fake less, expect more

Despite my efforts to appear otherwise, Murray and I have totally been in a riding slump.  I’m not totally out of my not-really-riding mode, and with the batshit schedule I’ve been juggling lately, the quickly rising darkness, and Murray’s level 10 filth at all times thanks to advanced fluff it’s been easy to default to not riding.  So we’ve not made exceptional progress in the fitness or muscle building department (though the fluff is certainly making Murray look more muscular).

The other day I had the pleasure of Megan coming up to visit and, while she was watching me ride, she made a very interesting comment.  Paraphrased: while Murray has made progress in accepting and moving into the contact, he still isn’t totally there and has just found a new place to “fake it” and set his head.  But when he actually moves up (or down) in to the contact he moves better and more correctly, and actually uses his body.

dress-4Ah yes.

I have known for a long time ever that Murray is not comfortable with contact or (honestly) submission, and that our dressage relationship was a tenuous compromise.  For a million reasons — he doesn’t like it, he doesn’t wanna, he doesn’t think he should have to, it’s a little uncomfortable, it’s a lot uncomfortable, dressage is stupid, etc. — Murray is naturally tense.  But that tension isn’t going to work for us if we want to do real derpssage, so we have to get past it.

So one more thing I need to do to get Murray working more correctly is to convince him to not just accept the contact but to lean in to it.  When he is practically “leaning” on my hands is when he is using himself the best, so that is the place I need to get him to.  Easier said than done, sometimes.

If Murray’s in an incredibly compliant mood, like he was at the JM clinic, then I can put a fair bit of pressure on him and get some really good results.  He’ll connect to both reins (helped by the counter flexing that JM had me using in that exercise), understand the half halts, and push from behind for not insignificant periods of time.  If he’s feeling a little sassier, he might give me the old middle finger in that special kind of way he does.

kickslowOn Sunday he gave me forty seven flavors of tiny, shitty trot before connecting to either rein or moving out into anything resembling a working trot.  I worked at keeping my body really correct after reading a piece about laterality and handedness, and predominantly worked Murray’s stiff side (with lots of walk breaks).  Murray did not appreciate my positional overcorrection and avoided the connection to the right.  Once we switched to the left though he was in full denial, throwing his body all kinds of sideways to avoid the connection.  At one point his trot was so tiny and stilted I didn’t even know why I was bothering to post.

Eventually he worked out of it, and I got some good connection in both directions.  It took nearly 40 minutes, and I was filled with equal parts despair and joy.  On the one hand, goodie for me, building the connection.  On the other, how will I ever warm up for a dressage test if it takes us an unknowable number of minutes between 10 and 40 to get to a functional working connection?!

wp-1449989989647.jpgThis ridiculousness is truly infuriating, because I know that the good trot is in there and it probably takes less effort than crazy sideways garbage.  But (for once) I did not lose my temper, and that helped me come to another realization: when Murray is tense, bullying him “out of it” is not going to mad productive, long term changes.

(wait for it)


So even though this is annoying, it’s actually given me a much more concrete goal and rejuvenated my dressage feelz!  Now I have a new thing to focus on in both the short and the long term!  Every ride I need to get Murray moving in to that contact, while staying straight, and then pushing his trot out.  I can’t let him trick me into thinking too much about his face either, because if I’m having connection problems it probably has more to do with what’s going on behind us than up front.

New goals. They are the spice of my life.

adaptive riding

I had a stellar jump lesson Tuesday, my first jump lesson in close to two months and Murray’s first serious jump school in a month!  I made the tactical decision to do a quick jump school on Monday to get Murray accustomed to the idea of jumping again and let him get acclimated to the fences in the arena, per his insane spookiness lately.  This was the right choice: it took Murray and I a lot of time to get back in sync with jumping and also to remember that not all jumps are pony eating monsters and that even if they are pony eating monsters the best way to avoid them is to jump REALLY HIGH over them.  One of my kid friends, you know just those normal barn rat better than everyone riders, picked up poles for me and reminded me to do the things I am supposed to when jumping like maintain a rhythm and keep my leg on.

The lesson started out very average.  Murray was torn between being happy that we were jumping and really upset that everything in the arena had changed in the last month.  He was squirrely but forward, and was trotting pretty adorably.

july jump 01such engage. much adorbs.

Unfortunately, once we started cantering fences Murray lost his understanding of what leg means and started to get a little lurchy.  When I put my leg on to help him maintain a steady rhythm and reach for the fences it had the absolute opposite effect, and Murray would drop his back and jam another tiny, hideous stride in before the fence.  After six fences in a row of this I pulled Murray out of the line we were in as I desperately needed a reboot.  This was not working.

While I was lamaz breathing to keep my ish together B told me to change my strategy.  Instead of sitting on Murray and driving him to the fences with my seat, she had me go back to the not-quite-half-seat of yesteryear and half halt and rebalance Murray with my thighs while keeping my seat really light.  (I had moved away from this to avoid jumping ahead and be able to use my seat more effectively.  I just do what I’m told.)

july jump 04

And it worked.  DUH.

I am a huge proponent of doing what I’m told by my trainer.  I like to think that I fight back with her the least of all the adults, and sometimes that’s certainly true.  But I can also be a bit of a pain in the ass sometimes.  Fortunately, this was not one of those times, and trainer managed to drag my back from the brink of an absolute meltdown with this strategy.

