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!

swl

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Lesson Recap/New Stuff is Hard

Whoa, EquiNovice, cool it on the multiple posts or you’ll lose all of your lovely followers.

I have been doing some reading lately in the interest of continuing my equestrian education outside of the arena. Most of the material I read was focused on your seat and it seemed to suggest that I needed to make some big changes to the way I currently ride. I liked most of the ideas presented and the imagery was good although, as we all know, reproducing these things from brain to body is never easy and Rome wasn’t built in a day. Perhaps the biggest idea I took from the combo of articles, book excerpts, and webinars was that I don’t think about my seat while riding nearly enough. Not good. At this point, I wouldn’t even say that my seat is established enough to be influential at all. If I am honest, my lack of attention to this detail in conjunction with my learning level means that I still spend a startlingly large amount of my lesson “just sitting” on my horse.

 

But EquiNovice, isn’t that what you do in riding lessons? Sit on your horse?

 

Welllllllll…yes and no…

 

It is true that it is far better to be just sitting on the horse than to be no longer sitting on the horse:

 

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But the moral of the story is that there really should be a whole lot of subtle, nearly invisible activity going on to complement the “conversation” you as the rider are continually having with the horse while mounted. Conversing and influencing are very different from “just sitting”. Unfortunately, all this conversing and influencing requires massive amounts of energy and sustained muscle tone. Even riders in better shape struggle with this because a huge amount of muscle memory is required to not have to actively think about your seat the whole time you ride. Ugh, I am exhausted just thinking about it!

In my lesson last night, I tried to spend at least 50% of the time thinking about my seat. I think I came close to that goal and that it helped me a lot. Obviously, I spent the other half trying to piece together the other elements of riding. I occasionally get fiddly with my hands, and I often end up contorted when trying to create bend or even straightness (earth to brain: just think about this one, would ya? Contort to create straight?!!?! Fail.)

I did truly feel more influential during the moments when I maintained a certain tone in my core. Last night wasn’t without its struggle moments, though, because the line between “tone” and straight-up “tension” is hella narrow!! Things would feel magically delicious for a few strides and then I would be like “what are these shoulder-shaped things doing up by my ears?!” My instructor had to constantly remind me and as soon as I took a nice deep breath and allowed my shoulders to melt down my back where they belong, everything got better.

I also had trouble with correct contact last night. Later in the lesson Louie started to hang on the bit on the left or inside rein while tracking left. I was pretty exhausted and could tell my muscles had packed it in for the night because I kept playing tug-o-war with my left arm. My instructor kept telling me in a bajillion different ways that my left arm was static. She would say “your left arm is static, no longer following” “I can see half the bit hanging out of the left side of his mouth” “put your right hand back into the conversation” “you’re losing connection on the right side” and each time my brain processed the info and yet I did nothing but stare at my left arm and wonder why the hell it was no longer responding. Of course the second I stopped hanging on the left rein, Louie was like “oh darn, now I have to hold my own head up-is that all you wanted? Well, I suppose I can do that”

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swl

 

Food for the Soul

I was chatting with a friend and fellow rider the other day about how technical riding is an interesting hobby and an odd form of therapy. We were both having stressful weeks at work and were discussing how much of a bright spot our dressage lessons were in our week. I commented how strange it is that an hour of intense, focused, detailed, physical study was so completely relaxing and therapeutic. Sometimes my head is aching from stress at work but maybe switching gears to being more physically technical instead of just mentally technical makes all the difference.

Some days I drift in and out of being truly present in my lessons. I wholly trust my trainer and I feel like there are times when I am just a conduit letting her instruction and intuition just flow through me to the horse. This will build some muscle memory for me in the long run so I am not going to beat myself up too much for not being the initiator 100% of the time. This is the part that is relaxing. The opposite side of the coin is the mental learning aspect. The part when I am fully present, and owning the decisions I make. These moments have the potential of being frustrating as I don’t always make the right decisions but the accountability forces the growth. Of course sometimes the frustration comes not from the decision itself but rather in a “missed translation” from mind to body which is why I think both of these stages are essential and beneficial in the right balance.

I’m sure some of the relaxation has to do with the reduction in pressure. At work there are people counting on me to do my job and do it well. It is a healthy source of pressure most of the time and sometimes actually helps me perform at my best. What’s different about riding is that no one is counting on me to become a better rider (okay, except maybe the horse!) The “pressure” to perform and improve is 100% self-initiated. I suppose you could say in this way that it is all carrot and no stick, which is mostly true! I don’t rely on my riding skills for my livelihood and since no one pays me to perform I also don’t have the inherent feeling of obligation. But there is also a little bit of personal pride which comes with improving for the sake of improving- yet another motivator.

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I’m so lucky to have a healthy outlet for stress and a hobby that sure keeps me on my toes!

swl

Back to School

As a good student of horsemanship (trying to be) I sometimes think riding lessons ought to include a classroom element. Now, if that truly were the case in most lesson programs I would grow to loathe that portion of my studies and probably be doodling horses in my notebook and failing to pay enough attention. Hey! just like REAL school!

