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!
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.
The new year brought a flurry of snow and several new beginnings: Pfifer, my wonderful new (lease) horse invited me to take a fresh look at my riding — learn to ride her correctly while breaking old, bad habits and building new skills. Every horse has something to teach.
Early on, Claudia, Pfifer’s owner, videotaped one of my riding lessons with Natalie. The video made it painfully obvious that Micah (my previous ride) and I had created some bad habits together that I needed to address. Ow.Out of that developed my New Year’s riding goal: quiet those legs!
When I shared my thoughts with Natalie, she cheerfully took my resolution to heart and we once again tackled the issue of my busy legs. Pfifer’s more correct responses to the aids offer me a perfect opportunity to work on my self. Indeed, she is good for me!
To increase my chances of success and put my New Year’s intentions to work, I signed up for a clinic with Tina Steward. Tina has a depth and breadth of experience that is quite remarkable. Better yet, she relays her experience and expertise in a direct manner, quickly honing in on horse/rider issues. I was excited to have her take an objective look at my issues, knowing she would do so in a kind manner. (It’s no small thing to invite an expert to pick apart your flaws!)
Tina watched me ride, analyzed my position, and used a slightly different approach to help me stretch and quiet my busy legs. While I’ve long tried to ‘lengthen the leg and lower the heel’, I was trying to force this to happen…which hasn’t been very effective. In fact, my issues start high in the leg and I need to relax the entire leg in order to lengthen and assume a more effective position.
With my feet out of the stirrups, Tina encouraged me to ‘drape the leg, just let it hang’. For a Type A personality like me (and a lot of dressage riders), just letting something happen is tough. I tend to want to MAKE things happen. However, when I let the legs relax and open at the hip, I got results! And, when my legs relaxed, my seat got softer, following the horse more fully — bonus!
Pfifer liked this as well!
When I picked up my stirrups, I continued to focus on relaxing my legs, letting my thighs lose their death grip on the saddle. Tina also had me take my leg completely off of Pfifer’s side, occasionally — which increased my awareness of just how often I was nagging the poor horse.
“When your leg is on, it should mean something,” Tina said. Indeed, Tina wants us to ride and train as if we are preparing for the FEI level. We must be precise and our horses must learn to respond promptly.
While I still have plenty to work on, here’s a little video of our lesson. You can see what a beautiful girl Pfifer is and that she’s working hard to put up with me as I figure things out!
Today’s lesson was a combination of the right input (analysis, words, and visual images) at the right time. It was a coming together of just what I needed in the moment.
Had it been a little later in the day, I would’ve opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate. This is a big deal!
Today I am savoring the sense of breakthrough and reliving the muscle memory of what correct feels like. My new mantra is “soft legs, soft seat” and I’ll be starting each ride with my legs out of the stirrups to encourage the stretch.
I’m more than a little excited to see my new year off to such a productive start! If you have a riding goal for the year, make your intention known to your trainer as soon as possible. And, remember to be kind to yourself and your horse as you work toward that goal, good things take time.