A Courtney Angel on my Shoulder

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As a rider, it’s incredibly important to have a trainer and mentor who you truly respect. In speeches directed to young riders, Courtney often stresses the point that when choosing a trainer, you must prioritize that the potential trainer is a good person and not just a good rider. Pick a person who you would like to become more like as a professional and human being and not just by their show scores. Because… well, it’s going to happen. And I couldn’t agree more. Don’t settle! Courtney is the epitome of a good mentor, and I don’t know how to express how thankful I am to learn from her. She’s someone who inspires me to try-try-try by her example as a professional, a friend, her amazing training ability, her ambition, and where her caring heart is every day.

Gumption is one of my favorite words that Courtney has been using lately. When you look it up in the dictionary it’s described with the words: boldness, initiative, courage, guts, spunk… There’s excitement in the feeling of a ride that’s going for something! It makes me think, to have courage I have to challenge myself with something bigger than the typical feelings and exercises I’ve come to know so well; I have to take some risks, be creative, and give myself the opportunity to be courageous. What would Courtney’s goal for the ride be?

When her voice isn’t booming over the microphone and I’m riding on my own, I realize that I find myself asking, What would this horse feel like to Courtney if she was sitting on him right now? I bet it would feel like butter. It would feel like power. It would have purpose! Now what is it that I need to do in order to create that feeling? Often just that decision to ride with purpose and precision is enough to dramatically change the feel of the horse’s body. It’s also very helpful to ride imagining the picture of Courtney’s position and the lovely way that her horses go.

Something I’m still trying to fully get into my own head is that riding with gumption does not mean charging around the arena. Having big fancy movement requires a lot of energy and activity, but it doesn’t mean speed racing. Sometimes I find myself flying around the ring as I aim to accomplish something fantastic, but the horse isn’t really with me. It’s not collection of power if the power is hurling itself out the front door!

“Don’t be crazy!”

That’s something that Courtney likes to half shout, half laugh at me. Well, maybe it’s mostly shout the second or third time she has to say it… Trying hard doesn’t just mean amping up the power and going 99 mph – even though it’s how fast that I like to go! (You were supposed to sing those last words to yourself… Fitz and the Tantrums yo!) Anyway, I may feel like I’m trying hard and going somewhere, but true collection and power takes even more effort. It means I have to settle my mind, trust my horse to keep the power without my chasing, as well as challenge my core to stay strong to support the horse’s collection underneath of me. That’s the real effort!

In a recent lesson on Shanghai Courtney had me think to “Ride him like an accordion.” As we started by cantering around on a large circle with his neck down in a somewhat stretchy frame Courtney would say, “Don’t let his hind legs get any further from his nose.” Meaning, as I shortened and lengthened his strides, I should only let the strides get longer. He should not become sprawled out with his hind end pushing further behind him and his nose should not go any further in front. The back should stretch and round like the smooth arch of an accordion

How do we do that? How do I make his butt go down more and his hind legs stretch under his body – especially when his neck is down? It’s not as if I am sitting behind his tail and can literally push is butt forward. The connection with the seat and leg is all we have! I can only sit myself down in the saddle and decide that the horse’s hind end will do the same. I can feel my core engaging – it’s a firm but supple feeling of support to the horse. My body says, hind legs stay here! while the rest of me says whether to shorten or lengthen the strides.

There’s a distinct difference between sitting on the horse’s saddle, passively following along as a passenger and the feeling of sitting in the horse’s back. Sitting in the horse feels like one powerful connection between your core, the horse’s hind end, your leg, and their front end. Just be careful not to get crazy and lean too far back, down, and hard – I HAVE managed to give myself a bruise to the tailbone in my efforts during one lesson. Oops… Ha. But it’s so worth frequently checking in on your passenger status. One of Courtney’s most used reminders is simply, “Butt down!” It’s easy to lose sight of having that connection even if you know the difference in the feeling!

An exercise that has been very helpful to me applies both in trot and canter, but I want to explain it in the canter. Courtney has me ride a shortened canter all the way through a corner – almost a “pirouette canter” which would be cantering on the spot, and then I push the canter bigger as I half pass across the arena. Channeling the power before the sideways movement exaggerates a half halt. It puts the horse way back on his hind end underneath of me and allows me to support his collection as I push for the beautiful jump in the half pass rather than having it be fast and flat. (aka crazy!) It allows me to direct the collection that I already have rather than struggle to create it after I’ve started the movement. Woohoo!

Since Courtney has had her sweet second baby, Bailey (Congratulations beautiful mommy!!!) there were a couple of weeks of alone time for me and our horseys in the 20×60. It makes me so aware of how extra million bazillion thankful I am to have such a precise, consistent, correct coach in my head that I can hear her voice loud and clear even when she’s 20 miles of country roads away. You’re a gem, Court!

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Till We Have Faces

 

shanghai snow

Her jaw dropped when I answered her question that I’ve been working for Courtney just over five years now. I know, it’s starting to sound like a big number – at least in comparison to the years I’ve been trotting around this world. I mean, that’s like being well into grad school. All she said was, “Wow, I’m really surprised. It’s just that you’re both still so excited!”

I had to smile. I love that our excitedness abounds and surprises! It makes sense expecting things to dry up, but maybe we’re just like wine baby, getting better with time. Ooph. Yea, it hurts to leave that cliché written. Ha. It’s true that we’ve spent a whole lot of time together. We’ve been around long enough to learn a lot of weird little details about each other. But to me that’s when things start to get really good. I don’t like just scratching the surface. I like to stay. I want to know all about you so that I can love you more fully. I want to stick around long enough that my walls start to let down and I’m fully me. Deeper is richer. I’m guessing it’s fairly rare to have such a gem of a person as a trainer and mentor… I feel really lucky to have someone who really cares, who’s really invested both professionally and personally. That in and of itself should be enough to stay excited!

