A Study In Snow

A second brave soul, WinterGlitter, has offered her equine companion for closer scrutiny so that all might learn.  Below is a detailed background of how she and Snow got to their current point.  I think there will be some amongst us who’ve had similar experiences.

 

Snow is a 12 year old, 14.2H Haflinger/ Paint gelding.  I picked him up from a local rescue that I was volunteering at in December of 2010.  The only information I have regarding his past is a little fuzzy.  Supposedly, Snow had been sent out for training to ride and drive when he was 2, whether he was ridden at all after that I have no idea. 

 

When I first started working with him, Snow could only walk and trot under saddle (he was incredibly unbalanced at the canter – think freight train running faster and faster just so he didn’t fall down), had a very rough concept of steering, stopping, and backing, and had many basic manners/groundwork issues that needed to be corrected as well (i.e. herd bound, not lifting feet/leaning on farrier, standing tied – wouldn’t pull back, but wouldn’t stand still either – and generally behaved like a ‘lady’s man’).  

 

All training and riding that he’s had since I’ve owned him has been done by me.  I’d like to continue that way, and would rather learn how to improve on my own with a professional’s guidance than have a trainer do it for me.

 

When I started working with Snow I did many, many hours of groundwork and ‘manners’ training: natural horsemanship, clicker training, traditional lunging, etc.  Snow has wonderful ground manners now, isn’t herd bound, and I wouldn’t be ashamed or afraid to let anyone else handle him.

 

I started out riding western, dinking around doing competitive trail, so that’s how I started riding Snow.  A little less than two years ago, I became interested in Dressage and Jumping, and started taking lessons with an Eventing Instructor.  I love it!  Both Dressage and Jumping are incredibly fun and I still dream about getting to an event one of these days, even if it’s just at Beginner Novice.

 

For about a year after I started lessons with this instructor things were going pretty well.  Even though I only averaged two lessons a month, I think we came along decently, working through some of Snow’s (and my) major roadblocks such as lack of rhythm, balance, suppleness, MY difficulty taking up contact (so used to throwing my reins away and riding on the buckle!), Snow’s stiffness and willingness to just brace against everything. 

 

However, last summer I started to notice some things I was not happy about with my pony’s training. I noticed he had started ducking behind the bit and breaking back at the 3rd vertebrae, which had never been his problem.  I was angry, angry at myself because I had followed a trainer like an unquestioning sheep and had allowed her to teach me to ride in a way that I knew was not right.  Her focus on pushing me to use more rein to force his head into a position was definitely not right in my opinion!  The more I thought about it, the more I noticed things I had been taught to do that were not right for me, my horse, and the level we were at.  I should mention at this point that cantering was still an issue, I could get a canter when I asked, but could not get the correct lead either direction (more typically to the right – firmly believe this has been an ongoing lack of balance in both horse and rider), and that I was – surprise! – unhappy with my instructor’s solution of using exaggerated haunches-in when asking for the canter; constantly, every time. 

 

So I quit.  I haven’t ridden with an instructor since then because I am being much more careful in my instructor search this time around.  I have continued to ride and work through the fall and winter when the horrible temperatures have been bearable, and sometimes when they haven’t been.  All the things my former instructor was advocating, I’ve ignored, and while my riding may not be truly benefitting Snow, I am confident that I am at least not harming him.  I started working more on long and low, relaxation, rhythm, suppleness, and making sure that my pony is balanced before I ask for the canter.  I can now pick up the lead I’m asking for (100% of the time as long as I’ve set Snow up to succeed) and I can even get a walk-canter transition with correct lead. 🙂

 

I’d like to know if Snow has athletic ability and suitability for Dressage and Jumping, and overall for Eventing.  I’m willing to work him up the levels as far as he will comfortably go, but more important to me is his sustainability.  Does Snow have any issues in his conformation that I’m going to be working against? Anything that could cause damage, pain, or lameness the more we ride and train?   

 

Without further ado, I present Snow (props to WinterGlinter and her excellent ground tying training):

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Neither the Haflinger nor the Paint is ideally suited to Eventing or the three disciplines of Dressage, Stadium Jumping and Cross Country Jumping that make up Eventing.  WinterGlinter doesn’t say how far up the Eventing ladder she wants go.   The lower levels can be tackled by a vast majority of sound, sensible equines without too much trouble.  Snow doesn’t have to possess any significant discipline specific traits, but rather just needs to be an all-around solidly ‘riding’ conformed individual with a good temperament to achieve those.  Let’s have a closer look.

