The Diamond Moment (Including a New Schooling Exercise!)

Today I had THAT ride.

You know the one I’m talking about… that ride where that one thing that has been most difficult for you (and that you’ve nearly given up on a million times, but keep pushing and trying anyway because it is something you know you have to try to improve as much as possible) finally clicks and you feel it! You feel that glimpse of correctness and you and your horse come together in that perfect little moment of harmony and you flow together. It’s what keeps us trying. It’s what keeps us coming back. It’s our ultimate addiction. That glimpse that the thing you’ve struggled with for so long might actually become something real one day.

Today I felt the wave. It lifted me forward from behind and I felt it! I felt the wave and that “push” that I’ve heard so much about and yet have never fully understood.


The wave I am referring to is that pushing and lifting feeling you’re supposed to feel when you drive your horse into a lengthened or extended trot and their back is engaged and they drive from behind to lift you (or suck you down) onto their back and carry you forward.

I have a nice sitting trot, according to my trainer and others. But finding that following seat in a lengthened trot has been very difficult for me. When the horse’s power kicks in and you’re not quite following through with your position, it’s enough to make you feel like you’re going to be launched out of the saddle and up onto the horse’s neck!

In our journey, however, Aragorn’s toughest gait has been the trot lengthening. He has always been prone to running forward and being just enough on the forehand that he is slower in front than he is behind and this makes it virtually impossible to have a true lengthening.  For close to 2 years I have been working this gait with various exercises trying to convince Aragorn that he can carry more weight behind to push himself forward into a lengthening while staying round and supple. And he’s  finally, FINALLY, beginning to show a true understanding!

In this process of improving our trot lengthenings, I school many different exercises to assist in engaging the hind leg and developing more pushing power from behind. Over time, these exercises have evolved to become more challenging and expect more from both myself and Aragorn. Today, I will share with you my current favorite.


Here’s How I rode this Exercise (See diagram below)

  1. Begin at a medium or working trot tracking left. As you come through the short side of the arena past C, use a series of half halts to prepare your horse for the shoulder in as you come out of the corner and approach H.
  2. At H, go forward into a shoulder in left without losing impulsion and rhythm- maintain a forward flowing medium/working trot.
  3. As you approach E, straighten your horse for 2 strides only! Use this time to half halt and prepare your horse for travers.
  4. Travers (haunches in) to K. Again, maintain a forward flowing medium/working trot with good impulsion and correct rhythm.
  5. At K, straighten your horse.
  6. (This is my favorite part!!) As you come through the corners before and after A, think about “Powering up” your horse to further prepare him for the coming lengthening across the long diagonal. Use a ton of half halts and think about loading a spring.
  7. Explode across the long diagonal from F to H in a proper trot lengthening being mindful that your horse is not running or rushing forward, but is pushing from behind. If you need to help your horse take longer strides, post the diagonal staying up longer in your posting and sitting down a bit later than you should.
  8. Immediately at H, come back to your medium/working trot and repeat this exercise the opposite direction.

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Some Helpful Things to Remember When Riding This Exercise

For every stride I ride of this exercise, I am constantly checking in with Aragorn to be sure I am truly loading his hind end as much as possible. Many horses, when developing a shoulder-in or travers, will lose their impulsion and desire to move freely forward with the added challenge of moving laterally at the same time. This is why it is important to also think about using the few strides before each of these movements to think about “powering up” in order to load the hind end enough that the horse is able to maintain his forward impulsion and rhythm and move in and out of the movements easily.

As you come past B and E, take the time to truly straighten your horse for 2 strides- don’t go right into the travers from the shoulder-in. This increases your horse’s responsiveness to your aids, forces the horse to pay closer attention to you and what you are asking, and also gives you that time to “power up” again before moving into the travers.

As you explode across the diagonal in a lengthening, do not allow your horse to fall on the forehand. Maintain that feeling of the horse lifting up through the withers- that feeling is created by the hind end engaging. If your horse starts to fall on the forehand, you can straighten and ask for a few strides of leg yield to engage the hind leg again and then go forward in another lengthening. More on this below.

This is going to sound a little silly, but it really helps me during those “power ups” to get myself rev’ed up. I try hard to get myself pumped up and excited for the explosion of pent-up energy and the possibility that I may, once again, feel the wave. And, by using this excitement within myself, I am able to more influence my horse’s level of preparedness- after all, he can feel me getting very excited about something and he get’s excited too!


Aragorn’s Thoughts

I did this exercise only two times through each direction because I expected a lot from Aragorn. We were thoroughly warmed up by the time we got to this exercise and we had more to work on afterwards as well. But, I expected him to give me his best effort through every movement of this exercise and he gave me just that. He was forward, willing, supple, happy, focused, and giving me more than 100%. He had to focus carefully on me because of the changes came quickly. He had no time to become lazy or complacent because we did not stick with the pattern long enough for his disinterest (which can come quickly) to settle in. Those moments in which he gave me more push than ever and in which I was able to truly sit and flow with his movement felt so good that I rewarded Aragorn profusely and he, of course, couldn’t help but feel proud.


