Sunday, November 19, 2017

Frustration

In the winter, SFD runs unmounted and mounted theory education. While I was working on this year's theory plan, I ran across this, which was a class we ran several winters ago. I brushed it up a bit, added a few transitions (forgive some of the abruptness, remember, this was originally a class, so some of those rough transitions were actually discussion moments), and voile, a blog post. It's a bit technical, so my geekiness comes out loud and clear.  Feel free to skip to the end if you just want a plan. But if understanding WHY is important to you, get a fresh cup of Joe and enjoy. 



Frustration, in my opinion, is the rider’s Elephant-in-the-room.  It is the cause of unhappy training rides, tears, and over-correcting.  I hold to the idea that no one rides badly on purpose. I also know that ambition’s ugly shadow will always be frustration, and only Peter Pan has been able to escape his shadow. Show me an ambitious dressage rider, and I’ll show you a rider who deals with frustration. To quote Antonio Banderas, “Expectation is the mother of all frustration. “

Since frustration is clearly a downside of performance-based activities, and with so much research available when I researched about performance anxiety, I was a bit surprised that when I started researching for this class I didn’t find a lot.  I found lots of definitions, lots of examples, so it’s clearly a problem – enough of a problem that Amazon advertises “frustration-free packaging.”  But not much about what is going on in our brains, and on a few plans to combat frustration. So I asked Kelsey for help, and between her, my experiences, and some careful internet digging, this is what I came up with.

So here’s the official definition: Frustration is a feeling of annoyance that occurs when something doesn't go as you expect. Frustration comes from the Latin frustrationem, "a deception or a disappointment." (http://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/frustration).

Ironically, I found information about frustration was on the internet Pokemon encyclopedia. I never knew Pokemon had such an organized following, but then I doubt gamers know we spend hours making circles in the sand and get excited about a score that wouldn’t be passing in grade school. But I digress (again).

Turns out in Pokeomn, “frustration” is the name of a fight move. I love this line under “Effects” on the web page == “Frustration inflicts damage and has no secondary effect.”

It goes on to describe this complicated mathematical formula that quantifies the power of frustration based on one factor – friendship.  In that game, the higher the friendship score, the lower the power generated by the frustration fight move. So even in the video world, emotions, specifically friend-trust in this case, have an effect on the power of frustration.the lower the power generated by the frustration fight move. So even in the video world, emotions, specifically friend-trust in this case, have an effect on the power of frustration.

Leaving the land of video games and entering neuroscience, let’s look at what happens to our brains when we are frustrated. For starters, emotions in general are hard-wired into the subcortical nuclei, which brain researchers call the “animal brain” as it is so similar to that of lower mammals. 

In Animals in Translation, Grandin and Johnson write: "We humans tend to think of emotions as dangerous forces that need to be strictly controlled by reason and logic. But that's not how the brain works. In the brain logic and reason are never separate from emotion. Even nonsense syllables have an emotional charge, either positive or negative. Nothing is neutral."

In Pankseep's Affective Neuroscience, he explains that there "is good biological evidence for at least seven innate emotional systems…." The list, slightly modified for clarity of definitions to non-brain-science nerds, is as follows:
Seeking (anticipation, desire)
Rage (frustration, body surface irritation, restraint, indignation)
Fear (pain, threat, foreboding)
Panic/loss (separation distress, social loss, grief, loneliness)
Play (rough-and tumble carefree play, joy)
Mating (copulation—who and when)
Care (maternal nurturance)

Just to make things harder,  these emotional systems kick in  BEFORE neuro impulses hit the logic centers of our brain. In other words, we can’t change the fact that we become frustrated.  It’s part of our wiring.  So quit feeling guilty about being frustrated. It’s as much a part of our dna as your height and hair color.  But we can control what we do about frustration, so that is where we have to focus.

But there is one really scary thing in that list – that frustration is listed as a component of rage.  Also quite interesting is that when neuroscientists study rage, they find the paths in the brain parallel the trajectory of the fear system.

Certain stimuli trigger frustration/rage in the “animal brain” – things that restrict freedom of movement or access to resources.  Easiest way to trigger frustration and rage in a baby is to hold the arms down.  Even our horses feel frustration when we limit their freedom of movement.  But since we are human, we get the added advantage of our “logical brain” creating even more triggers than we instinctually have.

So here’s the technical list of how the brain is impacted by rage/frustration:

Areas of the frontal cortex containing reward-relevance neurons influence RAGE circuitry.

Frontal eye fields are impacted, drawn to especially prominent objects in the environment. (doesn’t this remind you of the tense horse looking for something to spook at?)

