bits · dressage · Uncategorized

A Bit of Experimentation

I’m not even a little bit sorry for that subject.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been experimenting with Tristan’s bits.

He is, generally speaking, a pretty hardmouthed horse. And yeah, I know – I trained him, it’s my fault. In my (admittedly pitiful) defense, that was always his natural tendency. From day 1 he was a horse who blew through and/or ignored aids, no matter where they came from.

Now, generally, I ride him in a loose ring double-jointed snaffle. Super, super mild. On the one hand, that’s good for asking him to reach forward without throwing on the brakes. He’s so generally backwards-minded that sometimes even touching the reins can stop him cold. So the softer the bit, the more it would encourage him to reach, right?


About three years ago, when I started riding him again in his kimberwicke outside, I noticed an interesting trend: he was actually better in that, when things got going really well. He was more willing to soften to it (really soften, not back off), he was more willing to bend to it, he was overall more light and responsive.

To some extent, that’s to be expected. The kimberwicke is a big bit. And even with the improvements, it does not have a ton of subtlety to it. I think that, riding outside, it mostly gives him a way to channel all that assholery into productivity. If I have a big NO he doesn’t get to debate as long.

With some of the fine-tuning of his dressage that I’ve been doing lately, he was getting extra heavy and dead in the mouth, so in the last 2-3 weeks I’ve been experimenting with doing one dressage-intensive ride a week in the kimberwicke, indoors. I do not expect huge things; what I want is to basically rev him up in some of the same ways he gets outside, and use the kimberwicke to guide that.


It’s mostly working. It starts out rough, but at about the 20 minute mark, when he’s truly warmed up and resigned to his fate, and going property forward, there’s the kimberwicke saying “okay, but you also can’t just yank and root and lean.” I’m asking for bend and getting it in 1-2 strides instead of 3, 5, 10…on and on.

I’ve jokingly called him my 2×4 horse in the past (as in, “you need to hit him with a 2×4 to get a point across). It’s not that he’s not a sensitive horse. All horses are sensitive. It’s that he is so damn stubborn, and his ability to turn up the “fuck you, I’m not paying attention” dial is remarkable. Like a toddler who needs very, very firm and clear boundaries to feel happy and comfortable.

We’ve got a long winter of work ahead of us, and I might not be done – I’ve thought about an intermediate bit to try and recapture some of the suppling ability of a snaffle but still something he won’t lean on, so ideas on that would be welcome.

dressage · Uncategorized

What we’re working on: fall 2018 edition

In a lot of ways, I feel like I’ve been rehabbing this horse for five years straight. Dumb thing after dumb thing after dumb thing and his Cushing’s mean that anytime he gets a few weeks off I have to start nearly from scratch. Keep in mind – he’s a mustang who spent the first ~10 years of his life doing nothing and/or starving. So he doesn’t have the base of fitness a properly raised young horse or an OTTB would have.

In the five weeks or so of his most recent return to work, I’ve been working on overall fitness but also targeting a few things specifically.

  • inside hind strength, particularly the left hind. Tristan has always been just a touch short on his left hind; his left side in general is his weaker one. I’ve looked at it with a few vets and it’s clearly just a weakness/mechanical issue, not a lameness or pain issue. So: lots of circles in and out, some longe work for stifle strength, poles, transitions, and generally focusing hard on the inside hind for short periods of time to load it, then rest it, then repeat. Slowly, he’s able to hold better, which means his bend is better, which means he’s more through and more comfortable overall.
  • Warmup: what does the senior pony need at this point in his life? This always changes. He’s never been a horse that is ready to go right out of the box. Right now, I’m working on 10 minutes of walk and then 5 minutes of trot before I so much as touch his face. The only thing I ask during that time is that he step forward and listen to my driving aids. I can get a good read on how to proceed after that during those 15 minutes: is he reaching for the bit? attempting to stretch his back a bit? eager to step out? or is he stopping dead when I so much as pick up the reins, kicking out at my leg, and just generally shitty?
  • My leg: Two things, really; I need to stop it from creeping up, a longtime bad habit from being 5’9″ and riding a 15hh horse. Second, I need more and more self discipline about using it when it’s called for and then laying off. Clear, precise, quick aids. Less nagging. Another lifelong bad habit.

Loads more things as well, obviously, but those are the big three.

So, what are you all focusing on right now?

dressage · Uncategorized

Lesson Notes: Flexing the Pelvis, Keeping the Lower Leg Still, and Leg Yields

After my review of the First Level tests, I had a laundry list for the barn manager to work on in our lesson, and we tackled a few of the items on there.

