Saturday, August 29, 2015

thinking verrrrry hard: a lesson

Last week's lesson with Dan was more mentally strenuous than anything else. And frankly it's probably been a long time coming, as I know I've previously read a ton of posts on this topic and figured I'd eventually have to learn the lesson first hand too.... 

And what lesson might that be? Connecting to the outside rein, and LETTING GO of the inside rein. Even more specifically: installing a half halt on my apparently-still-quite-green 13yr old mare. (tho in her defense, Dan said there's maybe only 4 horses in the US that are truly not green haha) 

Ya know, nbd. Just one of the most basic tenets of correct flat work. 

"nope nothing to see here"
No media either... Sigh. These lessons used to draw so many spectators when my farm's other trainers rode too - all their students hung around to watch (and take video). But lately it's just me riding and apparently I don't draw the same interest haha... boo, I want video!!!!

But eh, video from this ride would have been pretty boring anyway. Let me set the scene:

  • Emma twists and turns in the saddle trying to make her seat and legs and outside rein do things when really she'd much rather just pull the inside rein.
  • Isabel can't possibly understand what fresh hell this is, and why her whole baseline for communication has been flipped
  • Meanwhile the trainer repeats endlessly: "Let GO of the inside rein"

So yea. Probably not the most visually impressive ride. But wow, it really made me think. The effort and concentration required to NOT pull on my inside rein made it abundantly clear how dependent I've become on that rein - it's my crutch, essentially.

But I think connecting Isabel reliably to my outside rein will be the catalyst we need to channel her natural talent into truly beautiful flat work. 

"wait - i'm sensing something.... something nefarious"
To back up a couple steps - I again want to reference Austen's brief ride on this horse bc it helped me better understand where we actually are. The horse IS green to the aids. She's NOT going to give me the correct answer immediately every time. And, furthermore, she might get evasive or frustrated when I ask for things she doesn't fully understand. 

These are simple (maybe even obvious) statements - but they're reassuring for me to write/read. I'm so quick to back off if Izzy doesn't get it right or gets mad bc my lack of dressage experience makes me distrust myself. Maybe I'm asking wrong. Or I'm messing her up. Or something. 

But no. Those little ugly moments are just the learning process, and I just need to stay patient and keep asking and striving to make things clear for the mare. She's honest, she tries, and she'll eventually get it. 

"you're pulling your inside rein again, aren't you?"
Ok. So. On to the actual exercises. Nothing really new or groundbreaking here, but I'm recounting it anyway for my own reference. 

We circled at the walk doing modified turns on the forehand at various points on the circle. Going as slow as needed to collect the walk and feel like I could influence each of Isabel's legs with my seat. Using just my inside seat and leg and steady outside rein to push Isabel's haunches out. Then continue forward straight ahead. 

If it wasn't working, we were probably going too fast (Izzy's favorite evasion is speed). I had to slow it down to the point that Isabel could understand (even if it meant coming down to halt) - but she had to be forward through the turn on the forehand, hind legs couldn't go backwards. 

And no inside rein. Let go of inside rein. 

Next we started moving forward into trot coming out of a successful turn. It was imperative that we stayed straight coming out of the turn tho - no fishtailing or allowing Isabel's hind end to swing immediately back to the inside. I'll have to keep an eye on this in schooling...

Then we continued the exercise entirely at trot. The trot had to be SLOW, and there had to be a distinct shift of her hind end OUT. Dan said I had to be very clear about when I wanted to push her hind end out, and when I wanted her to be straight. He also told me to sit the trot when doing the turn so that I could use my seat more effectively. 

And let go of the inside rein. Always. Ugh. 

pictured: pulling. #stopit
Kinda more of the same at canter. We didn't do those turns at canter, but he wanted me setting up the depart coming out of a turn at trot. This produced quite lovely departs too!!! (shocking exactly nobody, I know haha). (but no inside rein during transition!!!)

