Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Lesson for Phil, not me

I had a lesson scheduled for last Thursday, and I asked my trainer to ride Phil first. Not just because of our little incident on Tuesday, but because I wanted her to feel what he was doing. After my last lesson I tried hard to let go of Phil, like we worked on in that lesson. But then I felt that he wasn’t taking my half-halts very seriously, if at all. Once I let him go, he just wanted to go go go!

So my trainer got on him and soon she was feeling the same thing. He wasn’t taking much of a half-halt. She had to be rather firm with him, and give him some big “I mean it” half-halts. Then they were able to get down to work. She ended up riding him for the whole lesson, which is fine with me. You can see the whole video of it here –

And yeah, you saw that right. Phil did a clean flying change each direction. I almost cried. My trainer said that the counter canter was really helping him be straighter, and helping him get over his back and relax a bit, and it just felt like she could ask for the change, so she did. And happily Phil just did the change with no fuss. Like it was no big deal. This is fantastic!!

We discussed his status after her ride. She felt that he was starting to take over a little bit, but didn’t really think it was a bad thing. When I first got him he had no confidence, and was terrified to make a mistake. Now he’s gaining confidence, starting to come into his own, and have an opinion about how things ought to be. And that’s GOOD. However, she said “He must realize that he’s not flying the plane here.” Which means he’s got to be obedient when asked to do something. But we don’t want to squash his confidence. If we do this the right way, he could end up being brave and bold, but also obedient and submissive.

I mentioned that he seems to be hypersensitive, but also selectively deaf to some aids. My trainer agreed, and said that he just needs to realize that he has to listen all the time.  Again, we just need him to be obedient. 

We're making progress.  It's slow and steady, but it's progress.  I've got my name in line for a stall at my trainer's barn for a month of boot camp with Phil.  Imagine the work we can get done with 3 sessions with my trainer a week!  I hope we can work out the logistics of that.  It would be really great for both of us right now! 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Like a monkey in a tree

Yesterday I had a very challenging ride on Phil. I had the day off so I went out to the barn in the morning to ride. I decided to give Kaswyn the day off and put him outside with a buddy for an hour or so while I rode Phil. Well, Phil objected to that is a big way. He really thought HE should be going out too. So when I went to get on him he was spastic, crabby, and totally unfocused. I was trying to just get him through the ride without having a huge issue.

We were about five minutes into the ride and I decided to canter him. I seem to be able to make a better, more consistent contact at the canter. I was hoping that cantering would focus him and get him to relax a bit. We cantered in a circle at one end of the arena.

Then a few things happened in quick succession. First, there was a horse walking outside by the door, which he saw as we passed the door. This made him speed up. I gave him a half-halt, which he didn’t accept. Instead he threw his head in the air and dropped his butt, just as we were going through the corner. This caused him to kick dirt on the wall behind us as we were coming through the corner, and that spooked him. He really took off then, for the first time in a long time. His head was up in my face and he was running blind. I look my left rein and jerked it hard, because we were headed right for the wall. He raised up his front end and came down hard, right next to the wall. This completely unseated me. I lost both stirrups. Then he jumped hard away from the wall to the left, sending me off the saddle to the right. I was literally hanging off with one leg slung over the seat of the saddle. But I refused to give up and fall off. I did the only thing I could do.

I climbed that horse’s neck like a monkey in a tree.

Right hand full of mane, left hand grabbing rein, I tried to pull him away from the wall. But now he was TOTALLY LOSING HIS MIND. He was bolting, jumping, scared to death, not sure what the hell was actually happening. I managed to get back in the saddle, but still no stirrups, and he was still jumping around. My hand got tangled in the mane and I raised it up to get it loose, and he bolted to the right.

His head came up as he bolted and smacked me in the side of the head. This knocked me over to the left, and it was a repeat of what had just happened – grabbing mane and neck, hanging off the saddle with one leg (this time to the left), pulling the rein to stop him.

I didn’t want to do it, but I grabbed the right rein and used it to pull me back into the saddle. Then I finally was able to stop him.

I got myself back together, gave him a second to get his mind back in gear, and then I patted him. And we moved on like it never happened. I just remember my trainer always saying “It doesn’t matter.”, when things like this happen. He got scared. We got ourselves into a pickle. The very worst thing I could do at that point would be to punish him. So we just carried on.

