Dressage Horse Training: A Plan for PSG

Hello Everyone,
It’s been a while since I’ve written about my dressage journey and I will have some back filling to do but for today I want to share a brief overview of our spring training in Florida.  The quick recap is Donzer and I scored a 61.7% on our first PSG and then for the last five years have not broken the 60% mark.  When I tried to start working on quality versus just movements, it became clear we had a lot more to learn.  So, we went back to working on the 20m circle; counterflex-leg yield shoulder-in for a year waiting for Donzer to agree that touching the bit was not optional.  Then we spent the next two years using the reinback and then forward into connection to teach Donzer (and me!) how to carry and push from behind.  We’ve spent the last year building strength and  figuring out flying changes.  Donzer was pretty sure any change of bend meant change.

2018 is our year.  I decided to go back to my book, “Out of the Saddle: 9 Steps to Improve Your Horseback Riding” and take some of my own advice.  I sat down and wrote down my PSG Training Plan.  It was a bit unnerving to realize that I only had 25 actual training days when I took out necessary days off and my monthly trip to Little Rock Air Force Base for my monthly drill.  But, just like I said in the book–writing down a plan helps.  It helped me focus.  It helped me make every step of my daily rides count.  I had an epiphany to ride the PSG pattern at the walk for my warm-up each day so I got to visualize my test while I was warming up.  I selected my BREAK BREAK no more training date.  This was the day that all lessons stopped and I rode just Donzer and I like we would have to for the test.

We had a clinician come in and as all trainers experience, the clinician was able to pull some things together for me and Donzer and I progressed from a single change to doing 3s and 4s on a 20 m circle.  Again, I have many updates to write explaining all of these things and it’s so fun to finally break through this level of clarity.  Now, I know what my work is! I really understand where we need to build strength and what skills Donzer and I need to learn.  For example, it’s working much better for us to keep developing the trot from the collected canter.  We tried to work from walk up to trot and the progress curve was flat.  Working from canter to trot has been a boon for us.  You never know what the last piece of the puzzle may be.  It really does take a village.

I’ve included an excerpt of my PSG training plan so you can see what worked for me.  I will provide an overview of our rides from 58% to the awesome 63.8% that completed our USDF Silver.

Good Riding,

Tara

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

Out of the Saddle

Florida 2018 PSG Training Plan

My Vision is that Donzer and I now have the skill, communication, and strength to easily ride a PSG test.

My Intention is to create a plan for success to have the best performance for the show with our current skill sets.  The plan will allow for analysis of areas to improve to create focused training sessions.

My biggest concerns:

  • riding every day without a clear intention and understanding of what I’m creating and how I’m choosing exercises to support the elements of PSG
  • creating a trot that is tracking up and that I can sit, fine tuning the aides to allow for adjustability in corners, getting forward from Ava when she’s being lazy, changes need to be on the hind end and no running off

Timeline:  Show 10 March 18—Training days available:  13 Feb – 5Mar (17 Days) (Drill 2-4 Mar)

Show Prep:Plan to transition on 7 Mar from training to show prep.  From this point we take what we have and make it as steady and harmonious as possible.  I will not be tempted to work on “just one more thing.” I would like to create a solid strategy here—not really sure the best approach.

This Plan Includes:

  • Elements of PSG to work on (besides everything)
  • Lesson Plan for each of the 17 Training Days Available
  • Skills to introduce (Have Instructor share good exercises and discuss when to work them into the training plan flow)
  • Standardized Lesson Plan Format
  • Daily Lesson Plans

 

 

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  • Elements of PSG to work on (besides everything)

Canter:  Strength, Balance, Understanding of aides for transitions, lateral work, rating

Trot: Moving in a correctly balanced frame while tracking up.  This includes: Strength, Lateral balance, self-carriage up in the shoulders, tracking up, carrying and pushing from behind

Pirouettes:  On diagonal line three strides collected canter, three strides pirouette canter, pirouette almost at X, three strides pirouette canter out of pirouette, three strides collected canter and then through the corner

Half-passes: Shoulders first and then bring haunches

Each day of training should include:

  • Develop best possible quality of gait
  • Execute planned exercises within the quality of gait ie warm-up to find the pushing from behind and shoulder/wither lift while touching the bit, then take this canter to 1/pass, leg yield, circles, etc with the intention of building strength and endurance to move through movements in a quality of self-carriage

 

 

  • Skills to Introduce

(Have instructor  share good exercises/discuss working them into the training plan flow)

 

  • -Pirouette pattern—lay down at walk
  • -Ride entire test pattern at walk for my walk warm-up? I should be able to accomplish the same balance and thoroughness goals I’ve been doing with 10 meter circles, leg yield and half pass and I can practice the pattern each day.
  • -Canter-halt—Exercise?
  • -Halt-trot—Exercise?
  • -Build solid working trot to medium and back—Exercise?
  • -Maybe we should plan 5 min each lesson to discuss an element of the test, strategy for riding and exercise to practice

 

  • Lesson Plan for each of the 20 Training Days Available

Working backwards from show on 10 Mar, 5 -6 Mar last two ride days after drill. 7 day off and 8-9 Maris the break from training to show prep, identify milestones ie ride full trot work, full canter half-passes, pirouettes, etc.  The work is beginning on 7 Feb with building the gaits (strength, balance and understanding changes).  The canter work for changes will include quarter pirouette turns, daily rate change transitions from collected, working and medium trot/canter.  I’ve created a standard Lesson Plan Format to set a clear intention for each lesson, the exercises we will use and why we are using the exercises.  The goal is to create a clear plan to build the PSG and a communication tool for lesson planning and to clarify in my mind so I can communicate clearly to the horses what I an envisioning.  If I’m not crystal clear then there is no way the horses can execute.

  • Standardized Lesson Plan Format

Intention:

Geometry:  Focus on ½ halt into corner, three strides leg yield through corner, ½ halt out of corner at all gaits; use letters to ride very correct circles, pick definite lines to ride ie from K to X versus vague diagonals

Warm-up:  at walk do shoulder in, 10 meter circles, leg yield and half pass until I have a nice steady contact in the bit, feeling of pushing from behind and elevation in the withers (approx

Exercise:

Why:

After action write-up

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  • Daily Lesson Plans

7 Feb 18 Lesson Plan

Geometry:  Focus on ½ halt into corner, three strides leg yield through corner, ½ halt out of corner at all gaits; use letters to ride very correct circles, pick definite lines to ride ie from K to X versus vague diagonals

(Approx 15 min) Warm-up:  at walk do shoulder in, 10 meter circles, leg yield and half pass until I have a nice steady contact in the bit, feeling of pushing from behind and elevation in the withers (approx 10 min)

(Approx 15 min) Canter:  Ensuring a good depart ride three 20 meter circles to right, then add ½ pass to quarter line and leg yield back to wall, then down centerline and leg yield to wall keeping outside shoulder straight and creating jump (bring back to walk as necessary to show the muscles how for good neuromuscular development);

When the connection feels good, then add baby canter (pirouette canter) back to working and then to medium at least once each direction (building each day another lap)

Exercise: countercanter w/shoulder in—13x around switching leads each; goal is to feel the release of the back muscle, then add impulsive to engage over the gooey back muscle and have more acceptance of the collecting ½ halt; riding quarter line to quarter line the turns are practice pirouette turns, initial measure if for the exercise to feel easy and to feel like there is time approaching and through the corners instead of feeling like the corners are rushing up and we are being squeezed

Why:  This exercise explains the level of straightness to horse and rider needed for changes.  I can feel how the back muscles lock up when asked for the shoulder-in so this allows me as the rider to target the weak area, allow the horse time to feel and engage the muscle correctly, and for me as the rider to feel what “good” feels like.  The trainer/coach can explain what need to happen but ultimately the horse has to show the rider when it’s correct (like landing an airplane). This exercise addresses the horse’s natural tendency to anticipate so I can explain that the change of bend is not the aid for the change.  This exercise creates a discussion tool for the horse-rider-trainer group to zero in on what is confusing for fuzzy.

Exercise: pirouette on 15 meter circle haunches in, straight, back and forth focusing on keeping connection over topline instead of disconnecting with the change of bend; then do a quarter turn and forward (3x each direction) NOTE: Did not do this exercise as we spent 13 minutes on counter canter/change exercise

Why: This exercise builds strength, confirms the lateral aids and the strength/balance needed for horse to be an accordion longitudinally in their body.

(Approx 15 min) Trot:  Start on 20 meter circle and use shoulder in to leg yield and rein back to bring shoulders up into a good connection in hand.  When this feels good add in transitions from baby trot to working trot to medium.  Take this to the serpentine and bring together elements of good corners, change of bend, tracking up—this will take the time it takes but once it feels good then complete 2 full serpentines

Why: Trot is the most challenging gait to ride.  As a rider your core has to be strong, engaged and supple.  The horse must be in front of the leg or a trot really is hard to sit. The 20 meter circle allows you to establish the correct frame/balance especially from back to front.  The serpentine challenges the little muscles along the spine to remain engaged for direction changes.  Donzer and Ava want to drop and change instead of staying engaged for the entire ride.  This is how I taught them and how we are relearning that there are no breaks until we’re on the buckle for a break.

To finish do super collected trot and halt; repeat until square then pat and get off

Why: Goal is to find self-carriage to settle into square halt.  Donzer wants to dive onto his shoulder to halt instead of settling back on his hind end to halt.

After Action write-up:  The timing of the warm-up, canter and trot work was approximately 15 minutes each to equal a 45 min ride.  Intentionally adding in the focus of circle geometry, correct corners (1/2 halt, 3 strides leg yield through corner, ½ halt and then forward) beginning in the warm-up created more “time” in the ride.  This will help use the horse’s natural anticipation for good.

