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!

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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.

 

what i wish i’d known

Let me tell you what I wish I’d known,
When I was young and dreamed of glory.

Olivia started me thinking about this all the way back in April. April! And it’s taken me until now to put it together. A lot of the things I were thinking of were aspects of riding that I thought I understood, but which turned out to be nothing like I expected.

I was pretty green when I started with Murray. Greener than I would recommend. Greener than I would be if I had a do-over. But ego is a thing, and at least Murray is a funny and good-natured guy who, antics though he has, doesn’t really want to kill anyone. That greenness meant that I’ve realized and learned a lot of things over the years.

happy babies! but omg my elbows

There will be no short-cuts with this creature

There are some horses where you can teach them something once and it quickly generalizes across a variety of situations. Or horses where you can just try something out and it goes well the first time. Hell, I’ve done it! I clipped Sookie in November without the slightest idea what she’d do in response, and with little concern that it would go anything other than well. That’s just the type of horse she is.

That horse? That horse is not my horse. Murray needs every single lesson — sometimes he needs each one 4 or 6 or ten times. Murray needs every step explained to him. Murray needs every good behavior rewarded and every bad one ignored. Murray needs consistency. Murray needs refreshers and primers when you come back to a lesson after a while off (ahem, clipping).

I thought we’d just do a few things right and skip along and blip bloop beep! There we’d be, jumping around training level courses and killing the spectators with our incredible good looks and shockingly low price point.

Spoiler alert: we’re not.

This is obviously not on Murray. But now I know: there will be no skipped steps. No short-cuts. We will do everything.

You never stop riding your butt off

I had this idea that once we go more trained and less green, I’d just be able to sit up there and look good (maybe wave at my adoring fans as we galloped by?) while Murray did all the work. Sure, I’d read the course maps and do the general directing, and pick a distance here or there. But my horse would be so well trained, I wouldn’t need to ride as hard as I did when training my horse to jump!

Wrong, wrong, wrong. So much wrong.

The first time I rode around the Novice XC at Camelot, I did almost nothing. Because I had a sprained knee. The next time I rode around the XC at Camelot? I had to ride my ass off. I rode my ass off up to every fence that Murray was like “err, there’s something near that I’m not sure about.” I rode my ass off to fences where Murray was like “oh, that’s where we’re going?” I rode my ass off to fences that Murray ate for breakfast.

It’s not the same riding or effort. Taking Murray around his first real XC course was a battle of wills to just keep him moving forward and underneath me. Now I have to do that a lot less — like, 10% of the time probably. The rest of the time I don’t get to just sit there and look pretty. I work hard to keep him put together, set him up well for each fence, and make the ride as good as it can be.

I’m not trying to say I thought that XC would be easy as I moved up the levels. I just thought I wouldn’t have to focus on the riding part so much. Or maybe that my horse would be so trained and consistent that I’d half halt him with one iota of energy ten strides out from a fence for a perfect spot every time. I don’t know. But we ride every fence, and we ride every movement, and we’re better for it.

this magnificent nearly-tracking-up-stride not brought to you  by “sitting there looking pretty”

Consistency is key

I don’t know when I realized this. I think it really came on over the last couple of years, as I’ve worked with younger (human) students. I always knew that in training animals, being consistent is essential to clear communication. But one day I just realized that so many of the problems we have are due to a lack of consistency. And I’m not just talking about me and Murray.

How far would we be now if only I’d been consistent from the very beginning? If I hadn’t done hundreds, maybe even thousands, of transitions where I kicked Murray into a trot, then pulled on his face to get him to walk and try again because I thought the transition didn’t meet the standard? If I hadn’t made refusing a fence a crime that earned sympathy sometimes and a wildly out-of-control response at others? If I hadn’t just kicked bigger and moar and harder for a little bit of forward?

This one bites both ways. When I’m not consistent, I muddle over Murray’s incorrect responses more than I probably need to. Did I put that aid on clearly? Was that response within the acceptable range? Did I wobble through the transition and unintentionally cause that? All of that questioning of myself makes the training less clear and precise too.

I’m not a robot, so I don’t expect I’m going to come out the same every day. But if there is any skill I’m working hardest on honing right now, it’s greater consistency.

reprogramming rider

My biomechanics clinic lesson on Sunday was not as biomechanics-y as the other lessons at the clinic, but it was still really valuable. One could loosely refer to it as a “be very clear and consistent” lesson, or a “ride better for better horse” lesson, or perhaps a “don’t be an asshole” lesson. But all of the “do this betters” were very specific and followable instructions.

There is something to be said for riding with someone who doesn’t know your horse. Murray and I rode with her last time, and for both lessons he was pretty angelic. Sure, we weren’t doing the hardest work, but it wasn’t nothing either. Alexis did a really excellent job of coaching the horse and rider that showed up to the clinic — not what we might be, not what we thought we were, not what she thought we were. She just took what we had and worked with that, which is exactly what she told me to do with Murray.

accurate representation of how we’ve spent a lot of time lately

We started with the “what have you worked on since last time” chat. I have been working pretty hard at twisting right and making my posting clear, but have not been working hard on my bear down. I also recently started trying to sit a little closer to the front of the saddle instead of back toward the cantle, and habituating Murray to more correct aids. For example, I’m trying not to give up on the walk before moving on to the trot, and really trying to enforce that leg = forward.