And while cantering he wanted me to ride off my seat - not just following the motion but actually driving her hind legs forward underneath her. This was a struggle for me since getting my seat to do ANYTHING while cantering has been... tricky. But I tried. And we got a few nice moments. 

Tho Isabel was quite fussy about the persistent contact on the outside rein and radio silence on the inside (let go of inside rein!!). It wasn't really pretty but there were glimmers where the pieces came together. 

Essentially, the whole point of this entire lesson is to install a half halt and connect Isabel to the outside rein such that I can push her into it from my inside leg to get her round (not currently a thing we do!). Meanwhile I also must be careful not to twist my body in the saddle. 

While flatting, this exercise was easier going to the right vs. tracking left, presumably bc we don't really have a left bend at present (didn't tracking left used to be our easier direction?!?). And I expected the wheels to fall off the bus when we started jumping too haha. We started by warming up circling over the blue fence (started as an X) for a while. Trotted once then proceeded to canter it, tracking left. Leaving my inside rein alone was HARD. 

most boring course diagram ever?? mebbe haha
Then we turned around to approach the blue tracking right, and bend up to the gray (my lattice fence!). Dan wanted me to keep my seat closer to the saddle and use the rail to help get the turn, rather than my inside rein (let GO!!). I needed both legs ON too, including thigh and knee. Inside leg to push Isabel into the outside hand, and outside leg to help steer. 

He also wanted to see some of the same head flinging fussing Isabel demonstrated on the flat - he referred to it as a litmus test on whether I was secretly holding my inside rein or not. #busted.  

When we turned it around to start over the lattice and bend left to the blue I expected it to really go badly, seeing as tracking left was harder on the flat (and tracking right over fences had already led to nearly running into the standards a couple times). But surprisingly this direction was easier for jumping. Huh. 

It was crazy - I was concentrating SO HARD on not pulling that inside rein that I could not even count strides (and I ALWAYS count strides). We apparently got 8 our first time coming off the left lead, and then followed up immediately with 6. 

So the distances often weren't perfect, tho oddly even the iffier spots actually rode fine bc surprise surprise, when riding from inside leg to outside hand the quality of our canter was vastly improved despite Isabel's protests. And our last time through I managed to actually think clearly enough (while letting go of my inside rein) to count and fit in the desired 7 to quit on. 

pictured: more pulling on that inside rein!
Phew. Who woulda thunk I could write so much about letting go of my inside rein?!? Sheesh...

Ultimately this was a flat work exercise (even over fences) for improving the quality of the connection and balance, which then ultimately improves the quality of our canter. Which itself appears to be the holy grail of riding at this point in my education haha. So yea, we'll be working on it. 

Have you had to totally retrain yourself about a bad habit like this? 


  1. Dude. I'm retraining myself on this every day. Remember when I showed you how I was raising my inside hand? That's a release, and reminder to me not to pull. I do that when I WANT to pull inside. Argh.

    I bet this was a tough lesson! Mare-Stare really didn't seem to be sure what I was asking for when I tried to make her sit on her outside hind and actually bend around corners, instead of just drag herself around then. Reminded me of another certain red horse.... who would still prefer not to work so hard at simply turning.

    1. yea dan said pretty much the same thing about how he has to work on this exact exercise constantly with his own horses too. i guess it's just not easy for anyone haha. and that lifting of the inside hand is probably where i'll end up after practicing this for a while - but for now i suspect i'd still find a way to pull like that haha

  2. Ah, that pesky outside rein! So important and so interesting but so hard! I love the cat photo with the caption about the inside rein. :)

    1. lol glad you like the cats!! he was giving me the strangest looks haha

  3. I think learning to get a horse on the outside aids is one of the hardest things EVER. I'm teaching it to a client right now and she's struggling a lot with it. Her horse is also green, which makes it a lot harder, but even a horse like Rico will take advantage of someone who pulls on the inside rein (ask me how I know haha).

