I am so sorry for the delay in writing blog posts. Between a full barn of horses, attempting to file taxes for the first time as my own business, and applying for health care…. Let’s just say I’ve been a little bogged down! On top of that I was hoping to gather information on some of my adopted horses, which is still in the process of happening. While I continue to collect that information, I wanted to put in another blog post on a topic that has been reoccurring in my recent lessons: Riding from the back of the horse to the front.
As beginners the first thing we are taught is how to make the horse stop. For simplicity and safety reasons we are taught to pull on the left rein to go left, right rein to go right, and both reins to stop. While this is the quickest and easiest way to learn to communicate with your horses, it is also a very effective way to become heavy in your hands and make the horse angry. As such, as we continue in our riding careers we are taught to transfer from riding with our hands to riding with our seat and leg. For adult riders, this transition can be a difficult concept. Fighting years of muscle memory, stiffness, or fear, the switch can be a frustratingly slow process. Here are a few things I like to think about when I am stuck in the battle of legs vs hands.
We use a lot of terms to describe that beautiful, effortless silhouette we see in the upper levels of Dressage. “On the Bit” and “In a Frame” are just a few of them. In its essence all of these terms are describing a lifting of the horses back, an engagement of the hind end and a lowering of the head. We achieve this by setting our reins and pushing with our leg and seat into that connection. The result is a connection from the horse’s mouth to your hand that feels neither tense nor completely loose. Their head and neck aren’t raised above our hands nor are they pulling our hands down to the ground. There is a straight line from our hands to their mouths, the horse is soft at their pole, and the line of their nose is vertical. It is a connection that feels simply “soft” and easy.
Now instructing students to “set your rein length and push the horse into that connection” is a lot easier said than done. We are struggling with riders who get too tense or too loose, or potentially horses that get frustrated or don’t know how to carry themselves in the first place. When these things happen together it is easy for everyone involved to get angry and frustrated.
As mentioned in one of my previous posts, riding is all about finding a balance, equilibrium between having enough tension in your body that you are communicating with the horse, but not so much that you are overstimulating or harsh. It can be difficult for people to visualize this equilibrium. So, I like to start by asking my student to hop off, then I will hop on and have my student put a hand underneath my leg to feel the amount of pressure I’m using and then hold the rein and feel the amount of tension I have. This gives the rider an idea of how much is enough, how much is not enough, and how much is too much. If you have the opportunity to do this, I highly recommend it. Finding that perfect balance is extremely difficult, and the more senses you can use to learn the balance the better.
Then, as always, we start with the walk. Adding speed only adds complication, so I always start with the walk and move up. As the student walks around I ask them to set their reins and start pushing with the leg and their seat. The key is to keep your hands set, but to not lock them down. This is done by allowing your elbows to relax and move with the horse. Your rein length never changes, but because the horse is moving, you must also go with the flow. If you don’t you will find that the rein tightens and loosens as the horse naturally walks… an inconsistency you do not want when developing an understanding of softness. As the horse starts to lift their back you will feel the mouth soften down and the horse will start bending at the pole. When this happens take a deep breath and relax your muscles, giving your horse the release as a reward.
Continue on at the walk, relaxing when the horse softens. If your horse is quite green, you may need to exaggerate the reward by giving them more rein for a few steps. After they start to understand what you are asking you can go back to just relaxing your body as the release. As they figure out the walk, bump them up to the trot, and only when they become consistently soft in the trot should you start to expect softness in the canter as well.
One of my students once told me she was learning to ride from a book that compared horses to toddlers. This metaphor has helped me teach a lot of my adult students how to deal with their horses and the leg vs hand struggle is no exception. Here is how I think of riding from your seat to your hands. Like a toddler, horses don’t want to be constrained. They are happy running around with their head up in the air, neck stretched out, not a care in the world. This is similar to how toddlers like to color on anything and everything within reach. Walls, floors, you name it they will try to draw on it. By setting your hands you are giving the “toddler” (your horse) a sheet of paper to draw on. By applying your leg and pushing them into the frame set by your hands, you are simply insisting that they stay on that sheet of paper. In the end it is your leg, not your hand telling your horse where to color. It is your leg that is the enforcer!
Hello everyone! As I mentioned a few weeks ago, something I would like to start incorporating into this blog is spotlighting some of my fantastic students and their accomplishments! To start this all off I thought it would be appropriate to spotlight the student that not only has come the farthest, but also the one who arguably supports and believes in me the most: Ammann Decindis.
Ammann Decindis started with me when I was working under another trainer several years ago. When I went out on my own, he decided to follow, and in the year and a half since then, he has grown more than I would have ever guessed! Amman began riding in his early 60’s in 2009 following a childhood dream. As he continued on, he made it a goal for himself to start showing, doing his best, and ultimately becoming a star!
When I met this eccentric gentleman, he quickly became one of my favorite students, and a highlight to my week. His stories never failed to make me not only smile, but laugh for days to come. Furthermore, watching him ride and improve was nothing short of inspiring. Fighting weak muscles, and a body stuck in its non-rider ways… I’ll be honest… there were days when Ammann really worried me. But no matter how many times he fell, no matter how many times he got frustrated, or I got frustrated he continued to persevere. He showed up twice a week, rain or shine for his lesson so that he could continue to improve.
He is constantly giving me nuggets of wisdom, which I find myself thinking of later. Many of these actually spark my ideas for blog posts! Ammann never allows his late start to the sport to get in his way. He says that everyone’s greatest downfall is themselves, and getting past themselves is their biggest challenge. This is undeniably true, and especially true in his case. When Ammann is relaxed and loose, he is a very talented and natural rider. However, his tendency is to think very intensely about one thing at a time, without seeing the bigger picture. This results in a choppy, disjointed rider. Despite this, Ammann continues to come to class, continues to go to gym after class to strengthen his riding muscles, and continues to think about riding day in and day out to better himself in the saddle! As such, every lesson shows the fruits of his labors.
When I opened my own lesson and training program, Ammann was the first to sign up. In the last year we have been working tirelessly on his position and skill in Dressage, Stadium Jumping and Cross Country in preparation for his first showing experience. Excitedly, we schooled test after test, practiced course after course, and finally registered for his first show: an elementary level combined test.
The result? Ammann was eliminated in show jumping. So we signed up for a second Combined Test a few months later… the result: Eliminated.
But if you thought that would discourage him you are mistaken! Instead Ammann upped his lessons to 3 times a week! It only made him want to work harder! We continued to practice and continued to show in Dressage until our year culminated in a third combined test, in which Ammann not only finished, but placed SECOND, and impressed everyone while doing it! To this day, Ammann says that his proudest moment in his riding career is that show, because all the hard work he put in paid off. We are spending the winter continuing to work on our showing skills in the hopes that come spring he will be able to compete in a full event!
At the end of every lesson Ammann asks me, “Are you happy with my performance?” What he doesn’t know, is that at the end of every lesson I am incredibly proud to call him my student. No matter how the lesson starts off, good or bad, he ALWAYS improves. Whether it is one step in the right direction, or a huge breakthrough, Ammann continues to get better in every single hour that we work together. He is someone who doesn’t know the word “quit”, and I couldn’t ask for anything more in a student.
If his story inspired you to continue to improve, feel free to peruse the rest of this site and contact us for lesson opportunities! Ill be back again next week with a horse graduate spotlight! Stay tuned!!
This week I want to talk about a subject that every single one of my students has dealt with in the last few weeks, how to find a neutral place with your horse. While this may be counter intuitive to many, I am a firm believer that a horse learns when the rider is in neutral. Don’t get me wrong! Training a horse requires input from a rider, but the horse learns what is right when you take the pressure OFF. When you are neither pulling nor squeezing, when you are relaxing and moving with the horse, essentially when you have shifted into Neutral.
I am constantly telling my students to DO something: stop the horse from turning and running out the gate or refusing a jump, to make the horse go when he decides it’s a good time to just halt in the middle of the ring. Then immediately after that I am telling them, “OK TOO MUCH, TOO MUCH!”. Then I am right back to “Soften your aids, back off and relax.” We go from 0 to 100, and cannot seem to find a middle ground. What I find myself explaining over and over again in the last few weeks, is finding equilibrium. This is a place where you just have to BE. You find the middle ground between pulling and loopy reins, between squeezing and being loosey goosey. From there you can adjust the horse (a little half halt here, a little outside leg there) and return to equilibrium.
