on words

The words won’t be forgotten, thought Granny. There’s a power to them. They’re damn good woods, as words go.

– Granny Weatherwax
in Wyrd Sisters, by Terry Pratchett

I still have a few things to write up about what I learned from this year’s Mary Wanless workshop, but I’ve realized through my explorations of the internet that Mary’s methods aren’t the most popular out there. Different people have different objections, but one of the ones I’ve seen is that people don’t seem to understand what she’s saying. That Mary’s words don’t always make sense. And I had some thoughts on that.

Some people might object to Mary because the words she says to higher-level-Mary riders can be pretty inaccessible. During the workshop Mary talked to Tanya about making a board from her 2-pack to the horse’s neck, passing over some cervical vertebrae and then into the neck and through to the poll, pushing the board longer to encourage the horse’s neck to move down and out. Weird, right? I’m happy to admit it. But Tanya is a super high level rider who clearly has abilities well beyond my own. But even to the mid-level demo riders, Mary said some things that might come across as strange if you haven’t been working in her world for a while. “Imagine strings connecting your hip flexors to your horse’s hocks, and draw his legs further under him with every rise as you post.”

What you aren’t seeing, when you just read or hear those words, is all of the reinforcement and awareness that Mary has developed with that rider. One of the parts of Mary’s program that she has emphasized at her workshops is developing greater bodily awareness within each rider. Sometimes it comes in the form of questions: can you feel your frontline all the way up your thighs? How about all the way up to your collarbone? Can you take a deep breath with your left lung? How about your right?

By connecting exercises about body awareness to words about body parts, Mary is creating riders who have a strong understanding of how what specific, discrete parts of their body are doing. Tanya’s awareness of her body is so high that when she thinks of that board from her 2-pack board she turns on a whole suite of muscles, a suite of muscles that are doing things that change the way the horse goes. She’s not just imagining this board. She is doing through imagery.

So yes. Those words are Martian.

When Murray had his amazing session with the cowboy, the cowboy said “I’m going to move his left hind foot by looking at it.” And I looked at the cowboy like he was stupid. But he looked at Murray, and Murray moved his damn left hind foot. And then he moved his right hind when the cowboy looked at that one too.

How. What the fuck?

Pressure, said the cowboy. Energy.

Those words were meaningless to me. About as meaningless as “imagine a board that goes from your 2-pack line into his cervical vertebrae”.

I also watched Kate’s cowboy work with one of her horses. It’s remarkable how all those highly effective cowboys are almost the same. He waved a flag at a horse and the horse did nothing, then he waved it a little differently and the horse yielded to the flag. “So,” said Kate, “you’re practicing changing intention.” “Exactly,” said the cowboy.

refractory to intention

“How do you change your intention?” I asked Kate.

“Well,” she stared at me, “I guess I change what I intend.”

The cowboy gave me the gift of elaborating a bit. It’s about the energy, he said. The energy with which the flag approached the horse, and the energy the flag had when he “released” it from the horse. So we were back to energy.

But what is energy? And how do I change it? When a cowboy hands me a rope, the only other tool I have is flapping my body around and metaphorically, or literally, yelling what I want at the horse. But working with my cowboy, and Kate’s cowboy, you can hone your skills until they are closer to those cowboy tools. Closer to “energy”.

People — including me, it should be noted — also think that natural horsemanship cowboys are speaking nonsense at first.

Think about what you hear some upper level dressage clinicians say.

Ride almost in a shoulder-fore.

Rounder. Flex him.

More. Less.

Half halt.

These words are all just as much Martian as “imagine you have a board from your 2-pack line” or “change your energy”. But they have a meaning in Dressage, a meaning that the people listening to that clinician might even have 1/3 of an understanding or comprehension of. I have maybe 4% the understanding of what “rounder” means to Charlotte Dujardin. I know that a half halt is a thing, even if I can’t execute one to save my life. More? Less? Those words have total mastery over me.

But that’s the thing. Lots of people watching that clinician won’t really know what those words mean, know their full meaning. If they are just a passing rider or auditor, they certainly won’t understand what those words mean to that clinician. But they think they know. They think they understand how to apply “rounder” and “more” to their own riding, and suddenly that clinician’s words become so much more “accessible” to the rider. And the clinician is therefore deemed worthwhile or a good teacher because the listener’s language comprehension skills approximated 1/12th of what they were saying.

Make no mistake. These high-level instructors are all speaking Martian. Some people think they understand Martian. The best of us are just working hard to understand their words.

