exploring my (cereal) box

I’m going to dive right into how the Mary Wanless Workshop last week changed my biomechanics. I rode as a demo rider, not a student, so the “lessons” I got weren’t necessarily focused on major problem solving or making me and the horse improve a great deal. They were focused on demonstrating to the other instructors and riders there how biomechanics can influence the horse and rider both generally (everyone should have a good cereal box) and specifically (Nicole has a funny wobble to the right that isn’t present to the left). But that doesn’t mean I didn’t get a lot of great information about my riding and how to improve myself.

(You can see more on the general structure of the workshop in Megan’s posts, and L’s posts, and a bit more about what it’s like to be a demo rider in Kate’s posts.)


it’s very exciting being a demo rider, that’s what Floundy thinks

After asking the first two big questions (“Is it safe?” and “Who is taking whom?”), the instructors pretty quickly turned their attention to our cereal boxes, known in common parlance as “the torso”. Instantly, my cereal box was identified as lacking. To which I cheerfully responded, “yes, I’ve often lamented that I don’t really have a cereal box, I have one of those big bulk bags of cereal you buy at the hippie store”. (It got a laugh, which you know I live for, and a compliment on my good attitude from Mary.) Alexis said that my torso is a classic “soap in the bathtub problem”, and has been very challenging to organize. Don’t I know it.

When we later discussed what each of our bodies would be stuffed with if our skin were just a bag (as if it isn’t), the teenaged demo rider was given “an excellent tonal quality”, the young adult demo rider was considered a little overstuffed/rigid, and I was deemed bimodal. Someone said it was like my legs were stuffed with putty — an excellent, excellent quality, putty is firm but yielding — but my torso was… squashy. One instructor said “it’s like she has a shifting layer of sand above her pelvis. Mary suggested my torso was full of polystyrene beads: amorphous, shifting against one another, not inclined to hold any one shape.


I appear to be stretching up somewhat here, but alltogether not too terrible

All of this is completely true and a problem I’ve been working on ever since my first biomechanics lesson. I’m not sure what my torso felt like before I started thinking about biomechanics (this is an important point — I’ll circle back to this in a later post), but I know that as soon as I started to think about my torso, I’ve felt its weaknesses. It doesn’t want to be a box. It wants to flap back and forth and side to side. Once, Timer pulled on me in a down transition and I felt my seat stay in the saddle and my shoulders go forward and I literally folded in half right above my hip bones. And part of the strategy I was given to combat that is to make my torso shorter and wider; to make it a less-tall rectangle so that it can be a stronger rectangle. And it made perfect sense. I can see in old pictures that I used to stretch up like crazy, so we needed to bring it all back down a bit.


holy stretch up batman

Somewhere along the line I did what everyone does: I made the solution into the problem. Someone told me to bring my ribcage down closer to my pelvis, so I brought it down to my pelvis so good, so good, that I didn’t have any torso left. But it still wasn’t a strong, stable core.

At the end of the first day’s ride, Mary and two other experienced instructors realigned each of the demo riders. Mary worked on me, and focused in on three things right away. 1) I sit too far back on my seat bones, 2) I put those seatbones too far forward in the saddle, and 3) that darn cereal box. The changes for 1 and 2 were pretty simple, but 3 was the real project. Mary first told me to stretch up, “I don’t tell many riders to stretch up,” she said. “You’re one of them. Congratulations.”

I took it as a compliment, obviously.


holy shit look how good i am at squashing my ribs into my pelvis – and this was before i’d even been told to do it!!!!

But simply stretching up wasn’t really satisfactory to Mary. She was standing on a step stool next to me and put her hands on either side of my ribs firmly, with just her thumb and a couple of fingers held together like a little point. She said she wanted to “pull” me up by the ribcage. After wiggling my ribcage up with her hands, Mary said “can you feel like your pelvis is hung in a harness?” I have heard and read that image from Mary several times before, but have never really managed to wrap my head around it. Hung in a harness? From where? With what? I said as much to Mary, “but,” I added, “I do feel like my pelvis is hanging down from my ribs right now.” “That’s good,” she responded. “Keep that.”