It was very hard for me to relax and just ride after that, but I did the best I could. Yeah, it was scary. For him too, I’m sure. But we actually got some pretty nice work in after that. Not perfect, but it was acceptable.

Nobody actually saw the scene.  I kind of wish there was video of it.  I'd love to see how that whole thing looked!  When I told the Barn Manager about it, she said "Well, I heard that's why God gave Arabian horses long manes.  So we can stay on."  So true!  I think I'd have been in the dirt if he didn't have that long mane to save me. 

My eye is very sore where he smacked me in the head, but other than that I’m fine. I didn’t even get a black eye! Yay me! Thankfully we have a lesson on Thursday. I can’t wait. We need it really badly!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

May Schooling Show

I was a little apprehensive about this show, because it would be the first show that I'd be taking Phil to that we didn't stay overnight the night before.  Although we got stalls at the show (because I'm sure Phil would not stand well in or tied to the trailer) I knew I wouldn't have time to ride in the actual show rings before my tests.  I'd have to just trust that he wouldn't have a complete meltdown.

We got to the show and Debbie and I hand-walked Kaswyn and Phil around the arenas before the show started.  Then it was a rush of activity to get the horses and riders ready.  Luckily we were stalled with my trainer, who had five horses and students there, so we had plenty of help.

First up was Debbie and Kaswyn in Intro A.

They did a fantastic job and won their class with a 70.2%!

Next up was Debbie again on Kaswyn, this time Intro B.

Again they won their class with a 68% (I think) .  They are now working on the canter and I think it's Intro C and Training 1 for them at the next show.  I'm so happy and proud of them both!

Then I was up on Phil.  So, let me just say how happy I am with Phil.  I didn't have time to lunge him before the warmup, as I was trying to help Debbie and Kaswyn get ready for their first test, and then I had to run back to the barn to get Phil ready.  I missed her second test because I was on Phil.  Anyway, I hopped on him and, although he was a little tense, he really settled down and did some wonderful work in the warmup.  My trainer even said that there were many moments where his tail was completely straight.  This makes me happy, and hopeful that once he gets balanced and properly muscled that the tail can straighten out.  

Here is our first test, Training 1.

Overall I was thrilled as how well he handled the stress of a strange show ring.  He really kept it all together and we made it through the test with no major incidents!  Of course we have room to improve. He needs to be more relaxed into the contact, for one thing.  That's just going to take time.  He was much more relaxed in the warmup, so I know it's possible.  We scored a 66%, but were out of the ribbons.  

After the first test I took him back to the barn and untacked him for a about 30 minutes before our next test.  Our second test was Training level test 2.  Unfortunately they were running quite a bit behind for the next test so I was on him for a lot longer than I wanted to be.  I think he was a little tired and kinda pissy for this test, but still I think it went very well.  Again, no major issues, but we need a better more relaxed connection.  We scored a 61.1%, and were 6th in the class.  

And yes, in case you're wondering, this was a huge schooling show.  They ran three full rings all day!  

I'm very happy with Kaswyn, Debbie and Phil.  I'm less happy with my performance.  Phil gets me leaning forward, especially at the shows and, more importantly, in the actual tests themselves.  I think this is because my arms are too short, and I want to be able to give him room in the neck with more rein, but I don't want to let the rein out because of his issue with me taking up suddenly on the reins.  This is getting better, I will admit, but I think I go into self-preservation mode and I get too far forward. It's something I really need to work on.  

I think our next planned schooling show is in July.  I'm trying to squeeze in a lesson this week.  I feel like we are making progress, but I also feel like there is so much to improve upon.  I guess that's what makes it dressage, huh?  

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

May "Retraining Issues" Weekly Post #2

#2 - Contact

DISCLAIMER:  I am not a trainer.  These are things that I've learned from lessons, books that I've read, and personal experience. 

Contact and connection are not necessarily the same thing.  Contact is the physical feeling of the reins in your hand, where the horse is taking the bit from you as much as you are taking the bit from the horse.  Connection is the horse truly moving forward into your hand and demonstrating energy flowing from behind, through the back and neck, into your hand.  You can have contact and not connection, but no connection without proper contact. 

But we'll talk about contact today.  Once you have a handle on the resistance (which really never goes away, by the way - all horses, even super trained Kaswyn at 21 years old, will exhibit resistance due to fatigue, laziness, or the perception that it's "too hard!" or "I don't wanna!") it's time to establish proper contact. 

