Posts tagged: lesson


Right now I’m riding regularly with my third and fourth trainers since moving to my current barn. The first one started wintering in Florida. The woman who took over for her that season was a great fit for me — very positive and upbeat, very involved, and fantastic with me and the greenbean. And then she was drafted to the US team for the Polocrosse World Cup, and jetted off to Australia, and then moved down south. So now I’m doing dressage with her replacement, and have done a handful of jumping lessons with another woman whose approach I really like.

I’m not a delicate flower of a rider — I really like being told what I’m doing wrong! — but I am a bit hard on myself, and get into these discouraging cycles of self-doubt — which is part of what was so perfect for me about the second instructor. I never doubted her confidence in me, which helped make me a believer too, and Poe & I always ended the lesson much better than we started. I like the people I’m training with now, but I miss my cheerleader and my funny metaphors and her willingness to have me trot in a circle however long it takes.

SO — you can imagine how excited I was when I got a text a few weeks ago that she was coming up for the weekend, and would I like a lesson?

I’ve felt a bit stuck for a while now. Demoralized. Daydreaming, I will confess, of handing over my sweet red pony to someone who can help him better than I can. Giving over this hard part and coming back when it is all easy and fun. It doesn’t sound quite right that way, because it’s not that I’m not interested in putting in the work — more that I feel like I can’t. Don’t know what I’m doing. Am going to ruin him.

Anyhow — at the start of the lesson she asked me how things have been going and what I want to work on. Softness, I said. Before she left we had a few lessons where we got him feeling incredibly connected, swinging, and sweet in the contact. I haven’t found that feeling again since. So we spent the next 75 minutes working on that (the woman after me was running late, so my time went long). We walked A LOT, and we got the walk good before we started trotting — and spent almost the entire rest of the time trotting a circle. She hopped on him for me for a while, and we all worked our asses off, and it was glorious. There were moments he felt so so awesome.

In the end, as we were motoring around in a circle, him light & lofty and me grinning, she said, “You can do this. You got this — this was all you. You can do this again.” It was hard work, and it took me longer than it did her, and she was there coaching me through it — but I did get it. I could recognize and respond to the feeling, to the moment he softens. Getting there was a fight. It was not all pretty kumbayah. There were times I was pretty up in his face, and I struggle with that. I know in a perfect world you’re just supposed to ride right and the horse goes right — but I think in the real world there’s some unpretty middle ground. There are stages where you have to show your horse strongly what you want, and it’s not going to be perfect right away. But being strong a few times, at the right times, and then being soft when he is right — it works, and I think it’s more effective and kinder than going around and around picking at him, nagging him, and having him just not get it, or decide he doesn’t have to listen.

So, we are trying a little tough love right now. We are getting ugly down by the bench where he’s taken to spooking and ignoring me. (She put it beautifully during my lesson: He can look with his eyes, but he’s not allowed to change his body.) It’s also been effective to approach the bench slowly, to work closer to it in agonizing stages while I totally ignore it — but it takes a long time, and I don’t think it’s doing much to teach him that he has to listen to me even when he’s concerned (or looking for ways out of work). So I’m doing it the tough way, and it definitely escalates things for a while — but it always gets better. Always. And the intervals are getting shorter. So I’m trying to have a positive attitude about it: any time there’s a new coat down there, it’s more practice for this summer, for how he will be at shows. It’s another opportunity to get his attention back on me. Another moment to say Sorry buddy, gotta bend.

Lesson: June 23

I had a really nice lesson last Thursday. We were stuck in the indoor (so much rain); as much as I hate using it in the summer, I do usually get better dressage work there. Fewer distractions for the baby horsey brain. We started with flatwork, lots of changes of direction to warm up, then focusing on good quality transitions. These have improved a lot, but still involve a big element of luck and very precise timing. Unsurprisingly, they’re best when I can get a really good quality gait to start with and stay sitting back while asking for the transition, and keep the bit moving gently with the inside rein. Particularly down to the walk he has the tendency to snatch the bit and do a sort of bad cowhorse imitation, dumping onto his forehand and jamming on the brakes. Both of us are getting better at it, though. Practice practice practice.

My instructor has been talking about doing a bounce gymnastic for a while, and the rainy day was the perfect opportunity. We started with just four canter poles, and started building up from the first element (so we had a little cross-rail followed by three poles, then two cross-rails followed by two poles, etc). He was a really good boy, and I could feel him thinking hard. Every time she changed something he’d come in all Holy smokes something is different! Not bad, just stalling for time. After a couple hairy first trips through I got a little more aggressive and started smacking him when he backed off. WORLD OF GOOD. I do not know why that lesson is taking so long to sink into my brain and actually take hold in my body, but, again: when I ride more confidently and aggressively, he goes better. Funny how that works.

My first fences are pretty much always shit. They just are. Need to work on it, I know. It was nice riding through a grid, though, and getting to focus a little more on my position. (During the three fences after the first, anyway.) I realized the other day that I haven’t actually sat on a really well-trained horse since high school. Some of the ones I tried when I was shopping were further along, but definitely nothing resembling been-there-done-that. Greenies definitely help you improve as a rider, but in a different way. Anyway, I’m (still) looking forward to the day when we can kind of just clock around a course and have a reasonable guess what’s going to happen.

