Fluid dynamics, or the dynamics of fluid riding

This is an awfully fancy sounding title for a blog post, but I had a cool lesson last night that, among other things, involved my first few dinky baby steps of haunches-in and haunches-out. Or, in keeping with the fanciness – renvers and travers.  Say it with me “rhan-vair”  “trah-vair.” Dang, I sound good! (So do you!)

I was riding adorable little Tucker, who is very well trained and sensitive.  Christy was mounted on her newly off the track baby horse Remy, who is just starting to really use his back and is getting the dressage basics down quickly.   From the back of her green bean, as we discussed how aids need to be 1) distinct and 2) contextual, she gave me a short demo of how to move different horse parts around.   Under her guidance, Remy did one step of shoulder in one way, and repated it on the other side.  Then, again at he invitation, he moved his haunches a step in either direction.

As Christy talked through the movements, she highlighted how she uses her aids to block and channel the horse’s movement.  An outside rein can hold a shoulder, a foot slightly back blocks a haunch, while the aids on the opposite side invite, encourage and guide movement. I immediately thought of how water flows.  It finds the path of least resistance.  But water (like certain crafty Quarter Horses I know) is also good at evading the channels humans create for it.  It will take advantage of weak points.  Horses are the same. Indistinct or unconvincing aids open the door for evasions or incorrect movements.    Under Christy’s careful riding, Remy the green bean performed a few strides of both haunches in and out.  As Christy pointed out, you don’t train entire movements.  Horses don’t have magical buttons one can push to generate the renvers, or a half-pass, or a piaffe.  The movements are the sum total of the horse’s gaits + the rider’s aids.  And, frankly, the rider’s aids have a much larger coefficient in the total equation.

I started experimenting on Tucker.  I’ve ridden a lot of shoulder in at both the walk and trot, and can also manage its corallary, shoulder-out.  But deliberately controlling just one stride of each proved to be a lot tougher than I would have anticipated.   And that was the beauty of the exercise Christy had me do.  Because moving the horse’s shoulders one stride from a standstill requires precision and deliberation in order to move just the shoulders, and nothing else.

Tucker and I wove drunkenly around for a few minutes, until I got the feel for what I needed to do.  And then we did a nice little cha-cha-cha.  One step right, one step left.

Then I switched my attention to the haunches. More drunken weaving ensued. And eventually, I got the feel for what was needed to move his haunches one step right, one step left.  Tuck shook his cute chestnut booty.

Maybe I should have titled this post “Horse Hokey Pokey,” … you put your left haunch in, you put your left haunch out.  Wonder what the judges would think of that as a freestyle?  Ha.

Anyway, I digress.   Once I was moving horse parts around with more specificity, Christy had me try these while walking, pointing out the important fact that I need to hone these specific aids, because they are what I’ll use to control shoulders that pop out or haunches that drift.  These are tools I need to add to my kit.

I aced the shoulder in, and got the shoulder out, too.  I was on familiar ground.  The haunches in and out were a different story all together.   I did quite a bit of leg yielding instead of the desired movements.  I took some deep breaths, and concentrated.  I held my outside rein, I softened inside, I asked for a little bend inward, I slid my outside leg back a bit, to move the haunches out.  “There! That’s it!” Christy exclaimed, towering over Tucker and me from her vantge point high up on Remy.  I was beaming.  This was fun, it was cool – but it’s hard!

We experimented a little more and I had a few correct steps here and there.  The lesson really wasn’t learning about how to ride the renvers and travers – I’m far away from that point.  But it’s never too soon to learn how to more correctly influence the horse, and as Christy showed me with Remy, correct aids can generate the desired response – even from an uneducated mount.

Leg yields, finally.

A step of leg yield! Notice how Maddie's inside hind is stepping inside the track of her inside fore.

