In Which I Piss Off My Horse Mightily

Jack and I had a CTJ lesson last week, and I think he has only now forgiven me since the occasion.

In that lesson, we were finally made to come to terms with his frame before the fence. This issue has come up a lot previously, because it’s Jack’s MO to lift his head and go hollow in front of the fence. As long as he approached the fence in a polite and steady manner, we tended to let it pass. But in coming back from his hiatus, Jack has been less predictable those last couple strides before the jump- either slowing down and losing power or racing towards the fence. And really the only thing consistent about it is his inconsistency. See the video below, where I try to keep him packaged but he runs through my aids as we get close to the jump.

It’s not all about where his head is before the fence, not just about how he looks and whether or not we make a pretty picture. It’s about him dropping his back before the fence when his head pops up, and as a result he can’t bascule over the fence as he should and can. If he can keep his back up all the way to take off, he will have a more effective jump and remain rideable through the entire approach. For these reasons, we need to install this basic concept in Jack – but I can tell it’s going to be hard won.

What’s difficult for me is that he is SO big and strong, and so wiggly. When I try to get him between my hand and legs before the fence, he escapes through a shoulder, or uses his neck against me – and no human is going to be strong enough to overpower and horse using their full strength in opposition.

So our lesson moved away from fences for the most part- instead making him stay low and soft over a ground pole, and let me tell you, this kicked off a battle of wills that Jack and I have not yet experiences with each other. We could be overbent but round and go over the pole, but if we were remotely straight the fight to stay soft became a war. He went sideways, he drew back to a jog, he threw his head from side to side, he tried to canter, or he went even more sideways.

When eventually we were able to ride the pole and stay consistent from front to back side of it, Holly let us try a small fence.

And guys, I have NEVER felt that before – he actually stayed soft right up until takeoff, and the bascule I felt under me was enlightening. I promptly dropped my reins and gave him all the pats and praises. And was just as promptly reminded to keep riding.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t repeat that success.

We spent the rest of the lesson riding the above pattern, and it was brutal. The fence was an 18″ crossrail, but you would have thought it was a Puissance fence the way he wanted to approach it. Let me tell you, my triceps were in agony by the end of the ride. We found an OK-ish place to stop and proceeded to have a long chat about next steps, all the while Jack standing with his head looking back at me with the biggest Fuck-you side eye I have ever seen from any horse. Even the carrot I gave him afterwards was eaten in ‘I wish this was your face’ stabbing angry bites. Ouch.

As it turns out, the above bit is our next step in the process. While I don’t like to rely on gadgets, I am simply not strong enough to ride through this. The hope is the gag action will stop him bracing against my hands, but we’ll still have the soft snaffle mouthpiece for all the moments when he’s a good boy.

Our next lesson is this weekend, so we’ll see how it goes!

 

Dressage Homework for the Winter

Since my trainer is spending the winter amongst the palm trees and fancy ponies of Florida for the next several weeks, she made sure to give Jack and I a good butt kicking before departing.

Kate, trainer’s working student who is also in Florida

I love a good butt kicking.

No, really. Those are the best lessons.

We started out working on the length of stride within his trot, using my seat aid to collect or allow the stride. Sitting deeply = collected trot. Sitting more lightly and following with my hips = a larger more natural stride. While I feel like a sack of potatoes as I try to get my riding fitness back, Jack still appreciates being ridden off of the seat first. And trainer’s main point was that most horses prefer to be ridden off the seat (vs hands or legs), and while it might take slightly longer to achieve the same result from seat alone, it has a more lasting effect and is a more useful tool in the long run.

From there, we moved into canter work.

The canter is one of Jack’s best gaits, but he also naturally has a huge stride, and that can cause some balance and engagement issues. So we are working to make his canter smaller with the end goal of engaging his hind end more without causing the stride to become even bigger.

One of the tools we are using to create this effect is the counter canter. We worked on the idea of going from haunches in to renvers on a circle for a little bit (which sort of melts my brain a bit to think about – see below video). Changing the bend like this on the circle, while keeping the hind end really active will also help with his straightness – an issue we run into in jumping as well. So despite it being hella hard, there’s an added bonus that makes it worth it. I think?

