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“Help me canter!”

Well, not me. My student. It’s a woman that I’ve known for a long time and she’s been instrumental in my decision to become an instructor. Why? Basically because she begs and pleads for riding tips. Then when they work she tells me that I need to get my license.

So, here I am.
Watching her canter.
Actually, I’m watching her butt hit the saddle.

How I remember those days.
Actually, I think it was only last week. Sigh.

“Sit back more! Opening your hip angle will help you sit better.”
I know it helps me.
I see a momentary improvement.

Hmm, she’s tense which is causing her to be against the movement.

“Think about bobbing in the ocean. Allow the ocean wave to gently pick you up and set you down.”
There! She relaxed into the motion.
“Ocean wave, ocean wave…”


“Be a bean bag draped over your horse.”
There. She’s got it!
Softly sitting
Softly sitting


“Open on the up. Close on the down.”
Nope. She’s out of rhythm.

“Relax your knee and thigh.”
She’s got it! I actually saw her seat deepen.
“Good job!”

“Thank you so much! I could really feel the difference.”

That’s the payoff. Hearing the thrill in another person’s voice because you’ve given them a small glimpse into what riding can really be like when you partner with your horse. Those aha moments that are so addicting.


Have you ever been in a situation where you were totally helpless and dependent upon someone else? Oh, c’mon. Sure you have. Remember what it was like to be a child? Well animals are the same. At least domesticated animals are. They rely on us to treat them fairly and humanely. To protect them and nurture them. But trust? Well, that’s earned. We can only gain their trust by proving that we’re worthy. First we need to be patient. Not something that I personally excel at and no, having a child does not make me patient by default. Next, do not yell. Oops, I mean DO NOT YELL!! That only scares him. Lastly take care of your horse yourself and be there as much as possible to strengthen your bond.

Unfortunately this doesn’t always work with a lesson horse. I don’t own him and we only see each other once a week. Wait. Make that every other week. I’m on a horse rotation schedule.

Lessons we learn

Gosh darn wiggly horse. Sigh.

I swear you can trust me. I’m a nice person. A really, really nice person. I know I’m asking more from you than your usual riders but I won’t push too much. That is, unless I’m told to push you. And even then you’re a strong horse. You can do it!

So, what do you say, huh? Let’s ride deep into the corners like we were told. OK?


Great! (Wait a minute. Was that sarcasm? From the horse?! Like I’m not getting enough from my teenager?) As we trot, I look straight ahead at the fence and suddenly I can feel him hesitating.

We’re gonna crash. We’re gonna crash. This psycho is riding me into the fence!

I’m not going to ride you into the fence. Trust me. We’ll turn in time, I promise. We’re just trotting deep into the corner.

OK. Whew!

See? I told you to trust me. Uh-oh, now what?
(I can feel him trying to plant his feet and his ears are perked forward.)

What’s that?! On the fence?! I swear it wasn’t there earlier!

Um, that’s a saddle. Just like the one on your back.

Oh. Whew!

“Let’s change directions and when you’re ready pick up a canter down the long side. If he gets strong or unbalanced feel free to throw in a circle.”

You hear that? We’re going to canter. Down the long side, deep into the corner and transition to a walk. Are you ready? (Ha! Am I ready?)

I get to canter? You bet!

OK, there are a lot of people in the ring so we have to stay on the path I choose. (Deep breath.) Here goes. Canter.

I feel good. This is fun.

I’m looking straight at the gate at the end of the long side. We’ll canter deep into the corner.

Wait! We’re going to crash! Psycho rider is going to canter into the fence!!

He’s been so balanced. Hmm, something’s not quite right…

What’s that shiny thing on the ground?!

Uh-oh. I spoke too soon.

I’m outta here…

I apply my inside leg to keep him out on the curve and guess what?


I’m rewarded by…
Not one,
not two,
but three bucks.

Silly horse. I told you we weren’t going to crash. Now when will you trust me?



