Dressage Horse Training:  Less is More-Unless it isn’t

Hello Everyone,

Donzer has basically lost the rude head shaking and now is just losing his balance and I’m using his head bobbing to help me identify when I need to rebalance Donzer and activate the inside hind leg.  Today we upped the ante and moved Donzer’s left rib cage over.  This sparked the conversation in my head as I was riding through the lesson about why instructors start telling me less is more.  Kris helped me sort through some of this after my ride.

Creating Less is More from the Ground

Let me take a step back and use my ground work as my reference point.  For example, when you are teaching a horse to yield their hindquarters from the ground and face you.  The concept of pressure and release is the gold standard with horse training and ground work allows you to learn this concept.  To move the haunches you gently tap and increase the tap until you get a response.  Initially just a slight movement away from your stick merits praise and release.  You can demand more once the horse understands the concept because then you have to go through the second stage getting your horse’s agreement to do the job.  It is immediately obvious when your horse has made the right amount of effort because you are on the ground and can see.  Once the horse is trained for this aid, you can just look at their hindquarter and the horse will step over—Less is More.

My ride on Donzer

Take this concept to moving Donzer’s left rib cage over.  We have spent three days asking for the counterflex and leg yield to rebalance and stop the head bobbing.  Donzer’s been praised and released for this level of effort.  Now that this has been established, it is time to ask for and get the rib cage to yield.  As a rider, this is a new feel for me and I can ask for as much as required but because I cannot see, I do not know what enough effort from Donzer is to merit the release.  Here’s what happened.  I asked for Donzer to move his left rib cage over and felt a small response and I left him alone-reward.  My instructor started having the discussion about how less is more so I took that to mean I’d asked for too much so I relaxed my body.  I was asked to move the ribs over again and I was getting frustrated because we’d just had the less is more conversation.  Assuming it may be something similar to the “move your hands forward” situation (see previous post), I turned my spur into Donzer’s left side and gently but very clearly moved his ribs over until I felt a place for my leg like I have on the right side.  The feedback from my instructor was very positive but as a rider I can tell you that the aid I gave was anything but “less” as I would describe from my point of view. [NOTE: I am having daily moments of communication practice in my lessons and learning to ask better questions.  Many times I ultimately realize I am understanding what the instructor means but the words I’m hearing in the moment mean something different to me and this leads to confusion.]  Now, once I had Donzer on my aid and Donzer had agreed to move his ribs over, I did not need that big aid with my spur and I was able to affect the movement with my inside sits bone.  So I think less is more once you have the horse’s agreement to do the job.

Recognizing Effort from Saddle

Here’s the rub.  When you are doing ground work you have a clear unobstructed view to see if the horse is making even a little effort.  When you are learning a new feel in dressage, it is hard to sort through the noise level in your seat to determine if an effort is being made by the horse.  So, many times I think when a trainer tells me “see, less is more” what’s happening is the horse has responded to my aid and I did not feel the effort.  This is phase where my horse earns his keep.  As I become more attuned to the movement, I can feel more effort with a softer aide on my part.  Until I develop this sensitivity, my horse will have to hear my thunderous aides.  And, as long as I remain patient, it’s been my experience horses are quite patient.  It’s only when I get frustrated and take it out on my horse that my horse takes umbrage.

Doing less never means to relax your core

One thing Kris also highlighted is a point of miscommunication between me and any instructor.  When I’m told to do less, Kris says I relax in the saddle and my legs and arms start bouncing more because I relax my core.  So I have to remember for myself that when an instructor tells me to do less they do not mean I should relax.  In fact, when I engage more and do more from my perspective in my body, most instructors will say, “Yes, do less like that.”  My attention to my instructors allows me to progress and it also allows for miscommunications to arise when I try to do exactly what I hear.  I find it helpful to write it out and to discuss my lessons with my main ground person, my husband, Kris.  Kris can generally interpret what is going on between me and my instructor and ultimately, Donzer lets us all know if we’re moving forward or backwards.  At the end of this lesson we are starting to recruit the top line muscles.  Donzer is not fully opposed but he is letting me know this is much more work.  To me it feels like we are shifting from being fairly earthbound with solid heavy steps to a more floating feeling and a feeling like Donzer could move in any direction easily.  And as a reminder for myself, Less is More never means I can relax my core—that’s just wishful thinking on my part (ha ha).

