Monday, January 26, 2015

Side Reins - A Quandary

Every now and then you just have to bite your tongue, swallow your words, take things back.  I am now doing something I honestly never thought I'd do and have actively disapproved of and criticized from time to time.

I started using a "tie down" - in addition to my regular lesson with Daniela my dressage instructor I also requested a "minilesson" from her on lungeing since she has always told me to use side reins and finally convinced me, but I didn't want to start without her showing me how.  So now when I lunge Starbuck (Daniela has instructed me to lunge every other time I ride, so Sunday ride, Monday lunge, Tuesday ride, Wednesday lunge... although with the rain we've had and barn kitties to neuter it's been more like Sunday ride, Monday lunge, Tuesday lunge, Wednesday lunge, Thursday take the cat to the vet, Friday get the cat back from the vet...), after warming up in a "long and low" position at walk and trot without anything at all, I put on the side reins so her nose is just a couple of centimeters in front of the vertical when the reins are taut and do about 15 minutes of work (mostly trot with some transitions) before detaching them and doing some trot and canter work without them, then cooling off "long and low" again.

Instead of buying fancy side reins, Dani assured me I could simply use some old reins I had lying around - the kind made of cloth webbing with leather nubs every 4 inches or so - and tie them to the saddle girth or the surcingle.  They go straight from the bit to the girth (fixed point reins) and at the moment I'm tying them a little below the height where the girth is attached to the saddle.  The nubs help me remember exactly what length to tie them, too.  The idea is to see how this goes and then decide whether to keep using them and how, change to another type of auxiliary rein like sliding side reins or drop them altogether.  So far so good, right?

But here's the thing - even though I said yes to this, I am still terrified of the side reins.  I mean having-anxiety-dreams-about-them, keeping-my-hands-from-shaking-when-I-attach-them terrified.  In the past I've used elastic reins noce or twice when lungeing Starbuck and even a couple of times riding her in the roundpen for seat improvement exercises (no reins or no stirrups or no saddle or a combination thereof).  But they've always been loose enough that she could put her head up as much as she wanted, and I've never dared to use any other type of "tie down" mostly because I think it's the kind of thing that can very easily turn into a disaster by someone who's ignorant of how to do it.  I'm afraid I'll put her into a false frame her body won't be able to handle or ruin the sensitivity of her mouth or make her sore or sour or give her irremediable back injuries or cause her to flip over backwards and all other kinds of bad things.  However Daniela has assured me that none of these things are likely to happen as long as I use them correctly and responsibly at the exact length she's shown me to set them at for now and keep Starbuck moving forward.  Also, I figure with so many people I admire and respect using them (Daniela herself, Reiner and Ingrid Klimke, Sue Morris, Will Faerber, etc...) I shouldn't knock them until I've tried them.  And I have to admit, Starbuck looks so gorgeous in them that sometimes I get distracted just looking at her.

So here I am swallowing my words and steadying my hands, and hoping both that the benefits (like improved topline musculature, actually tracking up, steadier rhythm, better acceptance of contact, more impulsion and rounder movement) outweigh the risks and that in fact, the risks themselves will prove to be mostly a figment of my overactive, anxious imagination.  I'll keep you posted, in the meanwhile if anyone has any experience using auxiliary reins with their own horse for lungeing I'd be thrilled to hear it.

By the way two other random things to mention:

I changed bits a couple of weeks ago - started using a 13 mm three-piece full cheek snaffle.  It's thicker than the old D-ring and even though it's 100% stainless and doesn't have the fancy copper insets the D-ring does she definitely seems to like it better.  More slobber, more chewing and as soon as I put it in her mouth when bridling her she drops her head down.

And on the ridden portion of last Saturday's dressage lesson, Daniela pinpointed leg yielding and walk to canter to walk transitions as things to work on in the next two weeks, as well as continuing the shoulder in at walk to trot transitions.  I'm so glad my friend Cinthya decided to offer to take these lessons with me since Dani will only come for two people (she lives halfway across the island) and I feel like we learn so much.  On top of what I'm learning, Dani is very encouraging about Starbuck which makes me feel like as clueless as I was going into this (and still am now) I haven't screwed up too bad.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

You Can Classic Online Dressage Portal

As you guys know, every now and then I like to give a little shout-out to folks who I feel provide an excellent service for horsepeople, like Marina the NH guru at my stable or the folks at Gredos Ecuestre who organize such fabulous long-distance horseback rides.  So here's another one - my dressage instructor Daniela has finally launched her new international online interactive dressage training portal at