Lesson: April 21

I was off gallivanting around London April 9 – 16, so His Poeness had almost a week and a half off. I got back on him Monday the 18th, and he was awesome. After the usual initial struggle to get his attention, he (more or less) got down to work; he was as solid in the connection as he’s ever been, and trying really hard. Even though we were riding outside (YAY) he listened pretty well, and after some nice trot work, some leg yields, and a little canter, I hopped off him. I put him away feeling really happy that I’d asked my instructor to ride him during my usual Thursday lesson spot while I was out of town — she’s a really nice dressage rider and can always get much better work out of him than I do.

I had roughly the same ride Tuesday. Wednesday he was distracted and I was impatient (worst emotion for riding, I know!), so after a bit of a struggle and some half-hearted work, I put my stirrups up and slipped the reins and asked him to just canter around the rail. He was much happier about that than more boring circles and leg yields, and would quite enthusiastically lengthen down the long side for me. We careened a bit around the short sides and we had to have a serious discussion about one of the corners he insisted on cutting, but it was definitely the right call to give up on strict dressage practice for the day. After we were done cantering I had him trot around on a loopy rein while I worked on my half seat, which is in woefully disrepair. I am definitely out of shape.

So we roll around to Thursday — and I find out that my instructor didn’t ride him while I was gone after all, since we hadn’t touched base about it again before I left. Ha! I guess he just responded really well to his mini vacation. We were outside again, which I am still just ecstatic over — I think the advent of spring makes all Minnesotans a little nuts, as we trip over ourselves at the slightest excuse to get out in any weather above freezing. Spring apparently makes the barn cat nuts as well. Poe and I were warming up along the rail at a nice walk; I was asking him to come into the connection and he was listening quite nicely, and I was feeling quite optimistic about our lesson — and then we were abruptly cantering the other direction. I brought him around quickly, and he stopped like a good boy — and there was the cat, leaping maybe eight or nine feet to cling to the side of a tree, then scurrying down and tearing off. I was just happy that I’d stayed securely in the saddle for the whole thing. (Though I should probably be happy that my horse decided to take me with him when he tried to exit the scene; all things considered it was not hard to sit at all.)

Other than the cat incident, Poe was fabulous for our lesson. We worked on leg yields (still not beautiful but they’re coming along!), then the dreaded canter — except his canter was awesome. The transition into it is still a work in progress; we did a trot spiral in then back out on a circle, and then I concentrated (or tried to) on holding my outside rein while asking him to step into the canter. I think I’ve mentioned, probably a hundred times, my bad habit of chucking him the reins for that transition. The best one we got happened when I consciously held that rein longer than I wanted — he took a couple extra trot steps, but I waited, and then: gorgeous.

The canter itself was gorgeous too — by far the best he’s given me. He was soft and round and really trying. He’s still pretty heavy on his forehand in it, but with time and conditioning he WILL start carrying himself more from behind, and then he will be faaancy. He’s such a good boy! AND all this was in the misting rain. It felt so nice to be riding outside, and it was such a light, fine drizzle that we just stayed there. Happily my instructor’s also an eventer, and we lot aren’t afraid of a little weather.

After our canter work I would’ve happily gotten off him and convinced him he was the cleverest pony in the world, but my instructor is a slave-driver (or at least a lot less lazy than I am), so we went inside to do a bit of jumping. She set a single fence on the short side. It was just a tiny cross-rail at first, which he trotted over, like a cavaletti (cavaletto? whatever the singular of that is). After a couple times around I asked what we were supposed to be doing exactly, and she mentioned he was a bit clumsy/ho-hum about the whole thing, and I said Yeah, he’s not going to jump something that small. So she put it up to a vertical — which he also trotted over. I explained that I do start him over small stuff, part of his baby education and all, but that he just doesn’t use himself and he does look quite lazy and unspectacular. I don’t know how high she ended up raising it, but once it went up a bit he started jumping and things were much prettier from there.

And since then he’s been sitting on his pampered red hiney again; I’ve been busy with life (very important dancing to do, and cleaning, and Easter, and tonight a concert, and there may have been some recuperating-from-dancing somewhere in there too), so it’s back to work tomorrow. At this rate we’re never going to be ready to do anything this summer.

Just a quick post about my lesson last night, so that I might remember longer than five minutes all the things we worked on. We started with some work over four ground poles, at the walk and the trot, encouraging him to be steady and soft in the contact. He was a really good boy — that makes two really nice flat sessions this week, yay Poe. Afterwards we worked on leg yielding, then his canter. We had a LOT of trouble to the left — he was really sluggish and did NOT want to be round at all — but he was pretty great to the right, and we quit on that note.

Things for me to really remember and work on: holding my hands higher, with straight wrists! I have a very bad case of puppy paws, and have gotten into the habit of holding my hands lower than I should, and particularly dropping my inside hand toward my thigh when trying to get him to bend. I also need to concentrate on sitting very square in the leg yields, and stop trying to help him so much with my pelvis/seatbones and thigh. I’ve also been concentrating really hard on being soft and quiet my own self, even when he is not, and it seems to be working well.

He was a big sluggish overall last night, which in itself isn’t totally unusual — sometimes he’s just like that, especially at home. But he was also eating his grain super slowly, and didn’t finish it after our ride, so I’m concerned about that. I asked the staff to keep an eye on how he eats today. He had good gut sounds on both sides and otherwise seemed okay… I tried to check his teeth but almost lost a finger, so I’m going to leave that to the professionals — he’s scheduled for his second round of vaccinations soon. Maybe he just bit his tongue or the inside of his mouth or something today? Or ate too much snow and mud trying to get at the first inklings of grass? Or has decided he doesn’t like his supplements any more? I don’t know. Horses.

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