Lesson Recap: Darcy Dressageing

Yesterday I had Eliza out for our first dressage lesson in, oh, 9 months. I introduced her to Darcy, expressing that I hoped to get her a bit more sensitive to my leg (currently Darcy is very much a kick ride) and make sure I was making the right decisions in general.

Dark screengrab from prior video of Darcy dressaging

Dark screengrab from prior video of Darcy dressaging

We talked about setting the expectation to be in front of the leg even from the ground. So walking in hand, I’m now to carry a whip, and Darcy is expected to march along with me, instead of meandering behind. In the walk under saddle, same thing- we march, and I overemphasize moving my hands with the motion of her head to encourage Darcy to use her neck. Moving my hands also releases my hips and further encourages the motion.

Darcy trot 2

One note that I thought was interesting in the walk was regarding leg cues. In general, at all gaits, I am to keep my legs very quiet and hanging along her side, then lightly ask for a forward response- if I don’t get it, then I quickly ask strongly with both legs to get a reaction. At the walk though, using both legs isn’t as helpful, and it was in Eliza’s opinion that especially on a mare, squeezing with both legs creates more of a negative response. Instead, I am to alternate left and right leg aids for a few strides to encourage her to walk forward.

Talking + Riding = Derp face

Talking + Riding = Derp face

Also of note was our discussion around sitting the trot. Darcy’s a round girl, and rather bouncy to sit her working trot. She can also tend to tighten her back when you sit, which makes for an even bouncier experience. So I am to practice sitting her trot, but not until she is truly pushing into the contact. Continue to sit even if she tightens her back and in Eliza’s words “until you have improved the trot” before posting again. This really only happens over a few strides, but ideally eventually I’ll be sitting more and more. It’s a good tool to have in our pockets.

Darcy canter 2

Overall Eliza was impressed with Darcy, and everyone who sees her go ends up grinning and saying just how cute she is! She’s definitely a different kind of ride from Foster, but in Eliza’s opinion is a great horse to make me a more well rounded rider, and I couldn’t agree more.


Riding other horses

It’s been a couple weeks since I first got back in the saddle, and since then I have been able to ride almost a dozen times. While the main candidate right now for saddle time has been Bob, a few times I sat on another horse, and success on both horses has been across the board.

Once upon a time I was very much in the habit of riding and adjusting to new horses, thanks to that being the founding concept behind intercollegiate dressage. But that was now several years ago, and since then the majority of my riding has been geared towards training Foster. I set out goals from the start with Foster to ideally be the type of horse that I personally like to ride- which is to say about 3-5 lbs of contact in my hand, forward thinking, and responsive to the leg and seat (but not so responsive that the horse would explode from underneath you if you sat really deeply and drove). The horse that I have now I think is a mixture of his own preferences in how he likes to go and my own preferences/training philosophy.

Catch riding in 2010 during Ivan's absence

Catch riding in 2010 during Ivan’s absence

So far I’m reasonably happy in being able to figure out these horses as I ride them, though their own quirks and preferences are so unlike Foster’s. Bob for instance has a beautiful floating stride with a ton of suspension, but easily gets behind the leg and curls. Riding him has definitely strengthened my calves and is teaching me to feel when he is truly coming through from leg to hand versus when he evades behind the bit. He also shows me my own weaknesses- like my sad left leg, my desire to pitch forward when I am really having to use my leg, and occasionally a loss of balance. But each ride has gotten better and better as I both get stronger and more in tune with his way of going. The learning opportunity (besides the benefits of not losing my mind) has really been a great one.

Competing in IDA at St. Andrew's circa 2007 (someone fix my helmet please!)

Competing in IDA at St. Andrew’s circa 2007 (someone fix my helmet please!)

The other horse I sat on a handful of times has been a mixed bag of success and absolute failure. Knowing that he is a tricky ride that others have struggled with, I was at first thrilled when we were able to get through movements the equivalent of a training level dressage test without issue. Well, a training level dressage test without the left lead canter, that is. After cantering left the entire ride fell apart each time, dissolving into an unhappy mess for both the horse and myself. I have been able to find a good note to end on, but this one in particular makes me wonder. Another learning opportunity though to be sure, and I hypothesize that my own crookedness (weak left side and very strong right leg) is what causes us the trouble.

Another IDA show, roughly 2007

Another IDA show, roughly 2007

This weekend I’ll have the opportunity (if the rain will let up) to get on a third horse and (dare I say it!) have a dressage lesson with Eliza. I’m excited to bring some of my newfound insight into the world of left-leg-decrepitude to her and hopefully learn how to adjust for my weaknesses. I’m fully expecting a tough but interesting and probably humbling lesson, but I’m looking forward to it nonetheless!

While I can’t wait to be back on my own pony, having the opportunity to ride other horses is a definite silver lining. I can feel that the experience is making me a more well-rounded and correct rider (I hope!) and I have faith that Foster will benefit as a result. So until then… bring ’em on and saddle up!

Drawing the Bigger Picture: Part II

This didn’t get out Friday because I got caught up at the barn, trying to assess whether Foster is still sore from our jumping last weekend, or if there is something shoe-related going on there. I won’t even consider that it might be something else until tomorrow. *Sigh* Anyways, until then, here are the rest of our brainy break throughs (part 1 here) from the week of lessons.


Effectiveness of the Seat
To be a dressage queen is to have a good seat. But the seat is also important in jumping, as the rider has to make decisions about two-pointing versus sitting versus sticking close to the saddle (the last is BC’s phrase, used before XC fences). In dressage, I am really focusing on using my weight properly in the half-passes. I’m also working to fight against my own natural confirmation, the dreaded hollow-back ghetto booty combination, that makes it hard for me to stick with the full circle of movement my hips should make in the canter. For showjumping, Bobby emphasized a lighter seat and as previously mentioned, moving from galloping position to sticking “closer to the saddle” upon approach. One seat, used lots of different ways!

Locked on the fence- also, this photo just makes me laugh

Locked on the fence- also, this photo just makes me laugh [Portofino CT Oct 2013]

Commitment Issues
Damn all that baggage of the past. Committing to a course of action is an absolute necessity with jumping, and being less than confident can sometimes have dire consequences. BC picked up immediately on when I became anything less than a fence-eating-machine, and as of course, so did Foster. In his words, I am not to ride pathetically, and having that confidence and grit will help me be a quieter rider by not feeling the need to make any “big moves” in front of the fences. For dressage, commitment means being clear in my instructions and the level of my expectations. Even if it is a trot to walk transition, the horse should “land” going forward and in a good balance, not petering out or falling on the forehand into a lazy amble. It’s up to the rider to commit to asking for all those details, and thinking about these things until it becomes habit.


Thinking about the Landing
How many times have I heard this one? Probably a bajillion times, but it really resonated when BC asked us to halt in 5 strides after the gymnastic. That shit is hard. And why is it hard? Maybe because my horse is not used to expecting something to happen on the landing. Halting after fences is one of the big take-aways from our showjumping lesson, and a wonderful exercise for getting a horse listening. In the June Jump lesson, we did something similar in making small circles after landing from a fence before continuing on to another element. And guess what- in dressage, you know what is a great way to get a horse focused on you and “keyed up to your seat”? Transitions. Forward, backward, halt, etc. Never should we just careen around the arena without a plan, and that was the point I’ve finally figured out this week.

It’s going to take real discipline to remember all of these, and surely there will be times when I forget one or more of these major points. On the flip side, I really do think that if anyone can master all of these issues they would gain major ground in becoming a better rider. And that is, of course, what I aspire to be.

Drawing the Bigger Picture: Part I

3 trainers, 8 days. Information overload? Just a little.


In many ways though, the lessons do overlap, even though each trainer had different ways of communicating the same things. Here are some of the theories that I’ve noticed transcend two or more of the lessons in just a short time period.

Response to the Aids
Foster should always be listening (ideally), and always waiting for the next cue. We’ve been together so long that sometimes I fall into being repetitive or allowing him to be ho-hum, which makes communication when I really need him a challenge. In our June jump lesson, the trainer had us do canter walk or canter halt transitions and incorporate turn on the haunches or turn on the forehand to keep him thinking about balance and reactiveness. In Bobby’s showjumping lesson, we focused on halting after fences or a line, to keep him coming back to me as the source of instruction. Both accomplish a horse that is listening and reacting quickly to my aids.

