Sunday, August 14, 2016

Training in Black and White

When riding got really tough and slightly soul-destroying, my trainers would always tell me "if it was easy, everyone would be doing it" and it couldn't be truer. Dressage has a reputation for being complicated, sometimes too much so for some people to take an interest in it. However sometimes we overcomplicate things. There is so much to think about and we can get carried away with nitty gritty details instead of focusing on the obvious problems. It is always important to prioritise the issues rather than being overwhelmed by trying to fix everything in one go.

Keeping your sessions simple results in a happier
 horse and rider
I will confess that I am queen of overthinking, and riding is a really good way of reminding myself to think clearly for the sake of the horse's understanding. The way that I do that is to think in "black and white", and dispose of any grey or fuzzy matter in my mind that is distracting me from finding a solution to the most obvious problem.

When you make the decision that you're not going to get complicated with your training sessions and focus on simple solutions, it is actually really relieving! Why make dressage harder than it has to be? Don't get wound up by your horse not feeling "good" because it is slow, or stiff, or running away and tight in the back and try to fix it all in one go. Prioritise what needs fixing in that moment an focus on that first.

If the horse is pulling and running away with you, then stop! Do a downward transition to walk or even to a halt if they aren't responding quickly enough to your restraining aid. But the important part is giving to them AS SOON as they respond in the correct way, as that is their reward. Once they come back and you give, you can push forward again in a better balance which can be kept with just half-halts. If they do start pulling and running through the half-halts again, just keep doing the transitions until they learn to stay in balance using subtler aids. This is being black and white. 

If they are slow off your leg and not quite listening to you, then go! Give your reins slightly so they have room to move forward and use your leg as much as required to get an immediate reaction. Yes, sometimes you do need to use a short, sharp kick if they're slow off the leg, but the most important thing here is to NOT pull back at the same time as kicking to go forward so you maintain clarity in asking what you want. Make sure you have your body in balance with the horse and go forward with them and even if they come above the bit, don't worry! Because the problem here is that the horse is behind your leg, so sort that issue out first. Roundness comes from the horse being active in their hind legs so you can't expect to keep the horse truly on the bit if he is too slow and behind your aids. Once the horse moves forward and you stay in a good balance with their movement, then you can close your hand slightly to bring them back into a connection but without stopping the hind leg.

You can mix up these forward and back transitions in your session and focus on being really clear when you mean GO and when you mean STOP. It is amazing how attentive the horse becomes when you only focus on those two factors.

Sometimes the horse is slow and stuck because he is stiff in his body, so you can combine these transitions with some sideways work. If you have the feeling of the horse being stiff underneath your leg and tightening against it every time you apply pressure, you can soften the belly by moving them sideways in a leg-yield either across the arena or along the wall. When they move off your leg and you feel them release their sides (whilst you soften the neck), you can straighten up and push forward in an upward transition, making sure you have that immediate reaction that I explained earlier. 

So basically you can design your whole training session around four important components: Forward, back, left and right. This makes your half-halts so much easier and more effective. You can make your work as simple (walk and trot transitions in combination with leg-yield) or as complex (medium and collected canter transitions in a half-pass) as you like, as long as you pay attention to the sharpness of the horse's reactions to all four aids and then use half-halts to fine-tune the balance.

Just remember, riding is only as complicated as you make it. If you can focus on these simple solutions it will be a lot easier to stay clear in your mind and be able to enjoy your training!

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Importance of Finding Your 'Why'

Top 10 placing in the Inter 1 Music at Hartpury CDI
This time last year I was in full competition mode with my international horse Seigner II (Sebastian) and was representing Australia at Hartpury CDI and Hickstead CDI at small tour level. It was probably the most important, exciting, nerve-wracking and life-changing fortnight of my life - my first two internationals as a senior rider, and only a week apart!

However the situation now couldn't be more different. Due to veterinary and shoeing problems with all the horses, up until yesterday I hadn't done even ONE competition this year. And that wasn't even on one of my competition horses, it was on my little project pony Pedro doing an unaffiliated prelim!! It's actually laughable when I step back and think "wow.... so this is my career now".

But I certainly don't let it get me down, because as frustrating as it is to not be out "doing my thing", I have found my 'Why'. Why when everything goes wrong, I keep my faith. Why I keep training every day. Why I still see a bright future ahead. Why I chose this life.

It is an absolute guarantee that any rider will go through lows where their horse is lame or ill, or they have to sell it and are horseless for a while. In a sport where competing is often the main motivation to keep training and get better, what is then your motivation when you can't compete? Or on those cold dark winter days, what gets you out of bed and makes you rug yourself and your horse up and go out to the arena and train, especially when its off-season and competitions are few and far between?

Seb and I at the trot-up at
Hickstead CDI
The time out from competitions this year was actually a blessing in disguise because it forced me to ask myself these questions and try to grasp what motivation I could find on a daily basis for months and months. I have found that my 'Why' is my love for the art of dressage. It is an art that forces you to look at yourself and who you are in order to create your best work. The beauty of horses is that you can't hide your feelings or your frame of mind - if you want them to work with you you've got to sort yourself out and arrive at the training session fully present and focused. I love how that requires such deep investigation into the self.

Just like yoga, this investigation isn't just mental but also physical. The condition of your body has a direct impact on your state of mind. I am kind of obsessed with riding symmetrically and having all my muscles conditioned just right to perform my best on the horse. I have a real thing about my body not being strong, flexible or mobile enough to feel like I can give the horse his best shot at getting the work right. To me, there is no excuse to not give the horse that chance. I like to work on my body just as much as the horse because at the end of the day, it starts with me! The horse will never do it by himself! So when my body feels right, my mind feels more at peace and I can focus on creating good work with the horse, as long as I've been able to let go of any bulls**t that's in my head while I'm in the saddle.

So for this reason I have kept up my motivation, because working on my mind and body alone is such an inspiring task and I find when you add a horse to the equation it makes it even more extraordinary. I can even view riding as a form of meditation, where I can let go of anything that's weighing me down, and focus on one thing - creating. This time out has actually even pushed me to better my career by adding a "bit of me" to what I do, so I am now beginning my yoga teacher training. By December this year, I will be a qualified yoga teacher and be able to use my 'Why' even more on a daily basis.

Ecstatic to be placed 4th in the Inter 1
at Hickstead CDI!
For many people, their 'Why' is to forget about their day and go for a nice hack and chill out. They attach having that connection with the horse with escaping reality for a while. Also for a lot of people their 'Why' is to go out to competitions and be in the limelight. Of course this is nice, and not wrong to be motivated by it, but it is only fuelling the ego. When there is not fuel for the ego, i.e. you can't compete, what is left to keep you going? I encourage you to do some deep thinking and find your 'Why', and watch your experience with your horse change day by day when you focus on this one sole important reason.

And always remember that whatever you do, regardless of why you do it, do it with love.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Using Shoulder-in to Develop a Better Outside Rein Contact

This week seemed to have a theme of using shoulder-in to develop an outside rein connection, both with my clients and my own horses. I always like to feel like I can use my outside rein at any time and the horse will be "there" at the end of it. I want to be able to sit deeper and connect the hind legs into the outside rein to create more engagement, a better uphill balance and of course a do great half-halt that brings the horse back to my rhythm.

Unfortunately just going down long-side after long-side in shoulder-in just won't cut it. You've got to do something within the shoulder-in to encourage the horse to change the way he moves his body and influence him to take the outside rein. For some annoying reason they always just want to drop the inside shoulder and cross their inside hind leg underneath their body in a sort of poor leg-yield position, so we need to make sure they do the opposite - lift their inside shoulder up and step directly underneath with their inside hind to shift the centre of gravity further back.

I recommend doing transitions within the shoulder-in positioning. By doing a transition, you can use your outside rein much easier because you're either using it to bring the horse back a pace, or pushing into it by doing an upwards transition. The downward transitions prevent the horse running through the outside rein (you can do a strong half-halt with it to bring the horse back) and you can engage the horse by doing an upwards transition and pushing both hind legs into the outside rein with your seat and leg. Between the transitions you can also do 10m circles, especially if you feel you're losing the shoulder-in positioning and bend. Make sure you've got a good shoulder-in going on before you do the transition, otherwise the transition will most likely not be "through".

So how do you make sure you've got a good shoulder-in happening? Start by coming out of a corner or from a circle. Look straight down the long-side, but keep riding the horse's shoulders around the turn and keep that bend in their body until they feel like they are on 3-tracks. Use your outside rein to hold that positioning and use both seat bones to ride the hind legs forward down the track. The inside leg is by the girth, supporting the bend through the horse's body, and the outside leg is a bit further back guarding that outside hind from stepping out away from the line of bend. The inside rein has a soft contact keeping softness through the neck and inside flexion, and the outside rein is what holds all of this together.

Be careful you don't fall into the trap of letting the horse lean on your outside rein and escape through the outside shoulder. To test this, give a half-halt with just your seat and outside rein and bring the pace back for a couple of strides, or do a full transition. If the horse runs past this aid, he's escaping out of the outside shoulder. So you need do a good few half-halts with that outside rein to bring him back into balance and make sure you've got a bit of contact on the inside rein too - don't drop it completely.

If you're really struggling to get the horse to take the outside rein, keep using more and more inside leg and try to catch that energy with just your outside rein. Be really diligent in not using your inside rein. I guarantee you it will be ugly for a bit, but sometime things need to get worse to get better. The horse will get thrown off balance when you really push from inside leg to the outside rein and look for a way to rebalance himself. Make sure that way is by taking the outside rein and bending around the inside leg!

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Strong foundations in Dressage and Yoga

When I'm not with the horses I do yoga, so today on my day off I went to an incredible workshop with a London-based yoga teacher, Adam Husler. It was one of those classes where I actually wanted to cry because everything he was saying made so much sense and was solving problem after problem for me - so I must confess I am now a little bit obsessed with him.

The workshop was based on cross-training for yoga, focusing on arm balances and inversions. At the very beginning of the class Adam made it clear that the strongest foundation you can have is a proper chaturanga (low plank), which "80% of every class I teach people aren't doing" he says. A proper chaturanga is extremely difficult yet so important for correct alignment and keeping our shoulders healthy and strong. All of the advanced asanas we did came back to that same positioning and alignment of our shoulders to create our strongest form to build from.

As with most things, I immediately applied it to dressage and training horses. No advanced movement we do on a horse is worth anything unless we have rhythm, suppleness, and a general sense of "throughness". No half-pass or line of tempi changes is going to be of any use at all to a horse(or our riding) if the horse's back is dropped and jammed in the neck, or the horse is wriggling along on its forehand.

When I applied the extreme basics to my yoga, and even taking a step back by dropping onto my knees in upward dog to help my shoulder positioning, I could feel how much it would benefit me in my future practice and that I was putting in the groundwork now to avoid injury or hitting a plateau where I would have to go back to the beginning in order to get any further on. I felt absolutely ok about this, as we all should when we do it when riding our horses.

Time and time again, we all find we need to revisit the basics because there's something we missed early on which raises its ugly head when trying to train a half-pirouette or something as simple as a 10m circle. We should never feel disheartened by having to go back a few steps temporarily - if anything we should be grateful that we moved ourselves forward enough to come across an opportunity to learn more, and gain more experience in dressage training.

So in every training session you do, check in with your basics before attempting the advanced moves. Just because your horse did a fabulous left half-pass yesterday doesn't mean he will do them now forever and always. Just like how yesterday I may have been able to dominate a strong bakasana (crow pose) yet today I could be shaky and unbalanced. Bodies (human and horse) go through constant change so starting from your foundations then building on from there is super important for any training session, whether it be in dressage or yoga. Explore yours and your horse's body and find out what is working and what isn't on that day, and go from there.

Demystifying the Half-Halt

One of the hardest things I ever had to learn in dressage was how to do a half-halt and use it effectively, and I don't think I'm alone on that! The half-halt seems to be somewhat of a mystery in the dressage world. When we are learning it we think "am I doing it?", "was that enough?", "am I blocking the horse?" - just constant questioning of whether the half-halt is happening or not. It is good to question your aids, as that means you are conscious of what you're doing on the horse. But when your half-halt works, you will know, and think "Ohhhh...... ok, right I get it".

The way that I like to think of a half-halt is to imagine I've build a solid brick wall just in front of the horse's face. The wall moves forward with the horse, and I am in control of how far away from my body I want it to be. I move the wall closer to me when I am collecting the horse, and push it further away when I want to extend or stretch the horse's neck down.

The moment is captured where the half-halt
 is keeping the horse's balance uphill

The key is that the horse must never touch this wall. If you start to feeling that he is pulling a little long on you, his nose will be pushing onto that wall which means his balance is too much on the forehand and he isn't waiting for you. But also, if his nose is retracting away from the wall and his face is no longer parallel with it, he is behind you and not accepting the contact, so you need to ask him to move towards the support of the wall in front (created by your contact).

It is so true when dressage masters say that you should ride hundreds of half-halts in a session. When I first read that when I was younger I was like "what? How do I fit that many in? That's gonna be a long session with a lot of stop-starting and not much being achieved!" because I didn't realise how to use my half-halt effectively within my work. Because I didn't understand it, I saw it as a separate thing to the paces and movements. But it is absolutely vital to include it in EVERYTHING you do in dressage, because the main thing it does is it helps balance the horse, and without balance, we have nothing.