So, in no particular order:

  • I need to unlock my pelvis from the rest of my spine and from my lower leg. I was getting it too glued into my spine, especially in the canter. Lots of sitting trot work is in my future to help loosen this. In short, I was too ramrod straight and thus was blocking his back and his forward impulsion. The best ways to think about this were to drape through my shoulders and soften-but-carry with my abs.
  • I also needed to work on quieting my lower leg. The movement that I should have been absorbing in my hips and pelvis was translating down to my lower legs, which were swinging far too much. Thinking about making them sticky to Tristan’s side – not giving an aid, just sticking – helped immensely. So did some detailed conversation about the way I rotated my thighs in the saddle. For dressage, I need to think more rotating up and forward. (For hunters/jumping, it’s back and down.)
  • Finally we took apart the leg yields and I have a couple of notes on those. Number one is strength. He is more reluctant to step under with his right hind than his left. (Nothing new there.) I need to think about incorporating more lateral and pole work to strengthen hocks/stifle/SI to allow him to step under better. The next thing to think about is keeping straightness even in lateral movement. If I’m not getting a quality step over, go back to straightness.
  • To help in the leg yields and in the control over the smaller circles of First Level, we worked a lot on my aids for bending and suppleness. I need to work on making better use of my outside leg when asking for bend, so I can help encourage bend behind the saddle.

In all, a really good lesson. I came away with a lot to think about and work on, but also feeling like we’ve made some noticeable strides forward. He was more forward and responsive and it makes me feel great to work on a fundamental, get it in place, and then feel him surge up and forward through his back. Like now that we’re re-cementing these pieces, he knows what comes next and when I set him up/help him out properly, he seems happy to know the right answer. We had a couple of lovely springy canters, in particular.

I was also very pleased that three days after pulling his shoes, he was quite sound and comfortable! I owe a longer post on how that process has been going, but *knock wood* so far, so good.

dressage · dressage tests · Uncategorized

Summer Plans: First Level

In the spirit of putting things out there and then working up to them: I’d like to enter Tristan at first level this fall in our barn schooling show.

To that end, we’ll be lessoning a lot, working on fitness, and I’ve already broached the idea with my barn manager (who teaches us right now). She thought it was definitely feasible provided we keep working hard at forward.

So I’ve been looking through first level tests with an eye to the specific things that we’ll need to do that are different from Training, and where we are on those.

Photo Jun 05, 9 09 39 AM

plus some photos from last year’s fall show because I think I never shared them?

1. 10m half-circle + full circle in the trot

Okay, we’ve got that! We definitely school it pretty regularly. The trick is keeping it together, of course: keeping up impulsion while not letting his outside shoulder bulge out.

2. 15m circle in canter

We’ve done it. It’s not always pretty. This will require me to really work on that outside shoulder.

Photo Jun 05, 9 10 27 AM

3. lengthening of stride in trot and canter

Ummmmmmmm. Nope. Never really done it. I’ve played with transitions within the gait but more as an aid to adding impulsion. I’ve asked for nice big trots across the diagonal just for fun but never with the kind of discipline that a true dressage lengthening wants. Plus, it’s Tristan, anything that’s even vaguely more energy will always be our sticking point.

4. leg yield

We have these down COLD, we do them basically every day, whew, finally something I feel good about. I mean, there’s still loads that can go wrong but I have done this horrifically and perfectly and every way in between so I know how to take them apart and fix them again.

Photo Jun 05, 9 11 20 AM

5. change of lead through trot

Yup, got this one too, it’s just a matter of polishing it. I am actually pretty militant about doing this on the diagonal when schooling because it really freshens him up to turn down the diagonal at the canter, drop to the trot at x, and ask for the other lead. We probably put more strides in the trot than they want, and I am often focusing more on GO GO GO than I am on light, prompt transitions, but we have the basic concept down.

6. counter canter

lolol we’re fucked. Well, okay, no, we need to work on it. How’s that for optimism? (you guys my horse actively tries to fall over in just a correct lead canter, he is going to mutiny when I ask him to try even harder to balance, sigh) The good news is that it’s First 3 and I can just…not. But I am nothing if not overambitious, so probably we’ll be tinkering with this a bit.

Any advice for me? What was the hardest thing for you to get right when you moved up to First Level? Is reading this making you want to just go gallop a cross-country course instead? Any videos or tips that you found particularly helpful to think about?