I like to think about contact by imagining the reins are bungee chords.  You want your reins to have pressure on them, but not so much that the bungee chord is stretched to it's maximum.  You also don't want the bungee chord to get slack in it either.  It's all about give and take. You and your horse should be working TOGETHER to form the connection.  He's taking as much as you are.  That connection can be very light or very firm, just as long as it's the same from both sides.   

When you're working to dispel any resistance, it's hard to think about contact.  But that is goal #2 for you both to achieve.  So when you feel like you have a handle on the resistance, pay close attention to how much you are giving, and what the horse does when you give. 

Some common issues -

1) You give too much, your reins get slack, and you have to take again, so the horse resists again immediately.  In this case you're just giving too much.  At the beginning (like, the very beginning of the resistance work) this is fine, but now you must refine your reactions.  Give less, just be careful not to go too slowly.  Be quick to respond, just don’t give as much.  And begin to finesse your contact. Immediately after the horse gives in and stops resisting, try and establish a light contact and just ride that way, changing nothing, for a long as you can.  Praise and love your horse during this, with your voice, to show that this is what you want.  Just try and maintain that contact for as long as possible.  And when he resists again, or breaks the contact, you fix it again.  The longer you can go without fixing something the fast your can move on to something else.  Like true connection. 

2) You don't give enough, or fast enough, and your horse gets tense, and you get tense.  I feel a fight coming on!  If you get frustrated, go back to the walk and regroup yourself mentally and physically.  Don't fight.  It doesn't help.  Just continue to calmly ask for what you want. 

3) Your reins are too long, and you're pulling, but you run out of room and you can't take up your reins and you're losing control .. UGH!! It can be really hard, when working with resistance and contact to find the proper length of rein.  When it's short enough to have a nice contact, then the horse resists and shortens the neck and you have to pull back and establish connection, your reins are too long.  You feel like you're constantly taking up on and releasing your reins.  Instead of doing this, when your reins seem too long for just a moment, you can take your hands directly out to the side and away from your horse. Just bring them straight out to the side. This will increase the angle from your hand to the bit and make the reins seem shorter.  I know this is scary to take your hands far away from your horse (and the saddle, and anything you might need to grab onto in an "Oh sh*t!" moment), but it's quicker and easier than trying to scramble and take up on your reins. 

A note here on hand position.  Your hands, and the contact need not be static, and actually should not be.  The contact should be fluid, a flow and ebb between your horse's mouth and your hand, like waves on the shore.  If he takes a big step and comes down on your hand, your hands and arms should be elastic enough to go with him and not have him come down hard on your hand.  Conversely, if he loses his balance and loses connection with your hand, you should be able to move your hands out to the side and re-establish connection without too much of a fuss.  It's ok to come out of position in these cases, just strive to return to proper position once you have done what you need to do. 

Lastly, remember that your horse's mouth is sensitive.  Sure, he may jerk the reins out of your hands, but that's a choice he is making with a known price.  Like something he's doing to himself.  If you jerk on his mouth constantly it's just not nice, since it's something you're doing to him.  Dressage is about harmony, which means working together.  Respect his mouth and you'll earn his respect. 

So, work on elastic contact, remember it's ok to come out of position, and be kind to your horse's mouth. 

Shoot me a comment (or slam me, if you feel the need) or email me at dressagemomblog@yahoo.com if you have questions or something you wish to say privately. 

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Videos uploading!

So there was a schooling show today that Kaswyn and Phil went to.  

Betcha didn't see that comin, did ya?  

Anyhow, I'm downloading video and I need to write a show summary post, so that will be forthcoming.  But since I got up at 4:00 am this morning, it's not happening tonight.  

If I don't post it tomorrow, a very happy Mother's Day to all the moms out there, dressage or otherwise.  :)

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

May "Retraining Issues" Weekly Post #1

Well, here we go.  Ready?

This theme was suggested by Marnie Kemmetmueller to help the "at home and alone" dressage rider deal with retraining a horse for dressage.  This is a bit of a hard subject due to the fact that horses can come from many different kinds of training backgrounds which represent a wide variety of problems in getting a horse to accept and learn the basics of dressage.  I will say that I mostly have experience with retraining Arabian horses.  This is easier for me personally, since I know how Arabian horses are trained for the Arabian main show ring.  I think I also get their mentality, and how they react to different situations, pressures, and stresses.  So keep that in mind. 

