canter, dressage, dressage lessons, dressage training, dressagemortals, equestrian, horsewomen

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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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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cantering, dressage, dressage lessons, equestrian, horse husband, natalie perry dressage

Post Lesson Euphoria

My husband is getting tired of hearing me say, “Best lesson EVER!” every Tuesday afternoon.
Poor man. Little does he know that he’s in a much better position than the husband whose wife comes home discouraged, tired, or — worse yet — angry after every ride.
I am a rider who is cheered by each ounce of progress we achieve on a weekly basis. I ride a wonderful horse, who is consistent and sane, yet makes me work at it. Any time we make progress I have the dual pleasure of knowing that I worked for it and an appreciation of the gift my horse gives me by choosing to go along with this crazy sport we call dressage. After much hard work, we are hitting our stride.
Credit goes to my trainer, Natalie, of Natalie Perry Dressage. Natalie has figured out my quirks and foibles and works really hard to get messages through my helmet and into my brain and body. It’s no small feat.
After some time off, I had backslid a bit with the my nemesis, the left lead canter and Natalie took me back to the trot to address the problem. She had me turn Micah with the outside of my body onto and off of the center line. The exercise fully illustrated the importance of the outside aids, which is a total body experience. You simply can’t make such a tight turn by hauling on the inside rein much as you might want to. Every time I think I understand the outside aids, I find a new level of understanding and appreciation.
The outside-aid turn was just what I needed to help me to more effectively use my body in the left-lead canter. I practiced the exercise during the week and we repeated it again today, with the result of some truly beautiful canter work. It’s music to my ears when Natalie says, “You’ve been practicing.”
I hope it’s rewarding to her that I am listening, paying attention, and trying hard to incorporate what she teaches. Her job isn’t easy.
No matter what level we ride, we can make progress with the help of caring instructors and kind horses. Let every bit of improvement cheer and inspire you — letting both your horse and trainer know how much it means to you. We’re all in this together.

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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

IMG_8916 (2)
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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