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.