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.

Friday, November 4, 2016

KHDTS Symposium Report

We were unloading at the BLMs when I received the e-mail from Jann, the secretary at Hassler Dressage, that Secret and I had been selected in the upcoming KHDTS (Klimke Hassler Dressage Training Symposium) Oct 28-30 2016.   Which is awesome, and a bit terrifying, all at the same time.

The next e-mail asked for permission to use video from the clinic as part of an online video library.  I agreed, as it seems like the right thing to do. Then noted my nervous-meter creeping up.

My Facebook feed and inbox started filling with more and more ads for the clinic, then the Saturday reception was advertised as full.  From attending previous clinics at Hasslers, I know that means close to 200 auditors – nervous-meter cranked up another click.

Linda was right with me.  She checked out the rider list, and realized that not only was Secret the only non-warmblood, she was the only mare.  I was pretty sure we would also be at least 5 inches shorter than any other horse there.

The week before, my groom was on vacation. She returned to work on Thursday, and my working student, who had been trying to muscle through work with a stomach bug, gave up and called out sick. Which pushed packing for the clinic to Friday morning, with us leaving early afternoon--nothing like a little frantic activity on top of nerves.

I am a chronic over-packer.  With the temperature doing it’s normal PA fall fluctuations, and nerves telling me I need to look tidy no matter what, I just kept throwing in more and more clothes.   Then, in last-minute panic, I tossed in yet another outfit.   If nerves completely sabotaged my riding, at least I’d look tidy.
Check out that boot polish - the square is a reflection of the window pane, and my boots are not patent leather. This is a bright, shiny example of nerves.

In the spirit of getting the most out of the weekend, I signed up for an additional lesson with Michael on Friday. I tend to ride like a robot when I’m getting used to a new instructor, so I thought it best  to get that out of my system before the auditors showed up.  

I made my hellos to Michael, told him a bit about Secret – age, show experience, her highlights (canter pirouettes), what I’d like improved (more cadence in the trot, help with her hard flying change), and Scott added that he thought Secret would be a good horse to show the auditors about early piaffe/passage training. I purposely didn’t mention her breeding.

Michael watched me warm up, then stopped to discuss the training plan. I realized (and he commented) that I was out of breath – yep, I was in total nervous mode, complete with holding my breath. 

 We went to work, in a format that he held to in all of the lessons – first transitions within the gait, go a bit from the leg, come back with the upper body to test the half halt. Once he was happy with that, then trot canter transitions until they were fluid. Then into the work phase.

First we spent time in the working pirouettes.  He had me ride her a bit more up in the shoulders, and had me use my upper body more firmly to help with the collection.  He asked me to ride the first step of the pirouette small, then make them bigger as we went, and stressed that I needed to know how many strides I wanted to put in my pirouette before I began it.  Then he sent me across the diagonal, with instructions to ride a full pirouette at X.  My mind got a bit racy – I have ridden full working pirouettes on Secret, and technical, show-pretty half pirouettes, but I had not asked her to give me a show-quality, at-a-specific-spot-in-the-arena full pirouette.

I headed out, collected, rode the first half of the pirouette well, then, like a nit whit, started pumping with my upper body in the second half. Secret politely covered for my messy riding.  The good news is Michael let us do it again, and I rode like I actually have sat on a horse before in my life.

Then Michael gave us a break and asked me about her breeding. When I told him, he said, “when you came in, I wondered what pony is this? But then she goes to work, and she can do the job.”  I admit, I enjoyed that Secret surprised him.

Next Michael came in with the in-hand whip. I had done a little bit with Secret between the BLMs and this clinic, just teaching her to walk and halt from my body language and voice on the ground, and teaching her lift each leg when it is touched with the whip.  Secret is half Arab, so she picks up on “tricks” quickly.

We made a good start on the piaffe, so we moved on to the changes.  Secret has had trouble with her right-to-left change. Recently I made some equipment changes, and as a result she was keeping her back more lifted and the changes were coming clean at home.  But I had been getting them clean by letting her go in a lower frame for the changes, and doing them early in the ride while her back strength was fresh.  Now we were late in the workout, and I was no-way going to lower her frame in front of the German. 