My [mental] picture of the right canter

My [mental] picture of the right canter

Focus on the Canter
The quality of the canter in showjumping is everything, and Bobby stressed that he be balanced and active when approaching fences. Similarly, in our dressage lessons we have been working on increasing the activity of the canter, which teaches Foster to sit while engaging his hind legs. Even though the truly collected canter is not a gait that you would use through a showjumping course, the idea of increasing engagement certainly translates.

[From the Clinic] Bobby Costello shows us how to use both hands and outside aids to make a turn to 9

[From the Clinic] Bobby Costello shows us how to use both hands and outside aids to make a turn to 9

Following with the Hands
All three instructors have now said something to this effect, which is saying something. In my June jump lesson, she reverberated pretty much word for word what BC said in the February clinic– push your elbows to the fence. With dressage, this really comes into getting the most out of the free walk by actively following the bit with my hands- even if there is slack in the reins, the horse can feel it and likely take that room to stretch down. With the collected canter, this comes as making sure that I am not constantly holding, which would make him heavier and heavier in my hands.


Tomorrow- 3 more things that have been beaten into me this week…

Bobby Costello XC Lesson Recap

Sunday morning was cool and lovely, which was a relief after having survived the massive storm the night before, complete with intense lighting that almost made me spill my red wine into my lap and even a tornado watch.

The facilities at Winterbook Farm are immaculate, but obviously cater to a crowd much more experienced than Foster and I. Anything that was below Novice (as in 3 Novice fences) was placed in extremely technical positions (like after a one stride up a hill from the biggest freaking ditch you’ve ever seen in your life), so warming up was somewhat interesting.

The stunning Winterbook Cross Country field

The stunning Winterbook Cross Country field

Just like the day before, Bobby wanted to assess my position before actually jumping anything. Apparently I fooled him once again into thinking my leg was solid, but he encouraged me to press my knuckles into Foster’s neck and stay there between fences.  As obvious as this is, it’s hard for me still, as with dressage and showjumping I am ever seeking that straight hand-to-bit line and in XC this makes my hands float around in the atmosphere.

Case in point

Case in point

From there we warmed up over the one baby fence a couple times (NBD) and then aimed at a solid Novice coop, to which I asked for a flyer distance and instead got a shitty chip. Hello, confidence problems. I revisited the coop and told myself not to be a pansy, and it went much better.

The one thing I told him I wanted to look at was Foster’s launching off of banks and issues with drops into water. So we started with the bank complex, and discussed really sitting up straight and slipping the reins at the top- to which I nodded, yes, I’d heard that plenty of times. However, it turns out in execution I have come to expect a big move, which causes me to clutch at the top of the bank, which in turn makes Foster feel like he can’t use his neck and therefore he launches himself. How bout that perpetual cycle? Immediately when I actually slipped the reins and sat back he dropped very casually. We ended that segment by going up a steep hill, one stride to a down bank, then 2 or 3 strides to another down bank. Beautiful, done.

A better view of the course, with the Novice coop circled

A better view of the course, with the Novice coop circled

We popped over a couple ditches and Foster confirmed that ignoring all else, this horse is not ditchy. So we moved on to the water complex. Foster had trotted through it for warmup, so we started by jumping a small fence coming out of the water up a small hill. He did this fine, so we reversed and jumped the fence back into the water. Enter my commitment issues, stage right. While he scooted over it, I got some very stern words about being confident about it and so we went back through a few times, getting better and better.

When on our third attempt he jumped it boldly, we moved on to dropping off banks into water.

Ugh, water drops.

I’ll be completely honest, the trouble lies with me. I feel Foster debate the obstacle, and I hesitate. My hesitation turns into him stopping, and us dancing at the precipice of the bank with no clear way of getting down but to re-approach. With lots of coercion, we finally got in, and then repeated the process until it was coming easily. But when we moved on to a higher bank and included a super long approach, I had the exact same issues. Again on re-presenting we made it happen, but I need to be in the habit of thinking “do or die” rather than waffling. You don’t waffle over cross country obstacles.

