Friday, August 28, 2009


Horses work in funny ways.

Usually if I'm in a good mood, I have a good ride. Or maybe it's just that I pretty much always have good rides on Pandora, so I'm always in a good mood when I go to ride. Something I fully appreciate, let me tell you - a 'bad' ride on Pandora probably would have qualified as an 'okay' ride on Bailey.


With all the thinking I've been doing lately (see my last post, whose great length and slight disorganization characterize my mind), one would assume I'd be having extraordinary rides. New ideas, new exercises, new perspectives! Well, yes, I did have one fantastic ride and a few pretty darn good ones.

Then, probably just to remind me that you can't always win, I had two pretty bad rides in a row. The first was Tuesday. There wasn't really any reason for it - I was in a good mood, I was full of new ideas, etc. Pandora just wasn't focused on me, and for whatever reason we just kept getting into small arguments with each other. Most of the blame lies with me, of course - the horse can't argue if you don't agree to argue. I was getting frustrated in a way that I haven't for a long time, either because I've gotten a lot better at being patient or just because my horse is awesome. I like to think it's mostly the former, but in reality it's probably mostly the latter. Anyway, I only meant to ride for a half hour but it ended up being an hour, and I just could not find a good note to end on, where I felt like she was really tuned in to me and listening.

Very frustrating.

Then last night, I set up a jumping lesson with one of the ladies who lives across the street from the boarding barn. Her hay field is all hayed and nice and she's got lots of jumps set up, so I wanted to take advantage of it while I still could. (We move to the new barn in two days!)

So, yay, jumping lesson. I have to say, Pandora looks amazingly cute when she's all suited up. Front boots, back boots, bell boots, FLY BONNET. Yes. I don't usually boot up that much for just plain old stadium jumping, but I figured since it was outside, I should err on the side of caution.

Our warmup on the flat went just fine. Then we started some gridwork. I warned my instructor that she was probably going to get strong, and the instructor said to just not worry about it and let her make her own mistakes. Well, she did get strong, and I did let her make her own mistakes as we continued to build up each element of the grid from ground pole to cross-rail, until I finally said, "Okay - I need to do some schooling in the middle of this grid, because she is just acting downright dangerous." She goes too fast and she completely took out a fence. Argh.

So I schooled her hard. Walk halt. Trot halt. Walk trot halt back. Trot halt back. Canter halt back. Walk trot canter halt. And so on. I was not polite about it: I want a stop and I want it when I say I want it.

So then we tried the grid again, and I gave her a very strong half-halt after the first fence. Definitely got through to her. So, we never quite got the gridwork perfect, but at least she wasn't charging through like an idiot, and she actually added the stride at the very end instead of launching herself.

Then we moved on to coursework, where she proceeded to try to run like a bat out of hell. Approaching fences wasn't too bad, but on the landing side she was just ridiculous. Completely ignoring half-halts. It wasn't like she was trying to bolt - she was just, I don't know, either excited or anxious or something, and she was completely tuning me out. I hate that.

So I did some serious schooling there, too. We trotted all the fences. Instructor had me exhale and give her the reins a few strides before the fence, which did help on the approach - she definitely likes room to breathe. But then on the landing side she'd still launch and ignore polite or strong half-halts, so I'd fight her back. I'd ask for a halt from the canter and she'd completely tune me out, so I would have to seesaw on her face, which I absolutely hate doing. I can't even tell you how much I hate doing that - it makes me sick to think about it. She throws her head up, and I can see her tongue stick out the side of her mouth. But there was really nothing else for me to do at that point other than get the point across.

We made some progress on that before we decided to call it quits for the day, as it'd been a pretty long lesson.

So it got me thinking about this sort of thing. After all, I've been thinking so much lately my head's about to explode, so what should I do but think more?

I get so easily discouraged with Pandora. Probably, again, because she's so good-natured that 99% of the time I have a pretty good ride on her. So when things really do go south, I start running through all those familiar self-doubt thought patterns. I try to break it, and usually I succeed, because logically I know that this is not the end of our training success. But it's difficult to avoid thinking that. I mentioned this in the Lily Glen post - one admittedly disastrous stadium lesson, and I was frantically rethinking every aspect of my riding with her. A couple hours later, I had a lovely dressage lesson and my fears were assuaged.

Speaking of dressage...