The orbitoinsular cortex—where a multitude of senses converge including pain and perhaps hearing—may provide specific sounds direct access to RAGE circuitry. In humans, these sounds may include, for example, an angry voice.

The nucleus of the solitary tract, which collects information via the vagus nerve that is probably related to processes such as heart rate and blood pressure, inputs to RAGE circuitry.

If I lost you with that list, here’ the Cliff Notes -- once the brain has started down the frustration path, the neurons fire in such a way to look for other frustrating things.  No real shocker there. Once the path is started, the brain has 3 options – follow the path to rage, jump to the parallel ‘fear’ path, or interrupt the path.

As trainers, of course we want to get off the frustration path, so we have to be interrupt the path.  Since frustration triggers increase heart rate, blood pressure and muscular blood flow, it will impact our ability to control our aids, significantly reducing our effectiveness as riders.  So we need to get off the path, and we’ll discuss how in a minute. But first let me convince you that you need to get off the path, even though, as trainers, that seems like the opposite of what we have come to believe is “good training.”

This, of course, go against common horsemanship. We have all heard that stopping when things aren’t going well is a bad training decision (letting the horse get away with it).  But letting things build is a worse training decision.  Horses learn by repetition, so if you take a walk break when it isn’t working, then go back with a better neuro-brain path firing and do GOOD repetitions 10 times, that is going to do more good in long-term training than one time pushing through the frustration and risking a really, really negative experience that you then have to fix.

Plus, since I showed earlier that frustration comes from the animal center of your brain, the logic center of your brain can start the cascade, but once it gets going, the neuropathway stays pretty much in the animal brain. It doesn’t check in with the logic centers of your brain. So your logical brain is saying “this isn’t working, we should do something else” but your animal center of your brain keeps hitting repeat, and it’s like an ink line that your brain keeps going over and over, making the line thicker and deeper.  Breaking that line is easy when it is one ink line thick. When it is wide and dark as if it were made with a paintbrush, it’s much harder to break.

I also want to point out again that this brain cascade bypasses logical thought.  Think of the rider who is clearly frustrated, and then hits her horse. Would that person hit a horse under normal situations? Of course not. Did she plan to hit a horse? Nope. But her brain’s wiring, in frustration/rage cycle, made that hit without checking with the logic sensors of the brain.  Often, ironically, with the logic center of her brain going “yea, that’s not going to work.”  So then she gets to feel guilt and shame as well.   

Why does the brain do this? Because thinking is slow, and a million years ago, when a human was  physically trapped by something trying to eat him, quick, strong, frustrated and rage-induced reactions kept him, and therefore our species, alive. 

A simplified way to look at neuropathways  is my ink line analogy from earlier. If you draw a line in ink, it’s a line. But if you keep drawing that same line, over and over again, the line gets thicker and darker.  Brain paths work that way too. If one fires once in a while, it’s just a thinly-followed pathway.  But if the brain goes over the same neuro-path pattern over and over again, it becomes a well-worn path.  This is how we develop habits. 

Like a habit, breaking the path when the path is still a thin line is much easier than breaking the cycle once your has rigidly gone over it and over it and over it in the last 10 minutes. But in order to break that pattern while it is still a thin line and before frustration has become a habit, we have to recognize the signs of the line being drawn in the first place.  Which isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Common signs:
              Tone of your self-talk
              Emotional build up
              Sudden change in heart rate/body temp

Just to make this even more difficult, remember that the neuropathway for frustration/rage are in the animal brain. So your horse is wired to feel frustration, and make that jump from frustration to fear (flight behavior) or frustration to rage (fight behavior). 

Then there’s an added phenomenon that happens in the natural word – synchronization.  It makes fireflies blink in the same pattern, and in herds, when one herd member goes on alert, they all do. They do it because the heart rates sync. This happens with humans too – In Spain, they did a study using heart rate monitors on fire walkers. The heart rate of the fire walker and their friends/relatives who were observing synched. Onlookers who didn’t know the walker, their heart rate didn’t line up. 

Same thing happens to horses and humans.  According to a 2009 study at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, again using heart rate monitors, showed synchronization.  When riders were told that an umbrella would open at a particular part of their path, their heart rates went up in anticipation.  And so did the horse’s heart rates, despite the fact that the umbrella didn’t open. 

As horsemen we know this, we talk about horses ‘sensing our fear.’ Turns out it is real. Think about a fearful student getting on a steady schoolmaster, and the schoolmaster soothing the rider.  So it works both ways.

Now remember that raised heart rate is one of the physical signs of both fear and frustration.  So once we get on that cycle, not only is our brain wanting to stay on that cycle, our mount’s brains do too, and they are encouraging us to stay there as well.

