Dressage Horse Training: Finding and Fixing holes in your riding

Hello Everyone,

I rode Donzer today in my first Alfredo Hernandez clinic and it was just what I’ve been looking for at this stage of my riding.  From the beginning Donzer has been a challenge to connect from back to front.  Donzer has always ducked behind the vertical with ease and quickness.  I have a very ingrained habit to let me reins either get long or give my hands forward as a “reward” to my horse going back to my early days of reading and working on my own.  When flying airplanes we have two sayings.  One, What is learned first is learned best –for good or evil and, Two, there is a concept called negative transfer.  Negative transfer happens when you are transferring from flying one type of airplane to another and some muscle memory’s are not good.  I flew the T1 in training and this plan did not have hydraulics so I got used to a certain amount of force in my hands and feet to turn the plane.  In my first flight in the C-130, I overbanked past 60 degrees because I just assumed a much bigger airplane would need the same amount of control input.

With Donzer I know of some of  my riding “holes.”  I do not consistently use my outside aids, I give my reins forward are two prominent in my head today.  The saying is that you need 10,000 correct repetitions to create a habit and more repetitions than that to correct a bad one (negative transfer).  Alfredo quickly assessed my gaps and selected this exercise for today because you obviously cannot fix everything at one time.

Establishing a Connection to the Bit

We did the entire exercise on a 20 meter circle.  I had to pick up the reins a little at a time feeding the reins through my fingers instead of moving my hands so much.  At the walk we established my outside rein contact and made sure I kept the haunches on the circle (I let the haunches swing way outside at the beginning).  Donzer has a naughty habit right now of trying to pull the reins–just the opposite of going behind the vertical.  Alfredo had me open my inside hand by moving my inside hand sideways to my knee.  This changed Donzer’s balance, lifting the inside shoulder, putting more contact into the outside rein and brought Donzer’s head and neck back into a more correct contact without getting into any kind of wrestling match (another one of Donzer’s favorite things if you’re willing to play).  Next, we did a walk trot transition.  Alfredo had me open my hand before the transition and keep it open until we settled into the trot while using both of my legs to push Donzer forward into the contact.  Once I got my body to coordinate all these aids, Donzer and I were able to maintain a solid connection up.  The same applied for the down transitions.  In the trot, Alfredo made sure I was using my outside aides and then we did forward and back from shorter to longer strides and this solidified the contact over the back.  Anytime that Donzer tried to lift his head up I opened my rein.  The forward and back created some engagement over Donzer’s back and Donzer initially tried to avoid this work but settled after I repeatedly opened my hand to my knee as required.

This exercise is a long term kind of work because I will have to be very diligent on the 20 meter circle until I can unconsciously ride with this kind of connection.  I know this will have a positive ripple effect on the rest of my work.  Donzer understands moving sideways and many movements but working with this kind of connection will bring us up the next level.  I have lots of bits and pieces of all this work and I understand the theory.  Putting theory into practice is going to require some very good ground person help to keep me honest in my work.  It has been my experience that dressage is a process of rediscovering something you may have learned previously and then let slide off the daily work program.  Or, maybe it’s just that I have  4 brain cells and something needs to go when new info comes in  (ha ha,but really).

Good Riding,

Tara :)

Author, Out of the Saddle: 9 Steps to Improve Your Horseback Riding

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Dressage Horse Training: Symptoms versus Sources of Rider Position Errors

Hello Everyone,

I went ahead and showed Ava 3-3 this weekend (Aug 2-3, 2014) even though we were not quite ready.  I just didn’t want to let a second year go by without getting Ava into the show ring and we decided to ride for the ring experience.  We got to the Horse Park early and walked Ava around for about 2o minutes and Ava had a good sigh and dropped her head.  Then it was time to saddle up and warm up.  Ava did better than I expected but in the warm-up went through cycles of ok to snorting like an oncoming train.  Ava’s back was tight and although lateral work loosens her back, I also didn’t want Ava to get overtired.  Her right hind leg is not strong enough yet to do many canter departs and even though full of nervous energy, Ava can still tire her muscles before the brain relaxes.  As a result of managing Ava’s energy level, I allowed my body to regress back to a less correct body position.  If you watch my video of the Day 1 ride, you can see that my hands are too high and my legs are forward in almost a chair seat.

This is what I want to talk about in this discussion.

Symptom 1:  Fix your hands

If there is one mantra I want to repeat, rider’s hands are a symptom–NOT a cure.  How many times have you heard a trainer tell a rider to lower their hands or fix their hands?  This is a futile critique because it does not get to the heart of the matter and the problem will keep recurring when the rider is alone.  For me, my hands are high for usually 2 reasons.  One, sometimes when I “fluff” up on the reins, I never return my hands to the correct lower position.  I need a ground person to alert me when this is happening.

Symptom 2: Chair Seat

In the case of this ride, my hands were extra high because my lower legs were out in front of me so I did not have a solid base for half-halting or balancing the ride.  So, it’s a matter of gravity.  If your legs are out in front then the upper body must lean back a bit to balance and the hands will ride up to compensate.

For Day two of the weekend, I began the warm-up and my goals for the ride to fix my hands and seat.  I was not going to fix Ava overnight but I could address myself.  I worked my boots around so I could get my heels down.  This allowed me to find my more normal position I have when I ride in my half-chaps.  I had my warm-up coach focus on my heel hip shoulder alignment to ensure I was sitting correctly.  I also used my pinky fingers as a reference to make sure my hands were in a lower position (as well as my ground coach).  This combination allowed my hands to stay in a lower position with less concentration and also had Ava more under herself with less effort.

Symptom 3: Leaning Back

The third aha I had was the comment “sit up straight and don’t lean back.”  For me what needs to happen is to actively engage my core (belly).  I am now strong enough to use my belly but it is still my habit pattern to keep my belly relaxed.  If I just lean forward, I can do this with a relaxed belly and it just leads to getting my horse on the forehand.  If I am leaning back and then I engage my core, then this brings my shoulders forward and helps the horse engage as well.  It really is true that the horse is just a mirror of our bodies.

Communication is such a key part of learning to ride.  Many times I’ve had a trainer tell me to fix something and either I think I’ve fixed it or the trainer assumes I am unable to fix it so the problem continues.  I like to video as often as I can because sometimes when I listen to the lesson and watch what I’m doing, I can usually make a simple correction.  I recently had a lesson and was told not to let the horse pull my hands.  After watching the video I saw my hands were high.  In my head pulling forward is a different axis than up and down so I made no attempt to lower my hands–until I saw the video.  I think this is why communication is not complete until the receiver of information has reiterated the concept back to the teacher to ensure complete understanding.

Good Riding,

Tara, Author “Out of the Saddle: 9 Steps to Improve Your Horseback Riding”


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Dressage Horse Training: Are gymnastics for the horse or rider? Alfredo Hernandez Clinic

Hi everyone,

I have been riding very regularly since my arrival home.  I spent Jan/Feb in DC for the Air Force and then spent almost 16 days in Shanghai, China.  So, with my late start I’ve been bringing Ava and Donzer back to work at a pace that keeps them engaged and ready to work.  It’s always amazing how quickly horses do build fitness and I’ve been adding an extra circle or canter each day.  I have been doing a lot of work at the walk focusing on what I am actually feeling.  I have a connection with my sits bones and at the walk it is easier to feel when I am pulled off center.  Added to this feel, I am becoming more aware when the horses are “behind my leg”.  By this I would describe the feel as if I needed to learn forward just a bit to get some forward momentum going.  I think horses are genius at teaching riders to do this.  Donzer is always trying to get me to lighten my seat just a little bit so he can do what he likes with his hind end.  On that note I wanted to share a great nugget I learned auditing an Alfredo Hernandez clinic recently.

In Hand Training

Alfredo Hernandez is a great horseman known as a Piaffe/passage specialist.  As a lifelong learner, I’m always interested to watch and learn something new.  I would say that watching Alfredo work with some horses learning Piaffe, it reminded me of some of the great natural horsemanship I’ve learned–just highly specialized for Piaffe.  Alfredo was able to read the horses quite well and each horse finished with a soft eye and some licking and chewing.  I am looking forward to working with Alfredo with Donzer on Piaffe because in hand Donzer gets stuck at three tries and then gets so far underneath himself that Donzer cannot move.  I did get a better effort and some success with Donzer but it was funny because although I gave Donzer sugar, it was obvious Donzer was not sure what he did that elicited the reward.  So Donzer was not sure but still happy for the treat and ready to go again.  I am eager to see how Alfredo shows Donzer what it is we are looking for with the hind end and body.

For the Rider

Alfredo Hernandez  introduced what he calls the “Pasta” exercise.  You begin on the long side in a half pass to centerline that becomes haunches out.  You keep the haunches out around the short side, turn down centerline and immediately half pass back to the long side.  I recommend you try a few times at the walk to lay down the pattern first and then add trot and canter.  This is an amazing gymnastic for the horse and Ava is still struggling to hold the haunches out through the turn on the short side at canter.  But, each day Ava is getting better and finding her balance.  The real beauty of this exercise is what it is doing for me.  The first time I did the exercise with Ava I was so focused on Ava that my shoulders were against the bend, I was up in a half seat “helping” and definitely had haunches leading.  I had to go back to the walk and enlist my ground person to focus on me.  I am still finding the breakpoint between enough bend and haunches leading and my ground person is essential.  I am almost always now turning my shoulders with Ava’s shoulders for the half pass without having to think about it.  The hardest thing to do is to keep my butt in the saddle and allow Ava to struggle.  When I try to help the struggle is bigger.  As I am focusing on keeping my center of gravity aligned with Ava and simply allowing Ava to struggle with the bend, where to put her feet, etc, Ava is getting better.  The rider in the clinic made the exercise look far easier than the exercise is to actually ride.  What I like is I am finding more moments to lightly lift my legs away from the saddle and really keep my sits bones in balance with the change from half pass to haunches out back to half pass.

