Break it down

A few posts ago, as I bade Mads farewell, I mused out loud about how doors open when others close.  At that moment, my time with Maddie was ending, and I wasn’t seeing very many other doors to walk through. Happily, a new and unexpected door has swung open.  With no horse, and no real agenda at the moment, we’re using this time to make me a more well rounded rider, adding new skills to my toolbox and instilling confidence as I build competence.

Through the kindness of friends (and their busy schedules at work) I’ve been given the golden opportunity to ride a variety of horses.  I’ve handed myself over to Christy, and we’re rebuilding my seat, borrowing some theory and practice from the hunter barns in Christy’s past, where riders rode all manner of horses – fresh off the track OTTBs, sour and crafty schoolies, hotrods and dead heads.  This is common practice – and it’s good practice.  You ride what you have, and you ride over poles, grids and courses.    The riders are all adept at riding in a balanced half seats, and rely on their balance – not the tack – to stay aboard when things get hairy.

Christy and I talked about this in the aisle a few days ago.   She had me stand with my legs apart and knees bent, with my back flat, hips behind me and shoulders forward – in “two point”.   Then, from there, she had me move my upper body around, to see how far I really had to move before I started to throw myself off balance.  It turns out I have quite a large range of motion when crouching in two-point in the aisle.

Then, she had me straighten up, adopting the posture of a dressage rider – knees slightly bent, standing erect.  She challenged me again to move my top half around, to the point were I started to become unbalanced.  My range of comfortable motion was much less.  When you’re upright, your body acts as a lever.  The only way you can hope to save yourself and rebalance is maximally engage your core muscles, and they better be super strong if this is going to save you from going ker-splat.

This was an illuminating little exercise.  We moved it to the saddle over the weekend, as I described yesterday.  Tonight, I took a lesson on Oliver, and we went another couple steps. I rode with my stirrups shorter, which really does feel like hell, and in an illuminating exercise, Christy had me work on bending and steering him with my legs, while standing.

It worked surprisingly well!  First and foremost, standing forces you to keep you leg under you.  I need to build muscle memory and break my bad habit of tucking my leg back and curling my heel up when I want to put leg on the horse.  I have to keep that leg at. the. girth. while I apply leg.  And Oliver really responded to what had to be a much clearer and more distinct aid.  He surprised me by neatly stepping under himself and giving nicely as I asked him to bend.    We were starting out going to the right, the direction in which I find Oliver to be resistant to correct bending – he wants to lean inward and I usually have to work hard to move him out when going that direction.  But during this exercise, I got the nicest bend and response from Oliver I’ve had to date.  I was thrilled!

We picked up the trot, and here’s where things always get interesting with Oliver.  He’s a newbie to dressage and hasn’t established a nice rhythm yet.  He goes fast, he goes slow, he strides out, he almost drops to a walk, he hops forward again.  His speed setting is locked on “wildly variable.”  I posted, but kept out of the saddle, going no further than a half-seat on the downward beat.  The variable speeds of Oliver’s trot were are a real challenge to stay with, but it’s great practice for me.  I hopped up into two point, trying to keep my weight out of the stirrups.  Oliver sped up. Oliver slowed down.  I adjusted and didn’t fall off.

When I had about had it, I sat on a down beat, sat up straight, and asked Oliver to walk, principally from my seat.  He’s getting better at listening to this, and the response came quickly.

Christy pointed out that because I had my legs correctly under me when I posted, when I sat, I was able to sit deep and be effective.  She made the link for me between that balanced seat I had at that moment, and the balanced seat that saw me safely through spooks and equine naughtiness.  The foundation of this important tool is correct leg position.  This was a great illustration of this principle.

We worked in the trot in both directions.  In addition to staying with the uneven rhythm, I also worked on gently bending Oliver and steering correctly from my outside rein.  I swear, if there’s one thing I hope I can help contribute to Oliver’s education, it’s better steering!  But he actually did really well tonight, and he’s a quick study. I got a couple little leg-yield steps here and there – he was stepping out from my leg correctly and giving me some nice bending.  We then did some figure 8’s and by the end, I was able to ask nicely and receive a reasonable response from the horse.   I was very proud of Oliver – he’s a smart one and learns quickly.

This was an illuminating lesson, because I was able to practice what Christy and I discussed in the aisle this weekend, as we crouched in a semblance of two-point and discussed balance, velocity and physics.  Set’s face it.  The tackiest leather, the stickiest full seats, the biggest blocks – all are of little use when hell really breaks loose.  Your ability to stay balanced is what will save your bacon.