It is from here that you are able to train and teach your horse. At its most basic form, training horses is a series of putting pressure on and releasing that pressure. To teach your horse to turn, for example, you place pressure on the rein and opposite leg until the horse turns and then you release that pressure. It is in the release that the horse learns how to turn. The horse realizes that when they turn, the pressure on them goes away and we return to a happy neutral space. The next time you use that aid the horse will happily respond quickly to attempt to remove the pressure on them. In this way learning to release and return to equilibrium is just as, if not more, important than learning the aids you are attempting to teach. If the rider never releases their aid, the horse will never learn what is right or wrong, and so will forever be confused. The better you become at giving an aid, realizing your horse responded, and releasing the pressure, the more your horse will trust you and the more willing your horse will be to work for you.
As such, it is important for riders to learn how to FIND this neutral state. An exercise that I use a lot in teaching students this concept is taking away stirrups. You don’t have to do much, some simple walk trot exercises are enough, you can even do it on the end of a lunge line. Taking your stirrups away forces you to sink down into the saddle and wrap your legs around the horse. As you go around encourage yourself to release tension in your legs and lower back, allow yourself to find your center of gravity and follow the horses movement with your seat to stay on. As you tense you will feel yourself come out of sync with the horse, you MUST relax to get back in sync. This is an exercise that will take a lot of deep breathing, a lot of self-reflection to fight instinct and tense up. But is a great exercise to teach you to move with the horse, and not against him.
As you start to move with the horse, you will start to recognize his movements and his ques to tell what he is going to do next. As you start to recognize those ques, like a pop of the shoulder before he turns away from where you want to go, or when he takes a half step slower before he stops, you will be able to make those mild adjustments and return back to neutral. This teaches the horse that he cannot get away with mild misbehavior's. As the horse starts to trust and respect you, you are able to teach new things: ask for something, hold until you get the response you are looking for, and return to neutral, thus teaching the horse a new aid. It doesn’t always happen right away, you may need to ask and relax for even the smallest right answer, but the more you train by returning to that equilibrium position, the faster the horse will learn something. At the end of the day, your horse is trying find the fastest way to take as much pressure as he can off of him. You do this by riding softly, and making things pleasant for your horse when he is good!
Again, this concept is difficult to achieve. Our instinct is to tense up when horses misbehave or do something unexpected. So do not get discouraged if this does not come naturally, just take a deep breath and start again. I hope this hits home with some of you, and hope you tune in next week for a student spotlight!
Here we are, half way through January and I am finally starting to fulfill my New Year’s Resolution: to continue on with this Blog!
I started this blog a year ago to talk about my new business, and my journey to the Retired Racehorse Projects Thoroughbred Makeover with my horse, Jennifer Q. In the last year I have put my heart and soul into Phoenix Equine Services and my goals of competing in Kentucky, and this blog fell by the wayside. In the last year I have learned and grown so much, as I imagine I will continue to do as I progress in this industry. Going forth I would like to use this blog to share the knowledge I have, achievements, and even a few mistakes with the world on this blog. As such, my plan going forward is to write a weekly blog alternating between horse spotlights, student spotlights, and my own experiences.
But first, allow me to update you on the goings on around the farm! In the last year I have doubled the size of Phoenix Equine Services. It wasn’t always easy, there were a lot of tough days, and a lot of low moments. Days when I thought to myself, “Why am I putting myself through this? I should just get a job in an office somewhere!” But the days where I would have a break through with a difficult horse, or see a student finally understand a concept we had been talking about for months, it makes all of the hard work worth it. Our lesson program has grown, we have found 10 horses forever homes, and my personally favorite, I took a severely underweight horse and turned her into a beautiful Dressage competitor.
In the next year I hope to continue to grow the lesson and show programs. I plan to help even more retired Thoroughbreds find their new careers and forever homes. I hope that you all will stay with me on this journey, learn from my mistakes and join in celebrating my triumphs. I can’t wait to see what this year holds.
As some of you may know, Jennifer Q and I recently traveled down to Kentucky to participate in the 2016 Retired Racehorse Project's Thoroughbred Makeover. Unfortunately it did not turn out as well as I had hoped, prior to the competition, Jen and I had a little accident keeping us from continuing on. After dumping me in warm up, she took a spin around the horse park, fell and slid down the road, causing some serious road rash down her back legs. It was disappointing, but while we cleaned Jen up and realized she would be just fine, I couldn’t help but reflect on how far we had come, and the transformation this horse has made.
