Your Horse is Not a Steering Wheel: Tips on how to make Contact more Complicated
Did you ever drive stick shift growing up? Riding your horse is like driving a stick shift car because your hands and legs act independently of each other. You have one hand on the steering wheel, one hand shifting, one foot letting your clutch out, and one foot pressing down on the gas. Did you know that your seat bones can work independently of each other too?
How do you steer a horse? Well, you don’t whip it like a steering wheel doing donuts on a snowy day in the school parking lot! And if your first reaction was to say the reins then it’s time to go back to the ABC’s. First you steer a horse with your seat, then your leg to support, and lastly with your reins for some extra finesse.
Lately i’ve noticed a lot of riders use their hands as a unit, and this is the wrong way to communicate with your horse. Your hands are not a steering wheel, instead they act independently of each other. Your inside rein might be giving and your outside rein might be holding, but they don’t turn together as a unit. In general, your inside rein helps with lateral flexion and the outside rein helps your horse’s balance and for longitudinal rounding. If you need to use a rein to help support a turn, use just one, and make sure it opens up and out like a hitchhiker’s hand instead of pulling backwards on the horse’s tongue. You will only have equal contact with each rein when your horse is straight and through.
I repeat, you will only have equal contact with each rein when your horse is straight and through. This is why trying to pull a head down on a horse to make a pretty frame doesn’t work because you’re boxing a horse up into a crooked position. Contact is the connection between you and your horse and your horse should seek it when he is properly swinging through the back. You only get that when your horse is comfortable and in good balance. This is why I sometimes ride around with a horse’s head up! Yes, I let them have their head while I am straightening their shoulders and once they get straight they naturally want to go round and into my hands without me pulling them in. You need to create that suppleness before you go for the round, and forward doesn’t always mean a horse is coming through the back.
I teach a lot of hunter/jumper and event students that like to dabble in dressage and their first question is always how do I develop and feel contact? Contact isn’t just the reins, it is your WHOLE body; your elbows, shoulders, hips, and legs. When you are coordinated through your body then your horse will trust you.
Contact is like a triangle. Contact is like a square, and sometimes it changes to a rectangle or a parallelogram but if you are using your hands to make contact then it’s not good contact.
Contact comes through your elbows. I don’t ride with my hands, I ride and create contact through my elbows. Imagine a pvc pipe running from your elbow to your horse’s mouth. It is straight. That means you shouldn’t do weird things with your hands and wrists like drop, break, twist, or pull back with them. You shouldn’t turn your pinkies up to turn like you’re drinking tea either, and you shouldn’t flap your elbows out like a chicken either! Your elbows never go behind your back, unless you’re on an exceptionally naughty horse and need to save the situation, otherwise you’re just pulling.
Your hands are just a filter that finesses the energy when necessary, but you shouldn’t be using them to hold your horse up or stop, that comes from your seat. As mentioned earlier, your hands work independently of each other, you use them and then put them away!
My metaphor for contact is that it comes in four shapes, square, rectangle, parallelogram, and triangle. In regular/neutral contact your forearms are positioned like a square. There is equal distance between your hands and elbows and a 90 degree bend in the elbow. When contact is like a rectangle it’s when you are allowing your horse to stretch over his back into your hands. You “open” your elbows like you are giving blood to about 120 degrees. Another way to pick up contact without fiddling with your hands is a triangle, which can be wider at the base (taking your elbows away from your hips) or narrorer at the base (widening the hands). A parallelogram with contact is when your shift your hands to the side on a green horse around a turn to help control the shoulder with your outside reins and give direction with the new inside rein. Don’t do this unless you’re really on a green horse and it needs to be supported with seat and leg first.
Connection is necessary for good contact. Connection is the flow of energy from the hind through the back and neck and then into the contact. So if you want to develop and ride with more contact the first step is to feel through your elbows and the second step is to use your hands independently. This is after you are steering with your legs and seat and you have a good flow of energy.
So you pulled with your inside rein and your horse bulged his shoulder and you crashed into the jump. Nice! Now it is recommended that you take a few dressage lessons so that you can properly steer your horse while running mach two at solid objects. But you are scared to take a dressage lesson because it is hard, awkward, and different. You know that you’re going to do everything wrong and you don’t feel like being criticized trying to trot a circle that your jumping trainer says is perfect while your dressage trainer pecks at it incessantly for not being perfect enough. So today we are going “dressagin” so I can help you mentally prepare yourself for a dressage lesson with a DQI (Dressage-Queen-Instructor) without quietly seething under your breath over your not-perfect-enough circle.