Case in point: Seconds before I rode that crazy thunder-induced bolting spook a few weeks ago, I quite literally said to myself “green horse, weight your heels,” and had just stretched down into my stirrups when he spooked.  It must have been Divine intervention, because know the fact that I started from a balanced seat contributed mightily to my success in riding that spook long enough to dictate my dismount.

So the next month or two will be interesting.  It’s going to be a real challenge for me but I’m excited about becoming more well-rounded and an overall better rider.   There is one problem, though.  And it’s Christy. I don’t like the way she looks at me when she’s thinking – it’s how a lion sizes up a baby gazelle – and I can see her wheels turning.  Like tonight, when I was watching Atlanta’s owner Cathy finishing a fun ride by cooling out bareback.   Atlanta, a nice round Hano, doesn’t have razor withers or a protruding spine.  One could imagine riding her bareback with a degree of comfort.  I said as much out loud, within Christy’s ear shot.  Her eyes narrowed as she thought.  She looked at me.  She looked at Cathy and Atlanta.  She looked back at me.

I am so dead.

Making lemonade

The thermometer was hoovering near zero late this afternoon when I shut my laptop down, pushed back from the desk, and started to consider my trip to the barn.  The second day of extremely frigid temperatures in a row, I knew that the horses stayed in today, and I suspected that the footing in the arena would be frozen.   So I dug out my warmest long-johns – the thick, waffle-weave kind – and over them put a pair of too-big jeans so I’d be comfy.  I added more layers – a turtleneck and a thick fleece jacket.  I stuck toe-warmers in my boots, swaddled my head in a fleece headband, wool stocking cap and a long scarf, and dove into my coat.   Grunting, I struggled to put on my boots, as all the layers were rendering me close to immobile.  I grabbed my keys and waddled out to my car.

Upon arrival, I was pleasantly surprised to see the barn lights glowing – normally, I’m the only lunatic that goes out on sub-zero nights.  However, I was in good company tonight – Liz, a fellow Packer fan and OTTB owner, was visiting Cloud.  Turns out the arena footing wasn’t too bad, and she was riding.

Hmm. What the heck, I decided, pulling a sleepy Maddie out of her stall.  Hanging out inside makes her mellow, if you can believe that.  She dozed while I scurried around, picking her hooves, surveying the filthy, frozen mess she made of her tail (I still don’t know what she got into, and, frankly, I don’t want to know) and tacking her up.  I tucked her quarter sheet around her fanny, and plopped my freezing cold helmet on my head.  Happily, I had warmed up sufficiently and removed my coat – one less layer was a good thing at this point.

Mounting was interesting.  In addition to feeling like a mummy, my too-big jeans kept slipping down around my hips, resulting in a poor (and monstrously unflattering) imitation of the urban-youth-pants-down-around-the-knees look. I hiked up my pants, clambered up the mounting block, and finally when the mare (and the pants) stayed put, I got on.

The arena footing was definitely iffy in areas, so as I let the mare snort and stretch, I went through my options.  I still wanted a to have a productive ride.  But, given the footing, the freezing air and my woeful attire, it wasn’t a good night to work hard, and focus on moving the mare forward.   Still contemplating my options, I thought about a recent blog post Christy did, telling about a ride on Liam during which she worked exclusively at the walk.

I decided that responsiveness would be the rule of the day.  As we warmed up, I started asking for bend from my seat, and threw in a lot of random halt transitions.  We practiced (semi-successfully) staying round in the halt, and the upward and downward transitions. As we walked, I also tried to keep Maddie really busy.  She has the unfortunate habit of sticking her tongue out when we walk.  I’ve found that the best remedy is to keep her focused and working.  I also worked on left bend, being sure to give my left rein.  This went pretty well, though there were some incidents of bracing and mare foolishness.  However, we got through it, and even got some nice circles and shoulder in – we had some moments of good contact and stretch, which were encouraging.

I trotted Mads a bit, not asking for much from her but insisting on responsive, right now transitions, and also asking her to stay round and stretching.  We moved around as much as we could, but there were some patches in the middle of the ring that were pretty solid, and after one pass, Mads (who is barefoot) made it clear that those patches didn’t feel good, so I tried to avoid them for the rest of the ride.

To mix things up a bit, and to keep working on responsiveness, we practiced a variety of transitions – trot/halt, halt/walk/halt, halt/trot/halt etc. Mads was fairly well attuned to me and again, we had some nice moments, but she was also distracted by some barking dogs and a horse kicking the walls in the back aisle, adjacent to the arena.  I got after her but not to the degree I would have had we really been working, and I was less happy with how I handled that part of the ride.

All in all, riding tonight was a pleasant surprise.  I’m glad I did, because even though it was a pretty gentle ride, it was more exercise for the cooped-up mare.  And tomorrow, well, let’s just say the prospects are grim. It’s going to be crazy cold tonight, and I’m certain that footing is going to freeze.

