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dressage lessons

cantering, dressage, dressage lessons, horses, natalie perry dressage

Revelation on Center Line

Skipper taught me a valuable lesson this week, with Natalie’s help.

Skipper looking adorable

We’ve been working on a pas de deux with my friend Mary and her horse, Dooley. Part of the choreography includes cantering down the long side on the right lead, making a turn to the right onto the center line, then at the far end of the arena making a trot transition and a turn to the left.

As we approached the turn, Skipper threw in a lead change. We tried again, he did it again.

“Why’s he doing that?” I asked Natalie. 

It seemed like an odd thing for him to do.

“You’re anticipating the turn,” she said. “He thinks you want a lead change.”

I wasn’t intentionally asking for a lead change but I rode the movement again — this time paying attention to all the little signals I was giving Skipper. I noticed that I turned my head to the left, anticipating the turn. And, much as I was trying to keep the bend of a right lead canter, with my outside leg back, I was shifting in the saddle in anticipation.

Which is why Skipper threw in another change of lead. 

I stopped at the wall and laughed out loud, giving Skipper a pat.

“He was doing exactly what I was telling him,” I said. 

Natalie laughed as well. What was a revelation for me had been obvious to her.

With my new knowledge, I rode down center line as if I was going to make a turn to the right. Within a stride or two of reaching the wall, I asked Skipper for a trot and we made the left turn. Success. I had made what I wanted clear to my horse.

It was another brilliant example of how horses listen to us — and the best ones try, even we’re less than perfect. 

I’m so grateful to my trainer for remaining patient when I’m sometimes so unaware of what my body is doing. Instead of chastising me, Natalie gave me the time to feel what I was doing (aka: learn from my mistake). 

This lesson reminded me that we’re always communicating with our horses and if they don’t respond the way we anticipate, we need to look again at what we’re telling them. Sometimes they’re doing the “wrong” thing because that’s exactly what we asked them to do!

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Opening Up to Skipper

For some time now, Natalie’s been telling me to bring my shoulder blades back and together. I understand what she’s saying and I try. It works temporarily, and then I forget. It feels forced and I tense up. It hasn’t stuck.

This week, Natalie tried a different approach.

“Open your chest,” she said. And what a difference it made.

Opening the chest achieves a similar result to “bring your shoulder blades back” but, for whatever reason, the image works better for me.

While it takes effort for me to open my chest, it doesn’t feel forced. I can feel my shoulders going back, my elbows sitting more naturally at my sides, and my pelvis opening up. I can breathe more deeply.

“Open up” makes me realize how much I tend to curl up, when I’m trying hard, which is most of the time. 

When I turned Skipper out, after our ride, he was in no hurry to return to his friends. We’ve turned a corner in our relationship.

A large part of riding Skipper, my* new horse, is that I need to ride with more relaxation. When I relax, he relaxes. When I tense up, he assumes I’m going to ask something from him. He’s an excellent communicator.

‘Open the chest’ is a subtle thing but the results are noticeable. My position is better and Skipper relaxes in response, moving his back and hips more freely. He’s more comfortable to ride and that creates a positive biofeedback loop — he’s relaxed, I relax, and so on. It’s pretty wonderful.

What amazes me is how important subtle changes can be. And, how the words we use can shape the images that influence us. Lots of lessons learned today.

Skipper is new to me and I really want to be a positive influence in his life. If I want him to be relaxed and responsive to me, I have to open up to him. Breathe deep and show him everything is ok. If I curl up my body in a defensive posture, how can I possibly convince Skipper to relax and trust me?

When I turned Skipper out to pasture today, he stopped to hang out with me. I scratched his neck, he sniffed my hair. He was in no hurry to run off with his friends. These are the moments I cherish. You can’t force a horse to like you. When you open yourself up to them — and you’re lucky — they open themselves up to you in response.

*I am co-leasing Skipper. I don’t own him but he is in my care … which makes him ‘mine’ figuratively. In short, I care for him as if I own him.

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A Fresh New Perspective on Riding

The new year brought a flurry of snow and several new beginnings: Pfifer, my wonderful new (lease) horse invited me to take a fresh look at my riding — learn to ride her correctly while breaking old, bad habits and building new skills. Every horse has something to teach. 

Early on, Claudia, Pfifer’s owner, videotaped one of my riding lessons with Natalie. The video made it painfully obvious that Micah (my previous ride) and I had created some bad habits together that I needed to address. Ow.Out of that developed my New Year’s riding goal: quiet those legs! 

When I shared my thoughts with Natalie, she cheerfully took my resolution to heart and we once again tackled the issue of my busy legs. Pfifer’s more correct responses to the aids offer me a perfect opportunity to work on my self. Indeed, she is good for me!

To increase my chances of success and put my New Year’s intentions to work, I signed up for a clinic with Tina Steward. Tina has a depth and breadth of experience that is quite remarkable. Better yet, she relays her experience and expertise in a direct manner, quickly honing in on horse/rider issues. I was excited to have her take an objective look at my issues, knowing she would do so in a kind manner. (It’s no small thing to invite an expert to pick apart your flaws!)

Tina watched me ride, analyzed my position, and used a slightly different approach to help me stretch and quiet my busy legs. While I’ve long tried to ‘lengthen the leg and lower the heel’, I was trying to force this to happen…which hasn’t been very effective. In fact, my issues start high in the leg and I need to relax the entire leg in order to lengthen and assume a more effective position.

With my feet out of the stirrups, Tina encouraged me to ‘drape the leg, just let it hang’. For a Type A personality like me (and a lot of dressage riders), just letting something happen is tough. I tend to want to MAKE things happen. However, when I let the legs relax and open at the hip, I got results! And, when my legs relaxed, my seat got softer, following the horse more fully — bonus!

Pfifer liked this as well! 

When I picked up my stirrups, I continued to focus on relaxing my legs, letting my thighs lose their death grip on the saddle. Tina also had me take my leg completely off of Pfifer’s side, occasionally — which increased my awareness of just how often I was nagging the poor horse.

“When your leg is on, it should mean something,” Tina said. Indeed, Tina wants us to ride and train as if we are preparing for the FEI level. We must be precise and our horses must learn to respond promptly.

While I still have plenty to work on, here’s a little video of our lesson. You can see what a beautiful girl Pfifer is and that she’s working hard to put up with me as I figure things out!

Today’s lesson was a combination of the right input (analysis, words, and visual images) at the right time. It was a coming together of just what I needed in the moment.

Had it been a little later in the day, I would’ve opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate. This is a big deal!

Today I am savoring the sense of breakthrough and reliving the muscle memory of what correct feels like. My new mantra is “soft legs, soft seat” and I’ll be starting each ride with my legs out of the stirrups to encourage the stretch.

I’m more than a little excited to see my new year off to such a productive start! If you have a riding goal for the year, make your intention known to your trainer as soon as possible. And, remember to be kind to yourself and your horse as you work toward that goal, good things take time.

And now for that glass of champagne! Cheers!

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Revelation on Center Line
September 11, 2019
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August 5, 2019
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Pfabulous Pfifer

I’ve never been a big fan of the saying that ‘When one door closes, another one opens.’

While it can be true that change is for the better, when you’re in the midst of a loss, sometimes you just need to embrace the sadness before looking for the bright side.

In my case, letting Micah go to the retirement he deserves was painful. I loved him to pieces and losing him as my riding partner left a hole in my heart.

However, a door truly did open at just the right time and I have been graced with the opportunity to ride Pfifer, a wonderful Friesian/Quarter Horse-cross mare, for the next few months. The transition helped ease the pain of letting go and has proven to be a way for me to improve my riding, while giving Pfifer some exercise as her mom recovers from an injury.

Pfifer on a winter’s day

The timing has been so perfect, it’s a little scary.

I have long admired Miss Pfifer. Why? Because she’s strikingly beautiful — jet black with the tiniest of stars on her forehead. She has a gorgeous hind end and well-developed neck, put together in a package that is a just-right 16 hands. While she feels litle, after riding Micah, she really is a great size.

