Issue du Jour: Rein Imbalance

The "after" picture - better leg position, with my whole leg rolled inward, and toes foreward.

Finally.  I finally had a decent ride, and lasted for almost the full lesson.  It’s about time. Best of all, looking at some video of the ride, I can see that the work on my postion has really paid off.  My leg looks a lot better, and if feels a lot better.   My leg is hanging more correctly from the hip, and draping around the horse.   It’s not 100% perfect – I still curl heel up and my toes out when I apply leg.  So, while I know I need to continue to work on lengthening and stretching my legs, I also know that I’m headed in the right direction.

The "before" picture: toes out, hips open, and little leg contact with the horse.

Great.  Now, on to the issue du jour – the imbalance in my rein pressure. I think that Christy cracked this nut tonight when she commented that mine isn’t just a left rein issue – I’m imbalanced in the right rein too.  I hold the left rein and give the right – I let my right hand creep forward.  This probably explains why Mads and I circle beautifully to the right – as I’m inclined naturally to hold the left rein and soften the right.  Now, I need to achieve the same feel and balance in the other direction.  We worked on softening the inside rein, while holding the outside. Christy chipped away at it, and by the end of the ride things were clicking.

Dressage isn’t about leaps forward. It’s an exercise in increments.


The Balancing Rein

Mads steps under herself with her left hind. Good mare!

The Rettger Dressage Interactive Dressage & Blogging Team was fully represented last night at the barn.  I got to ride with Liz, who pens the Loving Cloud blog, and Steph, who authors Dressage Adventures.  And, of course, in the center of it all was Christy, who has been writing the popular TB At X blog for a couple years.

And I finally had a good ride on Maddie last night – one in which fear and trepidation melted away.  In fact, I had to check myself – we were doing some good work in the trot including leg yields – and there were a couple times where it seemed like the most natural, logical thing to do would be to lift the mare into a canter – but I didn’t because I really wanted to keep to the task at hand.  But the fact that my heart was *there* was significant.

The start to the lesson was not ideal.   The arena was full and one of the horses – a spookier sort – was acting up, and some of the others were reacting.  I decided to delay my lesson a bit and let the rodeo come to a close.   After about 10 minutes, the arena cleared, and I walked Mads out.  Just then, however, a horse in the back barn started behaving badly – there were loud banging noises and the owner was loudly correcting the errant critter.

Mads went on red alert – whites of eyes showing.  The situation in the back barn had her full attention.  We stood for a minute, and I hoped she’d relax.  I scratched her neck and picked at her mane – something she loves – and exhaled deeply, blowing air noisily out of my mouth.  She did relax – momentarily – dipping her head toward me, softening her eye, and exhaling with a sigh in return.  But then there was more banging, and she was back on red alert.

Maddie wasn’t being bad, but she wasn’t paying attention to me, either.   I wish she’d take some lessons from Cloud, who seems to always have his attention riveted on Liz.  He followers her like a puppy, and when they ride, he always has an ear flicked back, listening to her.  Like Christy and Liam, Liz and Cloud have a true partnership that I envy, and hope to emulate.

So I put Mads back on the longe, and we worked on my longing skills, which really means we worked on my ability to read, interpret and influence the horse’s body language.   Mads was good.  She transitioned neatly up and down, promptly and with no fuss.   And soon she had an ear tuned in on me.  So I put the stirrups back on my saddle and mounted up.

And I felt great.  No trepidation, no ramen-noodle legs.  We were relaxed and got to work. Pretty soon we were in a solid working trot – the mare was over her back and tracking up.  It was time to work on leg yields, something that I thought I had some problems with.

It turns out my problems are less about the leg yield itself, and more about setting myself and Mads up for the leg yield. You can give flawless cues, but if your horse isn’t through and fully into the outside rein, you aren’t going to get a successful yield.   Now, I know this.  But I was having trouble feeling it, and, I’ll  admit, sometimes trying to cheat and asking for a yield at the wrong time – when we didn’t have good bend or a good connection.

