Monday, May 28, 2012

Canter-Walk Transitions!


How long have I been working on those things?  Pretty much for the entire history of this blog.  And I got  finally got them today!

 Well, I've gotten them before, but it was a sketchy sort of "here and there" thing.  No consistency.  If I asked for them ten times, I would get one and the rest would be canter-trot.  But today... today I nailed them every single time.

So, what was my big, fat epiphany?  What did I do differently today that I never did before?  Not a damned thing.  It wasn't what I did today, but what I've been doing for the last month.

I've been working our butts off.

Well, in Spider's case, I've been working his butt on!  Seriously, look at that thing.  He looks like one of those rap guy's girlfriends.  (Baby got back!)

I've been making every transition count, making every transition good.  I've been volte-ing like it holds the secret to eternal youth and enlightenment.  I've been leg-yielding in the canter, I've been counter-cantering, I've been walk-to-cantering.  I've been doing everything but canter-walking.

I've been almost canter-walking...... I would collect the canter, collect the canter some more, collect it again until he was just ready to break gait, then send him back forward to a working canter.  This was one of our main exercises.  We did it over and over again, along with more trot-canter-trot transitions then I ever want to count.  It was hard, it was tedious, it was un-inspiring.  But it worked!  Because today it finally happened.  I asked for it, he gave it to me.

And now we just need to put some polish on it.

Friday, May 25, 2012


One of my many rotten tests

I know very little about judging, but it's something I've always been interested in.  So, when a friend mentioned that she was looking for a scribe for a show, I volunteered.  What better way to gain insight into the judging process than to be responsible for writing out the judge's thoughts?

I've never scribed before, so hopefully my friend will take pity on me and I'll get to scribe for Intro and Training level!

To help myself prepare, I got out all my old tests and have been reading over them.  Man, there are some bad ones in that collection!  Poor scribe must have had a hand cramp from all the comments.  And then some of them require an expert in hieroglyphics to decipher.  I've even got one where it seems that the judge snatched the test away from the scribe mid-ride and started scoring it herself.  I wonder what happened there?  (It was probably my fault)

I've also sought the help of the internet.  (Because, really, if Dr. Google can't answer your question, who can?)  I found this handy guide for scribing on the USDF website.  It even has a list of common abbreviations!  Which is interesting, because there are no abbreviations in the comments of any of my tests.  I guess no one really knows about them.  Which then begs the question: If no one knows about the abbreviations, how will the test-ee decipher the comments?  Oh dressage, you are a conundrum!

Confusing abbreviations aside, I am very excited about my upcoming foray into the other side of the judge's box.  I don't think I'll be able to watch the tests or glean much information about judging this time, I'll be too busy just trying to keep up and learn how to scribe!  But, it gets my foot in the door and I'll learn a new, useful skill.  And, hopefully, (once I get the hang of it) I'll get to pay a little more attention to the judge and the ride and learn a little something about judging!

Oh, and if you've got any suggestions, I'm all ears!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


The honeysuckle blooming around my arena.  It smells amazing.

I am still struggling with Spider's canter.  It is stuck somewhere between "Slowest Racehorse Ever" and "Hunter".  Nowhere near "Dressage Horse", which is where I need it to be if we are to have any hope of getting through 2nd level and on to 3rd this year.

Despite my prayers for a sudden epiphany, I know that there is only one way to get through this: Get my butt in the saddle and just do it.  Make every stride of canter count, make it perfect.  Make every transition count, make them perfect.  Every imperfect stride, every flat transition, is un-training my horse.  In order to move forward, we must work harder than we've ever worked before.  It is difficult and it is frustrating for both of us.

In order to accomplish this, to get the canter straightened out, I have dedicated myself to riding my best every single time.  Even on play days we have to do nice transitions and stay round.  Because every bad stride undoes all my training and makes it that much harder to reach our goal.  I have also dedicated myself to being more consistent in my riding program.  That means riding 5-6 days a week, conditions be damned.

Yesterday was hectic.  I woke up late, then had an unexpected errand that ate up part of my day.  By the time I got everything done and settled it was 9pm and I still hadn't ridden my horse.  I didn't really want to, either, but I knew I had to.  So, I grabbed my tack and headed outside.

It started to rain lightly as I got Spider ready.  Because my day hadn't been frustrating enough.  But the rain was warm and I was wearing jeans and half-chaps instead of my breeches and tall boots, so I continued tacking up.  (I'm not gonna lie, had I been wearing my deerskin breeches and tall boots I might have scrapped the ride.  Those things are expensive!)

As I settled into the saddle the rain got a little heavier.  We warmed up quickly, then went to work.  I wasn't sure how long I would be able to ride before the rain really started to come down.

As we went around, my frustrations slipped away.  There is something of the divine in riding in the rain on a warm spring day, surrounded by the scent of honeysuckle.  I found it impossible to be anything but happy in that moment.

As my frustrations slipped away, I found a new joy in making every transition and canter stride perfect.  I was no longer doing it because I wanted to show 3rd level.  I was doing it for the sheer pleasure of training a horse.  And so we went around, happily schooling dressage just for the fun of it.

At the end of our ride I looked up into the night sky, letting the rain hit my face while I inhaled the heady scent of the honeysuckle.  I fixed that ride into my mind, so that I would never forget that there is only one emotion that belongs in the saddle:  Pure, unbridled joy.  

Friday, May 18, 2012


I've never really been a "gear" type of person.  Generally, the most interest I show in my gear is in making sure it's all there before I mount up.  (And I still sometimes forget things.... Girth?  Who needs that?)

I know how the stuff works, but I just don't find it all that interesting.  What I find particularly "not interesting" is trying to figure out what is legal for dressage and what is not.  Especially when it comes to bits.  So, I usually stick with the basic, boring loose ring snaffle.  But, since introducing the curb to Spider, I had noticed how much more happy and relaxed he is in a double bridle compared to the snaffle.

Spider is a typical Thoroughbred in that he will fuss with a bit if allowed to.  He also tends to suck back or dive out of contact.  We worked for many years to get him over this in his training, and I was very proud of him last year when we were finally able to move up to a full bridle with a curb bit.  Although, I did think that we would have some of the same problems when the curb was introduced.  Surprisingly, we did not.  He was willing to accept the contact of the curb quite nicely.  We did, however, have the old fussing, diving, sucking back problems when we would switch back to the loose ring snaffle.  Color me confused!

After some ruminating, I began to think that maybe what Spider didn't like was the instability of the loose ring snaffle in his mouth.  I knew the baucher, or hanging cheek, snaffle was supposed to be more stable due to the cheek pieces being fixed, but I didn't actually have one to try.

Luckily, I just happened to find one in my local tack store in the right size and not too expensive!  (South Jersey is the land of Quarter Horses.  Trying to find a bit in giant-headed Spider size is usually impossible.  I once had a tack store employee tell me, snottily, that "Only Draft horses wear that size." I was not amused.)

So, I hooked up my new bit and put it on Spider.  And he liked it!  No diving, no sucking back, no fussing.  He went straight into the contact.  It seems that the baucher is exactly as advertised, at least for Spider.  That's a first!

Friday, May 11, 2012

A Way Of Thinking

As I warmed up for my last lesson, I realized that I had a tense horse.

It had stormed that morning, and the weather had cooled off.  I was left with a horse that was spooky and reactive.  But, I had a lesson, so I needed to work through it to get my horse warmed up and ready.

When my trainer arrived, I was not even in the arena.  I was just outside of it, confronting this:

Little known fact:  White plastic jugs are a natural predator of equines.  Particularly Thoroughbreds.

He waited patiently while I made Spider stand right next to the Scary Thing until he relaxed, then I went back to the arena and we started the lesson.

The theme of the day was "roundness".  Spider needs more of it.  Especially when he's feeling tense and spooky.  He needs to work over his back more.  He needs to stay round and soft through all the transitions (even the hard ones!).  I need to stay soft through the transitions, too.

Eventually we graduated from simple transitions to actual exercises.  And Spider decided to balk at a puddle in arena.  Now, puddles are not something that Spider has a problem with:

Spider not having a problem with puddles.

Incensed, I called a time out and made him stand in the puddle.  If he can stand in a puddle in his pasture, he can stand in the damned puddle in my arena.

"Please excuse us for a moment", I said to my trainer, "We just need to work through this."

"This is good", said my trainer.  "I like that you make him confront the things that he doesn't like, rather than letting him avoid them.  It is the same with the roundness."

It took a few moments for that to sink into my brain.  When it did, I laughed and replied: "But, it's so much easier to make him stand in this puddle than it is to make him stay round!"

But, is it really?  If I can make him confront the Scary Thing, and get him to stand in The Bottomless Arena Puddle, why can't I get him to stay consistently round?  They are all matters of training.  I have trained Spider to my aids, I have acquired his trust enough to make him do far more difficult and scary things than merely staying round.

It boils down to a way of thinking, really.  I need to think about Spider's frame and activity level in the same way I think about scary things and puddles.  He must do as I ask, even if it is scary or hard or he doesn't want to.