Oh trainer. How I love you.

The rest of our lesson went really well, especially for a rusty Murray and Nicole.  We jumped through the two stride, getting three every time but one (no groundlines maybe? this line caused us a LOT of trouble), jumped some new(ish) scary filler, and got through the one stride line with ones many times, including with my helmet cover falling off.

july jump 02assistant trainer turned this broken chevron into an adorable watermelon slice!

The big lesson from this lesson was to be adaptable.  If I had been schooling on my own and Murray pulled this there is no way I would have figured out to change my strategy, and I’m sure I would have kept  jamming my bony little ass into his spine and he would have kept jamming four more inches of stride in before the fences.  I am just not that good of a rider yet.  But it’s something I should remember — Murray is teaching me all these different strategies to ride him well, and I need to remember to use them.  But it’s hard when you’re out of practice.  (Let me reiterate: I love my trainer.)

The funniest part of our lesson was when we did just one more course.  My kid friend videographer had put my helmet cover on top of the pole over the barrels and as I came towards it I yelled “Oh you may have doomed us!!!!”  Embarrassingly, Murray did not give two shits about the helmet cover.  I, however, stared it down so hard that I buried Murray to the fence.

july jump 3

So I guess it’s a good thing that Murray is now more educated than me… that means I did my job, right?

always learning

I’ve had a hard time scheduling rides, lessons, and writing since I got back from Australia as I’m living a new work/volunteer/life schedule AND moving houses on top of that.  In short, instead of teaching I’m now going to San Francisco to play at the zoo 2+ days a week (though I luckily have friends to stay with in the area between consecutive days), still managing the ranch office (w/ taxes upcoming and irrigation in full swing), and then trying to finish up my thesis and get my work done around the barn and my horse ridden and my boyfriend visited and suddenly I’m living the Megan and L life out of my car.

so dreamy

Murray loves it though.  He comes in during the day and eats a little, naps a little, eats a little, naps some more, pushes the dirt around in his paddock to make himself a pillow and re-adjusts for his nap… it’s the life.  He’s getting ridden just enough to get himself some attention, and not so much that it feels like work.

I did manage to get in a dressage lesson on Tuesday morning, both to get my trainer’s assessment on yet another dressage saddle that I’ve been riding in, and to keep working on that elusive outside rein contact.  I borrowed a barn kids’ JRD one weekend day and Murray felt amazing.  I have always maintained that he’s not a super fussy guy about saddle fit, but he was so forward and into the contact that day that I thought it was worth another test.  I also didn’t hate how it made me feel, so I wanted some trainer evaluation.  (The verdict on the saddle: it was a bit wide, but Murray definitely did seem to move better in it.  I’ll give it another go, but obviously this exactly saddle is not the ticket, though something like it may work well.)

IMG_1963 Change averse right here

The lesson itself focused on encouraging Murray to accept that outside rein contact and get him to bend around my inside leg instead of my inside rein.  It’s a hard concept for him because he has relied so heavily upon that inside rein for balance and connection for so long.  (This was a crutch, yes, but also a valuable training tool.  I think I will write more about it later, as I’ve had some interesting discussions with my friends about this in the last few days.)  Murray is averse to change and gets claustrophobic easily, and responds to that by shortening his stride and tensing his neck and back, i.e. the anti-dressage.  I can get mean and kick him into the outside rein, sure, but the result of that is that he slowly pulls me out of the tack and then goes from a true bend to a counter bend and suddenly — hooray! — he’s on his beloved inside rein again.

IMG_1985Which rein do you think has more contact?!  Can hardly tell if there’s contact on either here.

We worked on the beloved 20 meter circle.  After warming up with some stretchy work as soon as I picked up the outside rein and asked for a bit of connection to it Murray’s gait got stiffer, his back stopped swinging, and he got tenser overall.  To ease him into it, trainer had me push Murray into the outside rein for a little bit and then relax the outside rein so he could resume stretching.  I worked hard on not pulling Murray into the connection with the inside rein and instead pushing him into the outside rein with my inside leg, and also keeping him well aligned on the circle and not letting his haunches drift around.  The benefits of this strategy were multi-fold:  Murray slowly got more comfortable with the outside rein connection and became much steadier for longer periods of time, I gained a better understanding of how to lighten the contact without giving away the reins, and we reinforced the request for the stretchy trot.

megandressage2Very interestingly, Murray struggled less with this tracking right (with my weak hand on the outside, and his weak hind on the inside), but I suspect it was because we went that way second.  As he got more comfortable, I could feel his back swinging more and his gait opening up even with the outside rein contact, which is huge progress for him.  Even better, he was really moving his outside foreleg around the circle, instead of pivoting his haunches around his front leg a little with each step, which is the influence of that outside rein.

We worked on the same thing in the canter, with a slightly different strategy.  Tracking left Murray wanted to counter-flex again, but just pushing him into that rein didn’t really work, so I gently massaged the inside in conjunction with my inside leg to help him keep the inside bend and flexion.  To the right he actually wanted to drift to the inside circle while maintaining his right bend, so I worked extra hard on pushing him to the outside.  Good progress overall.