So our best tool to prevent frustration buildup becomes technique called “prepared but flexible.”  To be prepared but flexible, we need to not only recognize frustration, we need to know what triggers frustration in us.

Getting back to Pokeman for just a moment, another interesting component of “frustration” as a fight move, characters don’t come with “frustration”—it is a learned move.  Think back to your competition career. First season, everyone is just happy to be there, and wow, I even got a ribbon!. Second year, yea, not so much. Your expectations, based on your education, have raised the bar, and increased your tendency to be frustrated.

As the old adage goes, forewarned is forearmed, so let’s look at common frustration triggers:
              Restricted motion
              Lack of access to resources        
              Deadlines
              Fatigue
              Outside stressors
              Expectations
              Performance anxiety

When I look at the internet for tools to help frustration, it gives me lots and lots of sorta-but-not-really-helpful advice, from “take a deep breath” to “change your expectations.”  I don’t want to change my expectations, since that may lower my results, and let’s face it, I want a productive training session and a high score.

So my personal, keep-the-red-hair-in-check method for staying out of the frustration neuro cycle is to first look at my goals and decide how easily those goals could lead to frustration.  Then I plan 2-4 different paths to reach that goal.  I set up several check-points to see if I’m on the best path – in a training session, that will be a walk break. In a show plan, I’ll re-think the plan mid season to see if unforeseen elements have derailed my plan. But having a plan to flex my plans helps me feel less restricted, literally or proverbially.  In other words, plan the work, plan to adjust the plan, work the plan, adjust the plan, lather, rinse repeat.

So, like any skill, we have to practice it. Pick some goals, make a list of plans, routinely check for physical signs that the brain is getting frustrated, and adjust often.





Bibliography


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Feelings, oh oh oh feelings,

Rolling Stone Magazine lists the song "Feelings," written by Morris Albert, as the #9 worst song of the 70's.  I tend to agree. It's a cheesy, redundant, vague song about losing a feeling and not being able to get it back.  Kinda like trying to 'feel' a dressage movement.

As you may have already guessed, I am not a fan of “feel” when riding a horse.

I know, admitting this may get me banned from the “in” dressage instructors club, but hear me out.  My issue with ‘feel’ is multi-faceted. 

First, what riders feel is not necessarily correct or incorrect, what they feel is change.  That change may or may not be for the better.

Second, a rider’s ‘feel’ vocabulary is limited to the range of her experiences.  Unless a rider has trained several different conformation types up the levels, chances are their ‘feel reference’ will be incorrect.

Third, how a horse feels and how a horse looks may or may not match, particularly when a horse is learning a new balance point or a new movement. As a horse gets stronger, the same “look” may feel dramatically different.

Fourth, feel changes from day-to-day, depending on the weather, the footing, if the saddle has shifted back, the horse and rider’s fatigue level, the list goes on and on.  Feel just has too many variables to be reliable as a training evaluation.

Fifth, riders tend to get emotionally committed to what they think something should feel like, which gets in the way of an instructor helping them change the horse to become more correct.

So if I don’t teach feel, how do I help students become independent trainers?

First, I ask students to ride by landmarks and tests.

An example of using both landmarks and tests in leg yield: when leg yielding, using accuracy as a landmark, ride the movement from D to B. If the rider can accurately ride from D to B, instead of D-ish to somewhere-near-B, while keeping the horse parallel to the long side, the horse’s alignment will create crossing.  Additionally, a great test of balance in the leg yield is asking the horse to do a small flexion in the direction of the leg yield.  If the horse can do a small flexion change, without tension or tempo change, then the horse has proved his balance as well.

In shoulder in, there are two landmarks. First, if starting the shoulder in at M, can the rider see E through the horse’s ears, with both ears level, while keeping the hind legs on the track? If yes, then the angle is most likely correct. Second, can the rider push her inside hip forward, and line it up with her outside fist, without having 10,000 lbs in the outside rein? If yes, the bend is most likely correct.  If the horse maintains the tempo and increases his back swing when the rider swings her hips more, then that shoulder in is probably pretty darned fancy.

The second way I help students become independent trainers, and admittedly this is a bit contrary to my earlier-stated anti-feel stance, I ask students to let me label their “feels” for them. 

I rode in a clinic with a big-name trainer last November on Capi, and after a series of exercises, she asked me, “What do you think of that feeling?” 

“It doesn’t matter what I think, I’m memorizing it,” was my reply.  In that moment, I was noting where I felt the most pressure from the saddle on by seat, how much movement I felt in my hips, how much the muscles in my thighs were firing, and humming a song in my head (that’s my personal method for maintaining tempo – background music in my head).  I was creating a ‘feel reference’ for the trot.

