Monthly Archives: February 2011

The weekend clinic

Saturday and Sunday I’d signed up to ride with Debbie Bowman. Saturday with Fling and Faeryn and Sunday with just Fling.

I was not looking forward to taking Fling and Faeryn together since they are ‘joined at the hip’ and can get hysterical (especially Faeryn) when separated. I had a stall for each of them, in separate barns, but one of the stalls overlooked the arena. I (wisely it turned out) decided to ride Fling first, since Faeryn was in the barn out of sight of the arena. In the stalls, they whinnied at each other occasionally, but were not unconsolable.

Under saddle, Fling whinnied for Faeryn a few times, and was a bit more distracted than usual, but she soon settled down and I had no trouble getting her to give me her full attention.

The following is a mash-up of what we worked on Sat/Sun.

I explained to Debbie the ‘slightly deep’ tactic we’d begun with Fling and Debbie agreed that is a good tool for her at this point. She cautioned me that I need to maintain the bend at the same time, and also maintain my position and not be tempted to lean forward in search of ‘deep.’

One of the biggest problems I have with Fling is getting her to respond correctly to a half halt at the canter. To create/maintain a truly collected canter, and create self carriage, the half halt needs to go through ‘all the way to her hind legs’ as Debbie put it. Also, when I would half halt on the outside rein, it would cause her to lose the bend, and when she lost the bend, it would allow her to avoid using her inside hind. Now, back in the dark ages when I first learned dressage, it was drilled into everyone that you rode the horse from inside leg to outside rein, and the outside rein was for halt halting. So I was always halt halting just on the outside rein. Another ongoing problem, in the canter, is that I have not completely broken my habit (acquired sometime in the past year or so) of ‘pumping’ at the canter. So I essentially was telling her to “slow down” with half halts, but telling her to “go”  with my seat. As I told Debbie, “I created this problem and I have to fix it.”  Fortunately Fling is super agreeable to anything I ask her to do as long as she understands it and is physically ABLE to do it. I was making it very hard for her to actually half halt.

First we worked on getting her trot more engaged, with more suspension and getting her hind end working and get her more supple. We quickly moved to canter. Another thing we’ve been working on is getting Fling to canter with her ‘back’ first -meaning, her back comes up in the canter depart instead of her head/neck. She’s been using her head and neck for balance during the canter depart and she needs to learn to use her back instead. When she does it correctly, it improves the quality of her canter immediately – whereas if she uses her head/neck I have to struggle to get a better canter AFTER the canter depart. She had already gotten better at this, but Debbie helped us refine it further. She pointed out that I need to half halt into BOTH reins prior to the canter depart so that I do not lose the bend during the depart. And then once IN the canter, half halt on both reins too, to maintain the bend. And, really sit down on her – sit up straight and let my legs just ‘hang’ and try to sit still – even feeling a ‘double bump’ if necessary. It worked! For the first time in forever – I was able to get a true half halt that, as Debbie said, ‘went all the way to her hind legs” and I did not lose the bend – and the collection and self-carriage improved! You always hope for an ‘ah ha’ moment in a clinic,but rarely really get one. But this was definitely one for me. I was tickled! Fling got much praise and a peppermint.

Then we worked on some trot again – using the same ‘halt halt with both reins’ technique. At one point she was really  hanging on my inside rein and Debbie had me push her into the outside rein and even leg yield if necessary to get her OFF the inside rein. Once we did that, her lateral work improved greatly. We did a neat exercise where, on the long side, I did shoulder-in to E/B, 8-10 m circle, then haunches in from E/B to last letters, then really bend through the corner,and then come down centerline and half pass from centerline to rail. We got really good half pass on the last try!  At this point we had a few minutes left so I asked to work on medium trot. When we were showing Second level, she consistently got really good scores on her medium trot/canter. Not so much at third level. I seem to have a hard time getting her to do a good medium instead of just getting quick (according to the judges) and I can’t tell the difference. Debbie explained that she probably hasn’t gotten ‘worse’ at the mediums – but that the expectations of third level are much higher than at second level.

Debbie had me do what I always do – build the energy through half halts on the short side and through the corner – and then she said let her go and just maintain the energy – don’t feel like I have to start _pushing_ her halfway through. Also to sit up straight and sit down on her and don’t give the reins so much that I end up leaning back – that drives her back DOWN. She reliably had good medium for the first few steps – but then tended to get quick. Possibly from me still ‘chasing’ her – or maybe just that she can’t yet maintain that degree of medium trot yet. It was a great two days and I definitely have my homework and a better understanding of how to keep developing more self-carriage and collection – and bend! – in both the trot and the canter.

Next up was Faeryn and as soon as Fling saw me leading her to the arena, all h#ll broke loose. Faeryn screaming and spinning and Fling CLIMBING THE WALLS OF THE STALL. I expected goofy behavior from Faeryn, but definitely NOT from Fling. I found a brave soul to hold Faeryn (who was spinning a lot less when positioned where she could see Fling) while I sprinted to the barn to move Fling to a stall where she and Faeryn could not see each other.  Fling was very agitated and MAD that she could no longer see Faeryn and drummed the walls in protest! So unlike her! She NEVER kicks the stall walls, or in the trailer! She did finally settle down after awhile.

Meanwhile, Faeryn was still agitated and it was a feat to get her to stand still long enough to get ON her. Once I did, I felt like I was on a lit rocket. Trying to get her to do a calm, flat-footed walk was counterproductive. So I just put her in canter, “set” my hands by holding my grab strap and put her on a circle. Around and around we went. Fortunately I had one ride between me and Fling, so I had gotten on her with plenty of time before our lesson time – I knew it would take awhile to get her listening, given the situation!

She was listening a bit better by the time Debbie appeared, but it was like riding a two-by-four! Debbie helped me do some exericses that got her ‘unstuck’ and within about 10 minutes she was almost her normal self.

One residual ‘stiffness’ was that Faeryn was just hanging on my inside rein. Even more so than Fling was earlier. So we did a lot of lateral work in a circle to get her OFF and carrying herself. Worked like a charm! And note to self: When horsie is pulling your arm out of the socket, do not just soldier on – FIX IT!! LOL!

Faeryn’s other huge issue is she has no real ‘half halt.’ I can halt halt her with my seat and core,but she never has properly responded to a half halt using the reins. she’s gotten away with it so far, but she really has to learn to respect and respond to a proper half halt. There is no ‘give’ in her neck/poll or rebalancing when I use the reins to halt halt – she just leans and braces against the reins. Debbie noted that Faeryn is opening her mouth when I ask for halt halt. No one has ever pointed that out to me (maybe it’s a recent thing) and of course I can’t see it when I am riding. When I started using the inside rein to half halt too, it helped. We also continued what we had worked on in our previous session last month – getting a better quality canter by insisting she use her inside hind and ‘stand up’ more at the canter. With Faeryn I was using too much inside rein and not enough inside leg. Sometimes it helped to slightly counterflex her in the canter. After our session the canter was much better.

The next day, I switched out her bridle for one with a noseband that can be properly tightened (the one she had was very loose and wouldn’t go smaller) and also I put a flash on her. It made a huge difference in my ability to get her to listen and respond to my half halts. I had to start with very big, ‘screaming” halt halts to get her to listen – but was able to ‘lower the volume’ quite a bit by the end of the ride! THAT will help a lot in getting her canter more collected for the second level work that’s just on the horizon!



The saddle fitter and Faeryn’s “fit”

We are in a ‘vast wasteland’ when it comes to availability of saddle fitters. Despite being the fourth largest city in the U.S., Houston is mostly still ‘western’ country as far as riding is concerned – although there is a huge population of hunter, jumper and dressage riders. However, I don’t think hunter/jumper people are nearly as obsessive about saddle fit as dressage people are. As a result, we are dependent on ‘traveling’ saddle fitters who come through on a varying schedule. Saturday I found out that one was coming to Marie’s the following Tuesday. Faxx and Faeryn had gone two years and at least a year, respectively, since their previous saddle fittings. And considering they are young and developing, I knew their backs had changed a lot – especially Faxx’s. It required a herculean re-scheduling of my life, and a half a day of vacation, and the dreaded task of taking two of my horses somewhere together – but I managed to get them both loaded and at Marie’s at the appointed time Tuesday afternoon.

Why, you ask, is taking two of my horses somewhere together a dreaded task? Well, first, the logistics of handling two horses all by yourself. Secondly, if Faeryn is one of those horses, the game changes. Faeryn is, to put it mildly, very attached to her herdmates. Away from home, that attachment grows to psychotic proportions, and she becomes “Crazy Faeryn.” People who know her as the obedient, calm, consistent  horse under saddle are always astonished if they get to witness “Crazy Faeryn” in action. It is truly like Jekyl and Hyde. Every horse has a hole, as a friend used to say, and that is Faeryn’s. So you might understand why I was not wild about taking half a day of vacation for this task. And believe me, it was a task that I looked forward to about as much as I look forward to a root canal.

But like a root canal, it was something that needed to be done.

I came prepared and had a strategy. I planned to unload Faern first and put her in a stall (along with a hay net I’d brought) , leaving Faxx in the trailer with some alfalfa as a distraction and a bribe. The hope was that once in the stall with her hay, and out of sight of Faxx, she would settle down.

The first thing I did not plan on was Faeryn’s refusal to get OUT of the trailer to leave Faxx. As soon as I opened the door, she obediently backed out – and then jumped right back into the trailer to be with her buddy! And did that about three times before I managed to get her completely out of the trailer!

I came prepared with a chain-end leadrope but my plan fell short when I failed to put the chain over her nose before I even got her out of the trailer. The other fly in the ointment was that the farrier was at Marie’s, halfway blocking the entrance to the barn, and the saddle fitter’s truck/trailer essentially finished completely blocking the main entrance. By this time, Faeryn was spinning in circles and screaming. The farther we got from Faxx in the trailer, the louder she screamed. And she was whirling around such that I could not even adjust the chain to put it over her nose. My bad. So now I had a spinning, screaming horse, and had to take the very long route to get her inside the barn – through a gate, beside the arena, etc. etc.  And of course we had an audience for this. Suddenly I felt like one of those moms you see in the grocery store with a child pitching a very noisy, very emotional tantrum. It’s one of those situations where there’s pretty much nothing you can do about it. And it seems they always happen with an audience around. 😉 (I will never look disdainfully at a mom with a screaming, tantrum-throwing child out in public again!)  I am sure the saddle fitter, as he watched Faeryn spin in circles, was wondering how he was going to fit a saddle to THAT! 

As Faeryn spun in circles around me, screaming, I managed to move her closer to the barn’s side entrance – steering her whirling self through the gate and ever closer to the side entrance to the barn – and finally into the barn where she thankfully was distracted by the other horses and her hay. I left and did not wait around to see if that lasted or if she started spinning around in her stall! I needed to get Faxx out of the trailer, and get my saddle out of the dressing room.

Fortunately Faxx was much calmer about the entire thing. It helped that Faeryn was out of sight, and therefore out of mind. Faxx definitely cannot think about more than one thing at once!

The saddle fitter confirmed what we’d suspected – the saddle was no longer making contact all along his back, “bridging” in the middle. He quickly restuffed it, we tried it on Faxx and he was good to go. I put him back in the trailer with some alfalfa and he was a happy camper.

Next was Faeryn and I wondered if the ‘crazy’ had passed. I suggested to the fitter we look at her in the barn so there would be less chance of her hearing Faxx if he should call to her. We got to Faeryn and she was happily munching hay and calmly surveying the horses being tacked in the aisle and just the general barn activity. The ‘evil Mr. Hyde” had left the building and “Dr. Jekyl” was thankfully, back in control. We checked her saddle and it, too, was bridging and the master saddler whisked it away and returned shortly with it restuffed to fit. He commented on how similarly Faxx and Faeryn looked and were built and I explained to him exactly why they were so similar. 😉

So, not making my earlier mistake, I put the chain on Faeryn and led her out of the barn and as soon as she saw the trailer she started screaming even louder than before. But this time I had more control and at least she could not spin in circles  – she could only deafen me. I have NEVER heard that kind of noise come out of her. She sounded like a stallion. As soon as I opened the trailer door she launched herself into it, shaking the trailer as she landed!