Ideas for Modifying This Exercise

  1. Is your horse not yet to the development level that he can perform shoulder in or travers? Move in and out of a leg yield along the railing (keep your horse at a 45 degree angle in the leg yield). Try to leg yield to just about the center letter, straighten for 2 strides, and leg yield again.
  2. Want more of a challenge? Canter the long sides in travers for the first half, straighten, and travers again for the second half. Medium trot through the corners before and after the long side.
  3. Does your horse struggle with setting up for shoulder in? Begin each long side with a 10 meter circle to aid in positioning him properly for this movement. You can also set up for the travers with a 10 meter circle at E or B as well.
  4. Has your horse not quite figured out how to bend his body around your inside leg for the travers? Start with a counter shoulder in: put your horse in the shoulder in toward the railing. Begin encouraging your horse to look more into the direction of travel with each stride with half halts on the outside rein, a strong inside leg at the girth, and the inside rein asking for bend in the direction of travel.
  5. Does your horse fall on the forehand or lose engagement during the trot lengthenings? Lengthen the trot for only a few strides, then move into a leg yield for a few strides, then move back into a trot lengthening. Gradually build up to maintaining a trot lengthening for the entire diagonal.
  6. Working on developing your following seat at the lengthenings like I am? Do you start to lose your position and bang on your horse’s back or feel like you’re about to be tossed in the sand? Sit a few strides, post a few strides, sit a few strides, etc. until you’re able to develop your seat enough to sit the entire diagonal.

Let’s revisit “The Wave” for a moment. 

I want to tell you what piece of advice helped me finally become one with my horse’s back for that small moment.

I found this piece of advice on an old discussion thread. The discussion was about learning how to sit a lengthened or extended trot. The piece that stuck out to me was when someone said to try thinking about using the inside of your boot soles to feel like you’re hugging up under your horse’s belly and only using that part of your leg to “hold on.” The reason she said this is an effective means of first training your body to follow the movement is it allows you to relax the necessary muscles in your hips and legs,  find the correct lifting feeling, and have the sense of security that is required in this stage of the learning process.

Now, does that mean that you need to be forever gripping on for dear life with the insides of your boot soles? No, of course not. But, I will say that the person who suggested this method was a major player in the role of me finally feeling “the wave” for the first time. The same day as reading this thread, I put it to work during my ride that evening. And I felt it- I felt the wave for the very first time. This is the entire inspiration for this post!

It’s what keeps us trying. It’s what keeps us coming back. It’s our ultimate addiction.


Do you have tips to share for developing a better following seat at a lengthened or extended trot? Do you have different ideas for modifying the exercise I have shared with you? Do you have comments or observations you’d like to share? I’d love to hear them! Please comment!

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Jo Hinnemann and The Most Important Warm Up Exercise

It’s interesting to me how certain videos pop up over and over again on social media.

I first saw this particular video (below) of Jo Hinnemann discussing what he considers the most important and most difficult exercise of riding: Trot Canter Transitions, a few years ago.

Watch the video here:

The moral to this video is what Jo Hinnemann gives us when he says that trot-canter-trot transitions is “the best exercises to get our suppleness.”

I’ve been reflecting on this almost to the point of obsession lately- and for good reason!

Aragorn and I are now training to show third level. To get to this point, we essentially have skipped showing second level in order to please my I’m-Bored-With-Simple-Work-And-Thrive-Off-Of-Learning-Tricks horse, Aragorn. Here’s the thing about Aragorn- he is a star in schooling, training, and clinics. However, in the show-ring he is the prettiest-damn-fire-breathing-dragon you’ll ever see! In other words, Aragorn is extremely stubborn and hyper-aware and has no respect for his snaffle bridle, but becomes soft as butter in a double bridle. I know, I know- you’re thinking “but proper training teaches the horse to become softer in the bridle and you shouldn’t need to ride a horse in a double to get his submission.” Well, you’re absolutely right- this applies to most horses- MOST HORSES. But not all. In fact, did you know the world famous Totilas was one of those horses that was quickly pushed through the lower levels? They pushed him through as quickly as possible and he did not begin to really excel until he was competing FEI. So, why can’t other horses be the same and still progress correctly- developing the top-line and core/hind-end strength and increasing suppleness systematically? Of course it can be done- Aragorn and I are doing it now!

Yes, Totilas’s training is surrounded by a lot of controversy and Edward Gal has been criticized for his use of Rolkur and LDR methods to force Totilas more quickly into submission. I am in no way a proponent of these training methods and I believe in following the training scale and respecting classical training methods as much as possible. I do not believe that there are shortcuts to training, but I do believe that it is important to listen to your horse and find what makes him or her tick.