For tonight’s lesson, I asked Christy to pick up where we left off yesterday – I wanted to focus on continuing to hone the mare’s responsiveness.  But first, we had to work through a pronounced reappearance of my bad habit of giving away one rein while hanging onto another.   So first, we went back to steering with the outside rein, while giving with the inside rein – but giving by moving my arm forward, rather than letting the rein slip through my fingers.  Christy had me imagine that I was holding a crop with my thumbs, and keeping my hands even, rather than letting one creep back near my hips.  That trick worked well.

So we moved onto lateral work.  I’m happy to report that last night wasn’t a fluke!  I put the mare to work, keeping off the rail and making deliberate turns, keeping her connected to the outside rein, and then yielding out on a circle. Once again, we had some nice moments, and the mare was pretty (though not perfectly) responsive.  However, she was responsive enough, and I was a little jelly-legged after a mid-lesson bolting spook that I was able to somehow ride.

This isn’t a pretty picture, but you can see that her back has come way up, and that she’s stepping inside with her right hind.

We worked in both directions, and got some particularly nice work going left. Again, we started on a circle, and spiraled in and out, taking a step or two of leg yield as we spiraled away from the center.

I decided to see if I could keep it together down the quarter line:

Mission to leg yield accomplished!

I still need to work on her responsiveness – but I feel like we’re headed in the right direction after these rides.  Progress is motivating!

The sharper the knife, the less you cry

Cooks have a saying:  the sharper the knife, the less you cry.  Sharp knives are easier to handle and less dangerous than dull blades – they slice effortlessly through veggies and meat.  A dull knife, on the other hand, is more dangerous, because it requires more effort of the user to achieve the desired effect.  And like a sharp knife is easier to use, a responsive horse is easier to ride effectively.

This saying came to mind tonight as I was leading Maddie back to the barn after a lesson, and grinning like a fool because it had been a good ride.    I told Christy that I wanted to work on my lower leg aids, namely, my ability to use my spurs accurately. I had strapped them on last night for the first time in months, and some irritated behaviors from the mare told me that I had inadvertently banged her with them a couple times. While my leg position is much improved, I still revert to my old  “toes out” posture when I get tired.   Developing awareness and acuity with the spurs requires me to continue to improve my leg position and stability.

So as I warmed up, I practiced deliberately putting my lower leg on,  releasing, putting my spur on and releasing.  However, as I did this I wasn’t getting much of a response from the mare.  I was also having trouble dropping my heals and holding a good position – my hips were tight, and probably a bit tired from two strenuous rides yesterday, and my earlier ride today on Oliver.   After promising Christy that I’d continue to work on my flexibility and strength, I took the spurs off.

So the lesson changed course. As we worked on my leg position and aids, which were partly successful some of the time, Christy told me that I was reverting to my bad habit of curling my heel upward, sticking it in the horse’s side and leaving it there.  I focused on being more deliberate with my aids.

However, I wasn’t getting the response I was seeking.  Unsure of whether or not I was eliciting a response because I guess I forgot what a correct leg yield felt like, I asked Christy watch for response while I attempted to leg yield out on a circle.   I got a big  fat nothing. We talked about it a bit and I told Christy that I wanted the horse that I started riding last May.  Mads was so light and sensitive then, and would respond instantly to any aid.  And I’ve dulled her responses.

So we started working on redeveloping a response,  We started at the walk.  Christy asked me to back up any requests I made of the horse with the whip, but advised me to treat any response – a head toss, a break to trot or canter, as good and to praise it, and to ride it.  My first opportunity came quickly as Mads ignored me when I tightened my leg against her.  I gave her a little whack with the whip and she hopped into a trot.  “That’s fine,” Christy said, as I half-halted and brought Maddie back to a walk.  We repeated this a few times, and within a few minutes, we produced a nice little leg yield down the quarter line!

Christy had us move into a trot.  I got the mare moving in a nice forward gait with good contact.  I asked for a leg yield on a 20 meter circle, and didn’t get a satisfactory response.  I gave the mare a little swat, and she propped and swished her tail – and went strongly forward. “That’s fine,” Christy called to me. “You need to get her in front of your leg!”

