Saturday, February 25, 2012

Lesson 15: Shoulders Back

Our lesson this week was pretty good, we had a nice ride with a lot of good moments and hardly any shying or bad behavior.

Julie wants to see Louie's head about an inch lower than what I've been getting out of him, so I've got to keep working on that, though I have to say he's come a long way in the past 3 months!

We worked on a few cavaletti and I could feel Louie rushing through them, so we worked on slowing that down.  Almost half halt through them and get him so slow that he has to really push forward with his legs each time.  This will not only make our caveletti work and stifle strengthening more beneficial, but also it is beneficial for our training as if he rushes through this, he will also want to rush over jumps and even in flat work.

The last thing we did was deal with my hunched, rolled-forward shoulders (though I have to say I have been paying attention to this and I felt like I was riding more freely and straight- I put my stirrups down one notch- shhh! don't tell- as I felt that my cramped short legs were contributing to my crunched, mechanical posting and forward upper body).  Julie was having me sit up quite straight at the walk, and when she still wasn't satisfied with my shoulders, she took my whip away and put it behind my back, through my elbows. 

This was pretty uncomfortable, but helped to at least get my mid-back straight.  I did note right away that my low back wanted to arch when we did this, so we're going to be very careful about this and only do it for a little while.  Julie is fairly certain that Bill Woods, the clinician who is coming at the end of the month (and yes, I'm going to take a lesson from him!) is going to make me do this, so we figured, might as well get used to the idea. 

I did notice that while I could barely hold onto my reins like this, we had some really nice walk and trot circles, and I couldn't believe how steady and on the contact Louie was when I rode like this- goes to show how our horses appreciate when we don't constantly pester their mouths. 

So I have to wonder, they do make a wrap type device to help keep the shoulders back, has anybody tried this?  Does it work?  I am thinking I may need to look into some kind of external aid to help me with this has been such a long-standing (think: lifelong) issue. . . I'm going to have to look into it!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Photo Day

Bjorn came out to watch me ride and take some photos of Louie and me this weekend.  I had to bribe him, but he did it. 

We had a nice ride, worked over some cavaletti, which is not only fun, but good for both of us.  We only worked on walk-trot as by the time we were warmed up enough to canter, there was another horse in the ring- a brand new Arabian, first day at the farm, so with that and the cavaletti in the middle of the ring, I decided we didn't have enough room to work on it safely. 

I noticed that my form and my riding kindof went back to the way it was before I rode Prince in my lesson.  I paid attention to this, but I felt much more tight in my legs and my abs, more restricted than when I rode Prince.  I don't know whether this is because of the shorter stirrups I've got going right now in my hunt saddle, or if it's because I'm doing the perma-half-halt.  I tried to actively pay attention to releasing my stomach, but apparently I still stay curled up like a fetal monkey.  I think the forward nature of my upper body is related to the shorter stirrups, but the rounded shoulders have got to go.  I think what would probably help that is trying to keep my hands a little closer to my body (hence shoulders back) and keep my head up.  Julie can always tell when I've got a half halt on as my head is forward (and I'm curling my body into the letter "C").  Anyhow, without further ado. . .

A nicely forward trot:

 Louie going over cavaletti thinking he maybe should be a saddle seat horse:

Trotting past the scary door with a monster coming out of it:

Shoulder in at the trot:

The perma-half-halt in the trot:

Free walk:

Tracking up over cavaletti:

Reaching for cavaletti that weren't well timed (see how far back he started- look where his left hind leg is taking off from- that's a big step!)

A little above the bit here, you can see I've got my half halt on (you can tell by how scrunched my upper body is) and also my right (inside) hand is off the neck back by my knee, trying to bend Louie toward the inside to get him to stretch down:

Trotting along:

Approaching cavaletti, nicer hunter frame here, but a bit heavy on the forehand:

Nice reach over the cavaletti:
I also noticed in these photos that Louie looks like his back is up just a bit from before, you'll notice not a big dip in his back behind the saddle (just a little one), and you can also see that his right hind tracks up better than his left.  Well hopefully these cavaletti will help!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Lesson 14: My Ride on Prince

I got to ride a different horse during my lesson tonight because Louie had a chiropractic adjustment yesterday and needs a few days off. I knew leading up to my lesson that I would have to ride a different horse, but I wasn't sure which horse I would be asked to ride.  I figured for sure I'd ride one of the beginner lesson horses, but much to my surprise, Julie put me on one of her 3rd level training horses.  Wow, was that amazing and fun!

