Wednesday, September 26, 2012

I'm Learning

I don't give my instructor enough credit. I know she's an excellent teacher: methodical, patient, encouraging, quiet. I see how Saxony is responding and I thought I saw how I was responding, too. But not quite. Some of my problems are bigger than I think they are. Because I'm used to festering about them, I think I know them and how they manifest, but I learned today that I can't really see that. Hard to admit.

I'm struggling with the in-hand work of late. It's strange, because I had it there for a while, or at least I was finding a flow with it. Today it feels like I'm starting all over again. Part of it is that Saxony is ahead of me now. She trains five days a week, but I have lessons with her only twice a week. Stepping into the in-hand work, she knows what's supposed to happen and she's used to working with someone who quietly and efficiently moves her along. I fumbled with the reins and the whip like my motor control skills were impaired. Once I'm fumbling, I do stupid things like push into her neck with my whip hand, push her to get her moving, not even aware that I'm doing it. I ended up standing there stalled this afternoon, snared by my own frustration.

In short, the fact that I go up into my head so quickly when challenged isn't invisible. That's what I learned today. I realized it when I saw B adjusting the course of our lesson to factor in my being tense and upset, and it's difficult to confess that. She kept me on the longe line for most of the lesson today until releasing me to ride shoulders in. 

But it wasn't all doom and gloom. Yesterday I rode a sustained and comfortable sitting trot on Saxony in both directions, all the while working on keeping her on the bit, light and round. B told me we have to experiment every step of the way to discover what aids make sense to Saxony when we want her to round and bend. One thing I learned just today is that she looks for help from the outside rein to keep from over bending her neck. Hands low at the saddle and fingers opening and closing from time to time bring her quickly to the bit. Especially when I remember to breathe.

After the lesson ended, I stayed up on Saxony to continue riding in the outdoor dressage arena. We'll be leaving this barn, with its lovely indoor arena, on October 15th, so I need to remind myself what it's like to ride outdoors. But really, I stayed on Saxony because I wanted to see if I could ride her myself, just the two of us alone, the way I ride her during our lessons. And we did okay. We circled, with changes of direction, and I worked to maintain her impulsion and roundness at the walk. The roundness was easier than the impulsion. As B walked to her car, she called back, "I can see you driving her with your legs." I'm glad she caught it, but I'd been trying so hard not to use my legs, just keep them quietly draped against Saxony's sides, that I couldn't help but feel disappointed in myself. It's been really eye opening to discover just how heavy I can be, have been, with the aids. Yikes.

I'm learning. Days like this are the hard work of it, lessons like these good for me as a rider, better for me as a person.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Myself In The Way

It was a hard lesson today. I had to work against myself to be able to work with Saxony. I'd like to know what had me uptight, but all that really matters is that I didn't let myself off the hook. Nothing bad happened. Saxony is learning, and I am learning. It just didn't flow, and I didn't kid myself about it. It felt like a roll-up-your-sleeves, suck-it-up-and-get-to-work moment. After a bit of consternation and embarrassment, that's what I did.

One thing that's new for me is Saxony setting off into a canter as soon as I unfurl the longe line. She does it without any prompting from me, which leaves me feeling not in control, or at least disconnected from her. I asked B and she explained that we're working to help Saxony find her natural comfort zone cantering on the correct lead in both directions and that once Saxony gets there, then we can work to shape and guide her. She reminded me to send Saxony cantering forward with real energy until she self-corrects to the proper lead, or start her again from the trot. I'm glad of the repetition from this instructor.

So I had this black dervish of a mare cantering to the left with gusto, but often on the wrong lead or cross cantering. Both of those are hard things for me to see because I've never had that eye for the movements of a horse that so many people seem to have been born with. Even so, I have gotten to the point where I can now recognize Saxony going on the wrong lead with her front legs. Cross cantering, though, is a challenge for me to detect. I went up into my head to chew myself out for not being able to see it instantly and there I got a sudden glimpse of me being a jerk to myself for no practical gain at all.

Saxony was uppity for the in-hand work, then, and I quickly became tangled in the dressage whip, inside rein and outside rein. It was that kind of thing. She wouldn't halt cleanly when I wanted to gather myself up and start again. When I did persuade her to halt, she swung around to face me. Awkward. It all felt awkward.

