Posted in Dressage, Training

A lesson in simplicity

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When the opportunity to train with Aussie icon Brett Parbery lined up with the Easter long weekend, I knew I wanted to be there. I’ve been a long-time fan of Brett Parbery, having watched him on horses such as Victory Salute and Aber Halo 29. Brett lives and trains in New South Wales Australia, but regularly competes in Europe. Last year he was one of six Australian’s competing for a place on the Australian Olympic Dressage Team, this is no small feat for someone based in Australia.

On Good Friday, my co-pilot Steve and I embarked on the 12 hour drive from Mackay to the Sunshine Coast and arrived at ‘Riverlyn’ which would be Nonie’s home for the next week at about 7pm that night. With my first lesson scheduled for Saturday afternoon, Mum had kindly arranged for Nonie to have a massage (which just so happens to be one of her favourite things), to help relieve the strain of the previous days lengthy journey.

My coach Dani hosted the clinic at her beautiful property on the Sunshine Coast Hinterland. You enter the stunning property via a solid wooden gate edged by a sparsely wooded area. The pure white sand arena overlooks a gentle valley and one of the properties two dams.

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When the horse and rider combination prior to me finished their lesson and Brett looked down at his list and called my name, I have to admit I nearly fan girled out. Nearly! But what struck me almost immediately about Brett was his relaxed and down to earth manner. We got stuck straight in with Brett asking, “What would you like to work on today?” I explained that we had recently started work on the flying changes, but that I also felt that Nonie would benefit from increased mobility through her shoulders. To me, it was the lack of mobility that had been contributing to some difficulty in the lateral movements especially the canter half pass. It was at this point that Brett asked me the question I dread, “What aids do you use to move the shoulders?” Now I am not sure why, but at this point my mind went almost entirely blank and I stuttered out some answer about how I use the outside rein and leg to guard the shoulders. Brett went on to explain that our hands and shoulders control the horses shoulders, while our legs control he quarters – of course this was not new to me. A coach, Linda Van Den Bosch, who happens to be a very successful western trainer and rider, that I have worked closely with previously has drilled this into me.

Given that I was well warmed up Brett had us go straight into canter and we began to look at straightness in the canter. The exercise was simple, I visualised a box around Nonie and myself, and my job was to ensure that Nonie stayed straight within this box and bring her back into it if she strayed outside the box, but to leave her alone once she was inside it. Almost instantly I felt Nonie soften and compress, the canter was easier to sit but still felt active. We then took this feeling down the long side and asked for some gentle shoulder fore, and our line fell apart. Brett reminded me that it was my responsibility to keep her barrel on the line with my leg – we are still working on this one.

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The next step was to begin using half halts to collect the canter, while the overall use of my position in the half halt was similar to what my coach Dani had taught me, Brett had me think about the half halt starting from between my shoulder blades and lightening my seat. I was surprised and delighted when I felt Nonie’s frame and stride compact and her back lift up underneath my seat.

Over the course of the two lessons we had a look at the flying changes, whilst I have felt these become much easier to ride as I allow myself to relax mentally, they are not there yet. Brett gave me some home work for these. The first and most important thing was to ensure that at all times Nonie stays on my line, at my rhythm and tempo, no exceptions. If she alters from either of these I need to ‘abort’ the change and bring her back to my line/rhythm/tempo. He also highlighted that the flying changes are just a simple change without the walk transition and that our aid for the flying change should have the same amount of pressure/lightness as that for a walk canter. It sounds obvious now that it is written down, but at the time the simplicity of this statement felt like a revolution.

Brett showed me a few different exercises  to improve the preparation for the changes, including riding a line from the long side across to the centreline and taking her across to the new flexion all the while focusing on maintaining my canter. I instantly saw how helpful this exercise would be in improving the changes.

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While Nonie and I have ridden in Dani’s arena a number of times, this particular weekend Nonie found something greatly offensive in the bottom corner. On day one we largely ignored this, however when she continued to spook and run away from it on the second day, Brett brought us back to the walk asking if Nonie often spooked. Brett explained, that there are two aspects to a spook, speed and line and if we can control those two things we can control the spook. When Nonie began to speed up and come away from the long side of the arena in her spook we brought her back to walk and then made her halt in front of the spot that she found particularly offensive. After doing this a few times I began to feel Nonie relax and we were then able to ride straight past the spot without issue.

The thing that really stood out to me from these lessons was the importance of simplicity. As the saying goes, “Any darn fool can make something complex, it takes a genius to make something simple”. He explained to me how all of the higher level movements, even piaffe is simply a combination of lower level aids applied in a new sequence. I learnt so much during these lessons, it was worth every kilometre of the drive and I cannot wait until Brett comes back up to Queensland.

