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

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

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

hahahaha my handssss

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

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

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

left hand now good, right hand now rogue

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

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

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

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

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

cute horse walking before the sitting trot wordvomitmayhem begins

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

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

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

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

Alexis was not having it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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become shorter and wider: biomechanics clinic with Alexis MV

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

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

awww look who is becoming such a cute pony!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ugly, but an example of the big, expensive post

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

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

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

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

john-michael durr clinic w the suzukini

Winter is for clinics, right? That’s what I’ve learned in the last five years as an Equestrienne. And fortunately for me, I got to ride in one pretty early!  Suzy’s lovely owner rode with John-Michael Durr (heretofore JM) on Friday at our barn, and I got to have the ride on Saturday at another barn about an hour from us.

Suzukini was a freaking champion on Friday, while simultaneously giving a really accurate reflection of her current training issues.  She wants to get tense and rushy and solve problems by putting her head down and going for it.  The problem with that method is that it gives her the perfect position to just… not go.   She pulled this trick twice, and JM tactfully guided Suzy’s owner through riding the mare better to the fences and presto — the mare jumped like magic.  Suzy jumped everything huge, and had no second thoughts about 2’3″ verticals and her first oxer!  I was very proud.

On Saturday, we loaded up Suzy and a friend’s horse (who was actually bred by Suzy’s breeder and used to live with her!) and headed over to Clay Station Ranch for our second jump lesson. Suzy hauled like a champ and stood at the trailer like a seasoned professional when we got there. The only problem I encountered was that her bossy broodmare-ing of me started to come back out again as we walked around — subtly shoulder checking me to get me to go where she wanted to go. I not-so-subtly shoulder checked back.  I kept our warmup really simple — walk and a tiny bit of trot in the outdoor arena, hoping to keep her calm and avoid working her up before we got in to our lesson.

Unfortunately, my warm up strategy didn’t really walk.  We got into the indoor for our lesson and Suzy was suddenly on fire.  She veered around the indoor choosing where to turn and when to turn and what to look at.  I tried to keep her slow and relaxed instead of rushing and charging with minimal input.  JM immediately told me to create the horse I wanted instead of restricting the horse I had.  Did that make sense? Nope.  He backed it up: instead of constantly telling Suzy “don’t look there, don’t trot so fast, don’t veer in here” he wanted me to tell her “go like this, turn right here, look over there” and then reward her for doing those things when I asked her to.  That I could do.


girl likes to jump everything big right now

JM’s theme for the weekend was creating a supple relaxation in the horse that you could add power to if needed — but taking the speed out of the equation.  We started by cantering a small X, which Suzy got right up to and then promptly said “nah, no thanks” and tried to run out to the right.  We approached again at a trot and she politely declined once more. JM had me walk her up to the fence and go over it from a walk, at which point I was really glad I brought my grab strap.

Our approach to the first fence foreshadowed the rest of the day.  Suzy wasn’t totally on board, and wanted to do things her way or not at all. JM had me slow everything down.  If we cantered, it had to be a relaxed and steady canter.  If we trotted, it still had to be a relaxed and organized trot.  He wanted me to show how being relaxed and steady would make life easier for everyone.

I got left behind a lot all day

This worked really well for most of the fences, though we never managed to nail the relaxed and steady canter approach.  All of our fences ended up with a long trot approach, and maybe a stride or two of canter at the end. A couple of times Suzy burst through the relaxation and charged the fence, but it got better as we went along.  Each time we would approach a fence with new filler (new concept for her also — we haven’t put much fill in for her at home), Suzy tried to charge out over one shoulder or the other.  I wasn’t doing a very good job of keeping my leg on to the fences at this point either.  JM pointed out that I would feel Suzy start to pull me down to the fence and then take my leg off.  What he wanted was for me to keep my leg on, but compress her stride and sit her up.  This would make it easier for her to jump the fence instead of choppily stopping in front of it.

she is awfully cute though…

This strategy worked really well when I remembered it, so to remind me JM yelled at me to kick about three strides out from a fence.  This resulted in a bit of fence rushing after some pretty good, relaxed approaches, but at least she was jumping and listening!  Kicking a few strides out from the fence actually helped me stick with Suzy’s jump a bit better, because it made it easier to predict where she was going to jump, instead of riding hyper-defensively in case she decided to pull me out of the tack with her big, heavy head.