Snow’s overall conditioning is lacking; sagging of the abdominals with a corresponding tightness over his back, and no clear definition of muscle groups confirms.  What’s below the belly line needs to be moved to fill in the topline – specifically a strengthening of the abdominals and the stretching and filling of the back and connecting soft tissue.

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The peaked croup needs to become less obvious by the loin becoming less tight and angular, and the dip in front of the withers needs to fill by reducing the bulk of the lower neck.  This can all be done with just good, correct basic ground and under saddle work.  There’s no magic or miracle required.  Six months of a consistent (5-6 days per week), well-thought out program that includes some stretching and massage, high quality feed, and plenty of turnout would transform Snow.

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There’s a lot to like about this horse, so let’s run down the list of strengths.

  • Excellent substance – we can thank the Haflinger for this.  He’s likely to move a bit more like a construction worker rather than a ballerina in the Dressage ring, but we’d have never expected Snow to be Baryshnikov in the first place without a good dose of Iberian
  • Excellent length of pelvis, almost 35% gives Snow a ton of power potential for collected work and jumping
  • Well-placed LS joint
  • Medium length of back
  • Proper angulation behind
  • Plenty of length to the humerus bone

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Like any horse, Snow isn’t perfect and possesses some traits that require working with/around.

  • Downhill build with an overall tendency in posture to place weight over his lower than ideal point of shoulder
  • Poorly constructed and set neck
  • Over-sized head
  • Withers don’t carry back particularly well, taking away strength of back structure

I did not mention the closed shoulder angle because it’s artificial, created by Snow standing over his point of shoulder and with the foreleg too far under the body.  Here’s another shot with him standing more correctly, but still in that forward and down posture tendency.  The shoulder angle is still closed, but only slightly.  Once Snow has been reconditioned and encouraged to move correctly his posture will lift and he’ll possess an adequate shoulder angle of 90 degrees.

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So how will these faults and weaknesses affect the final outcome?

As I’ve already suggested, twice, the final outcome should be viable; not entirely easy, but certainly achievable.   The downhill build makes getting off the forehand more difficult, but with such strong conformation behind there’s no reason why he can’t gain the strength to do it.  Hill work would be on my agenda for this horse and certainly doing cavelletti, gridwork and jumping on the ‘uphill’ would be included.  Downhill work – a requirement for cross country – would be saved for when Snow had already gained substantial strength, suppleness and adjustability on the flat.  Downhill work now merely encourages the poor posture.

Snow has a good bit of angulation to the hind leg, suited more to Dressage, but his femur is shorter than his tibia, which creates a shorter, quicker, thrustier stride suited to jumping or galloping.  Ideally for Eventing we’d want a femur and tibia of equal length with a little less overall angulation.  Still, it’s a solid hind leg that won’t interfere with lower level Eventing.

Even more than the downhill build, it is the construction and set of the neck, along with a bigger, heavier head (it’s a counter balance) that present the biggest challenge; hammer-headed and ewed.    I know that last may come as a surprise to some, since this is not typically how we envision ewe-necked horses.  The big difference for Snow is that his neck is far more deeply set and far shorter than most horses we see with ewe-necks.  He also possesses a good amount of fleshy cresting.

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WinterGlitter was generous enough to send along a riding photo.  While this is clearly a photo taken ‘before’ WinterGlitter started her new quest with Snow, it illustrates why simply shortening the rein and raising a horse’s head (what her instructor had her doing) in no way equates to correctness.

The lower cervical curve is dropped and bulging, the throat closed.  If Snow had a medium or long upper cervical curve, instead of the short one (and the mane was on the other side), you’d easily see that he’s broken at C3.  The entire neck is compressed as the rider has taken up contact, rather than horse stretching and seeking contact.   In part the horse’s resistance to accept contact comes from a too straight arm.  Elbows should be falling relaxed and bent at the rider’s side (red dot).  Too much inside rein has resulted in a shortened inside leg stride.

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WinterGlitter was right to question the direction her instructor was taking her in.  Perhaps when the relationship first started, she needed to become more focused and assertive in her riding.  A hired set of eyes that can identify that and push you forward isn’t a bad idea.  But ‘setting the head’ is a vicious cycle, particularly when you have non-ideal neck structure like Snow.  He wouldn’t naturally be carrying his head in that ‘Dressage position’ and by forcing him to carry it there through use of hand and rein means that to do it he’d have to invert his neck and make matters worse.

Snow absolutely must stretch that neck and seek contact before WinterGlinter takes up the slack.  Both horse and rider need to rely heavily on the great haunch.  Forget about what’s happening in front of the saddle and just ride the haunch.  Feel each hind leg as it leaves the ground, swings forward, and lands.  Control them with leg, seat and weight.  Ride the circle properly.  Embrace transitions within and between gaits.  Use terrain to your advantage.  Master shoulder-fore, then master shoulder-in.  There is no magic here; it’s just plain ole correct execution of the basics.

Displacement of the haunch to achieve a canter depart is wrong, all day long, every day.  Forward, rhythm, suppleness, acceptance of contact and straightness inevitably leads to a crisp, accurate depart.

Taking Snow beyond the lower levels would be a more difficult task.  I don’t believe it would have anything to do with him being unable to remain sound.  The ability to make the faster galloping times for cross country are just simply not in the wheelhouse of the bulkier equine.   His jumping form and scope will improve with correct riding, as the transfer of work to the haunch will change the front end musculature, but will it be enough for the larger obstacles?  Certainly the higher levels require a horse to be much handier, far more adjustable and braver.

Best wishes to WinterGlinter and Snow.  I hope to see some pictures of them together at an event in the near future.  If anyone else has some ideas and suggestions for them, I’m sure they’d be appreciative.

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38 thoughts on “A Study In Snow

  1. Mercedes, Thank you so much for such a wonderful article devoted to my pony!

    I’ve already read through the post three times and there’s a lot here for me to continue mull over. I really am at a starting-over point with Snow right now and you’ve given me a good base of information to work from. I most certainly would appreciate any advice, thoughts, or opinions from others: at this point any information I can soak up is gold, whether I choose to use it or not.

    It’s good to hear about the good haunch, not so great about the head/neck/posture, but I kind of expected that (well, the hammerhead and bad posture anyway, hadn’t ever suspected the ewe-neck for the very same reasons you pointed out!).

    So, how far up the levels do I want to go? All the way to the top! -insert dreaming big- With this pony? Well, I don’t truly expect Snow to have the athletic ability to handle larger obstacles or faster galloping. If he is only comfortable packing me around a Novice level course, then that’s where we’ll stop. Right now I’m taking it one step, one goal at a time, and since you have to start at the bottom, Beginner Novice it is!!

    This weekend I’m having Snow’s saddles re-fitted and will do so again down the line, after his shape/posture has changed (I hope!). It’s also getting to be time to have his teeth floated, spring shots/vet exam, and a chiropractic adjustment. Taking this all in stride we’ll be getting back to work with a good, structured plan. Once Mercedes’ suggested 6 months is up I hope I’ll be able to give an update without being ashamed of Snow’s saggy abdominals and bad posture. 😉

    I believe it was Edison that said, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and look like hard work”. Thanks for giving me a light to reach for, Mercedes, even if it takes hard work to catch it.

    • One thing that might help is keeping a detailed record, as well as writing out your lesson plans before executing. In those lesson plans you should include details for the warm up, work period and cool down. You should include a Plan B and all exercises you’ll do towards the goal should be detailed. Each lesson plan should be devoted to one specific element you want to work on that day. Keeping a whiteboard or chalkboard in the barn with at least a week’s schedule; Mon-ground work, Tues-cavelletti, Wed-hack, Thurs-jumping, Fri-off, Sat-flatwork etc… Do an entire month of scheduling to guide you and make changes as needed.

      I’ve never been in a performance barn, or known a good trainer to not have detailed records for conditioning/training and prepping their horse/s.

      • Thanks for the tips. I do have a logbook with a week-by-week plan mapped out that I’ve been waiting for better weather to get going on, but having it up on a board at the barn would probably keep me honest in sticking to the plan.

        • It’s a good reminder close at hand. At a quick glance you can see what you did the week before, yesterday and what’s planned in the near future. It’ll remind you of progress made, help you stick to the plan and you’ll be able to quickly determine if you need to make a change to things. I always had a chalkboard calendar in my racing barn.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your extensive knowledge. Great photos and explanations. So glad this computer illiterate found this site.

  3. My favorite part in this article was the picture with the markers showing Snow’s ewe neck. I can see a ewe neck everyday of the week on a horse like the bay that was pictured, but would not have seen it in Snow because of the way his neck is put together around the vertebrae. Love those markers showing how to see bone structure behind muscle!