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Unit next time, happy riding. xo

Posted in Dressage, Training

Flying Changes and Mind Games

Toward the end of last year, Nonie and I started work on the changes. Flying changes!!! Being deemed ready to ride this brand new movement felt like a huge accomplishment, it felt like we had arrived! Having now started them, I can’t help but feel that my initial eagerness belied my naivety. I have come to understand that the changes are a challenge which require strength, relaxation and timing. There is an additional layer of challenge because you either complete one or you don’t. Sure there are varying levels of excellence within this movement however learning to ride the changes is vastly different from other skills where you are able to gradually develop them. For instance, when beginning shoulder in you may feel a glimmer of brilliance before it slips through your fingers, you continue to build upon that feeling until suddenly you can ride a whole long side in shoulder in.
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The changes started well under the watchful and analytical eye of our coach Dani Keogh, but when we started to work on them on our own it was a different story. We would warm up well and progress on to school the flying changes. After achieving maybe one or two each way that were fine Nonie would brace against me, take over and speed off. Maybe because she is an exuberant horse, or more likely this was the natural result of me asking with a far bigger aid than required. So I would go home and read articles, watch videos and find a new exercise to try. I would try it a couple of times with success but then Nonie would again take over.
The reason we were struggling with the changes wasn’t necessarily that my position is weak or because Nonie’s canter needed more jump and strength (although in some respects it does), rather it was because whenever tension would enter in the canter work, particularly on the right rein Nonie would push in through her her right shoulder allowing her to brace against me and avoid my aids. Ironically this is the exact issue that Dani had spent a large chunk of time working on with us in our last lesson. Who’d have guessed!
It’s not the first time that I have learnt a lesson in this way where I’ve been told something a million times and then suddenly the lesson clicks and the light bulb goes off! Eureka, we have understanding! I suspect a few factors play into this. I belive that timing is essential and that in order to deeply understand a lesson, we must be in a place were mentally we are ready for it. On the other, it may have more to do with hearing the lesson explained in a way that makes sense. You know how 4+5 equal 9 but 3+6 also equal 9. Or maybe it’s a combination of all of these things.
So I took  a few steps back to focus on the prerequisites for a good change such as the transitions, the balance, the tempo control and keeping her wrapped around my inside leg, and only occasionally asking for a change. This approach did help to create some progress. However I sensed that my mind was also holding me back. This sense came more from past experiences of my mind having got in the way than a true understanding of exactly what was happening at that point in time.
I suspected that a phone call to my performance  and mindset coach Danielle Pooles from Dressage Plus would be helpful. So that was exactly what I did. I have sought Dani’s assistance previously with great success. Anyone who has ridden dressage knows that it takes a great deal of athletic ability, but it equally requires great strength of mind and the ability to remain clear headed under pressure. When learning a new movement or in other situations where our equine partner may be unsure, it is up to us as the rider, to step up and be the leader, and gently guiding our horse to understanding.
Talking through the difficulties I was having with Dani helped me to figure out exactly what was going on, bracing against Nonie, holding tension in my thighs and my mind going blank at the vital moment I needed to ask for the change. We then worked out a strategy, including breathing at critical moments to help manage these issues. I got to try the strategy out the very next day and low and behold I was excited about the prospect of riding the changes rather than being nervous about how she would respond. We only got a quick ride in due to me leaving work late but we managed a calm easy change on each rein, no more speeding up into the change no more barreling down into the reins after the change no more excessive use of aids.
The changes are not yet perfect, but they are certainly improving and at the end of the day that’s all you can ask for. Little improvements each day add up to big changes in the long term (pardon the pun!). This experience has reinforced for me the importance of mindset. Riding is as much a mind game as it is an athletic pursuit.
Until next time, happy riding! x AP
Posted in Dressage, Training

The Soundtrack to Our Rides

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Back when I was a young lass… I’ve always wanted to be able to start a story this way, so a story about what happens when horses and technology collide seemed like a good time to do it. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have grown up riding horses and as a child of the nineties I rode sans iPod. As I finished uni and moved away from home rather than riding with my mum, I often found myself riding alone. I began to listen to music more and more. Over the last few years, I have fluctuated between riding to a soundtrack and riding in the ‘silence’ of nature.