Image result for wyrd sistersthis book is 100% worth reading btw

who does it best? east vs. west coast dressage

A couple of weeks ago I was catching up on The Eventing Radio Show, listening to old episodes from last year. Joe Meyer, who I love as a host and a rider, made the throwaway comment that he wouldn’t mind competing out here on the west coast because everyone does so well in dressage out here. It was meant as a joke, but it piqued my interest anyway. I have definitely complained with my west coast friends about the “easy” dressage judges out east, and I’m sure people in Texas are laughing at both coasts. But who is right?

This, it turns out, is an easy enough question to answer. So I took to Startbox and Event Entries and scraped for data on dressage scores. Then I fired up R Studio and went on a big fat fishing expedition (research slang for exploring a dataset for relationships instead of testing specific hypotheses).

The short answer? There’s no difference in average dressage score between the East and West coasts for FEI events.

Data collection & other details

There are hundreds and hundreds of events held across the US every year, and usually a few hundred people at each of those events. So to save my sanity when scraping the data, I stuck to rated events that offered the FEI levels. A few USEA-only events slipped through the cracks because I’d already opened the event and at that point, it was easier to just copy that data. I tried to get an even representation of events across the year and across the country, but of course there are more events on the East coast than anywhere else.

I ended up with a little more than 5,500 rider records before I called it quits on copying and pasting and reformatting.

For each rider record, I included the division, venue, date, state, area. I included columns that allowed me to pool similar divisions that aren’t exactly the same (CIC 2* and CCI 2*, or training and training 3-day). I also included whether the level in question was USEA or FEI rated.

I didn’t include any multi-level effects for for rider or dressage judge. Laziness was not the only reason for this — by ignoring the influence of the judge (for now), I could (kindof) see if the effects across different areas had to do with riders or judges. If the same 5 judges worked at every event across the US, then we’d expect their scores to be very reliable, and differences from coast to coast would have to do with rider differences.  Of course there’s many more than 5 judges and these effects wouldn’t be so obvious, but you can see what I’m getting at.

(Obviously if you have questions or quibbles, get in touch.)

Fun fact!  

Mean dressage score in the US? 34.756. Standard deviation is 5.19.

This is the density histogram of dressage scores across all levels. You can see that though the mean is 34.756, there is a peak in scores after that — right around a nice even 35.

So there you have it. That’s the average dressage score at (rated) events across the US.

If you’re trending below a 35 you should feel chuffed as you’re doing better than most! When you score below 30, you’re doing better than about 85% of the country. Below a 25, and you’re doing better than ~97%. Down below 20? You’re the 1%!!

(Non-eventers reading this, remember that lower dressage scores are better in our world.)

The questions

Mostly, I was interested in exploring the differences between the coasts, USEA areas, and states to see if dressage scores varied significantly from place to place. And for the most part, the differences weren’t stark or necessarily significant.

At the FEI levels, there are no significant differences in dressage scores across major geographical areas of the us — east coast and west coast, the south, and the “mid”dle. If you’re not familiar with the model outputs, the important columns here are the Estimate and the asterisks. The intercept estimate represents the average dressage score of the east coast, and the estimates below are how much the other coasts differ from the east coast dressage average. So other areas of the country do have slightly higher dressage scores on average than the east coast, but not significantly so. (I’ll get to the stargazing in a second.)

You can see this reflected in the density histogram at the top of the post. There’s a lot of overlap between the dressage scores of east and west coasts at the FEI levels.

But how do the USEA levels stack up when you compare things from coast to coast?

Well, things aren’t quite so tidy. Let’s do some stargazing (those asterisks are typically thought of as good things in stats land)!

For events only sanctioned by the USEA, there east coast has a significantly lower average dressage score than any other area.  Riders in the middle of the country (basically Montana) are scoring nearly 2 points more, on average, than riders out east. People in the south get about 1.4 points more, and out west we get a measly 0.7 points more.

It’s important to note here that the “points” I’m talking about are percentage points, not raw points on tests.

Let’s break this relationship down a little more by state, shall we?

In this case, the intercept state is California. And what we see here is kinda neat! West coast states seem to line up (ish) in terms of scoring, which makes sense because they would probably pull from a very similar pool of judges. The second row in the table is Canada (from Bromont’s results).

But start comparing to the east coast, and we start to see some differences! Florida and Maryland in particular appear to be preeeetttyy generous with those dressage scores! Riders in those states score 1.36 and 2.55 points better on average, respectively. On the other hand, Montana is out there hammering their riders with dressage scores an average of 1.17 points worse than in California.

