Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Have the Conversation: A Review Lesson

 I'm lucky in many ways, and among them is that my horse is sweet and smart and wants to be good. I'm also in the very enviable position of being M's working student. One of our mutual friends said to me one day that I'm in a position that A LOT of people are actively envious of, and I took that to heart. Not that I'm the type to take good training for granted ever, but it's good to keep in mind nonetheless.

Among M's many skills is her ability to say things in a way that clicks. If it doesn't work the first time, she explains it a bit. Still not working? She'll find a new way to say it. It sounds small, but not every coach can do that.

Another thing she's just really terrific at is giving young horses a kind and thoughtful beginning to their education. Really, this is why I wanted to work with her. I'm so glad I have Mo and M at the same time. And last week's lesson--our first of the year--demonstrates why. In part, it's because we had nearly the same lesson more than once last year, in which we worked on encouraging Mo to soften to the contact (except last year we jumped, but he's not fit enough yet). And Mo progressed beyond that into actually being on the bit. And then he basically had the winter off. We're certainly not back to square one. For instance, he can move off my leg now (though he's a bit of a kick ride at this point, which may change as he gets fitter). Instead of being all "why doesn't he know this still?" or "why aren't you the perfect rider?" she just went back to that phase of the training and talked us through it like we'd never heard it before. Not in a condescending way, but in the kind and patient way she typically does. And I wasn't making any huge rider mistakes--my horse had only been back under saddle for three or four rides when we took our lesson, and he needed those rides to remember how to horse. But it was time to pick up the reins and ask him to get to work. So what follows are mostly screen shots from the video my mom VERY kindly took, and pointers from M. Most of it isn't revelatory, but it's quite useful, and schooling green horses to the contact is something many of us are working on at the moment.

First of all, she was very pleased with his warm up walk. It was long and in front of my leg. It wasn't into the contact (gotta work on that at the trot first so you don't mess up the walk), but it was relaxed and swinging and happy. Good enough for training level dressage.

Then we picked up the trot, and he was the tiniest bit more up than usual because there were people in the ring looking at him, but I just kept him in front of my leg and established forward. And at last, it was time to pick up the reins and get him schooling.

A little up, but forward.

"Keep your reins. He may not love it, but he'll find his way too it, just like he does with side reins." This is what she means by having the conversation, or starting it. And you need to have the conversation again and again--those are half halts--to make sure he's still with you.

Turkey Trot.

 Mostly, he wasn't nearly as whiny as he has been in the past about the contact. I think there are a couple reasons for this: he understands it more now than he used to, and the winter off was really good for his brain.

Relaxed and soft--good starting ingredients.

 As far as position goes, she didn't harp on me as much as she could/should have (let's remember that I'm riding in an Antares jump saddle, which encourages a closed hip angle, not a dressage saddle or a less forward-going jump saddle, but I do still have that positional sin to correct), but she did remind me that when I take the reins, I need to keep my elbows bent. I give too easily and too soon otherwise.

Love pretty much everything about this.

One thing that helped a lot in the early going was five walk/trot transitions to get him thinking about what I was asking for and to help with balance. Our transitions aren't terribly sharp yet, but that's not the immediate concern. No use in having sharp transitions on a horse who isn't anywhere near the bridle, let alone in it.

There's a pretty nice mover under all that baby stuff.

Also useful was her advice to cut in on the turns and then leg yield out a little bit so he connects to the outside rein more. This helped A LOT, even though we're not doing perfect dressagey leg yields at this point.

Imperfect but finding the outside rein a bit more.

I'm going to abandon the narrative a bit here, because what M had to say stands on its own without a lot of further blabbering from me:

"When you take the rein, keep the rein, until he stops whining, and THEN you can be soft[...]If you give back to him before he's softened, he's never really going to learn it."

Not the moment to give!
 "Hold the reins just as if you were the side reins. The side rens don't get longer if he pulls on them. And he comes really soft to the side reins. So what he has to learn is that you're not going to give back to him until he softens, and then you can be quite soft. But he has to say 'yes ma'am' when you say 'come here.'"

Still nope.

If the horse is too much in your inside rein, you can try changing directions. "When you change directions [to the right], really put that right leg into him so he doesn't drop his shoulder and motorbike around."

Needing a good change of direction here.

He can float behind my leg a little, which makes this exercise hard because I need more horse in the bridle to get him to understand the concept.

Tracking up=in front of my leg.
Much easier to get into the contact from here.
"Stay elastic. You will feel like you've got an 8 or a 9 in your hand. It should feel uncomfortable, and he should whine about it and try to find a release, and that's not a bad thing. It's a good thing! He's trying to figure out what the heck you want. So then when he comes soft, that's what you want, and that's when you soften to him. Because he has to find the right shape. Baby horses get through it."

Getting there, loving the front end.

 "So then, Jess, you're riding from soft moment to soft moment." [The beginner concept of what we were working on with Seneca the Dressage Horse last summer--riding from half halt to half halt.]

 "Once we get him to accept the connection, then we can ask him to lower his head and neck."


After about this point in the lesson, my phone ran out of room and Mom had to leave, so she missed the canter. There wasn't much to see anyway--it was the first canter of the year and the whole point was to survive it. But he was good, and there was no bucking or excessive hissy fits. So I'll take it!

The best part of the lesson, and this horse, were moments like this one:

See? Mama's boy.
He licks his lips pretty much every time I pat him now, whether I'm on him or not, and often when I just verbally praise him. To me, this says that he cares what I think and that he wants to do it right. I've had some very good horses who won't do this--Red, for instance--but it's a characteristic in Mo that I just adore and I hope it never goes away.

So we're off to a good start this year, knock on wood. I'm about to go hop on him, so fingers crossed for some good trot work and maybe even a little cantering even though it's cold and damp and gross outside (I thought it was spring? No?).


  1. What a fantastic lesson! Super jealous of Mary. I want to clone her.

  2. This is great, enjoyed reading this. Mo got nice and beefy over his time off, he's going to look great when he gets back in shape!

  3. Great start! I loved reading this because it reminded me so much of going through this process with Simon. While not perfect, he's super soft now and I know Moe will be too soon :)

  4. I loved this post. Love the concept of changing direction when they're too much in your inside rein - such an easy fix. And riding soft moment to soft moment. Excellent advice!

  5. sounds like a wonderful lesson! lots of good pointers there for all horses too, not just the babies :)

  6. I have pretty much the exact same lessons on Indy. It just goes to show that the good trainers are consistently similar when it comes to the basics. A good foundation is everything :) You and Mo are looking really good, especially after having the winter off. You can see how brilliant he is going to be when he gets everything figured out ;)

    And M sounds like a great trainer, you are very lucky :)

  8. It's so good that you're establishing all of this now. And MoMo is a quick study.

  9. I love reading this! I'm not going through this ATM but it is always helpful to store this info away for future use

  10. I feel like I need THIS exact riding lesson. This----But he has to say 'yes ma'am' when you say 'come here.' is my WHOLE ride right now. I need to learn to expect that, so does my mare!

  11. Thank you so much for sharing this. Great words of wisdom throughout.