Prince is a Friesan-Morgan cross, about Louie's height, but much more stout, with a thick, short neck and a back like a sofa (comfy).  I rode in Julie's dressage saddle too, which I really liked.  Prince has been really well trained by Julie, and not messed up by lots of different riders, so it was fun to ride a well trained horse who knows what he's doing.  It was really fun to figure him out.  It was amazing to feel that a subtle change in my body position or riding style resulted in such a huge difference in how he went.  For instance, we worked on sitting trot, and when I rode it incorrectly with my "wiggly back" he felt more hollow, not as forward, and lacking impulsion.  When I straightened up, engaged my seat bones and my core, and used my aids a little more effectively, he went into a wonderful forward, round trot with a ton of loft and impulsion.  So in essence, the horse taught me how to ride correctly.  It was also fun because he took the bit contact nicely and never went behind the bit.

My posting also improved.  Somehow, and I'm not sure the series of steps that I took to get there, but somehow Julie liked my posting much better on Prince than how I've been posting on Louie.  I think the main difference is that I felt relaxed, free, and I posted with less strain and effort than what I've been doing when I ride Louie (no perpetual half halt as Julie would say).  I just kindof let my body almost post the way it would do if I were doing it in my sleep or on a trail ride.  The only "restriction" in my posting was making sure that I was landing very softly and not falling on my "can." 

We worked on some lateral work, which Prince does with ease.  It was so easy to get him to step into a shoulder in, haunches in, half pass, or renvers, I didn't have to contort my body into a pretzel to do it.  This, I think, is because Julie insists that it is done right and doesn't beg the horse to do it properly, she insists upon it.  The result:  it becomes easier for the rider.

We also worked on some cantering.  Prince has got an amazingly comfortable little canter (very different than Louie's big canter), and is very easy and transitions simply off of the inside seat bone.  Of course I didn't get this quite as easily (because Louie hasn't a clue how to do this), so once I did one of my bad habits and leaned forward to get the canter.  Julie squealed and about died laughing saying, "you have so much ability, then you throw something like that in there!"  It was pretty funny, I don't know why I do that, but I know I do.  I do that all the time when I ride Louie, but I'm going to have to try to pay attention to not leaning forward when I transition to the canter. 

Overall it was a great lesson.  I'm sad that I won't be able to ride Prince anymore, and I think Julie is too (because she thought it was really good to see what I could do and learn on a more knowledgeable horse), but he is moving to a new home across the country next week.  Bummer, but it was fun, taught me a lot, and I think hopefully opened Julie's eyes to the fact that I'm not a complete slouch of a rider, it just looks that way because Louie and I don't know any better. 

On another note, Louie seems to have had a really nice result from his adjustment.  His back came up about 2 inches from where it was earlier this week.  The vet said he had a lot of vertebrae out in the thoracolumbar area (go figure, our constant problem area) and one rib out.  I'm always a bit of a skeptic, but that is the most amazing result I think I've seen in such a short time!  He seems less sore in his back too when I groomed and palpated him.  I'm very happy about that!  I lunged him just a bit and he is still a little off on his left hind as he has been off and on (mildly) for the past 3 years (I think since the field trial when he faught with the stake out).  Julie thinks it is his stifle (which you may remember he had injected 3 years ago), and it's really only noticeable when trotting on a circle to the left, so we're going to work on a cavaletti program to try to strengthen him up!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Inspiration

I came across this video series as a part of a racehorse trainer's challenge program and found it quite inspiring.  The trainer is Eric Dierks and I think he has got some excellent philosophy in re-training race horses, that applies to most of us out there trying to train our own horses.  This is an ongoing program and so far there are only 2 videos in the series, but you can see how he makes immense progress in each ride. 

