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dressage training

cantering, dressage, dressage lessons, horses, natalie perry dressage

Revelation on Center Line

Skipper taught me a valuable lesson this week, with Natalie’s help.

Skipper looking adorable

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!

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Opening Up to Skipper

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. 

When I turned Skipper out, after our ride, he was in no hurry to return to his friends. We’ve turned a corner in our relationship.

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.

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Ride the Ears

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!

Stay tuned for our continuing adventures.

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dressage, dressage training, Halt, horses, natalie perry dressage

Happy With the Halt

It’s funny how horses have their own preferences for different types of work. Some like to Go!; others say No! Some like repetition, while others crave variety. The variety keeps things interesting. In the time that I’ve known Pfifer, this delightful mare has made it clear that she thinks the Halt is Stupid with a capital S.

Pfifer relaxes into the halt!

Thanks to Natalie’s hard work and my dedication to reinforcing her efforts, in recent weeks Miss Pfifer has overcome her aversion to standing still. It’s been a gradual, entertaining transition … as Pfifer has come to terms with a request that doesn’t make sense to her.

Previously, Pfifer would sidle into the halt and then adjust her position as if posing for a photo. “Wait, this is my better side,” she seemed to say. She would putter around at X, showing the judge that a Halt can be so much more than standing square. It was a movement to get into and out of quickly, hoping the judge wouldn’t notice, as fiddling with it didn’t improve things.

When I started riding Pfifer, I knew the halt wasn’t her favorite thing so I made it a point to incorporate into our daily work with lots of praise for effort. And because she was new to me, I wanted to test out all of her buttons. “Can we try the rein back?” I asked Natalie in one of our first lessons. “Sure,” she said, but I sensed some hesitation. Our attempts at a rein back were muddled. That’s when I realized that without a good halt, a good rein back is asking too much — and (pun intended) I took a step back, forgoing the rein back for the halt.

This decision paid off. Our halt is now reliable and prompt — not always perfect but so much better. And now that the halt is easy, we’ve returned to the rein back with better results. I’m only asking for one or two steps but I’m getting a clear response and no longer have the feeling that Pfifer is confused.

I never thought I’d be so pleased to progress with something that seems so simple. The work has improved without a fight — we just needed a little time to understand each other . It’s a reminder that each horse is different — and we have to measure progress accordingly.

Today, Pfifer comes to a halt promptly and without a fuss. I suspect that the halt still seems pointless to her but she is willing to please — and gets a lot of praise for this — plus a favorite treat (a banana) at the end of the ride.

There’s nothing better than a happy, willing horse and it’s been a delight to see this change in Pfifer … it’s not “just” halt, it’s the relationship that’s developing.

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My Next Adventure

How many tears did I shed when Micah left our barn? At least a bucketful.
Although I knew Micah was heading home to a well-deserved retirement, my heart broke nonetheless. Five years is a long time to spend together — parting was truly a sweet sorrow.
At the same time, I’d known for several months that our time together was coming to a close. Micah and I had gone about as far as we could — he gave indications that the work was too hard and it took tons of stamina for me to ride him. I needed frequent breaks to catch my breath, despite my effort to stay fit through cycling, hiking, and skiing. My shoulders and legs ached from the effort. Deep down, I knew it would be good for me to ride other horses, even though it would mean letting go.
As fate would have it, the horse I was most interested in riding is owned by my friend, Claudia. Her mare, Pfifer, is lovely, level-headed, good natured, and has received excellent training from Natalie Perry. I’ve watched as Pfifer and Claudia’s partnership has blossomed, earning them ribbons in the show ring.