If you use this exercise as a work in progress–the journey not the destination–then it is an amazing teacher of balance, center of gravity, how to apply aids, body alignment and rhythm.  I remembered reading in one of Charles de Kunffy’s books about working a young horse slightly under tempo to allow the young horse to develop carrying power in balance with the natural tendency to pull themselves along with the front end.  Allowing Ava to struggle and keeping her under tempo I am now after a few sessions being able to add more impulsion without losing the quality of the pattern.  I’m not sure if this is Ava’s limitation or my own as a rider but in the end I guess it doesn’t really matter.

Good Riding,

Tara :)

Author, Out of the Saddle: 9 Steps to Improve Your Horse Back Riding

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Dresssage Horse Training: Behind the leg a subtle but showstopping evasion

Hello Everyone,

Today I want to share the next layer of the onion I’ve peeled back and it is more like remembering information.  One of the things about dressage is that a trainer or coach can tell you to do something but if you are not mentally or physically able to process the information, then you most likely lose if for the moment.  As a teacher and a student I can say that if you tell your student to do something and it doesn’t happen then one of two things happened.  One, the student didn’t hear or understand.  Two, the student thinks they are doing it!  It is so valuable as an instructor to pause and find out what the challenge is and help correct it.  You may very well find out that the student rider needs more core strength or balance to execute a movement and that will be added to the longer timeline.  But, as a teacher you can focus on a more attainable goal for the immediate lesson.  Even better is to discover there is simply a communication breakdown that can be resolved with more clarification.

I remember a trainer pointing out that slowing down is an evasion that is every bit as disobedient as a little bucking. I was surprised because no one has ever fallen off because their horse started walking more slowly.  Now, as I am working on Prix St Georges, I can tell you that this subtle evasion is very much a problem.  Donzer has always liked to curl his chin into his chest and while he has a great free walk, he does slow down ever so slightly when I pick a contact with the reins.  While I’ve felt this happen, I have not ever consistently done anything about it.

When I was first learning training level on my quarter horse, Red, my trainer pointed out that the horse needs to be focused and walk on with a steady marching gait.  That was 10 years ago and I’m now understanding the significance of the statement.  I didn’t register this as a big deal because we did not really focus on it or discuss it again.  So, I’m sure the trainer was busy teaching me other things but now this sucking back is showing up as a retraining issue for me at PSG.  A challenge of learning dressage when you are not at a barn full time is trying to figure out the order of things.  What aids, skills and responses can be works in progress and which aids, skills and responses need to be very correct to avoid downstream retraining time.

The Dynamic I am Retraining

Here is what I am now aware is going on with Donzer and I.  When I ask for more collection, Donzer slows down.  Donzer takes nice long strides but does not really do the more elevated higher quicker steps.  So, when Donzer slows down, he really gets behind the leg and it has been a bit deceptive for me to feel because we still cover ground with his long strides.  When I ask for more forward and keep the length of rein in front, Donzer disagrees because he does not understand/agree to go forward into a contact requires lifting his back.  He tries to do half-steps, pull, run side ways, etc.  What I am now aware of in my position is that I tilt slightly forward off my sits bones, balance my position with my knees and in essence support Donzer being behind the leg.

The Retraining Process

I chuckle as I write this because it is myself that is in the retraining process.  Donzer was perfectly happy with how we were doing things.  When I sit back on my sits bones, carry my hands in front of the saddle, keep my armpits down and my heels down, I can feel Donzer trying to push me forward or at least off to one side.  When Donzer tries to slow down, the reins get a bit loopy because he is sucking back like a turtle.  When I keep sitting up and asking Donzer to go forward instead of just leaning a little forward, Donzer has a bit of a tantrum jumping around and generally expressing his displeasure.  I get it, I’m changing the rules on him.  The best thing for me to do is to keep my butt very relaxed and wait it out.  Donzer is working a little better each day when he realizes he is not getting a rise out of me because when I used to get more engaged and try to kick him forward, I would lean forward and get off my sits bones–what Donzer wanted all along.

It is very challenging to sit quietly and not engage when Donzer has dropped the contact with the reins, has tightened his back and is starting to jump around.  I really just want to slide my hands back towards my lap to keep the contact or lean forward and get a really good kick into his sides to just go forward.  The more relaxed and especially if I can exhale with one of those “I’ve got all day” sighs (and really mean it), the quicker Donzer gets on with moving forward.

Finding the Stretch Zone

There are been a few articles recently in the different magazines reminding us that in all athletic training (people and horses), you want to work in the stretch zone.  If you jump right to the do it perfect zone, many athletes will quit.  What I’m finding with Donzer is that I’m building up the mental stretch zone.  While he is physically capable of lifting his back, he mental stretch zone is smaller and he’s pretty sure he’d rather jump to fighting.  I am finding the agreement to work and starting to increase our mental stretch zone as well.  I don’t know what happens energetically but when I verbally acknowledge to Donzer that lifting his back is very hard work but let’s just try it for a few circles, Donzer is giving me a few circles.  I am honoring that effort by adding in a promised work break.  It seems that after each break Donzer is coming back a little better.  I keep trying to extend the stretch zone and have Donzer give me just one more time around the arena.  When I get greedy, then I have to back track and rebuild some trust.  But, it seems that as long as I do not get angry, Donzer is forgiving.  I am learning to create intensity and focus without anger.

Moving Energy from Back to Front

Donzer has a great free walk and a pretty good extended walk.  Medium is pretty acceptable as well.  Each time the collection level increase, the muscles being engaged are more towards the topline.  What I am more aware of now is that Donzer is figuring out how to let the energy flow over his spine, withers and up to the poll.  Donzer has great development of the muscles in the middle of his neck and when I ask for more collection I can see the baby trapezius muscles in his neck right in front of the saddle start to engage.  There is also only about a half inch difference between him engaging the underside of his neck to pull on me and Donzer flexing at the poll to engage the topline of his neck.

Now that I know I want Donzer to do this great collected walk, I just want him to do it now.  Donzer, needs time to find and engage these new muscles and then to agree to take on this next level of difficulty.  Steffen Peters has said many times in his lectures that you are always training or untraining your horse.  Since I’m learning with Donzer, I am often unwittingly untraining Donzer because I am not consistent when I should be.  That is what is happening as I am now aware of and insisting that Donzer march forward steadily into whatever contact I decide to establish.  I am allowed to change the rules and I need to be patient and very consistent for Donzer to adjust.

Readjusting neuromuscular pathways at the walk

As always, I am giving myself time to process and make my new adjustments at the walk.  I have time to run through my body position, check in with Donzer’s hind legs, see if he is popping through a shoulder, etc.  This is also giving Donzer time to rebalance himself with out me constantly trying to half-halt and rebalance him.  It keeps the conversation clearly on the topic I want to address–stepping forward with energy into the contact.  I have added some canter when the walk is in a good place–and tried not to get greedy.  I am adding in posting trot so I don’t accidentally block him with my hips if I am not keeping up with the sitting trot.

I am taking a few weeks off of lessons to incorporate this new awareness into my riding.  I find it very frustrating to take a lesson and have someone  point out things I am aware I need to fix.  I like to come to a lesson feeling pretty solid and ready for the next improvement.

Good Riding,

Tara, Author: Out of the Saddle: 9 Steps to Improve Your Horseback Riding

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Dressage Horse Training: Bringing Natural Horsmanship Feel to Dressage

Hello Everyone,

I had one of my most on the surface frustrating, yet enlightening lessons yesterday.  I am tackling how to really get Donzer through his back.  While I understand the biomechanics and dressage theory in my head, getting my body to get his body to come through his back is another task altogether.  I am usually able to teach Donzer to do something new and “accept the job”- Zaid Shamis al Hashmy, but this is frontier territory for me in terms of what it should feel like.  Creating a new feel with Donzer that neither of us really knows is quite a challenge.  In fact, I find that Ava is learning very quickly because there is no gray area with her.  On Donzer I’m like, well, I think this is right.  On Ava, I’m very clear that there is one answer I’m looking for for my aid.

For anyone who’s been to my youtube page, you know that I’m a big believer in groundwork, natural horsemanship or what ever you would like to call it.  I believe in getting the horse mentally ready to work and accept new information from the safety of the ground before getting on their backs.  One of the most important lessons you learn from groundwork (and I do mean you, not your horse) is that it’s all in the release.  What I mean by that is your horse learns when you release pressure, not when you apply it.  So, if you are teaching your horse to bend it’s head around to touch their belly and each time the horse gives you pull more, then it takes awhile to convince the horse this is a good thing to do.  If the horse gives and you ask for just a little bit more without a reward then the horse doesn’t like to play that game.  However, if when the horse gives you quickly drop the lead line giving instant release the horse will quickly realize that the release comes as soon as they comply with your request (se call this submission in dressage although I prefer the concept of a partnership).  It’s in the give not the take.

The challenge I am having in translating this most foundational of concepts in horse training is that in dressage you have to learn not only to give but not to the extreme of “throwing your horse away.”  The most simple example is asking your horse to flex at the poll to accept a contact with your hands.  In the beginning the rein is fairly loose but in dressage we take the loop out of the rein and ride with a following hand.  So, although there is contact all the time from your elbow to the bit, if the rider is allowing their hand to follow the natural motion of the horse, then there is a release in the motion.  When you ask for a half-halt (asking the horse to rebalance their weight more to the hindleg from their shoulders), you momentarily stop the following motion of your hand so the horse feels a block.  The release in this case doesn’t come from dropping the reins but from the horse shifting it’s weight to it’s hind end.  This takes a bit more training and is less black and white for a new rider still learning to develop an independent seat.

