A Day with David O’Connor

IMG_5669OK, not really just me and the Dave hangin’ out, but today I was at Longview South in Ocala, FL at the USEA Instructor Certification (ICP) Symposium – kind of a continuing education deal for ICP instructors or other interested  horse junkies.

Short random video of leg yield to set the stage:

Robyn Walker making canter look so easy:

The morning started out with a 50 minute discussion on teaching, riding and how horse sports can improve in general.  One of  his recurring themes is that we can borrow from other sports.  He mentioned that he was struck while watching the Super Bowl coverage that the 39 year-old quarter back (and the entire team) warmed up by doing drills.  He was noticing that even those who are experienced and at the highest level of the NFL recognize the value and importance of reviewing sound fundamentals.  (The implication being, of course, the lots of riders skip fundamentals or, once they reach a certain level, they don’t review and renew their skills as often as might be ideal.)   Hmmmm…

Following are some of my notes from the day, most are direct quotes, but some are paraphrased, hopefully faithfully:

  • When learning to ride, there are 5 phases of riding
  1. Technique (learning position and how to communicate with horses.  The vast number of riders are here)
  2. Theory (Camie in: This means read and study in the winter.  You can’t ride?  Read a book, watch videos.)
  3. Instinct (You’ve practiced correctly and studied and visualized it for so long that the correct response is fully ingrained in muscle memory)
  4. Intuition (setting a horse up for success in training and competition)
  5. Imagination (the land where you can create exercises at home and see things in competition that others do not.  Michael Jung lives here pretty much by himself.)
  • Rider responsibilities
    • Straightness
    • Speed
    • Rhythm
    • Balance
    • Impulsion
    • (Camie in: “Dear God, please let this ring at least somewhat familiar in my students’ heads.  Amen.”)
  • For instructors, in a lesson
    • What am I trying to do?
    • How am I going to do it? (Let the exercise teach the lesson)
  • As riders progress, they understand that many problems are skill based, not horse based (A nice way of communicating that “It’s us.  It’s really, really us.  And they sooner we accept our role as the baggage that needs to mostly get out of the horses’ way, the better horses will go for us.” Or “Horses go as we ride them.”)
  • The rider’s aids must be clear and consistent. (One key without the other does not open the lock.)
  • 4 year olds should be allowed to be 4 year olds.  He told a story about his students at his barn, and that he has drilled into their heads: “That is a 4 year old.  What are we doing with him?”  “Waiting for him to be 6!”
  • No bending for 4 year olds (Not a typo)
  • There are three parts to the rider’s body
    • Lower leg
    • The seat, which is knee to lower rib cage
    • The upper body
  • Seat dictates length of stride and tempo
  • Canter transitions from a big trot to a big canter is a good exercise for horses to help them be loose in their backs
  • The most powerful tool is the give (the relaxation of the aids)
  • The quality of the hands is unbelievably important (Please, Master of the Universe, let this not be news to my current students!)
  • On a circle, the inside hind leg should be on the line of travel
  • For canter depart, feel where his haunches are, then canter when ready
  • Leg yield
    • Go from wall toward middle of arena, rather than middle to wall to encourage horse not to run to wall
    • Put weight slightly in direction of movement.  Horses follow weight
  • For turning, think of pushing with the outside aids around the turns.  Push, don’t pull.  “Push to the line, don’t hold to the line”
  • For 4 and 5 year olds, keep their necks straight in front of them and push them around with your legs (laterally supple, etc.)
  • Two kinds of half halts
    • One changes length of stride
    • Other rebalances
  • Young horses should “walk like they’re late”
  • 4 year olds should do transitions between gaits, 5 year olds should do transitions within gaits.
  • Leg yield and shoulder in and haunches in are not ends in themselves.  They are means to an end, like toe touching and strengthening is a way to become a football player (I thought this was brilliant)
  • Can go forward and collect in leg yield
  • An exercise: leg yield in canter to leg yield in trot across the diagonal
  • Cadence = lift
  • Horses need to develop responsiveness to seat aids.  Riders need to remember to use them (before going to hands)
  • And finally, simple way to think about collecting is to “lift the horse in the middle” (with the seat)  The front end and the back end naturally come down.
IMG_5666

This was a typical position for this rider.  David is discussing straight line elbow to bit and a soft elbow.

Great fun today!  More tomorrow.  Subscribe to the blog if you like!

Inside leg

Charlie and I on a recent hunt. Yes, we're both very tall. He's 17 hands, I'm 6'3". My friend and her horse are normal-sized.

I haven’t had an unsound horse for a long time – until recently.  Now I have two on the injured reserve stall rest list.  Charlie and Sammy.  The prognosis is good for both of them.  We’ve now done the first 10 days of strict stall rest, the week of stall rest plus 10 minutes of hand-walking per day and now we are on to stall rest with 15 minutes of walking, this time mounted.  I’ll admit, I had some trepidation about getting on Charlie, a thoroughbred who, a few years ago, had a habit of bucking and now had a few weeks of stall rest under his girth.