Forget Everything. This Only Applies to Dressage
Obviously, your attitude determines your altitude so the first step to a dressage lesson is to throw everything you know about jumping out the window. Just let it go. Challenge yourself and learn something new. They are different languages right down to how we ask for the canter. (I mean, you know dressage riders ask for the canter with their inside leg and jumping peeps ask with the outside, right? Except on green horses, then the dressage divas ask with the outside on the greenies until they are trained and can respond to the inside hip…) If you didn’t know that, this article is for you.
The Circle Diet
The first thing a DQI is going to do to improve your riding is put you on a Circle Diet. Yes, you must always be on a circle, unless it’s lateral work you will eat, sleep, and breathe a circle. I try to be generous in the beginning with a twenty meter for my jumping students but as you become more adept it will shrink to a volte. The point: You are not allowed to let the rail HOLD you up and keep your horse balanced while you “flat”. The goal is to teach you to be able to steer and balance your horse while riding on an intangible imaginary line without a solid object to set you up. So I call it the circle diet with my students, and that’s a requirement when they go dressagin’.
Sitting on your “Tail feathers”
After your DQI puts on you on a “”Circle Diet” they are going to pick on your seat. No pointy toes outward, move your leg back and twisty your thigh in and let it hang. You gotta drape that leg or your instructor is going to do it for you. It’s going to give you a butt cramp so if you don’t want that to happen do some pendulum leg lifts before your lesson. Your leg belongs at the girth and not half-way back on your horse’s belly with you lifting up your heel everytime you squeeze. Actually, we don’t really want to see your leg move because that alters our princess looking game. So when we use our leg we move it into the horse, not up and back. Imagine a rubber band wrapped around your two ankles drawing them together underneath the horse. When I ask for a transition I bring my ankles together and think of lifting my horse’s belly up to their withers. KEY POINT: Your DQI doesn’t want to visually see your leg move...so don’t lift your heel and squeeze with your calf to make your horse go in your dressage lesson, but do that in your jumping lesson tomorrow.
Don’t forget to sit on your butt. Like your tailbone. Just go for that exaggerated feeling so you don’t spend the whole lesson getting off your crotch. As a kid during hunter lessons I remember my instructor always telling me to stick my “tail feathers” out between the fences. Now you have to tuck them under your seat and your hips are going to swing up through your elbows when you post. Carry your hands legit like a tray of food is resting ON TOP of your arms; it will feel heavy and make your forearms sore for a bit if you’re always dropping them down into the mane.
“Shoulders like a Princess, Hips like a ….”
We post different. A lot different. So in jumping land with short stirrups you use the barrel of the horse to squeeze to get up in your post. That is going to drive your new DQI insane because to us the whole belly of a horse is like a keyboard and each position is a different key. Legs back might be more like a piaffe or reinback, legs forward at the girth means go. You should probably bring your DQI some wine if you are going to give her that much anxiety over changing your leg in the post, because remember those buttons on the barrel mean everything to us and it will just render us speechless if you keep hitting the button and your horse tunes you out!
The key point - be prepared to drop those stirrups just a hole or two so that you can post off the stirrup and with balance and not by using the horse to prop you up. It will give you more balance and make you a better rider, I promise! Also, every aid with the leg means something for a dressage rider. We don’t press and squeeze without expecting a movement or a reaction.
Addicted to Accuracy
We are addicted to accuracy. Taking lessons with a DQI will raise your standards of quality. To jumping peeps, you ask for the canter, you get the correct lead, you are happy. To a DQI, we want a STRAIGHT and BALANCED canter depart that is smooth and uphill and at the perfect time all without chasing, clucking, or flopping around with our leg like a fish out of water. It has to be magical and effortless and smooth. And you know what? A good DQI will teach you how to make that transition really perfect and effortless. Once you learn how to do that and raise your standards you might actually get a little addicted too. It’s really not hard, I promise.
On that note, you know there’s only two ways to get your horse into the canter right? You can chase them into it from a speedy trot which causes your horse to fall on their forehand and drop into it, or you can do the DQI method of using some tactful positioning and circles and squares to teach your horse to LIFT into the canter. Choice is yours but I bet you will look mighty cool at a show if you do the latter.
Okay, now that you fixed the seat and position stuff you can get to the real dressage! This is so exciting. So first you get to loosen up your OTTB by doing lots of bending side to side in the neck. That will help loosen the shoulder sling (so your horse is really free in the front end for a great jump). Then you get to work the shoulders which is 100% going to help you better steer to your fences with your outside rein and stop that pulling and bulging problem you had going on to start with. Lastly, you get to work that hind end with lots of leg yields and that is going to make your horse loosen those back muscles behind the saddle. With that combination of “Dressagin” your horse is going to feel oh so perfect and smooth he’s going to jump like a freak and pop you out of the tack. Jokes aside, you do realize if you work those areas your horse is going to jump way better right? And you won’t embarrass yourself with steering. That’s why you should go dressagin’.
