Simple Moments

This past Friday, it was a balmy 50 degrees and a slow day around the farm, which inspired me to get out of the arena. After asking Paul and Andrea if they wanted to join me on a trail ride (which they quickly declined…next time…) Kelso and I saddled up to stretch our legs. The moment my feet hit the stirrups and I realized the property were our stomping grounds, I instantly felt relieved and at home. Our souls felt good after a day out of four walls; after all, we spent the majority of our beginnings running around fields bareback. It’s good to go back to our roots every once in a while, which got me thinking a bit about the beginnings and how they will, inevitably, evolve as our riding career or hobby does.

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Kelso dreaming about the day we can start practicing outside!

I remember being a horse-crazy little girl who would be magnetically drawn to any horse-owning adult. I would stare and wonder how I was so lucky to be in their midst, and then wonder how they were so lucky to own a horse. A real horse. There would be a mix of bombarding them with questions and being too shy to ask any. But how many breaths did your horse take that day? It was unfathomable to me that they didn’t seem to know that answer. How do you ever stop staring at it? How do you ever leave it? These were questions an 8 year old pining for a horse needed to know the answers to.

When I was 13, I called my father while at a horse auction. I asked if I could buy a horse because they were selling yearlings for $65 each.What could go wrong? I was shocked when he said yes. My response was a quick confirmation that we would indeed have to pay board and vet bills and everything else. Kids, take notes on how to have your parents agree to buying you a horse; call them frantically and ask so quickly they don’t have time to think about their answer. After years of begging  and riding anything with a mane and four legs, I got the green light to search for my very own horse.

The stars aligned and Kelso was, I am convinced, given to me by the best horse gods there are. (Too many details on the beginnings of the WP and I will start sobbing and I am in public.) The love story of a thirteen year old girl and her Wonder Pony began. This love story has consisted of so many hours at the barn, nights spent in the straw during clinics, days spent in the sun reading novels, and a journey that has spanned thousands of miles.

The little girl who had hoped for so long to get her own pony had lots of love stored up to give to Kelso, and he graciously accepted it. During high school, on nights that were too cold or days that were too long, our solace would be to sit in each other’s company and just be. There would be many nights where I would think “I could probably do something productive with him right now.” I had no idea how productive those nights really were.

It was in those moments where the simple act of being together was enough to make the world go around. These moments have added up to a relationship I only dreamed about having. These moments were never plagued with the concerns about when flying changes were going to come, when we would get to that next medal, that next show, or whatever else might be your personal “next.”

At what point do we lose this innocence? At what point do we stop yelling out the car window “Pony!” as we drive past a field with horses. {I, Erin Paul, am 21 years old and often still scare passengers with that exclamation.} When does going to the barn become a chore, one that is added to the day after work, before dinner, and other adult list items?

There is a shift where the love we have for the horses that give us wings can become less evident. While it is obviously still there, they have become our normal. This is, of course, not the only thing in our lives that this happens to, but it is something I have started to take note of. When do we mount and dismount out of habit? When do we no longer feel like we are superheroes when we put our feet in the [pink] stirrup irons?

I challenge you to take a moment and remember that horse crazy kid you used to be. I want you to be so incredibly infatuated with your horse the next time you go to see them. Give them a huge hug around the neck, as if you were a 4’/ 90 lb pony clubber hugging your 16 HH draft-mutt. Give them way too many cookies just because you can. If you live with your horses, run out to the barn in your pajamas to say hello because they live in your backyard! If you board, take the whole drive to look forward to seeing your horse for the first time that day and take extra long to get them ready. Sit with them in their stalls or pastures to remember the feeling that can sometimes get lost in the medals, goals or movements. Go on a ride outside of your four walls to remember the days when the movements didn’t matter, but only the act of riding did. Take a minute to embrace the journey and the wonder of it all. The feeling that it is simply enough to be best friends. That we are, at the end of the day, inexplicably lucky to have these magnificent animals in our lives.

Remember the little girl or boy whose biggest dream was to have a horse of their very own. Now you have it, and I challenge you to embrace it.

