better every ride

After hauling all the way to Camelot on my own, and getting there when it was rather warm, I was pretty delighted to find myself stabled next to Eugene and Levi. They are two of my favourite ponies, and I knew they wouldn’t spend the entire weekend kicking at the panels when my horse tried to befriend them. Murray ended up being much more friendly with Levi than Eugene (shhhh don’t tell David but Eugene is a bit of a snob!!).


I spent three days trying to catch these two making out

I knew from the get go that there would be a lot of different stuff about this show. Murray is a different Murray than he was six or nine months ago, and part of the new training paradigm/protocol is not letting him get away with unnecessary shit. Not to say that I get wild or whippy on him when he throws out some Murray moves — just that we get on with our lives and it doesn’t get him out of responding correctly to what I was asking for. (And yes, if this sounds a lot like “good training” you’d be right. Isn’t it wonderful that I’m learning about it now?!!)

So we got out into warm up, and after stepping on the danger noodle, we got to work. Kate said she’d refrain from trying to change the horse too much, but would throw biomechanics fixes at me to help put us together. And boy did she ever throw biomechanics at me.

First, Kate told me to stop shoving and over-riding the walk. Um, I thought I was just following the motion the way I was supposed to? No, apparently not. So I just stopped trying to do that all together, and focused on simply not resisting the walk. When we moved on to the trot Kate kept telling me to slow down my posting — no, slow it down more. She did not want me letting Murray bounce me around into the trot he wanted. Which is also what I thought I’d been doing for the last two weeks. Or not. You know.

I might even be smiling a bit here?
this must have been in the serpentine — which got a 7!

Kate wanted me to pull my seat bones further toward the front of the saddle — sitting them in the deep part of the saddle, instead of sliding them toward the back and perching forward slightly. It turns out I have this tendency of stacking my ribcage slightly ahead of my pelvis, so even though my spine is relatively neutral, I’m not actually sitting up straight. To remedy that, I needed to keep thinking about kneeling and sliding those seat bones forward in the saddle.

By far the biggest change in our schooling came in the canter work. Kate kept reminding me to lift the saddle on the upswing, and then allow the canter with my hands. I’d do one, and promptly stop doing the other. When I could do both at once and keep Murray moving forward, the canter totally transformed! I must practice this canter more to solidify the feeling and the mechanic, because that is the canter we’re actually going to be able to do stuff with.

On test morning I got up early and fed and braided, and only ended up about three minutes off my projected mounting time, with a clean ponito. I paid a kid to braid his tail and she did an incredible job — her best, she said! along with the comment that Murray has a really, really long dock — and we were looking spiffy and ready to go.

“free walk” (lol) — judge’s comments “needs more stretch, breaks to trot”, scored a 5
(we broke to the trot in the next movement also, garnering a 4)

I was not prepared for this dressage test. I’ve been riding “circles” and “diagonals” for months but haven’t actually paid attention to any movements or geometry. And the walk work? HA! I knew the walk would be what it was, so spent the weeks before focusing on the connection and the trot work. So I went in hoping to nail the geometry of the circles and serpentine (oh yeah, made Kate school me on those before — and was she ever a fucking task master about their size) and with fingers crossed for the walk work.

Before I went in to the test I asked Kate for a mantra to get me through the test and keep reminding me of what I needed to be doing to ride well. She gave me one for the trot and one for the canter — sit to the front of the saddle, and allow with the hands respectively.

And all in all? The test was great. I kept my reins shorter than I’ve ever (test) ridden with them. I had my leg on and Murray was prompt and pretty much on the aids. Our two big blunders were breaking to the trot in the free walk, and breaking to the trot again in the next movement (medium walk). Given that we’d schooled walk-trot transitions a fair bit in the last few days, you can hardly blame the guy. Plus, new mistakes! I love new mistakes. Hate old mistakes.

bad habits still exist, though!

Even with the two mistakes, we earned a respectable 35 even. (If we’d not blundered, I would have been in the 33.5 range, putting me ahead of at least one pro but WHO IS COUNTING NOT ME.) I thought the judge (Jane McEnespy) was very fair. I watched the test of a horse a few rides after me, and the horse was super obedient and steady and very quiet. That horse also had his head down but had zero connection through the reins and was totally behind the leg. They scored a 37.9. I feel like that’s pretty fair for a quiet, obedient, respectable test that isn’t totally correct. At least for Novice.