Though I tried to be both firm (you have to jump) and supportive (but it’s okay if it’s not pretty), I’m afraid I didn’t give her the best ride for the way she was feeling. I’m very, very, very glad that I had JM there to coach me through it.  It was seriously one of the toughest rides, both mentally and physically, that I’ve ever had. I was using every muscle in my body to keep leg on, lift her up, steady my post, steady her strides… definitely am not in shape for this kind of riding!! (But I hope to be soon.)

errr sorry kiddo

It wasn’t my prettiest ride (except that one picture above), but it was productive for Suzy and myself.  I learned a ton of new concepts that I can put to use on her, and I got confirmation that the instincts I’ve had about her training (can’t let her rush around, have to teach her to relax and balance upward, etc.) were correct, which is so nice to hear! Even better, I got some great ideas for adjusting my ride on Murray.  The idea of relaxing my horse through a turn and adding leg to balance upward to a fence is definitely different from how I typically approach a fence — i.e. kick my ass off down to it and hope that we don’t add until we’re underneath it. So all in all, an excellent clinic.

Plus, JM is fun and supportive to ride with. Highly recommend him as a clinician!

That night, I went to Peony’s house for a Horse Girl Party and we watched FEI TV. I chose my new sport — I think that vaulting to the Dr. Strange theme is going to be much less physically demanding!

 

yves clinic with mom-bod-mare!

Big news for the MBM: she has a new owner, and a new name! Little Miss Perfect is now Suzy, and she has a lovely new human who is going to learn to event along with Suzy! She also gained a couple of little girls who adore her and feed her heaps of carrots, and who Suzy will get to tote around and care for like the broodmare she is. And the best part for me? I still get to ride her a bit!  Suzy’s human was kind enough to let me ride the little mare in a clinic with Yves Sauvignon on December 3rd.


just the cutest little trot

Funnily enough, it’s been a couple of weeks since I last rode Ms. Suzy.  Her owner was riding of course, and just hadn’t needed me to jump in since before Thanksgiving! I wasn’t entirely sure where Suzy stood, but I shouldn’t have worried — she was the super star I’ve always known her to be.  Our warmup was quick and simple, just a bit of WTC in each direction, before Yves had us head through a set of four trot poles.  Suzy rushed the poles the first go through and cantered right out of them, so I settled a little deeper in the saddle and worked on achieving a more balanced and quiet trot. Our next few trips through the trot poles were quite nice, and Suzy got a really nice pace the last go through.

 

Our jump warmup was unremarkable, if a little disorganized. It took Suzy a minute to get into the rhythm of jumping, and we knocked a few down before we got fully organized. My position was a bit better during warmup, which I could probably attribute to focusing on quite a few more things once we got going a bit (keeping the canter, good turns, straightness, pace, etc.).  But I would like to be a little softer on her mouth throughout the ride!

not a traditional picture, but v. exciting because Suzy didn’t really have a moment of suspension in her canter for quite a while. now look at all that air she’s catching!

Yves asked us if we had cantered fences, and I had to respond that we hadn’t reaaaalllyy…. I know Suzy has done it with her owner (I’ve watched), but her canter is still fairly weak and she isn’t confident in it. She is inclined to break to the trot before any kind of footsy challenge — canter poles or fences, for example.  So we kept it to a trot right up until the end.


yeah, she really is that dang cute

Yves set up a series of fences that would help us start thinking about getting the correct lead after a fence, changing directions, steering, and straightness.  The first was a single trot fence with a big sweeping rollback at the canter to another trot fence.  Suzy and I got the correct lead the first time but biffed the first fence, so we tried again.  This time we got the wrong lead, so Yves had us change leads through the trot, make a circle, then come back to the trot before the second fence.

The exercise was three fences set more-or-less along the centerline of the arena. You jumped one fence and made a big sweeping turn to the next one, in the pattern of a three-loop serpentine.  We approached tracking left, which is Suzy’s weaker lead, and if we landed on the left lead we could continue on. If we landed on the wrong lead for the pattern we were to trot, change, circle, and trot again before coming to the next fence.

such cute!!