The mare is waiting, and watching.

Back in the barn, I groomed Mads, put her heavyweight back on, and stuck her in her stall.  She hovered near the door, ignoring her hay and telegraphing what can only be described as pathos with her tragic expression. What was her problem? Ah, well, you see, upon arrival at the barn, I had whipped up a batch of her nightly mare mush, a glorious concoction of beet pulp shreds and alfalfa cubes, soaked in hot water until soft, fluffy and steamy, and then laced with molasses.  Mads needs to gain a little more weight, and in extremely cold weather like this, getting some extra hydration into the horse’s system is a bonus.  That’s all well and good, but then I went and set the steaming bowl of mush on my trunk to cool.  Right outside Maddie’s stall.

So close, and yet, so far away.

She stared disconsolately at the mush, inhaling the delicious fumes.  I finally relented and (after testing the temperature) gave the poor starving mare her mush.

It is soooo good. At least she seems to think so.

Satisfied, I headed home.  I was feeling  pretty good until my car told me it was -12 degrees outside. Yikes!

George Morris: “Good enough” isn’t good enough.

George Morris clinic

George Morris suppling a horse

When a couple friends invited me to audit a George Morris clinic with them, the first thought that popped into my mind was this: “What would a dressage rider get out of auditing a George Morris clinic?”

What a stupid question that was.  Fact is, any rider can learn from George Morris.  Any.

While much of the clinic’s focus – upper level jumping – was far over my head and well out of my realm, I was struck at the emphasis GM put on the fundamentals – many of which are echoed by Christy during my dressage lessons.   Take the outside rein, for example.  My struggles with developing honest contact and using the outside rein to bend are well documented.  And I do – I really do – understand how it works.  But seeing the outside rein in action today was illuminating.

In one exercise, the riders had to jump an in-and-out, and then turn and go to a big oxer in four or five strides.  GM talked the group through how one walks a course and plots strategy.    In a jumpoff, saving one stride saves micro-seconds on the clock, and in most cases, would be preferable.  Horse after horse came through the course, and as they turned, it was easy for me to see which had been turned more correctly – bending into the outside rein – and which had turned because their heads were hauled around.  Horses that had executed a more tactful, well-organized turn were markedly better balanced, taking a true line to – and over – the jump.   GM asked all of the riders to halt almost immediately after the jump, as well – and those that were well balanced before and over the jump were able to halt with style and accuracy.  Many of  the others had to avail themselves of the arena wall to halt.  The key to executing that critical turn with grace? Proper bending into ye olde outside rein.   Importantly, however, GM stressed the importance of holding onto the outside rein and maintaining contact, even when traveling in a straight line.  “Straightness is the result of balance between the inside leg and outside rein, ” he told us.

GM addressing the group in the first clinic session

All throughout this exercise (and many others) GM repeated the “outside rein” mantra, while also reminding riders to close their fingers and take a feel on their horses’ mouths.  Elastic contact was another principle that was repeated throughout the day.  GM emphasized the importance of getting the horse on the bit – and of doing so correctly.  “Contact isn’t just pulling the rein.  It’s pushing.  Push first, then take rein and bend,” he said. “Push-take-bend.”    He went on to emphasize what dressage riders call “riding back to front” – generating push from the hind end, over the back, and through the reins to develop honest, forward and elastic contact. Elasticity of contact was also stressed.  “Softness comes from give, not from holding,” GM told the group.  Develop elastic contact by softening when the horse gives.  He encouraged all riders to soften their elbows, while keeping their fingers closed.

To help everyone get their horses onto the bit, GM started the sessions with suppling, stating that it’s important to supple the whole horse, not just the neck.  Riders rode shoulder-in, shoulder-out, haunches-in, haunches-out, counter canter and a variety of circles and serpentines to bring their horses onto the bit (while making correct use of the inside leg and outside rein.)  In the second session, he got on one of the horses and within minutes had the big jumper moving easily and what the dressage world would call “through” – fully connected to the bit and over the back. According to GM, “A horse bends from the ribcage. This new bending at the neck I see everywhere…I don’t know where this came from, but it’s WRONG!”

During the clinics, GM reminded riders often about pushing the horse to the bit with the legs, maintaining contact and bending into the outside rein, especially as the exercises got more demanding.  At the end of the last session I watched,  the riders were asked to jump a vertical that was set above 4″.  They had to gallop to it, and then, because it was set almost to the corner of the arena, they needed to immediately turn or stop.  GM was asking them to stop.  Now, all of these riders were using automatic releases – but GM still issued frequent reminders about maintaining feel to and over the jump, which was undoubtedly necessary if in order to maintain communication in order to make that halt so soon after galloping to and then clearing that big vertical.