But he was an angel.  Never set a foot wrong.  Of course, the horse that I thought would be easy peasy, Sammy, started with a humped-up back and had a few moments of corkscrew ears and some mumbling about how he could buck and he was a wild, wild horse.  Yeah.  Wild Sammy.  You can stop that now.

He didn’t buck, by the way.    Contrary to his wonted bad boy image, he’s a good man.  Sammy at an eventer derby

Anyway, now I am walking the two goofballs around the indoor for 15 minutes per horse every day.  It just so happens that these days I am also reading Charles De Kunffy’s book Training Strategies for Dressage Riders (on my rockin’ Kindle Fire, that thing is just stupid cool).  So I’ve got 30 minutes of walk to do and I start fooling around with CDK’s comments on use of the rider’s legs.  He says the inside leg is the driving leg and the outside leg is the guarding leg when asking for a bend.

So I walk and walk around the arena on a loose rein thinking about this.  Of course, the first time I put my leg on to play with it, each fresh horsie decides this is an invitation to trot.  Hmmm.  No, not the right button.  So then I make sure not to drop my leg back even an inch, but use it more straight toward the girth, leading with my ankle bone.  That got me leg yield.  Hmmmm, right idea, but not quite.  So I walked around a little more and thought about it.  Maybe if I…  What about if…

Sammy, in case you don't follow video links.

So I got to thinking about using my whole inside leg, from the hip down.  This would have to be without pinching with the knee. With my long-legged conformation it is not possible to use my lower calf/ankle, while keeping my knee against the saddle, so I keep my calf on and allow the knee to come off the saddle if necessary, but usually it is just a softening of its contact with the saddle.

After performing this thought experiment, I gave it a try.  What I noticed was that when I used my whole leg, my seat bones were more precisely placed and probably clearer to the horse.  I got really cool results.  The first night, after a few wobbles and comedies of errors, I could do a large figure 8 in my arena using only seat aids.  It was terrific!  The second night, not really believing this was possible – maybe the horses were so smart they were memorizing the pattern – I threw in a random circle.  Sure enough it worked.  Then I started playing with different-sized circles.  Some learning curve there, and after what has now been an hour of walking around, I am getting a handle on that.

But back to CDK’s idea of the inside leg being the driving aid.  Turns out that when I use that leg in a more energetic manner (still quiet and rhythmic, but a bit more emphatically) I get a tighter turn that remains in balance.  In retrospect, this makes perfect sense.  Look at the reach from the inside hind on this horse learning canter pirouette.

Let there be fun

Me on Eddie in the background, my student on Sammy in foreground. Picture taken last summer. Just for fun, note the bitless bridle on Sammy

Today I was setting fences for a student who was riding one of my horses, Sammy.  We’ve been working on strengthening her position and getting her riding fitness back up since having the summer off from riding.  She has good jumping basics and her fitness is on track so today it was back to jumping.  We started out with a cross rail which went beautifully.  I told her to keep cantering and while she went around the arena, I made it a small vertical.   She jumped that and I directed her to keep cantering.  I made it a 1’6″ vertical.  They jumped that beautifully.  I told her to keep cantering, she jumped the next change I made to the fence.  We kept at it until we were at a 2’9″ oxer, a pretty good effort for her level.  What struck me about it was how very easy jumping is when the basics are right and the rider has  confidence in herself, her trainer and the horse underneath her.  It was nearly as fun to watch as it apparently was to do, judging by the big old smile on both the horse and the rider’s face at the end of the lesson.

Speaking of getting the details right, and, as Nora Jones would say, “a little bit of nothin’ wrong”, here’s Peter Atkins and Henny running xc at Fair Hill last month.  Watch and smile.

Yeah, what she said

 

The stalling point

 

So the arena has been stalled at an unusable point for a month due to the construction crews moving to a cow/calf operation project that had to get done before calving. Um, arg.    This has effectively eliminated any chance of riding to days when the footing happens to be perfect in the pasture or on the gravel roads, which doesn’t happen with frequency in February in Iowa.  Of course, before the indoor arena project I had an outdoor arena which I could use with some regularity in winter, but the location of the indoor is where the outdoor was, so I am now effectively hamstrung for riding, until construction begins again in mid-March.

So I’ve been reading.  The latest book is “Dressage Masters, Techniques and Philosophies of Four Legendary Trainers”.  It is an interview book, simply written and it is really wonderful.  I bought it because it has my dressage hero, Klaus Balkenhol, as one of the four, but I’ve found also that the other trainers – Ernst Hoyos, Dr. Uwe Schulten-Baumer and George Theodorescu are equally admirable.  It makes me feel good every time I realize that all good trainers sound fundamentally the same.  They all have first a love of the horse.  That seems obvious, until you meet a trainer who doesn’t love horses.   I bought this book for my Kindle for like $15 or something.

