lesson notes

Lesson Recap

One of my 2017 goals was to take more lessons, and when my trainer was in town for a few days and did a clinic, I jumped on board.

I honestly can’t remember the last time I took a lesson. Summer, maybe. In another life, old me took lessons weekly, and sometimes twice a week. If something came up that made me miss one, I’d handwave it away with a laugh and say, oh, I’ll make it up later, I have plenty of credits! Old me was an asshole.

So: lesson. I’m going to take down a few bullet points as things I need to work on, and have been working on since.

1. Get my goddamn hands out of my goddamn lap. Shorter reins, more over his withers. In order to encourage him to come up and lift through his withers and the base of his neck, in order to create that space between hips and hands to hold collection, THERE HAS TO BE ACTUAL SPACE THERE.

In order to really work on this, I need to let go of the part of my brain that feels like I’m tipping over, leaning forward, not following with my arms enough, because what I need to do is follow WAY more, because it is one thing to follow with long reins and your hands in your lap and another entirely to follow with a careful regular contact and short rein.

2. Stop providing resistance for him to meet. This is one of my old, favorite traps: Tristan is hard-headed and uses his under neck muscle to grind out his frustration, and hoo boy do I take that bait. I’ve risen to that bait for a decade now. We’re like an old married couple except instead of arguing about the dishes we argue about him softening his mouth for, like, one half second, asshole. The thing is: he knows better, I know better, and miracle of miracles, when I refuse to hold up my end of that pattern everything falls apart…and comes back together much better.

3. FORWARD FORWARD FORWARD FORWARD FORWARD. ’nuff said.

4. Canter transitions! These were something I’d specifically asked to work on. So, we spent a lot of time breaking down the idea of transitioning on a half-halt, first picking moments and then creating moments in which he was surging up through his back to ask for a canter transition, so that we went forward into the canter with a bouncing, bounding energy. Keeping that in the canter, more half-halts, more encouraging him to lift and carry, then keeping it back down through into the trot.

5. Part and parcel of everything: setting the bridle out in front of me and then sending him forward into it. Elementary, and yet: sigh. Still working on it.

Sometimes, honestly, I despair that I have been riding this horse for ten years and I still more or less suck at it, but other times I think of everything else I’ve learned and – it’s probably even.

lesson notes

What do you bring when you fall off?

It happens to the best of us. You’re approaching a jump – riding a fresh horse – asking for a little too much spice in an upward transition, and then boom, you’re on the ground.

If you’re riding by yourself, you dust yourself off and get back on. (Hopefully, anyway.)

If you’re in a lesson, what happens next? Once you’re deemed to be ok, of course.

Does your lesson barn or trainer have an imposed penalty for falling off?

When I took lessons in France, if you fell off, the rule was that you had to bring a chocolate cake to the next lesson.

These were group lessons, basically cattle calls, with 8-10 people per lesson, riding in a circle. I’ve never been in a lesson format like it since. I maintain today that the French system of riding is founded on not dying. The people who make it out are damn good riders.

We had chocolate cake every week. If no one had fallen off at the 45 minute mark, we dropped stirrups. Then we sat the trot. Then we worked on canter transitions. If all else failed, out came the crossrail. Keep in mind, 8-10 people, riding in a big circle in a situation that sometimes felt an awful lot like a warmup ring from hell. Sometimes we were only riding in half of an indoor arena – a very big indoor, to be sure, way oversized, with second story bleachers for watching horseball. But still, now we’re talking 16-20 horses, in two big circles at either end. Yeah.

So: cake every week. One week it was me. Some weeks we had multiple cakes.

I’ve heard other variations on this. A bottle of wine, for the adults. What brought this to mind was a blogger recently mentioning that she had to bring doughnuts to her next lesson for falling off.

I don’t know what the current barn’s policy is, as I haven’t fallen off in a lesson (thankfully).

Do you have to bring anything to your trainer or the barn when you fall off in a lesson?

lesson notes · road hacking

In Just-spring

when the world is mudlicious
and puddlewonderful

says e.e. cummings, to continue the poetry kick.

Two very good rides. Long road hack on Sunday, with some short bits of trot interspersed. We stopped at a big puddle of runoff to see if he would want to take a drink (he loves his puddles), and he took a long drink, then splashed and splashed with his nose, curling his lip in disgust every other splash when water went up his nose. I forgot to turn on the GPS app, but I would estimate we were out for about 60 minutes.

