Problem Solving

Wednesday when I rode I could not for the life of me get Dunnie to give me a good canter transition. He kept doing that super sloppy speedy trot thing that horses do sometimes and is one of the most frustrating things I know of. I wondered if it was because we were outside for the first time in a long time. I wondered if it was the footing out there. I wondered if he was sore in the shoulders, or even maybe lame. But when I got off him and watched him walk from the end of the lead rope, nothing looked amiss.

Thursday when we rode it started happening again. But occasionally he’d do a little jump like he was trying to get into a canter stride. He wasn’t being ornery, and this time we were inside, hiding from the midday Texas sun. As I mentioned before, he is such a willing horse that I had to take a step back and wonder what I was doing wrong. The answer was: a couple of things.

First, I’m still not too slick with the split reins. For much of the lesson, especially the exercises where I’m softening his neck and shoulders and hips through circles and figure eights, I ride two-handed. But when we get to cantering, I try to ride one-handed. If things were to go badly, I feel like it’s a lot easier to shorten up on the reins that way, and while I’m still building back my leg muscles, I sometimes want to hold onto the pommel at the canter for a little extra help. But it’s not easy keeping the reins even and sometimes I find that they are lopsided, pulling his head in one direction more than the other, which has to be distracting.

Second, and more important, I still slip into a hunter seat. My lower back has a natural arch in it, and years and years of hunter seat riding made me develop a habit of emphasizing that on the horse. So it takes a particular effort on my part to drop my tailbone, tuck my butt, and lengthen that part of my spine the way you’re supposed to do in a Western saddle. I have to imagine that this is somewhat confusing to Dunnie, and I think it was the major issue in preventing us transitioning to the canter. When I stepped back to take a look at myself, I realized what I was doing was sitting forward, arching my back, and using both heels to try to push him forward, but really all I ended up succeeding in was chasing him into a fast trot. Then I was pulling him back, trying to collect him so we weren’t flying around the ring like idiots. I brought him to either a very slow trot, a walk, or to a halt, trying to get the transition from different gaits. No dice. I knew he could do it; I watched my trainer do it on him like a week ago, and he had smoothly and immediately picked up a nice, collected lope for her. I stopped him for a moment and thought about what exactly she had done. I remembered that she really only signaled to him with her outside leg, but I knew there was something else as well. I tried just the outside leg, which still didn’t work on its own, but it put me on the right track. When I pulled my outside leg back to prompt him into the canter, it shifted my weight. Then I pulled up the memory of my trainer doing it in my mind’s eye and watched the rest of her body movement — I thought I remembered her sitting back in the saddle and kind of urging him forward with her hips. So I tried that, and it worked! From a standstill, Dunnie picked up a canter right away. I kept trying the transition a few more times in both directions to make sure we’d got it down. The right is a little bit sticky with the lead, so I’m going to keep working on making that side supple and flexible, but I think I finally understand how I need to talk to him with my body so he understands what I want him to do.

The next step, of course, is being able to sit the canter more, shall we say, elegantly. I do feel my legs getting stronger every day, but I’m also still adjusting to the longer stirrups, so I’m not as tight or as still as I’d like to be. Now that I don’t have to spend all this time sweating it out trying to chase him into the canter, wearing us both out, I’ll be able to practice the actual gait a lot more. My goal is to be able to go all the way around the ring one direction, get the flying change on the diagonal, and go all the way around the other direction by the end of next week. I think that’s a reasonable goal, although when I write it out, it sounds so basic. I really have lost a lot of the muscle I built in California over that 6 months that I didn’t ride.

Little Victories

This week’s rides have been excellent, and I finally feel like I’m starting to settle in and make progress. Last week I didn’t get a chance to ride at all because of the days of storms and historic flooding in the Houston area. All the horses at my barn were fine, just very, very wet. The place was largely inaccessible all week and all of the rings were under water.

While unable to ride, I did attend the National Reining Breeders Classic at the Great Southwest Equestrian Center, which is only about five minutes from my apartment. I wanted to get a firsthand look at what a reining competition looked like. It was exciting to watch, as the competitors entered the arena at a full gallop and the first element in the pattern was a dramatic sliding stop followed by backing up, spinning, and then heading off in a canter. Unlike the showjumping at the Pin Oak, when I look at the reining competition I feel like it is something I could definitely do with some more training.

