Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Lesson night!

I had a great lesson on Phil with my trainer tonight. Full details in the videos, but I'll summarize so you know what's going on. This is basically two videos of the last ten minutes of the lesson.

The first half of the lesson my trainer felt that I wasn't giving Phil enough boundaries for connection. She said when I first got him I was being nice, of course, but now it seems like he is looking for a more defined set of parameters regarding connection and where his neck should be. I was giving a lot, but not insisting that he maintain the connection. I had to do some pretty big, firm half halts, which got a little ugly, but he quickly caught on and the connection improved. I was being very nice to him, but I wasn't doing him any favors by not working to fix the connection. I need to be firm, but fair, and fix it now. Cause if I don't fix it now, then when?

Going to the left is his better way, and he is so crooked to the right that it's like riding two different horses. The time has come to make Phil straight. My trainer had me bend his neck to the right, while going to the right, as if his head were a hand on a clock. 12:00 for straight ahead, and then bend in increments to 1:00, 2:00 or 3:00. At first all Phil did was dive to the inside of the circle, but you can see that after the work, and at the end of the lesson, he got much better about balancing and being able to stay out in the circle. The connection also improved because of this work. This is one more thing I need to fix now - straightness. His left side is stiff, preventing him from coming over and through his back. This is also not allowing the shoulders to move as freely as they should.

And wow, look at my right hand! ACK! It comes up and my whole right side just curls up when I'm trying to bend Phil and push him out on the circle. I need to fix that for sure. If my riding goes to hell that's not going to help anybody.

Part One of the lesson is here -

Part Two is here -

So this is our next set of homework - improved connection and suppling the left side for Phil, and gaining dominion over my right hand (and hopefully, my right side too). I'm going to try to have another lesson before the end of December, since my trainer goes to Florida for two months in January.

I'm having a blast with Phil. He's a good boy, and he's trying really hard to learn. I'm super lucky.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Stretch and bang

Tonight I had a great ride on Phil. We seem to be really clicking the last few rides. After a week of trying to desensitize him to my hand movements I took a week off to let him relax. I didn't want to make every single ride stressful and full of fear for him (although I will return to the desensitizing). So this past week I have been toning my hand movements way down. But I'm still releasing with my inside rein, it's just very subtle. And he seems to be okay with it.

He's starting to be more consistent with his rhythm, and is more willing to go slow and not rush off so much. Our contact is also getting more consistent, but still needs work. One new thing I've added is trying to get him to stretch down.

You know what I'm talking about - that dreaded "stretchy circle" where you make your reins long and allow the horse to stretch it's head forward and downward. I feel like so many people try to gimmick their way into this movement, but there is only one real way to make it work every time in the test - you teach your horse to stretch into your hand and seek the contact.

It's been a struggle with Phil, for two reasons. First he was taught to back off of the bit, so no matter how long my reins were he wanted to "set" his head in a position and not move it. Once I showed him that I wanted him to make and maintain contact with my hand, every time I made my reins long he would go faster, causing me to shorten my reins and half-halt to slow him down. This was actually making it a little worse, because he would get scared when I took up on my reins and would then go even faster.

I had to think for a few rides about how to handle it, and here is what I came up with. I started him on a ten meter trot circle, and then let my reins out. Even though he wanted to speed up, he couldn't get much speed going in such a small circle. I continued to try and keep contact, keep him calm and slow, and encourage him to stretch down. Every time he even thought about stretching down I praised him a lot. After a few circles one direction I changed to the other direction, still keeping a small circle.

A few rides later and I'm able to make larger circles, and he's actually stretching down into the contact. We're not up to 20's more like 12-15, but I think we are making progress. The biggest challenge, after actually getting the stretch, is going to be for me to be able take up on my reins without Phil getting scared of my hands moving around.

But we're working on it, and he's trying. And making progress. I can't ask for more.

And Kaswyn is just a peach. That horse is worth his weight in gold. He is still giving lessons and allowing me my rides too. Heart of gold, that one. I love him so.

