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!!!

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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?!

there is no try

The quality of my rides in the last week week have run the gamut from really great, progress-making, funtimes to inexplicable shit show.  I’ve been focused on breaking some bad habits — hanging on the inside rein, letting Murray fall through his right shoulder — while developing the strength and discipline we need to think about the 1-3 and 2-1 tests.  The learning curve in First level is actually really steep.  In 1-1, you’re like “oh great, w/t/c in straight lines and circles and maybe a tiny bit of lengthening” and suddenly in 1-3 you’re doing counter canter and getting ready for canter-walk.


much readiness for canter-walk transitions

Anyway.  Megan got on me a while back about not hanging on my inside rein, so I’ve been trying to very consciously release the inside rein while still maintaining the bend and not letting Murray fall all over himself.  It’s especially hard when you use the right rein almost exclusively to keep your horse upright tracking right and prevent him from falling out tracking left.  It requires a lot more push with my inside leg — the whole leg, not just my heel or calf — than I’m used to.  Associated with falling through his right shoulder, we have three problems with working on a circle (because why not): 1) too much neck bend, 2) the haunches too far to the inside, 3) haunches too far to the outside, almost spinning around the inside front foot (a bigger problem to the right than to the left).  I can finally feel a proper bend, avoid all three of these traps, and somehow not haul on the inside rein while doing it (pro tip: it actually helps if you don’t haul on the inside rein when trying to do this) for like… a circle or so.  (This was the really great part, that was a big hurdle for both of us.)

This was all fine for a few rides.  I focused on making my body do the right things and giving Murray plenty of praise when he responded correctly.  A little bit to the left, and a lot to the right (our worse direction) with lots of walk breaks.  It’s a lot harder for both of us at the canter, but we chipped away at it and worked on big figures and it got better for more than a few strides at a time.

sometimes we can kinda do the things

There were a few minutes of bullshit here and there, but it seemed like it was mostly at the beginning of our rides. One ride took more than a moment, but I let Murray get down with his bad self a little, then went back to asking correctly and expecting him to respond correctly.  It wasn’t instantaneous, but we got there.  There may have been some inside rein hauling and a really open mouth and some really awkward tongue flapping.

Then I got it into my (stupid?) head that we should start to incorporate a little more collection and sit into the canter.  I put four poles on an 18 meter circle, measured out three strides between each one for just a little stride compression, and planned to work the circle once we were good and warmed up.  When we trotted through the poles it was fine — Murray maintained a steady-ish rhythm, and I tried to plan the next quarter of my circle to maintain consistent bend throughout.  Sometimes it worked.  Sometimes the rhythm broke down.  Some circles were prettier than others.

The canter was an unmitigated disaster.  His stride was a touch big when we entered the pole circle, so we came to the first pole a little off of the distance.  It spiraled down from there, and Murray would launch over the pole to a long landing, which made turning more difficult, which resulted in more launching, or he break to a trot, or swap leads.  Just messy messy mess.

Back to the trot it was, but this time it was really ugly.  Murray anticipated the poles and went through all kinds of theatrics — to what end, I’m really not sure.  At one point he jammed a tiny stride in front of the pole, totally inverted, and then managed to stomp on the pole with both hind feet.  Talent.

This is my fault.  When we work on poles in a circle I celebrate the most minor successes — if we get through them with one stride between them, no matter how flat, strungout, or growing the pace, I consider it good.  But it’s not good.  I’m rewarding us both for “trying”, not necessarily for succeeding.  And I say “trying”, because it’s hardly an honest effort on either of our parts to complete the exercise precisely or successfully.  Yoda came to me in this moment.

I slowed us down, way down.  I posted very small, kept my legs on, and pushed Murray around that circle into the outside rein.  I made it a circle.  I made sure the pace remained the same.  Then we cantered.  Before we entered the circle I made sure that our canter was small and collected, and I made the circle a little larger so we could fit four in between the poles. And lo and behold – we could make the distances.  And a round circle.  And keep a steady pace.  And not rely on the inside rein.

Huzzah!

More interestingly, Murray totally stepped up to this exercise when I demanded more of him.  The exercise isn’t hard, but it does require that we both think, and plan, and don’t spaz out or sabotage our own ankles for no reason. Murray didn’t insist that this exercise was too hard for him, we did it successfully, and he didn’t need me to baby him through it.  From now on, we aren’t going to try exercises, we are going to do exercises.

This isn’t a hard ask.  Select appropriate exercises.  Do the exercises correctly.  Reward success.

busy mind vs. thinking mind

I was riding a friend’s pony last week, I’ve mentioned him before.  He is a very fun and rather different ride from Murray.  They are both overthinkers, but it seems to express itself in different ways.  (Or perhaps I just think it comes out differently because I’m so close to Murray?)

logan01july jump 02
logan left, murray right – they are similar in some ways

Murray thinks so much that he’s always trying to anticipate my next move, and any movement of my leg or seat or hands can result in drastic direction changes. Logan is busy thinking about what we are doing that direction changes almost seem to sneak up on him, and if I surprise him with one he tenses and inverts.  When I put poles down for Murray he wants to look at them for as long as he can, and then flings his feet around in an attempt to get there on the stride he wants.  When I put poles down for Logan,  he sometimes seemed surprised that they suddenly appeared in front of him — he’s perfectly willing and happy to go over them, but I couldn’t really get it to feel good when I did it.