When Jennifer Q came to me, she was a mess of skin and bones, with a huge amount of potential. I fell in love instantly and was excited to take her on this journey. However after several months of increasing feed, adjusting grain and hay, treating her for ulcers , having her looked at by the dentist, vet, and anyone else I could get an opinion from she still seemed unhappy and showed no improvement in gaining weight.
Luckily for me, it was then that Barb Goss with Purina showed up at my door. With her help, we developed a feeding plan to help Jen put on the weight. Jen was started off with 6 lbs of Purina Ultium and 1 lb of hay pellets each day, this was gradually increased to 10lb of Ultium a day. In only 3 months Jen gained over 250 lbs, developed a beautiful top line and finally seemed happy! With her new weight and attitude, we were able to move forward in training, and show her up through training level.
Jen and I may not have been able to compete at the Thoroughbred Makeover but because of Purina’s nutrition plan she will stay happy and healthy and we continue with her show career next year. Check out the transformation photos, the transformation is unbelievable!
Well, I let it happen again. The last couple of weeks have been nothing short of trying, and to top it all off, we lost our internet access! SO this blog has been put off again and again, and in that time I have thought of hundreds of topics to talk about, but one has been recurring over and over in my head, so here is the topic of the day: the calm after the storm! Also known as releasing tension!
But before I discuss this topic, a few updates! First off, Jen has made it through her first combined test! While we were tense through the dressage, she was phenomenal in jumping; jumping around her very first course of jumps like it was nothing! Next up for us is Plantation Field Horse Trials June 11th where we will take on our very first full horse trial, so stay tuned! And if you haven’t noticed, the website has changed! Thanks to The Horse Agency, we have taken this website to the next level! With a few extra features, please peruse the site after reading this post!
On to the meat of the piece! In the last couple of weeks I have found myself yelling the same thing to my students over and over “RELEASE! YOU HAVE TO RELEASE!” And it has made me realize, that there is one thing that lacks in a lot of peoples training is to just relax! Especially when asking your horse to slow down.
Many of my students are people who started riding later in life, and so they have the fear of falling or getting hurt. This fear translates into a death grip in their hands and with their knees. The problem lies in animal instincts; as humans, we tend to tense up into a ball when we get scared, to be as small as possible. Horses on the other hand tend to run away when they are scared and nervous. When we put those two things together, you have a human tensely clamping onto a horses back and a horse that feels like a mountain lion has latched onto him and wants to run away. You will find that as you relax on the horses back, the horse will start to feed off of that energy and will also start to relax. In everything you do with horses, just take a deep breath, try to identify which parts of your body are tense, and release that tension!
Now there are moments where tension is required. A big example is in the half halt. The half halt is an invaluable tool in riding horses. Half halts help us slow the horse down, alert the horse that something new is about to happen, and helps to direct the horses movement. The half halt is a squeeze of the rein AND A RELEASE afterwards. The second half is constantly forgotten. When asking a horse to slow down, please hold just until the horse takes the tiniest slower step and then RELEASE. When you forget to release your half halts, the horse never gets rewarded for doing what you ask, and slowly becomes dead to the bit.
I compare it to your parents yelling at you to clean up your room. Usually you get yelled at until the room is clean, and then the yelling stops. You learn that when you clean your room, you avoid being yelled at. However, if your parents continue to yell and yell “clean your room!” even after you have cleaned, you start to think, if I am constantly getting yelled at why should I even bother cleaning? The same is true with training horses. Release your tension as soon as the horse takes the smallest step toward doing what you want. That way slowly, piece by piece the horse learns what to do properly the first time you ask. In fact, you will usually find that IN the release, the horse moves even further into what you are asking.
Now I am not above these comments. I too need to learn to let go and trust my horse a little bit also! I learned that this week with the very special, Jennifer Q. Jennifer and I had plateaued a bit. She has come a long way from when I first got her, but in the last few weeks we haven’t continued to improve. Sometimes when that happens you just need a new perspective, so I had Kelsey Parisi, my business partner take her for a little spin.
Watching Kelsey ride her, I realized the problem was I was holding Jen back and micromanaging too much! I myself had to RELAX and LET GO! I needed to stop trying to fix every misstep she has and just ride the horse. The next time I rode Jennifer, I pretended like she was a broke horse, and you would not believe the difference it made! Suddenly Jen was consistent, suddenly she was free, suddenly she was acting like a broke horse just because I relaxed!
SO as you guys go out there and train or ride your own horses, take a deep breath, relax and remember that the other half of the puzzle is RELEASE!