Off to go hang out with my dream,

Erin and the WP

PS: A horse takes 10-24 breaths per minute. Using an average of 15 breaths, Kelso takes about 21,600 breaths a day.

This post is dedicated in loving memory to two equine partners I was honored to know and I am thankful my paths crossed that of their human partners. To Harmony and Lady-you are missed and so loved. Run your hearts out up in those endless green pastures! 

Hips Don’t Lie

{I have officially been here one month! It is insane it has already been that long/it has only been that long. I cannot believe how much I have already learned, or the improvement Kelso has made in the four weeks we’ve been here. It makes me so excited for the rest of our time here! Thanks for being a part of the journey!}

While grooming the WP on Friday Paul and I were chatting about the plan for my ride. He started to lecture Kelso about staying round and working through his back but Kelso was avoiding eye contact…The quality of the canter is behind the quality of our trot, so we decided working on the canter more today was the way to go. I then told Kelso it took him four weeks to get a fancy trot so he gets another four to improve the canter. Paul told me there are no timelines and it will come when it does, as there is no magic or tricks in true dressage. I was sure to tell him that Kelso is called the Wonder Pony for a reason and we are magic together. (Kelso was holding eye contact at this point, by the way.) He challenged us to show him our tricks and then thought better of it when I said we have quite a few; I don’t think cantering around bareback and bridleless would be very appreciated.

This week’s lesson started with our normal lunging routine. I have roots in Natural Horsemanship, a discipline that is not particularly in favor of lunging; my views on the practice have changed drastically in the month I have spent here, so look for a focused blog post about it! Not only has it improved the quality of the gaits and the connection Kelso has in the bridle while riding, it has also started to physically change the shape of his neck and how he carries himself. We also introduced in-hand work on the wall. We practiced trot-halts, which will ultimately help him sit more in the hind end. Paul uses in-hand work to teach horses to respect the handler’s space or for horses who can be heavy in the bridle. When working on the wall, the side reins are nearly even, but horses can have a tendency to go into a shoulder-in as they are leaning towards the handler so side reins can be adjusted to fix this. (In that case, the outside rein would be shortened.)

In the riding portion of our lesson, we continued to work on shoulder-ins, and then looked at the quality of our travers (haunches-ins.) It is really important to pay attention to the waist while executing these lateral movements as it is common to collapse there. We then moved up to the canter and our canter-walk transitions. Kelso is still anticipating them so we would only walk for three or four strides and then immediately pick up the canter again so he couldn’t guess or get bunched up. From these, we worked on counter-canter figure 8s. When I asked Paul how they looked, he remarked a little fast but “Well, he does them.” Nowhere to go but up.

The biggest frustration I still have is not sitting as deeply as I need/want to in the canter, and when I asked Paul for more advice at the close of our lesson, he lectured I need to focus more on my hips. I have been focusing on loosening my back while keeping my core tight, but this not quite right as I cannot be a noodle in the saddle. I instead need to engage my seat. The hips are the conductor of the [seat] orchestra, and they are what determines every stride and move of your horse. If the baton is dropped, the music stops, while if it is in motion, the orchestra is at attention.  The seat, namely the hips, will be one of the most important components of Flying Changes (Oh my gosh, he said the F word!)

In a chat with Andrea, I asked how to glue my butt to the saddle, and she assigned me to ride without stirrups. This will encourage my leg to lengthen and my calves to come off the horse, a common reason riders ping out of the saddle as they can perch without knowing it; It is also possible a horse with a tight back can spring their riders in the air.

The phrase that stuck with me the most from Paul is “You don’t need to drive every stride, but you do need to ride every stride.” Of course, the whole time we were talking about the importance of the hips in the whole seat I couldn’t stop thinking of Sharkira’s “Hips Don’t Lie.” I refrained from breaking out in song. Maybe next time.

Off to sing some Shakira without stirrups!

Erin and the one and only WP

Comfort Zones

You know what’s hard? Harder than I could have imagined? Posting videos of riding lessons on the world wide web. It’s terrifying! It is a collection of moments of you looking less-than-ideal during a time when weaknesses are highlighted so you can fix them.