Canter Like a Dressage Pro
Tired of riding a runaway freight train of a horse? Is your horse heavy in your hands and on his forehand? Is your horse ignoring your half-halts? There are a lot of ways to fix your canter (like half-halts, shoulder-turns, and squares), but in this post we are just going to talk about changing your seat.
A canter is 3 beats, and you will move your seat in three ways. You have UP, DOWN, SLIDE. Sometimes it’s easier to think of it as UP, and then DOWN-SLIDE as a unit.
If you jump horses, you know SLIDE, because that’s how you adjust your horse’s stride before a fence.
If you ride dressage, you know UP, because that is how you collect and create more volume in the canter.
If you ask for a transition down from canter to trot, you do that with your half halts coordinated during DOWN. But if you want Canter-walk like in your simple changes - ask during the UP.
(Pro-tip: If you do that on the DOWN phase of your posting trot with your outside rein you will have a perfect square halt too!)
Do you ever get jealous of those people riding around with a perfect and quiet collected canter that looks effortless? I sure do. I spent one summer showing a pony that the judges would put “off to the races” in the comment box and I just thought it was because she was spicy. It was actually my seat! I was pushing her too hard during the SLIDE phase of the canter and it was driving her too much. Instead, I had to learn how to ride the up, which is more of a lifting phase of the canter. As soon as I learned how to ride the UP, my horses could magically slow down and collect their canters. Funny how that works! (But obviously if you have a torpedo butt and never sit in the saddle you have to sit in the saddle and start riding the down-slide before the UP..just sayin).
The bottom line...if you want to look better in your dressage test and have more influence over your horse, start riding the UP phase of your canter.
More leg. More leg. More leg. It’s always about going, and we are always thinking about the forward and the up. But the funny thing is, a lot of your dressage test is judged based on your transition DOWN, especially the more advanced you get. So, how do you ask your horse to transition down? Can you verbalize it?
A really good halt halt comes with impeccable timing. There is NO point of applying a half-halt if your horse’s hind leg is on the ground and unable to move when you ask it to move. Good riders know how to feel and ask for their half-halt at the right time to be effective.
At a very basic level your trot to walk or trot to halt is going to happen on the down phase of your posting trot. This means you half-halt with your outside shoulder and hand and in those moments before the transition when you are sitting in your trot.
To ask your horse to trot from the canter you ask on the down phase of the canter. Your canter has three phases that are up, down, and then slide. If you want a gorgeous canter to trot transition in front of the judge in your training level dressage test you need to apply the halt halt during the down phase of your canter.
If you are schooling second level and want to start your simple changes you have to apply the half-halt on the UP phase of your canter to achieve the perfect timing for canter-walk transition. It's not an all at once and hold thing either, it's a 2 or 3 strides out start asking and releasing in the UP phase only and by the third time you have transitioned.
So next time you ride your horse instead of thinking about OMG i’m stopping...think more like a dressage rider and be specific about when and how much pressure you use to stop.
My Monday Morning ABC's
I love having the weekend off from riding, don't you? It gives me time to reflect on the week and really think about my training goals for the following week. Maybe I really want to get that half-pass on the young five year old gelding that struggles to connect his hind leg to his brain, or maybe I really want to get my flying changes confirmed on my seven year old dutch warmblood mare....
...But the secret to great riding isn't to wake up on Monday and go for the flying change or push and muscle my client's horse through that half-pass. On Monday I wake up and practice my ABC's. If my horse can't do the ABC's, then I know I'm not ready to ask for the hard questions. Or I CAN ask for the hard questions (and push and muscle my way through it) but the quality will suck and that is the difference between mediocre and great, and winning and losing.
So you want to win and have a "quality" ride?
The first ABC is to check the neck. Do you have flexion each way? Can you flex and counter flex on a circle without any loss of balance? This is the difference between a green horse and a trained horse...a dressage horse and a not dressage trained horse. If you ask for the flexion, does your horse try to turn? If so, then you need a lesson on how to ask for the flexion, put your inside leg on, and keep the horse's shoulder up and balanced while flexing and counter flexing. It's that easy. That's the difference between young green horses learning to direct rein and a dressage horse learning to separate the neck from the shoulders and balance.
If you're horse fails this test - then you know you're going to be stuck on a 20 meter circle flexing and counter flexing until they can do it with suppleness and softness. If your horse is really resistive then you can plan some circle exercises and gently bend your horse in an out in shallow loop serpentines, progressive circles, etc. When you have the flexion you can proceed to the next test. How do you know when you "got it?" When your horse is relaxed into the bend and GIVES. You don't stop asking as the rider until your horse gives to the point of relaxation. Then you have positive reinforcement and an automatic built in relax button for horse shows.
The second part of my Monday morning ABC's is to test the shoulder. Can my horse do a shoulder turn? If so, how reactive and fast can my horse do this? If I move my leg forward, does my horse yield the shoulders? This is a great way to teach the horse to weight bear the hind legs. Eventually this will be your turn on the haunches, then your walk pirouette, and you will use the same idea and premise in your trot and canter work and voila, one day your canter pirouettes will be cake! If you don't desire to be a dressage queen, think of this as your rollback between fences - the difference between getting a rail after that turn and setting your horse up perfectly after that turn.
When you ask for the shoulders the horse's head will be flexed to the OUTSIDE. It's okay if their head is up, because this is a hind leg weight bearing exercise. If you are an oddly crooked rider sometimes it is easier to mirror the horse's counter bend and turn your shoulders and hips a little bit to the outside. I like to do sharp half turns at the trot with this exercise to test the shoulders. In the canter it is the FIRST thing I always test (I ask before the flexion) because I have the tendency to space out when I start cantering and let my horse go too long before asking for a question, and by that time the horse is already bumbling around on his forehand. So, think of it as an automatic half-halt for the canter - ask for your canter depart and turn!
The last and most difficult ABC is getting that hind leg!
Once upon a time I had a client horse that liked to rear anytime I asked him a hard question. His behavior continued until I finally connected his lil' brain to his hind leg and taught him that giving his hind leg created relaxation. Now he is a good pony that has no desire to rear because he understands how to use his hind leg.
Your last a most difficult test of the warm up is to get the hind leg. I usually do this on a small circle and you need a firm outside rein to control and block the shoulder from escaping. I move my leg back (because forward is for the shoulders) and ask for the hind leg until the horse gives and yields in their neck and lowers their head a bit. Then I ride them forward on the circle when they give me this release. If my horse creates drama I keep asking until they give me the correct answer. I usually ask three times in each direction and then proceed with my training goal for the day.
If your horses passes these "checks" then you can proceed with training. If my horse resists any of these questions then I repeat the question until my horse gives me the relaxation and thoroughness that I am looking for. Only then can go ask for my flying changes and half-passes and favorite little tricks - and THEN it's quality work.
I am available for dressage lessons and I teach all types of riders. Text if you're interested in scheduling a lesson. (607)743-1309
I have a super thoroughbred in training now that recently came off the track. As you can imagine with any thoroughbred that has raced, it takes time to teach them to strike off into the canter off the hind end instead of falling into or racing into the canter off the forehand. It also takes time to teach a horse to immediately lift off into the canter instead of "chasing" the canter depart. Your canter transition is really important to do correctly because there is a specific score for the quality of the canter depart in many dressage tests.
So, what does a good canter depart look like? Regardless if it's from the walk or the trot, it needs to be round, SOFT, and submissive. The horse's head should stay down and round (but not forced) and there should be total relaxation and a smoothness. To achieve this, your horse is going to need to step off with their hind leg into that depart.
What does a BAD canter depart look like? It looks forceful and aggressive - and chasing. If you are chasing your horse to canter for more than one stride, then just go back and reset and try again, because that is not a behavior you want to reward. The difference between a good and bad canter depart is like ballet vs. kickboxing. If it's a bad canter depart, the horse will throw their head up and invert, lose their balance, and probably race on their forehand a few strides before they "fall" into the canter through a loss of balance.
But remember this is dressage, so we need to make it look soft and graceful.
So how do we "fix" a thoroughbred off the track so they have a neat and tidy canter depart?
Here's what you don't do. First, you don't fix your hands and make them round from the front end to force them into it. I mean, if you're a skilled rider you can get away with that and probably fake it in a sales video and at training level, but it's not going to TRULY help you or the horse advance up the levels and do correct dressage training. You're gonna be screwed by the time you get to second if you keep trying that!
Now, you need to isolate and strengthen the hind leg. This is assuming you can bend your horse laterally side to side without their shoulders moving, also assuming that you can move the shoulders with or without changing the bend, and that you can also isolate the horse's hind legs. That's how you make a straight horse right? And when you have a straight horse you have a round horse!
Assuming we have some of those flexibilities and we don't have to muscle the horse into it, I like to set up young horses to do canter departs on twenty meter circle with two eight meter voltes in each side. I use these voltes to help set up the bend and as I ride the volte I ASK for the depart as I am coming out of the turn and in towards the arena fence. Then if the horse picks up the correct lead I canter out large on the twenty meter.