After one go through at the trot, where we had to change leads both turns, Yves had us approach at the canter. I asked what he wanted me to do if Suzy broke to a trot before the fence.  Yves responded that he wanted us to canter, but if the trot was the right decision for that fence, then let her trot.  Seems mystical, but I knew what he meant: make it a good experience for the horse, whether at the trot or canter.  I know that she’ll only get better at cantering fences if we actually canter the fences, but it’s hard when Suzy really lacks confidence at the canter.  Yves reminded me to wrap my lower legs around her and really support her at the canter to help her along.

it’s a lovely canter when we get it!

Our first attempt at cantering the second fence was a tiny mess. Not a real mess, but definitely not our best work (it got better, though!).  Suzy wanted to trot so badly, and I squeezed and squeezed. She trantered a little, but it still had a bit of rhythm to it, and we made it to the fence at a pretty good spot.

not the trantr fence, but what am i doing with my hands?!

Our next few attempts went even better! Suzy was more confident, so she didn’t try so hard to trot on the way in to the fence. Her canter has such a great cadence — every step is very similar, so it was easy to know where we could take off each time!  Yet another thing to love about this mare.

so sporty!

We made a couple of good attempts at picking the right lead over the fence. Well, really, I’m not sure what I did — I just really thought about the direction I was traveling after each fence and rewarded Suzy heartily for getting the correct lead when I did that. I watched the video over and over to see if I did anything to help her but… I can’t see that I did anything, really.  So we’ll give the credit for that to Suzy.

My one glaring error was that I kept turning Suzy rather poorly, overshooting the center of the fence and ending up off to the far side of the fence. I tried (somewhat erroneously) to correct and head back toward the middle of the fence after doing this, which resulted in lots of crooked fences.  Yves encouraged me to just ride straight to the fence, even if we were a little off-center.  I’m not entirely sure what I need to do to sort the turns out… I tried turning earlier, but somehow still ended up overshooting the center. So perhaps I need to commit to the centerline a little earlier?  Not sure.


a tiny attempt at sass in the lead change

The best part was Yves complimenting me several times on making the right choices.  I just followed my instincts with what Suzy needed — usually just less speed and a steadier cadence, but also a few well-placed circles that let us get that steadier cadence.  It’s so wonderful to hear that your instincts are correct!  Such a big pat on the back for me. And extra big pats for Suzy for being such a good sport, and trying so hard. We got lots of good exercises during the lesson to help her progress and get stronger. The hard part will restraining myself so I don’t tire her out with my enthusiasm.

hawley clinic: rhythm and pace

The Hawley clinic was, as in past years, super fantastique.  I was a little apprehensive getting started because of Murray’s Friday antics, but I shouldn’t have worried too much.  Even if Murray didn’t settle (he did), Hawley had a sunny attitude about his silliness and laughed both with us and at us.  While I appreciate the seriousness and advice of people like Yves and Chris Scarlett, I also really valued Hawley’s advice on how to get the best out of Murray in a show environment and keep riding through the antics to keep making it about learning.

So.

We started, of course, with a circle of death.  Actually, we started by telling Hawley about our ponies.  I was in a group with two friends, one riding her young gelding, and the other catch riding.  I told Hawley that Murray and I have been fighting about basics lately since I’m bad at being strict about them, and therefore we slip easily.  Great! she said. Today will be all about the basics!

circledeath

The circle of death was a tough one.  Much more of an ovoid-of-death, we were literally limited in our space by a fence that Hawley was sitting on.  No worries, girls, just don’t smash into the Olympian. No problem.  Murray couldn’t get it together to start with, flipping his tail and cross cantering and counter cantering and doing anything but cantering right, really.  Hawley was insistent that we stick to the track — horses learn by repetition, so you must keep repeating the correct exercises so they understand.  But I had to get off the track one time to get Murray moving forward and cantering properly.  Left was much better.