There are several problems that can manifest in this situation and as I rider I do all of them.

1. Allowing the reins to slowly slip through my fingers and end up with reins that are too long.  The rider ends up with their hands in their lap. This prevents a half-halt because the rider has to pull their hands all the way up to their ears to create the blocking contact with the horse to get the horse to consider rebalancing themselves.  This causes problems with the rider’s position and balance and you can see the snowball effect starting.

2. Horse evades half-halt by sucking back like a turtle pulling it’s head into a shell and physically shortening their body.  We are looking for the horse to articulate all the joints in their hind end (ie bend their hocks, stifles and lower their croup) and stretch over their back towards the poll seeking contact with the bit.  When a horse sucks back, the rider will end up with their hands in their lap.

3. Horse evades half-halt by slowing down and moving their hind legs more out behind their body.  This is usually accompanied by the horse shifting more weight onto their front end and ducking their head behind the vertical.  The rider ends up with their hands in their lap (are you seeing a trend here?).

Here’s where the breakdown in riding and training happens.  As a rider, if you’re aware of what’s happening you can fix it.  Most of the time when all of your brain cells are busy, as a rider you are not aware of what has happened.  Teaching is helping develop my awareness of this cycle.  I am able to monitor myself quite well at the walk.  Yesterday, I fell apart at the trot.  Sitting trot is still the bane of my existence as a rider and I did learn yesterday that posting when you become fatigued is not admitting defeat but smart riding.  I knew Donzer and I were not getting our work done and I was not understanding the comments of my instructor as they related to what I thought I was doing.

In my head I had a pretty picture. I was sitting back, relaxed carrying my hands making corrections as necessary.  So when I was being told to let go of the reins, I couldn’t understand why.  In my self-portrait I was in  a good riding position.  So, the best thing happened. Out of instruction ideas, my trainer got on Donzer for a few minutes and figured out what he was doing.  I watched my trainer (who was in fact riding in the correct position) and I asked her to show me what I was doing with my body.  She showed me that I had my hands back in my lap, and this caused me to lean very slightly forward which caused me to pinch with my knees to balance myself and my shoulders were lifted because the reins were so long.  Then I got it.  Once I realized what I was doing instead of what I thought I was doing, I was able to correct my position mistakes.  And, when I acknowledged I was tired, I was able to post to effectively ask for the forward motion towards the connection instead of allowing Donzer to bounce me around on a back that was not carrying.

Once the snowball of reins too long, sucking back, slowing down, behind the leg begins it is almost best to halt for just a second or two and regroup.  Trying to fight your way back to a good position is like trying to get back up on your water skiis after you’ve started plowing through the water on your face.  If you trainer will physically show you for come over and physically touch your body your brain and muscles will believe the correction needed.  Sometimes an instructor can talk you back to a correct position but not if your body doesn’t believe you.  In flying on instruments, it is a challenge because your inner ear will tell you you are straight and level when you may in fact be in a slow spiral towards the ground.  It is hard to ignore what literally the seat of your pants is telling you and do what your instruments say.  It is important for instructors to remember that this is what happens to riding students.  One of the biggest parts of riding is developing physical self-awareness.  We all think we are doing it correctly.  If the instructor can create a pattern interrupt (to borrow from neuro-linguistic programming), then the body will adjust it’s self-awareness towards a more correct self-assessment.

So, if you find yourself in a lesson and the conversation is focused on your hands, I challenge you to find the root cause that is almost always in your position.  You may decide that the position problem is not going to be fixed overnight but once you understand what is causing you to do funky things with your hands, you will correct the overall problem more quickly. For example, I will now be more tuned into when my sitting trot muscles have fatigued and I need to post to get the same amount of impulsion needed for our work.  I will take time out from my work with Donzer and just work on my sitting trot.  This will allow me to keep getting stronger but not have a negative impact on my work with Donzer.

Good Riding,

Tara, Out of the Saddle: 9 Steps to Improve Your Horseback Riding

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Dressage Horse Training: The Energy you Bring to a Ride

Hello Everyone,

I am in the middle of my last horse show of the year and it is a mix of emotions and learning.  Making the switch from training to showing is not insignificant. Donzer and I are at the stage where we can do all the parts of the Prix St George fairly well and putting them together for the test is another whole level of performance.  For our test on Friday my warm-up plan was focused on a lot of suppleness and feel good stuff.  We did half-pass and then a break.  We did canter pirouette and then a break, etc.  I brought him up for a trot and shoulder in and the back was tight and I was out of time in my warm-up.  So, I did go into the test knowing that I didn’t have his back well enough–better than the last show but still not enough.  Donzer was very naughty in the test with some airs above ground.

