dressage, equestrian, training

2nd Level to the Right, Training Level to the Left

My trainer's words bounce off my helmet, landing in the footing with a soft "poof".

My trainer’s words bounce off my helmet, landing in the footing with a soft “poof”.

As Micah has gained strength and balance, he’s ready to start doing more collected work. As usual, he’s ahead of me.
I’ve been struggling with issues in my riding that have made asking my horse for harder work unfeasible. If you can’t ask correctly, how can you expect your horse to give you any more than he’s already giving?
Those of you with unruly body parts will understand that despite the best of intentions, some limbs seem to act of their own accord. In my case, I’ve had a habit of allowing my right hand to be pulled forward when Micah and I travel to the left.
Micah asks me to do this because it allows him to pop his right shoulder and work a little less hard. He’s quite convincing, taking the right rein inch by inch. It’s a habit we’ve developed over time and it’s become so ingrained, I’m truly not aware I’m doing it.
To be fair, Natalie’s been working with me on this for ages. I’m fairly sure her words bounce off my helmet, landing in the footing with a soft “poof” before they disintegrate into dust.
Sometimes it takes something special for a message to get through the ears, into the brain, and truly understood.
One fine day, Natalie uttered these magic words: “To the right, you’re riding Second Level. To the left, Training Level.”
(Ow! Let that sink in for a second and feel my pain.)
“Micah, we have been dissed,” I said.
But Natalie’s words rang true, giving me a clear and effective image. Her words, combined with the demonstration of asymmetry that Micah and I provided got through the force field of my helmet, worked their way through my ears, and into a level of understanding I’d been missing.
Determination kicked in. I needed to ride both directions equally well. While that sounds simple, it is profound.
We went on to ride a series of figure-8’s at the trot, me working my heart out to ride both directions consistently. Steam whistled from my ears and out from under my helmet, as this is as much a mental exercise as it is physical.
Success is not an instant, but a process.
The result? We’re improving and moving on to collecting the canter — which you simply can’t do without a consistent outside rein. The work is really hard but so much fun, words can’t describe it.
I’m reminded yet again of the importance of position and the consistency of the aids. And I’m oh so grateful to Natalie for continuing to work with me, looking for those magic words that make a difference.
May you find those magical words and images in your own riding!

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Competition Tips, dressage, dressage competition, equestrian

Show Ring Ready with Natalie Perry

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It’s a blast to watch Natalie Perry of Natalie Perry Dressage compete. Her tact and patience is amazing. Baby horse misbehaves, Natalie smiles as if to say ‘What can you do?’ Trained horse wobbles a little and she firmly but gently gives the horse more support.
Natalie’s the first to admit and remind her students that horses are animals, after all. In a recent interview for Flying Changes magazine, Natalie said, “Not everything is going to go your way in the show ring. No matter how hard you practice at home, horses are animals after all. You can’t control everything.” I found this advice reassuring, as I prepare for my next schooling show, determined not to pressure myself into a form of insanity known as Show Nerves.
Natalie also gave this fantastic bit of advice, which I’m using to help me to intensify my focus … since I tend to ride with relatively low expectations (for myself and my horse) when I’m not preparing for a show. “You have to prepare your horse for the level of intensity you’re going to expect in the show ring,” Natalie said. “Otherwise, you’re going to frustrate your horse.” Summed up: it’s not fair to ride ride like a cowgirl six days a week, then expect a dressage horse on show day.
My prep work at home has included incorporating an exercise Natalie recommended, which she learned from Dutch trainer Barbara Koot. “Write down every moment of your test, including every half-halt, bend, and step of preparation you intend to ride,” Natalie said. “Read it until it becomes engrained.”
No matter what level you compete in, your behind-the-scenes work will make a difference in your self-confidence and quality of your ride.
To read the full article go to or see their October 2015 issue, hot off the press.
To learn more about Natalie Perry go to

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Hesitation Blues: the Equine/Human Mind Meld

They say a horse can feel a fly anywhere on his body. This time of year, watching horses twitch, swish their tails, and stomp their feet, this does appear to be true. But can a horse feel a thought?
I’m not saying that horses are psychic but clearly my horse, Micah, feels every waiver of my attention. Let’s say we’re doing a leg yield and someone walks by the arena with a wheelbarrow. My eyes flicker to take that in and there’s an instant wobble in the leg yield. Micah felt my attention stray and his mind went off course with mine. The wobble was minor but real.
You could say Micah was paying such close attention to me and that he responded accordingly. Or you could say Micah took advantage of a moment. Regardless, he felt my focus fade and responded accordingly. No matter how you describe or interpret the behavior, it’s rare to find a horse who will go on auto-pilot for long, unless you’re asking for an amble.
I’ve begun to see just how important focus and the human/equine mind meld is in training. The other day we were practicing halt/trot transitions — an excellent exercise. I was trying to get Micah to move briskly off my leg into the trot. In my first attempts, Micah was sluggish. I realized that I was hoping he’d spring into the trot but not really following through with my body language. As a result, Micah would lumber into the trot, with me just a bit behind the movement. We’d pull it together within a matter of seconds, but it really wasn’t good enough.

