feet light, twist right, thighs tight: biomechanics clinic with Alexis MV (part 2!)

Where left off yesterday okay fine Wednesday, Alexis had introduced to me the concept of bearing down (becoming shorter and wider), keeping my feet light by stabilizing my post through my entire leg, and posting very purposefully. This was just the beginning of the biomechanics train.

Alexis asked to see Murray and I canter, and so we cantered a bit. It wasn’t the worst canter, but it wasn’t the best canter either. Pretty medium, which is a good thing to show a clinician. Alexis immediately honed in on the rogue flapping of my left side. My left hand continually drifted out to the left, and my left knee and thigh were flapping away from the saddle in a way that my right leg wasn’t. Earlier in the day Alexis had mentioned to a couple of riders that they should be mindful of keeping their shirt zipper/buttons centered over the horse’s withers. In my case, this wouldn’t be enough.

hahahaha my handssss

Alexis wanted to re-orient the twist of my body, which she thought would help address several of my problems at once.  First, she had me place my hands on my torso. I put my left hand across my belly pointing to the right, and my right hand across my back pointing to the left. Palms faced inward, touching my shirt. Then Alexis told me to twist to the left and drag my hands across my body as I did so.  It took a bit of coordinating on my part, but I did it. Alexis was like “I suspect that’s the position your body is used to being in, right?” It was pretty easy so I’m guessing yeah, it is.

Then, Alexis had me reverse my hands and the direction. I put my right hand across the front and my left hand across the back, and twisted to the right. Alexis said “that way should feel harder, but it’s what I want you to emulate as you ride.” I practiced twisting right and dragging my hands across my skin. I could feel the twisting all the way along my inner thigh, down into my knee.

Next, Alexis took a hold of my left elbow and pulled it gently away from my body, telling me to resist the pull.  I pulled my elbow back in, and Alexis told me to recruit the large muscles in my seat instead of just the muscles of my arms. Luckily for me, I already had done that a little. I wasn’t just pinching my elbow back in, but I was pushing my seat down into the saddle to keep that elbow in. (Writing this out, I know now what I need to focus on for my next ride!)

left hand now good, right hand now rogue

So out I went again, this time focusing on twisting right and keeping my rogue left hand in. As I trotted around, Alexis kept reminding me of the biomechanics fixes she wanted me to implement: twist right, thighs tight, feet light. Then: post slowly, like a hydraulic pump, like you’re moving through resistance going up and going down. It was hard getting these all to work at the same time. Mostly I would twist right and thighs tight, and then I’d realize that I was jamming my feet down into the stirrups again and needed to keep my feet light.  But with constant reminders, I was able to put it together for more than a few strides at a time.

And when I did it was SO COOL. Because my horse stopped falling out over his right shoulder, and he kept pushing into the bridle. At one point Alexis even said “he looks like he’s pretty willing to put his nose wherever the end of your reins are, so why not shorten those a little?” I was like “Oh yeah I have the worst reins in the world,” to which Alexis responded “well don’t blame the reins…”

left hand still being crazy, but horse not looking too bad!

We picked up the canter and I kept twisting right, thigh-ing tight, and feet-ing light. I also tried to bear down and add tone to the upper part of my abs.  Apparently this resulted in me leaning back like woah and probably fucking with the canter mechanic a bit, which I did not realize until I saw the pictures. But at the time, it felt like my horse was on wheels. Like seriously, the canter ceased to be a three-beat gait and just became this incredible, smooth, levitation-y phenomenon.

(I have not been able to re-acquire that feeling, without Alexis though. So there’s that.)

cute horse walking before the sitting trot wordvomitmayhem begins

And then came the part of the day that absolutely blew my mind. YES EVEN MORE. During lunch, Alexis talked about the mechanics of each gait and commented that the bouncing that most people experience in the sitting trot is in the down phase of the trot, not the up phase. The body is good at following the saddle upward, because it’s being physically pushed up by the saddle, but going down we fail to follow the saddle down accurately.

Of course I was like “wait how?” Because gravity is a thing. And it acts upon all of us. So why do we suck so much at falling into a saddle?

Alexis explained that one of the common errors in riding is to lock the joints and “relax” the muscles. (Relax is one of her least favourite instructional words! I scream it at Murray a lot shhhhhh.) Instead, riders should tone the muscles and let the joints flex freely. I don’t remember why. Mary Wanless is bound to have written about this in one of her many books, I just don’t have the knowledge or a book on hand to tell you.

So after we cantered, Alexis asked if I wanted to work a little on sitting trot. I was like “Oh, well I can’t sit the trot so I guess we will have to canter again!”