Here's the key point to make a delicious canter depart on a young horse....it's easier at first if you do it out of a shoulder turn or counter bending turn. By using your reins and leg to move the shoulders around the circle, it separates them from the hind legs, and then when you apply the aids for the canter depart, the horse is in the perfect position to strike off. The shoulders are lifted from the shoulder turn so the horse has to step with the hind leg, and there you go...a perfect canter depart from the hind leg. It might take a horse a few tries to figure it out. Just reset on your pattern each time and ask again until your horse figures it out. In a horse with a weak hind leg, no amount of forcing the front end is going to fix that strike off, but lateral work while controlling the shoulders will help strengthen the hind leg and create a beautiful canter depart.
Other tips if your horse isn't getting it:
Stop throwing away or giving too much with the reins (but don't hold too much either - the horse should have it's head and neck in this exercise so they can figure it out)
Stop leaning forward
Stop holding too much
Make sure your legs are in the correct position
Make sure you have a good shoulder turn with GOOD mobilization of the shoulders first
Stop going off course and the structure of the exercise
If your horse really doesn't get it or you are constantly getting the wrong lead go back and work on the hind leg.
If you need more help you can always set up a virtual lesson.
I was amused last week when someone suggested that I write a blog on how to have a positive attitude when you're riding. Probably because I don't think I always have the best attitude and it takes me conscious effort to monitor it and keep it positive.
So here are my top five strategies to fix your attitude and emotions when you're not feeling so great. Obviously this can all be applied to your riding, but I think it's easier to sit down and use these strategies for life in general and then try to apply them to riding.
1. Fake it
2. Role play in your mind a different outcome
3. Make a list of everything negative you are feeling and change it to a positive list - I am, I can
4. Watch your reactions - if you're reacting and feeling negative even though you're thinking positive
5. Tell a story like it already happened
Strategy 1 - Fake it: When I have a not so great day and I catch myself (key point, because sometimes I am not aware I am in a foul mood) then I take whatever is the negative and change it to positive and repeat it in my head and out loud. If I feel like garbage, I tell myself "I feel great". If i'm nervous about riding a young horse I say "I love riding young horses", which I do!
Strategy 2 -Role play: This is the BEST exercise that has changed my emotions and reactions with riding. I role play out scenarios and outcomes in my head all the time. If I am having bad thoughts about a horse taking off and bucking or bolting, I tell a story to myself about having the BEST dressage ride of my life.
This strategy works beyond just horses as well. When I have BAD childhood memories come up I always take time to relieve them in a positive past. Here's an example I used recently for Halloween last fall.
I never had a happy Halloween until this last one. I had this really bad memory come up about a week before Halloween about my mom dressing me up as a clown as a child when I was about 3 years old. I was EMBARASSED and mortified, I HATE the color red and I couldn't understand while all these people were poking and prodding at me. So I threw a temper tantrum, and she dragged me to the car and started spanking me until I would shut up. Yeah...so I had to change that memory.
Beyond that, by age 8 she decided that I was too old for Halloween and would never take us to town, help us find costumes, etc. I just wanted to be cool and included like the other kids but all I had was an Snow-white costume that was too small to fit by the time I was in elementary school.
So these bad memories come up around holidays and this is how I change them.
Did I mention that I had the BEST Halloween ever this year?
I keep a white board that I write out my feelings on. Then it's easy to erase after I am done working. I labeled it Halloween and I ran TWO scenarios. The first scenario was the Halloween of my childhood. I made myself write down what a PERFECT Halloween night would have been at that age. How I wanted it to go. How I wanted my mom to be warm and understanding instead of cold and selfish and angry at me for acting out. I even wrote out what I wanted to wear as a costume (Pocahontas duh with super cute moccasin shoes with beads on top! Not a red effing clown with a bright red nose!!!) and sketched it out in detail.
Then I wrote out what my best Halloween would look like for Halloween 2020. But I didn't imagine it in the future. Instead, I told the story in past tense about going out with my friends, hanging out with the people that mean the most to me, driving my favorite uber clients around, etc. I always tell myself to push my imagination one step beyond, so on a statement like this I would ask myself, What were your wearing? Who were your friends? What were they wearing? What was the music and atmosphere at the barn? Etc.
The key point is not to just change the thought, but to change the feeling. I had to go from a feeling of cold and unloved to a feeling of warmth and love to be able to change my attitude about Halloween and say it was the BEST Halloween ever.
I know I made this sound serious, but you can have a LOT of fun when you role play with your imagination. Sometimes I force myself to really build that castle in the sky, the more bogus, the better, and then it all kind of normalizes in the life. It helps you really change that emotion and reaction behind the thinking.
