To ride dressage is to dance with your horse, equal partners in the delicate and sometimes difficult work of creating harmony and beauty.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Photos for you; CliffsNotes for me (edited)

I was curious about just how many years it's been since I have had a dressage lesson, so I searched through my blog. (Excellent source of reference, a blog, which is why I'm going to post my lesson notes here – so I can review what we did.) I had my last lesson with Julie in the spring of 2017, just before Lance's health took a sharp dive. My last riding lesson with Suzan was in 2014 on Lance, which was more of a consolation on saddle fit and discomfort. (Poor Lance; our journey together has not been what I hoped for or expected....)

So I was both excited and a little trepidatious about Stella's and my lesson Wednesday. Have I gotten into all kinds of bad habits working by myself for so long? Have I given Stella have a decent foundation to build upon? Could we progress from where we are, or would Suzan need to tear things down to build them back correctly?

When we arrived, the rider before me had cancelled, so Suzan asked if I wanted to start right away. Oh, o-kaaay; I could hustle and get Stella tacked up and ready. Then she asked if we were doing a long-lining lesson (remember, she gave Stella and I two long-lining lessons last fall) or a riding lesson. When I responded, "Riding," she asked, "Are you going to lunge her first?" Well, no, I never do. "You're just going to climb on?!?" Well, yes, that's what I always do. Now Suzan was trepidatious; she was remembering my skittish, reactive girlie of last fall and clearly thought I was crazy. 😉

But after a few minutes of worrying about Stella freaking out (she didn't), Suzan settled in to doing what she does best: observe with the keenest eye I know, identify precisely what needs to happen, and expertly instruct the rider on how to achieve it. Before our seven-year hiatus, I took many years of clinics and lessons from Suzan (although I could only afford to see her once a month at most); my first Morgan and I never could have reached the FEI levels without her. So just like riding a bike (riding a horse?), I started following her familiar instructions and felt my little mare transform beneath me. Oh, Stella still had lots of 'moments,' but Suzan attributed those to her teething process. (Since Rick checked her teeth, one canine tooth has erupted and two others can be felt beneath the surface of her gums. We shortened Stella's headstall by a hole to better accommodate them.) Towards the end, Suzan grabbed some cell phone shots. I'm pretty pleased with what I see; look at my dressage Morgan!

Now for my CliffsNotes:
(Edited after riding; remembered more things!)

Shorten reins! (Old refrain. I ended up with REALLY short reins at the trot. I must keep the slack out of the reins to keep the bit from bouncing/bumping her and aggravating those emerging canines.) Keep thumbs up, knuckles in, fingers closed, elbows soft, hands apart. Keep lower back relaxed. Follow her head with my hands to keep the connection straight, not broken; if she raises her head, raise hands. (That can feel REALLY high.) She'll bring it back down and connect (sometimes only briefly, but we'll string moments together).

Look at her ears, not the ground; ride her straight with nose between ears so she can use her hocks. Turn her whole body, not her nose. (The first clinician I ever rode with said it should feel like turning a bus, which is a good mental image for me.)

If quick at the walk, half-halt with legs and body only, not hands, for 4-5 strides, then release. (Later in the lesson, Suzan said to take her to the trot when she got quick.) At the trot, slow her by slowing posting rhythm. When giving her a walk break, let her stretch halfway, not clear to the buckle. To encourage her to soften over the topline and stretch, use slow (over several strides) flexes with my wrist; nothing quick.

This was the first time I've ridden using bluetooth earpieces. Suzan called me on my iPhone from her cell phone so she didn't wear herself out trying to project her voice, and it worked well. Next time I'm going to see if I can get video footage of our lesson using my Pivo at the same time; we may also try some lessons via Pivo in the future. Times, they are a-changin'!

And now that I've refreshed my memory after giving Stella her usual Thursday off, I'm going out to see how well I can repeat the lesson's progress.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Rolling, rolling, rolling like a river

That's what Stella and I have been doing since my last post. After a few rides, she started offering the right lead canter more often than the left; now they seem equally comfortable to her. And instead of just setting her up and letting her canter when she chooses to, I am now asking with a kiss and/or the word 'canter,' and getting a better and better response.

Our weather turned much cooler for several days, which coincided with less turnout for various reasons, making Stella 'spicier.' Nothing truly naughty or alarming, just some head-tossing and a hop here and there – and there was no trotting of the trot poles. If she thought we were approaching them she would rush and break into the canter, which they are not spaced for. (Fortunately, she's a handy little horse.) As the weather warmed back up some and she and Lance got more turnout (during which she raced around and bucked), she settled back down – and I realized just how much she was restraining herself for me!