The last thing we worked on were lengthenings, which are probably the weakest part of our repertoire of first-level movements.  Murray has never had a firm grasp on the concept, and usually offers to trot spastically or canter or just do nothing.  Now that I had this really solid outside rein connection though I could balance him in a circle on the short side, half halt through the corner, and then let him open his frame up a little bit as we came out of the corner and then ask for the lengthening.  This setup got fantastic lengthenings going left and okay ones to the right — once again that weak right hind not wanting to push.  The outside rein connection was crucial here: in the past even with a steady contact to both reins an attempt to lengthen his frame was typically an invitation to hollow, and then the “big trot” ask just resulted in “jazz toezz!!”  Now I could lengthen his frame with just a softening of the outside rein and he did so in a balanced way, and then the big trot ask was just MOAR TROT.  It was cool.

IMG_8864Can reach with legs if properly motivated…

This lesson was particularly good because it solidifed a lot of the concepts that have been pretty half-baked for me and Murray.  We both got a better understanding of the connection to the outside rein and a better way to manage that connection (when I’m sucking or when Murray is feeling confined).  It was one of those lessons heavy on the learning, my favourite type of lesson!

theory vs application

We all know how it goes*: you’re at a clinic and the clinician has you and your horse going better than ever before.  Their timing is impeccable, their advice is spot on, and it’s exactly what you need to make your horse move like they have never moved before.  Even when you make mistakes, which you do because you’re only human, it’s just fine!  Because you can correct them with the helpful wisdom of your spirit guide, and you are soon trucking along with the perfect shoulder-in angle, in a fantastic renvers, doing some baby half-passes across the arena like a badass.  And then you try to replicate this ride outside of your clinic lesson and instead of angels singing you’re hearing sad trombones…

clinic magic not for you

*At least sometimes.

Usually when I try to apply all the magic that I learned at a clinic I end up wondering if I’m remembering all the things I’m supposed to be remembering and cursing the fact that it just doesn’t quite feel right.  I’m simply not good enough to replicate everything I was taught at the clinic all at the same time, so I have to break it down piecemeal and then put it back together.

So let’s take my lesson with Megan as an example, because it’s the clinic I most recently rode in.  Right now I’m simultaneously trying to teach Murray to connect to the outside rein, not lean on the inside rein,  bend around my leg instead of his own shoulder, track his hind feet up under his body, and not move laterally on a circle at all times.

IMG_8822-2It’s a lot of things.  And when Megan is telling them all to you in this magical stream-of-consciousness fashion and you’re just doing it all and you feel these moments of rightness, it’s great.  And then I got on my horse for my first dressage ride after that clinic and Murray was falling all over himself, dragging himself towards the inside of the circle on increasingly tinier and tinier circles, couldn’t connect to the outside rein to save his life and mostly spent his time just trying to counterflex around that outside rein, and I was seriously booting him off of my inside leg (especially when it was my right leg) with these huge full-leg-slap-kicks that I’m sure Murray really appreciated.

(I personally needed to go cold turkey on the inside rein, and that ride helped me be a lot more accountable for my inside rein use and using it consciously.  But it wasn’t really a fair or nice thing to do to Murray.)

am I really surprised that I get responses like this when I kick him like that?

Instead of trying to approach everything I learned head on, I try to break the lessons up into sensical pieces that I can accomplish really well and practice them until it starts to feel natural.  Right now I’m just focusing on the connected outside rein, inside leg for bend, and no inside rein.  Those three things are hard.  And it takes dedicated practice* for me to insert them into my repertoire.  This is also dedicated practice for Murray — he is slowly figuring out that he can’t just fall through my inside aids and end up on a hot mess of a 5 meter circle.

* Something honestly worth its entire own blog post

That’s my strategy.  But I want to know — what’s your strategy?  I (really really hope that I) can’t be the only one out there who can’t just replicate their clinic rides at home, but you all somehow incorporate them into your riding repertoire too.  So tell me — how do you make those ever-so-valuable clinic lessons carry over into your everyday riding?

(And because I’m a nerd I also take notes.  And measure things.  Quantifiability, yo.)


I had a jump lesson scheduled on Thursday afternoon and was looking forward to rebuilding my jumping relationship with Murray and continuing to work on teaching him to jump.  And then, right as I was about to pick up my jump saddle put it on him, it started to pour.  Absolute sheets of rain that obscured my view of the end of the outdoor arena from the barn (not even a 200 meters away) and made me pick up the dressage saddle instead.  B came running in from her previous lesson and was more than happy to have me dressage inside instead.

Of course, less than ten minutes into my dressage lesson the rain absolutely stopped but oh well.  Pics from a previous lesson in the glorious sunshine, not this week’s lesson in the rainy rain and indoor.

febdressage09A dressage lesson was in good order, though, because integrating a bigger stride into my horse’s repertoire is important for both dressage and jumping.  Murray started with quite a good walk, and then I picked up the reins and asked him to quietly walk around with some contact, instead of in his standard stretchy-free-walk-ish-but-not-quite posture.  To my surprise Murray did not object greatly, and we moved into the trot without minimal issue.  Unfortunately, it was Murray’s shitty tiny trot, so I worked hard trying to encourage him to step more forward and move out.  Our indoor footing is still a little on the deep side in the middle since it’s arrival a few weeks ago, so that could kiiiinda be an excuse, but we worked in the better spots a lot too.