  4. Interesting f0rme to see another rock-solid bull-necked chestnut paint, even if he is quite a bit shorter than the Paint Mare! I’d completely agree with Mercedes’ suggestions about stretchng the neck and getting the horse to reach and seek contact; you can’t fake the appearance of connection on a short-necked horse by rolling the head under into a “frame” like you can with a longer-necked horse. The classical dressage system my teacher uses involves sideways flexions and also teaching the horse to stretch towards the bit, and go long and low (not long and deep/round), for as long a time as needed (a year or two in our case?). It does change the appearance of the neck over time. Also, from my observations, the horses that get ridden with the faked rolled-under “frame” also go saggy in the back and tummy, and if they don’t have strong loins to begin with, they get hunter’s bump (strain in the pelvic ligaments).

  5. (Note to all: This horse I like! And I think I’m able to look beyond the pretty color). But seriously, to re-train a herd bound horse is just spectacular. I have worked with a few barn sour horses, and always avoided any one with serious herd bound issues. If it’s not to much to ask, how did you do it?

    • Thanks, I like him too! Maybe I made it sound like Snow was extremely herd bound (he wasn’t), but to be honest, if Snow had been more herd bound than he was, had be been seriously or dangerously herd bound, I probably would’ve needed professional intervention. As it was he never tried to bolt back to his buddies, he just jigged, couldn’t focus, wouldn’t stand still, and screamed his ever loving head off: all annoying but nothing that I would consider too difficult for me to deal with (bolting i’m not sure I could’ve handled). I think the key for Snow was consistency in his routine and the fact that I spent a lot of time working towards respect on the ground. There wasn’t anything I could possibly do to prevent the screaming so I ignored it . . . I expected him to do whatever it was I was asking though and rewarded him for the correct response. It seems like it almost corrected itself; the more we rode and worked together the more he would focus on what I was asking him to do and not on wherever his friends were. He does still have issues at shows: if he is stabled next to horses he knows he will scream for them when we aren’t working and he’s away from the stall. If we are working, warming up, or riding our test he is focused, but if we are just hanging out then he will call. I do try to set him up for success there though and NOT stable next to horses that he’s lived with, if possible.

      • You are really dedicated to have achieved this. Since I trail ride only, a herd bound horse is not for me. The only comment I have concerning your plans for eventing is that as a kid I boarded for a while with Sue Sally Hale. Her students did amazing things with whatever horse they had, not to many high dollar horses here. One year I went to Ram Tap as a groom, and those back yard looking horses did very well in the eventing. Good luck with this nice gelding.

  6. Well, I love my downhill ponies with their big V-8 in the rear too. Merc is absolutely correct that we suffer in some ways, but have plenty of power for the strength moves, downward transitions, voltes, etc. I think this gelding is a cutie and is of the type I would notice, though I’d opt for a longer neck. That said, having a low-set long neck is a lot harder to manage than a low-set shorter neck which is usually more flexible – less ammunition to use against my arms!

    I’d also suggest that Winter gets on a local fb group or two and look for clinics, read about the instructors and attend a few. I stumbled on my clinician after 20+ years without instruction and felt she is the one for me. She has the right temperament and wants a horse light in the hand and to have the the horse to carry itself without heavy contact. It baffles me as a newbie to the dressage world how many riders have death grips on their horses’ mouths. It’s not supposed to be a wrestling match.

    Looking forward to some ‘after’ pics!!!

    • Agreed on all accounts!

      I am definitely on the hunt for instruction, through Facebook, my area’s dressage club, word of mouth even . . . i’m just being pickier about who I work with this time, although i’m confident that I WILL find the right person/people to learn from.

      It was a tough lesson for me to learn with the previous instructor, but i’m glad I learned it before it went on any longer.

      I’m looking forward to ‘after’ pics too!!!

  7. i know how hard it is to try to learn correct dressage on your own, or find a good instructor. there are some great tutorials on this website http://www.art2ride.com/ on how to start a horse working over its back and into contact. he has videos of both young horses and old horses that were started incorrectly and/or which have conformation limitations. i’m not affliated with the site, i just find it visually very helpful. (look under educational blogs)

    • Thank you so, so much for the site reference! Like I said up above, any and all information to help me on the correct path is truly appreciated!!