Because I’m California-centric, I plotted the distribution of scores in the lowest-scoring state (Maryland) vs. California, to show what a significant difference here looks like. It’s not a HUGE split between the curves, but you can see that there are quite a few more riders in Maryland in the sub-30 zone than you see in California.

So what does it all mean?

There could be lots of reasons that I found significant differences between the dressage scores of different states and areas. For one, I didn’t apply a single correction for multiple tests to this data set, and I explored tons and tons of potential relationships. Statistically speaking, one of them was bound to come up significant.

Could it be that riders out east are just better than riders in other states? Ummmm. I mean sure, this is one possible answer. But given the variance between states up and down the eastern seaboard, I’m not sure this hypothesis holds up.

It’s also possible that judges on the west coast and in Montana are much harsher and stricter than on the east coast. I’ve heard people say that it’s hard to “make it” in dressage in California because there’s such strong competition down here in the form of Steffen Peters and Hilda Gurney. Perhaps the presence of Olympic-level riders makes judges more strict? If so, one would expect a similar effect in Florida. And… well, the data doesn’t quite hold up to that either (but also isn’t designed to answer that question).

It seems like there might also be some hyper-local effects on the east coast, since it’s so densely populated out there. This might be due to the fact that judges out east don’t need to have a very wide travel radius in order to judge plenty of shows. If those judges tend to score a little better, then that would create pockets of shows where scores are a little more generous.

Anyway, there’s lots of potential reasons for these trends. I just enjoyed looking at them! What I can pretty confidently say is that for 2018 at least, riders in California were not getting preferential treatment from dressage judges (erhrrm, Joe!).

climbing rope + moving forward

Somehow, getting my horse forward has become a central theme of my life again. I had thought that I would try to establish the whole leg = go, no seriously it means go every time thing early on in my next horsey relationship. I guess I didn’t count on leasing a pony.

But, I did have a great conversation with TrJ in one of my lessons that helped me figure out a biomechanical problem I’m having, and helped us reformulate our approach to flatwork with young Samwise.

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Handsome little beastie . . . #reboundpony #weißwurst

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TrJ — and many other people who have trained me — comment constantly on my clinging and creeping leg. TrJ’s particular words are to let my heels drop down, and relax through my leg. But I’ve heard it many other ways. So finally, during a walk break in a flat lesson, I was like “soooo am I using my leg wrong? It feels like I’m climbing a rope, where they creep up a little bit more every time I squeeze until my leg us all crunched up.”

TrJ said she had a VERY similar conversation with the son of her trainer when she was a kid. The son said “it easy to solve, just push your leg down every time before you kick!” TrJ evidently tried that for a while. Seems easy enough, right? — jam leg down, kick, jam leg down again — and it turns out that is not actually the solution. I mean, not long term anyway.

The crux of the problem: the pony is not in front of my leg. I kick a little, and then I kick a bit harder and maybe squeeze a bit too, then I kick from that squeezing position, and next thing I know my feet are all the way up on the saddle flaps and my knees are at my chin like a jockey.

(I’m out of pony media, so please observe Smellinore demanding pats.)

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Place pats here . . . . #jellinoreroosevelt

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I’m at a slight disadvantage because of Sammy’s size. Because he’s short and rotund, my calf is what contacts his sides the most, and it’s a tad more difficult to make a clear kicking motion with the calf. But, TrJ pointed out, there are a lot of really tall riders out there (Boyd, William — she just refers to 4* riders by their first names like we see them all the time, ha!) who have this conformational problem on normal sized horses. However, they have no problems. Why? They get the horse responsive off the leg early.

So we spent the last few minutes of the lesson focusing on getting Sammy crisp off my leg in all gaits. He’s pretty good in the trot, especially after just a couple of kicks. But in the walk, his two-year-break from real work really kicks in. Sammy is like “no, the walk belongs to me.”

And that makes perfect sense. In jump lessons, we pretty much canter, jump a course, praise the snot out of him, and then let him do what he wants in the walk. And I plan to keep doing most of that, minus the part where the walk becomes the “pony rules time” gait.

TrJ had me do the very familiar exercise of giving a small kick and if I got no response in a couple of steps immediately following it up with a kick + tap of the dressage whip. We did several circles where I tried to walk for just four or eight steps before coming back to the trot and it was rough. Sammy was like “super, the walk is mine!” so I immediately reverted to shoving with my seat. Once I got my seat still, it was hard not to get yanked down out of the saddle but his attempts to scratch his face.

