Friday 30 December 2016

The Progression Plan

2016 was a year of learning. I figured out a lot more about what training approaches work for Kachina. I got a saddle that wasn't working against me. I improved my position a lot (still lots more work to do, but it's passable for now). I also filled in a lot of holes in Kachina's basic training, teaching her about relaxation, bend, bit responses, groundwork manners, etc. Our consistency also improved a lot. All of that was very important work. That said, we started the year off as a passable Walk/Trot pair attempting Training Level, and we finished the year off as a passable Walk/Trot pair attempting Training Level.

In the last month, we've finally hit some breakthroughs and are starting to be able to actually move forward instead of just filling in holes. I'm sure I'll discover another hole at some point, but for now I want to keep up with the forward momentum and that means developing a progression plan.

Where we are Now

Note, for the purposes of this post, right now "good" = relaxed + rounded topline + even rhythm + slow tempo (not overly slow, but not running) + correct bend + acceptance of bit
(we can do more things with 4 or 5 out of 6, but that isn't enough to be considered "good")

Good walk work - achieved in 2015
One good 10-15m trot circle - achieved in late 2015
One good 20m trot circle - achieved in spring/summer 2016
Consistently (every ride) able to get one good 10-15m trot circle - achieved in December 2016, this took a long time, but the clinic in November gave us the final keys and we finally got there and were able to move on
Consistently able to get one good 20m trot circle - achieved in December 2016
Multiple good 20m trot circles - achieved December 2016
Consistently able to get multiple good 10-15m trot circles - achieved December 2016
Good trot circles with good walk-trot and trot-walk transitions - achieved December 2016 (my last ride)

No related media, so please enjoy this photo of me attempting to put my
elf hat on Kachina, she was not impressed with the plan and this was the closest I got

Near Future

Consistently able to get multiple good 20m trot circles
Consistently able to get good trot circles with good walk-trot/trot-walk transitions
Good Walk/Trot test patterns (circles, large arena, diagonals, transitions, direction changes, etc)
Consistently good Walk/Trot test patterns

We're not too far off this point and I think that all of these steps are realistically achievable in the next 4-6 weeks.

Next Steps

Good stretchy trot circle
Consistently good stretchy trot circle with transitions in/out
Good trot circle with a few strides of lengthen/added impulsion
Consistently good transitions within trot
Good canter circle
Consistently good canter circle
Good trot-canter/canter-trot transitions
Consistently good trot-canter/canter-trot transitions
Good Training test patterns
Consistently good Training test patterns

These are the next stages that we need to reach. Any one of these steps might end up being another wall that we need plenty of time and new strategies to conquer, so the timeline is a lot more uncertain. However long it takes, once we get to this point I will feel like I finally have a solid walk/trot/canter horse and that will be fantastic. If we get to this point before the summer show season I will be ecstatic. I'd love to go to a couple recognized shows and feel like we were actually contenders at Training Level instead of just there for exposure.

Note, trot lengthen is in this grouping, even though it's not a Training level movement, because I feel that coming back to a good trot after a big trot is a good tool to have before we tackle the canter (so I can more easily come back to a good place if the canter gets messy).

First Level

Add more strides of lengthened trot
Consistently good lengthened trot diagonals
Good trot leg yields
Consistently good trot leg yields
Good canter circle with a few strides of lengthen/added impulsion
Consistently good transitions within canter
Good long side of lengthened canter
Consistently good long side of lengthened canter
Good First 1 & 2 test patterns
Consistently good  First 1 & 2 test patterns.

After we get Training Level down, these are what we need to approach First Level. I'd like to check at least a few of these off by the end of 2017 if possible. Somewhere in here we'll also have to up our definition of "good" to be more consistently on the bit (instead of just accepting it) and to have more impulsion, balance and throughness.

That's where I'm going to stop for even my ambitious plan. I can see the progression up to this point, but I can see the counter canter loop to X in First Level Test 3 being a tough movement for Kachina. I think introducing that too early could reverse the important lessons we've learned about bend and balance so I will do a hard re-evaluation before then.