So I revised my plan for my Saturday warm-up.  I pushed Donzer into a higher frame earlier in the warm-up and also rode the entire test in the warm-up.  Most of my feedback says not to ride the test in the warm-up but Donzer has historically always needed a warm-up test.  I was able to get some 3s and 4s in my warm-up.  I was pretty happy.

The test was night and day better–3 percentage points higher overnight! The overall problem in our test was an unsteadiness in his head throughout the ride.  This is a combination problem.  One, he is not strong enough to easily perform an entire Prix St George test.  Two, he likes to express his distress with working harder by shaking his head.  The challenge with the head shaking for me is that he will do this side-to-side without pulling on my reins so I honestly don’t always know he’s doing it.

So for tomorrow, out last ride of the season this is my plan.  I am going to give Donzer a pass on the strength issue–he can only do what he’s strong enough to do and has the mental agreement to do.  This will be fixed with time.  I am going to keep feeling when Donzer is on the bit, shaking his head, getting behind the leg and identifying these deviations sooner.  As my self-awareness grows, I feel these things happening but am still a few stride behind before I correct them.  I don’t think this is something an instructor can fix for me beyond pointing out when it happens.  Steffen Peters did say in a clinic that by the time he can see a required correction from the ground, it’s too late.  I had a volleyball coach that used to yell at us to quit “watching TV” as the ball was coming over the net and to start positioning ourselves on the court to return the serve.  I think this is what is going on with my riding and I’m still in the “watching TV” stage of my progression.

My warm-up plan will be the same as today with one minor change.  I will do suppleness at the walk. Work on some 20 meter circles to feel that Donzer’s hind legs are tracking with his front end instead of his preferred position of slightly haunches in.  I am going to ride a full test in the warm-up to make sure I’m bringing the same intensity and energy  to my warm-up that I’m bringing in the show ring.  And, I’m going to try shortening the reins to see if this helps the unsteadiness. If not, I’m going to push my hands a little forward and allow Donzer to have a slightly lower frame to see if this helps him be more steady.

I want to capture and be able to explain all of these learning levels of dressage so it will be easier for the next rider.  Suggestions are always welcome, too.

Good Riding,

Author, Out of the Saddle: 9 Steps to Improve Your Horseback Riding

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Dressage Horse Training: Getting unstuck and moving forward again

Hello Everyone,

Since my last show I’ve been working with Donzer on connection.  Specifically, inside leg to outside rein and stretching forward into the contact.  I was particularly having trouble with the left leg to right rein connection.  When I would focus on the hind legs I could feel the hind end skidding back and forth like a frog on ice and when I would ask Donzer to keep aligned from a hindleg through the outside rein, Donzer was not happy and we would do some jumping around.  So I went  into my lesson this week with 2 questions.

1. Is my feel improving and I am noticing more deviations from straight or am I regressing?

2. What should my work in this moment be?

What I learned is that Donzer and I are in a normal phase of strength and submission development and I am feeling what is happening.  Like riding at all levels, as I get better, I will be able to correct the deviations from straightness more quickly but as it stands, we are on track for a horse and rider in the learning process.  One thing that is happening in this moment is that I’ve been working so much on collected movements-canter pirouettes, half-pass, etc that Donzer is tightening his back in preparation.  I need to teach him to keep reaching forward to the bit and help him to develop the strength to do this even in the collected movements.  This isn’t a magical process but one that takes time. We spent the lesson on a 20 meter circle beginning at walk and focusing on straightness.  Donzer was tossing his head about and tightening his back.  To correct this I was using my seat to activate his hind leg to stretch into the contact.  This wasn’t working.  We positioned my hands forward in front of the saddle and kept still allowing Donzer to bounce between on the bit and upside down.  I did correct him with a tap of my whip when he started being rude with his head.  To push him forward into the contact I used my calves and whip instead of my seat.  I actually relaxed  my seat until it was just following.  It took several minutes of Donzer inviting me to play with my hands before he settled into a nice walk.

I felt when it was good so my faith in my feel has been restored!

To unstick Donzer overall, we did very forward trot and canter.  In the trot I posted to invite Donzer to lift his back and we found the balance of covering ground without running.  When the gait was good, I would gently sit and Donzer would almost intermediately stiffen his back.  We did this over and over until Donzer allowed me to sit and kept swinging his back too.  This is the next thing I’m going to learn to feel–a swinging back even when collected. Any descriptions or analogies out there?

We did the same at the canter and it took some more work to bet the bascule in his back.  I have to admit that I enjoy any reason to gallop my horse.  I spent time in a two point finding the same balance of forward but not really galloping and found a really nice jump in the gait.  Again, it took several attempts before Donzer would allow me to sit and keep the bounce in his gait.

My next step will be to establish this good back and then start going bigger to smaller or surging.  I need to teach Donzer that we can collect with the hind end but still keep stretched over his back to the bit.  I have felt this a few times but have not spent a lot of time actually teaching this to Donzer.  So, I will be tracking how I make this another skill to teach the horse and I think this is one of those things that can be started at the walk.