      • This gentleman does a good job of encouraging people to leave pulling on the horse’s mouth to create the look of dressage behind. And he is kind and supportive in his public comments, as he should be to encourage people to seek help. Positive reinforcement of what goes right is the best way to make lasting improvements when trainning people or horses.

        But watch these videos with a critical eye in the sense that anyone should watch them over and over, look for moments when the horse loses balances, hollows, pulls or raises the head, go back and pay particular attention to the rider. Almost always the rider does something to provoke the issue, hands that pull back, are in puppy dog position, trying to recapture balance, etc. Find some good sources on rider position from a biomechnical point of view. Mercedes can help if anyone wants her help. The bent elbows observation is one that we all could keep in mind all of the time, riding western or english, long rein or traditional english ‘contact’. When we create a physical posture in ourselves that cannot follow the natural movement of a relaxed horse’s head, we hit it in the mouth. If we post incorrectly, we hit the horse in the mouth. If we have a death grip and uneven reins the horse can’t straighten and stretch down, etc. Many of us use standard english reins, they can be too short for a larger or long necked horse. Look at a couple of the videos with the wb or wb crosses, the rider has to give up the bent elbows to get the reins anywhere near long enough to let such big long horses to truly stretch. Get better reins.

        The trainer at this site tends to gloss over the rider errors, again, I understand why. But when we sit at home and think about what we see, we need to see those errors, relate them to ourselves, and become conscious of fixing them.

        • i concur he doesn’t talk as much about the rider’s posture, in those videos submitted by amateur beginning riders. however, there are quite a few earlier videos, with him or his wife riding/lunging and detailed discussions of correct way to do it.

        • Interesting website! I like the results he is getting in his horses: they are stretching out and down, stepping under, and moving forward, and then raising the head as they progress without breaking cadence. I browsed around a bit and all the videos I saw were about stretching and moving out. This would be a very good website for someone to retrain their eye; it is a great contrast to the rein-lame, rolled-under, hollow and stiff horses that we see so often. His horses end up moving nicely! His commentary seems good and precise. He notices when the horses start to brace, and when they relax and move out.

          What I couldn’t find on this site was instructions on the technique for making this happen. The videos that I saw were good perceptive critiques of how the horses were moving and improving, but I didn’t find a how-to video. It’s quite possible I missed this, so if there are some, please direct me to the right month in the archives! Technique is important, though, because without it we might be left with the impression that all you need to do is loosen up on the horse’s face and it will stretch down to the bit. This might work on a basically well-trained, long-neck, hunter-type, but on a horse that has been drilled rolled-under, or on a green horse with a short bullneck/eweneck, you need to spend quite a bit of time coaxing them to reach out, take the bit, stretch, open up, move. You also need to build up the neck and back muscles over time so they can do this, because they will naturally prefer to be behind or above the bit (I speak from experience with the Paint Mare …).

          The other thing that I didn’t yet see on this site is where you go with the next step, which is collecting and raising the head. Given the state of competitive dressage, I can completely understand and agree with the main message of this trainer being: stretch onto the bit and move forward. But I would like to see how he then transitions from this to “rassembler” and the higher movements, just to see if he is able to maintain the impulsion and freedom.

          All that said, though, I think the videos are a great resource for seeing how horses should be moving out, and it is something that can be hard to observe in real life 🙂 Also, there multiple videos on some horses showing progress over time, showing that horses’ gaits can really improve with correct riding.

          • look into Walter Zettl’s tapes, lots of good exercises, they could be more methodical, but still, if you want to see the opposite of crank and spank and getting typical amatuer riders to use classical exercises to create collection, his may be the best. You can use his book to get descriptions of the exercises to fill in with the tapes.

          • this is a link to youtube video of a training level rider, see the subtle changes to rider’s hands, position, etc. that really make a difference. He is always that low key, nothing is ever hurried or forceful, as you can hear him, everything is verrry quiet from the rider. I love to watch him work, I have gone to see him several times as an auditor.

            He works with people to much higher levels. I regret he ever got hooked up with the likes of the great self promoter. I saw him for years before that. Those people don’t do justice to that man.

          • When I watch those I’m always reminded of the time taken on the most basic of aspects (and the patience). I rarely see anyone taking the time to develop a correct walk before moving to the trot before moving to the canter before moving to the next step. Invariably, get on, walk once around, force the horse’s head down and continue the fight for the rest of the ride, walk once around, put back in stall.