Courtney is great at keeping the communication lines open as a trainer, as a friend, and as a public figure. I think that’s one of her super powers. Me on the other hand… I’m hungry for openness, honesty is royalty in the land of my priorities, but I’m more afraid to be seen. Keeping a lot of thoughts to myself hinders a lot of things including learning… both in and out of the saddle. I’m discovering that I simply need to say exactly what I’m thinking out loud in order to open the door for growth. Complete authenticity brings clarity to thoughts that are muddled when kept inside. It reminds me of a quote that I love from one of my favorite books Till We Have Faces.

 “‘Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.’ … I saw well why the gods do not speak openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”

I climb the unnecessarily tall mounting block and swing my leg over to settle into Shanghai’s saddle. The coffee hasn’t quite kicked in. My back is a little stiff and sore from the combination of the cold and my last string of lessons, but my first thought is, This seat feels like home. Shanghai, you feel like home. I start to think about our last conversation about his training in a lesson with Courtney.

For far too long Shanghai has had an unreliable right lead canter transition. I can’t guarantee that he’s going to stay round in either the transition from walk or from trot. It’s not even subtle enough that I would be able to hold him together in a test if I needed to. He either decides to be good or he decides to fight it. Basically, he’s the boss.

It’s not for lack of trying to fix it. Trust me, it’s an embarrassing little hole that I’ve spent a lot of time trying to fill in, but all I’ve done is make the ratio of good transitions to bad transitions a bit more in my favor. I kept coming up with new theories of where he needs to be more supple, where he needs to be straighter, how I need to set him up so that it’s completely natural and easy for him to make the right choice to stay round. With all that babble I made more good transitions, but I still couldn’t count on it. I couldn’t count on conditions being perfect enough every time.

I was determined to solve the problem by the time Courtney got back from New Zealand. But alas, in our first lesson back I hung my head saying I still haven’t fixed that transition and it’s driving me crazy! Why is this still an issue? We’re bigger than this. He’ll be showing Second Level this year. We’re grown up enough not to have this problem!

I finally poured out all of my thinking… I explained my suppleness and straightness theories that have helped adjust the ratio… but that it just isn’t reliable. She told me that I just need to tell him NO. He has to understand that it is a mistake. I’ll have to be a little tough telling him to stay round and that he’s simply not allowed to come above the bit. I understand the concept, but for some reason this little turkey with the hold on my heart has me convinced that I’m not allowed to push the issue in that way.

I’m realizing I might be loving him to a fault. I think sometimes the big red hearts in my eyes (I know you know the emoji!) keep me from seeing straight when I’m on him. I question whether I would have the same thought process on any other horse? It’s perfectly natural to make him sensitive to my leg to go forward or sideways, but when I tell him to respect the bit in that transition he gets really offended and sort of says, You yelled at my mouth, so I don’t like you and I’m not going to try anymore – not this time OR the next time! Courtney listens to my reason for hesitation but looked at me a little funny as if that’s really not something she can picture being a reality with this horse.

She said for us to just try the N-O word, and that we’ll see what happens. He has a more subtle evasion in the transitions within the canter going to the right, so we start there. When I push him forward, he braces a little instead of suppley pushing into the bit. So when I told him to go forward I was proactive with my hands instead of passive saying, you WILL be round enough and you will go INTO the bit NOT above it as we transition from normal to bigger canter. It’s the same rule he needs to know in the transitions between the gaits. Courtney and I regrouped after the canter work… “So that worked, right?” she asks.

Now is when I have to lay out all of my concerns. Just spit out whatever is clouding my instincts. It’s the only way I can clear up my brain to believe in the solution when I’m working on my own. I explained, “Yes, that worked well, but sometimes when I’ve tried making that correction on my own he will get mad and start to back up as an evasion. Flashes of screwing up his future take over and I back off and change my approach. I’m afraid of making this horse ever think backwards.” Even just saying things out loud make them clearer. Courtney pointed out that by avoiding the problem, giving in when he goes backwards is exactly what teaches him to use that as an evasion. Whereas if I just calmly hold my ground and insist that he needs to be round even if he’s backing up, he realizes that backing up doesn’t change anything. Obviously his rider doesn’t care about where he’s going, he just needs to be round in the process, so he scratches that evasion off the list. Duh. Big red hearts getting in the way much??

Since I’ve changed from too often saying, “It’s ok Honey Pie Sugar Cookie, I know you didn’t understand that, let’s try again and do better this time!” to saying, “Hey, that was a mistake. This is where you went wrong. Do it right this time.” He has complied with the rule and has stopped making the mistake. Simple.

I don’t need a life full of cheerleaders and neither does my horse. This is where it’s so valuable to trust someone to listen to my babble. Listen to exactly the thoughts that are swirling around in my brain, and then go ahead and slap my cheek if it needs it. Be direct. Be literal. Instruct. Show me where I’m wrong. Help me see my ridiculousness so that I can see past it and fix it. Encouragement is important, knowing when you’ve done it right is essential, but a storm of pom-poms doesn’t get us anywhere.

No more hiding. No sugar coating. No editing to sound like someone else. Just my thoughts or lack thereof. What do I have to lose? I can’t build on what I know unless I lay out the bricks that I already own… there for me to see and there on the ground for others to see and help me stack. No guessing games. No invisible bricks. We have never had to be alone in building our houses.

My Fly is Down

fall colors

For a while I’ve been rolling around in the deep. I’ve been dwelling on how there’s a huge lesson in the importance of humility to be a good student. One of those lessons that can’t just be learned once. I’ve been trying to figure out how to weave in how much pride gets in the way. I even came up with a list of C.S. Lewis quotes on the subject. Instead of getting too heavy on you guys this time, I just want to say, never be too “grown-up” to lay down your defenses and simply say, “Yes, ma’am” to the little things.

How can we learn if we don’t humble ourselves before we come into the arena? It’s the little things that can be embarrassing to be called out on. Nobody wants to hear that their fly is down or there’s a twig or something stuck in their teeth when they can’t even remember how long it’s been since their last meal. Ha. Just as it can be hard to be taught a basic lesson that your brain may have downloaded a month of Sundays ago.

We still need to fix it.