If all this works, we will end 2017 as a good (not just passable) Training Level pair attempting First Level. Of course horses and life like to throw a lot of wrenches into any plan so we'll see what happens.

Do you plan your training in a series of steps like this or take it more day by day as to what needs to be worked on? How many steps ahead do you plan? This is essentially my first time doing this style of plan, but I think I need it to keep me focused and stop me stagnating in the same place. I am totally willing to rethink this at any time if the need arises though.

Wednesday 28 December 2016

2016 Year in Review


I started this blog after being a blog reader for a couple years, and introduced my horse Kachina. I got my bronze sport licence for the first time as I thought about showing recognized in 2016. I made some lofty goals for the year (many of which we didn't reach). I made a tentative event schedule with the goal of taking Kachina lots of places and exposing her to different show environments (which we did succeed at).



I decided I needed some dressage instruction (but didn't want to haul through snow) and lessoned with two FEI level riders, one on a simulator (plus here and here) and one on a schoolmaster. One of those was Sandra so I succeeded in making a really good connection. Later this month the weather improved and I hauled up to Calgary with a friend so I could ride with Sandra on my own horse. I also did a Cowboy Challenge clinic for something totally different.

Dressage Simulator

Cowboy Challenge Clinic


I started doing Pilates to improve my core strength, and body flexibility and awareness for riding. I totally changed up my warm-up due to what I learned in February and that was a game-changer. I talked about my tack a bit. I went to my first true dressage show with Kachina. We showed Walk/Trot and Training 1 and got scores in the low 60s. I also wondered about Kachina's breed.


Kachina got her teeth done and a vet check. I found out that the equine dentist wasn't as legit as he appeared. No long term damage was done to Kachina but I learned to do even more due diligence when researching horse "professionals". I rode bareback and lived (but haven't done much since). I went to a second dressage show. We had some success in the show warm-up but a brand new problem of getting wrong canter leads cropped up and our scores suffered.

Second Show


I talked about my horse keeping style. Despite deciding to take a break from showing this month, we ended up getting Reserve Champion at Walk/Trot for the Carrots & Cocktails show series. I experimented with chiro for Kachina and finished ruling out any physical reason for Kachina's mouth gaping. I continued to struggle with our canter leads. I did some thinking about Kachina's personality and came up with some insights about how I needed to address our ground work struggles.


Kachina did some pony rides with my non-horsey brother and friends. I scribed at the Gold Show/CDI*** in Calgary. I went to Claresholm to compete in my first ever recognized dressage show. We came away with a fancy ribbon but our scores weren't great and the video made me come to some hard realizations about our need to go back to basics, both with my position and the bottom layers of the dressage pyramid. I took a lesson with my BO (a former reiner) and finally figured out what was happening with our leads. I also had a lesson with Elaine. This month started my focus for the rest of the year on my position and getting inside bend.

My view from C while scribing

Things weren't pretty


This month had some frustrating days for both riding and with Kachina being worse on the ground. I finally got Kachina a spot out in the giant pasture and she adapted to life out there quickly. We didn't make much progress on the dressage side of things but we had an amazing three day trail riding trip in Writing on Stone where Kachina proved her worth as a trail horse. I showed at our local open show where the dressage day was terrible but we had fun in the rail classes. I decided to end our show season early and go back to basics. I also started figuring out that my saddle wasn't working.


My saddle search escalated quickly and I spent most of the month trying out different saddles before getting my unicorn. Since a lot of rides were spent judging saddles, our training didn't really progress. I did scribe at another show and also watched a jousting tournament. I hit two years of owning Kachina and reflected about how we ended up together.

Unicorn saddle


I had a three day clinic with Elaine where I did some major leg position bootcamp in my new saddle. I then took off for two weeks holiday which included a look into horse racing in Ireland.

At the Elaine clinic

My cousin's racehorse


We experienced summer, autumn, and winter weather all in this month. I took elements of what I had learned from various sources and started figuring out for myself what I needed to do to improve Kachina's basics (inside bend is the key). I participated in 2pointober. I had learned some important lessons back in June, but it wasn't until this month that everything started to come together and we started making real progress in both riding and ground work.