I am so proud of how Murray showed up for this dressage test. He came out of there like it was the most normal thing in the world. Oh — and I forgot to mention that because the ring stewards were being a little conservative about sending people to the rings, we had to legitimately trot over to our ring to get there in time. I’m also pretty proud of myself. I went into a dressage test and rode the hell out of it.  I didn’t just try to coast through and avoid, I put my leg on and actually did the thing. That’s pretty cool.

final halt and salute got us a 7.5, even though it wasn’t totally square. perhaps a little generous.

I’m still working on my salute. I definitely don’t practice in front of a mirror to see how it looks. I like the alignment of my arm with my body here, but think I would look a bit better if my hand were a little closer to my leg — less winged out to the side. What do you think?

angry pretzel

Poor Murray was very disturbed to be taken out of retirement once again and put back to work. When I got to his stall on Tuesday he was like “who are you? stranger danger. don’t touch me. go away.”

no touching. also, i don’t eat hay any more only GREEN PASTURE GRASS aka crack. also go away.

He settled reasonably well under saddle and was forward and happy trotting around on a loose rein for warm up. Once we got back to our pre-hiatus homework was when the objections came out.

Both Kate and my trainer recently emphasized the importance of correct walk-trot transitions recently. I am utterly awful about transitions, especially walk-trot transitions. I’m not strict about them, and Murray doesn’t like them. So he does weird shit when I ask for them, especially when I insist on some semblance of throughness during them, and I back off and go back to accepting crappy transitions.

I’m trying to insist on correctness in those transitions from the very start of the ride, and not have to work up to it quite so much. And that’s when the angry pretzel came out.


this pretzel

When I put my leg on without giving away the connection (okay fine I’ll be honest, throwing it away) Murray responds by

  1. moving his haunches over
  2. going sideways
  3. slowing down (are you freaking kidding me??!)
  4. going sideways the other way
  5. making his steps even tinier
  6. stopping all together

It’s kindof a “pick any and all that apply” kind of situation. And Murray gets so tense and balled up that it feels like all of his fascial lines are tangled up inside his body and there’s no clear path let him put one foot in front of the other. It’s not a great feeling. Can’t feel great for Murray, either.

I unilaterally decided that we wouldn’t quit until Murray was back on board with the leg == go part of the equation.


AWW LOOK WHO IS LEARNING ABOUT CONNECTION

It took a while. Like, a real while. Murray used a bunch of environmental factors as excuses in addition to his standard angry pretzel moves. The wind rustled some trees outside the arena so he farted and bucked and squealed and ran away. Trainer was lunging a baby horse and the whip cracked and so he scooted and inverted.

And I just tried to not give up on asking correctly. Do you know how many ways there are for me to enable Murray’s crappy trot transitions? LIKE MILLIONS. THERE ARE MILLIONS OF WAYS FOR ME TO FORK THOSE UP.

So it was all “keep sitting up” and “don’t give up the leg until you get the right response” and “keep your fingers closed” and “don’t let your core get floppy” and then, and then, and then.

chipping away at sucking less

But you know what the cool thing about being incredibly, insanely, pedantically consistent in how you ask your horse to do transitions? The transitions get a lot better. Noticeably so, in even a couple of days.

On Wednesday, there was only one angry pretzel sideways moment. By Friday, there was no angry pretzel. Just a very slightly evasive pony with average, mostly-forward movement.

Of course, I slipped back into some old bad habits in the process (pitching forward, letting my legs slide back). So now I have another thing to add to my list of what not to do while trying to nail these transitions.

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!

learnin’ and burnin’

I still have a ton to write about from blogging hiatus (jump lessons, amazing biomechanics clinic, clicker training, etc.) but this weekend was too fun to skip, so we’ll have to fast forward a little and rewind later.

First, I got to hang out with this super cool friend and watch her show 3rd level for the first time!

murdering the mediums

I don’t have a lot of experience with dressage shows, and when I have been it’s always with my MIL who has shown pretty extensively and is campaigning her mares for year end awards. It’s a bit different for someone looking for scores at a level when getting out there for the first time. There are lots of different aspects of test riding that I’ve never thought of before — like maximizing points in certain movements, vs. generally trying to make the whole test “better” (a nebulous term if ever there was one).

And then that same super cool friend came and rode my notorious ottb!

not ready for 3rd yet — maybe next month
PS my friend is Kate, if you haven’t yet recognized her

Murray doesn’t love when other butts touch his back. He’s a one-butt kinda guy. But it was fabulous watching Kate torture him work through his ridiculousness (and smile while she did it), and encourage him to be better. Murray thought Kate was demanding and opinionated and let her know it.  She just smiled and kept nudging those opinions onto him.

we tried to make him go to rehab — he said no, no, no

We traded back and Kate made some suggestions to help me also convince Murray to be better. Murray was like “oh thank GOD you are back I’ll do anything you want  just don’t let that bossy lady sit on me again!” He was immediately much more forward, and Kate helped me work on slowing his movement down and sucking myself down into the saddle. I wish I had the ability to write gobs and gobs about it, but I was hot and tired and I think the Cliffs notes version is all I can get out.

