Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Not a Crutch!

Two weeks ago I took my drop noseband to the leather shop to have the crownpiece shortened. It was stretching out so much, I couldn't keep it from obstructing Guinness' nostrils. I had a few days of riding and a lesson to face without the "magic" noseband that had helped Guinness and I develop a relationship with contact and working "on the bit."

I was really worried.

Without the band of leather acting on his nose, would my horse return to his head flinging, back hollowing, tuned out ways? I readied myself for some rough rides, dug up the regular cavesson from my bridle, borrowed a flash strap just in case, and set out to ride.

He's even handsome with a regular noseband!
And? Guinness was perfect. He readily took contact, and worked up over his back. He softly mouthed the bit, and was happy. I was able to make corrections when he got too heavy or came above the bit during schooling, and he readily accepted the corrections and got right back to work. He never used to do that in a regular cavesson.

The first ride wasn't a fluke, either. He was mouth-perfect in my lesson, as well. He stayed soft in my hands, and ready to take contact.

He even worked up a good amount of happy-mouth foam!
The verdict? My drop noseband experiment seems to have been a good one, and yet the tool has not developed into a crutch. I've switched back into the drop, as I still feel it's a great piece of equipment for us. However, it feels great to know that it just helped my horse and I reach a better understanding of contact, and isn't necessary forever!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A Real Half-Halt

"So, when are you planning to show next?" Nancy asked.
"We aren't, until we have developed a real medium trot."
"Good idea. Let's work on that."

So, we did.
(photo from last month, when the trees weren't even in leaf yet) I look tense, Guinness looks amazing.
Well, really we worked on half halts. The whole lesson was one big 45 minute long half halt. In a testament to the conditioning work I've been doing with myself and my horse, we both lasted out the time without getting exhausted. It was really hard work (I was drenched in sweat, and it was only 60 degrees!), but we both stepped up the plate and handled it. Go us!

The work I've been doing with my seat really showed off here. With the change to tucking my seat and lifting up on the front of my pelvis with my abs, my understanding of the half halt was greatly increased. Suddenly, a half halt from my core sucked my horse right up, slowed him down, and pushed his hind legs under. Without me jabbing my seatbones into his back, Guinness felt he could really round and step under himself. What a feeling!

My new job is not to override my horse, but instead generate energy from him with my legs and use my body to guide and direct that energy. My reins supple and manage him, keeping his spine straight and his neck and poll relaxed. This is much harder than it sounds. Every time I feel Guinness drop his impulsion, my first reaction is to push him with my seat. Now, I have to fight that tension and instead continue to guide with my seat and ask from my legs. It is very hard to use my legs separately from my seat, and keep my core forward and engaged so as not to be left behind.

Mentally, it's all there, but these things are hard to internalize. (I feel like a broken record, I've said this so much.)

Position aside, I have discovered a fantastic exercise for developing Guinness' understanding and reaction to my aids for the medium trot. Up until this point, no amount of half halt could keep him from dropping onto his forehand, rushing through my contact and bouncing me right off of his dropped back. I had tried to push him through the rushy stuff until I could re-balance and get a few good steps, but that just made Captain Nervous very, very nervous. He does not like to be off balance. So, I went back to the training drawing board and came back with this ...

Exercise for Developing Medium Trot: 
Step 1: I start by circling once 10m at A, focusing on half halts and creating a lot of collection. As we come out of the circle, I keep that collection and balance through the corner onto the long side. I then ask for a medium with my legs only, not pushing with my seat or throwing Guinness off balance. If he doesn't respond to my leg, I will go to a tap with the whip. At the same time, I make sure to keep my upper body with my horse and not get left behind.
Step 2: Almost immediately, I half halt strongly and we do another 10m circle at E or B (depending on direction). While in the circle, I really focus on collecting the trot and re-establishing any drive or balance we may have lost during the little bit of medium trot. Sometimes I have to circle more than once if he is resisting my half halts and still out of balance.
Step 3: Coming out of the circle, I ask for another medium trot, half halting just before the corner to bring him out of it. We then circle 10m again at C, and repeat on the opposite long side.

As Guinness gets more understanding of the response to my cues for the medium and we are able to stay in balance longer, I will change the exercise so that the circles come at the corners of the long side and try to keep the medium for the length of the wall. Eventually, I'll move the medium to the diagonal, with circles still in the corners. Then, the circles will get removed.

He's already showing a lot more push from his hind end, and staying in balance longer. His responses to my leg aids are getting clearer, too!

Do any of you struggle with trot lengthening? Do you have any other exercises that help teach your horse what you're asking of them?

