Who’s The Boss?


Notice love is not one of those emotions, even though it seems like it should be the most important, it’s not. Since I love Savy so much, I try to help her and make her work easier, but this only creates more problems.   I have many ways of showing her I love her: I let her lean on my inside leg, I release the outside rein, I release the reins completely or push my hands forward so that she doesn’t really have to be on the bit, I lean forward, I throw my hips forward, I don’t make her march at the walk, I let her run around the arena totally strung out, and I’m sure Nicole know of many other ways I try to make life easier on Savy.  In my mind  I’m telling her I love her, but all Savy is thinking is “Haha sucka! Now I don’t have to work as hard”.

I’ve been trying for months to stop myself from doing this, but subconsciously I still want to.  The truth is that I feel guilty when I make her work hard and do something she doesn’t want to do.  Savy is a willful, stubborn, 5 year old Arabian mare.  She’s sassy and opinionated.  Riding for her isn’t about love, it’s about work and dominance.  She wants to be the leader of our 2 member pack and each time I ease up on her and make things easier, she’s becoming more of the leader than I am.

The turning point in my mindset happened several weeks ago at an Alfredo Hernandez clinic when he addressed the same issue with one of the riders.  He said you love your horse 23 hours of the day, but for 1 hour, the horse has to work (I’m paraphrasing because he said it much more colorfully than that).  So I’ve decided to trust the advice of professionals and take my loving feelings completely out of our training.  I’m not talking about respect, kindness and fairness, those are at the foundation of successful training, but love in the sense that I stop letter her take advantage of me.  I will no longer be a passive rider.  And let me tell you, Savy is pissed!  Super, super pissed.

Savy is beyond angry that I’ve been making her stay bent to the inside without releasing the outside rein and stay in front of my leg.  She is outraged and she’s fighting with all of her might to remain the leader of our pack.  And so begins the toughest time in our training history.  Our lesson last night was tense and stressful for all of us; me, Savy, and Nicole.  Nicole had me sit with a strong core, not leaning forword and not letting Savy pull me forward and with my elbows glued to my side.  I had to stay strong in my position until Savy released her neck and jaw.  The entire time using my legs to push her forward into the contact.  At one point I think both Nicole and I weren’t sure if she was going to give.  But finally, finally she did and we were able to get beautiful, supple, round trot work.  She even stayed round in the extended trot with no fuss.

It can be easy to get discouraged when we go through these rough patches.  Sometimes I feel like I’m no better of a rider than when we first started training a year and half ago and that we’re making no progress.  But then I remember that we went through the same thing last year teaching Savy to stretch over her back.  Now Savy has an awesome stretchy walk, trot and canter.  Something that used to be incredibly difficult is now one of our strongest points.  So I know that once we push through this challenging phase, Savy will be solid in her beautiful round, engaged frame.

This is what our last 5 rides have looked like….



A Fresh Set of Eyes

LearningI’ve had the itch to get out and do a clinic lately, if for no other reason than to have a fresh set of eyes.  Nicole is fabulous and is totally capable of guiding Savy and I well beyond training level, but sometimes it helps to hear the same things in a different way.  When Alice Peterson of Blue Ribbon Farm in Long Island came to our farm with a client to look at a few sales horses, I jumped at the chance to have a little “mini clinic” right here at home.

Alice and I worked on connection and roundness, with an emphasis on the inside bend.  I don’t bend Savy enough to the inside and it’s because Savy leans on my inside legs and falls in and the circle gets smaller and smaller.  Alice totally called me out on it.  We worked on establishing a solid inside bend, rounding with the outside rein and then leg yielding on the circle.  She did fall in and our circles got pretty small, but Alice didn’t let me give up the bend to make a bigger circle.  Every time I gave up the bend she called me out.  Coincidentally this is the same exercise Nicole and I have been working on for the last few weeks, which just confirms Savy and I are on the correct path.

Alice had a fun exercise to help Savy become quicker off my leg in the canter transition.   Walk one stride, trot one stride, walk, trot, walk, canter.  Basically we were revving her up for the transition and it did work.  It also emphasized the need to have a strong inside bend since Savy wanted to have her nose up in the air during the transition.  She also made a point that Savy and I can and should start each ride on the bit.  I have a tendency to take it easy in the beginning of ride, but we’re at the point where I need to get right down to business.  Alice said some horses benefit from walking around on the buckle but mine does need it since she’s not tense or nervous.

schoolingThe trot work was decent but the canter was crap.  Sundays are usually Savy’s day off and I could tell she was tired.  She was slow and behind the leg, but not pissy so it wasn’t an attitude thing.  I definitely have some new tools to help with our connection though and I really enjoyed riding with Alice!

Empathic Listening

John Wayne QuoteOne more post inspired by Jillian Michael’s book Unlimited. Clearly I really like this book.  I’m not reading it super fast because I’ll read a chapter and then take a couple of week to reflect on it.  Right now I’m reading the chapter about communication.  Everyone who rides horses knows how important communication is, as communication is the foundation of all training.  Jillian talks about empathic listening. Basically when someone is talking, try to think about how they feel, and why they’re doing what they do. According to Jillian empathic listening is “the kind of listening that puts you in the other person’s head and in their frame of reference, so you truly get what they’re feeling and understand what they’re saying”.  Obviously this becomes even more difficult when you’re trying to communicate with an animal that doesn’t speak the same language, and has an entirely different world view that that of a person.

ListeningThis idea about empathic listening reminded me of an essay I read in college called Understanding Other People’s Stories by Roger C. Schank. The take away from the essay is that when people listen to someone tell a story, they only think about how it relates to a different experience about themselves.  And so when you stop talking, they will respond by telling you their story.  For example, I tell someone that I went to several different schools growing up and I had a hard time making friends because of it, and they might respond by telling me a story about how they’ve had the same best friend since preschool.  My story reminded them of their memory, and instead of discussing my story further, they shared their story instead.   Now that I’ve pointed this out listen for it in your conversations and it will drive you crazy.  Ha!

Of course I relate everything I learn to horses, and how it affects my relationship with Savy.  I try, no strain, everyday to hear Savy and to listen to what she’s telling me.  I’ll be honest, most of the time I either miss the message completely or what happens most often, I can tell she’s trying to tell me something but I don’t know what it is.  This is where having an awesome trainer comes into play.  She can help me translate Savy’s feedback and help problem solve.  Because training is really just problem solving right?  Savy used to switch leads behind in the left lead canter.  Nicole realized she wasn’t doing it to be bad, and that it was a strength issue, so she had us practice haunches in to the left.  This exercise engaged the outside hide, and therefore built the strength she needed to properly canter to the left.  I like to look at Dressage as a big puzzle, and the only way you can figure out the answer is to listen to the horse, and find a way to solve a problem that benefits the horse.

A side note about changing leads in the canter…once Savy realized she couldn’t trot to get out of the left lead canter she started doing changes by herself.  She also knows which lead is correct based on the direction we’re going. So I have a sneaking suspension she figured out changes on her own.  Sometimes I get the feeling that if I went down the diagonal and gave the aids for the trot to canter transition she would switch.  But I’m getting ahead of myself because we have to master countercanter first 🙂