Oh, and just as I was leaving the barn this evening I heard a huge banging. I ran down to the stalls just in time to see Phil's door go flying off the track. I heard wood splintering and saw his stall door hanging from one track. I ran to his stall and found him standing there, scared but okay. He was covered in sawdust so I'm guessing he rolled and got himself cast, panicked, and thrashed until he got his feet under himself, kicking his door off in the process.

I got the door open and moved him to the only empty stall in the barn. He seemed okay, no blood or big bumps anywhere. We'll see how he is tomorrow. But this better not be a habit cause I don't want him to get hurt. I'm just glad the door gave before his leg did!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Getting there

Phil has been getting a bit better about my hands moving. Tonight I realized something important - that he gets worse when I take a strong hold on him once he bolts. This makes it very difficult, because when he takes off my first instinct is to tighten the reins to slow him down. But then he gets more frantic, which makes me think that somehow he associates a strong hand and short reins with something bad happening.

So tonight I tried really hard to let go as much as possible. Even when he bolted, I tried to just momentarily take a firm half-halt, then let go. It was really hard for me to do that, because it didn't always work at first and my instinct was telling me to grab his face and slow him down. Eventually he calmed down, and by the end of the ride everyone had left the arena so I was able to do some serpentines which helped him to relax even more.

I think this issue finally arose because I had started to release my inside rein like my trainer had explained to me during our last lesson. He seemed okay at the trot, but when I started doing it at the canter he started having issues. Before this I think my hands were always low and quiet so it never was a problem. But really, I have to be able to move my hands around without him freaking out, so this is just something we'll have to work on. Tonight, once he relaxed during the serpentines, I kept my hands still and gave him a break so that we could end our ride on a nice, relaxed note.

He's getting better, and I can tell that he's trying. It makes me feel bad, putting him through this, but he'll never get better if we don't address this problem. I'll just go slowly, and eventually we'll get there. I'm actually getting something out of it too - I'm getting much more fluid in my contact and I'm forcing myself to let go and not hang on the reins. Even though this is difficult work for me, I know it's much harder for him.

I'm thinking about taking him to a dressage schooling show in January. I'm kinda excited about it. We need some lessons between now and then, but I think we can pull it off. I'm excited. :)

Sunday, November 13, 2011


Today I unearthed an issue from Phil's past that I had an inkling of, but didn't fully understand. More than once when I had been riding him he had taken off in fear. It was mostly when there was a lot going on, and I figured he was a little overstimulated and having a difficult time concentrating. Now I'm certain that it's a past trauma that is rearing it's ugly head.

During our ride today, there was nothing going on at the barn. He was the only horse in the arena, and it was pretty quiet. But he took off on me twice in a panic. The second time I realized what was going on. He had gotten a little quick at the canter, and I needed to take up on my reins. Both times he bolted it was because I raised my hands up, specifically my right hand. And when he took off, he wasn't bucking or spooking - he was running in fear, haunches tucked under and head high in the air, trying to get away from me.

When I finally got him stopped, I tested my theory. I simply raised my right hand up and forward and slightly out, towards the side of his head. He about jumped out of his skin trying to avoid the blow that he was sure was coming.

Someone has hit this horse in the head, with their right hand, while on his back. Maybe only once, maybe a lot, but I'm certain that he has been punished harshly by someones right hand in the direction of his head.

This makes me unbelievably sad.

Phil has done nothing but try with me. I can't believe that he's ever done anything to warrant such punishment. It makes me sad, and angry.

But that doesn't matter now. I can't change the past, but I can try and convince Phil that he can trust me not to bash him in the side of the head. I know there are going to be times when I'm riding and I'll need to adjust my reins or move my right hand. I can't have him bolting in fear every time this happens. We need to work on this.

The last ten minutes of our ride consisted of me moving my right hand up and out, him freaking out, and me patting him and telling him it would be okay. We started at the walk, in small circles, so I could control the bolting.

Let me just say at this point, that I've been bucked off of two horses who have bolted on me. Both wanted to dump me, and pulled some nasty moves to achieve this. I have a bit of fear about horses who bolt, but with Phil today I was sure that he wasn't trying to throw me in the dirt. He was just scared.