We continued on the circle at an energetic and connected trot.  “You have her undivided attention now,” Christy said as we breezed around her.  And she was right.  The mare had one ear back on me, and was steady in the bridle. I asked for the leg yield again, and … Maddie floated outward.  There it was!   I was thrilled.

I went to change directions, and as we moved off in a trot, Christy asked me what I thought of the upward transition.  There was no denying it, it was pretty crappy.   We half-halted and walked, and I asked for the trot, reinforcing it with a tap of the whip.  The mare stepped off immediately.   This was better.  We tried it again, and I asked for more enthusiasm, by being a bit more emphatic with my leg aids, but not touching the whip.  She went straight forward, into contact, with no head shaking or nonsense.  “That’s good!”  said Christy, as I let the mare trot on.  “Now, how light can you make your aids, but still keep that immediate response?”

We walked, and after a minute, I closed my legs softly on the mare’s sides.  She struck off in a nice trot right on the spot.

This was a seminal lesson,and an empowering one.  I can fix my forwardness and responsiveness issues if I align my mental intent and my aids, and take care to reinforce my aids with whip or spurs if (and only if) necessary.  I was amazed at the progress we made in one short ride.  I can’t wait to get back in the saddle, and continue to hone and sharpen my aids, and Maddie’s responses.  One thing I need to remember though is to stay consistent.  To do otherwise is unfair to the horse.  I need to ride every transition crisply, encouraging and rewarding prompt response, and reinforcing my aids clearly when needed.

I’m beginning to understand

She's just so dang pretty.

I’m happy to report that I made good progress with respect to re-installing the forward gears in the mare.  Her motto tonight was “Ask and ye shall receive.”

Christy was in between lessons and gave me a few minutes’ coaching, and with her encouragement, we got there – in both directions.   And once I got the mare connected and over her back, following Christy’s instructions to leg yield out on the circle was surprisingly easy.

Getting to the good gait still a process for me.  Mads (and frankly, any horse) requires me to ask and ride correctly, but when I get my act together and my ducks in a row, and actually manage to ride the mare effectively, back to front – well, wow.  She gives me the most amazing gait, pushing powerfully from her hind end.  It feels entirely different from her trot when she’s less engaged.   When Mads is over her back and pushing with those hind quarters, the it feels like we have rocket boosters – you can really feel the oomph and thrust coming from those big muscles in her hiney. It’s the same feeling you get when you’re on a plane that’s barreling down the runway for take-off, when you feel those engines pushing the plane forward – you can feel that power behind you very specifically.   This is the trot that Christy calls “the trot that has a canter – or a walk – in it.”  That’s a good analogy, because in order to produce this gait, a few things need to be happening:

  • I’m pushing her into the outside rein – and holding that contact – with an active inside leg.
  • I’m driving her from behind, asking for more step.
  • I am softening the inside rein.
  • My posture is straight, my leg is long and draping, my shoulders are back – in other words, I’m sitting up and riding.
  • I’m inviting the bigger gait from my seat by posting further out of the saddle.
  • I’m using half-halts actively to encourage roundness and engagement of the hind end.
  • The contact is elastic – I’m holding it, but am also inviting the mare to go forward and maintain flexion.  However, I also have to “catch” the power coming over her back in the contact, creating a loop of power, balance and contact in which the rider supports the horse and encourages an even better gait.

What I’m beginning to understand is that this powerful, forward gait needs to be a constant state for us, not a fleeting occurance.   I’m sure that the well-ridden dressage horse is always in this forward state of mind, encouraged by a rider able to generate the power and maintain necessary balance. This was a light bulb moment for me .  This is what it means to truly ride forward.

More blogging! And riding!

Over the next week or so I’ll be riding my friend Stephanie’s horse while she’s on vacation.  She blogs over at Dressage Adventures, and I’m recording my rides on Oliver there.

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: