As you may remember, I'm planning to start doing semi-regular Skype lessons with Sandra. I wanted to use this weekend to let Sandra get to know Kachina a bit before we start virtual lessons and to take advantage of things that can only be done in person. That meant a trainer-ride!
Trainer rides seem to be polarizing discussion in the horse world. My take is that I like riding my horse myself but everyone should feel free to make up their own mind as to what works best for them and their horse at that time. With my trainer living several hours away, I am in zero danger of relying too much on trainer rides. This was Kachina's first ever trainer-ride, and my last one with another horse was literally 14 years ago!
None of my previous dressage trainers made a point of hopping on my horse. I'm not sure if that was their rule in general, or whether they just didn't want to step into the irons of my crazy horses in particular haha. Either way, when Sandra was happy to take the ride on Kachina on Sunday, I was happy to hand her the reins and stand back to watch and learn!
First off, Sandra did some ground work and stretches with Kachina.
Kachina likes to tilt her head to the side and gape her mouth. Sometimes she does both at the same time, sometimes one at a time. I've had her teeth looked at and had a vet check her out and no issues were found. She will do it in a halter or even when completely loose, so I know the bit isn't to blame. I have appointments booked for a specialist equine dentist and a chiropractor to come out this spring, but they don't work in the winter so she won't see them until April and May respectively. Correct riding does seem to lessen her funny behaviours, and she doesn't act like she's in pain, so we've been working around it and through it.
Sandra has a physio background, in both humans and horses, so it was interesting to get her thoughts. She did find that Kachina was tight in her upper neck and poll and was a bit reactive to some types of pressure. She showed me some stretches that would help. (Important Disclaimer: I was taught these by someone who knows what they are doing, but I am not qualified to explain these correctly. Take my descriptions with a giant grain of salt)
The first stretch she taught me was one that I had never heard of before. It involved getting the horse to lower their head, then using one hand by the nose and the other on their crest about a hand away from the poll. With your lower hand, you get the horse to point their nose first one direction and then the other, while you pull on their crest with the other hand. It's hard to explain, but when the horse is relaxed and you do it right, you can get the long ligament to pop over the crest from one side to the other. Sandra had me put my hand on Kachina's crest while Sandra did the stretch so I could feel what it was supposed to feel like. It really is a little pop feeling. By doing this back and forth a few times before each ride, it will get Kachina to loosen up her whole spine.
|Sandra showing me the ligament pop thing|
Another stretch was just getting Kachina to bend her neck around so her nose was near the girth on either side. This is a pretty common stretch, but Kachina needs some work with it as she is way more prone to moving her feet rather than bending her neck.
|Lateral neck stretch|
Sandra also worked on getting Kachina to cross over her hind legs, front legs, and back up. Kachina is excellent at moving her hip around, but moving her shoulder over is significantly harder. I've known that since I got her and we've made a lot of improvement but more can be done. These movements were partly as a stretch but I think Sandra also did them so she knew she could have some control from the saddle if things went sideways.
|Moving the hindquarters|
Once Sandra got on, she continued with the theme of this weekend which is: "lateral work is the key to unlocking this horse longitudinally". She also focused on stretching in the warm up.
Sandra was using a super loose rein in the warm up, the rein was actually drooping a lot of the time. She instead used changes of direction and lateral movement to control Kachina when she got fast.
Warm-up exercises included (all at walk):
Snake Trail - ride a curvy zigzag down the arena, asking for the shoulders to step over at each change of direction
|Crossing front legs in snake trail|
Spiral-In Shoulder-In - ask for shoulder-in on a 10m circle, then spiral it down to 5m, and then spiral down a little further - ends up being kind of a loose walk pirouette.
Turn with Opening Rein - with a loose outside rein and a long inside rein, bring the inside rein out and back behind the thigh while keeping legs on - just like the above exercise, this kind of produces a loose walk pirouette but it does it with completely different aids.
This is a completely different approach of a warm-up than I have been using. I previously had the idea that Kachina was just at training level and we were only starting to introduce lateral work so I shouldn't ask for too much lateral work. Sandra explained how doing movements "above" our level is totally fine if we're doing it to improve the horse's way of going. Kachina really needs the lateral work to loosen up and become through, so I should take full advantage of that.
After the warm-up, Sandra moved on to basically doing the same exercise I had done the day before with a 20m circle and 10m circles within. However Sandra modified the exercise constantly depending on whether she felt Kachina needed smaller or larger figures or a change of direction at that moment.
The main take-aways of the ride were:
- Keep reins soft - allow Kachina a place to stretch to and help her trust the contact
- Legs on doesn't mean forward - keep legs in contact with her sides and use them to influence her ribcage, don't let Kachina trick me into taking my legs off when she starts running
- Right canter is the hard side - I find left canter to be the more challenging way because left is Kachina's stiff side. However, Sandra explained that the left is actually easier to influence (when you know what you're doing like she does), and the right is tougher to improve on.
- Change up the exercises - Kachina gets stressed when you ask her to change figures too much. I've noticed this myself and have been repeating exercises more to get her relaxed. However Sandra suggested that I need to keep varying the exercises so that she learns to not be stressed out by it.
- Encourage Kachina to experiment with her neck - during Sandra's ride, Kachina had her head and neck in all different positions from giraffing to curling her nose to her chest and everything in between. Sandra noted that Kachina was stiffer through the back when she held her head in one fixed position, and she was more through even when her head was behind the vertical. Right now, by moving her head and neck around, Kachina is experimenting with her muscles and spine, I shouldn't discourage that. We can fix the head position later. For now, if Kachina stretches down and back, reward that, but then change it up so she doesn't stay curled back for too long.
|Experimenting with her neck - behind the vertical|
Sandra rides beautifully and it was a pleasure to watch her skill in working with Kachina. It inspired me to improve myself as much as I can.
While Sandra was riding, Kachina was better at the sitting trot and would get more rushy for posting. Also, the canter transitions were strung out and running. I have both of these problems myself, but I thought these specific issues were at least 90% related to my own position and were more of a rider problem. Seeing Sandra experiencing the same thing showed me that these are issues Kachina has and it's not all my fault. While this doesn't give me a magic pill to fix the issues, it's good to know that it's not just me. Sandra also assured me that it's acceptable to continue to do more work in sitting trot if that is where I can get better influence.
|Trainer rides are awesome but not magic, still some ugly moments|
After Sandra dismounted, she had me hop on to feel the difference. Kachina had worked pretty hard with Sandra in the tack, so I only got on for a few minutes for some walk and trot.
There was a dramatic difference! Normally Kachina will move off if I even think forward, but I squeezed and I couldn't even get her to move away from the mounting block! Sandra explained that I need to distinguish between two different kinds of leg aids - solid pressure means I want to influence part of Kachina's body, while a short bump means forward. This is not a distinction I have been using.
I was amazed at how I could keep both legs on Kachina, even squeezing if needed, and she wouldn't dart forward. However, if I used a bump, I could still get her to trot without much pressure. Considering that this is a brand new concept for Kachina, I was super impressed that Sandra was able to teach it to her in one ride. I did some simple circles and walk and trot, getting used to the feel of actually using my legs. Now that I know how it's supposed to work, it should be relatively easy for me to keep up that concept on my own rides.
After Kachina was put away, I had a second lesson, this time on Wrangler the schoolmaster (my first ride on her here).
I won't go into a whole lot of detail, but this lesson was good for me to do more work on developing my feel. We did the same exercises as with Kachina. I worked on keeping my toes forward and my legs on. As I was influencing Wrangler with my seat, hands and legs, I could really feel the differences in how she was going. With Sandra's help, I could feel when her shoulders lifted up and her hindquarters sat back, I could feel good vs. flat gaits, I could feel when the bend of her body was true vs. crooked. Wrangler's reactions are a lot more consistent than Kachina's are, so it was easier for me to feel the difference. I can use that feel towards figuring out when I'm getting correct work from Kachina.
Sandra had me put on spurs when I was riding Wrangler. That messed me up so much! Both Kachina and my last horse were very forward and sensitive so I haven't worn spurs to ride in about 16 years! Considering my penchant for turning my toes out, I was paranoid about accidentally hitting Wrangler with the spurs (but it did make me turn my toes in!). Even the feel of the bars of the spur between the side of my foot and the horse's ribs felt super weird.
|Look! Legs on and toes forward(ish)|
While I was cooling Wrangler out, I got to see Sandra hop on one of her sale horses. He's a giant warmblood who Sandra has transformed from a jumper into a solid Third level horse who's schooling PSG in only one year! It really shows how talented of a rider and trainer she is.
We loaded up the horses and had an uneventful trip home. It was a really good weekend but I was absolutely exhausted by the time I got home!
Now you're probably exhausted after reading this novel! Congrats if you made it all the way to the end =)