I repeated the exercises on my own during a ride and was really surprised how many repetitions it took for Sammy to start listening to my leg without the whip. I started the exercise going between trot and canter, because I know it’s a much easier transition for him to grasp. And grasp it he did! Transitions weren’t perfect, but they were there and they were prompt.

In the walk I got absolutely tuned out. Like, the second we were walking, I basically didn’t exist. I was maintaining the contact (insomuch as we had a connection at that point), so it wasn’t like I was throwing the reins away and saying “break time” with one aid and “work time” with another. But I did probably 20 or 25 transitions from walk to trot where I needed a light tap of the whip to back up the leg aid. To the point where I was like “oh man, I’m going to have to quit doing this in a second because it’s starting to feel an awful lot like a fight.” Finally, somewhere around attempt 26 I guess, I got a transition into trot just from my leg. It wasn’t super prompt, but it came before I got the whip organized and I was just like YES YES PONY YES and threw the reins away and let him have his head. I did one more transition to trot and Sammy was like “fine, I’ll play your stupid game” and then I practically leapt off and stuffed his face full of cookies.

your human games are stupid and you’re stupid and you should feel stupid, human

It did not take Murray 20-25 walk-trot transitions to get the idea of this exercise, so I was a little worried about the amount of time it took Samwell. But it turns out the pony is a clever little cookie, and I haven’t had to have the discussion more than one time per ride since then. So it took longer to stick at first go, but it has stuck much better than with my own horse!

Originally TrJ suggested I work on a bit of getting Sammy forward and a bit of getting Sammy to push into the bridle during each ride, and bring the two together as we made progress on each. But they converged way faster than we expected, and getting pony forward has resulted in much better interest in stretching forward and down. So now I get to work on both at once, which is obviously so easy for a unitasker like myself.

And for those of you who sometimes feel like you’re climbing rope when riding your horse, I have an exercise for you….


Things have been coming along quite nicely with the little white pony, and we’ve had some big breakthroughs in our flat rides. I’ve also started calling him “the little weißwürste (weisswurst)”, because he is white and sausage shaped. And weisswurst are white sausages. He thinks it’s hilarious.

Leasing is definitely a bit odd. I can feel how the pony wants to shoot over his right shoulder an is a little weak on his left hind. I want to fix it, because I know that getting straighter and more symmetrical will be better for us both in the long run. On the other hand — it’s not totally my problem. Not that I won’t work toward making him stronger and better (see: the campsite rule). But it makes it feel less… personal, if that makes sense. Like my future with this horse doesn’t live or die based on my ability to get the little one’s feet moving evenly beneath him. It’s an exaggeration, but kinda gets at the feeling.

i thought he was starting to look a bit trimmer and sportier but nope — still a sausage!

Anyway. I’ve had two flat lessons with TrJ to date, both focused on trying to convince Sammy to move into the contact, stretch out his neck, and lift up his back. To my great relief, TrJ mentioned in the first lesson that while the pony is fancy and does have all the moves, he hasn’t really be asked to use himself properly, consistently, or by a rider who isn’t a child in the last two years. His job, recently, has been teaching (a few) kids the ropes of up-down, and jumping whatever he’s pointed at. So it’s not just that I suck at riding and can’t get him on the bit. It’s that he’s pretty sure he doesn’t have to do that.

And like, he was really sure he doesn’t have to do that. The first lesson TrJ and I tried a variety of things to get Sammy to think about the connection. I could flex him (pretty firmly, too), I could move him in and out on the circle, I could kiiinda bend him — wasn’t too bendy really — I could try to massage one rein or the other or both or intermittently and he would respond by doing…. nothing. Literally nothing different. Like, he wasn’t defiant or rude or reactive at all. Sammy just straight up ignored me.

So. That was…. interesting.

But I get it. This pony has literally spent the last two years being praised and rewarded for safely packing kids around by balancing on his underneck and ignoring their unsophisticated hands or wild flailing.

standard sausage shape vs. desired dressage sausage shape
(these are actually weisswurst)

However, it is still crazy frustrating to be like “hello, I am doing several things right and also everything in my power to get you to even think about yielding to one of these reins” and be met by nothing in response. From a positive-reinforcement perspective, it also means you have nothing to reward. Which makes things hard for the reinforcement-crazed like me.