Other exercises that I have been asked to work on are more traditional counter canter exercises. Such as:

  • Pick up “wrong” lead on straight line and just canter down the long side of the arena then trot. After time start adding in corners (but not steep). Trainer thinks this will be easier for Jack
  • Pick up correct lead, change rein across diagonal then canter around short side on wrong lead.

The other part of the homework we’ve been given while she’s in Florida is to work on our walk-canter departs. Make them soft, small, and as boring as possible. Which is going to be hard, but hey, she’s gone for a long time so I’ll do my best!

We may pick up a lesson while she’s away with her trainer, who I’ve heard amazing things about. But that’s still up in the air. Until then, it’s canter bootcamp for Mr Yellow.

PS – if you want to follow along on my trainer’s Welly world adventures, you can follow her blog here!

First Jump Lesson Back!

Just so you know, I seriously contemplated calling this post “On Cloud 9 with a Turd Sandwich“. But that’s probably not the best SEO strategy in the world.

Thursday Jack and I headed over to the trainer’s, to finally jump some colored sticks after 6 months of being completely earthbound.

I expected the golden boy to come out in full spooky fashion, seeing as he hasn’t seen his shadow under lights in a long time, and you know, his tail is occasionally terrifying. But he wasn’t. Color me gobsmacked.

He was actually jumping so well, in fact that we moved past trotting 18″ and actually cantered fences and everything. See the below compilation of some of our finer moments:

And then the train started to come off the tracks. Jack got a little overambitious, dragging me to fences, one of which I wasn’t intending to jump. So, there’s that.

It took us some time to install brakes again and approach fences in a reasonable fashion, but luckily the video kept going:

We finished on a good note (not captured here as our videographer was cold and deserved to go home), and despite the naughtiness, I have to say:

I AM SO STUPID HAPPY.

It’s so nice to be back.

Boyd Martin Clinic: Day 1 Recap

If you want to burn off Thanksgiving dinner in a hurry- don’t do what I did (which is A) drink too much wine and B) do a clinic two days later). Do something… more relaxing.

I don’t know what’s going on here but it looks easier.

Boyd started out by discussing the various lengths of stirrup, and so we lengthened our stirrup to a flatwork length and warmed up with an emphasis on dressage- compressing and lengthening, getting the horse soft through the neck, etc. Jack started out fairly tight because of the number of horses and spectators, but finally settled once he understood the job.

We then moved on to building through a gymnastic line. We trotted a circle to get the horse round and soft (something Jack struggled with after standing) and then approaching the line- 1 stride to a 2 stride to a 2 stride. Jack’s stride is really big, and he definitely had a hard time compressing to meet the first two stride question. Each time the emphasis was on keeping the horse straight and landing and cantering in the opposite direction of our approach. We haven’t done so many combinations yet, and at one point in time Jack spooked coming into the sea of rails. But overall he jumped well and Boyd was very complimentary of his abilities.

We next went to doing a figure 8 over the crossed gates you can see in the background of the above video. Boyd cautioned us not to use our torso to get the horse to land on the correct lead. Instead, we needed to keep our upper body straight and not jump ahead, and focus on just using our head and an opening rein to guide the horse. Even though it was a figure 8, he also placed guide rails on the backside of the fence so that we would stay straight for 2 strides after the jump- avoiding the temptation to keep turning in the air instead of giving a straighter approach/away.

From there we started stringing fences together. First with bending lines incorporating the liverpool and big oxer in the corner, and quickly adding on other elements that tested our balance and getting the correct lead.

Since the line, which most horses got in 6 strides, was riding in a forward 5 for Jack, Boyd had me ride very quietly into it and wanted my to end on 6 strides for the day. So we finished by having all the riders go around the outside of the track, and I was challenged to keep Jack steady. Again our greenness with combinations showed through the treble, which was a tight one to a two stride, and we finished by adding on a bending line to another oxer at the end.