When I’m teaching, if a movement looks correct, I’ll tell my student to memorize that feel. Nine times out of 10, they’ll say, “But that’s not what I thought it should feel like.” 

To which I reply, “’Should’ doesn’t matter, go with look, that’s what judges see.”  Then I let them hang in that movement for a few minutes, doing my best to give minimal corrections, so they have time to create a ‘feel reference.’

And thanks to the wonderful cell phone cameras, I don’t have to ask them to believe in me, I can shoot a few minutes and they can see it for themselves.

Once a student accepts the disconnect between ‘look’ and ‘feel,’ she is able to consistently focus on using landmarks, tests, and muscle memory instead of the nebulous notion of ‘feel.’  Which means, even when her ‘feel’ seems off, she has tools she can apply, tools that will let her confidently trust her training techniques.  And correct techniques consistently applied creates consistently trained horses. 

In dressage,  techniques are much better than Mr. Alber's "Feelings," which in his words, "never come again." 


Saturday, April 15, 2017

Clinic quirks

Riding in public is always an experience. I know, intellectually, that getting a bit nervous is a sign that the event is important to me. I know that I have to practice being nervous, so I see how my brain sabotages my riding. Then I can think ahead of my brain’s nervous quirks – forwarded is forearmed and all that.  So when Hassler’s announced Susanne von Dietze, a position guru, was coming, I figured who better to help me find my riding quirks?

A short aside for the dressage rail-birds that seem to enjoy finding fault with more accomplished riders and horses—I promise you, no horse or rider is perfect.  Every accomplished rider knows what her and her horse’s weaknesses are. They are actively working to improve those weaknesses every day.  For those who enjoy searching for those faults like they are buried treasure, knock yourself out, but know you are not making divine revelations here. Accomplished riders want to ride better, even more than rail birds want to find holes in other people’s riding. This sport is hard, and riding in public, with all the perfectionism and pressure we idealistic, type-A dressage riders put on ourselves, is even harder.
 
Back to the clinic - after last weekend’s clinic I’m proud to say two of my quirks are better. I was able to process what she was asking me to do AND remember to half halt most of the time.  My hips didn’t become stiffer than the white man shuffle. Two of my quirks still need work, though. My hands stopped following, particularly in the canter, and my right seat bone disappeared to some foreign land.  As I hoped when I threw my name in the clinic-rider sorting hat, Susanne had exercises to help me with both of those things.

Other than the riding nerves, there’s a whole slew of other performance-anxiety quirks that I tested last weekend.  The time table I created for arrival/braiding/tack/warm up was busy enough to prevent me from fidgeting, but not so crammed I felt rushed. That worked.

I remembered to order video (thank you Carol at Volte Productions!), as I am usually good about my lesson notes the first day, but the second day when I’m not running on adrenaline, I usually forget to get my notes down. That quirk I gave up on fixing, and just remember to order video.

There are, of course, other quirks:
For some reason, despite over 20 years of working in horses, and 12 years after opening my own business, my ability to feel confident in a clinic comes down to one thing – mascara. I’d really like lip gloss too, but no mascara, that will turn me into a completely incompetent rider, I’m sure of it.  Do I wear mascara every day? Of course not, for Pete’s sake, I work in a barn. But on clinic days, it’s essential.
  

Then there’s my phone. Why, oh why, does the part of my brain that is in charge of keeping track of my cell phone decide to play hide-and-seek when I’m nervous? This used to happen to my keys as well (I was really bad—at one show I had a locksmith come open my truck, only to find my keys were hiding in my jacket pocket. At least I wasn't wearing the jacket while the locksmith was there.), but our new truck has a keypad on the door, so I can just lock the keys in the truck.

Now on to the part you really want to know – what exercises did Ms. von Dietze have that were so helpful for Sling and I?

For my stiff, wall-flower canter hands, she had me ride with both reins in my outside hand. She had me hold my inside arm in front of me as if I were hugging a giant beach ball, then turn my palm away from me, and push forward in the same rhythm of the canter.  This worked like a charm. Suddenly my hands joined the party.  

For my roaming right seat bone, she had me canter left while holding on to the back of the saddle with my right hand.  Again, it worked great. Both exercises gave me a “feel reference” that I could check in with throughout the ride.

She had a couple other exercises that I really liked.  I’ve played with them in lessons and training sessions since then, and found them to be helpful enough to include in my arsenal.  Here are the two I’ve used the most in lessons since the clinic:

Diagonal/straight – in this exercise, I rode Sling out of the corner on a diagonal line. Once all four legs were on the diagonal, I turned him parallel with the long side. Once all four feet were straight on that line, I turned him back on the diagonal, and repeated this cycle until I ran out of room.