I quickly shut the door, thankful the ordeal was OVER!

But not so quick. I am riding Faeryn and Fling both in a Debbie Bowman clinic tomorrow and my rides are such that I am going to have to take them BOTH together. Valium anyone? (But not sure if I would take it myself or give it to Faeryn!!)  Stay tuned!

Faeryn as a foal

I was cruising through some files today and ran across a very short video clip – the only one I have – of Faeryn’s maiden voyage out into the world. Even if “the world” at that point was a 60-foot diameter round pen. She is five days old in this clip. I really can’t believe she’s going to be 6 years old the end of June!

Super lessons on Faeryn and Fling this weekend

It felt really good to get a lesson on Faeryn. It’s been a month since our last one.

Marie saw definite improvement, mostly in canter. But she still needs straightness and more suppleness, especially on the right side.  It was quite warm this weekend – from the deep freeze to almost-summer in one week! As a result, Faeryn was quite lethargic on Friday when I rode her, but much better on Saturday during our lesson.

I have had a tendancy to push her out too much when I am asking ‘inside hind to outside rein’ and as a result, she is carrying her haunches slightly out at times. That also helps her avoid carrying weight on her inside hind. We did some shoulder in, and then did some haunches in on a circle. The thing she needs most is renvers – and that’s the hardest thing for her. which is why she needs it! In fact, when I first asked for renvers to the right at a walk, Faeryn kept breaking into a canter to avoid doing the movement. I never get upset over stuff like that. In fact, I was laughing at Faeryn’s histrionics about WORKING SOOOOO HARD. I felt like a parent with a whiny teenager! LOL! “BUT MOM NONE OF THE OTHER KIDS HAVE TO DO THAT!! MOM, IT’S  HARD!!” 

She finally DID do it, and it IS hard for her. But, it will get easier. And then we’ll move on to the next thing that’s hard for her. 😉

I took Fling today and another super, super productive lesson. Marie had me start with her deep, like we’ve been doing, and then try and give the inside and outside rein once I got her there. We want her deep(er) but we do not want her to fall on her forehand, and she still needs to carry herself.  Then she had me do walk/trot transitions, keeping her deep through the transition. We moved on to canter quickly, since that’s the gait that needs the most improvement, and is the ‘key’ to improving our flying changes. Marie noted that she braces during the changes, and that’s one of our problems. I got her really round at the canter and I could immediately tell the difference in the quality of her canter. Then we worked on transitions – focusing on trying to keep her from relying on her neck for the depart so she would learn to use her back more. In the canter, her back was more up and she was more ‘through.’ But she still wants to use her neck and head for balance in the up transitions instead of the canter ‘originating’ from her back. She had one really good depart where I could definitely feel that her back stayed really ‘up’ in the depart, with a feeling that the canter originated in her back instead of her head/neck —  if that makes any sense!  We got better departs than we’d had from the walk, but did not manage to ‘nail’ it like she did in that one from trot. That’s ok – this is a new thing we’re asking her to do and it’s a process.

I was very happy and excited when we finished. I feel like we’ve hit upon the key to taking Fling from a 60% Third level horse to a horse that could be seriously schooling FEI in another year.

When I got home, I rounded up Faeryn and had a SUPER ride on her. She is reponding better to the half halts, she was much more ‘adjustable’ in the trot and the canter, and she didn’t whine NEARLY as much about the renvers as she did yesterday 😉 — and she’s ‘standing up’ at the canter better. She had some really good work in the shallow loop serpentine, which she couldn’t even DO in December, and I also ran through parts of the new First level test 3.

Faxx was up next…..I am trying to do more lateral work with him  haunches in, shoulder in, large schooling turns on the haunches. He was a little fussier in the bridle today than yesterday, but I just ignored it. I also worked on transitions forward and back. So far nothing I’ve ‘tested’ on him is difficult – but the entire key to Faxx is getting him to accept quiet contact with the bit. I think the lateral work will help him develop quiet contact – that, and just tons of transitions. I also did some spiral in and out at the canter, and he has no trouble with a 10 meter canter circle. I think he is closer to second level than i think. But the toughest thing for him will be the canter walk transitions since he will really have to stay connected and through to do them well.