Between our first and second flat lessons, a week apart, we made some progress on our own. Sammy started thinking more about giving to the bridle. And in that second lesson we got a few moments where he put his head down or stretched into the connection. I mean, I’ll take what I can get.

he’s pretty meh on mud though so water-at-speed could be interesting

It was after that lesson, though, that Sammy finally gave me something to work with. Part of it was definitely getting him more forward and responsive to the leg (probably more in another post). But the other part was, I think, just persistence. I wore him down to the point where he was like “fucking fine I’ll see if I can give this bitch what she wants.”

He’s really motivated by praise and scratches, and especially by walk breaks. So if there’s something to reward, I definitely have things to reward him with. While trying to get him off my left leg a bit better, Sammy started actually protesting the connection a bit. He offered to run me into the wall (politely declined), and then grudgingly moved off my leg. When I started back up on the circle, he was like “ugh FINE” and stretched his nose out and took my hands out in front of his withers.

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Handsome little beastie . . . #reboundpony #weißwurst

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It was so awesome! Finally, I was getting some kind of response to my riding, instead of just rote reactions that he knows are required (turn, stop-ish, go-ish). I managed to get him stretching down a few times in that ride. The next one was even better, because we got to that place much faster. Sammy was annoyed that I insisted on any kind of connection with the left rein, and was almost shaking his head with annoyance. I ignored the head shaking, tried to align his body a bit better by putting his left hind under him (tracking left), and gave him somewhere to go with my hands. It’s tempting to say it worked like a charm or he plunked right on to the bit, but he didn’t. He did, however, test out the connection and the new place that this alignment allowed him to go. I just tried to stay present but non-restrictive with the connection, and praised the crap out of him every time he stretched out and down.

I actually had to cut my ride short, because he was being so good and I didn’t want to ruin anything. Which is kindof a win-lose-win situation. Because obviously I wanted to keep riding and having fun, but didn’t want to reward Sammy’s efforts with more work when he wanted to be done. So I stole some of TrJ’s arena cookies (she keeps a jar by the gate for after lessons, Sammy beelines towards her any time he so much as suspects she’s coming in to the arena) to stuff in his face as a big reaward for a good pony.

who cares about sunsets, give me treatz

We’ll make a little dressage pony out of him yet!




half halts part 25748

I have not thought about half halts in a while. Which is abnormal for me, since I was utterly obsessed with them for ages.  (Okay, there’s apparently almost no blog evidence of this. But I talk about them a lot with my friends.)

I just have bigger problems than half halts these days. Like getting my horse to actually come over his back and push into the bridle.

hay fren pls go to the bridle like this always (or more)

Then in one of our recent lessons, Megan was like “okay so push your horse across the ground! go! bigger canter! bigger!” (we were cantering). I was like geez holy fuck that’s really big and it’s a bit scary.

And then she was like “okay great! really great there! now lift his front end up by accentuating the upswing, without making the canter smaller.”

I struggled with it for quite a few circles, but finally found a balance where I could push my horse OUT and then balance him back UP a few strides later and hold that balance until he was juuust about sick of it, and then we would head back OUT again.

“That’s your new half halt!” said Megan. “Right now, I want you to half halt him and his canter should get BIGGER.”

the widest hind legs he’s ever hind legged!

So that’s my new half halt right now. It’s not subtle. It’s not small. It’s my legs going GO GO GO and then my seat going UP UP UP (actually I say out loud “over the ground, over the ground, over the ground, on the hind leg, on the hind leg, on the hind leg” to make it happen, but you know).

And that’s where I’m at with half halts.

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.

feels like makin’ progress

The last few months have been heavy hitters in terms of changing the way Murray goes. That’s not a totally fair characterization, as a lot of that work has been about changing how I ride in order to change how the horse goes. But since we’re measuring progress in terms of pony skills here, and I still can’t sit the trot, we’ll focus on the horse. And specifically, we’ll focus on the gaits themselves.

I have had, for some time, a pretty big first toolkit/second toolkit problem. I know what it is my horse is supposed to be doing or doing better, but I don’t have the rider skills to get him to do those things. I know my horse needs to take bigger steps, and that he needs to push into the bridle, and that he needs to bend his hocks and take weight behind. Because I’m also human, and that means that I’m bad at listening to my trainer even when I know I should be, I wasn’t getting out of lessons what I thought I should be. Honestly kinda sounds like I have a thinking problem. But with some good new eyes on the ground and some reinforcement from my main trainer, it feels like pony is moving at light speed through some of these concepts.

cherry-picked trot from April

First, Alexis got me thinking about posting like a piston and actually sitting in to my horse. Kate emphasized the importance of getting my horse to accept the aids instead of trying to shake them off. Of course, it meant that I also had to accept the contact instead of shaking that off too… There was a pretty pivotal ride in there with Kate where she helped me manage my hands and the connection in every step. Literally rewarding Murray for moving in the correct direction with the connection without giving it up, every time he did that. I’m not trying to diminish the importance of those people and those rides, but I’ve already written about them, and a couple of recent rides have built on them even more.