Monday, June 16, 2014

Pesky Plateau and Positional Pressure

The recent break in my posting has been difficult to overcome. You see, I've been struggling through the deepest parts of the Second Level Wall (discussed by Jen at Cobjockey here and Karen at Contact here), and honestly the going has been tough. 
Workin' it, Second Level at Heartland in April
Despite being thrilled with a 60% at 2nd 1 at our May USDF show, the rest of my scores were very scattered. My riding was better, and our connection was better, but I knew we really weren't where we needed to be to succeed. I don't just want to squeak through Second Level. (Though, I'm totally okay with squeaking through Training or First...)

So, the moment we came home ... we took a vacation. It was needed. I'd been pushing my horse hard, and he was burned out. But, I didn't stop reading, exercising, and (yes, not a lie) doing yoga. I know the factor holding us back at this time is me, and the only way to fix me is hard work.

Just after vacation, a friend shared the article "Sitting On A Horse In Balance" by Gabrielle and Camille Dareau, and I had a breakthrough.

The article is written in an incredibly straightforward manner, rare in an article on effective position. It purports to focus on staying in balance with the horse. This seemed slightly misleading until I realized that they weren't necessarily discussing balance as in the ability to stay on a horse, but more balance, as in the ability to stay with your horse. Or, as the writers put it, allowing a "profound gymnastic connection." (I know, I can be incredibly dense sometimes.)

I kept casually perusing the article until I ran across the following illustration, and mentally compared it to this photograph ...
Common faults in the riding position. Image by www.Happy-Horse-Training.com
Image ©www.happy-horse-training.com, via www.horsecollaborative.com 

It was at this point I knew I needed to really get serious about reading this article and putting it to work for me. Luckily, the following drawing was posted just below the "wrong" example, and all of the advice in the section labeled "The Key Steps to Sitting on a Horse Well" was easy to follow.
Gabrielle and Camille Dareau
Image ©www.happy-horse-training.com, via www.horsecollaborative.com 
For me, the biggest breakthrough was the idea of tilting the pelvis or "tucking the seat," lifting up on the pelvis with the front of the abs, and dropping the center of gravity right into the bowl of the seatbones. Once I went out and tried the position, I found a lot of things suddenly making a lot more sense. I felt I could lift Guinness' withers with a mere thought, and separate my leg action completely from my seat. I'm also better able to relax my arms and shoulders, as I'm no longer tense from bouncing and trying to hang on.

Guinness responded to my positional adjustments immediately. In the last couple of weeks he has become much lighter and constant in the bridle. I am able to fix his broken shoulder/neck line when traveling to the left (something that has seemed impossible). He is also becoming much more responsive to my leg, as I've learned to separate my forward aids from my seat.

This is a monumental breakthrough, and I wasn't the only one to notice it. With only a few days of practicing this new position, I had a lesson with Nancy. After watching me ride for about 15 minutes, she squeaked out "what happened to the rider from May?!" I told her about the article, and she immediately knew which one I was talking about. We chatted a little bit about what I took from it, and she was very pleased and supportive. "You have it," she said, "now we just have to tweak things."

That sort of improvement feels so good, and, almost magically, improving at Second Level doesn't seem so monumental any more. Instead, I feel like I've crested a huge hill, and I can suddenly see the horizon.

Now, to keep up the work so I can internalize everything I've mentally comprehended and turn it into blind muscle memory...

(Seriously, everyone read this article. It's amazing.)

Friday, June 13, 2014

Finding the Rhythm, A Story of Show Warmup

Last month was our first weekend-long USDF show of the year. We headed out on a Friday, and showed 1st 2 and 2nd 1 both Saturday and Sunday. As a show I've often volunteered for, I am familiar with the management side. Showing in it was just as much fun, and seeing all the organizers and managers was wonderful. Harmony in the Park is truly a good and fun show to be a part of.
Getting to watch Kentucky-based Angela Jackson put in some stellar rides on her young horses and up and coming PSG horses was an added delight! 
However, this blog post is not about the show. Instead, I'm going to talk about the warm up and how a basic epiphany can totally turn around your riding. It's a story of redemption ... sorta. Okay, not really. It's just a story about me being silly and forgetting the basics, and everything turning awesome when I was reminded of them.
This horse is the handsomest. Hands down.
This is the first show I've ever been to where I have ever had a trainer around. I'm very much a "do it on my own" sort of rider, partly due to my geographical separation from my trainer and partially due to my incredibly independent streak. However, Nancy's quiet reminders were a godsend at this show and really helped break through to me and get me riding effectively on Saturday afternoon.

We'd been struggling with the shoulder-in, and Nancy immediately pointed out that I was pushing Guinness too much with my body. "Rhythm!" She reminded me. "And quit looking at the ground!"

I sat up, and started counting out my trot rhythm. Almost immediately, Guinness stopped the jerky lateral leaping he'd been doing, and smoothed out into a regular rhythm with much more relaxed bend. We weren't perfect (still slightly broken at the shoulder), but the overall feeling was much better and much more engaged.

So, we headed into the ring ... and managed a 60% at our Second Level debut! Check it out!