Friday, 24 June 2016

Reining Lesson #1

I've been struggling with canter leads on Kachina. 95% of the time we get the correct lead, but sometimes we don't. We kept getting the wrong lead to the left at a show in April, but it was just that one day so I chalked it up to an anomaly. Then, we got wrong leads in both directions at our most recent show. At this point, I knew I needed some help to figure it out.

Getting wrong leads is one thing, but what makes the problem worse is that I can't immediately tell if we're wrong or right. With other horses I've ridden, I was able to immediately feel that something was "off" when we picked up the wrong lead. However, with Kachina, she seems to have a strong ability to vary her balance and bend regardless of what lead she's on. I'm guessing this will be helpful when we eventually need a counter canter, but for now it really messes me up. Sometimes, we will be on the correct lead, but the bend and balance are such that we feel "off" and I think we're wrong. Then, other times, she'll be on the wrong lead but she'll be balanced and bent correctly and it feels beautiful. That means, it can take me a half circle or more to figure out for sure which lead we are on, and I've even had to resort to leaning forward to check her shoulders/legs a few times. Leaning forward and looking down is obviously not helpful to a nice quality canter, and it's hard for me to school correct lead departures if I can't make a correction in the first couple strides. I knew I needed a lesson to help me. I also wanted to see if I could get softer upwards transitions without head flailing and hollow running.

This is what our hollow flailing canter transitions look like,
nobody wants to see more of these
All photos from Chinook show

Unfortunately, as is the ongoing theme in this blog, I don't have a dressage coach that I can regularly lesson with. Fortunately, getting correct leads is not something specific to dressage. My barn owner T is a former reiner turned barrel racer. She knows next to nothing about dressage but is an accomplished horse woman so I scheduled a lesson with her. I've never seen T ride anything much other than working the barrel pattern (her reining days were before I met her), and I haven't seen her give anything more than a super beginner-type lesson. I wasn't sure what to expect but figured that at the very least she could be my eyes on the ground and tell me whether the lead was right or wrong so I could develop a better feel for it. I ended up being super impressed with how much T helped me in that lesson.

She first watched me warm up and we talked a little about the differences between reining and dressage. We had a little bit of a laugh at how slow dressage is compared to reining, like the fact that I won't need walk-canter transitions until next year. Then we got to work.

She first really got after me about getting inside bend. I've been too focused on inside leg to outside rein that I was using my outside rein too much and getting her counterbent in her neck. When I thought my reins felt even, my outside rein was always shorter, so T got me keep loosening my outside rein and holding my outside hand slightly forward. My concept of even is clearly skewed so I need to feel like my outside hand is super far forward with a loose rein to get back to where I need to be. Thankfully, this habit is only a month or two old so it shouldn't be too hard to kick it at this point.

Next up was working on keeping my hands quieter and "in a small control box". To avoid tipping to the inside, I've told myself for a long time to pick my inside shoulder up. That part is good, what is not good is when I pick up my inside hand with the shoulder and move it so much that I'm starting to cross it over the neck. I practiced picking up my shoulder with leaving my hand where it was and I could immediately feel the difference.

What is my left arm doing?!
I think I was trying to stop her falling in at this moment,
but clearly I'm doing it wrong *face palm*

Leaning back was another theme. I know this is my problem but I still need reminders. A new visualization she told me was to "imagine there is a stick with wet paint in front of your chest and you don't want to stain your shirt".

Sit up! 

Then we got to the canter transitions. On the very first one, we got the correct lead but it was fast and had head flailing. T immediately got me to try again but with quieter aids. My response when the wrong lead issue first came up was for me to ask for canter every time with super obvious leg aids to make it clearer which lead I wanted. With T's help, we figured out that this was the exact wrong response. My strong aids were causing Kachina to flail and lose frame, and that coupled with my lack of inside bend was causing her to pick up the wrong lead. Instead, I need to make sure she is nicely set up, and that I can see her inside eye, and then give a super quiet canter aid. If I do that, I will eliminate the flailing and get the correct lead every time.

Like almost everything with riding, this is easier said than done. We can do lovely circles at the walk, but as we go up in speed, I find it harder to use my inside rein and inside leg and to not pull on the outside rein or tense up. I need lots and lots of practice and lots of being yelled at from the ground to build the correct muscle memory and start doing the correct thing automatically. I have a road map though and that's awesome. Our last canter transition of the lesson was actually round and quiet so I know we can do it now!

I've named this post Reining Lesson #1 because I have plans to do many more lessons with T in the future. The tough part is that we both have busy schedules and are usually free at different times so scheduling is tough. However the lessons are super cheap and I don't need to haul out for them so that makes it easier to do them more frequently.

After those previous photos showing me at my worst,
had to include one that looks at least halfway decent ;)

Have you ever had a horse that you had trouble telling leads on? Have you ever taken lessons with someone from a completely different discipline?


  1. I've always thought that good riding was good riding regardless of discipline. I haven't taken lessons from non English trainers but I also have only been at English barns...

    1. I'm also a big believer in good riding is good riding. This is especially true of simple walk/trot/canter (or walk/jog/lope) with trying to be an effective rider and having an obedient soft horse. I've been exposed to a lot of different disciplines throughout my life and I've tried to pick up different things from each.

      That said, there's some things where the different disciplines simply diverge too much. I know that my dressage won't be helped by having a western pleasure rider teach me about contact and bits, or by having a jumper teach me about position.

  2. I love the idea of making your control box smaller, definitely using that soon. I haven't taken any lessons from someone of a significantly different discipline, but I have a few students who ride western/trail and come to me for work on their alignment and the horse's straightness. It's definitely different, since they don't care about movements, ride a little slower, less put together, and obviously on less contact. But I've figured out how to sort of bridge the gap and help them out with their crookedness without changing the way they ride. It's a fun challenge!

    1. I liked the control box thing too. She explained it as imagine that your hands are on the controls of a crane or excavator or something and all your influence must happen by moving controls in a small area.

      That's cool that you work with western riders. T was really good about asking me about the ideal frame, contact etc. for dressage first so that she wasn't telling me anything outside of that. It was kind of funny though as she kept trying to correct herself and go "now jog,.. I mean trot" etc. until I told her that I understood jog and lope just fine :)