  • Pillow the aids into Murray so he gets past the reactionary leg on –> FLAIL –> do the thing. We want leg on –> do the thing. Put the leg on, waaaaiiiiit for Murray to stop trying to flick my leg off with his skin, and then ask for the movement or transition or whatever.
  • Slow the post methodically — a slow rise, and a slow descent. Keep the post big, but don’t let Murray throw me around with his boopy hips.
  • Push up with the toes and the knees to keep the feet light and suck the seat bones down into the saddle.
  • Kneel more in the sitting trot — do not let my toes slide forward too far.
  • When my leg goes on, Murray should push into the bridle.
  • Shorten the reins but don’t lean with the shoulders. Don’t give up the connection, work to improve the connection. We want him to be almost heavy in the bridle. My triceps should hurt after riding him. It’s not actually going to happen, but we want to move toward this type of feel since Murray so desperately wants the opposite of it.
  • Keep the core strong — don’t get floppy through the middle. In any of it — transitions, posting, sitting trot, etc.
  • Do not use zero contact (floppy rein) as a reward.

I was proud of how well Mr. No responded — generally — to a stranger riding him. His previous method of objection was to brace on his underneck and hollow his back and take teeny, tiny, itsy, bitsy little anger steps. For the most part, Murray moved forward and into(ish) the bridle, and only had flaily responses when Kate put her leg on (shocker). This is pretty big progress for the big bad baby, and exciting for me that he’s understanding more and more what we want his default to be.

There was this  moment when I was adding positive tension to what felt like every single muscle in my body below my boobs, and trying to post super slowly, and bear down, and breathe, and it was hot and humid and muggy in the indoor. I looked out of the indoor and it was beautiful and sunny and blue and green and yellow — the mustards are blooming still. And I thought “oh it’s so beautiful and gorgeous and heavenly out there.” Then I turned my head back to the inside of the arena where it was dark and brown and gray and sweaty and hard. And I was like “why am I torturing myself in this hell again?” Then Kate told me to do something else with my body — I don’t know what, probably to suck less — and I did it even though it hurt, and I wasn’t outside in the beautiful blue and green and gold sunshiney mustard flowers. Because that’s how we get better.

operationalize

Shortly after January’s Spiral of Nag ride, I did what any confused amateur would do: I scheduled a lesson with my trainer, and complained to my friends.

This is me, asking myself about watermark.i was really looking for the vultures singing “that’s what friends are fooooor” but this one will do just fine

To recap: I discovered that my horse does not reliably trot forward when I cue him to do so. Depending on the day and where we’re at in the ride — warming up, going good, at the end of the ride, feeling super lazy — I get correct responses between, probably, 30% and 85% of the time. But other horses I ride can trot on cue.  Like, all of them. All of the time.

So the goal of my lesson was to help me become super aware and super accountable for the trot transitions. I told B to be extra critical of what I was doing with my body so that I could give the same cue every time and help Murray really understand the antecedent-behavior-consequence chain that I wanted.

Unfortunately, the lesson was a little doomed from the start. Murray had slipped out of his blanket at some point overnight, and the weather was unexpectedly frigid.  Not unexpected for the season, but shocking given the 70* days and near-50* nights we’d been experiencing.  So Murray was cold, tense, and cranky when I got to him.

not happy, nicole!

Murray and I demonstrated our weaknesses very quickly. B called me out immediately for throwing my body around when Murray didn’t step into the trot immediately.  It turns out that I have zero patience.  If Murray didn’t show some upswing in power within a step of me squeezing him with my legs, I would throw away the contact, pitch my body forward, and lift my seat.

B coached me through increasing the ask (more leg pressure) without flailing — giving a stronger squeeze or even a bit of a boot — while sitting tall, keeping my hands steady, and sitting in the saddle.  Which is… embarrassingly hard for me.

Murray was not a fan of this. He was happy to trot off on his own schedule, but doing so when I asked was not really working for him.

We made good progress in the lesson, but it got a lot uglier before that.  B kept encouraging me to stay tall, and quietly urge Murray to go forward, without letting him use balking or ducking behind the contact or fishtailing around to evade the work. I had lots of homework from the lesson.

evasions: we have them

On the friend front, Kate was an awesome, sympathetic, and encouraging ear. Sure, my horse doesn’t have a reliable walk-trot transition, which is something that much greener and much younger horses have long mastered, but now that I’d identified the problem, wasn’t this the perfect time to work on it?