If we back up to quite a few weeks ago, before Camelot, Megan came over to help me prep for the dressage test and balance the canter-trot transitions. At the risk of messing things up, she also played with our trot a bit. The lesson emphasized getting the bend correct on the circles, while keeping the connection to both reins (Murray wants to duck away from the left rein), and lining my horse’s limbs all up with one another correctly while still sending as much energy as possible forward and into the bridle. We also worked a lot on transitions within the trot. Taking Murray’s mincing little trot — the one he comes out with and wants to pop around with all the time, without articulating his joints hardly at all — and stuffing it full of energy so that even while the steps are small he’s still tracking up, and then pushing him out over the ground so that the energy has a place to go.

pretty representative trot from May – not really moving out much at all

Pushing Murray out across the ground has always been hard. It’s easier to move legs faster/canter/fall apart/buck/just not. But when I added energy and articulation (through slooower, smaller posting but still leg and whip) first and then let him out, he actually moved out over the ground. Megan also had me push a little past that, and really keep that post slow+big as I added energy. She wanted me to post slower in the “lengthened” trot than I did in the working trot, to really get even more push across the ground instead of faster leg movement.

Then I rode with Alexis, and had a whole walk-trot lesson all about making my legs quiet and very meaningful. (Kidding — we cantered like three circles.) Doing this for weeks and weeks after the lesson was… painful, to say the least.  But it meant that by the time Megan saw us next, the leg was more meaningful. And then we really got to work.

not-really-trotting with Alexis, but at least I’m not totally giving up on the contact

At the trot, Megan really wanted me to get Murray over-tracking. Which is basically unheard of for us, since he barely tracks up usually. But we worked at it with the same technique as last time — add energy to the little mincey trot, and push it out across the ground. We spent less effort on adding energy to the little trot this time, and more time pushing out across the ground.  Or maybe it just felt that way because our basline has already shifted a bit. I don’t remember exactly what Megan’s words were (not as important since I remember the feeling a bit), but the result was that it felt like the trot was FLYING across the ground and then she’d be like “great, now add a little bit more energy to it” and there was still energy to be added.

It was extremely exhausting to keep that much tone in both Murray’s and my bodies and post slowly and keep the energy and and bear down.

camelot trot. this one’s actually nicer than I expected it would be.

In the canter, she pushed us forward until the canter was taking big steps — probably like normal, 12 foot, horse sized strides! Once I’d achieved the big horse sized stride, I could balance the canter uphill a little without taking it back or upwards. I’ll probably write more about this later, as the feeling still needs to be finessed a little bit. Plus she told me that the bigger canter was my new “half halt” which was pretty much blew my mind.

The best part of all of this is that it’s been extremely replicable in my own rides. I get on my horse and we do some walk-halt-walk-halt transitions (per Alexis). We move into the trot without letting Murray shake off the leg aid (Kate and my trainer), and just let it hang out for a bit (Alexis). And then when I go to add energy to the trot — BAM. It’s right there. It’s not that weird little trot that just moves faster, it’s a bigger trot that pushes Murray into my hands and into the bridle.

It was like between one ride and the next, Murray suddenly learned this trick of pushing into the bridle and trotting out over his back. Not that it just took one ride for it all to come together — this is the cumulative effort of lessons from all of my various people all Spring. But now it’s right there at my fingertips when I ask for it. I don’t even have to ask much. When I rode on Sunday, I barely had to put my leg on in the kinda-pokey warm-up trot and Murray sprung to action into a proper trot.

*almost* as good as it’s felt lately!

I’m not too worried about working on or practicing than the connection and these bigger gaits right now. Which is a first for me. (I’m always like, when can I canter-walk? when can I leg yield? when can I second level? AM I READY NOW?!?!) But within and between each ride I can feel how much progress we are making in the gaits, getting them stronger, smoother, more solidifed, more natural. I’ve not felt this much progress from Murray from day to day to day…. ever, really.

I’d not even describe it as dull. It is routine, but it’s also major progress! And it’s awesome.

reprogramming rider, continued (in perpetuity)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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?