Friday, October 12, 2018

Flounder investigates Scary Thing

Flounder notices something scary in the distance

Flounder bravely trots to investigate

Flounder realizes he's in over his head

Flounder gets the fuck outta there

Flounder investigates from farther away

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

A Flounder

I'm developing a reputation for half-told stories and a lack of follow through on this blog. My drafts folder will attest to this... Perhaps tales of a more modern horse will invite me to post more regularly. Goodness knows my friends heckle me enough about it.

So let's jump in. March 2017 I found myself needing a new lesson horse. Chente was... not sound, and hadn't been ridden since Christmas. I didn't have a huge budget, but I did have two clients horse shopping so I was already in the habit of closely trawling the many sites looking for suitable horses.

Something about this collage enticed me... or was it the age? The price? We'll never remember now
A horse named SharkBait popped up and he was a little young but sounded fairly level-headed and so my assistant and I hopped in the car and went to ride the fellow.


Mostly I remember that he had a gravitational pull towards the mounting block, that I immediately liked his canter, and that when my assistant got off him she handed me the reins and said, "if you don't buy him, I will."


After analyzing the video, taking a bunch of unnecessary screenshots, and talking with my friends, I made an offer and he was delivered a few days later. Before he was delivered, my sister and I had quite the conversation about him.

"You can't have him be named SharkBait," she told me.

"It's bad luck to rename a horse," I replied.

"It'd be like telling a kid to go get WILD LIGHTNING or a horse named VISIT THE HOSPITAL."

She sort of had a point. Luckily for me, she also had a solution, and so he was affectionately dubbed Flounder.

I hated it and planned on decided on a different/better name for him immediately, but that didn't exactly materialize and I think we're stuck with the name.

Upon unloading, he pretty swiftly settled in and announced that no one had ever steered him before in the history of steering.


We knew he had no experience with jumping of any sort, but it also turned out he had no experience looking at the ground at all.


We also spent some time with him and discovered that he is the biggest lovebug and wants nothing more than to get in my car, find out what the heck it is I do when I'm not feeding or petting him, and sleep with me.


Generally located his feet and going where he was supposed to go continued (continues?) to be a problem, but I made the executive decision that exactly two weeks after we unloaded him at home he was going to a horse show with us to compete in the cross-rails division. As much schooling as a pack of teenagers can accomplish in a week led us to this stunning example:


At the show, he was a little nervous so I led him over all the cross-rails the first time, but by his second round, he was boldly jetting around in the way only a Flounder can.


But have no fear, persistence pays off! Flounder has gone on SO MANY adventures since that very first show.


From camping with my sister and her friend, to being the best bareback camp horse in the world, to being a freakishly aggressive friend with other horses,


being braided for the first time and looking HECKING CUTE,


to potentially starting to grow up a little, my baby Flounder has been in the background for over a year now.



Even going through the photos to make this post, he appears mostly trotting through the background in other horses videos.

Not that he has minded, no, this horse has thrived on MildNeglectover the time I've had him. He won an optimum time class last weekend and has placed in quite a few hunter classes over the summer. 

And pretty much, well, that's pretty much a Flounder for you. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

In a frame, round, on the bit

After a handful of trainers told me, more or less, that Moxie wasn't really "on the bit", it required a lot of thinking about what "on the bit" really is, and let me to ask such questions as: how do we take a horse from just-broke to dressage horse? How do we teach them to go "on the bit"? What does that phrase even mean?

I think that many people have different definitions of on the bit, and I also know that your understanding of on the bit can change pretty dramatically as your feel and education increase. I'd like to share some of my granulations of the concept to share what I've learned in the last year.



Your mileage may vary, of course.

In a frame is when the horse's nose starts to drop, closing the angle behind the poll. Sometimes this is a 'steady frame' (ie the height of the poll isn't changing, nor is the angle behind the poll) and sometimes it isn't.

Round is when a horse is taking steps under their body with their hind legs, and lifting their back.

On the bit is when you close your leg and the horse goes to the bridle, or when you reach forward with the bit and they follow it where you put it. In my mind, on the bit is both in a frame, and round, and a little bit more.