So Christy had us do the spiral in/spiral out exercise at the trot, in which one really controls the turn and the diameter of the circle with the outside rein.  I’ve done this before, but for some reason, things clicked tonight.  Maybe it was because Christy described that inside rein as a “balancing rein” – that description really made sense to me.  I was doing a good job for once of not hanging on that rein.  Instead, I played on it, softening, squeezing, and testing my contact and trueness of bend by releasing it altogether here and there.  In the process, I produced the. loveliest. trot. as we circled right – which is a much more difficult direction for Mads.  She was round and engaged.  I asked for the yield on the circle, and felt her step smoothly out. “Good! That’s it! You’ve got it!”  Christy affirmed what I was feeling from her spot in the middle of our circle.    We changed direction, and it only got better.

What was my breakthrough tonight?  Really, it was another lesson in educating my seat, and learning to really feel throughness – that magical combination of bend, and roundness, and tracking up and on-the-bit that results in the most spectacular feeling of connected nimbleness.

Another great lesson, brought to me by Christy — with an able assist from my very good mare.

I stand — err, sit — corrected

The Equisense sensors don't lie.

This weekend I had the opportunity to have my riding position analyzed using an Equicizer from Equisense systems.   The Equicizer is endorsed byformer Olympian and general dressage goddess Jane Savoie, and is a sensor-loaded dummy horse that, when mounted, reveals how even (or not!) a rider’s position is.  Everything from leg pressure to seat position to the weight one takes in the reins is measured and fed back to the rider.

I will be the first to tell you that I have a variety of issues, so I eagerly clambered aboard for my session. And wow, it was revealing .

Right off the bat, the Equisense trainer had me make a significant change to my seat – opening my hip flexors and changing my hip angle.   I’ve been having some issues with my knees coming forward, and I had the same problems on the Equicizer.  But after adjusting how I was sitting on the horse by opening my hip angle, the problem went away.

At the outset, my seat was also slightly uneven.  I was putting more weight on the right seatbone.  The trainer instructed me to push my left hipbone toward the horse’s right ear.  This adjustment balanced my seat perfectly.  It didn’t feel perfect to me, however – it felt very much like I was pushing that left hip forward.  The trainer advised me that my ability to feel this was good – to make this correction permanent, I’ll need to be aware when mounted, and start building the muscle memory needed to make this adjustment permanent.   Happily, throughout my session on the Equicizer, I was able to maintain that balance, even through changes in the speed of the simulated gaits.

An apology to Maddie

Without a doubt, the most revealing part of the experience was what I learned about how I hold the reins.   Right from the outset, I was holding a lot more weight in the left rein, even though they felt dead even to me.  This is illustrated in the image at the top of the post – if you look at the top of the image, under “Reins” you can see that the red graph showing right rein pressure is far different from the corresponding blue graph for the left rein.

The trainer worked with me on increasing and decreasing the degree of contact I carry in the reins from my shoulders, moving my shoulder blades back and forth.  She then isolated my right arm and shoulder, asking me to bring that shoulder blade back.  As I did so the sensors indicated that the pressure I was putting in each rein was almost even.  She put the Equicizer into motion, and things went haywire again.  Slowly I was able to even out the rein pressure.  But it didn’t feel even to me – at all.  Throughout the session, I was feeling more weight – a lot more – in that right rein.  The muscle memory training mentioned previously will come into play here, as well.   In the meantime, I owe a certain big bay mare an apology.

After some effort, finally, more even rein pressure

Unbeknownst to me I’ve been really hanging on that left rein, even when things felt even or a bit light. In reality, I suspect there’s been a lot more pressure on that rein, and the mare has been responding as any horse would – by returning the favor, and hanging back.  When I’ve managed to do the exercises Christy suggests (dropping pressure on the left rein intermittently while driving the mare into the right rein with my inside leg) we get the nicest, most honest bend.  So the big take away here is to focus on evening up the balance in my reins, which *should* reduce the problems I’m having with left bend.  Tonight, when I get back on the mare, I’ll have a specific plan.  I’ll start by dropping my stirrups, paying attention to my hip angle and letting gravity stretch my legs.  I’ll pick up my stirrups, and will maintain that open angle, avoiding my old posture with tilting pelvis and arched back.  And when we’re working with what I perceive to be even contact, I’ll be conscious of reducing my left rein pressure, and observing that that change elicits in the big mare.

Here’s some commentary from Jane Savoie – who endorses the Equicizer – and a look at how it works: