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.