Kate suggested that I operationalize what I wanted Murray to do.  What exactly is the cue? What exactly is the behavior I am looking for in response? Do I want to squeeze Murray for ten seconds and have him trot off at some point in the next ten steps?  Or do I want to brush my calves against his side and have him trot off immediately?

She suggested that for his current level of training (or like, whatever it is we’ll call it that I’ve been doing with Murray for the last four years) I make my cue a squeeze of 1-3 seconds and expect a response within 3 steps.  It’s not too extreme, but it is reasonable for the level of work that we’re trying to do this year.

Operationalizing the behavior was amazingly helpful. It gave me a quantifiable target for what I wanted to get out of Murray, and something I can count to see how close we are to getting there.  It’s impossible not to struggle with observational bias when the improvement or behavior I’m looking for is subjective — what is “better” anyway?  But when I can count mississippis and steps, then I can tell exactly how much progress we’ve made and how far we need to go.

Murray, for his part, remains the extra creature he’s wont to be.

spiral of nag

I’ve been trying to be very conscious about correctness while bringing Murray back into work this year.  Part of it is trying to maximize the relationship and learning mentality that we’re creating through clicker training, and part of it is an attempt to undo all of the bad habits and ingrained reactions that the two of us have developed to one another over the last few years.  It’s been a lot of work at the walk, since we’re still building up fitness and hoof health, which has been the perfect opportunity to integrate the clicker into our sessions.  It’s also been an excellent opportunity for us to work on Murray’s walk, which is inarguably his weakest gait.

such challenge

A lot of what I’ve been focusing on is developing a positive relationship with contact, which has always been such a struggle for us.  I seem to be as afraid of contact as Murray is — I seem to desperately fear having to hold up anything more than the weight of the reins, and will consciously and subconsciously wiggle, shake, or bump horses out of my hands.  It’s no wonder that Murray wants to duck behind the bridle.  So focusing on rewarding Murray for actually moving into the contact is doing a lot for me too.

I’ve also been working a lot on our walk-trot transitions.  These have been a weak point for Murray and I since time immemorial (okay, so what isn’t a weak point for us?!), so rebuilding these from the ground up with the clicker has been priceless.  I actually started these with in-hand work, clicking first for a long-and-low walk, then asking for the trot and clicking for a similarly long-and-low trot. I chained the two behavior by asking for the trot and clicking specifically when Murray made the transition without hurling his head in the air or leaning on his underneck.  (It would probably be ideal if I clicked when he actually pushed from behind properly in a transition, but it’s all about the baby steps here.)

ugh I miss summer

On Monday we did a lot of walk-halt-walk, walk-trot, and trot-walk transitions under saddle.  It’s a long way from perfect, but the frequency with which Murray trots forward in a quiet and reasonable way is steadily increasing, and the frequency of flailing-inverted-on-the-forehand transitions is steadily decreasing.

The problem with playing the walk-halt-walk-trot-walk-trot-walk-halt-walk game is that it is boring.  So I thought I’d work on making my cues for the trot quieter, since Murray seems to prefer a quieter cue over one that involves actual leg pressure.  I decreased the pressure I put on with my legs when I asked, and tried to “think trot” with my seat. A couple of times I caught myself pitching forward an lightening my seat as if to avoid getting left behind through the transition, and verbally scolded myself. Of course, pitching oneself forward and picking one’s seat up means the transition isn’t happening, soooo yeah.

When the lighter cues weren’t working, I went back to squeezing slightly harder, and then a little more and a little more until I got something resembling a transition out of Murray.  And I realized I’d worked myself into a nag spiral.  Instead of making Murray responsive to my lighter “aids” I’d somehow made it even easier for him to ignore my ever-increasing ones.


lalalala I can’t hear you

Which was nice.  And totally my goal.

I went back to trot cue = trot forward no matter what, and clicked for that a few times in a row.  Then we took a walk break.  Megan later pointed out that as long as I kept pairing the quiet cue with a cue that Murray knows means “trot right meow!”, it would work. Which revealed to me my problem: I had just been turning the volume down on the old leg-based cues (already not Murray’s favourite thing to listen to), without including any kind of link to the behavior I actually wanted.

Learning theory suggests you present new cue – old cue – behavior – reward.  But instead I was just going new cue – no behavior – wtf?!  As if Murray would think “well, when Nicole does this with her legs only bigger, what she means is trot… so I should try trotting here”.  Shockingly, my horse is not capable of such cognitive leaps.