Monday, a lesson. We focused on hind end action: both in flexibility and in push. WT put out poles, and wanted me to capture the feeling of that push and that activity in going all the way around the ring. When I was losing it, and falling into nagging, I was to go back over the polls. It worked really well. He was really motoring around, and sitting back, and lifting through his back.

In between, the focus was on really.going.straight. Lining everything up and not letting him trick me into overbending instead of really stepping through in the shoulder-in and haunches-in.

In all, I felt really good about where I had him. I felt less good about the consistency of it: keeping him there. And I felt not so good about my own position, which was sloppy at times. In particular, heels! I’ve usually been pretty good about them, but I am doing far too much pointing with my toes and pushing off the balls of my feet.

After the lesson, the barn manager gave Tris his first Pentosan injection. It was a lot – 6ccs – in the muscle, and I had bought a slightly larger gauge of needle than is usual (20). So he definitely felt it, but was very good. I think we’ll have to get further into the loading dose before he shows any results, but I’m optimistic.

Rest of the week:
Tuesday, rest
Wednesday, longeing (maybe? work event that might keep me late)
Thursday, hack
Friday, dressage school
Saturday, rest

canter · lesson notes

Lesson Notes: Canter breakthrough, finally!

Just some brief outline notes to remember this lesson – it was an excellent one. Tris is finally fit enough to get some serious work done. I paced him a bit during the lesson but he stuck with me and recovered beautifully. Only uphill from here!

First things first: lovely gorgeous stretchy warmup, awesome pony. We walked and trotted on the buckle for nearly 20 minutes, and then I brought him back to the walk and picked up the reins. We did lateral work to ease him in, more transitions: shoulder-in, straight, haunches in, straight, leg yield off the wall, straight, back too the wall, straight…you get the idea.

In the trot we needed more forward so we worked on going deep into corners and coming out strong down the long side. If there was a flaw to this lesson it was that I did not install forward firmly enough and was too nagging with my leg.

Once warmed up, it was all about circles and getting him round and deep. Controlling the shoulders on the circle, getting him deep and over his back, increasing the activity of his hind end with my inside leg. Deep and firm in the reins but not diving.

The real meat was in the canter, though. First we did some circles and back to our counterflexion exercise at each “point” of the circle. As we went on it felt less like a whole body shift and more like a subtle moment of more straightness, and he got stronger and stronger through it rather than threatening to break.

Then WT (winter trainer, to differentiate from the barn’s main trainer, who is in Florida, sigh) suggested an experiment. Tristan has been getting so much stronger and more through in the canter – what would he do if I got into two point, up off his back, but kept everything else the same?

So I did. And it was a teensy bit of a learning curve, as he kept breaking, I was leaning a bit too much, and my brain clicked into jumping mode a bit and I wanted to shimmy up the reins and press my knuckles into his neck and GO…but after a few minutes of figuring each other out, I settled down into my leg, kept my hands down just in front of his withers, and reprogrammed my body.

He seemed happier almost immediately, and was surprisingly adjustable for all I didn’t have my seat – he did lose some of the straightness, but he gained in engagement through the hind end. Left, we made progress. Right? Right we had this one shining moment when his hind end connected up through his back and whooosh, there was everything we wanted, complete with a fleeting feeling of softness through the bit.

Then he broke to the trot, but he got SO much praise, pats, and he was done. His breathing recovered quickly and he was happy to go back into a stall with his cooler very soon.

Next ride, we’ll go back and forth between the deep seat + counterflexion and the two point + impulsion, and as we make progress we’ll start to marry the two together more and more.

(of course, we are getting 18″ of snow on Wednesday afternoon through Thursday, so who knows when that next ride will be? sigh.)

dressage · lesson notes · shoulder in

Lesson Notes: Shoulder-In and Counterflexion in the Canter

The plan for the lesson was to warm Tris up thoroughly over his back before it started, and then drop the stirrups and do a 30 minute lesson in shoulder-in and work on the canter a bit.

It mostly succeeded. The catch was a bit that I didn’t get him really through and supple enough in my warm up, so we spent the first bit of the lesson working on leg yield at the walk and then trot to get him connected and responding. Then we switched over to shoulder-in, starting at the walk.

