Wish Granted

Last weekend seemed to be the last breath of summer in this area so I didn’t need anymore of an excuse to leave work a little early on Friday and head out to the barn. Harley has been growing a pretty woolly coat the past month and he’s often already sweaty before I ride. So, I made a plan, and Friday was the day! I gave him a bath which he didn’t really appreciate and then I took him out to graze in the sun which he liked much better.

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After he dried my trainer insisted on taking photos of how clean he was for five seconds.

 

 

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We also tried to take cute photos with the barn’s fall decorations but my friend lets her pony do whatever he wants and thinks it’s cute and makes no effort to stop him so after he rolled the large pumpkin into the parking lot with his nose, ate the straw, and yanked down the corn stalk, I was pretty much in favor of being done with that activity.

I hope you got a good look at that chestnut chest hair above because promptly after those photos were taken, I tried my hand at clipping a horse for the first time ever!

Harley was awesome and didn’t even bat an eye at the clippers. He stood completely still and was a total dude about the whole process. I thought it wise, for my first time ever holding a clippers, to stick to something simple so I planned a tidy bib clip to start out with and later I could extend it if need be. I think I did a pretty decent job for my first time! But, I have no idea how you guys do things like make shapes/designs or straight lines for that matter…

 

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Saturday early afternoon I came back out to the barn for a ride and the barn was eerily empty for such a beautiful day. Sometimes Harley gets more concerned when he’s all alone in the arena but on Saturday he was a perfect angel and did not put a foot wrong. We had the BEST ride we’ve had in months. It was wonderful. He was relaxed but forward and even when I spanked him with my whip once a little harder than I planned, he let it go and didn’t get tense. I did not wear the theraband around my back but spent the whole ride focusing on getting that same feeling like I was wearing it and sitting up and back and relaxing my shoulders. He was much more accepting of my contact and I remembered to half halt firmly but release quickly and to keep doing that throughout the ride especially when we started to get disconnected. I find I’m often so concerned about the tension in our rides that I let us both get away with not having that conversation in the contact. I really enjoyed such a quiet, productive ride where I had the chance to feel through the connection when his focus was on me and when it wasn’t.

Sometimes this really nuanced message gets lost in the hustle of trying to “do things”. I have been frustrated lately in my lessons because they seem so focused on completing a pattern or getting a shoulder-in. That’s okay for some rides, but I often feel like I’m skipping over fundamentals to do it. I’m struggling to merge the two functions. And wondering, is it better to slog around doing imperfect “patterns” until they finally click? Is repetition the key? Or, is that connection the key to the whole thing and the minute you lose the connection you should stop trying to complete the pattern until you’ve recovered the connection? A little of both, probably, but I just don’t enjoy that feeling of running around like a chicken with my head cut off in the hopes that eventually one of those aimless circles will be a perfect 20m with correct bend.

Oh, dressage…you’re such a perpetual, addicting, mind screw.

 

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Physical Limits vs Mental Limits

Monday I wrote about ways that I am pushing some physical limits in my life and today I want to talk about some mental limits that I’m struggling with lately in my riding.

A few weeks ago, I had an amazing lesson on Louie where my trainer even video taped part of my ride to show me how much my seat has improved and what a positive influence it was having on the way Louie was moving.

 

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Alas, what goes up, must come down. Tuesday’s lesson was a total bust and I’m still trying to process what was going on. I think I may have been in my own head too much- trying to reproduce something I came across in a very exploratory frame of mind by instead forcing it or rushing it. Louie was being a little lazy and when I couldn’t get him to feel how he felt last ride, I kind of crumbled. When Louie started phoning it in, the wheels came off and we were a mess out there. She asked me to do some canter transitions to balance him in the trot and he was. not. there. He was super dull and giving the bare minimum amount of effort and I was suddenly completely at a loss for what to do. I could feel it- or rather the absence of it- and I just kept trying to force it. I was able to finish with some decent canter work only after a heart to heart….er…whip to rump discussion with Louie and my trainer explaining to me that I wasn’t even asking him to keep it together- I was just giving away all of the impulsion out the front. Weak sauce.

After the lesson she told me something I already knew, but after that performance, probably needed to be told again. She said something to the effect of, “you are not a beginner anymore, when people start lessons they look to their instructor to guide everything they do. When more advanced riders take a lesson, they come in and ride and I help when they need it but they do what they need to do for their horse before I say a word. You have more than enough tools in your toolbox to get him where he needs to be without me- you have to ride him like he’s your horse. If I ask you to do some exercise but you can feel he isn’t balanced enough to do it, get him there- do something else you know will help him.” She’s right, of course.

So, what happens when the EquiNovice isn’t exactly a novice anymore? I’ll tell you what happens- responsibility!!!! UGH, what a drag! As long as you are new you feel like you can make mistakes, second guess yourself, be hesitant, and it’s all acceptable because, well, it is- you’re new. Coming to grips with not being new is a bigger mental hurdle than I thought it would be. I need to level up my mental fortitude to match my skill or it’s going to be darn near impossible to continue to advance.