So the changes were messy.  Michael took my stirrups and whip away, to get me sitting back more in the changes.   We played with several different patterns, to find the one where she could keep her frame up AND do a clean change. Then we rewarded her.

He watched a few half passes in trot and canter, which he announced were “fine,” and we wrapped up the first lesson. I was starting to think I’d be ok in front of all of the auditors.

At the rider’s meeting shortly after my lesson, Jann announced that the riders needed to meet with the videographer for a short interview.  Interview? On camera? The nerves jumped right back up.

I had a bit of time between my lesson and dinner, so I went for a short run to burn off the rest of my stupid nervous energy, then grabbed a shower and headed out to the rider’s dinner.  Food, wine, and laughing at funny stories dissipated the rest of my nerves, so I figured I had a chance at sleeping.

I was a mid-morning ride, so to keep me from fretting, I braided Secret and Eiren Crawford’s mount, Godot SSF.  Both turned out pretty nicely, if I do say so myself.

In our Saturday lesson, Secret proved she understood how to lift her hind legs, by picking them up the minute Michael came near her, before he even cued, which generated chuckles from the audience. She tried a bit too hard in the in hand work, resulting in a bit of rushed, quick steps.  She redeemed herself in the pirouette work, making even better quality pirouettes than the day before.

That night was the lecture, and here’s some cut-and-pastes from my notes:

·         Riders  are responsible to be theoretically fit. Not just rely on the trainer on the ground.
·         Replace  'why won't he' with looking at it from the horse's perspective.
·         Teach a horse a movement - 'get it done.' Once you can get it done,  then time to polish.
·         For every time you have to ride a transition, it's reacting.  Every time you ride a transition because you want to, that's training.  Same with half halt.
·         If the gaits change when go into lateral work, it is a problem. Fix it before the movement.
·         Balance control with quality of gait/beauty.
·         Ideally should be able to dial the positive tension up or down.

After the lecture, Carol Havelka, the videographer, cornered the riders for our interviews.  Cue the nerves—instantly I was at full blown to panic. I had crazy helmet-hair that was hidden under a ball cap and my chin was peeling from windburn the weekend before. I borrowed a lipstick from Linda, and as I used my reflection in a window to put it on, I didn’t realize until afterwards that my eyeliner had melted when I rode, giving me two nice raccoon eyes. 

Then, to make it even better, I stuttered in the interview, mispronounced Linda’s last name, and got mentally flustered. I was trying to describe Secret’s work ethic, and between the thoughts of “10 on try” and “100% effort every day,” I managed to make her a 10% try horse.  I hope Carol is an editing wizard, as I didn’t give her much to work with. The video will be online in January, and I don’t intend to ever watch my interview. Ever.

On Sunday, after the warm up, we began with patterns to help her changes, and tons of rewards when she got her harder change clean and right with my aids. 

For the half steps,  Michael wanted to do the in hand work without a rider. Secret proved she had been thinking about it in her stall, and by the end gave some lovely, recognizable piaffe steps.  He announced she had “ability for piaffe,” which is high praise from a German.

Then with me up, we did a ton of transitions between half steps in sitting trot, then forward rising trot to help create more swing in her trot. We didn’t turn her into a warmblood by any means, but I could feel her starting to use her back in a more swinging way in the trot. When we played with the medium trot, she was more able to lengthen he strides without defaulting to her usual quicker strides.  This is an area we will continue to work on, but I felt true progress in the quality of her trot this weekend.

We ended the lesson with some half pass work. During one half pass, he had me move my inside hand more away from her neck. Then he asked me to keep my hands closer together, so I moved my outside hand over, and felt Secret wrap her body more around my leg with no shifting in her balance. That was really cool.

I am now home, and with videos of my lessons as well as notes from my and the other rider’s lessons, I’m inspired for the fall training season. 

Thank you to Scott and Suzanne Hassler for including me in this event, to the staff of Hassler Dressage for keeping all of it running smoothly, and to all of the event sponsors that helped make this happen. Thank you to Linda, for being Secret and my biggest cheerleader up the levels. Special thanks for Secret, for covering most of my nervous-nitwit moments.  And a special thanks to Michael Klimke, for giving so much of his knowledge to all of us.