April 5, 2016

Movement and subtle shifts when riding

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I had a great riding lesson with my instructor on Friday. First the good news. Kasane and I have improved in maintaining trot tempo and in our ability to rate (slow down or maintain) speed. She’s listening really well and we are working well together. She isn’t pulling on me anymore.

We were asked to ride a curve along the long side of the ride. It’s a movement from one of the dressage tests (Training Level test 3, I think). As you come along the long side, you go from the outside, ride to X to touch off on the center line (and change bend) and then go back to the last letter on the same long side. It was the first time we did it, and Kasane was amazing.

It’s a great feeling when we have major improvements like this between every lesson. Yay!

My instructor asked me what I wanted to work on, so I explained the issue I’ve been having when Kasane and I canter. She picks up the canter without any trouble. She’s very good about the cue. Before I ask her to canter, I sit the trot a few paces, slide my outside leg back behind the girth, and gently squeeze. At times, it feels like she enthusiastically jumps into the canter. Once we are cantering, then sometimes she’ll swap off leads in the front or back or even do a flying lead change. Her flying lead change feels like she does a four-footed hop and then lands on the opposite lead. She’s very coordinated and smooth about it.

I had no idea what I was doing that might cause her to change leads, swap off leads, or jump into the canter. Was I tense when we cantered or leaning too far forward? Both things that I know I do. I thought maybe the cantering problem was because of lack of work. We’re starting to ride more but we had a lot of time off because of weather and winter. We’ve been walking up and down hills to help build strength. I figured the cantering issue was because of something I was doing but I couldn’t tell what it might be.

This is where lessons pay off. Kasane was jumping into the canter because I was shouting the cue at her. Shouting means that I was moving my leg back and then squeezing. All I had to do was bring my leg back. That’s it. That’s enough of a cue for her. Well, that and upper body movement, which I’ll explain below.

Kasane was swapping leads because I was giving her mixed cues. She was trying to do what I was asking. She is a very sensitive mare and feels subtle shifts in body weight. When I asked for a canter on a circle, I would look where I was headed, which turned my upper body and shifted my weight in my hips from heavier weight on my inside hip to more weight on my outside. That weight helps determine which lead she should be on. So my smart girl said, “Ah! You really want me to be on this lead, okay!” and she would swap. When I canter on a circle, I have to make sure I’m sitting back (instead of leaning too far forward) and have my upper body turned towards the outside of the circle. My line of sight is through her ears. I can see where I’m going still, I’m just not looking in that direction. Upper body position keeps my legs in the correct location.

She picked up the correct lead every time I asked for a canter. She would swap when I shifted my upper body position because that minor shift changed the cue. She did precisely as I asked.

Cantering is hard for me because I tense up. Not because of anything Kasane did, but because of a bad fall I had on Isis many years ago. It’s funny how the fear of something stays with you and you anticipate having to get out of the way of a falling horse after she trips. Except Kasane doesn’t trip and I know that. I am still tense at the canter. We’re working on it, and that’s what we have to continue to do. In order for me to be more relaxed at the canter, I have to do it more often. Oh, and sing while I ride because you can’t be nervous or tense when you sing. At least, until your muscles start to give out and you cramp up.

The other thing my instructor pointed out is that when Kasane picks up the canter, I suddenly become invisible as a rider. It’s rather like “Okay we’re cantering now, let’s not do anything that might make her stop!” That’s what you do with a green horse. Except she isn’t green anymore. It’s funny how you get used to riding a particular way and then you don’t think about changing it until someone (like my riding instructor) points out how I’m riding that I need to be more active. She was exactly right.

I have homework. First, more cantering for fun while telling myself “I love to canter! It’s my favorite thing!” Second, doing more exercises to strengthen core muscles. Third, when riding, don’t think about riding figures from dressage tests. Ride intuitively from area to area: “This feels like a good place to canter.” Not just down a straight line, but doing corners and reversing. Never the same thing twice because smart horses will anticipate the same thing after the first repetition.

The big revelation for me was realizing how sensitive Kasane is. She was trying really hard to do what I asked her (even if I wasn’t aware of a change in cues). It just made me really proud of her. I have to learn so much more to be able to ride her well. She pushes me as a rider, in many good ways. I feel very lucky to have her as my riding partner.

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