Riding the Rein Back?

Rein back is the kind of skill I really feel like I should have mastered by now, but I really suck at it.

I’ve been working hard to strengthen Tristan’s stifles in particular and hind end in general, and rein back can be a great way to do that. In particular, a few steps uphill can be great.

We always fight about it, though. He tries to squirt out to either side, yank the bit away, or simply swing his hind end left or right instead of going straight back.

If I do get a few steps, it’s usually with a very tense jaw and he’ll do one or two dramatic strides back and then refuse to go further, and the whole process starts again.

I’m asking by: sitting deep, holding the bit steady (not pulling back just creating a barrier against going forward), keeping my thighs open/loose, and giving a light leg cue at the girth with both legs. I almost always also give the verbal cue “back!” which is a carryover from on the ground.

I could do this in hand – and I probably should – but it irks me that I can’t do a good job of it under saddle.

So, blogosphere, what am I doing wrong? How do you cue & train the reinback?

dressage · stupid human tricks

Current Schedule

I seem to have – somewhat by accident – fallen into a riding schedule.

This is not a bad thing! Though I do occasionally wonder if it will get stale. So far, so good.

Sunday: hack (20 minutes or so, usually bareback, focused on mental health)
Monday: dressage intensive (40+ minutes, drilling down on one specific thing)
Tuesday: OFF
Wednesday: longeing (20-30 minutes, side reins)
Thursday: light dressage (20+ minutes, focused on getting in & getting out to nail an overall feel)
Friday: fitness (40+ minutes, hill work, trot sets, long canters, whatever needs tweaking)
Saturday: OFF

last week’s dressage intensive

Tristan has always been a harder horse to manage mentally than physically. He just does not love to work, and he really does think things over and benefit from that during time off. At the same time, he’s 22 years old, and he is healthiest when kept in regular work.

I am constantly playing catch-22 with his work ethic. His first answer to everything is NO. It has been for over a decade now. That’s never going to change. However, his confidence in the work that follows my YES is a really tricky thing to manage. The better his work is going, the more confident he is, and after a warmup he can be downright pleasant if we’re on a good streak. The opposite is true: if we’re on a bad streak, the ride is just a slog from beginning to end.


The only way to fix that is to get good work back again, but then you’re fighting an uphill battle. How do you get back to good with a horse who is in a grumpy spiral? Time off. Lots of finesse. Backing off intensity – but not too much, because muscle melts off his Cushings body like butter. Lack of muscle means he’s less confident in the work, which puts us back at square one. In that same vein, getting too excited about good work means I push too hard, which leads to a backlash.

It suits me, in a way. I would not do well with a horse that has to be ridden every day. My life is too unpredictable. Similarly, the careful constant management teaches me so much as a rider and a horseperson. I’m a really practical person and that sometimes leads to a lack of empathy on my part. Tristan teaches me every day that each small action and decision I take has bigger ripples.

2017 horse goals · dressage · show planning

Surprise Show Prep

Last week, I found out that a day off I had requested back in April would finally be ok for me to take – someone had volunteered to provide the coverage needed. I had honestly totally given up on the request and kept it on the list out of pure reflexive frustration.

Thankfully, I found out the day before closing for the barn schooling show! I emailed the show secretary immediately, and followed the next day with my entry for Training 1 and Training 2.

I haven’t said anything on the blog because I was convinced it would fall through (part of me is still convinced something will go wrong) but I have been scrambling since then to get show prep done.

That includes:
– Finding all the various parts of my show kit. My white breeches and white show pad were AWOL for three days, and I finally had a brainstorm in the middle of the night of where I’d stashed them and thankfully, there they were. The breeches needed to be washed but that was easy enough.

I know my dressage coat is several years out of style and I don’t care I LOVE IT.

– Actually trying to memorize my tests; haven’t finished this one yet.
– Practicing that newfangled long mane button braid that people are talking about. It came out pretty darn well and I’m going to go with it on Saturday!

– Taking a lesson to tune up parts of the tests. Given how much of a shit he’s been in the outdoor we’ve been drilling it HARD, working through gradually less huge bits, and this was my first time in the snaffle we’ll have to use for the show. Bizarrely enough, he was well-behaved, soft, and suuuuuuuper behind the leg. Can’t win ’em all. So now I’ve been focused on revving him back up in the snaffle which hopefully will not swing the pendulum the other way?