Overall, I learned a lot about my horse- that he’s a good jumper, but we have work to do in regards to teaching him that he now has a 3rd gear he can use- and that’s a quieter step that’s still active and balanced. My leg still needs to get tighter, and I learned that I need to not obsess over getting the perfect ride every time. Boyd was positive and encouraging, but definitely rewarded a gritty ride that got the job done. We wrapped up with a drink and some chili and Jack went home for some well deserved mash and a little rest before day 2!

Lesson Recap: Installing Rideability over Fences

As I mentioned last week, one of the main differences between foxhunters and eventers is the expectation of rideability, or being able to rate the horse between fences. It was fully disclosed to me that this was therefore a work in progress with Jack- that his whole life he has either trotted or galloped fences, and so the idea of a showjumping canter was still being installed. [For comparison, here’s our lesson from 3 weeks ago:]

Last week I had a lesson where Jack was in full-fledged foxhunting mode. He warmed up beautifully on the flat, but fences, even teeny tiny ones, were way more exciting than necessary, and half halts were completely ignored. So I went home and worked on cantering him over poles, where he was still tense/stiff but maybe not fully running as he had been previously. The plan was made that for our next lesson I would warm him up and the trainer would get on him for a training ride to feel out the situation.

As you can see, I ended up riding him the whole time. After warming him up and feeling like I had a buttery hunter in my hands, I cantered him back and forth over a pole like it was the easiest thing in the world. So we continued on, and if the running came back then we would swap riders. It didn’t, and I had a lovely and rateable horse throughout the schooling. It was such pleasure to be able to work with a light contact and feel him respond to my half halts. We kept all the fences small so we could focus on other things, and just in case he was a bit sore from his increase in work. But even when he got a bit tired at the end of the lesson, Jack was still the perfect gentleman, and we finished with a huge smile on my face and lots of treats for the palomino pony.

Our entry went off today for our first show together- a schooling Horse Trials about an hour away. We’ll just be doing Maiden, but this lesson gave me hope that it will be a great confidence building outing for us both!

Lesson Recap: Smitty’s first jump lesson

Smitty is getting edjumacated this week!

Last night we did our first jump lesson, which focused on a pole exercise to get his brain engaged and allowed me to work on using the outside aids to make turns and find an appropriate rhythm.

A lot of the evening was of the get-to-know-you variety, so we started over a basic ground pole and added more as we went along, ending up with three poles in a row and 4 options for single rails so that I could continuously change direction and create patterns over the poles as he needed.

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This exercise not only got him thinking, but it engaged my brain too, and was really helpful in helping us both relax (but mostly me).

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A main objective was asking him to lower his poll and use his back over the rails, and for me to use the turns to establish bend and use my outside rein and inside leg. I also worked on keeping my hands low and trying not to get too short with my reins. I can see that I need to be quieter with my leg, but that is a work in progress for certain.

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We eventually built up to going over the three ground poles followed by a cross rail. Smitty basically just cantered over, so I got the added responsibility of “creating flight” by squeezing on takeoff and encouraging him to jump. Guide rails were also placed on the ground to help with straightness and the jump.

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Next time less jumping ahead though, OK self?

Overall it was a good lesson and allowed me to conquer some demons that I had trouble with even the night before. I have the feeling that Hurricane Matthew is going to impeded any other jumping lessons before next weekend, but it was good to get at least one under our belt before the show!

Lesson Recap: Dressage Lesson Numero Dos

October is officially a big month for Smitty, and last night was the first of several lessons planned before his first show. Sorry in advance for no new media, and for this being a brain dump so I can remember all the things next time.

We rode out in the outdoor ring, which I have been avoiding since my confidence took a hit last month and I’ve been sticking to the more enclosed covered arena. But I want to power through some of my anxieties, and for me that means having an instructor there to get me out of my head and focusing on the saddle. Speaking of saddles by the way, the Amerigo Vega monoflap is officially the winner of the trial period, and though it was odd to have a dressage lesson in jump tack, I’m grateful to finally have a saddle that fits my gangly boy.