I struggled a bit with stagnating progress and winter blues at the start of the month. I put quite a bit of work into organizing a local dressage clinic with Sandra. The clinic ended up being awesome, both for my own riding and for helping to build this fledgling dressage community.

Sandra on Kachina


I took some time to process the clinic from November. Canadian winter hit with a fury, but I sucked it up, pulled out all my warm marshmallow layers and had a bunch of really good rides. The clinic gave me some extra tools to get us to the next level and our trot has had some major improvement.

2016 wasn't a year of huge successes, but I learned so much. I am really happy with where Kachina and I are at right now and I'm excited for what 2017 brings. 

Monday 26 December 2016

December 10 Questions

From L at Viva Carlos

Does your horse need shoes?

Nope. Kachina has been barefoot since I got her. She's got good hard feet, and I can generally even ride on gravel roads or tough terrain without an issue. She's also extremely sound.

What do you think of the barefoot vs shoes debate?

If my horse needed shoes for any reason then I would go that route, but I think barefoot is the good default choice. The reason I first tried barefoot was to avoid winter ice balls, but I've come to appreciate the naturalness and the lower cost and frequency of farrier care. I know many horses who do well barefoot. I don't judge or press my opinions on anyone else though and I realize that shoes can be necessary for some disciplines or footing.

Favorite season for riding?

Early summer - warm enough to go back outside but still not many bugs around (especially mosquitoes)

How many shows do you think you've gone to?

With Kachina: 6 in total, 5 schooling and 1 recognized.
For dressage scribing: 6, 4 of those were gold shows.
In total: When you include shows that I've watched and shows that I competed in with other horses, it's probably around 3 dozen, but still not a whole ton.

Kachina's first ever show

Do you consider yourself a good rider?

Not really. I think I have been riding for a long time, have been a good student, and have learned a number of tools for my riding toolbox. However, I don't think I have a whole lot of natural talent or guts, and I could be a lot further along considering I started riding as a kid. I've only periodically had access to regular instruction and that is one thing that has made my progress a lot slower.

How experienced do you think someone needs to be to own a horse?

I think they need to have good knowledge about horse care or be in a good boarding situation. You don't necessarily need to be a great rider to be a good horse owner though.

Have you ever gotten into a fight with your trainer?

Nope. I don't currently have a regular trainer, but I've always tried what a trainer has suggested, and quietly left if I ultimately felt that their approach didn't work for us. I'm pretty good at avoiding drama, maybe too good sometimes, but the horse world is small and I'm glad that I've never burned a bridge.

Describe your dream horse.

A horse that I can move up the levels with in dressage but also enjoy low key trail rides with. Also one that is fun to be around on the ground. Kachina has the potential to be this, though I wish she enjoyed grooming etc. instead of being so antsy.

Does anyone in your family ride?

Do my cousin's children who live in Ireland and I've only met twice count? So basically no. One of my other cousins raises racehorses and I love to connect with him over horses, but he lives in Ireland too so I don't get to see him often and he doesn't ride himself anymore. Of my immediate family, my SO, and his family, nobody is into horses even remotely.

My cousin's horses and farm (and cows, and dog)

If you could ride any horse in the world, which one would it be? why?

A Grand Prix schoolmaster. I could learn so much if I had access to a horse that could show me how things are supposed to feel.

Sunday 25 December 2016

Merry Christmas

I hope everyone is having a great holiday season! Merry Christmas from Kachina and I!

Friday 23 December 2016

Good Rides + Media!

Every single ride since the clinic has been good(!). Our rides have been short and low key because of the cold, but in each one we have had good quality work in walk and trot. Our trot work hasn't been this consistent in... ever, and I'm really excited about it.

Possibly my new favorite photo

Lest anyone thinks that we are doing grand fancy stuff, we are not, we are working on 10 and 20m circles in walk and trot, and the dressage pyramid elements of rhythm, relaxation, and straightness (bend).

I'm not being too fussy with the quality of the connection at this point. when she is relaxed and bent correctly, she is soft in the bridle and accepts the contact which is good enough for now (no more gaping with her mouth!). She'll poke her nose forward or backwards sometimes but it's not in a resistant way.