Now I've honestly never been much of a fan of video learning - my impatient and ADD brain prefers books and articles to videos as I'd rather scan ahead and pinpoint exactly what information I'm interested in rather than watch an entire 10 minute video in order to find the 2 minutes which I actually end up finding useful.  So I was pleasantly surprised when I found that nearly all the videos on the portal are under 5 minutes and many are just 2-3 minutes long.  And each video is dedicated to just one exercise you can do with your horse, with condensed instructions on how to best do so and basic troubleshooting - no long and rambling introduction or conclusion "selling you" on why to do it or summing up all its possible benefits.  The first time I visited the site I found myself viewing one video after another until I discovered I had spent about an hour watching without ever getting bored or impatient - and those were just the "preview" lessons.

Here's an example preview lesson I found especially useful working on teaching the meaning of the outside rein.

As you can see, in just two minutes I have a new exercise to apply while riding Starbuck, easily incorporated into our daily routine.  And the nice thing about a video rather than a book or article is that the movement you're looking for from the horse as well as the correct rider position is visible throughout.  Also, more and more I'm learning to try to visualize (literally, create a picture in my mind) what I'm trying to get Starbuck and I do when I ask for a certain movement which is proving difficult for her to understand - and being able to simply replay the video either in my mind or -since the website is optimized for mobile use- even pulling my phone out of my pocket to quickly refresh my memory is a big help with this.

Daniela recorded the videos, which are available in English and in German, with her two horses - her fabulous Prix St George level warmblood and his son, a 6 year old colt who's just starting out.  So there are videos for nearly all levels of dressage, from beginning groundwork both on the lunge, double lunge (ground driving) and in-hand or the young horse's first lateral steps to tempi changes and collected canter.  And not only dressage is covered - gymnastic jumping, games and warm-up, winter, obedience and stretching exercises to keep your horse interested and supple are also featured.  There's also a blog where you can get a better overall idea of her training philosophy and a forum to share your experiences or ask questions, and aside from the free "preview" lessons and blog posts there are several subscription levels with a huge library of "Pro" videos, from a one-day pass to a "gold" subscription which includes video coaching, direct contact with Daniela and discounted clinic prices.

I highly recommend the website to anyone who's looking for some fresh ideas to incorporate into their training or riding routine (especially if you like groundwork as much as I do) and can personally attest as to the effectiveness of Daniela's training style and her knowledge, feel and experience - in the past two months Starbuck's movement, attitude and even her conformation (yay topline muscles!) have improved unmistakably and I feel much more confident about working on our own now that I have these new resources at my disposal and have started to reap the results.  And what's most important to me is that she's very sensitive to the horse's comfort and future wellbeing as well - for instance at the moment she has me using side reins when lunging but we warm up and cool off without them and only use them for short periods of time, and when riding after 10 or 15 minutes of "hard work" (i.e. lateral work or using more than a light contact) she always reminds us to have a rest walking actively on a loose rein.  And I can honestly say that Starbuck enjoys her work more now that she's starting to build the muscle to make it physically easier and is learning that her body can do new, powerful and fun things.

So if you have a minute, trot on over to and check it out - you won't be sorry!

Friday, January 16, 2015


Once again this is an old post but I want to publish it anyway so I'll have it for later (periodically I read my old posts to motivate myself or just cringe over my past foolish mistakes).  Last Wednesday I had a great lesson with Starbuck, we did a few low jumps and it just went really smoothly - her rhythm was good, I didn't have to nag too much at her and we arrived at each jump really well, without zigzagging, stalling or jumping from too close or too far away.  And even though it was a nighttime lesson with the arena lights casting scary shadows, she didn't spook once.  I gave her extra carrots and went home with a big smile on my face.

But that was nothing compared to last Thursday.  Since I was the only person who showed up for the 7 p.m. lesson and I have the exercises from the last post to work on, I told Marina I was happy to ride on my own so she could have an early night but she told me she'd stay for at least a little while and give me a bit of coaching before I started working on my own.  So since we had her full attention, she set me to working on inviting Starbuck to arch her neck downwards and lighten the rein contact at a walk.  We've been working on this a little at a time at the walk for quite some time now and mostly she knows that when I squeeze the reins gently several times it means for her to lower her head.  So we did that, on a fairly long rein (just short enough to have a constant light contact) and also focussed on keeping the hindquarters active by drawing my legs a little further back than usual and using the crop to tickle her (rubbing her against the direction her hair grows in for instance).  And when I could consistently get her to do it, I worked on getting her to stay there for longer and longer.  When she lightened the contact, I could really feel her back arching up beneath me and see the way the muscles in her crest swayed with each stride - it was an incredible feeling of lightness.