  8. I think Snow looks like a very kind and willing partner. And that big engine counts for a lot when it comes to being able to overcome a downhill build, given the encouragement to use the back end freely and efficiently, he will discover for himself how much better he feels if he uses himself correctly and he will adopt that posture for play with pasture buddies as well as work. While he may not be able to become level, given his musculature and big butt, he can do much to unweight his forehand with correct work. He may never make it to the FEI level, but he can be competitive for lower levels.

    Take these comments for what they are worth, free advice on the internet value, and please don’t take them personally. I am not a good or natural rider, but I have paid for good advice for lots of years, and Mercedes will confirm I have a great library of classic literature that I have really read. Also any picture is just a moment in time, and we all have moments that we don’t want captured.

    You don’t have any major faults, which is more than most of us can say for ourselves. But there are tiny fixes you can work on in you that will allow Snow to relax into you. Mercedes pointed out the elbows, that is an absolute must. Practice finding them and keeping them bent. Correcting your elbows will help you from allowing your outside shoulder to collapse inwards, which will open your chest and allow you to use your abdominals to better advantage.

    Next, please look at your head and compare it with the rest of your body. To me it looks like you were on a circle based on the horse’s posture and where you are in the arena, but I could be wrong. You are clearly looking in and ahead as if you are on a circle, but you might have just been looking at your instructor as she said something. But if you were on a circle, your head was saying one thing and your body was saying another. And if you weren’t on a circle, your head was saying one thing and your body was saying another. In most circumstances, your head and your body should be in agreement about the direction you are going. In other words, if circling, your head should be following the inward arc of the curve several strides out and your body should be in the center of the horse but you should have the degree of turn off center matched by your shoulder position by swiveling at the base of the spine. Otherwise your head is off center and weighting the horse to fall to the inside shoulder while the rest of the body says stay straight, that will also shorten the stride of the inside front foot while getting the horse to crab, ie, not be straight, and fall out on the circle. This is why the masters say your shoulders should match the horse’s shoulders, if you are both bent to the same degree to ride the circle, the circle will flow without need for constant micro adjustments, and most adjustments if necessary will be by weight and leg. Also, without really making some huge adjustment, ride the arc of an ordinary circle with the idea that the weight is on the outside of the circle. That should keep you from collapsing to the inside, not really an issue in this shot, but a common mistake.

    You have lost your balance in this picture, it is subtle, but there. While almost perfectly aligned, at the top of the post, your foot has actually stopped being your base, you are squeezing a bit in the knee to keep your balance and your upper torso and head have fallen forward. You tend to stand at the post more than using your core muscles to pull your seat under and forward as if to come forward to ring a bell on the pommel and not to rise up taller than the pommel. Posting is not about standing up in the stirrups. This is part and parcel of when sitting at any gait, your seat bones belong under you not pointed out behind you. This will also take some of the arch out of your back, giving you greater flexibility and more shock absorption so you sit softer, allowing Snow to give you his back to sit on.

    Each of these adjustements other than the elbows, are small, an inch or so, in placement, but large in relaxation and comfort for you and the horse.

    • Jrga, you hit on so many things that i’ve learned in the last 6 months are wrong with how i was/do ride . . . you threw a couple points up that i hadn’t thought about before too. Let me go through and try to address everything you pointed out and maybe you can give me a little more input about a couple things.

      Elbows: I believe this developed initially because i was always trying to ‘lighten’ or ‘give away’ the extremely heavy contact i was being taught to take. I know now that i should maintain relaxed and bent elbows that follow the movement of Snow’s head, but i’m afraid that straightening my arms has already become an unfortunate habit. It’s on my radar now though and is one of the things i’m trying to work on, every second of every ride.

      On the Circle: Yes, i was riding a circle there. Thank you for pointing this one out because it’s not one of the things i realize i’m doing as i ride. In regards to riding the circle, my head and shoulders should follow the degree of the arc i’m riding, but could you clarify what my hands should be doing? I seem to have trouble maintaining my outside rein contact and riding too much from the inside rein too; before i realize it my outside rein has literally slipped through my fingers and lengthened as i ride the circle.

      Posting: I’ve acknowledged for awhile that my posting hasn’t been correct (another habit i’m trying to break) . . . there are pictures worse than this one that look like i’ve flung myself forward and literally stood up in my stirrups. I would say that a contributing factor here has been that i formed the habit of pinching my knee and lifting my heels to direct Snow instead of using my leg: i’m quite tall, he isn’t, and when riding with Dressage length stirrups my lower leg is not in contact with him at all unless i physically wrap my legs around his barrel.

