Tuesday, August 30, 2016

hot + emotional: a lesson with Stephen Birchall!

I rode in yet another dressage clinic with my most favoritest clinician, Stephen Birchall! When I found out he would be back at Austen's barn I immediately asked to be penciled in on the schedule. Um. Even tho I didn't exactly have a horse to ride.

But!! There are truly generous people in the world, and a lovely mare was made available for my use. Plus this mare has had lessons with Stephen before, so neither of us individually were strangers to him - just to each other. Meaning.... this clinic recap may be a slight departure.

"I HAVE FEELINGS SO MANY OF THEM ALL OF THEM ALL AT ONCE OMG" - Shen, probably
There was only one catch: Shen is very hot. And very sensitive. And basically has zero confidence. Literally every single aspect of this lesson was about giving her confidence first and foremost, and improving her way of going as a secondary purpose.

equine therapy session starts now
A very VERY distant third was improving *my* way of going.... which. Well. Is a disappointment in some ways. And is also VERY apparent in the video and all of these pictures (major shout out and thank you to Liz for capturing so many wonderful moments!!!!!).

Part of why I'm interested in riding different horses in dressage lessons lately is to learn to be a better dressage rider. Perhaps in some ways this lesson did in fact add to my education in that department... but idk. There are some pretty serious positional and balance flaws going on (like the fact that I still sit on the outside of the horse despite making such a huge deal out of it in the Grant Schneidman clinic this past spring...).

"OMG NO I CANT DO THIS THING"
I'm going to go right on ahead and forgive myself for those flaws and errors in my riding for now tho. While I may be 100% confident that a more correct seat or position could have further helped Shen, I'm also 100% confident that we more or less made it work together.

"good girl Shen!" - emma
"OMG NO I DONT THINK SO ARE YOU SURE" - Shen, probably
Shen basically can't walk on a loose rein at present. She needs a certain degree of contact and support (her owner described it as a "thunder coat" haha), from both the reins and legs. But like. Don't put your heel on her. No.

No seriously tho, Emma. Stop that right now.

Ahem.

She is very sensitive. A shift in my weight, a jiggle with my legs, just about anything could set her off. Really tho, when I say "set her off" what I mean is: a sudden rigid full body tenseness and quickening of the step that feels like a bolt but doesn't actually go anywhere or turn into anything. It's just all so tight omg.

"I DON'T KNOW OMG HOW WHYYY"
So it's really easy to feel like you have to grab at that and stop it. Except guys this horse really isn't going anywhere. That's maybe the biggest sole problem here. The horse just doesn't have a lot of trust or confidence to actually go forward. But she feels so stuck and tense and electric that a rider could easily be tempted into trying to shut her down even more.

"OMG NO DEFINITELY CAN NOT DO THIS THING"
We started off in trot fairly soon bc the walk was jiggy and tense so might as well just start moving out(ish). Shen right away puts herself in a frame with very little effort, but it's very false. And there's almost no energy coming from behind, even tho in reality she has nice gaits. It's just lost in the tension right now.

"OK MAYBE I CAN" 
It was seriously hard for me to not try to push her out for more tho haha. Like, I kissed at her once. ONCE. Because that was a goddamn mistake haha. Basically any leg was too much leg. The aid to trot was a brief fleeting thought about trotting, and maybe a gentle slide with the seat bones. But NO LEG.

"ARE YOU THERE OUTSIDE REIN? IT'S ME, SHEN"
I got a lot of practice at this too since once we were fairly reliably trotting, we moved on to trot-walk-trot transitions. Eventually followed by trot-halt-trot (intermingled with trot-halt-walk-trot) transitions. The biggest important detail in all of this was to find the moments where I could release.

listening ears. listening way too damn hard haha
Could I release in the downwards? Could I release the inside rein for three beats? Both reins for three beats? The outside rein very much felt like a security blanket for Shen - but over time she started softening more and more in the releases.

"OK THIS THING I AM DOING THIS THING IT IS OK"
Stephen also had me work on spiraling her in towards him and leg yielding back out again. This had multiple advantages - it helped soften her more, but also gave her the opportunity to do a thing nicely (bc she's legitimately a nice horse to ride) and get praised for it.

And yea, the praise train pretty much chugged around constantly in this lesson. LOTS of verbal encouragement and reassurances happening with every step lol.

"EVEN THROUGH TRAFFIC BUT DAMN I WISH THESE ASSHOLES WOULD GO SOMEWHERE ELSE"
Eventually we got to a place where the trot was pretty darn reliable, as were the walk breaks in between. Going into canter was kinda tough bc I really struggled figuring out this horse's aid (she did in fact actually take leg for the canter aid, but it was still a balancing act for me). And of course it was also really hard to not immediately pull back in those first rushy bolty feeling steps.