I got Lance's hoof boots adjusted for Stella, and tested them out on the gravel lane. She doesn't mind them at all, and didn't take any 'ouchy' steps like she otherwise does on gravel. Unfortunately, even though our riding is pretty much solely in the arena, her feet are still chipping up, especially on the outside of her left fore and rear hooves; I'm sure it's because our ground is so dry and hard. I don't want to start shoeing her but I can't turn her out in the boots; let's hope we start getting some rain!

And now for the BIG news: we had a lesson with Suzan today! It has been years since I've gotten to take a dressage lesson and even longer since I've gotten to ride with my all-time favorite instructor,  so I was excited even though I knew she'd probably have a lot to 'fix.' I'm going to do a separate post noting what we worked on so I can replicate it here at home. Hopefully I can budget a lesson every couple weeks to keep us moving forward – rolling, rolling, rolling like a fast-flowing river!

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Picking up steam

It no longer feels like Stella and I are creeping along with baby steps. She's still very green, of course, but this week we've gone from cantering (left lead only) a few strides on a straight line, to thinking about right lead, to beginning to offer the right lead for a stride or two, to cantering part of a circle on left lead, to cantering an entire 20m circle plus on the left lead! When I told Rick after she first cantered half a circle, he acted rather incredulous that I was excited about that, wondering what has happened to my training chops, I guess. It has been a long, slow journey with this mare, unlike training any other horse in my life, but I have no deadlines and I'm really happy with the relationship we've built.

I have yet to sit down with my hoof boots to make the necessary adjustments, but I did go through the Renegade Hoof Boots website to see what can and needs to be done. As you can see, the tension straps have way too much overlap right now. But once adjusted I think they will fit Stella just fine. After the initial step or two when I first put them on her, she wasn't bothered by them at all.

Right now I'm working on scheduling a lesson with my favorite trainer. I was so excited to learn she has recovered enough from cancer surgery and chemo to start giving lessons again – for her sake, of course, as well as mine. She is still teaching at the facility where she gave us the long-lining lessons but the property has changed hands, so she is checking to make sure haul-ins are still permitted.

Friday, August 13, 2021


Since Stella seems eager to 'go and do,' and the only 'going and doing' in our neighborhood involves gravel roads, I decided to look into hoof boots for her. I've seen a new-to-me brand referenced on another blog, so this morning I did an internet search just to see what's out there now. As expected, there have been lots of changes in the market since I last bought boots. Interestingly, the kind I got Lance didn't come up in the search. After looking into various models, I finally remembered the brand name of Lance's, and looked them up. Renegades are definitely still available, I'd just forgotten that they are not mass-marketed like many other brands. They have a new style available, too, but when I inquired via email about Stella's measurements (her front feet are wider than they are long, just like Lance's) I was told that style doesn't usually work for her foot shape. Okay then; I headed to the barn to ride.

I was planning on measuring again and taking photos of Stella's feet to get help in sizing (they look small to me, but her measurements put her in "big boot territory"), but she was being unusually squirrelly so I skipped it. After our ride (which had lots of canter departs, but again, squirrelliness), I decided to pull out Lance's boots. Looking inside, I could scarcely believe my eyes; they are size 2WW, the size Stella needs in Renegades! But how can this be??? Lance is a mountain next to Stella; he's taller, wider, heavier, and certainly looks like he has much bigger feet than my little black mare's. I tried them on her and I think they'll work, but the cables need to be tightened so the Heel Captivator fits. I've brought them to the house and found the appropriate tool to adjust the cables; hopefully I can get them to move after years of disuse.

But I'm still trying to wrap my head around the fact that according to objective measurements, my two very different horses use the same size saddle gullet and the same size hoof boots. It's like being in one of those theme park anti-gravity houses, where nothing is as it seems:

Happy Friday the 13th!

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

An apple for an A+ student!

This morning during our schooling session, I trotted Stella through the cavalletti from the short approach twice, and both times she picked up the canter and maintained it to the end of the arena! Of course I told her how well she did and immediately let her cool out on a loose rein, then we walked up the driveway and into the upper pasture. I had seen some color on the apple tree closest to our garden and wanted to check it out up close. I have no idea what kind this is but they sure are tasty. Lance and Stella agree; they have pruned the lower leaves and fruit, but I was able to reach this beauty and another one from Stella's back. We rode back to the barn, where I untacked her and rewarded her with some apple. Then I led her out to the horse trailer, where she loaded up twice without hesitation, and got more apple for her efforts. I've been smiling all day....