I see a lot of management of 'frames' in horses, especially in green horses who haven't quite figured out how to balance their steps without flinging their head about, but sometimes even in school horses with riders who sort of forget to keep a lid on the connection.


I think that frame-management starts to disappear as the horse becomes rounder, using their body in a healthier manner and controlling their balance, but you can still sometimes see riders with quite round horses go to push their hands toward the bit and ask for a stretch, and it all goes out the window with the horse shoving their nose up and against the hand.

A horse that is truly on the bit has activated all of the seeking reflexes and is bringing the back up into the rider's seat, is reaching from the neck into the bridle, even within collection.

Cool, right? Sounds awesome. I want my horse seeking the bit, softly swinging over his back, eager to reach downwards and forwards when I close my leg and gently push my knuckles forward. I'll discuss what helped me and Moxie with this concept the most in the next post, but I am curious - what are your thoughts on the distinctions I've laid out above? Do you use the terms differently, and if so, how do you define them?


Wednesday, May 30, 2018

One week in, three trainers later

A few rides later, and I was still struggling somewhat to get a handle on Moxie, but definitely starting to feel better.


Megan came out to help me first. She watched me ride her around, she might even have gotten on her, I can't quite remember now. There were some big things that we worked on, and it turns out I pretty much just needed to take that lesson about sixty times.


  • Moxie liked to go around in a pleasant frame, but it wasn't really connected or through. Once you asked her to connect in a lower place, she got pretty uncomfortable and would try to evade the contact in all sorts of ways. We worked a lot on riding her a little lower, a little more connected. I immediately proceeded to pervert this advice into real messy riding, but that's okay.
  • Moxie doesn't oscillate very well at the canter, so Megan wanted me to really exaggerate the correct movement of her head and neck. She told me to imagine swinging my elbows through my torso, that the torso could stay still and the elbows could swing through me. 
  • Moxie was also a little "zippy", and Megan wanted me to be sure I wasn't allowing her to blast around as a replacement for forward. She had to move off the leg respectfully, not zoom off into another planet. 
This is an excellent example of how I perverted Megan's advice. The reins are longer, so Moxie is lower in the connection.... right?


There's a trainer in the east bay that I've helped off and on for a year or so - it started because I'd often told her I'll sit on anything, so she had me ride some particularly challenging thoroughbreds and give me lessons in exchange. It works out really well for both of us. She's a silver medalist and pony clubber who has evented through preliminary, and she comes at a lot of the work with a really unique foundation of groundwork, so I learn a ton from her. I texted her pretty much straight away and asked if I could bring Moxie to her for a lesson.


The arena at A's barn is a little bit spooky to my senses, and bringing Moxie there showed me one of the best things about this mare: she pretty much unloads anywhere and asks, "what are we up to today?" In all the places I rode her, there was only one arena she struggled to settle in.

Moxie, clearly disturbed by the arena.

The biggest takeaways from this lesson were:

  • Moxie has a very tight canter without much flexion in her joints, so A prescribed lots of leg yielding in the canter to start to loosen her up. 
  • I really wanted to pull her onto the bit, so A had me do a half-bridge with the reins so that I couldn't pull my inside hand back, I could only open the rein. 
  • The saddle that Moxie came with was a no-go for me. We tried making it a bit better for my seat by raising the front, which improved my ability to get my leg on her, but I never really got comfortable. 
A blurry and embarrassing screenshot of me attempting to counter flex the mare in the canter


Cantering after we'd raised the front of the saddle. Still not exactly on the bit here...
Not one to give up at TWO trainers in one week, I scheduled a lesson three days later with a new-to-me trainer that a vet friend had recommended. "She's life-changing," my friend told me, "she'll just change one little thing and you'll wonder how you ever made it through before." 

This trainer has a pretty good track record of producing students, and she has an energy that is astonishing. She is wildly positive and encouraging, saying such things to me as, "I'll make you sit like a queen," and "oh, that's easy. You just look over there and voila! That's a leg yield." 

She makes dressage feel infinitely conquerable. I did end up riding with her again on my journey with Moxie, but this was the only lesson I had for a long time with her due to scheduling challenges. 

She told me, flat out, that Moxie was not on the bit at all. That I needed to get through to her, put her in a lower place. She had me do some mild counter flexion in the canter, coupled with leg yielding the canter to get her more flexible. She told me to move my arms in the canter as if I were the one moving her head up and down. 

After this whirlwind of lessons, I had some pretty good exercises in my toolkit, along with a better view of what I needed to be doing to help improve Moxie. I'd determined that of the three saddles I'd shown trainers, none of them worked all that well, but I did find one that was the best for the time being. 

In full disclosure, the photos shared at the top of the post were actually pulled from a video taken a week and a half AFTER all these lessons. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Back to the beginning

When this post gets published, I will probably be packing Moxie's things up, putting her in the trailer, and taking her back to meet her owner. It has been the craziest of years with this wonderful horse, and I've learned so much with her.

I've struggled to write much about her over this year, not for lack of things to say, but because I didn't want her owner to feel like I was maligning her in any way. The mare is quirky as hell, and I took a few dozen lessons on the basics, but the reality is that none of what was accomplished could have happened without everything Moxie knew how to do before she came to me.

It's a cool story though, with lots of scraps of notes taken from various trainers, plenty of adventures, a bunch of shows, and levels climbed! Now that she's going home again, I feel a bit more comfortable sharing the struggles and growth we went through. All that said, let me set the stage for the beginning of our relationship.


When her owner pulled in, it was pouring rain. We'd had one of the wettest winters in recent history, so while it wasn't surprising that it was raining, it did make the tour of my mountainous farm a bit more challenging.

My mom had come from Michigan to spend mother's day with me, her first solo trip to visit me in the four years I'd lived out in California. She's never been much for horses, but she later told me that when we led Moxie past my car, she could see how special a horse she was.

Mom and I had lots of adventuring to do, so I didn't get the opportunity to ride Moxie those first few days but the excitement kept rising and rising until my baby sister begged for a photo of Mom riding a horse, so I took my chances. I talked my mom into coming to the barn for a little while and riding, so of course, I put her on Moxie.

Both my mom and the mare were a little confused about one another

She told me I should get on and show off a little after she'd ridden, and since that had been my plot all along, I swung my leg over and within two 20-meter circles realized I had no idea how to ride this horse.

She lurched through her transitions and left me behind every time, even though I thought I was bearing down enough to stay with her. I couldn't quite ride her onto the bit, and instead felt like I was just pulling at her face. The canter swerved to and fro as if I had far too finely tuned steering and absolutely no way to manage it. I got off pretty quickly and took her back to the barn, feeling pretty demoralized. What had I gotten myself into with this horse I couldn't even steer? How was I supposed to accomplish anything with her?

I pretty quickly scheduled several lessons, the results of which I worked on for over a year...

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Not allowed to change

On the first day of the Mary Wanless Workshop, there were three groups of three riders - I rode in the first group and had no idea what to expect.

Leading up to this workshop, I had a fair amount of anxiety. I learned that I was going to be a demonstration rider on Tuesday -- the clinic started on Friday! And reading through the list of attendees, there were some pretty powerful riders coming here to learn.

I may or may not have sent Megan a text about irreversibly ruining Moxie's mane when I pulled it (spoiler alert, it was fine), stayed up way too late staring at the ceiling and imagining worst-case scenarios, and other fun, anxious games throughout the week.


Friday morning, after a few hours of theory, my Fitbit alarm buzzed and I was off - time to get my horse tacked up. My legs trembled as I slipped my feet into my boots, I leaned into Moxie's shoulder and took several long moments to breathe, and hiked her up to the main arena where the crowd was restructuring for the riding portion. Moxie promptly spooked at someone moving a dressage letter, so I decided to walk around the edge of the arena for a few minutes until her nerves settled down.

After mounting up and walking a few laps, Mary shared the rule of the first day: we the riders were not allowed to make ANY CHANGES until we were given permission.

We introduced ourselves, I explained that I'm an event trainer aimed at second level and beyond. Mary asked me what I would change if she could wave a magic wand and fix one of my problems. I thought for a moment and told her that I would be able to sit the trot without chasing Moxie's back out from under me and that my frontline would be less overpowered by my back in the canter.

Out and walking around, Mary asked a super important question that I often forget to consciously ask myself, "Is everyone safe?" It's very British Horse Society and I know I consider it, but reminding myself to keep that at the forefront of my mind in the beginning of a new lesson with a new client is a good thing.

Next, she mused about where we would land if the horse were to disappear out from underneath us: on our feet, on our butts, or on our faces? I would land on my butt.

Quite a few things were lobbed at me in the walk: I have a good shoulder-hip line, but lose it to my feet. There appears to be a bit of a layer of shifting sand in my waist, my shoulders are very involved in the walk. I tend to round my shoulders. The front of my body is a bit soggy. The "cereal box" of my torso is bloopy. My right foot leads, especially when changing directions.


It is very difficult not to change when people start commenting on things that aren't quite right about your riding. Some things I know how to fix easily and really need to be more stern with myself about correcting on the daily. Some of these things were new ideas, new words, new challenges.

I hear Mary say, "and now we're about to ask the cruelest question, and keep in mind you're not allowed to change yet, riders..."


It really is amazing how when you focus on things in your body they seem to want to change, and my right foot seemed to have lost all stability to speak of as I focused on keeping it still, in the wrong spot.

"If the skin of the rider were a bag, what material would be bag be filled with?"

The answers ranged in hilarity from 'somewhat gelatinous' to Mary's 'blancmange' to 'mochi'.

And then we moved on to trot. Mostly, the impression I gave at the trot was significantly better, with someone being quoted as saying, "she starts to get her shit together in the trot."


Next, we cantered, and some feedback included having my feet too far forward and my shoulder moved backward in the downbeat of the canter.

I felt a lot better about being in motion, but the sheer amount of "things" that had been lobbed at me felt pretty overwhelming. How are you supposed to fix all this? I wondered, followed by a concern about if it was even possible.


When we moved into sitting the trot, which I feel pretty competent on any horse but Moxie, I learned that there's too much wiggling, that I progressively bounce backward, and that I sit a bit left. It appears I minimize the trot in order to sit it, and that there's a wish for me to be more robust.

Phew - and then we were walking again. Except Mary was telling a story about a horse that she brought home, a big PRE stallion -- when she got him back to the stable she learned he was a bit of an amoeba, legs and balance everywhere. She related me to that horse in the walk, stating that I really needed to firm up a bit in the walk. She coached me on a few things, namely not allowing my spine to willow, then asked me:
"What would it take for you to never go back to the other way of walking?" 
I didn't really know what to say. It isn't the first time I've been told to firm up my walk - there's a LOOONG post sitting in my drafts with the title "Don't be a trail rider" wherein Tracey coaches me extensively about my sogginess in the walk and I still don't really understand how to fix it. I shared that when Mary asked, that I'd heard this before, and someone in the crowd said, "I trail ride, and I don't walk like THAT!" It was meant to be funny, but it definitely stung.

The feeling of being posed that question was a little shameful; there's this ugly thing in my riding that I've shrugged and ignored all this time to the detriment of my horse and my riding... It was an unpleasant feeling, and I choked back a lot of emotion while I considered it. 'Maybe I'm just not good at walking,' I told myself as I focused on pressing my guts against my muscles and keeping my alien right leg in line.

Hell, at least I'm a happy if soggy trail rider

At the end, we lined up in front of the audience and Mary reminded us that we are more than a collection of patterns and bad habits and that a rosebud is worth no less than a rose. Later in the weekend, we spent a lot of time talking about mindsets that affect success. One type of mindset says, "talent: you've either got it or you don't." And another mindset says, "the harder I work, the better I get."