I'm also not asking specifically for impulsion. I'm finally at the stage where I'm not having to slow her down into a smaller trot, and her automatic trot right now is a reasonable working pace where she is tracking up and balanced. I'm hoping to be able to play a bit with the impulsion soon and explore transitions within the trot. The test will be adding more impulsion without losing all of the other elements.

Unlike CobJockey, I sadly didn't get a fancy robotic camera setup (I want one!), but I did ride with my friend S yesterday and convinced her to take some media for me!

She took a 2 min video of me at walk and trot in both directions. I was pleased to find that it looks similar to how it feels. There were lots of decent screenshots (so I included way too many in this post!). You may notice that most of the screenshots are taken in a similar part of the arena, that's just because it was less blurry there, she was equally good around the whole circle! I'd even be comfortable posting the whole video on here (but I haven't succeeded in uploading it yet so that will have to wait for another post, sorry #technologyfail).

My position still needs some work (and probably always will). I was posting the trot and I can see that I sort of collapse forward with my upper body during part of the motion. However, my arms aren't twisted across my body in weird ways anymore. My lower leg is much steadier and closer to where it should be. There's actually times where there's the proper elbow-hand-bit line, and times where it looks like I wouldn't fall over if my horse disappeared from under me. It's progress and I'll take it!

There were a few times where she brought her head up and sped up a bit, but I just have to slightly increase the inside bend and she settles back down into a relaxed frame within a couple strides. A big improvement from our previous giraffe running.

This is as giraffey as she gets these days

The walk was good too, but we've had a good walk for a while so the trot is way more exciting! (Hence why all screenshots are of trot). Now we just need to get this at the canter and we might actually be a legit training level pair... ;-)

My legs are actually on the horse!
This is a huge win for me!

Wednesday 21 December 2016

Sandra Clinic Recap

In case your memory needs jogging, this is the full recap from my Nov 26-27 clinic at home with Sandra. For background info see clinic in a nutshell and my typical ride. This post was delayed because quite honestly I needed some time to process what I learned in the clinic, and I also needed some rides to put it into action and see how it worked when I didn't have a trainer helping me. In a lot of ways, what Sandra taught me at the clinic was just a progression of what she'd worked with me on before, but the little changes and additions to what I had been doing have had a big impact.

Here's what I learned:

1. Play with my fingers. I've been working with Kachina on inside bend, I realize that proper bend is crucial to getting other pieces to fall into place. However, I sometimes found that when Kachina sped up and got counterbent, I would get into a bit of a pulling match with her and that wouldn't help anyone. Turns out that if you play with your fingers, you can't brace with your forearm and upper arm. So voila, if I play with my fingers, no pulling match will exist. Extra bonus: I will stop pulling my upper body forward.

All photos are screenshots from the video I took of Sandra's ride,
sadly the only media I have

2. I can bring my inside hand back behind my thigh if I need to. I saw Sandra do this a few times to really exaggerate the inside bend message to Kachina. I sometimes get nervous about finding my reins too long when Kachina instantly goes from a relaxed long and low frame into giraffe mode. Previously I would sometimes curl my arms awkwardly upward or across the neck (bad!) to try and get my reins back in action. Moving my hand down and to the outside near my thigh is a much more effective way of taking up the slack if I need it though. Sandra recommended that I do use a bit of a shorter rein with Kachina, but it still helps me to stay more relaxed in the saddle knowing that I have a good way to get back in control if needed. Pairing my inside rein behind my thigh with inside leg is also an option to disengage Kachina's hip and get her to move sideways (see next point).