Canter work was effective.  Adding in the baby canter to working to medium helped with thoroughness.  Both horses have a habit of disconnecting when they move forward to use the underside of their neck so I did several transitions until I had a solid connection over the topline.  I took a 2 min break with Kris giving some positive feedback and then we did the counter-canter/change exercise.  I established a counter-canter on the quarter line.  This took a couple laps to establish straightness before the short side.  I also focused on riding good quarter turns from quarter line to quarter line.  As a rider this was taking extra focus because at first it didn’t feel like we could get it done.  But, it got easier with each short side and the horses were also accepting the ½ halts.  Next, I added the shoulder-in and held until the back muscles released and then went back to straight.  This took a few laps.  Then I asked for more forward in the shoulder-in once the muscle had relaxed.  Then I did shoulder-in, forward, straight, ½ halt, change.  Both horses were understanding the exercise better.

The attention to geometry is really going to add ride ability to my daily practice and help with overall test prep.  For next ride I need to keep being very clear with my position and ensuring I swing my leg back for the canter depart aid as this is also the aid for the changes.  Kris noticed that I do not swing my leg back for my walk/canter departs very clearly. In the interest of time I will use the quarter turns to cover my pirouette work until we have this muscle memory developed.  I think it will only take 3 more rides until this can be an exercise I touch on in the ride but do not need to dedicate the bulk of the ride to accomplish.

Trot work was better:  Previous to my 6 Feb lesson I was only adding in the trot serpentines at the end to establish some balance and tracking up effort.  Today I started on the 20 meter circle with a few good halt-trot departs.  Sit up straight, bring shoulder blades together for the ½ halt and then scootch seat and lightly squeeze with both calves.  Then I did shoulder-in, leg yield forward.  The shoulder-in was activating the trapezius muscle in front of the withers and the sliding effort is still challenging for both horses.  The shoulder-in also allowed me to connect my inside sits bone with the inside hind leg and visualize a longer stride.  The leg yield did some rebalancing and both horses were locking up their shoulders in the shoulder-in position.  For the leg yield I had to ask the hind leg to move sideways and also open my outside rein and ½ halt for the rebalance.  When I next asked for forward, both horses still have the muscle memory of dropping their shoulders and pulling themselves forward and lifting the poll but disconnecting just in front of the withers.  The same way I used my inside leg/outside rein in the rate changes at trot on the 20 meter, I needed to use this aid to ask for forward push from behind.  This will take repetition and consistency on my part.  Every time I allow the horses to do it wrong just adds onto the number of times I need to repeat it correctly.  Once I had a good feel on the circle I did the baby trot to working trot to medium trot and back.  When this felt better I took the medium trot to the serpentine.  I initially focused on the geometry of the corners (1/2 halt, three steps leg yield, ½ halt) and the change from shoulder-in to shoulder-in to change the bend.  This initially causes the stride to shorten.  Once I had some agreement for the geometry, I focused on lengthening my body from top to bottom, connecting my belly button core area to the hind legs and visualized bouncing the stride up and forward.  I also visualized bringing the inside hind stride longer with each shoulder-in.  Another feel that seems to help is to focus on the downbeat of the trot to set the rhythm I want.  Once I had what felt like our best effort I completed 2 serpentines in our best effort.  I would like to be able to have a reliable trot harmony for the test instead of hoping for short segments of good moments.  I finished up with baby trot to halt.  Still figuring out the square halt.

8 Feb Lesson Plan

Intention:  Dinging to create the energetic feel of forward over the topline and have the horses find their balance while tracking up at trot.

Geometry:  20 meter circle

Warm-up:  A few circles of walk and allow a baby trot until the muscles behind the saddle pad start to move instead of being a solid lump

Exercise: 20 circles at trot and canter each direction.  Success at trot is when the poll is slightly highest point and the nuchal ligament over withers to poll is clearly engaged, the trapezius muscle is engaged and the energy feels forward.  The hind leg is tracking up and the low back is tucked to allow the stifle engagement so it feels like the stifle is moving through the body over the top of the withers to the poll.

Success at canter is similar.  I will also look for definite belly muscle engagement and for the hind legs to swing forward under the belly rather than with an out behind tendency. I am pushing the energy forward until the topline is fully engaged.  Both horses have an ability to “phone it in” and collect behind while disconnected in front of the withers while bringing poll up in a false headset.

Why:  Dinging gives me a change to really see how the horses are moving.  Done correctly this is just riding from the ground.  It is allowing me to practice projecting my energy more effectively.  Dinging allows the horses to find their balance without a rider and by setting the goal of 20 laps, this is like our coach used to have us do for track practice.  Once your form is good, then you have to get strong in the correct form.

After action write-up:  Ava quickly moves into a good trot but will hold back slightly in her push.  It’s almost as much of a feeling as anything physical I point directly to watch.  When I ask Ava to come, she’s adding a bit more effort likes she knows I caught her offering 60% instead of 80%.  Canter is more challenging.  Ava is lazy and with her long body and long legs looks like she’s working fairly well.  But, I pushed forward until I felt the same effort I did when I asked for a medium from the saddle.  Then I let her settle back a little.  What I saw was more low back swinging, hind legs reaching further under her belly and then Ava searching for where she wanted to carry her head.  I let her know good when she found the spot with the topline neck engaged and the poll highest point.  And, underside of her neck fairly relaxed.