 

Ellen Schulten-Baumer

The quote from it that I want to share with you was spoken by Ellen Schulten-Baumer, whose father, Dr. Uwe Schulten-Baumer, trained her.  She currently has 5 Grand Prix dressage horses in her barn that she and her dad trained from 3 year olds.  I’m just going to share this quote and get out, because I can add nothing to it.  Rock on, people.

 

“I learned something very important from my father.  When a horse doesn’t perform a lesson as expected, I first have to ask myself whether the horse is capable.  If the answer is yes, then I must think about how I apply my aids.  I must use them better so the horse understands exactly what I want.  This may involve riding more preparatory exercises.  If I can’t get it right fairly quickly, then I go to something else.  It is unfair and unproductive to drill a horse; this causes too much physical and mental stress.  I tell my students this also.  If they just can’t get it right, they can think about their aids overnight and try again tomorrow.  Then the horse and rider get a fresh star together.”

Perfect mirrors

The Newf, playing the role of recently awakened grizzly bear

Our Newf Peppa has to take a few pills per day.  I’ve been spooning out about a tablespoon of peanut butter, hiding the pills in it, rolling it up and giving the resulting peanut butter ball of goodness to the Newf, who eats them down like a champ.  This plan was all good until I started to get slightly annoyed with the reality of having peanut butter combined with dog goo on my fingers every day.  I love peanut butter, and without the dog goo, I would just like it off my fingers like anybody would.  But the dog goo makes it a no deal.  So I rinse it off with water, but, I’ve found I need to use very hot water, because peanut butter plus cold water simply equals stickier peanut butter.  Paper towels work too, but the process is still unsatisfying.

Peppa the Newf in delighted phase

Then one day, I took a spoon straight from the dishwasher, freshly cycled.  It was a little bit damp as I used it to scoop my peanut butter.  And voi la!  The peanut butter didn’t stick!  It was easy to make it into a little ball that the Newf ate right up and I was left with clean hands.  Amazing!  The Newf and I were delighted.  Little discoveries like this can make all the difference.

That is how it was last week.  A student was going to be a bit late for her lesson, so I decided to tack up her horse and warm him up for her.  I had about 35 minutes, so I was able to have a nice long walk warmup, and then did some brief trotting and cantering.  Charlie did very well, moving forward in a relaxed and polite manner.  I was just finishing up when my student arrived.

Charlie, Camie and The Newf observe the work on the indoor arena. Must have bought the cheap seats to be by the muck pile...

This was to be a lesson on riding out of the arena, so I mounted up on Elliot and she got on Charlie and out we went.  Now Elliot is a beautiful animal who, a little unfortunately, has about the most earthbound walk possible. He’s not about to set any land speed records.  I gave my student the mission of keeping Charlie’s ears even with Elliot’s, which I guessed would be an easy goal, with Charlie’s long tb legs and his good warmup.

But there was trouble in paradise.  She was having a devil of a time getting Charlie to swing along, as I know he is capable of doing, and as he had done just a few minutes before.  So I reminded her of all the things riding instructors say.  Make sure you are following the stretch of his neck in walk, with your hands in an elastic connection.  Keep your legs on in a rhythmic fashion to support the walk.  And she was doing these things, I could see.

Still he walked slowly along, a wobbly beast that belied the completely enjoyable horse I had just been riding.  Against my better judgement I told her to give him a good nudge, aka a kick.  We got one quick step from that, and then a return to the slogging blobfest he was doing before.  As I comparatively glided along on Elliot and watched her work so hard for the same walk on her horse, I wondered very quietly and very seriously why it was so hard to get Charlie to walk with intention.

Charlie and I hunting

I decided to intently observe what she was doing.  After a few minutes it was clear to me that it wasn’t what she was doing, it was what she wasn’t doing.  Though her hands followed, and her legs rhythmically supported, her hips and back were stiffly resisting the forward motion.  There was go in her calves and hands, and there was stop everywhere else.  I had a postulate that Charlie’s resistance wasn’t his own.  He was simply reflecting what his rider was telling him to do.

I explained this to my student and then showed her what I was doing in my hips and back and how she could do the same thing to harmonize her aids and give Charlie clear direction.  Less than a minute later, because she’s a very talented learner, Charlie was swinging along in a confident, sweeping walk.  Horses are perfect mirrors of the energy of their riders.  Riders only need to make their energy unified and clear.

It was pretty cool.  Hope it helps you.

 

 

Bonus!

It is good to have some appreciable level of fitness when your horse does something extravagant and unexpected like this bit of air time... (Luke Klemm, Camie up. Jay with the video camera.)

