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dressage training

dressage, dressage training, riding

Back in Order

I carefully warm up my horse, paying attention to where he feels stiff. Until he’s completely warmed up physically and mentally, he’s not likely to give me his best work. Since he’s 20 now, I have to respect the fact that his body has its limits.
My body has limits, too, but I sometimes cut corners, trying to save time and money. About once a quarter a I need a tune-up from my favorite chiropractor/muscle worker. Putting it off isn’t a smart move.
Last Thursday I tried riding with a back that felt like a rusty chain. It tweaked in the rising trot and squawked during sitting trot and canter. A couple of the links in the chain had rusted shut. I got off my horse, gave him a sugar cube, and called the chiropractor.
Rusted_chain
The result? After my tune-up, today’s ride was 300% better! On top of that, I wasn’t in pain! That’s always a bonus.
Note to self: take the time to work on your own body — it’s just as important a part of the ride as is taking care of the horse.
I suspect that some of last week’s struggles were related to a tilted pelvis and a few locked-up vertebrae. I was working against myself.
Today’s ride was so rewarding, my biggest struggle was in not shouting out to everyone in the barn how good my boy was. Micah’s probably just as grateful as I am that my back is more supple and fluid.
Let’s remember to take care of ourselves, acknowledging that it’s time and money well spent.

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Forward & Back, That’s How Dressage Works

After months of working on keeping the right rein, today I gave it away. Not totally, mind you, but I had to ask for it (sometimes firmly), then give. Giving is hard when you’ve set your mind on taking.
At home, out of the saddle, I’m trying to transmit that message down … from brain, through neck, into right shoulder/arm/hand. Ask, then give. Ask, then give.

Exhilerating cold weather riding. Photo by Andrew Martin

Exhilerating cold weather riding. Photo by Andrew Martin


We’re at a new level of conscious incompetence, so I know we’re on the right track. Grasping a new thought and gasping at the difficulty often come hand in hand.
Collected canter is super hard — but a breakthrough from 1st to 2nd level. Thankfully, going to the right is easier than going to the left, so I get something of a break.
To the left, where I’ve tended to give away the right (outside) rein, it’s time for me to try to add in some finesse. Ask/give. Ask firmly if need be, give.
While our canter work is steadily improving, there are some really rough moments. It feels like we’re going backwards, but I know it’s the way forward.
Sometimes it’s me, my wavering attention, aids that aren’t prompt, a seat with moments of insecurity. Sometimes it’s Micah, saying ‘This is your idea, not mine … if there’s a way out, I’m smart enough to take it.’
Forwards and back. Just a reminder to myself and the rest of you who struggle, this really is part of the process.

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Getting There is 1/4 of the Fun

Those who know me know that math is not my strong point. There are other ways to say that, most of them less flattering but probably more accurate than any attempt I could make to solve a quadratic equation.
I especially enjoy making up fake statistics. Who’s going to check, anyway?!
Today, driving to the barn was harrowing. Due to shenanigans on the icy roads, it too me 32.1% longer than normal to get to the barns. At least 25% of the drivers were timid, moving along at 15 mph drivers. Another 30% of the drivers were assertively driving 45 mph in their 4WD vehicles, some of them ending up in ditches. That left the remaining 45% of drivers moving along at a somewhat sane speed.

Road to the barn. Packed snow made for exciting driving.

Road to the barn. Packed snow made for exciting driving.


