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dressage training

dressage, dressage lessons, dressage training, Turn on the Haunches

Dressage for Dummies: Turn on the Haunches

“Dressage for Dummies” has yet to be written, despite the serious need!


The ‘For Dummies’ book series includes a mind-boggling range of topics, including dating, the internet, law, and nearly every sport under the sun. Every sport except dressage, that is.
After today’s lesson, where we labored through the Turn on the Haunches, I was prepared to write the book myself.
For reasons I can’t fathom (perhaps because I am a dummy), I find Turn on the Haunches to be a serious mental challenge. I’ll think I have it, then lose it.
When I gave it an attempt today, Natalie said, “That’s turn on the forehand.”
“Ack.”
I tried again.
“That’s turn around the middle,” she said. A new movement, yet to be documented.
“Ack.”
Natalie broke it down for me in this way. On a fairly small circle, with the horse walking, put him in a haunches in position. No problem.
Now make the circle smaller, asking the shoulders to move over as you ask the hind legs to keep moving in response to your legs. Your outside rein asks the shoulders to move to the inside of the circle. Your horse is moving his shoulders around the circle, as opposed to moving forward.
I found this to be very helpful, although my mind spins trying to comprehend the logistics of what’s going where/when. I also get dizzy really quickly.
When I suggested the horse needed a break, Natalie said, “This is really easy for him. He could do this all day.”
Ok, I couldn’t.
I came home and watched a few YouTube videos of Turn on the Haunches to put a visual image of the movement into my brain. Here’s hoping it sticks.
Clearly Dressage for Dummies hasn’t been written because it’s a more complex subject than dating, the internet, or law. Alas.

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The Elegance of Elbows

Despite what non-horsepeople say about the horse doing all the work, those in the know are all too aware that dressage is a total body workout. To persuade the horse to do anything other than graze, run off with you, or haul himself around on his forehand takes a lot of convincing. It also takes a super-human coordination of the rider’s legs and limbs in concert with the seat, core, and shoulders. It looks so easy when done by a professional.
As an adult amateur dressage rider, I am constantly trying to align errant body parts. To have them work up to a full concert would be fantastic. For now, I’d settle for something resembling a recognizable melody.
This past week my elbows stepped up as the body part of the month. I’m sharing this story because I’m impressed with how paying attention to the elbows has made a significant difference in my effectiveness.

Assuming you don't want to look at my elbows, here's a shot of Micah (right) with Harrison, the handsome new guy at the barn.

Assuming you don’t want to look at my elbows, here’s a shot of Micah (right) with Harrison, the handsome new guy at the barn.


My trainer has long been nagging me to keep my elbows at my side (especially the right elbow, which colludes with my horse to give away the right rein), and while I’ve improved, I only really got it last week. (Note: I reserve the right to back-slide at a moment’s notice.)
We were working on haunches in, a counter-intuitive maneuver which messes with the mind and body of both beast and rider. We were flailing along, kind of getting it, when I glued my elbows to my sides and voila! haunches in happened.
I applied this technique to the trot and — amazing — it improved! As expected, gluing the elbows at the canter is more difficult so that’s going to be an ongoing effort. Gluing the elbows while remaining relaxed and fluid is another challenge, since it’s easier to turn into a chunk of concrete when becoming uber-focused on correcting a habit.
Try it and see if focusing on your elbows helps you. You may have noticed that all of the professional riders keep their elbows at their sides while the less skilled of us flail our arms about. Keep a mental picture of the rider you want to be in your mind as you try bringing your awareness to your elbows this week. Give it a go at the walk, then work your way up.
Happy riding!

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Chocolate-Covered Canter Squares

As delicious as they sound, chocolate-covered canter squares

As delicious as they sound, chocolate-covered canter squares


My new favorite exercise is the canter square. It’s not actually covered in chocolate but the name has a delicious ring to it.
Canter squares are hard work for both horse and rider. I love them because they are really making me ride the canter. No more wishful thinking! No leaning forward out of the saddle! No giving away the outside rein!
If done correctly, canter squares make the horse really use his hind end, so it’s a great strengthening exercise. Micah’s canter is improving by leaps and bounds. Plus, canter squares are so hard, it makes the counter canter seem less intimidating (to me). I think it’s good to always have at least one really hard exercise in your repertoire, so you can keep redefining your definition of difficult.
If you’ve never ridden a canter square, first master the exercise at the walk and then the trot. If you have an instructor to help you, even better. Instead of riding a circle, thinking of riding a square. Move your horse’s shoulders over to make a right-angle turn at each corner. This takes lots of outside rein and a bit of outside leg up toward the shoulder. Sit back to encourage your horse to use his haunches and lighten his front end. Be sure to give (but not throw away) the reins after the turn to reward your horse (and avoid hanging on his mouth).
Once you get the basic idea down, you can start to finesse it. I ask Micah to slow down for a stride just before the turn. This really makes him use his haunches.
Canter squares are hard work for your horse (like weight-lifting), so don’t overdo it. And, be sure to tell him he’s a good boy!
Good boy!

