I was at a Centered Riding clinic taught by Becky Hart all weekend. Becky Hart is a three time Endurance World Champion, as well as being a level 3 Centered Riding coach. So I was pretty excited about this clinic.
Friday morning I was very relieved to see that both of the foals at work were doing much better. The clinic itself started on Saturday morning. But I had booked a semi-private lesson with Becky on Friday afternoon. With all the worries about the two remaining foals, I had been considering cancelling my lesson and just going Saturday. But it all worked out, and I went home after work, loaded up Dressy and headed out.
On the way, I picked up a passenger… Benson. He’s Sandy’s horse. A cute CUTE little chestnut Arab gelding. Benson wasn’t too keen on getting into a strange trailer. Especially a head-to-head, which meant he had to back into a stall. Eventually the barn owner came out to help, and we did get him loaded.
We arrived in good time to get Dressy tacked up for her lesson at 3pm. Marg and her horse Desmil were the other students. I was a bit worried that Dressy would be very bad in the arena. The last time I had her in an indoor arena was really quite embarrassing. I took her to a dressage lesson at Heather’s place, and she was appallingly bad. Head in the air… rampaging around… our circles were mostly lopsided triangles, stopping and starting. Pacing. Racking (or something vaguely resembling a rack anyway). Staggering around hither and yon. Yanking me out of the saddle. I kept telling Heather that she really was a good girl normally. So this time around I was quite worried that she’d be awful again.
Just to keep me guessing though, this time she was really quite good. I think it helped that we had that lesson first though. Marg’s Arab, Desmil, is really quite a nicely behaved and fairly low-energy horse. So I think that helped her relax in the first few minutes. The other good thing was that we really didn’t do much (or maybe any?) trotting in that first lesson. Becky went over each of our positions, making some adjustments, first standing still, then having us walk around the arena. Marg has some issues with stiffness due to old injuries (an artificial hip as well as some other fairly major bionic improvements… Marg is pretty amazing actually), so Becky helped her with ways to manage that.
My biggest concern was that I have been collapsing my left side. I’ve known it was happening for a long time. Several years at least. I’ve had to shift my saddle back to center more and more often. It has been making me completely crazy, since I can feel it happening but can’t prevent it. Becky gave me a couple of things to try at first. They didn’t seem to work. But then she had me visualize stretching a rubber band diagonally from my right hip to my left shoulder. And there it was. Magically I was straight. For the rest of that lesson, I didn’t have to shift the saddle even once. That was just a huge relief. I’d have gone to the clinic just for that one single visualization.
We had pizza that night, and Becky did a talk on endurance. This was not an endurace clinic, but of the 17? or so riders, only one was not a distance rider or wanting to be a distance rider. That was Lisa, whose first love is dressage. But Lisa was very interested in the topic anyway, so I don’t think she minded, and the rest of us were all ears. It was pretty interesting to hear exactly what the top riders are doing to condition their horses, and to hear the racing strategies. The big thing these days seems to be walking. She says that many of the top horses are walking two or three hours a day. Either under saddle or in exercise machines. Those are the walkers that leave the horses loose between the moving gates. They are pretty expensive and far beyond my means. But I thought about that a lot over the weekend, and have decided to try a lot more walking under saddle with Dressy. Not only will it be good conditioning for her, it might help to settle her brain a little bit. She’s been getting way too racy lately, and it’s been getting more and more stressful to ride her. A couple of days a week of strictly walking for two or three hours might relax both of us a great deal.
On Saturday, we started out with a discussion of the concepts of Centered Riding. I sort of knew a lot of it, since I’ve read the book and watched several of the videos. But the review was helpful. Then we moved to the arena.
We had two large group lessons first. I think this was where she did a basic assessment of what each of us needed. Dressy was quite excited by the number of horses in there with her. As well as all the people watching. She did a bit of jittering around at first. But settled down to walk fairly quickly.
Becky divided us up into groups of four to ride. A couple of people didn’t have a horse, but then some borrowed horses. It ended up being four groups of four horse/riders.
We watched and listened to the other lessons, which was actually pretty useful. It is good to practice stuff, but it’s also good to just absorb some of it and see the changes in both rider and horse. Becky is obviously a very experienced teacher. She’s patient and very observant. Takes her time and makes sure you understand what she’s trying to get you to do.
Although my crookedness problem now has a solution, there was one issue that I couldn’t immediately resolve. Becky wanted me to tilt my pelvis back a little bit so I’m on the flat part of my seatbones. But when I tried to ride like that, I had screaming pain in my SI joint on the right side. She had me return to the position that didn’t hurt. But I think if I do more stretching and continue with the Yoga work that Nancy is sending me, I can get my back to release enough to allow the position change.