More of this please, and less of that

More of this please, and less of that

We ended on a good note, but I’m eager to repeat the process until that cross-country grit comes back. I’ll be coming back to Southern Pines in a couple of weeks to try again, and I’m hopeful that in turn I will become bolder for the experience.

Bobby Costello Showjumping Lesson Recap

I’m still coming down from Cloud 9 thinking about our showjumping lesson Saturday, which took place in a beautiful jump field in Southern Pines.

Walking Foster from the barn to the field, it was obvious that he was amped. He couldn’t wait to get started, and refused to be distracted by the busy road or the scary tarp jump. Bobby watched us warm up so he could check out my position and Foster’s way of going. Immediately he picked up on the fact that Foster gets a bit overbent and hollow going right, and therefore is harder to bend left- yes, yes, and more yes. So we talked about riding him more straight to the right and really asking for the left bend. I was shocked to hear that he liked my own position a lot and thought I was solid with my legs, but throughout the lesson did ask that I keep a very light seat if I was going to sit.

BC Video Screenshot

Without losing time we moved straight into the gymnastics. At first it was just a small fence with a placing pole, and Foster wanted to play a bit with all that energy- I think he was just so happy to be out and doing it all again! But the small fence quickly progressed into a full gymnastic, that was slowly built up to a placing pole/vertical/onstride/cavaletti oxer/one stride/oxer/one stride/cavaletti bounce/one stride/vertical/placing pole. Each time I was directed to halt at the end, and at first this was difficult, but we were able to make it happen more and more easily as the lesson progressed.

Through the gymnastic we talked about where to check him as he tried to rush through, how to get that halt at the end, and fixing a right drift that kept creeping in through the middle of the exercise.

After getting a really good go through the final gymnastic we moved on to single fences/courses. Of course I decided to show off my love for chippy distances the very first thing, but the re-approach was much better.

Because of my last lesson doing everything with bend, I was initially inclined to put the first fence on a circle. But Bobby noted that he looked like he was actually caught off balance when I did so, and preferred that I ride straight lines for now to allow Foster a chance to balance himself and get his shoulders square. He did say that there is a time and a place for riding with a lot of bend, and often that was for teaching the horse to land on the correct lead (as we were doing in that lesson).

Can we talk about my horse's knees for a second?

Can we talk about my horse’s knees for a second? Let’s ignore the fact that I’m getting jumped out of the tack…

Much of the conversation that we had was about the pace, and that before the fence I could add to or maintain the pace/canter, but was never to hold for the spot. Focusing on the canter also stopped me from pumping as much, or “making any big move” before the fence as Bobby put it, that would throw Foster off balance by distracting him. Another point he made was in talking about those fences course designers love, the lonely single with the long approach. He said though it’s tempting, do not even think about a distance until you are four strides out. Instead, think about the quality of the canter until you get much closer.

At the end of the lesson I asked if I could retry the skinny gate, since I’d been having a hard time finding a distance to it, and was so happy when he sailed over from the perfect spot. This lesson was huge for both Foster and I’s confidence, and all in all he felt like a showjumping machine. I do see plenty of things for myself to work on, such as folding at the hips and maintaining a light seat, but for not having jumped so much this year I’m pretty pleased with where we are now.

Tomorrow- sadly no video, but we’ll discuss the XC lesson!

June Jump Lesson Recap

Sunday I took a lesson with a new (to me) trainer, in hopes of getting some feedback and confidence before heading down to Southern Pines this weekend.

I started by explaining that half the battle is getting him responsive and in front of my leg, so we worked on cantering to walk, and throwing in some turn on the haunches or turn on the forehand before blasting off again. Foster was definitely not responding as quickly as I was demanding, and this may be a good exercise to get him listening right away and thinking about moving forward with gusto.

