Silence Speaking Volumes

My last three lessons have been much quieter than usual, in a really great way. I have admitted to indulging in autopilot lessons where my body is pretty much a processor and it is essentially my instructor riding from the ground and I turn my brain off to anything other than taking direction. I gave myself those lessons in good faith because I knew they would help me build muscle memory.

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This is me, judging you for taking my picture.

                                              This is me, judging you for taking my picture.

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There have been long periods of time during my lessons lately when my instructor just quietly observes. When she does talk, it is to assure me that I am correctly asking for the right thing and to encourage me that he is close to giving it to me. She told me last night that my timing is getting much better: for example if I ask for him to bend right, he wants to swing his haunches left so I am there with my lower left leg waiting to remind him to stay in the boundaries. When that doesn’t work, he’ll try to swap the bend in front and bulge his shoulder, but I am there with my upper right thigh and reins to flex him back right. We mostly drunken man walk around right now but I do get some really great moments where he bends correctly and stands up super tall and gets very light. Obviously I still desperately need my instructor, but before, I needed her to tell me how and when to do everything. I’m getting more self-sufficient and can better recognize the “when” and more correctly execute the “how” by myself.

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All of this success is at the walk and when we trot it all turns to shit so fast it makes my head spin, but she reminds me that he is just learning this too and will get better at it.

I’ve adjusted tried to adjust my expectations to reflect that I get, at most, one hour a week in the saddle but I have hit some frustrating lows along the way. This month I’ll ride a grand total of two hours… awesome. Sometimes I even feel like my trainer is frustrated about it too. Not frustrated at me but more like frustrated for me- I just cannot figure out how to get more time in the saddle. We both know I am patiently somewhat patiently waiting for the right situation to come along but it just isn’t happening. She wants to help, but can’t. I want to fix it, but can’t. I have more than enough desire, but not nearly enough means or time to fix my own problem.

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Gimme dat. I will eat your hand, don’t tempt me!!!

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Like everyone else I think in terms of “imagine how good you could be if you could ride everyday!!!” But, I have to try not to get greedy. It’s good to dream, but sometimes you just have to be grateful for what you have. And I am so grateful to still have lessons where I feel like I am making progress even if they are weeks apart.

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I had one of those rides during my last lesson where the whole time you feel like you are on the verge of something: just so dang close you can TASTE it but not quite there yet.

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Sometimes it’s even hard to explain what it actually IS that you are so darn close to reaching. I just had the sensation that a number of concepts were finally converging at once and a little breakthrough is on the horizon. Truthfully, I don’t even know if I’ll feel it when it happens or if it will be like a slow ascent and before I even notice, I’ll be on the other side.

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If I think about how it feels to ride this way, there is a clear difference from how I felt when I first start riding. I used to feel like I knew enough to be a good passenger. The limits of my knowledge and experience also let me believe that to be a good passenger was most of what it meant to be a good horseback rider.

Passenger: A person who travels in a conveyance, without participating in its operation.

I set myself to memorizing certain “actions” designed to make horse and rider more comfortable during their temporary pairing: Lean slightly back when going downhill; posting the trot; half seat; etc. I thought any contact the rider had with the saddle had to be softened to make the horse more comfortable so I absorbed movement in my back and when that got difficult, I created more movement in the interest of following movement (I’m looking at you, “sitting trot hula hips” and “scoop with your seat canter”…). It’s hard to remember whether I was actually told to move this way or whether these were just poor interpretations, but I wanted to be the movement-following champion. I tried really really hard to be a good passenger. I wish I could be like “bless that little rider’s heart!” but this was still me like a year ago…so maybe I’ll just keep talking… 😉 The bottom line was that for all the steering or debatable “piloting” I did of the horse, I did not participate in its operation and, in fact, spent an enormous amount of energy trying to get out of the way of its operation.

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But you know what, you can’t get out of the way unless you get off of the horse. If you want to ride, participate.