Donzer, with his short body is a completely different picture.  His muscles are short, tight and with his short legs, he has to be offering true effort through his core to track up where Ava’s longer legs can create a picture that is not taking as much effort.  Donzer takes longer to warm up about 12 circles before he was ready to stride out.  Same energy feel through the neck to the poll.  After 12 circles I stated focusing on his hind legs looking for more space between them to show longer strides.  Donzer’s a bit trickier because I also have to ask him to keep his poll up because he’s happy to just roll onto the forehand.  Then he wants to falsely lift his poll and disconnect so we have to go round and round a bit more.  But, dinging is riding from the ground so the time to solve this on the longe will translate to the saddle.  At circle 18 I got the right frame, energy feel I wanted at trot.

Canter was interesting.  Donzer is now fit enough that I can push him more.  After allowing him a few circles to warm his muscles he settled into the frame he knows I want but it still felt a bit “stuck.”  So, I pushed him forward like to do when riding to a medium effort canter and it was ugly for about 6 circles but then it was like he broke free in his shoulders and the effort was moving through his body.  He is short but he can get his low back tucking under to get his hind legs more under his body and allow the energy to move through his rib cage, shoulders and over the withers to his poll.  His belly muscle very clearly engages as well.  I think he likes this level of effort and we just need to establish it as correct.

 

 

9-11 Feb (Drill in Little Rock)

12 Feb Lesson Plan

Intention:  Dinging to create the energetic feel of forward over the topline and have the horses find their balance while tracking up at trot. Get back to work after 3 days off and feel their muscles/balance before lessons with Julio Mendoza or if I’m back in time from airport—ride

Geometry:  20 meter circle

Warm-up:  A few circles of walk and allow a baby trot until the muscles behind the saddle pad start to move instead of being a solid lump

Exercise: 20 circles at trot and canter each direction.  Success at trot is when the poll is slightly highest point and the nuchal ligament over withers to poll is clearly engaged, the trapezius muscle is engaged and the energy feels forward.  The hind leg is tracking up and the low back is tucked to allow the stifle engagement so it feels like the stifle is moving through the body over the top of the withers to the poll.

Success at canter is similar.  I will also look for definite belly muscle engagement and for the hind legs to swing forward under the belly rather than with an out behind tendency. I am pushing the energy forward until the topline is fully engaged.  Both horses have an ability to “phone it in” and collect behind while disconnected in front of the withers while bringing poll up in a false headset.

Why:  Dinging gives me a change to really see how the horses are moving.  Done correctly this is just riding from the ground.  It is allowing me to practice projecting my energy more effectively.  Dinging allows the horses to find their balance without a rider and by setting the goal of 20 laps, this is like our coach used to have us do for track practice.  Once your form is good, then you have to get strong in the correct form.

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Dressage Horse Training: Leading the Dance

Hello Everyone,

What I felt on Ava today what how important it is to set the rhythm, cadence and tempo.  I’ve read and heard and seen when giving lessons how the horse can take over the tempo and destabilize the rider.  I also know that part of the natural progression of riding is first you learn to follow the horse and then you learn to have the horse follow you.  I spend a lot of time working on sitting trot.  I think this is the most challenging athletic part of riding to keep your core stabilized and allow your joints to move with the horse.  It’s more noticeable to me riding Ava but the same thing happens riding Donzer.

Left to make the decision Ava defaults into a running, choppy, short-strided trot.  My habit pattern is to start moving my hips as fast as I can to sit this gait.  It’s hard to sit so I work harder at being able to sit it.  What I find interesting is that when the instructor asks me to set the tempo I find I can and Ava responds and the trot becomes easier to sit.  Now, I require a circle or two to go from the choppy trot to the tempo I set.  Ava doesn’t just instantly agree to my input but when I affect the tempo using my lateral aids (starting with inside leg/outside rein connecting half-halt or maybe a haunches in), Ava does listen to these aids and what happens is Ava starts to take a longer stride.  In one of Charles DeKunffy’s books he discusses riding a young horse a little under tempo to help the horse learn to carry and this must be what he was talking about.

Good Riding,

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

Out of the Saddle

Out of the Saddle

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Dressage Horse Training: Truth with a Capital “T”

Hello Everyone,

As I’m capturing my “aha” moments during my Florida 2015 immersion, I am remembering my Philosophy 101 from my USAFA (college) days.  Aristotle talked about goodness and then there was Good.  Aristotle also discussed the difference in happiness versus Happiness.  What I took away from the lecture is there are actions that are good, lead to happiness or may be true.  But then, there are ideas that are True with a capital “T” whether you know or not, whether you believe or not.  Years ago I attended a USDF educational event featuring Ulla Saltzgaber and Ulla was very clear during her lessons when she was giving a piece of advice very specific to the rider and the moment.  For example, Ulla said do not go home and counter flex your horse in the canter forever.  This is a correction for this rider in this moment.

