In today's post, I am going to give you a little insight into one of my training rides so you can see my thought process and how I take what I feel in my body, analyze it and dig into the right toolbox to solve the problem.
The horse I am going to comment on is Freedance, my nine year old Oldenburg gelding. He is the first horse that I ever bred so we have a very close long term relationship! He loves to work and I typically ride him first in the morning as he is usually pretty eager to go. We are currently gearing up for a competition this weekend at the Intermediare I level and in a month we will be competing in our first CDI level at the small tour (PSG, I-1).
I always walk my horses on a long rein for about 10 minutes just allowing the horse to limber up and to readjust to the riders weight. Remember, 23+ hours a day they are without us on their backs and so I like to give them a little time just to ease into the work. After those 10 minutes, I will gather up the contact and work more in a medium walk...I don't do a ton of collected walk and when I do work on that, it's always later in the ride once I've had time to get my horse responsive to the half halt and balanced over his hind legs. I will do some work in medium walk, usually just big bending lines and serpentines but sometimes I'll add in a little leg yielding, shoulder in or half pass. During this ride, I made my big focus on the balance. Freedance tends to want to be a little bit out behind and down in the shoulders so I wanted to spend a lot of time getting him rocked back over his hind legs and showing more joint articulation.
The next phase of the ride is rising trot on still a little bit of a long rein, with the aim to getting this short backed little horse stretching over his topline. My strategy here depends a bit on the horse I'm riding...my mare, Jypsy, loves a full stretch of her neck where I'm on the buckle of the reins giving her full freedom to stretch down. As a rule, I do not like this approach as I feel horses need the structure of the rein contact to properly use their back but I feel Jypsy needs it! With Freedance I just like to do enough stretching trot work to get the back opened up a little but not so long as he gets stuck down on the shoulder. I start with large serpentines and changes of bend, getting him reactive off my inner leg. At this time I also test the reaction to my forward driving aids and my half halt by riding forward in the trot and then back to walk and then quickly into trot again. After about 5 minutes of basic trot work I will go into the canter and work on canter-trot-canter transitions with the goal of making the back supple and the reactions crisp. Then I will go to canter-walk-canter transitions to again test reactions, straightness and balance (does he sit and engage into the canter or push off the hind legs too much?) He can be a little inconsistent in the contact in the beginning of the ride which is related to the feeling that his hind legs aren't really connected to the bit yet. I keep my hand steady and work with the half halts and transitions to get the hindlegs more active and underneath him which carries the energy over the back and into a steady hand. I have been guilty in the past of trying to put him together with too much hands which just leads to more instability and the hind legs still trailing out behind. The most effective way to create stability in the contact is to create stability in the connection from the hind legs to the bit.
I will add in walk breaks every 7-8 minutes or so (I don't time this but I will typically add it in when I feel like I achieved what I wanted in that set). After riding the transitions, I went to tempo changes in the trot (this is where I feel the hind legs wanting to have the most separation from the bit - the canter is much more solidly connected). My approach was to ride along the rail and play the accordion of his trot...expand it out but the second it would tip down and I would lose the hind legs, I would half halt and rebalance him again and then expand again...over and over until I could do longer sets of collected trot. I would think of pendulum...when I allow the trot to swing one way, I then need to allow it to swing back the other way. So when I would ride collected trot, I would need to then do a few strides school trot. When I would do medium trot, I would then need to do more of a passage type trot. And when I would extend, I would then bring him back to half steps. It's important to have this amount of adjustability. With Freeedance, the moment I would start to feel a loss of impulsion, I would send him forward. If I felt a loss of balance, I would half halt and bring the weight back to the hindquarters.
After another walk break I went to play the accordion in the canter. Forward but uphill and then collected to a pirouette canter without losing impulsion. Repetition of this exercise over and over until his lumbar back had increased flexibility and he was feeling super solid in my hands. By the end we had some beautiful, cadenced collected with a steady connection from the hind legs to the bit.
This was the first ride back after a week off while we were in Washington teaching a clinic so I ended the ride here. Later in the week I will start the same way and then add in more lateral work. Some days I will start with the lateral work to get his back swinging a little more side to side but I felt that since his biggest single issue is the longitudinal balance, this felt like a good approach and it was successful!!
I would suggest for readers to find what their horses biggest struggle is...is it straightness? Impulsion? Tightness (lack of lateral balance)? Longitudinal balance? Adjustability? Whatever it is, typically all issues can be broken down into it's simplest components and when you know what that is, you can open that toolbox and begin to go about improving your horse!
Enjoy the ride!
I have a new mantra...PROGRESS NOT PERFECTION! As with many dressage riders, I tend to be a perfectionist especially as it pertains to my riding and training. In Brene Brown's book, Daring Greatly (awesome book, check it out!), she describes perfectionism in a way I think we can all relate too...
"Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval. Most perfectionists grew up being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule following, people pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, they adopted this dangerous and debilitating belief system: "I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect." Healthy striving is self-focused: How can I improve? Perfectionism is the other-focused: What will they think?"