In dressage our goal is for the horse to be moving uphill and in self-carriage, but the natural balance of a horse is on his forehand, so what do we do to shift that balance back onto the hind leg? We don't pull them back, we don't hold them up, and we don't shake them off the contact... We half-halt. Every 2-4 strides in between half-halts the horse will slowly start to let his balance fall onto the forehand, moving into that brick wall we have put up. This is why we constantly need to check in with where he is in relation to that wall and sit the horse back on his hind legs with a brace of the core and a squeeze with the hand and leg. When he comes back to you on your aid, you must immediately give and push them forward keeping that new balance to keep them in front of your leg and create impulsion and expression. But remember you can't force them to hold that balance, they need to feel they can keep it for a few strides by themselves (hence "self-carriage") until you put in the next half-halt to recreate that balanced feeling.

The horse must be submissive to the rein and leg
aids together to create an effective half-halt
Annoyingly, the half-halt is just "a feeling" you create with your entire body that helps the horse stay in the balance you're asking for, and is so difficult to put into words so you do need to play around with what feels effective for you. Also, before anything, you need to make sure the horse comes back when you ask him to and doesn't run through your contact (or past that brick wall) all the time. The most simple way to test this is do walk-halt transitions. When you squeeze the rein and close your leg to halt, the horse should obviously stop and not tense his jaw and just keep walking ignoring what you asked, making you pull on his mouth even harder. If he does this, keep doing the transitions keeping him in front of the leg and soft in the neck until he learns acceptance of both leg and hand together, and perhaps be a bit stronger with the rein for a quick moment (always giving after restraining) if he tries to push past your brick wall so he learns it is not allowed. If you feel he is halting a little too easily - i.e. you ask him to stop and he comes to a grinding halt with his face sucked back into his chest, then you need to use your legs to push him towards the contact. Keep your legs on in the downwards transition and don't let him drop down behind your contact in the halt. Keep his face balanced on that brick wall using your legs and hands for support. Keep working on the submissiveness in the walk-halt transitions and when you've got that happening then you can move onto a half-halt - almost halting then asking him to go forward again in self-carriage.

If the horse doesn't accept your restraining aids or moves off your leg, feeling a half-halt can be very difficult, so make sure these two things are happening right from the beginning of your session. It's literally stop and go, and then the half-halt is just a bit less stop and a bit less go - whatever it takes to keep him parallel to that imaginary brick wall.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

When to Push and When to Rest

In training when the horse isn't feeling the way we want it to, we are faced with the decision of whether to keep pushing harder to get the desired execution of an exercise/movement, or to back off and take a short walk break to reevaluate the process of what we are trying to do. The toughest question to answer is "do I need to ask more to push past this block or boundary this horse has put up, and make it work harder to move the training onwards?" or "is this too much for him, does he need a break to let his muscles recover from this hard work?". When we know more about the implications of either decision it is easier to make a judgement based on what we feel.

By pushing the horse harder to create the feeling you want, lactic acid builds up in their muscles and fatigue sets in pretty quickly as the horse is obviously struggling with the movement. You haven't got long before that fatigue starts to hinder performance so you need make sure you work with intent and efficiency in that short period that you decide to push them harder. 

If you immediately come up with an exercise that will help fix the problem you're having, then its best to use that exercise as accurately as possible with extreme concentration on one thing you want to achieve, not six things that you decide need to be better right at that moment. It is better to achieve one prioritised thing in that short period of intense work than to try and address too many things for the horse to cope with, resulting in a tired yet unlearned horse. If you don't have an immediate solution to what is happening, instead of tiring the horse out while you rack your brain for what to do, just take a walk break, clear your mind and then start again when you have a plan.

If our ego starts to take over and we want to achieve an advanced movement  with a horse that isn't ready, then the heavy work that is involved in that causes micro-tears in the muscles because they don't have sufficient strength to deal with that work yet. The micro-tears can form scar-tissue in the muscle and become extremely tight, and very difficult get rid of with a normal stretch routine. This is how horses end up tight and locked up, and need massage or physiotherapist attention to work out all the knots. Sure it isn't the end of the world, but it does slow down your overall progress - slow and steady wins the race!

The best way to achieve advanced movements is to keep working on basics and foundations and build up slowly from there, when the horse lets you know it is ready. If you truly listen to your horse, you will be able to feel when he is ready for anything more advanced because his muscles will be sufficiently strong enough.