Alexis was not having it.

bad nicole loses her shoulders-hip-heel alignment when she tries to sit the trot, but at least her spine is straight!

Alexis suggested walking and picking up the sitting trot for a little and then walking or posting again. “Let’s do some reps,” she said. Ow, I said.

Alexis told me to keep my spine neutral and keep bearing down. I needed to keep my thighs on and feet light and not try to absorb the shock by wobbling my spine or core (or neck or head). Alexis said a lot of things as I was trotting around and I don’t remember almost any of them except “the spine should be like a jackhammer going up and down…. welcome to the bottom of the saddle!!”

After that rep Alexis asked “what part of that resonated with you?” and I was like “honestly the only thing I remember is the jackhammer spine thing.” I don’t remember how it all felt, but the part that Alexis said was the most right, I remember feeling my seat bones pounding into the bottom of the saddle.  I always thought that sitting trot should all swoosh-swoosh-swoosh like cross country skiing.  Instead, the mechanic Alexis wanted me to achieve was bam-bam-bam with every stride. The saddle did feel deeper, though I’m not sure how.

still bouncing, but not as much bounce as before!
(now that I look at this, I think Alexis may also have had me pull my left elbow back but don’t remember any more)

If it seems like we didn’t focus on the horse at all in this clinic, it’s because we didn’t. The point of the clinic wasn’t dressage lessons, it was to fix rider biomechanics. In light of all that though, I’ll note that I am super proud of Murray for being such a growned up boy and letting a stranger touch him.  I’m also super proud that he mostly kept his head down and just worked during our lesson, instead of fighting me over silly shit.

Since the clinic I’ve been working on this stuff non stop. I’m not in as much pain as before, which probably means both that I am assimilating some of this and getting stronger and not doing it as much as I should be (or was during my lesson). But I am slowly rebuilding my bass line. Which means that one day soon I’ll hopefully be able to do something other than go in straight lines and circles again!

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become shorter and wider: biomechanics clinic with Alexis MV

Let’s step once again into the WayBack machine and bring ourselves to the depths of winter 2018. After Megan and Kate attended the biomechanics workshop early this year, I was like “gimme all of that shit you learned”. Megan mentioned that one of the trainers at the clinic was local to me, and rode the shit out of some hot WB/Iberian type horses, but she didn’t exactly remember the trainer’s last name.

No worries. Creepstar 3000 is on it. With a first name and a horse breed, I found her: Alexis Martin-Vegue, trainer at Dorado Andaluz and biomechanic extraordinaire! A few clicks and some swift typing later, I had emailed Alexis to ask her what her clinic availability was this year. We settled on April 29th and 30th and 31st and boom — I was organizing a clinic. (There is no April 31st, Nicole.)

awww look who is becoming such a cute pony!!

I’m not going to say much about the background of biomechanics becasse I don’t really understand very much just yet, and Megan and Kate have both written about it a bit already. I will say that if you are serious about improving your riding, you should definitely get yourself to a good Wanless-style trainer. I felt like I could get Murray to do anything by riding like this. I felt like we could go Grand Prix and it wouldn’t even be hard. (I would like to point out that I’m not a moron and I do know it would actually be very hard.)

I don’t remember if Alexis asked me if there was anything I wanted to work on, but I did tell her that a few of the things she’d said really resonated with me. For an earlier horse in the clinic she had commented that some horses store up this tension and energy and it comes out of them all in an explosion. So what we need to do is convince  that horse to push some of that energy out with every single step. This so accurately described my experience with Murray that I had never been able to put into words!

I linked this to her image of being a “beanbag” — instead of returning the positive tension Murray was sending my way, I was always trying to just flop into and absorb it. (Turns out this is not the correct approach. We’ll get to that later.) I also told Alexis that I have problems with all horses falling out from under me to the right, and that I know I do some crazy bullshit with my body pointing to the left, but don’t know how to fix it.

though here I appear to be doing crazy shit to the right and the left so that’s nice

Alexis started by having me warm up and walk and trot both directions before she started changing anything. Then I came in to her and let her adjust me as she saw fit. I warned Alexis that Murray has a very strong sense of stranger danger, and he might not take kindly to her standing on the mounting block next to us. Alexis kindly made friends with Murray for  a moment first, and complimented him and called him a handsome, big-bodied fellow. I suspect these sweet nothings really warmed him up to her, so he let her climb up on the mounting block next to us.

Then Murray realized that Alexis was just up there to torture me and he was like “Oh hell yes, lady. Do the thing!” Alexis also pointed out that even if she wanted to, she couldn’t have gotten up there with me, as his back really is quite short for a horse his size.

