Calm, Forward, Straight

Calm, Forward, Straight

Monday, May 14, 2012

In the Arena # 121 - Flying by the seat of my pants...

More piano memories... I was ten years old. It was my turn to perform at a recital of the Leschetizky Society - a big deal. I was nerve racked as usual. I remember sitting down on the bench. I remember starting to play Chopin's Raindrop Prelude. Then I remember the hearing last notes fade away, and taking a bow. Nothing in between. As I sat back down beside my teacher, she leaned over with an astonished look, and uncharacteristically whispered in my ear "How did you do that - that was the best you have ever played?!"

How did I do it? Faithfully practicing the basics. Scales, scales, scales. Boring, boring scales. Memorizing the piece hands separately. Breaking it down by the phrase, then by the note. There is no substitute for getting the basics down. Period. Once you have the fundamentals - I'm talking muscle memory - then you are free to infuse the music with your soul.

So - how does this relate to dressage? I am struggling to learn how to ride. Gently, tactfully, effectively, graciously. At the moment (for the foreseeable future) my focus is the basics. Balance, contact, consistency. The training pyramid. It doesn't always make for super interesting blogging. The pace of progress seems glacial.

That being said, over the last couple of weeks we've begun to work on the canter. Impulsively. A little voice in my head (self doubt) suggested it could be problematical. I've spent plenty of time cantering on other horses, even bareback on the beach. Casually, not correctly. I've only worked on the depart seriously on one of my former trainer's school horses. All I had to do was think canter and he knew what was up. I had to ask correctly mind you, but I only had to be responsible for my own flailing limbs.


Last week we rode twice. Tuesday was a bareback ride, working on steering and stretching out my hips. A nice, easy, calm, ride.

Saturday (my birthday) dawned absolutely gorgeous, and despite a jam packed schedule, nothing was getting in the way of my horse time. After reading Val at Memoirs of a Horse Girl's recent post  which had some great video of she and Harley jumping a cloverleaf pattern over cross rails, I had the bright idea to lay ground rails in the same pattern, an X basically, and use them to spice up our trot work.

We began with an excellent warm up on the buckle, walking over the rails. Val was all about the new X, from the moment I dragged it into the arena. He could barely contain his attraction. I picked up a trot, working my way over to the X. He sort of hesitated a few times before crossing them, so on the next go round I really gave him a squeeze with my legs. Any guess where this is going?

Val cantered a couple of collected strides, rocked back on his haunches and (way over) jumped the rail, cantering on afterwords acting very. proud. of. himself. I was shocked. Mostly because it's been cough--ty some years since I've jumped, and I was usually over-horsed and petrified when I did it then. And, as Val (blogger Val) pointed out, dressage saddles aren't ideal for jumping. Super glad the video didn't capture that moment!

We halted. I gave Val a big hug and cracked up for a few minutes, then got back to work. On nearly every request for the trot from then on, I got the canter, and I had to abandon the rails for a while. Eventually, after numerous walk / trot transitions where he received lavish praise for his self control, we got back on track.


Just got in from my ride today, which was one of our most productive to date. It was very windy, the tarp canopies were flapping like mad, yet Val's mind stayed on me. I focused on breathing, from the minute I began grooming. Great warm up, smooth transition into contact, accurate school figures, supple, reaching horse. We had a few offers of the canter, but I schooled the halt / trot transition until we both got it right.

I had two revelations during this ride. One is, hey - shorten those reins! - shorter than you think you should, a little shorter. Give your driving aid, feel the reins elastically through your elbows (thumbs on top pointing to the bit) and then - you have contact. Val chewed the reins out of my hands while stretching long and low several times today. What an awesome feeling.

The other reality check was leg on does not mean leg on.... leg off... leg on again. Keep your damn leg on and aid from that position - don't remove your leg to aid - it really irritates your horse!!


My no one on the ground / without trainer status take on the canter-fest issue is... I definitely don't have the basics of the canter depart down. Some of it may be that Val is delighted to canter. I am as well, but we are restricted by occasionally deep footing and limited space to work in until my real arena is completed. (long story for another post)

Most likely though, I am inadvertantly combining / confusing / mangling the canter depart cue. One solution will be getting Val out to the beach and letting him rip - straight line cantering. Firm footing, no need to balance in tight turns, plenty of room. Possibly this weekend if weather permits and my riding partner can join me.

The horse is out of the barn now... ;)



  1. I would love to hear you play piano! My kids took lessons although they never applied themselves like they should. I think the analogy is perfect. You do need to get the basics down before you can lose yourself in the movements. And, it does seem to take forever. It's a good thing we enjoy the journey and the relationship with our horses on the way! ... I'm going to have to try that cloverleaf pattern that you and Val like so much.