So this week, I’ve jumped right in to really pushing myself to learn and improve in a productive way. I’m excited to try out showing again (it has been fourteen years since I was last in a horse show, the IHSA competitions I did back in college), and hope to quickly get to a point where I know enough to go to some low-level competitions.

The thing about working with Dunnie is that he’s so willing. If I ask him to do something, he generally does it. While I’m learning new things — the techniques of reining — and he doesn’t do what I ask him for, I can usually assume that it’s because I’m not asking properly, or communicating clearly enough. When that happens, and I’m riding on my own (outside of lesson time), it’s up to me to figure out where I’m going wrong and try to fix it. Ultimately, this is a far more enriching way to learn. Instead of someone else (a trainer) giving me exercises to do and then assessing whether I’ve done them and then moving on, I’m creating the curriculum. I’m still doing a ton of reading and YouTube watching, learning new exercises for making my position better, and for making Dunnie softer and more flexible and responsive. I bring those concepts to the ride, and then I’m the one who has to assess whether they’re achieving what I want them to. I have to feel it myself instead of relying on an outsider observer.

The biggest thing I’ve taken away from this process is that little victories are very valuable. This is something I’ve also picked up watching Stacy Westfall’s training videos for Jac. Since he’s young and green and she’s teaching him how to do everything for the first time, she doesn’t expect him to be perfect. She rewards small behaviors that are steps in the direction of what she wants him to do, and he learns step-by-step. Although Dunnie is already a well-trained and well-seasoned reining horse, this is the approach I’m taking with him, building on small victories that show me he’s listening to what I’m asking and that I’m at least kind of asking in the right way.  It’s like we’re establishing a way to communicate with each other. I say, “Do this, please,” and if he doesn’t do it, I stop and think about another way to phrase the request, adjusting the position of my hands, or rearranging my seat and the distribution of my weight. Often while we’re standing still and I’m taking a moment to think about what to change, Dunnie will turn his head and look back at me, nuzzling at my feet a little. My trainer says this is great; it means that I have his attention. He thinks of me as the leader of the game, and he’s asking me, “What’s next?”

We had a really productive ride on Thursday where we did tons of exercises and had our longest, most collected canter so far. Cantering has actually been the one thing that’s a bit of a challenge for me to adjust to in the Western saddle. The stirrups are just so long and I keep losing my left one. I’m also not used to the low head carriage and the more rolling lope feeling of Dunnie’s canter — so much so that I thought he was giving me small bucks in the transition, but learned from my trainer that it’s not happening — it just feels that way. After all the little victories we achieved on Thursday, including getting a little more speed and fluidity on the rightward spin (left still needs work), perfecting the shape of our circles, and working on doing figure-eights backwards, I thought we could use a break the next day. It was hot and muggy, so I did something I haven’t done since I was a teenager — ride bareback. I thought I’d not only spare Dunnie the weight and sweatiness of his big saddle and pad, but also remove the temptation for me to push us to do a lot of work.

It was an adjustment to being on his back without the security of the Western saddle. He felt so much smaller! But after the initial shock wore off, it was quite nice. We walked almost the whole time, enjoying the breezes that came through the indoor arena, where we’ve been riding all week while waiting for the rains to stop and the outdoor ring to finally dry out. I realized that riding without the saddle can give me a new awareness of my position; without its guidance of where and how to sit, I have to really focus on my posture and the position of my legs. For fun, we did the reining pattern I had watched over the weekend at the NRBC, doing all of the elements at a walk and imagining the crowd cheering us on.  After that, we trotted a short bit just to see how that felt; his trot is so easy to sit to that I could have done it for even longer. My trainer suggested that I get a bareback pad because then I can canter and do more other fun stuff. I’m thinking about it, but I like the idea of having these bareback vacation/goof off days, and will probably incorporate them into our weekly schedule, especially as the summer heats up to near “a hunnert” here in southeast TX.

