"And, when you want something, the entire Universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." -The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo

Tuesday, December 31, 2013


Yesterday I went to the barn to sneak in a ride before work. Lily was hanging out at the round bale and waited for me to come to her. The mare field is the most hideous muddy mess right now, and I'm honestly happy and grateful if all Miss Thang decides to do is just stand still eating 24/7.

I took her up to the barn, hosed the plastered mud off of her legs (yeah, good luck trying to brush THAT off...), and groomed and tacked her up. She was doing giraffe impressions on the cross ties, which she rarely ever does anymore, and nervously pooped repeatedly. I don't know why she was nervous, as there was no one else in the barn, all the horses were turned out, and no one was working on anything in the vicinity (no sounds of heavy machinery, nail guns, skilsaws, etc.)

It was overcast, cold, windy, and the temp was supposed to drop 10 degrees over the next two hours, so I'm guessing all of that was playing into Lily's very "up" state of mind.  I was wearing 2 jackets and seriously considered not wearing my safety vest because we were going to be riding in the arena. After seeing the unprovoked whites of Lily's eyes on the cross ties, I re-thought that choice, deciding that while it is a pain to get the bulky thing zipped up when you can't feel your fingers, I like my ribs, back and spleen too much.

The footing in the arena was perfect. It had rained enough to pack the sand down and all of the excess water had already drained out. I took Lily into the arena, tightened her girth, and set her free. She tore away from me the second I gave her permission.

Man am I glad I decided to do that.

She proceeded to canter around the arena for the next 15 minutes. I timed her. Guys, my mare is FIT!!! She even threw in some HIIT by galloping up the long sides of the arena every 3 turns or so. She changed direction by herself, and I witnessed her actually do a full flying lead change, which she's never done at liberty. She'll swap in the back first and then in the front one stride later, but never a full flying change while changing direction on a bend (yeah, she did it on a bend too! All of her own volition.)

Not taken yesterday, as my phone's camera was still not cooperating, 
but it's a recent video of Lily cantering nonetheless. :)
Taken in the arena the day before, right after it had finished raining.
Footing was wet but not slick. It had drained significantly in 24 hours.

She kept glancing at me in an invitation to play, but I just stood still and quiet in the center of the arena, waiting. She threw a couple of fierce bucks in the corner, and I started to tense up. As she kept going around and around and around, I fought back a small sense of trepidation. With her in such high spirits, I was expecting we'd have a fight.

Lily slowed to a trot. I asked for a couple of changes of direction and she continued trotting on, flicking her toes up happily, then asked to come in. I gave her permission and she came, but came to a stop 20 feet away.

She hadn't done that in a long time: stopping without closing the distance. Her expression was wary. I assessed myself and realized I was holding my breath. I let it go and her ears flicked forward. I smiled and the tension left me.

Instead of me closing the distance between us, I walked to the side, in a straight line towards the mounting block. Ears still forward, Lily walked towards me and joined me, walking right next to me, side by side. I rubbed her neck in thanks, and the whole dynamic between us changed.

She turned her head towards me as I mounted up, then waited for me to cue her to walk.

We walked and she was distracted, staring at the horses in the nearby fields, at the neighbor's herd the next hill over, at the trees whipping in the wind. She was definitely spicy.

I ignored this and instead asked for an inside bend, and we did a turn in each direction at the walk in shoulder fore. Then another turn in each direction alternating shoulder-in with haunches in, at the walk. As long as I was asking for something, her attention redirected to me. I then asked for a trot, and we did shoulder-in down the long sides of the arena in both directions. We had a couple of moments of conversation where I said to Lily, "No, the bend is in THIS direction." And Lily said to me, "Well then get your butt straight because that's not what your body is telling me to do!" I listened and corrected. She told me to post. (She'll bump me up into the post when she wants me to; it cracks me up. I've learned the session goes better if I let her move out when she tells me she's ready.) I posted. She flowed.

We did spiral in and spiral out at the trot, one of the exercises where in the past we have argued the most. She'll do a giraffe impression and resist the bend, and I'll become a crooked mess trying to get her to spiral in while maintaining the correct shape. I hate spirals but know that it's good for us to practice simply because it's so hard. This time? My hands stayed soft. I focused on inside leg to outside rein and set my inside hand where it needed to be so she could maintain the bend. She fussed a little, then gave. I softened my inside fingers in reward and she kept that bend. My fingers stayed soft. Result? PERFECT spirals. BEST SPIRALS EVER. We repeated twice in each direction and at opposite ends of the arena.

We then did 10 meter circles at each end of the arena, moving back to the rail with baby leg yields.  We worked in both directions maintaining the same rhythm in the trot. It was effortless.

Something like this, but leg yielding towards the rail.
Illustration from 101 Dressage Exercises book.
We then switched gears to a more collected trot so we could do fat figure 8's at each end of the arena, each circle of the figure eight about 10m in diameter, working on a fluid change of bend across the center of the figure 8. More success.

