Monday, May 1, 2017

Lesson of Frustration (aka left hand and bend)

This seems to be one lesson after another for us! Not really, I'm just not writing about our rides in between lessons.

I'm writing about this though! More on it at the end of the post.
Sorry for it being a fuzzy screenshot... someone else used their older phone to video, not my nice new smart phone...

It's been a long time since I had a lesson where I was so supremely frustrated that I was mentally checking out DURING the lesson.

I had an under saddle lesson with the Cowboy Dressage lady a few weeks ago (4/14). She immediately keyed on: 1) my left leg was doing way too much spur digging, 2) didn't like the weight my hand carried in contact on the bit (I personally don't see a problem with it, it doesn't feel like much contact to me, but that might be because he was so heavy for so long), 3) any tension he carried, and 4) his head tilt. Left bend is a problem- it always has been. It's probably why the left rein became my favorite to hang on and my left spur does so much digging. I'm sure the head tilt comes from that.

She immediately got after us about bend, after only a few minutes of walking around while I worked on our beginning ride suppling exercises- changes of bend on linked 10m circle. My own warm up was scrapped and we proceeded with her instruction. What followed can only be described as a complete lack of understanding on my part with ever increasing frustration. I understood she wanted him to bend from my inside leg (because I'd like that too), but I did not understand how she wanted me to get it.

She wanted him to be completely relaxed, which I totally want too. She kept having me drop all contact with his mouth, and letting him fall heavy on the forehand, which I really didn't like. It was all: leg on, Penn would run away, I'd take up contact, she'd yell to stop touching his mouth and keep asking him to leg yield out, then pull the left rein, then STOP pulling the left rein, catch him on the outside rein and leg, why are you holding the rein, let go of the rein, etc. Then combine that with Penn truly running away on the forehand in all gaits. Penn's gaits got nice and big, and the canter rhythm cleared up, but he felt rushy and running and incredibly heavy on the forehand. So frustrating. She asked if any of it felt better and I gave probably what is the rudest answer I've ever given, because I was so completely and utterly frustrated by the work and thinking about how long it was going to take me to undo whatever it was we were doing, "To be perfectly honest, he feels really super shitty to me. I'm sorry to phrase it like that, but it's how he feels."

It took over an hour (these lessons were supposed to be 45 min), but I finally caught what she was getting at: he needs to be allowed to make mistakes, so I can correct him when they're wrong (running away or transitioning to the next gait up instead of yielding to the inside leg, and later when riding on my own I added being on the forehand to the list). That's very much the same as how GP Trainer wants to let him make mistakes- he can try to answer the question, and if he's wrong, I correct it AFTER he's finished his answer, then ask again. I kept stopping Penn from moving off into the next gait when I'd put my inside leg on. He needed to move to the next gait, get a correction that put him back to previous gait, and then asked the same question again. Only then did he stop moving to the next gait.

The process became something like this (we'll use bending in walk to the left for example) on a 15-20m circle:

  • Left/inside leg on (aiming for it to be mostly calf, no spur or ankle), with both reins giving/zero contact (especially the right/outside) to ask for leg yield right/bend left.
  • Did the horse:
    • Move into trot?
      • Catch immediately with the right rein and leg in a half halt and reset him to walk. It must be a sharp correction with immediate, 100% release.
      • Repeat inside leg for bend question.
    • Not respond, or not respond enough?
      • Use sharp pulls up or tugs towards my left hip of the left rein (take, release, take, release, very similar to how she set him on his outside shoulder from the ground using a lead rope), to bring his head around and force him to move his shoulder.
      • If that does not work, tap with the whip on the hip to make the inside hind step under.
      • Catch him on the outside aids with a big half halt to set him back on his haunches. Big release of the reins immediately for giving the right answer.
      • Ask again or ask for a transition.
    • Bend?
      • Allow him to move his body and bend.
      • Catch firmly but gently with the right rein and leg in a half halt to set his balance on his outside legs.
      • Full release of reins.
      • Ask again or ask for a transition.
  • Ask again/transition/do something right away.

What I failed to understand was basically the flow chart of responses and how I needed to respond in kind, and how QUICKLY I needed to respond. It's never a several stride hold of anything, except maybe the inside leg, but even that should be bumping along in the rhythm of the gait. Once you're done with a correction or whatever, you need to be applying the inside leg again to shift the balance again. It's a complicated half halt really, where the end goal is better bend and inside hind leg engagement, and from the half halt stage of it, you can ask for better longitudinal balance.

In the last 5-10 min of the lesson, while tracking left on a circle, I could put my left leg on, and with zero contact, he would shift his rib cage and shoulder and give better bend without moving his body out. Very good boy. The only thing I didn't like was he was still too heavy on the forehand, and started responding to any kind of contact by curling (his natural tendency). He was also becoming more tuned into seat for the half halt, a definite plus.

Penn got a new fly mask since the velcro on his finally gave up and he lost it. I had to take off the nose piece of the Noble Outfitter mask because he was constantly making faces and tossing his head. Otherwise, he seems to approve!

I spent a solid 24 hours with thoughts that ranged from varying degrees of "OMG I hate her, I'm never riding with her again" and "What she had us do was really really useful, and we should work on that." and "GAH why is it always something basic that we have messed up?!?!" I went back to the barn the next afternoon to try and replicate now that I had a grasp of what she actually wanted.

And we were able to! Right off the bat, Penn was bending off my left leg. I'm sure I had much more contact than she would have liked, but damn it all, I AM NOT going to let Penn run around on his forehand. I am going to correct the shit out of that. I spent a long time correcting it the first time around in his training. It is a zero tolerance, not the right answer. By the end of that ride I still had a regular rhythm in all gaits, I could ask for collection and he would give it for a few strides, however, I still had a horse that wanted to curl.

Since then, I've continued to play with a very broken down inside leg to outside rein half halt.

One day he felt pretty spiffy and had a big huge warmblood canter complete with floppy ears and air time. I had zero clue what to do with it, so I asked for flying changes (because why not?). He gave me both lead changes, big and clean, and kept working in between. BO's daughter said he was reaching way up under himself with both hind legs, and that while he wasn't as uphill as he's been, he was still plenty uphill with a ton of jump in the canter. Towards the end of the ride, he started curling again and I got frustrated... but the BO's daughter pointed out that I had been at it for a while already, and his outside hind was starting to look tired.

It was the ride after this ride that I found out his medium trots were broken from the work we'd been doing- I'd put leg on for a bigger trot and he'd immediately canter. He didn't even wait until his balance got iffy, he'd just canter off. Sigh.

We haven't had that awesome amount of jump since that ride, but I've been trying to get him to lighten his forehand again. I had one really horrific ride where I could not get anything- he had a 'baby horse day' where he couldn't focus or listen. I tried to ride him through it, since if he's like that at a horse show we would have to, but every time I'd feel him get on the right track, he'd veer right off it again.

One major issue in this ride was the head tilt/looking to the outside that I kept getting, especially in SI left. He'd keep looking to the outside of the ring. It eventually dawned on me that proper contact is EVEN contact in both hands, not zero pounds in the inside hand and many pounds in the outside. I enjoyed pulling the left rein so much that in trying to break the habit, I stopped using it altogether and put heavy weight in the right hand (which would make his head look right while trying to bend left). Always rider error. Sigh. I decided I got and understand my lesson, but we have to work it productively into our work. Dressage riders don't go around with zero contact, just light contact.

My birthday was this past weekend, so Husband got me this awesome garden decoration!

Towards the end of this past week, we've had some awesome rides where I've developed a warm up for upcoming shows that develops bend while forcing me to maintain light and even contact in both hands.

I put Penn on a 3 loop serpentine at the walk, focusing on bend from the leg. Every time I would change bend, I'd put on my new inside leg, take a hair of the inside rein to give him clear direction, give the outside a hair, get the bend going and then half halt and take up my even contact again. It all gets done in a handful of steps. I'd do the same at the trot, paying attention to keeping my own shoulders and balance back and thinking, "bring up his knees" by using the same bend cues to half halt and really encouraging up in the second half of the half halt. This let him get off the forehand, lift his shoulders, and still go forward. He got very soft and relaxed with floppy ears. The canter was great too- nice even rhythm with no irregularities. Doing my half halts inside aids to outside aids really shifts his balance onto his outside legs at the canter and he becomes very round and relaxed, and I can lift him up as long as I remember to lift my shoulders. The medium canter was great too- I apply the inside part of the half halt in one stride, outside catch in the next, repeat. He stays very up in the shoulder and powers down the longside.

