Sunday, February 19, 2012


When showing dressage, you start off with a pretty simple set up, bridle-wise. It’s a headstall, a noseband, and a snaffle bit. Once you are ready to perform at 3rd Level, you are suddenly presented with a choice. If you so wish, you are permitted to use a double bridle. Although it is not mandatory under USDF rules, it is widely accepted that once you hit the “upper levels” (A vague term that in this day and age ranges from 3rd Level through Grand Prix, but for future reference when I say “upper level” I literally mean the FEI levels of Prix St. George through Grand Prix.) you will ride with a double bridle. However, if you plan on showing internationally, at CDI events, a double bridle and spurs are compulsory.

Of course, with me having a tiny rebellious streak, I would LOVE to show at the Grand Prix Level in just a snaffle, win the class, and have an appreciative audience. Just to be different. (That same part of me wants to show in a bareback dressage class. Wouldn’t that be fun?!) To my knowledge, I’ve never seen that. I’ve seen people ride all the movements in just a snaffle and even bitless, but it’s another thing to do that in competition and score well. A student of my current trainer showed Prix St. George very successfully last year with her horse wearing a snaffle bridle. Their cool meter is pretty high. 

Back to my explanation of “the double” as we fondly refer to it. Although I wouldn’t use the word “fond” in my case, but we’ll touch on that in a paragraph or so. The double bridle has a snaffle with smaller rings, called a bridoon, and a curb bit. Because it has two bits, you then have two reins. We could go on about the whys and hows, but that’s the point I need to make here. The point is, the double bridle works differently from your normal bridle. You do not have as much side to side suppling because you now have a curb which works with leverage. You can be much more subtle with your aids.

With that difference in mind, here’s what happens to me when I ride a horse with a double bridle. I sit there on their back and feel like my arms are not my own. I do what I normally would do with a normal snaffle bridle, but without the same effect. I try to do more in an effort to get any sort of positive response from the horse, or I stop doing anything at all. My arms become like dead limbs, simply grasping the reins with my failing hope. The double bridle paralyzes me. It makes me feel like I cannot ride. Because of who I am, when I feel like I cannot ride, I then feel entirely useless to the world. It is an unpleasant cycle.

Rocket& his snaffle, Sarah& Renee rocking the double bridle!

What do I do to make myself more comfortable with the double? I posed this question to myself and the answer I came up with is: Use the double bridle more! Ride in it every chance you get to with instruction. Learn to use it properly. I’ve only been testing this answer out for a week or so. I can’t say that I’ve had any real breakthrough yet, but I won’t give up hope just yet. I want to become proficient and at ease when using the double bridle. I want this, so I’m going to work at it. I will not remain paralyzed.

Is there something in riding that paralyzes you now or used to paralyze you? Also, I’m curious to know if that word is looking weirder to you now.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Heart to heart!

When I was sixteen, I was working at the barn a few afternoons each week in exchange for riding privileges and a weekly riding lesson. I rode a good variety of horses and one day I was told that I could ride one that I hadn’t ridden before. She was a cute little chestnut mare called Miss Take (Tah-Kay). She had been at the barn for a few years already, but not everyone could ride her. I was excited that my BO/trainer thought I was good enough to sit on her. I tacked Miss Take up and we went out to the infield of the racetrack. I found a fairly flat area without many rocks and rode her around. The next time I had a lesson, I rode Miss Take. I remember that I couldn’t steer her in a straight line or turn her when I wanted to. I had gotten used to riding the other horses. But she wasn’t like them. We could only canter on a large circle about forty meters in diameter. If I tried to go straight, she fell out of the canter. We never got the right lead canter on the first try. I was pleased if we got it on the third try. And she spooked at everything!

By this time in my life, I had loved and lost my favorite horses. I had surrendered myself to the fact that I would not be a horse owner until I was “grown-up” financially stable on my own. I knew that would take a number of years. I figured I’d be in my mid-twenties by the time I would finally be able to purchase my own horse. I didn’t like that idea, but I lived with it. Miss Take quickly became my favorite horse to ride and was the horse that I rode most often. I told myself time and time again to not let myself bond with her. I didn’t want the heartbreak I knew I’d feel once she left, too. So I kept my distance the best I could. Which would have been fine and dandy had that worked. It didn’t. I was falling head over heels for that mare.

