Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Bella and I, More Videos.

Schoolhalt, to teach her to sit more:

Diagonalising the walk - working towards Piaffe;

A bit of everything so far;

And a little video of us playing in the field - before the rain came!!!!!

Thursday, 15 August 2013

My Personal Training Plan from Aspire Equestrian

I entered Aspire Equestrian's Blogger's Weekend Challenge as per the post below and this was the training plan that Wiola so very kindly gave me. I think this shows that she has an excellent eye and a knack of getting right to the heart of the problem! It's so lovely to have a real plan to work on and I'm SO grateful to Wiola for taking to so much time and trouble! The joy of clicker training is I know if I'm right and I ask Bella correctly then she'll be right too. The freeze frames that Wiola did certainly show how much she mirrors me!
Lots to work on and I've already begun so it will be very interesting to see what difference a month can make!
Wiola's training plan for me below. There is also a very interesting one for someone else on her website which I've pinched some tips from too. That's here:
Hello Helen!
It’s a pleasure to help you and I hope you will find my thoughts useful. Congratulations on entering the challenge too:)  My reason for doing the bloggers challenge in this format is so we can all learn from each other. Analysing issues of different riders on different horses is very beneficial for instructors too so I include myself in learners department also.
Let’s have a look and try to help Helen and her lovely mare. I love Bella’s elevation in passagey trot, definitely a talent there! She looks in a great condition, very relaxed and content.
Helen entered Aspire’s monthly virtual coaching challenge on improving your riding and said: “I would be very grateful if you would take a look at some of this sitting trot, especially in the lateral movements. I know I tend to lose the independent, unilateral movement of my seat bones and block her as soon as I ask for sideways movement – too much else to think about and trying too hard! Bella and I have found a big trot together which feels wonderful! I feel if I lose some weight from my ‘top half’ I will be able to sit it better but keeping the big trot and performing lateral movements is definitely a challenge for me! Thank you very much for any help you can give poor Bella to get me up to scratch and worthy of her, and I really do mean that!” She added a video of the issue she would like to improve which you can find on her blog: http://bellaandrico.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/aspire-equestrian-virtual-training.html
PROBLEM ANALYSIS using still frames from the video
I see a few things that stop you from feeling balanced on Bella’s back in lateral work so we will look at those first and then move on to how to work on them. I suggest they are addressed first before moving onto more consistent ability to join Bella’s back motion in trot.
Helen and Bella 1
Helen and Bella 2
Bella looks like a very responsive mare and you two seem to have a fabulous relationship so I don’t think you will have much problem correcting the issues.
1) Bella needs to be straighter through her whole body as she travels sideways. As it is now, her spine from ears to tail is twisted in an “S” shape which puts you in a defensive position too and creates viscous cycle.
2) Your outside arm, shoulder, side and leg need to help Bella with her shoulder control. As it is she is taking her neck to inside loading outside shoulder and falling out through it. This makes her lose balance and move on the forehand.
3) Your upper body needs to “behave” independently off your mobile hips.
4) Consistent neutral pelvis and spine position both in lateral work and on straight lines.
As this is just a mini-training plan and you didn’t ask for Bella’s schooling advice it was important for me to focus on only a few things that might make the biggest impact. In my opinion we need to address the upper body independence/stability and your ability to maintain neutral spine first. This is because unbalanced upper body will always hinder relaxed hips – something in your body will always want to compensate for collapsed waist or rounded back. My plan of action would be to:
1. Wake up awareness of lateral motion and own straightness and ability to “find” neutral spine.
Learn to position yourself in neutral spine posture (this is best done with a good physio or chiropractor so be careful how you practice as not to hurt yourself):

