on words

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

– Granny Weatherwax
in Wyrd Sisters, by Terry Pratchett

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

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

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

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

So yes. Those words are Martian.

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

How. What the fuck?

Pressure, said the cowboy. Energy.

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

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


refractory to intention

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ride almost in a shoulder-fore.

Rounder. Flex him.

More. Less.

Half halt.

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

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

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

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

exploring my (cereal) box

I’m going to dive right into how the Mary Wanless Workshop last week changed my biomechanics. I rode as a demo rider, not a student, so the “lessons” I got weren’t necessarily focused on major problem solving or making me and the horse improve a great deal. They were focused on demonstrating to the other instructors and riders there how biomechanics can influence the horse and rider both generally (everyone should have a good cereal box) and specifically (Nicole has a funny wobble to the right that isn’t present to the left). But that doesn’t mean I didn’t get a lot of great information about my riding and how to improve myself.

(You can see more on the general structure of the workshop in Megan’s posts, and L’s posts, and a bit more about what it’s like to be a demo rider in Kate’s posts.)


it’s very exciting being a demo rider, that’s what Floundy thinks

After asking the first two big questions (“Is it safe?” and “Who is taking whom?”), the instructors pretty quickly turned their attention to our cereal boxes, known in common parlance as “the torso”. Instantly, my cereal box was identified as lacking. To which I cheerfully responded, “yes, I’ve often lamented that I don’t really have a cereal box, I have one of those big bulk bags of cereal you buy at the hippie store”. (It got a laugh, which you know I live for, and a compliment on my good attitude from Mary.) Alexis said that my torso is a classic “soap in the bathtub problem”, and has been very challenging to organize. Don’t I know it.

When we later discussed what each of our bodies would be stuffed with if our skin were just a bag (as if it isn’t), the teenaged demo rider was given “an excellent tonal quality”, the young adult demo rider was considered a little overstuffed/rigid, and I was deemed bimodal. Someone said it was like my legs were stuffed with putty — an excellent, excellent quality, putty is firm but yielding — but my torso was… squashy. One instructor said “it’s like she has a shifting layer of sand above her pelvis. Mary suggested my torso was full of polystyrene beads: amorphous, shifting against one another, not inclined to hold any one shape.


I appear to be stretching up somewhat here, but alltogether not too terrible

All of this is completely true and a problem I’ve been working on ever since my first biomechanics lesson. I’m not sure what my torso felt like before I started thinking about biomechanics (this is an important point — I’ll circle back to this in a later post), but I know that as soon as I started to think about my torso, I’ve felt its weaknesses. It doesn’t want to be a box. It wants to flap back and forth and side to side. Once, Timer pulled on me in a down transition and I felt my seat stay in the saddle and my shoulders go forward and I literally¬†folded in half right above my hip bones.¬†And part of the strategy I was given to combat that is to make my torso shorter and wider; to make it a less-tall rectangle so that it can be a stronger rectangle. And it made perfect sense. I can see in old pictures that I used to stretch up like crazy, so we needed to bring it all back down a bit.


holy stretch up batman

Somewhere along the line I did what everyone does: I made the solution into the problem. Someone told me to bring my ribcage down closer to my pelvis, so I brought it down to my pelvis so good,¬†so good, that I didn’t have any torso left. But it still wasn’t a strong, stable core.

At the end of the first day’s ride, Mary and two other experienced instructors realigned each of the demo riders. Mary worked on me, and focused in on three things right away. 1) I sit too far back on my seat bones, 2) I put those seatbones too far forward in the saddle, and 3) that darn cereal box. The changes for 1 and 2 were pretty simple, but 3 was the real project. Mary first told me to stretch up, “I don’t tell many riders to stretch up,” she said. “You’re one of them. Congratulations.”

I took it as a compliment, obviously.


holy shit look how good i am at squashing my ribs into my pelvis – and this was before i’d even been told to do it!!!!

But simply stretching up wasn’t really satisfactory to Mary. She was standing on a step stool next to me and put her hands on either side of my ribs firmly, with just her thumb and a couple of fingers held together like a little point. She said she wanted to “pull” me up by the ribcage. After wiggling my ribcage up with her hands, Mary said “can you feel like your pelvis is hung in a harness?” I have heard and read that image from Mary several times before, but have never really managed to wrap my head around it. Hung in a harness? From where? With what? I said as much to Mary, “but,” I added, “I do feel like my pelvis is hanging down from my ribs right now.” “That’s good,” she responded. “Keep that.”