Next was an exercise of three step poles (9 ft apart) to a small vertical, three strides away, then straight down to the end of the arena before a left or right turn (alternating).  Hawley asked us what 9 ft step poles meant.  I said that it would mean pushing Murray forward, but the other girls were pretty confident they could just canter through.  Hawley reminded us: “And what is a horse’s stride length? So this will be a little bouncy for them.”  This was where Murray’s sassitude really came out.  He hadn’t quite worked out all the kinks in his back, evidently, and bucked all over the straight aways and tried to use any distracted to bubble out to the right.

hawley01working out the kinks

I kicked him pretty hard in the side to push him off of my right leg at one point.  Instead, Hawley suggested that I get off his back and focus on pushing him forward, and not pull on his face.  “So he’s feeling good,” she said. “You can still do the exercise. And then we keep doing it until that tail settles down and he can get through it steady and with rhythm.”  Steady + rhythm were very much the theme of the day.

On our third go through the poles-jump-jump exercise Murray just couldn’t contain himself and tried to buck right in front of the oxer.  The jump snuck up on him and he had to pop his feet down for a second to get us over, but he did it.  I’m so glad he knows how to get out of his own way.  I just wish he would use those powers for good a little bit more?

We built up the course to include a couple of sharply angled lines, between the center fence and the two fences of the circle of death (see above).  The angle was made challenging by the arena wall right there on the outside of the fences, and the fact that it was a mere two strides (four for extra special ponies named Murray) between the two fences.

Hawley reminded us to sit tall but not too deep on the approach to the angle, fix our sights on a point on the wall, and leg up to the fences.  She demonstrated how even a few inches of differences in shoulder position could affect the ride (though also claimed that you could fake it through Intermediate, so YAY for us leaners?), and told us to keep sitting really, really tall.  To a rider in an earlier group I heard her describe it as keeping more air between your chest and the horse’s neck, which is a great image.

Murray rode through the angle well the first time, but in the other direction saw the ground poles on the other side of the fence and objected mightily.  Hawley had me hold the line and then kick forward over the fence.  That is one amazing thing about little fences — you can walk right over them!  Murray didn’t love it, but he’s pretty familiar with the “go over this from a stand still” routine so he went.

 hawley04 hawley05
woooahhhh! oh fine then

As we moved through the courses Hawley started pushing us to get the correct striding between fences. She wanted five from vertical to oxer and down to the next vertical, and seven on the opposite line.  After a gentle tap with the crop to remind him that it was there, Murray was very responsive to my leg and moved up to the fences.  Murray got a little wiggly to one oxer and the barrels the first time around, but I kept my leg on and he went.  Hawley encouraged me to push him forward to them more.  The first time I tried this I still instinctively held for the shorter stride, but the second time I really pushed Murray into a forward but not rushed canter and the lines worked out perfectly.

All in all, another great day, and I’m very glad the lessons weren’t cancelled for rain.  Murray stepped up and worked hard after a bit of a doofy start, and I felt like I rode better and better through each course.  Though the fences were small, I think I would have felt confident moving them up, even a foot, with how well Murray was listening.

I’m realizing now that all the media I’m posting is us being at least a little dweeby, but it’s all about transparency, right?  I swear some of our efforts were solid.

Hawley Bennet clinic 2-25 from Nicole Sharpe on Vimeo.

shut up and take my money

I actually did not look at my videos from the morning dressage lesson with JM until after my jump lesson in the afternoon, which was a funny choice.  I was worried that with all the ground breaking HARD work I was asking Murray to do and the fussy slightly shitty place he had felt like at times in our lesson that our video would be less than flattering and mostly slightly disappointing.  I was clearly wrong, but didn’t know it yet.  So when my jump lesson with JM started I wasn’t quite at “shut up and take my money”, but I certainly was afterward.

JM asked what he needed to know about this horse for jumping, and I simply said “We like to add.”  JM responded that he also likes to add, and is fine with it as long as you ride forward to the add.  Sounded like something I could do.

spankMurray did get in a teeny bit of trouble for refusing this coop, and responded like…. some kind of downhill goat or something

We started with the classic trot-pole-to-crossrail and after a few successful trips over that JM raised the X to a vertical.  As we were trotting into the vertical I heard JM say “steady, steady”.  As I could feel Murray plowing down on the jump I slowed my post a little to encourage Murray’s pace to stay consistent.  Unfortunately this had the opposite effect of slowing him TOO much, and we had an ugly fence.  The next time through Murray was picking up the pace a bit again and so I tried to just half halt through my core.  This resulted in an EVEN UGLIER jump.  JM stopped me, told me that my horse is a lazy SOB so I have to work to keep him forward instead of holding him back — and what do you know, Murray regulated his own pace.  Like he does.