A year later, when I was seventeen, my BO pulled me aside after a rewarding lesson on Miss Take. She regretfully informed me that she was going to be putting Miss Take up for sale. The economy was down and feed was up. Miss Take was only being ridden by me and one other woman. Both of us worked at the barn in exchange for lessons. Miss Take was not earning her keep. “But…” my BO said. She wanted me to buy Miss Take and she would offer her to me for much less than her market value. The other woman had already said that she couldn’t afford Miss Take at this time. I was Miss Take’s last chance at staying at the barn. I went home that afternoon and spoke to my parents. I sat on their bed and explained the situation to them and I did something that I never ever do. I cried. I didn’t have enough money to buy her. I had half. My parents said that they would match my half. I said that I would work off most of the board and pay for vet bills with my own money.

I thought about all that Miss Take had experienced in her life. I thought about the many hands and barns she had passed through, always being a mistake for them. I didn’t want that to happen to her anymore. She had done so much for me and my riding confidence that I felt she didn’t deserve that. I wanted to tell her that it would all be okay and that she would be able to life out the rest of her life in security. I couldn’t stand being there when my mom went to the barn with me a couple days later and sat down for a talk with my BO. I scurried around the barn, holding back tears as I busied myself with chores. I caught a few words and partial sentences here and there. They called me over to the dusty picnic table and told me that they had reached an agreement. The next day I was signing a paper that stated that I was a horse owner. At age seventeen I had my first horse! I felt like I was dreaming the best dream of my life. The funny thing was that she was almost the exact opposite of the horse I had prayed for every single night when I was younger. I wanted a dark bay gelding, some sort of Morgan/QH/TB/Arabian/best of all breeds about eight years old. Instead I got a chestnut mare that was in her late teens and to top it all off, she had a pink nose! That was something I generally didn’t like.

It took a while for us to bond. I think we were both so used to going from human to human and horse to horse that we had a hard time opening up again. After six months, people at the barn began to comment on how Miss Take seemed to have “blossomed” now that she was a one-person horse. My horse. I entered her in the next dressage show and wrote down her new show name without hesitation. Accidentally In Love. It described out relationship perfectly. Oh and there’s also this:

I had been riding Miss Take for a few months when a girl around eight or nine years old pointed to the spot on her belly and said that it was in the shape of an upside down heart. Until that moment, I hadn’t noticed the shape of her spot at all. What with the heart, the meaning behind her barn name, and our accidental road to becoming horse and owner, I thought the show name was fitting.

As I turned Miss Take out into the pasture she lived in with the herd, I watched her walk over to the water trough and drink her fill. I swung her halter and lead rope over my shoulder. She let a few droplets of water dribble down her chin and pointed an ear towards me. “You’re going to be my forever horse,” I told her. “You won’t ever have to bounce from home to home again. You deserve it because of what you have been for me. I’m going to take care of you until the very end. I promise. And I always keep my promises.”

Since I celebrate February 14th as Miss Take’s birthday, I thought a post about how we ended up together would be perfect. Miss T will be either eighteen or nineteen this time around, according to our guesstimation, As another fun fact, the woman who used to ride Miss Take, but couldn’t afford to buy her is now one of the lovely ladies who is leasing Miss Take while I am away doing this internship! I love seeing how things like that fall into place. Speaking of which, Miss Take is the first horse that her two leasees have shown. Last Saturday they had much success and brought home many blue ribbons and great scores. Oh and remember how I said that I didn’t used to be able to steer Miss Take? By the time that I had to leave for this internship, Miss Take and I were schooling 2nd Level movements and had debuted at that level at a horse show! I could gush on and on and brag all night long, but I won’t because I know I am extremely biased. I don’t claim that Miss Take is the best horse in the world, but she is the best horse in the world for me.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Turn it Up!