B immediately had me push for more than Murray’s little trot, and Murray seemed in a good mental place to receive that pushing.  Instead of resisting and flinging himself around like he did at our lesson with Local Olympian, he was like “ugh FINE”.  B wanted me to push Murray a little beyond where I wanted our working-trot to be — even to feel a little uncofortable/rushed — so that I could settled back down to a “compromise” of a good working trot.  This is a bit the opposite of the strategy Local Olympian had me try (“come with me to this nicer trot!”) but since Murray was responding well to it, I think both probably have a place in my repertoire.

moar trot! moar! I think this frame is stretched though, my horse’s legs aren’t that thick.

We also worked on steadying my connection with the outside rein, especially to the left rein when tracking right.  Murray naturally wants to ping off that rein or use the left rein contact as an excuse to counter-bend lean on his right shoulder, so I worked on quietly reminding him to keep some bend to the right without overdoing it.  I am a bending freak — I love bend! MOAR BEND! — and have, according to Local Olympian (and B agrees) “more bend than I know what to do with”, so I really need to work on taming that instinct.  The correct bend for a 20 meter circle, and even a 15, is less than I feel like it should be.  Having the correct amount of bend, in turn, helped me avoid the feeling of constantly leg yielding around corners and circles, another thing I had wanted to work on.

Too bendy, Nicole!

Next up B taught me how actually lengthen the stride at the trot instead of just dumping my horse on his face and hoping for the best across the diagonal. The aforementioned dump-and-pray was my strategy for the first few lengthenings, until B told me to wait until I could feel Murray coming into the connection and then push my hands forward slowly like I was pushing two chopsticks forward.  We struggled more tracking right than left but we got some.  And damn — you can feel it — when you get them.  I started grinning like an idiot when I got the first one, I could feel Murray’s back come up and he took a hold of the bit and really stepped forward.  My MIL has described a good lengthening as feeling like your horse is on rollerskates, and yes! It does!

After trot extensions we worked on the canter lengthening to 15 meter circle at the canter, which I thought we had a pretty good hold on but it turns out that given my ineptitude and his druthers Murray doesn’t actually use himself in his canter lengthenings, so I had to ask for a little more connection there too.  My trick of riding the next quarter of the 15 meter circle worked out well, and I just had to remind Murray  not to lean on the right shoulder too much when tracking right.

feb dressage canter 3I’m fairly pleased with our dressage progress lately, given that we have spent so little time riding and I’ve been fighting Murray not feeling quite right and not necessarily coming out mentally prepared to work.  It’s a good thing I put nothing on my schedule until April though, because I have no idea how much more this stupid thesis will stop me from schooling my horse.  So at least we have time.  And even then there’s always plenty of that.

dressage away from home

I got lucky this week and a barn-mate (Y) offered to trailer me to a nearby barn (like, less than a 10 minute drive! yahoo!) for a lesson with a local Olympian trainer.  Like I was going to say no!  It also helps that I happened to watch this particular trainer with another friend of mine (Q!) and liked her style.  Since I’m always trying to get more opinions and ideas about working with my supah needy princess horse, I was very happy for the offer.  Plus, Q came along and took video of me so not only do I have new VIDEO I also have NEW CRAPPY VIDEO STILLS!

Crappy in the quality of the images. Murray was pretty on point.

Q was particularly excited to hear me give my “this is my horse!” schpiel to Local febdressage06Olympian.  I mean, his history is always so colourful, and that colour is bound to show itself at some point during the lesson and it’s always at least somewhat entertaining to hear other people’s feelings on Murray’s feelings.  Anyway, I elected to give LO the short version of Murray’s history and just said that I had struggled struggle to get him to relax and accept the contact — especially away from home so I want to go to lots of schooling shows to get his and my behavior under control — and that I would like to get my first level scores for my Bronze medal some time this year.  This was basically clear during my warm up, as I struggled to get Murray to move forward into the bridle and not back off any time I asked him to give and stretch a little.

LO wanted to see Murray push from behind a little more, but her experience with thoroughbreds is that they can be simultaneously sensitive and resistant to going forward.  To do this she had me wiggle my legs and just jiggle the whip a little, but not squeeze or kick with my legs or actually touch Murray with the whip.  When I got anything forward from him — either relaxing into the bridle or pushing more from behind — she had me pat and praise Murray a lot.  The idea is to make moving forward his idea, so that I don’t have to work so hard!  Something I can get behind.  We did this on a 20 meter circle for a while in both directions, and LO really called me on my dependence on the inside rein.  She pointed out that if I want to go first this year I can’t be riding him off that inside rein, and Murray will really need to accept the outside rein contact (which is easier for him on the right rein than the left).  Furthermore, I can’t keep letting him get away with ignoring the outside rein, otherwise I will always have contact problem.

febdressage04After getting Murray pushing a bit more in both directions we worked on some shoulder-in and leg yields.  I have too much inside bend in my lateral work, so I have to think about getting Murray straighter and on the outside aids for both of these movements.  LO wanted me to use my outside rein to bring Murray’s shoulders over to my inside leg on the leg yield, instead of using my inside leg and rein to bend him.  At first Murray was pretty confused, especially going right where he wants to avoid putting that RH underneath his body at all costs, but we got it.  In the leg yields, LO had me use my outside rein to encourage Murray to come over into it.  Moving to the right I didn’t have to push my legs at all, Murray wants to go sideways soooo badly that I just needed to open the right rein and he was right there filling it.  All I needed was a little balancing inside rein and some half halts with the outside rein to stop his shoulders from running away without us.  Going to the left we needed a more tactful ride, with the opened and beckoning left rein and some right leg to encourage him to step under and go that direction.