Getting a good canter back in February

Getting a good canter back in February

Then we proceeded to making a small circle at the canter over a pole, that then became a small vertical, that then became a larger vertical, and a few things became obvious:

  1. Cantering left, he wants to land on that left shoulder (no surprise there, that’s why we tend to land on the right lead)
    1. To fix, think about leg yielding him over the fence, before and after
  2. Cantering right, he still wants to lean on the left shoulder
    1. …so I need to think about pushing his haunches out, or bringing his shoulders in
  3. When we go straight over the fence, he tends to jump really flat and that’s when rails come down

In order to fix the last grievance, we then moved on to the next exercise:


In which I made a very tight circle over an [increasing in size] oxer, opening my left rein to get him to land left so that we didn’t take out the super wide brick wall/vertical amalgamation. The trainer wanted him to be bending and moving over the oxer, thus keeping him from jumping flat and stagnant. And what do you know, it worked.


We then added in the above line, whereupon on re-approach to the oxer I would go “straight”, add in a circle around the vertical/brick wall and then back over a 2’9″ – 3′ vertical. This exercise helped me think about my landing, and not let him get strung out or dive between the fences as we are wont to do. Before it was brought up in height he crashed (once) through the last vertical, and we had a nice long talk about how it is Foster’s responsibility to figure some things out for himself, and if he doesn’t react I am to gallop away from the fence, teaching him not to die/not think in front of the fence but to react, preferably in a forward-thinking kind of way.JumpLesson3

Because bending became the name of the game, we then moved on to putting a line together but adding a bend to it. The quality of the jump remained good over both of those efforts, and while I’m not sure I could realistically do this at a show, it was eye opening to see how much better the ride is right now with bend.

JumpLesson4To finish we did a very bendy course that allowed us to practice landing on the left lead. Going from right to left is definitely weaker for us, but as long as I really prepare it’s starting to happen more and more often. At this point in time Foster was also very in front of my leg, and feeling like he was putting in good effort over the obstacles.

All in all, this was a great lesson for us to check in and see where we are at. Getting a more forward pace is starting to feel more natural, though I’d like to see it on film before deciding if it’s the canter we need to do a 3’3″ course. I’ve realized that I need to be more specific about the landing that I want, and put some responsibility in Foster’s hands regarding the take-off. This was definitely the confidence boost I needed before seeing Bobby Costello this weekend!


Summer of Training

As in – take all the lessons!

Oh, you thought I meant that Training? You’re funny.

Training screenshot @ CHP Clinic. Feb 2015

Training screenshot @ CHP Clinic. Feb 2015

You remember back in April when I first made plans for the season? My already-revised show schedule looked like this:

  • May 30 – 31 NCDCTA Capital Dressage Classic
  • June 20 – 21 Dom Schramm Clinic (??)
  • July 11 – 12 Carolina Horse Park Schooling HT (Novice)
  • September 4 – 6 Five Points (CHP) Recognized HT
  • October 11 Carolina Horse Park Schooling HT (Training)
  • October 30 – November 1 Virginia Horse Trials (??)
  • November 8 Carolina Horse Park Schooling HT (Training)
  • November 22 MacNair’s CT (2nd level)

Well, take 5 competitions on that list and put a great big strike through them.

  • May 30 – 31 NCDCTA Capital Dressage Classic
  • June 20 – 21 Dom Schramm Clinic (??)
  • July 11 – 12 Carolina Horse Park Schooling HT (Novice)
  • September 4 – 6 Five Points (CHP) Recognized HT
  • October 11 Carolina Horse Park Schooling HT (Training)
  • October 30 – November 1 Virginia Horse Trials (??)
  • November 8 Carolina Horse Park Schooling HT (Training)
  • November 22 MacNair’s CT (2nd level)

Instead, I’m going to dedicate the summer and my pocket book to lessons. This because duh, we need lessons, and I think getting some professional help will be the best way to prepare us for that eventual Training move up. It will be somewhat of a bummer if we really don’t compete until October of this year, but at least that will save me from the potential heat stroke I’ll likely get if I attempt competing this summer- I can barely make it through a jump school right now at the heat of the day!

Our first item on the now-training-oriented-calendar is a two day session with Bobby Costello at the end of the month. Bobby was vastly helpful in helping me get Foster around the Training course at the Carolina Horse Park, and if he can do that in 5 minutes I’m excited to see what he can do in two lessons.