It is that time of year when lots of people either a) put on the holiday 7 pounds and just learn to love their new shape or b) put on the holiday 7 pounds and go all manic with the workout resolutions, in this year’s case on January 3rd (Too hung over and/or tired on New Year’s Day and this year January 2nd falls on a Sunday, the resolution killer.  Who can start a serious workout program with that much lounging to be done?)

Last winter produced record snow for our part of the world and what started out as character-building in January, turned in to absolute will-shattering, never-ending tedium by mid-February.  It was absolutely impossible to ride with no indoor.  The horses had confined themselves to the 10′ feet around the barn because that was the only snow they could keep trampled down enough to walk around on.  I had to do something, so after I cleaned every closet and rearranged every room in the house out of sheer desperation for activity, Jay and I decided to join the local rec center which has some treadmills and a track, raquetball and basketball courts.  It was pretty easy to work out every day.  It was a big stress reliever and our bodies actually started to take on a some form of a shape, other than “roundish”.

As spring and summer came, we were plenty active around our place so we dropped our membership and picked it up again a week before Thanksgiving this year when the days started getting pretty short.  I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to go inside a building and work out when it is light and pretty outside, but when it turns dark early outside, I am attracted to a bright building with people who are actively not hibernating, like a moth to a deck light.

So I started working out and it bummed hard.  Of course I was comparing the fitness I had worked into last winter with where I was starting in the fall. I know better than to do that, but I went all momentarily stupid and did it anyway.  Active as we were over the summer, apparently the cardiovascular part of the equation is not challenged by mowing pastures and riding horses.  Who knew?  Jay joined in about a week after I started and hit the same wall.  By that time, I was pretty much back on track and, ok, I’m a naughty-bad wifey sometimes, so I’ll own that it was kind of fun to see him struggle as I had that first week.  Heh, heh.  For better or for worse for sure, honey, but if you are sucking wind and sweating because you procrastinated and I am fairly whizzing along with a light step and glow, I will not stop myself from smiling and cheerfully asking how your workout is going.  It’s in the fine print honey, really it is.

And there are days where working out still is a slog for me.  Such as, I can definitely feel a drag on my workout if I had more than one beer the day before.  Rats!  Or too much soda.  Double rats!  And some days it is hard to get started.  “My Ipod is out of charge.” “That dog walk I did today should cover it.” “My socks are downstairs in the dryer.”  The answers are “Your Ipod is optional.” “That dog walk was way too easy to be considered exercise.” and “Go downstairs and get them.”  Go.  Go.  Go.  Workout.  So I do.  We try to go every day, but it turns into 5 days a week.  Sometimes my teaching gets in the way, sometimes Jay’s work does.

I had no idea, though, that today was going to be a real payoff.  Today I got on a client’s horse to help square him up for an exercise they were having a challenge with.  I have really long legs and I didn’t feel like messing with her stirrup length, so I just flipped the stirrups over the horse’s withers and rode stirrupless.  I did a lot of canter depart work and lots of cantering for about 20 minutes.  It never occurred to me while I was riding that I really haven’t ridden much lately because of the footing and the arena project and I am therefore seriously out of riding shape.  As I rode, I was so focused on the horse that I didn’t think about that.  Then, at the end of the ride,  I was sliding off and I thought, “Ho, Nelly, that wasn’t smart, I am going to be really sore.  This might even hurt when my feet hit the ground.”  And when that is going through your head, it is a long, anxious way down from a 17h thoroughbred.

And nothing.  I felt great.  Not a twinge anywhere many hours later.  And no, I’m not 18 anymore.  All that stuff they say is true.  Just do it.  Or my personal favorite, “Excuses don’t lift up your butt.”  You don’t have to be perfect, you don’t have to train for a marathon, and it doesn’t have to take over your life.  My walking program is 33 minutes long.  I crank the heck out of the elevation on the treadmill for two minutes, then go back to a level that is easy for me for two minutes.  I do a little interval training repertoire that I made up.  I keep changing it as my body acclimates.  It is totally Camie’s made up fitness plan.

Effective, not terribly pretty... Camie on Derith Vogt's lovely mare, Carolyn

So, if you’ve been thinking about getting in a workout program, go on, do it.  Do whatever works for you.  Go all crazy fancy, swim on Tuesdays, join a spin class, get all yoga-ed or keep it simple.  Like cross country riding, a workout program doesn’t have to always be pretty to be effective.

Learning sitting trot

Sitting trot can be a pain in the butt, and a pain in the “front butt” too.  The bumping that accompanies learning to elastically sit a horse’s trot can be a real trial, and one you don’t probably choose to discuss with your non-horse friends on girls’ night!