We did have one super leg yield, and the video evidence I provide to you below.

Yeah, I could just watch that on repeat all day.

In the canter the idea was the same, but here LO really emphasized the usefeb dressage canter 4 of timing the elastic-following of my hands to the beat of Murray’s front legs to encourage him to take the contact and give.  In her words, this gives a more playful and active feel in the horse’s mouth, and can help you time your half halts better.  The theme was the same in the canter work: get Murray responsible for moving himself forward, and don’t depend on that inside rein.  Murray took it pretty well, and we added in some shoulder-fore and leg yields at the canter.  Same idea here — just ask for the shoulders to come to you using the outside rein instead of beckoning with the inside rein.

feb dressage canterRight was much harder, as it tends to be, but when I really rode the left rein and left leg for my turns we got some much straighter turns and I could feel him weighting that right hind, so that was good.  LO told me to think about keeping my shoulders over my seat bones to keep my body straight, which would be a better analogy if I ever knew where my shoulders and seat bones were in general.  No, my horse and I totally do not have in common our noodly inability to keep our bodies aligned and straight.  Not at all.

General lesson takeaways
– timing of the half-halts and the elasticity of the hands with the movement of the front legs
– keep the outside rein contact and let Murray fill the rein, no more inside-rein dependence
– align shoulders over seat bones
– legs shouldn’t slip too far back
– wiggle the legs for more activity, avoid creating resentment or resistance with too much squeezing or kicking
– make moving forward/pushing from behind Murray’s idea, so I don’t have to work so hard
– stretchy/long-low work can be productive, but ask Murray to stretch and then come back up for the best stretching over his back

Overall, a super productive lesson and a lot of fun.  Other highlights of the trip include my horse stepping happily into the trailer and backing out like a professional, not breaking away from the trailer while our buddy was having her lesson and I watched, and not throwing any tantrums in front of an Olympian!  I have so much hope for when Hawley Bennett visits!

feb dressage stretch
Oh also stretchy trot. We has it.




sympathy for the devil

Murray’s face is much, much, much improved.  Thank you all for your sympathy, kind words, and healing thoughts.  Murray’s eye is so much improved that he looks normal and I love him again — no more FrankenFace!!


novjump3We are cleared for riding, just no turnout, so Monday night we had a thriller of a lesson.  It started out as perfection — Murray and I were both spot on and he was taking the long one or the deep one as I desired.  I was able to control the quality of our canter easily, and kept him at an uphill, bouncy, powerful pace.  Even the 1-1 combination worked out okay after we schooled it at a lower height, and though Murray had to save me a bit the first time we went through at 2’9″, I didn’t abandon him entirely.

It was one of those rides where my first priority (getting Murray over all the obstacles from a good spot and a quality canter without fighting) was right on, so I started to work out some of the little issues in my position.  Sometimes when I’m not thinking about it, I feel my heels come up over big fences.  I know this is because I grab with my knee and calf instead of sinking into my heels and grabbing with my ankles.


So I worked on that!  And I could feel my heels staying down over the fences.  And I put my stirrups up a bit and really focused on my equitation.  I didn’t think about following hands, because sometimes when I think too much about my hands they do weird things.  AND IT WAS WORKING.  We didn’t have any refusals, even to weird fences, or fences Murray would have been looky at a few weeks ago, and there wasn’t even any hesitation.  It was awesome.


Right up until it wasn’t.

After a few go-throughs of the 1-1 combo, we came into it and Murray did some weird shit with his body.  We were crooked coming in so I tried to push him straight and forward at the same time.  Murray pathetically deer-leaped the first fence and knocked it down, along with the standard, and seeing that we were completely discombobulated and had zero power, I pulled him out of the second fence, knowing that even if we crashed through that vertical, we’d definitely never make it over the oxer at the end.  Close review of the video reveals that Murray was pretty strongly thinking about refusing the fence, and just had too much momentum in the end to truly stop, so was forced over it some kinda way.

novjump6stop novjump6stop1
Murray: nope don wanna, oh fuck gotta go anyway, shit it’s all coming down

And that started a long string of Murray being like “nope, can’t do it, no confidence left” and Nicole being like “FUCK YOU THIS IS FUCKING BULLSHIT HORSE”

To say I lost my temper would be an understatement.

Assistant trainer put down the verticals into Xs and Murray went over the first one with a strong ride, backed the fuck off to the second one, and there was once again no way we’d make it over the oxer, and I pulled out when I felt the brakes slam on.  Assistant trainer put down the oxer to an X as well and I beat and screamed Murray through the combination, but it wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t fun, and I was so insanely let down by Murray going from absolute rock star to ???(*#@$??? (symbol of true unknowing, not a curse word — you know I don’t censor cursing in this blog) in the turn of one jump that he…. just decided he didn’t really want to jump?