Work

Today was the first lesson where we’ve focused on working on reining techniques, specifically the half pass. But truthfully, it wasn’t really something that required much “work” at all. My trainer told me how to do it: At the walk, using the leg on the side opposite from the direction in which you want your horse to move, put the leg back and push him over. Putting the leg back makes sure that not just his shoulder moves, but both his shoulder and his hips. With Dunnie, it didn’t take any more than that. He immediately crossed his legs and moved in the direction I was pushing him, and after two or three nicely-executed steps I gave him a big pat.

The thing I am realizing about the reining moves, from what I’ve learned so far, is that there isn’t much to them. The cues don’t seem that complex, and if you have a well-trained horse, they just kind of happen. So I’m starting to see that in Western riding, it’s not going to be so much about learning new skills as it will be about refining them, and about finding the subtlest way of communicating cues to Dunnie.

So the other day while riding him, most of what I was doing was learning his buttons. We spent a good deal of time trotting around while I learned to make him bring his head down and round his frame to get into a very slow, collected trot that’s easy to sit to. Everything is just so much more comfortable and natural than English riding.

When I used to go to my English lessons, the anticipation of it was always such a big deal. I’d spend my day eating a certain way and had a detailed pre-ride workout to get my body ready to deal with the challenges of the lesson and even with all of that, I’d feel like it took me half the lesson to get warm enough and feel like my legs lost their tightness enough to be effective. Maybe part of it’s that I’m overall in much better shape now, working out more intelligently and avoiding the overtraining trap that I had fallen into in LA. But last night when I went out for a lesson, I just felt so much more relaxed. I made dinner and ate with my boyfriend, we watched a little TV before, and did some light stretching. I wore the same jeans I had worn to the store and just slipped on my cowboy boots and grabbed my helmet when I walked out the door, as opposed to the feeling of “suiting up” in my breeches and tall boots. I don’t bother with gloves anymore since I’m just riding with the reins in one hand and I’m barely using my hands anyway. And of course, not being all ratcheted up when I get to the barn pays off in my interaction with my horse. I’m not the crazed, hyped up lady coming into the barn with a bunch of spiky energy trying to make the absolute most of every second of training. To Dunnie, I’m the calm lady who brings him carrots and who slowly and leisurely tries to learn as much as she can. Everything feels at once more deliberate and yet less driven, even though this time around I am actually more focused on getting to a place where I can compete. It just seems so much more realistic to look at a reining competition and think “I can definitely do that” than to go to a Grand Prix, like I did this weekend at the Pin Oak (as a spectator) and think “I dunno, maybe someday I could jump that high? But do I want to? I’m admittedly kind of scared to but no, that’s BS, I’m not allowed to feel that way, I have to push myself to be great.”

It’s always the same old story, finding the balance of pushing myself outside my comfort zone but trying to figure how far is too far. Watching the jumpers on Saturday, I was finally able to admit to myself that this was too far. I love jumping, and I want to keep doing it. Maybe one day I’ll feel differently, but as far as I’m concerned now, 3′ is high enough. Anything higher than that is just not my style. Maybe that realization comes from having found something that is.

 

Easy Going

Before striking out more on my own—and while I wait for Dunnie’s current lease to end—I’m taking a few group lessons. This week there was some stormy weather that made my trainer move the lesson up and combine two, making it somewhat of a hectic conglomeration of different styles and levels—but this ended up being perfect for my purposes.

My half of the lesson group was about 5 of us in a large outdoor ring, and much of the lesson was devoted to strengthening exercises, which is exactly what I need to get back up to speed after 6 months out of the saddle. We warmed up walking and posting without stirrups. We trotted around doing “7-7-7,” which consists of sitting 7 beats, posting 7 beats, and 2-point for 7 beats. We played a game where we spread out on the rail and had to control our speed and stride length to avoid either passing each other or breaking. Given the trainer’s divided attention, she actually did a great job of giving me just as much attention as I needed—some tips and explanations about how my position should be in the Western saddle—and the rest of the time I was left to my own devices, feeling out my body and my horse and forming new relationships with both.