Good Riding,

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

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Dressage Horse Training: Carry versus pull – Fast equals Flat-Communication is Key

Hello Everyone,

Horse and Rider Balance

There is a delicate balance training a horse and a rider and it is always nice to have a schoolmaster to train a new rider.  It is easy to see the difference between a horse that is carrying weight on the hind leg and moving forward with power versus the extreme opposite, a race horse pulling themselves along with their front legs.  When learning to ride you are developing the feel of balance versus the tipping forward on the horse.  This is challenging for a new rider (especially when you add in sitting trot) who’s focused on balancing their own body and trying not to use the reins like handlebars on a bicycle.  The horse also needs to warm up into a balance point because a horse is happy to carry themselves along on the forehand.

What is the Visual?

When you move the horse forward it is better to think about the hind legs pushing or even better yet, carrying the weight of horse and rider.  If you were watching from the ground look to see more space between the hind legs created by larger, more elevated steps (think basketball player going in for a layup) instead of the hind legs moving more quickly (think roadrunner cartoon).

For me as a rider, I spent a lot of time in lessons always pushing forward out of balance trying to follow my instructor’s directions.  It seems like I would just start to find an equilibrium and the instructor would say go more forward.  As a new rider it is not very clear that forward does not mean faster.  It is no small feat to ask a relatively untrained horse to go forward, not faster.

As a diligent student I would add my leg and from the saddle it would feel like we were tipping forward onto the forehand.  My trainer would say “good” and I spent a lot of time confused.  What Kris, my husband and ground guy, helped me figure out was I could feel the horse tipping forward before the instructor could see it manifest from the ground.  Before you could see this tipping forward happen, the horse would indeed take a couple of good steps with more power, hence the “good” comment.

What I realized is that when I pushed the horse forward trying to be an attentive and responsive student, I was doing too much.  What I’m working on now is to think about lifting the horse up and forward a very little amount (including the diagonal aid inside sits bone to outside rein NOTE:  This description in so many books conveys to me sits bone and then outside rein.  What needs to happen is a simultaneous sits bone and outside rein so the energy lifts up and doesn’t bleed out the shoulder) so we still feel in balance and then waiting to see the feedback from the instructor.  Being more judicious seems to be a better approach for me.  Of course there are also the more timid riders who need to be pushed a bit more but I still think the baby step approach as a rider will be okay.

Out of the Comfort Zone

It is a delicate balancing act as an instructor to push a horse and rider out of their comfort zone to improve but not so far they are always in a state of running on the forehand.  As always is the case, developing a good dialog between student and instructor helps.  Checking in with the rider to verify what the rider is feeling aligns with what the instructor is seeing from the ground gives the instructor more information to work with to develop the pair.  I do not mean that the lesson is a talking experience.  A lesson should be primarily student ride and listen but it is helpful for the instructor to see where the student is mentally.  For example, as an Instructor of Biology when I was going through the discussion of how a cell produces ATP, I would randomly check in with my students and ask what part of the cell we were talking about.  If the students couldn’t tell me we were in the mitochondria then I knew I had to figure out what else had been missed or where my students had become lost, before delving into further details that would be completely out of context.

Teaching Feel

Begin the lesson making sure the student understands the difference between carrying versus pulling and forward versus fast.  Set the student up to feel the difference.  Do some fast on purpose to highlight the difference for the student’s feel.  Give the student the basic feel and then let the student do the homework and comeback for adjustments.