Maybe it is because I am more of a visual learner or maybe it is because it is just really hard to understand vague concepts but sometimes those aha! moments hit me when the concept is illustrated and explained more thoroughly. During a riding lesson there is rarely enough time to give a full explanation of the “concepts”. Instructors tend to favor guiding you into (hopefully) correct positions/actions to start you building some muscle memory. Obviously this is also super valuable but sometimes I need a little more than “see how Horse did what you asked there? good job!” as explanation/validation of those actions.

Here’s an example:

Bending. I work on it quite often in my lessons and it is a huge part of what every rider must focus on at some point during every ride. I know that my past instructors have vocally guided me into better positioning that, in turn, allows the horse to bend. But I never really understood the mechanics behind it. Until I read this blog post by Bonnie Walker on Dressage Different. The way she explains what the rider’s body must look like and why, tugged on a spiderweb-covered chain and FINALLY lit up that light bulb for me. Because honestly, if no one breaks this one down for you… it’s a little counterintuitive. It would not be my natural inclination to allow my hips to be separate from my shoulders during a turn and allow my hips to point away from the direction of travel. Humans are vertically oriented so my shoulders stack on top of my hips preventing me from having to “account” for a back-end when turning but, as Bonnie explained, any four-legged critter (even a crawling human) does! It was hugely illuminating to me to think of myself in the position of the “four-legger” while riding and mirror hips for hips and shoulders for shoulders with the horse.

Okay go ahead and sneak in a big old eye-roll and, for all you 90s kids, a great big DUH!!

Maybe Equinovice has been living under a rock but I’m telling you I didn’t understand this concept until mere moments ago and I have been taking riding lessons for over 6 years now with 6 different instructors and multiple disciplines. Now you might be thinking well, your instructors were not very good then. This is simply untrue. I have actually been quite lucky in that respect and have had the privilege of learning under some fabulous instructors. I am just acknowledging that there are some instances where “in the saddle” experience alone may fall short of truly teaching. My call to action is really to the STUDENTS here: Actively seek fuller explanations of riding concepts. If something is unclear in the saddle, remember to ask your instructor about it later and do your own research.

swl

No Stirrups Posting

I had back to back lessons this past weekend which was wonderful in some respects and yet almost too much for this body to handle!

I had a lesson on Friday night at the little barn which consisted mostly of speed transitions and working on being straight but also included a few minutes of no stirrups! I had never actually had a no stirrups lesson before although it seems to be something many trainers advocate. It was difficult but I can definitely see how it would improve your riding. Posting the trot was tough and for me it was difficult to isolate the different parts of my leg. I naturally wanted to squeeze more with my thighs to help with the post but all that really did was squirt my seat right out of the saddle and give me some attractive bruises on my upper thighs. I had to try and think about relaxing my upper leg and still being able to use my lower leg as needed to control speed. I hate to say it but I really would like to do some more work without stirrups. It felt very alien to me and I think it is something a good, sensitive rider ought to be comfortable with or at least capable of doing. My instructor here said I could bring my camera and we could film some of my lessons so I could see better what it looked like. That also means I should have a few more things to post for you in the coming months!

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My lesson at the big barn was on Saturday morning so I hopped in the car for the hour and 20 min drive there- which I realize seems ridiculous but I really really really like this instructor, the facility, the people, and the horses. My lesson was on the same draft cross I rode previously- he is great. We did a little bit of lateral work at the walk which was tough but the instructor did a good job of explaining what my body needed to look like to communicate better to Louie what I was asking. We worked on walk-trot transitions and I liked when she told me to stay tall in the transitions. I have an ugly habit of trying to smash my seat down to ask for a change sometimes and it really helps to be reminded NOT to do that. She had me working on communicating with my legs rather than my seat at least right now as I refine things. See the problem is that I tend to try and create energy in the gaits by using my seat too much. Like if I transitioned into trot and he picked up a sluggish trot I would automatically be posting bigger as if I could create the energy that way but I’m glad she pointed it out to me so I can be more aware and expect the crisp response off of my leg aids instead. I think she helped me out with my half-halts as well during this lesson. She was trying to get me to feel in the transitions whether he was just kind of “falling” into the trot or whether his hind leg really did have to reach under and create that energy. We talked about thinking that the  back end of the horse has to be kept tight with the front end so I actively thought about  “putting those pieces together” during transitions which made my transitions much cleaner and really helped me visualize what this half-halt business is all about.

Later I got to thinking…

How in the world can she see all this from the ground?! But that is the thing about a good riding instructor, they can put themselves in your shoes and they know what you are most likely doing wrong/right that is producing wrong/right responses in the horse. It is pretty remarkable and takes a certain person to be a good instructor because there is a huge gap between doing something well yourself and being able to teach someone else how to do it well.

That, dear friends, is why I drive nearly 3 hours roundtrip for an hours worth of instruction!

 

swl