This is so embarrassing.

I jinxed myself.

My next ride on the wiggly horse wasn’t nearly as nice. He had resorted back to being a scaredy cat. It was so bad that I couldn’t get him to go past the trailers at the end of the arena. The trailers are always there. I did what I was always taught to do. I circled around, turned his head slightly away from the trailers and tried to push him past. Nope. Not happening.

I had to be rescued.
By a tow truck!

We were totally broken down.

You know what I’m talking about right? Another horse and rider had to move in front of us so that we could continue forward. Tow truck style. Apparently he spends a lot of lesson time like this. Embarrassing. (shaking my head)

Later on he must’ve spotted the trailers again – or maybe it was the cat.
Anyway, in a blink of an eye we went from canter, to a screeching halt, to sitting down like a dog.
That has never happened to me before.

I could hear the playground taunt, “scaredy cat, scaredy cat, nah-nah.” But instead of crying I laughed.

Go ahead and laugh. I did.

Amazing. I laughed after a spook while cantering. What’s gotten into me?

Maybe, just maybe change is good. Maybe. You see no one had told me it was Opposite Day. Okay, maybe not in the true sense of the word but believe me everything was — well, opposite.

For instance they swapped horses on me. Can you believe it? I’m not complaining though. I’m just praying that I’ll be able to avert New Horse Syndrome. Please, please, please.

Savannah was already being ridden so, I’d ride the schoolmaster instead.

The schoolmaster is stiff right, hollow left.

I was wearing my new winter riding stuff and —
Well, you get the idea.

The meat and potatoes
I’d have a chance to work on some lateral movements with a horse that did them easily. There was a catch though. Of course, there’s always a catch. Sigh. I’d have to ask for each movement correctly otherwise, I wouldn’t get it. As a matter of fact, I may not be able to get Charlie to move — at all! Gasp!

I was successful in getting him to walk, even to do haunches in and shoulder in while walking. It was an incredibly slow pace but I did it. Yah!

Then it was time to ask for the right lead canter from a walk. Ack, I can’t look.
“You may not get it though. Not many people do the first time.”
And off we went. Cantering around the ring.
Ahem, Opposite!

Soon enough, I was faced with an inability to ask and get for the canter. I was on the left lead, which meant that his stiff side was on the right. I could feel him ever so slightly, pressing against my right leg and instead of standing him up in the outside rein, I stiffened. Stiff right against stiff right does not produce a canter. Sigh.

Then I started to get nervous. Not because I was afraid in a fear way but because I was afraid I’d look stupid. Yep, stupid. I felt stupid because I couldn’t get canter, therefore I looked stupid. Do you like my logic? Sigh. A stranger was watching this part of my lesson and for some reason I felt the need to — well, not look stupid.

Of course, I didn’t need to worry about it because within a few strides I was cantering. Whew!

Then it was time for sitting trot. Oh, no. Sit a few strides then post a few strides.
Sitting…sitting…sitting…huh, comfy…sitting
“Lee, do you find him comfortable to sit?”
“Heck, yeah!”
“Not many people do.”
“You go girl!”

I think I sat the trot at least twice around the arena! That’s two laps not two strides!

Next up was the flying change! I was to pick up the right lead canter, cross the diagonal and around X ask for the lead change. Intentionally! I’ve never done this intentionally and guess what? Success! More than once.

I want more!
More, more, more!

Psst! Have I ever told you that I can’t sit the trot? Bounce the trot, yes. Actually sit it? No way. Not happening. Awful, huh? All these years of riding and all I’m capable of is bouncing.

bounce…bounce…bounce…like Tigger!

I love Tigger and his bouncy enthusiasm. However, his over enthusiastic bouncing has led to a few mishaps. Remember how Eeyore fell into the river? Well, with that in mind I need to learn how to turn down the bounce while trying to do a sitting trot. Either that or I’m going to end up bouncing into a mishap of my very own making.