Easiest way to feel it in the saddle is to sit on own hands – you need to feel your seat bones pointing directly downwards (not being rolled forwards – which happens as we round our back – or backwards – which happens when we hollow our back).
Once you can assume neutral spine it’s time to start from practising the motion off-horse. You can do it in the field in which you ride. Stand in neutral spine posture with your hands on your hips holding a long whip or a long stick behind your back and hooked up behind your elbows. Walk forwards and sideways like this keeping the whip/stick perpendicular to the fence/wall towards which you are “leg-yielding”. Notice how much you need to bend your knees and hips to be able to maintain upright torso and perpendicular position of the whip. Pay attention to your waist and shoulders – they must not turn towards the fence but remain square and forward facing. Keep neutral spine posture as you move.
You can start with shallow leg crossing and then increase the sideways motion as your ability to control waist, spine, torso and shoulders increases.
Practice yielding like this both ways and make notes which way it is easier for you and which way is harder. Compare with how it feels in the saddle.
You can alternate holding the whip behind your back with holding two whips/sticks right in front of you. Keep your elbows by your side and hold two whips as if they were reins (creating corridor for horse’s neck right in front of your belly button). Then move forwards and sideways maintaining whips position and paying attention that it doesn’t change as you cross your legs.
Try to keep the back of your arms in contact with your ribcage (closed armpits) but watch that you don’t feel stiff or tense. Allow your shoulder blades to drop down your ribcage too and try to keep your head up in such a way that you feel the weight of it in your tail bone rather then on your chest…This will help you maintain balance in Bella’s body.
I would do this everyday for 10 minutes each side for 1 month (you can also try this in a jog) either in one go or whenever you have time. Upper body control and symmetry will need to become your No1 priority so you are able to immediately feel when your posture deteriorates during lateral movements in the saddle.
2. Increase self-discipline in the saddle
Positioning Bella straighter before starting to leg yield will help in maintaining your own posture. Try to enter your centre line in a trot that you find easy to sit to. As you prepare to leg yield shift your weight ever so slightly onto inside seat bone (not outside) and try to keep your inside leg underneath your inside seat bone if you can. Shifting your inside leg so far back as you have on your video twists your pelvis somewhat and I would think it also makes it difficult for you not to collapse in your waist.
I would shorten your reins a little too to help Bella in finding a better place for her neck (right in the middle of her chest) – she is often twisting it to inside which isn’t helping her with her balance.
As you leg yield focus on the same feeling of torso, head and shoulders as you had on foot – Look ahead and slightly to the spot at which you want to arrive (not at Bella :) ) This will help Bella with her shoulder position too.
IF YOU FEEL your waist collapsing, torso twisting, shoulder dropping/lifting, Bella’s neck twisting – immediately interrupt leg yield and ask for active forward, rising trot so you can both straighten up for 10 steps or so. Then go back to leg-yield.
Aim for 2 straight steps as you start and build up to 10-15 after 1 month. Be disciplined. It’s important not to “just carry on” leaning, twisted etc because you would just be reinforcing a bad habit. The less time you spend in a bad posture from now on the better but you do need to develop feel for when bad habits creep up hence importance  of doing it off-horse (without pressure and other things to think about) first.
3. Learn to feel the hind legs and time your leg aid in leg yield. 
In your video it looks to me as if you were giving Bella one leg aid at the start and then you keep your leg on her Belly as she moves sideways. If this is the case you can add this to the actions that will hinder your feel for unilateral seat bones motion.
Try to only use your leg aid when Bella’s hind leg lifts and travels forward (this will feel like a drop under your seat bone and her belly will swing towards your other leg). When Bella’s leg is in the air your aid and seat can tell her whether you want her to step more under or more across. You touch her with your calf aiding across then immediately let the leg aid come off (at the beginning you can literally take your leg away to train yourself and it’s best practised in walk when everything happens slower). As you progress with your feel the aid might just be inner leg tension, then release and the sequence will be barely visible for onlooker but it’s important not to hold the leg [aid] on.
Correct leg use (in time with belly swings/hind legs motion) will help you tremendously with sitting to leg yield in her bigger trot later on.
4. Pick a pace in which you are most comfortable making adjustments and stick to it.
When perception starts improving, try to also focus on Bella’s trot rhythm. Find the pace for lateral work in which you are both comfortable in – it can be this little trot/stretchy trot you are doing BUT try to make sure that you don’t alter it as you leg yield or as you straighten out and go ahead.  It will not only help Bella developing her balance but will also train your feel for her working in consistent rhythm, it will make you more vigilant to any changes in rhythm and it will also make sideways movements more beneficial as a gymnastic exercise.
These are the four things I would focus your training on for the next 6 to 8 weeks.
Only once you are comfortable with all the above would I attempt to address the sitting trot in bigger trot (however, you might find that by then the problem is less complex :) )
upper body
If you follow this advice I would love to see a video update from you in 4 weeks to see how you getting on!
Regardless though I will definitely be visiting your blog to check how you getting on. Good luck and well done for being brave and entering the challenge.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Aspire Equestrian Virtual Training Challenge.

I would be very grateful if you would take a look at some of this sitting trot, especially in the lateral movements. I know I tend to lose the independent, unilateral movement of my seatbones and block her as soon as I ask for sideways movement - too much else to think about and trying too hard! Bella and I have found a big trot together which feels wonderful! I feel if I lose some weight from my 'top half' I will be able to sit it better but keeping the big trot and performing lateral movements is definitely a challenge for me!