Listen up and zip your pants so you can move on to being a professional. I’m well versed at these lessons as I’m a fairly awkward human being. That’s probably an understatement. I’m the girl with coffee and/or breakfast stains on my shirt every single day because I’m too amused by my klutzy self to pay more attention. Maybe I’m fooling myself thinking that I could fix it if I wanted to… but that’s beside the point.

Coffee stains are one thing, basics in training are another. Basics are the foundation from which all impressive things are formed. Without them, there will always be a hole in the training. In my last lesson on Shanghai I finished warming up and then explained to Courtney how I’ve been focusing on getting him off my right leg and catching him with my left outside leg. As I demonstrated using my arm to show the job of my inside leg, she stopped me and even corrected my demonstration. “I know it seems like no big deal”, she said. But as I used my arm as my inside leg, it made my body incorrectly shift to the outside – just standing there at the halt. It doesn’t seem like a big deal; I was only talking, right? It wasn’t even the actual body part that I use when riding forward. But, “It’s even the way you think that needs to change.” she explained. Even when I demonstrate using my inside leg, my body should naturally think down on the inside… almost like it’s scooping with my inside aids instead of pressing what looked like flat and straight on their side. That way I’m sure to keep good balance. As I rode around thinking, It’s even the way you think… it was exactly the cure to fixing our balance. Wow. When I use my inside leg now, I imagine that rooted downward feeling that Courtney demonstrated from the ground. That’s where it starts.

Thanks to Clair and Lendon, I was lucky enough to collect a handful more of those little things riding with Lilo Fore at Bel Air last weekend. 🙂 “You need to be like this!” Lilo bellowed as she firmly planted her level fists on the countertop. “The horse needs something consistent to go to. Level hands make a level bit.” She stressed.

For a long moment I feel a little lost in my body. My normal programming as Koryn the trainer has been set aside and I feel like I should be on a lunge line so that I can just focus on how to think about what I want to feel, how to hold my hands, how to use my body. The next step feels like it might be learning to post the trot! That awkward paradigm shift passed before too long and I found the nice straight, steady channel from leg through seat to bit that Lilo was looking for. Everything feels simple and I can make small effective corrections without weebling and wobbling through so many bigger corrections to get there. Less is more!

“You never see the top riders unorganized – no matter the horse.”

That statement rings over and over in my mind. Keeping my right hand up was a large pat of balancing myself out. Lilo pointed out that it likes to live lower than my left. Since then, I’ve spent a good chunk of my mental capacity focusing on keeping my right hand up. I look in the mirror expecting to see that it’s TOO high. If I’ve learned anything from Courtney and Lendon, it’s that in order to fix something, it’s better to make the opposite mistake than to slowly move in the right direction. I want to hear, “That’s too high. I love it!” But what my reflection shows is simply level hands. Crap, I need to fix that!

As I cantered around on Fargo, just starting to collect him after a stretchy warm-up Lilo says to me, “You’re pushing too much with your seat.” I’m surprised, because that’s a new one to me and I’m not trying to push with my seat. I can feel that there’s power in my motion, but this amount of power has been my neutral. Perhaps a trying to encourage push from behind neutral. Can that be a thing? Apparently not, because when I repeated back to her to make sure I understood correctly, “This is pushing too much with my seat?” I hear,“ Yes.” Well, alright then. Surely Lilo knows! So I think about how I can find some notches to take it down. I imagine the looseness my hips feel when I’m plopped into a couch – still keeping good posture with my core, but hips doing no more than relaxedly following the canter motion. Immediately I feel Fargo’s collection improve dramatically. He has somewhere to bounce now that my seat isn’t driving him flatter! It felt like it couldn’t be. It felt like almost nothing changed. But to Fargo, everything changed. Ohhhh it’s the little things. The seriously not so little… little things!!!

Also, there’s so much more clarity now when he tries to escape the collection by pulling through his shoulders. It’s easy to have good timing for a quick, little, and simple half halt saying, Nope, stay right here under this seat with me dude… and he’s right back with me. With less push on my part, I become more of a pillar. I’m quietly following instead of that little bit of chasing – pushing ahead of him. How can he be underneath of my seat pushing and forward in front of my leg if I’m always moving a slither of a pace ahead of him??? Now my patient looseness gives him an invitation to relax his back and bounce up to me. Oh happy day!!!

So, yea. Can I go on a little bit about some of the other kind of little things that have been singing to me? It might just be 1989 getting to my head but… It’s the big smile from a baby who’s just so excited to see that you’re around. It’s the bright colors on the trees falling to the ground but promising to be back. It’s the candle in the birthday cake. It’s the song lyrics that you can feel all the way in your bones. It’s the horse that is so willing to learn from you and let you hug his strong neck as long as you need to. It’s the person sending a note just to remind you that you’re on their mind. It’s the tip of the fluorescent helmet from a construction worker as you wave a thank you. It’s sharing the same space as friends who speak your heart language… It’s the little things.

Train ’til the Light is Pink

Apologies for the quality of my screenshot!

Here is Shanghai. Apologies for the quality of my screenshot!

Grace. Power. Teamwork. Inspiration. Truth. Clarity. A breath of fresh air. That’s what I experienced at WEG that Friday afternoon for the Musical Freestyles. My Roomie and I were able to pretty spontaneously hop over to Paris and then to Caan when a dear soul gave us her tickets to WEG a few days prior. Being in awe was a constant state of being for those three days. Admittedly, I practically lived inside of the movie Sabrina (the newer one with Harrison Ford) in the couple of weeks surrounding our Paris trip. I thought Sabrina’s letter home to her dad in New York was perfect when she spoke of a song being played across the street from her in Paris.

“I’m always surprised at how it moves me. It means seeing life through rose colored glasses, and only in Paris where the light is pink did that song make sense. But I’ll have it in my pocket when I get home, and I’ll take it with me wherever I go from now on.”

Seeing life through rose colored glasses maybe sounds a little bit like a lie… just pretending the world doesn’t turn the way it really does. But then really being in the light, living in the light that is pink, now that’s experiencing rare and true beauty.