Good boy!

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The Ugly Transition

I’ve been thinking a lot about transitions lately, because we are doing a lot of them. The canter to walk transition is my new best friend. Why? Because it’s teaching Micah to listen up and allow me to do the driving.
When I first started riding dressage, I hated transitions. Things would be going along just fine at the trot, so why risk blowing it by falling into the walk or running off into the canter? Both things happened regularly and I wasn’t adept enough to know how to fix it … so I avoided it as much as possible. That’s rookie behavior.

An ugly transition may catch your horse off guard, leaving him to wonder if you've lost your mind.

An ugly transition may catch your horse off guard, leaving him to wonder if you’ve lost your mind.


I’ve come to realize that dressage tests have lots of transitions for a reason. Transitions show how well you are or are not riding. That being the case, you may as well make them your friend.
Personally, I hate ugly transitions — but I’ve come to see them as meaningful learning opportunities. An ugly transition usually indicates that Micah isn’t listening and/or I didn’t prepare him well enough for our next move. When Micah throws his head in the air, falls on his forehand, or is sluggish in the transition, it’s a sign that I need to improve my communication. Sometimes I need to be more subtle, giving more quickly to reward my horse’s response. Other times when I need to be more firm and direct.
It’s been hard, but I’ve learned that intentionally ugly transitions can be important training tools. When Micah is running off, ignoring my half-halts, leg and seat aids, it’s a good idea to throw in a strong halt. This transition won’t be pretty but that’s ok. The next transition is almost always better, as Micah gets the idea that I mean it.
I would love it if Micah would listen up every time and I never ever had to say, “Do it now!” If he’d respond to every half-halt and squeeze of my leg, life would be so much easier. But, as you’ve heard me say before, dressage isn’t his idea. The fact that he complies as willingly as he does shows me that he’s a generous soul.
When I’m schooling, I remind myself that horses don’t respect tentative horses or humans. A good firm “I don’t think so!” or “Yes, you will!” is much more effective than hoping my horse is going to listen to my aids. I speak from experience here, having been a hopeful rider for many years.
So, I strive to be direct and firm while taking care to reward every good response from my horse. Even if he isn’t perfect but his response is on the right track, I let him know. As Micah responds more quickly to me, I try to lighten my aids and reward him with my voice, a pat, a break, or a sugar lump. I also expect our progress to be intermingled with setbacks — who can blame a horse for checking occasionally, to see if the rules have changed?
As you work toward riding beautiful transitions, know that both you and your horse can learn from the less than perfect moments. Listen to what your horse is telling you and make sure he’s listening to you, in return. Communication is a wonderful, two-way street.
Happy riding!

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When Life is Beyond Your Control

As the poet Robert Burns so aptly put it, in his poem ‘To a Mouse’ … “The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.”
So went my week.
Here’s a photo of the two events that conspired against this week’s riding time.

Mom arrived the day after Al's achilles tendon repair. Chaos!

Mom arrived the day after Al’s achilles tendon repair. Chaos!