One of the great opportunities I have is to watch Uwe Steiner giving lessons.  In a recent discussion, Uwe reminded me of Ulla’s lesson from years before; watch closely, learn and remember that advice given in a moment of a lesson is specific for that horse and rider.    For a curious mind like mine that generates even more questions and is why I am attracted to the art of dressage in the first place.

Here is my personal example of truth versus Truth with Ava and Donzer.  The big topic I am tackling right now with Judy Farnsworth is learning how to ride.  I’m smiling here because that word “ride” encapsulates so much.  More specifically, I am learning how to use my lateral aids to affect getting the horses through and on the bit.  The Truths of this process are there are tools:  shoulder-in, haunches in, leg yields, counter flexion, etc.  I use each of these tools with both Donzer and Ava. The riding truth happens when I start selecting the order or combination of these tools to affect thoroughness.  I’ll use Donzer as my example.

From my previous post my work with Donzer begins with half-halt, yield, bend (shoulder-in) on the 20 meter circle.  This is fairly straight forward going to the right.  However, going to the left Donzer really pops out his right shoulder and when I ask for shoulder-in he’s all about popping out that right shoulder.  I am advanced enough with my feel to know this is not the Truth I’m seeking.  Judy explained that this indicates Donzer is really not wanting to engage his inside left hind leg so the correction must address the hind leg and shoulder together.  So, when going to the left, instead of half-halt, yield bend I have a modified process.  Half-halt, counter flex and yield together until I feel Donzer’s shoulders move back in front of his hind legs and then shoulder-in (more of an ask for left flexion).  What happens the first few times is as soon as I ask for the shoulder-in, Donzer pops his left shoulder out like water flowing downhill following the path of least resistance.  This is where I have the repeated opportunity to learn to ride.  I play with how much left bend I can ask for before the shoulder pops out.  I play with how much my right knee can guard the shoulder and keep Donzer straight.  I play with how much diagonal left sits bone and right rein (at the same time) I can use to keep Donzer in this more correct carriage.  So, this is all correct for Donzer in this moment with this issue.  On Ava, I do the half-halt, yield, bend and that is a True exercise.  The order I add in the additional supporting yields and connecting half-halts are specific to Ava with her longer frame.  Spending enough time in the saddle, trying different combinations and letting the horse tell you ultimately what is correct is learning to ride.  It is very helpful in the process of learning to ride to know what the tools are i.e. leg yields, haunches in, etc and to have your horse respond to these aids.

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

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Out of the Saddle

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Dressage Horse Training: Lengthening the Neck works against every Human Athletic Instinct

Hello Everyone,

Growing up I ran track and cross country and in college I started lifting weights as well.  I had horses out in my country home in West Virginia and we had two basic gears walk (past the neighbors’ houses so they didn’t call my mom and complain) and gallop everywhere else.  Getting ready to run a 200 or 400m dash as you’re in position on the track, you are in a ball preparing to explode “on you mark, get set, GO.”  On the bench getting ready for a new max on the bench press you breathe a couple times, look at your spotter and then make an explosive effort to push the weight.  Dressage riding is the very opposite of this feeling and effort.  It is about creating positive tension in your core muscles to create stability and still be fluid in your body.  You are learning to direct the flow of yours and the horse’s energy to create something beautiful.  When flying an airplane we do learn energy management during aerobatic flight, controlled descents but these techniques in flying are more about conserving energy.  Maybe that could be an element of dressage, conserving energy to make the higher level movements with less force and more finesse; I’ll have to think about it.

In my ride today on Donzer we made his neck longer.  I have the leather pieces on my reins so I lengthened my reins another notch (about 3 inches) on purpose.  For most of the lesson my brain was screaming at me to just shorten the reins a little bit, everything would be so much better if we could just take a little hold.  It reminded me of the feeling you get at the swimming pool when you’ve tried to see how long you can hold your breath under water and the point when your brain starts screaming for oxygen.  If you can wait through the initial panic, you get a few more seconds before you must have air.

We were able to have this lesson because we’ve done the previous lessons using lateral movement and aids to control speed and balance (see previous posts).

From my perspective in the saddle:  I lengthened the reins and positioned my hands in front of the saddle and going to the right there was absolutely no connection to my outside (left) rein.  Donzer was tipping onto the forehand and inching up his speed away from our nicer cadence.  And, I was not allowed to pull back.  Here begins the feeling of being underwater and needing air.

From the instructor’s perspective:  Donzer has a very short neck to begin with and when the reins are too short, this is accentuated.  The current dynamic of motion is that Donzer has a short neck, is dropped in his withers and takes short steps with his hind legs because biomechanically this is what must happen.  The first thing the rider must do is lengthen the reins and then the lesson commences.

