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.

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.