Friday, 29 August 2008

Quarters In

I had a lesson with John on Wednesday and decided to get him to help me with teaching Echo quarters in. I had tried to start teaching her the day before, but we just got in a real tangle. She expects the outside leg back to mean canter and I couldn't persuade her that it could mean something else, as she kept running through my contact. I gave up, as she was getting in more and more of a strop and I knew I needed help.

The reason I wanted to teach it to her was because she has such difficulties with her hindlegs - I thought that if I could move them laterally, then it would get her to engage them more easily. John agreed that this was a good idea and I explained my problem to him. To begin with, he got me doing turn on the forehand, so that she got the hang of moving just her hindlegs away from my leg going back. First we did turn on the forehand from halt, then from walk. Once she stopped running through my hand (John told me I had to 'close the door' in front and to tell her off if she ignored that) she was very good at this. He then told me to come round onto the short side of the arena and put my outside leg back to ask for the quarters to come in slightly.

She didn't understand at all and kept speeding up and bracing against my hand, but after a few attempts, she did move her quarters in ever so slightly, which was enough to begin with. We did it on both reins and got a small movement each time. It was at this point that John reminded me of the reason I was attempting the exercise - because she has difficulties with her hindlegs - therefore of course she's going to find it difficult. But the process of asking for it made her walk so much better, and particularly her right bend improved and she was taking a decent contact in my left rein.

After getting a small movement in walk, John then got me to try it in trot. Again, the movement was marginal, but it was something at least. He then told me to do the same in canter, asking for quarters in on one side of the arena and shoulder in on the other. This was quite interesting, as when I asked for shoulders in, I lost the outside contact and she fell out through that shoulder, meaning that she rushed onto her forehand. When I asked for quarters in, although I didn't get much angle, the canter became much more active and uphill. I wouldn't normally encourage too much quarters in in canter, but particularly on the right rein (my bad rein) the added outside leg really engaged her hindlegs and got her moving.

It was a really good lesson, as we achieved something that I wanted to. We started out not being able to do something, and made positive steps towards achieving it by the end. My friend videoed the lesson (although her camera doesn't have the technology to put it on the computer unfortunately) and although Echo looked great, it was a bit of a wake up call for me to sort out my position. I had a pretty good seat when I used to work for David and I was a bit appalled by my posture and flexibility on the video. I concentrated pretty hard on that this evening when I schooling Echo, but I could do with someone shouting at me like the good old days!!

John also talked to me at the end of my lesson about rein back and the aids for collection and I am rather confused about these. When I have got them sorted in my head I will post about them, as I would love to know what other people think.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

A horse-owner's guilt!

Through various sources recently, I have started to feel awful about the rein contact I take when I school Echo. I know that comments weren't intended as criticism and it has been from reading other posts on the matter of 'light contact' that I have started to feel this as well, so none of the material has been specifically aimed at me, but I think contact is a real issue with most dressage riders.

I am, officially, my own biggest critic. When I was working for David Pincus, he used to get hold of the other end of the reins and make me take a contact on his hands, so he could feel what I was doing to the horse's mouth. He usually said that I was not taking enough of a consistent contact - that I was dropping the contact at the wrong moment, and that in fact, giving with the rein is definitely not the same as dropping the contact. You should always be able to feel the horse's mouth, even when you have given in your rein contact. My instructor, John, has reiterated this recently - I need to have a more consistent contact - not stronger or lighter, but just clearer to the horse.

I have started to really think about the type of contact I take on Echo. JME made a very interesting point in a comment on my post Needs Must, which brought to my attention whether my rein aid was behind or in front of the wither. Also, when I watched the demonstration by Emile Faurie, he said that you should only ever use your wrist when asking for bend, as any more than this will make the horse over bent and fall out. I think I was doing both of these things too much - I was using more than my wrist to ask for the bend, and the aid was in front of the wither, meaning that she reacted in the wrong way to it.

When I was thinking about all of this and reading about the ideal 'feather-light' contact that JME says is possible on most horses, I started to feel the horse-owner's guilt. That sinking, deep-down feeling that you have done something dreadful and are not worthy of riding your poor horse, as you make such a terrible job of it. When I got on Echo yesterday in order to school her, I rode for the first 10 minutes in walk on a loose rein, completely unsure of what I should do. Then I sorted myself out.