In the world of social media it is really easy to present a life that seems perfect all the time, and I think that we can be surprised to see something less. When I decided to write a blog, I made a promise to myself that it would talk about the good, the bad and the ugly; I would wear my horse-loving heart on my sleeve. A hope I have for this blog is that it can help you learn + giggle sometimes. How can I expect anyone to learn, including myself, if I only shared the good? Putting the less-than-perfect on view for the whole world isn’t easy though, and can be a step out of the comfort zone.

This comfort zone has been talked about a few times here in relation to the science of expertise. Anders Ericsson has explored the topic extensively, and writes about his findings in his book, Peak. I have not had the chance to read it, but one of the ideas presented is how you learn better by failure than by success. It is a fine line of being pushed out of your comfort zone and being pushed over the edge. He has found that by failing, you learn at a much faster and more effective rate than if you never failed; being uncomfortable will bring you more rewards than being comfortable. Maybe you’ll be uncomfortable watching the WP and I fail to pick up the right lead during our canter-walk transitions and learn something…

In the bit of the lesson that I included we show a trot set (look how fancy he is!) and then our work on the Canter-Walk transitions. Kelso can get pretty jazzed during these as he knows what I want and doesn’t always want to wait. We are still working on consistent submission during these, but that is already improving. Additionally, the right lead is much harder for him to pick up and he is really good at talking me out of it. You can hear Paul tell me to “rock him back” before I make the walk transition; this allows him to be collected and balanced to avoid becoming a puddle in the walk transition. It is not simply slowing him down, as I need to bring his forehand up. I continue to work on my seat, and push towards the pommel with each stride. I am not following his movement; I am leading it.

We worked on shoulder-ins during our lesson as well which are not shown. I asked about where my weight must be during the shoulder-ins and while it is on my inside seat bone, I should not lean to put it there. Instead, by putting my inside leg slightly behind the girth and pushing Kelso from the inside leg to the outside rein, my pelvis will slightly tip causing it to feel heavier on the inside. When you’re looking at the upper body you shouldn’t know what you’re doing in the lower body, so don’t tip.

At the conclusion of the lesson, I inquired as to when Kelso and I could start working on one tempis as we have come so far already (Kidding.) Paul did explain that after submission, we start working on more impulsion, but that there must always be balance. Impulsion can be approached by doing lengthening and collecting, and is the weightlifting of the ride. The yoga or stretching portion is found in the lateral movements, and needs to be appropriately applied for your horse to become as symmetrical as possible.

I hope you enjoy the short clip of the lesson! I would love to say the journey with Kelso has been calm, easy and ethereal at every moment, but even as I type that I can hear the WP giggling in his stall. I hope that we can help you feel like you aren’t alone the next time you do something imperfectly. As long as you’re learning and having fun, it’s all worth it.

Off to canter-walk out of the comfort zone and fail some more!

Erin and Kelso

 

 

Dressage Soldier

If this is your first time on the blog, welcome! If not, Thank you for coming back for the second week!

The theme of discipline was brought up during my Thursday morning lesson, except it was in the context of telling me I lack it. It was even said, in undertones, I am a barbarian. I believe the phrase was “It is my job to take barbarians and make them into dressage soldiers.” No one else was in the ring so using the process of elimination, it was down to me and the WP.

In the defense of my superior, at one point during this week I managed to have two lunge lines on the same surcingle (which I didn’t realize until Paul pointed it out), forget my gloves multiple times, and also tried to convince him to rescue a miniature pony to teach it airs above the ground.  The first two won’t happen again, but I will give you weekly updates on the third item.

After my gloves were put on, the lesson of this week began. I will forever be working on my seat, but it was said that my upper body looked pretty good, while my legs are still not quite there. In compensating for being told my lower leg needed to be pushed back before, it was too far back this week. Figures.

However, there were two new concepts taught that I want to touch on. First, the idea of the space between your hands and seat being a pillow. This pillow should directly emulate your horse. If you want your horse to compress, compress the imaginary pillow. If you want them to extend, loosen the hold on your pillow. This visual helped me to think of the space between my core and my hands as something important; it is not simply dead space. It also helped to think of shrinking my horse down, or to think about how what I am doing in my body will affect my horse. I cannot expect my horse to move freely if I am death squeezing the pillow equivalent.