      Recognizing my flaws as a rider is the first step, correcting them is going to be tougher, especially the ones that have become habits.

      Maybe you (or anyone else) can explain this to me:

      Today when i was riding i was working on relaxation, my elbows, maintaining a following hand, and encouraging Snow to stretch by riding him forward. Mostly we had worked in trot, but at the time we were walking and I told Snow to “go forward in walk like you mean it” and all of a sudden, for about a quarter of the long side of the arena, it felt like i was being carried down the track by a wave. I know my hips were still following the movement of the walk, but it felt effortless, like i wasn’t doing anything at all, and then of course it fell apart when we reached the corner. Is this what people mean when they talk about the feeling of ‘riding a bubble’? Or am i just hallucinating? If not, what did i do to create it and how do i get it again, because whatever it was that feeling was AWESOME.

      • Ride the circle with absolutely no inside rein…yes, drop the inside rein all together. That ought to present you with an interesting situation to work through. 🙂

        Seriously, if you can’t ride a circle without your inside rein in your hand, then you aren’t riding the circle correctly. Inside leg cues when his inside hind comes forward and the outside rein catches the energy, controls the tempo and bend. Have fun!

        I’d also suggest you start riding your corners and circles on the outside diagonal. That should also give you some food for thought.

        • Yes, i know just where the pony is going the very first time i drop my inside rein . . . right on out! lol, but that’s because i haven’t been riding my circles correctly. Seems like an evil exercise to me. 😉

          Outside diagonal . . . that is something to think about. I have noticed that changing diagonals changes Snow: he feels different when i ride on the outside, maybe more balanced? If he is more balanced that way, then why? Is it because i’m more balanced that way? Is it because he would then be carrying my sitting weight more on the inside hind? hmm, definite food for thought.

          Maybe i should have given you all of my worst riding moments and asked for a rider critique instead!

          • Yes, horse’s balance often is changed by posting on the outside diagonal because it tends to change the timing of the rider’s leg aids to being correct rather than incorrect.

            On the inside diagonal you’re suppose to (mostly) apply the inside leg aid on the ‘rise’. If you watch most riders, they are applying the aid on the ‘sit’. If they do that, then the horse has his inside hind leg firmly planted in the ground and can not respond to the leg aid. By posting on the outside diagonal, when the rider applies the leg aid on the sit, it now corresponds to the inside hind coming forward and voila, the horse can now react to the aid and take a deeper more centered body step, bend through the ribcage etc…

            Ideally, you’ll learn to give the aids at the appropriate time regardless of which diagonal you’re posting on.

            Yes, dropping the inside rein entirely can be an evil exercise for those who’ve become dependent on it. Once you figure out how to ride inside leg to outside rein…well, you’re most welcome and feel free to send me a cheque. 🙂

      • What Mercedes said, because you aren’t pulling his head into the circle, you are riding the back feet. Goes back to what I said about having to make lots of micro adjustments with the reins to stay on the circle, if you are doing that, you’re doing it wrong.;P

        Trust me when I say you ride way better than most people I get to see, I go to clinics and sometimes I am amazed that people stay on their horses at all. That often includes me.

        Tom Dorrance used to say you are looking for the small change that makes a big difference. I think your trot work probably felt better to Snow, he did in fact stretch, worked a little harder in the sense of using himself more fully, then you gave him an opportunity to walk but emotionally told him to really walk, and he knew you meant it. So he gave you a nice marching walk with his back lifted and his butt coming under him, roundness. So yes it might feel like a bubble, the back is up, and the correct balance of weight moving to the rear lets the big butt do its job, carry more of the weight and lighten the front feet so they are not dragging but reaching. A tiny reward for the both of you.

        Another exercise, which may suit you since you had some western background, is to have a long rein, walk shallow serpentines across a center line or quarter line, changing bend about every six strides, these aren’t half circle loops, more elliptical in shape, and you can use the inside rein at first on the change, just pick it up to establish his nose should come to the inside, but then release any and all pressure, everything else is maintained by seat and leg. So you walk about six to ten strides of the arc to the right of centerline in a very shallow inside bend, one stride straight as you cross the center line then establish the new inside bend, that first stride is when you can help Snow understand the request to change bend at the nose (what you are really asking for is to give at the atlas/first vertebra and tuck his nose to the inside). But the bend is established correctly by changing his feet.