Good Riding,

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

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Dressage Horse Training: Watching Good Riding

Hello Everyone,

I had to opportunity to watch Uwe Steiner give Judy Farnsworth a lesson this morning.  It is a very large arena and I cannot hear much of the guidance so I spend my time watching how the horse warms up and the shifts in the connection of the inside stifle, through the neck just in front of the withers to the poll.  Judy and Casey moved through a long and low warm-up with a lot of length and then on the circle the magic happens.  This is the part I want to learn.  This bit on the 20 meter circle where the balance and self-carriage and agreement to work happens.  I can see the changes in the horse but my eye is not educated enough to identify exactly what is making this happen–an inside sits bone to outside rein? How much?  A half-halt rebalancing to the outside hind?  How much?  This is the magic of the ride.  They went on after this 20 meter circle to work on movements but it was the moments in between to refresh the gait, the balance and connection that I am interested to learn.  The value of watching, even when I cannot hear the words, is the picture being placed in my head.  Because, when I have my lesson, there is a correct mental image I can refer to in my ride.  I cannot tell you why this helps but Donzer seems to find what I’m asking for more quickly if I am clear in my mind what I’m asking Donzer to do.

Good Riding,

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

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Dressage Horse Training:  One 10 year mis-communication put to bed (move hands forward)

Hello Everyone,

Riding with a different instructor is allowing me to identify some “triggers” I have as a student.  There are some things an instructor can say to me that make me feel instantly frustrated and I was able to figure out one of these triggers.  Kris, my husband and ground guy, is very good at helping me identify the root of a miscommunication and here is one of my big ones.

The situation from my perspective:  I’m riding along starting to put my horse on the bit.  As the horse is warming up I start to find the right connection and the horse’s neck with become a bit shorter.  Instead of shortening the reins, I tend to just slide my elbows back—hold over from my early western riding.  The next thing I know the trainer is telling me to put my hands in front of me.  I move my hands forward 5-6 inches out of my lap and in front of the saddle.  The horse falls on the forehand and begins running forward because the reins are long.  Repeat. This is a highly frustrating loop and it happens with almost every instructor I’ve ridden with in lessons.

The situation from the instructor’s perspective:  I’m working on asking better questions so I know what problem the instructor is addressing in the moment.  In this scenario Kris, after watching my lesson, said that when my hands come back into my lap that it shifts my balance, my shoulders roll forward and I collapse in the middle.  The instructor is telling me to put my hands forward to reposition my body vertically and the comment has nothing to do with my rein length.

The fix from my perspective:  When I hear this comment “put your hands forward” I now shorten my reins first and then put my hands forward.  This must be working because I have not had an instructor tell me to lengthen my reins.

Now, I only lengthen my reins when my instructor says, “Lengthen your reins.”

Good Riding,

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

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Dressage Horse Training:  Putting tools together half-halt, yield, bend

Hello Everyone,

The goal with riding is to develop feel.  At the beginning you must have some logical, step-wise processes to follow, putting your horse in the right way, allowing you to develop your feel.  If you have a schoolmaster count yourself lucky although some schoolmasters are masters of evasions as well.  Dressage definitely has to be earned; horses do not give free passes.

Donzer is a short horse and from the beginning I’ve been educated that one of the challenges with a short horse is the horse is either correct or not because there’s no extra length to give you some wiggle room as a rider.  I can say that I’ve had moments of correct bending with Donzer but as a rule I do not bend him enough.  And, as you start schooling FEI you have to start thinking 3D including the longitudinal bend (think lifting withers and sitting behind) as well as the lateral bend.

Once I have Donzer’s head settled (see previous post), I move to this exercise next on the 20 meter circle.  Half-halt, leg yield out 1-3 steps, shoulder in.  For me I understand at the gross level what needs to happen but I am learning how much is enough; and when I do have the right level of effort I make sure to reward Donzer.  I love doing work at the walk because you can slow everything down and mistakes are not magnified with momentum.  As always, it is really me being trained, Donzer gets the exercise when I do.