This exercise did a great job of putting the responsibility of self-carriage on Sling’s plate, instead of letting me help too much.  As he had to keep changing direction, he figured out quite quickly that he needed to “stay ready” and not let his weight fall on his shoulders. 

5/5/5 – in this exercise, I asked Sling to take 5 steps of walk, 5 steps of trot, and 5 strides of canter.  Note that those were steps, not strides, so things come up really quick. 

This exercise did a fantastic job of getting Sling quicker with his hind legs.  It also got him much more focused on my seat, as I had to use my seat as the primary aid to change the gait. If I used too much leg, it created too much energy, and I couldn’t make the next downward transition happen in time.   

Today I head out to ride in public again, taking horses to a local schooling show to make sure I have their warm-up routines ironed out before we head to our first recognized show in two weeks. Hopefully I’ll be able to keep track of my phone. 












Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Sling into Spring

This weekend I break the long winter's training by riding in a public clinic.  I usually don't stay home all winter, but this year I had new staff to train, several short-term horses in training, and a couple of Fl trips, so time got crunched, and here we are, with our first shows weeks away and most of my horses haven't gone off farm since October. So when Hasslers advertised a clinic, I threw my name in the hat.

I’m riding Wendy Adam’s horse, Slingshot, with all of his enthusiasm and antics, in Hassler Dressage’s clinic with Susanne vonDietze.  Which means I’m taking my most goofy, playful, over-reactive mount in front of auditors.   

Sling has been with me since he learned to carry a rider. I, as is my bad habit, fell in love with someone else’s horse, so we worked out an arrangement for him to stay with me long-term.  I rode him in a handful of young horse classes and taught him the basics of showing, or at least I tried to.  In the last few years, for the most part I’ve handed the competition reins over to Paige, Wendy’s daughter, who has earned a wall of ribbons on him.

Sling is a tricky ride.  He always has been, which is in part what I enjoy about him. I would not have been able to develop Sling without taking his personality intoconsideration.



He’s a very emotional horse, and we all know what he’s thinking, both in the barn and under tack. He can go from exuberantly happy to insecure in a matter of strides. His work ethic has always been tied to his fitness level, and he has always learned at his own pace.  Often I feel like I don’t really train Sling.  Rather I discuss dressage, and hope he comes to the right conclusion.

So why did I put this horse in public with a clinician who emphasizes biomechanics and position? Well, although Sling is quite emotional, at this point in his life, he is fairly honest. He has no problem telling me when my timing is off, but as he has matured, his enthusiasm for “the fancy stuff” feels like he’s cheering me on to ride better. 

Here’s hoping he’s not scared of the auditors, and that Ms. Von Dietze finds him as charming as I do.



Monday, March 6, 2017

Why do We Spend so Much Time and Money on This Crazy Obsession?

This is my attempt to turn a speech into an essay, so please forgive me my loose interpretation of many rules of grammar. I gave this speech Feb 25th at the French Creek Equestrian Association's Annual Meeting and Awards Banquet.  Fay Seltzer asked me to write it up for the blog, so here it is.


Why do We Spend so Much Time and Money on This Crazy Obsession?

When French Creek Equestrian Association’s president Fay Seltzer asked me to speak at this year’s annual meeting and awards banquet, she asked for a “husband friendly topic.”  After mulling this over for a bit, observing husbands at our recent schooling show, and batting the topic around with my husband, I came to the conclusion that the question every husband ponders is “what is it about horses that make my wife so happy?”  The “happy wife, happy life” thing only scratches the surface.

As a professional horseperson, I often wonder what motivates my students.  I see their over-booked lives. I see the sacrifices they make, both financially and time-wise, to be at the barn. I see how they struggle with fear and frustration to achieve their goals. I gear my business to helping them get satisfaction from the horses they love.  And I (well, my husband, actually) wonder why.

From a psychology standpoint, the horse-human relationship has not been studied much.  Equine Assisted Psychotherapy utilizes horses as mimics of human emotions to help with anxiety, PTSD, depression, anger management, and the list goes on. EAP has been a breakthrough for people who don’t respond to traditional “talk therapies.” 

According to Dr Gardner, in an interview for The Guardian, “One of the reasons I think equine-assisted therapies work so well is that everyone has a reaction to horses; nobody is indifferent. People either love them or fear them, so that's two big emotions that immediately reflect what most of life's issues revolve around.”

