Thursday, March 17, 2011

Sweating Buckets

Last week, while riding Qrac, my most most-likely-soon-to-be new Lusitano (pinch me, someone!), down in Avignon in the South of France, I really struggled trying to keep him straight. In fact, I struggled trying to do everything with him, really. Not in a disastrous, scary, out of control way; I wouldn’t be buying him if that had been the case. I just struggled because I tend to find it hard to ride a horse I don’t know. In addition, I was also riding a breed I don’t know, and I’d never imagined it would feel so different.

My main problem, apart from keeping Qrac straight, was keeping him in a steady regular pace. That Monday evening, I worked my core muscles more in the half hour or so I rode him than in three months of regular yoga classes. At least, that’s what it felt like. Two days after riding him, apart from sore abs, I even had sore ARMPITS, with my pectoral muscles on fire from hauling down my shoulder blades! I’d forgotten how much hard work can be involved in a half-halt, and goodness knows how many half-halts I did in those thirty minutes. All I know is that I did lots, and that I was drenched in sweat. Everywhere. Yes, I even had a sweaty bum. Lovely, huh?! Do you get a sweaty bum when you’re riding? Some people do, some people don’t. I wish I could toss my hair, shrug my shoulders and brag about belonging to the non-sweaty-botty riding group, but what can you do? Botox, maybe?! Gosh, imagine having a Botoxed bum!

Anyway, while I was out there sweating on Qrac, my trainer, Marie-Valentine, mostly kept a low profile. We’d figured it was important to establish how hard it would be for me to handle the horse on my own, knowing full well that almost any horse would be a challenge after having been lucky enough to own an angelic schoolmaster like Kwintus for the past few years. And I’m pretty confident it will be fine, especially as I’ve decided not to take him to where Kwint lives straight away, but instead stable him at another yard closer to where my trainer lives, and where there is a nice big indoor. The indoor at “my stables” should be up before the summer, and I’ll move Qrac back there as soon as it’s ready, maybe even before if I feel super confident. But I don’t want to do anything foolish, and my yard is simply too wide open: if a horse takes off with you in our outdoor arena it’s hasta la vista, baby, see you in Italy!

So I’m going to play it safe, get to know him, take lessons and set up a training program. I’m looking forward to the challenge, as riding a younger horse with nowhere near as much training as Mr. Kwint is going to be interesting. It’s also going to be humbling. Maybe it’s just me, but, as I mentioned earlier, I’ve always found it difficult to climb onto any horse other than my own (or one that I’m used to riding) and feel like I know what I’m doing, which is why I really admire people like my trainer who can hop onto virtually any horse and make the most of it within a couple of minutes.

One thing I’ve always liked about working with Marie-Valentine is that, on top of being blessed with the most enthusiastic, positive and sunny personality I’ve ever met in a horsey professional, she also comes up with great images to help convey what she’s trying to get across. For example, when my daughter was trying to understand the concept of the half-halt, Marie-Valentine came up with the “I” image (as in the letter “I”). Back then, we knew someone who was always very stiff and rigid in the saddle, whereas Olivia and I tend to be a little too soft and supple in our backs. Of course, being supple is a great asset for following the horse’s movement, but the half-halt requires that split-second “rigidity” which doesn’t come naturally to my daughter and me. We’re just not, well, rigid people! I mean, I even have a floppy walk!

Anyway, in order to help us understand that split-second rigidity, Marie-Valentine told us to picture that super-rigid person riding. We have an expression in French for describing someone who holds themselves super straight: we say “as straight as an I”. Since she needed a discreet way of telling my daughter to think of that rigid person in the saddle whenever she asked for a half-halt, the “I” image was born. And trust me, when I rode Qrac last week, Marie-Valentine’s “I” image came in very handy. In fact, I’m fantasizing about half-halting my way to a six-pack by summer!

Another image that had amazing results on Qrac last week was one I picked up from the inside back page of the latest edition of Dressage Today (their inner back page riding tips are brilliant) This one involved imagining a bucket of water in my pelvis and having to avoid tipping it over. Since I’m very supple in my back, I also tend to collapse my lower spine too much when I’m riding, tucking my tailbone too far underneath me, which then tilts my upper body backwards. One of the few things that Marie-Valentine said to me last week as I trotted past her was “sit up straighter (in French “redresse-toi”), upon which I immediately remembered the bucket of water. I corrected the curve of my lower back to avoid the water spilling out of my imaginary bucket, and Qrac reacted by loosening up straight away. Isn’t it amazing how sensitive they are?

Other useful images I try to keep in mind while riding include stopping my pony tail from bouncing from side to side. This image forces me to stabilize my shoulder blades, which further stabilizes my back. It also forces me to keep our chin up, since one of my other bad habits is looking down instead of straight between my horse’s ears.

Do you have any images you use to help with your riding? Would you care to share some useful tips?

17 comments:

Kate said...

Young horses can be a lot of work - Pie and I are working on straightness and consistent paces.

The image I use most often is of riding "in" instead of "on" the horse - trying to mentally lower my center of gravity and feel as if I am just another part of the horse (or the horse is part of me).