Atlas kindly let me volunteer my old position on him on Monday, complete with my inability to carry my own forearms.
note: seatbones pushed forward, no curve to spine (lower back too far back),
sitting too far back on seatbones

Mary pulled my low spine back a little bit — stretching up and moving my seat back had rocked me too far forward on my seatbones — and added a little bit of curve to the top of my spine. She put her fingers on my low back above my pelvis and encouraged me to lengthen my back, between my ribs and my pelvis, without tipping forward — just pulling my front line down a bit, and pushing up my back line. (Almost like how TC wants to go – with his chest plate shoved forward and down.) Mary also had me bear down, on the sides, and in my low down bear down, which was a pretty different feeling after having bear-down-ed through such a crushed torso for so long. She prodded me in the 2-pack and asked me to bear down into those abs specifically, but not to let them fall out beyond my ribs. With a little more poking and prodding and resisting her push, it felt like I had two boards of wood running down my spine, like the two long muscles in my back were finally turned on. (Only about two hundred more to go!)

I practiced “hanging myself” throughout the weekend, poking my fingers into my own ribs and “pulling” up to let my pelvis “hang down” from my abdominal muscles. On day two I walked in with my new seat and torso alignment. One of the participants commented that it looked like I was about 3″ taller. I got to spend the next two days’ rides practicing this feeling, and of all the changes Mary put on me, it’s probably the one with the strongest “memory”. It’s also got a great physical cue and verbal cue, which makes it easier to get back to. By day three I didn’t have to think about hanging myself constantly, I was starting to automate it (probably prematurely, but oh well).

new position. much lighter, much more “meringue”.
could probably use a little less length in the front line and a little more length in the back line.d

I’m not “fixed” by any means, but I now have some much better muscle patterns to build on and improve from.

It’s like I started out with a somewhat crumpled cereal box, and in an attempt to make it stronger and give it some proper edges I was cramming it down as hard as I possibly could. As if pressure would turn my crumpled cereal box into a diamond, since it was clearly never going to be a box. And then Mary came along and was like, well why don’t we stretch this crumpled cardboard out a little bit so its edges can do their jobs and make it like — you know — a box.

nuggets of Mary

Some choice nuggets of wisdom from Mary that I found scattered throughout my notes.


 

Don’t give up when you’ve got it. Both as a learner and an instructor, think, “I’ve/you’ve got it — now make it again. Good, now make it again. Now make it again.”

Got it, lost it, got it, lost it, got it, lost it, got it, lost it — this is the process of learning.


lost it

On change: it doesn’t take long to change your perceptions. Close your eyes. Hold your arms level. Now raise one arm up 45* and the other arm down 45*. Hold them there for ten seconds or so. Now, with your eyes still closed, bring your arms back to level. Open, and observe the difference between the heights of your arms. Most people will have brought their arms back to a quite uneven “level”. Just ten seconds with your arms at different heights changes one’s perception of “level”.

“I have to do it right,” blocks you from learning. Dressage is an experiment. It’s not always about doing it right every time and never doing it wrong. Give yourself the freedom to play with your riding, so you can find what is right.


experimenting!

The solution becomes the problem. Such is the way of learning.

“Do nothing” or “Do X” both assume the rider is the same as the instructor — the same feeling, the same ABCs*, the same problems. It is the trainer’s job to pole vault across the gap in understanding between the trainer and student. (See Megan’s iceberg and triangle of skills for more on the ABCs.)


connecting our left brains and right brains

In riding, you have to use your left brain and right brain. The basic process is right brain –> left brain –> left brain –> right brain. You have a feeling (right brain) –> you identify it + say the words –> you hear the words (from you or a trainer) –> you have the feeling again. The words don’t have to make perfect riding sense, as long as you can attach them to that feeling. (One rider described her feeling to Mary as “I feel like a meringue”. Mary had no idea what that meant, but the rider was clearly doing something right, so she kept telling the rider “be a meringue! you’ve lost the meringue — there you go, that’s a great meringue!”)

I’m trying usually means “I’m wishing, I’m hoping, I’m wanting, and I’m sweating — but I’m probably not doing it yet.”


lol, we did a lot of TRYING

getting stacked

Unlike many clever, productive bloggers I know, I wasn’t able to either a) get posts scheduled for the week of the Mary clinic, or b) get my Mary notes into blog-form immediately after the clinic. I have very good reasons for this, though. I was busy RIDING PONIEZ. I didn’t send in a video as a demo rider, since I had hardly ridden in the four months before the clinic. But I had some pretty big riding takeaways from the clinic, and Kate kindly offered up some of her ponies for me to play around on and practice with.

The biggest was about my plungers, specifically my faulty left plunger. Faulty? Maybe not faulty. Perhaps just a little less effective, kinda clogged with coffee grounds.

french GIF
pro tip: do not search “plunger” on giphy

Much as many people describe the horse’s body as made of train cars or blocks that you want to line up with one another (and not have the caboose off in some other universe or traveling  different direction), your torso can be thought of as stacks of boxes or building blocks (there are great images of this in When Two Spines Align). For a strong torso, your building blocks need to be stacked on top of one another squarely. They should be box-like.