We rode the whole lesson off the longe line, beginning with a forward walk on a large circle, encouraging Saxony to carry herself with bend, roundness and impulsion. I felt like I was sawing on her mouth trying to bring her onto the bit. There'd she'd come and the next instant her jaw would turn to wood and go heavy against the reins. Yikes. It was hard work, seeming to require more from my hands than I've ever used as a rider. Maybe right now I have to do more in order to end up doing less. The contrast between her being on the bit, softly chewing into my hands, and off it, gone away into a leaning daydream, is big. It ends up being the difference between balance and imbalance, something I can really feel.

"No courtesy circles," B said as I struggled with our right shoulder-in. Saxony had stopped and I didn't know how to send her forward. That's right, no courtesy circles. Crap. I can't just turn her around and ride right back into shoulders in. I'm sure it wasn't pretty, but eventually I got her under way from that standstill.

Trotting, trotting, working on the same roundness and contact, I wondered whether I'd wanted it to be easy all along. No. No is the authentic answer. There is an old quitter in me, left over from my adolescence, who had no voice today. She could only wave self-pityingly from some dim, long ago high-school bleachers. I saw her, but I did not hear her. It was a hard lesson, hard work, in front of spectators, even, and I did all of it. Saxony's worth it. My love of having a horse is worth it. I've grown up that much, at least.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Riding Her

The wind is shredding acorns from the old oaks as I write, flinging them down like bullets to the metal shed roofs backstage at the festival grounds. They've been falling for days, broken loose by squirrels and birds, but this wind will finish it and all will be quiet tomorrow.

I had my fourth ride on Saxony today, the first where we were off the longe line for most of the lesson. I wanted to keep a meticulous log of our progress as it unfolded, or at least hers, but it's been hard because leaps and bounds have left me scrambling to absorb it all into my body, make it a knowing in my (aching) muscles not easily forgotten.
The details are important to me because they so often get left behind along the way. I tell myself now that if my body will remember everything, I can describe it later.

This was Saxony on Sunday. I had to sneak the shot from behind a tree because she always turns to look at me when I'm near. The owner of the farm turns her out in a round pen since we're only staying for a short time. The barn hands move the pen from spot to spot so Saxony has fresh lawn grass to munch along with her hay. Down at the right, sleeping on the job, are her three irksome footmen, some kind of geese or swans acquired as kids by the farm owner, who has a thing for birds in general.

I was there on Sunday with a friend to watch a clinic at an ungodly hour of the morning. It was a clinic for advanced riders and horses, but in it I saw all that we are learning, just done with a mastery that Saxony and I both lack, but which is not unattainable for either of us with work. I know this because on Thursday, after I'd done Saxony's ground work and in-hand work, my trainer decided to ride her before I did to show me what they'd been working on. I cried. It's not that shoulders-in or half pass are so elegant, or that a horse looks so different when balanced. It's not how willing and ably Saxony worked. I cried because I finally have a horse I am doing something with and I am understanding what we are doing. That has seemed such an elusive thing to me through the past few years; it was just something I imagined. I cried with relief and some pride, too.

Over our first three joint lessons, Saxony and I spent most of the lesson attached to B via the longe line. I understood why from the first ride. Saxony is forward, much more forward than I've experienced her to be. She's also unbalanced, and I am being taught how to help her move into balance with my seat, leg and rein aids. I'm also being taught how to dial all those aids way down. It's hard work. I always considered myself to be a quiet rider, but as my mare finds her way, her sensitivity is emerging. I'm not so quiet anymore, at least not relative to her. This is a wonderful thing to realize, that I am being tasked with finding subtlety along with everything else.

Today we were off the longe line and trotting on a big circle, working to stay round and rhythmic. When I keep my eyes up, I can feel Saxony go on the bit. If I try to sneak a glance down, she comes off it, responding to my distraction and change in position. Meanwhile, I circle at the rising trot not even thinking about how odd it feels to have my legs that straight, that long, that far under me. That's one thing my body is recognizing as the new norm, at least.

Self-consciousness is the enemy of accomplishment, someone once said. Boy, they were right. Ever so slightly, mine is starting fade, at least in this realm, with this horse.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Joint Lesson No. 2

I skipped writing about joint lesson No. 1 because I thought chances were pretty good that I made the whole thing up. I had that lesson last Thursday. My mare had been at the barn eight days, and the growth in her could not possibly have been real. That's what I thought as I drove away. I thought I needed so badly for it to go swimmingly that I had succumbed to magical thinking.