I rode as I usually do - albeit with a sharper focus on what I was doing with my hands - and I remembered that I am capable of riding my horse. She is a cob, who is very young and naturally on the forehand, so she is not going to be uphill and featherlight just yet. She needs to learn about balance and subtlety and carrying herself, so I have to show her at the moment what I want. When she trots around, she always has her ears either forwards or sideways, tuned into me - she doesn't come behind the bit and she tries her hardest to do what I ask of her. I don't think she is uncomfortable.

I don't ride with a strong contact - I sometimes have to take a stronger contact, in order to create the frame where she will carry me in the easiest way for her - but when she gives in her poll and her jaw, then I lighten it. Surely that is the point of schooling - lightness is the end product, with harmony and balance achieved by working at it - especially when your horse is not ideally built for it! Lightness is what I obviously want to have with my horse - in all respects, but that cannot be reached (at least in my experience - except with a horse that is built naturally 'on the bit') without establishing a clear contact first.

I sound like I am ranting, and I think I probably am but mainly at myself. I always doubt my own abilities and get the 'guilt' but I have a happy horse who is willing to work for me, which I think has got to say something to me. I have to remind myself every now and again that schooling is a process developed throughout the horse's life - I can't expect it to be perfect immediately - she's only four!

Saturday, 16 August 2008

The Arte y pico award

A belated but huge thank you to Dressage Mom for this blogging award. The orgin of the award can be found at and I am really honoured that Dressage Mom thought of me for this. I am supposed to pass this on to five more inspirational bloggers, but many of the blogs I read have already received it. I will therefore only pass it on to the following three blogs that I read regularly.

Barokko's Diary - a fellow young horse trainer with a coloured horse - girl after my own heart!

Odin's Diary - learning to ride as an adult can'tbe easy, but Maat has a wonderful horse to learn with.

Little Miss Rachel - not a horsey blog, but entertaining and personal.

Needs Must!

Despite continued improvements in Echo's responsiveness, thanks to my last lesson with John, I have still been having huge issues with her taking the contact in the left rein. The right has always been her worse rein, but it was getting ridiculous last week. My problem was that every time I took any sort of contact in the left rein, she would turn her nose to the left. To compensate for this I would have to take a stronger contact in the right rein, meaning that I was having to pull her head to the right, which didn't feel good. When I put my right leg on to continue to ask for the bend, she would escape out through the left shoulder, because I didn't have a true contact in that rein. If I put my left leg on to catch her, she sped up, so we ended up zooming round in a wooden, unpleasant fashion. Not so good.

A couple of influences encouraged me to change tactics. I was reading a blog a couple of weeks ago (I can't remember for the life of me whose blog it was, but if I do, I'll be sure to credit them appropriately!) about working from the ground. The writer was talking about doing leg-yielding and shoulder-in on the ground, which I had never really thought of doing. I also watched a demonstration with Emile Faurie on Horse&Country TV (!!) where he was showing his work with a four year-old stallion he is training. He was saying that everything must be explained to the horse. So many problems come from a breakdown in communication between horse and rider: all it requires is that the horse understands. This got me thinking. I knew that Echo just didn't understand about the left contact, but I really had no idea how to tell it to her in a way that she would understand. Every suggestion people had given me hadn't worked - probably because I was explaining it wrong.

So - I came up with my own method, combining my two inspirations. I decided to lunge her for a couple of days and followed our usual method of lunging - free on both reins in walk, trot and canter, then with side reins on both, working on transitions. I then put her on the right rein and shortened her left side-rein a little more, so that they were uneven. It wasn't by lots, but enough for that left contact to take a hold when she was bending on the lunge circle. I was able to keep the right bend using the lunge rein, and I varied the size of the circle, all the time watching to see how she was reacting to the tighter left rein. When she accepted it, she actually moved much better and her canter transitions were much improved.