Tris and I have both ridden shoulder-in before; it’s not new to us, but it’s been a long time and we haven’t really ever had good eyes on the ground when we’ve schooled it. Plus, I’m finding that most things are a bit of a re-learning, both because we were out for so long with his injury and because the new barn is much more dressage-focused than the old barn.

So, shoulder-in went reasonably well; Tris had a tendency to be overbent through his neck and not get his haunches through. I had a tendency to hunch to the inside and let my outside leg flop around uselessly. Correcting the shoulders through the outside aids and tapping with the crop helped straighten him out, and discipline corrected some of my postural problems.

It really got cooking in the trot, though: Tris had enough forward energy to really load his hind end, and when I got him lined up, BAM, I could feel the sizzle in his hind end as if I had unstuck a cork. In fact it became a bit too much at times and he got fizzy and rushed and disorganized at the end of the long side, so we then incorporated half-halts every stride or two to collect the trot more. It felt like every pass we made was better than the last and with great substantive improvement. I was feeling his body much better and able to catch when it was going out of alignment, I was sitting more deeply and through and straight, and we had some very nice passes. Best of all, I was really connecting through my core in the shoulder-in – feel the burn!

Tris was huffy and puffy from working so hard through his hind end and over his back in that shoulder-in, so we walked for quite a while, and then picked up some canter work. The goal here was not necessarily to school, but rather more to demonstrate where we are in the canter. Right canter met with approval: I am more straight and deep in the saddle, more even in my hands and seatbones. He’s more supple and more flexible and on the outside aids.

Left canter was better than it has been, but still not nearly the right canter. So we did end up schooling that direction for a bit, as he flung his shoulders around on the circle and was not nearly as sharp to the aids in the transition. Trainer had us school counterflexion and back for a bit to get control of his shoulders, and once I got the feel of it, applying it correctly really unlocked some nice things in his left canter. Basically, before each “point” in a 20m circle, counterflex for one stride; then correct flex for the “point”; then counterflex the stride afterwards. It was a way really emphasizing my outside aids, and not allowing his shoulders to rule the day.

So it actually ended up being more like 45 minutes, all without stirrups. Hoorah and huzzah! I felt great, and especially loved schooling the canter without stirrups. It’s not an all the time solution – in particular, I can’t warm him up effectively without getting off his back and I can’t do that for long enough without stirrups – but I loved pulling them for the second half and getting a workout at the same time we did more technical work.

lesson notes

What makes a good lesson horse?

A narrative of my lesson with my boyfriend on Tristan has been requested, and in thinking about how to write it I thought a bit about a bigger question: what makes a good lesson horse?

But I’ll get to that in a minute. There’s honestly not much to recap about the lesson. It was 20 minutes, with about 15 on the longe line. A lot of talking him through position at the walk. I made him reach all over and do stretching, and call out to me which feet were hitting the ground at what moment, trying to get him to feel what each part of Tristan was doing in order to propel them forward.
We talked about keeping weight deep in the saddle and it was a bit of an exercise in frustration for me to see him refuse to grasp the idea that it is weight, not muscle, that keeps a rider in the saddle. He insisted it was physically impossible for him to drop his weight through his heels without gripping the saddle with his knees. I told him to see what happened when he gripped as tightly as he thought he should with his whole leg, and bless my horse, he launched into a beautiful forward trot, obedient as you please, and then stopped after two strides because M. was bouncing around like a potato sack.
We talked about posting, and finding the rhythm of it, and then I turned him loose off the longe for about five minutes of experimenting at the walk, seeing what happened when he asked Tris to move off his leg and go different places. We talked about how contrary to Hollywood’s bad example, reins are not the way to make a horse go left or right, and what the right feel of a horse’s mouth in your hands is, and there were some very brief, faint glimmers as Tris tried so hard to figure out what this strange person was doing, when my poor pony offered to step under and reach in response to the sort of, kind of, muffled aids asking him to do so. (I love him so.)
I have always maintained, and yesterday proves it once again, that Tristan would be a really superlative lesson horse. His brain is so rock solid, and his self-preservation instincts are so good. When he feels inexperienced riders on his back his preference is to slow down, and not speed up and take off in reaction to their imbalance. He tries to read muddled aids, and in size and in overall temperament he is the very opposite of intimidating. At the up-down, walk-trot level he is not a complicated or difficult horse to ride; his issues crop up when you get further along, and are usually in response to a more experienced ride.
But he would not be happy as a lesson horse. He doesn’t thrive on work. He keeps his temper cheerfully for the occasional up-down ride but string two or three of those together and he would start to get seriously sour and cranky. He would start to shut himself in. He is a one-rider kind of horse; that’s where his personality really shines through, and I don’t think I’m saying that just because I happen to be that one rider. His interest in and devotion to work is not sufficient to carry him through a lesson schedule.
So I think, perhaps even more than that steady-eddie adult amateur horse (of whatever discipline) the truly good lesson pony is the rarest of equines. The horses that can take a joke all day long and still make faces on the cross ties. The horses who will adjust their way of going to the ride they’re getting, will be kind when interpreting aids, and will generally work to preserve the balance of the rider on their back rather than to upset it. Who do as they’re told not in the deadhead way, but in the highly competent, thoughtful way of a seasoned professional.
What do you think? What qualities go into the truly superlative lesson pony? Would your horse be a good schoolie?
lesson notes