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When I ride now, I feel active. I feel like I’m taking responsibility for my own body and better acknowledging its part in the equation. When you are active, you are not a passenger. Because I’m not busy spending all of my muscle tone on creating movement in order to follow, I am free to use my arms independently of my torso (what a concept!) or use different parts of my legs- sometimes even use one part on one leg and another part of the other leg simultaneously (brainsplosion!). Active resistance for greater harmony? When you watch it, you could say it more closely resembles actively doing nothing, but what it isn’t, is getting out of the way. “You gotta hold the frame.”

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Omg did she really just use a Dirty Dancing reference?!

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Beginners prerogative??

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Here’s a Jean Luc Cornille based tangent that supports this whole topic eventually, I promise:

Full disclosure, I have shit posture and sometimes walk like a caveman. I once had a friend comment during a 5k that she never quite noticed my “swagger” before. She said it like that, it wasn’t mean to be mean. We were helping our friend get up a big hill at the time and since she was competing in her old wheelchair, it was heavier and slowing her down. All of the previous walking, combined with the slow pace up the hill, magnified my normally imperceptible limp. I referenced an LMFAO song and we all had a good chuckle.

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I’ve had three knee surgeries and have pretty bad osteoarthritis but truthfully, it’s hard to tell whether my poor, inefficient gait can be attributed to actual damage/instability or more to many years now spent moving incorrectly to compensate for pain that is no longer there.

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It has only recently occurred to me to think that why wouldn’t my equine partners be suffering from the same type of problems? Does your horse have shit posture? Maybe! Could she have once adjusted her gait to take pressure off of an injury and then just left it like that even after fully healing? Absolutely.

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I am able to exist fairly well with my crummy posture most of the time. I can breathe, I can eat and drink, I can even move! But I have the special ability to think out a few more years to when my poor posture and poor gait may contribute to more damage. Your horse doesn’t care if it has bad posture or if it’s moving incorrectly- as long as it can breathe, eat, drink, and move- things are good in the ‘hood. If in six years your pony can no longer get up off the ground, he’s never going to think “Oh why didn’t I stop lumping all of my weight on my right shoulder!??!?” or “If I only hadn’t left my left hind dragging all the time, I would still be sound!”

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We (the rider) can help them! We can assure them that the pain in that front hoof is no longer there and that they need to balance their weight equally. We can ask them to move more correctly, to be more efficient in their gait. We can work with their existing injuries and conformational faults and still push them to be as correct and efficient as they can be! It will be hard at first, and they’ll say no, because who doesn’t like saying no!?

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But as soon as they figure out that what you’re asking is actually easier and more comfortable for them, they will totally act like it was all their idea in the first place. Which is fine, because you’ll just be happy that they won’t develop a repetitive stress injury from walking like a derp.

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I don’t presume to think that I am going to even know if a horse is moving inefficiently or incorrectly enough to cause damage to itself, let alone know how to fix it, but the one thing I can do right now to move the needle in the right direction is to participate and try to take responsibility for all 200 el-bees that I am adding to the equation. I am endeavoring to actively ride and improve my poise, posture, and mechanics so that at least my horse doesn’t have to compensate so greatly for me. Then, and only then, can I start to ask him to meet me there, to hold his frame, for his own good, and ours.

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I’m sure this paradigm shift happens in its own time depending on the person. Do you remember when you went from being a passenger to participating? Are you like me and still making that leap, just on the verge of trying to create a new “default” mode? It’s not really like the flip of a switch- you’re doing it all wrong or doing it all right at once, but your mentality can shift fairly quickly like that-mine has.

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For the sake of discussion…is there anything inherently wrong with just being a passenger?

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I like to hope not, considering I can go from participant to passenger in one second flat. I’m just making that moment my new cue to get off the horse. Putter around the field on the buckle- fine; mental health bareback toddle around the arena just for funsies-do it. I’m just not making any more horses work for me if I’m not going to participate.

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Fabulous Fails

Late to the party but let’s be real, there is always room for appreciating more good everyday fails!!! This is such a great blog hop…

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The thing I love about dressage is how truly beautiful it looks all the time:

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The other great thing about dressage is how calm, cool, and collected the horses always are.

