dressage, dressage training, natalie perry dressage, Poodles, training

Of Ponies & Puppies

Less than a week ago, we brought a new puppy into our lives and the training has begun in earnest. As I watch my dear husband puzzle through the process, it strikes me just how much we equestrians learn about training from our trainers and horses. The insights and experiences are as relevant with household pets as with our barn buddies.

Alert & energetic, it will take careful training to develop our puppy’s best self.

On day three of new puppy parenthood, we overtired our puppy, underestimating how much sleep she needs. As a result, I headed off to an evening get-together with girlfriends only to receive a string of texts from my husband indicating that our 10 pound ball of fluff was out of control: jumping, biting, and unable to calm down. Of course Whimsy fell promptly to sleep minutes before I returned home, presenting a picture of angelic sweetness.

While Al claimed to have a wild child on his hands, I came home to an angelic ball of fluff.

As Al and I sat on the couch, enjoying a moment of peace, I described to him the process we use with horses. The trainer teaches the horse to be manageable, then teaches the owner how to achieve these results themselves.
While that’s how it’s supposed to work, it’s not an easy process and tends to move forward in fits and starts since most owners lack the quick reflexes and physical skill of a professional trainer, as well as a thorough understanding of why horses respond the way they do. Looking at our sleeping puppy, it struck me how thoroughly training can improve or ruin an animal.
Having ridden horses for years and raised several puppies, much of Whimsy’s training is intuitive for me. Al, however, was a newbie —inadvertently bring out her wild side — flashing, razor-sharp puppy teeth enthusiastically applied. While I could calm her down, Al was at a loss.
“Just as my horse trainer can bring out the best in my horse, she can’t do it for me,” I said. “You have to learn the skills and practice them.”
We watched several training videos as Whimsy dozed peacefully and developed some training ideas for the following day. I left Al with the goals of bite inhibition and stopping play before it escalated, then headed to the barn for a riding lesson.
During my lesson, Natalie encouraged me to be more firm with Micah when he ignored my leg aids. As it turned out, it was just the right advice. Being tentative is one of the most damaging things you can do in your animal/human relationship. A horse or a dog will look for a leader and if you don’t insist on the leadership position, you’ll quickly lose it. After a couple of firm canter/walk transitions, Micah shaped up and gave me more prompt, correct responses.
I was fortunate that Natalie was there to strengthen my resolve. It’s hard to exude confidence when you’re not quite sure what to do. As riders, we’re lucky to have trainers to guide us, telling us when to be firm, when to give, when to repeat an exercise, and when to move on. They help us choose which battles to fight and when to wait another day. We gain confidence from our trust in them … although at times we need to fake that confidence until we have enough experience to make it real.
At home, Al is learning the skills and developing the confidence to keep our bundle of joy from turning into a tiny terror.
“Imagine what it’s like to deal with a 1,000-pound animal when you’re feeling unsure,” I said. “Now that’s scary!”
As we correct the problem of over-tiring our puppy, letting her settle into our household routine, we’re all working things out. Training is a big job, requiring thought, consistency, and diligence — the time spent is well worth it.

Note: In September we lost our 16 year old Standard Poodle, Skittles. She loved going to the barn and visiting with the other dogs up until her final month. She was truly an exceptional dog. Little Whimsy is also a Standard Poodle, and I have high hopes that she’ll one day be barn-worthy. Her joyful presence has filled a hole in our lives.

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canter, dressage, dressage lessons, dressage training, riding lessons, training

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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dressage, dressage training, horse/rider communication, training

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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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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