The unfortunate part of this ride is that I’ve strained my left groin muscle (from big gaits I guess) and am taking a few days to hopefully recover.  Two years ago I pulled this muscle and was unable to ride for a few months.  It is surprising your muscles will allow you to work hard enough to fail like this.  You’d think there would be some kind of stopping mechanism.  I guess this is a reminder to monitor the work I do with Donzer and to quit well before he has a similar muscle failure.

Good Riding,

Tara Nolan, Author, Out of the Saddle: 9 Steps to Improve Your Horseback Riding

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A Dressage Horse must be your Partner to Progress

Hello everyone

This is a quick update on current progress with Donzer.  After our last show Donzer continued to resist turning left like he did in the show for the left pirouette. I had him checked out by my chiropractor and he said Donzer was in great shape. He did adjust Donzers right hip but said it was very minor but could make him sticky to the left.

On my next ride Donzer was fine during the warmup. I next used walk trot transitions to find and confirm the thoroughness in his back. If you read my prior post you’ll remember I found the feel of Donzers back in my warmup for my second test. Transitions that are balanced on the hind end and do not fall on the forehand is the best recommendation I have so far to confirm if your horse is working om the hi send if you are by yourself.

Donzer was ok at walk but when I added canter he did not want to stay on the bit going to the left.  He skittered sideways and tried to go upside down. When I first got Donzer Janet Foy explained that with the short neck in his conformation, Donzer would not have a range between correct or not. I am starting to feel how Donzer has to come just an inch above the bit and is able to engage the underside of his neck against me.  I have a habit of letting my reins get a little long and this lets Donzer drop his back on me.

i think I’ve developed the next level of feel in my riding and Donzer is not thrilled to work harder. I was able to get some nice walk canter transitions after a few minutes of patience and consistency. Instead of working on movements in prep for our last show in September I will spending time getting Donzers agreement to bring more effort to our practice. Dressage horses really do have to be your partner and be engaged in the work.

Good Riding


Author, Out of the Saddle: 9 Steps to Improve Your Horseback Riding


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Dressage Horse Training: Aug 2013 Day 2 Prix St George Ride

Hello Everyone,

I promised to share how day 2 of our show went after creating a plan for the warm-up.  I can tell you that it is interesting because we had an even lower score but I am very happy with the test.  One thing I share with my students is that they need to have personal goals to measure their success in a test over and above the score from the judge.  The judge is a snapshot in time and their feedback is very valuable.  Even more important is your person sense of accomplishment in the context of your training plan.  You DO know the back story and can mark off successes independent of a score.

The Warm-up

The warm-up plan worked as I’d hoped.  Even in the beginning long and low trot, I keyed in on whether Donzer was moving over his back.  I suggest you get help if you have not felt this but I can feel it between my thighs a slight lifting in my seat, the trapezius muscle in front of the saddle gets bigger and Donzer leans forward into a more honest and steady contact (he’s not a puller-quite the opposite).  It was readily apparent how much I did not do this on Friday’s warm-up because we bounced between back up and down like I was dribbling a ball.  So, although I can create this with Donzer, I clearly don’t live here yet in my muscle memory and when I become distracted by other things, Donzer takes a chill and drops his back.

I added some walk serpentines just to give myself time to focus on Donzer’s back.  My biggest mantra is anything I can fix at the walk without momentum I will.  Like the quote about flying airplanes “A superior pilot is one who avoids situations which require superior skill” - just insert riding into the quote.

I brought Donzer up into the contact but kept it a little bit lower as I focused on the feel in his back.  Donzer was quick to try to lift his poll up very high and disconnect (drop) his back down and I got to practice creating the connection. Donzer did start to hold his back up a little better as I maintained consistency.

Based on the warm-up plan (see last post) I next did canter walk and walk trot transitions and Donzer was on his back end.  I was paying attention and he did it!  A few years ago Hilda Gurney told me in a clinic, “You have a nice horse, you really should learn how to ride him.”  In progress, Hilda :) .  I quickly moved on as a reward.

Pirouettes were next at the walk on a 10 meter circle.  Donzer did these easily without sticking.  I added in canter and actually had a few very amazing canter pirouettes that were completely on my seat-glimpse of skills to come.

Next, we took a breather break and felt in a really good place.  I decided to finish the warm up with a canter half-pass just to make sure he had this in his recent muscle memory and Donzer decided he’d worked hard enough for the day.  It was not unexpected that I would get some push back from Donzer after upping the degree of difficulty overnight.

The Test

Although we got a lower score today, Donzer was through his back.  On Friday he was hollow, arguing with his head and broke on both trot lengthening’s from tension.  On Saturday, today, he was through and had some head bobbing from lack of strength–this is acceptable as it is a time thing.  Donzer did  have submission issues.  What I find is that we can do each individual movement quite well in practice at home, and even in the warm-up, when we compress the timeline and have to execute the movements at the letter performance falls apart.  I need to modify how I do my daily riding because I do tend to practice things independently i.e. trot, then canter, then half-pass, etc.  I need to start stringing movements together and insist Donzer do it when I ask–whether he got the memo or not.