The first inclination when things get painful in the nethers is to blame the saddle, and there are probably some small minority of saddles that are so ill-fitting as to be the source of the problem. However, if you’ve tried several, many or myriad saddles and you can’t find one that is comfortable for sitting trot for you, the one constant is not the saddles!  For fun, let’s just entertain the idea that it might be technique rather than saddle.  My Dad’s voice rings in my head: “It’s a poor workman who blames his tools.”

What is happening to produce discomfort?  When a rider’s back is not relaxed and elastically following the movement of the horse, there has to be a bump between the moving thing (the horse, going up and down and forward) and the still thing (the rider, who wants to be still relative to the horse, but she thinks she can do that by holding herself still through the use of rigid muscles. “Still relative to the horse” in sitting trot means both keeping her hips and shoulders over the center of the horse at the front of the saddle as he moves forward (relatively easy for many), and elastically absorbing and releasing the energy of the upward bound and downward release of the trot (relatively difficult for many).

Picture a person learning to dribble a basketball.  At first, their hand slaps the ball down with an audible bump.  Over time, the person learns to catch the energy of the ball bouncing off the ground and then smoothly return and even re-direct that energy down.  Soon the person can dribble the ball anywhere she wants.  There is no bumping against the ball, only catching the energy of the ball going up, in an open, relaxed and elastic hand,  and then releasing the energy back down.  This accepting and releasing of the energy coming up and going down is what we do in good sitting on trotting horses. The horse is like the ball sending energy up in his bounds up and forward and releasing it in his return to the earth. In good sitting trot, the tripod of your pelvis is engaged with your lower back to produce the relaxed and elastic catching and releasing of that energy.

Most of us think we should be born knowing how to sit the trot, so we expect it to be immediately effortless.  It is afterall, just sitting and we do that all the time.  (More correctly, riding sitting trot is active stillness.)  And it looks so fabulously easy when some riders do it.  Because people tend to think that a connected sitting trot is their birthright, they get in there and wing it, and unless they are of the 1% to whom it actually IS their birthright, they find themselves surprised to be bumping the saddle with their pelvis somehow (some with the back of the pelvis, some with the front) and it hurts – just like slapping a basketball with your hand is not pleasant. Except with a basketball, we would be thought very silly if we blamed the ball for hurting our hands while we are slapping it!

To compound the problem, without patient development of the sitting trot skill, there is a natural tendency to tighten the thigh and back to defend oneself against the bumping that develops.  This keeps the pelvis tensely tilted up off the saddle, which stops the bumping, but it disqualifies the possibility of real connection and influence on the horse, and, further, encourages stiffness in the horse, which then makes the gait harder to sit!  It is a vicious cycle that can be circumvented with knowledgeable help and patient attention.  Here is my blog about regaining the sitting trot after I lost it when I shifted my sacrum.

Watch George Williams (love his riding.  Yeah, I know.  I am kind of like John Madden talking about Brett Favre, but stay with me here.) in sitting trot in this video.  Try not to be distracted by the gorgeous horse or surroundings.  Look at his pelvis and lower back.  They are moving.  A LOT. Riders have to be fearless and elastic in sitting trot.  You can only be those things when you actually have help in learning to sit the trot by slowing things down and being patient with yourself while you do it.  The payoff is uber cool.  Real connection with the seat in sitting trot is a cornerstone to really good riding.

Look what I found!

Our friend the SI joint

So I lost my sitting trot.  I lost it honestly, by, as my niece would say, “being chucked from a horse” when he rapidly decelerated in front of a jump.  I injured my sacroilliac joint which, frankly, is literally a pain in the a$$. Until you injure your SI joint, you won’t fully appreciate its role in your happiness and comfort.  A pair of happy SI joints makes for a happy girl, ok, that’s just me lately, but I’m just sayin’, be happy if yours work right.

Now that I am mostly recovered, thanks to rest, chiropractic and a very understanding massage therapist, I am back in the saddle.

This is not my butt, but that was definitely the owie spot.

The difficulty in riding again when I was first back in the saddle was what you would expect – a very strong feeling that I did not want to be jostled or fall off.  But that passed in time and then I started getting back to the more technical challenges of riding.  The most distressing thing was that I’d lost my sitting trot. Rats.  Sitting trot is one of my favorite things about riding.  Oh, wait, everything is my favorite thing about riding.  Well, you get the idea. Sitting trot was easy and fun.  The first part of the video below is a good example of fun in sitting trot with Eddie the Wonderful.


Let it be noted here that I am a bit of a details person about my riding technique.  The more I learn about what works and what doesn’t, the more I realize that riding is a game of centimeters, not even inches. Probably, for those folks who ride at a very high level, it is a game of millimeters.  The angle of the thigh, the use of the abdomen, everything, all very precise without tightness.  The difference between what a horse responds to and what he interprets as physical chatter is very subtle indeed.

So, when I say I lost my sitting trot this means that it simply wasn’t as connected as it was before.  There wasn’t flopping about or major tension, but the connection I had with my seat  before the SI injury was far superior to what I was producing after the injury.