For some reason, Dressage is just this big ol' mysterious THING to me. It's a vast discipline with lots of history and everyone thinks they're right and there's shortcuts and all kinds of ways to do it wrong, and all I want to do is just do it right. Hard to do without an instructor, but then there's plenty of people who hang up a shingle as a dressage instructor but teach their students to just use a headset.

It should be a methodical, step-by-step process. You build the base, and you go up from there. I am getting it, slowly. Like I said, all of this minor freaking out is probably just from my bad rides the past few days. I'll have a good ride this weekend and quit worrying.

I am making progress, though. She's super nicely forward in all gaits. If I remember to back my leg up with the whip if necessary when I ask for a canter, she's liable to surge forward in a beautiful transition. I'm starting to make progress, or at least develop an understanding, with her current evasions. I know that she swings those haunches to the right when we track left, therefore avoiding loading up that left hind leg. I know I need to work systematically to supple her shoulders and hips and strengthen that left hind. I have the tools and the exercises. I even have the eyes on the ground, sometimes, because if I ask nicely my mom will watch me to tell me if Pandora is crossing over correctly or maybe even take a video.

I read a lot. I have lots of ideas swimming around in my head, tools to gymnastically develop her and sharpen her mental focus. Leg-yields around a circle, something that proved extremely challenging and frustrating for both of us last night. "Ping-pong" exercises, sending her back and forth between the sides. Shoulders-in, leg yields down the wall, trot poles, spiraling circles, transitions, turns on the forehand.

I have a plan, too. There's a lady in the area who gives dressage lessons occasionally to the Pony Club. She refuses to take payment but, from what I understand, she is also not interested in becoming a paid trainer at all, mainly (I think) because she doesn't want the time commitment. In my head I am working on a perfect speech where I will ask her to please make an exception for me, just give me weekly or twice-monthly lessons for a few months this winter and I will pay you or clean your stalls or make you dinner or what-have-you. I am hoping this will work, because some focused regular instruction for a short period of time should make a big difference.

I have a plan for the jumping difficulties as well. I am going to break that down further, too. I could just say, "She's running through my hands when we're outside so I need a stronger bit." It's tempting, and I admit the thought crossed my mind several times last night. And I'm not completely against bitting up, sometime, if it becomes clear that even with careful training she ignores her snaffle. But I don't think that's the issue here, so I plan to fix it a different way.

There's a grassy area at the new barn outside where I plan on schooling in full jumping tack. First we'll just do flatwork, nice and calm, including crisp downward transitions and immediate half-halts. Then I'll add some ground poles and work through them while expecting calmness and the same responses to aids. Then I'll add a little cross-rail or two. Etc. Until we can go through a several-fence grid out there or jump a few fences in a row without losing the brain. Most importantly to me, I can do all of this work calmly and gently, taking things gradually, so I never have to fight hard with her or hurt her or damage her trust in me by getting rough with the reins.

This is the way I prefer to train. That horrendous ride last night showed me where the big training hole exists; now, on my own, I get to take things calmly and quietly and build each piece so that we don't have to have any huge fights about it. I'll start where she can already do what I ask, i.e., flatwork outside calmly. Then I'll slowly build things up and establish the comfort level along the way.

So, you see, I face difficulties. Most of them are in my head. But I know that, and I'm working hard to get through them, and despite my frustration there is also a very dangerous sort of joy I take in working these things out for myself. Because as we resolve these challenges, I get to say to myself -- see? I worked that out. I put in the time, and the studying, and the effort, and the understanding, and together my horse and I overcame this obstacle on our own.

Just so you know, it is my goal to come out blazing at Novice level next spring. To do this I will work very hard but I am really looking forward to some serious, thoughtful, quiet dressage work this winter. It will be between me and my horse, and with a little luck occasionally with that trainer. It will be careful and methodical. I just know that if I break this down into piece by little piece, I will be able to stack them all together and come into Spring with a capability to perform something that looks curiously like real-for-real dressage.

Whew, another long post. I'll get back to you sometime soon with something a little more bite-sized. Just feeling stressed about the bad rides and I'm anxious to start working on our challenges so we can establish our positive relationship again. Planning on giving her a light day today and just longeing her, but I'll ride tomorrow and make darn sure it's a short and sweet one!


Anonymous said...