Although EAP is a far cry from the way most of us enjoy our horses, Dr Garner may be on to part of the “addiction” to horses.  Later in the article, he goes on to say,  "It has been clinically documented that just being around horses changes human brainwave patterns. We calm down and become more centered and focused when we are with horses," he says. "Horses are naturally empathetic. The members of the herd feel what is going on for the other members of the herd."

In our often over-scheduled life, a place of calm is often worth the price.

Taking this a bit further, I find many horse people are what I’ll call “friendly introverts.” They meet the introvert checklist, as Dr. Susan Whitbourne wrote for Psychology Today, a few of which are:

       1. You enjoy having time to yourself
       2. Your best thinking occurs when you’re by yourself
       3. You don’t initiate small talk with salespeople or others with whom you have casual contact. 
       4. You often wear headphones when you’re in a public situation. 
 5. You prefer not to engage with people who seem angry or upset.

I think most of these apply to horse people, especially dressage riders, particularly the last one. The article goes on to describe studies documenting introverts “re-directing” from high-emotion situations—redirecting their eyes in mild cases and physically leaving extreme emotional settings.

This ties in so easily to a common horse training technique – when a horse becomes tense or afraid, trainers often change the topic, wait for the horse’s emotions to settle, and then return to the scary/tense thing. As introverts, this behavior is hard-wired into us, and we get rewarded for being who we naturally are.

A student of mine takes it a bit further, and describes how her horse helps her bridge the gap between her strong introvert personality and casual interaction. She said:

 “When I talk about my pony to non-horse people, I talk about his personality. I tell stories where I interpret his attitude as if he were speaking to me. I like to tell stories about how patient and stoic he is. I talk about how fun it is when he runs around with the youngsters in the pasture. I tell stories about the times when all the other horses are running around and he looks up, decides it’s crazy to expend so much energy, and then goes back to eating. I talk about how fuzzy he is in winter. And then I show them pictures like he’s my baby.My friends notice that I tend to get more animated when I’m talking about Karison.”

Talking about Karison helps Cheryle bridge the gap of uncomfortable small talk so common in introverts, thereby making her more at ease.

Getting back to the barn aisle, stable life helps us horse people keep connections with friends and family that share our interest.  Just as a Star Wars buff finds his “herd” at Comic Con, we find our herd at the barn, at the show, at the paper chase, or at the hunt.

In the English language, the word loneliness doesn’t have an opposite. Light has its opposite in dark; anger has its opposite in joy.  But loneliness doesn’t have a word that describes it’s opposite.  Maybe belonging is that opposite.  The barn creates that for us.

I overhear conversations in my barn, and they so closely resemble what Stanford Assistant professor Gregory Walton calls “belonging intervention.” The three principles of “belonging intervention” are:
You are not alone.
You belong.
And it gets better

Walton studied “belonging intervention” in minority groups of college freshman. In his work, the “test groups” were counseled in the above three key ideas. That counseling impacted their academic performance and, surprisingly to Walton, their health.  The impact lasted through not only college, but until the end of the study, three years college. 

I overhear conversation that lines up with “belonging intervention” in my barn aisle regularly. Every time a rider is going through a difficult training stage, or a nagging lameness, or struggling to balance barn life and “real life,” I hear other boarders telling them they are not alone, listening to them, helping them, and reminding them that it gets better.  That shared empathy, that community, that belonging—churches offer it, social clubs offer it, and  barns offer it.

And when it’s going well, does it get any better than a great ride?
We often talk about a great ride as being “in the zone,” which psychologists refer to as “flow state.”
Flow state - also known as “the zone,” is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.

Situations that can have flow often have these two characteristics:
              High interest
              High but achievable technical skill

Flow is an actual brain-chemistry state, when the norepinephrine (brain chemical of alertness) and dopamine (brain chemical of interest) balance to make that magic mental cocktail, where we are totally in the moment. 
Pulling from Mikaly Csikszentmihalyi’s web site (he is, incidentally the author of the book entitled, Flow), several elements are involved in achieving flow.

·       There are clear goals every step of the way.
·       There is immediate feedback to one’s actions.
·       There is a balance between challenges and skills.
·       Action and awareness are merged.
·       Distractions are excluded from consciousness.
·       There is no worry of failure.
·       Self-consciousness disappears.
·       The sense of time becomes distorted.
·       The activity becomes an end in itself.

The best part is that this wonderful state can be created so easily in the barn. A quick Google search will find a “cookbook” of how to create flow, and a few of those steps are pretty much built into horseback riding:

1. Rituals to begin event. In our world, those rituals include grooming and tacking.
2. Be mindful (aware, but non-judgmental) about your thoughts. This state is easily created in the early stages of the ride as you plan the workout.
3. Being aware of your emotional state and modulating it as needed.   Every horse person does this – it’s windy, my youngster looks frisky, am I ok with that or should we lunge first?
4. Cadence training (focusing on a sound or song) or targeting to help narrow focus.  Just listen to a horse trot, and you can’t miss the cadence.