Atlas kindly let me volunteer my old position on him on Monday, complete with my inability to carry my own forearms.
note: seatbones pushed forward, no curve to spine (lower back too far back),
sitting too far back on seatbones

Mary pulled my low spine back a little bit — stretching up and moving my seat back had rocked me too far forward on my seatbones — and added a little bit of curve to the top of my spine. She put her fingers on my low back above my pelvis and encouraged me to lengthen my back, between my ribs and my pelvis, without tipping forward — just pulling my front line down a bit, and pushing up my back line. (Almost like how TC wants to go – with his chest plate shoved forward and down.) Mary also had me bear down, on the sides, and in my low down bear down, which was a pretty different feeling after having bear-down-ed through such a crushed torso for so long. She prodded me in the 2-pack and asked me to bear down into those abs specifically, but¬†not to let them fall out beyond my ribs. With a little more poking and prodding and resisting her push, it felt like I had two boards of wood running down my spine, like the two long muscles in my back were¬†finally turned on. (Only about two hundred more to go!)

I practiced “hanging myself” throughout the weekend, poking my fingers into my own ribs and “pulling” up to let my pelvis “hang down” from my abdominal muscles. On day two I walked in with my new seat and torso alignment. One of the participants commented that it looked like I was about 3″ taller. I got to spend the next two days’ rides practicing this feeling, and of all the changes Mary put on me, it’s probably the one with the strongest “memory”. It’s also got a great physical cue and verbal cue, which makes it easier to get back to. By day three I didn’t have to think about hanging myself constantly, I was starting to automate it (probably prematurely, but oh well).

new position. much lighter, much more “meringue”.
could probably use a little less length in the front line and a little more length in the back line.d

I’m not “fixed” by any means, but I now have some much better muscle patterns to build on and improve from.

It’s like I started out with a somewhat crumpled cereal box, and in an attempt to make it stronger and give it some proper edges I was cramming it down as hard as I possibly could. As if pressure would turn my crumpled cereal box into a diamond, since it was clearly never going to be a box. And then Mary came along and was like, well why don’t we stretch this crumpled cardboard out a little bit so its edges can do their jobs and make it like — you know — a box.

a superlative weekend with mary wanless

Last weekend I had the great joy of spending three days at the Mary Wanless workshop held at American Sport Horse. Even better —¬†I got to be a demo rider. This caused a bit of scrambling and panic as I didn’t know I was a demo rider until the Monday before the workshop, so I had to plan to get the hell down to Dodge much earlier than I thought, and Kate had to figure out what horse she was going to sacrifice to three days of torturing me in front of a crowd.

we both love purple we are clearly meant to be soulmates

It was Flounder. Of course it was Flounder.

This was a bit of a cause for trepidation for me, as Flounder has a serious habit of bullying me. He sees me coming, knows I have treats, approximates my weight as not terribly more than that of a 14 year old girl, and pulls out his authenticated LessonHorse‚ĄĘ moves upon me. He loses steering, rushes, balks, throws his head up, throws his head down, and generally behaves as if he’s never even thought about going on the bit before, much less been shown successfully by an actually 14 year old girl. And the worst part? IT WORKS. Fortunately for me, I begged Kate to let me ride a much nicer and smaller pony she has right before I got on Flounder, and in the small-pony ride Kate gave me some tools that I immediately put to use on Captain Flounderpants to prevent him from taking such terrible advantage of me. I cackled the whole time and Flounder, reluctantly, gave up.


yellowhorse in his natural habitat, snoozin in shavings

Torturing myself and learning more about my weaknesses is kinda my jam, so I was very, very excited to be a demo rider. I have some crazy asymmetries and the world’s least box-like torso and I was pumped to have them addressed in front of a crowd. As a demo ride you are not allowed to change what you’re doing until you’re specifically told to, or told to experiment with changing it. So you really get used to the uncomfortable.

Over the course of the weekend, many delightful things were said about me. Things like, “you have a great attitude about this,” and “she has a great tonal quality to her legs, like putty” and “the stuffing doesn’t fade from her legs partway down, I wish I had that” and “you want to see that tendon, which she has in spades”. Those were really awesome things to hear. I’ve been working on the quality of my leg position and tonality all year long, ever since last year’s workshop. So to hear that it’s been paying off was obviously wonderful.


super casual GP rider olympic long list saddle club times

But I also got to hear many¬†other delightful things about me. Things like, “I almost never tell riders to stretch up. You’re one of them. Congratulations.”, and “can you hang yourself in a harness? Good, now hang yourself some more,” and “Nicole’s torso is one of the hardest I’ve worked to align, it’s a total soap in the bathtub.” Also, “she has a layer of shifting sand above her pelvis”, and “have you had a serious head injury at some point in your life?”¬† and “keep working on hanging yourself over there!” Additionally, “I think Nicole has the squashiest middle I’ve ever seen on a rider. Congratulations! You’ve given me a new challenge!”

