortunately I mostly grabbed on to the idea with my right hand… and my left hand is a pretty pathetic player in the game even when it is on the inside.  I tend to keep my left hand a little wider and lower with a looser grip, which means that Murray can do essentially whatever he wants when we are going left.  To compensate for my pathetic left hand I started “catching” him with my right hand, but that just increased my reliance on my right hand.  Fucking handedness ruining my life here.

Murray also evades a lot going left.  He doesn’t really bend to the left, just kinda cracks his neck and his shoulders and travels around all cock-eyed.  This probably helps him avoid engaging his right hind.

Right bend, left “bend”

He is less consistent in the contact, wants to fling himself off my left leg (Oh please don’t ask me to do a leg yield, Nicole! Whatever you do, not leg yields!), so when I do try to engage him by adding inside leg and inside flexion he’s like “GOT WHAT I WANTED!”

I have also been struggling with transitions and response vs. reaction. Murray seems to waver between being thoughtful and lazy off my aids, sometimes making an honest effort to respond to my aids on a schedule that makes sense for him (“just give me three more steps to prep for this transition!”) and just ignoring them (“oh did you just put your leg on? had no idea.”)

Okay so struggles.  We has them.  (And bad mistakes.  I’ve made a few.)

I’m starting with the transitions.  Tina suggested I get back to some streeeetchy lunging and do lots of transitions on the lunge line to get Murray really responsive to the verbal cues and have him really just stepping into those transitions.  Sometimes he’s quite responsive, but the response is rather more enthusiastic than needed for a dressage test.

Not quite this enthusiastic but we’re on the spectrum

(What stretchy lunging cannot address is Murray falling through his left shoulder to avoid using his right hind, and sometimes I even think it makes it worse.  Buuuut sometimes I suck at addressing that too, so whatever.  Stretchy lunging will be fine.)

I’m also working on making my cues really, really clear.  Sometimes I ask for the canter a different way.  Sometimes I try to emphasize a really big half halt before hand (because I want to actually rebalance my stupid horse but whatever).  I can hardly expect Murray to respond cleanly to my requests if they aren’t clean themselves.  So there’s that too.  I will aspire to ask him to trot or canter at a good/reasonable time to do so, and he will aspire to respond promptly when I ask.  I have decreed it thusly.

We will also work on getting Murray nice and deep and round and using his neck and topline going to the left as well as to the right.  Instead of dropping the base of his neck, I’ll encourage him to engage it, even if it is in a really low, relaxed frame.  That’s just fine.

And the half halt.  Oh half halts.  How elusive thine beautiful rebalancing powers are to my walnut-brained equine partner.

At the bottom of it, a half halt is not a complicated aid.  In fact, it’s not even something that needs to be learned independently of the cues that are given.  It’s a bunch of cues together that all already have meanings!  Leg (more power) + core (hold a bit) + hand (give) = REBALANCE.  I mean, those three things encourage a rebalance even without a horse knowing the meaning of a subtle half halt.  SO WHY ARE THEY SO HARD TO UNDERSTAND.

So you know, just a few small things.  Get that right hind back under us.  Even up the weight and use of my hands.  Install a half halt.  Ain’t no big.  Good thing we have all the time in the world.

for the love of an imperfect horse

I have this horse. You may have heard of him.


He is far from a perfect specimen. Don’t get me wrong, I think he’s pretty cute and he’s not hideous or anything. He has straight legs and a short back, but his bone leaves something to be desired, and his neck is definitely on the twiggy side of the spectrum. We describe him as “goofy” and it means both funny and “sometimes a huge pain in the ass”. He can jump some things, and has moments that hint at something a little more special, but if there is anything more than cute under there, it’s hidden fairly deep. Nobody saw this three year old prancing around in a field and thought, “oh, there’s my next 1* prospect!” He doesn’t have any kind of exciting suspension or enormous uphill movement or attack-machine approach to any and every stick of wood he’s ever looked at.


Murray’s conformational flaws mean that there’s no tricking either one of us if he’s not working correctly. When he is not engaged, you can see it, and (fortunately) I can feel it. There is no toe-flicking or enormous knee action to mask weaknesses in his training. Murray’s neck is not big and strong and naturally arched, suggesting lift in his withers when in fact he is not. He trips over his own feet when we are walking around and doing nothing. With a horse whose movement is average at best, improvements in movement mean you know exactly when you are doing it right.

