Progress: Lightness and the Counter-Canter!

At long last Katie and I seem to be making some really good progress together. Although a bit of this potentially has to do with location. I’ve had a couple of rides that I haven’t had a chance to “log” on here, and I think it would be beneficial to quickly do so.

I had a really nice ride in one of our outdoor rings last Monday. My best friend Danielle came to watch and took some nice photos. While Katie was a bit heavy at the trot, a few transitions lightened her up some, and our canter work was really good. She is getting so much stronger! My only critique with this ride is that I could have challenged Katie and myself a bit more, rather than just working on the things that we are already good at. 

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ImageThe above two photos show some of the canter work we were doing – mostly full-school canter with a few transitions here and there, just working at building up Katie’s stamina and keeping her on the outside rein.

A few days later, on Thursday, we had a lesson on the indoor and things were definitely not coming along so easily. Part of this has to do with location. Katie and I both don’t work as well inside for some reason. I’m really not sure why that is. Maybe she is more forward outside so I’m riding more leg-to-hand, rather than cranking her in? In any case, things got a lot better once we progressed from trot work and focussed on the canter – so the forwardness theory might just be accurate. I just need to push her out more and be more forgiving.

Our trot work was super heavy indoors and quite crummy, and she did not want to supple up or go straight on the right rein. She always pops her shoulders out and her haunches in in that direction. If I wasn’t moving away this is what I would be focussing on completely every ride for the next few weeks until we had things completely fixed. When we started working on the canter though she began to lighten considerably. We focussed on walk-canter and canter-walk transitions, while going full-school and down the diagonal. The upward transition is always smooth and easy for her, but the downward one could definitely use some work (probably because she was a bit more on the forehand than she should have been starting out at the canter, because of our lousy trot/warm-up). By the end she was much more responsive and lighter, but it took a lot of work to get there!

Finally, our last lesson together today was phenomenal! We had some real moments of lightness and I want to briefly record how we reached that point so that I can remember how to repeat on my own or with other horses. I think I was really good at “listening” to Katie today, and softening in response to her softening. We felt more like we were dancing together today, rather than like we were fighting in a massive tug-‘o-war match. My coach had us warm up in a slightly longer frame, before moving on to focus on transitions within the trot (ie. medium to working trot and back). From there we worked on leg yielding across the entire 60 x 60 arena starting in one corner and ending in the opposite diagonal corner. We really focussed on straightness in our leg yield and on ensuring that we didn’t rush the lateral movement but allowed it to occur evenly throughout the movement. This really softened Katie up and prepared us for an effective center-line 10-metre circle exercise which further helped Katie to step underneath herself.

After this, we moved on to the canter – in which Katie was a superstar! We started off working on transitioning between working and collected canter on a 20-metre circle and then going large. I don’t know how much difference really existed between these two movements, but it did feel like a fairly good quality canter by the end of the exercise. After that we worked on cantering down the diagonal, doing a few steps of counter-canter and then doing a simple transition to walk. Katie was so balanced at the counter-canter and so responsive to the downward transition! It makes me feel as if Katie is ready for some more advanced level movements, now that she is getting stronger.

It was really great to feel all of our hard work pay off – especially since this might potentially be my last lesson on Katie. I will probably ride her on my own again when I’m down visiting home (and also this Wednesday or Thursday), but I will probably focus on either more jumping lessons on Q, or dressage lessons on this new Grand Prix horse that my coach is acquiring next week. 

I have learnt a heck of a lot from my year riding Katie though and am very grateful to the mare for helping me improve as a rider and listen to the horse more efficiently. I’m hoping to do a post soon summarizing all the things that Katie taught me so that I can remember them and carry them forward to whoever I start riding next.

The next few posts might be primarily about barn/coach-searching in my new city and possibly the try-outs for my university’s equestrian team. It will be a new chapter in my academic, personal, vocational and equestrian life – so stay tuned to hear about my new horsey friends and new adventures!

 

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A New Old Friend

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So today I was lucky enough to ride two horses. Firstly, I had a schooling session with Miss Katie. Things went a lot better today than they did on Wednesday, and I’m wondering if some of the issue is that she works better outdoors. Since the weather became nicer our rides have been better, and she seems to work better in one particular ring more than others. Strange, but true. Today I started off with some long and low trot, before moving to some flexion in and out on the circle. Again Katie was a little reluctant to flex to the left, but eventually softened a bit. From there we did quite a bit of trot work – mostly transitions from trot to walk or halt and back, and many serpentines and circles. While Katie and I were cutting a nice figure by this point (my coach who was riding in the next ring even said we did), she was fairly heavy on my hands. I felt like I was holding the whole thing together by force, rather than it coming together naturally. I just need to start finding a way to let her carry herself more on her own. I think she’s the type of horse though where you’re always going to feel a little more pressure in your hands, no matter what… But then again, I know she is capable of lightness from the few rides that we’ve had where we’ve actually attained it, so I need to keep striving. I think I really just need to use an obscene amount of leg. More, more, more. And same with Charles, as I’ll get to in a minute. Our canter work today was pretty good though – she was extremely responsive to my aids, and was together and maintained the canter full-school, through circles and through a serpentine exercise. She is getting stronger!

Moving on from Katie, I had a really fun lesson on one of my coach’s horses afterwards. He is the handsome chestnut pictured at the top and bottom of this post. Charlie is a 14 year old warmblood, who I like to call Charles or Charleston, and who my coach likes to Chuckie or Chuck. My coach acquired Charlie from her coach about a year ago because he wasn’t getting ridden by anyone at her place. Her daughter used to ride him but he drove her nuts and eventually forced her to take a hiatus from riding. As one can presume from such a scenario, Charlie can be a little difficult. It’s not that Charlie is mean or anything, he just has very different buttons from any other horse. I rode him a couple of times last summer when my coach first got him and when he was extremely green. I also rode him in a dressage clinic last fall, but haven’t ridden him since. My coach has worked him a lot since the fall though, and he has noticeably improved. His canter isn’t so difficult to pick up anymore and his transitions are generally smoother. Charlie used to get “stuck” a lot, ie. he would refuse to move forward, and he does that very little now.

In any case, moving on from Charlie’s life story, I’m going to reflect a little on my ride. I didn’t ride him for too long today because he had a bit of swelling in one leg and seemed mildly off. I’m hoping to ride him again Monday though, and if that goes well I may get to ride him until I head off for school in the fall, because my coach is busy working with a client’s horse preparing for the Trillium dressage eastern championship. As soon as I got on Chuck the first thing I noticed is how good he felt size-wise. After riding a very round horse, and a horse that’s too small for me for so long, it felt great to ride a horse that I know “fits” me. I did some serpentines at the walk to warm-up and to keep his attention away from his buddies in the field. From there my coach had me push him into a long-and-low trot. While he was much easier to direct than before, he kept trying to gradually drift inwards, especially on 20-metre circles. I was using my inside leg, but I definitely could have been using it more. My coach also commented that my spur was getting him a bit, and that my legs looked too busy. She said to use my calf exclusively, which I had difficulties with. I went home and proceeded to do a leg work out after my rides today! I need to build more strength in my legs so that my rides improve!

Another thing that clearly needed work was the use of my outside aids in general. Charles isn’t as straightforward as Katie or Q and needs a lot more support to stay balanced and go nicely. When we started doing some light canter work, it at first seemed like we were going to topple right over! However, after I sat deeper in the saddle and tried my best to support him with my outside leg, things went way better. The transitions were surprisingly good… but the cues themselves are so different than I’m used to! Rather than sliding the outside leg back, and squeezing lightly with the inside, all that is required is to squeeze with the inside and give a slight kiss. Charlie doesn’t react well to that outside leg sliding too far back. He picked up his canter great once his trot was balanced and I followed my coach’s directions, but it still felt a little odd to being doing so little to get the canter! I think I can improve the canter, and trot, by picking up a little more contact next time and riding him more through with my legs. Better keep up my squats, lunges and calf-lifts! If anyone knows of any good workouts for the busy rider, please let me know!

Have a great weekend and happy riding!

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Small but Mighty

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While Quilla mare might be small, she sure is a fantastic jumper! I had a great lesson on her on Thursday night and still feel on top of cloud nine because of it. We didn’t do a course this week, but we hiked up the height of the single fences that we worked on to around 3′.