To say that I’m pleased I could be one of the few riders Mary has ever told to stretch up and the squashiest middle she’s ever seen would be a¬†vast understatement.¬†I’m fucking delighted.

But my delight isn’t just in Tanya Vik naming me most likely to have organs made out of shifty sand (or Mary’s suggestion – tiny polystyrene balls) or having Anne Howard complimenting the putty-like quality of my leg or Heidi Chote telling me that I did a good job through Floundy’s ridiculous head-swishing or Agi Yother saying my resistance is strong or Joan Bolton telling me my following mechanic is quite good. Yes, obviously I’m happy to brag ad nauseum about those things, because they made my chest puff up. And it wasn’t even getting to watch GP riders heckle one another about their biomechanical flaws. (“You look like the type of people we make fun of. And I don’t want to have to make fun of you!”)

The real delight is the whole environment. Everything taken together. First time learners, second time learners, old-timer-learners, returning learners. All of us working together on a puzzle and trying to put it together into its most whole and accurate form. Some of us have more pieces than others, some of us are the pieces, some pieces disappear after you find them, and some of us don’t even know about the existence of certain pieces yet — we’re just starting to learning that maybe there’s something missing in our puzzle because all the pieces we do have don’t fit together quite right and there’s a kindof puzzle-piece-shaped-hole right in the middle there.

we reviewed footage of the canter. flounder did not approve of canter.

It’s learning. It’s learning and discovery about riding and learning, in an environment full of people who love to learn about riding and learning. And I got to be right in the middle of it. A beginning learner riding okay-ish on a LessonHorse‚ĄĘ listening people to talk about my greatest and most obvious flaws, none of which I knew existed before that moment.

It was awesome.

As Mary always says: rosebud is no worse than a rose.

nuggets of Mary

Some choice nuggets of wisdom from Mary that I found scattered throughout my notes.


 

Don’t give up when you’ve got it. Both as a learner and an instructor, think, “I’ve/you’ve got it — now make it again. Good, now make it again. Now make it again.”

Got it, lost it, got it, lost it, got it, lost it, got it, lost it — this is the process of learning.


lost it

On change: it doesn’t take long to change your perceptions. Close your eyes. Hold your arms level. Now raise one arm up 45* and the other arm down 45*. Hold them there for ten seconds or so. Now, with your eyes still closed, bring your arms back to level. Open, and observe the difference between the heights of your arms. Most people will have brought their arms back to a quite uneven “level”. Just ten seconds with your arms at different heights changes one’s perception of “level”.

“I have to do it right,” blocks you from learning. Dressage is an experiment. It’s not always about doing it right every time and never doing it wrong. Give yourself the freedom to play with your riding, so you can¬†find what is right.


experimenting!

The solution becomes the problem. Such is the way of learning.

“Do nothing” or “Do X” both assume the rider is the same as the instructor — the same feeling, the same ABCs*, the same problems. It is the trainer’s job to pole vault across the gap in understanding between the trainer and student. (See Megan’s iceberg and triangle of skills for more on the ABCs.)


connecting our left brains and right brains

In riding, you have to use your left brain and right brain. The basic process is right brain –> left brain –> left brain –> right brain. You have a feeling (right brain) –> you identify it + say the words –> you hear the words (from you or a trainer) –> you have the feeling again. The words don’t have to make perfect riding sense, as long as you can attach them to that feeling. (One rider described her feeling to Mary as “I feel like a meringue”. Mary had no idea what that meant, but the rider was clearly doing something right, so she kept telling the rider “be a meringue! you’ve lost the meringue — there you go, that’s a great meringue!”)

I’m trying usually means “I’m wishing, I’m hoping, I’m wanting, and I’m sweating — but I’m probably not doing it yet.”


lol, we did a lot of TRYING

getting stacked

Unlike many clever, productive bloggers I know, I wasn’t able to either a) get posts scheduled for the week of the Mary clinic, or b) get my Mary notes into blog-form immediately after the clinic. I have very good reasons for this, though. I was busy RIDING PONIEZ. I didn’t send in a video as a demo rider, since I had hardly ridden in the four months before the clinic. But I had some pretty big riding takeaways from the clinic, and Kate kindly offered up some of her ponies for me to play around on and practice with.