By the time I got to the barn, I decided that 1/4 of the fun was in getting there. I was particularly intrigued by the two women who got their car turned 360-degrees in the opposite lane. I have no idea how they accomplished this going uphill. They were unharmed but bewildered. The oncoming traffic was 100% stalled and not amused.
By the time I reached the barn, the temps were a chilly 24.2 degrees in the sun, so I was sporting a layered-up clothing combination that can best be described as “chunky.” The extra clothing resulted in an 11.2% reduction in my ability to feel attractive, while increasing my heat comfort level by 12.9%, resulting in a net loss of 2.4%.
For the 2nd time in a row, Micah was happy to meet me at the gate of his snow-covered pasture for a carrot. That’s a 19.7% improvement over his usual ‘come and get me’ attitude! There’s a 98.2% chance that the gate-greeting response was food motivated; 1.4% chance that he misses me so much, he’s willing to walk an extra mile (1.609344 kilometers) to see me. Such is the reality of equine love.
I had allowed 1 extra hour (60 minutes) to account for erratic driving experiences, as well as time (19 minutes) for lunging before my lesson. I hate lunging but it’s better than death by dressage.
After only 1.3 emphatic canter departs, Micah indicated that he could handle a lesson with an admirable 89% degree of sanity. It was time to climb aboard.
It’s hard to feel loose and limber in the saddle when you are wearing 12.7% more clothing than usual. I was only able to zip my boots 2/3 of the way up, since the extra layers of long johns, fleece britches, and wooly socks added 9% more bulk, along with warmth.
Despite the cold and a recent lack of work (77% below normal), Micah was 99.7% excellent. He was definitely more warmed up than I was (36.8%) despite my ‘exercise’ on the steering end of the lunge line. We got some good work done (90%!), then bundled Micah up in a 200% snuggly cooler. He returned to his snowy pasture (4 inches deep) with a sense of having done a good day’s work.
Being back on my horse and in the barn, with all of its camaraderie, made the trip well worth the exciting drive. Of this I am 100% certain.

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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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Averting Disaster, In Soothing Tones

carrot
The soothing tone of my trainer’s voice rings out over the dressage arena. No matter how badly a ride is going, she maintains a sense of calm.
“That’s ok, just bring him back.”
In fact, the worse things go, the more soothing her voice becomes.
“Relax and give! There you go!”
When the horse doesn’t freak out, despite his rider’s lack of balance and the mixed messages she’s sending, Natalie praises the horse directly. “What a good boy!,” she purrs.
The horse looks at her in appreciation. “I am, aren’t I?” he thinks. Extra carrots are in order.
Later in the lesson, before the horse’s canter turns into a runaway ride from hell, Natalie steps in with, “That’s good, now back to the trot.” Again the horse says “Thank you” and takes a mental health break as his rider catches her breath.
When gravity beckons, threatening to pull a rider out of the saddle, Natalie calls out, “Let’s regroup a minute.” The rider’s confidence is restored, the horse gets a pat, and the pair go on to a simpler exercise, where they can feel successful.
Day by day, hour after hour, our trainers avert disaster with their soothing tones and swift observations. They divide work into small, attainable steps, helping to preserve the sanity of the horses as they develop our skills. If you haven’t done so in a while, thank your trainer for her hard work. Extra carrots are in order.

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Embracing Incompetence

If dressage sometimes make you feel like an idiot, you’re not alone. It’s a challenging sport that can crush the ego if you’re not careful. The moment you get pretty good at Training Level, you’re challenged to take on First Level — and so on.
In a sport where you’re constantly moving from somewhat competent to fairly incompetent, it’s important to come to terms with what you’re dealing with. Eliza Romm’s article ‘How to Embrace Incompetence’ published in Dressage Today does just that.
In this well-written article, FEI trainer and competitor Eliza outlines the four stages of competence: Unconscious Incompetence, Conscious Incompetence, Conscious Competence, Unconscious Competence.
Personally, I long for the days when I walk/trot/cantered about in the Unconscious Incompetent phase. I had a grand time, without having any idea how poorly I was riding. My mare enjoyed not working very hard. It was a real case of ignorance being bliss.
Alas, there came I time when I became aware of just how much more there was to learn. That’s the Consciously Incompetent phase and I pretty much live there most of the time.

If you’re going to ride dressage, you may as well get used to the idea that about when you think you’re getting pretty good you are either a) delusional or b) ready to move up.

In situation b) you’ll go from being somewhat competent to Consciously Incompetent once again.
Moving up a level, taking on a new horse, or working with a new trainer are all ways take a step back and become a ‘beginner’ once again.
The ‘Four Stages of Learning’ were originally developed by Noel Burch, who was working for well-known psychologist Dr. Thomas Gordon in the 1970s. It’s a concept that applies to learning overall — not just dressage — but it fits really well in this sport, which was designed with levels we struggle through, like fish trying to climb ladders. There’s lots of opportunity for humility in our sport.
I was so impressed with this article that I called Eliza and asked her how it came about. “I started to formulate the idea when I was working with a student who resisted being a beginner,” Eliza said. “She’d ridden a lot but was new to dressage.”
When Eliza gave her student direction, the rider pretended to understand, even when she didn’t. “It made it really difficult to teach her,” Eliza said. Trying to figure out the dynamic of this relationship gave Eliza good reason to re-examine the learning process.
Continue reading…

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