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.

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.