#1 - Working with Resistance

DISCLAIMER:  I am not a trainer.  These are things that I've learned from lessons, books that I've read, and personal experience. 

I'm going to start with the most basic thing I can think of, and the most common problem I've seen. And it's a tough one.  Assuming you have a horse that is broke, can “Start, Stop, and Steer”, the next thing you need to do is establish proper contact.   If you don't have contact you can't accomplish anything else, like straightness, connection, submission, or lightness. 

Most contact problems start with resistance on the part of the horse.  The rider takes the reins, and asks the horse to "get on the bit" or "round the neck".  The horse sticks it's face in the air, straightens it's neck, refuses to go forward.  The rider either gives up, or gets into a knock-down-drag-out with the horse.  Neither of these is productive.  So before you can get contact, you have to work WITH the horse to eliminate resistance.  Not FIGHT with the horse.  There is a difference. 

You must always remember - DO NOT GET ANGRY.  This helps nothing.  Keep your cool. You think this is hard for you? It's also hard for your horse. 

Step one - at the walk, establish contact with the bit.  If the horse stops, ask him to keep moving forward with your legs and seat.  When giving any aid, start at a low level, but if you get no response, increase the intensity of your aid.  If you have to bump, or even kick with your leg, do so, but give the horse the benefit of the doubt at first.  The goal is to push the horse forward and into your hand, and get them to round the neck and eventually give to the pressure of your hand.  To do this you may have to very firmly hold the reins and kick with your legs at the same time.  This is uncomfortable for the horse, and once he figures out that the pressure will get better when he puts his head down, he will do so and give in to the pressure. 

And for heaven's sake, everyone, please, STOP SEESAWING the reins!  This is the worst habit people have and does nothing to help with establishing contact and encouraging the horse to go to the bit.  Why would the horse want to seek bit contact if you're constantly sawing on his mouth with that very bit?  Just stop it.  No jerking either.  Have some control over yourself and QUIT it!  Just hold your contact, however firm, evenly in both reins, with one steady pull. 

If you find that one steady pull does not work, then take contact with both reins, and hold the outside rein firmly. Then take the inside rein and pull the head to the inside. It doesn't have to be a lot, just enough to move the neck and head so that you can see the inside eye of the horse. It can be a lot, but it doesn't have to be. The important thing here is to hold the outside rein steady and firmly. If you give with the outside rein, then the horse won't be put in a situation where he is being asked to yield the neck and loosen the tension. Doing this will create enough pressure that the horse will, at some point, release the neck and lower the head to decrease the pressure in his mouth.

As soon as you feel the horse give, you MUST give back.  Let your hands come forward so that you can feel the reins become less tight. You don't want to completely throw your reins away, but you want to release your tight hold.  That is the reward for the horse being submissive to your request.  If you never release and give this reward, the horse has no reason to give in to your request, and you'll start having a fight on your hands.  Plus you'll confuse your horse, because he won't understand what you want. 

As soon as the horse gives to the pressure, and you give back, praise him!  Lots!  I find that the initial resistance is always the biggest, and hardest to get through.  Once that initial one is over, you'll have "residual resistance" where the horse will get straight and tight in the neck.  This is not the horse just being a jerk.  Remember that this is hard for him.  He's using muscles that are weak and are not used to working in that way.  Take breaks, and give him some slack when he makes a mistake.  Just correct it, and move on.  No big deal.  Most horses really aren't trying to be twits. They're just trying not to work so hard, but most will work hard for you if you ask the right way.

Try to avoid giving so much that your reins get very loose.  Initially you can demonstrate a big give to show the horse that's what you want. but soon you'll need to give a release without completely giving away your contact.  The goal here is to eliminate resistance so that proper contact can be formed.  Giving too much can create other issues, so keep that in mind.  Also, remember that your goal is to push the horse TO your hand, so don't forget to keep up with the leg and seat pressure or your horse will probably stop or begin to move backwards.

Once you're able to deal with this resistance at the walk, do the same thing at the trot and canter.  If you're working on resistance at the trot, and you're pushing your horse into your hand, and instead of giving to the hand pressure he canters, it doesn't matter!  He's going forward to the hand, which is one of the things you were asking for.  Remember what your goal is for that moment, and do one thing at a time.  Everything else doesn't matter. 

