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.

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.


Permission to Dance

We had theBimi privilege of having Katherine Bateson up for a clinic at Bel Air Farm last week. She’s such a lovely person; I’m so grateful to be able to know and learn from such awesome human beings. What is especially cool to me is that in my lessons on Bimini, we basically touched on everything that Courtney and I have been working on, but there was just a different voice – different words to guide me on the same path. I love that feeling of connection when we’re all on the same track.

 “Keep everything as simple as possible.”

So maybe this Dressage thing really is pretty complicated, but it’s never going to simplify if we don’t at least try. My aids and my mind need to be as clear and basic as possible. We started out by making sure that my aid for the half halt was simple, not reliant on my hand (partially so that we can try to keep his neck long), and effective. Katherine reminded me to lean back a bit beyond where I usually sit to access my back. This made a clear change in my seat to tell the horse that it’s time to sit and wait. When it was good, it got to the point where I felt like as I sat back the hind end would lower. If it wasn’t instantaneous, I could use my hand quickly to say, “Hey, that meant woah!”

I was reminded that it’s important for me to do lots and lots and lots (millions) of these half halts. I need to make sure that there’s an immediate response when I sit back and tighten my abs, but I can’t just sit there and try to hold the half halt so that he gets “claustrophobic.” Since Bimini is such a go, go, go, energizer bunny kind of a horse, my body tends to want to ride negatively, to keep him under me instead of riding positively, pushing him to go and then just using the half halts as a reminder to sit and wait.

A big focus was to see how long I could go around letting Bimini be sort of, “on his own”.  He needs to learn to wait for me, to stay with me instead of deciding that dragging me around town is more fun and efficient. “Just keep saying, ‘I’m not going to hang onto you.’”

She had me ride 10 meter circles in every corner to give me the chance to ride positively. I could really put my leg on to push his hind end without him just getting away from me or burying into my hands. Leg doesn’t mean run, buddy! The voltes sort of did the collecting for me. I realized that I usually use too much hand in the turns because he looks for it. He would rather have me hold him up than to sit and carry himself around the circle. “When he wants you to take back, you’ve got to give.” So when I choose to give and my hand just sort of disappears, he’s forced to sit his butt down and hold himself up. Then my hand becomes unnecessary. See, it is simple after all.

Schooling the flying changes went along the same lines. I get especially caught up in my brain when I go to ride the changes. It’s so obvious when changes go wrong, so I tend to think harder, ride more, and just generally complicate them in my effort not to make a mistake. I’m learning that spinning wheels are often counterproductive. It reminds me of a song that my Bestie and I were listening to on a road trip with the lyrics,

But we’re willing to wait on you; we believe in everything that you can do, if you could only lay down your mind.”

 The way we started practicing the changes was all very relaxed and simple. “The aid for flying changes can’t be faster than the rhythm of the canter. He already wants to be too quick. Don’t get ahead of him, it’s gotta be like a dance.” I had to make a clear effort to be lazy. Hmm, that’s an oxymoron. But really, just quieting my mind and body helped me to feel my horse and let him move with me like a dance partner.

 It’s time to give myself permission to dance.

Wait For It…

Bimini is a smart little orange horse. He wants to be a very good boy; so he sometimes guesses what we want to happen next, especially when it comes to flying changes. He quickly picks up on trends and tries to take over and do things on his own.

For a while we schooled the changes after making two real corners on to the centerline. Pirouette canter consistently helps before changes. Anything less can be a dangerous grey area. Could I really get the butt down and shorten the canter if I wanted to? Am I making an “invisible” half halt or is it invisible because the reaction really isn’t there? Schooling the pirouette canter before the real corners helped to setup our canter, and he didn’t expect a change on the centerline, so he stayed on my aids. Though soon enough, he picked up on the exercise and the anticipation made for sloppy changes. So we started doing them after making a corner to cut across the ring instead of centerline – same idea, different place. This worked for a while, but soon he figured out that game plan too. In my attempt to make the change happen I ended up rushing my aids to sort of pretend that the change was my idea (making it “mine” before it was sure to be his). I would start asking just before he took over, but that’s just as bad. I might get in a change, but it’s not honest. It’s not the timing that I really want.

