dressage, dressage training, Forward, natalie perry dressage, riding, Round, transitions

Forward AND Round

Photographer Barbara Dudley captured this moment at our chapter’s last show of the season. I call it “A Moment of Prayer” as I am clearly gathering my strength and wits about me,

This week Micah and I revisited the concepts of forward AND round — emphasis being on AND.
I’d been working on my leg position (again) and, per usual, when I’m working on position I let a lot of other things go.As a result, in our Thursday lesson, Micah offered me a choice of forward OR round.
“He can do better than that,” Natalie said.
At the walk, I insisted on both, which wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Micah’s a wonderful guy but he tends to ignore my legs. However, persistence paid off. Once I gathered enough determination to sincerely insist on forward AND round at the walk, Micah gave me both.
Next up, bring it to the trot. As expected, it took a little while to get both forward AND round at the trot, and then at the canter … but establishing this at the walk was the most critical element.
To test our skills, Natalie threw in transitions — down and up. Lo and behold, if I could hold the forward/round in the transition, the next gait started and continued in a better frame.
On the other hand, if I let things fall apart, I’d have to spend several strides bringing it back together.
Bottom line — don’t give away what you’ve earned! Insist on forward AND round and maintain it through up and down transitions and all gaits.
This was an excellent (if tiring) lesson. I brought this attention to detail to Sunday’s practice ride got better results right off the bat.
Micah can always feel my intention and tends to go with the program when he’s certain I mean it. Good boy!

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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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The Canter/Walk Epiphany
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The Canter/Walk Epiphany

I find myself having dark moments in dressage. Days where I feel I’m going backwards, struggling with things I thought I was making improvement with. It’s hard not to feel incompetent in these times, so thank goodness for my trainer … she provides moments of hope.
I’ve noticed that my moments of floundering are often followed by a big leap forward. My horse is saying, “No, I couldn’t possibly,” when actually he can. A little extra resolve on my part, coupled with excellent advice from my trainer, Natalie Perry, usually pushes us through a bit of an impasse. It’s the proverbial darkest hour before the dawn.
After a week off (see Achilles Tendon Surgery, husband, not a great week) plus bodywork, Micah’s tried to take over a bit at the canter. There’s nothing like a big horse feeling full of himself, when you’re a bit down in the dumps.
Micah’s also not wild about counter canter and was taking advantage of my lack of expertise on the topic. We were sliding in and out of in-control and out of control.
The solution? The canter/walk transition. I love this exercise and highly recommend it.
We’d been working on the walk/canter transition for the serpentine movement in Second Level, Test 1 … where things were going rather nicely. On my drive home the other day, I had an epiphany — a lightning bolt moment. The canter/walk transition isn’t just a pretty movement in a test, it’s a critical training tool! My brain replayed numerous images of Natalie and Mari throwing in the canter/walk transition anywhere in the arena, as a schooling device. I realized I should be able to get that transition anywhere, at any time!
This may sound obvious to really experienced riders, but to me this was a breakthrough.
In our most recent lesson, Natalie helped me with this, using an exercise I encourage you to try yourself. Pick up the canter, ride a nice circle, and then start riding across the diagonal. Throw in a canter/walk several times before reaching the next side of the arena. (If your horse is like Micah and sees a straight line as an opportunity to go for it, you’ll love this.)
The first few times, Micah was surprised and a bit offended. Be sure to prepare your horse for the transitions with half-halts, using your seat and core. Once he gets the idea, you can lighten up. This wonderful exercise vastly improved Micah’s left-lead canter, which has always been our weakest.
You can also practice this exercise on a circle, asking for a canter/walk transition anywhere you like. When that’s working well, try a half-halt. If your horse doesn’t respond, got back to canter/walk. When he rewards you with a prompt response, give him a pat — and yourself, too!
Give it a go and let me know what you think!

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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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Page-Turning Dressage

The other night I finished the novel I’d been reading and was left with nothing but the 2015 Dressage Tests, which were conveniently by my bedside. Second Level, Test 1 is a fascinating read if you’ve never ridden the test and expect to ride it in the near future. There were surprises, thrills, and chills.

Caught in the act.  Dressage nerd deluxe. Skittles is bored. Photo by Al Gilmour, somewhat tolerant horse husband.

Caught in the act. Dressage nerd deluxe. Skittles is bored. Photo by Al Gilmour, somewhat tolerant horse husband.