The quality of the horses and riders was unlike any other show I’ve experienced in person. Valegro earned every bit of that 92% freestyle. I’ve never seen so much power, precision, and obvious relaxation all bundled together. Telling people about it at home gave me goose bumps for days! And then there was our Laura Graves who put in such a fantastic ride, we were all hooting and hollering when she finished. Being there, seeing and feeling that just makes the dream seem so possible.

It wasn’t the same for me as the other big competitions I’ve been to over here. I didn’t go to the WEG in KY, but I’ve been to the Masters a few times and our big qualifiers. Honestly, those competitions often have the opposite effect on me. I get a little bored. I see the top riders and think, this is the best it can be? All of the blood, sweat, tears, and years and this is the top? I mean no disrespect to our riders, horses or competitions. I know it’s a freaking hard sport, and I’m certainly not at that level. It’s just that the light isn’t pink. BUT it exists. And now I’ve breathed it in.

Courtney referenced the dressage scale at a clinic recently. She had one of the riders raise the bar saying, “Make your expectations like an 11.” It made me think about riding at NEDA Fall and talking to Clair about her test the day after winning her regional championship class. Someone asked her if she won today, why would she go back to do it again tomorrow? Her response was to ride a mistake free test, that Courtney wants perfect. She wasn’t delusional about getting a 100%, but she wanted to improve. The goal isn’t just a blue ribbon, it’s the training.

I’ve ridden with someone in the past who got excited about a 62% or even a 60% at a certain level. This is not an amateur or young rider, this is a trainer on a fancy horse. The “professional.” So in training, basically the goal was achieving a 7 (fairly good). An 8 or 9 would be a miracle and time to pop open a bottle of champagne! Sooo if the goal is a 7 and we’re creatures that constantly fall short, we’re probably going to end up with a score sheet of 5’s, 6’s, and the occasional 7… maybe an act of God gracing us with an 8. However, when the goal is Grand Prix, when the goal is a 10, or like Courtney said, an 11, when the goal is to make a perfect test even after winning regionals, perhaps getting 70 and 80%’s becomes more than possible.

Shanghai my little love is Francine’s 5 year old Oldenburg. That little rascal has a serious grip on my heart. He’s the good boy who wants the cool dude/bad boy persona. I can just see him in a black leather jacket and dark shades helping a grandma with her groceries on the way to his motorcycle. He can be sort of a grump… he’s just very honest when he has a complaint. But when he understands something new and you tell him that you love him and that he’s a rock star, he’ll try his hardest to make you proud again and again.

I’m realizing that he’s a big kid now. He may be just a teenager, but he’s prepping for Harvard and he’s going to get his PhD. We took him to NEDA Fall for his first real horse show at First Level. He started off by jumping errr clamoring out of the ring in the middle of his canter lengthening. Ooops. I was thinking, Well, yea. That just happened. Hmm. I tried to finish the test, but the judge didn’t have the time for it and we were thanked out of the arena. Ha. Ohh dressage. He was worried about the new show setting, but each test he grew a little more confident. The last day he seemed like himself – barely half awake as I hand walked him around his show arena in the A.M. instead of dragon snorting and snooting along the way. He so lit up in the warm up. He was feeling proud and worry free. Feeling the ride, smiles and giggles were poking their way through my ready for business attitude. Man is it fun when it’s right! That test he wrapped up the show by winning with a 76.6%!! I’m beyond thankful for the opportunity to ride him. And just so excited about that little dude!

Here’s to shooting for 11’s. The harmony and power that comes with that standard of dressage training appears to be nothing less than a miracle. I want more than just a taste of that miracle!

Heart Hugs and Suppleness

RiveredgeI think my heart has just almost recovered from the last week and a half packed so full of love and life and lessons that I felt like it might just melt from all the bright red give and take. But who can complain about a heart exhausted from love?! It was a week of stringing together the high’s and subsequent low’s of favorites – amazing clinics in OR and MD, visits with long distance friends, great Courtney lessons, and to top it off meeting my three new adopted sisters from Latvia! Holy mush!

I mostly just want to share a bit of my experience during the Courtney King-Dye Horse Mastership week at Riveredge Farm. Boy, what an incredibly generous group of people putting their talents into that program. Many thanks to Lendon, Courtney, the Hasslers, Michael Barisone, the whole team at Riveredge, and all the others involved for making such a cool clinic happen. Courtney went down to teach a couple of the riding days, and somehow I was allowed to bring down a horse to play. I’m too old to officially be in the program now, but I can help Courtney a little bit, be there, soak in the atmosphere, and was very generously given a couple of lessons myself. How cool is that?

Scott Hassler was amazingly generous and squeezed me in for a lesson on Friday morning. All feels right in the world while I’m sitting on Bimi – and in that magical indoor arena at Riveredge nonetheless. The Bleachers were even streaming through the sound system. Awesome. When I wrapped up my warm up, Scott described the way Bimi’s body and brain works better than I would be able to sum up myself, and he had only watched him work for about 5 minutes.

I wasn’t completely sure what I wanted help with, but I explained one thing that is I tend to work too hard and end up with a million different trots. He’s sensitive and rideable now, but we can be inconsistent. Also, when an exercise feels hard, Bimi gets tight in his neck and poll, rather, his back and body, but it‘s apparent in the neck; therefore, he sometimes get a little behind me, will get long and push in front of me, or have inconsistencies in the bridle. Scott explained how suppleness is key for honest connection.

“He’s a good hider.” Scott said. I can put him in a particular position, but he’s not always adjustable in it – especially as the collection/difficulty increases because he’s not completely supple and through there. He looks nice, but it’s not reliable that I can keep that nice spot. He’s sensitive and powerful, so it’s easy to affect his gaits, but that’s not easy to manage because without consistent suppleness his body is not always available to give me exactly what I ask for. We need to find a place where it feels supple and natural for him to offer the flashy movement.

In Courtney’s wise words, “Ride the movements to make the horse better rather than the horse to make the movements better.”

Scott had me ride shoulder in, haunches in, renvers… whatever floats my boat and to keep the chosen position until it felt soft. He reminds me not to let the angle change while I’m riding the sideways movement forward and back. That every stride needs to be right under my seat and not too much angle so that we get his hind leg pushing through and underneath of him. Then, to school the collection, ask for shorter trot and bigger trot within the sideways suppleness exercise. Bending the back makes it softer and more comfortable. It gets him thinking about using his body to shorten, lengthen, and come through rather than just his neck. To build his confidence and encourage simplicity he would then have me just ride straight ahead doing nothing but sitting and following. “Let him feel good in the straight.”

It felt so easy. It felt so right. It felt like I was and had a happy, comfortable partner. I remember riding through a corner after finding that solid throughness and feeling my heart grow exponentially. It leapt in my chest. My brain was not thinking too much about being in charge of making everything perfect. I was just riding in tune with my horse and my only thought was, “It feels like falling in love. Yea.” That moment was such a gift.

Another thing Scott pointed out was that my seat was changing as Bimi was changing. I would ask for pirouette canter, he would come back a little too far and my seat would get a little behind the motion as well. I would drive him forward and then as he took over going forward my seat would back off a bit. It reminds me of the way Courtney says, “Don’t’ react to his reactions.” I just need to be stable – consistently think forward and be there with my seat so that he has something to count on.

“He listens, but he’s not comfortable. He’s the king of reactions.” When schooling the pirouette canter, Scott said to bring him back just as far as he’s comfortable. If he reaches a point where he has lost his suppleness and strength then it’s no longer good schooling. So if I start to feel a hint of tension or resistance, to take a little bit of inside bend and supple him before coming back more. I pointed out that usually when I take more bend when his neck starts to be tight, it really sets him off and everything just gets tenser. Scott explained that happens when my timing is too late. In that circumstance the suppleness was long gone (long gone could even be a half a stride or stride ago) and I would be asking for a soft bend suppleness in his back and neck that he couldn’t give. Access denied. I need to play the bend the very moment or the moment before he’s sticky.

It’s similar for his left lead canter transitions. They’ve been tricky for us. Lately I’ve had the most luck with sort of leaving him alone and just letting him simply canter. It’s positioned well enough, but I’m kind of just rolling the dice. Once again hiding my lack of suppleness by not asking for adjustability. If I try to push him very sideways or take a lot of bend it often feels like too much and we get a bit of a fight. He’s not comfortable having his neck taken away when he’s using that for balance in place of a supple back.

At the end of our canter half passes he had me change the bend early and very slowly – using the sideways to help me and giving plenty of time to “cover every inch” of bend. “It’s the little things with this horse.” Going slow and stretching all the positions in between is much harder than being at Point A and Point B. We just spent some time until it felt smooth. “This is stretching the poll. This is your canter transition,” he says. Ah, Duh!

After the canter half passes and changing of bend, he called out for me to ride my change when I’m ready. As if that’s not a big deal at all. The word change triggers my brain to worry with this horse, but I shut it down. He feels supple. His canter is right underneath of my seat. He feels comfortable. I can change the bend. I know that this change is going to work. It’s going to work because he’s through. His back is right there with me and I can comfortably half halt and align his body into my new outside rein. Yep. The change was right there – exactly the timing that I wanted without me trying to control it. Ready for me. Easily offered. Love.

I was having so much fun and was so inspired that I almost straight up professed my love to Scott. “I love you,” I wanted to say. Ah, another time perhaps. Let’s not make this weird Koryn. Be cool. These things can be taken the wrong way. Ha. So I just voiced how great it was and how much I appreciate it.

Then, Saturday morning Courtney did a Q & A with the EDAP girls. I think about how she’s so beautiful sitting up there and what a cool program this is… what a great experience to have. She talked about the importance of choosing the right person to work for. How it’s not necessarily where you train, but who you choose to let guide you. That it’s important to choose the trainer you want to be like not only as a rider but as a professional. My heart was just swelling, feeling so lucky and thankful to be able to be around her, learning from her, and also allowed to bring a horse here to experience this atmosphere… The whole program, the whole magical farm and leaders creating the program feel so normal. It feels normal because it feels good and right and true, but really, what an incredibly special opportunity and group of leaders to behold.

When the girls wrapped up the questions, I went up to Courtney to help her from the table. Once again my heart was pounding in my throat as I told her, “I think I need to hug you right now. Is that ok?” She cutely replied that only if I gave her a reason why… “I’m just feeling really extra thankful for you right now.” I explained. Courtney’s one of the best huggers I know, and she’s never in any rush to let go. “Can I just keep hugging you???” I ask. “Do you need to breathe?” Giggles. Dramatic deep breath. More hugging.

I get to keep this one. This one who’s right here in front of me. I get to hold on to and learn from this incredible person who for some reason has chosen to look out for me. That’s an epic hug.

Connecting the Dots

 

Here's a picture of Jenny - just because who couldn't use a dose of donkey cuteness??

Here’s a picture of Jenny – just because who couldn’t use a dose of donkey cuteness??

I love connecting the dots. I love the way the world seems to grow smaller and smaller. I love learning about mutual friends and being able to send hugs through them to loved ones on the other side of the country. “Hey, you know how cool that person is too?!” It’s so fun discovering an idea, a lesson, a person, a place in the world and then noticing all the other people around you who share that with you. It’s like learning a new word and then noticing it in your life every other day for a week. I love learning about how similar we all are – finding out that I’m SO not the only one. And I love the way that people can grasp the same concept but go on to teach it with their own style – the way that different people can shine their own lights upon an idea until the whole lesson is illuminated.

Courtney and Lendon work so well together. In many ways they aim to teach the same thing, but they compliment each other in the way they approach it – using different phrases or exercises to trigger the correct response. Having the right connection and good half halts has been quite the theme these days (perhaps forever?) There was a point in Bimini’s canter work with Lendon when we just cantered around on a circle occasionally shortening a little and going forward again. I think Bimi’s butt was a bit tired from our pirouette work with Courtney the day before and his canter was getting sticky; instead of sitting down to shorten he was pushing down in his shoulders and coming down in the bridle. It was an opportunity to work on our connection. Lendon approached it much like Courtney has been, and one little exercise seemed to make their thoughts come together for me.