A problem that creeps in when we decide to push harder is that us as riders also start to fatigue. We can't seem to use our leg as strong, stay upright and strong with our upper bodies, and we compromise our position in order to make the horse move the way we want it to because our neutral riding position just won't cut it in terms of needing the strength to make the change. When we start to feel compromised it is always best to stop and take a breather. I really struggle to understand how anybody expects the horse to do the work sufficiently if not even the rider is able to keep strong and composed on its behalf. A floppy, uncontrolled rider will only throw the horse more off balance and create stress and tension in his mind, again causing muscles to tighten as a panic response.

In every session always try to put yourself in your horse's shoes and try to imagine what he could be feeling by the little signals he is giving you. Horses are very transparent, we just sometimes end up looking straight through it in order to find something more. Ride what you feel, push when you feel the ability is there and rest when the quality of work decreases.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Mastering the Art of Independent Riding and Practice

A lot of riders struggle with knowing what to do when they ride by themselves at home. Some people say to make a plan before you get on and stick to it, others suggest having a set routine for every training session for consistency. Everyone will have their own preference for how to do it (once discovered) but from working on my own yoga practice at home, I learnt a few things that I definitely now apply to my training sessions with the horses.

It's easy to be motivated to go to a lesson with your trainer or get in the car and go to a yoga class because we are getting told what to do and have more mental capacity when the structure of a session is put into someone else's hands. But  on a day-to-day basis sometimes I don't feel like riding a particular horse. Sometimes I don't feel like getting on my mat at home and doing yoga. For me, I get that feeling of "I can't be bothered to work that hard today" because I always have high expectations of myself. Most equestrians do, which is why we get back on our horse day after day to try and improve. But as humans we can't possibly put in that same amount of high energy and great effort every single day, whether it be because we didn't get a good sleep the night before, our body aches from exercising, we are hungover, or perhaps we just aren't in  the best mood, we have to learn to just accept what is at that point in time and work with it, not beat ourselves up because we aren't performing "as we should".

My favourite yogini Kino McGregor says that if you're struggling for motivation to do your daily yoga practice, just set an intention to stand at the top of your mat and take five deep, slow breaths. If you've done that and you really don't want to do anything else, that's fine, because at least you achieved something. But more often than not you will keep going because you're already there and focused. So maybe it's five more breaths, maybe it's just one sun salutation, maybe its three. You must listen to your body, feel your way through the practice and your body will tell you what it needs.

This is much the same for riding. Every time I get on one of my horses I listen and feel. I don't come at them with orders and demands for what I want that day, I let them tell me how they are feeling. As weird as that sounds, trust me, you can feel it. I pick up my reins and see how their back feels, I do some leg-yields to unveil any stiffness, then move into trot and discover if they are in front of my leg, tight over the back, rigid in the jowl and mouth, stiff with one hind leg etc. I don't like setting an intention before I get on, because I could get on and feel something completely different to what I expected, then get frustrated that my plan isn't working and then feel like I failed to have a productive training session. It's like us going to the gym or doing yoga and forcing ourselves to do handstand practice when our arms are sore and we are a bit dehydrated and feeling light-headed. It's never going to work.... Then what is the plan?! We have to make a new one, however we already feel exhausted and disappointed in ourselves - not a great vibe to create a session from.

I never want to get off a horse feeling like I didn't make it better than when I got on, therefore I need to feel what is wrong as a first priority in order to fix it. And then from there, my intentions set in and I get to work on fixing and creating. I say creating because our sessions shouldn't revolve around stopping the horse from doing everything wrong. It should be proactive and encouraging, making adjustments while helping the horse to achieve more with itself. Gareth Hughes once told me that if while I'm riding around and I get the feeling I could do a half-pass, do it. If the idea of a line of tempi changes comes into my head, go for it. The idea obviously came into my head for a reason - because I'm feeling like the horse is capable at that moment in time - therefore I should move forward to that and try it, work on it, create something out of it.

This is the same with yoga practice, where I may be working on some forward bends and start to feel congestion in my hip flexors so the idea will come into my mind to do some backbend work, because it feels good for my body at that point in time. I may be doing some hip-opening and I get an idea to flow into an arm balance, because it feels good to use the newfound openness for a more advanced pose, and therefore move my practice forwards.

You have to have faith in yourself that you can fix whatever you are feeling is wrong, and be brave enough to use what you have just fixed to create something stronger and push it to a higher level. Be humble with your beginnings and set small intentions, but believe in yourself enough that anything is possible with the work you are doing.