Very good weekend when I can ride all three horses both days. I am bushed!

Triple play day!

I think I only sat down today to drive somewhere, sit on a horse, or eat a meal!

I rode all three horses today – a lesson on Faeryn (Fling goes tomorrow) and rode Fling and Faxx.

Happy to report great progress with Faxx. Today he took very quiet contact – the only chomping he did was at the very first, at the free walk, and while he was waiting for me to untack him when we were done. It’s hard to figure out what exactly to do in a round pen except go round and round in circles, but I’ve been trying to mix it up. Also trying to ‘challenge’ him with tougher stuff – not tough physically necessarily, as he is not in great shape. Right now he needs to learn to do shoulder-in, turn on the haunches (just big one for now), haunches in, renvers, walk/canter transitions and ‘forward and back’ at trot and canter. I can do all of those in the round pen, but the shoulder in is the most problematic. I personally have a tough time doing it on a circle – just can’t get a good mental picture of it on the circle. I don’t think lateral work is going to be a problem for Faxx. He is already doing a pretty good schooling turn on the haunches, and occasionally nails a smaller one that’s pretty close to competition quality. I am feeling we are more ‘in sync’ finally – I really felt like I’d completely forgotten how to ride him! He is much different than my other two. I guess it’s like two dance partners who have a long history, but haven’t danced together in awhile. It just takes a little time and then before you know it, you’re completely in step again! 

Faxx gets back to work

Faxx has been on hiatus long enough. The problem is that my ‘new and improved’ arena has turned out to be completely unrideable after any sort of rain. So the only place I have to ride is in the pasture, or in the round pen. I have been reluctant to ride Faxx in the pasture. He’s huge, he moves even huger and since he’s also wide, I cannot ‘stick’ him like I can Faeryn and Fling. I did ride him briefly in the field the other night – after first locking the other horses in the small paddock, which, in itself is a pain in the butt. Faxx was a bit ‘up’ about being in the field, and also having his buddies so ‘far’ away – but he behaved. But it’s very time-consuming to get him, then herd the other horses into the small paddock, after first having to herd Mike’s horse, Thor, into the back paddock. Thor does not ‘play well with others’ and is in solitary confinement. All the above adds a lot of leg work, and about 15 minutes extra to the equation. So, the round pen, while the more convenient option, is very boring. But, it’s the option of least effort, and I am forever living by the clock, and it IS lighted.

So, after I rode Fling in the field, and after dinner last night (and after the horses’ dinner) I got Faxx out to ride. It was almost 9 by this time and he was just a bit indignant, as he was expecting his nightly alfalfa, not work! He was a good boy, but has really backslid in his willingness to take quiet connection with the bit. Faxx is laid back on the outside, but internalizes his ‘nerves’ resulting in chomping the bit, or not taking contact. Fortunately he is taking contact, but he’s constnatly chomp, chomp, chomping on the bit. It drives me nuts – but I know the only kind and effective way to deal with this is to ignore it, and just be as calm, consistent and quiet with my riding as I possibly can be. Even when Faxx got wound up about something rustling in the pasture (probably a bunny!) I just stayed neutral and zen-like and kept asking for leg yields, more bend, etc.  Around and around we went, and finally he literally took a big breath and relaxed a bit.

Patience is the key. And, perhaps it’s time to revisit a different bit. The baucher turned out to be his favorite bit after trying many I had, and buying many more during the past two years. I’ll drag out all the snaffle bits and see if his taste in bits has changed. Otherwise, it’s just time in the saddle, and me telling myself he’s been mostly unridden since the beginning of November.

I really don’t know how people up North, who often have to completely give up riding every winter, make any progress – at least if they’re training dressage. I am lucky in that Faeryn and Fling can have a layoff and come back very quickly, with all the ‘buttons’ still there, and not much different for the hiatus. Faxx is not that way – it’s not like he’s at all naughty or is going to be spooky or buck – but he definitely takes longer to get ‘up to speed.’  But that’s ok. I have no timetable for his training, and he’s a very talented horse – probably the most talented horse I’ve ever owned – and he’s worth the extra time.