From the lesson: I need to round out my circles better, be more attentive about my marks. I need to ask for some left flexion down the center line and into my halts to keep him square & straight. I need to pay particular attention to my outside rein the canter circles coming off the rail because he’s awfully sticky. I need to post quickly and stay relatively light in the reins to encourage him to go forward. I need to use my diagonals to build forward and then carry it through corners. I need to get more precise about my aids for the canter depart.

My times are 10:20 and 11:20 because this is some kind of cushy and luxurious schooling show, I do not even know. Good grief.

So, we’ll see how this goes! Stay tuned for a recap next week.


Three things we’re working on right now in dressage rides

There’s not much that’s more boring than a ride recap in which I just write “yep, went pretty well” for a couple of paragraphs. For the first stretch of time in a long time, my rides are going pretty damn well. It’s a perfect combination of regular lessons, a horse in great physical condition, my renewed commitment to physical fitness and presence, and a couple of small revelations all clicking together at the same time.

That said, my horse still can’t really canter on the bit, so obviously it’s pretty far from perfect. Here are three things we’re working on right now in our dressage schools.

1. Accessing the hind end independent of the front end.

First and foremost, this has implications for lateral work. It’s part of getting him to be more supple and responsive. I can do a somewhat acceptable leg yield and shoulders in without fine control of his hind end. I cannot hope to get beyond that. I started playing with haunches in yesterday and it was not pretty.

It’s both a frustrating problem and an interesting puzzle to work on. It’s a lot of thinking for me, requiring a much higher degree of communication through my seat than I have been used to, as well as more subtlety of aids than I have trained my horse to respond to. That’s the tough thing about being 99% responsible for your horse’s training: no one to blame but yourself.

So I am struggling to do things like ask him to step through with his inside hind from the saddle, and to do different things with his hind end than his shoulders might be pointing toward. Moving against the bend is a big red flag what is even wrong with you, mom? See also, haunches in. Most of our problems in that can be boiled down to being totally unwilling to step under with his hind end in a new way.

2. Transitions, transitions, transitions

I’ve been hitting these hard lately, particularly the trot to canter. Halt to walk, walk to trot – not perfect, but I can get them soft and through with some level of consistency. Slowly, slowly the trot to canter is starting to shape up.

I like the longe line for this, particularly with side reins or the chambon. Once I’ve got him responsive and quick off the aids, I ask for a trot to canter. I praise him for transitions in which he pushes up from his hind end, through his back & withers, even a little bit. Transitions in which his neck goes vertical and he lurches his whole body upward via his shoulders get an instant back to the trot and then another swift try. His reward is thus both loud praise – which he does respond to on the longe – and a brief respite from doing transitions.

I’m also working on downward transitions, specifically not quitting on them. I’m trying to make them true transitions and not just a drop down, carrying over energy and softness, and using a higher gait to invigorate a lower gait. This has been working particularly well in canter to trot, and my most successful strategy has been patience: waiting for the right moment to ask, usually on a long side after a good, deep, bending corner.

3. Bend to straight and back again

Everyone has lessons they’re always re-re-re-re-re-learning. Forward is my core one. I’ve added a new lesson to that list: the phenomenal improvement in Tristan’s way of going by focusing on moving between a deeper bend and a true straightness.

The best example of this is coming down to a short stride: I ask him to stay straight and then for a deep bend to make a true, directed corner instead of just shaving off the corner and making a sort of oval. Then I aim for 2-3 strides of a straight, uphill gait on the short side, then another deep corner.

A slightly different variation of it is on a 20m circle. Points of the compass get a stride or two of deeper bend, and curves get more straightness. (Obviously not complete straightness, but more of the dressage definition of straightness.)

If I focus on this hard, really follow up and work those feelings of bend and straightness through his whole body, keep him soft and reaching for the bit through it? 10 minutes of this work is like magic for him. It’s like a giant, half-ring-sized half halt that’s easier for him to process and makes him ever so much more supple and more willing to respond to what I’m asking going forward.

Are there any things you’re particularly picking apart right now?


Still learning

I’ve signed up for a lesson next Monday – trainer is coming back from Florida for a little while and we’re doing a sort of clinic. So I threw my hat into the ring, which means that after a week and a half off from death flu, I had to get back into the saddle with a vengeance and tune him up so we could get through a lesson.