A fly lands on your horse’s shoulder. Your horse flicks an ear back and shivers its skin, sending the insect off to search for a better landing stripe. It is a small movement that equestrians know well. So well, in fact, that we think nothing of it. You ride your horse and ask for a quicker trot by applying your calves around its barrel. No response. You end up kicking and whipping to get the desired result, but still no shiver of skin.

What am I getting at? Well, I’ll get to it; just give me a few more paragraphs.

I think all riders, pros and ammies alike, no matter the discipline, want an obedient horse. They want the horse to be sensitive to their aids. Not over reactive. Not dull. They want to communicate with the horse and say, “Hey, let’s canter now!” and have their horse willingly move off into that gait. No one trains their horse to take off cantering only when the aid has been applied several times in succession, each time more forceful than the last. “Well, he should hopefully canter the fifth time that you kick him…” That’s not fun for anyone involved.

The first clinic that I rode in was with Paula Lacey. I was excited because not only had I heard great things about her as a teacher and been judged by her in the past, but because my horse and I were debuting at 2nd Level and I was anxious to know what she thought of us as a team and what she would have us work on. Imagine my surprise when she didn’t start the lesson with bells and whistles. She asked us to halt and then walk. Paula came over to us and gently pushed my calf against my horse’s side. This was how I was to ask for the walk from the halt. No more than that. If my horse didn’t listen to that then BANGBANG went my legs and SLAP went the whip. She had us do this very simple transition over and over until my horse moved off of a light application of my leg. We didn’t even worry about the roundness. I didn’t try to get it, but as our transitions improved, I noticed that my horse was on the bit. (And isn’t that what true roundness is? Being on the bit a.k.a. on the aids?) Once we got the transitions prompt and obedient, we had laid the foundation for the rest of the work. By the end of the lesson, we were doing haunches-in on a diagonal line which could also be described as baby steps of trot half pass, something my horse and I had only just begun to learn.

Us after our clinic lesson!

Have you ever been accused of kicking your horse too much? I have! I don’t know how I fell into the habit but it happened gradually until the horse so dull that I had to literally kick it every stride to keep it going. I was kicking and kicking with little to no result. I was nagging and the horse had tuned my chattering out. I compare it like this. There’s a friend of yours, right? He has hearing aids and you’re yelling at him so you can converse. So you shout “CAN YOU TURN THOSE THINGS UP?” and he does. Then you are able to continue on with your conversation using a normal tone of voice. Yet somehow when we’re riding we keep yelling at our horses (Always figuratively… right?) and never bother to turn up their sensitivity to our aids and at last we reach the grand finale where we look like we’re flailing around atop our steed to just get them to walk on. It’s a very attractive picture. Not.

I can’t promise that I’ll be able to tell you how to fix this. Each horse has different knobs to turn in a different manner and order. For example, you and your horse could be the complete opposite of what I have been describing. Your horse might take off without any application of your aids and if that’s the case, your course of action would be to make the horse less reactive. So here’s a disclaimer about how you’d be best off having your trainer tell you what to do. It’s true, but since I’m writing this blog post, I’m going to tell you what I do anyways.

  1. Halt.
  2. Ask the horse to walk by gently closing your inner calves around their barrel.
  3. If no response, ask nicely once more.
  4. If still no response, give a big hard kick or whip whack or both simultaneously. Be careful not to pull on the reins while doing this.
  5. Once horse walks, praise. Even if the horse goes from the halt to a trot or canter, still praise like he/she won the Kentucky Derby.
  6. Repeat as often as necessary until you are the fly the horse shivers away. And for those of you who don’t get my poetry, do this exercise until the horse walks on with a light leg aid. It should not take hours on end before you have improvement. If it does… UR DOING IT WRONG and need to get help from a more experienced rider/trainer. No shame!

I enjoy taking a dull horse and tuning it up into a mount that willingly does what I ask when I ask nicely. I don’t like working hard to make the horse work hard. I like a good give and take conversation without shouting. Who doesn’t?
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