Murray asked to stretch down at the walk during our break, so I obliged and we worked on stretchy walk for a few circles.  While he was stretching down, I asked Murray to trot, and he gave me a pretty good stretchy transition that led into a nice long and low trot circle.  So I stuffed his face with the remainder of our grain and called it good.  Clearly, all is not lost on the learning front.  I just need to remember which one of us actually has access to the texts on training and learning theory.

shaping energy

Way back before the one-day, and even before Camelot, Murray and I were having some pretty badass dressage rides.  Murray was exceptionally willing and stretchy, and I got some new perspective and ideas from finally cracking open — and then plowing through — When Two Spines Align.  I’ll do a proper book review soon, but wanted to get down one of the neat/important concepts that really worked for Murray and I.

When reading about dressage I’ve encountered the phrase or idea that you need to “shape the energy” to what you want it to be.  Which is a great idea.  Only I have no idea what the fuck it means or how to do it.  Like, are we talking Dragon Ball Z style or Street Fighter or what?

Image result for dragon ball zImage result for street fighter hadouken

Fortunately, Beth Baumert takes some time to actually explain this concept in a few different places.  One of which has to do with using your inside aids to create the bend and suppleness that you want from your horse (my words, not hers), and then use your outside aids to maintain the steering on the circle.  This is just one piece of what she talks about in the book, but for the moment it’s the most relevant piece.

When working on my transitions and trying to make them actually count (another concept that  Beth and absolutely every other dressage coach I’ve ever encountered seems to espouse), I ran into my same old same old problem of Murray falling away from my inside leg and inverting/popping up through the transitions.  This is not something that repetition and time has just “solved” for us (um, does it actually solve anything other than open wounds?), despite the fact that I only ever pat/reward/praise Murray for round transitions and we frequently end up re-doing inverted ones.

fairly representative of most of our transitions: if not actually inverted, then braced against the hand

I used my inside aids to get Murray’s bend and attention back, which I often do.  Then, as I felt him falling out on the circle (as he often does), I had the bright idea of using my outside aids to actually steer.  I didn’t clamp down on him with my outside leg or pull on the outside rein, I just firmed up those aids so they were present, but not overbearing.  I also stopped looking down and looked around the circle, which was probably helpful.  In response, Murray softened and stayed round and on a circle.  It was like magic!

I definitely had to continue using this strategy though, it wasn’t quite a “set it and forget it” aid.  We’d drift off of the circle or lose some bend or lose a little forward, so I’d push for a little more forward, then shape that forward energy into roundness and bend again.

This actually paid off even more during the transitions.  Before the transition I would do the same thing: shape Murray with my inside aids, steer and capture the energy with the outside aids (see, now even I’m using meaningless aphorisms to describe riding!), and then ask for the upward transition within a stride or two while we were straight and VOILA!!! Magnificent transitions.  It was pretty cool.

So that was a neat little revelation that has been pretty useful to my riding.  And I do finally understand the idea of shaping and capturing energy.  By pushing Murray into my outside rein with my inside leg, I’m adding sideways energy.  But for Murray, the easiest response to that is to let that sideways energy peter out by actually going sideways.  So instead of letting that energy just “escape” sideways, I capture it with my outside leg and hand, and recycle it in the direction I want — which is forward.  So I really am shaping it from my inside leg to my outside hand.  So I’m basically a dragon ball z master now.

HADOUKEN!!!

not throwing away my shot

I didn’t sleep at all on Friday night.  I mean, I probably napped and dozed a bit, but there was no true sleep to be had.  It was warm until the wee hours, and never really cooled down enough for me to need any blankets.  To add insult to injury, it turns out that you use/twist/stretch the ligaments in your knees a lot without realizing it.  A lot like every time you roll over or change positions, which it turns out you do a lot when sleeping on hard ground, you will be reminded of your injury with shooting pain up and down your leg.  So when braiding time — 5 am — rolled around I was already awake and peering out at the ponies.  Murray was snoozing quietly, so I took my time slowly getting out of my sleeping bag, putting on some clothing, and hobbling over to the bathrooms.  Murray and I braided in the slowly lightening pre-dawn, and while it wasn’t my best job, it held for our test.

I wasn’t going to let my knee prevent me from riding in the show.  Murray had been so phenomenally honest and fun after my tumble during schooling that I knew we could pull off a solid cross country run.  We just had to get there first.  I downed three ibuprofen while one of my friends went out to get me some more, and got on right on time at 7:35 for my 8:00 ride.  My knee did not feel great, but it wasn’t too bad, as long as I didn’t lean on the right stirrup too much or move too quickly.  This definitely changed how I approached the ride.  Based on how Murray felt a little behind my leg and small, but still relaxed and round, I wanted to push him forward for more ground cover.  But I knew that if pushing led to any kind of antics the likelihood that I would be able to stay on through them was small at best.  Also, squeezing with both of my calves hurt!!  So I kept it low key and just asked for little bits of increased ground cover and impulsion.