Both rides I had at the end of this past week contained nice flying changes too! The first day where he felt so super, I used the serpentine in trot, then a canter circle at A, then a short diagonal for the first change, a circle in the middle to really establish the new bend and balance, then headed down the next short diagonal and asked for the next change. They were all round and within the rhythm, so I'm assuming they were clean too (but I could barely feel they happened, so I donno).

Smart cookies get to quit early and go for long walks in the grass instead of more ring work!

The second ride I did this warm up was in the pouring rain- I didn't want to ride inside and I haven't actually worked Penn in the pouring rain (and so had no clue how he'd react at a show). I opted to put my warm up to the test: will he go to work in the pouring rain? Yes, he will. He's not happy about it and he swings his hind end into the wind/rain a good amount, but he will. It was not as good as the previous ride, but I got good work and two changes again. I didn't have him set up properly for the left to right (the harder one), so he didn't give me that change right away, but he let me rebalance him on the same short diagonal and ask again, and he promptly changed that time.

We finished up with this little grid that has been in the ring for a couple weeks, and it's been calling to me since it was set up! So I dismantled the oxer and put up a tiny cross rail. (yes, that is pouring rain you hear)

I am well aware of my extremely rusty jump skills. It isn't helped by jumping in long dressage stirrups! It's why I chose a grid to jump- it does a lot of the setting up and I just have to put my leg on and try to stay out of the way. We don't have the first time through on video- he really brought his knees up on that one! It made me want to get a new jump saddle. I don't feel very secure in mine anymore- it's a flat Pessoa XC jump saddle with extra forward flap. I need a more all purpose jump saddle. I'll keep it in mind, but I think next time I'll just shorten my dressage stirrups a couple holes! There will be a next time- he's much more fun to jump now that his legs aren't noodles!

We were a bit soppy at the end of the ride.
At least my barn has a dryer and I had a fleece vest, so I was able to put my soaked shirt in the dryer so I could go grocery shopping on the way home!

So what's next? Well we're heading down to VA this weekend for the first recognized show of the year where we'll meet up with Austen and GP Trainer, then the next weekend we're going to a schooling show where we'll ride 1-3 and 2-2 (Austen and I had a chat about 2-2 and it's much more up Penn's alley at this point, so probably no Dover medal attempts for us this year). The next day, I'm hauling to the local dressage trainer's barn to ride with a clinician everyone raves about and I was finally invited to come ride with. Lots going on!


  1. And once again we had the same lesson! It's so, soooooo hard to do anything without some contact on the reins. Even when BM is yelling at me to give him more length, I'm like, "Yeah, but how 'bout not?"

    1. Exactly! We can lament together. I was legit concerned I was ruining him past any ability to show him at any level. I wouldn't mind the rein length if it didn't come with a heavy dose of on the forehand. He's already built downhill, there's no reason to allow him to run around on it!

      It did help, and I'm more aware of what I'm doing, and he's been quite relaxed, flexible, and responsive. I am not lessoning with her again until after these few shows pass by though, I can't have a tear down the work happen 3 days before a show. The 3 weeks before this one coming up was barely enough time!

  2. Sounds like a tough, and maybe weird?, lesson but that you took something out of it. I'd be curious what a second lesson with her would be like. I'd have really struggled in that environment because I struggle with completely new topics especially if it's in a clinic environment with people watching.

    1. I don't usually struggle this much with new approaches to concepts... but this one really got me. I'm glad I got something out of it, but I'm holding off on a second lesson until after shows. I have to have a stable place to show off of, and she's more into tearing down and fixing (which is good), but not what I need this month. There's plenty of time for that after May!

  3. Omg that cat garden ornament. Omfg hahaha. Happy birthday! Also sounds like a great lesson. My trainer is constantly telling me to be quicker in my aids and responses and not to drag everything out or get stuck. It's a hard habit haha

    1. I love the garden ornament. Just love it. We have a sign that says, "Beware of Attack Kitten" that I need to spruce up (the paint is peeling off). We're going to put them out together, lol.

      I've always gotten into the hanging habit... holding things for way too long without a release. Def a hard habit to break because it's so sneaky when it comes back!

  4. That garden ornament is amazing!!

    1. Yes, it's very fun! I'm excited to get it out there, haha