It tends to go a little like this…
I start in posting trot with my horse in a nice frame. Then I’m asked to sit a few strides and switch back to posting if I start to bounce. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be pretty.

“Okay, here goes.” I inhale deeply, then exhale.

posting…posting…sitting…kinda sitting…

“SIT! Sit into her!” That doesn’t help.


Several attempts later and my internal dialog now contains the words  “can’t sit.” My frustration level has ratcheted to the boiling point and that means tears are on the horizon. Hey, I’m a perfectionist remember? Oh, and I’m definitely developing a sitting trot complex here. Forget all about my fear of cantering or my arch nemesis the 20 meter circle. There’s a new kid on the block and it’s named The Ever Elusive Sitting Trot!

Speaking of the canter, it didn’t go well either. It probably had something to do with that saying “You can’t have a good canter without a good trot.” Yeah.  Anyway, the root of this particular evil was my inside leg. It kept gripping and gripping, while she leaned and leaned some more. I know. I know. I should’ve relaxed my inside leg and applied a real half-halt to get her to stand up in that outside rein. The value of hindsight, huh?

And so the torture began
Walking on a loose rein, I dropped my stirrups and turned my heels out. No, I mean way out. More! Better. Now using only my seat, I asked for the halt. Okay, correct that. I attempted to ask for a halt. Many times. Oh, and in a frame no less. Heels out! Success level? So-so. Facial expressions? Many.

Eventually, I was allowed to pick up my stirrups and the contact and try the exercise in posting trot and canter. Heels out! I noticed that this position brought my knees into contact with the saddle and narrowed the space I was allowing the horse to move within. No fetal, gripping inside leg either.

You try gripping with your heels turned out.

I dare you.

I was held mesmerized as each word Jane Hannigan spoke transported me further back in time. My ears rang with the sound of clashing swords as the battle raged. I could almost see the steam rising in a plume from the horse’s nostrils as its rider deftly shifted his weight and aimed a capriole at a throng of foot soldiers. After all, dressage movements were designed for the battlefield and a rider depended upon his horse’s agility to guarantee their safety. Falling on the forehand would be the equivalent of falling on the sword…um, deadly.

En garde! (sit back and push forward)

As it turns out, Jane is quite the magician! Unbelieveable things began to happened as I envisioned fencing on horseback. I actually achieved a consistent and round canter! I also discovered that I seem to have better half-halt in the corner. So as I rode the straights, I mentally thought “corner, corner, corner.”

This clinic was well worth auditing and I’m glad that Courtney King-Dye benefited from the event. Thank you Jane, Apple Knoll Farm and the Charles River Dressage Association!

You know what they say, “practice makes perfect.” So, where’s the perfect?

I’m waiting. (Arms crossed, foot tapping impatiently.)
Still waiting.

You see, I keep practicing…
and practicing…
and practicing…

…and waiting.

Instead of perfect, I’ve discovered that I can’t pick up a canter to the right. What’s up with that? The solution is obvious. I practice. I know it’s me. I can canter to the left.

Still practicing…

I few choppy half hearted steps.
(Remember, I’m practicing.)

Forget it. Switching directions.
Look! I can pick up a canter to the left.

Okay. What did I do? It feels different and he reacts.
Hmmm, cantering to the left from trot…half-halt…bending into the corner…half-halt…stepping into the right stirrup…outside leg…barely scoop with seat

Switching directions for investigative research.
Trotting to the right…half-halt…bending in the corner…half-halt…inside leg…clenching Thunder’s side…outside leg…clenching Thunder’s side…attempt to scoop…choppy steps…

Oh my God! I’ve become a Klingon, er, cling on. To the right.
Still practicing…

Further research reveals that I’m not stepping into my left stirrup! (dope slap)

Let’s try that again.
Not bad…a little close to the wall…eeks! scraping my stirrup iron…

Thunder’s head is popping up like a Giraffe…where’s his butt?
**Expletive!** (Sorry, G-Rated blog.)
Flying down the rail…corner!…where’s the whip?…drop the whip…sit back…sit back
Oops…caused a boarder to practice the emergency dismount. Sorry.

