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, http://www.barbaradudleyphotography.com/.

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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You’ve Gotta Have Go

The art of dressage is continually realizing you don’t really know what you thought you knew. Or you don’t understand it thoroughly.

So has it been with my coming to terms with the basic premise: You’ve gotta have go.

Leann Johnston and HS Black Magic have go – beautiful forward movement. Magic is owned by Tina Billings.

How many trainers have tried to get this idea through my head? Too many to count.

Yes, even at the walk, you’ve gotta have go. HS Black Magic, owned by Tina Billlings, ridden by Leann Johnston.

Happily, last week’s lesson brought a breakthrough. Here’s what happened.
Micah and I were working on the canter/walk transition. Mine tend to be either a) abrupt or b) sloppy. I pointed this out, as if perhaps Natalie hadn’t noticed. She laughed, agreeing that this would be good to work on.
My tendency has been to immediately start asking for a shorter, more compressed canter, then ask for the down transition. There’s a major problem with this approach.
“You have to have him going forward before you can get the collection,” Natalie reminded me.
Something clicked. The week before we’d worked on 10 meter circles at the canter — which was terrifically helpful. “Really feel like you’re sitting him down,” Natalie said.
This meant that I had to really ride — as in a) steer, b) drive Micah forward with my legs, c) sit deep in the saddle, and d) guide the shoulder around the circle using outside rein and leg.
This was really challenging at first — especially with Natalie standing at the edge of the circle saying, “Go in front of me.”
I was strongly motivated not to run over my trainer.
The great thing was, this really engaged Micah’s hind end, giving me the sense of forward power I need to feel before asking for a great canter/walk. In short, you’ve gotta have Go before you can ask for collection.
A voice in my head hearkened back to the Charlotte Dujardin symposium we attended two years ago. Charlotte’s primary emphasis to riders of all levels was on what she called The Go Button. Wheels churned and clicked in my brain. Rusty memories arose … all with the same message. Without Go, you have nothing.

HS Black Magic shows off a gorgeous hind end – ably ridden by Leann Johnston, owned by Tina Billings

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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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Hesitation Blues: the Equine/Human Mind Meld

They say a horse can feel a fly anywhere on his body. This time of year, watching horses twitch, swish their tails, and stomp their feet, this does appear to be true. But can a horse feel a thought?
I’m not saying that horses are psychic but clearly my horse, Micah, feels every waiver of my attention. Let’s say we’re doing a leg yield and someone walks by the arena with a wheelbarrow. My eyes flicker to take that in and there’s an instant wobble in the leg yield. Micah felt my attention stray and his mind went off course with mine. The wobble was minor but real.
You could say Micah was paying such close attention to me and that he responded accordingly. Or you could say Micah took advantage of a moment. Regardless, he felt my focus fade and responded accordingly. No matter how you describe or interpret the behavior, it’s rare to find a horse who will go on auto-pilot for long, unless you’re asking for an amble.
I’ve begun to see just how important focus and the human/equine mind meld is in training. The other day we were practicing halt/trot transitions — an excellent exercise. I was trying to get Micah to move briskly off my leg into the trot. In my first attempts, Micah was sluggish. I realized that I was hoping he’d spring into the trot but not really following through with my body language. As a result, Micah would lumber into the trot, with me just a bit behind the movement. We’d pull it together within a matter of seconds, but it really wasn’t good enough.

Even at the halt, we need to maintain focus

Even at the halt, we need to maintain focus. Photo by Andrew Martin

Improvement only came when I made a full commitment to the transition. Instead of hoping Micah would trot off briskly, I rode him forward into the trot, expecting a crisp response.
In the first instance I was tentative, saying “I hope you’ll go.” In the other, I committed and moved with Micah into the transition. This time I said, “Let’s go!” and Micah heard me. The difference was impressive.
Moving out of the halt. Could have used more forward focus. Photo by Andrew Martin

Moving out of the halt. Could have used more forward focus. Photo by Andrew Martin

If you hesitate mentally or physically, you horse is likely to respond with a hesitation of his own. He’ll give you what you ask for: a half-hearted transition.
As riders, our attention has to be riveted on the task at hand. Our bodies need to commit, as well — going with the horse’s movement, anticipating a prompt response, and giving at exactly the right moment.
Try this exercise yourself and see what kind of a response you get. Once you fine-tune it, you should get more prompt trot transitions throughout your ride. You can work on all of your transitions this way. Let me know how it goes!

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