When Bimi was sticky and pushing down, Lendon had me give the reins for a stride or two – the canter was instantly better. Hmm. I don’t think that I’m holding. I think that I’m following and making corrections with my seat and legs, but when the reins disappear and everything gets better, obviously something’s been going on with my arms, which they’ve been keeping secret from my brain. Lendon had me think of it this way. At first I was keeping connection with the reins for say, four strides and giving all the way for one or two; now, for this exercise she wants me to give the reins for four strides and use the reins however I need to for just one stride. She gave me a deadline – a pretty short one. Do what I need to do with my hands and then get outta Dodge!

The end goal is in no way to ride around with loose reins or to only have connection when I’m correcting! It’s really important to have steady, following contact. But when I so clearly knew I was only allowed one stride to have a chat with his mouth, my correcting aids were efficient enough that they could be truly passive for the four strides following. Therefore, I was a lot more effective than when my arms were sorta kinda doing something a lot of the time but lying to me saying they were not. Come on body, stop holding on too long to what’s not helping you.

Another piece of the puzzle connected some thoughts from Courtney lessons. I realized the other reason why thinking halt makes me ride better half halts. In my lesson with Lendon, we touched on some work with half steps. Bimini has the idea, but we haven’t been working on them. At first I was getting steps that were too slow and too forward. I was fighting his will to passage instead of taking short steps. Lendon said something like, “The mistake so many riders make is that they’re so paranoid about the horse stopping, they try to do it too forward. When in reality, there can not be piaffe steps if they are very forward…” So I need to quit playing chicken and just bring him on back if I want anything in the realm of half steps.

So, when I’m riding half halts and tell my body to ride like I’m actually going to halt, I’m shortening the horse to a point where I know we could be at a dead stop at any moment I choose. Therefore, I end up with a short quick/active hind leg instead of one that’s just slowing up. I’m thinking about being on the spot the way I need to think for half steps instead of about the hind legs continuing to stretch forward. So think halt, on the spot, piaffe, whoa… whatever thought works for me to make the half halt active!

It’s such a happy thing the way that working together makes it easier to grasp the big picture.

Believe It

Sometimes I think that you just have to decide that you can do it. You can be confident. You can be brave. You can grow. You can lead. You can believe that your words are diamonds, that you are talented, that you can be just as inspiring as the people who inspire you, that you mean something to someone in a way that no one else does. Sometimes it seems to start as simple as realizing that you can rock out red lipstick and fitted leather pants. You can own that tux or sequined dress, muddied up hiking boots or high strappy pumps, wide brimmed cowboy hat or a freaking top hat (off the horse that is, let’s keep our brains protected people) if any of that sounds like fun to you!

(I was told by a fellow shopper that she was “actually scared” when I decided to have some fun walking around the shoe store in these with a couple of friends the other night. I guess making myself 6’6” can be a little overbearing haha)

(I was told by a fellow shopper that she was “actually scared” when I decided to have some fun walking around the shoe store in these with a couple of friends the other night. I guess making myself 6’6” can be a little overbearing haha)

Just decide that you can ride. You can feel and understand. You can listen, share, and understand the worldview of another living being. Even if you’re not the most experienced, or learned rider out there, you can embrace that everyone has something to learn and even the big boys have been where you are now. Don’t hold back. Just try stuff. Just feel. Just believe in what you know how to do or in something you want to try until proven right or wrong. But you’ve gotta believe in it. If you don’t believe in your training, in your ability, in your worth, neither is your partner. We all get it wrong sometimes – or a lot of the time, but floating around wondering and hoping you’re on the right track doesn’t get you anywhere. You’re always just wondering.

Fargo and I have really felt like we are hitting our stride over the last few weeks. Courtney and I have spent so much time zoning in on the basics of basics, and I think that it’s starting to pay off in the obvious kind of way. In weeks prior it was a different picture. I felt like we were stuck in a valley for too long and was wondering why everything was getting more difficult when we’ve only been working on easy, happy basics.

I realized that I’ve created a long list of rules for the two of us. (Anyone noticing a pattern here?) “Make sure to do this, never do that, always do that this way…” I’d gotten into quite the routine of avoiding certain mistakes and planning exactly the right order of exercises to do or ways to think in order to make his body feel good. There was a day that I was riding Fargo on my own and I thought, “You are going to ride this horse like you would ride him if it was your first ride, like you don’t know any of his “special” needs, issues, lessons – just like getting on someone else’s horse at a clinic to make a difference, only knowing what you feel in that moment.” Boy what a difference it made. His body did not start out feeling any better that day than it had in the last few rides, but it got clearly more rideable. I could school things that I couldn’t have dreamed of touching on earlier that week or month.

The difference was that I started our ride deciding to forget everything. Forget the problems. Forget what we “can’t do right now.” Forget what we haven’t proven that we CAN do. Forget the quirks. Forget what might happen, and just feel. Then, as my body just sat into the saddle, rode like we should be able to show small tour tomorrow and decided that he was going to accept my aids like any other horse, everything came together. THEN I could start to incorporate our lessons and exercises. Forget the details for a while and just do it, kid.

Along the same lines of confidence and feel, our next lesson with Courtney really improved our half halts and quality of the gaits by just changing the way I think. Instead of just half halting, we actually rode halts. When I ride a halt, my body instinctually ensures that the butt is active and stepping underneath of my horse’s body in order to stop. I put my leg on and if I don’t immediately feel the energy from the hind end carrying more underneath my butt then my leg gives a few little kicks until it does. There’s nothing more dull than watching someone slooooowwwwwly eeking to a stop. No way are you getting a powerful trot transition after one of those. Courtney had me ride a few good halts and then in the middle of doing a half pass or medium trot she would instruct me to, “Think halt.” or she would tell me to halt and then change her mind to keep going before I was stopped. I started to have some really effective half halts. She asked me, “Did you feel the difference in your body?” I responded, yes, that it seemed to be giving the same aids as before, but thinking “halt” somehow just made them work better. Courtney explained that it was because I believed it. I believed that I was going to get the necessary activity, and so my horse did too.

