Bend Is Your Friend: A Lesson Recap

Good Girl Pella! 

Pretty much the instant I announced on the blog that Dino was retiring, I had so many offers of horses to ride from folks near and far. It was overwhelming and heartwarming and reminded me just how fiercely horse people can love and support each other. One of the people who reached out to me first was a former coworker who owns a farm in the area where a local dressage/eventing/natural horsemanship trainer runs her business. She is trying to lease out one of her three horses, a super warmblood mare named Pella who has evented to Training level and is schooling 3rd Level dressage, and let me know that she was available. 

While I can't afford the full lease fee on Pella, I was able to arrange to take a lesson on her, and hope to keep learning on her until she finds a full-time person. She is, like a lot of the horses I've gotten to hop on recently, SO different from Dino and she and Trainer C really challenged me in a great way in our first lesson together! 

In the week leading up to the lesson, I was getting a little nervous. From what I knew about Pella from her owner and Trainer C, she was bigger and hotter and more forward than Dino, and I was anxious I wouldn't know how to ride her well, or that my seat and energy would totally light her up and make her tense and quick. I'd also never ridden a horse trained to her level before, and I was worried my aids would just annoy her or that the trainer would hate the way I rode. 

Trying to keep my left shoulder in a place that Pella approves of. 

Spoiler alert: I did not have to be worried about any of those things. My anxiety brain was wrong, as per usual. 

Pella is such a lovely horse. She was a delight to groom and tack up and handle on the ground, and really sweet and mellow. Being under 16 hands - though she's built pretty wide! - Pella was a comfortable size for me and I didn't feel like I had this big, powerful, borderline scary horse underneath me like I'd been irrationally worried about. We started off at the walk on a loose rein just feeling each other out. Trainer C emphasized that bend was the key to riding this horse - if Pella got too straight in her body, she would shift her balance too far forward and start getting too quick, so my goal was to keep her in shoulder-fore throughout the entire ride to keep her soft and bending, and her tempo slow. 

It was so, so difficult to resist the urge to ride with an active, energized seat and to reward instead of correct a slower tempo! I have spent the past decade trying to inject more energy and positive tension into Dino, and to switch gears with Pella and soften my seat, take lots of deep breaths, follow less, and maintain the bend took so much brain power. We worked on me just feeling out the aids I needed for shoulder-fore, and I got a lot of shoulder-in and some leg yield down the long side until I figured it out! Pella needed me to initiate the bend with a lot of inside leg, and she did not want super strong outside rein and thigh aids like I use with Dino. Pella preferred that I just sit to the outside a bit more to move her shoulders to the inside, and she needed the bit to feel very alive in her mouth to maintain the connection. If I let the contact get heavy and dead or too tense with my forearm, Pella would pop off the contact and open her mouth. She wanted lots of room for her outside shoulder to sweep forward as well, and if my outside shoulder was too far back, especially going to the right, Pella made her displeasure widely known! 

Once I had a handle on the correct aids for shoulder-fore and was keeping Pella round and her walk at a reasonable speed, we moved the exercise onto a three-loop serpentine. I was to ride Pella in shoulder-fore through each loop and across the arena until we hit the centerline, and then swap the bend and put her in shoulder-fore the other way. Trainer C had us stay in this pattern until it was consistently mostly correct. It took so much concentration! I had to keep my seat soft, inside leg on, put some movement into the inside bit ring during the change of bend, keep my outside hand down and outside shoulder forward, and remember to sit to the outside, as well as steer accurately and remember to breathe. The breathing was key - any time I let myself exhale deeply, Pella softened through her body and got more relaxed. At this point I was starting to figure her out - when I managed her energy well in the shoulder-fore and got her to relax, her whole body would soften, her back would get looser and I'd get access to her hind legs and her shoulders became more mobile. 

Once we were solid in the walk, it was time to trot some circles and then the serpentine! 

The trot was so challenging at first. Pella picked up the trot when I asked, but then sucked back, popped off the bit, and made lots of angry mare faces. Turns out she wanted a LOT more freedom in the outside rein than I was giving her! The sweet spot for miss Pella was when I brought my outside shoulder really far forward (read: straight), kept my outside hand low, and kept my seat soft while asking for more forward with my lower leg. I also needed to focus on posting over the inside shoulder to keep Pella bending and in balance. It was an absolute juggling act, but when I figured it out it felt really great! Trainer C encouraged me to listen to what Pella was saying and respond accordingly: if she was complaining, I was probably doing something wrong! The change in bend on the serpentine in trot was tricky, too, but I had a lot of success with micro half halts before the change, keeping the inside bit ring super active, and lifting my chest in the change of diagonal so my seat stayed light on Pella's back. Trainer C then switched it up one more time, having me ask for a walk transition at A, C, and each time we crossed the centerline, walking for three steps, changing the bend and putting Pella back in shoulder-fore going the other way before picking up the trot again. 

I had to think fast in this version of the serpentine, managing Pella's shape and connection literally every step of the way and changing my aids to the needs of the pattern as well as what Pella needed from me in the moment. There were a lot of botched transitions and awkward moments, but when I waited for Pella to get back in shoulder-fore before asking for trot again, and she and I started really working together, man did it feel good! She gave me such a better connection and response to the leg, and I found I could be a little more demanding with my aids without offending her once she and I understood each other. Our last few loops were pretty darn smooth, and I was really happy with the progress through the exercise! 

We ended the lesson with a little bit of leg yield in trot, which was really fun. Pella is very good in the lateral work, and all I needed to do was sit to the outside and float her over to the rail with my inside leg, and she gave me some super leg yields! I was able to adjust her straightness and talk about the contact within the leg yield in a way I haven't really been able to with Dino, which was just so cool. Plus, she didn't have anything negative to say about the way I sat the trot, and even let me bring her forward and back with my seat, which made me feel like I'd unlocked a little more of what she can really do! 

Thanks, girlfriend.

Even though we "only" walked and trotted in this lesson, I had so much fun and learned so much! It was a fascinating challenge to start to learn how to ride a hotter horse. It isn't about creating energy - it's about shaping the energy and encouraging relaxation so that the forward energy can be productive. Using Trainer C's "bend is your friend" philosophy with Pella, I saw that channeling her forward into a shape that required a little more bend and engagement allowed Pella to relax and become lighter instead of plowing forward onto her forehand and running faster. We also picked on my outside shoulder a lot, particularly the left one. The moment that shoulder came too far back, Pella would feel blocked in the outside of her body and would stall out, suck behind my leg, put her head up, open her mouth, and get cranky. Girlfriend did NOT like me blocking her, intentionally or not! Once I got my own shoulder more forward, Pella felt SO much freer through her outside shoulder, and I could then use my seat and leg to package her up, send her forward, and use her forward energy for good instead of evil! I absolutely loved how sensitive Pella was without being emotional or explosive. She told me every. time. I was wrong, but didn't hold a grudge or get frantic or upset about it. Just asked me to, kindly, get my shit together. 

I loved working with Trainer C as well! Her style is so positive and focused on rider position and biomechanics, as well as putting the horse's needs at the forefront. Each horse is an individual, and she really stressed that as riders we need to cater to that while still expecting good responses from them. She said I had very good hands (warm fuzzy moment!) and liked how I used my seat in the sitting trot, which bolstered my confidence, but kept after me for the rogue outside shoulder, correct balance in the posting trot, and outward-pointed toes! I am really looking forward to learning more from both her and Pella, and am envious of whoever will end up working with these two ladies long-term as Pella's full-time rider! 



  1. I'm so glad you're getting all of these opportunities! Sounds like a great lesson, and Pella sounds like a wonderful teacher too!


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