Even at the halt, we need to maintain focus

Even at the halt, we need to maintain focus. Photo by Andrew Martin

Improvement only came when I made a full commitment to the transition. Instead of hoping Micah would trot off briskly, I rode him forward into the trot, expecting a crisp response.
In the first instance I was tentative, saying “I hope you’ll go.” In the other, I committed and moved with Micah into the transition. This time I said, “Let’s go!” and Micah heard me. The difference was impressive.
Moving out of the halt. Could have used more forward focus. Photo by Andrew Martin

Moving out of the halt. Could have used more forward focus. Photo by Andrew Martin

If you hesitate mentally or physically, you horse is likely to respond with a hesitation of his own. He’ll give you what you ask for: a half-hearted transition.
As riders, our attention has to be riveted on the task at hand. Our bodies need to commit, as well — going with the horse’s movement, anticipating a prompt response, and giving at exactly the right moment.
Try this exercise yourself and see what kind of a response you get. Once you fine-tune it, you should get more prompt trot transitions throughout your ride. You can work on all of your transitions this way. Let me know how it goes!

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dressage competition, dressage pet peeve, dressage spectators, equestrian

Short Dressage Show Rant

It’s time for me to share my #1 horse show pet peeve: Spectators Who Critique Rides

[Begin Rant]

Dressage looks easy from the sidelines but it’s actually a horribly exacting sport involving a 1,000 pound herbivore with a flight instinct.


Spectators who critique rides from the sidelines do everyone a disservice. Most disturbing are spectators who don’t compete themselves. If you’re not brave enough to be in the show ring yourself, your comments are unfair, unwanted, and unkind.

Most of us know enough dressage lingo to sound knowledgeable. It’s easy to say someone needs more outside rein, a more secure seat, or more tactful hands — but to have the presence  of mind to accomplish these things in a stressful environment is something else.

From the sidelines, it looks as if each test moves in slow motion — as if the rider has plenty of time to make corrections. One might assume, from a ringside seat, that there’s MORE than enough time to half-halt, balance the horse, finesse the bend, or whatever else the rider needs to do.

Perhaps that’s true for professionals. As for the rest of us, we wish! Transitions happen quickly — lightning-fast. The judge rings the bell for you to go in, and the next thing you know your reader is calling, “X, halt salute.” You’re done and it’s all a blur. You’re still gasping for air. You didn’t have time to correct mistakes, you simply had time to make them. Or so it feels.

If you’re an expert rider, have pity for the less fortunate — they are struggling. If you’re not an expert, don’t pretend to be. You may be dissing the rider in front of you within earshot of their friends and family. That’s tacky! While you’re using the tone of a knowledgeable critique, what you’re really doing is a put down.

If you can ride better than that poor soul in the ring, do it. If you can’t, acknowledge the time, effort, and courage it takes to compete and give them a hearty round of applause for all of that.

Dressage is a lovely sport. Let’s keep it that way.

[End Rant]

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Barn Women Get Weird

One of the things I most like about horsewomen is that they’re not afraid to get their hands dirty. Or their mouths. It is perfectly acceptable for horsewomen to talk about semen, for example. Nonhorsewomen generally don’t discuss semen outside of a gynecologist’s office.

I threw a little happy hour get-together last week and invited several women from the barn. Seven women and 26 limes resulted in the consumption of 72 ounces of margaritas. The discussions ranged far and wide but the highlight of the evening came when Tina gave us a reenactment of her stallion’s day of semen collection.


Using several bar-b-que skewers to represent rails, a cucumber slice to stand in for the ‘plain as day Quarterhorse mare’, and a bit of chicken satay to show the relative placement of the ‘phantom,’ Tina gave a lively recap of the day’s events. Let’s just say her young stallion had a little trouble getting things right. Thank goodness for the two burly guys on hand who got things corrected. It’s dangerous work.

My next-door-neighbor had stopped in to visit and was amazed and amused. She’d previously had no idea how this deed was done. Fortunately, as a nurse, she’s not squeamish. “Wow! I like these women,” she said.

It’s so refreshing to get beyond polite chit-chat, politics, and the weather. Thanks to horses, our lives are anything but dull.

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Back in the Saddle

You know you’ve been missing your horse when you’re mountain biking to the tune of “I Should’ve Been a Cowboy.” There’s something very weird about that.

Much as I love mountain biking, there’s nothing like being on a horse.


Yesterday’s return to the barn with a little country western playing on the radio felt oh, so right. I even enjoyed the long, long walk to the far reaches of the pasture — where the grass is so much better than right next to the gate.


Micah has shown little enthusiasm for my plan to teach him to come running at the sight of me and my carrots. I slog across the pasture, watching swallows sail through the grass, a few geese honking overhead, perhaps a hawk. The walk takes so long, dandelions pop up, mature, and go to seed before I reach Micah, in the far corner. He’s so far away, I can’t see any detail — I just aim for the biggest horse out there.


Sometimes Charlie, the youngster of the group, gets the herd riled up and cantering to the gate. I appreciate when he gets Micah to the gate for me, but no such luck today.

Continue reading…

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