    The big thing for me (and for the student above) is realizing that the inside rein is a crutch and it's actually causing the problems that the rider thinks they're fixing by pulling on it. Pulling on it helps bend? Actually it makes the horse more crooked. It helps put the horse on the outside rein? Actually it makes the horse lean in. It's SO hard to let that go.

    My advice would be to focus less on *not* pulling on the inside rein, since it's been proven that if you think about not doing something, you're still just as likely to do it (such as "do not think of an elephant" and you're probably thinking of one), and focus more on getting her better connected on the outside rein. While doing that, soften the inside rein every 2-3 steps to make sure you're not holding. That was my biggest struggle on Rico- focusing on something that I know I should be doing (like putting the horse to the outside rein) and not realizing that I'm kind of sabotaging it haha

    It's a hard lesson but it's pretty intricate dressage work, so that in itself is a lot of really good progress, even if she's green on these concepts! The fact that you're able to work on them now with her shows how far she's come.

    1. it's actually pretty useful to hear you point out exactly what the inside rein is doing even when i think it's doing the opposite. and good point on focusing on what i WILL do, rather than what i WON'T do haha - so easy to fall into that trap!

      when i'm schooling on my own it will probably take the form of checking in every couple strides and softening, but i think dan really wanted to drive the point home by reminding me every.single.step. it really made it super obvious !

  4. I too am an inside rein addict! I had one coach who wouldn't even let me hold it, I was only allowed to ride around with an outside rein. It was weird but it worked :)

    1. it's kinda funny how that works.... but all the same i don't think i'm ready to let go of my inside rein entirely!!!! i neeeeeed it haha

  5. Oh gosh, I have so many bad habits I'm trying to train myself out of! Letting go of the inside rein is one of them :)

  6. I love pulling on the inside rein so much, especially since my outside arm always likes to go hang out by itself on the rail and leaves my outside hand floating off in outer space.

    1. lol i just like putting my hands in my lap. or resting them on my thigh. except that ever busy inside....

  7. My biggest issue is pulling Sydney where I want her to go when I should be pushing her where I want her to go. I even catch myself doing it, and can't quite seem to get the hang of not pulling on that inside rein.

    1. that's actually a great way to think about it tho - pushing her there rather than pulling. seems like a better way to go anyway lol

  8. I'm actually really good at connecting to the outside rein. As long as my right hand is on the outside. WHAT?

    This is actually especially hard for me because one of the things that our dressage trainer uses to teach young horses to flex and bend is to totally let go of that outside rein and let your horse bend by releasing that outside "tension". She encourages you to add the connection back LATER, after you get a horse used to bending and flexing and moving over their back. So yeah. I'll be working on this too.

    1. hm interesting! i've been adding more flexing to our warm up lately too, so it's curious to see how it all interacts with my use of rein aids

  9. I too have a love affair with my inside rein. The thing is, I finally realize that pulling on it totally shuts down the inside hind leg, which makes it basically impossible for your horse to stand up in a corner, a circle, be straight... you know, anything at all? So I work very, VERY hard on keeping an even feel in my reins, and I've learned what it feels like what I accidentally pull and shut down the inside hind. It's definitely an ongoing struggle, but when I feel how much it negatively affects Paddy, it's a quick reminder not to do it.

    1. that makes a lot of sense about shutting down the inside hind - hopefully that'll be a useful way to think about it.

  10. I am catching up on blog reading as I take the train home today and this was a REALLY good reminder for me to work on outside rein connection when I ride today - so thanks XP lol as usual, I've got the same inside two pulling problem and I just had a lesson last week that was super focused on it!

    1. lol glad i could be of service! practicing this has been super hard for me lately too... partly bc i've just been in 'git-er-done' mode for the shows... but it's this really strange awareness that YES, i am pulling on the inside rein, but NO i cannot stop myself haha. eh, knowing is half the battle right?


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