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And beginners always look JUST like the pros while they are riding!! Watch out Dujardin…

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Ever wonder what happens when you drop a Belgian on its face?? I seem to be curious enough to try!

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Dressage horses just have that “never say no” attitude!

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There are other kinds of good fails too!

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Aw Kate, don’t look so sad- fail clips don’t last forever.

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If I don’t become the next pro dressage rider, I’ll know I at least have my photography to fall back on!

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Sometimes your pony is just too small and your stirrups are just too short and you are laughing just too hard.

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Fail big or go home!!!!

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Because it’s Tough Sometimes

My most faithful blog reader suggested that perhaps I was too colorful with my language in my previous post and newer readers might get the idea that I am an angry, violent person. This really couldn’t be further from the truth. I allow myself so few opportunities to express extreme emotions in daily life that I don’t begrudge myself a little harmless road rage. I feel like there are worse ways to deal with stress than yelling obscenities inside of my own car. Very occasionally I use this blog for some catharsis and I think that’s probably okay too.

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I used to count on sports as an outlet for frustration. Something about getting your blood flowing, using your muscles, endorphins- makes everything okay again. A certain amount of aggression and competitive drive is allowed, even required, in many organized sports. I don’t play these sports anymore and rather firmly believe that there is little place for anger or aggression when working with horses so sometimes these things build up, ya know?!

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Anyway, sorry mom, I’ll try not to be so vulgar next time.

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It was a tough week last week: my boss was in town from Peru which always makes things extra busy at work; my Wednesday riding lesson was cancelled…again; and I thought that we were going to have to put this sweet manmuffin to sleep.

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Feline Hyperthyroidism gives me the sads and gives Riley the tireds.

                           Feline Hyperthyroidism gives me the sads and gives Riley the tireds.

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There is a cure (90-95%), but it is quite expensive and requires a very unique and difficult post-treatment protocol. My parents weighed the pros and cons and decided to try it, so this handsome fella will undergo radioiodine treatment on Wednesday and will hopefully be feeling much better in a few weeks.

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My lesson was rescheduled to Saturday afternoon. It took me two-hours to get to the barn due to a huge construction project along the main highway I take. This project won’t be done anytime soon, so I anticipate it could be like this for a while. Sigh…. It was hot and humid but Lou worked well for me. Not sure if it was the heat, or rustiness from not having ridden consistently lately, but I was having trouble getting him straight and having a lot of trouble getting him to bend right. We would be walking or trotting down the long side and he kept wanting to switch the bend through his back and kind of offering this false bend where he would leave his neck and head bent right but at the same time his haunches sitting out near the rail wanting to swap to a left bend.

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So Captain Pretend-Bend and I rolled around like this for a good while and finally trainer had had enough of watching that struggle and despite being in shorts hopped aboard to feel what I was feeling and to try to think of a different way to explain to me how to fix the issue. This is actually the very first time she has gotten on to show me something and it was PIVOTAL. I can’t even quite describe the majesty of watching her ride. It probably cleared up ten distinct concepts for me that weren’t even directly related to the one we were working on.

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Things I learned from watching my trainer ride for 5 min:

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  • Her aids are much more decisive than mine. Sometimes my aids have question marks attached to the end… sponging the right rein? Like I’m still not sure it is going to have the desired response so I pose it to Louie as a question. Obviously I am not going to have all the right answers now and I will make mistakes but I realized that I need to be more decisive with my aids if I am going to improve. Maybe it will even help eliminate some of those times when things go well but I have no idea what made the difference.
  • Her aids are sharper and it makes him sharper. Don’t misread this- I realize “sharp” tends to carry a certain connotation. I don’t mean to say that she is overly forceful. I just realized that there is a difference between how she communicates with him and how I do, and she helps him be more sensitive and sometimes the way I communicate with him makes him dull. It is a little bit of an art to use as much (leg, rein, pressure) as needed and to apply it in the correct manner. You can tighten your calf muscle, you can brush the horse’s side with your leg, you can squeeze, you can tap, you can pony kick- and these all can create a different response. My lessons help me decide which combinations are the most effective. But I still find myself squeezing where there should have been a tap and pulling and leaning where it would have been much more effective and maybe even kinder to have used more initial force on the reins and then immediately release. I think I’m being nice and instead I am just muddying the message and giving him an out.
  • She repeats things often. She corrects and asks quickly and then releases the second he complies. If the quality changes or he even considers changing it, she repeats the same steps. It was very obviously more effective this way than asking sooooo quietly and timidly for an extended length of time and then finally getting some semblance of the correct response and then holding your breath and hoping it doesn’t change and then not realizing it changed until it’s too late and you have to start all over from the beginning… I mean, I have no idea who would ride this way but they should really cut it out ;-). So, if you repeat the question early and often, eventually, you may only have to repeat half the question or you may not even have to repeat it. No one ever really explained that it might require repeating every few steps- and that’s actually just fine.
  • That sweet release. This is straight up muscle memory for her. Releasing the pressure is like not an active thought for her but a trained, automatic response. I am getting better and better with this but it still isn’t automatic. It probably has more to do with how I ask in the first place- if my aids start to get long, drawn-out, too wishy-washy, and naggy, then it’s really hard to feel that moment where a release is needed. If I can make the whole process quicker and every “ask” comes with a “release” then I think it will become easier to sort out the timing of the release and, of course, not forget about the release.
  • I need to watch more riding. I don’t exactly know how I am going to accomplish this yet, but I need to figure it out. Annotated riding would be the best to watch. I wish I could watch other people’s lessons. Clinics.
  • It’s not personal. He is not getting crooked, or swapping the bend just on you- he does that with her too (or tries to). So, it’s not necessarily because you are doing something wrong- could be, but not necessarily. She doesn’t make an issue out of it, she just fixes it or doesn’t allow it.

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"wut jus happened to meh?"

                                                              “wut jus happened to meh?”

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The weather has been approaching my Max Operational Temperature lately and so, frankly, I’m surprised I was able to take this much from five minutes of standing in the sun and observing. I suppose it was good practice for the two-day biomechanics clinic my barn is hosting this weekend. I am auditing both days and fully anticipate some information  firehose feedings!

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Five Years!!

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Wow! WordPress just sent a notification that today is my 5-year anniversary of blogging! In some ways it feels like it has been much longer.

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Since I first started blogging I have had some really interesting experiences that have added so much to my equestrian education. This wasn’t exactly the topic I wanted to write about today, but I think I’ll enjoy looking back on this short summary of all the horse things that have happened in my world in just the past five years!

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  • I have lessoned at 6 different barns
  • leased 3 horses
  • switched my focus from western to english (dressage)
  • moved from Minnesota to Indiana
  • rode a pony, rode a draft horse, rode a gaited horse
  • rode bareback
  • watched a farrier shoe a horse
  • wormed a horse
  • soaked a hoof
  • caught a loose horse
  • audited a clinic
  • volunteered at the World Equestrian Games
  • purchased tack
  • volunteered at 2 therapeutic riding organizations
  • jumped a couple of teeny tiny jumps
  • taken a moonlit midnight trail ride
  • responded to an ad for a horse for sale
  • visited Keeneland Racetrack
  • taught a therapeutic riding lesson
  • bought my first pair of tall boots
  • rode in a schooling show
  • won a blue ribbon
  • rode with a double bridle
  • rode my first buck
  • acquired and rode in my own saddle
  • galloped a horse

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How little and insignificant some of these seem!!! But when you’ve never owned your own horse, you never get a shot at even seeing many of these things, let alone doing them yourself. This reads like a bucket list for a beginner- and in some ways, that’s exactly what it is! I can’t believe how many of these things are “firsts” that happened for me just in the past five years. It helps me remember how far I’ve come and reminds me to enjoy the process and not get frustrated with one bad ride or to get impatient about making progress. I hope I get many more years of enjoying many more “firsts”.

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I have a lot to catch you up on in the next few posts, but Happy Friday to you and Happy 5-year to me!

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