I developed a new warm up routine last week that I wanted to use at the show.  It focused on transitions on a circle, which have been problematic for Murray and I in the past: I always tend to just ask for a canter and pray that it goes well in the test, because the transitions are so explosive in the warm up.  This time, I wanted to really school the transitions and get Murray listening to my seat for the transitions to hopefully minimize tension and make the transitions more every-day feeling.

Murray was so quiet during the warmup that I was done early, and we walked over to the dressage court to see if I could head in a few minutes early (the one perk of being the first in your division).  Murray tensed up again when we went into the new arena, but I went back to our transitions on a circle, and he settled.  He still wasn’t as round as he had been in warmup, but it was still very good for us.

The test itself felt fantastic.  I haven’t been practicing my centerlines, and haven’t had a measured court to practice in for a little while, so my geometry was not what it could have been.  Like… my first circle was more like a 15 meter circle.  I realised that we were pretty far off the rail during the circle, but there wasn’t much I could do about it since we’d already started turning back toward the centerline.  I held my breath for the right canter transition, but it was beautiful.  I mean, there’s not really much more to say.  You can see for yourself.

Collectives:
Gaits – 6.5, some tension
Impulsion – 6
Submission – 6.5
Rider – 6.5
Overall – Need to develop rounder topline, some tension, try to place down trans between letters, work on throughness back to front

It was awesome.  It’s taken a while to get us to work together so well in public.  Feels pretty amazing.

After dressage I hung out and watched Olivia’s ride while luxuriating in my friend’s Back on Track quick wrap.  It felt niiiiice.  And even better, my knee felt way better after taking the BOT wrap off.  I didn’t walk my cross country course because, well, there was no way I was gimping around that thing on foot.  It was mostly on the same track as the BN course from June, and I read the course map, so I figured we’d be fine.

Fortunately for me, my knee felt pretty awesome by the time we got around to cross country time.  Almost normal again.  We jumped a few warmup fences, had a little gallop, but kept it pretty quiet.  I knew we’d be making a conservative cross country run, because all I wanted was to jump all the things and not fall off.

Murray was a total champion on cross country.  I just had to point him at a fence and his response was “that one? okay, let’s go.”  It’s a good thing he was feeling so honest, because at one point when we started going the wrong direction and had to make a sudden (albeit shallow) change of direction, my knee let me know with some stabbing pains that such maneuvers would not be repeatable.  Even better, we managed to ride pretty much according to plan!  I planned to circle Murray well in advance of the trakehner to avoid him galloping down to the fence and not seeing it in time.  If you recall from June, the approach to the trakehner is downhill, and Murray tends to turn into a little snowball running downhill, gathering momentum and ignoring everything in his path.  We circled well back, but Murray ate up the ground between the circle and the trak. I gave him just a whisper of added leg, and over we went.

We did have two stops, neither of which I gave a second thought to.  The first was at the first water entrance, which is a new pond on the back side of the course.  The water was dark, brown, and frothy at our entrance, and I do not blame Murray at all for not wanting to walk in there.  He wavered back and forth for a few minutes before leaping over the foam and running through.  The second was at the down bank, which Murray understandably suggested we just skip.  We came in just barely under optimum time for no time penalties.

We totally deserved the stops, but at the same time I feel like they don’t really count.  Maybe I’m having my cake and eating it too, but what horse doesn’t want to stop at a muddy water trap that looks like it might be harboring lepto, and a down bank that ended rather poorly very recently?  Maybe it doesn’t bother me because I know that those are two really easy to fix issues — we just need more practice.  No deep, underlying issues that will take months of backtracking to fix.  No evidence of serious training holes that I’ve neglected for years.  Just surface scratches that we can buff out with a little wax-on-wax-off.

It felt pretty freaking awesome to know that we conquered our first Novice course with so much more success than our move up to BN two years ago.


also, Kate let me school this little nugget on Friday so that was a huge plus

the spot

The first week I moved into the dorms my freshman year of college, a new friend recommended a book to me.  I can’t remember the name of book or author any more, but it was a kindof philosophical exploration into taking mind-altering drugs in ceremonies reminiscent of Native American rituals and the mental, physical, and spiritual results of these endeavours.  I only got partway through the book, so I don’t know the extent of what the author discovered or wrote about.  But one thing that did stand out to me in the first third of the text was the idea that (even while not high on peyote) one could sense the energy of an empty space and find places in that space that were more or less “welcoming” to the spirit.  The author described slowly crawling around a mostly empty room in the dark, and finding that he was constantly repelled from a certain area of the room by feelings of cold and hostility that crept over him while he was there.  In one specific place, he was overcome with warmth and tranquility whenever he sat there.