Alexis commented that I have a relatively neutral spine, so didn’t adjust my seat bones or forward/back balance too much. She put her hands on my stomach and back around the level of my belly button and asked me to push out against them, after which she commented “Oh okay, so there is some strength there.” She also did the same on my sides. Then she introduced the bear-down concept to me.  The image she had most of us think of was to suck our guts in a bit, and then push against that wall with our abs.  For me specifically, she told me to think about getting shorter and wider. Just the words a girl wants to hear!

Alexis also put her fingers under my toes in the stirrups and said that she didn’t want me pushing down on the stirrups — she wanted my toes to rest in the stirrups and not crush her fingers.

Her final comment to get started was shockingly on point after having seen Murray go for all of five minutes. She said “this is a bit woo-woo, but it’s like he doesn’t really want to use the ground. Like he’d rather float across it instead of pushing into it. We need to convince him to actually push against the ground with every step.” To remedy this, Alexis wanted me to post purposefully with each step, and do so from my thighs and glutes, not from my feet. I mulled over this for a second and said “less like I’m standing on my tip-toes and more like I’m doing a squat?” and she was like yes! that.

So off we went to trot again, this time trying to remember to

  • post with purpose, like a hydraulic pump (an image Alexis introduced after I got going)
  • keep my feet light
  • make my torso shorter and wider

This doesn’t seem like a lot of things to remember, but it was plenty. The biggest challenge at first was changing my entire posting mechanic. I’ve always just let a the movement of the trot lift me up and down to post. Now, I needed to slow and control the rise and fall of each movement. Alexis said that I should be feeling the new posting mechanic well down into my thigh, but I could feel it all the way down into my calves. As I started to trot back around, Alexis added in a few other elements to the hydraulic post: she wanted me to post SLOWLY but also BIGLY. Her words to another rider were “if you want big, expensive trot you must post big, expensive post.” Which is another brand new thing to me. I always thought posting was about minimizing the amount of rising and falling you did and making yourself as minimally invasive to the horse as possible. Apparently you can be positively invasive, post the big, expensive post, and still be correct.

Alexis introduced a few different images to help me with this. She suggested I rise and fall like I was moving through a lot of resistance. This was a lot easier to control in the rise, and a lot harder to control in the fall.  She also told me to land softly and not bounce on my horse’s back. Which is fair. All the while, she kept reminding me to push out against the wall of my skin, and occasionally asked how her fingers were feeling and if they were being crushed (they were).

ugly, but an example of the big, expensive post

This post is already getting too long, so I’m going to break here and post tomorrow about the canter work and the sitting trot.

The major takeaways from the lesson came a little later for me, but in terms of the progression of my learning, this is a pretty accurate representation. Some of the changes are really easy to implement and monitor: are my feet pressing down into my stirrups, or are my feet light? An easy check-in very few circles. But it’s harder to know if I’m making myself short and wide enough. Am I bearing down enough? Does this hurt enough?

My lesson hurt. Like, a lot. All over my body — in my abs, in my thighs, in my calves, in places I didn’t know I had abs. It was a warm day and I wasn’t at my fittest, but I was red and huffing and puffing by the end of it. But that’s okay. Alexis said that if we’re not tired after a ride, we aren’t doing it right. We can’t expect our horses to work hard and then just flop around up there. Every ride should be work.

Tomorrow: feet light, twist right, thighs tight and the jackhammer spine!

learnin’ and burnin’

I still have a ton to write about from blogging hiatus (jump lessons, amazing biomechanics clinic, clicker training, etc.) but this weekend was too fun to skip, so we’ll have to fast forward a little and rewind later.

First, I got to hang out with this super cool friend and watch her show 3rd level for the first time!

murdering the mediums

I don’t have a lot of experience with dressage shows, and when I have been it’s always with my MIL who has shown pretty extensively and is campaigning her mares for year end awards. It’s a bit different for someone looking for scores at a level when getting out there for the first time. There are lots of different aspects of test riding that I’ve never thought of before — like maximizing points in certain movements, vs. generally trying to make the whole test “better” (a nebulous term if ever there was one).