As for Aragorn, the moment I tried him in a double bridle, he became the softest and lightest he’s ever been- and no, I am not riding the curb constantly! I am able to ride him mostly on the snaffle with only a light reminder with a curb when he becomes heavy, unfocused, or disrespectful. The problems in the show ring would come from his lack of respect to the snaffle even after years of conscientious training (6 years!!!!) were just not cutting it. With the help of my gold medalist trainer and an international level clinician, we were able to determine that Aragorn thrives off of challenge and that introducing him to a double bridle may be what helps him get over the boredom he was feeling and the behavior problems he was demonstrating with first and second level work.

With all that being said, we are facing a few training challenges as we prepare to show at third level. The main challenges we are facing right now is the sharpness of our transitions and maintaining the quality of our gaits through those transitions. Through my dressage journey, I am learning that everything needs to continuously improve because more advanced movements require a higher degree of precision, response time, and quality. Because of this, my rides have not only included exercises and practice focusing on developing more collection and improving lateral suppleness, but also expecting more through all of our transitions.  Through this work, I have discovered that Jo Hinnemann is quite correct in saying that the canter-trot transition exercise is indeed one of the most difficult exercises to execute- especially when not only focusing on maintaining or improving gait quality, but also on promptness of response and the development of improved suppleness through this exercise.

When riding this exercise in the later part of my warm-up, I always begin by making sure I have a good quality trot with suspension. I make sure I maintain this feeling as I ask for Aragorn to canter and I expect him to jump up into the canter and maintain that jump within every stride. Oftentimes this takes a while- I may have to ride the canter at least a time or two around the circle to get Aragorn honestly on my aids and not trying to flatten out and run forward. Once I have a nicely cadenced uphill canter, I am ready to ask for the trot again, but I am careful to use enough leg to encourage him to step right back into the suspended high quality trot we had before we cantered. If the quality of my trot is where I expect it to be, I will again ask him to canter. As I stay on this exercise, I see him become softer to my aids, quicker to respond, and more focused on me and his work. Where I may have cantered a time or two around the circle during our first canter stretch, by the last time in the same direction we may be only cantering a few strides before I ask him to trot again. I am careful not to go into this exercise with a time limit or a number of times around the circle preset in my mind. Instead, I take the time it takes to get the desired response. I am noticing, since I’ve been incorporating this exercise into all of my rides the last few weeks, that I am having to spend less time on this exercise before we are ready to move on to more challenging work! Someone once said to me: “In training horses, if you take the time it takes, it will take less time,” and this exercise has certainly proven this to be true.

So, I close with saying that this will forever be one of those exercises that I will keep returning to and, when it comes across one of the pages I follow on Facebook, I will always watch the video and be reminded of how beneficial this exercise has been to us in the past, how amazing it is in the present, and how it will help us to improve even more in the future. Just because an exercise seems basic, does not mean it needs to be ridden in the most basic of manner- how can you make it forever better and better?

Confessions (Not Really) From the Worst Blogger Ever

I’m not really sure how I wound up leaving my blog sitting here in the dust of the arena footing… but, I’m back and I promise I will work hard to start sharing some of my exercises and homework with you as well as introducing some reviews of the equipment I have in my tack trunk.


It’s ironic to me that I named my blog “From Canter to Pirouette.”

When I started writing two years ago, Aragorn and I were struggling with the canter. He was unbalanced, often uncontrollable, heavy on the forehand, and consistently behind my leg. I dreaded working the canter because the effort that was required on my part just to keep him going was about a 9 on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being almost no effort required.

Well, two years later and we almost literally have gone from canter to pirouette.

We went from struggling with simple consistent bend in both directions and maintaining a connection two years ago to training 3rd level with the intentions of showing this year!


I could keep writing about this and talking about all of the trials we went through to get to the point where we are today, but I’d like to save that for a scattering of future posts. What I’d like to focus on today is saying this- I don’t know why I haven’t posted in so long, but I’d like to apologize.

However, I see my exercise posts being frequently repinned on Pintrest, and my Facebook page still gets visitors. So, thank you- thank you for your continued interest in my past posts, thank you for giving me the motivation to return to the keyboard, thank you for affirming me as a potential writer that can truly help and continue to help other Adult Amateurs just like myself.

I’m excited to be back!

aragorn-looking-over-his-shouler-in-cross-ties
See y’all soon!

 

 (Re)Developing Connection

I’ve experienced an overwhelming amount of change in my life the past couple of months (hence the reason my posts have gone MIA for a while), and with those changes I’ve lost a lot of my connections: close friendships just around the corner, intense support and friendship with coworkers, knowing where I am and how to get to where I want to be, and, most important to this Blog, with my riding partner Aragorn. Because of the changes in my location (moving from North Carolina to Florida) and the many responsibilities tied to these changes, my riding times have been inconsistent. However, we are finally getting back into a regular routine of riding and working to redevelop our connection.