All of this really got me thinking about catering to the busy pony mind.  A lot of the crappy advice I see floating around the internet is to do lots of transitions and poles to “keep your OTTB’s mind busy”.  (Oh all right, you caught me, I’m mostly shit-talking OTTB connect. SprinklerBandit mentioned this in passing the other day and it made me lol absurdly.)  Which has always struck me as wildly TERRIBLE and FANTASTIC advice a the same time.  Of course, in my jaded little world, that means it falls squarely in the “terrible” camp, since I don’t trust the execution skills of people looking for training advice on OTTB connect (or other horse fora, honestly).

 novdress03novdress02novdress01
murray: holy shit a light saber!

The trick with Murray is keeping his mind engaged enough, such that exercises are actually doing something.  There’s nothing actually useful in Murray flying in a so-called leg yield from the centerline to the wall like the gravitational force of the sun is pulling him there — nothing gymnasticizing, and certainly nothing thoughtful.  Likewise I’m not doing anything by letting him flail his way up to a set of poles instead of waiting, thinking, and lifting his way to them.  Transitions on a circle are super when Murray can maintain a forward and powerful enough gait to respond to them quickly and when I ask him to — not when he bloody well feels like it because he knows it may or may not be coming.

Lots of transitions or poles quickly crosses the line from “a useful exercise” into “drilling incessantly”, which is where the problem arises with Murray.  Inaccurate leg yields build bad habits, and all of it misses the point: learning.  Busy minds aren’t learning, they are just responding.  And in my experience surprising your horse with a ton of transitions they aren’t ready for or throwing random poles in their path just to keep them “paying attention” just makes them stiff and anticipatory (hmm, and how might I know that….?).  Plus it all ties in with a lesson it took me a long time to learn, which is to do things well when you do them, instead of just because you can.

It was more of a challenge to find the same balance on Logan, who I don’t know as well.  So I stuck with the base of the dressage pyramid – keeping things slow so he could just relax, relax, relax through direction changes, small circles, and transitions.  When in doubt, more relaxation will never hurt things.  I think.

IMG_8830-2
not for us, anyway

silver linings

On Thursday, after all of my epic dressagery earlier in the week, I had kindof a waste-of-time ride on Murray that put me in a fairly foul mood.  I had to stop in the middle of my ride to get something, and Murray ended up sitting around a little longer than I wanted while I sorted it all out.  That was only 15 minutes into my ride though, and I really wanted to practice some of the walk-canter transitions from my lesson, or at least get something other than a warm-up done, so despite my better instincts I got back on and kept riding.

To nobody’s surprise, it was unpleasant.

Getting back on was not the better choice, riding-wise, and I go back and forth on whether or not I should have done it at all.  There will be times in the little horse’s life when he has to perform after sitting around (you know those pesky things called shows), so there’s something to be said for practicing that.  But at the same time, part of me feels like it’s more important to keep Murray feeling good about dressage, and not worth the fights.

Anyway, a friend and I had committed to taking some video of one another during our dressage rides, as we’d both had wonderful lessons on Wednesday, and take video we did.  And I’m super, super glad I got back on and took the video.  I wasn’t asking Murray for anything challenging — just to stay steady in the contact and give me some sold trot-canter transitions.  Nothing surprising there; I ask Murray to give me quality trot-canter transitions during every ride, so his assholery was definitely in protest to something — either five straight days of dressage or the thought that he was done for the day already.

So mostly, this is what I felt like I was riding.  Inverted giraffealope is not an urban legend.

5-21 dressage 9

But the video evidence suggests that I was actually managed to get a fair bit of this.

5-21 dressage 8Whaaaaaat a dreamy pony right there!!

We weren’t totally steady in the contact or through, but we definitely had moments.  Much better moments than in the past.  Compared to our December humble-keeping ride.

IMG_8304

5-21 dressage 3Bigger stride and lengthened topline for the win!!

To say I’m pleased with the improvement is underestimating it!  The photo from December shows pretty much our level best (at the time), and Thursday’s was a bad ride for us, and we still got better moments!

Murray’s deeper in the contact (a huge goal of mine), and his back is more lifted.  Even when he’s not totally through, at least he’s tracking up and using his whole body to trot.  We used to get this shitty little typewriter trot when Murray would lift his head, with steps about 6″ long and the jerkiness and absurdity that went along with that.  A year ago that was basically what I got in errrrey dressage ride.

5-21 dressage 5DSCF9901March 2014 at a show.

Our canter work has also improved a ton!  Murray’s left canter used to be full inverted giraffealope, even while his right lead was coming along nicely.  While he’s not quite as soft and low as I’d like, he is at least using himself here!  I recently learned how to trick him into softening by overflexing him through the inside rein, and gently balancing with the outside rein.  When I added a more open hip angle and soft dressage legs to the equation, Murray realised that he could, in fact, canter left and accept the contact.

5-21 dressage 7

So despite my general disappointment about our ride Thursday, I found a huge silver lining.  I’m so glad I have the footage to watch over and over (and ignore the crappy canter departs).  Silver linings areeee the best.