Alexis asked me what I do to not give up on the walk before moving to the trot. I told her that I take up some contact at the walk and try to keep pushing Murray toward it. I try to see where he is each day and meet him there, and then slowly push him for a little more than he is wiling to start with. If he’s feeling fractious, I back off a bit. If the lesson took us there, I also wanted to work on my down transitions. They tend to happen in a heap and on the forehand and I hate them.

First, Alexis gave me a little lecture about approaching training the right way — i.e., not rewarding bad behavior/tension/incorrect responses by giving up the aids. (I do actually know that, but all of my skills, abilities, and knowledge in animal training and behavior seem to go out with window when it comes to riding.)

Then we talked about how she wanted me to approach Murray’s lack of response to leg aids. Alexis said that Murray seems to be a relatively sensitive guy, and sensitive horses in particular often become dull to repetitive/noxious/meaningless aids as a method of self preservation. (This is always something that has confused me because he is sensitive, but at the same time just ignores the fuck out of my leg.)

“If someone was kicking me in the guts all the time, I’d probably tense up and ignore them too,” was her exact analogy.

Err right. That is all true, and logical.

this is NOT the walk mechanic you are looking for, and also WTF are you doing why are you putting your nose on your chest?!!?!

Alexis wanted me to silence all of my aids and start reprogramming myself and Murray using the smallest possible aid, starting with halt-walk-halt transitions. So off she sent me on the circle to walk without harassing or nagging and keeping an exceptionally still leg. I still needed to keep my other positional fixes (twist right, bear down, short reins), and maintain a following hand. But no other aids were there to be.

I whined a bit about it at first.

I can feel the walk moving my torso side to side, I said. That’s because you’re sloshing your torso around, Alexis responded.

Why are you shoving him along with your seat? Alexis asked. Because he’s walking SO SLOWLY, I whined. He’s not walking that slowly, she told me. Stop nagging.

And then I was to halt. I asked Alexis to clarify the halt aids for me so I could make sure they were right she wouldn’t see me just hauling on my horse’s face to get him to stop. Alexis told me to tighten my thighs to still the following nature of my seat, and fix my hand so that the motion of the walk was not “allowed”.

After the halt, I could squeeze Murray gently, ONCE, to ask him to walk. If he didn’t respond within “one potato”, then I could squeeze again ONCE and follow it immediately with a tap from the whip.

His first response was a bit sluggish but didn’t earn a tap. The next go around I bumped Murray with my leg, and before “one potato” was up, I bumped again. Alexis was like “nope, you don’t get to do that. One little kick.” She also encouraged me to think about giving the aid more with the top of my boot than with my heel, to minimize the size of the aid.

tippity-tappity warm up trot

After six or seven walk-halt-walk transitions, we moved on to trot. Alexis wanted me to ask Murray to trot in the same way — a little squeeze — and then keep posting without kicking him for exactly as long as Murray wanted to trot for. When he walked, I would just go ahead and stop posting.

So we did an ugly walk-trot transition (more on that later), and trotted. And trotted. And trotted. And trotted. Alexis was like “Okay this is great information. He’s really quite willing to trot around, so he’s not all that lazy after all.” OKAY FINE ALEXIS FINE, MY HORSE ISN’T A LAZY ASSHOLE I GUESS I AM.

The next task was to finesse the walk-trot transition. There were problems with the transition outside of the aid. Murray is a push-back type. He doesn’t want to seek the contact, so he inverts. I was exacerbating this, as I ceased to follow the motion of the walk with my body and hands as I asked for the aid, and just stilled my my hand and kicked at the same time. I also lost my bear down and anticipated/pitched forward a tiny bit. Instructions: keep the bear down, keep the hands following, still do the transition.

In the next set of trot walk, I told Alexis that I felt like Murray was progressively losing energy. She said I could give him a little aid to encourage him to trot a bit bigger, but no nagging. Alexis also encouraged me to make the aids short and inviting — the aid should make Murray want to trot, not make him think “oh fuck, I’d better trot now”. She wanted the release of the aid to encourage the behavior, not the progressive clamping down of my legs.


I look like some kind of deranged clown but ignore that!! look how nice Murray’s neck is!

As I trotted around, Alexis kept reminding me to keep my legs very still and not bump him. She almost wanted me to feel like I was kneeling and sticking my heels out a little bit, with my lower leg away from Murray’s body. I think this also included stabilizing more through my thigh.

Once again, this biomechanics post has become far too long. So I’ll split it into two, with the canter mechanic and down transitions, and a couple of other big take-aways in another post.

But the big, horrifying piece of news is that, once again, I’m having to totally reprogram the way I ride and train my horse because it’s not him, it’s me.

One day, one day, I will be able to ride my willing and forward horse accurately and precisely and without intentionally or unintentionally fucking him up. One day. (Hopefully a soon one.)

have you heard the news?