After that second refusal I actually felt a huge adrenaline dump — my heart started racing, adn I was struggling to properly control my breathing a little bit.  I wasn’t rationally scared of the fences or the oxer or the combo, but something about that refusal really fucked me in the adrenals.  Probably that’s exactly what Murray feels when he suddenly is compelled to refuse a fence for no reason — “oh dear ponyChrist I’m so scared I can’t jump that fence holy shit my heart is racing and my body can’t do this and she wants me to jumpg ANOTHER JUMP WTF OMG”

So I feel a little sympathy for Murray and his random refusal to do things, occasionally.  I’m not happy about it, but I’m sympathetic.

Plus, because it’s Thanksgiving week, I get another lesson to try to really sort it out.  And we’re going to grid the shit out of our lives so we can get over this!


long spot

Ever since Camelot Murray and I have been struggling to get our jumping groove back.  What once seemed so effortless and flowing has left me huffing and puffing and wondering where our mojo is.

It’s not been all bad.  This has forced me to iron out many kinks I was allowing to linger in my riding.  Because, you see, when you have this really forward, honest horse that will jump anything from whatever shitty angle/spot/position/swinging lower leg you put him into it at, a little part of you might just keep letting your horse jump like that, even when you know better and know you have to improve.  Murray has also had some lateral imbalance/weakness going on, and I’ve had to come to terms with how much my own position might be affecting those things too.

After a jump lesson where Murray basically couldn’t not drift left over the jumps, and in which I reacted rather poorly to such behavior, I paid very, very close attention to how my body was “sitting” on Murray’s during my next jump lesson.  Much to my surprise and dismay, I discovered that when we’re tracking left, if he’s blowing through  my left aids I — for some reason — twist my upper body to the right in an attempt to move him over.  So no wonder he was falling left.

The left drift isn’t all me, I noticed it even when I was being super conscious of pushing him into my right rein, so there’s definitely some strengthening to do there.  But now that I know my part of it, I will work on forcing that out of the equation.

B demanded that we jump a vertical in both directions without drifting before we moved on to adding additional jumps.  Once we had the no-drift on the vertical down, B added in another vertical halfway around the arena.  Our first ride into that Murray chipped in a pretty short stride, so B had me push him for the open spot.  It worked, but since my pushing him to scary fences in my last lesson didn’t work out so well I was a bit apprehensive.  Our lesson was pretty fast-paced with lots of cantering around, and the little beast is getting hairy quite rapidly, so we were both sweating and huffing and puffing by the time we got to the first fence that he questioned.

Murray just kinda… stopped in front of a cord wood stack that we have jumped several times before (though not in this location).  It was in a bending line coming off a big-ish oxer, and I blamed his tiredness as he sputtered out to the fence.  B was having none of it.  Apparently we are both advanced enough that being “a little bit tired” is not an excuse, and Murray wasn’t that tired anyway.  So I drove him to the cord wood and he jumped it, but put in a pretty big chip again.  I watched my left drift and forced him onto it straight, and it was fine.

When we started up our next course I could feel Murray sputtering out as we approached a fence that crossed the arena, so as we came out of the corner I reached back and gave him a tap on the bum with my whip.  I’ve been practicing moving my hands around and jumping one handed so I’m more comfortable giving up the reins close to a fence, and in this case it really paid off.  Murray picked up the pace, added power, and took a huge long spot to the fence.  I mean, we’re talking a solid 9′ takeoff to a 2’9″ fence (which he jumped more like it was 3’3″).  The kid barely has a 9′ stride, so that was a launcher.  My whip hand kinda flailed in the air over the fence and I only really regained my reins upon landing, so Murray was a bit flustered and concerned that I might hit him again, but it got him really listening for the rest of the lesson.

IMG_0813Like this, but less like a deer and more like a horse.

Coming into the two-stride line for the first time I opted to back off a bit and let Murray pick his own spots, even if it meant getting 3 in the combination.  B said I should just be prepared to ride the combination either as a 3 or, if the chip into the first one sent us forward, as a 2.  Murray was predictable and put 3 in the first time.  The second time we came around to it he also chipped into the first fence, but instead of sitting back for the three he opened up his stride and made the 2 with another launcher over the second oxer.

The two long spots are really the notable parts of the lesson.  First, Murray has never been inclined to decide to take long spots.  Some combination of my personality and his personality and athleticism have made it such that we can chip into anything up to — oh about 3’3″ — and get over it reasonably.  That’s not to say I prefer to chip into big fences, just that we have and it’s not been the end of the world.  B pointed out that chipping in is not always the right choice.  It doesn’t always get you out of trouble, you can’t always make it over the fences, and it’s not the most energetically efficient thing.  So it shows some maturity (I hope?) that Murray considered some long spots and didn’t think they were the worst thing ever.  In fact, he thought they were so much not the worst thing ever he put in several others throughout the lesson and a subsequent jump school.

Even better, these weren’t flaily-flat long spots that he took out of a misjudged distance or mistaken ground line.  Murray coiled up his haunches and launched us over those fences with plenty of room and energy to spare.  This is where my old position — imperfect in many ways — was superior to my current position.  If I’m a little bit out of the saddle and balanced in a half seat, then I’m more prepared to fold my body into those long spots as they come, instead of being surprised by them because I’m actively sitting back.  However, the better thing would be to strike a balance between sitting back and up and just slightly out of the saddle (as I saw many riders do at the Sac International this weekend) so that those spots aren’t surprising and I’m in a defensive position if I need it.