Winner winner chicken dinner!

Winner winner chicken dinner!

We started our lesson by warming up with a forward walk, and getting me to focus on staying relaxed until I trusted that I could really lengthen my reins to a semi-free walk length and allow him to telescope his neck out- a main focus for the next hour. Once I was able to do so without crabbing up, we introduced transitions between medium walk and free walk. I haven’t yet attempted medium walk, as we were focusing on the forward motion of the walk primarily, but it was a relief to see that he seemed to understand the concept fairly readily. For now though, we don’t want to keep him in medium walk for more than a few strides, since it’s hard for him to hold at this stage.

Just trying to break up walls of text here...

Just trying to break up walls of text here…

Moving into the trot, again the focus was on transitions. We started asking that the walk to trot transition be from back-to-front, meaning that the push was coming from behind. Again because of the baby status, that meant that it was a small effort, a few small steps before moving into the proper forward, working trot. I now realize that I have been holding my reins too short, and I need to focus on keeping them long enough that he can reach out with his neck at all times. If he comes up in the poll or above the bit, I am allowed to widen my hands to keep the contact with his mouth, but not allowed to shorten the reins in response. Then when he lowers his neck and stretches out again I can slowly bring my hands back together. And if Smitty were to become resistant, or attempt to dive down into the contact and drag me along, it is my job to ride with a strong core and back and lower leg. Then I don’t run the risk as much of being pulled over the handlebars and I can trust in myself to stay balanced should anything happen. Similarly, I need to stay strong and balanced into the downward transitions and keep him marching, instead of going splat into the walk or trot like he wants to do.

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Probably our my biggest challenge during the lesson was keeping myself loose and pushing him through any distractions. The outdoor ring is horrible for this, being surrounded on two sides by a trailer park, a third side by a neighborhood under construction, and the last side by a spooky hay barn. I feel like I am constantly watching to see if dogs are going to pop out, or cars, or trailers, or deer… you get the picture. So when one of the neighborhood residents closest to the arena started up his Harley Davidson, and preceded to let it warm up for 5 minutes just out of sight, I nearly lost my shit. Riding can be so much of a mental game, and truthfully, last night I had some fail moments. While Smitty handled it quite beautifully for a youngster, I was a tense mess until the motorcycle left the area and confined us to the furthest end of the arena, clutching my neck strap for dear life. Now looking back on it, I realize that I really need to push through and find some trust in Smitty, or fate, or what have you, and not lose my game face any time the atmosphere becomes challenging. Because as Eliza reminded me, you can’t control the weather, or the atmosphere, or even the footing sometimes, but you can always control or focus on your line, or your tempo, or your bend when those things become annoyances, and that it’s best to just keep riding through.

We found a really good note to end things on, cantering in both directions, and Eliza praised us for our progress with the quality of our canter departs and for the overall picture. It was a good lesson for reminding me of the positives and for getting an outside perspective on myself and my abilities as well as how Smitty actually is a very good baby and that it’s going to take time for us to develop a partnership. Tonight, we squeeze in a jump lesson with a new-to-me trainer. Hopefully I can build on some of this retrospective mental mojo and get some good points to boot!

Lesson Recap: Smitty takes the first step to Dressage Ponydom

So last night, I finally got to introduce Smitty to one of my A-team. In a borrowed saddle from a friend who also has a rather narrow pony, I had my first lesson aboard my gawky warmblood baby.

My biggest lamentation with Smitty at the moment (this being only 2 weeks into our relationship) is that he is a somewhat lazy fellow. Because it’s important that I establish some basic rules from the get-go, my main emphasis in riding him so far is to get him in front of my leg without getting in the habit of nagging (which I want to do so badly). I’m trying, but I admit this is a lot easier with someone on the ground reminding you to have a hanging leg.