For the most part, Becky left my riding position alone. I think that it’s not too bad when Dressy is just standing or walking in a straight line. But I definitely tend to fall apart on the corners. Dropping my inside shoulder. It’s a common error. I’m worse on the collapsing side, naturally. Dressy has trouble with corners, and needs quite a bit of help to maintain her balance and bend through them, and I’m not helping her enough. She’s pulling me out of the saddle a bit too, since she is so staunchly resistant to bending. If I’m not perfectly balanced coming into it (and I do tend to forget where I’m going and unexpectedly find myself IN the corner), then Dressy jams her nose out hard (unbalancing me further) and we slow down and stagger through it.
So Becky had me lift and shift my inside shoulder back through the turn (it’s exaggerated at first to retrain the movement). Step into the outside stirrup. Lengthen my inside leg. Open my inside rein to get more lateral flexion. And breathe. We learned to breathe out for every cue… up transitions, down transitions, etc.
Sandy and Benson practiced trailer loading both Saturday and Sunday when they had a few minutes and could play at going up and down the ramp with no pressure. And Benson, being basically good hearted and reliable was perfectly happy with the trailer after a couple of short sessions.
Sunday morning, Becky had us put saddles on a couple of those big exercise balls. They are kind of bouncy and responsive in a way that’s similar to horse’s back. So it allows you to feel how a horse’s back will raise with the correct movement of the seatbones.
We also did an exercise with a partner that demonstrated how the inside rein/outside rein affects the horse. Standing side by side, the “rider” reaches across the back of the “horse” and touches the outside of the rib cage, and with the other hand reaches across in front to guide the hand of the “horse”. It’s sort of hard to describe, but it mimics the action of the reins, and gives you a more visceral understanding of how it affects the horse.
We had another series of lessons with four horse/riders in each group. By this time we all could see quite a bit of difference in most of the horses. Deb’s Arab off the track was trotting nicely on a much softer rein. And when they stopped at the end of the lesson, he stretched his head down and relaxed quite a few times around the arena. Everyone was very impressed, because it would have been impossible to imagine him doing that the day before. Judy’s horse, Coquetta the Paso Fino was also much calmer (though Dressy still hated her for some unknown reason). Benson was still perfect and it’s hard to improve on perfect. But Sandy was looking more relaxed and happier riding him even when he did a few little zigzags at the baby raccoons chattering inside the kickboards. Lisa had a lovely big dapple grey Curly that had a ton of personality. His name was Sammy (which I believe was short for part of his registered name, Samurai something or other). Lisa said he could be a bit difficult sometimes, but he and Lisa looked pretty good out there.
I was a bit unhappy to see my darling little Foxy being a witchy mare though. Saturday she was rather obstinate and sticky about going forward. But Sunday. Wow. What a rude girl. She was pinning her ears and shaking her head. Stamping and kicking out. Her owner is a very nice rider, but has an ankle that was shattered a few years ago and is pinned together with a whole lot of hardware. So she really can’t use that leg and can’t afford to do battle with her horse. She finally had enough and got off. And then asked me if I wanted to get on her for a few minutes. And yes. You know I really DID want to get on that bad little horse. I reintroduced myself and some rules of etiquette to Foxy at the same time. I was mad enough that I did not care what my riding looked like and whether I was centered or not, so I’m sure it wasn’t pretty riding. Foxy WAS going forward when I asked, and was not allowed to have an opinion about that. When Sue got back on her later though, she told me that Foxy was much better for her. So that was a relief. I do not want to see Sue get hurt.
The final exercise of the day was a huge group lesson with all the remaining horses. A few people had gone home, so I think there were maybe 10 of us left by then. There was a bit of excitement at first. Mike’s horse, Easy, was coming apart at the seams when Dressy and I came in. I scooted her over to the far side and tried to stay clear of the rodeo. But Mike rode through it and got him sorted out and Easy figured out that he could cope with all those horses eventually. We did a sort of a drill team thing with all sorts of patterns. Dressy and Benson were the first pair, so that was a bit stressful. I get confused enough just following the other horses, never mind having to follow unexpected directions from a loudspeaker. But we did pretty well actually. And having to match Dressy’s stride (she’s 16hh and leggy) to Benson’s (who is perhaps 14.1hh and sturdy) was a bit of a trick, so I was proud of her.
All in all, Dressy was wonderful. Far FAR better than I expected in the arena. She handled horses milling around her without threatening to kill them. She tried hard to slow down her walk and trot to match all the little horses (mostly Arabs) around her. She worked with me almost the entire time, and not against me. A most co-operative boss mare. I was very proud of her.