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!


  1. Lots of great take-a-ways! I'm going to try that stirrup stepping thing with Apollo to see what he does. Kachina looks fantastic btw! My horses are so fat and fuzzy right now haha

    1. Thanks! Kachina is supremely fuzzy but she's pretty good at keeping a consistent weight (she's on a round bale with a slow feed net). Let me know what you think of the stirrup stepping!

  2. Sounds like an awesome clinic! I tend to get in a pulling match with my pony, and have tried to be looser in my arms and wiggle my fingers. Such a good reminder :) Also Kachina is so fancy! What a cutie!

    1. It was such a good clinic! Exactly what I needed at that point :D

  3. the bigger gait that's 'swinging' and not 'running' is a useful way of thinking about it for me. my guy is so green that we don't have a lot of nuance, except that i want him going forward, but also in balance. also i like that 'stirrup stepping' description!

    1. I know that with Kachina I had to keep her gaits smaller for the first couple years(!) so that we wouldn't lose the relaxation and balance. It's only now that she's ready to go more forward, but she's also a very very forward thinking horse so adding more forward is easy. Your guy sounds like he has a much more chill mind so your progression might need to be different.

      Now, I keep finding myself checking whether she's "running" or "swinging". I need to consciously think about it right now, it's not automatic yet.

  4. Those are great take aways. I too like to take things and try to figure out how to do it without an expert helping me. I love your horse, she's so lovely.

    1. Thanks :-) Carmen is beautiful too!

      Since I don't get regular lessons I find that I need to do a lot more thinking after each one I do get since the learning needs to last me for a few months. It's frustrating sometimes but I ultimately think it's making me a more thinking, better rider.