A good halt looks deceptively easy — emphasis on deceptive.
In fact, an excellent halt takes focus, coordination, and preparation. That’s why, when I achieved a prompt and balanced halt in last week’s riding lesson, I shouted, “Wow! That was the best halt of my life!”
Heading down centerline for a halt
Natalie and Mari were in the arena with me at the time. They laughed at my exuberence but understood exactly why I caused a commotion. An excellent halt is an achievement.
I had worked hard for that halt and was especially pleased. So I couldn’t stop myself when, that evening, I tried to explain the beauty of the halt to some non-horse friends. It went like this.
Confused looks and polite nodding, followed by: “What’s so hard about stopping?”
Fueled by a glass of wine, I ventured into territory I should have circumvented.
“Imagine this,” I said. “You’re driving your car and, when the light turns red, you slam on the brakes. You weren’t paying attention and were caught off guard. Your passengers’ heads snap forward and the dog falls off the back seat onto the floor. That’s an ugly halt.”
“You can do a similar thing to your horse if you don’t prepare him. Instead of using your legs, core, and then hands to let him know a halt is coming, you simply haul back on the reins — which is equivalent to stomping on the brake. You throw your horse off balance, he tosses his head in the air trying to compensate, and –instead of being able to tuck his four legs neatly under him — he scatters his feet and gives you a dirty look. In competition, a judge would make comments like ‘abrupt,’ ‘unbalanced’, and ‘needs more preparation.’ You’ll get a crappy score.”
My dinner companions shifted in their seats, understanding the analogy but questioning where I was going with it. Deb stole a few french fries off my plate.
“At the other end of the spectrum is the overly cautious driver,” I explained. “Imagine you’re driving home a friend who’s just had back surgery. Not wanting to jolt your passenger, you creep to a stop five feet before the intersection, then inch up to the pedestrian crosswalk. This is a smoother stop but the drivers behind you wonder what you’ve been smoking.”
“When you’re riding, meandering into the halt is as much an error as is slamming into the halt. The judge wants to see the rider maintaining the gait, riding smoothly forward into a prompt, balanced halt at a very specific location. In short,” I said, “you’ll get dinged if you’re early, late, too abrupt, or too lackadaisical. Precision is important.”
My friend, Liz was regretting her decision to practice Dry January, because I wasn’t quite done. “The halt is so important in dressage that in competition, every test begins and ends with a halt. How you execute it speaks volumes about how well you and your horse are communicating.”
While I was having a grand time, I’m pretty sure the Dormouse fell asleep in his tea at that moment. And, because I love my non-horse friends, I changed the subject to skiing and suggested Deb eat the rest of my fries.
In a sport that is considered to be an individual effort, a pas de deux is a clearly collaborative achievement that brings its own rewards.
Here’s how I went from clueless to competing in just over a month.
“You two should do a pas de deux,” Natalie said. “Your horses would look great together.”
Mary and I had just returned from Adult Rider Dressage Camp with Dooley and Skipper and we were flush with excitement. The horses had exceeded our expectations, meeting new challenges while handling the stress of working away from home. It was a bonding experience for all of us — but until Natalie mentioned it, I’d never really noticed how similar our horses looked: two smaller chestnut geldings with a bit of chrome.
Mary had ridden quadrille and competed in an upper level freestyle with her horse, Dante, so she had experience. Plus she’s fun and easy to get along with. To learn from Mary was a chance I’d be foolish to walk away from.
So I said, “Sure!”, without knowing exactly what I was getting into.
We set up a training session, to give it a whirl. We started with the basics: having our horses walk and trot within a few feet of each other, trying to match their tempo on straight lines, in circles, and across the diagonal. It wasn’t easy but we had a lot of fun.
Before we go further, I need to mention that Dooley is a rescue horse who’s come a long way in a short time under Mary’s kind hand. Dooley had done well at Intro Level at local shows and was schooling Training/First Level. He’s been under saddle less than a year.
Skipper’s had the benefit of more training, competing at Third Level with professional Mari Valceschini — but he’s still relatively new to me, so I planned to take him out at First Level in an upcoming League Show.
The bottom line? Dooley was the less-experienced horse but he had the benefit of Mary’s extra experience. It had the more seasoned horse but have less experience/skill as a rider. It made for a wacky kind of balance.
At first, the horses seemed a little confused by riding side-by-side, but they quickly caught on. In fact, when we went down center line together and parted ways at ‘C’, me going right, Mary going left, Dooley looked back at Skipper as if asking, “Where’d he go?”
At the walk and trot, Skipper’s faster pace meant Mary had to push Dooley on while I worked to collect Skipper back. At the canter, which we practiced in circles at opposite ends of the arena for safety’s sake, it was my turn to push Skipper forward. We laughed a lot as we made mistakes and learned from them.
“They look adorable together,” Claudia said, as she watched us.