But not everyone is box-like. Some of us have an extremely-well-developed gangsta lean.

I’ve been leaning off of the left side of horses since before you were born.


that’s not true at all, I’ve only been riding for nine years (so if you’re nine or younger, then it may be true)

I’ve known for a long time that there’s something wrong with my left side. On occasion, I’ve tried to counter-act the leftways lean by leaning right  or just JAMMING my left leg down. But those are not actually solutions. It turns out, my left side lean is much more complicated than that.

What the Mary clinic and riding with Kate showed me is that the problem with my left side has to do with how my boxes are stacked on that side. Somehow, my boxes are smushed down on the left side, with their center of smooshness somewhere near my hip. My left leg is shorter, my left seat bone isn’t on, and my left obliques are all shortened, and to top it all off I sit on the right side of the saddle. OH AND my left leg is less stuffed and toned than my right. It’s so embarrassing.

Kate picked this up first, when I was riding one of the horses at her barn. She encouraged me to put weight into left leg and sit with my right seatbone almost in the center of the saddle. I was like “no! I’ll fall off if I do that! My left seatbone is like 2″ off the saddle when I do that!”


not as bad, but my left side is still being a dick here

The next big piece came when we did spinal realignments during the clinic. After seeing L get her spine stacked up to neutral, I was like “me! me next! me me me!” and stripped off as much of my clothing as I could bear to shed so I could have my spine aligned properly. Hot hands packets fell out from all over my body as I did so, but I didn’t care. Anne sat me down on the bench, asked me to assume neutral, and then pushed down on my shoulders. I fell backwards at the lightest touch. Like not even a little bit unstable or wiggly, I straight up FELL BACKWARDS because my “neutral” is not straight.

Anne had to get after me a bit to get me to sit up straight, then showed the observers how my spine lacked the appropriate curves in general. I don’t have enough lordosis in my low spine, and not enough roach in my upper spine. (Roach may be the wrong word.) Anne added in a touch of curve to my lower spine, and had me lower my sternum. Then she pressed down on my shoulders again and I was a MUCH sturdier box. My leftways collapse was gone (or at least minimized) when I got my spine stacked up properly.

Image result for human spineit turns out that spines should be curved — just in the right ways

A third big piece of the puzzle came when Mary talked about the plungers and showed us how to assess our internal obliques. Okay, so what is the plunger? In short, the plunger is the feeling of weight down through your body, and you should have equal plungers on the left and right. Adopt a stance of extreme ‘tude. Your ‘tude-iest ‘tude stance. Cross your arms, sass your computer (or your dog or your boss), and lean on one leg. Feel how well the forces transmit down into that leg? That’s the plunger.

This could be wrong, but to me the plunger is strong when your box edges are all perfectly lined up, and the forces are being transmitted as efficiently as possible through your bones to your joints to the ground. Change to your non dominant ‘tude side. If you’re anything like me, you won’t even feel a plunger on that side. It’s like that leg is barely attached to the rest of your body and the ground. Mary had this whole method of moving the plunger from one side to the other but it didn’t work for me, really.

What did change my plunger was lengthening and shortening my internal obliques. There are three layers of obliques (I didn’t know! I should have, I spent enough time with animal carcasses), and they all strap your torso in slightly different directions. The internal obliques point from your hips up toward your sternum (desperately trying and failing to find a way to involve Mary’s memory device of “tits up” here). You shorten the internal obliques on one side (say the right) by bending to the right, crunching forward, and twisting to the left. You lengthen the internal obliques on that same side by bending to the left, leaning back, and twisting to the right.

We did this back and forth slowly about ten times, exaggerating the movements. Then we switched to the left internal oblique. After stretching and shrinking both sets of obliques, my left plunged SLAMMED into the ground. It was as if I could suddenly feel my weight equally through both legs. It truly felt like all of my boxes were actually lined up on my left side.

I haven’t had a chance to try this exercise in the saddle, and I’m not entirely sure it would be safe to do so. But next ride, I’ll give it a go before I hop on and report my findings.

As with all things Mary, your mileage will vary. LB-LB communication is fraught with error. But if you’re having trouble with twisting one direction or another, just know that it could very well be your abs (and plunger) working against you.

jumping the big canter

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

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


K is for kick the wall right here!

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

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

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

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

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


big canter into the one stride!

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


big canter into the 4 stride

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

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

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

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

So.

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

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

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

 

the middle will not hold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

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!

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!