The good news: I was able to breathe, we picked up where we left off, and I was pleased with both his willingness to work with me and his fitness. (inasmuch as you can tell these things from a 35 minute light dressage school)

The bad news: I put my stirrups back on the saddle because I figured I would not get the most I could out of the lesson if I was riding without stirrups. My posting was…not great, after 6 weeks out of practice.

On the other, other hand, I did get a re-confirmation of something I’ve been working hard on, which is keeping my hands still while posting.

It seems stupid to even report this as a thing I’m working on. At a certain point in your riding education, you are supposed to have an independent seat. And you keep your hands still. Well, I definitely have an independent seat, but I have always struggled with true fluidity in my elbows.

One of the first things that R. called me on about my riding was that when I posted, I didn’t truly flex my elbows, and as a result my hands bobbed a little bit as I posted. She worked hard on me to really understand that, and like magic, when I truly flexed my elbows and my hands stayed still and Tristan got instantly more secure in the bridle.

I’ve ridden with a lot of trainers, and not a single one of them has ever said anything about my hands. Clinicians get a pass, but not my regular trainers.

So I worked on my elbows a lot while re-learning posting, in anticipation of R. calling me on them again next Monday. Which meant we also worked on keeping Tristan steady in contact, which was a much-needed thing (as always).

I’ll keep him on a fairly busy schedule this week, then update his clip and do a light ride on Sunday, and we’ll see how Monday goes!

dressage · no stirrup november

Transition Within Gaits

I have been going to the barn but only riding sporadically. Mostly, I’m really loving free longeing right now, and so is Tris. It gets us both moving and enjoying each other’s company, and he is really looking substantially better from start to finish. It’s not without its flaws – for one thing, he is refusing to track left consistently, which is about half brattiness and half some body soreness – but it’s working for us.

That said, I did ride last night, for a solid hour, which was a lot for us. Usually I’m on for 20-40 minutes, depending on what he needs that day and at what point I see a good quitting time.

Last night, I free longed for 15 minutes (mostly walk and trot, some canter), then tacked up. We did lateral work at the walk for another 15 minutes, then picked up and worked mostly in the trot for 15 minutes with some moments in the canter.

He was feeling good from the free longing: his trot was bouncier and more uphill right out of the box. I took that opportunity to really work more on getting him to sit, and for that I pulled an old exercise out: transitions within gaits.

I’m not necessarily talking about collected-medium-extended; frankly, Tris doesn’t have that kind of finesse in his gaits. That’s certainly one way of transitioning within gaits, and it’s something like what we did, but we did the much broader version of it.

Which is to say: in the trot, I slowed him down and shortened his stride in a gradual way down a long side, held it through a short side, and then opened him up again down the long side or the diagonal. It was taught to me by a working student some years ago as: bring him down, using half-halts, to when he’s almost ready to break.

When you hit that point – when you’re suspended and need to make a decision – you can do one of two things with it. When I’m working on getting Tristan forward, I then rocket him out of that moment. I drop him down almost to a walk and then make a BIG ask to go back forward. Repeat frequently, as many as ten or twenty times in one lap. It has the dual effect of sharpening him to the leg and making him really frustrated at being told to slow down, both of which make a more forward pony.

The second thing you can do is hold it, and that’s when you’re aiming more toward a collected trot than just a slowed-down one. Because if you hold it, what you’re really trying to do is maintain energy even in a shorter-strided gait, which is the essence of collection. When I’m doing that I keep the half-halts going and a strong leg, I work on suppling and keeping him soft in his mouth, and I use my core to ask him to sit.

We alternated doing that with more lateral work, and then started combining the two into spiral circles: slower and slower trot as we spiraled in, bigger and bigger trot as we spiraled out. That had the benefit of teaching those same lessons while getting more bend activity in the hind end. At the end, we played with sitting down more in the canter for just a little bit.

After an hour of work, he was pretty tired! His respiration took probably 30 minutes to come down while I fretted. We walked around under tack for a while, and then I handwalked him in his cooler for a while longer. He cooled down reasonably well but was still breathing a bit too heavily. I finally put him in his stall and left him quiet for 15 minutes, then checked again. This time, I checked with a stopwatch in hand instead of just counting seconds in my head; it’s way too easy to count in time with his breathing and think that his respiration is higher than it is without empirical evidence!

With that final check, he was down to 16 breaths per minute – still higher than I want, but for an out of shape 21 year old horse who’d just worked harder than in the last 5 weeks, I decided it was pretty good.

That said: I did all of this without stirrups, and this morning, I discovered that I might actually have abs underneath the 5lbs of post-election belly fat?