Sandra's hand back and down, plus asking her to move her hips out

3. Use inside leg to get her hips to swing out. This seems so simple but it has been one of the biggest game changers in my recent rides. Before, in a typical ride, Kachina would get counterbent and I would try to use inside leg and inside rein to get her to bend the correct way, sometimes she would take my inside leg as meaning forward and start running while still counterbent, I didn't have an extra tool to use at that point so I would generally end up taking my aids off and bringing her down to the walk to reset. Inside leg should work to bend Kachina's ribcage around my leg (she understands this perfectly at the walk, but it somehow gets lost in translation at the trot). However, now, if I use my inside leg and she runs forward instead, I can keep my leg on but convert my aids to asking her to swing her haunches out away from my inside leg. This still isn't exactly what we want, but it at least reinforces the idea that inside leg means out, not fast. Also, it does work to get her nose back towards the inside of the circle which is where we need it. Finally, when Kachina crosses over with her hind legs it forces her to slow down and rebalance a bit. So far, this slight movement is enough to install Kachina's brain back in her head, disengage her from flight mode, and get us back on track. Extra bonus: my body is also learning that leg on doesn't mean fast so I'm able to keep my legs against Kachina's sides much better now.

Crossing hind legs

4. A brief aid on the inside rein should now be enough to correct Kachina out of her running counterbent giraffe mode. If it's not, I have permission to escalate. We have spent months gently redirecting Kachina into what we want, so she should understand and I can more firmly tell her that giraffing is not acceptable. The first step in escalation can be getting her to swing her hips out like above. If that doesn't work, then escalation can also mean using firm unpredictable pressure with the reins. No pulling, yanking or see-sawing, but play with the reins strongly in a random pattern between left and right. (That's the best way I can explain it but I get that this sounds confusing, I had to have Sandra demonstrate the technique to me with me holding the other end of the reins.) Release and be very soft with my hands whenever she is being good. I haven't needed to try this since Sandra's training ride, but it's good to know in case I do.

No longer allowed!

5. Accept a bigger trot as long as it is swinging instead of running. Kachina has the capacity for big gaits, but up to this point we have been asking for smaller gaits in order to keep the balance, the control and the softness. Now, Kachina does have the ability to do a good, balanced swinging trot, so I need to let her. There is a clear difference in how her swinging trot feels compared to her running trot (she did both during the clinic), but I need to remind myself to feel for which one she is doing instead of automatically slowing her down when we start moving faster across the arena.

Smaller trot...

6. Start (re-)introducing lengthens by playing with transitions between her big trot and small trot on a circle. Only do a few strides at a time, and stay on the circle to keep bend and control, no diagonals for quite a while.

...Regular trot (this isn't really her big trot, but it's the best I have a pic for on this day)
7. Don't allow Kachina to loose her frame/bend in the canter, so canter in a smaller circle if I need to to keep control. The smaller circles in canter are hard for Kachina but that doesn't mean I can't do them, just keep it to only a few circles.

Cantering on a 12-15m circle

8. Work on "stirrup-stepping". This was a completely new concept to me. Stirrup-stepping is where you get the horse to bend and move to the right by putting weight in your right stirrup and pushing over with your left upper leg (or opposite to go left). Eventually as I rider I should be able to just slightly weight the inside stirrup and have my horse bend their body in that direction. Apparently this comes in useful when adding it to other aids in higher level work. For now, we're just introducing the aid, but Sandra recommended using this as an additional warm-up exercise (at the walk) to get Kachina thinking and moving laterally in a relaxed way. On a loose rein, I step into one stirrup and then the other and we end up making zigzags and circles around the arena. I first give the aid with my weight, and then follow it up with an opening inside rein if I need to. Kachina has quickly got the hang of this exercise and we can do lots of shapes without needing any rein aids. It's also proving to be a great relaxation exercise as Kachina really stretches her neck down and gives big snorting releases when we do it.

Big releases

Overall I think this was the perfect amount of things to learn in a clinic. # 1 and 3 have been enough to allow me to get much more consistent and correct trot work. 8 has been a good addition to our warm-up and gives us a good low key but thinking exercise to do in the winter when I don't want her to get sweaty. 2 and 4 give me tools so I know what to do if Kachina does get extra tense and giraffy. Finally, 5, 6 and 7 give me a path forward about what to work on next.

All of my rides since the clinic have been good so far. Even when Kachina comes out tense I've been able to quickly turn it around and get some really good quality work. I'm really enjoying where we're at right now and I'm excited for the future!