A step in the right direction

I got a lesson on Fling with Marie on Sunday. She’s been on vacation the past two weeks, and with the holidays and generally yucky weather, the last three months I’ve been lucky to get a lesson once a month. Now that our bitterly cold weather is behind us, the holidays are long gone and spring is just around the corner, I hope I can get back to a regular lesson schedule. Once a month is definitely NOT enough.

So, I explained to Marie my concerns about Fling from what I saw on the tape of my last clinic with Debbie. Told Marie what I’ve been doing with Fling to correct what I think the main problem(s) are. I then demonstrated by riding Fling and asking her to stretch down deeper into the bridle. Marie had me refine this by keeping her neck lower, but by getting her to open up her throatlatch a bit and ta-da! I could really feel the difference in her back. As I told Marie, it felt more “trampoline-ish.” Fling has more challenging conformation than Faxx and Faeryn. She has a very short back, and a short neck, and while we’ve gotten her pretty darn laterally supple, the longitudinal suppleness is still a challenge. I may have found the secret to success in that area!  Or at least a really good tool. The best thing is, once I got her low, with her throatlatch out – I could give the reins and she would stay there a few strides. Marie cautioned me not to lose the bend when I used the outside rein to half halt – Fling needs to keep the bend so she keeps using that inside hind. If she’s not bent, it makes it much easier for her to avoid using that inside hind.She got pretty good at the trot, and she felt like she had much more mobility in her poll and throatlatch. She tends to brace right at the throatlatch. But now she felt soft, with much better mobility in her jaw/throatlatch, and would respond to a tiny half halt without stiffening. Marie said the goal is to be able to maintain this frame, with this soft connection, in the lateral work. We tested it it out with some shoulder in and half pass – and when she would lose the bend or the roundness, Marie had me put her back on the circle to reestablish it. And while on the circle, Marie had me move her in and out of haunches in.

Next we moved to canter. It was more difficult to maintain the rounder, with lower neck carriage in canter – my half halts were not going through and it was much easier to lose the bend. When I finally sat up straight and looked UP, it was easier to use my core to stablize myself through the half halt so I could make it effective. And here it was even more important to maintainthe bend while half halting – but also more difficult to doso. And I will add, what a great tool to have mirrors. It’s instant feedback on your position AND your horse’s position and I really, really want mirrors!

The canter improved, and then we worked on some pirouettes. I had been working on them on my own, but always just schooling pirouettes -no less than about 4 meters in diameter. Marie pushed me to make them smaller and Fling felt like she was falling out and Marie reminded me to “lift your ribcage” and “sit on your inside seatbone” and all the sudden it felt like a real pirouette. With the walk and the canter pirouettes, it is a certain feeling – you have to sit on the inside seatbone, maintain your shoulder back position AND think about leading the horse around with your inside rein and inside seatbone rather than pushing with the outside leg. “Leading’ the horse isn’t exactly the right word because you aren’t really pulling with the inside rein at all – it’s really almost like your weight alone is drawing the horse’s shoulders around the inside hind, and you just have to maintain the bend with inside leg/rein. That feeling is amazingly similar in the walk and the canter pirouette – not the feeling of the movement itself because obviously you are walking in one and cantering in the other – but the feeling of your position on the horse, and the aids are almost identical. For me, it’s like you set up the movement, and then you let your inside seatbone ‘weight’, and the horse’s own momentum carry itself through the movement, and you just have to concentrate on sitting correctly so you do not disturbe the flow of the energy.

And just like that, we’d done a ‘real’ canter pirouette. Show quality? Probably not. But definitely small enough to qualify as a real pirouette instead of a ‘working’ pirouette.

And how weird that, to me anyway, that is way easier than a flying change. But I suspect it’s because I already had learned the ‘muscle memory’ from doing them ad nauseum at the walk AND that I have a horse who has a talent for canter pirouettes.

It felt really, really good to get a lesson again!