Surprise! I hadn’t realized we’re supposed to ride a right shoulder in up the long side, turn across the middle, then continue in left shoulder in. Was there a trick involved? Some fancy preparation? No, it’s pretty straightforward. Thank goodness!
Thrills! As I read, I realized I needed some clarification about the canter serpentine. It’s a really neat move but at Second Level you’re supposed to come down to the walk for the lead changes. Getting those walk steps in the down transition is tricky! The up transition is tough, too — Micah tries to sneak in a few trot steps. This needs work.
Since we hadn’t worked on walk/canter transitions in a while, the left lead canter transition was sticky (sometimes downright crappy). After a few practice rounds, things went pretty smoothly. I like this movement, so it will be fun to work on. The quick transitions make it impossible for Micah to run off at the canter and they balance him up nicely.
Chills! The hardest part of the test, in my mind (other than freaking out with show nerves) is the counter canter. I’m still in the ‘hopeful’ stage of counter canter — hoping I can maintain it. Micah senses my lack of confidence and drops back to a trot, so I have to fake my confidence for now. After some trial and error we got a good start on that movement — which ends with a walk transition. That’s the really hard part! This is kind of a sneaky test.
We’ll be practicing the walk/canter/walk transitions a lot in upcoming weeks! I’m pretty excited. It’s challenging,fun, and rewarding. Thank goodness I read the test!
Just so you know, I love being over-prepared since show nerves turn my brain to mush. Since our show season doesn’t begin until early May, thanks to our wacky weather, I should have ample time to get this right.
Next time you can’t sleep, read a dressage test. I guarantee you’ll drift off to dreamland with visions of horses in your head. And, may your own transitions be smooth and timely!

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First Snow at the Barn

After five days in Palm Springs, over Thanksgiving, it was a bit shocking to come home to snow and temperatures in the 20’s. We’d been hoping for snow, so of course it came the day after we arrived in Palm Springs. We were jealous — although I did enjoy an afternoon by the pool, soaking up the sun.
I worked hard to muster up enough enthusiasm to head to the barn this afternoon. I waited until the temperature was supposed to peak at a grand 30 degrees, then took off.
It was my first snow drive of the year, so I started with white knuckles but relaxed as the Honda Element and its snow tires did their job. This doesn’t mean the other drivers were doing their part. The drive took much longer than normal as people either a) drove too fast, showing off their 4WD; b) drove slow, in fear for their lives; or c) gawked at cars stuck off the side of the road.

Micah makes a beeline to the gate upon my arrival.

Micah makes a beeline to the gate upon my arrival.

Finally I reached the barn, gorgeous under a coating of snow. I’d been worried that Micah had been cooped up in his stall for nearly five days. Without snow pads on his feet, he doesn’t get turnout if the snow forms balls under his hooves. This horse loves his pasture time, so stall time makes him cranky and energetic.
On top of the stall time, it’s been so cold that Micah wasn’t being ridden. Riding when the temps are in the teens isn’t much fun or especially good for the horse.
As I drove up, I was happy to see Micah out in his pasture with his buddies. It ws so cold and dry that the snow didn’t stick to his feet.
Micah was happy to see me, too, and made a beeline for the gate. This is rare. I’d like to think it was love — but he probably wasn’t getting much grass, through the snow. I am his human treat dispenser.
The human treat dispenser has arrived!

The human treat dispenser has arrived!

It was 24 degrees in the sun (the forecasted 30 degrees never happened), and even colder in the barn. My knees were knocking from the cold, despite lots of layers.
My thoughts of riding went out the door, freezing into icicles on the way out. A gentle lunging would be more than enough in this weather.
No one else had ventured out (imagine that!), so we had the barn and arena to ourselves. I let Micah thoroughly stretch out at the walk in both directions, then asked for a relaxed trot. Micah was happy enough to comply. He likes having a job and this was easy work.
If Micah has any silliness in him, it’s going to show up in the canter depart. I really didn’t want him hurting himself, so I kept things as relaxed as possible when asking for an up transition. While he thought about doing a little rodeo work, he held back.
A few circles of canter, then a trot transition. Wait until the trot is relaxed, then back to canter. We even got some stretchy trot moments.
I called it quits long before Micah started to sweat. No need for that in this weather. While I missed getting to ride, better to keep myself and my horse healthy, give ourselves time to adjust to the weather, and hope the week’s forecast of a warming trend (into the low 40’s!!) is correct.
Until then, brrrrr.

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