        You probably know that the back end of the horse is wider than the front end. And if he brings his rear feet straight forward they would track to the outsde of the front feet, which does all sorts of things to his body and how he can move, but mostly, that is pretty much the physical description of crookedness, the back feet not following in the track of the front feet. So on a straight line, we need to learn to ask the hind feet to not only come forward but under towards the midline. A perfectly straight horse walking at a good working gait will leave two footprints, not four. The sport dressage goal of overtracking is really not desirable from a mechanical point of view it affects the even cadence of the footfalls of a correct walk. On a circle, you control the degree of bend in large part by how much you ask the inside hind to step up and under to the midline and the upper body position directs the shoulders in a greater bend because your shoulders and the head/direction of sight, influence the horse’s shoulders. You don’t need reins for that once you’ve done the exercises correctly, etc. Experiment with the bend by playing with the hind feet. It will also be part of lateral movements and shoulder fore and shoulder in as you learn to ask the horse to move front/rear on different tracks.

  9. I’ve been reading this blog too long…watching the Adequan Live Freestyle and picking apart every horse and rider. Oy vey Mercedes! It’s critique central from the comforts of my living room. Surprisingly, a lot of these GP horses are NOT down in their haunches when they should be (piaffe foremost) and their strides are quite short, driving from behind the hip or just barely under it. Good thing I don’t have mirrors, I can’t be doing it wrong if I can’t see me! 😉

    • On one hand it’s awesome when one can start to see what’s going on and pick things apart, understand what’s happening and why, and how it can easily be improved upon.

      On the other hand it gets real depressing, real fast when you see what’s being admired, copied, and executed at top levels. It makes me sad for the horse.

      • It’s also depressing to realize we’ve done things ‘wrong’ for so long and having to be more accurate and thoughtful in our rides. I challenged myself to ride outside rein only earlier today…can get about 15′ on left rein, almost half a circle on right rein. I was also thoughtful of riding the inside hind…pondering why we encouraged with inside leg off sequence. Then it dawned on me that I don’t. We bumped when the front leg was back to encourage that leg to reach forward….and in doing so, were affecting the hind when it is off the ground. Same sequence, different mindset. I’ve used this bumping in rhythm to encourage reach at a walk. I also found that I can cue on the correct diagonal now, which I couldn’t do well a year ago. There is no end to this….it only keeps evolving.

        • While cueing based on the position of the front leg can work/ends up working, it’s still a focus on the front end, which is inherently incorrect. Firstly a rider should be taught to focus on the hind legs, feeling them, and riding them. That alone makes all the difference in the world.

          Yes, there is some self-beating up we do when we first realize ‘holy crap, I had no idea’. But as long as you seek to grow from that point forward and not allow yourself to become willfully ignorant thereafter, then one shouldn’t be too hard on themselves for what’s happened in the past. We can only know what we’ve been taught, and sometimes we simply don’t know that we’ve been taught wrong.

  10. Winterglitter, I have a link above and I’ll put it here to a clinic with a training level rider with Walter Zettl. It has a very nice horse, but rider and horse have some basic issues similar to what we mentioned, he gives instruction, hand position, leg use, outside rein, etc. If you pay close attention to his instructions and watch to see when the rider can actually apply them correctly, you immediately see things improve in the horse. One also hears him talk about using the corners as the start of collection, etc. to answer part of Blondemare’s questions about a how to on moving on. The exercises are simple, the execution is the key. It is a four part series, I have the first link. He has a series of tapes with multiple levels of riders. I have been lucky enough to see him in person several times, he has worked for years with a grand prix level rider about 3 hours from my home, I recommend his work to anyone who doesn’t want ‘sport dressage’ methods, but wants a happy horse who looks beautiful and natural.

    • Thanks jrga for the link. I’ve read his book, Dressage in Harmony, and found it to be helpful . . . unfortunately don’t own my own copy to reference back to. I’m glad he has video in addition to his book for those of us not able to watch/participate in clinics.

      And I wanted to throw this out there for anyone who, like me, is looking for instruction (in person, in books, or in video) but is in a bit of a Dressage-Dead-Zone: http://www.giddyupflix.com. It’s like Netflix for equestrian dvds and they do have all of Walter Zettl’s titles.

      • THanks for the link, realized I didn’t put in the other links. Parts 1 and 2. In part 2 about nine minutes in is a demonstration of asking the horse to soften properly. It is one of the few times he will tell a rider to use the inside rein. Note the instruction is close the fist, no rein adjustment.

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