Strategy 3 Making Lists: If i'm struggling with a particular emotion or feeling I usually make a list of all the bad feelings and then in the column next to it write out that feeling in a positive light. For example, If i'm feeling unwanted and alone, I write out WHY i feel so unwanted and alone and then I change it to positives. So I struggled with this today because I desperately wanted to go do something fun but it's like pulling teeth to get people to go out and do fun things.
So on my negative side I had things like "I text everyone so I feel like I belong"
"I like to go do things to avoid being at peace with myself"
"I feel overwhelmed and pressured to be cool and talkative"
Then I change it to positives like"
"I am fucking cool"
"I LOVE to talk"
"I am a ray of sunshine and people love to hang out with me"
"I am comfortable in myself and don't need others to validate me"
But the bigger question I always ask myself: "What am I avoiding in myself by searching for in others?" What is that feeling of being "wanted" that I chase. When I can answer that questions, I know that I am in the right direction to change my attitude.
Using positive words in this category like "I am" and "Today was the best" goes a long way in changing the attitude too!
Strategy 4 Reactions and Feelings: If you're trying to change your attitude in your head, you're all wrong. Life is about feeling and reactions. If you can master NOT REACTING and being a blank space, then you're already farther ahead of everyone else. Seriously. It's not "thinking" that "I feel great today" it's the actually energy and emotion of feeling great.
I think this category is most applicable to horses. Your greatest skill as a rider is to have a poker face and blank space and not react. It works magic in life too. Someone starting drama? Don't react. Someone trying to put enthusiasm and energy behind something that is no big deal? Don't react. Someone making mountains out of molehills? Just watch the water flow by and don't react (obviously easier said than done!).
Strategy 5 Tell a story like it already happened:
I do this all the time when I want something in life. If I'm headed to a clinic and I am NERVOUS, I tell myself we are driving home, it was fantastic, my horse was amazing, and I vividly describe all the details. It already happened and it was great! I always push my imagination too and try to build a castle in the sky, especially in today's world where my brain feels numbed by social media and I can't stretch my imagination like I used to.
So tonight I really want to go do something fun right? Well, what does that really mean? You see, if you want it, you have to be specific. So here's what I want tonight and of course I'm going to tell it in past tense like it really happened.
"First, around 3 pm I worked out and rowed for thirty minutes, lifted weights, and then biked for another 15. Then I went to the barn and did evening chores and got things set up for tomorrow. I came home and showered and my friends texted me and agreed to meet me at the PIT because I really wanted to go DO something. You see, I am a DOER not a talker. So first we played mini golf and I beat them at it and then we rode on the go Karts and that was pretty fun too. Around 8 pm someone texted me for an uber ride and that was fantastic because they paid me a lot of money to drive them and I needed that money for hay tomorrow. Then around 10 pm one of my friends called me and I got to hang out with him too. We laughed and giggled so much it made my belly hurt. I was in bed by 1 am and I couldn't wait to get up and train horses tomorrow!"
I'll take a statement like this and then add details and make it more vivid. What could I imagine to push this evening beyond limits and make it even better?
These are the strategies that work for me. Hope it helps for you too!
Am I good enough yet?
Are you beating yourself up over your riding today? Then this blog is written for you. Today I am cutting up my thoughts on what is "good enough" and "dressage perfection" and renaming it: Things that make me happy in life.
What is "good enough"? I always think that focusing on being "good enough" kind of implies insecurity, like you're holding yourself up to a standard that is beyond your reach. It can't be good for happiness either if you're always searching for something that is beyond your reach. But if you live in the present moment, which I always aspire to do, then it's easier to accept what is good enough and have a road map to make progress. I think as dressage people and horse people in general we destroy our self esteem on a quest to always be better and "good enough".
So my first question is, how do you define good enough for yourself?
Is it winning? What if your class was 1 of 1 and you make a stellar facebook post of that blue ribbon with lots of likes? What if you're class place was 2 of 62, will anyone still care? Which one of those placings is going to make you a hell of a lot happier on your trailer ride home?
Is it making measurable progress with your horse and riding from week to week and month to month? Can you take that same skill set you learned on one horse and create results on another horse?
Is it happiness and going on fun adventures with your horse?
Is it having your basic needs met outside the barn (house, car, food, money in the bank, horse trailer, and a nice horse?)
Is it being a better rider than your competition?
Is it going the extra mile to work out, write blogs, and scrub water buckets?
Is it having enough clients to pay the bills and still leave you stress free?
