Friday, September 28, 2012

When Are you Going to Learn to Ride?

"When are you going to learn to ride?"  I can't count the number of times I have heard that phrase when I tell my non-horsie friends that I take riding lessons.  In their eyes, there is an ending.  Some time that eventually you "get it" and have accomplished your goal of being a rider.  And really... how hard could it be to plop your butt on the horse and amble around?

I always respond that even Olympic riders continue to take lessons.   Whether you are an equestrian or a gymnast, there is always room for improvement and coaching.  And I am NOWHERE near an Olympic rider so I need even more coaching!

One of my favorite dressage riders is Steffen Peters.   He truly dances with his horses.   They move as one, playing off eachother.  When I watch him ride I'm not sure who is leading the dance -- it appears to be a cooperative effort -- as if the horse and rider make the same decisions.  Even better is when Steffen and his horse ride to music.

Steffen Peters is a three time Olympian and bronze medalist.   At that level, you can safely say that he has "made it" to the big leagues and in the eyes of my non-horsie friends has probably learned to ride.  No need for lessons here, right?  Wrong.

Steffen Peters continues to take lessons and has coaches to help him.  His wife Shannon is his frequent "eye on the ground" in addition to outside coaches.  He also trains with a personal trainer off his horse three times a week for core and cardiovascular training.

I study dressage.  I read books. I watch clinics.   I take notes.  I write this blog to help me clarify my thoughts.  Despite my study, I still don't know even a smidgin of what I want to learn about dressage and even the things I DO know I don't always practice.

I know that I should have a straight line from shoulder to hip to heel and strive to keep that outline but its hard to tell if you really have it right.   Its something I struggle with and there have been multiple situations where my instructor tells me my heel is too far forward on the horse.  I swear it FEELS like my foot is exactly where it should be but that's what a bad habit is.... repeating something that is incorrect even though you know better.  Without those eyes on the ground to tell you the reality, you will continue to repeat it and the habit will become even more ingrained.

So yes... non-horsie friends... I still need my lessons.  And when will I learn to ride?  Probably never but I hope I am improving.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Wacky Horses and Finding the Good in Not so Good Lessons

I had an early morning lesson today before work.   The air was crisp and clear with that fresh, almost washed smell to it.  Fall.... ahhhh... one of the best times to ride.  No bugs and nice cool weather.

That nice cool weather brings something else .... wacky horses.  

It started in the cross ties while I was tacking up.   Pacing and prancing.  Wrenching his head around sure that a monster was bound to jump out of the hay room.  Eyes wide.   Yeah.... this was going to be fun.

To add to the fun... a large tree branch had come down in the arena.   Now you and I know that the tree branch most likely will not sprout wings and come flying towards us throwing rocks but Golly was sure it would.

At this point I knew that the lesson was not going to be our best.  So how do you take what is sure not to be your best and make the best of it?

Don't Fight It
I had a couple of options at this point.  I could get on and spend the next thirty minutes trying for relaxation while I prayed for him not to kill me or I could take the smart and safe method.  I took the smart and safe method and lunged him first.

Its not wimpy to lunge your horse first.  You don't want a horse that requires lunging for every ride but sometimes he's just nuts and he needs an opportunity to find relaxation without worrying about you on his back -- and you worrying about coming OFF his back.

If you Lunge, Lunge with Purpose
Today Golly was afraid of the big evil branch in the corner of the arena.   So after we got some relaxation in the "safe" areas of the arena, we moved closer to the branch and worked there until he sighed and realized it wasn't going to eat him.   Lunging is not just chasing your horse in circles to tire him out.  Its a great time to start the work you plan on doing under saddle.   Work on transitions and bend.    Keep on the circle and then lunge him down a straight line.  Mix it up and do all of this near the scary part of the arena so he has something to think about besides the big scary item.

Let Go of Frustrations
Sure its frustrating to pay your instructor expecting that you are going to achieve big and bold things and then your lesson is five steps back from where you were last week.  Its easy to get frustrated with yourself and your horse.   Okay.... I give myself permission to be frustrated with myself (even though I probably shouldn't) but its not okay to be frustrated with your horse.  He really DOES think that that branch is going to eat him.  Its not his fault that he was born a prey animal and that you didn't take the time to ride him in the last week and now you want him to bend and contort and hey... be light on your feet too!  Take the day for what it is and do the best you can for that day.