In one lesson I was cantering down the long side and Courtney called out to do a change. No big deal. Bimini didn’t expect it, his canter was already good, and it was right on my aids. So we had a nice big change. Yay! I called out, “He didn’t expect that!” Then Courtney had me go on the short diagonal and do pirouette canter saying, “If it’s good, we’re going to do a pirouette.” We haven’t been schooling actual pirouettes, just the pirouette canter, so I got myself in thinking mode. I tried to ride the canter the same as if we weren’t planning to pirouette, but simultaneously tried to be ready to turn and know what to think of in the turn etc. etc. etc. My brain was as caught up with thoughts as this wordy explanation. Wrapping itself around and around the plan. Ok, short diagonal. Pirouette canter. I think it’s pretty good – preparing for the turn but waiting for Courtney to say, “Pirouette.” Instead I hear, “Ok, change.” — Wait, what?! But, but, but, the plan! I’m not ready for that! Ha. I spastically tried and failed to switch gears and ride a change before we got to the wall. It was so messy and I was so thrown out of Koryn Overthinking Land that I just halted and busted out laughing. There was definitely a sizable snort that escaped somewhere in there too. Why do I crack up so easily?

Courtney’s plan was to see if I’m the one anticipating the changes… a fair enough theory, though I don’t think it’s usually the case with Bimini. I shouldn’t have been so thrown off guard. I’m sure that I’ve done the same sort of thing to students! It’s a good reminder that I should be ready and able to do anything, and I always appreciate a good laugh!

My favorite exercise for the two of us came next. Courtney had me ride around and around the arena pretending that I wanted a change without really asking for it. I stayed a little off the track or occasionally went across the diagonals – wherever. I would push him into what would be the new outside rein, collect the canter, slide my new outside leg back, push the canter forward, anything that would make him think that I was planning to do a change, but never actually pressing the new outside leg, never actually half halting with the new outside rein, never actually asking for a change. At first he would get tight every time, everything in his being wanted and started to change, but Psyche! I was just fooling around. You don’t get to guess little friend!

Whenever he would start to hop and try to do a flying change, I would do my best to clearly tell him to stay on the current lead. If he threw in a change before I could stop him, then I just walk and pick up the other lead again. Around and around… Maybe we’re going to do a change? Nahhh, I’m just going to slide my legs around and we might do one later. I can psyche him out anywhere, not just on a diagonal when he’s sure he should anticipate something, just on a centerline, just on a short line, or wherever we might “normally” do things. He gets bored of guessing because there’s no specific place. He has to just wait and pay attention everywhere.

When I was sure that he was not anticipating and that a flying change was completely my idea, I would do the same setup and then actually put my aids on to ask for the change. What was cute was when he was so sure that we weren’t doing changes that when I finally asked, he just wouldn’t change! He would hop around a little, as if to say, I really want to change, I want to do it, but NOPE that’s NOT what you want mommy. I will refrain! I can do that for you! After a couple of tries he realized that it might be an ok thing to do now, and then we had some great changes. It’s so nice when things are totally honest and not a guessing game.

I think pretending to do changes is something we’re going to have to go back and use often. We WILL have to school specific exercises – sequences, changing after half passes, changes on the short sides, etc. So he does have to be able to do things in specific places. I can’t always just ride around so that he won’t have a way to figure out a pattern. In his last lesson, Courtney had us practice canter half pass with a flying change at the end. The priority was having a good change, so we didn’t half pass very long in order to give lots of space and time to prepare the change. Sometimes I would pretend to do a change, not change, and then really do a change. Sometimes he anticipated the whole time and I didn’t do a change. Sometimes he felt patient and I could ask for a change without fooling around first. We need to practice them everywhere – just wait for it!