“You guys should do a pas de deux at the show!” Laura said. The secretary for our upcoming League Show, she was serious.
I laughed, nervously. The show was only about three weeks out and I like to over-prepare. I’d never dreamed of competing in a pas de deux on such short notice.
Mary had a gleam in her eye, though, and I sensed there was no turning back.
That week, Mary took the music from her upper-level freestyle and modified the choreography to Training Level. She came back to me saying, “Want to give it a try?”
Of course, I did! In our next session, we worked on choreography. We needed to decide what level we’d be riding so we could incorporate the required movements. First Level would definitely be flashier but it’d be a step up for Dooley. It was time to get Natalie, our trainer, involved.
In a series of semi-private lessons, we decided to develop a First Level routine and fine-tuned the choreography, accordingly. During practice sessions, Mary and I gradually brought the horses closer together at the walk and trot, until we had moments where we were so close, our stirrups clanked together. That’s exciting!
We tried to coordinate our posting at the rising trot when riding side by side — it looks great —but is a lot harder to do than you’d think. It was a challenge to keep one eye on Mary and Dooley to keep pace, while remembering to ride my own horse — but in the moments when the horses were synchronized, my heart sang. I swear the horses enjoyed it, too.
The music Mary had chosen as perfect: light, joyful songs that were a pleasure to ride to. People say that dressage is dancing with horses … and when you add music, it really feels that way.
Leading up to the show, I had a lot of insecurities — I went over the choreography in my head in the quiet hours of morning and as I fell asleep each night, fearing I’d forget our routine. I worried about forgetting my saddle pad. Lots of little concerns that reflected how important it was to me to pull my weight as a part of our team.
Mary and I did our homework, found matching saddle pads for our horses, and Mary loaned me some show attire to match hers. On the morning of the show, we braided the boys’ manes. We warmed up together in the indoor arena, and then it was Show Time.
“How did it go?” you ask.
Fantastic. Beyond expectations. During the ride, I let go of everything else and embraced the sense of performance that a pas de deux can bring. It was time to show off to the best of our abilities. I took heart, knowing our boys would look great together — and they did, dancing their way down center line. We had moments of beauty, with our horses graciously doing everything we asked. It was truly a team effort of horses and humans. The sense of accomplishment was more than twice as big as any of my individual efforts.
The judge was kind in her comments and her scores, giving us a total of 73 percent …far better than we expected …and truly a highlight in my riding ‘career’.
Perhaps best of all, our ride retained a sense of play, even in competition. So many people commented, “That looked like fun.” It was.
While developing a pas de deux takes time, work, and the flexibility to coordinate with another rider, I highly recommend it. It takes the work beyond the self. What a joy to see our horses trusting us in this quirky activity … for humoring us in this crazy sport we call dressage. They truly were team players.
Credit goes to Mary Cuevas for pulling our pas de deux together, taking the lead in the choreography and stepping me through the process. We are both grateful to Natalie Perry for starting us on our way — and for her help in tailoring the routine to maximize the strengths of our horses. We’ll be working together through the winter to do even better next year.
Skipper taught me a valuable lesson this week, with Natalie’s help.
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!
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.
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.
This past month I’ve had the pleasure of working with a new horse.
I had been leasing Pfifer and, much as I love her, it was time for owner to take back the reins. Pfifer will always have a place in my heart. She truly is a sweetheart and I am really grateful.
Happily, Natalie and Mari helped to orchestrate a new lease for me, one I share with another rider at the barn. Please welcome Skipper, a cute as a bug Morgan gelding with Third Level training. Skipper is smart and sweet and has been working hard to figure me out.
Here’s a short video of my first lesson with Skipper. Natalie is patiently coaching as we struggle through. There’s nothing like a new horse to humble an amateur rider 🙂
The move to our barn has been a big life change for Skipper. He’s had one owner and lived at home his entire life. He’s been to shows, out camping, and on trail rides, but boarding is new to him. While I know it hasn’t been easy for him, Skipper has been settling in, made some good friends out in the pasture (he’s having a bromance with Gatsby), and has come to accept Mary and I as his new People.
Skipper’s been a big change for me, as a rider. He’s the smallest horse I’ve ridden in a long time. This means I’ve had to adjust everything I do into smaller increments. When Natalie says, “Move your leg back” I want to move it five inches, when all I really need is an inch. My rein aids need to be more subtle as well. And, Skipper feels every shift of my weight. He gives me flying changes when he thinks my leg position isn’t correct enough.
Skipper’s been a good boy through our first few weeks together. He’s been a little insecure, with all the change, calling to his friend Gatsby and trying to keep a close eye on the comings and goings in the barn. I feel for him — how unsettling it must be to have your life turned upside down.
