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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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.

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.

Sensitivity, Stretch, and the Power of Mental Pictures

It continues to amaze me how sensitive horses are. That what seems like just a mere thought, a slight shift in balance or frame of mind can transfer through my body, through the saddle, and to the creature carrying me around. Sometimes it’s the simple act of imagining a feeling or a picture that creates that same picture in the horse – there must be a clear change of an aid in my body too, but it often feels so subtle it doesn’t seem possible that they could understand… oh, but they feel and listen ever so closely.

Do you remember in the movie Avatar the way that the Na’vi (yes, I had to look that up.) can attach the tendril at the end of their ponytail to the same tendril on the horse? (and later with those awesome dragon-like creatures that will only bond with one master…) It connected the avatar’s mind to the animal and made them hear their thoughts as if they were one being. Cool, right? Sometimes these boys make me feel like my hair must be plugged in to theirs somehow.

One of Courtney’s themes with all three horses has been to “think stretch,” but don’t actually stretch, just think it… Invite the horse to stretch but don’t let the poll go down. This change of mentality immediately makes the back feel more supple, soft, and moving underneath of me. I can feel the back rolling… the connection is more honest and makes it so much easier to access the hind end. I don’t have to prepare so much in order to make good transitions. It’s like the rolling back builds a bridge to the butt. Throughness. It’s kind of like having the horse compress into more of a ball. The feel of stretch fills the ball a bit fuller with air so that it’s rounder and quicker to bounce on and off the ground on its own without me just trying harder to make it jump.

I remember the understanding dawning with Fargo’s canter. When Courtney said to think stretch, everything in my body pretended that the horse was stretching, and my aids prepared him for stretch without ever letting him. I find myself subtly playing my fingers on the reins and my seat imagines what it feels like to sit on a stretching horse… a bit softer, deep, but allowing and encouraging the energy to flow. Immediately, the quality of the canter felt better and his back felt strong and supportive.

In another lesson we worked on adjusting the canter within an actual stretching canter. I was going along on a circle in a normal working canter when Courtney told me to ride a collected canter without changing the stretch. I loved how easily he understood my aids – by just sitting down a bit more, thinking of collected canter, using my core to tell him to stay with me (not to go forward with bigger strides), the collection was so available. His back was really working which made it so easy to then activate the collected canter more with my legs. It makes sense that the two thoughts and aids for stretching within collection and collection within stretching go hand-in-hand.

With Bimini I noticed how the stretchy thought really helped our canter to trot transitions. He often feels a little tight and wants to blast forward in the transitions instead of sitting and pushing. If I just pull on the reins I end up blocking him more or pulling him too deep. But thinking stretch before the transition (knowing that if I let him he really would stretch down in that moment) once again bridged together his front and hind end and the pushing, collected trot we are always looking for was right there! It also makes a big difference for Shanghai’s transitions who likes to test the bit and come against the moment of a transition or a couple of strides later.

Now I’m not one who thinks you can simply “will” good riding to happen. It takes real training and rules, but there’s definitely something to having a mental picture that makes my body search for the right feeling instead of just being bogged down in whatever simple goal I’m trying to reach or rule I’m trying to keep. The power of a thought to my body is as interesting to me as it is that the horse is sensitive enough to react to such a minute change.

A while back I went to Courtney’s house to pick her up and bring her to the barn.  As I was filling a water bottle I saw a picture of her riding a horse’s trot lying on the kitchen counter. I immediately thought, “Wow, now that is beautiful.” It was so graceful, powerful but natural, and of course Courtney’s position is picture-perfect.  It’s definitely not an image that you see around often. Then I thought, “Hey, that’s the frame she’s talking about!! (and has been trying to get me to find)” The poll was up, nose out a bit, but the horse was very much over his back with a round neck, and was pushing forward to light contact. I think that it was about half of a second after I finished my thought that Courtney told me she set out that picture so that I could see the horse’s frame.  I wanted to just stare at it for the rest of the morning.

Today when I was trotting around toward the end of a lesson Courtney was saying, “Show that horse off.” She was calling out what she wanted different pieces of the horse to be doing, butt down, poll up, nose out, not too fast… it was all ok but not great. I wasn’t quite making enough of a difference. Then she said, “like that picture of me.” Sometimes at clinics Courtney will refer to me as  her “body.” But in the moment when I imagined the picture of Courtney’s body, the horse’s frame, and the whole energy of it all, it seriously felt like she was in me. Immediately Courtney said that it was good. I just started giggling at what a big difference the thought of her picture made for me and how it really felt like Courtney was riding for me in those few strides.

I think I’m feeling even extra thankful today.  I love it when I think my capacity to love and appreciate must already be as full as it gets, and then it just fills even more.

Immense Gratitude

Those who know me well know that I am not very comfortable publishing details about my life to the world.  But, there is just so much that deserves to be shared. There are so many lessons I am blessed enough to learn in my position as a student that it’s selfish of me to keep it all to myself. So, here I am, diving in, joining the rest of all the brave online sharers, and making it a goal to use this place to record events and lessons learned. As a devout dressage nerd, said lessons and news will probably be mostly about my four-legged friends, and we’ll see if any other musings on life start to emerge.

I have so much for which to be thankful. SO much. If anyone gets even a whiff of griping from me, please, slap me upside the head and set me straight. I’m not even sure where to start (as I should have long ago, there’s a lot of catching up to do). The thing is, even in my extreme attitude of gratitude (hey, that came out cute), I tend to keep a lot to myself in order to keep from sounding like a bragger disguising herself by proclaiming “blessings” and “thanks” but with the larger underlying, “Hey look at me, me, me, meeee and the awesome things that have happened in my life.” kind of character. That demeanor is a bit of a pet-peeve of mine. I think that most people sharing their lives have good, true intentions, but my fear of being taken as the occasional fake, self-consumed snob keeps me from sharing a lot of good news. However, I’ve realized that as I do with most lessons in life, I’ve taken it to the other end of the spectrum and by keeping so quiet, am truly not giving back to those that deserve so much more than I could ever give. So, here’s to changing that!

I realize I am in a really special position with my job. It’s so perfect for me! I could have never dreamed it up myself; it screams of a perfect designer.  The people growing my dreams beyond what I could drum up on my own are incredible. Time and time again I have been shocked by how freaking awesome people can be! I don’t deserve them. For one, my trainer, mentor, inspiration, and friend Courtney King-Dye has been more generous with sharing her mind, heart, and energy than I could ever think possible. I’m so glad to be able to learn from not only her world-class dressage skills but also the way she conducts herself as a professional and as a really cool human being. I continually recognize what an amazing thing this life is and wonder how it’s possible that I should be so lucky.

New friend Fargo

A couple of remarkably generous things have happened in the last few months.  I’ll start by sharing that most recently, a longtime friend and client of Courtney’s, Francine Walker, donated her fabulous horse, “Fargo” to Dressage4Kids.  I’m eternally grateful for the support of D4K (including Lendon Gray, Fern Feldman and the many others supporting the organization) for allowing Courtney to lease Fargo, Francine for her mind-blowing donation and heart, Courtney for her indescribable support and will to give me the chance to ride this fantastic horse, and Clair Glover for always giving, always helping, and always making room for us at Bel Air Farm.  My body was literally (in the true sense of the word not this fad of using it figuratively) shaking in shock and excitement when I heard the news of Fargo coming (which of all days happened on my birthday!).  So many amazing people have given, given, and given some more, and it’s more than a dream come true to be able to learn from it all.  It has already started, yet I can’t wait.