  2. Sounds like fun - love that smile!

  3. The comparision to playing the piano is right on. I didn't know you played.
    You guys have been having some great rides! Wow. The ride over poles sounds like a lot of fun, for both you and Val. Impressive all around.
    I'm thinking you shouldn't worry about your canter depart aid too muchright now. Val is getting it and as you do it more it will gradually smooth out. I still find it hard to give a clear, crisp aid - there's so much movement in these horses that I have to get quiet with. I find that if I really focus on keeping my knees and thighs light, Rogo can feel the outside leg on for the canter aid more clearly. Maybe you do this anyway.
    Oh, one more thing :) - I always feel I'm shortening my reins too much when I ride on my own. My instructor always makes me shorten them more than I think they should be, and then when I walk by the mirror I see that Rogo is just right - slightly in front of the vertical. It's hard to get this on your own. Sounds like you're doing really well in that area.
    Really enjoyed this post.

  4. Happy Birthday! Glad you got to ride as a birthday treat. Liked the video of Val coming in for his treat too, how cute is he?

    You may not have a trainer on the ground but I think you're doing really well figuring things out for yourself and Val. How awesome would it be for you and he to canter along the beach! Hope you get to try that out soon.

  5. Too cute to think about Val getting all excited about the poles on the ground! It might be just the thing to keep him fresh and interested.

    As for the leg on/off, I know what you mean. I have to be careful not to keep it too "on" though - just lightly, ever so lightly there when I don't need it, or else I find that when I DO need it, I really have to ramp up. So when not in use, it's more off than on, really. Interesting to think about - it's a fine line!

    And, Happy Belated Birthday!

  6. So much great stuff in this entry! I will be re-reading.

  7. Annette-

    The journey is more important than the destiniation. :)

    I haven't played in ages. Sadly, piano was the one thing in my youth I showed real talent for, and I quit playing. There are a lot of parallels between the two disciplines though, and I am reminded of them quite often.

  8. Happy Birthday! :) A beach ride?! Oh funnnn

  9. Carol-

    My former trainer recommended the same thing about our cantering. She said don't worry about the depart or the lead, and just try for relaxation... :)

  10. GHM-

    We've cantered on the beach before, it's just been a while. I haven't been brave enough to head out there alone so far, although I'm thinking that day is coming. :)

  11. jenj-

    What I meant, but probably didn't say well, is that I caught myself taking my leg completely off and then aiding, rather than maintaining a light contact with his sides consistently, and aiding from there. Val seems to be reassured when my leg is steady on him. It is a fine line!

  12. Hehehe Val's treat face made me smile :)

  13. We seem to be working on all the same things these days!

    For the canter departs: focus less on the depart and more on the set up. Don't ask for canter until the trot is perfect. Many horses (mine included) offer the canter when the trot becomes unbalanced, particularly when you're asking for more impulsion.

    The aids are not so important, so long as they are consistent, but the horse must be properly prepared with half halts and balancing before any transition.

    I never was able to learn the piano, as I have all the musical talent of a walrus, but it's a very good analogy. I have to think really hard about how to describe what I do in the saddle because my muscle memory takes over and I just do it. If I want to turn left, I think "turn left" and then my body does something and we turn left. I don't think about it anymore. Which is sometimes a problem when I'm doing things wrong!

  14. Shannon-

    When we attempt trot / canter transitions (on purpose) I will come back to this sage advice. :)

    I've been doing walk / canter, which went really well with little fuss the first few rides. Then I started getting canter when I asked for trot. I'm sure we'll muddle through... the best part is Val really seems happy that we added cantering to our sessions. :)

    1. The same advice applies for walk/canter. :). A transition is a transition, don't do it until you're in the right place. If the horse offers the transition without being asked, it's usually a balance issue. Although, with Thoroughbreds, I have noticed that they will anticipate cues. They want to please and are smart enough to figure out what we're working on. Then they start throwing it out without being asked! It's like, "Hey look! Look what I can do! I'm a good horse! See!"

  15. Happy birthday!!

    Loved your piano comparison, I thought it was brilliant.

  16. Shannon -

    It totally feels like the latter - in a joyful, showing off kind of way. So sweet! :)

  17. I know exactly what you're feeling! Lilly and Val sound very similar... you're so patient and kind, that I know you'll have beautiful transitions in no time.

    Happy belated birthday!!

  18. Happy~Happy Birthday!!!
    You snuck that in there. Having a horse to ride on your B-day, is one of the biggest gifts!

    Loved reading this!! That piano work and story was fantastic. As I did, my minds eye was soft, blurry and imagining the music. What an awesome revelation between the two diciplines !

    I sure wish I had an outdoor to ride, your work wirh Val sounds heavenly. Even your setbacks are worthy.
    That pattern is good. Mine does act all jumper too, at first with polls.

    My siss got the go ahrad to ride today we ride, tomorrow I post!!

    Hope your partner is available to ride too!


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