We had a number of false starts in both directions (just speeding up into running racing trot) before figuring out how to strike off nicely into canter. It was fine tho. When we'd miss the depart, we would just ease back into reestablishing our trot - nbd, pony, it's ok! - and try again.

"OK YES THIS IS A THING I CAN DO"
And guys - that was maybe actually the coolest thing about this horse. That TRY. She was sensitive and unsure of herself and very lacking in confidence about what we were doing and why, but damn if she seriously NEVER quit trying. And listening.

So after those couple missed departs when we corrected by going back to nice trot (instead of say, just running into canter), she figured out the strike off based on my (likely shoddy) aids and away we went cantering.

now that's a better trot girlfriend!
For... maybe a couple strides at a time before she'd lose the balance and break. But that was fine too. Just back to trot (and perhaps not coincidentally, this was the portion of the ride where her trot was the absolute best - she would really settle into a much more swinging trot like she finally could move forward) and then try again.

life is tough for those red mares
We finished by getting a couple laps of our little circle at canter where she didn't really rush or invert at all - just kept pushing and trying - then let her be done and showered with praise. Upon realizing that she then happily put herself into a stretching free walk on the buckle, I opted to hop off pretty soon after to let her finish on that note lest the walk tighten back up again.

she really has a sweet face
So it might not have been some big breakthrough fancy pants dressage lesson for me. I didn't learn any new movements, nor did I walk away sitting like a grand prix rider (in fact, some areas perhaps regressed... le sigh).

But it still felt like a real win. I learned a lot about giving a sympathetic ride. And about being accountable for my lower legs, and shifting weight. And I tend to think Shen and I were able to build some very real trust by the end of that ride.

48 comments:

  1. Aww, red mares have all the feels :)

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  2. You pegged every nail on the head so far as that mare goes! You did a GREAT job with her. I was most impressed with your constant praise. You're so so good at talking to horses.

    I've got photos of you, too, just need to edit. Wanted to yesterday but my yesterday blew up in a huge mess of grief and tears and chaos, so I'll try again today! (But it still may take me a year and a day to upload because of living in a barn with crap internet!)

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    1. Oooh thanks so much Liz - that's awesome!!! I can't wait to see the photos :)

      It's always such a pleasure to see you and I have like a zillion more pics to share from the day too (all those dogs OMG)! Can't wait to read your own post about the day too!!

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  3. What a cool lesson. She sounds like a sweet mare and she will go far with continued reassuring rides like it sounds like you gave her. Yay for riding different horses and learning all the diff skills

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    1. She was very cool. And I really do think she could get her confidence back too. She will probably always be hot and sensitive, but it would be awesome to unlock her "forward"

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  4. She sounds just like Stinker a few months ago (he is still like that for other people but he is more rexlaxed for me now). It is so hard to figure out how to ride that feeling. Kudos to you for all the progress you did make.

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    1. Ha thanks! I was really happy with how she settled (sorta) into the lesson

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  5. This horse sounds exactly like how riding B was when I first got him, OMG. It was so ridiculously hard because OMG SENSITIVE. I love how you got her going relaxed and more soft! Impressive! Also, I had no idea she was red until the last picture, hahaha. That explains it. Classic redheads. What a great lesson though!

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    1. Ha yea the tense sweats were strong with this one and she was pretty much entirely slicked with sweat by the end (even her pretty little face!). Definitely classic lol, and definitely a great lesson! I'm just a huge fan of this clinician too, regardless of the horse he always finds a way to keep it positive and progressing

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  6. Sounds like a super successful lesson! Love seeing the progression pics throughout the post, you can visually see her becoming more confident and comfortable. Good riding!

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    1. Well truthfully the pics aren't a true progression bc they aren't totally in order. All the high drama pics are stacked at the beginning and the better pictures at the end... Tho the last canter and trot pics are truly both from the end and do show a more confident and relaxed (ish) horse

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  7. god she is beauuuuutiful. STEAL HER. NOW. I'LL HOOK THE TRAILER UP.

    i love red mares, and I had a not so brief love affair with a red mare. but i am very frequently glad to deal with a gelding's opinions instead of hers.

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    1. I know right? She is really cool, and such a sweetie!!! (And the trailer is generally always hooked up all the time for exactly situations like this hash. Horse theft ftw!)

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  8. "ARE YOU THERE, OUTSIDE REIN, IT'S ME, SHEN." bahahahaha DYING laughing! But seriously, sounds like a great lesson in working on your 'trainer brain' and an empathetic, finessed ride. Bravo for getting the mare more relaxed in the end!

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    1. Lol that's mayyyybe my favorite line of the post haha :D

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  9. Aww, poor worried red mare. She is ridiculously cute tho... and the good moments are OMG REALLY GOOD. She's fancy!

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    1. She is a seriously pleasure to ride even with her worry and sensitivity. Definitely has some buttons!

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  10. She is a gorgeous mare. Sensitivity and all - wow!