This pillow also helps to formulate the whole picture of the horse for me. My seat (ribs to knees), hands and legs are one in order for the horse to be through and connected. Charles Harris, a Spanish Riding School student, said “only correct application and coordination of all the aids can bring about perfection.” It is impossible to only use hands; you would go nowhere. You can not only use legs either; you could go anywhere and never stop. You must be connected in order for your horse to be the same.

Second, we started to work on the daylight between the saddle and my seat in the canter. I wish it were as easy for me to think “sit deeper” to stay in one place, but, alas, this is dressage. Paul told me instead to imagine pulling the hindquarters of the horse forward every canter stride with your hips. (He also said that some people better connect with the idea of pushing the horse forward from their whole core.) Elbows should not give and take dramatically, and your upper body should not rock back and forth. I discovered I have a nasty habit of grasping with my calves when riding without stirrups, so that’s another thing to work on.

While I am still set in my barbaric ways, I have only worn white polos and saddle pads for the last week (really only because they put bleach in every load of wash and I would be devastated if my pink pad came out no longer pink.) Paul is doing his best to make me a dressage soldier, and I am doing my best to keep him on his toes.

Until next time-I am off to report for {dressage soldier} duty,

Erin and the WP

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Alpha and Omega

{If you are reading this, it means this blog has been “released.” This is both exciting and terrifying, but I am so glad you stopped by. I hope you enjoy and keep coming back!}

I have survived my first week at the Pennsylvania Riding Academy! I thought we were goners when I was told the horses are hairsprayed before every ride to ensure it is neat; I have only cut Kelso’s mane once in our 7.5 year career. And it was in a stall at 11 pm the night before a show with scissors. Despite this, we haven’t been kicked out yet! It has been a week of drinking from the fire hose, and I have to thank everyone here for being so patient while I learn the ropes. The barn manager, Nikki, is incredible and deserves an award for teaching me everything. While there is so much to report that is new and exciting, I want to take this post to focus on what I will be working on for the next eight months; the seat.

Egon von Neindorff said, “the seat is the alpha and omega of riding.” For those who don’t know (like I didn’t before this week!) Egon von Neindorff proclaimed himself as a Servant of the Art of Classical Riding. He relished in the finest details of the sport and horse care, stating “that which is often overlooked, or possibly not taken quite as seriously as it should, is the considerable physical task of caring for the horse, which should be taken as one of our greatest personal responsibilities–just to care for the horse, and that first of all!”

But back to the point: Alpha indicates the beginning while omega is the end. Pertaining to the seat, if you don’t have it, you can’t even start; when you do, the rest of your training is immeasurably easier. The only training of the seat I have is all thanks to ponies I learned how to stick on, so I knew I would have some work in front of me upon arrival at the Academy. I underestimated just how much, though.

Lessons with Paul take place every Thursday morning. He has a standard first lesson he does with everyone that highlights different feelings you should have in the saddle by using simulations. A few of the simulations used an exercise ball, while others took place directly on a saddle on a rickety saddle stand (an important piece to the exercise.) They are covered below.