Half-Halt:  I spread this out over at least half a circle and initially rode almost a full halt so I could verify the effort was being made on Donzer’s part.  My feel is not developed enough to always tell if my half-halt happened but I can definitely tell when a full halt almost happens.

Leg Yield:  The leg yield out is really more to create the bend in the body.  For me the challenge is to keep track of my inside leg and make sure my inside leg stays at the girth (My inside leg tends to drift to far back and move the haunches).  This ensures I have both the shoulders and haunches yield which is necessary to create a poll to tail bend in the body.

Shoulder In:  I find this very tricky to feel on Donzer.  From the ground it is easy to see a shoulder in and from the saddle I am not 100% confident I know where the sweet spot is but I can tell you the shoulder in requires a much greater degree of effort from Donzer than I’ve been asking for thus far.

Half-Halt, Leg Yield, Shoulder-In.  We have been on the 20 meter circle for four days now and it is exactly the work I need.  I know it is tedious for the instructor but this is the foundation for self-carriage that must be in place before time is spent on the movements.  There is a wide gulf between understanding a concept and affecting the ride.  The instructor/student combo with patience to solidify this part of the training process will more forward more quickly.  As a student I find I need the eye on the ground because I am doing what I think is correct but until my muscle memory is established I need verification.  As an instructor, I find many students get bored and/or do not really feel the nuances yet.  So, this is bite sized work to be done a little each day as the student is developing.  A bored student does not make for a better team because the horse keys in on the rider.  Having ridden the PSG I know how crucial this step is and feel lucky to have a patient instructor and six weeks of immersion.

Good Riding,

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

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Dressage Horse Training:  What to do about a bobbing head?!?

Hello Everyone

For anyone who’s tracked my progress with Donzer one of our challenges has always been Donzer’s head.  At training and first level Donzer would always carry his head behind the vertical.  As he got stronger, Donzer would carry his head but when tired, duck his chin towards his chest for a quick break.  The real challenge began at 3/4th level when I was asking the question, “How do we start creating an FEI frame?”  I received lots of feedback on what you cannot do.  You cannot ride front to back.  You cannot simply create a headset.  You cannot achieve the correct frame with a small trot. So I was full up on what I couldn’t do and was light on a positive direction to move.  A few trainers said I could “fluff” Donzer up and this works for maybe a stride or two but this was not the final answer.  Losing your temper or making any kind of strong corrections with the reins was not working.  I’ve received guidance and now have two strategies to address a rude and/or unsteady head.

One, Alfredo Hernandez had me simply open my inside rein and hold until Donzer quit moving his head around.  To clarify, I had Donzer on a 20 meter circle with equal contact in both reins and while keeping the outside contact steady, just move the inside hand straight sideways.  What I found is the first few times Donzer would fuss and pull but each time he settled his head, I would move my hand back to his withers and Donzer would have immediate release.  After a few rides, when I started to move my hand to the inside, Donzer would settle because he is smart that way and wants to be ahead of me.

What remained after this gross correction was some head bobbing-not in a rude way but more unsteady.  This is where strategy two comes in to play.

Two, Judy Farnsworth explained that the head bobbing was a result of the hind leg not carrying.  It is very helpful for me to understand the dynamic of what is happening to be an effective rider.  To help Donzer carry himself, Donzer needed to find his balance.  Judy had me counter flex and leg yield together effecting a diagonal aid.  So, if I’m on a 20 meter circle to the left I would counter-flex to the right.  I then use my inside (left leg) at the girth (for some reason I keep moving my inside leg back towards the haunches and the aid works better at the girth) and move Donzer out on the circle in a leg yield.  I hold this correction until Donzer relaxes his neck and then move back to true bend.  Initially I did this on a continuous cycle because as soon as it was fixed the head bobbing began again and after a few rides; Donzer has learned this correction and is starting to find his own balance when he feels me start to counter flex his head.  I did this at the walk first and have added the same exercise at the trot.  As a rider this is a coordination challenge and I did the process at the walk until I created the muscle memory in myself.  That sounds grand.  I repeat this process each day in my warm-up at the walk and am creating muscle memory in my body.  I think it will take me at least the six weeks I’m here under daily observation to start adding this correction to my riding pattern.