The main thing is, to correctly develop the muscles needed for connection and self carriage, you must ask for contact and eliminate neck tension and resistance AT ALL TIMES.  You should be able to bend the neck in both directions and have it be soft and supple.  If you don't have access to the neck from it being tight and in the air, you don't have access to the back.  If you don't have access to the back you don't have access to the back end.. and so on. 

I find this is the hardest thing for people to do, as they feel they are constantly breaking through this resistance.  If you keep at it, and make it a habit of fixing it every single time, all the time, your horse will eventually get strong enough to carry himself in that manner for longer periods of time.  Be patient.  It takes time, and hard work.  The rewards are great, though. 

Do you think some video of this would help? If so I'll try to get some and post it.

Shoot me a comment (or slam me, if you feel the need) or email me at dressagemomblog@yahoo.com if you have questions or something you wish to say privately. 

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Buy Purina and Feed Rescue Horses

Yesterday I was contacted by Purina about their pledge to donate $125,000 of  feed to American Horse Council’s Unwanted Horse Coalition (UHC).  A portion of every bag of Strategy they sell in 2012 will be donated to the cause, which will give feed to 400 horse rescue shelters.  You can see the full press release and pictures here.  Pretty cool, right? 

I just did my part yesterday and bought seven bags of Purina feed for my boys.  If you're like me and you buy your own feed, you may want to consider signing up for the Purina Difference Reward Program.  Just click here to register.  They'll send you coupons in the mail for Purina feed.  It doesn't have to be just horse feed either!  So if you have chickens or goats or whatever, give it a try. 

So buy some Strategy (if you can), and help Purina support horse shelters! 

Tuesday, May 01, 2012


Well, I completely blew the weekly posts for April.

I tried to keep up with it but it just didn’t happen. We’ll see what I can do about May. I’ve written some stuff that might be kind of controversial. Should be interesting to read the comments. And hear what my trainer thinks!

Speaking of my trainer, the lesson I had with her last week has really changed the way I ride Phil, which is pretty common for my lessons. It seems like every time I have a lesson it’s time to move on to the next level of training with him. We started by just trying to slow things down, went to working to establish a connection, then onto suppleness and straightness, then establishing a half-halt, and now working over the back into my hand and connection.

When I rode him the next day after my lesson, I realized that he was really running through my half halts. I had to do a few really strong ones for him to listen, and then a few minutes later he blew through them again. It was frustrating for both of us. I had been on him long enough but I didn’t want to end the session on a bad note. I took a little walk break and started thinking back to my lesson. What was I missing? I couldn’t think of anything.

I picked up the trot again, and as I came around this one corner I had a flashback. In my lesson, when I had rounded the very same corner, my trainer had said something like “Don’t just give away the contact. Make it feel like he’s pulling you into the contact. OWN this trot.” It was then that I realized I was giving a little too much. I had gone from one extreme to the other; from hanging onto him so that he didn’t rush forward to letting him have too much control.

So I sat down and rode him like I would Kaswyn. I took the contact and pushed him into my hand. I didn’t expect the super steady contact like Kaswyn gives me, but I expected him to come into my hand. When he didn’t, I pushed him there, being elastic but not too giving. It was fantastic!! We ended on a great note, both of us tired.
Then he had a day off, with just turnout. The next day I rode and did the same thing – I owned the trot. Again, it was great. We also did a lot of straight lines of canter. I was so happy!

Then the next day… well, that wasn’t so great. Phil was acting very subdued in the crossties, almost sleepy. I got on him and he felt okay initially, but when I cantered to the right he felt like he had a flat tire behind. I immediately stopped, walked, and called it done. I made my poor pony sore.

I gave him a dose of Banamine and three days off from riding (he was either lunged or turned out), and today I will ride him. I’m very cautious now when it comes to injuries after all that I went through with Kaswyn. When something doesn’t feel right I’m going to listen to my gut (and my butt!) and give him time off if needed. I don’t think he’s hurt or anything but I want to make sure I give him time to recover between workouts. In the future I will be more careful not to overwork him like I did. I don’t want him to have a major career ending injury just because I was impatient.

I’m looking forward to seeing what today’s ride will be. Hopefully we’ll both own the trot.
Header Image from Bangbouh @ Flickr