Fat figure 8.
Crappy Sharpie diagram by moi
We moved on to my favorite exercise: giant Xs using the entire arena, starting with a small 10m circle in the corner at a collected trot, then crossing the diagonal at a more extended trot, changing direction, then following with another 10m circle in the opposite corner. Repeat trot across the diagonal. I love this exercise because when done correctly, we flow into the more collected trot in the circles, to then unleash Lily's power across the diagonal. She'll collect and extend with the feel of a spring throughout. It feels pretty epic when we get it right. We hadn't tried it in a very long time. We got it right on this day. She trotted out down that diagonal flicking her toes, with pricked ears and arched neck on a soft contact. I'm so thrilled she's starting to do her little extended trot under saddle! It's taken two and a half years to get her to this point!

Another quick diagram by me.
I gave her walk break to stretch. She started paying attention to the horses in the fields galloping around, and I saw out of the corner of my eye when she flagged her tail! I picked her up, engaged my abs and she came back to me...and gave me a counted walk!

Lily's version of a counted walk. Video taken during her rehab this summer; we practiced this a lot when we weren't allowed to trot yet. It's never been perfect, but the point of the exercise is to slow the cadence of the walk until each foot fall is individual. It's very hard for a horse to do while remaining straight, and it is a great exercise for getting their whole body engaged in preparation for collection. 

I've posted this video before, but it continues to be the best video of the counted walk out there.

On to more trot work. I asked for a collected trot and we practiced circles in shoulder-in. The Dressage 101 calls it leg yielding on the circle; it looks similar to this:
Illustration from 101 Dressage Exercises book.
We also worked on serpentines at the trot. This is another notoriously difficult exercise for us, but Lily was nailing those bends almost before I asked for them. We moved on to doing a few more giant X's using the whole arena, sans circles in the corners, to really get her stretched out and moving. We halted in the center of the arena, asked her to back up, dismounted as the ultimate reward and gave her a huge hug. I walked her out on foot.

There was still a lot going on around us: there was a blue heron hunting in the pond next to the arena, the horses in the fields were running on and off with the blowing wind, the minnies on the other side were chasing each other and squealing. The peacocks in the coop by the corner of the ring were occasionally flapping their wings. Lily looked around at everything and scooted forward once when the peacocks flapped their feathers as we walked by on foot, but when I stayed calm she calmed down too. She had paid no attention to any of this while working. She was forward but engaged, both mentally and physically. I don't know if she was so tuned into me because I had been so tuned into her, but the fact is that I think I can officially say that I have finally gotten her trust under saddle. I'm glad I let go of everything I was thinking and feeling before getting on. I'm pretty sure the ride would not have been like this if I hadn't. It's funny how much can change by just altering your frame of mind.

It was one of our best arena dressage rides so far.


  1. Two things pop out at me:

    1) it is hard to trust our horses can act out, bucking and kicking and playing in the arena, without having the desire to hurt us. I find myself worried sometimes that Ashke will try to throw me, that he will actively try to behave in a way that would hurt me. I understand that fear. It takes time to understand and trust that they are going work with us and not behave in a dangerous way. That fear is so hard to work through. Great job trusting your baby.

    2) Spicy is how our horses roll. Eh? My trainer tells me over and over that my emotional reaction to whatever is going on will effect Ashke more than other horses. He is going to be more sensitive to my emotional state. I have to really put effort into remaining calm, and not projecting, because then Ashke starts to wonder why I'm upset.

    Great job getting a good ride in on her. It's good to know it can take a couple of years to get some of the dressage movements down. (It may take me longer than that, considering I don't know what they are.) It's great that you can ride in the arena during the winter.

    1. Oh God yes: it's taken us a good 2.5 years to start getting the hang of these movements. Believe me, I had no clue how to cue for them or what they were supposed to feel like until Lily came into my life. I think some of the stuff we do is considered up to Second Level, but who knows. My trainer in FL gave us a great introduction and lots of exercises that I thankfully recorded in this blog (I wish I'd thought to illustrate them sooner, but I can remember them if I read the description and some are caught on video). What never ceases to amaze me is Lily herself: she was not trained in dressage. Her first trainer started her as a hunter. But for whatever reason, this mare has the ability to move sideways as easily as she can move forwards. I just picked up on that and it's been a team effort since then. She does what my body is asking her to do; the problem is when my body is asking for something completely different to what I think I'm asking for. We used to argue a lot about this. When I get it right, it's all so effortless for her... I briefly entertained this huge dream of going on to get our USDF Bronze medal, but then I figured: you know what? I don't WANT to show her against fancy warmbloods and come up short just because she's not of a breed that's "in." And that was the same day that I fell out of love with competitive dressage. It's a lot more fun to play around with it in the arena at home without the pressure of possibly competing in it one day.

      These spicy horses can be a headache because they force us to think about our riding so much, but OMG they can teach us SOOOO much! About controlling our thoughts & emotions, and about body awareness. In the end, it even helps us to read other people better, too.

      Body language is such a powerful thing, whether on the horse or off. We forget about what a difference it can make because we rely on verbal communication so much, but actions really do have the power of speaking louder than words.

      Regarding the arena, I wouldn't mind having a nice indoor like yours though! :)