dressage training

dressage, dressage training, equestrian, horses, transitions

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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And Then I Turned the Page: Second Level, Test 2

Last week, I left my lesson ecstatic. I loved Second Level!
Second Level Test 1 was tough, but doable. I bubbled with enthusiasm and hope for the future. I imagined a fun and successful show season.
The next day, on a long flight to Florida, I reopened the test booklet and turned the page: Second Level, Test 2.

Second Level, Test 2 begs the question: Who am I? Where am I going?

Second Level, Test 2 begs the question: Who am I? Where am I going?

Reading through the test I found myself lost several times. I started to panic. Who was I? Where was I going? The test includes an abundance of counter canter. Plus, you do some fancy half-turns and half circles that look like freeway on-ramps, if viewed from above. Who made up these tests?
I had to look it up: was travers the same as haunches in? (Yes) Speaking of haunches, the test also includes the turn on the haunches — which are an intuitive nightmare. You’re not actually moving the haunches so much as moving the forehand around the haunches. You employ a mysterious mishmash of aids which confuse the heck out of me and the horse. It all happens in slow motion (at the walk, right in front of the judge) and try as I might, I can’t really tell what the hind legs are doing.
My previous day’s confidence eroded and I found myself swimming without a life vest in a sea of self-doubt. As the plane landed, I texted my trainer: “Just read Second Level Test 2. OMG.”
As we waited for our rental car, small children scampered through the airport. They were delirious from lack of sleep and the excitement of being so near DisneyWorld. I snarled at them as they passed, exhausted from my own day of travel.
Plugging my phone into a nearby power outlet, I began watching youtube videos of real-life competitors riding the test. I needed to know what was happening as soon as possible.
The videos gave me a better picture of what happens/when and helped me to calm down. I started breaking the problem down into manageable pieces. I also started to have fun, watching those really expressive horses who were practically calling out to the judge, “Not enough preparation on that transition!” or “Could have been more tactful!” By the time my husband got the car, I was snorting with pleasure watching wringing tails and the occasional buck into the canter depart.
My trainer texted me back, “It’s going to be fun!” And so I cheered up.
Upon my return home, we worked on several of the harder parts of Test 2 in our lesson. It is going to be a lot of work, but it really is going to be fun.
Dare I read Second Level, Test 3? Perhaps not yet. I’ll work up to it, perhaps after a shot of tequila.

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Conversing with Your Horse

Micah Headshot 2
This week’s focus has been on improving my riding to the left. It’s always been my most difficult direction and you can clearly see the difference in our work to that side.
The right side is so much easier, it’s tempting to stay in that direction forever. But that would be cheating.

Alas, dressage is about symmetry.

To the right, I can carry on an ongoing conversation with my horse pretty easily. My aids are faster, softer, and more responsive. I can sit correctly more consistently. Not surprisingly, everything is easier for Micah in this direction, as well.
To the left, I am sluggish. I have a tendency to give away the outside rein (although we’re making big improvements) and my fingers just aren’t as nimble on the reins. I also tend to push my left leg forward at the canter in this direction, stiffening in the saddle at the same time. I’m more likely to get pulled forward, out of the saddle. These are hard habits to break. Yet, I can’t expect my horse to improve if I don’t.
I’ve also noticed that when I’m working at something I find difficult, like haunches in, I freeze up once in a while. When I’m concentrating really hard, I’ll assume a position and lock into it — exactly the opposite of carrying on a fluid conversation.
I can now see (thanks to Natalie’s astute observations) that if the horse is locking up (usually coming above or behind the bit and glaring at me), I probably started it by locking up myself.
My new mantra is to keep the conversation going. To me, this means trying to keep my aids fluid and responsive at all times, in both directions, and especially when I’m doing something difficult.
We’ve all seen the polished rider who goes with the horse through a shy, kick, or a bolt — they just keep riding, no matter what. I want to be that rider minus the naughty horse.
As always, changing habits is hard but I love riding with a goal in mind. Chances are, you and your horse have one preferred direction as well. This week, try to feel the difference and work toward symmetry. Best of luck! Just by being attuned to this, you’ll make progress.

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Back in Order

I carefully warm up my horse, paying attention to where he feels stiff. Until he’s completely warmed up physically and mentally, he’s not likely to give me his best work. Since he’s 20 now, I have to respect the fact that his body has its limits.
My body has limits, too, but I sometimes cut corners, trying to save time and money. About once a quarter a I need a tune-up from my favorite chiropractor/muscle worker. Putting it off isn’t a smart move.
Last Thursday I tried riding with a back that felt like a rusty chain. It tweaked in the rising trot and squawked during sitting trot and canter. A couple of the links in the chain had rusted shut. I got off my horse, gave him a sugar cube, and called the chiropractor.
The result? After my tune-up, today’s ride was 300% better! On top of that, I wasn’t in pain! That’s always a bonus.
Note to self: take the time to work on your own body — it’s just as important a part of the ride as is taking care of the horse.
I suspect that some of last week’s struggles were related to a tilted pelvis and a few locked-up vertebrae. I was working against myself.
Today’s ride was so rewarding, my biggest struggle was in not shouting out to everyone in the barn how good my boy was. Micah’s probably just as grateful as I am that my back is more supple and fluid.
Let’s remember to take care of ourselves, acknowledging that it’s time and money well spent.

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