On perfection
A few times during the clinics GM stopped to explain his insistence on perfection. “I’ve had great successin this business by being a perfectionist,” he told the group, repeating the old adage, “Perfect practice makes perfect.”   On the subject of practice, GM noted that the first time you do anything, it’s difficult.  Eventually it becomes easy. Then it becomes habit. Finally, it becomes beautiful.  In order to get there, he advocates a specific approach to training and practice: Explanation-Application-Correction-Practice.  The new skill is explained (and demonstrated if necessary.)  The rider gives it a try.  The trainer makes any necessary corrections.  The rider practices the skill correctly.

It’s clear that GM is an intensely competitive guy, even today.  Throughout the day, he lamented the watering down of courses, especially with respect to the controversial removal of liverpools from top-level events.   “That’s catering to spooky horses,” he snorted. “If you can’t jump a liverpool, you shouldn’t be there.  (He then made sure that every rider in his clinics could jump a liverpool, focusing specifically on educating horses on spooky jumps).

“Good enough” isn’t good enough, he stressed. “Getting through the day isn’t the objective.  The goal is quality.  Excellence counts.”

***

Updated: one of GM’s riders has a blog detailing her experience. Well done, Megan, it was fun watching you ride!  Here’s the link to her recap. http://thegmchronicles.blogspot.com/2010/11/chicago-clinic-is-wrap.html

A special shout-out to Thoroughbreds:

Most of the horses in the clinic were supremely fancy warmbloods.  However, the the two boldest jumpers in the later, more advanced clinic, were both Thoroughbreds.  They never as much as looked at a jump, clearing each with enthusiasm and answering every question asked of them. “Put your stick away,” he told both riders at certain points, as neither horse needed any reinforcement.  “I love Thoroughbreds,” GM said more than once.

George Morris schooling riders on how to educate horses to spooky jumps:

The difference between a semi and a Maserati

Maddie and I are working hard at establishing a good connection at the trot, and doing this has required me to do a few things.  First and absolutely foremost, I’ve had to master the inside-leg/outside-rein dynamic.   Sometimes bending into the outside rein is still difficult, but I’m getting it.  And improving the use of my outside rein also means that I have to get off my inside rein.  Mads likes to hang on the inside rein sometimes, which complicates things for me, because my instinct is to hang back.  And the horse will always win that sort of argument – so avoiding it is important.  This brings me to the third thing I’ve been working on improving – my responses.  I understand that horses operate in the moment, and responding at a specific moment – whether you’re adding or relieving pressure – is key to riding successfully. Not only do you get a better response – encouraging the horse to round by giving your hands, or discouraging a behavior by driving the horse forward, for example – you also create a better horse – because every time you ride, you’re also training the horse.  The closer you can get to offering the appropriate response to the moment, the better of you’ll both be.

Here’s a good look at how not to do it.  This picture shows Maddie braced against the inside rein, and I’m hanging back.  Her nose is tipped inward, but there is no bend, no softness, no suppleness here.  Her right shoulder is popping out, she’s not working over her back,  and you can also see that the quality of the trot is pretty poor – I’ve put her onto her forehand, and she’s nowhere near tracking up – this trot lacks energy.   In a word, it’s  mess, and it doesn’t feel good to ride.  When we’re this disconnected, it feels like Mads is a semi on a slick road – the front part of the truck is heading one direction, and the rear end isn’t necessarily following.

So, as I mentioned, we’ve been working on developing good contact, and tonight we had it.  She was giving me really solid  contact in both reins (for the most part), which we developed using serpentines, changing the bend frequently.  Suddenly, I had even weight in both reins, her back came up underneath me, and she rounded like I had never felt her round before.   This trot felt powerful, balanced and responsive.  We had energy, and she was tracking up.  It felt like driving a sports car, because this big horse (she’s every bit of 16.3) was connected end to end – from her haunches, over her back, through her neck, into the bit, and into my hands.

“That looks really good!” my trainer Christy called from the center.  “When you come out of the corner, do a couple steps of shoulder fore, then leg yield to the wall.”  I closed my fingers on the outside rein, and tightened the muscles of my inside leg.  I pushed Mads with my left hip flexors, and she curved gently around my inside leg, continuing on a straight track down the quarter line.  Breathlessly – and still holding firmly to the outside rein – I tightened my lower leg against Maddie’s side, and gave her a little nudge with my heel.  Over we floated, without losing contact or cadence.   “Yes! That’s it!’ came the cry from the middle of the ring.  But this was one time I didn’t need Christy to tell me that we had done it right.