I take great pleasure in the ability of music to influence emotions, whether the song personifies joy or transports you back to a particular chapter of your life and the emotions that were prominent during this time. As a bit of a nerd, I was thrilled to realise that this has previously been described by the likes of Aristotle and this observation is supported by science. These emotions can take hold within our bodies and can influence us physically, so of course if you do choose to ride with music, careful selection is important. Here are a few of the tunes I love:

The question on my mind at present is not whether it is enjoyable to ride with a back drop of music, but rather should it be done at all? Here is my take:

The Benefits:

– Having music playing whilst you ride can be beneficial in increasing the riders relaxation. In the past I have had great difficulty striking the balance between maintaining a strong and effective position and being relaxed. During these times music has helped to achieve this.

– The right song can really help to improve the quality of the paces by acting as a goal post for rhythm

– Breathing! Bailey Notle of @joyful_dressage discusses the importance of breathing and how a good sing along can assist. I know I have certainly been guilty of this when I have the arena to myself

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The Negatives:

– I have noticed recently how distracting riding with music playing can be. When working on new or harder movements where I need to think about the process and the sequence of aids I need to apply, I have needed to pause my music in order to be able to focus.

– I do often wonder if having music on whilst riding is potentially dangerous. However I have come to the decision that so long as you aren’t blasting your ear drums out or riding along the side of the road you should be fairly safe.

– I also find myself questioning how it may impact upon my ability to connect with my horse. If we our connected to the music does this prevent us connecting with our equine partner, or does it in fact serve to enhance this connection? I feel that Nonie and I have an excellent relationship, and I am not convinced that the absence of music with all its benefits would have enhanced this.

So I am sitting on the fence on this matter, I’d love to know what you guys think.

Posted in Dressage, Training

I’ll be a good rider when…

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‘I’ll be a good rider when…’ This is a game I used to play a few years ago and it’s about as useful as its companion game ‘If only…’ At that time the script in my head was ‘I’ll be a good rider when I am competing at elementary level’. For quite some time, on three horses, travers had been my Achilles heel and in my mind at least, being able to compete at this level represented overcoming this seemingly insurmountable challenge. But, when Nonie and I actually got to that level, something switched for me. It was as if someone had flicked a light on and I understood that it no longer meant as much to me as it had before. Not only did I realise that riding or competing at a particular level would never make me feel as though I had achieved the coveted status of being a ‘good rider’, I also learned something far more important about myself and my beloved sport.

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I realised that what was more important to me as the love that I have developed for learning the intricacies of the sport of dressage and growing the bond with my treasured mare.  Having embraced the feeling of discomfort that comes with learning a new skill, opened the door to something more. It enabled me to appreciate the brilliance that arises when a new movement clicks, or the feeling you get when you find that new gear within a pace. Best of all I now know that things only feel better as Nonie and I both gain strength and learn to relax within the work. Its been exciting to learn that as we continue to challenge ourselves, with a little patience and persistence these improvements we will continue unlocking bigger and better feelings. As I have let go of the stress of needing to be at a certain level in order to be ‘good enough’ it has created room for Nonie and I to develop a stronger relationship, the value of which cannot be underestimated.

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Posted in Dressage, Training

Daring to Suck

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Daring to suck… It’s a seemingly bizarre concept that resonated deeply with me. I was listening to one of my favourite podcast’s (check it out here http://summerinnanen.com/frr-37) when I stumbled across this idea.

So what does ‘daring to suck’ actually mean? In a nutshell, it means giving something a go even if there is a possibility of not pulling it off, not getting the outcome you were after, or failing. For me, daring to suck is an action which is in direct opposition to fearing failure. Why is this important? As someone who identifies as having perfectionistic tendencies, I can see how my fear of failure has held me back at times. Whether it be something as simple as not riding that movement that is tricky and feels super uncomfortable or not entering that competition because you might make a mistake. Looking back, I can also see that my fear of failure kept me competing at prelim/novice level for way longer than was altogether necessary. I wanted everything to be perfect when I took the step up to prelim. This is a real problem because life is not perfect, particularly when you add a horse into the mix.

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Over the last two years, I feel that I have become much better at embracing imperfection. Here are some things that I feel have helped me along in this journey:

Understand why things feel uncomfortable. For me one of the most useful things in understanding this was understanding the four stages of learning: unconscious incompetence (that is we don’t know anything about what we cannot yet do), conscious incompetence (we know what we can’t do), conscious incompetence (we know the skills needed and we can use them but a high degree of concentration is required) and finally unconscious incompetence (we are able to apply the skills effectively with little conscious effort being required). Sure, there are times when something that is normally effortless becomes incredibly hard, but for the most part discomfort comes about when we are learning a new skill. I’ve found it particularly useful to link discomfort in my riding with the understanding that I am learning something new, or strengthening a skill.