Q is a fairly point-and-shoot type mare, even though she was only really broke a few months ago. Apparently if you catch her in the mouth she can start to refuse, but luckily I’m pretty good at following her. So far my jumping lessons on Q have all been phenomenal and we’ve progressed pretty quickly. I think the reason for this is because I’ve been riding more fearlessly, and less defensively over the fences. I try to get the best quality and most rhythmical canter I can (because the horse can’t see directly in front of the fence, so you have a better chance of finding the right take-off spot if you have a good rhythm – the horse then knows when the fence will arrive). I also started to feel her sides more last night – before she felt too thin for me to really wrap my legs around after the chunkier mare I’ve grown accustomed to. Anyway, things went well and I think it was due to the following reasons:

  • I set up some nice lines for her (although I could have been turning more with my legs and outside rein, but I get a bit antsy and go-go-go when jumping, and sometimes forget my dressage lessons!)
  • I had her going nice and forward after the first few minutes
  • I approached the fences without hesitation
  • I looked at the line well before turning to set it up properly, and I looked over the fence and to my next objective (rather than at the fence, which is always a receipe for disaster!)
  • I followed her really well – even when she took off early or late

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However, despite how well things went, there is still room for improvement. I think the following things would really make a big difference and keep helping to move our jumping forward together:

  • Working on our striding – I’m not very good at seeing or getting a certain stride on her yet. When we try to  lengthen our stride we usually just get rushed and things are less together and uphill (ie. a messier looking jump)
  • My contact with her mouth. Sometimes I feel like my reins are a little loose (although I suppose it’s better than pulling constantly at her mouth!), luckily Q is so honest that she goes over even when I occasionally leave “doors open.” Still something to be aware of and to improve for other horses.
  • My butt in the air… in some of the photos I’m not near enough to her neck, and my butt seems to be a bit more in the air than it should be. From looking at the photos closely, I think this would improve a lot if I moved my legs forward more. And moving my legs more forward would also be safer because it would result in a more secure seat. I’m always thinking about pushing my legs forward when jumping, but now that I know how not forward they were, I can more consciously try to push them forward the next time over the fences.

In any case, I’m feeling so much more confident all-round because of how my jumping has been coming along. I forgot how good I am at following a horse (clinicians and my coach have commented on this and have tried to push me away from dressage, but I’m a bit of a nervous nancy so I’ve never fully given myself over to jumping), and how much joy I get from that feeling of airlessness and unity.

All this confidence is almost making me feel good enough to try out for the Novice (2’3″) division of my new university’s equestrian team. Almost… But do I want that much stress while doing my Master’s? Something to certainly think about. In any case, I have a few more weeks before the application sheets are due, so we’ll see how I’m feeling then. In the meantime, let me know if you have any advice to help improve my jumping or position!

Heavy Hands, Heavy Heart

I had the idea for this blog today when I had a relatively bad ride on the mare I lease, Katie. I’ve been leasing Katie for over a year and we have a consistency issue, to say the least. Katie is an 8 year old Canadian mare, and like many Canadians she can be quite stubborn. When she feels like evading contact, for instance, she can be particularly adept at avoiding my cues. However, on other days, she becomes light when I use my seat and legs right from the get-go. This blog is basically a space for me to reflect on my rides in the hopes of improving my riding skills for the future (or for tomorrow’s rides). if you’re an amateur English riding enthusiast, you might enjoy following along on my journey!

Today’s ride was particularly stark in contrast to my ride yesterday on Katie. I think the difference was mainly in my use of leg. Right from the beginning yesterday I kept my legs firmly wrapped (almost squeezing) around Katie’s round sides. Lately I’ve found that doing this has improved our rhythm and consistency at every gait, and makes Katie more responsive to my subtler aids. Yesterday I began with some flexion in and out on 20-metre circles in each direction. Katie wasn’t suppling up real well in one direction (I believe to the left), but was doing pretty well the other way. From there I worked on simple walk-trot transitions at every second letter marker, and this had a huge impact. I was using a lot of legs for support and soon I had Katie right between my legs and my hand and responding to shifts in my weight and very small aids. Katie was incredibly light and I felt like I had finally achieved the elastic and stable contract with her that I had strived for for so long.