When we first arrived at our new home in Florida, everything seemed to exist in the midst of chaos and uncertainty. Our rides seemed to lack the focus and purpose they had had prior to moving. I’m not sure what the reason was for this lack of focus, but it was becoming quite frustrating… until this past weekend.

I will say that the weather here has been much better for summertime riding than it was in Coastal North Carolina. Yes, there are high temperatures and humidity, but the rain showers are more frequent and with them generally comes lower temperatures and less humidity. I don’t feel like I’m constantly trying to catch my breath as if I were breathing through a tiny straw when I ride here! So, we are able to put more effort into our rides and spend more time on what challenges us. With that being said, however, we have been having heavy thunderstorms for more than a week straight intermixed with sunshine and partly cloudy skies. There has been little time for puddles to evaporate and riding arenas to gain back their quality footing.

But, if there is one thing I am good at, it is being creative in my riding and finding ways to work towards our goals in nontraditional settings. So, our focus: redeveloping connection.

As you know, suppleness is an eternal challenge for us, particularly to the left. But, suppleness has been almost completely missing in our few rides since our relocation to Florida. We would get to the point where we would be finally focused on one another and developing an understanding, but it would be after a good 30-40 minutes of discussion and argument.

This past Saturday morning, I arrived at the boarding stable only to find the arena under a flood of water. I have to admit that I was excited about this: I could go ride down the dirt road and work on some suppling exercises and get a bit creative! Here’s a view for you to get an idea of what we had to work with:

The perfect setting for creative suppling!
Pretty beautiful, right?!

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Here are the exercises we rode:

  • Figure eights making our circles around the trees as equal in size as possible.

 

  • Circling down the road around each tree on the left, tracking left for each circle, until we got to the end. Then, came back down the trees on the opposite side of the road, this time tracking to the right for each circle.

 

  • Leg yielding in zig-zags across the road from one tree to the next on the opposite side of the road (a great challenge that really aided us in working on adjusting our scope!).

 

  • Serpentines around the trees as we moved up and down the road.


We worked these exercises at the walk until our connection was strong and secure, then we proceeded to the trot.

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Useful techniques for us in these exercises:

Here are some of the things I focused on that helped us at first develop and then maintain our connection:

  • A connection is not true unless is it from the inside leg to the outside rein. I want to feel secure on the outside rein and, when I do not feel that secure connection, an inside leg aid at the girth is a reminder to Aragorn that I need him to connect to my outside rein.
  • The inside rein is Aragorn’s reminder to soften through his jaw and poll. When I feel his neck “fill up” my outside rein, I like to give him a soft rub or scratch on the neck with my inside hand- this is his reminder that he is connecting to me correctly, carrying himself, and giving me lightness!
  • My inside seat bone is my best friend in securing connection. This is the hardest thing for me to remember, but when I focus on it, everything comes easier! For example, when tracking on a circle to the left (our tougher direction) I focus on taking my left seat bone to the right (almost like I am taking it to behind my right knee) and Aragorn immediately responds by stretching through his ribcage and stepping more under himself with his inside hind leg (that’s the best feeling: when he truly steps more deeply under myself with his inside hind!).
  • Inside leg at the girth outside leg behind is only a general rule. Depending on where Aragorn’s hindquarters are (falling in, falling out), I might need to adjust my leg aid to prevent or correct an incorrect positioning.
  • It is important to keep Aragorn moving in front of my leg, nicely forward and active. Ideally, I should feel a swing in his back at the walk and, at the trot, it should feel like I’m riding on a bouncy-ball (thanks to Fie Andersen for that analogy!). Without this swing or bounce, Aragorn cannot possibly be active enough in the hind and will not be in front of my leg.
  • Ask, receive, give. To keep Aragorn sensitive to my aids, I must be sure to “give” the instant I get a response. Too many riders “hang” on their horses by never giving when they get a response. All that is going to do is create a dull horse and a fatigued rider. Back to the seat bone example from above: once I shift my left seat bone to the right and I feel Aragorn supple on his right side and step under with his left hind, I relax that aid and sit equally on both seat bones in the center of my saddle.

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Aragorn’s Thoughts

For the first ten minutes or so of our ride, Aragorn was more focused on his surroundings than he was on me, but this changed after a warmup consisting of the serpentine and figure eight exercises. What helped him focus on me the most was me sharing my inner dialog with him aloud; instead of just talking myself through the things I needed to do to create a true inside leg to outside rein connection, I said things like: “OK, we’re getting ready to circle right and I need you to be connected to my left rein… Focus on finding that connection to the left rein. Remember to shift the inside seat bone out!” and other helpful dialog. Aragorn has always actively seeked verbal praise and he has learned things quite quickly from verbal direction, so this dialog with him keeps his attention, helps him relax, and helps him know when he is doing the right thing (and the benefits for me are huge as it helps me better organize myself!).