I decided not to get emotional about it (because I sure was tempted to go down that path.  You know the one, the hairy gnome in your brain says things like, “Oh, you’re just getting older and it may not come back” and icky things like that) and just go the scientific exploration route.  Dr. Spock goes riding.  So I started to explore what I was doing differently to make the seatbone connection be intermittent rather than full-time.  The first thing that caught my attention was that my legs were not as long, I was pulling up from my hips a bit.  Focusing on stretching through my leg was helpful, but even after a day or two of attention to that, it was clear that was not the entire answer.

So I took some more time to really notice what my body was doing that might be getting in the way of real seat connection.  Not surprisingly, I was holding in my lower back.  Duh, I know, I should have figured that out right away, but I was a little too close to the problem to see it.  Since the SI joint hurt so much less, I hadn’t really entertained the thought that it still hurt some and I was protecting it.

When I asked my kind horses to slow down their trots until I could learn to relax and follow again, things became easier.  I did a lot of short periods of sitting trot, interspersed with walk and canter breaks, including 2 point in all gaits.  I was as kind to my body as I would be to a horse I was rehabilitating.  Lots of breaks, exercising only to slight fatigue of the injured area and taking every other or third day off.  And whaddya know, it works.  Tonight I trotted around on the wonder warmblood in all his fabulousness in lengthening and we were connected again.  It just fell into my lap.

And once again I realized that when I pay attention to the details and get them right, big good things come in their natural course.

Playful, playful

Fabulouso and Camie at the Radnetter clinic

This weekend’s horse adventure was to ride in the Herwig Radnetter clinic at Wildwood Hills put on by the Iowa Lipizzan Association.  I’d heard that Mr. (Herr?) Radnetter, of the Spanish Riding School (SRS), was an excellent teacher.  He’d been teaching annually in our area of Iowa for the last three years.  My friend Susan, the immutable force behind Catalpa Corner Charity Horse Trial, proclaimed one day that I needed to ride Fabulouso in the clinic.  She said it was time to see if I could make a foray into Real Dressage Land, continue to expand my education (an addiction of mine), and perhaps not have the entire local dressage community be astonished that any horse allows me to swing a leg over them.  Bottom line is that I pretty much do what Susan says, so I signed up for it.  I’d have her horse, Fabulouso (aka Elliot or Fatboy), under tack.  He classes up any joint, so I felt that if worse came to worse I could simply fade into the background and count on the mesmerizing effect of 1,000 years of German breeding oozing forth from Elliot’s genetic code.  That was my plan, and he is always good with being adored, so we were all systems go.

German breeding on display and the monkey-in-the-tack basking in the glow at the Otter Creek Horse Trial:

I should explain about the “Fatboy” name. I’ve always liked off track thoroughbreds, so I’ve gleefully decorated our pasture with them and taught them all sorts of fun games, like eventing, foxhunting and dressage.  Physically, the thoroughbreds all run a little lean, of course.

Then one day Susan suggested that I teach Elliot to event.  So he came to our house for the winter.  Hanovarians, to say the least, are a bit easier keepers than the usually high-metabolism off track thoroughbred.  Elliot arrived in the autumn, just when we were starting the transition from pasture to a lovely part grass/mostly alfalfa hay mix for the winter.  All the thoroughbreds stayed in work and held weight beautifully through the fall and winter months.  The warmbood, Elliot, stayed in work as well, and held weight spectacularly, shall we say exponentially.  That winter in the frozen tundra of our pasture we had a group of fit, fuzzy, slightly angular tbs and one grinning bay marshmallow with whiskers.

Susan shows her love with food.  Every time I visit her house, I have to go on a week-long workout program to mitigate the effect of the deliciousness she provides everyone within her sphere of influence.  With this mindset, she fretted over Elliot’s weight all winter long, since it was one of the first winters he was going to be in significant work.  The emails went back and forth.  “Is he holding weight?”  “Yep, just fine.”  <two weeks>  “How’s Elliot’s weight?  I could bring over some hay.”  “Lookin’ a little pudgy.”  <three weeks> “With all this riding, is he doing ok with holding weight?”  “Ok, Susan, I’ll fess up, around here we call him ‘Fatboy’.”  “Super!”

Susan Brigham's Fabulouso, aka Fatboy aka Elliot.

Time passes, we do some prelim level events, the AECs, develop a partnership and represent ourselves pretty well.  So now Fatboy and I were riding in the Herwig Radnetter of the SRS (still pretty cool to me) clinic in front of much of the local dressage community, who, I suppose, consider me a bit of a wild child eventer/foxhunter sort, which I would have trouble effectively arguing in any court.  However, truth is, that I am able to do those things reasonably well because I base all my training in dressage principles.  So the foxhunters think I’m a dressage queen, and the dressage people think I’m a foxhunter wildthing.  All good, call me anything, just don’t call me late to go riding.  As an aside, you can read a fairly hilarious “she must be from another country” critique by Geo. Morris about this picture.