The Lesson: With the longer reins the overall goal was to have Donzer activate the muscles over the top of his back and neck.  This would result in him lifting up his withers and shoulders.  This would allow the front legs to move forward more freely and allow room for the hind legs to step more under.  The hind legs stepping more under (think between the front legs) lowers the hind quarters and allows the shoulders to lift so the cycle of energy begins.  A big part of the process is developing the strength to use all these new muscles.  If you’ve ever been to the gym you understand workout programs, repetitions, sets of work—this all applies to the horse’s physical development as well.

This is a fine goal and more difficult to execute.  We used the lateral exercises we’d been practicing to encourage Donzer to reach for the bit.  This is a process that just takes the time it’s going to take.  My first dressage instructor, Michie Cavouti, would always say “TTT.” Things Take Time. When Donzer was starting to rush off and fall onto his forehand, what he’s done over and over, I used the counter bend and leg yield exercise to encourage Donzer’s inside hind leg to step more forward and across (engage).  This resulted in Donzer slowing down and rebalancing.  I can tell you that every few times I asked, Donzer would blow me off, and I would have to use my spur and niggle his side and say really, I need you to move this leg over. It’s also become apparent that half-halts are very optional in Donzer’s world so I need to be diligent and bring Donzer back to the halt if I ask for a half-halt and do not get a response.  This is not a punishment or done out of frustration, it is a hole in my training that I need to go back and show Donzer what my expectation is, until Donzer believes it.

One of my new topics with Donzer is continuous effort.  Donzer responds to an aid, like moving his ribs over, and then lets his ribs move right back against my leg.  To this point I’ve been happy to get the initial response and have not worked to maintain the ribs staying over.  This is the next stage of my development as a rider—sustainment versus just a correct initial response.

So Donzer went through the normal assortment of evasions.  He tried to speed up and I used the lateral to control the speed.  I did some leg yield, counter bend leg yield, haunches in, spiral in and out playing with the different tools to see what worked.  Once I had the speed under control, Donzer moved on to sucking back behind my leg.  This is a challenging evasion because you have to push the hind leg forward into a bigger step, not faster and the response Donzer wanted to give was faster.  This starts the previous cycle over to use lateral work to control the speed and then still insist on forward (not faster).  This phenomenon happens when you’re learning to land an airplane and you’re always too something (fast, slow, high, low, left, right, crooked and so on…) and quickly move from one extreme to the next so everything is a moving part.  This is an ugly but necessary part of learning to fly and I see it is also part of “riding” your horse.  I am going to assume that like flying, you get better at it.

The final difficult evasion Donzer has always had is ducking behind the vertical.  This has been put into the category of not being active enough behind.  I am using this ducking as a signal that the hind leg needs to be re-energized to step more under or across.  And, depending on how committed Donzer is to ducking, I may need to half-halt (or full halt) and then push forward.

My theory is that I can just play with all these tools and start to feel what works with Donzer.  Luckily I also have Ava and can see what works with her.  I’ve already found I use the similar tools with each horse but they have different favorite evasions.

The result of the lesson:  By the end of the lesson I had Donzer working with a connection into this longer length of rein.  It took some walk trot transitions to seal the deal on contact with the left rein.  We were able to canter as well with the contact.  From the saddle Donzer’s shoulders in front of my saddle lifted up and the trapezius muscle engaged from just in front of my saddle to about the middle of Donzer’s neck.  This will be our work until Donzer accepts this is the new place of balance.  This will be my work to stick with it until my muscle memory also seeks this balance with Donzer.

Good Riding,

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

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Dressage Horse Training: Creating Step-wise Processes to find your Training Holes

Hello Everyone,

As I am here in Venice, Florida at Fox Lea Farm in my first dressage immersion experience I am making writing a core part of the learning experience for myself.  I was planning to get a lot of work done on my upcoming book, “Learning Dressage at the Walk” but have underestimated the amount of brain cells I am using to watch lessons; absorb and process my own lessons.  These short blogs are my notes for my book.  I have a key theme emerging from what I’ve written and experienced thus far.

Horses are horses and training is training

I am an autodidact and spend a lot of time on my education.  Reading. Watching videos. clinicing and auditing.  I spend so much time on my own education that the label Amateur versus Professional as I’ve heard it applied was offensive.  Comments such as the qualifier, “Well, that’s pretty good for an amateur.”  Anyway, natural horsemanship is aptly named because it is what I did as a kid with a horse as my teacher.  Here’s a specific example.  I had a quarter horse mare I got to ride if I could get the saddle on her. This mare would not cross a creek.  Living and trail riding in West Virginia this was a big problem because there were creeks all over the place so I either couldn’t ride with everyone else or sometimes we’d get stuck unable to come home and have to go back around the long way.  Being a kid during the summer I had nothing but time so I started to figure out what the problem was with the creeks.  I put the halter and a long rope on the mare and found the smallest creek and figured out that a small quite creek was scarier than a very shallow creek with rocks and texture.  It became apparent that the visual was a big part of the problem.  I took my time and got the mare to relax enough to reach forward with her nose to inspect the creek.  I didn’t rush the mare and allowed her time to snort, pull back, re-inspect, paw with her hoof and then make a huge jump over the creek.  We repeated this process over many different creeks and when the comfort level was high I got on the mare’s back and we did the same thing.  If needed, I would get off and go through the creek inspection process from the ground.  And so on…