Within the first few minutes of the warmup serpentines and circles, I was easily finding true connection on both reins, working towards finding equal and straight connection on straight lines before changing direction, and Aragorn was attentive, forward, and truly having fun! If there is one thing I can say about Aragorn, it is that he has an exceptional work ethic and he puts 100% (most of the time!) into trying to please me. I think Aragorn knows just how handsome he looks when he is connected, forward, and light! I was even pleasantly surprised when the weanlings next to where we were working decided to gallop and buck around their pasture at full speed and Aragorn only gave them a side glance in passing- not even once did he disconnect from me or get prancy and excited- what a good boy! Truly a fun ride for us both!

A Useful Trot/Canter Transition Exercise

Now that the rain is not coming on a daily basis and my riding ring actually has some time to dry up, I can direct my focus towards working more exercises geared towards improving our bend, improving transitions, and strengthening our canter. Because our ring has been so wet, I’ve been lucky to have a 20 meter circle area to ride and, needless to say, that can get boring very quickly! So, I ride around a few circles, do some transitions, change rein through the circle, etc. all the while daydreaming up fun exercises I can do when I can use my entire ring again!

For me, it is difficult to ever feel like I’ve spent enough time working the canter. Aragorn can trot and trot and trot for hours and, seemingly, never become fatigued. However, throwing some canter into the mix quickly changes that scenario. Aragorn will try his hardest and give me 100% for as long as he can. However, after about ten 20 meter canter circles and/or about two dozen transitions into and out of the canter from either the walk or trot and he is finished. Aragorn is not a belligerent horse- he does not pin his ears, swish his tail, buck, shake his head or anything else when he becomes fatigued. Instead, he becomes heavy and stiff. He leans heavier on his forehand and, therefore, he feels heavier in my hands. He becomes stiffer when tracking left and, therefore, tries his hardest to bend right and go right. Sometimes, if he is really having a moment, he will even snatch the rein from me and rip himself off to the right- so lovely when that happens- fortunately it is very infrequent when he becomes that naughty and that’s only after I’ve truly pushed him beyond what he is willing to give me that day.

So, my solution is not to just canter, canter, canter. Instead I try to incorporate short canter spurts into the mix of transition work and other exercises such as lateral work, stretching, and trotting figures. I still want Aragorn to be able to canter ten circles in a row and then canter down the long side, around the short end, and across the diagonal for a change of rein, but I am not going to ride this every time I ride- how boring and meaningless is that?! So, I came up with a fun exercise the other day that incorporates lots of bend and directional changes, gait changes, and challenges my timing and accuracy.


Here’s How I Rode This Exercise (See diagram below)

  1. Begin at a working trot down the long side from M to F (tracking right). As you approach F, half halt to collect your trot and balance your horse for the upcoming 10 meter half circle. F-D, ride a 10 meter half circle, returning to the track at B. As you cross over the quarter line approaching B, change from a right bend to a left bend. Be sure you, again, half halt to collect and prepare your horse for a transition to a working canter.
  2. At B, pick up a left lead working canter. Canter a 20 meter circle. Use your half halts to stay balanced throughout and again to aid in achieving a balanced downward transition to a trot right when you return back to B.
  3. When you return to B, transition back to a working trot and continue on the long side to M. Half halt! Do not allow your horse to run through you. Work towards achieving as much balance and collection through this transition as possible, but be careful you are not bracing and stiff, as you will only stiffen your horse and he will be more likely to stiffen and lose his softness through this transition.
  4. M-G, ride a 10 meter half circle, returning to the track at B. As you did for the first 10 meter half circle, you will need to use your half halts to collect your trot and balance your horse for the half circle as you approach M. Keep a left bend until you cross the quarter line approaching B and then change to a right bend. Be ready- your canter transition comes quickly! Use your half halts and stay soft through your body- do not stiffen! If you do not achieve a true right bend by B, it’s okay: slow down and trot a few strides on the 20 meter circle while you work to fix the bend.
  5. At B, pick up a right lead working canter. Canter a 20 meter circle. Again: half halt, half halt, half halt! Stay connected, soft, and slow down! Be ready to transition back to your trot right at B. Stay soft through your transition and you will be more successful in maintaining your horse’s balance and connection.
  6. When you return to B, transition back to a working trot and you are back to where you began! You can start over again with step 1 and continue through this exercise as many times as you’d like!
canter-trot transition and bending exercise
1. Begin at a working trot down the long side from M to F (tracking right). F-D, ride a 10 meter half circle, returning to the track at B. (You are making a 10 meter loop to change direction) 2. At B, pick up a left lead canter. Canter a 20 meter circle. 3. When you return to B, transition back to a working trot and continue on the long side to M. 4. M-G, ride a 10 meter half circle, returning to the track at B. 5. At B, pick up a right lead canter. Canter a 20 meter circle. 6. When you return to B, transition back to a working trot and you are back to where you began! You can start over again with step 1 and continue through this exercise as many times as you’d like!