At the end of the session, rather than immediately taking the side reins off and letting her walk free for a few minutes as usual, I kept the side-reins on and walked her in-hand around the arena. Using my hand on her side where my inside leg would be, I asked her to move from the three-quarter line to the track in leg-yielding. As the left side-rein was still shorter, it kept that contact through the movement. We did this a few times, then I took the side-reins off and let her relax.

I know it probably isn't the most orthodox of techniques, but I thought it would probably explain it to her in a much clearer way than I can do when I am riding her. In fact, when I rode her yesterday, she was a lot better. I felt that for the first time in weeks...even probably months, I could have an even contact in both reins, with her maintaining the correct bend. Particularly in canter, where she usually falls out through the left shoulder quite dramatically, my left leg did not cause her to speed up - instead, she kept herself straight and cantered beautifully. It was so nice to not be fighting her on the right rein. I hope that she felt that too, and now is starting to understand about the contact. I would be interested to know what all of my wise blogging friends think about my method, as I know it isn't ideal, but she does seem a happier horse as a result

After she had gone so well, I popped her a couple of times over a little cross pole that was set up in the arena. I have got a friend to come down with me next weekend to help me with poles and jumps. I can't wait!!!

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

The Seat

I had a lesson with John on Friday, which, as usual, has given me so much to think about. He was running a little late, so I warmed up for quite a long time before he arrived, meaning that for a change, we were actually ready to get going immediately. She had warmed up quite well and was going very nicely on the left rein. The right rein is improving, but she is still not taking my contact in the left rein, and so it is a little tense on that side. I manage to combat this to some extent by really using my outside leg. This stops her falling out through that shoulder but also encourages her to stretch that side. It doesn't work completely yet, but she is starting to understand.

The last lesson we had, we had been working on canter transitions. I thought these had been really improving, so was keen to see what he thought. He pointed out that although it was better, I was not using my seat to ask her to canter. He said that I put my legs on, then my seat waits for her to canter before it follows. He said that I need to use my seat to actually ASK for the canter. I had a think about this, then admitted, somewhat reluctantly, that I didn't really know what he meant, and that I wasn't sure how to use my seat to ask for a transition. To be honest, I thought that the seat was meant to follow. He gave me an understanding smile, sighed, and said we'd go back to the beginning. Oops...!

He asked me to walk and told me to really feel the movement of the walk in my seat. He then pointed out that I was not using my seat evenly in walk - that I was doing one full stride, then a half one, and he warned that this is how horses get a 'Newmarket walk'. As soon as I started making sure that my seat was moving evenly, the rhythm of her walk really improved. At that point, I knew it was going to be a valuable lesson. Once I had sorted this, and really felt the movement, he told me to halt, and then walk on using only my seat. I had to start the movement that I had in my seat in walk, in order to create the walk transition. It worked!!! So clever... So then, following this, I had to go into sitting trot and feel the trot movement in my seat. From walk, I then had to ask for the trot by starting to move my seat in the trot movement. It worked too! The hardest one was canter. Because the trot is bouncy, I don't really have the strength in my hips to force my seat into the canter movement. I found that I had to use my legs at the same time.

John's reasoning for me only using my seat is that before, I was putting my leg on and therefore the trot was getting faster before I cantered, meaning that the canter was too fast before I'd even started. This way, my legs can support and straighten, rather than asking for the initial transition. He said that if my legs were in use to create the movement, then how would I straighten her or control the movement? This made a lot of sense, particularly as the canter really improved when I stopped using my legs so much in the transition. He said that I should place them in the correct position, but not use them to create the transition.

He also told me off for looking down all the time. This has always been a huge problem for me, even when I was working in the dressage yard. He did point out, however, that Echo copies my position, so if my head is tilted down, she can't do anything except be on the forehand. He was however, reasonably positive about how she is progressing. She is much more supple than she was in the last lesson and is starting to swing in her back and be relaxed. I am really glad that things are going in the right direction. I practised what we had done in the lesson on Sunday, and it was really starting to improve. I was trying to make sure that every transition I made, up and down, was only created through my seat. It is making her far more responsive to my half-halt as well as making her softer in my hand and sharper off my leg. I find it amazing how subtle the seat aids can be - I had always used my seat, but I had no idea how much of an influence it is.

Daily adventures while training my young horse.