After Spider had to stand in the puddle, he didn't give me any more problems about it.  I suspect there was a glare on the surface of the water and he didn't realize that it was just a puddle.  A horse's eyesight is not as acute as ours, they aren't always able to see objects as clearly as we do.  When I made him stand in it, he figured out what it was.

It is the same idea with roundness.  Once I make him do it, he understands that it is a more comfortable way of going.  It's just a matter of getting over that initial resistance and showing him that it's not so scary or difficult.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


I did not get to ride in the moonlight on Saturday.  It was far too cloudy here to see the moon that night.  But, I've never been one to let a little thing like clouds ruin a good time, so I saddled up anyway and rode in the arenalight.

Not quite as inspiring as a Super Moon, but it gets the job done.

On a whim (that may or may not have been fueled by the Mint Julep I had while watching the Derby), I decided to ride bareback.  I don't ride bareback very often, but I've done it often enough to know that Spider is a good boy about it and I can stay on.

However, it is important to note that I only ride Spider bareback when it is very cold outside.  Like, so cold that I feel terrible about taking his thick, warm blanket off to put the saddle on, so I just hop on bareback with his heavy winter blanket still on.  I have never ridden him bareback without a winter blanket on.

It is also important to note that Spider has a truly impressive wither, even for a Thoroughbred, and that he wears a custom made saddle because he is narrower than a "narrow" tree.

Do you see where this is headed?  If you do, then you're much smarter than me!

Upon getting myself settled in, I found a very uncomfortable wither.  I figured it was no big deal, I'd just sit a little further back.  A little further back, I found a very uncomfortable spine.  No problem!  I'll just get him nice and round.  When he got round, the very uncomfortable spine rose up like a cheese slicer.  I made it half way around the arena, then decided to get the saddle.  I think we'll stick to bareback riding in heavy winter blankets from now on!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Super Moon Saturday

Last year's Super Moon

This Saturday will be the brightest full moon of the year.  I fully intend to take advantage of it by riding that night.  You just can't pass up an opportunity like that!

I just hope these clouds blow away by then....

Tuesday, May 1, 2012


Spider and I are both crooked.  And we're both crooked in the same direction, unfortunately.  If we were crooked in opposite directions we could potentially even each other out.  But, no... we both fall in to the left.

Now, it could be a sort of "chicken or egg" dilemma.  Is Spider crooked because I'm crooked and I'm the only one who rides him?  Or was Spider always crooked and he made me crooked by throwing me left while I was weak after my injury?  Or are we both just crooked in our own special, completely uncomplimentary ways?  Doesn't matter.  It needs to be fixed.

See, what happens with a crooked horse is that you're going along quite nicely (or so you think), until it comes time to turn.  Then, you're suddenly careening out of control and into the bushes on the side of the arena, or getting quicker and quicker until your horse is completely on the forehand and you're leaning into the turn like a motocross rider.  Not really ideal.

My first fix is always to check myself:  Am I leaning left?  Yes?  Then I look over my right shoulder until my hips and shoulders straighten, breathe in, and turn my head back to center.  The human head weighs quite a bit.  Simply turning it forces our spine to realign itself and the hips and shoulders follow along.

Next I ask myself, "Are we still crooked?"  Yes?  Time to re-balance Spider.

First we do a couple quick transitions up and down.  And by quick, I mean just a few steps in each gait.  This gets his balance shifted back onto his haunches.  Then, I take a few steps of shoulder in to the right, followed by a few steps of haunches in to the left, then circle left.  The circle left is the "check" to see if he's really supple or not.  If he falls in, we repeat the exercise.

When Spider is crooked, he falls in to his left shoulder, and loses the contact with my right (outside) rein and leg.  The shoulder in right re-establishes that contact and lifts his inside (left) shoulder.  Also, when he's crooked, his haunches drift out to the right and his body loses it's bend to the left.  Once I have the outside aids back, the haunches in left brings his hind end back around and re-establishes the left bend.

Obviously, a haunches in is not the way we want to go around all the time (certainly not in a show!).  That would be wrong, just as wrong as having the haunches out.  The horse should be straight.  But, because Spider is crooked, we need to exaggerate the movement to strengthen him and build flexibility.  This is training, not showing.  You exaggerate the training, so that you can make it look easy at the shows.  The ugly riding stays home!

As an added bonus, both shoulder in right and haunches in left require me to get off my left seat bone (remember I lean left), straighten up and balance myself.  It's an exercise that works both horse and rider.  


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