The lesson with Herwig Radnetter was great, but not in the way I expected it to be.  He talked about all the things that you’d expect-position, engagement, connection, a cajole about the fact that I didn’t clean my tack that week (guilty!), rhythm, balance, transitions and more.  But the one concept that stuck in my head was ‘Playful’.  He was saying this in reference to rein contact.  In that lovely light Austrian (German?) accent with a faint smile on his face.  When he said it I didn’t know precisely what he meant, as in what exactly a Playful thing to do with the reins is.  But I did know the feeling of Playful, so I went with it.

“Rounder, rounder, rounder and playful with the reins”.

I was getting somewhere with it and we were all three moderately happy with the work, but Herwig said that he would ride the horse.  Interestingly, he didn’t ask.  I didn’t mind, so that worked out well for both of us.  He got on and even though Fatboy is mesmerizing, I focused on what Herwig was doing with his rein contact.  He was doing all the things we know already to do: still outside hand, active inside leg (but I note even the leg was Playful but without the prodding busyness we see sometimes).  The inside hand was also still for the most part, but there was definitely a give and take in showing the horse what was appropriate.  At some point during the lesson he said the ubiquitous “We do not pull” which we’ve all heard a hundred times.  But now I finally understood that we can take momentarily, but the big brother of “take momentarily” which is pull, is not the answer.  “Quicker and smoother and the release is The Thing.”

This can be an epiphany for riding.  To know that you can take, but you can not pull.  To be playful.  Think of two kids playing with a toy together.  It is fun when one interacts with the other by good-naturedly and momentarily taking the toy toward himself with a smile and a sparkle in his eye.  The other kid laughs and takes the toy back toward himself and the first kid acquiesces because he knows it is a game and the interaction joyfully continues.  If, however, one kid grabs the toy with a stern expression and pulls it toward himself in an effort to overpower the will of the other, resistance ensues.  Whether the two interactions, which are essentially the same, are resistant and angry — or flowing and joyful –is a matter of intent.

Rounder, Rounder, Rounder, Playful, Playful. When it echoes in my head, it comes out as lovely gratitude in my horses.

Do you have scripts in your head that show in your horse when you ride with them in mind?  What are they?

Corn and Conscious Competence

Eddie the horse in corn

Eddie the 17h tb says, "Knee high by the Fourth of July?"

I was out on a hack today with my eventer, Eddie.  We do a lot of hacking around for conditioning on the land our kind neighbors allow us to ride.  Most of it is CRP ground, but there are a few short stretches of  crop ground we sometimes pass through.  This spring it was easy to hack on down between the corn rows, avoiding the small plants, but in the last week, aided by a lot of rain and then a week of sun, the corn has shot up to the extent that 17h Eddie found himself having to stretch his neck up in order to see anything in the sea of cloying corn leaves.

Temple Grandin wrote a great book called Animals in Translation.  One of the many theories she puts forth in the book basically says that the lighter-built animals within a type of animal are generally more sensitive and quick-to-react to outside stimuli than their heavier-built counterparts.  I tend to think of the more reactive animals as “brighter” though I note that I don’t mean this to mean more intelligent.  I think of those animals that are slower to react as “duller”, and this does not imply less intelligent, just less reactive.  So, for instance in dogs, a greyhound might be considered brighter than a newfoundland and a draft horse might be considered duller than an arab, just on Temple’s theory alone.  Temple goes on to say that the lighter animals within a breed are usually brighter too.  So a spindly-legged tb could be predicted to be brighter than a more solid-type tb.  This holds true in my experience in general and in my barn at the moment.  Charlie, our foxhunter, is a bigger, heavy tb, still purebred, just heavier-boned, and he’s just as steady and sweet as the day is long, and he’s not given to over-reaction.  Eddie is a skinny, long-legged, long-necked wisp of a narrow tb and he is as bright as they come.  He is given to Anxiety Groans when he is uncomfortable or doesn’t understand things and I guarantee that if there ever really IS a mountain lion near us, he won’t be the one it gets.

So, now I’m on a hack with Eddie the Bright in a cornfield up to his ears, with the leaves pressing against his body from muzzle to croup, withers to hooves.  He gets light on his feet.  He lets out his Anxiety Groan. He breathes faster.  He champs at the bit and his pace quickens.  I simply put him in a shoulder fore (really, it’s no problem, the corn row limits the angle, like bumpers in a bowling alley) and let the distraction of its effort, combined with a consciously relaxed elbow, quiet hugging leg and steady breathing, settle him.  He gets to the other side with little problem.