5-21 dressage 8 5-21 dressage 9
Right, wrong. He makes it easy to know the difference.

Murray can jump a bit, but he’s not preternaturally talented – he didn’t jump beginner novice cross country fences on his first ever jumping outing. He’s not going to any Young Event Horse competitions any time soon. There’s no grand prix in his future. In fact, we’re not even sure we can tell what is in his future for jumping. Sometimes, my trainer laughs about the miracle that this horse even jumps at all – he did, after all, crumple into the fetal position the first time he ever touched a jump pole with his feet.

Lainey Ashker’s fresh-off-the-track baby jumping the first time ever

1454635_681995361841275_339630194_nMurray’s first XC outing

Not perfect. Not even close.

But what would I do with “perfect”? Do I like toe-flicking? Nope. Could I even sit (or post) a trot with a lot of suspension? I think not. Would I be able to appropriately guide and teach a young horse so game for fences that he could compete at training height as a five year old? I know not. Let’s not even talk cost… a horse like that is so far out of my budget he might as well live on Mars.

So with this perfect young horse, what would I even be doing? Ruining it. Without a doubt. I won’t pussyfoot around it and say I wouldn’t use a fancy young horse to his potential – that much is a given – but I would very likely ruin this horse. I would hold him back when instead he needed to learn how to go. I would struggle with his suspension and gaits and, even with my best attempt to ride well, fail to ride to his level and instead rein him in to my level. His zeal for fences would probably scare me, and I would be incapable of teaching him what he needed to excel.

IMG_3326Not perfect, but we did it together.

But with Murray I have to work for it. And there is something deeply, deeply satisfying about this work I have to teach him how to hold himself, how to lift his back, and carry his body, and move like he’s a little bit fancier than he’s naturally inclined to be. Would I have learned how to do that on a horse that did it naturally? Nope. Would I have learned how to do it on a horse that faked it? Bigger nope. I have to teach Murray to be confident about fences of any size, shape, color, presentation, angle, or location. I have to teach him to be strong and confident and use his body correctly. I would not be learning how to achieve a quality canter if Murray approached all fences with a quality canter, or if he rushed the fences and took over in his desire to get to them.

IMG_1983A long time coming.

While I am teaching Murray, he is also teaching me. He is actually a wonderful teacher, if I can just listen.

I embrace my imperfect horse. In fact, I love all the imperfect horses I’ve ever worked with – and yes, I know, probably not horse is perfect, but some of them certainly look it. There is more for me to learn from an imperfect horse than I could learn from one who never put a foot wrong. And Murray’s imperfections make it all that much better when the two of us do something perfectly.


Perhaps someday I will be worthy of a fancy young horse. But for right now, my unfancy horse is perfect for me.

shoulda lean

Last week I had a dressage lesson with Tina which was really wonderful.  In fact, I got the chance to watch Tina give a couple of lessons before mine which was incredibly educational.  First up was Q, with her big red quarterhorse gelding.  Q and her pony, Big, converted early this year from reining (I think) and Big loooooves jumping.  What Big does not loooooove is dressaging.  He thinks it is silly and hard and he would rather not, thanks.

IMG_1297Would rather be jumping.

Anyway, Big’s favourite trick is the constant threat of hanging whenever anyone tries to ask him to accept some contact.  He’s like “oh, you want a feel of my mouth?  That’s cool, here, have my whole neck too!”  Tina straight off the bat was like “aha he has trained you!!” and had Q try to soften Big by over-flexing his neck and bending him around her inside leg.  When Big wanted to hang, Q was to drop her outside rein and let him try to hang on just the one rein.  I found this very fascinating, as I had assumed that Big’s non-traditional start to dressage (i.e. western for five years, then a year of english) might mean that Tina had to employ some more creative tactics to get him to soften and come over his back.  Instead, her standard tactic to encourage longitudinal stretch by first encouraging lateral stretch worked, given enough time.  Big just had to realize that the inside rein and inside leg would be there no matter what, and it was easier to just go with the flow.  I’m very fascinated to see where this goes.