Thank you very much for any help you can give poor Bella to get me up to scratch and worthy of her, and I really do mean that!

Videos from Yesterday.

Here are some videos taken yesterday. My main conclusion, apart from how incredibly proud I am of Bella, is that I need to lose weight, especially from my top half, if I'm going to ever do her justice and sit that trot properly! I was mainly just trying different things to see how they look on video but I think I can see moments when passage is just a heartbeat away!

I need to work on our canter. She tends to canter 4 time and I throw the reins at her and canter myself in an attempt to obtain more impulsion, which is bound to achieve the exact opposite! I need to leave it more to her while keeping the frame, keep my shoulders still, emphasis the 'up' beat and get her to love canter by keeping some special treats just for canter!

Lots to work on and so helpful to see what we're doing right and wrong! Watching Bella here excites me so much - she's turning into the real deal, imho!!!

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Piaffe and Passage.

I always dreamed that the day would come when I could say that Bella and I had piaffe well in our sights and that day has now arrived!

I began a new strategy to explain it to her in hand. After warming her up as per the previous post I started halting her and asking for hind leg lifts at halt, then began inching her forward, keeping the hind leg lifts going and asking her to lift her front legs a bit higher as well, clicking when they were going in diagonal pairs. Here's a video of the result;

I've continued this for the last couple of weeks, always in the same place (so far) and today I rode her and asked her to do the same from the saddle, in the same spot, and she did! It's only the start of piaffe but it feels great and it's having a tremendous effect on the rest of her ridden work too. She feels so light in hand, so balanced, forward and effortless to ride, she's totally spoiling me for riding anything else!

I have noticed, as in the video, that the first time of asking always seems to produce the best steps, so now I stop and do something else after the click rather than asking again immediately, and I'm doing the same ridden and only asking for a couple of steps once or twice to begin with.

I finished today by doing some rein back to trot transitions and got some really fabulous feeling steps, even for Bella! I need to get a ridden video to see if it looks as good as it feels but it feels as though we're getting pretty close to passage to me!

Probably the most exciting thing about all of this is just the way Bella has started to feel in general. To me, with my limited experience, she feels like a serious dressage horse - loose, supple, free-moving, very well balanced and 'up' in her carriage - a proper dressage pony! Her canter is slowly improving too, even before I start concentrating on it a bit more (I've hardly done any for ages). It's still a bit laboured on the left rein but she feels as though she's even starting to enjoy cantering on the right rein.

She also looks much more of an athlete now. Her stomach muscles look much tighter and more defined and, to me anyway, she looks a really classy, uphill pony.

I think what I need to start doing soon is going for a bit more duration in her trot work. It feels so brilliant that I have trouble stopping myself clicking after just a few strides as I get so excited by the feel she's giving me and so determined not to lose it. I need to start trusting that we both know what we're doing and know how to get back there, and spend more time playing with moving her between shortened and lengthened strides.

It's all really exciting! Bella makes me feel like a proper dressage trainer and gives me so much confidence in what we're managing to achieve together. I've joked to people that my plan with her is to go into affiliated dressage at about Advanced Medium and work our way up! Who knows, it could happen yet!!!

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Exciting Times.

Bella and I have been making real progress thanks to watching Diane Thurman Baker's videos on Horse Hero.

Diane, of Turville Valley Stud, trains horses (and often problem horses) to advanced level dressage using Portuguese in hand work. One of her staple exercises is moving between shoulder in and travers on a small circle, first in hand and then ridden. She also does a lot of rein back on a square, backing a long way rather than just a few steps.

The idea is that shoulder in on a small circle stretches the front end of the horse and travers does the same for the hind quarters. Then the long rein backs shift the horses balance backwards and gets her using her back muscles correctly. I've been doing a fair amount of both of these with Bella (although less of the rein back than the other exercise as I feel mean asking her to back up so far too often, not that she seems to mind).

After doing these exercises ridden I've been doing some of the previous work we were doing with lateral movements into halt and getting really good lateral flexion before clicking. Then I've been asking her to collect in trot and she's been giving me a few steps which feel so extraordinary I have to click, jump off and jackpot her straight away! It's really exciting and I feel as though we are suddenly making huge progress!

In hand I've just had our first session at asking her from halt to bounce forward a little from behind, by tapping her quarters very gently with a whip while piaffing gently myself! I have a real aversion to using a whip with her these days as she tries so hard in everything she does, and I won't do more than touch her incredibly lightly with it, but it's the only way I can think of to give her a clue about what I'm looking for.