So of course my new friend and I took it upon ourselves to find “our spots” in her dorm room.  We asked her roommate if she could please give us an hour of privacy, as we were going to be exploring spiritually and finding “our spots”.  Peyote-less, we turned out the lights, crawled around in the dark, bumped in to things, and proclaimed that we felt positive or negative energy in certain areas.  I don’t remember if I really did ever find a space in the room that felt peaceful and welcoming — probably not, we do have a raging skepticorn over here — but I do know that it never amounted to much, since it wasn’t my room anyway.  Upon emerging with dirty hands and knees, when asked by other people on the floor what we were doing, we exuberantly exclaimed “finding our spots!”

They were thinking of totally different spots.

Not unlike this mystical experience, though, I found a pretty magical spot in my saddle earlier this week.  Murray and I were working on walk-trot transitions while I listened to the Dressage Radio Show.  The guest on at the time was talking about being able t control the placement of the hind feet, and really being able to sense the placement of the hind feet as they move through space.  The idea  being that you can only influence the foot if you know where it is in space, so you can time the correction appropriately, and exactly where it is and where you need to move it.

While thinking about hind feet in the transitions, I also started to think about the transitions themselves.  I always want Murray to move up into a more forward trot, but what that sometimes results in is him pulling himself into a messy, downhill trot that I then have to work to correct.  Instead of letting him dump forward in the transition, I kept the contact there and asked Murray to come up right after each transition if he ran down through them (um, I think? I don’t totally remember).

equitatin’ so gud

I was also focusing on my leg position throughout the ride.  My left leg has been hurting after riding lately, and I noticed that I weight it differently in the stirrup, putting more weight on the toe of my left foot.  This stretches out the tendon (or whatever) on the outside of my leg, and makes it difficult in general to use my lower leg.  So I was working hard to keep the weight even on the ball of my foot and bring my toes in.

At some point in all of this I brought both of my legs back a touch to help turn my toes in, and suddenly my position felt perfect.  My whole leg could be on Murray without gripping or squeezing or flailing, but if I needed to, I could pressure my calf or my thigh independently or together.  I was balanced through my thigh and knee, but I still felt like my heel was sinking down.  I felt like I was sitting in the deepest possible place in the saddle, and felt connected to Murray’s back more thoroughly than I ever have before.

IT WAS SO. FREAKING. COOL.


throwback to feeling cool on my horse for like the first time ever

Murray maybe liked it too, or at least had gotten to the point of the ride where he was willing to just acquiesce to my requests, because we had some fantastic trot transitions in both directions.  Toward the end I decided to throw in a canter transition too, and he just rose up under my seat like Poseidon out of the sea and stepped right into a killer, uphill canter.  I wasn’t even thinking about keeping him ahead of my leg, and there he was — right on the aids.

only, think of him as a benevolent poseidon

I’m not exactly sure how I did it, or how to make it happen again.  I tried a bit in my jump saddle and couldn’t quite achieve the same level of zen.  But now I have a new feeling to chase!

dressage lesson: all the feels

Murray and I had a fantastically productive dressage lesson with Tina last week.  It wasn’t so much that we worked on new or exciting exercises or revolutionized how the horse went, but it confirmed that we are doing correct work, how to take that work to the next level, and that my feel for what is right is developing and becoming more accurate.  The lesson also gave me some good data on a little experiment I was running last week, but more on that later.


no relevant media from the actual lesson,
but I did the same exercises the next day with only slightly less success

We started out by addressing my (wildest) hope that I am finally able to actually feel when Murray is bending through his ribcage, and not just falling all over himself laterally.  Tina had me put the beast on a large circle, then shrink the circle in and increase the bend in his body as appropriate.  I evidently can feel true bend now (HOORAY!) because I managed to keep Murray bent on a 15m circle, even though we were tracking right (harder direction) and it was our first circle post warm-up.  Tina encouraged me to bring the circle in a little more and push for even more bend.  She wanted me to ride the edge of Murray’s ability to bend without falling apart, in order to enter that zone of maximum learning and skill building (my words! totally my weirdo words).  We got to about a 12m circle before Murray’s haunches started to lose it around the circle, and so I slowly let him back out to the 15m-ish circle before carefully and slowly leg yielding back out.