Mary emphatically coaches in a way that proves "the harder I work, the better I get." I left the arena trying to remember that, but still feeling pretty dismal. Bear with me though, as my mood begins to change about all these challenges soon!

Monday, January 29, 2018

Cause and Effect

Megan and I attended a Mary Wanless Workshop this weekend, and I was invited to be a demo rider with Moxie. It was an UNBELIEVABLE weekend and I'm not sure I'll ever be the same.


I met trainers who have balanced horses and real life in a way that was super commendable, I got to interview a few FEI trainers on their progression to Grand Prix (all the while embracing that they're still working on things too! You'll never just arrive!), make some friends, and let's not forget the mind-blowing experience of getting three days of lessons with one of my all-time biggest heroes, Mary Wanless.

Did you know that she has a degree in physics?!

Megan wrote about the structure of the clinic, which I think is an important background before you think about any of these concepts. 

Today we're talking about something very important that underlies the RWYM philosophy.

You've got a goal: to develop your horse as close to 10's in your dressage tests as this horse is capable of.


The question is getting the horse from his current state over to that ideal-horse state.


We refer to this arrow as the 2nd toolkit, or what to do, also known as declarative knowledge.


Then we introduce the rider and the first toolkit, which centers around teaching the rider HOW to ride, how to fix their imbalances, how to get tone in the right places in their body. This is called procedural knowledge. 
Declarative knowledge involves knowing THAT something is the case - that J is the tenth letter of the alphabet, that Paris is the capital of France. Declarative knowledge is conscious; it can often be verbalized.  Metalinguistic knowledge, or knowledge about a linguistic form, is declarative knowledge. 
Procedural knowledge involves knowing HOW to do something - ride a bike, for example. We may not be able to explain how we do it.  Procedural knowledge involves implicit learning, which a learner may not be aware of, and may involve being able to use a particular form to understand or produce language without necessarily being able to explain it. - Source


Eventually, we come to the conclusion that we can view as the rider as the cause and the horse as effect - for a small proof of concept, consider how much better your horse goes underneath a really talented rider. That rider's control over his own body and fascial net cause a very different effect on the horse than your control and your fascial net. 


I've filled in some examples of words that might fall into the 1st and 2nd toolkits, and if they don't all make sense to you, that's alright: they probably shouldn't. A big part of the 1st toolkit is creating feelages within the rider's body and then attaching specific words to those feelings, to allow for a clear coach-rider interaction. 


Then we add in one more piece called the zero toolkit. This toolkit is dominated by a thorough understanding of operant conditioning. Does the horse know how to learn, and does the rider know how to train? Many pieces of groundwork fall into the zero toolkit, and I think that the basics of clicker training add to this toolkit and make it a really powerful baseline. 

If we have a horse that throws his shoulders left and jack-knifes while tracking right, we can move through the toolkits to explore solving the problem. Zero toolkit: does the horse understand the rein aids? Are we absolutely sure he knows what pressure on the reins means? First toolkit: is the rider shifting her weight in a way that encourages the horse to collapse to the inside? Is the rider transmitting force correctly? Is the rider taking the horse, or is the horse taking the rider? Second toolkit: practice riding square turns, spiraling circles, and leg yielding into the left rein in order to get the horse more appropriately connected to the rein. 

Mary had a great way of describing this. Sometimes there are trainers who are just really blessed in one toolkit or another, and they don't think much about the existence of the other toolkits. So it's as if these three trainers are in a pitch black room, touching one part of an elephant. The zero toolkit is touching the elephant's ear and trying to explain it, while the first toolkit examines his trunk, and the second toolkit has his leg. Without an ability to see the elephant in its entirety, each trainer might think the other is stark raving mad.

When we put it all together, we have a much more convincing roadmap forward toward our ideal horse than if we only focus on the exercises we need to be able to accomplish to make it through a test, or if we focus on position to the exclusion of all else, or if we feel we have to perfect our groundwork before ever riding.

Coming in future posts, explore what it was like to take a lesson from 30 trainers at once, learn more about fascial nets and what to do about soggy lines, the emotional impact of abandoning what's comfortable, and even more.