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    1. Isn't she nice?!? A challenging ride for me but definitely a fun one!

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  11. She did not want to horse! Those are the rides where I repeat "Do not kill this horse, do not kill this horse. breathe. breathe. breathe"

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    1. haha yea.... actually tho that's what made this such a cool ride - she DID want to horse, and she TRIED SO HARD, not a quitter at all. she was just super unsure of herself and not really confident that it would be ok. so that definitely helped me stay patient and supportive

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  12. I love her name and I love these types of horses. I just want to take her by her timid little hoof, build her confidence and show her its all okay. lol! <3

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  13. Wow - I'm so impressed that you're willing to just hop on an unknown for a clinic that you care about all in the name about learning just about riding, rather than riding a particular horse. :) She looks like a cute little mare!

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    1. she was super cute :) and yea i mean, i do really want to be a better rider. it would be nice if i had one particular horse to work with right now, but barring that, i still want to get out and do things and have fun and expand my horizons!

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  14. Oh man, my paint horse was just like that. No confidence at all, nervous and tense, but will literally kill himself trying for you. Those horses are awesome to ride but man, you have to be so confident for them and then tell them they are the best at EVERYTHING. You did a really amazing job with her!

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    1. thanks! and interesting that you say that - she is a tb x paint and i really see a lot of the paint in her expressiveness too. she was very cool and i really felt like i could give her that confidence on the flat. not sure if i'd be able to do that over fences tho...

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  15. I loved this line: "
    "I HAVE FEELINGS SO MANY OF THEM ALL OF THEM ALL AT ONCE OMG" -

    So can you come and help drama gray mare with all of her feels? Sometimes they explode out all at once. That's fun. :)

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    1. haha yeeeeaaaaaa but your mare like... actually explodes lol. this one just kinda shudders and starts - definitely an easier proposition! but yea those feelings are apparently miiiiighty overwhelming at times!

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  16. Shen's face...hahaha!! Gina has the opposite problem- she is SUPER confident, like "LOOK AT ME PEASANTS I AM THE FANCIEST DRESSAGE HORSE" and when I'm like "uh actually Gina can you like...use your back?" she says "YOU ARE WRONG WHAT I AM DOING IS RIGHT SHUT UP"

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    1. hahaha Gina girl, what a character. isabel is somewhere in between, but perhaps closer to Gina these days lol

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  17. Sounds like a whole different kind of lesson than you were expecting, but a good one nonetheless. She sure is cute!

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    1. definitely a good one. and honestly not totally unexpected. i knew the horse was hot going into it, and the owner had very thoroughly prepped me on what they've been working on and what helps vs hinders. and basically beggars can't be choosers when it comes to borrowed horses. all the same tho, yea definitely a good ride!

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  18. Holy moly, lady - what a nice job you did with Shen. It isn't easy always getting on new horses and figuring out the buttons. All this experience is going to make you a great rider. She really made a huge change throughout the lesson. Well done!

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    1. gosh i hope you're right haha! i keep hoping that one day i'll magically transform into someone that looks like she knows what she's doing. and maybe i'm getting closer on figuring out how to get the right responses from the horse, but i still have a loooong ways to go on looking the part myself. oh well! maybe one day! in the meantime tho we're having an awful lot of fun :)

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  19. Very cool. My trainer had one of the young women that work at our barn lesson with him a couple of weekends ago. On the second day, she basically cantered in and out on the circle for half an hour. Apparently he really put them through the paces, lol.

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    1. that's awesome! i have REALLY enjoyed my lessons with him and pretty much wish we could see him every week (or every DAY haha) instead of a couple times a year. in my opinion, he does a really nice job of getting a good read on both horse and rider, and figuring out where and how hard to push, while still keeping things really positive. it almost feels like he gives us glimpses of the future, like "keep working and this will be your future normal."

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    1. lolz gotta love those emotional tbs

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  21. Lol hot, sensitive, but lots of try...sounds pretty much like my mareface. Rides like this make me visualize a tangled ball of string where you are first trying to grasp one end to sort out the mess. Eventually as you work out the worse kinks and tangles, things get smoother and easier..hopefully lol

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  22. lol despite everything that wasn't going as you wanted, there seemed to have been a lot that was going really well too! i commend you to just take it as it is and work through it! it's certainly not easy to do.

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  23. Good lord she reminds me of Leo, except for the actually somewhat knowing how to dressage part. Sounds like a really cool ride!

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  24. I enjoyed watching your lesson so much because Shen is Lily. She is Lily 4 years ago. Lily doesn't even have the excuse of being red! ;) Insecure, terrified of everything, but with so very much try. What got us through it all was a huge amount praise. She will do just about anything for a "good girl!" You handled Shen beautifully. <3

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  25. It sounds like you got some valuable time riding a very particular kind of horse and that is always a good feather to have in your cap!

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