Because I never had formal lessons or did pony club, the English world of riding was very foreign to me.  It seemed like a place of secret handshakes and fancy horses and it had an other-worldliness quality compared to my personal experience with horses.  What I’m realizing now is horses are horses and training is training.  The challenge with dressage is figuring out where your training holes are and how to plug the holes.  I was having a conversation with a trainer and he said that most of the German books on horseback riding assume you know how to “ride” your horse.  There is a lot of skill, technique and feel wrapped up in the one word “ride” your horse.  I’ve been able to figure out how to teach my horses to yield to pressure, move sideways, forwards and back.  This “ride” has been a booger.  This involves learning how to balance a quadruped and teach this quadruped to move in self-carriage.  Self-carriage, the the aids developed by a good rider that are invisible to the untrained eye.  This is the level of training that is assumed to be understood when you go to a dressage clinic.  This is the level of training I want to capture in my book, “Learning to Ride Dressage at the Walk.”

My work with riding as of Jan 2015 is to take each hole identified by any movement I’m having trouble with and do some research to see what are the preceding steps I’m missing.  What’s missing in dressage is the precursor book about how to get your horse on the bit and develop self-carriage.  This is the work that must happen before you get to ride the “stuff.”  This is the work that makes the “stuff” appear effortless and beautiful.  Some kinaesthetic riders are able to feel this out for themselves and I want to write the book for the rest of us that are studious and dedicated and need a checklist.

Good Riding,

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

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Dressage Horse Training: Leg Yield into Transitions

Hello Everyone,

I learned almost 10 years ago in a clinic riding my paint mare, Ally, to try to leg yield into the canter as it will help Ally’s balance.  For Ally, who was very unbalanced and, for me, very new to dressage, all the leg yield did was heighten Ally’s awareness that a request for canter was coming and Ally would get even tighter and more resistant.  Now, I’m doing the same work on a 20 meter circle with Ava and Donzer.  The aid for canter is counterflex, leg yield x2, shoulder fore and canter.  The result is a lovely and balanced transition. I am assuming the guidance I was given at the clinic with Ally was intended to have the same results and as a more experienced rider I can say the information was good but it started at step 6, leaving out steps 1-5.  This is the biggest challenge with many books as well developing a relationship with a new trainer is trying to determine what is assumed to be known by horse and rider.

For example, here are the steps that let up to the balanced (physically and mentally) canter depart.

  • On a 20 meter circle, counterflex and hold steady arms (like side reins—no pulling back!) until Donzer’s neck softened in the muscles just in front of the saddle.  Then back to true flexion.  Repeat until the counter and true flex is accepted softly.
  • On a 20 meter circle, counter flex and add 2-3 steps of leg yield essentially affecting a renver because I’m not corralling the outside hindleg just yet. When the neck softens then back to the true bend on the circle.  Repeat until the counter flex and leg yield are executed in a balanced way and mentally accepted.
  • On a 20 meter circle, counter flex and leg yield and come back to shoulder fore. Repeat until the shoulder fore is accepted mentally and with balance.
  • On a 20 meter circle, counter flex and leg yield and come back to shoulder in. Repeat until you can easily move from shoulder fore to shoulder in.
  • Repeat steps 1-4 at walk and then trot.
  • From a balanced trot, counter flex, 2 steps of leg-yield, shoulder fore and then ask for canter depart.

WhaaLaa, now there is a process to go through.  If you get a snarky head toss or stiffness in the body on the depart go back to step one and find the hole.

Good Riding,

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

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Dressage Horse Training: Continuing a Thread

Hello Everyone,

When I teach my students the order of the aides one exercise is to do a leg yield on the open side of the circle.  To accomplish this exercise the rider must coordinate the inside leg at the girth to move the horse sideways and use their outside aids-hand, knee, leg-to keep the horse from popping their shoulder out.  When the aids are properly coordinated, the horse lifts their shoulders and steps under and across with their inside hind leg.  This is the feel.  Your instructor can set you up to feel this in your horse and tell you “now, that’s it” and you have to remember what the moment feels like in your body. Your goal is to take this same feel to a straight line to create the straightness of the horse and the forward connection to the bit.  This is another feel or piece of knowledge I have but did not use outside of the exercise on the circle.  I have felt now that the counterflex and yield exercise is an extension of this basic yielding exercise on the circle.  Connecting the “whys” is allowing me to start linking basic feels to more complex movements.  This feel up over the back connected from inside leg to outside rein needs to be maintained all the time in all of the work (this is more all encompassing than it sounds, at least it is for me at this point in my riding).  This is one of the main holes in my riding at this point.