Here is the first video:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ideu1bU0j5o

And here is the second: 
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DVJWmUu7mS8

There are a few things about his training style that really stand out in a positive way to me.  The first is his simplicity.  The way he rides and explains what he is doing he makes it look really easy, and I do believe he probably sees this as a relatively simple process (much more simple than my first few dressage lessons!).  I think sometimes when we ride, we get overwhelmed by details, and trying to keep things simple, at least early on, really helps to makes your rides better quality.

The second thing that I like about the way he works is the idea of the goal being not to see how long you can maintain what you're looking for (a round, forward, connected horse), but how quickly you can get it.  I've started incorporating this into my last two rides with good results.  Louie learns well from praise, so I would work on getting a nice trot out of him, then praise him and walk instead of continuing around at that nice trot until he gets frustrated.  I think I've noticed an improvement in how quickly we can get the gait we're looking for already. 

The third thing that I really gleaned from this (and also from Julie telling me I need to do more transitions when I ride) is the way he changes his riding patterns, direction, and gaits quite frequently, and uses the arena and obstacles to his advantage.  What I've noticed that this has really helped with is getting my horse's attention to be on me (the alpha mare- hello Louie!?!), and off of the scary monsters all around him.  I will walk a few 10 meter circles, then some 10 meter figure-8's, then add in half halts, full halts, walk-trot transitions every few strides, changing to a serpentine, 20 meter circle, down the straight away, over some cavaletti, in shoulder-in, etc.  I've been trying to ride in a less predictable pattern (not that it was necessarily predictable all the time before, but I was getting to just do 20 meter circles and full arena laps for a while there.  Though, I do still tend to continue along a 20 meter circle as my default when trying to work out an issue or get the gait I'm looking for.  But when I get it, I try to change and do something else as a reward, but come back to it frequently. 

Overall, I think a lot can be learned from other trainers in the same discipline and from other disciplines.  I sure found his videos to be inspiring and eye-opening to how simple and easy horse training should be.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Lesson 13: Riding Between the Legs

Perhaps it was because it was our 13th lesson or a weather change or the fact that I have only ridden once in the last week, but Louie was BAD tonight.  Just didn't want to do the work, shying at lots of things, and being all sorts of creative in ways to get out of doing what we wanted him to do- which were very simple things. 

We started out walking a 10 meter circle with a slightly exaggerated bend.  Louie decided he couldn't do this without throwing his hind end out of the circle.  As soon as I then used my outside leg back to bring the hindquarters in, he just piaffed instead of getting his hind legs engaged. 

He was wound up, would not relax his neck, and felt very very tight in his back the entire ride.  Julie hopped on for a few minutes and while she got a little better bending out of him, he was disengaged for her as well, taking baby steps with his hind feet and not reaching under his body to support himself. 

We worked on a concept of staying between my legs, meaning, no fishtailing and shooting off laterally when I am not asking for it.  He needs to go where I ask him to go and NOT invent his own ideas.  Basically we had to have a few breakdowns where Louie had to have a refresher on the fact that my legs exist and learning what they mean, then we got back to business again. 

He was also not sensitive to Julie's aids/cues to trot from the walk or mine to canter from the trot.  So, once again that is my homework for the week.  I'm also going to work on just working his little butt and being the alpha mare, changing things up and making him think.  I'd like to throw in a few cavaletti and a drive over the weekend.  Maybe even a hack down the road to change things up.  He seems frustrated. 

One good note though- our half halts were MUCH more effective, Julie was very happy with our half halts, and he really really understands and gets the use of the core to slow down (when he chooses to listen to it).   I just have to somehow make him understand the concept of bringing his hind end under him! 

Monday, February 6, 2012

Lightbulb Moment: Using The Aids Effectively

I was riding today while Julie was riding some of her training horses.  I say some because it was a very long ride today and Julie got through different 2 horses during my ride. 

