Another Lesson: No More Excuses

We've finally hit the point in our lessons with Ashley that not everything was butterflies and rainbows and amazing performances this time. While it was a good lesson, a worthwhile lesson, and one that gave me lots to work on before our next one, it was a ride that reminded me what we all know - progress isn't linear, training horses doesn't send us in a steadily upward direction, setbacks happen, and learning is messy. 

It was my first lesson in the new saddle, and it was great to be comfortable and balanced and secure with tack that helped my position and Dino's comfort. We had that going for us, at least, even though I hadn't ridden Dino for two days prior to the lesson, his feet were crazy over-due to be trimmed and re-shod and his shoes were held on with prayers and fairy dust, and I was still dealing with his anxious mouth and ducking behind the bit that had developed over the past two weeks. 

But, this is why I pay my trainer to tell me how to ride better!

After I had warmed up, we started right in addressing Dino's unwillingness to reach out to the bridle in the walk. My running theory on WHY this started happening is that I made the walk really stressful for him in drilling the shoulder-in at the walk in a way that made it very hard for him. I made the walk an unhappy place, and so he's been anticipating that discomfort when I pick up the reins in the walk and hiding behind the bridle and chomping the bit. It also didn't help that his feet were way way too long for over a week and we were still dealing with poor saddle fit, which I'm sure added to Dino's discomfort. Reasons aside, we addressed it head on by riding walk-halt-walk transitions all around the arena, keeping the contact as steady as possible and pushing Dino gently into it when he would wiggle and chomp and hide behind the bit. A couple times I tried to kick him up into the contact - get up there, horse, you know better! - and Ashley reprimanded me. It was my job to make the contact a safe, happy place and to use my leg to encourage Dino to push and reach into it, not to punish him when he was anxious. 

We had some technical difficulties with the video this time around, so media is limited, but I at least have the audio to listen to and reflect back on! 

That made me feel a bit mean and sheepish, having my ugly habit of getting too aggressive with my pony exposed, but as usual, the kinder, softer, more playful approach gave me much, much better results than the old "make him do it" technique that was pounded into my brain as a kid. We just worked slowly this way - walk, halt, walk, halt, hey pony, it's okay to hold the bit, little scratches and pets when Dino softened his neck and took the contact. I focused on keeping my heels as far from his sides as I could, turning my toes forward and lengthening my leg so that it was OFF unless I was actively asking Dino to come up to the bridle. 

We talked about how I now have no more excuses for using my leg badly - I have a good saddle that FITS, I understand the concepts, and Dino is ready and willing to step up in his training. My leg needs to mean so many things now - forward, sideways, collect, and bend - I need it to be PRECISE and CLEAR. As we struggle up the mountain that is Second Level, my own discipline is the thing that's going to make or break it for us at this level. I cannot let my leg touch my horse unless I want him to do something, when it does touch him it needs to say something specific, and it needs to come OFF when he completes the task successfully. I cannot, cannot just put my leg on and leave it there like I used to and expect Dino to understand what I'm asking. I need to be so much more disciplined in my body and my timing, and this is going to take work. 

Thankfully, work is not something I'm unaccustomed to. 

Once we began achieving more calm acceptance of the contact at the walk, Ashley had us do some trot-canter transitions in order to use the forward momentum of the faster gaits to help Dino start moving into the contact more. This helped a lot - almost immediately I felt him pushing into my hand and feeling much more honest in the connection. 

We also worked a bit on varying the requests I made with my leg in trot and canter - a pulsing inside bending aid in the corners, a few forward squeezes with both legs down the long side, and then taking my leg off and leaving Dino on cruise control. As always, trying to instill the idea that when Dino carries the tempo, I leave him alone. Forever and ever, amen. 

The best. 

After repeating the "move into the bridle, please" exercises in both directions with some success, we took a break before moving on to the shoulder-in. This is where Ashley and I got on the same page as far as what I had been doing wrong. As per usual, I was trying too hard and making it way more difficult for both of us than it needed to be. In an attempt to produce some kind of dramatic sideways movement, I was contorting myself, adding tension, and asking for way way way too much bend at this stage in the game. This made it super difficult for Dino to do what I was asking, sucked the impulsion and relaxation out of the movement, and generally just made us both super stressed out. 

We went back to the basics of our last lesson on shoulder-in, and this time I like to hope I understood it a bit better! We talked about the movement coming from pushing the inside hind leg deeper under the body and closing the outside channel so that the shoulders floated to the inside as a result of that more powerful push with the inside hind - not because I introduced a crap-ton of inside bend and kicked my pony's haunches out. Ashley had me ride the movement only for a few steps at a time, concentrating on keeping Dino relaxed and flowing forward, increasing the engagement of the inside hind and floating the shoulders to the inside, and then gently straightening. Dancing and guiding his posture in and out of the movement, never losing the forward energy and keeping everything light and easy. 

And wouldn't you know, our steps of correct shoulder-in felt so, so much less dramatic than I thought they were supposed to. Just a little more engaged, solid in the outside rein, a gentle change of posture. It felt easy and straight and not as dramatically SIDEWAYS as I thought it should be. Once we got some good steps going both ways we quit with that, and I got a lot of things to chew on for the next month. 
  • Discipline with my leg aids is going to be KEY over our next phase of development. This will require a lot of mental engagement and presence on my part, as well as physical strengthening of my lower torso and a stretching of my hip muscles. I need to seriously up the ante on my timing, placement, and intentionality of the leg aids. 
  • Keep things fun and light for Dino, showing him how to find the happy place in the connection. Once again, my ruthless work ethic in the saddle got the better of me, and I really think I fried my sweet pony a bit. In our few rides post-lesson this week, I worked a LOT on riding working walk-free walk to let him find the happy place once he was in the contact, and it helped a ton! I had my relaxed, confident boy back and was able to collect the walk from my seat again, so I feel all is not lost here. 
  • Ride shoulder-in (and haunches-in) like it's No Big Thing. Keep the focus on the forward and relaxation, and dance our way in and out of these movements. The more chill we can keep the three-track work, the better it will be. 
  • Now that our tack situation is much better and Dino's feet are trimmed appropriately again, I do want to keep plugging away at that collected canter - I've still got my eye on you, pirouette canter! 
  • My final action item for myself is to address any physical issues that might be creeping around in the background if I can't resolve the anxious contact-avoidance at the walk with training. Between the mental pressure I was putting on Dino with the lateral work, poor saddle fit, uncomfortable hooves, and not as many 'fun' hack rides as of late, there are plenty of non-veterinary reasons why he might be displaying this behavior now, but if with a change in tack, training, and hoof trimming we can't resolve it, it may be time to consult our team of vets to see if we can improve his comfort level. 
While this lesson definitely felt like a two steps forward, one step back kind of ride, it did set me on a road towards improvement and continued development. It's sobering and intimidating to realize that the limiting factor in this equation is ME, but it's also exciting to be sailing into the uncharted waters of "real" dressage instead of faffing around on my own at Training and First not really knowing what I'm doing or understanding what the next step should be. I hope to ride 2-1 in another schooling show next week before attempting out first USDF-rated outing in two weeks (eep!!) in a wild bid for our first scores towards our Bronze medal. 

Time to get to work. 


  1. I feel that I will be having lessons like that until I die. I, like you, make things harder than they need. This sounds like a great lesson!

  2. i feel like I could write this post every day

    what, pony club kicking my horse into the bit isn't how i get contact?? BLASPHEMY


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