  1. The first simulation started by sitting on an exercise ball and bouncing in place, as if you were in a sitting trot. I would then stop bouncing in mid-air to see what muscles were activated. While you could guess you use ab muscles, what part of the abs? I discovered the lowest part of my core, below my belly button, were engaged (Note: Because your legs are at a 90 degree angle, you will use some leg muscle. This is not how you sit in the saddle, I hope, so ignore these!)
  2. I then rolled onto my upper back on the ball so that I was in a bridge position. I placed my hands right on the inside of my hip bones to feel the obliques, and then lifted each leg singly to work these muscles. Paul held on to my arm to avoid me falling, so have a partner if you try this one! You will quickly discover which side is weaker. When the weaker leg is on the ground, the leg in the air will come down faster in order to take the weight off the weak leg. This exercise is also much harder the wider your legs are, because your legs naturally want to be narrow under the mass to support the weight. (This is why horses will tend to be narrow in their hind legs while learning the passage; they are not strong enough to widen their legs while they are sitting, so the narrowing of their legs compensates for this weakness)
  3. During my clinic in MN with Paul in November, he kept telling everyone to imagine holding a beach ball while riding in order to open the chest. You really can’t pretend to know what it feels like unless you do it, so I definitely recommend actually getting a ball! Hold the ball with your chest open and scapulas back. Drop the ball and hold the feeling without the ball for a few seconds before you “pick up the reins.” Your shoulders should be back and down, with no room to put a finger between your scapula bones. Once upon a time I was talking to a figure skating friend whose coach would yell at her to keep her “Tits to the Wind” in order for her to keep her upper back straight. As I trot around the ring, this is a more literal and much funnier phrase to keep in the back my head than “shoulders back”, but I wouldn’t want to offend anyone…
  4. This is another partner exercise! Grab a lead line or lead rope and get in a riding position (can be standing or sitting in a saddle) in correct position, emulating the beach ball feeling and a strong core. With the lead line around your waist, have your partner tug on it. You should be strong and steady. Now, roll your shoulders forward a little bit and have your partner pull with the same force. They pull you out of position so easily it’s hard to believe they are pulling equally both times, but this highlights the importance of riding with your shoulders back.
  5. I then hopped on the saddle on the saddle stand. I imagined my hands were two disks, and placed these disks on my solar plexus and below my belly button. My job was to then keep these disks in the same plane while rocking the saddle stand back and forth. My head, shoulders, disks and seat all needed to move together, without “pumping” with my seat. After this was completed, I brought my elbows to a 90 degree angle and pointed my fingers straight forward. I was then assigned to rock back and forth again, ensuring my fingers kept pointing straight. This made sure my energy was going forward, and that I was not scooping with my hands or other monkey business.
  6. Finally, while in the saddle, he grabbed a lead line again and gave me reins. We discussed the importance of passive hands that are steady. It would be much easier if the reins were connected to the hips as people would be much less apt to pull. Sadly, we are handy little creatures and it is often easier for us to use our hands before our seat. Instead, it is important to have steady and strong hands that are there to support the horse, while keeping a solid core and back. Horses learn the steady feel of side reins to accept the bit, and your hands should feel no different. If your hands constantly move, this can easily confuse or cause them to disrespect your hands.

Another very big takeaway that was discussed in our lesson was the core and back being a cylinder. It is a cylinder that must always be strong, ready to correct, but does not move. The cylinder doesn’t lean in different movements; it is the job of the seat to give the directions while supplementing with half-halts. Paul also defines the seat as much more than just your seat bones; it encompasses everything between your ribs to your knees.

I will be spending the next week working on everything. And I mean everything. My lower right leg tends to move like a wild banshee, and as soon as I focus on that, my shoulders go. Then I forget to hold my cylinder while my hands start playing piano. Then Paul will catch a sight of my elbows and tell me to “cut my vest in half with my upper arm.” Or to point my toes forward. Sometimes, you get worse before you get better, right? At least now I am at the point of conscious incompetence. But ignorance was bliss.

In addition to the simulations, Kelso and I learned how to properly lunge a horse with side reins. The Wonder Pony took beautifully to everything I threw at him this week, and I am so excited to see how we shape up in the coming months when I learn how to sit (and do everything else) on him correctly. Here’s a million thanks to him for being my sacrificial lamb.

Until next time,

Erin and The WP

 

Resolute

Google defines the word resolute as “admirably purposeful, determined, and unwavering” and resolution goes along the lines of “finding a solution to a problem.” Putting them together, it ends up working out to “unwavering and determined in finding an admirable and purposeful solution to a problem,” more or less. So, what’s your problem? Just kidding.

This blog was never intended to be an advice blog; I hardly think I am qualified to give any. {I do always recommend dark chocolate and ponies for any problem.} However, it is pretty tough to not ring in the New Year without some mention of rebranding yourself, or by making lists of resolutions.

In the wake of announcing that I am taking a semester off of school and moving to Pennsylvania to improve my skills in horse ballet, I have gotten a lot of mixed reactions. They usually encompass excitement to hear about the opportunity, concerns about if I will actually be returning to school in the fall, or confusion about what it really is. Many times, though, the congratulations is coupled with the whisperings that I am fearless and that what I am doing would be impossible for whoever the audience member is.