When I had several strides in a row at the walk, we did a few transitions into trot attempting to maintain the same low head carriage, flexed poll equalling soft contact and raised back through the transition.  Needless to say it all fell apart.  But we finally got one where she raised her head a little, then went right back into the correct position.  We then did the same work in trot we had done in walk and let me tell you when we got a few steps in a row it felt amazing.  It felt like riding on Pegasus or a springy magic carpet.  After lots of changes of rein, a few rests where I let her put her head down on a loose rein and some more transitions to walk and back to trot when I "lost" the physical sensation I was going for, we had gone from no strides to two strides to nearly half of a 20 meter circle with her carrying her head and back in this position, lightening the contact.  We felt like we were flying at times, and even though she was completely focussed and not at all spooky, far from having to nag at her to keep going I even had to slow my posting action from time to time to keep her from getting ahead of herself.  Both Marina and I just kept saying "Wow!" and ooh-ing and aah-ing over how well she was working.

We finished up at a canter which is the gait which is hardest for her.  I honestly didn't expect her to achieve this "mini-self carriage" at all but I asked for it anyway.  The first try didn't go so well, and she bucked going into it.  The second try she still bucked but wasn't quite so heavy on the reins as the first time.  On the third try Marina told me to try to "visualize" the same feeling I had in my seat at the walk when she went "light-and-down".  And it worked!  Only for two canter strides, but it was such a good start and much better than I hoped for.

Since then I've been able to "recapture" the same feeling at times, not like that day but certainly more than before.  And our lesson with Daniela on Saturday very obviously benefited from it - she mentioned how much we had progressed since the last lesson.  I just need to remember to ask for it every day until it becomes a habit.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


So Starbuck's back on the "Go" stretch of the Whoa / Go cycle.  After nearly three weeks of being nearly bombproof, she's suddenly started spooking again at absolutely nothing and I even got dumped again the other day (no harm done luckily).  On the other hand, she's much more responsive to my leg aids (and needs less nagging to keep going) so that's a nice change.  And talking to some stable-mates the other day I realized, with Starbuck I either have impulsion (go) or I have control (whoa) but the moment I have one I lose a considerable amount of the other and get around a 80/20 ratio (if it's a good day) instead of the 50/50 I'm working toward.  I guess this is probably a fairly common occurrence in horse training and it probably shouldn't have taken me so long to figure out the relationship between the two, but there it is.  Sometimes I have a hard time recognizing the obvious.

I think one reason is that up until now I've been subconsciously happy enough to relinquish impulsion for control, but I realize that's been a pretty big mistake.  For one thing, as my personal muse Carolyn Resnick says, the most important thing to have when training is a gas pedal.  And my gas pedal takes like a minute to go from 0 to 60 when I'm asking for it (of course when there's an imaginary tiger in the bushes she can channel her Thoroughbred race horse ancestors in about 2 seconds).  For another, if I only practice being in control when there's next to no impulsion, how can I hope to control her in stressful situations (trail rides, shows, etc...) or when she's just feeling silly?  And finally, if we want to progress in dressage or even get her moving in a healthy, sustainable way, I really need to be able to command those hind legs to get moving and support her instead of trailing along behind.

So if this is all about baby steps and setting us up for success and taking our time, what seems to me to make sense is to work on the two issues together in alternating or combined exercises, trying to even out the ratio.  And if in a month we have 75/25 instead of 80/20 I'll know I'm on the right track - I know I can't hope for 50/50 right off the bat but at least I'll know in which direction to keep going (or that I need to choose a new one).  So in addition to what Daniela and Marina have been suggesting in my lessons with them, we're working on the following exercises:

  • Walk - Canter - Walk - Halt transitions
  • Trot - Halt - Back - Trot transitions
  • Trot from one side of the arena to the other like your life depended on it, then stop and rest for as long as you were trotting.  Then turn around and repeat.
  • "Slower - faster" transitions within each gait, especially at trot and canter
On the slower - faster transitions within each gait, I recently read something on a forum which resonated with me - "I think it's important for a lazy horse to feel both ends of each gait; if you are constantly driving forward, forward, forward, you won't get anywhere, and your horse probably won't figure out what you want. Instead, if you ask for a little at first, then gauge back, then ask for more each time, you will find a bigger improvement."  I already try really hard to not have my leg on constantly, but this is really good to keep in mind - I can't just ask for her to lengthen her stride on the entire long side of the arena right off the bat and expect her to do it well, or be motivated to do it better the next time.  So I'm going to start asking her to lengthen and as soon as she does it stop asking, praise and let her drop back into her normal stride.  Then when she consistently lengthens as soon as I ask for it, I'll ask for a few more lengthened strides, then move up from there.

And once I have control not only of "whoa" but of "go" as well, I think we'll be a lot closer to our long-term goal of working happily, healthily, sustainably and safely together.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Starbuck's First Show

Last Sunday there was a "social" horse show at my stable (here, a "social" is a non-federated, non-official horse show) and Starbuck and I finally made our debut on a 60 centimeter course of 11 jumps!  Since I've had so many days off from work thanks to the holidays and some recovered overtime, I've been able to ride her nearly every day for the past two weeks or so which has really paid off.  She's been much more focussed and obedient and has hardly spooked at all during all this time, so I was pretty confident about the show, even though that little voice in the back of my head kept telling me our good streak will end at some point and that there were lots of things (paper tablecloths, lots of spectators, loudspeakers, applause...) which could potentially set her off.

I got there bright and early to dress her up (orange orange orange!!!) but even so I was too late to view the course on foot with Marina, so me and two other girls went around it with José Luis.  Then I was finally able to put the finishing touches on her getup (I learned how to put on polo bandages just for the show and even did her mane and tail with orange rubber bands) just in time to get ushered into the warmup arena with the rest of the folks in my class.  In the warmup arena she was cool as a cucumber - there was one corner she was a little worried about but we were able to ride through any potential antics and apart from a few warmup jumps with José Luis coaching I mostly just did lots of transitions to keep her fresh and interested.

When it was finally our turn we trotted into the arena, posed for the photographer and then set off towards the first jump.  I had a hard time getting her into a canter for the first three jumps and the third she jumped nearly from a standstill, but then it was more or less smooth going (well, for us).  I tried to make our turns wide enough to go straight towards the obstacles, keep her cantering with energy between jumps, use my outside leg to create more impulsion before each jump as well as leading with my hips instead of my shoulders, using my outside rein, relaxing my seat, keeping my weight in my heels and keeping my chin up.  Needless to say I failed utterly at the majority of these things but I like to think that I was able to do at least one at a time and sometimes two.  But she didn't refuse any obstacles, we didn't knock any bars down, we didn't have any fights or bucks or drama or spooks and we didn't even come in last - we actually finished 7th out of 10.  And for me the two greatest achievements were:

1.- Even though it wasn't terribly cold that day (I ended up taking off my jacket and rolling up my shirtsleeves as soon as I got off), Starbuck was hardly sweaty at all when she finished which for me means her mental and physical condition has improved a lot.
2.- I was really concentrated and a little anxious during the first half of the jumps, but actually enjoyed the last half and by the time we took the last one I had a huge smile on my face.

All of the 60 cm contestants got a prize for participation which ended up being a free private lesson with Marina so I am pleased as pie and excited to use it.  The photos were taken by my extremely generous husband (all 300 or something photos here), as usual with his photos I absolutely love most of them but others make me cringe - sometimes I wonder if he's cataloguing moments of conflict or terrible riding on purpose, if he's really that clueless about equine body language and rider posture or if he's just messing with me.  I guess the difference is simply that when I take photos I consciously try to tell a fairy tale where Starbuck is always happy and pretty and I always ride well, whereas he doesn't have the same ulterior motives.  It's always a fantastic reality check though since I tend to look at everything through rose coloured glasses and assume Starbuck's as thrilled as I am about stuff (she's usually not unless it's edible).  For instance these are the two photos he posted to his Flickr account - flattering?  I think not... and Starbuck's mouth looks horribly painful in the second photo.  What is NOT visible is that she was actually pulling down on the reins herself to try to eat the grass I had decided to pose in.

Still, it's always interesting to see how other people see us, especially non-horsey people.  And it was a marvellous day and a terrific experience.  Can't wait for next time!