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.

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.

Push Back the Walls

It is springtime and I am in a happy mood.  We had record-setting snowfall this winter, which made lots of people pretty cranky.  For me, winter was mostly amusing, because it came in with a fury and made it known it was here to stay, so I accepted it.  I actually was thankful it didn’t give us little peeks of spring only to dash our hopes against the dreaded frozen snowbank of despair.  I didn’t try to ride horses in 4-foot snowbanks with sharp winds biting our faces.  I gave in to the howling winds and undulating expanse of white in my outdoor riding arena from January to about mid-March by feeding extra hay and giving lots of kisses and cookies to plenty-warm muzzles.  I set to humming a happy tune while cleaning the closets in my house and dusting ceiling fans.  I went into total acceptance of the reality of what this winter was, and it made it a really lovely time for me.

But we all love spring when it comes (and spring with the spring cleaning done is a knockout combination.)  The flowers and seeds are planted, the birds are back and the air smells pungent and fresh.  The horses are out at grass when not working their one hour or so per day and their coats are getting slick as the last bastion of dead winter hair releases its grip.

And now I have to learn to ride again.  This is the only part of this spring that is seriously harshing my buzz.  We’ve all had those moments where we realize that what used to be easy for us is now daunting.  Whether that is riding outside of an arena, cantering or whatever your used-to-be-comfort zone encompassed, we all have experienced the moment when we realize our world of possibility has shrunk.  At that moment we have a choice: either live in the shrinking world, or push back the walls.

Last fall I was galloping and jumping somewhere around 3’6” and flirting occasionally with 4’.  And it was easy.  It was thrilling.  It was a gift from the Universe that I thoroughly enjoyed and was grateful for.  This spring feels like starting all over again, and it doesn’t help that I have a really Fascinating Pony (FP) in for jumping training.  We are up to 2 feet which looks giant to me right now from the vantage point of 12 hands.

Each day when I feed, I walk by my jumps, which had been set at 1’-2’ for FP training.  Over time that height had started to look normal to me.  The me of last fall would not have considered them even warm up fences.  One of my horses literally shies at fences set that low.  (This I found out right after informing an international  clinician, who had asked about my and my horse’s experience, that 4’ hunters were in our past.  I trotted away at his direction and had an inglorious stop and near unplanned dismount at a 1’ vertical.  Spectacular.)  But after this winter of not riding and the early spring of cavaletti and 1’ grids, 2’ was looking big to me.  The walls of possibility had slowly pushed near enough to me that I had to keep my elbows in to turn around.  So I made a plan to push back.

I started by changing the default setting on the jumps to 3’.  This required a lot of extra work because every time before I worked FP, I had to lower the jumps and afterwards, I had to raise them.  But something about walking past those jumps set at 3’, which looked a little big to me at first, stirred a memory from last summer of walking championship level eventing courses and at first saying “Oy chee mamma, that’s big.” And then walking them again  and maybe again, and finding them acceptable on further consideration.   The easiest part comes next: simply putting those jumps between the gunsights of my wonderful horse’s ears, and thoroughly enjoying being lifted effortlessly over, flying and grinning.

After a few days the 3’ fences in my arena were not big to me anymore and I jumped the made horses over them while they yawned and my heart raced.  It occurred to me when I untacked their unimpressed selves that humans think entirely too much.

So tonight when I feed I will set the jumps to 3’6” and look at them a day or two, get my mind around the height and then canter on down to them and jump them.  It won’t be easy at first, but easy will migrate home to roost like the predictable bird it is.  I will be back and I will feel better, and who knows, maybe I will crank them up more and look at them with feed buckets in my arms, and feel future easy flight.

This process of pushing back the walls is like wading into a cool spring-fed lake.  We walk out and the water gets deeper and colder and we wonder if we should continue or just go back to the warmth of the sandy beach.  When we choose to take the plunge and glide, swimming along in the balmy top few feet of the water, we remember that the acclimation process we had to go through to get there was simply the appropriate price of admission for the ride.