My dear reader friends, I am here to tell you that, in fact, I am not fearless. I am blindly passionate about something, which is my greatest blessing and curse. I found what fuels my fire when I was five, and I have recklessly embraced the flame. I am given wings to fly on the backs of horses, and they are responsible for this fearlessness some say I have. My purpose and determination is thanks to the horses that stole my heart so many years ago.

I will also be the first person to tell you that you can do whatever you want. Whenever you want. Wherever you want. And with whoever you want. People have a really good way of constructing boxes they believe they need to fit in.

This resolution post is to challenge you to break out of whatever box you feel you might be stuck in. I challenge you to do something that scares you everyday. No, this does not mean you have to move across the country (but you can come visit me!) It can be as simple as going on a trail ride by yourself. Take a lesson in a discipline you know nothing about. Ride without stirrups. Be a working student no matter what your age, aspiration, or skill level! Go to a recognized show and join a class you think you aren’t ready for. Say yes more than you say no. Don’t be so afraid to fail or be bad at something; you learn a lot faster pushing boundaries than playing it safe.

Before we know it, we will be talking about 2017 in past tense. Before that moment comes, I challenge you to put your feet in your [pink] stirrups, and to fearlessly pursue whatever dream you might be after.

 

 

A Foundational Phrase

Oftentimes, the moments that seem ordinary and unimportant are the ones that impact you the greatest. These moments can hold the blossoming of an idea or the utter of a simple phrase. They can be said in passing, with no intention of becoming a truth you will carry for the rest of your life. During my first working student position, I vividly remember a moment that I would hold with me everywhere I went.

“You are in charge of your own learning.”

I sat in silence on the back of The Wonder Pony, grasping at straws at first, unsure of what to do with this true but very new idea to me.

I was sitting in the “horse playground” of one of my first mentors, TJ Hiebert. I will forever be in her debt as she beautifully introduced Kelso to his first 3 months of human interaction while participating in the 100 Days Trainer’s Challenge. I looked up to her with expectant eyes as a 14 year old. My experience with instruction to this point was being placed on the back of a lesson horse and being told to ride a certain pattern; otherwise, I was left to my own devices to learn how to stay on the back of barely trained Welsh Ponies. They also happened to be barely trained by me.

Before we met in the middle of the field, I watched her ride her own black horse bareback and bridleless in the round pen. I was supposed to be warming up, but I was mesmerized. When we did meet, I expected her to tell me something to work on, but was shocked to learn she had no intention of this. Instead, she gave me the greatest gift that she could have. (Besides Kelso, of course.)

She empowered me by challenging me to be responsible for my own learning. She allowed me to ask questions that would have otherwise been unanswered. She gave me room to play with tasks that I had only dreamed of trying, but lacked the ability or courage to try on my own. I found room to grow, and relished in the support. She gave me the ability to step out of my comfort zone.

Though I spent a short week with TJ, the simple phrase reminding me I was responsible for what I learned is something that completely transformed my horsemanship journey. Instead of opting for a complacent and comfortable ride in which I could have been told what to do for the rest of my life, I embarked on an adventure. It has become even bigger than I could have imagined.

This journey, with my trusty black steed by my side, has taken me to Wisconsin, Colorado, and now Pennsylvania. In each unfamiliar and often uncomfortable learning situation, TJ’s words float through my mind. They push me to dig deeper to understand the ‘why’ of what was happening, and encourage me to take risks, even if those risks meant failing at times. In each encounter, I have been blessed by teachers who were willing to support me if I fell or if I flew.

As Kelso and I prepare to leave for The Pennsylvania Riding Academy to apprentice under Paul Belasik and Andrea Velas, these words are truer than they have ever been. I am humbled and honored to be able to learn from such incredible horsemen, and I intend to take full advantage of the knowledge they both possess. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous, but the greatest risks reap the greatest rewards, right?

I am so incredibly grateful to every person who has been a part of our journey so far, and I am excited to meet more friends as it continues to unfold.

To The Wonder Pony who makes it all possible and makes me look like I know what I’m doing.