And then that same super cool friend came and rode my notorious ottb!

not ready for 3rd yet — maybe next month
PS my friend is Kate, if you haven’t yet recognized her

Murray doesn’t love when other butts touch his back. He’s a one-butt kinda guy. But it was fabulous watching Kate torture him work through his ridiculousness (and smile while she did it), and encourage him to be better. Murray thought Kate was demanding and opinionated and let her know it.  She just smiled and kept nudging those opinions onto him.

we tried to make him go to rehab — he said no, no, no

We traded back and Kate made some suggestions to help me also convince Murray to be better. Murray was like “oh thank GOD you are back I’ll do anything you want  just don’t let that bossy lady sit on me again!” He was immediately much more forward, and Kate helped me work on slowing his movement down and sucking myself down into the saddle. I wish I had the ability to write gobs and gobs about it, but I was hot and tired and I think the Cliffs notes version is all I can get out.

  • Pillow the aids into Murray so he gets past the reactionary leg on –> FLAIL –> do the thing. We want leg on –> do the thing. Put the leg on, waaaaiiiiit for Murray to stop trying to flick my leg off with his skin, and then ask for the movement or transition or whatever.
  • Slow the post methodically — a slow rise, and a slow descent. Keep the post big, but don’t let Murray throw me around with his boopy hips.
  • Push up with the toes and the knees to keep the feet light and suck the seat bones down into the saddle.
  • Kneel more in the sitting trot — do not let my toes slide forward too far.
  • When my leg goes on, Murray should push into the bridle.
  • Shorten the reins but don’t lean with the shoulders. Don’t give up the connection, work to improve the connection. We want him to be almost heavy in the bridle. My triceps should hurt after riding him. It’s not actually going to happen, but we want to move toward this type of feel since Murray so desperately wants the opposite of it.
  • Keep the core strong — don’t get floppy through the middle. In any of it — transitions, posting, sitting trot, etc.
  • Do not use zero contact (floppy rein) as a reward.

I was proud of how well Mr. No responded — generally — to a stranger riding him. His previous method of objection was to brace on his underneck and hollow his back and take teeny, tiny, itsy, bitsy little anger steps. For the most part, Murray moved forward and into(ish) the bridle, and only had flaily responses when Kate put her leg on (shocker). This is pretty big progress for the big bad baby, and exciting for me that he’s understanding more and more what we want his default to be.

There was this  moment when I was adding positive tension to what felt like every single muscle in my body below my boobs, and trying to post super slowly, and bear down, and breathe, and it was hot and humid and muggy in the indoor. I looked out of the indoor and it was beautiful and sunny and blue and green and yellow — the mustards are blooming still. And I thought “oh it’s so beautiful and gorgeous and heavenly out there.” Then I turned my head back to the inside of the arena where it was dark and brown and gray and sweaty and hard. And I was like “why am I torturing myself in this hell again?” Then Kate told me to do something else with my body — I don’t know what, probably to suck less — and I did it even though it hurt, and I wasn’t outside in the beautiful blue and green and gold sunshiney mustard flowers. Because that’s how we get better.

such a magnificent beast

If possible, I’ve gotten to know Murray even better over the last four or five months.  We have been spending a lot of time together — and not all that much of it was focused on under-saddle skills. In this time, he has shown himself to be a truly magnificent beastie. I mean, even more magnificent than we thought he was before.

I mean, please. What other creature can just …. pause on his withers mid roll?! And look so fantastic while doing it?

He looks like he should be sitting at a desk in an office, tapping away at his blog posts while his coworkers complain about everything a few cubes over.

Our goofing off has managed to be pretty productive, though. It’s so easy to cop out of riding when the weather gets rough. (Call me a baby, but even riding in the indoor isn’t all that appealing when the wind and rain are coming in sideways. Maybe it’s just the tacking up portions that I want to avoid?) So I often opt to turn Murray out in the arena for a little bit instead. And after a good roll and some screaming and flailing, Murray would come to me without fail and offer to play training games with me.

for example, Murray is now learning to lunge himself!

Which was a great time to get him walking back and forth over poles, practicing moving different parts of his body around, or generally getting him to think about or focus on me.

Our arenas have also been undergoing construction (laser leveling and new footing! thanks new owner!), which has made this a good opportunity to despookify the Murr-man to heavy equipment.

does dis give cookiez?

We will touch all the machines!

One of the last games I added in to our repertoire was walking over small cross rails, and finally jumping them. Murray isn’t a huge fan of free jumping.  He’ll walk over pretty much any small X, but is not really into jumping them on his own. And never more than once. I never got it on video, but I did get him to trot toward and launch over fences in the arena a couple of times.  It was always hilarious and always incredible.

will walk over anything below elbow height though!

And Murray just kept getting sounder and happier. So we celebrated by taking a real jump lesson. Which was awesome, and led up to our Fresno school — the results of which you already saw.