I definitely need to get a few rides under my belt before we try to show again.  The time it will take for Donzer to agree to be my partner at this next level is unpredictable.

The Way Ahead

1. I will keep the new warm-up in place.  I solidified my feel of the back today and was able to translate it to Ava in our ride.

2. I need to create a better plan to bring in the “DO IT NOW” factor into my riding.  Donzer will have some issue with this next level of difficulty and my task will be to remain calm yet clear and with high expectations.  This work will have to be done when I have plenty of time so I can do the patient sigh and let Donzer know I’m not getting off until we make progress.

3. I need to keep bringing the back into my crosscheck so I am schooling Donzer correctly each day.  This will build his strength and diminish the head bobbing.

4. My position-I was leaning forward in the canter and this is not normal for me now.  I need to keep my hips moving, sit up and I do need to have my jacket refit.  My shoulders have gotten bigger and I felt a little constrained.  Correctly fitting equipment is a very doable fix.

5. Changes will continue to be a work in progress.  Changes are about the canter at this point.  Donzer wants to run off like a horse going over a jump and we did an exercise of change and then pirouette to keep Donzer waiting.  Obviously if I let myself get forward like I did in today’s test, that doesn’t help changes either.

So, overall I am very happy with today’s ride.  I was able to execute the warm-up plan and have significant “feel” changes.  I am very clear on what needs to be worked on over the next few weeks (besides everything).  My goal is to share the process with you in a clear way so you can spend time in the saddle finding the accompanying feel to go with the academic understanding.

Good Riding,


Author, Out of the Saddle 9 Steps to Improve Your Horseback Riding


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Dressage Horse Training: How do you warm up for a test?

Hello everyone,

I just had a very poor PSG ride this morning and after indulging in (for about 45 minutes) what happened, why did Donzer quit on me and why am I not a better rider yet, I’ve decided to move on to the real reason we ride tests.  See what happened, understand what happened and make a plan for improvement.

Situational Analysis

I am in the phase with Donzer where I can tell when it doesn’t feel as good as it should but I cannot always diagnose what the problem is so I can fix it.  What I feel is still at the noise level and I’m still trying to discern the individual parts and pieces.  In our warm up I did a nice long and low beginning.  Then, I brought Donzer onto a 20 meter circle and asked him to bring his poll up to a PSG frame which usually takes some discussion and resistance and then eventual compliance.  Today, Donzer brought his poll right up but I know now that he still didn’t give me his back and so was not through his back.  Overall, Donzer felt very compliant in the wam-up.  We did trot and canter half pass, a few changes, a counter canter and pirouette.  All of the elements were in place but we were lacking the thoroughness.  What I felt is that the trot was a lot of work to sit and the trot can be really nice to sit when Donzer is carrying me.  I did some surging but it was clearly not effective to get Donzer working through his back.

I am going to make a plan for my warm-up tomorrow and see what works and what doesn’t.  My goal is to create a clear way to communicate how to structure a warm-up and help the next person sort through the overall good/bad feeling to get to effectiveness.


So, the problem I am solving is how to know when my warm-up is complete.

Solution for Tomorrow

1.  Continue my initial warm-up.  I ride a trot long and low in big circles focusing on getting Donzer to actually touch the bit and connect over his back.  I do this at canter and then add a canter to counter canter until the neck shoulder connection muscles release.  At this point in the warm-up the shoulder girdle is fairly loose but we are definitely on the forehand.

2.  Ride a diagonal on fairly long rein moving from baby halfpass to leg yield, suppling the spine laterally.

3.  Ride a 20 meter circle and shorten the reins up into a PSG frame.  This involves asking Donzer to lift his belly and recruit the topline muscles instead of the underside of his neck. I will ask for flex at the poll back and forth to ensure we are using the topline muscles.  I will flex at the poll in halt/walk/trot and canter.

4.  Transitions.  I didn’t do this effectively for my ride today.  Tomorrow I plan to do all of the down transitions (canter trot, canter walk, trot walk) making sure Donzer is sitting and not dumping on the forehand.  This is a key check for where we are in the warm-up that I didn’t focus on and we were dinged over and over in the test for–as we should have been.

5. Do surging at trot and canter but insist it get better.  I did this today and it got a little better (very little) each time.  For some reason I was focusing on “harmony” versus being in the driver’s seat and having a gas pedal.  The key is that I cannot accomplish this out of frustration but with clear intent. I fully expect Donzer to offer some resistance since he didn’t have to step up today–and I need to keep calm and focused and not be distracted by pulling, rushing or whatever else Donzer may offer.

I’ll let you know how it goes, what was helpful for me and I’d be interested to know what was helpful for you.

Good Riding, Tara

Author, Out of the Saddle 9 Steps to Improve Your Horseback Riding

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