Some helpful things to remember when riding this exercise

The most important thing you need to aid you in successfully riding this exercise- half halts! If you don’t continually work to achieve more balance in your horse, not only are you going to miss the transitions, but your dimensions will be off as well. You want to ride this exercise obsessing over your accuracy the entire time and the only way to achieve the level of accuracy needed to ride this exercise efficiently is to half halt, half halt, half halt!

Yes, I said to ride this exercise in your working gaits, but I want to always work towards collection as much as possible- work where you and your horse are most comfortable! Even if you can only collect your trot through the 10 meter half circle, then consider that a great success! Next time, try to collect for a stride or two longer. Try to collect your canter for just a stride or two as you ride past E on your 20 meter circle. As you and your horse achieve a higher level of strength and balance, you will eventually be able to increase the level of difficulty of this exercise by trying some of the modifications I list below.

The best piece of advice I have for any rider, and the mantra that keeps me from becoming frustrated is this: in equestrian sports, a few can become many and many can become all. So, did you get one collected canter stride today? Great! Tomorrow, it could be two! Or, it could be zero. But, that’s okay, because you got one yesterday and, if you got one yesterday, you know you can get it again! We all have days where we function a bit better or worse than others. Horses do, too.

So, remember:

A few can become many and many can become all!


Aragorn’s Thoughts

Aragorn liked this exercise because it forced him to fully focus on me. This exercise moves quickly: it was nearly impossible for him to anticipate what I wanted from him; he was asked to change himself almost constantly whether it be a change of bend or direction or gait. He was really forced to engage his hind end in the canter and stay engaged the whole time to make it through the changes smoothly and gracefully.

We rode this exercise maybe 5 times through entirely before I moved on to some stretchy trot circles and, boy, did he give me a good stretch! I’m coming to realize that, not only are these stretching bits a great release physically, but mentally for the horse as well. This is the time that Aragorn processes everything we had been working on and he knows that being allowed to stretch at a nice forward, freely moving trot is a great reward for a job well done. During these times, I can almost see Aragorn’s thoughts as he processes our most recent bit of work. The looser he feels and the more forward and down he stretches, the better a lesson I know he learned. One of my favorite feelings on horseback is that loose stretchy trot where I am able to maintain the lightest of contact on a super long rein (almost to the buckle!) and Aragorn still gives me soft bend and directional changes. Such a great reward to me, too. A job well done!


Ideas for Increasing the Challenge 

So, does this exercise ride easily for you? Are you ready to increase the challenge for you and your horse? Here are some ideas to try:

  1. If the 20 meter circle at B is easy for you, make it a 15 meter circle.
  2. Add in another canter-trot-canter transition at E on the 20 meter circle. Try to aim for only one trot stride- NOT easy to do!
  3. If you want to really amp up the challenge, do multiple canter-trot-canter transitions on the 20 meter circle. How many can you do? If you can do three transitions on the circle, can you increase it to four?
  4. Add in a walk transition at F and M. Aim for just one walk stride and be sure your gaits stay of a high quality.
  5. Instead of a walk transition at F and M, do a halt transition! Vary the length of the halt- 3, 5, 10, 15 seconds. Be sure to trot out of the halt without any sluggishness. Keep an attentive halt! This can become more challenging the longer you hold your halt.

Well, how did it go when you tried this exercise? I would love to hear about your experiences! Please comment, share your experiences, share your challenges and successes, and your suggestions. I would love to hear them!

Bending and Suppleness- The Eternal Challenge

How do we make the horse more supple? Ah, the eternal challenge.

After all, if the horse is not supple and soft to our aids, then he cannot respond lightly. If he is not flexible, then he cannot soften over and through his topline and respond quickly, softly, and beautifully to our requests for more advanced work (lateral work, collection, and the type).

This is why those basics are so important. This is why you must school the basics everyday.

My trainer will check in with me periodically throughout our sessions to ask me: Can you bend him both ways? Can you deepen his bend? If yes, then he is ready to perform the next challenge of our ride, if no, then we need to work our basics more.

So, I came up with a fun exercise the other day to work towards improving our basic bend. This is a bit of a more advanced exercise, but, if you are at a very basic level, this is a great exercise to strive towards when trying to improve the “bend-ability” of your lovely dance partner. I liked this exercise because it stemmed from difficulties with bending deeply enough in our canter work (big surprise, if you read our last post!… or not.) If you cannot perform a movement at the walk, then you cannot perform it at the trot… if you cannot perform a movement at the trot, then you cannot perform it at the canter… you get the idea.