Despite the long absence from the saddle, and therefore lack of “rider fitness,” I am perhaps at the highest level of general fitness I’ve ever had as an adult, due to lots of weight and cardio training at the gym over the last few months. This is immediately apparent to me when I am riding now, as I’ve focused particularly on building upper-body muscles that contribute to postural strength, especially in my chest and back. Combine that with longer stirrups and a more comfy saddle that encourages the rider to sit back rather than perch forward, and I feel so much longer and taller on my horse than I’ve ever felt.

Dunnie is an incredibly sensitive horse. Not in the tweaky Thoroughbred way, just in the smart and very well-trained way. He knows his job, and he knows his cues, and he’s such a pleasure to ride because of it. In the lesson, I focused on learning his responses to my aides, and realizing that I actually had to tamp them down, using less and less until I found the threshold where he didn’t respond anymore. The biggest example of this was when asking for the canter. Historically, I have preferred to ride horses that required as little hand intervention as possible, and have worked hard to cultivate soft hands. But this is a whole new level. You’re supposed to ride with your reins so much longer, and I’m only holding them in one hand, which sparks some small control issues for me until I remember that I don’t even need the reins to stop—Dunnie will halt with just sitting back and saying “woah.” So the trainer did remind me a couple of times that I could put my hands even further forward, and every time I did, it produced better results in the form of a more connected and energetic stride. When asking for the canter, I was having a tough time getting him started. He was being a bit prickly after having picked up the wrong lead and when we did pick up the right one, he was charging into it. After a quick interval where the trainer jumped on to school him, I got back on and tried again. After a moment of confusion where I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t go forward, I realized it was me—my hand, which felt like it had barely any contact on his mouth at all, was too high. The second I dropped my hand, he moved right away into a rounded, smooth canter.

Everything about the Western saddle is more comfortable to me than an English saddle—except, for some reason, the left stirrup. I think this might be a peculiarity of this particular saddle, but for some reason, the left stirrup twists in such a way that my ankle is turned in and it’s very hard to keep the stirrup when cantering. It’s probably just a matter of adjustment and remembering to keep my weight even, but that’s something I’ll have to work on.

Looking forward to next week and hopefully focusing more on learning reining techniques. But I also find, after just two rides, that I’m looking forward to spending time with Dunnie again and getting to know him better.

 

New Tricks

After some months of traveling, I’m back in Texas for a few months and ready to ride again. I was unsure of where to start, after last summer’s search for the right barn and then the subsequent disappointment of not really feeling the one that seemed to be the best fit, I bemoaned my apparent lack of options. But then I changed my perspective, and took another look at what was there. One of the barns I had communicated with over the summer had seemed like it was going to be a good fit, but then didn’t work out because they don’t jump their school horses and I was very focused on picking up where I left off with jumping when I was in LA. I was trying to find a place that offered what I was looking for, but what if, instead, I looked at what this place was offering?

On their website, they advertised both Western and English lessons. Western lessons intrigued me; I couldn’t imagine what they would consist of. I’ve been in a Western saddle a handful of times in my life, but only on trail. I’d never had any instruction other than the rudimentary “this is how you stop and go” talk that they send everyone out with on trail rides. I thought, maybe this is an opportunity to learn a whole new perspective on riding. Maybe learning some new tricks will be challenging and interesting and fun.

I contacted the woman with whom I had communicated last summer and explained my situation, asking if she thought that Western lessons would be worthwhile or interesting to someone with my experience. What she wrote back was unexpected. She said she had a wonderful reining horse who was coming up for lease, and was I interested?

First, I had to look up what a reining horse was. Then I asked if I could come try him out.

Yesterday I went out to the barn and met Dunnie. When I drove up and walked past the first barn, I saw a small, well-proportioned buckskin with a friendly face looking out his stall window at me with his ears up. I wasn’t sure it was him, since the only thing I knew about him was his color, but I guessed it was.

I watched while he was tacked up, all the straps and pieces so different from English tack, trying to learn and remember so I can do it for myself.

While I got on, my trainer explained a few basics to me. I had also been watching YouTube videos during the day to get a sense of what I’d be learning. Reining seems like it is not that different from dressage, except that it is like the opposite of dressage. What I mean is, there are certain elements and movements expected, and they are to be done with maximum finesse and minimum appearance of overt control. But instead of feeling fussy and stifling, it feels natural and at ease. In my dressage lessons, I was instructed to keep a strong hold on the reins with constant contact; in this lesson I learned that hands are the last resort, and everything should be done with leg and balance. This is so much more my style.