Good Riding,

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

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Dressage Horse Training:  The first day at the barn

Hello Everyone,

Fox Lea Farms is a great facility and the people are very nice.  The biggest task the first day was body clipping.  Overall one of my shortcomings as a dressage person is my grooming—my guys look like dirt balls most of the time.  Their coats were so thick for the Colorado winter that Donzer and Ava were sweating when I got up in the morning.  Sweat and dirt slow the clippers down a lot—and I’m still working on the legs a few days later.  Washing with soap helps a lot.  I also have to figure out how much hay my horses eat.  At home they have free choice from a round bale.  Here the hay is $22 a bale so I’m not so keen to see wasted and peed on hay.

Figuring out how the daily routine is going to emerge is taking some time as well.  In a big group it’s not possible to have hard and fast schedules.  I like to get turn-out time and I have to admit that coffee time in the morning is something I really treasure.  I’m also taking time each day to continue clipping, I need to pull manes and such.  I also want to watch every ride and work on my book each day.  So many things to do so little time—life is good!

Good Riding,

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

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Dressage Horse Training: Words Matter

Sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me.  We all heard this at one point or another in school when learning how to deal with a bully or mean girl.  There is value in this mantra as it is a tool to defend you when at the mercy of a less evolved soul.  This skill continued on in my military training experiences and having a thick skin was worn as a badge of honor.  Writing my book, Out of the Saddle: 9 Steps to Improve Your Horseback Riding, I researched and discussed the power of positive thinking.  I discussed moving past the negative self-talk we all have.  And, I challenged my readers to listen to the people around them to see how many people are truly positive and how many people come at life through a negative lens.  For example, ask a rider, “How was your ride today?” and hear back, “Well, I was not able to get the horse to give me a good place to sit or reach for the bit like I wanted but I guess it was okay.”  Instead of saying (and thinking) “My ride was great!  I almost got the stretch to the bit and now I’m closer to making it happen.”

So here’s what happened.  I was taking a lesson with Judy Farnsworth on her schoolmaster, Bo.  Judy very kindly suggested I should keep my shoulders more aligned with Bo when we were going to the right as I was overturning my shoulders right.  I am aware l over rotate my shoulders but it has become ingrained in my muscle memory so I told Judy, “You don’t need to be so kind in your correction of my position, I have a thick skin.”  Judy’s reply was, “The way I approach and coach you impacts how you approach your horse.”  This floored me.  Here I was still stuck in a personal space beating myself up about how I overturn my shoulders and giving my trainer permission to beat me up, too.  This very subtle nuance in Judy’s approach is not going to end up being subtle at all.  Words Matter!

Good Riding,

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

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Dressage Horse Training: The cross country drive

Dressage Horse Training: The cross country drive

I have to say the trip to Florida was blessedly uneventful.  We found a round trip ticket for Kris from Fort Meyers to Denver and back so Kris was able to make the trip with me.  I had planned to go alone but it was much better to have a second brain involved in driving and finding the horse hotels.  Before we left we did our check list—changed oil in the truck, check the lights, got health certificates—you know, the long list of picky details to attend to for a long trip. My horses are used to turnout so I found overnight spots in pasture so I think this helped the horses mentally and physically to be able to move around for 12 hours and roll.

Special thanks to Susan DeSylva and Andrea Doelling for having dinner and discussing planning and lessons learned–this helped make my trip smooth.