I know I am right where I need to be. I know that for the number of resources that I have, the income that I have, the two jobs that I work, the frequency of local lessons and clinics that are available, it's actually quite perfect. Four years ago when I moved here I was scammed about a rental house on Craigslist. As a result I spent the next 6 weeks living without electric and it was an especially cold winter here in the south. I remember wrapping up in my wool jacket to sleep at night and praying that a solution would come through soon. I would also drive Uber to ungodly hours in the morning just to pay bills while I established my business. But now I have my own house, car, truck, trailer, fancy horses and disposable income that I can spend on lessons and clinics. So if someone cuts down my riding i'm honestly probably thinking that life is great right now and not worried about being perfect. My basic needs are now met, so I am happy and my horses are making progress. I know that I have made tremendous progress over the last four years and I continue to grow in my riding and training. Also, the thought of coming home to a house with no power and no heat and laying in a dark cold room on a floor with no bed makes me exceptionally grateful to be sitting here typing in an easy chair wrapped in a blanket with the heat in my house cranked to 74 degrees.
Also, those clients and special people in my life that let me bum showers during that hard time - those are the people that you don't forget.
I notice that often times people have different perceptions of good enough. For example, a person only obsessed with winning might not realize that your measure of "hey, it's good enough, i'm making progress" is based on having a stable home environment, money in the bank, a truck, trailer, car, then fancy horses and lessons/clinics, and then winning.
Almost 12 years ago I was in a bad car accident that left me in a wheel chair and unable to walk, so the very fact that I can wake up, walk, and get on and ride my horse makes it "good enough".
So quit judging. Quit being hard on yourself. Everyone is right where they need to be.
You can't push the river, so stop making mountains out of molehills until the timing is right.
The funny thing is...it was like the day I finally quit actively worrying about being "good enough" in my head was when something changed and I finally made progress and started getting good.
Hands, Elbows, Armpits: How to use your body to adjust your reins without directly shortening them
When I look back on my old pictures I can see a progression of how I established contact through the years. Sometimes my hands were way too high and the reins were way too loose, other times my hands were too restrictive and blocking the horse from moving freely forward. I suppose that's why contact is so elusive.
As I become more experienced at teaching i've learned that it's easier to break down certain ideas into rules or categories. I teach a lot of kids, and I have "3 rules for holding the reins" and "3 rules before asking for the trot" etc to help drill the basics into their mind.
These are my "THREE" ways to fix your contact without directly shortening your reins (and you know, if you're riding dressage at a very sensitive level reaching across and shortening your reins might be too much!)
HANDS: Let's start with hands. Every novice rider tries to shorten the contact by pulling backwards behind the saddle. Don't be that rider. One of the "rules" I tell my kid students is to never let your hands go behind the saddle. If your hands are behind the saddle when you stop, then you needed shorter reins!
But without taking a big reach like a kid would to shorten the reins, how do adults shorten them tactfully and quietly without pulling on the horses mouth? First, you can crawl down the reins like a spider navigating a web for certain occasions. Or you can just squeeze your hands really hard like you're squeezing a kitchen sponge - but make sure you release as soon as you do that and your hands return to being soft like holding a baby kitten. Squeezing your hands like a kitchen sponge is more like a half-halt that you apply when the horse is rushing forward. Here's where it gets tricky though! If the horse is running through my hands, then I half-halt with two hands! If i'm just trying to make the horse round I will only squeeze and hold (until the horse yields) with my outside rein (that's just one hand). So sometimes your contact is different within each hand.
Just as you take, you also must give! When I release with my hands I often open just my ring finger to allow the horse to go forward into the contact before closing the door. If the horse is carrying along in a great rhythm and staying quiet and soft I make SURE my hands are soft and inviting.
ELBOWS: They can move wide like a triangle to take up space, or forward and back like a zombie to give or take up space. Your elbows are so dynamic and have to be so soft and feeling in the saddle. So if you need to take up just a few inches of rein but your horse is soft in the bridle and you don't want to disturb the contact by shortening the reins, you can just spread your hands wider than your elbows and that automatically shortens the rein. This isn't forever, or for the show ring, just a quick way to pick up a little contact without disturbing your horse in his mouth.
You can also push your elbows forward to give the horse more freedom and move into the contact, or you can bring your elbows back to your hips (but never behind) to hold when you are bringing a horse into the contact. If you want to keep the contact steady with your horse - pay attention to your elbows.
ARMPITS: This is really meant to say your whole arm, but I like the word armpit better because it makes kids listen up and know exactly what I mean. So, if you have a naughty pony pulling against your hands, you will squeeze your arms to your armpits to strengthen your core and hold. If your horse is being a good pony then you will have a little distance between your arm and your side and they will be soft and not clamped. If your reins are too loose and you need to pick up the contact without disturbing your horse in the mouth you can open your whole arm and take up a lot of space in the reins just by opening the gap between your arm and armpit....and then maybe crawl down the reins like a spider to slow take up the contact and then once it is taught bring your arms back in.