After some struggling with Louie falling on his front end, racing in the canter, and ignoring my half halts, Julie said something to me that really sunk in.  She said, "when I was a younger rider, I used to practically kill myself trying to ride properly with my legs and my core and hardly ever use my hands.  Then I got [fill in the name of a very lazy horse].  I went to a show and the judge's comments were that I needed to make my aids more effective." 

Well I thought that through a bit while riding and continuing to work on my half halts.  Julie pointed out to me that Louie was running right through my half halts, being lazy and deciding not to do the work.  She gave me a little schooling and told me to bring him from a trot to a halt, then back a step, then trot, then halt, back a step, trot, halt, etc.  The goal here was for Louie to be prompt in his transitions when I asked for them. 

So it dawned on me.  All along I've been working so hard on getting Louie to relax and lower his neck, and every time I ask for a gait change or lateral movement or even changing directions, he throws his neck up and drops his back momentarily.  Well, I realized, I'm not going to get anywhere very fast in dressage if I have to just keep trotting laps at a time around the ring to look like anything decent.  Julie pointed out that he is not going to relax if I can't get him to use his hind end and lift his back.  And if he falls apart every time I ask him to do something, all the relaxation I can get without it is for not.

So I decided, I need Louie to do what I want, when I want, all the time.  Not 10 strides after I ask, and there's no begging or carrying him around the ring or being a passenger.  I need to be the driver, all the time, making all the choices, and if he's not doing what I want him to, I need to make him, right then and there, even if it's ugly.  See, I work so hard to try to make my horse and my riding look pretty all the time that everything I do is pretty subtle, sometimes so subtle it doesn't happen.  Sometimes, what is needed is just to make it look ugly for a few minutes to be effective and responsive, as that's what it takes to make the next several tries look pretty. 

I put this into practice for the last few minutes of my hour + long ride.  After working on several very prompt trot-halt-trot transitions, I stayed in the trot and asked for half halts several times, not accepting anything less than a significant lightening and reduction in speed.  If I didn't get enough downward transition or half halt with my legs and core and a light rein, I made the rein harder, with a pulley rein turning him into the wall if I needed to.  If I needed more go, add the whip.  I got a beautiful right lead canter depart from a walk, that was controlled, not rushing, and my horse yielded to me when I put my legs on him, slid my outside seat bone forward, and stilled my seat to transition down.  That was a good feeling. 

So now I know.  No more making it look pretty all the time.  Louie needs to do what I want, when I want, all the time.  Transitions and half-halts need to be prompt, and I need to do what I need to do to get him light to my aids, whether it looks beautiful or not.  It does work!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Lesson 12: Engaging the Haunches

Today we worked on our new hardest, worst gait- the walk.  Julie wants me to get him to stretch down better at the walk (and here I thought we were stretching down really well!) and to do this I need to use my legs and my inside rein.  When he lifts his neck up, I'm to bump him a bunch of times with my legs to get him to get his hind end forward, yet hold with my tummy so he doesn't run off on me.  I think he was really just confused with this, but seemed to relax his neck down for Julie. 

Eventually I think we kind of gave up for the time being on getting him to relax his neck down any further with this method (my personal impression is that the more we get him wound up and frustrated, the more he drops his back and lifts his neck up).  We went back to the one step at a time method, with frequent half-halts during each step, and this seemed to at least provide some pleasing results so we moved to the trot. 

We had a lot better results at the trot, basically half halting frequently, holding half halts for entire circles at a time, and trying to get that feeling of having the hind end engaged- in which he is active, round, light in the bridle (but not as light as when he's ducking behind the bit), carrying himself, and feels a bit like riding a bouncy ball.  We got a few nice moments of this. 

The other major concept from tonight's lesson was getting Louie and I to agree exactly upon the speed in which we are going, so that I don't feel like I'm constantly holding the brakes, yet we have gas available if I decide I want it. 

We worked more on our "extensions" which basically at this point is just releasing a half halt into an active, forward trot.  We didn't get to any cantering today, but we did discover that really, truly, the walk is our worst gait, and we made much more progress with the trot, and Julie thinks that the canter will probably fall right into place for us as the rest of the gaits come together.