We moved on to jumping additional fences, and Murray refused a green coop we have jumped a billion times. He was looking at a scary piece of filler off to the side of it and I didn’t ride properly — still hesitantly the line between over-doing it with the “YOU MUST GO” and underriding.  So he got one smack, and I rode properly to the fence the next time, and it was a non-issue.

We progressed through the courses relatively quickly.  After watching a few consecutive fences JM told me that I had the winning combination of a horse who was willing to sit himself up on his hind end, so my job was to keep the energy and push him to the good spot instead of letting him add until we are beneath a fence.  This is not particularly revolutionary or different from what other clinicians have told me — but that doesn’t mean we didn’t have a great ride!

jump-1

We jumped around BN height with a few slightly bigger fences thrown in there (I told JM I wanted to start out the new year at novice, but obviously would re-assess in the new year) and there was nary a stop or shitty fence to be seen.  Despite being tired and having a hard butt workout that morning Murray was responsive and rateable — I could get him forward when I needed, and he came back equally well.  He took the long (for him) spots when asked, and didn’t fight me too much about getting on top of fences before takeoff.

I did feel a little looser in the tack than I would like, which I chalk up to being out of jumping shape, and I was ducking a little aggressively over the fences.  But I imagine I will get much stronger in the coming weeks as Murray and I get back into it.

The best part of all this is that I felt completely and absolutely prepared for the level — which is a first for me.  I don’t clinic much, but I feel like whenever I do clinic I say “I’m competing at BN” and there are still nineteen things that clinician gives  me to work on before I can be successful at that level.  I mean, yay for getting what I need out of clinicians, but it always leaves me feeling a little bit like “will we EVER get there?!”

jump-2

And you may have noticed that there was nary a mention of Murray theatrics in these recaps.  Because there were none.  Trainer didn’t even have to prep JM with the Notorious OTTB backstory — we just stepped into a clinic and rode successfully like Southern motherfucking democratic republicans reasonable adult horses CAN DO.

WUT.

I mean, we asked Murray to do a hard thing in dressage (use your hind end, fool!) and he neither lost his shit about it nor abandoned everything else he’d ever learned about dressage and turned into a giraffe.  That’s a huge win right there.  Then I took my tired horse and jumped him around at a good clip asking him to take longer spots than he wants to and not shrink his stride to the fences quite so much, and he didn’t get upset about that either!

This kid is growing up.

your belt buckle is drunk

This past Sunday my trainer hosted a clinic with John Michael Durr, which despite an extreme lack of money right now I chose to participate in.  I have known of JM for a few years, but other than watching his go at Rolex in 2014 had never seen him ride.  A few weeks ago he came and gave lessons to a few people from our barn who all raved about him, and so we clinic(k)ed.  And it was great.

dress-4Spoiler alert: sometimes we look like we know what we’re doing

We did a double day, with dressage in the morning and jumping in the afternoon, since we didn’t quite have enough people to justify two days.  Murray has been so great in dressage lately, as I have described ad nauseum, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect during our lesson.  Obviously we had lots to work on, but what part of the “lots” would get targeted?  The basics, of course.  It’s always the basics with us.

I thought very carefully about what I would say to JM when asked to introduce ourselves, and ended up telling him that we were coming back from 6 months of 1-2 day a week rides and Murray had just now started to become steady and confident, whereas before he was tense and stressed out.  I didn’t want to unload on JM three years of woes and training debacles, but I did want him to know we were in a place that was new for both of us.  Since Murray came out looking and riding like a drunk monkey, JM immediately honed in on our lack of power and behind-the-leg-ness.

dress-1hrrrr new clinician’s here and I’m drunk!