Natalie’s been helping us figure things out, which has been oh so helpful. I think I would have confused and frustrated Skipper to pieces without her. Nothing like a nervous horse with a clueless rider!
I also had two lessons with Tina Steward, who comes to Bend once a month to help us. She gave me the following piece of advice, which I treasure.
“Ride the ears,” she said. “His ears tell you what he’s paying attention to.”
By watching Skipper’s ears, it’s easy to tell what he’s paying attention to. Is he listening to what’s going on outside the arena or focused on me? Now, any time I lose Skipper’s focus, I do something to bring it back — maybe a little more bend, a little more leg, perhaps a wiggle on the inside rein. The more consistently I say “Hello, over here please” the steadier he is in his work. I love the simplicity of this and hope you’ll find it useful, too!
Pfifer and I had been training together for just over four months and things were going great. I loved her laid-back temperament — she was fun to ride and I was really happy with how things were going.
Feeling confident, I signed up for First Level, Tests, One and Two when the Central Oregon Chapter of the Oregon Dressage Society offered their Swing Into Spring league show. Both tests were well within Pfifer’s capabilities, as she’s schooling Third Level with trainer Natalie Perry.
Six days before the show, Pfifer came into heat in a big way. She was flirting and showing her stuff to anyone and everyone. Oh, dear.
She gave a big kick at the first canter depart I asked for in our Tuesday lesson, but otherwise settled in. No big deal.
Likewise, on Thursday, just days from the show, she was a bit grumpy and didn’t really want to bend, but no big deal.
The weekend of the show arrived and the weather was predicted to be great. What could be better? I had visions of respectable scores and a couple of nice ribbons.
We arrived at the show grounds early enough for me to walk Pfifer around and let her take in the sights. She’d been to the venue the previous summer, so I was a surprised when she got nervous and spooked a couple of times on our walkabout. Oh, well. She’ll settle in, right?
Natalie coached our warm up, and while it wasn’t fantastic, it was respectable. Pfifer still felt resistant to bending and while it wasn’t as apparent that she was in heat, she was still a bit edgy.
Our time to ride came up and we entered the ring, ready to show our stuff. Pfifer balked a little at the judge’s stand, but without conviction. The bell rang, and off we went!
First Level, Test One rides nicely. I felt good about our trot work and got a fairly prompt canter depart. We started down the long side for an extended canter and, without warning, Pfifer started to buck. And buck. And buck some more.
My survival skills kicked in and I sat back, held tight to the reins so she couldn’t get her head down any further, and rode it out. My head was spinning, wondering “What????”
“If this gets any worse, I’m coming off,” went through my mind.
But the big issue was this: “Wait! I can’t fall off in front of mom!!”
Yes, of all the shows I’ve competed in, this was the first one my mom came to watch. My husband and two friends from out of town also stopped by. (Undoubtedly the cause of the bucking.)
Here’s the thing: Mom is terrified of horses, even when they are on best behavior. This was supposed to be a fun outing for her.
Fortunately, I’d asked Pfifer’s owner, Claudia, to sit with mom and explain to her what our dressage test was all about. I’d imagined a conversation along the lines of, “That was a nice trot lengthening.” Instead, mom was gripping Claudia’s arm, asking, “Is Lauren ok?!”
Claudia is a retired medical professional, skilled at remaining calm in stressful situations.
“Of course she is,” Claudia said in her most soothing voice.
“Is the horse trying to buck her off?” Mom asked. A reasonable question, applicable to other equestrian sports in addition to dressage.
“Of course not,” Claudia said, bending the truth.
Mom gasped a few times and Claudia patted her arm.
Pfifer bucked down the long side, settled into a trot, and kicked up a few more bucks as I asked for the canter again to make a circle at ‘P’. She actually cantered enough of the circle that the judge remarked: Good recovery.
Alas, there was more canter yet to come and more bucking. Our score reflected this but it was a small enough class that I got the most hard-earned fifth place of my life.
I ended the test with our highest score of the test — an 8 on our halt! I saluted the judge, relieved it was over, and raised an imaginary cowboy hat to the onlookers. I got applause for courage.
My poor mother had lost all color in her face and looked very unhappy.
“I didn’t like that,” she said.
“Neither did I,” I replied, but I was laughing now, because it was over and I’d stayed on.
Mom stuck around for my second ride, which was better but included a buck at the end of our second canter, right in front of mom. I doubt we’ll see mom at dressage shows in the future.
My horsey friends will be wondering if I had Pfifer checked out by a chiropractor. Yes, and she’s fine. I can only assume she wanted me to practice my staying on skills. Clearly she wasn’t out to get a ribbon.
Once again, I am humbled by a horse. Disappointed? Yes, dammit, we’d worked hard.
And, of course, in our next lesson she showed none of weekend’s predilection for drama … so there was really not much to school other than some minor resistance.
I did get some nice photos of Pfifer looking innocent at the show!