Bobby Costello shows us how to use both hands and outside aids to make a turn to 9

From the Clinic: Bobby Costello shows us how to use both hands and outside aids to make a turn to 9

From there, I’m eyeing a clinic at the end of July with a certain Canadian team coach (maybe maybe), and finding a jumping trainer who can fill the void at home while the Paynes work on eventing-world domination. We will see what happens!

Dressage Lesson Recap: A Checkup and Rein Backs

Monday night we had our first lesson since mid February. Since Foster is starting to feel so much better, I’ve been adding slightly more work and asking a bit more of him with each ride, but continue to feel his hind-end weakness as a result of having so much downtime. So I scheduled the lesson in order to have a professional assess the weakness and the program I have come up with, to see if I am heading in the right direction.

no new media- who wants to come play photographer for me? :)

no new media- who wants to come play photographer for me? 🙂

To make a long winding story short, all is well. After riding him for 15 minutes, Eliza agreed that if you really leg yield him to the left his weakness gets prominent, as he takes uneven steps getting worried about it all. Otherwise though she was happy with how he felt, especially his canter work. She felt that it was exactly right to insist that he do things correctly, and just keep it in short sessions until his fitness returns. It will be hard for him to stay straight for long periods until the strength comes back to that leg, but the only way it will get stronger is if he uses it.

Also worked on making him use his abs at the canter and really lift his back, instead of cantering 'even' like this

Also worked on making him use his abs at the canter and really lift his back, instead of cantering ‘even’ like this

I also got the all-clear to practice walk-canter transitions again, which I am excited to hear. And for now, any and all lateral work at the walk will be great for him. In the past week I had started re-introducing shoulder-in and haunches in at the walk, so it will be fun to practice half pass and renvers in addition to these movements. Rein-backs as well will officially become [a small] part of our routine.

Gif by Citron Vert

The Rein-back. [gif by Citron Vert]

Since it has been, oh, 15 years since I last taught a horse rein-back, and knowing that in a test it is such an easy thing to go wrong, I wanted some feedback on the movement. A rein-back actually starts with a quality walk then halt. If the halt is crap, the rein-back will follow suit. So, square halt, soften then jaw, then put both my legs slightly back and even but light resisting aids with my hands. I’ll have to watch out for him dragging his toes, and staying soft through the jowl. But it was shocking how easily the idea came to him. How is this the same horse that in our early days, would stand with his jaw like a rock and refuse to give in any way shape or form?

Overall I am really pleased with how things are going, and am hopeful that the next scope will reveal a happily ulcer-free pony. Just two more weeks!!

Winter Weather and a mini Dressage Lesson Recap

Winter weather has officially hit North Carolina (and seemingly a lot of other places too), so obviously, pretty much everything that can be closed is closed. And of course the problem with living in a house on a hill is that when said hill ices over, you’re pretty much stuck anyways. So if you want to find me, I’ll be in my sweatpants working from home the next couple days.

The upside to all this is that everytime I look outside I think of this…


… and therefore sing all four parts to my husband, complete with cheesy railroad noises. I like to think I’m adorable, but I’m probably just hurting my chances on getting that next blog post out of him. Whatevs snow snow Snow SNOW SNOW!!!

Before the ice storm hit, I was able to squeeze in a dressage lesson and discuss  the feedback from the clinic. Foster had a couple days off after the clinic, then a long stretchy session to work out any kinks, so even though I hadn’t dressaged yet since the clinic, it was still helpful.

clinic canter

Basically the lesson was a repeat of lessons before in that there was a lot of emphasis on transitions within and between gaits, lateral work in the form of shoulder and haunches in, and more work on our lengthenings. Foster’s still figuring these out to some degree, and part of how he is dealing with the added ‘pressure’ of the lengthening is to curl under, so I’m learning how to get his poll up and keep him going, or for now, come back to the walk then try again.


One of the most aggravating parts of my test was getting that 5.5 on the free walk, and so we worked on getting him to really take the extra stretch without rooting. Part of solving this problem includes my moving my hands towards his mouth (i.e, pushing my elbows to the fence!) so that he has even more ‘place’ to go. So obviously this is a feeling that I need to get the hang of in order to get the most out of my horse! Funny how habits transcend disciplines!