She gave me travers, shoulder in, drunken walk and Spanish Walk but I stuck to my guns and waited for any tiny hint of the mobilization of her hind quarters I was looking for before I would click. This is something I find VERY hard as I hate to see her struggling to come up with the right answer but Bella responded with a huge whicker when I clicked after finally seeing the first hint of what I was after, so I don't think it worries her too much when she has to really think hard to learn something new. She was just extra delighted when she finally succeeded!

Diane Thurman Baker also has a neat trick of teaching the horse to halt when the whip is rested on their body, so the whip is also a calming signal as well as an energizing one. I really like this approach and have been doing this with Bella when I halt her in this exercise, so she doesn't take offense at the whip or get over excited by it. It also helps me feel more positively about using a whip.

We need to do a lot more of this before we have anything even vaguely approaching piaffe but it definitely feels like the beginning!

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Horse Hero and Inspiration!

I feel I'm really making huge progress at the moment! With my Straightness Training subscription coming to an end and keen to explore other avenues of inspiration and expertise I took out a subscription to Horse Hero and I'm SO glad I did, I'm learning so much from the videos on there and I've only just begun working through the ones of most interest to me. Next on my watch list are a series of lessons on horse and rider posture by Peggy Cummings but here are some of my discoveries so far.

First I watched some videos of Nicola McGivern giving Horse Hero founder Fiona Price a lesson on ex Olympic dressage horse Active Walero. Nicola McGivern is based not far from us and I had mused with the idea of asking if she would be willing to give Bella and I some lessons. Watching the videos I decided that she seems a bit too scary for us sensitive souls! She did have some really great tips though. The ones I've found really useful are:
       Turn or change the rein by tightening your outside buttock and thinking of "putting your inside bottom onto the horse's outside bottom"
        Press your heels outwards if you're using your legs too much (I've found this very useful in canter where I have trouble stopping myself nagging them, to keep them in canter).
        To canter simply think of putting your inside seatbone forward and down - nothing more than that.
        Absorb the movement in canter by thinking of pulling your stomach up into your chest, while always keeping your inside hip forward and down.
        To stabilize your seat generally think of pushing your lower abdomen into your hands.

Then I found Karen Rolfe's video on a different approach to riding lateral work and I now use it as a warm up all of the time. She was riding a beautiful young Friesian which focussed my attention straight away. I do love baroque horses, especially black ones!

She said on the video that both riders and horses get tense and anxious about lateral work and so it's very useful to start by taking power out of the movements, so both can relax and get used to the feel of being in the right position before adding power back in.

She begins by walking around the arena and using the corners or circles to set up the lateral movement, then halting and rewarding the horse once it's in correct position. She stands for a while in that position, so they get used to how it feels, then walks on again and sets up the next movement. She then does the same in trot. Once the horse is really confident at organising his body into the right positions for the movements she gradually asks him to continue in the movement for a stride or two before halting and gradually fades out the halt when the horse is really comfortable and relaxed with the whole process.

To me this seemed such an obvious, simple and sensible way of beginning ridden lateral work that I can't now believe it never occurred to me before! I can't begin to tell you just how much difference this has made to Bella, Grace and I! I'm totally at home with working them in all the lateral movements in hand but not nearly so practised in the saddle. Grace has always tended to want to rush when you ask her for anything so this approach is brilliant for her and is making her much softer, lighter, better balanced and more relaxed.

Bella only gets tense in as much as she gets a little 'fiddly' with her bit sometimes in lateral work which negatively affects her balance a little. Using this new strategy she is now staying relaxed in her jaw. I've also adapted the technique a bit and after halting in, say, travers, I ask for a bit more lateral flexion before I click her as she's not the most naturally bendy of horses.

I was a little bit worried about losing 'forward' doing this with Bella so I quickly progressed to doing just a little of this in walk, then in trot, and then continuing in the movements for a few paces in walk and in trot, so I'm clicking and reinforcing her in movement as well as in halt. I've now realised that it was silly of me to worry. Bella understands me, and understands chains of behaviour and lateral work so well that there was never any danger of her getting confused about what she is supposed to be doing.

I thought Bella was lovely to ride before but using this technique has turned her into a complete joy! She is so chilled out, focused and relaxed, with even more power to her trot. It's definitely helping us in working towards passage.

Yesterday I rode her in a very strong wind in our tree and bush lined, spooky outdoor school. She was rampantly in season (so much so that she didn't really want to leave the yard as there was a new gelding in there and she was much more interested in flirting with him than going anywhere with me!) but she never spooked or lost her concentration once and gave me her best effort 100% of the time. She really is the pony of a lifetime and we are going to make the very most of this summer!