Friday, July 18, 2014

Straight Like An Arrow (more like a broken arrow)

Guys, it's time. I need to come clean about my dressage horse's main fault, the one holding us back from the medium trot and pure collected gaits. The one that's basically destroying our chances to get through Second Level. And, the one causing all the tantrums. I've talked about it a little before, but it's time for the dirty details...

My horse is more crooked than a corkscrew. It's sad, but true.

So cute. So crooked.

This crookedness really came to a head a few weeks ago when I asked him to flex left, and he reared, nearly fell over, and I fell off of him. (More like bailed so he wouldn't fall on me ...) The whole thing is getting a little dangerous, and it's really difficult to fix.

We've managed to pinpoint the two bases of the issue:
#1. Guinness does not step up and under as much with his right hind as he does with his left.
#2. He carries all of his tension in his neck, and locks up at the shoulder. This makes him feel precariously off balance and causes more tension. (Or as I like to call it, The Horrible Tension Spiral of Doom!)

The first issue has an easy fix. If I keep my right seatbone forward at all times (even going to the left), and keep bumping Guinness every time I feel him slack with that right hind, he will step forward with that right hind. However, fixing this issue does nothing if there is a locked and tense wither/neck/poll area blocking all the forward energy a newly stepping hind leg creates.

Of course, as everyone who has ever ridden a nervous and tense horse can tell you, you can't simply "fix" tension. You have to massage it out. You have to be encouraging. You have to stay positive. You have to stretch it out. And? Most importantly? You have to wait it out.  You would think after all these years of riding a tight little stress ball I would be used to this. Of course, I am not.
Ball of tension! Can't you just see the blocked/tight wither/neck/poll area?!

What's working right now is a concert of things. To start, I'm keeping my elbows loose and absorbent, and keeping the left rein constant and forgiving. I'm establishing a half-halt (which sometimes requires a bit of "sit-down-right-this-second" halting to get him to pay attention to), and riding tons of transitions off my seat (mostly walk/trot). In every transition, and anywhere else I feel him tense and stiffen his neck, I ask for a little flexion with my right rein and immediately push my right hip forward and bump with my leg to get him to step up into that slightly relaxed neck.

It's really not pretty, it's creating the hottest horse in the history of horses, and it takes an immense amount of mental awareness from me. But, it's working. It's really working... just slowly.

18 comments:

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    1. Haha! Yep! That's what I keep telling myself!

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  2. I feel your pain. I think we have identical horses in terms of stress/tension haha. It took an entire hour last night just to get Fiction to relax and chill out. I think you're far more advanced than I am in terms of riding, but I can tell you that riding a lot of 10 meter circles really helped with Fiction. It showed his flaws more readily because he was so off balance in such a small circle I could really feel when he fell out/started rushing/didn't actually use himself and could correct accordingly. But it is non-stop correction, unfortunately. No mental break-time for us haha :)

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    1. Oh yeah! The 10 meter circle is my friend!

      Tension is a problem no matter the levels, and we've always struggled with it. I can mask it pretty well at lower levels, but to get true collection I have to be able to get rid of it. That's just so hard in a thoroughbred!

      I will say, asking for flexion (with a normal horse I'd ask in both directions, but Captain Crookedface only gets suppled to the right at the moment) seems to really work to relax him at the poll and help him unlock a bit. I think of it as "wiggling his poll". As a rider, I have to be really supportive with my body and ask for the flexion through a supporting elbow and not through my hands or wrist breaking the contact. Breaking the contact right now is a big no-no.

      Sometimes, I also find I have to fight my perfectionist self and just take minute to let us both completely relax. For us that means walking through the jump field on a loose rein. Just getting out of the arena. Then, we can either come back to the lesson briefly, or call it quits for the day.

      What helps is knowing that this crookedness isn't all me. Guinness has always been tense and crooked this way, and you can see it when he lunges. He cannot balance himself his stiff direction. So, I just try to see it as helping him and keep my patient game-face on. It's pretty much all you can do, right?!

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    2. Having a tense OTTB as well (you know of course!), I am working through the same stuff. To the right, Sydney would practically fall over he was so stiff and unbalanced. My trainer has had me working on getting his hind end behind his shoulders rather than thinking about moving his shoulders in front of his hind end. Does that make sense?

      Now that I can ALWAYS feel that I've lost his hindquarters, I have an excellent tool for getting him straight again - we "crab." It's almost like doing a half pass but without the bend. I put his nose on the rail and push his hindquarters in so that he is once again straight. Once he's straight and respectful of the outside rein, I can start asking for inside flexion.

      When he's straight, he starts to relax, but if I allow him to get crooked or hurry, the tension comes right back.

      I have no idea what G's tension inducers are, but I say this to simply point out that there IS something that will help relieve his anxiety. Just keep on trying to hone in on what he needs to feel safe and relaxed in his work. :0)

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    3. Oh, Karen, absolutely! You're right on here.

      Getting Pig straight can be a bit of a difficulty because his tension can lock his neck up so tightly. Often, the issues isn't because we aren't straight but more because he hasn't quite figured out how to support his shoulder by stepping forward with his hind right leg.

      What seems to work best to relieve his anxiety and diffuse a huge blow up is to keep him loose and flexible in the poll and shoulder. This can mean some pretty extreme flexion at moments as I work to loosen him up. But, then we can go on straight and even in both reins. Wiggling the inside rein for flexion stops him from tensing in transitions, too. Eventually we get to a point in a ride where he'll start to tense, I'll wiggle the rein for flexion and he will sigh and move into it. That moment feels so good!

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    4. It's so nice to have a decompress button. :0) Hopefully you can string more and more of those moments together.

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  3. I feel like we need to have a beer and wallow because I am living the same thing! Except my horse doesn't rear, he leaps and bucks. But he also likes to "lock" in the neck and shoulder. We have to make them hot (to move up the levels) but you have to keep going back to loose and supple. Girl I feel your pain!!!

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    1. Oh my, yes. A beer and a bit of a mutual commiseration sounds pretty necessary right about now!

      I know you and Hampton have really been dealing with some tension. Hopefully we all make it through this without too much damage! ;)

      As for the hotness, I'm finding I need that extra spark off my leg to keep Guinness from sucking back and really jamming his neck tight into his shoulder. Once he gets really jammed in an tight, I have to work 10x harder to loosen him up and get some relaxation! Of course, the hotness means I have to work 10x harder to keep my core with him! Back to the gym, I guess...

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  4. You'll get through it and you and Guinness will be beasting away at Second Level one day!

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    1. Thanks for the confidence! Sometimes when working through these tough moments, it feels like I'll never get there!

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  5. Yay tension! I'm sort of glad we're still so basic that I don't worry too much about this stuff. I mean, straight and forward, yes, but I'm not asking for collection and raising the tension level.

    Hopefully you will have it all figured out by the time I get there. ;-)

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  6. I totally know how you feel. It sounds like you're making progress though and you will get there :)

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    1. It's so helpful to know that pretty much every dressage rider in the history of dressage has had these moments with their horses. It helps me feel like I'm not totally failing my horse! :)

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  7. Baby steps!! Sound like you've got a great handle on the tension, I'm sure things will start coming together for you both. Waiting is the hardest part!

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    1. The waiting is the worst! I want to pick at everything, but I have to just sit an wait for the lightbulb to click on and for him to gain strength. Bah! :)

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  8. He sounds just like K, tense neck - check, rear/spin to get away from what being asked - check.
    If i ever get near doing the type of riding you guys be doing, I shall most deff be hitting you up for tips & tricks

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