Eddie’s little moment of anxiety, though, reminded me of the progression of learning how to ride.  When I was a kid, I had the Greatest Shetland Pony in the World, apparently, judging from all the horror stories I hear of other peoples’ experiences with shetlands.  Cricket and I spent many afternoons playing cowboys and indians with my sister and  her horse, who was born at our house and who we imaginatively named Grasshopper, since, if you have a Cricket, you obviously need also a Grasshopper.  We were 8 and 14, and thought we were clever.  Oy.  Anyway, a favorite tactic of Cricket and I was to enter a cornrow at the end and pretty much gallop down it to get away from my marauding sister on her much faster horse who was too wide to follow.  Cricket was entirely unfazed by the lack of visibility, swinging corn ears and pressing leaves as we bucketed down the row, partly because he knew I would pick something delicious for him to eat once we escaped the marauder.

Then I had my friend Ruth out and we went for a ride, me on Cricket and her on Mariah, a big, kind morgan we had.  Mariah was a beautiful, well-mannered bay, and quite tolerant.  So I was surprised when I led Ruth, trotting down the corn row, only to be rapidly passed by a white-eyed Mariah and clutching, shrieking Ruth.  I had no idea that the claustrophobia of the leaves and the lack of ability to see over them could cause a horse to do that.  At that moment I became aware of my incompetence.  The first step in learning is Unconscious Incompetence where I had merrily lived before that moment.  I had been enjoying, unaware, the benevolence of the Sprites Who Protect the Ignorant.   Now I was in the land of Conscious Incompetence, with all the heaviness-of-being it brought.  Conscious Incompetence, to me, was extremely uncomfortable and I had to move on ASAP.

Ruth was a farmkid with good balance and a heckova good sporting sense of humour.  Mariah’s eyes popped back into her head as soon as she got out of the corn, and we had a nice day of it, other than the niggling thought in the back of my head concerning the fact that I had no idea in my 8 year old brain how to teach Mariah to not be scared of the corn.  And I really wanted her to not be scared of the corn.  So I read books and asked anyone who might know how I might desensitize the mare to the corn.  I learned some tricks and slowly desensitized her and she was ok to walk in the corn, but not trot or canter like Cricket.  I had to get more tools.  But where?  The people I knew were fresh out of ideas and probably wondered why I was so obsessed with cantering a horse down a corn row anyway.  My little brain said that if Cricket could, somebody had to have taught him.  I’d never seen a horse just canter down a corn row by himself, so somebody had to have taught him, I reasoned.  (Ok not entirely logically sound, I know, since most horses don’t have the opportunity or reason to canter down a corn row, but I never got that far in my little kid reasoning.)

About the same time, I started taking dressage lessons, after a fashion.  Since I was more wild child pony jockey than classical equestrian, my instructor spent a fair amount of time frowning and teaching me circles and how to carry my hands.  One day though, I must have finally gotten somewhere close to getting it, or simply bored her silly.  She started talking about bending the horse on a straight line.  Shoulder in, haunches in, shoulder fore, haunches out.  We just brushed the surface in that night’s lesson, but I was on fire.  Now again I hit the books and quizzed whoever I could to learn more.  By my next lesson I was doing a fair shoulder in, that actually made my instructor smile.  The little wild child monkey might not be a complete waste of space in the lesson.  It took every ounce of my brain energy to get my body and the horse’s body to do what I had read about and was picturing and practicing at home, but by jiminy, her smile said I was doing it or something in the same zip code as it.  Welcome to the world of Conscious Competence.  In this place we master, on fledgling wings, what we later will do without thinking, with ease, as muscle memory does its magic.  This place of Conscious Competence is a land of private work that happens only between the rider’s ears.  No instructor can do this for her rider.  The work of Conscious Competence is the basis for the axiom, “Princes learn no art truly, but the art of horsemanship. The reason is, the brave beast is no flatterer.”

I soon learned the power and usefulness of being able to influence the individual parts a horse’s body.  When a horse’s body is yielding to the rider’s leg, and when his poll is relaxed, it is easier for him to stay mentally with the rider and to relax.  If the horse and rider are trained properly, they can communicate in times of crisis, such as when a horse can’t see over the corn leaves and they are being touched all over by the leaves.  I could put Mariah in shoulder in in the little grass paddock we had, could I do it in a corn row when she got worried?  The short answer was no, not for quite a while.  I needed to have the connection without effort, to have it in my muscle memory.  Unconscious Competence comes to those who are motivated to put in the work, and time is undeniably an element of work.  It took a lot of practice in the arena before our communication was good enough to be helpful to the horse in an anxious situation.  But it did come for us, and it was really fun to canter a big horse down the corn row!

Whatever you want to do, be fearless.  Be hungry, try, make mistakes, endure setbacks.  Celebrate every victory.  Learn from every setback.  Put your eye on the prize and do not take it off.  The beauty of Conscious Competence is that it dances with the one that paid the cab fare.   Do you have the change?