After getting such a nice quality trot, the canter naturally also was of a great quality. She picked up her leads very smoothly and maintained her canter rhythmically and in a slightly long frame for the whole school. A huge improvement from a few weeks ago when she kept breaking on me because she would go hollow! After the ride, Katie and I had some really nice cuddles and I felt like our relationship progressed along with our ride.

However, today was a completely different horse and a completely different story. Another change from yesterday is that we rode inside, because it looked like it might rain. I also hadn’t rode in our beautiful indoor in awhile, and was craving a change of scene. In any case, from the very beginning Katie was heavy and on the forehand and I just couldn’t fix this issue no matter how hard I tried. We started with some leg yielding from the quarter line to the track and back at the walk. From there I picked up a long and low trot and tried to achieve some sort of rhythm and lightness (she was really rushing today). From there I went on to my tried and true transitions, to try get her lighter and more responsive. However, it really didn’t work today. I became frustrated with this point and started being a little heavier with my hands than I should have been. And then the tug of war really began. When I’m heavy, Katie’s heavy, and then she never lightens and I can’t lighten – and then there’s just this 20 pound weight on my hands for the entire ride and it feels terrible. She is rounded up completely artificially, and is not responsive to my seat cues. So my hands pick up the slack for the ineffectiveness of my seat aids and I begin to turn and stop with my reins – not pretty, and not good for Katie. Especially since we’ve been using a Kimberwicke bit on her lately, as per my coach’s suggestion. My frustrations led to my resorting to an old trick of mine that I haven’t used in awhile – backing up until the horse gets lighter. However, this still didn’t really work for some reason – I have no idea why. Our canters were at least rhythmical, although she was still quite heavy compared to how she has been the past two rides. She also kept spooking at one of the arena, just to act out her frustration, I think. I kept circling her at that end though and trying to distract her until she gradually could circle there without spooking away from the door. She spooked again at the end though, when I was cooling out, due to a huge blast of wind. This wasn’t really her fault though – although I wish she’d get over the noises that our new barn’s arena makes (it’s one of those covered domes as opposed to a wooden arena, and she just can’t seem to get used to some aspects of the arena – such as the noises it makes when it’s windy or covered with snow). In any case, I think the real issue is maybe just enough leg use. I underestimate sometimes just how much leg I need with Katie to get her light – probably because she moves so forward so I forget that she still needs legs for another reason altogether.

A picture of Katie being quite heavy with me last summer (just like yesterday’s ride!)

All in all though I’m quite frustrated with our ride today… things have been going great on the other mare that I’ve been riding though – a little warmblood called Quilla, who I’ve been taking lessons on over fences, because Katie doesn’t jump. Q, as she’s called in the barn, is helping me to regain a lot of the confidence I’ve recently lost (due to a few bad falls), and is making me feel more confident and content with my flat work and rides on Katie. I think this is mainly because when I jump I rely on my intuition, and when I’m working on the flat I over-think. Q reminds me to relax, have fun, and listen to the horse – which, when I can achieve this, leads to the best and most fun rides. In any case, hopefully I can keep improving with Katie… although I’m moving out of town in two-and-a-half weeks and will have to start the journey over on a new horse or horses. That is exciting to in and of itself though. Katie and I don’t always click that well (as you can probably tell from the description of our ride today), so I’m looking forward to spending time with a different horse. We all have different problems on different horses, and I’m pretty sick of the set of problems that I’ve developed with Katie! I feel ready to work on a different area of my riding… but this is not to say that I’ve given up! Katie has taught me a lot about lightening, suppling and the importance of impulsion… but I just feel like it’s time to move back to a more athletic and challenging mount. I first switched to Katie after my bad fall on a really athletic and handsome QH that I was leasing and competing on the hunter jumper circuit. I’m ready to find another horse like him and continue to grow and learn… I now know that I can’t give up when I’m frightened and that if I power through, things will improve with my horse eventually.

Anyway, this was a much longer first post than intended! I guess I have a lot of horsey issues that I need to let loose! Tune in tomorrow if you want to hear how my jumping goes with Quilla!