A lot of what I got in my lesson was affirmation of some of the things I’ve been doing, which is always encouraging. Our warm up consists of walk halt transitions, using primarily my weight to halt and keeping the expectation that he march off when I ask, not dawdle in a slowly increasing tempo. Other affirmations include my using the walls as a guide for him to pick up the correct lead, and pushing him forward in the downward transitions (rather than let him collapse and stop like he really wants to do).

Of course it wouldn’t be a lesson if I didn’t learn things, and I definitely learned plenty. I forget oftentimes to use my voice in combination with a leading word- for instance, I just say “trot!” instead of “…and trot” or “alright Smitty, trot!”. It seems silly, but it’s more fair to let him know that something is coming even if it means a bit more nattering to my horse. He’s already picking up on the verbal cues really well, but it’s up to me to continue to be consistent and give him the best opportunity to succeed at what I’m asking.

Position is also something I’m struggling a bit with, since Smitty tends to bounce me out of the saddle with every trot step. My hands like to creep higher and higher with his head, so I need constant reminder to keep my hands low. Physical reminders to do this include thinking about touching his mane with my hands, looping a finger through my neck strap at the canter, and thinking about keeping my elbows heavy.

Since I’m probably boring you guys to death with all this baby stuff, I’m going to throw the rest of my babbling notes into bullet form:

  • Don’t ask for much contact at the walk. When getting ready to trot, pick up a soft feel and trot immediately- we do not want to to bottle up his walk while we are still encouraging him to stretch and step forward
  • In trot walk transitions, keep leg quiet during the few steps of walk before picking up trot again- no nagging in between
  • In the canter, really think about releasing with the reins, don’t be tempted into pulling.
  • Riding a circle, ask for bend for a few steps and release
    • Release is an important concept with babies, so they keep thinking forward and learn the difference between asking and “not-asking”

Overall, it was a super lesson, and Eliza really liked and had good things to say about my new youngster. I’m already looking forward to hitting the saddle again tonight and giving some of this new content a go again!

 

 

Lesson Recap: Riley’s Dressage Lesson

Riley heads back home this weekend, hopefully with a skull full of new knowledge and a much fitter body than when he came to me. Before he left though, I really wanted to get him off property and put him in front of someone who could comment on his progress. Unfortunately it was a bit late and the timing didn’t work out for a show, so I opted to take him to Eliza’s for a dressage lesson.

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Riley loaded like a champ, and bar a couple loud whinnies (which is the norm for him anyways, he’s a rather vocal dude), settled in at once.

It’s been so long since I have taken a lesson on a greenie (like, years, since I normally do much of the initial stuff myself), so it was great to get some reminders to set him up for dressage success.

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Things like using your weight in each stirrup rather than the reins to turn that might seem obvious, but you can forget when steering is a bit compromised as it is on a green horse finding his balance. Occasionally I didn’t get aggressive enough with this concept, and it turned into a rather hairy moment when Riley didn’t turn quickly enough and attempted cantering with 2 legs inside the arena, and two legs up on the grass level of the perimeter, about 10″ above.

Rileyfall

Much like it is nigh impossible to run with one leg in the street and one leg in the curb, this concept didn’t work out too well for Riley. Luckily the husband was there to catch our combined lawn darting on camera, and since we were both OK, in my mind anything worth laughing at is also worth turning into a gif. I really don’t think I had any way of saving this, and since it was just a dumb moment I’m happy to share with you kind folks.

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We determined that both of us were fine and I mounted up again. Overall the lesson was really helpful, in that it got me thinking about dressage as a long-term goal, and not just focusing on the immediate result as is the temptation with babies. So things like letting my leg hang now, instead of kicking to get the forward, will help me later when I need a horse that is more sensitive to my leg aids.

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Bar a scary 10 seconds, in which I’m glad I did not get crushed under those thunder feet, it was a really great lesson and a good reminder of working towards an end game. Though I’m really bummed to be sending Riley home, I’m exceptionally proud of how far he has come, from pasture ornament to dressage pony in a matter of just over 2 months. I definitely look forward to using the experience and the reminders from this lesson on Smitty, and can only hope he comes along just as easily.