A Very Informative Week

Including being not-so-subtly reminded of the taste of dirt. Thanks, Harley, how could I forget!

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Outdoor footing…not so soft.

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I got ballsy last Tuesday night and planned a ride with a friend of mine in the outdoor arena since the indoor is booked up with lessons every Tuesday. No problem, I thought, we’ll have a blast out there and I’ll even bring my bluetooth speaker so we can play music while we ride! Everything was going well, Harley was looking super fly in a new saddle pad (I have a serious addiction) and we were jamming to the soothing sounds of the “warm-up” portion of the riding playlist I made. I made this playlist a while ago originally to do some trot sets with Tyco and originally for ME to listen to while riding via earphones. After the roughly 12 minutes of slower, softer warm-up tunes the playlist shifts to a faster beat “on” song, followed by a slower beat “off” song. I failed to take into account multiple factors, including, but not limited to: it was only Harley’s second time in the outdoor arena; there were multiple horses turned out in a field that shares the arena fence; the barn owner was doing some work with the tractor; it was very windy; and Harley is fairly reactive to sounds. We turned onto the short side at the trot just as the tractor mower hit a pile of sticks and the first “on” song kicked on MUCH louder than I imagined and Harley scooted and took off. I attempted a half-assed pulley rein to no avail. I thought briefly about burying him into the arena fence or corner but wasn’t sure I had enough (any?) steering and worried that he might try to jump it. So I hung on as long as I could hoping he would just stop but after a handful of hairpin turns at high speed I lost my stupid right stirrup and knew that I was about to be intimately acquainted with the ground.

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I fell mostly on my well-padded butt except I nailed my right calf on something on the way down because I thought I pulled a muscle in there the bruising was so bad. My friend didn’t see the trigger moment but dismounted and watched the aftermath and then kindly collected my mount for me as I picked the gravel out of my teeth. I was fine, but mad, mostly at myself. I should have been smarter than that and shouldn’t have been so cavalier. I hadn’t made NEARLY enough deposits in the trust bank yet to justify such a massive withdrawal. I turned the music off and got back on and tried to settle Harley down putting him to work at the walk and trot. He was still quite keyed up as the tractor was still going and now the peanut gallery in the adjacent field was like “holy cow!!! much excitement!!!”. A week later I am still very bruised but I have had a handful of only positive rides on Harley since and we are back on track- lessons learned!

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Oh yes, that IS plaid trim on that saddle pad! ❤

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It was an equestrian social weekend for me including attending a dressage clinic, riding in wicked hot weather, attending my instructor’s baby shower, and capping off with a very nice lesson last night.

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I’ll have to write about the clinic in my next post because I took some notes and want to write them here as well in hopes that the more I revisit them, the more they will sink in!

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It was a sweltering 90 degrees last night for my lesson and Harley and I are both out of shape, so it was a lot! We did some smaller traveling circles at the walk for suppling on the short side and then we moved that traveling circle idea to the whole arena on a 20m circle at the trot. The goal was to get him to step under and spiral out on the half of the circle towards the open end of the arena thereby moving your circle. I was going to draw it for you but it was really hard to draw…but basically this:

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It took us waaaay too many circles to get across the arena tracking right because Harley was blowing through my leg aids to move over and I was letting him get away with it. We got some decent steps on our last circle, though. On the left, the exercise was much easier (I think for both of us). We schooled some leg yields from the quarter line to the wall and these went much better than they had during our first lesson but I think Harley was just more on my aids this time around. We progressed to a short leg yield to the wall, canter transition, canter circle. That exercise was helpful because it made us really organize and balance to get a nice transition.We struggled on the right to get the leg yield as he seems much more reluctant to want to tuck that right hind underneath and carry the weight. Our canter departs in that direction were abysmal too, but it was the end of the lesson and we were both pretty exhausted.

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It will get better! I am very encouraged. This horse hasn’t done a lot of dressage work in his past but he’s got a great attitude for the work and really does put up with a lot of my stupidity. I told my instructor what I think will be tough is trying to stay consistent with him while he learns new stuff without second guessing my aids. The clinician this weekend gave a lesson to an adult ammie with a very talented but young horse. He cautioned that if a rider asks for something and the horse gets it wrong the tendency might be for the rider to second guess themselves and “rephrase” the question when what the horse really needs is another chance or two to get the right answer to the same question. I really took that tip to heart thinking about Harley since he may not be young, but is relatively green for dressage and adult ammies like me LOVE second guessing themselves!

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Getting Going

Capping two months of ridiculous work travel, I jetted home to the Northland for a surprise visit over the Memorial Day weekend. I got to spend some much needed QT with my family and got to swoon over feline cuteness in-person instead of settling for photos!

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Riley shamelessly commandeers my bed

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I got to hang out with some old friends on Memorial Day and we spent the day at the race track and then touring some of our favorite old haunts. It was a beautiful day.

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English Bulldog fun race! A dog named Winston won.

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I am back in the SortaSouth now and very relieved to be in one place for a good stretch. I wasted no time in setting up a training plan for Harley and myself. We had our very first dressage lesson together since he moved to my barn in April! I had a solid fitness ride on him last Thursday evening and we both felt it afterwards but I knew I had to get a good read on our current status to help our new dressage trainer assess things a little better.

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Much workout. So sweaty.