There is much to work on.  But it’s really nice to know that my horse is both mentally and athletically inclined to jump better, and bigger, things.

Couldn’t resist. Needed one more.

lessons from lessons (dressage)

I had originally intended to make my “lessons from lessons” post from Sunday a one piece post, but it became long and verbose and I really don’t like mixing jumping and dressage lessons because that way I don’t have as good of a resource for myself.  So here we go: lessons from lessons part two, aka THE DRESSAGING.

Friday our fab dressage trainer and DVM and chiro Tina Steward came to town and I had an early morning lesson with her before things got hot.  I was a little behind schedule so sadly wasn’t as warmed up as I wanted to be when my lesson started, but this turned out to be a good thing.  Tina watched me warm up both ways and then we chatted about what I wanted to work on.

If you recall from my Q3 goals post, one of my big goals this quarter is to get Murray starting to shift more weight to his hind quarters, lift through his withers, and generally start really trying to achieve some relative elevation.

IMG_1983This is lovely but it’s also very much on the forehand

One of the typical ways to encourage a horse to start shifting some weight behind is the T word: transitions.  And this works well for us; when Murray transitions downward from trot to walk he really shifts weight onto his hind quarters to do so.  And the purpose of all these transitions is, in my understanding, to help install a good half halt, where you almost transition down but instead recycle the energy forward and end up with a more balanced, uphill gait.  This is all well and good, but lots of transitions (a common prescription for working on shifting balance behind) are not exactly Murray’s cup of tea.  He’s a lazy boy and loves to play along for a few walk transitions.  But after about three repetitions of walk-trot-walk-trot he’s gotten wise to the game, and when I ask for a nice, balanced walk transition he will instead run through my hands because he knows I’m just about to ask for a trot transition in a little bit anyway.  And that defeats the purpose of the exercise.

uphill1Moar like dis!

Tina noted, during our chat, that left to his own devices Murray not only likes to hang around on the forehand (his fave place: long, low, and lazy) but that he is stiff behind and doesn’t articulate his hocks or stifles much.  But we both know he can do better, so she suggested that we use some lateral work to open up his hips and get him moving better.  We started with some shoulder-in on a circle.  This was hard for both of us: for Murray, because he’s not used to circling and bending quite so much, and for me because I’m not used to the shape of shoulder-in on a circle!  As is Tina’s way, as soon as Murray “got” the exercise a little bit we shifted back to the big circle to make things easier.  This meant that as soon as I could feel Murray’s gait get springier and as he released the tension in his back, I moved out to the big circle for at least one revolution.  The great thing here is that after the tough shoulder-in on the circle Murray was very willing to stretch down, and I could feel his gait getting bigger, swingier, and like more of a whole-body trot.

 shoulder in circle 1First, shoulder-in on a circle, slowly asking for more bend…

With each repetition of the exercise I asked for a little more shoulder in.  Because it’s hard to shoulder-in on a circle, we tended to drift in to a smaller circle, but Tina wasn’t too worried about that. Once Murray was stepping nice and springily on the small, shoulder-in circle, I leg-yielded him back out to the 20 meter circle and let him stretch down as much as he wanted.  I then pushed him forward and asked for a little bit of extension in his trot, looking for bigger (not faster) steps and more swing.  And curiously enough*, it worked!

shoulder in circle 2Then, once you’ve got a good shoulder in on the smaller circle, leg yield back out, and ask for a bigger trot on the big circle.

* This should not be curious. Tina is a fantastic trainer. Murray is just a curious creature.

This exercise worked wonders for Murray’s trot, and he groaned and grunted as we convinced him to loosen up his hips.  Luckily for Murray (!!), Tina said I could ride him like this three times a week.  A few more important points from this part of our lesson included:

1) Don’t let my inside leg slip too far back; keeping it right at the girth gives Murray something to bend around.
2) No more nagging Murray with my seat when he gets sticky in the walk. Instead, bump him with my leg, even if it makes him a little agitated.
3) Make every walk-trot transition count. Murray has developed a charming habit of tensing up and resisting my requests to trot.  This is not okay.  So every up transition, whether we are jumping or flatting, needs to be soft and obedient.  (He hates this. A lot.)

Our canter work focused on installing a good half halt and getting Murray to learn about collecting and sitting back on his haunches, all of which are interlaced.  We presented Tina with some very nice canter transitions (thank goodness!) and did a touch of counter canter.  Our counter canter is actually progressing very well, I just need to keep Murray a little straighter in the neck as I do our shallow serpentines.  So we quickly moved back on to the 20 meter circle and focused on slowing Murray’s canter to get him sitting back.

IMG_1991We tend to get flat and disorganized

Tina told me to think about pausing as my hips moved to the front of the saddle.  Murray felt my pause and was like “oh, trot?” and discombobulatedly fell into a trot a few times.  He was game to pick the canter back up again, and this time as I paused I also squeezed with my legs (half halt, anyone?).  This “hold and drive” served to really slow Murray’s canter, make him think more about how he was moving, and started to really rock him back on his haunches.  In both directions, our last few strides before we trotted were really set back and collected, and Tina pointed those out as the feeling I should be looking for.  With practice, we will be able to collect the canter much more easily, and extend, and collect, aaaaaaaaaand walk.  Because canter to walk is the devil’s transition.