I love this ridiculous beastie. He’s brought so much fun and laughter and perspective to me. He never lets me take myself — or us — too seriously.

And he’s just so damn magnificent.

notorious ottb makes his triumphant return to intro-level eventing!!!

A couple of weeks (March 23rd! ugh! so long ago!) before the #toitnups I got to take Murray to Fresno to school XC, which was a good way to knock a couple of goals off my list and have some maaaaajor flashbacks to four-year-old Murray.

Murray marched out to cross country at a strange place boldly and with only a few idiot moments as we crossed tiny ravines or gravelly rivulets from the intense recent rains. The fantastic thing about Fresno is that it’s super sandy and just soaks up the water like nbd, so the course had a couple of mucky spots but was, overall, in pretty good shape.

As was Murray’s attitude.

let me tell you what i think of this perfectly nice, well-groomed track

We got out on XC and Murray was like “ahh, no, I won’t be trotting around in straight lines or circles, thanks all the same”. He kept turning in off the tracks (where the gopher holes were rife) and balking. He was a little ball of tension, so I just focused on giving him a job without putting on too much pressure: just go forward and steer-ish and all will be forgiven.

And then the train came.

A really, really long train. Right along that track that you can see just behind us in that picture above.

To his credit, Murray did not utterly lose his shit like the last time we encountered a train. He did, however, decide he was going back to the trailers. Now.

So he would turn toward the trailers and I would turn him back onto the course, and he would turn toward the trailers, and I would turn him back toward the course. In this manner we made our squiggly way 50 meters or so away from my trainer, but managed to at least stay out on cross country.


We warmed up over a little cabin, which Murray stopped at the first time and was like “err what is this again?” But after that he was pretty much on board with the jumping thing.  It was just getting to and from the jumps that was unexpectedly difficult.

Our next set of antics came as we approached a log box with 3-4 strides after landing to a steep downhill. I was pretty worried about the whole steering + Murray + downhill, so when he came to a stop at the log box I decided we’d have to tackle that question another day. Instead, I tried to ask Murray to settle down and canter politely in a circle in the grass.

To which he responded thusly.

Which was, of course, greatly appreciated by everyone involved. Especially the people trying to have a dressage show just across the way from Murray’s absurd antics. Sorry, dressage peeps!

At this point it was pretty clear that I was going to have to come back to Fresno if I intended to get any serious schooling done, so I decided we’d just go back to the baby basics: walk around, jump some easy jumps, try not to be a freak show.

Murray seemed settled enough at the walk and marched around the course just fine, but he was really spooked by the bigger fences and whenever I asked him to canter he started to flail around and go sideways. Every time. Pretty much until we were right in front of a fence, at which point he’d sit back on his butt and drag us over the fence. It was… confusing.

I realized at the end of the day that this was pretty much exactly what Murray used to do when we would take him schooling as a 5 year old. It took me a while to remember that. But I used to only be able to canter him if we were 8-12 strides out from a fence, and never in a group.

yes, my favourite thing ever is re-training the horse i hope to take novice in 6 weeks over intro fences.

The new monkey wrench in the ride was that upon landing Murray would immediately throw his head in the air and pull hard to the right. Which he had kinda done since we started jumping again this year, but was accentuated to an absurd degree while we were schooling.

We did still manage to get some good fences in. And, a train came by not one, not two, but three more times while we were out there (after which it came never again that day). Each time Murray got progressively less anxious and slightly more angry. During the passing of the third train he even managed to anger-eat a few bites of grass! I imagine that he’s thinking of the grass as me, and biting into it with all  the feels he wishes he could gnaw into my flesh. Or maybe he’s imagining he’s killing a train. Who knows.

Overall not the most productive schooling outing ever, but there were definitely some positive moments. We can still mostly jump, I can still mostly not fall off my horse, and our steering showed definite improvement as the day went on.

A week later during a jump lesson I discovered the likely cause of all the flailing and pulling right upon landing: the flocking on the panels behind Murray’s shoulders is pushing into his newly-formed-and-oh-so-ripped topline muscles. Which is a good thing because yay topline! But it’s a bad thing because I literally just got my saddle reflocked, and think I’m outside of the 30-day free callback that my fitter offers.

Ultimately, I decided not to enter the Fresno HT because there just wasn’t enough time… with wedding planning, job crazinesss, and my horse coming back into the world of jumping like he’s a four year old (just bigger, stronger, and cleverer than before), there was just no way could get the two of us ready in time.

and uh… whatever this is

But we’re back at it! And there will be plenty more shows for us to flail around at later this year. In the mean time, there will be plenty of flailing Murray antics to enjoy!