Saturday, August 25, 2012

August Riding Lesson

Today, Harley and I had a lesson with our teacher.  The last time that we saw her, we had a bodywork session.  I transferred what I could from that ground lesson into the saddle, which was mainly asking Harley to free up his ribcage and balance over his hind legs more.  I also looked for the slight bulge on the right side of his neck to stay buried in his neck muscles, an indicator that he was not leaning on that shoulder.  Since the horse show, I have also been encouraging consistent suppleness over the back, including while going through puddles, and working on the stretchy trot and maintaining balance and stretch for transitions within the trot and canter.  We have also had some success with counter canter, but I would like to dedicate a separate post to that one.

My teacher has a very endearing way of greeting horses.  She greets each one like an old aquaintance.  The horses love her and always notice as soon as she approaches the barn area.  Today was no different.  When Harley saw her, he pricked his ears and made big saucer eyes in her direction.

"Well hello, Mr. Harley Davidson!"

I hope that she does not mind me quoting her.  It was just so cheerful and cute.  Harley's expression reminded me of my students when they see me outside of school.  It was so adorable.

The first item of the lesson was to assess my horse's willingness to release at the poll and his posture especially on the right side.  This was before we even left the barn, and I was happy that we got the nod of approval.  I was excited to get in the saddle for my lesson.

My Homework:
  • Keep my legs forward at the girth all the time.  All. the. time.  As soon as my legs come back for any reason, my posture suffers and I rock forward on my pelvis.  Even just a tiny shift affects Harley's balance and contradicts our work.
  • Sit like Jabba the Hut.  This image just hones in on that "plugged in feeling" that I get in the saddle when my seat is soft and inviting for Harley to lift up to.
  • Keep my knees open.  I need to make a nice, wide "U" to accommodate and encourage the lift and release in my horse's ribcage.  This makes suppleness of the back possible.  Tightening, holding, or pinching with my knees or thighs (even just a little) makes my horse tighten his ribcage.
  • Move my shoulders with emphasis on the moving them down.  As soon as I concentrate, I tighten my shoulders.  This is a very typical human reaction, but tightening and raising my shoulder blades makes Harley tighten his, which stops motion from behind, prevents release in his ribcage, and makes it impossible for him to lift his shoulders.
  • Warm up my body by rotating from one side to the other in walk and trot, while moving my shoulders in downward circles.  It was amazing how Harley just followed suit by releasing his own muscles and flowing forward.
  • Rotate to the inside while keeping my inside elbow at my side and with an upward feel to my hand and wrist.  This was new for us, because I have working mostly on rotating to the outside to fix a collapse of my ribcage, especially to the left.  This time my teacher wanted me to give Harley the support he needed from the bit to lift his ribcage and shoulders while releasing his neck forward and down.  This exercise felt absolutely wonderful and is closely tied to the next bullet point.
  • The bit should work in the corners of the horse's mouth, NOT against the bars.  Pulling the bit down against the jaw stops the hind legs and encourages the horse to compress his frame.  Combine this with driving legs and you have a recipe for bracing in horse and rider.  Balance, freedom of movement, and true collection cannot happen under those conditions, even though I have found that they are very often taught for how to put a horse "on the bit".  I was certainly taught that way!  Intellectually, I understand this concept, but it is still an old habit that I revert to very easily.  I have to keep reminding myself and listening to my horse, because when I am successful in riding him with an upward feel on the bit, he is light in my hand, soft and relaxed in his body.  It does not feel like there is any wasted energy and we feel very balanced.  My horse feels happy to go on forever.  The movement feels efficient.  The horse's muzzle almost feels like it is resting in a little flower basket, which you gently support from above.  This is the same type of upward feel that allows Harley to show off his big trot.  Although the basket feels heavier in that case, his hind legs are not blocked and he can swing forward with his shoulders.
Harley's Homework:
  •  Be the engine and keep it running! 
My teacher felt that Harley was not committing to his responsibility as the provider of forward motion from behind.  We started in walk and she noticed that my legs were coming too far back as I tapped him nearly every stride.  She also said that I was moving my body quite a lot in an effort to encourage him to keep up his energy.  She fixed my leg position and then told me to "just sit there".  She gave me two sturdy wands and told me to tap him forward until I felt the surge lift me up and carry me along.  She liked the sturdier wands for Harley, because they did not have the flexibility of my dressage whip.  She did not want him to feel the sting of the flexible whip, because that would feel like a punishment to him.  She said that we were educating him.  We did not want to do something to make him tighten or flinch.  I was to think of the wands as conductor's batons.  I had to use them rather assertively until he revved his engine and kept it in gear on his own.  I was surprised that my "fast little horse" was actually being lazy.  He would keep walking for me, but he was not eager to give enough "umpf" to keep his back up or propel his shoulders and neck in front of me.  Once he started to accept that responsibility, the feeling was much different and much more powerful, even just in walk.  This process was repeated at the trot, which was easier.  The natural impulsion of the gait seemed to help a lot.  This is not the first time that we have relearned this type of lesson and I am sure it will not be the last!  It is so tempting to just nag my horse into moving forward and take over his job and he is apparently willing to let me do that.  I think it is just one of those things in dressage that is easy to get sucked into.  Thankfully, the lesson should remain fresh in our minds for a while.  I need to get myself a couple "conductor's batons"!

We combined the inside rider rotation with engine reminders to produce some really nice flowing circles and figure eights.  Harley was level and light in my hands.  His neck was long and I kept the reins pretty long at about the fourth stop (I usually ride from three to just in front of two, depending on what we are doing).  This made it absolutely impossible for me to "hold him together".  The connection had to begin with his engine and then I provided a nice place for his back with my seat and a delicate basket for him to rest his muzzle.  This lesson was challenging, but it felt like we came a long way since our June lesson.  I worked on completely different aspects of my posture and position.  Once Harley's engine was running, the ride felt almost easy.  I say almost, because it would not have been if my teacher had not been reminding me to keep my legs forward, my knees open, my wrists up, my elbows bent, and my horse responsible for his engine.  This is why I take riding lessons after twenty-five years in the saddle.  There is just so much to learn and always something to improve.  Riding is so much more than walk/trot/canter, posting diagonals, leads, halt, and reinback.  It is such a wonderful puzzle and so very rewarding.  A horse like Harley and an enlightened instructor makes it an absolute pleasure.

My teacher was kind enough to take some photos to help with the learning process.  This is a good shot of my position with my leg at the girth and Harley walking with energy and a released poll.

This is a fun trotting picture.  We are connected and in a level frame.  I am carrying the basket for Harley's muzzle and he is lifting his back.


  1. Sounds like you had an excellent lesson!

    1. It was a lot of fun and packed with stuff to practice.

  2. That trotting picture is really nice.

    Lots of good info in the bullet point list. Reminds me of
    my favorite clinician who always says "let the horse do the work - you're up there as an administrator."

    Great post!

    1. Thank you!

      That is a good quotation to remember. I need to tattoo it on my wrist!

  3. Great post, your instructor sounds brilliant


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