Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Control the Shoulders, Control the World

First of all, greetings from Riga, Latvia! In a somewhat absurd turn of events, my mother has business here and managed to figure out a way to sneak me along for the ride. I haven't been on a business trip with her since I was a kid, and certainly never to a location as exotic as this, so I'm feeling pretty lucky! I'm here for the rest of the week, and then we're racing back to the farm to enter the last few frantic weeks of preparation before two back to back clinics at our house (Jane Hamlin and Eric Smiley) and my brother's wedding, also at the house--no rest for the wicked, clearly.

In the meantime, I got to squeeze in two lessons with Kim yesterday morning before leaving for the airport, one with Ringo and one with Ky. Kim recently successfully made her Grand Prix debut, so after some serious congratulations, we got underway, with Ringo leading off. What follows is a pretty comprehensive novel of the lesson experience with, admittedly, very few relevant photos or videos, so if you're in a rush feel or don't want to read 1000 words of lesson recap feel free to skip down to the summary and wrap up at the end (I don't blame you, haha).


I stressed right from the beginning that I really wanted to work on my position, as my videos from my last lesson with Kim, plus a lot of the photos that my friend Patrick took of me riding Freddie, painted a pretty rugged picture in terms of rider crookedness. I know that my position is holding both of my horses back at the moment, and in these next few months of winter practice, I really want to work assiduously at getting straighter and stronger as a rider. Kim highly approved of this evaluation, and we set off.

(Not straight. At all.)

Right from the beginning, she was very picky about my position, and especially my oft-wandering left wrist and collapsing left shoulder. It was awesome! I felt somewhat idiotic to have to be told over and over and over again to put my left thumb back on top, but if that's what it's going to take to break that bad habit, so be it! Kim correctly pointed out that with my wrist the way it is now (I tend to break my wrist in and turn my thumb over to the inside), I can't use my arm properly and so can't form a steady connection with Ringo's mouth.

She also took me to task for sometimes wagging Ringo's head to make him falsely submissive in his neck, without actually making him straight and connected in his body. It was a bit of a wake up call to get called out on seesawing my horse's mouth (a cardinal sin if there ever was one!) but it was exhilarating to feel the difference in the connection when I did it properly.

Kim urged me to really control his shoulder with a steady outside rein, and then use my inside leg to add energy without resorting to waggling my inside hand. When I got control of his shoulders, he felt like a completely different horse - the connection to the bridle went from somewhat tenuous and something that I felt like I always had to fiddle with to keep in place to being rock solid, even, and easy, while his trot got instantly more powerful and supple.

For the duration of the lesson keeping this level of straightness was pretty much a series of constant corrections, as I've ridden him not-quite-straight with his shoulders to the outside for a loooooooong time now, so both of our natural tendencies were to immediately slip into bad habits again. Kim stressed that getting Ringo so that he was consistently straight, without constant correction, had to be one of my biggest goals for the winter, because without real straightness the move up to 4th level was going to be very, very hard. This was just the sort of homework I've been craving, so I'm really excited to work on building on what we worked on today over the next few weeks. We gave Ringo some big pats and moved on to the little Dude.


Kim had never met Ky before, so I started off by giving her a quick rundown of his history. Kim liked his conformation right away, and was impressed with his naturally uphill way of going. I was pretty honest with her that I've been struggling a little bit with getting him more steady into the contact, so we went right to work on trying to improve that. Kim also immediately picked up on the other major problem I've been struggling with, which is his current lack of adjustability in the trot: he'll either race along, or stall--neither ideal for dressage!

(My messed up left wrist strikes hard)

Working on a 20 meter circle, Kim had me try to ease Ky into a slightly slower trot while simultaneously adding energy to his step behind--easier said than done! The first few times, he pretty much jammed on the breaks when I asked him to slow down, locking his back and throwing his head up. My gut reaction was to go to my hand (which obviously is the wrong choice!), but Kim reminded me to be as steady and allowing with my hand as possible. She also reminded me that the reason he was bouncing off the reins was because he lacked confidence in the contact, which I was a little embarrassed to admit I had never considered before--Ky always seems so self-confident to me that I never imagine him being nervous or unsure at all. But Kim was right, and the quieter and more inviting I was with my hands and aids, the better he went. (funny how it usually works that way…)

As we worked on finding a happier medium in terms of pace and energy, Kim also had me add in some smaller circles with a following, opening rein and supporting inside leg to try to encourage him to unlock his neck and back and bend more. It was sort of the opposite problem of Ringo, who is hyper-flexible in his neck and so I had to think about straightening out.

Again, the difference in Ky's trot once I had him unlocked and moving more freely through his shoulder was incredible. He developed a lovely and powerful-feeling trot and became night-and-day steadier in the contact. We then added in spiral ins and outs to really solidify the feeling in the outside rein, and Ky was feeling like a real dressage pony!

We briefly touched on the canter, which Ky is still currently pretty weak in after his vacation while I was in California. Kim really stressed the importance of the upward transition, which I know is pretty crappy at the moment but, admittedly, have been sort of glossing over. She suggested I use a lower and wider hand to try to keep him more connected, but stressed that I should be thinking straightness in the transition more than anything else. It was really hard! But we definitely got a few good ones before the lesson was over.

The Take Away

With both horses, being able to control the shoulders was essential to improving their way of going. With Ringo, I needed to use a steady, capturing outside rein to bring his popping shoulder back in line with his body. With Ky, I needed to use a guiding inside rein and leg coupled with an inviting outside rein to encourage him to open up his shoulder and unlock his neck and back. In both cases, doing so made a VAST difference in the quality of the connection and trot.

So, what are my homework points to be able to work on this before my next lesson? I need to:

--Control my left wrist, with THUMBS ON TOP!!

--Ride with a steady, following hand: if I feel like either of them are stiffening or beginning to bounce off the reins, I need to avoid the temptation to try to quickly 'fix the problem' with my hands alone, and instead use smaller corrections to get them straighter in their body, which will make the problems in the reins go away. No seesawing!!

--Ride off the rail! Often!

--Be precise and accurate in transitions, stressing straightness, connection, and energy EVERY STEP OF THE WAY

--Use spiral ins/outs with Ky to get more unlocked and steady on outside rein

--Keep stressing adjustability in gaits without losing energy, especially with Ky--but ask from the seat, NOT the hand

I'm antsy already to get back to the US so I can get back to work! Ky is going to get ridden by my friend Robin, while Ringo is going to get the week off, so hopefully they'll both be feeling as fresh and ready to go as I am by the time I return.


The Fullers said...

Man I need someone to take pictures of my position from behind! That is crazy how your body is working to be right by compensating.. crazy!

Katie said...

"Be precise and accurate in transitions, stressing straightness, connection, and energy EVERY STEP OF THE WAY" - oh man, that sounds like my own most recent lesson. Controlling the shoulders is something that I've been told for years but have just only recently begun to actually experience and understand - and it does make a world of difference!

Katherine Erickson said...

The Fullers, I know right? I was a little embarrassed when I saw that photo, but also invigorated to improve. I feel like I work on straightness all. the. time. It's an uphill battle...

Katie, glad to hear that someone is going through a similar phase right now!

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