Anyhow, after some time at the walk with me raising my hand and him not reacting, I was able to move out to a 20 meter walk circle and have him be wary, but okay. Then we went to the trot. This was much harder on him, and me, but we were eventually able to get to the point where I could move my hand and he didn't bolt. I won't say that he was relaxed, but at least he wasn't reacting as much.

So now I'll be spending at least part of every ride waving my hands around. I know it will look silly, but this is something that I have to include in our training. I can't expect Phil to give me his best if he's afraid of getting punished in such an unjust manner. Time to build a lasting, trusting bond with this horse.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Anger Management

This is a long post, and kinda preachy. You have been warned.

There is no anger in dressage.

This is the most important lesson that I've learned in the past year. Before I moved to my current barn, I was at a barn where I rode alone for three years. Where before it was just me and the horses, now I'm exposed to different people, disciplines, and attitudes towards training. It's made me realize more than ever that there is just no room for anger when you are doing dressage training.

I'm not saying I have never been angry at a horse while mounted. I have, because I'm not perfect. What I am saying is that it's one of the most unproductive things you can do while mounted on an animal that you are trying to train.

With a few exceptions, horses are pretty willing to please. Sure, mostly their agenda is "Let me outside!" and "Feed me!", but most horses allow themselves to be trained. Not all of them give 100%, but if a 1200 lb plus animal did NOT want to be ridden, it wouldn't be.

So, let me give an example to help me prove my point. Your horse spooks. This makes you mad, because you think A) he just did it to piss you off, B) he should know better, or C) it wasn't anything to spook at, cause he's seen that hose a thousand times. Whatever sets you off, you yank on his mouth to stop him, bang his sides with your spurs and whip his butt a few times to let him know you are pissed.

First - fear should never be punished. Spooking is innate in horses. Sure, some are spookier that others, but they are just listening to their instincts. A horse's best defense is it's feet. It doesn't have sharp claws or teeth. It has legs. So it runs to protect itself. Anyway, to punish a horse for spooking is just justifying that it should be scared. But that's another soapbox...

Second, your whip and spurs ARE NOT WEAPONS. They are AIDS. You don't spank your horse with your whip. Your whip is to reinforce your leg (and occasionally, the seat) when you aren't getting the response that you want. If your horse won't go forward when asked, by all means use the whip, and even your spurs. But make sure to ask with your leg first. Be firm, but fair. But never punish with them. That is not what they are for.

Third, did you think your horse wanted to make you mad? I guarantee he did not. In this case he was reacting because he got distracted. That happens to every horse from time to time, but if it happens all the time with your horse, then maybe it's not his fault, but yours. Have you ever established trust with him? Why should be believe that he wont get eaten by the boogieman unless you prove it to him? Also, a horse can only do one thing at a time. A horse that is busy working has no time to spook. So, make him work, make him focus, make that a habit instead of spooking.

Also, remember that horses are not machines. Like you, they get fatigued. They have faults. They will always find the easiest way of doing anything, if you let them. If they stumble, swap leads behind, or lose the hind end in the canter, maybe it's time for a walk break. If they do it a lot, or start some weird behavior (like taking off or bucking for no reason) maybe they are trying to tell you "That saddle bothers my back!" or "My hocks hurt!". It's your responsibility to check these things out, and not just punish them.

You know how hard it is for you to ride perfectly - to hold your core tight, use your seat, keep your hands steady, sit straight, etc. You can do everything great for a few minutes, but then you get a little tired and the correct form goes out the window. You get crooked, lean forward, not engage your seat, anything just to keep going. We do all these things to make it easier, but we don't stop and take a break. It's NOT easy to ride perfectly for long periods of time. It's JUST AS HARD for your horse to be perfect. They get tired, but rather than just stop, they continue doing what they are asked, and they compensate in order to get the job done. Don't you owe it to your horse to be more patient? Cause you're not perfect. Dressage is hard for BOTH of you. Remember that the next time you get really mad at your horse.

You can't create something beautiful using anger. Dressage is meant to be beautiful. Do your horse a favor and take the anger out of your head before you put your helmet on.

Header Image from Bangbouh @ Flickr