After a few basic instructions and some guidance about how my position should be different in the Western saddle as compared to English seat, my trainer suggested that I should just ride Dunnie around and do what I needed for us to get used to each other.

Everything just…clicked. Immediately. It felt like what I’ve always thought riding should feel like; like the best it has felt in fleeting moments when I’ve been really strong and confident. It didn’t feel like I hadn’t been on a horse in 6 months, it felt like I’d been riding this horse every day for the last 6 months.

Over the next month, I will likely take lessons on him, and then take over his lease at the end of March when his current lease term is up. I want to get more comfortable at the barn to know how things work there and where everything is, and I feel that I need to get some more groundwork down before it makes sense for me to spend so much time training on my own. I’m so excited to learn these new skills, and be able to immerse myself in something that felt so natural to me right off the bat. I’m also so excited at the thought of riding several times a week, having time on my own with Dunnie to keep getting to know him and learn from him.

Big Sur

I took a trip out to California for vacation and started it off with three days in one of my favorite places on Earth: Big Sur. I’ve never been anyplace else quite like it. It’s one of a few places in this country where the natural landscape is largely untouched, a place where there is only one road that winds its way through the mountains and forests along the rocky, severe cliffs of the coast. That road offers incredible views of the Pacific Ocean as it crashes into the rocks several hundred feet below the highway, as it stretches out to eternity in striations of myriad blues, but these views are guarded jealously. The mists can seep in at anytime, bleaching the world of sunlight, obscuring the views of ocean, mountain and tree and even the winding road itself. To drive up and down Highway 1 on those 90 miles of coastline is to remember that you are small and that nature is big, and to know that no matter what we do on this planet, nature will remain untamed before us.

I don’t often travel without trying to ride wherever I’m visiting. I’ve ridden a horse through the fields on a farm in eastern Australia, through the jungle and onto the beach in Mexico for a gallop and then a bareback dip in the Caribbean,  raced at full clip up a mountain in the Dominican Republic, ambled through the woods in Lake Placid, and have taken to the trails in Big Sur once before as well. The place to ride there is in Andrew Molera State Park, an almost 5,000-acre area situated at the mouth of the Big Sur river. There are miles and miles of trails that take you inland, through meadows and hilltops within sight of the Santa Lucia mountains, and finally out onto the beach.

What a great, relaxing ride. My horse was, Roy, a 16-or-so-hand bay gelding that suited me perfectly. He was a very chill guy, yet awake and present and energetic–not a brain-dead, overworked trail nag like you can find at a lot of places that cater to tourists. All the horses at this place were remarkably well-trained, perhaps better than any other place I’ve ridden. Roy and I happily clipclopped along behind our guide, Sarah, who was a cool chick that I loved chatting with.

We rode through some forest and then waded our horses across the ankle-deep Big Sur River into a wonderland of meadows with gnarled old redwoods and coastal pines, including one old man that is over a thousand years old. We happened upon a wandering deer that nearly startled Roy, but she disappeared and we walked on, spotting a pair of quail hopping around in a bush. The park is home to the condors that have been banded and released for monitoring. We think we saw one, but it is really difficult to tell the scale of something even so large when it is flying so high, so it’s possible it was an eagle. We finally came out onto the beach and stood watching the misty coastline with our manes flying in the salty wind. The guide took this picture before we headed back to the stable.

Riding in a Western saddle always feels like a vacation to me. It’s nice to get nestled into the deep seat, stretch out my legs in longer stirrups, and only worry about my position in regard to how it will help my horse, like sitting back going downhill. When I first started Western trail riding in college, spending one lesson out of every few at the trail barn riding through 500 acres of Virginia woodlands, I use to try to steer my horse past every obstacle. I would try to move her around exposed roots, prevent her from tripping over small rocks in our path, or avoid the more rutted part of the trail. Then somewhere along the line I realized that such micromanagement was not necessary and allowed her to choose the best path for her while I just enjoyed the ride. I was able to do this with Roy, forgetting for once about being a rider and simply riding.