The biggest was about my plungers, specifically my faulty left plunger. Faulty? Maybe not faulty. Perhaps just a little less effective, kinda clogged with coffee grounds.

french GIF
pro tip: do not search “plunger” on giphy

Much as many people describe the horse’s body as made of train cars or blocks that you want to line up with one another (and not have the caboose off in some other universe or traveling¬† different direction), your torso can be thought of as stacks of boxes or building blocks (there are great images of this in When Two Spines Align). For a strong torso, your building blocks need to be stacked on top of one another squarely. They should be box-like.

But not everyone is box-like. Some of us have an extremely-well-developed gangsta lean.

I’ve been leaning off of the left side of horses since before you were¬†born.


that’s not true at all, I’ve only been riding for nine years (so if you’re nine or younger, then it may be true)

I’ve known for a long time that there’s something wrong with my left side. On occasion, I’ve tried to counter-act the leftways lean by leaning right¬† or just JAMMING my left leg down. But those are not actually solutions. It turns out, my left side lean is¬†much more complicated than that.

What the Mary clinic and riding with Kate showed me is that the problem with my left side has to do with how my boxes are stacked on that side. Somehow, my boxes are smushed down on the left side, with their center of smooshness somewhere near my hip. My left leg is shorter, my left seat bone isn’t on, and my left obliques are all shortened, and to top it all off I sit on the right side of the saddle. OH AND my left leg is less stuffed and toned than my right. It’s so embarrassing.

Kate picked this up first, when I was riding one of the horses at her barn. She encouraged me to put weight into left leg and sit with my right seatbone almost in the center of the saddle. I was like “no! I’ll fall off if I do that! My left seatbone is like 2″ off the saddle when I do that!”


not as bad, but my left side is still being a dick here

The next big piece came when we did spinal realignments during the clinic. After seeing L get her spine stacked up to neutral, I was like “me! me next! me me me!” and stripped off as much of my clothing as I could bear to shed so I could have my spine aligned properly. Hot hands packets fell out from all over my body as I did so, but I didn’t care. Anne sat me down on the bench, asked me to assume neutral, and then pushed down on my shoulders. I fell backwards at the lightest touch. Like not even a little bit unstable or wiggly, I straight up FELL BACKWARDS because my “neutral” is not straight.

Anne had to get after me a bit to get me to sit up straight, then showed the observers how my spine lacked the appropriate curves in general. I don’t have enough lordosis in my low spine, and not enough roach in my upper spine. (Roach may be the wrong word.) Anne added in a touch of curve to my lower spine, and had me lower my sternum. Then she pressed down on my shoulders again and I was a MUCH sturdier box. My leftways collapse was gone (or at least minimized) when I got my spine stacked up properly.

Image result for human spineit turns out that spines¬†should be curved — just in the right ways

A third big piece of the puzzle came when Mary talked about the plungers and showed us how to assess our internal obliques. Okay, so what is the plunger? In short, the plunger is the feeling of weight down through your body, and you should have equal plungers on the left and right. Adopt a stance of extreme ‘tude. Your ‘tude-iest ‘tude stance. Cross your arms, sass your computer (or your dog or your boss), and lean on one leg. Feel how well the forces transmit down into that leg? That’s the plunger.

This could be wrong, but to me the plunger is strong when your box edges are all perfectly lined up, and the forces are being transmitted as efficiently as possible through your bones to your joints to the ground. Change to your non dominant ‘tude side. If you’re anything like me, you won’t even feel a plunger on that side. It’s like that leg is barely attached to the rest of your body and the ground. Mary had this whole method of moving the plunger from one side to the other but it didn’t work for me, really.

What did change my plunger was lengthening and shortening my internal obliques.¬†There are three layers of obliques (I didn’t know! I should have, I spent enough time with animal carcasses), and they all strap your torso in slightly different directions. The internal obliques point from your hips up toward your sternum (desperately trying and failing to find a way to involve Mary’s memory device of “tits up” here). You shorten the internal obliques on one side (say the right) by bending to the right, crunching forward, and twisting¬†to the left. You lengthen the internal obliques on that same side by bending to the left, leaning back, and twisting¬†to the right.

We did this back and forth slowly about ten times, exaggerating the movements. Then we switched to the left internal oblique. After stretching and shrinking both sets of obliques, my left plunged SLAMMED into the ground. It was as if I could suddenly feel my weight equally through both legs. It truly felt like all of my boxes were actually lined up on my left side.

I haven’t had a chance to try this exercise in the saddle, and I’m not entirely sure it would be safe to do so. But next ride, I’ll give it a go before I hop on and report my findings.

As with all things Mary, your mileage will vary. LB-LB communication is fraught with error. But if you’re having trouble with twisting one direction or another, just know that it could very well be your abs (and plunger) working against you.