Get What you Can From the Lesson
Once you sigh and realize that today is not the day you are going to recognized by the Olympic scouts, get what you can from the lesson.  Today I realized that he is not going to relax and stretch his neck unless I relax my hand and LET him.   Its hard when you have a bundle of nerves under you threatening to explode to react by RELEASING the rein but once I did, he relaxed and found the space.     I learned a few other good tips... but that is for another post! 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Mashed Potato Butt

It was one of those rare days when I had time AND the weather was beautiful.  I decided I would rather ride in our local park than do my usual dressage ring work. 

Although I didn't know anyone at the park, I did my normal "Hey, can I ride along with you" to the ladies parked next to me and we headed out to the trail.  (My husband alters the conversation a bit when I tell him I do this to "Hey, my name is Brianna.  Will you be my friend?") 

As we ambled down the trails we got to know one another and one of them asked me how I sat the trot without bouncing.   Well first... I was shocked she didn't think I bounced!   While I am working on the sitting trot, it certainly is not stellar.  Then I was a bit excited.. maybe I am getting somewhere with this dressage thing!

I asked her to trot off so I could see what she was doing and why she was bouncing.  Her horse was gaited so she was right to assume she should be feeling like she was gliding rather than bouncing across rough water on a boat.   Yup.... she wasn't imagining it... she was bouncing.

I noticed that as soon as her horse started trotting she tightened her butt muscles and upper thighs.   The effect was like a nutcracker.  As her legs tightened and squeezed, her butt rose from the saddle and became tight.  Her horse felt the tightness and responded by tightening his back.   The tighter her butt, the tighter his back.  The tighter the back, the more she bounced.  The more she bounced, the tighter his back.

I asked her to come back to a walk and imagine her butt was soft fluffy mashed potatoes.  Let the butt sink into the saddle like it got plopped onto a Thanksgiving plate alongside the turkey.

Once she got the feel of mashed potatoes, she tried the trot concentrating on keeping the mashed potato butt.   Aha!  Nice soft trot from the horse and she stayed in the saddle.   

A few strides into the trot, the butt started tightening and she started bouncing.  She returned to the walk and got the mashed potato butt back and tried the trot again.  Each time she repeated, she was able to keep the soft trot just a bit longer.   Like everything with the horse, practice until you think you have it and then practice it some more!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Overcoming Obstacles -- When My Knee Prevented me from Mounting

Right around Easter my knee started having some major health issues.   For a month or two I couldn't walk without crutches.    Of course I didn't want to stop riding though just because I couldn't walk!

Unfortunately it was my left knee with the problem -- my mounting leg.   I knew it would be an issue if the horse moved so I asked my daughter to hold my horse while I tried to mount using the mounting block.  I grabbed the mane to help pull me up.  I lowered the stirrup.  I wrapped my arms around his neck.  I tried mounting from the other side.   Then I cried.   I just couldn't get my butt into the saddle.   I took a break and tried again.  Another failure.  I cried some more.  This was truly worthy of  a pity party.  Waaaaa!   How could I live without riding?  (And yes... if my husband reads that line he will probably laugh... but really... my horsie friends get that I am serious.)

I gave it a few days and thought about how I was going to make this work. 

I needed two things -- the horse to stay absolutely still (and not have to find someone to hold him each time I got on) and a way of getting on from a higher point.

So I dragged a large plastic tack box to the arena and placed it parrallel to the arena wall with a space about the size of a trailer stall between it and the wall.  I then placed my mounting block along its long side effectively making a stair.

Now to see if it worked!   I led Golly into the chute created between the arena wall and the tack box.   Because I had it in the corner the chute had three sides so he had no way to move unless he went backwards.   No side steps!

Walking easily up the stairs I easily swung my leg over his back and tada!  I was astride!  Then a simple rein back out and I had accomplished my goal.

The added benefit of the chute system is that Golly has drastically improved his rein back as he is being forced to go straight out the back with no wiggle.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Short Post regarding Feed

I found the coolest thing this week and want to share!

I have two horses with dramatically different feed needs.  One is an older pony with heaves and the beginning signs of Cushings that is fed a huge amount of food in relation to her size.  The other is a 1300 pound draft cross who stays fat on air.  I've struggled on how to keep weight on the one and get nutrients in the other without making him puff up like a marshmellow in the microwave.

I mentioned this to the girl at the counter at Southern States and she handed me the number of their feed consultant. Turns out that Southern States has 150 employees trained in horse nutrition.   You can call them anytime and they will help you develop a good feeding program.  What a wonderful resource!

I gave her a call and about five minutes later got a call back.  After a 45 minute chat I found that the feeding program I was using was spot on.   So... I didn't get a new feeding system but I do feel much better that I am doing the right thing.   Worth every dollar of the free service!

Thoughts regarding the Rein

Looking back at my notes I have quite a few comments regarding rein pressure, direction and weight.
  • Its okay to use an opening rein when training.  Use the open rein to create space for the horse to come into.
  • Once your horse is a bit more "trained" you need to start moving and keeping your hands in a smaller space located in front and close to the withers.
  • Approximately 2/3 of the weight should be in the outside rein and 1/3 in the inside rein.
  • The outside rein creates the "wall" or the space for the horse to stay within.
  • The insides rein suggests bend.
  • The outside rein should be as steady as possible.  The inside rein has more movement and can be used to correct bend etc. by jiggling and slight movement.
 Some of my notes had to do with the relation of the rein to straightness.   For example, if the inside rein is loose because there is too much bend to the inside, you need to have more weight on the outside rein and push the horse via leg on the outside to help straighten him.  When you do then the horse will come up to meet the pressure in the inside rein.   In contrast, the answer is NOT to shorten your inside rein.

And the #1 thing to remember about rein pressure.   Use your seat FIRST and the REIN second.  We all have a tendancy to reach for the rein as the answer when the first tool should always be the seat.  Use those seat bones and weight to get what you want and if you dont get the answer, then use the rein in conjunction.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Shut Up and Ride... Sometimes.

Today's lesson brought a few aha moments.

For one of them I had to stop and spend a few minutes really figuring out what my instructor meant. .... which is an aha moment in itself.   I was going round and round and she was repeating the same thing over and over which meant "duh... I wasn't doing it right".   The bad part was that I wasn't even sure what I was doing wrong or even what she really wanted.  I could have kept going around trying and failing or I could stop and figure it out.   Going around trying things and failing really isn't fair to my horse so I stopped.   After a few minutes repeating back to her what I was thought she wanted and her confirming that yup... that wasn't it... I finally got it!

For the most part I think to be a good student of dressage you need to most of the time just shut up and listen.   Do what you instructor says and don't try to over analyze it.  Do exactly what they say and worry about the "why" later.  Usually in the process of "doing" the "why" becomes clear.

However, sometimes when you aren't even sure "what" they want you to do, you have to stop and ask.   Its a good use of your lesson time.

Today I was collapsing in on my inside waist line.   Because I wanted HIM to bend, I was bending at MY waist and destroying his straight line.   What I was getting was his inside shoulder collapsing with mine and his outside shoulder bulging out.  (You will begin to see that is a common theme with our riding!)  

What I needed to do to correct it was to straighten my inside waistline, sitting up tall, giving both sides of my waistline a feeling of stretch.     That gave us the straight.  Then to get the bulging shoulder back in line I needed to drop my outside hip in effect pushing his outside line in and forward.

Two more aha moments followed... but those are for another post.    Stay tuned!   

Monday, September 3, 2012

Walk Means Walk

An "aha" moment I had a few months ago regarded the transition from trot to walk.

When I transitioned from trot to walk I got the walk but it was a ambling walk, not energetic at all.  Then I gave him a kick to get the walk I really wanted.  

One day I had an "aha" moment that made me realize I was punishing my horse for doing exactly what I asked.  Instead of asking for an energetic walk, I was asking for a cessation of the trot. 

What's the difference?  Lots.   Asking for cessation of trot can mean lots of things....   walk with energy, ambling walk, halt, slow trot, quick walk.   Asking for an energetic walk means just that..... an energetic walk.    Its not your horse's fault if he doesn't answer correctly if you don't give a clear question.

So... if you are transitioning from trot to walk, ask for the walk you want -- not the cessation of the trot.  As you are trotting, start to visualize the desired walk and then clearly ask for it.

Favorite Method to teach Trailer Loading

While not strictly about dressage, if you can't get  your horse on the trailer you certainly are not going to get to your dressage show so I thought I would include this as well.

Over the years I have worked with many horses on trailer loading and now have a quite an arsenal of approaches.   Each horse is different and so each approach has to be slightly different as well.   The one thing that is consistent for all horses is that it takes patience.  The moment you try to rush the process or do a "trick" to get them in is the moment you lose the game.   You may get them on the trailer that one time but you haven't taught them anything and thus you will be starting at a spot even further behind then the first time because you have a horse that still doesn't want to get on the trailer but also knows your new trick and how to evade it.

You could write a book on all the different methods for trailer loading and I am trying to keep each of these postings somewhat short so I am going to focus on just my favorite method here.  Believe me -- I've tried everything on horses -- I even had one that the method that ended up working for her was to blindfold her and lead her in backwards!

To start... make sure you have gloves on in case of pulling and good footwear.

Before I even get close to the trailer I start by working the horse on the ground away from the trailer.  We work on simple commands to make sure the horse is listening to me.   Walk.  Woah.  Walk.  Woah.  Circle.   Backing up.   Going between items  -- making them closer and closer at times to simulate the "squeeze" of the trailer.

Once I know the horse is listening and calm I start doing the same exercises near the trailer.  If calmness continues then I try simply to walk the horse on the trailer.    Lots of times if you have the horse already listening to you that works.    Many times it does not.

If it doesn't then I get a long lunge line and feed it through the opening to the trailer stall, threading it through the escape door and back to me.  Once I have the lunge line in place, I lead the horse to where I can hook him on it but not terribly close to the door.   At that point I can stand near the entrance with a line to direct their head to the trailer entrance and my other hand free to use a dressage whip.   With their head facing the door I gently tap their back leg.   Not hard..... more of an annoyance.  A bit more annoying than a fly but not by much.   The SECOND they take a step forward I stop the tapping and tell them "good boy" and let them stand to relax.  If they pull back some that is okay.   Its not about forcing them forward.

I continue the tapping in sequences as they move forward, letting them relax a bit in between.  They may swing their butt out.  That is okay.. just keep the tapping up and make sure their head is always facing the trailer.   Let them figure out the best way to enter the trailer and that moving forward means the tapping stops.  Many people want to circle the horse if they aren't lined up straight to the entrance.   This is a mistake because the horse figures out that they get to move away from the trailer when they are crooked.    What they have done is trained you to release them from the scary object by going crooked.  Guess what?  They will do it over and over again!   Just let them figure it out that going crooked is not the best method for them.  When they bump into the divider a few times they will figure out going straight is better.

Once they are fully in, you can put up the butt bar and go around front to release the lunge line.

The good part about this method is that eventually they learn to self load and there is not major stress to it for the horse.  

Warning -- this method can take a long time -- I've spent well over an hour getting a horse on a trailer but once they do it easy to repeat and the second time takes MUCH less time.   I've also had this method work in just  few minutes though.   The key is patience.  Be prepared to take as long as it takes the horse to learn on their own that moving forward is the key to release of tapping annoyance.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Finding Straight.... in a not so straightforward post.

I've been thinking a bit more about the C in the last post and how to go from a C (where the top of the C represents the left shoulder bowing out and destroying your "straightness") to a capital I (where the horse is straight and stepping underneath himself).   When I first started to ride if the left shoulder was sticking out I'd want to pull on the right rein to try to correct.   With hours of my instructor correcting me I have finally understood that its the exact opposite.

But why?

To help myself understand the why part I got out a chain today and layed it on the table in the shape of C.    Grab the top of the chain and pull to the right to simulate pulling on the right rein.  The chain follows the movement of your hand and the top becomes straight but horizontally straight, not verticial.  The bottom of the C remains in the C shape.

The horse will do the same.  Pull the right rein and the head will follow, causing the left shoulder to stick out even more.   If you want the left shoulder to come back in and resume the straight track you need to provide pressure to that side - the same as if you "pushed" on the chain on your table.

So left shoulder sticking out requires a direct rein pressure on the left side.  Doing so will pull the horses head to the left and in effect pushes the shoulder in.

Wow... this is hard to explain!

Another way that might help is think about when you are on the trail.

If you are coming up on a tree on your right and your horse decides to get way too close, what do you do?   If you pull on the left rein, your horse's head will move away from the tree but his body will swing closer to the tree banging your knee straight into the tree.  What you really want is to provide rein pressure on the right side (the tree side) and leg pressure on the same side.  Your horse will bend around the right leg and your knee will be saved.   Of course the left shoulder is bowing out then so after you pass the tree you will have to provide left pressure (leg and rein) to push the horse back to straight.

Any of that make sense?   Hopefully not all topics will be this difficult to write about!   I think I will tackle something easier next time!