Instead of riding him like he is four different pieces of horse that I’m trying to rally together all on slightly different schedules (fix the haunches, catch the shoulder, neck what are you doing! ribcage, get your shit together, etc.), JM said that we would be riding him very, very, very straight (which is also what Megan said, and I promise I really have been trying to do that!!).  This, in turn, would translate into a greater transmission of power from hind quarters to forequarters.  I was instructed to slow his front legs down with my thighs and quicken his hind legs with my seat, ride only straight lines and 90 degree angles, and do it with a slight counter flexion (except in the corners).

Totally easy right? Only like nineteen new things for me to focus on!  Not a problem.  Fortunately, Murray and I already have some concept of the thigh half halt, so I knew what to do with that, and add energy with the calves was easy enough.  JM coached me (step by step where needed) through the straightness and the corners, so we got those done too.  Murray was confused and fought the idea at first, but quickly came around.  And wouldn’t you know it: POWER!!

dress-2Oh yah actually I can step under with my hind legs if you ask right, just look at my bulging Arnold Schwarzenegger muscles

We did the same thing at the canter (though there is no photographic evidence as I apparently only cantered far away from my photographer), and Murray thought that was really hard.  Like, exceptionally hard.  He would rather make his trot MUCH nicer than work that hard at the canter.  To keep us on the straight lines at both the trot and canter as we got tired JM emphasized the idea of keeping control of my belt buckle.  If my belt buckle was pointed away from JM (the center of our square), then obviously we would move away from him.  If it was pointed toward him, then we drifted toward.  At one point as we crossed a short side Murray got really confused about a possible change of direction and we swerved wildly, which earned us the reprimand of “your belt buckle is drunk!”

dress-3Oh also I can lift through my withers, did I not tell you that?

This was even more important at the canter as I had to sink down through my back into the saddle but half halt with my thighs at the same time.  It turns out that I’m a pretty loosey-goosey canterer, and after a few squares pushing Murray with my seat + calves but half halting with my thighs, all while following with my hips and sinking down into my back, my entire body was protesting the hard work.  It seems that Murray and I will both be working up to longer intervals of this intensity.

dress-5

Ultimately, both our trot and canter work felt more powerful and forward.  I couldn’t always feel when Murray lifted himself up to the saddle (or lifted the saddle, I can’t quite remember), even when JM pointed it out.  But that’s ok, I’m sure that feel will come.

JM said that he was surprised that Murray made so much progress during our lesson and that he lasted as long as he did, since it was quite a workout.  I retorted that it’s  because Murray knows what he’s supposed to be doing, but has trained me to let him go other ways.  JM disagreed and said that I was giving Murray too much credit, and that he really did need to learn how to use his body in this new, more effective method.

dress-4

Can we just appreciate this picture again for a moment, and how much Murray and I look like we know what we’re doing here?!

  • Moment of suspension: check.
  • Tracking up: check.
  • Lifted back: check.
  • On the bit: check.
  • Lifting through shoulder: check.
  • Sitting up straight: check.
  • Leg at girth: check.
  • Heels down/neutral: check.
  • Straight line from elbows to bit: check.
  • Reins not too long: check.
  • Looking up: LET’S NOT PAY TOO MUCH ATTENTION TO MY HEAD. I was having a helmet problem, ok? I cut my hair and now my hair doesn’t do the right things under my helmet any more. I need a solution to this problem but for now my head looks alien and deformed.

If I can ride like this for one frame, surely there is hope for me?!

For homework, I have been prescribed six weeks of straight-lines-only flat work (I may make curved lines while jumping, evidently) in short, intense bursts.  Lots of walking in between, and not too many reps per ride.  (Like, a few minutes each way, tops.)  I am to finish with some stretchy trot work with counter-flexion, and if after two weeks things are going well I can do counter-flexed figure 8s at the trot.  JM said that if I did my work properly I should see muscle development behind the saddle by his next visit.

In conclusion: 10/10, would ride with JM again.  Our jumping lesson in the afternoon was just as good (recap to come tomorrow).

Oh also, I rode in my buband. I’m not sure I liked it, I think it made my boobs look flat and deformed.  However, I didn’t jiggle at all (not one bit), and I felt like I was being hugged for much of the day (human thunder shirt?).  It did give me an unflattering mic-pack look at the back of my shirt, though.  This device will require more investigation.