Well, Aragorn happens to be quite flexible (MOST of the time) at our walk and trot. But, we still struggle with correct bend at the canter. Like I said in my last post, I believe this to be more a strength issue than anything else. But, the way to strengthen the muscles needed to maintain a more balanced, correct, and collected canter with nice bend and effective half halt responses, is to work the trot: lots of changes in bend, changing the gait (shorten and lengthen stride, stretching at the trot and collecting at the trot, transitions between gaits, etc.), riding figures, directional changes, hill work, etc.

Well, we were having some troubles with the canter the other day and Aragorn was actually getting quite upset with the work and I was becoming frustrated with him. So, I backed off to work the trot and focus on some bending and counter-bend at the trot (I am not a proponent of pushing through when there is already major frustration; I want my horse to be HAPPY to do the work!) and I came up with this fun exercise below. By the end of the ride, he was bending softly and easily to both directions and able to bend as deeply as I wanted him to, and we finished on a positively wonderful note!


Here’s how I rode this exercise (see my roughly drawn diagram below):

  1. Start tracking right, establishing a good forward freely moving walk or trot (I started at the trot and, if you and your dance partner feel comfortable beginning this exercise at the trot, then go ahead and do so!). Your horse should feel a bit “swingy” through the back and hips at the walk and through the hips and shoulders at the trot, and your contact should be even between both reins. Your inside (right) leg should be softly at the girth with your outside leg just behind the girth. Your inside rein asking for a clear inside bend with a gently sponging of the rein as needed, with your outside rein controlling the shoulder and preventing over-bend with a clear, consistent contact.
  2. Use the corner between C and M to deepen your bend. Actually seek to over-bend a bit through the corner and establish a good connection or just reaffirm your connection as you prepare to change across the short diagonal.
  3. Change rein M to E maintaining a right directional bend the entire way. So, keep your aids consistent and employ the use of a clear inside-leg-to-outside-rein connection (right leg to left rein). Take your time with this, after all, most likely, you’ve ridden this figure with a change of bend over the centerline to a left bend in the past, but you don’t want to do that here!
  4. Maintain a counter-bend (right bend) E to K. Be sure to keep that clear connection from your right leg to left rein. If your horse attempts to change his bend to the left, open up your right rein and remind him with a firm inside calf at the girth that you want him bent to the right!
  5. At K, change to a left bend, the correct bend for this direction. You’re going to want to be clear in your half halts and take your time in adjusting your aids to be sure there is no confusion to the horse. If, at first, you are struggling with changing the bend, slow down! Even halt, if you have to, and ask for a change of bend at the halt and then walk on from there.
  6. Ride K-A-F on a left bend and use the corner between A and F to deepen your bend. Mentally prepare yourself and prepare your horse for the second half of this exercise as you approach F. Use the corner between A and F to deepen your bend and reaffirm your connection like you did in step 2 above. You should have a nice connection from your new inside leg (left leg) to your new outside rein (right rein).
  7. Change rein F to E maintaining a left directional bend the entire way. Again, keep your aids consistent and employ the use of a clear inside-leg-to-outside-rein connection (left leg to right rein). Remember: don’t change bend as you cross over the centerline keep your left directional bend!
  8. Maintain a counter-bend (left bend) E to H. Remember: if your horse attempts to change his bend to the right, open up your left rein and remind him with a firm inside leg at the girth that you want him bent to the left!
  9. At H, change to a right bend, the correct bend for this direction. Again, be clear with your half halts to balance, soften and prepare your horse for the bend change! It’s okay to halt or slow down to change the bend, but coming to the corner between H and C will really help your horse want to naturally change the bend.
bending exercise
1. Start tracking right, establishing a good forward freely moving walk or trot. 2. Use the corner between C and M to deepen your bend. 3. Change rein M to E maintaining a right directional bend the entire way. 4. Maintain a counter-bend (right bend) E to K.  5. At K, change to a left bend, the correct bend for this direction. 6. Ride K-A-F on a left bend and use the corner between A and F to deepen your bend. 7. Change rein F to E maintaining a left directional bend the entire way. 8. Maintain a counter-bend (left bend) E to H. 9. At H, change to a right bend, the correct bend for this direction.

Aragorn’s take on this exercise: he loved it! It was not too hard, so he did not become frustrated, but it was not too easy as it kept his interest and he had to stay quite focused on me to see which way he should be bending. After riding this through just 3-4 times at the trot, he was much more balanced, he became quite soft to my aids, and he was softly chewing the bit and slobbering up a storm! We finished up our ride with lots of circles and figure-eights in a stretchy trot and we finished our ride feeling quite successful. Such a difference from the tense, frustrated horse I had during our canter work that day.