Let’s ride real half halts. Let’s believe that we’re actually going to halt. Let’s explore what we can do and make room for new ideas. How else do we learn but to try and teach others to try? Let’s show doubt who’s da boss.

The Generosity Continues to Pour

Bimini's new County

Bimini and I have a new County Perfection Saddle! Yippee! I’m so excited. I think it’s the nicest thing that I have of my very own. Of course it’s all due to many more generous hearts. County is a sponsor of Lendon’s Youth Dressage Festival, and they awarded a prize of a new County saddle of the recipient’s choice to the winner of the Second Level Division. I was able to win the saddle back in 2011 when Betsy Tyler let me borrow her darling horse Romeo for the show. Let me tell you, that Betsy girl has one extraordinarily beautiful soul. County is amazing for awarding such an awesome prize, and I’m so thankful to them for honoring it all these years later! Many many many thanks to Dressage4Kids for making such an opportunity possible and to Marie McCullouch of Finger Lakes Saddle Solutions for putting everything together and making it happen!

I’ve always enjoyed riding in Courtney’s County Perfection saddles, but I’d like to think there is just something extra special about this one. It has the slightly longer flap to accommodate my legs, and it really feels like home. I don’t tend to be very high maintenance when it comes to the saddle fitting ME. As long as the horse is happy, I’m used to making anything work. But from the very first step of trot on Bimini I had to shout, “I love this saddle!” I feel like I can connect with Bimini more easily and that I can relax any tendencies to fight the tack and just ride. It takes away the noise I didn’t realize I had been tuning out. Yay for a saddle that was built to hug my body without interfering AND make a happy horsey!

Bimini has been clearly so much happier having his very own clothes. He has been sharing saddles with other horses that don’t quite fit the way that they should and having back soreness as a result. Within a couple of days of working in his new County, Bimini really felt like a different horse; this saddle has him so much more naturally relaxed over his topline and willing to connect.

After we got some hours in the new saddle, Marie McCullouch, our County representative came to make sure it was just right for Bimi. She came on the first day back to work after Courtney and I had been in Kentucky for a clinic for a few days, so I didn’t expect Bimi to be at his very best, but he had his halo polished and ready for his stretchy start. As Marie progressed through the adjustments she would fix a little something and then Bimi and I would test it out to see how it felt. The saddle continued to feel very nice to ride in for me, though midway through the adjustments Bimi’s collected work was a bit tight. It was seemingly normal resistance and I chalked it up to our first day back to work; however, it amazed me that Bimi’s back and willingness to collect changed dramatically after Marie’s final little adjustment. I didn’t change my riding or school anything to make him better in that time, the final shift of the wool just made him clearly so much more comfortable and free to use his top line!

Thanks again to all the contributors to this sport making these kinds of opportunities possible left and right. You’re awesome.

 

Stick With It

Bimi HugSpring is in the air and it kind of feels like the beginning of an age. I’ve gotten so used to the bitter cold that the other day when I was on a walk break, I felt like I was in a sauna. I was really cooking and I had no more appropriate layers to strip. I was wishing for some AC in the shady 52 degree indoor. Come on body, it’s time to wake up and enjoy the sunshine!

I recently had a couple of those great lessons when one idea makes five other things that have been a challenge fall into place for both Bimini and Fargo. In fact, it feels like many of our puzzle pieces are coming together. It seems like we’re starting to get past the get-to-know-each-other phase and moving on to being partners.

Courtney really tuned in to my connection with the boys. I’ve been quite focused on half halts and playing with the bit to create life in the connection and suppleness, but she had me refine that by keeping the connection very steady, making my gives more like softens rather than disappearing all together for moments. She explained that when I keep disappearing and then showing back up to chat, the initial contact back from giving is abrupt, almost like a little jerk. Even though I’m not really thinking about taking back, that’s how it feels to them.

I’m not sure if someone taught it this way to me, but I’ve explained the feeling as being like holding someone’s hand… following each other’s motion while walking or skipping along. When you want to send a message you can squeeze or play your fingers, take more feel or soften, but you are always there, never totally dropping out of that understanding connection.

We improved the connection by doing a lot of transitions within the gaits, prioritizing a steady contact – all the while playing the bit and bend in the body both ways. I need to keep up the conversation and be clear with my aids, and the boys need to relax and stretch… accept the contact with both my legs and hands and wait until my body says to push forward or come back within the gaits.

I was afraid to make the horses too deep, and for now sometimes they are. When I’m waiting for them to relax down or when I say, “No, you can’t race forward.” the neck sometimes comes too deep, but soon after when the message is received and we are both relaxed, the connection is so much more through and honest than it was when I totally avoided deep.

“Stick with it.”

In the short trot and short canter, I ask them to clearly shorten – but while finding a steady connection is the priority, I only shorten to a point that they can keep it over the time it takes until everything softens in that shortened gait. I need to be able to sit comfortably and follow without changing how much ground we cover. I have to stay committed to the speed I decide to go while suppling and waiting for it to feel easy.

Spending time on this made such a big difference for my leg aid on Bimini. He tends to be quite hot to the leg so it’s hard to use it to activate or push when he would rather just race forward. My leg has to be on in the shortened canter or he will get too slow behind or break. So taking time to wait for the relaxation in the playful bridle also helped him to accept that my leg was not going away. It clearly doesn’t mean run faster when I’m making him stay in the shortened canter. Then I could push him forward and use my leg to mean active in the bigger gaits as well. I actually had some good weight in my leg contact! Yay!

With that connection being so much more comfortable and relaxed, he was also very sensitive to my seat’s aids. Sitting back and stopping the motion was my first aid to come back, and he became sensitive enough that I didn’t really need the reins as back up anymore. It’s always amazing to me when one priority makes other things fall so neatly into place.

“Left as well as right.”

It’s important to keep the conversation going with both sides of the body. Courtney helped me to think of my aids working together as a team. They have different jobs, but they don’t think and operate separately; they consider each other. For example, it’s the job of the inside leg to push the barrel toward the receiving outside leg. The inside leg thinks about a leg yield toward the outside leg, rather than one and then the other correcting. I need to ride the whole horse and use my whole body.

