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!

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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.

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.

 

 

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.

Stopping nit-picking and George Williams

Lots of things going on today.   First I rode Bino for his daily Cowboy Song walk hack around our little valley.  The song that popped into my head today is, “I know where love lives.”  I don’t know where these songs come from, but I go with it.  If you’ve been reading, you know that he has navicular and we are taking it very easy with him and enjoying what we can do together.  Taking him on these hacks has a whole other dimension of enjoyment that I’d forgotten about–riding just to ride.  Since I train horses, I had gotten into the habit of correcting any behaviour that could potentially get the horse in trouble with me or his owner in the future.  Bino is in a different situation, though, so I get to let the little things slide.  When I brought him to the mounting block today and swung a leg over, he didn’t wait until I’d entirely picked up my outside stirrup before he walked off.  Usually I would correct this.  Today, I just let it slide.  When we were walking through some tall grass on the ride, he grabbed a mouthful on the way by.  So what?  No worries.  I let him munch away.  This must be what it is like when a mom realizes her kid is an adult, that she doesn’t have to, nay, shouldn’t, correct every last faux pas, but rather let the child live his life as he would like.  Some moms never get to that point, to the constant annoyance of their adult children.  Today I got to be the mature parent with the grown child.  I got to enjoy his personality, strengths and faults, with no judgement, and totally enjoyable for both of us.  I didn’t see that coming.  Sometimes, on these beautiful autumn days, in the soft footing of the soybean fields, I think, “oh, he’s alright, maybe we are making the wrong decision.”  But then, almost immediately when I think that, he trips as he often does.  Since his feet hurt, he doesn’t pick them up very high, and therefore often trips.  I also think of the radiographs and the coming frozen ground and the painful prognosis.  I pull my mind away from that and I let him munch grass, and pat his thick black neck.

Then it was on for a ride on Elliot.  You may recall a few weeks ago, that I found my sitting trot after it had left me for a short hiatus.  (Ok, 6 weeks doesn’t seem short at the time…)  Well, it turns out I didn’t really have it back yet.  I had it back for working trot, and I had it back for Eddie’s trot, but I didn’t have it back for Elliot’s extravagant warmblood trot.  I could only sit that well for about 5 strides, after which I would be left unceremoniously behind like some turnip off the wagon, and I would have to resort to posting to not be too much of an annoyance to Mr. Floaty Trot!  But there is no crying in baseball or dressage (ok, there probably has been plenty of crying in dressage, but a lot of it is hidden behind post-ride wine and cheese clutches) so I had to figure out what the real problem was.

So I pulled out pictures of my riding to see what was going on.

I have no ego about my riding.  I am only as good as my horses say I am, and they are pretty clear communicators.  I’m not trying to be better than anybody and I know I am not as good as some.  So, when I look at pictures of my riding, I am pretty ruthless, and it doesn’t bother me in the least because my heart is in the right place.  Intent is everything.  I had to explain that because when I look at this picture I think, “Overall, not a bad pictures, but 1) more inside leg, less inside hand, and 2) let go in your back, let your pelvis come forward and everything would straighten out, silly.  😉

Ok, so the first comment is fairly self-evident.  If you’ve ridden with a dressage instructor and not heard “Let go of the inside rein!” either you are a riding savant or your instructor is busy texting in an Ebay bid on Totalis tail hair during your lesson.

The second comment is more subtle.  “let go in your back, let your pelvis come forward and everything would straighten out.”  When we ride, we should sit on the tripod of our two seat bones and our pubic bone.  In the picture above, I am sitting almost solely on my seat bones, because my back is slightly braced.  If I would let go on my back, which is to allow the lower back to come forward (and the belly button to come forward), the pubic bone would come down to support my weight, much like the front wheels of a landing airplane come down after the back wheels touch down.  When all three sets of wheels are on the ground, things are very stable (and the passengers are much happier!).  When the rider is properly balanced on the tripod everything else “straightens out”.  By that I mean that the legs and the upper body may become correct.

Landing gear down. Why George William is my riding hero.

Here is a picture of George Williams who always has the landing gear down.  You might remember that I ran into him at the WEG.  He’s a very kind person too.   Most excellent.  In this picture and a million others, he has beautiful position in his upper and lower body because the center is correct.  Now, I am not saying I am a bad rider, but I’m saying George is a great rider.  If you compare my photo with Geo.’s, you’ll see that he is better able to stretch down in his leg and his upper body is much more solid than mine in that picture above.  Because I am not elastically  following the motion of the horse’s back in my lower back above, I am forced to bring my upper body forward to compensate.  Because Geo. has allowed the natural curve of his lower back to act like a natural spring to keep him wholly connected in his seat to the horse, his upper body stays nicely aligned over his pelvis.  My leg isn’t bad, but it appears jammed up into my hip socket.  My stirrups aren’t too short, my pelvis is at the wrong angle.  Geo’s leg seems to have an elastic connection to his hip.  All these differences are pelvis angle.  Front landing gear up vs. front landing gear down.

So I was playing around with that the last few weeks trying to regain the ability to sit Elliot’s fancy lengthened trot.  When I focus on relaxing (this is an oxymoron.  One can no more focus on relaxing than one can turn their head to test their peripheral vision.) my pelvis and to let my lower back move with the horse rather than sitting against it, I can fairly easily sit his lengthened trot for long periods of time.  The trick is in not resisting — in reminding myself to flow with the horse in my lower back.  So I channel George a lot.