Right now, I am preparing two horses for their first (and my first!) CDI competition. For those of you that are unfamiliar with that term, it is an international dressage competition run with its own set of rules set by the FEI (the international dressage committee). It differs from a regular nationally run show because there is a veterinary exam of all horses, there is separate and secure stabling for CDI horses and a separate warm up and three international judges to judge the test. On the first day of the show, we will compete in the Prix St. Georges class, Saturday in the Intermediare I class and Sunday, the Intermediare Freestyle (unfortunately due to FEI rules, I can only start one horse in the freestyle). It's amazing how a few weeks ago I was so happy with Freedance's progress. I watched him on video and thought he was really looking great! As we inch closer and closer to the show I am so much critical on the balance, the transitions, the half passes, pirouettes etc... and while it is important to keep the standards high and to continue to improve the weak areas, I seem to be missing the forest for the trees. I have to keep reminding myself...PROGRESS NOT PERFECTION. He is still relatively new to this level and can't be expected to have the same balance and suppleness as the two year older, Gran Casso. I have a clear idea in my head about what I want to feel and frustration keeps creeping in when I don't get him as uphill as I feel he needs to be, or as supple in lateral work.
In my ride today, once I was able to get out of my head and really focus on riding the horse I had in front of me, we were able to achieve some real harmony and some really super moments. But it took me a good 10 minutes or so of my inner critic being pretty rude for me to be able to step back and approach my ride with mindfulness. That idea of, "what will they think?" was the overriding feeling in those first ten minutes of the ride. Once I was more present, it became "how can I improve?". I just focused on achieving progress by incremental shifts in the balance through my half halts or being really logical in how I handled some tightness in my right half pass.
This idea of progress not perfection works perfectly for training horses. Keep chipping away everyday at the little issues. Don't expect everything to be perfect because it never will be. Even the best riders in the world still have to work every day to get their horses straight and supple. Strength, suppleness, balance...these things are built over time. Rome wasn't built in a day as they say!!
One more thing...the idea of progress not perfection goes for you too. When I struggled with the first ten minutes of my ride today being less than ideal...filled with self judgement, frustration and the worry of "what will they think of me?", I was able to refocus and go on to have a really great ride. In the past, that negativity would have stayed with me the whole ride. And yes, I would have preferred to have had a ride filled with rainbows and sunshine but I'm going to give myself a break and show some self compassion. Progress not perfection!
Sending light and love,
A quote that keeps coming up for me lately is "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear". After doing a little research on the quote, there seems to be some mystery around where it actually comes from, but I think it is a wonderful quote as it relates to our journey of riding.
Over the last several years, I have developed very close relationships with the three horses that I ride every day...Gran Casso (born in 2006 and purchased the same year), Freedance (the first foal I ever bred born in 2008), and Jypsy Rose (a 2009 mare I bred, first foal of Gran Casso). Gran Casso was, in a way, a rock for me when I was going through a tumultuous time in my life. Graduating college, breaking off a long term relationship with my boyfriend, starting my business, developing a new relationship with my now husband and trying to find out who I was as a young adult trying to make her way in the world. Gran Casso, a true old soul, has been a steadfast friend. Never dramatic, always calm and collected, he was a constant for me when my life was anything but.
And then there was Freedance...adorable, tons of personality, incredibly friendly but prone to emotional moments when faced with situations he was uncomfortable with (that part I could relate to!). He was terrified of other horses in the arena (and still is to an extent) and he could really push my buttons! At the time when I was still dealing with my own emotional turmoil that comes with finding your identity, we clashed regularly and our rides felt more like bickering with a sibling or having a debate with two very opinionated, emotional high school students. I certainly could have handled him better back then but I was so riddled with insecurity that anytime I struggled with something, it felt like a reflection on my very soul. I wasn't good enough, I was going to mess him up, I had no idea what I was doing. To say I had no self compassion was an understatement. I spoke to myself in ways I would never dream of speaking to a student. And then a couple years ago, I entered into this journey of personal development. I started changing the ways I spoke to myself. I went from allowing my inner critic to discourage and hurt me to being able to show kindness and understanding to myself when I was struggling. I cannot express enough how much changing my perspective and the way that I speak to myself has changed my riding and has changed my relationship with this horse. Now, like never before I feel like he and I have an amazing partnership. In my time of turmoil, he was a reflection of myself...emotional, prone to worry, quick to get frustrated. And now, I start everyday with him and now he reflects my excitement to work, my love, compassion and understanding. Not only has our relationship changed dramatically but he has progressed in his training and I love riding him more than ever. He has been the truest mirror to my inner being and I am so grateful to have him as my teacher.
And now to Jypsy...a beautiful red mare, feminine but very tough...a total bad ass. I always felt if she were a person she would be a punk rocker with a bright red mohawk and tattoos all over. When she was young she was very nervous, spooky and quite hot and sensitive. Over the years she has mellowed out considerably and at home she can be pretty lazy! She still can get pretty spicy when we go to horse shows which has been a bit of a challenge. I'm still working to be able to harness that tension that I feel when I compete with her. She's really the one teaching me the most about myself right now. She is a kind mare, not prone to your "typical red mare" temper tantrums. She never misbehaves but she can still be incredibly difficult to ride because she really doesn't like to let me in. In dressage, we ask that the horse to give over her body and her mind to the rider and this is an area that Jypsy is teaching me. Have you ever heard the saying, "You tell a gelding, ask a stallion and discuss it with a mare?". This is where we are at! Having daily discussions on why she can trust me with her body and her mind. She is not the type you can force into anything. If you try, she will completely lock her body against you so you must ride her with finesse and quiet confidence. In a way I feel she is reflecting where I am in my journey as a person and because of that for the first time I am really feeling a deeper sense of connection with her.
So, reader, I challenge you to ask what your horse is teaching you about yourself? Are they a mirror to your inner self or do they strike a stark contrast and create balance in your life of unbalance? If you haven't ever thought of your horse as a teacher, perhaps it's time to show up in the classroom and see what the teacher has in store for you. :)