I find myself approaching friends and acquaintances and asking if they have time to come to a clinic I think they’ll really love — there will be coffee and donuts! — so they can learn more about my dressage lord and saviour: biomechanics.

I’ve turned into a full fledged Mary Wanless/biomechanics evangelist.

But I don’t think this is entirely invalid! We had another biomechanics clinic with Alexis Martin-Vegue this weekend, and there were seriously some minor miracles in that arena. Alexis coached one rider into shaping and balancing her horse enough that he went from lame (not NQR, not a little uneven, lame) to sound. Actually, she did it with two different horses. She had riders turning pony tippity-tappity canters into real, proper canters. She revealed that my horse is way more forward and willing than I ever realized. She turned water into wine.

It’s pretty cool to watch (and do).

zippy pony (pre-lesson) from last time

The thing about the biomechanics lessons is that each ride is so individualized to each rider that it’s hard to draw sweeping conclusions across the whole clinic. (My lesson was also totally different and was more about training theory and improving my horse through clarity.) There were a few things that Alexis mentioned to more than one rider, which I managed to retain (somehow).

Post the trot you want

This is along the lines of having you influence the horse instead of getting on and having the horse influence you. When your horse zips out from underneath you, you can’t fix it by making your post less high — that just makes the steps smaller, but the same speed (steps per minute). This might feel like slower movement/lower velocity (velocity over the ground = size of steps x steps per minute), but it doesn’t improve tone or reach or throughness. Instead what you want is for the steps to stay big, but for each step to get sloooower.

Alexis repeated a couple of times that it’s really okay to get bounced onto the wrong lead (or maybe even sit your horse a little off balance) by doing this. It’s communicating to the horse that the zipping isn’t what we’re going for, and encourages their legs to move in time with the post. Bigger, slower posts == bigger, fancier trot.


little miss zippy after she accepted some bear down and connection
all of these pics are from last time — i just took videos on peoples’ phones this time!

Complete the arc of the post

A lot of riders (me included, still!) weren’t completing the arc of the post. If you think of the knee as the fulcrum, the pelvis should make an eight of a full circle arc from the seat of the saddle to over the pommel. Lots of riders skipped the top part (me! I think that’s what I thought of as “posting smaller” or “posting slower”) or the bottom part (hovering a bit above the saddle, also kinda me). Or both.

Alexis didn’t want rider slamming into the bottom of the saddle, but she wanted them to land and rise purposefully and fully. No bouncing off the bottom or hovering or avoiding the seat of the saddle. Full posts, up and down. I think I talked about this last time too.

arrow pointing to the center of the circle/the fulcrum, arc showing the motion of the post

Beware the man trap

One rider had a horse who really wanted to suck her into the back of the saddle and behind the motion. Alexis called this his “man trap” — the place he wanted people to sit on his back so he had to do the minimum work and the rider just got somewhat drug along.

This was a really interesting case because the rider couldn’t bear down into her horse until he’d come up to meet her. So she had to lift him with her thighs (I don’t really know how she did this part because I’m not the rider, and there’s only so much you can get from watching) until he gave her a place to bear down into, and then she could really sit into him.

This part was the funniest because Alexis kept saying things like “you need to pull him along by his man trap” or “get out of the man trap”. It was awesome.

Emphasize the upswing of the canter

This one has been big for me and is a constant battle, so it was especially cool to see how this affected other people and their horses. In the canter, after the horse lands the outside front he progresses through to landing the inside front the rider’s seat sweeps across the saddle. This is the down swing. Then, as the horse picks up the feet and pushes off the inside front, the rider’s hips swing back and close a little. This is the upswing.

Too many riders really emphasize the down swing — it’s easy to do so. When you start to really sit into the canter, this is the easiest part to sit into. Alexis wanted people to spend more time in the upswing, bringing the hips back and closed with more energy and pausing in this moment. Another way she described it was reducing the sweep across the saddle for the rider. So the rider just stayed with the horse in the down swing, and then held the horse up in the up swing. This is what turned the ponies’ canters into true, cadenced canters, and added a bunch of jump to the canter of the more advanced horses.

spend more time in this moment (or just before)

Corrections tend to feel huge — they’re not

The fixes that Alexis puts on riders can feel really dramatic. A lot of this seems to have to do with going against the asymmetries your body wants to have, as well as being encouraged to access deeper muscles that you might not normally access. But for most riders they weren’t dramatic, and were designed to be very digestible and easy for us to remember. Moving the heel back one inch, sitting another centimeter toward the center of the saddle, looking toward the outside ear instead of the inside ear. And these little things can totally change how your horse goes.

On the other hand, when riders try to fix their own asymmetries they also tend to way over-do it, and instead add on new and different asymmetries. I’ve definitely never done this.

The best part of it was that everyone had a really great time! There were very little ass-pats and good jobs and “do it again, but with more angle”. It was hard, but it’s the good kind of hard. And Alexis does an amazing job of breaking it down so that riders can understand, implement, and retain all of the different pieces.

So: do you have a moment for me to tell you about biomechanics?