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

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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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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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Dressage Horse Training: Giving with the Inside Rein “Doh”

Hello Everyone,

Instead of an “aha” moment I had a Homer Simpson “Doh” moment referring to The Simpson’s cartoon show.  I had a great teaching moment with Judy Farnsworth regarding the inside rein.  This lesson applies to me as a rider and to remember when I’m giving lessons.  Judy asked me to give forward with my inside rein so Donzer would have a relaxed place to move his neck but then Donzer started to almost immediately counterflex.  I’ve had instructors ask me to do this in lessons before and found it equally frustrating because Donzer almost always falls onto the forehand and counterflexes to the outside rein that I’m maintaining.  I should know better and thinking through the biomechanics I do know better but in the moment of my lesson I didn’t have enough brain cells firing properly.

So, I asked Judy, did she want me to just let Donzer counterflex.  The answer was no.  What this highlighted was Donzer was clearly ignoring my inside leg.  My inside leg’s job is to maintain the inside bend.  In this case it was the left rib cage on the inside and this is the rib cage Donzer is reluctant to move over for me.  We are working to readjust my feel so I keep the correct yield on this inside rib cage and when I gave forward with my left inside rein it was obvious Donzer was leaning on my inside leg instead of yielding from my inside leg.

Most of the dressage tests have uberstreichen or the stretch forward showing that your horse is indeed on your inside leg aids and not balancing on your hands, hence the “Doh.”  For me this is another example of how I process information digitally and do not always link together training with the dressage tests.  Now that I’ve connected this dot, it will stay connected but it’s interesting to me what becomes very obvious does not always start that way.  So, when you are giving a lesson or just an eye on the ground, if the inside rein is yielded forward and the horse counter flexes, then the inside aids are not effective in that moment.

Good Riding,

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

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