Before we switched directions I told Tina that one thing I was struggling with in this part of our education is understanding, and obviously helping Murray understand, the difference between an inside leg that asks for bend and an inside leg that asks him to move over.  She told me to think of the inside leg that asks for bend as more of a toned or firmed leg, and the leg that asks for lateral movement to actually push.  This exercise, she pointed out, would help Murray to develop that understanding of submission to the inside leg for bend vs. movement.

i only tracked left in this ride, but just pretend my work to the right was equally neato

When we changed directions to the left Murray was much more competent at the exercise, and we managed to get down to about a 10m circle with a fair bit of effort on both of our parts.  Because Murray struggles more to the right, we went back that direction once more.  Tina reminded me to keep Murray’s haunches in with my outside leg — though I probably did not need to swing it quite so far back, as the first time I tried that he promptly cantered.  But after one attempt left, he was also more capable to the right.

We moved on to the next big challenge I see: developing sit/collection at the canter.  I really struggle with this because it’s something we need for both jumping and dressage.  I also feel like Murray used to be able to sit and shrink his stride at the canter really easily when jumping, usually while  maintaining an uphill  balance.  But lately it seems that his smaller strides have been very downhill and inverted — maybe they have always been that way, but I’ve only just developed a good enough feel to tell the difference.  I also don’t know how much collection I should be aiming for — Murray obviously wants me to think that I’m being too mean/it’s too hard. But progress is hard, kiddo.


i read something about thinking of your elbows as “weighted” and tried to envision it in these rides to stop them from floating off into outer space. instead i way overcorrected and put my hands in my lap. moderation is needed. Murray looks cute though!

We cantered on the big circle, then slowed it down and brought Murray into as small and collected of a canter circle as I could navigate — probably around 10 meters.  The first time we did it was incredible, because Murray was listening really well, but wasn’t anticipating the smaller circle.  So he just sat as much as he was able and we managed a pretty good little circle.  Tina said that I should try to make the next circle even smaller and slow Murray down even more, shortening the sweep of my seat to keep the strides quick and small.  It took me a couple of repetitions to get this down, but on our third try I felt some really uphill and controlled strides from Murray on that little circle that made me very happy.

We struggled more tracking right once again, especially because Murray lost all the bend on our first small/slow circle and dropped his back.  Even though I’m trying not to hang on the right/inside rein, I can’t let Murray lose the bend through these exercises.  For the lesson Tina had me go back to our old way of overbending the neck using more inside rein, but I imagine that as we practice I will be able to transition to a lighter inside rein again.


heading in to the tiny circle. i made my transitions from 20m to tiny circle too abrupt when i repeated this exercise, and the quality suffered for it. so i know for future practice to give murray a little more spiral-down time to get into the small circle.

We ended with a couple of counter canter loops which were seriously our best to date.  They were shallow-ish as there is a big pile of poles and standards stacked in a teepee right at X, and I didn’t want to tackle going past/around X for the first time when Murray was tired and had a bunch of stuff to potentially spook at.  But for the first time our shallow loops in both directions were controlled and balanced, and we kept the tempo.  HUGE progress for us, since I’ve been struggling with downhill running through the counter canter for basically two years (also known as, I suck at counter canter and probably started it too early).

Another huge win for us: not once during this lesson did Tina have to remind me not to nag with my seat. FOR ONCE!

in love with how good Murray  looks in this pic

It was such a great lesson in terms of confirming my feel (for bend and collection) and to do exercises where I can replicate the feeling later on.  Obviously, because the pics came from there, I did these exercises again the next day with not too much degradation of quality — though of course I did make some all new mistakes to learn from.

A few other notes from the lesson and subsequent ride:

  • keep riding seat to hands/don’t get pulled forward and down in canter (especially when trying to collect)
  • ride the extended transition in the canter in the exercise also to develop more elasticity
  • hands and elbows more forward (not so bad in the lesson, but they were a bit too far back the next day)
  • likewise, shorten the reins a little for steadier contact
  • a touch of haunches in is ok for now, while developing better bend
  • still need crispness/clarity/lack of static in the canter transitions – but they are better
  • I need to work on quieting the forward-backward movement of my leg when giving different cues
  • try to develop a more uphill half halt in the canter collection
  • eventually, the goal is to get the canter collection from seat alone — but that is for a year from now! for now, develop strength and suppleness in this work with lots of support from me.
  • work the weak side more, but with lots of breaks — both walk breaks, and breaks where you work the stronger side
  • who cares about sugar-induced navicular if lifesavers keep Murray happy and compliant?!