Tina also used a metronome app during one of her other lessons!  The horse in question has an under-tempo walk so she pulled out a metronome and had the rider try to keep up with that pace.  I am thinking I will need to buy myself one of those (especially as I now have a fanny pack with which to ride! MWAHAHAH!) and use it to get this other pony I know to bring his under-tempo walk up to speed.

19290854190_c2b91845e3_kWalking is hard.

My lesson centered around my main goal for the last few months, starting to get Murray to really understand the half-halt aid and begin to shift some weight behind.  It was a dreamy, muggy, dusty day, so Tina opted to start us working at the canter first so that Murray wouldn’t be too tired for it.  Last lesson Tina had me start to think about really slowing down the swing of my hips at the canter, “pausing” with my pelvis at the top/front of the arc, and holding Murray there, but also driving him forward. When I tried to practice this outside of our lesson, I found that Murray was just as likely to invert and lose all connection as he was to start slowing down his post.  Instead of driving with my seat I developed a technique of lightening my seat while also quieting it to ask for the collection.  Tina thought this was fine, but wanted me to make sure I didn’t “perch” going right, and didn’t lean going left.

Yep this old thing again

In addition, to help Murray collect and balance under himself, Tina had me shrink the circle down from 20 meters to 10 meters.  As I was moving in on the circle Tina was like “That’s great! That’s about 18 meters. Smaller. Okay that’s about 15. Now about twelve. THERE’S TEN.” and I was like “JAAAEESSUS CAN THIS CIRCLE GET ANY SMALLER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”  But it DID really help Murray sit his weight back onto his haunches, he just couldn’t drag himself around on the forehand on such a small circle.

I was really, really interested to see that Murray was more successful going left than right.  I have always thought that his left canter is weaker than his right canter, but he showed me several times during my Tina lesson that the right canter was the weaker one.  I’m not sure when this switch happened, or if it is to do with soreness/out of whack/current muscling imbalance, but color me shocked.  To the right Murray wanted to drag himself along on the forehand and break to the trot, but to the left he was more than capable of the 10 meter circle.  To accomplish the circle successfully, Tina had me lean back and really rotate my body in the direction of the circle, and keep repeating the right canter aid when Murray thought he might break (but not chase him).

So to summarize: don’t lean left, don’t perch right. Don’t chase, sit up tall, repeat the canter aid.  Smaller circle.  Not too much to do there.

IMG_1991Sitting up straight and cantering is hard okay!

The next thing we worked on was the haunches-in.  I thought Murray was really getting the haunches in a few months ago, but he likes to do it for a few steps and then give up, and I can’t seem to encourage his haunches back off the track when he does that.  I also hadn’t figured out how to hold his haunches in to prevent him from straightening out.  Tina had me turn him to the wall but not complete the corner — so that we were three-tracking with his haunches in.  Then, when Murray would try to “complete the corner”, rotating his ribcage around my inside leg such that he maintained the bend but was no longer holding his haunches in, Tina had me hold the outside rein.  And damn if it didn’t work.  So simple!  We did this at the walk and trot in both directions, and Tina proclaimed the exercise good.  With practice, we will be shoulder-in and haunches-in-ing quite successfully.

Since my lesson I’ve been thinking a lot about how to structure Murray’s work week to get the best use of his body, but also in such a way that avoids overloading his brain.  Thinking about this has made me think a lot about the general trend of our progress together.


A year ago, I couldn’t have gotten through an entire Tina lesson where I asked Murray to challenge his body so much without at least one buck.  Usually he would have protested either the amount of work (tired! can’t!) or the strenuousness of the work (hard! can’t!).  These days I don’t get too many bucks out of him, even when I have to really get after him.  Usually he only objects when I really offend him — like when I have to kick him with my spur — even if he will then get to the work I was asking him to.  Even six months ago I don’t think I could have gotten through an entire schooling ride where Murray listened to me the whole time and stretched down or worked.  It makes me proud of him.  He has come a long way my little fluffernutter.

Also, just so you all know, it turns out that when you take nearly a two week vacation from blog reading you will have a nearly impossible time catching up with your Feedly queue.  It’s just not happening.  My blog friends are too loquacious!  So yeah I missed out on some things.