Sunday, September 25, 2011

Thoughts For A "Fall" Day

New Jersey did not get the memo that fall has arrived.  We're still hot, muggy, and sticky.  Not exactly motivational weather, but I have things to get done.  I guess it will have to do.

In my efforts to nail the canter-walk transitions I've realized a few things.  Mostly, I've realized that my horse's canter is not really that great.  I think it's pretty great, in that he can carry me around in a manner that feels relaxed and soft.  It's easy to sit Spider's canter, and he certainly seems round, but there are clues that it just isn't quite where it needs to be to move up the levels.

Clue #1:  I still can't do those *&#%^*$ canter-walk transitions consistently!  It is, however, getting better.  I can occasionally get them from right lead canter.  This is progress, it means Spider is getting stronger.  The left lead still evades me, but we are steaming ahead.  We'll get it someday....

I once audited a clinic in which the clinician used an amusing analogy to describe the proper collected canter.  He said, "The horse should ROAR into the canter like a lion!"  He even put his hands up in the air like claws, mimicking a lion "roaring".  The audience giggled, it was such a silly thing to say.  But it's an analogy that's stuck with me for years.

I also remember the very first time I ever sat on an FEI horse.  Up to that point, I had only ever ridden Western trained horses and lower level dressage horses.  When I asked for the canter on that FEI horse, I nearly fell off!  I was not expecting the canter to be so..... rambunctious.  He didn't canter so much as he leaped.  This was years before I had heard the roaring lion analogy, and I was not prepared at all!

I eventually learned to ride those leaping canters, and to control them.  On those leaping Schoolmasters I learned the canter-walk transitions and even the canter-halts.  The key is to start cueing the downward transition as the leap begins.  The tempo goes: leap, pause, leap, pause, leap.  As you feel the horse gather himself for the next leap, you apply your aids for the downward transition.  The horse leaps into your aids, and you set him down gently into the walk.

I've realized that I will never get that transition from a gentle, easy to sit, rocking horse canter.  It's too flat, there's no pause.  I need the leap.

My Spider doesn't leap like a lion, and I don't think he ever will.  He just isn't built that way.  But when I ride him now and I ask him to collect I get a few strides that roll like a wave.  Those are the strides I'm looking for.  I feel him roll up from his hind end like a wave breaking against the beach, then a pause, then he rolls forward again.  All I have to do is ride that wave up to its peak, then set him down into the walk.  It is a strength issue for him, and a timing issue for me.

I just can't resist making a ridiculous pun about it:  Sometimes to get ahead, you need to make waves!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Where Are Your Legs?

My son is just learning to walk.  Every step he takes is a conscious effort.  He thinks very carefully about how he lifts his leg, where he places it, when he moves his muscles.  As adults, we don't think about these things anymore.  Our brains have already learned what to do and now we walk, jog and run without any mental effort at all.  Through years of practice, we have built up a "muscle memory".

That's how our brains work.  We build up memories of motions we repeat often, until eventually we don't really have to think about them anymore.  Our bodies simply "know" what to do without us consciously telling them what to do.

Unfortunately, sometimes our memories are not as accurate as they should be.  If we learn a skill incorrectly, our muscle memories will also be incorrect.  We will repeat the incorrect movement ad nauseum and our brains will resist changing it, until the correct movement feels awkward and incorrect.  Even if we are trained correctly, we can still screw it up.  In the case of injury, we subconsciously guard our weak points, which causes the rest of our bodies to fall out of alignment.  In my case, I know I hunch my shoulders to guard the herniated discs in my neck.  I have herniated discs in my neck because I look down when I walk.  I look down when I walk because I have nerve damage in my left leg from another injury and I feel the need to look down so I don't trip.  It's a ridiculous downward spiral of crap-tacularness.

Most riders I know have some problem like this.  The problem itself varies: straight arms, gripping thighs, hunched shoulders, chair seat....  But, no matter the bad habit, the source is an incorrect muscle memory.  We have inadvertently trained ourselves to ride that way. 

In the last few weeks I have been trying to get rid of my bad habits, my incorrect muscle memories.  I have been trying to correct my posture both in and out of the saddle.  To that end, I have taken a cue from my son.  I am trying to be very conscious of using my muscles properly.  I am thinking very hard about where I place my body and why. 