Lesson Notes

(first things first: it is a triumph of will that I even got to this lesson, after my car died 40 miles away and I had it pushed in neutral to the gas station next door and the mechanic called me mid-day and I had a conversation with him that went something like, him: “Did the air conditioning work on this car before?” Me: “It did until it caught fire last summer. I haven’t used it since.” Him: “Wait, what?” All’s well that ends well and I had a working car again by the end of the day. Whew.)

Anyway! Lesson. Good lesson. Ass-kicking lesson for both of us. A solid hour of work, some of it very high-quality, and with stretches that tested both of us equally and separately. I felt some strain in my core & thigh muscles after I got off! Dressage: not for wimps.

The overall theme of the lesson was straightness, and each piece of the lesson addressed a different way in which we were not straight and helped put us straight. First up: leg-yields. Worked on getting the whole body straight: first the neck, then the ribcage, then the hind end. No evasions, just good clean crossover. We also worked hard on getting just the right step: come down the quarter line straight, take one or two good steps, then go straight, then take one or two steps. We moved from quarter-line-to-wall to broken lines, off the wall to the quarter line and back. Walk and trot both.

Then we moved on to transitions: clear, sharp, straight transitions. Here, the challenge was more for me: not to corkscrew my body and drop my inside hand to my thigh. For him, though, less bend, more lift, and more alertness to my aids. We worked on fitting as many good crisp transitions as we could into a twenty meter circle.

Then, changes of direction, on diagonals both short and long. Go deep into the corners, get quality straightness on the short side, go deep into the corner again, and come off the diagonal – off the wall – with shoulders even, reins even, pushing from the hind end. I don’t know that I’ve ever schooled diagonals like that in my life, but it was a hugely useful exercise to have someone really drill me on them rather than just use them as a way to change direction.

Back to the twenty meter circle, and this time, work really really hard on controlling the shoulders around it. We did this by starting with a diamond exercise within the twenty meter circle, as outlined below.

Ride straight lines on the distances from center to wall to wall to wall to center, thinking of the turns off each point almost as turns on the haunches. It’s basically riding a square, which is an exercise I have done in the past but never really nailed. Pretty soon Tris had worked through and figured out what we were asking of him: don’t magnetize your shoulders to the wall, push off with the inside hind to make the turn, be straight and even in the bridle. For me, it was a really good exercise again for the corkscrewing of my body and the over-reliance on my inside rein. Turning those tight corners was all about a deep outside leg and a steady outside rein. We did this at the walk and trot both directions.
Finally, we finished with some very short canter exercises, to get a similar feel of what we had been aiming for through the lesson: straightness, control of the shoulders, a more supple hind end. Eventually in our own schooling we will work on the changes of direction through the diagonal, but for yesterday – since we were both so tired – we worked briefly on canter down the quarter line: come down the long side at a walk, then a trot, pick up the canter in the corner, then come off the short side cleanly and without overbending, and keep straight down the diagonal, then drop back to trot, make the clean turn back on the short side, repeat. We only did it a handful of times, but I could feel how much easier it was to get Tristan straight through his body after all the work we’d been doing throughout the lesson.
In short: whew. But some really, REALLY good tools to work on in our own rides, and a really positive outlook overall. There were some really gorgeous, fancy strides in there, and Tris really stepped up beautifully.