But that is all assuming two reins and the same rein effect, and contact is more dynamic than that!
PRACTICAL APPLICATION #1: Riding on the circle and changing the bend
So in dressage they have this thing where your horse should be in your "outside" rein. So that means if you're traveling on a circle you should have more feel/pressure in that outside rein. Now let's change direction. When you pick up your new outside rein you need to let the old one slide about 1 cm to 1 inch and take the same amount on the new one so the horse can actually bend their head in the new direction. Or if you don't want to do that through your hands you can do it temporarily through your elbows and then adjust the reins a few strides later. See? Contact is tricky and we didn't even talk about the adjustments you make to your seat and leg in that paragraph!
PRACTICAL APPLICATION #2: Making your horse round
When you make your horse round and you start with wider hands/elbows and a longer rein as the horse goes round it will shorten the neck. So don't let the floppy floppy continue! This is when you get to crawl down the reins like a spider and "take" that extra rein the horse gives you as it shortens his neck and goes rounder. You need to be savvy (like in the moment and feeling), soft, and fast, and pick up the slack before your horse sticks his head back up.
So when your trainer says "Hey, it's time to pick up the contact", do you have a plan of how you are going to adjust your body to achieve the contact? Or are you just gonna pull?
My POKER FACE & BLANK SPACE
My POKER FACE is my emotion, and I do not let it react when I ride my horse.
My BLANK SPACE is the emptiness in my head when I ride. It is CLEAR and devoid of words and chatter.
How do you ride the spicy ones? I just hold my position and don't react. I wish I could write you a long blog post of tips and suggestions to get your emotions and mental chatter under control so that you're horse can hear you and your aids, but I can't seem to put the secret sauce into words other than two metaphors - that I ride with a Poker Face and a Blank Space.
I am a thinker, and I have a little voice in my head that chatters sometimes. But I also have control over my emotions and my mind, and I turn that button off when I ride, and you should too! How can you effectively communicate with your horse if you're still thinking about the dishes you left in the sink, how angry or discouraged you feel, or who you need to text when you get off the horse? A good focused rider is not going to be thinking like that when they are trying to accomplish something on a horse.
I am a bigger believer in living in the present moment. You are riding a 1200 lb horse and your safety depends on being focused and in the moment. Not the future or your goals, not the tantrum your horse had yesterday - just the present moment of now now now. What is "Now?" Or the better question is, "How do I find now?"
When I am riding and I catch my mind drifting I always use touch and sound to bring it back. I feel the reins with my gloves, I listen for the footfalls of my horse, and I redirect my mind to riding in the present moment. If it's not related to a sensation or feeling of now, then it's not the present.
Just a POKER FACE and BLANK SPACE.
Now let's talk about it applied to real life.
First, the POKER FACE. This is your emotional reaction to words, ideas, actions, etc. You know that person that makes big drama out of the weather? The opposite of that is the person that doesn't seem to react or be phased by the upcoming weather. You see, when I hear there is a big storm coming I don't react to it emotionally. I might react in ways that prepare me and my horses like putting blankets on, filling water troughs, etc, but I don't get emotional over it. Compare that with the person that has to tell everyone with words and robust energy that the BIG STORM IS COMING...
Now honestly tell me, which person do you think your horse is going to feel more comfortable with? Obviously, the person that doesn't react emotionally will help your horse feel safe and secure and the person reacting to the storm has already convinced your horse that we are all going to be eaten by tigers and die . So I challenge you to go through your daily life and ask yourself if you are reacting emotionally to the little things that happen throughout the day. It can be as simple as the feelings you get in your body when a text message comes through on your phone, or if you have a POKER face and you just let it roll off and let go.
The next is my BLANK SPACE.
You know when you want to think about a boy all the time? Or that person that drives you crazy keeps coming into your thoughts? Or the little voice inside of your head keeps chattering? I try to not let my mind think about those things. When I feel my mind wander like that, I actively push it out of my mind and focus on the feeling of the squishy mud under my boots or actively coiling up the hose to put it away. I try to live 100% in the moment. That means i'm not thinking about what happened on my horse yesterday. I am also not thinking about what is for dinner. I am ONLY thinking about riding my horse and being in the present moment. Are you?
I challenge you to go through your day tomorrow and try to catch yourself trying to think ahead or in the past and try to diligently bring your mind back to only being in the present moment. So can you ride with a POKER FACE and BLANK SPACE?
Ashley is a dressage trainer and instructor that loves to train dressage and teach lessons.