I know what you mean about having good rides 99% of the time then when you get a bad one it's too easy to get frustrated. I had to overcome that with Klein. I had to stop and realize some things. Now I just accept that every now and then our time has to come up for a bad one so we get it over with and we're set for a while LOL. That, and it's usually something I can take the blame for.

Atleast you have a plan though! I like that kind of challenge.

The new barn sounds nice, you'll have to take some pics! Take some jumping pics too, all dressed up!

RuckusButt said...

This line:

"For some reason, Dressage is just this big ol' mysterious THING to me."

made me laugh out loud. I feel the same way. Even when actually doing pretty decent dressage moves, I feel like an imposter.

Albigears said...

This is why I like reading these blogs. I can say, "Look! Someone ELSE had a bad ride!" (And she has a plan).

I'm looking forward to reading about you blazing through the novice courses...

manymisadventures said...

I will definitely take pictures.

Stacey, I know -- that's why I was so shocked to have TWO bad rides in a row!! It's practically unprecedented, because usually one bad ride guarantees another month or so of good rides ;)

Ruckusbutt...the feeling drives me crazy. Maybe someday it will go away but even if I make it to 4th level I'll probably still feel like I'm stumbling around in the dark.

Albigears, yes yes yes. That's honestly half the reason I posted this, because most of the time my rides are sunshine and butterflies and I don't want anyone to think that things always go so perfectly! And it would be much less useful if I filtered out the ugly parts of training.

I am looking forward to doing the, I love a good XC run when the fences are (kinda) big and the going is perfect.

Tansy said...

Check out Dressage in Jeans blogspot. also sustainable dressage is a fantastic website. Not so great on the "how" to do things, but all the back ground on what you want and why.
I'm learning this with my first horse now. Finding it hard to find a trainer in my part of the world who doesn't just want the head cranked in and the mouth strapped closed. I wish you luck!

manymisadventures said...

Thanks for the links. I've read through Sustainable Dressage before, and agree it's a great website - I love the theory though I do wish there was a little more practical how-to!

I've read Dressage in Jeans before but haven't for quite some time, so thanks for re-recommending it. I'll go ahead and subscribe so I don't get behind again.

FD said...

I would say running through your hands is a brain issue, not a bit issue. Also, YMMV as to how helpful this is, but I used to get exceedingly discouraged when I had a bad ride. Full on voice-in-my-head 'OMG, you're USELESS!!' kind of discouraged.

I found the nerve to talk to a trainer I knew about this one day, and he pointed out something that I knew but I forgot and is the flipside of your comment about two being required for a quarrel.

It's not all about you.
Sometimes the horse is just having a bad day, and you won't be able to jolly them out of it. I think we, (as in dressagey oriented types) tend to forget that, because of the tendency towards emphasis of rider-as-director, as opposed to rider as partner.

Also, because of the way dressage is like gymnastics, there's always a lot of repetition required. This leads to plateaus and it's easy to get discouraged. IMO, the real key in training is not teaching ideas or concepts - it's the perfect patient practice till the horse is strong/supple/balanced enough to move to the next stage.

stilllearning said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
stilllearning said...

FD beat me to the punch: sometimes a bad ride is just a bad ride, not bad training, not bad horse, not bad riding. Sometimes it's just an off day. Two in a row is rotten luck, but still...don't throw out your systematic approach and try lots more new things just yet.

I like your plans. You'll be back on track in no time.

manymisadventures said...

Yup - definitely agree that we don't have a bitting problem at this point.

Thanks for reminding me that it's not always my fault! I try to remember that usually issues are rider-driven (because I hate when people blame their horse for every problem), but I do need to remember that sometimes it's just a bad day.

I will definitely stick with our steady, systematic work. The more I read, the more I realize that you really need to repeat simple strengthening and suppling exercises to build understanding and gymnastic strength and thus progress to the next level.

Today the plan is for a short and sweet ride, then back to work tomorrow.

Beckz said...

An idea you could try for a horse that takes off on landing instead of going from canter to halt is to circle and then get a nice canter, a nice soft trot and then a nice walk and then pick up your gait and go to the next fence so you are redirecting the energy rather than fighting it.

manymisadventures said...

You're right. That's what I should have done during that jumping lesson instead of fighting with her.

The next time I am dealing with this particular challenge, I will be sure to try circling and softening right from the start. Thanks!

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