Note to self:
Don’t carry the whip on the outside when your horse likes to scrape you against the wall. It unintentionally tickles him. Spurs don’t help when they’re shoved into his side during the scraping process.

Really got him cantering to the left though. Maybe I should practice that.

Dressage can be brutal on adult amateur riders like me. You see, I’m a multitasker. Wait. Correct that. I’m a multitasking (cough) perfectionist. So, this whole horse ballet thing should be a cinch. Right? Ha! Sometimes, it’s a multitasking nightmare. No. That’s not quite it. It just seems like every week there’s a new task, err aid, to add in or refine. To make matters worse, I understand sooo much more than I can do and… Well, it can be so frustrating! Like learning a new language and becoming more fluent in it every day.

Hey. Wait a minute. I guess that is what I’m doing. I’m learning to speak dressage!

Well, I must say that my perseverance has started to pay off and I’ve made some fantastic strides in the canter. Slowly, I’m trying to apply the same aids in canter that I use in trot. You know, the half-halts and riding inside leg to outside rein. It’s amazing when things fall into place and you’re riding a horse that’s stretching over his back and accepting the bit! (Squealing in delight!) At a canter.

I’ve even found myself performing a leg yield in canter from the quarter line to the wall! I was only able to do this because he was straight and in the outside rein. Amazing! Did I mention this was done in canter? Just power at my fingertips and not once did I feel out of control. I have no idea where this falls on the difficulty scale but it’s a small taste of what’s to come. This is so addicting!

Thunder, you make me feel like dancing! Excuse me while I break into song…

How an adult rider manages it all. Hmmm, my tag line may be more appropriate then I thought. I’ve been so busy. A little overwhelmed actually. I’m juggling full-time and freelance work. Running to doctor and vet appointments. Spending time with family. Neglecting Facebook and my blog. Now it’s officially THE HOLIDAYS! Eeeks!

In the midst of all this I’ve misplaced something. I know I had it with me at the beginning of my riding lesson. Then I picked up a left lead canter. On a 20 meter torture circle no less and puff! It was gone! I think it slipped right off the saddle. Literally.

Please be on the look out for my left seat bone!

How do I know it’s missing? Well, my left foot was very light in the stirrup. I could not for the life of me step down into it. All my weight had shifted to the right. Can you say collapsed inside hip? My left foot was turned out and resembled a duck’s. Applying the back of my leg instead of the inner calf for any aids. Which probably meant I was gripping! Will it never end?!

The search for my left seat bone was on.

While cantering on the left lead I did the following:
1. stretched up through the left side
2. stepping down into the left stirrup, I mean really stepping down
3. over exaggerate stepping down into that left stirrup (felt weird, looked good)
4. got into two-point when I lost it and then sat down

Pretty and elegant? Ha!
Accurate 20 meter circles? Double ha!
Effective? Yes

The search for my left seat bone continues…

I don’t like water. Probably because I nearly drowned. Twice. So, imagine my surprise when I took to it like a fish to…well, water. I found myself relaxed as the waves gently lifted me up from behind. Up, up, up until I reached the crest. Then I followed it back down, down, down. No fear. Just relaxation as I allowed the waves to move me.

The dreamscape melts away and a new reality takes shape around me.

I’m cantering on a dreaded 20-meter circle. Moving as one with the horse. Each powerful surge from behind gently lifts me up, up, up and I ride it back down, down, down. Total relaxation as I ride the canter waves. I relax even more and the horse does too. Her back comes up as she rounds more and more. There’s nothing like feeling this harmony between us. Riding the waves in lightness and rhythm like a real dressage rider. At least for the moment.

I’m no longer afraid of the water. OK, maybe a little but what a wonderful way to end my series of practice rides!

Come on in! The water’s fine.

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