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I didn’t have many expectations walking into my first lesson. I just wanted to get the ball rolling. Harley started out rather stiff in his hocks but worked out of it quickly. The trainer asked a bunch of questions as we warmed up about his previous training and any quirks I’ve picked up on since starting to ride him. I answered everything to the best of my knowledge noting that I think he would have some good potential for dressage but it would be somewhat of a challenge since he’s had a lot of time off or under little work. She noted after watching us for a while that he seemed similar to one of her horses in that he is on the hotter side with a tendency toward spooking, doesn’t have a mean bone in his body, and would gladly be 110% on the forehand if left to his own devices. Luckily for me, she therefore quickly understood my tendency to ride him with the handbrake on and talked me through letting that go so that we could get some work done. She noted some weakness especially in the canter since he throws his head a good deal in the transition but I think that will minimize as his strength improves because once in the gait, his canter is nice.

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Harley got a bath after our lesson

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And a new flysheet- we’re going to give it a try.

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This coming weekend my barn is hosting a dressage clinic with my trainer’s trainer’s trainer hahaha so I will be auditing with a friend of mine to see what kind of dressage magic we can absorb just by observing!

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Please be Temporary

On Wednesday night I had categorically the WORST lesson I have ever had. I would choose falling off over the pathetic events that transpired.

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I had high hopes despite having to cancel my lesson last week because over the weekend I had quite a pleasant ride with my friend on her two horses. Before my lesson, my instructor told me we’d be using a new bit on Lou and that his owner had had a fabulous lesson with this new bit. I was encouraged and excited to feel him become a little lighter as she described since he can get quite heavy.

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I could feel it the second we started. I have felt him like this before and I knew. He used his usual set of evasions- 10 bathroom breaks, mini tantrums, barging, and very occasionally he chooses to just stop to get out of hard work. Maybe he’s got my number- I have no idea if he ever does this to his owner but NOTHING makes me feel more inadequate than when a horse stops trying. How do you guys ride though this?! We tried to do an exercise on a 20m “square” and he was all over the place. If I caught his shoulders and made him stand up straight into the turns then he would just plant his feet and ignore me. My instructor kept asking me, telling me, begging me to use my stick and I just could not do it.   She kept saying I had to be consistent, I could not let him get away with ignoring my aids. I gave him a couple of really smart taps with the whip and we did some barely mediocre trot work.

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She had me canter him and work towards lengthening and shortening the canter on a big circle. This was next to impossible for me since cantering is already my biggest weakness. He was heavy, lazy, and on the forehand for every transition so then everytime I attempted to shorten the canter he just broke into a trot. She kept asking me to use my stick and reins at the same time and my tiny brain was just exploding. He kicked out once when I asked him to pick up the canter. I lost my right stirrup in the middle of the exercise. It was like a nightmare montage of “use your stick!” “you held him for too long there” “use the stick in a rhythm not just randomly” “half halt and then you have to give” “but don’t just throw your contact away like that” “I would have tapped him three times by now and you haven’t once” “your STICK, use the whip” on repeat for the entire 45min. She said other words, she tried to help, but I know she just wanted to come out there and beat me with my own stick that I could not for the life of me figure out how to use.

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FML so red. so out of shape. wut just happened??!

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We cantered, but I basically did all the work. I was exhausted, out of breath, out of ideas, waaaay past being out of patience, and straight into self loathing. The worst part about the whole thing is it didn’t even culminate into some kind of “come to jesus” moment- the lesson just ended. I accomplished nothing. I had the whole drive home to ponder how awesome that all was. I felt over-horsed on the easiest horse in the barn. I questioned if she’d let me continue taking lessons on him. I said a silent prayer that I wouldn’t F-up the horse I am about to lease, too. (spoiler) It was like an out of body experience where I sat back in the middle of the whole thing and thought “holy cow- this is really really BAD- I haven’t had a lesson this bad in a really long time, why I am riding so poorly?!?!”.

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tears? or eyeball sweat?

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Everyone has had rides like this. I’ll recover. Any other reluctant whip users out there with tips on how to not be a giant pushover in the saddle?

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Let’s Review

Inconsistency in my riding schedule has paved the way for me to let all of my old bad habits creep back in. I had a make-up lesson over the weekend which was the first time I’d ridden in two and a half weeks. For the most part, I was pleased with my ability to retain some of the finer points we’d been working on before the end of the year. There was, however, one glaring exception: I’m still a giant pushover.

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The worst part about this particular flaw when it comes to riding, is that it masquerades as a positive quality. I give myself a pass knowing that I’m never going to be the one people are worried about being rough with their horses or hauling on a horse’s mouth. Nope. My flaws damage in a different way. I will let your horse get away with way too much shit. I am a poor match with clever, opinionated horses. I think I’m being nice, instead I am untraining them. I am working on it. (But apparently need reminders to work on it)

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During my lesson we did an exercise working on getting some true bend to complete 10m circles- easy enough, right? We were doing okay, Lou was putting in some effort and I had a handle on most of his evasions. Then he started bracing a little and bending his neck in without bending the rest of his body. I recognized the problem and started trying to put him back in a more correct left bend. Two laps later, he finally gave a little and stood up straight enough to make the turn. “Well, he finally got there- you basically let him decide to offer that bend, but it took two laps- that’s not good enough. It’s not like you are asking him to try something difficult or new.” She was right, of course. The second I raised the expectations, asked first, then insisted, he was all johnny-on-the-spot. She also reminded me that while he is totally capable of easily honoring my request, he isn’t prepared to stay that way without reminders. I can give when he gives but then I need to re-ask before he loses it completely.

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In summary: basically this post from this summer. How soon we forget… hilarious because he was pulling the same crap on me this weekend as he was in that lesson.

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

  • 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 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.
  • 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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It was a good reminder and I am going to put these BACK to good use in my upcoming rides. What is the most glaring thing you forget after a long break from riding?

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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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