So whether it’s the sense of calm, the sense of connection, or just the mental “high” of a good ride, we all have the addiction.  Sorry husbands.


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Add-a-Bead Dressage Education

Sometimes I feel like my dressage education is an add-a-bead necklace. I take lessons, I ride and audit clinics, and I observe riders, and each educational opportunity gives me a new pearl to add to my chain. In the weeks since the Judge’s Forum and FEI Trainer’s conference in West Palm Beach and Loxahachee FL, I’ve found my teaching and riding sprinkled with the pearls I gleaned from my trip.

The first pearl was for me. The major reason I make the trek down each year is to re-set my standard. Winter in PA creates a challenge—how do I keep my standard high throughout the long months of riding alone? During the summer, I can sit ringside at shows, observing the JJ Tates of the world, and let my cognitive learning skills do their magic. I watch skilled rider’s body alignment, quietly effective aids, and the volume of their corrections.  This information worms itself into my brain, and my mounts respond. But the magic doesn’t last forever, so by mid January, 12 weeks after our last show, my training was feeling a bit stale.

After two days of watching 7 CDI Level riders, including such names as Canada’s WEG rider Karen Pavicic on her up-and-coming mare Beaujolais, and Beatrice Marienau aboard her Nation’s Cup mount Stefano 8, develop their horses, my internal dressage eye is reset, my brain is working out new training ideas, and my arena time now feels much more inspired.

Venus was the recipient of the next pearl. She often comes into the arena a touch on the unresponsive side. For her, the pearl came from Alexandra du Celliee Muller’s lesson on her mount, Rumba. I watched as Alexandra tried to subtly, tactfully bring Rumba more in front of her aids, and how that made her seat more and more crooked, just like happens to me on Venus. Then, as the clinicians Lilo Fore and Hans Christan Matthiesen encouraged her to get a better reaction, Alexandra gave him a strong (but not ugly) correction, to which Rumba splattered forward, dropped his poll, and lost the collection. Ah, Venus and I know this pattern well.

Lilo gave cooking advice that clearly resonated with Alexandra. She described cooking soup, and how when the soup needs salt, you don’t come in with the entire bag, because if you get the soup too salty, it’s tough to fix it. Instead you add salt, you taste it, and then you add more if needed.

Was the result magical? I’d be lying if I said Lilo’s words made a 100% turnaround, but it did make a difference, in not only Rumbas balance, but Alexandra’s straightness. Lilo made clear to all of us, riders, judges, and auditors, that this is not a quick-fix problem. And, of course, as horses are apt to do, Rumba set out to prove Lilo wrong – he came in on day two more uphill and more prompt in his responses.

Slingshot also received a pearl, this time from Dana Fiore’s lesson on So Special. So Special wanted to come short and deep in the neck, putting too much weight on his shoulders, which affected his suspension. Dana applied the clinician’s corrections to “show him the way up” through variations in shoulder in– the two that made the biggest difference were trot-walk in shoulder in, and varying the angle of shoulder in while maintaining the same bend. Throughout the ride, So Special’s trot gained more and more airtime.

My students and I all received a pearl from Karen Pavicic’s lesson on Beaujolais and Debbie Hill’s lesson on Cartier, a 9-year-old Dutch Harness Horse (who, incidentally, at one point in his career came through New Holland horse auction). Both horses were big, powerful moving horses, with a ton of bounce in their gait, and a tendency to carry their heads high. The corrections – focusing on hands going with seat bones in the canter, connecting calves to the bouncy horse, and making collection changes in small increments to help the horse understand to use their hips instead of their neck, keep getting repeated in my home sandbox, both to myself and my students.

Like an add-a-bead necklace, each pearl I gain creates a more complete string of knowledge on how to better develop horses and riders in this beautiful sport.











Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Seat Toy Box

Of course, it's No Stirrup November, and SFD just began a no-stirrup challenge on the Straight Forward Dressage Facebook page, so a blog post about the seat seemed fitting.

One student very frankly told me why she booked her first lesson with me. She said she was tired of being beat by my students at shows, and that all of my students had nice seats. I took that as high praise.  Another SFD student is a two-time blue ribbon holder from Dressage Seat Equitation at Dressage at Devon - heck, every SFD student who competed in DSE ribboned in that division in 2015 and 2016. Go Team SFD!