But it did go swimmingly. It had gone swimmingly then, and it did today. My horse, Saxony. She's a blackish, 15.3, kindhearted Appendix mare. Since I bought her, I guess I've been riding the Quarter Horse in her. That would be the strength and calm, long and low. Now I've met the Thoroughbred in her. That's the lift and forward, contact and collection. It feels amazing to ride the horse that is rising up in her.

When I went to that Thursday lesson, I wasn't expecting to ride Saxony, so I was surprised when B told me I'd be having all my lessons on her as long as I had her at the barn. I understand why, now. If I'd stayed on a school horse, I wouldn't know how to ride Saxony in keeping with her training. She felt so different under me in that lesson that I quickly realized I'd have to work hard to stay with her.

Today we had joint lesson No. 2. Here's our drill. I groom and tack her in her stall, attach side reins and longe line, and come to the arena ready for groundwork. We step right into the longe line work, just a few laps in either direction of trot and canter. Saxony has difficulty finding the left lead, so my options are to keep her cantering (big canter) until she self-corrects or bring her back to trot and start again. It doesn't matter which option I choose, the important thing is for Saxony to become comfortable cantering on the correct lead in both directions.

Adding the inside side rein comes next. The intent is to encourage Saxony to lower her head and seek contact with the bit. (Sidebar: she's going well in the Baucher, fussing all but vanished.) From time to time today I became distracted, almost mesmerized, by watching Saxony bend, round and stretch into her big working trot, but I'll get better at keeping my focus.

We end the groundwork with a short session of in-hand work, shoulders-in for now, encouraging Saxony to cross her legs under. That work is hard for me because it feels unnatural to use a whip. I have to struggle through self-consciousness and remind myself that the dressage whip is a training aid, nothing more. I hold the inside rein just at the bit ring to bend Saxony toward me while moving her in a straight line along the rail, keeping her working in the space defined by the one hand at the bit and the other pointing the whip. She's a quick, quick study, and I can see that the stretching inherent in shoulders-in is something that already feels good to her.

All of this was amazing to participate in today, and I haven't even come to our work under saddle.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Right to School

While the festival was winding down and I was wrangling my way through thousands of sunwashed, sometimes quite drunken revelers, my trainer continued to work with Saxony. She'd made one adjustment the same day I brought Saxony to the barn, sending me to buy a Baucher (bow-SHAY, at least that's my version) bit to replace the simple snaffle I'd been riding her in. I'm very curious to see how Saxony will go in the Baucher.

I'd told B pretty much everything I could think of about Saxony in the weeks prior to the move. It was an interesting recitation of facts and gaps. One of the things I told her about is how fussy Saxony is with her mouth during the bridling process. She offers much tonguing, yawning and rubbing as she settles the bit where she wants it, coupled then with producing sometimes copious amounts of drool during our rides. And I mean drool. It's not champagne, the fine white froth that sometimes results from the conversation between the hands of the rider and the mouth of the horse; it's just plain, clear drool. After having her examined by an equine dental specialist to rule out physical causes for her drooly fretfulness, I elected to wait until we were in training to make any changes to her tack. I don't know enough about bits and bitting to feel comfortable experimenting on my horse.

Because I trust my trainer, I went and bought the AlBaCon 5-1/4-inch Baucher she'd prescribed. This bit is made of German silver, with some copper added. B likes the Baucher for its steadiness in the horse's mouth. I'll see her ride Saxony in it on Thursday.

Meanwhile, B sent me a brief update during the weekend about what she was doing with Saxony, and it gave me a simple confidence boost in echoing some of what I already knew about her: "I rode her on Friday. She did very well. I can tell she's had some previous training. She was able to do both a shoulder in and haunches in at the walk. Her balance in the trot needs improvement, but I expect that to come quickly. She is weak in the canter, and needs to build her strength in the groundwork before we try cantering under saddle."

Naturally, I can't wait to get to the barn. Yes, I believe we'll come together, Saxony and I, and riding her will be wonderful, but right now nothing pleases me more to be learning about her. It's thrilling, completely thrilling.