I have a tendency to overly focus on the side that feels like it needs the most fixing, but it doesn’t come through in that harder direction until I supple the body both ways and tune in to all of my aids. We use a lot of inside bend to renvers on the circle to straighten, supple, and make sure my aids are working especially for Fargo who likes to keep his haunches in a bit. I also have to make sure to think about riding the neck fairly straight in order to focus on making the bend in the body and connection to the outside rein rather than being stuck on the bending inside rein. When I get a little caught up in having too much neck bend, my seat and legs cannot ride the horse’s barrel effectively.

I think the focus on connection and my aids working together has really made Fargo start to feel like my partner. The other day I did a medium canter down the long side thinking about all of this work, and it felt SO much easier and fluid than usual. I could feel the power being right on my aids and it rolling over his back. We were dancing. Courtney always teaches to be really obnoxious about rewarding the horses. Make a big fuss over them and make them feel like a star! It was such a breakthrough feeling of a moment; so you can only imagine my loud, super flowery cooing as we lengthened. Midway down the track, Fargo just joyfully leapt in the air! There was nothing for him to react to besides my voice, and he didn’t feel upset, he was just so excited and proud! ❤

Red

writingred

 

It’s story time! My best friend challenged me to blog about red lipstick. I was hoping to satisfy that by just slipping it in somewhere as a quick and silly metaphor, but now I’m thinking that might be going against the whole point. It’s funny how much weight a simple little act of Taylor Swifting your lips can carry.

For years now I’ve wanted to be able to rock bright red lips. What girl doesn’t go through this phase or at least of judging those who do? It seems like a fairly petty mind battle! It’s not really about the color. Sure, it can be fun and sexy if it’s done right, but it’s really about telling myself that I’m not the girl for whom that product was put in this world – being daring and loud and experimental is not something I am supposed to do. I’m the horse girl. I’m the get down and dirty, sweat and blood kind of a human being. So that means I need to play by those “rules” of that predetermined, assumed persona all the time, right? Wrong! What’s with the boxes??

Someone once asked me if I didn’t like getting really dressed up or if I didn’t like to often. I responded around about, “It’s not that I don’t like it, but I just don’t like looking like I’m trying too hard… or something.” (If it’s guaranteed that people around me will be all dolled up too, then great!) But really, I think I’m just afraid to stand out and of any attention that may bring. I’m incredibly afraid of someone assigning me to a box that’s the wrong shape for my heart.

I’m going to go a little bit deep here for a minute. Another dearly dearly beloved friend of mine sent this text to me the other night. “I think realizing that you need no one’s permission is the key to grace… and that includes permission from yourself. Permission giving is still being in control… grace is about recognizing that you can’t be in control.” Boy that summed up so many of the thoughts swirling in my brain with clarity I had not quite put my finger on. How did I get so lucky to have such brilliant friends? Read one of my favorite blog posts of hers here.

So instead of waiting for permission, why don’t we just accept that if we keep waiting, if we keep trying to have control, if we never let go of our insecurities, or let down our guard and peer out of our safety box, we never let grace in… and without grace, let’s face it, we’re toast. So why not drop all this talk of permission and boundaries and boxes? I don’t want to be the one to tell grace that she is not invited into my home. So what if she forces me to reveal and accept who I am or what I don’t understand about myself. She’s probably going to help me to teach my head not to always overrule my feel.

When I was a very little girl, I was completely obsessed with the “Pony Pals” book series. I was in a club that would send me two new books every month or so. I couldn’t wait until that day when a package addressed to me would come in the mailbox. I would spend the whole day buried in the little adventures of three horse-obsessed friends: Carol, Stevie, and Lisa. One part has stuck with me through all these years – I think it was Stevie who on once noticed a girl in the barn or at a show wearing fingernail polish. She saw it and thought to herself something judgmental along the lines of not wanting paint to be on HER fingers. I think it was YEARS after I read that before I let polish touch my fingernails again. Stevie was a fictional character, but she was my kind of girl. I wanted her to like me. I wanted her to be my friend.

The red lips (and fingers!) lesson is conveniently relevant to those spinning wheels of mine that are afraid to make mistakes when I ride. I distinctively remember one of my lessons with Lendon during one of the Robert Dover Horse Mastership EDAP weeks. I think things were basically going ok during my ride, but apparently I was too locked inside of my head… too zoned in… trapped in Tangoland. (Tango was the name of my trusty steed) During my lesson some of the other riders and auditors were sitting in the gazebo at C. Lendon gave them the job of holding up any given number of fingers for me to count and call out every time I passed by them. If I didn’t stop staring at the arena or my horse’s ears long enough to do so, I got yelled at. 🙂

There are lots of should and should not do’s, but sometimes I think I need to give myself the rule not to spend so much energy worrying about all the rules and lessons learned. Nothing changes if we’re always thinking of what we shouldn’t do or wish we hadn’t done.

Rules make me feel safe, like as long as I don’t do THAT I’ll be doing ok. Or if I just stick with what has worked for me in the past, I won’t fall off the deep end. But being stagnant is smelly and no fun at all, and being totally lost in my brain, checking off the do’s and don’ts before I make every move just sort of makes me miss life… Miss the experimenting that leads to figuring out what is even better than what I already know. Plus it seems kinda snobby to always be in lock-down processing mode.

Later, we went to Stillpoint Farm and watched some of the trainers there ride. At one point Robert was schooling an FEI horse while coaching another rider. Thinking and yammering away while making his horse do fancy things…? There was a group of us there, and Lendon specifically called out to me, “Koryn, could YOU do that?”… “Uh, Noooo.” Ha. Must focus. Must control. Must think. Must. Not. Make. Mistake. Hmmm.

I’m definitely not getting at, “Rules are made to be broken.” No, rules are important, and lessons are learned for a reason, but not everything has to be black and white. Why not let in some Red? So if you see me around somewhere sporting red lips, or say, blue strips in my hair… please don’t laugh. I’m either already very aware that I look ridiculous or finally proud of myself for lightening up and living outside of my box!