Interesting that I have been given the knowledge but for some reason was not continuing the thread.  I have been shown this feel before.  I know the feel when I have it.  I guess I’ve approached creating this feel as a unique task instead of as a foundational strength and way of going all the time.  I’m still mulling over how to teach this to a new rider.  You cannot master everything in a day and you also need to keep touching on the skill until it becomes part of the rider’s muscle memory.

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

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Dressage Horse Training: Coming back from an Extension without Pulling

Hello Everyone,

For many years I’ve wondered how you bring a horse back from a trot extension on the diagonal to the working gait in the corner without pulling back on the reins.  Pulling back on the reins always blocks the shoulders, the horse brings its nose towards their chest and the horse falls on the forehand.  I got to watch a lesson and see that you can accomplish this transition using your lateral/diagonal aids.  The instructor had the student bring the horse into a shoulder in from quarterline to the wall.  By the time the pair reached the corner, the horse’s inside hind was under, rebalanced because of the shoulder in.  This rebalancing happened with a redirection of the energy instead of pulling back and blocking the energy.  By pushing the horse laterally from inside leg to outside rein, the flow of energy continued.  Of course, this horse was well-schooled in shoulder-in and responded to the aids.

I am going to work on this idea with Donzer and Ava on the 20 meter circle.  Playing with this myself, it is cool when the horses listen to my aids, rebalance into the shoulder in and come back to me.  However, Donzer and Ava are not what I would call ‘well-schooled’ in their response to the shoulder-in aid yet.  But, it is in progress!

Good Riding,

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

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Dressage Horse Training: Feeling the Shoulder In

Hello Everyone,

I know what a shoulder in is but to feel it from the saddle is not something I’m 100% sure I can do yet.  Each day on my Florida 2015 trip I am accessing the top line muscles in Donzer’s body so I am getting more air time, impulsion and ground cover.  Taking in these new feels and balance requirements in my body and then sorting out if we are actually in shoulder in is going to take a bit of concentration and repetition.  Here is what I’m feeling today.  To avoid doing a neck-in I can visually confirm I’m keeping Donzer’s nose between his shoulders.  When we are approaching a true shoulder in if feels like Donzer’s inside shoulder pops up just a little.  The inside trapezius muscle (neck right in front of the saddle) goes from being fairly flat to popping up like a softball. And, the outside rein feels connected—no pulling or looping in the reins.  We have a nice cadence without the flat feel of running.

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

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Dressage Horse Training: Brake with Lateral aids instead of Blocking with Reins

Hello Everyone,

Lateral flexion, diagonal aides, straightness.  I am having more success than I ever have with developing self-carriage and I’m trying to decide if the instruction is better, if I’m a better rider, if my horses understand the basic aides and are ready or if I’m just mentally ready to process the information.  One of my superpowers is taking complex topics and breaking them down to be understandable bytes of information for people to digest and act upon.  So I will begin by explaining what I know in this moment and share my reflections of the learning journey.

Redirecting Energy versus Blocking Energy:  I have spent my first four lessons here at Fox Lea Farm with Judy Farnsworth on the 20 meter circle learning to use lateral aides to control speed and head bobbing. Instead of a half-halt combo of pulling back with both reins and tightening my core resulting in a blocked response from Donzer, Judy is having me counterflex and leg yield to activate the inside hind leg which is redirecting the energy and resulting in control of the speed or head bobbing.  I had to go on faith the first few times because my hands really did want to pull back just a little (because a slightly loopy rein feels wrong) but when I kept my hands steady at the withers and used the diagonal aides I got the desired response-Donzer connecting to the outside rein and keeping a regular tempo.  I am slowly restructuring my muscle memory for this diagonal correction.  I think part of this is the transfer from bipedal human to the quadraped we are on a horse.

Waiting out the Head Bobbing: The additional outflows of this process with Donzer have been to allow him to rebalance and show him how I want him to engage his inside hind leg.  Instead of shuffling sideways and moving his haunches out when I apply my inside leg aid, I’m clarify to Donzer I want the response to be stepping forward and across with the inside hind leg.  I’m using my outside leg to keep Donzer’s outside hind on the circle bend.  This has been confusing for Donzer but he’s working on the new request. As Donzer is finding his balance his head is getting steadier.  Also, as Donzer realizes that I’m not going to yank or pull but merely sit and hold this diagonal correction while he fusses around, the fussing dies down more quickly.  My hope is Donzer starts to enjoy the positive feedback of doing well more than the energy expended arguing.

We did our first canter with this new level of straightness and Donzer’s hind end felt like a frog on ice.  Donzer’s been allowed by me to avoid taking all his weight on his hind leg and this is a new feel for him.  The difference is he’s actually struggling to figure it out instead of trying to change the subject by tossing his head.  We used collected to working canter to help Donzer load and unload the hind leg.  I have done all of these things on Donzer before but the difference for me in this moment is I understand what I’m asking for and am selecting specific aids to affect the hind leg and the ride is getting better on purpose rather than after 45 minutes of riding hoping to have some self-carriage evolve.

Good Riding,

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

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