I don’t imagine this was a particularly enjoyable lesson for my trainer to teach and it is in stark contrast to my last lesson which I think she probably did enjoy. But it means a lot to me that she continues to push me to be better. Yes, I pay her for every lesson, but she could just as easily feed me empty compliments and let me putz around on good natured Louie every week. I’m never going to show him; never going to be reflected publicly as her student; and may not even get to take lessons from her for very much longer. But she still cares about my development as a rider enough to tactfully have an uncomfortable conversation with me and push me to be better. That’s a quality instructor.

 

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Mental limits: must push for more progress! Onward and upward and don’t let a few bad rides get you down.

 

 

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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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Stupid Human Tricks

Sometimes my mind gets the better of me and I forget to translate the logical mechanics to my body. Last night I had a pretty good lesson on the Lou-meister and later in the lesson he offered me some lovely swing and softness in a sitting trot. I appreciate it, buddy! Because lord knows I didn’t do you any favors to get it…at least until the lightbulb finally went off in my head. Allow me to elaborate: last week I had a great lesson and we worked on straightening and also getting Louie to step under and carry himself on the inside hind leg as we circled. We had some really super moments after my trainer offered me a tip to try and help me achieve a better position and more effectively ask Louie to step under himself with the inside hind. As we were on the circle she asked me to “think” towards his outside ear.

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Sending energy over the outside ear.

It really worked for me last week and Louie got more soft and round as he stepped under himself and better matched the arc of the circle. Great! Yay! Fabulous! Maybe you can already see where this is going… but I kind of latched on to that little trick because…well…it worked! So last night after we warmed up and started to work in the trot on a circle I was ready to pull out my ace and re-create some of that soft loveliness of last week. Unfortunately, I just wasn’t getting it. Louie kept falling out on the circle, the trot was rocky and hard to sit, and I was so confused! I was burning a laser focus hole in that outside ear but my trick wasn’t working.

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Why isn’t this working?!?!?!?

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Fear not, gentle reader. That lightbulb finally did come on and I realized with horror what I was doing and why “my trick” wasn’t working. In my fervor to throw all my energy over Louie’s outside ear, I forgot why I was supposed to be doing that in the first place. The idea is sound. If done correctly, it is effective. The idea was always for my hips to send some energy toward the ear to get that inside hind to step under the body. The problem was, I momentarily forgot that my shoulders need to continue to express the turn so obviously, as you can see above, I was being all “vertically-aligned-human” and forgetting the basic mechanics. Gosh, I wonder why we kept falling out on the circle…

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drawing struggles aside, it should look a little more like this.

Once I got myself sorted and began expressing the turn with my shoulders, guess what I got?! Thanks Lou, I owe ya one, again, for the laps of pillowy soft sitting trot. I owe my trainer big time too since even though she didn’t know what was going on inside my head- she sorted me out from the ground and she’s the reason the lightbulb finally did go on. She said “could you feel that as soon as you started matching the turn with your upper body he came straighter?” She felt bad when I told her I was focusing on what she said last week but I explained that I understand exactly what I did wrong. 🙂

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‘Tis the Season to Make Progress

Last night,  in addition to bringing PLENTY of Christmas cheer to the barn with me…

Louie, the jolly holiday elf, wearing a Christmas tree hat.

Louie, the jolly holiday elf, wearing a Christmas tree hat.

…I made some BIG moves in my canter work. Last week we worked between a set of two ground poles near each end of each long wall. The idea was to canter over the pole and count the number of strides at a normal canter and then once we established a baseline, try to increase the number of strides between the poles. Even though I’m not sure I fully succeeded at performing this exercise, I was able to feel the moments when Louie was on the aids.

That lightness; that moment when the rider’s “workspace” seems to neatly shrink up and everything seems possible with just the quietest whisper of intent. Basically like horsepeople crack… once you get a taste, you just NEED more and more, you crave it.

This week’s lesson we did a number of transitions and also a lot of canter work. We did an exercise where we split the arena into three parts and sort of did canter serpentines with a few steps of walk or trot while crossing the centerline. Sometimes my instructor called for no transition in the middle so I would continue in the same direction in the same gait. This was a TOUGH exercise for me because it was so much to think about at one time: change of direction, change of speed, change of bend. I had to focus just as much on up transitions as down transitions and Louie will cut corners and break gait if I am not paying enough attention.

When we finished this exercise I was completely out of breath and exhausted (I am all kinds of out-of-shape right now) but I was also pretty darn pleased because I know for a fact that I would NEVER have been able to manage ANY part of that exercise a few months ago.

I’ll take a week off from riding over the holidays but I’m sure I’ll have a few things to share. I am working on some riding goals for 2014 and will put those up here soon.

Happy Holidays!

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