Good Riding,

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

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Dressage Horse Training: The Tools in Your Tool Box

Dressage is a fickle mistress indeed.  Once you are lured into her charms, you realize that you must give yourself over very fully or you will never get to experience the depth and feels offered.  In Abilene Texas as a new C-130 pilot, I decided to look for a trainer to take some “English-type” lessons to get a little better at riding.  I met Michie Cavouti and my first encounter was Michie riding, Donji, her warmblood down the long side at a canter slower than I was walking.  At that point in my riding I had two primary gaits, hand-gallop and walk and I was hooked immediately—although I had no idea what I was getting myself into.  Over the next ten years I worked on dressage between deployments with various trainers depending on my location.  My partner was my quarter-horse, Red, who was ready but not necessarily willing but he did work hard for me at the end of the day.

As an autodidact my education was varied—books, videos, auditing clinics, etc.  So I find myself now almost 15 years later with a tool box full of all kinds of exercises, biomechanics, training processes, horse personalities and not a clear understanding of which tool I should reach for in a given moment.  For example, I can teach any horse the basic aids for moving away from pressure to affect a leg yield or haunches in; but, what do I do when my horse is out of the blue being very rude with his head, not pulling but bobbing up and down?  What is the correction?  In the toolbox analogy do I reach for a screwdriver, a hammer or a pair of pliers?  I have all the tools available so which tool is the right tool for the job!?

This year I’ve taken a step back and revisited what I wrote in my book, Out of the Saddle: 9 Steps to Improve Your Horseback Riding.  It’s funny I had to take the time to go back and listen to my own advice.  I started analyzing what was causing a plateau in my progress.  I am still physically capable and have not reached an impasse in riding requirements (not counting the constant development of core strength).  I am a good student.  Once challenge is I am very literal and do exactly what I am hearing the instructor say.  I receive information in almost a digital manner and individual bytes of data.  Writing is one way I integrate the new information into my knowledge as a whole.  Many rider/trainers are kinesthetic learners and do not process information like I do so I need to keep that in my “cross-check” (pilot term for the scan of all the airplane instruments used to keep the plane flying straight and level) as I am learning and ask pertinent questions.  The trainers I have been working with are all top-notch and experts in their respective niches and I have many good tools in my tool box.  My assessment is my communication needs have changed.  It does seem logical looking at my plateau from this perspective. I am in the process, growing, changing and learning my communication style is evolving.  I’m in the phase of “I don’t know what I don’t know.”  Just like at a clinic when the clinician points out something your trainer has been telling you for months and all of a sudden the light bulb moment happens, I’m giving six weeks of immersion in a new environment (bucket list Florida trip) a try to see if I have movement in my riding progress.

I have ridden with Judy Farnsworth a few times in Colorado and had the rare opportunity to sit on her schoolmaster for a few lessons.  Sitting on the schoolmaster was invaluable because Judy knows her horse and could more easily parse out what was me and what was the horse.  In my lessons we have been on a 20 meter circle doing very basic work, honestly, nothing new in terms of the aids but the timing of the aids has been creating a self-carriage I’ve been lacking.  The horse always tells the story. Judy has been able to see where I am right now and apply the correct instruction.  My job is to keep my ego in check, be a good listener and do what’s being handed to me.  As I remain open to the instruction, I can play with the tools already in my tool box and see how they flow into the ride.  When I select and use a tool in an additive way, the ride becomes better, the horse rounder and softer and Judy says, “Yes, like that.”  If I try out a tool and it is not the correct moment for the tool, Donzer will let me know almost immediately as our energy flow shifts like a water hose with a kink in it.

Writing is a wonderful tool for me to process and integrate new information.  I am going to keep a running blog during this trip and hopefully by reading this you will have some personal “aha’s” and jumps forward in your riding.  My goal is to get to Grand Prix as long as I am physically and mentally able to keep moving forward.  Like I said, dressage is a life-long pursuit and the constant dynamic of, “I have time and no money and now I have money and no time.”  I’m getting old enough that I added to this is I cannot wait until I retire to start!  Please share any insights you have as well on my face book page because we all learn together.

 

Good Riding

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

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