Pfifer in the show ring with Claudia


Unfortunately, Claudia has been temporarily sidelined by an injury and hasn’t been able to ride lately. Still, she’s kept up our Sunday tradition of meeting at the barn, then going out for coffee. After giving it much thought, I worked up the nerve to ask Claudia if I could take a lesson on her horse. To my delight, Claudia was enthusiastic!
Soon after our coffee date I learned that Micah’s retirement had been moved up. And then moved up again. Things happened so quickly, my head was spinning. Yet the thought that I could ride Pfifer boosted my morale and helped me cope with the sense of loss.
I scheduled a lesson with Natalie and knew almost immediately that Pfifer had much to teach me.
“Quiet your hands, keep them lower! Keep your right elbow in,” Natalie said. “You’re going to need to ride her from back to front.”
Wow! What a difference from Micah. And, the benefit of Pfifer’s being in full training with Natalie was obvious. Several lessons later, I’m learning to sit more quietly, keep my hands and (damn) right elbow still, and ride from back to front.
Much as I love Micah, we had a history of bad habits together. We were like the old married couple who bickers and laughs together, sometimes having the same argument over and over again. With Pfifer, I have the chance to make a fresh start on improving my skills. It’s a new perspective, fun and exciting — and helps me to think about the future, rather than the past.
Having the chance to ride Pfifer saved my sanity when Micah moved out. And if that’s not enough, Claudia came to the barn to be with me on the day I said good-bye to my guy. She let me cry, gave me a hug, and then took me out for coffee.
As I ride Pfifer, I’m rooting for Claudia’s recovery — because I know exactly what her horse means to her. I want her back in the saddle as soon as possible, at which point I’ll
step aside and look for my next Next Adventure.
In the meantime, I’m so appreciative of the opportunity to ride Pfifer. She truly proved her worth this week when cold temperatures and high winds made for chaos in the riding arena. When one horse bolted and another bucked its way around the lunge line, Pfifer kept quietly to her work.
So, when my friends and family ask “How are you doing without your horse?” My answer is, “Surprisingly well!”
Once again my horse community has boosted me through an important life transition.

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A Season of Change

Only those of us who are truly fortunate are able to retire before the work becomes too hard for mind or body. We all know it doesn’t always work out this way. So I feel tremendously lucky that my (lease) horse, Micah is one of the fortunate ones.
Our horses depend on thoughtful owners with the mindset and means to maintain them when they start showing signs that age is taking its toll. Horses with the best of luck take on easier jobs or spend their days on pasture, moseying about like old men in coffee shops. They savor the sunshine and unhurried pace of life. Micah will have this luxury.

Treats are a prerequisite before any ride! Photo by Hannah Rugg


I’ve had the pleasure of leasing Micah for the past five years. He has a kind and generous nature, although he doesn’t give anything away for free — you have to earn it. He can put up a fuss (like any horse who is smarter than his rider) but is generally easy-going and willing to go along with this crazy thing we call Dressage. So, when Micah began showing real resistance to our Second Level work, I was concerned. Micah can be lazy but he’s not a fighter.
Micah’s approaching his 24th birthday and, while he’s in great shape and receives regular chiropractic care, I suspect he has some of the cranky aches and pains that come with aging. I certainly have a few.
So, while I dreaded opening a door that, once opened, could not be closed, I felt it was my responsibility to to let Micah’s owner know what I felt Micah was saying. If he was my horse, I’d back him down to an easier level of work. Sad as I might be to lose Micah, I would rather retire him than break him.
Although it means parting ways with a horse I love, when his owner said “we are of like minds” my heart felt good. Carol had been worried about Micah and the thought lingered that perhaps the work was too much for him. This weekend Micah will ease into retirement with the best of care.
While I am sad for myself, I am happy for Micah — he has been a significant part of my life. He nickers when he hears me coming, knowing I always have treats in hand, and never runs from me in the pasture, even though I’m coming to ask him to work. Even when he protests about the work, he doesn’t try to hurt me. (If I was a horse, I’d do far worse!)
I have loved Micah as if he was my own, as we’ve struggled together trying to further our skills, forgiving each other along the way for our quirks and foibles. There have been countless times when Micah has outsmarted me and I’ve had to laugh — good for you, buddy! It has been an honor and a pleasure to ride such a horse.
Just as wonderful has been my relationship with Micah’s owner, Carol. Through the years, ours has been less of a financial arrangement and more of a partnership — a sharing in the care and well-being of a wonderful horse.
It is with great sadness that I let Micah go. But I fully believe we are doing what is right for him.
As for my future, the thought of horselessness is daunting. A horse is more than a means to exercise: it’s a relationship. (As I tell my non horse friends, imagine giving up your dog!) Yet I have been horseless before and another horse always comes along, with new lessons to teach. My trainer and my friends are keeping their eyes open for me and I trust something will work out.
As I come to terms with this change of season, I celebrate all Micah has given me. He has truly been a gift of good fortune. It is fitting to see him rewarded in his senior years with the best of care. We should all be so fortunate.

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