Push yourself to do things which are uncomfortable, but not unsafe. Many of you will be familiar with the concept of the ‘comfort zone’, the ‘growth’ or ‘stretch zone’ and the oft forgotten ‘danger’ or ‘panic zone’. While there is a need to push ourselves to doing things which are beyond our established skills, we need to be mindful that we do not push too far and create a dangerous situation. In doing this having a coach who knows your level of skill and can push you is invaluable. Get to know what it feels like when you are working within the growth zone, for me things feel uncomfortable, challenging and requires a lot more conscious effort, but it never feels unsafe.

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Let go of the idea of perfection and give yourself permission to make mistakes. It doesn’t exist anywhere, let alone when you bring an animal with its own thoughts and feelings into the picture. Don’t be afraid to try new things, whether that is trying a different exercise, playing around with the timing of your aids or even seeking the input of a different coach. A few years ago, Nonie and I got to a stage where we could barely ride a 20m canter circle despite having compete successfully competed at novice and prelim. With limited access to dressage coaches in the area, we struggled along on our own for several months, rides would frequently end up with me in tears and questioning my ability as a rider. I eventually contacted one of the local western trainers who had a good reputation, and she helped Nonie and I make some changes that greatly improved our straightness, Nonie’s obedience and my confidence to lead Nonie. Her strategies were not classical dressage, but they worked.

The dressage coach that I train with now lives about 800km away, so we get her up to run clinics once every couple of months. In between clinics I am training on my own, which sometimes means that I have to use my knowledge and skills to figure things out on my own. Sometimes this means that I make mistakes or do things that don’t work, but I have learnt that this is much better than trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. And generally we get things to a point where they start to improve.

So join me in embracing imperfection. I’d love to hear about a time when fear of failure has held you back and how you have dared to suck!

Posted in Dressage, Training, Uncategorized

Rain Rain Go Away

As an equestrian, my relationship with rain one of love-hate. While I can accept that regular doses of rain are necessary, bringing with it wonderfully lush grass, providing respite from the oppressive humidity and filling up rain water tanks and bores, there are also several negatives associated with the rain. When summer starts and brings with it several days of seemingly endless rain my heart sinks a little. Here in North Queensland, we are currently in the thick of it, so I thought I would share some strategies which have enabled me to retain my sanity in the rain.

When the inability to ride in your rain soaked arena becomes an issue, the obvious recommendation is to build an indoor… Just kidding, clearly this is outside the budget of many equestrians. Having an arena which doesn’t drain well has forced me to become both more creative and make the best of a situation. I am lucky to have wide grassed verges around my agistment centre and regularly make use this area during the summer rain. Although, the area is not wide enough to ride a 10m circle comfortably, it is great for riding transitions within the pace and lateral work such as leg yields, shoulder in and travers.  I also like to make use of this time to do a little bare back riding, I find that this helps me to engage the correct muscles within my core as well as allowing greater feel of my horses back.

When the ground has reached a point of complete saturation and riding just isn’t an option there are still things that you can do to get that horsey fix. Some strategies you could try include:

– Reviewing what progress you have made towards your goals and setting new ones

– Reflecting on your most recent training sessions and considering any areas of your riding that require more attention

– Visualising aspects of your training on which you are getting stuck or that you want to improve upon

Working with Danielle Pooles a performance coach at Dressage Plus (http://dressageplus.com.au/) has helped me to develop these skills.

Now I love my mare dearly, but I do on occasion wish that her skin was not quite so sensitive. Sensitive skin combined with two and a half white socks, quickly growing grass and bucket loads of rain is a recipe for greasy heel. Obviously a stable where she could get high and dry would be the simplest solution but until I have my own property, I will have to settle for dreaming about my future barn. In the meantime, to prevent greasy heel, I use a combination of antibacterial washes (such as Malaseb), drying her heels and pasterns and then lathering them in Pottie’s cream. Despite my best efforts in the past, there have still been two occasions that I can vividly recall, where she has developed a mild case of greasy heel resulting in her normally elegant legs looking more like those belonging to an elephant from the hock down! Fortunately around 18months ago Mum stumbled across Mud Guards (http://www.mudguards4horses.com), which are a pleated canvas wrap (similar to gaiters that hikers wear) that fasten just above the fetlock, that help to keep the pastern and heel dry as well as keeping the sun off. I have used these over the last two ‘wet seasons’, they have saved me time, money, stress and best of all no more elephant legs!

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Nonie enjoying the fresh grass in her Mud Guards.

I hope these ideas help you to make it through to winter with the least amount of drama possible. If all else fails enjoying stomping in a few puddles and wait for the rain to pass!