So how exactly do I build that seat? Jokingly, I tell people I take stirrups away, tie them to the saddle, and chase them with whips. Which is actually pretty close to the truth.  SFD students spend time on the lunge lunge line, they work without stirrups, and from time to time, they ride with various "toys."

The SFD seat method is based on two ideas.
1) The dressage seat takes fitness, and fitness comes from work, both on the horse and off of the horse.
2) In order to recreate the correct feel on a horse, you need to first feel it. Which is where the "toys" come in.

So here's my build-a-seat "toy" box. Each of the "toys" is selected to help the rider get a certain feeling, with hopes that the rider can re-create a tiny bit of that feeling without the "toy."  None of these "toys" are perfect, each has quirks and limitations, but point of the "toys" is to create a feeling, not perfection.   (fwiw, none of the affiliated "toy" companies have approached me about this blog.)


Of course, we start with the lunge line. Lots and lots of time on the lunge line. With stirrups, without stirrups, with one stirrup, doing funky exercises with arms. doing funky exercises with legs, etc. This builds fitness, balance, and confidence.

This is the Unisit. It really is a seat belt that holds the rider's thighs in the saddle. It does a good job showing students how to lengthen the thigh and reach down with the knees, engaging the abdominal muscles and the inner thigh muscles.

The Unisit does have it's limitations though -- it pulls riders a bit too much on the front of the seat (making it uncomfortable in delicate places), it can make thighs a bit grippy, and  it  keeps rider's seats very straight in the saddle -- some horses are reluctant to canter in it.  Also, if the saddle doesn't fit the horse, horses will get resistant in it.

This is the Unisit on a rider. You can see how it encourages a long thigh. 


This is the Equicube. It is a 3.2 lb weight that riders hold with their reins. It is held in front of the saddle, just above the withers.  I often use it right after the Unisit, as holding a weight out in front of the body encourages riders to lean back to counterbalance the weight, resulting in students sitting more on their seat bones--which corrects the Unisit's problem of putting riders a bit on the front of their seats. In addition, the Equicube helps riders tap into steering with both reins and their seat. Most riders feel the Equicube in their abdominal muscles and in their upper back.

The problem with the Equicube is two-fold -- 1) holding a whip along with a weight and reins is tough, so lazy horses will take advantage. 2) the weight is a bit much for younger riders and riders with shoulder injuries.  I wish they made an Equicube-light.

This is a metronome. The base of the training scale is rhythm with correct tempo and energy.  Most horses change tempos depending on the figure and where they are in the workout, and riders politely adjust their seats to the horse's tempo.  Giving riders a set "tick" in their ear encourages riders to set the tempo instead of following the horse's tempo.

The trick to getting the most benefit from the metronome is insisting that riders RIDE the tempo, instead of correcting the horse to the tempo. If the rider keeps correcting the tempo, the horse will overshoot it - first slower, then faster, then slower -- instead of the horse locking into following the rider. Most riders are a bit sore everywhere when they first start using a metronome, as controlling 1,000 lb horse takes clarity of movement.

These are my low-tech bits of baling twine. The orange one is a loop, that I use to help wandering hands. Often, as riders concentrate on seat, leg, balance, steering, the hands go wandering off a bit. By slipping this loop in the velcro of gloves, it gives a gentle reminder to keep hands up.

The two blue ones are used to  tie elbows to belt loops, again to give riders a feeling of when their elbows are drifting away.

Hands and elbows often wander when the horse is just a little behind the leg -- not backed off enough to appear slow, but backed off enough to not be stepping fully into the contact. Rider's widen their hands and arms to maintain the lighter contact.. These two tools help riders notice that wandering created by the backing off, and correct the horse with their leg -- hopefully before I notice it. 


These are the newest addition to my toy box -- the Perfect Heel from PS of Sweden.  Tucked in side of these Velcro-on heels are two weights.  I use them for two scenarios.

First, if a student has worked hard with out stirrups to create a nice, long thigh and deep seat, but once we add the stirrups back the seat begins to bounce, these heels are quite helpful. That bounce is coming from ankles that tighten when they feel the steady surface of the stirrup. Add the Perfect Heel helps the rider re-create the "draped" feeling of no stirrup work, while keeping the stirrup platform under their foot.

Second, for students who tend to use their heel to do all of their leg aids, the Perfect Heel will encourage a stretched calf from which to aid.  Once that feeling is established. riders are more easily able to tap into individual parts of their leg as aids -- the inner thigh, the knee, the calf, and the heel.    I see this a lot in riders on smaller horses, where the horse's belly falls away from the lower leg. 


This is another shot of the Perfect Heel where you can see the weights. They are removable. Most riders feel the difference with two weight plates in the heel, but I take one plate out for my younger students.