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.

A good ride!

We had a good lesson tonight, which saw another two firsts – we started to work in a slightly higher frame, raising Maddie’s poll.  And we also had the beginnings of a stretchy trot!  Things were good right out of the gate – it was chilly and Maddie was more forward from the get-go.   She felt great – light, responsive, and on the bit.  I love how supple she’s becoming – I can bend her gently while trotting simply by tightening one hip flexor.  This is useful, because it enables me to quickly flex her this way and that, while staying out of her mouth.   I can also bend her pretty quickly into the outside rein if I need to re-establish contact.

So things were looking good straight away. Even warming up, Mads was steady, even and enthusiastic, before I even asked for much.

Christy took advantage of the nicely forward horse, and we worked on adjusting within the gait, and especially on covering more ground with our “big” trot. We used the short sides to rebalance, using half halts to shorten Maddie’s stride.  Then, on the long side, Christy had me focus on increasing the scope of my post, working in a slight pause at the top of my post.  Doing so, according to Christy, gives the mare more time to cover ground. I think we’re getting close to an extension. Dare I hope?

Developing a reaching, ground covering trot

Christy also had me work on shortening my reins just a bit (I have a bad habit anyway of riding with them too long) and raising Maddie’s front end.  We’re not simply cranking her nose in – I’m working from my seat, and working to create a more uphill frame.   This was the first time in recorded history that we’ve looked this pretty:

Good mare!

Maddie fussed a bit as we worked uphill, and Christy advised me that I’ll need to pay attention to letting her stretch on my terms.  She also reminded me that this work is hard for Mads, who isn’t used to carrying herself this way.  I’m going to be taking more weight in the reins – and I’ll need to hold it.  And I’ll have to work more stretch work into our schooling, to reward and rest my hard working buddy. So, we started to practice stretching at the trot – again, something totally new.

This was a brilliant lesson, and a great confidence builder, moving me out of my comfort zone in terms of riding more forwardly, and in terms of stretching.  I was reminded of  another friend who when working on stretching her mare at the trot and canter was told to “be vulnerable.”  That’s certainly what it feels like to me… but that stretch work feels pretty good.

 

 

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.