Thanks to regular training by Natalie Perry, Pfifer’s matured into a trustworthy girl who is rarely rattled by the ups and downs of barn life. (She does — for reasons no one understands – hate fly spray, but that’s a minor quirk that’s easy to live with.)

Much as I miss Micah, Pfifer is good for me and my affection for her grows with each ride. I have to keep my hands quiet and am sitting more upright. This leaves me time to focus on my New Year’s resolution: quieting my lower legs.

As I struggle with improving my position, Pfifer is tolerant of my failings and remains good-natured even when I confuse her. I love that.

2018 was my year to acknowledge how little control I have over things. In addition, it gave me the chance to embrace the things I am grateful for in my life. 

As I ride into 2019, I am begin the new year with hopes of improving my riding and a sense of gratitude for my support team: my trainer, Natalie Perry; the Pfabulous Miss Pfifer; and her generous owner, Claudia.

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canter, dressage, dressage lessons, dressage training, equestrian, horses, natalie perry dressage

DIY Dressage


I’ve always been a Do-It-Yourself fan. When it comes to riding, I usually enjoy doing the work myself and only occasionally ask my trainer to ride my horse. However, there are times when it is well worth it to ask my trainer to help us get over a significant hurdle.
In this week’s lesson, I had the strong desire to get off my horse and ask my trainer to please do it for me.
Natalie was yelling, “Don’t give up! I know it’s hard. Keep at it!”
I was cantering around in circles, feeling like the human fly. Micah was blowing me off. I have worked less hard mountain biking, nordic skiing, and running a half marathon.
Micah simply didn’t want to give up control of his right shoulder in the left lead canter and he especially didn’t want to give me a trot/canter transition while doing it. With Natalie’s encouragement, I ‘won’ (aka: got what I was asking for) but it was exhausting.
While I can’t wait to ride again tomorrow and test out what I learned, I also realize that having Natalie do some schooling will speed up the process. Micah’s the kind of guy who gives in once he knows the game is up. I can’t wait to see the look on his face when Natalie climbs aboard next week. She is my secret weapon.
While DIY is great, it’s silly not to use all of the tools that are available to us as riders. And, I’m having so much fun anticipating next week’s lesson. . 🙂

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Resisting the Temptation to do What’s Easy

I’m learning a lot about training, thanks to our new puppy. Whimsy’s a bright girl who quickly realized who was in charge (mom) and who was Mr. Fun (dad).

Whimsy makes an honest attempt to pay attention in puppy class.


Dad spends a lot of time avoiding the things that set Whimsy off, into a frenzy of playful jumping and biting. I understand the desire to avoid conflict, but it’s clear that the more you avoid something, the more important it is to actually address the issue.
Of course I see the parallels in my riding.
Everything I do with Micah is more difficult to the left — due to issues in my body as well as his. As a result, it’s so much easier to linger on the right side, where everything is easier.
Two years ago, Natalie even said to me, “You’re riding Second Level to the right; First Level to the left.” Ow!
While we’ve made big progress and the issues aren’t nearly as glaring now, the right is still our preferred direction.
Thanks, to Whimsy, I’ve decided to renew my commitment to working on what’s difficult, resisting the temptation to do what’s easy.
Granted, there are times when it helps to get things rolling in the easy direction, then try to copy that ‘feel’ in the harder direction. However, I’ve let that become a crutch. It’s time to break the habit.
Today, I vowed not to start off to the right, where’s it’s easy. I picked Micah up at the walk going to the left, asked for a marching walk, asked the neck to bend in both directions, and gave a prompt correction if he slowed down or pulled on the rein.
It’s obvious that this work is going to be good for me, my horse, and my puppy. While it’s tempting to do what’s easy — avoidance doesn’t pay off in the long run.
Give this a try with your horse (dog, husband etc) and let me know how it goes!

Related posts
Revelation on Center Line
September 11, 2019
Opening Up to Skipper
August 5, 2019
Ride the Ears
July 2, 2019