First up, my husband, Al, called me from the orthopedic surgeon’s office on Monday afternoon to let me know he’d be having his achilles tendon repaired first thing the next morning.
Since that was my riding lesson day, Al suggested I might be able to drop him off at the surgeon’s and have me pick him up after the surgery. Like that was a real possibility. When we got notice to arrive at the surgeon’s at 6:30 a.m., I called Natalie to let her know I’d need to reschedule my lesson. Canceling lessons is one of my least favorite things but Al needed surgery as soon as possible.
The surgery went well and my husband is now on crutches, unable to drive for at least six weeks. He’s also unable to do the many household chores I now fondly remember as being his domain. Our lives have been turned upside down.
The following afternoon, my mother arrived for a visit we had scheduled several weeks ago. She took the sight of Al on crutches quite well. We loaded mom and her suitcase, Al and his crutches into the car and set off for an interesting evening of adjusting to a new household routine.
One week later, I returned to the barn and was informed that Micah had been ‘quite wild’ in Hannah’s lesson on Friday. Fortunately, ‘quite wild’ meant ‘very forward’ at the canter. Nothing super naughty, but something worth correcting.
I’m assuming that Micah’s regular chiropractic work with Taryn Yates DVM coupled with time off is contributing to his new, more forward demeanor. He is thanking me for spending my disposable income on his behalf by behaving badly.
Back in the saddle on Sunday, I worked on reinstating brakes at the canter. My favorite tool is the canter to walk transition. We’ve been working on the lovely Second Level move of the canter serpentine, which requires the walk transition as you change direction. This movement is fun and great for training yourself and your horse to prepare for a transition. Highly recommend.
Unfortunately, the canter down the long side lacked the grace of the serpentine. Micah sees a straight line as an opportunity to take control, barreling along on his forehand. We worked on the canter/halt to correct this misconception. The next day my upper back and shoulders could definitely feel the effects. Micah is a big, strong guy.
Today, I returned to the barn eager to see how much Micah had remembered. I started off by trying to be much more exacting with everything we did, instead of settling for half-mast like I sometimes do.
I could hear Natalie’s voice in my head as we picked up the canter. “You’ve got to really ride it,” she said. And so I did.
When your life is feeling out of control, letting your horse get the upper hand only makes matters worse. I stayed focused and we had a really good work session, leaving me determined to work on making Micah more adjustable in the canter in each and every ride.
Thinking back, I know I see Natalie and Mari throwing in canter/walk transitions throughout their rides, all around the arena. I’ll be doing the same.
If your life is feeling out of control, focus on one thing you can fix and take pleasure in it. While you’re at it, remember to enjoy your horse and thank him when he responds correctly. Dressage probably isn’t his idea of a great time.

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Dressage Diehards

It was a dark and stormy morning. Fine weather for ducks, but few other living beings. The wind was howling, it was a whopping 36 degrees, and rain was blowing sideways.
Looking out the window of my cozy home, I questioned my decision to go to the barn. Like most dressage diehards, I was operating on auto-pilot. I always go to the barn on Sunday morning. I pulled on wintery layers of riding clothes and was in the car before I had two many second thoughts. En route to the barn I had enough time to question my sanity.

Guest parking was eerily empty. Where is everyone??

Guest parking was eerily empty. Where is everyone??


While we expect cold and sometimes snowy winters in Central Oregon, spring is a changeable mystery. In fact, the season is known as Sprinter — a collision of spring and winter. Today winter doing a good job of maintaining her dominance over her softer, gentler cousin.
As rain splashed up from the road, splattering my windshield, I wondered who else would show up at the barn. Several of us had made plans to meet around 10, but on a day like this, who could blame a person for sleeping in, having a second cup of coffee, and deciding to do something normal? I decided that anyone who made it to the barn today would automatically be included in the prestigious Dressage Diehard Club.
The barn was eerily quiet when I arrived. No cars in the trainers’ spots and guest parking was empty. This could be a small club.
The car door about blew off when I opened it. Not a good sign. I made my way to the pasture to capture my horse, the wind pushing me sideways. My dog Skittles, normally a faithful companion, asked to be let into the barn. She wanted indoors, despite her super-stylish waterproof jacket.
My horse, Micah’d had enough of the wind and rain to be happy to see me (aka: my carrots). He marched up willingly and asked to be led inside. A favorable tailwind made it a quick walk.
Inside, Laura was taking care of her horse, who’s been having an allergic reaction. While she hadn’t come to ride, she was inducted into the Dressage Diehard Club just for having the guts to show up. It was good to have company.
A good mom, Laura showed up to take care of her horse, despite the weather.

A good mom, Laura showed up to take care of her horse, despite the weather.


As I was grooming, Nichole and her daughter, Lauren, arrived. Yay! Lisa and Jessie pulled up with a trailer at the same time. Things were looking up. Nichole took a group photo of us, to commemorate the inaugural meeting of the Dressage Diehard Club.
Dressage diehards (from left): Lauren & Skittles, Jessie, Lauren M., Lisa

Dressage diehards (from left): Lauren & Skittles, Jessie, Lauren M., Lisa


We had a grand ride, grateful for the indoor arena. The wind howled outside and rain pounded on the roof, but we were cozy dry.
Lisa K. arrived later and joined us, looking only slightly confused when I inducted her into the club.
Lisa K. and her beautiful horse, making their way into the Dressage Diehard Club.

Lisa K. and her beautiful horse, making their way into the Dressage Diehard Club.


In the end, we had a grand time and were glad we’d all made it. The horses all behaved as if things were normal, doing their dressage work as if it was a perfectly reasonable thing to do on a stormy day. Micah got an extra carrot for being a good sport but asked me not to take his picture, since being a Dressage Diehard is my idea — not his.

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