As I watch my son walk, I realize that he takes a very proper stance: his head is balanced perfectly above his shoulders, his shoulders balance above his hips, his hips are balanced above his heels.  He is young, and is as yet unaffected by the many cares that life will put on him.  He has no aches and pains, he has no chores to do, and so he delights in his new found skill.  His delight reminds me of Xenophon's words:  "If one induces the horse to assume that carriage which it would adopt of its own accord when displaying its beauty, then one directs the horse to appear joyous and magnificent, proud and remarkable for having been ridden."

It seems I must induce myself to assume that carriage which I would adopt if I were displaying my beauty, just as my little son does.   

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Odds, Ends and Spam

Blogger has a nifty little "Stats" tag that shows you how many people are coming to your blog and where they're coming from.  I like to click on it sometimes to see where my blog visitors come from.  I've actually discovered quite a few good blogs to read from my referral sites.   However, I have noticed a disturbing trend in my referral sites:  Many of them have absolutely nothing to do with riding, horses, or even blogs. 

For awhile, one of my major "sources" of hits was a Russian singles dating site.  I thought that was a little odd, but Spider is pretty good looking, so I let it slide.  But for the last month or so my biggest "sources" have been websites selling crap.  Crap like cake pans, online degrees and loans.  What's up with that?  I began to be suspicious.  So, I installed some (free, because I don't actually care enough to spend my money on this) analytical software into my blog.  None of these sales sites appear on my third party analytical software.  Hmmmmmm...........

I'm not one to make conspiracy theories, but I think Blogger may be trying to spam me.  Shame on you, Blogger!  And, cake pans?  Really?  How about you program your web crawler to insert sites with stuff I actually might want to buy?   

Anyway... moving on to the actual subject of this blog, which is not cake pans, I have not been doing much of interest this week.  I'm still working on Spider's canter, still working on my position and just generally trying to move forward (aren't we all?).  I'm still stuck on those wretched canter-walk transitions.  It is taking all of my will power to not just try to drill the things into the ground, too.  But, drilling them over and over would accomplish nothing because the canter is still not where I need it to be.  I could force the transition, but it would not be relaxed and thus not correct.  When faced with challenges like this, when I desperately want to get something accomplished but find that it is just not happening, I repeat to myself the wise words of Alois Podhajsky:

"I have time."

My horse does not care if we ever do a canter-walk transition.  He does not care about my goals or my pride.  He has no goals and no pride.  And so I must remember to make this fun for him, even (and especially) if it is not fun for me. 

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Canter Work, Seat Work, Back to Work

Since Irene ended up being a non-event, Spider and I have gone back to work full steam.  My neck is feeling quite good, I've even been released from physical therapy.  Although, there are still some problems, more on that some other time.

For now, we'll concentrate on the interesting bits:  horse training.  I mentioned in my last training post that I feel Spider's canter work is not up to snuff.  I can get half-passes at walk and trot, but fail miserably at a canter-walk transition.  So the canter needs work.  With that in mind, I have been practicing counter-canter, shoulder in, and spiraling in and out on a circle with Spider.  All those exercises will help him to sit down and activate his hind end at the canter.  Once I have the appropriate amount of activity, I will begin to collect the canter, then send him back into a working canter until he reaches the point where he can nearly canter in place.  From there, the canter-walk will be in the bag. 

But, I don't like to work on one thing all the time in training.  It is not good for the horse's (or rider's) brain, and it is not a sound way to develop strength.  From a physiological standpoint, muscles are built by damaging them.  Hard work puts tiny tears in the muscle fiber, which the body then repairs.  But because the muscle was stressed to the point of damage, the body says "We need more strength here!".  And so the damaged muscle is not only repaired, but also reinforced, making it bigger and stronger so that it will not fail again.  The only caveat is that the muscle must be allowed time to repair itself.  To compensate for this, I like to work on different things on different days.

So what to work on non-fixing the canter days?  Well, it just so happens that during Hurricane Irene I picked up my copy of Heinrich Schusdziarra's Anatomy of Dressage and re-read it.  It is one of my favorites.  The book details how we ride from a biomechanical standpoint, why we need to ride in a proper position, and what happens when we don't.  My re-reading of it has inspired me to be more conscious of my position and to work on it.  So, a few days a week I just let Spider go around in simple circles while I think about my seat and leg, which muscles I am activating at what time, and what my upper body is doing while all that is going on.  I'm actually enjoying it.  Because, as we all know, dressage riders are all secretly masochists. 

Actually, it's because my physical therapy has made me feel better and I'm not guarding my spine as much anymore.  I feel much more free and able than I have in months, which makes working on my position a pleasure rather than a chore!


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