So, as this exercise becomes easier and easier here are some ideas for increasing the challenge:

  1. Try it at the canter! That change of bend at K and H will become quite difficult if you don’t use your half halts effectively to truly balance and deepen your level of collection. As the rider, you will really need to sit into your horse as deep as you can get while maintaining that softness through your seat and hands to allow the horse to swing through his topline to come through a change of bend nicely.
  2. Add transitions at A, C, and even the centerline. If you’re doing the exercise at the trot, either walk or halt at each of those letters while maintaining a bend in the desired direction. If you’re walking, try halting at those letters being careful not to lose your bend. If doing this at the canter, you can really increase the challenge with a trot, walk, or halt transition.
  3. Add a 10 meter circle at A or C within the same gait.
  4. Add a 15 or 20 meter circle at A or C and do some lengthenings within the same gait, particularly as you come over the centerline near L or I. Just a stride or two can greatly improve your connection and balance.

So, try this exercise out and let me know how it went: What was easy? What did you struggle with? How did your horse feel? Did you feel a difference in the quality of your bend, in the lightness of your connection, in your horse’s way of going? Did you try a different variation of this exercise that you’d like to share? Please comment!

The Blogger Journey

Today I am beginning a new journey.

Everyday, all of us begin a new journey (isn’t making it through each individual day a journey?!) and within that journey we may have many mini-journeys.

Well, today I am beginning a huge journey: The Blogger Journey.

I am focusing this journey on sharing my prior, current, and future mini-journeys in equestrianism, horsemanship, and dressage.

I am, by no means, a professional. I am an amateur rider and competitor. However, I am excited to share my finds, my light bulb moments, my frustrations, my achievements, etc. with you all and maybe I can help you and you can help me!

I am actually going through a frustrating time in my riding right now. My horse has always ridden a bit stiffer to the left, which is funny to me because he can bend so far in both directions from the ground to get a carrot that he practically touches his tail. But, add me and you get a horse who wants to fall in on his left shoulder and grab the bit and look right while riding around a circle to the left. So, naturally, the problem must be me! I am very much right sided. To combat this problem, I’ve considered forcing myself to write with my left hand, sweep, shovel, and pick manure with my left hand at the top of the handle, and do other things dominantly with my left hand. UGH- but easier said than done! So, I’ve been trying to be hyper-aware of my left hand and arm while riding. I think this is helping a bit.

But, the majority of our problem comes apparent at the canter. Now, this is not so much a me alone issue as it is an Aragorn (my lovely riding partner) problem. He is a friesian/saddlebred cross, a registered Georgian Grande. Think about it- what is a friesian’s best gait? The trot. And a saddlebred’s? The trot. These lovely, flashy horses with their upright necks and fairly straight and upright shoulders tend to canter quite tightly, causing themselves to exert much energy at the canter. So, take the combination of me and my left side problems and combine them with Aragorn’s lack of strength at the canter, we become quite the messy package.

Now let me discuss a previous journey with you all: I have done all of Aragorn’s training myself. I purchased him as a two year old from his breeder and he was very minimally handled. I started him very slowly, spending years on manners and groundwork, alone. He was a huge 16+ hand baby who wanted to buck, rear, bite, play, and have fun all of the time! Needless to say, we’ve had many hiccups in our journey, but now he is one of the best behaved horses on the ground you will come across. Prior to May 2014, I never worked with a trainer with him. I did everything myself. However, in the Spring of 2014, I realized that we had reached a plateau and I had maxed out my toolbox in improving his suppleness, gaits, and submissiveness. I employed the aid of a local trainer (and good friend) to aid us in moving forward in our dressage journey. Since then, we moved from only being comfortable at showing introductory level dressage (mostly because his canter was absolutely out of control) to showing first level! I only work with my trainer once or twice a month, but it has made such a difference- my toolbox is full again!

However, I feel like I am on another plateau (with a slight down slope). This winter has been rough. My barn is only a few hundred feet off of the Intracoastal Waterway, so the 2-5 days a week of rain that we have been having has wrecked havoc on our riding ring. For the months of January and February about 50% of the time there was only about a 20 meter square section that was decent enough to canter safely without slipping and less than 10% of the time was our entire dressage ring rideable at the canter. The remainder of the time I was reduced to riding on the hard dirt road leading past the barn. But, all of these things combined still only allowed me to ride 1-2 days a week. Not a good scenario for trying to show upper first level this spring! My first show was supposed to be next weekend (March 21st), but I am too frustrated with our canter right now. I am going to wait until April to begin showing this year. Aragorn’s fitness level has decreased, and so has mine, this winter. I need the next few weeks to a month to get the both of us back into shape before we are strong enough to compete at First Level tests 2 and 3. Aragorn makes it quite obvious when he is getting tired of working our left side canter.

Canter discussion to be continued….