Rick gave Lance a shot of Pentosan tonight to see if it will help his itchiness and hives. It might help his neck arthritis as well. I met up with an old horse friend this afternoon, and she suggested an explanation for Lance's one-off 'seizure' that makes sense. When he lifted his head as I started wiping fly repellent on his face, he may have experienced a nerve impingement that caused sudden, sharp pain. That certainly could have caused the seizure-like reaction, and would explain why I haven't seen anything before or since. I'm still hesitant to ride him again, because that impingement could happen under saddle, too. But he's still my big, red goober, and he's being a great companion for Stella.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

An auspicious day

This hot, dry summer drags on, but Stella and I still work regularly, learning how to dance together. I either ride in the evening after the heat breaks (last night we were treated to the above sunset), or in the morning before the day warms up too much, like today.

Last night she didn't offer to canter, but this morning she did, just a stride or two on the circle to the left. The left lead is the only one she's offered so far, but I know it will all come in time.

After we were finished schooling, I rode Stella out of the arena and towards the barn. As usual, she indicated a desire to walk up the drive away from the barn. I had time, so I indulged her. She stopped before she got to our electric gate when something caught her eye. I asked her to walk farther, and then on a whim, I opened the walk-through gate from the saddle – and we walked through for the first time! We turned right and walked up the hill past two neighbors to the winery's driveway, then turned around and walked back, past our driveway and partway down through the neighbors' lot on our south. Stella was willing to go further in both directions, but I didn't want to ride her on gravel without shoes or overface her. She was delightfully forward and bold and I was just so proud of her!

Lance continues to have a rough year with allergies. He has lots of bug bites in spite of insect repellant; his eyes look itchy and irritated but he won't keep a fly mask on. Last night I finally put on his bug sheet, and it seemed to bring some immediate relief and relaxation. Guess he'll be wearing it 24/7 for as long as it lasts and doesn't cause problems itself.

Friday, August 6, 2021

On the verge and on the merge(r)

Last week I dragged the other three cavalletti to join the one in the arena in order to give Stella more to think about. I spaced them so she could take them with two shortened walk steps between, or one BIG trot stride between. But the concept of that big of a trot (under saddle) was hard for her at first, so we worked at achieving a bigger trot on the circle. I felt a little hop across the middle a couple times; I could tell she was thinking about cantering. And then she did it! But after a stride she stumbled in the back end and immediately throttled down to the walk, seeming a bit worried about what had just happened. Me? I was pleased as punch that she offered it!

I was also pleased that the "big trot" work on the circle helped her successfully navigate the cavalletti, and she seemed pleased with herself for figuring it out. But I hoped unsuccessfully that she would offer the canter again. I even encouraged her verbally, since she is familiar with the word from lunging, but she definitely wasn't interested. Oh well; we'll eventually get to a round pen to work on it.

This week we schooled more of the same. Then I decided to try the poles from the south end (the far end in the photo). As you can see, the cavalletti are positioned in one quarter of the arena. We've been approaching it from the north end so we have plenty of room to confirm a big trot; circling to the right and entering them from the south side seemed a bit more challenging. But she did it – and broke to the canter before the end! Again she throttled back very quickly, but I assured her she had done well.

Thinking about it today when I rode, I realized that Stella has an "open door" on the north end which probably encourages forward, whereas the arena fence acts as a half-halt when we trot from north to south. With that in mind, we approached the poles from the south. She powered through with no problem, but no canter – I thought. Then after leaving the poles she transitioned smoothly, and cantered six strides!

It was hard not to get greedy and try it again, but I resisted the temptation. I don't think we'll have to haul to a round pen after all; Stella appears to be on the verge of figuring out that she can canter under saddle!

As for the merger, we were finally able to go from this:
to this!

Last Sunday Rick helped me get the fence squared away on the upper pasture so we can turn Lance and Stella out up there together. They no longer have to reciprocal-groom across a fence, and they are getting along great. In fact, Lance might be getting just a bit herd-bound!

Finally, just for fun. Rick and I were watching the Olympic dressage rides the other night and they caught Poppy's eye, too. With no encouragement from us, she jumped up in the chair and watched intently two different times. My dog has such good taste!

And here is curious, gentle Lance greeting my Shetland lamb in the barn aisle. So sweet!