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.

reprogramming rider, continued (in perpetuity)

I mentioned to Alexis during our warm-up chat that I wanted to get to the canter-trot transitions in particular if we had time and it fit the shape of the lesson. Since our lesson turned out to be all about transitions and aids, we absolutely had time and it definitely fit the shape of the lesson.

The trot work was the hardest walk-trot lesson I’ve ever had. As I trotted around Alexis kept reminding me to bear down, and encouraged me to smooth out my posts. One of Mary Wanless’s images is that the rider’s hips move like an “m” in the trot. In the sitting trot this is super easy to visualize — as the horse’s back moves up + forward + down + forward, the hips should move with it, making a long lower-case, cursive m (or w, if you’re a curly w-er). In the rising trot I’d always struggled to visualize this, because the up-down motion of the rider threw me off. So to make it easier on myself, I decided to map it out on an image using the frame-by-frame captures from my video (thanks Peony!!!).

I took a screenshot every other trot frame, and then used landmarks on my horse to line the saddle up correctly. Then I put a red dot on my hip in each image. You can see that I rise in a peaked, lop-sided, v-type shape.

Alexis wanted me to smooth out my “m”s. Instead of being curved up and down, she said that I posted like stock market peaks and crashes. Accurate. I use/succumb to the motion of the horse to throw myself out of the saddle, and don’t spend much time at the top of the peak. You can also see from that image that I take less time (frames) to rise than I do to come back down (I count 5 to rise and 7 to sit). This tracks with the idea that I throw myself up (stock market peak), and then slide back down. What I should be doing is getting to the top more slowly, and possibly (will need to check) spending more time at the top¬†and¬†bottom of each post. This will help my horse take bigger and more powerful steps, and spend more energy pushing into the ground with each step.

For the canter work, Alexis first asked me to describe my canter aids to her. This is a neat test of the 1st toolkit, I think, and pushed my understanding of aids. Unfortunately, this was a hard question for me to answer. Right now I rise through the canter. I swing my outside leg back one stride before I ask, then I tap with the heel, then I sit into the canter. (This is not what I told Alexis, btw. However, in my rides since then, I’ve realized that this is what I do.) However, I want to sit through the canter aid. Murray does not like sitting through the canter aid. Sometimes he bounces me out of the tack, then we get into a “what was that aid” / “why didn’t you do what I told you to do” / “well you didn’t ask right” / “I don’t care, you need to stop being a dick” kind of fight.


I need to actually sit in this beat of the canter, instead of hovering.
And stack my cereal box up so that my shoulders are properly over my hips and I’m not flailing my upper torso about.

Alexis has her own way of aiding the canter, but suggested that instead of keeping the canter aid on and pressing it in stronger when it doesn’t happen, I reset and start again. The idea being that you want the aid for the canter to be a light press of the outside heel back from the girth. Not “a light or slightly stronger or really firm press of the heel back from the girth.” So the same idea held in the canter transitions: light aid. If response, yay. If no response after “one potato”, light aid + whip tap.

Often by the time we get to the canter, Murray is pretty warmed up and relatively responsive to the aids. This day was no exception. He popped right into the canter, which meant we could focus on the canter mechanic (a tiny bit) and the down transition. Alexis reminded me to exaggerate the up-swing of the canter, which meant pulling my hips up and back with more enthusiasm than I expected. The goal is to get the canter more uphill¬†and make the down transition easier…. because the canter is uphill.

When it was time to work on the down transition, Alexis asked me to do one “normally” first. We did a pretty average down transitions for us, and a pretty below-average down transition for what I want. And then she ripped it all apart, which was great.

RBF set me up with her solo shot one day and it is SOOO COOOL! hhere is my horse looking particularly nice.

My main problem with down transitions (in general, but this shows up particularly in the down transition to the trot) is that Murray does them on his forehand and tends to fall all over himself during and after them. It takes a lot of managing to get the trot back together after them, or to get a down transition that isn’t a hot mess. And through all of this managing over many rides, I’ve never seen significant improvement in the balance of the down transition. So just imagine that: I ask for a down transition, Murray does it but on the forehand, his back drops out from under him, and he whizzes off at the trot with his legs flying all kinds of directions.

It turns out that I kick my horse right after the down transition, which probably makes it really hard for him to organize his trot. And I don’t really have a connection with or communication to the bit, so that’s not great. And I don’t get him uphill enough before the transition, which means the transition can’t really be uphill either.

That’s what we worked on. Alexis had me pick up the canter again (she called me on a double-kick/bounced canter aid, even though the transition itself was nice) and then she told me to 1) keep my bear down, 2) take “a feel” of the bit in my hands, 3) tighten my thighs, 4) bear down dammit Nicole, 5) ask for trot and be prepared to post BIG AND SLOW right away.

We only did a handful of the canter-trot transitions — we ran up against the end of our lesson and Murray getting tired. They were medium successful. I didn’t get run away with, but they weren’t as smooth as I imagined they could be.


super disorganized to organized-ish in a couple of steps. not toooo bad.

There was a¬†lot to digest in this lesson. And since it’s taken me so long to get it all written up, I’ve been implementing the changes for almost two weeks now. It was infuriating to spend 3-ish rides doing nothing but walk-halt and walk-trot transitions off of the lightest leg aid. But the upside is that it¬†is working. Within rides and between rides Murray has become more responsive to the leg, and less absurdly pissed off when I actually apply it. The down transitions have been iffy, but they certainly won’t get fixed in a day.

It’s exciting to see progress, but simultaneously frustrating to have such a detailed understanding of the mistakes I’ve been making up until now. I mean, I guess that’s what learning is, and I want to learn, so I guess I’ll be embracing this feeling (the suck, as Lauren Sprieser puts it). But that doesn’t make it any less annoying.