I love lessons with Tina for many reasons: she appreciates Murray’s silly personality and how hard he tries (sometimes), but also lets me know when it’s time to kick some butt.  She is also a wonderful trainer and gives me excellent exercises to work on during our lessons, and excellent homework.  Which is probably no less than I should expect from a GP rider, trainer, and judge!!

My final bit of homework before I next see Tina (probably in two months, as I’m showing at the end of this month and traveling a lot in September so will probably have to skip that lesson) is to investigate a loose ring bit for Murray.  Tina noted (and going back through these pictures I’m seeing how true this is) that Murray tends to go from behind the contact to adamantly inverted really rapidly, but he’s never really seeking out the bit.  This might be due to the corners of the D-ring he currently wears poking him in the lips a little, and the side effect of the D is that he can lean on it when he is feeling tired or lazy.  So, time to investigate new bits.  My favourite thing.  Second only to saddle shopping.

uphill2Soon we will have ALL THE ELEVATIONS!!!

lessons from lessons

I had two very good lessons this week, which is a relief after last week’s shenanigans.  Tuesday I had a jump lesson with Alana, which revealed a few of my weaknesses but also helped me nail down how I need to ride to give Murray confidence right now.  It all started with the warmup X, which Murray trotted forwardly into.  Then he saw some scary stuff (jump filler) on the other side of the fence and off to the left, so he drifted right.  I thought we were going to drift into the standard and crash and panicked … and completely stopped riding.  Murray carried on with his forward momentum, felt me stop riding, crashed into the high side of the X, backed up, got the poles tangled in his feet, panicked, backed up some more, and spun around and stopped.

Which is, of course, exactly how one is supposed to ride a warm up X.  Excellently done, Nicole.


Alana stopped me and we talked for a bit.  I was feeling pretty sorry for myself and admitted that I just don’t trust Murray at all right now.  And Alana was like “Right, and nor should you. He’s not confident and is giving you no reason to trust him.  But you’re also not riding in a way that gives him confidence — you just stopped riding.  Instead you need to micromanage him a little bit until he is confident again.”

So we came in to the fence again and I kept Murray off my right leg and drove him forward and it was fine.  He jumped like a pro.  We cantered that fence both directions and off of all leads, and then added in another fence after, a 2’3″-ish oxer with flowers underneath.  I was sitting defensively coming in to the fence, but as we reached it I didn’t keep my leg on well enough and didn’t think Murray was going and saw a long spot and kinda threw myself at it and and and.  So of course Murray stopped.  The next ride I made sure the turn went just how I wanted it and kicked Murray to the fence, giving him no outs in terms of my position (sitting, straight back, leg on, but soft hands) and we sailed over just fine.

As long as I approached each fence like this, even the scary ones rode forward just fine. We dropped my stirrups (down three holes. THREE HOLES. What have I been doing with my stirrups riding around set for the legs of a toddler?!) and I kept my reins long so that I didn’t feel inclined to creep up Murray’s neck in an attempt to keep my hands soft.  When we came into the cordwood stack, Murray looked at it from far away and wanted to evade it, but I just kept my leg on and back straight and even though he backed off and broke to a trot and got disorganized he went.  And I managed to get him back and organized afterwards so that the following fence wasn’t a disaster either.

1454635_681995361841275_339630194_nThrowback to baby horse jumping! AWWWWWW

We coursed about 8 fences, nothing higher than 2’6″, just keeping my legs on and and reins long and a strong seat but trying to stay out of Murray’s way.  Nothing was spectacular, but we also didn’t crash into any more fences or have any more run outs. I’m to jump him a little bit 3x per week just like this until he remembers that jumping little things is totally blah.

Another moral of this lesson was that, at least for now, I am no longer to fight with Murray over things in the arena he finds “scary”.  When I’ve been bending Murray away from scary objects and pushing him towards them, he’s been responding by finding something “terrifying” on the other side to spook at.  Even if it’s just a funny looking patch of dirt or a jump standard in its normal and upright position.  Horrifying, I know.  So instead of picking a fight with him or even letting him have this fight, I am just to ignore Murray’s little-scary-things and keep focusing on the forward ride.  Inevitably, after four or five passes of an object, he will ignore it (mostly) and we can get on just fine, so for now: ignore.

IMG_7817I’m also incorporating more fun stuff into our weekly routine, so Sunday morning I warmed up over a few fences (no problems as long as I micromanaged and stayed firm!) and then went inside for a little casual pole bending.  Cuz, you know, pole bending!  One of my friends is a converted Western rider, and she and I set up a set of six cones at 24 feet apart and took both Murray and her adorable QH through them.  We started at a trot and Murray was super game and charging through the cones, so we had a go at the canter.  Our first run through actually went pretty well — we stayed tight to the cones and Murray even got three changes.  Our second run through Murray was like “wait this was hard!” and bucked instead of changing… so I took that as suggestion to go galloping in the field instead.  Because nothing soothes the soul like a good gallop.

Next week: dressage lesson! moar pole bending! moar jumping! EXCITEMENT!