Francesca Prescott said...

Hi Kate,

My recently retired horse had paces like a metronome (is that a word in English? the music timer instrument?), so it's quite a revelation to find myself on a horse with paces like, say, free jazz!

Thanks for the "in" image, it's a nice, grounding one and definitely very useful.

Francesca Prescott said...

I meant his tempo was a bit like free-jazz, not his paces. His paces were really smooth, actually. And the free-jazz thing was definitely my fault.

There will be room for improvement.

But I'm liking the free-jazz image... !

Laura Crum said...

Francesca--I mostly trail ride these days, so don't work too hard at my riding. When I do ride in the arena I find that, for me, its mostly muscle memory that helps. I have ridden for so long that I will find myself correcting a horse's tendency to drop a shoulder or some such thing without even knowing I'm doing it. I just want a certain feel (the horse light and under himself, a little up in front) and use my aids to get it. If I think too much I'm not as effective at riding. But because I ride western the "feel" I want is a little different. My reins always have a little slack in them unless I'm cuing my horse. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think you dressage people use more contact. The last time I rode a horse that had been used (at a very low level) for dressage, he felt like he wanted to pull on me--as compared with what I'm used to. So my insights on riding may not be all that helpful.

However, my old horse, Gunner, was a supple "wiggly" horse as you describe--loping him was a matter of constantly adjusting--he did not track straight and strong as some horses I've had. He was a sensitive horse who was constantly responding to my tiniest cue--which made him harder to ride. So I kind of know what you mean.

Shanster said...

Here is a crazy tip that a physical trainer guy not involved with horses at all but very involved with human bodies and movement told me... to keep my head up more?

Press your tongue to the roof of your mouth firmly... so wierd but it really works, your eyes look up and your head goes up...

I just thought it was sort of a neat human reflex and had never heard it before. grin.

kel said...

You need some Monkey Butt! I crack up every time I see that stuff in the store. Right along side the Chicken Poop chapstick.

Glad to hear that you are moving forward and how exciting to be in the learning process. Congratulations.

Francesca Prescott said...

Laura: I understand "muscle memory", it's amazing how your body doesn't forget. My muscles still have memories from...ballet...and that was when I was about seven!

Yes, we definitely look for more contact in dressage, I like to think of it like a "recyling wheel", rolling energy from the quarters to the mouth and around again. And you would definitely feel like Qrac wanted to pull you!

Francesca Prescott said...

Shanster: I think I do that tongue against the top of my mouth thing quite a lot, without knowing I'm doing it. But isn't it a stress mechanism??!! I certainly think I do it when I'm stressed...

I'll have to try it when I'm riding next time and see if it helps my head position! Thank you for that!!

Francesca Prescott said...

Kel: Monkey Butt??!!! What a great name! Is it the stuff in a stick that makes your pants adhere better to the saddle?! I think I have some somewhere, or at least the Swiss version of it, which probably doesn't have anywhere near as brilliant a name. I haven't seen any "Cul de Singe" in the tack shops here (direct translation!!!).

And are you serious about Chicken Poop chapstick???? Will you send me some?!!! Love it!

kel said...

Monkey Butt is a powder that bicylists and equestrians use to keep from chaffing in sensitive areas. :) Send me your address and I will send some of both!

mommyrides said...

My dressage trainer was very fond of telling us to "get the girls up and the shoulders down and back". An image that once instilled has never ever gone away :o) Oh and she also used to say that posting was like having sex and she could tell who was good in bed and who needed more trot work!!! :P Ya, I have a lot of quotables from my time with her, hee hee!!!!

Anonymous said...

I'm with you Francesca, a good metaphor helps me understand so much. Also, I am so jealous of your new horse. He is beautiful.

When I was a kid my very first riding instructor told me when holding the reins to pretend I was holding two cups of coffee by the handles and if my hands tipped in I would "spill" coffee all over my pony. To this day I still use this image to remind myself to keep my thumbs up and my wrists straight while riding.

Francesca Prescott said...

Kel: I'm not sure I need Monkey Butt at this particular point in time, but I'm sure it will come in handy at some stage!!! Chicken Poop chapstick should definitely be useful though. My email is francesca@francescaprescott.com; I can't find a way to contact you via your blog :)

Funny stuff today!!!

Francesca Prescott said...

Mommyrides: one should always be proud of those girls! And now I'll never look at anyone in rising trot in the same way!

Francesca Prescott said...

Anonymous: Thank you for reading. He is beautiful, isn't he. I'm waiting for the postman to deliver a letter from Paris for the blood results. Wish he'd hurry up...

The coffee cup is a great idea. I also tend to turn my hands down, so will definitely think of the coffee cup trick. I'll tell my trainer, too as I'm sure this image will come in useful for many people. Thank you!!!

Dreaming said...

I love the images you and all of your commenters have provided. Fantastic! I will need to try them - the tongue on the roof of the mouth will be interested to try as I tend to look down too much.
The water bucket image is interesting too. I had some dressage training as a teen but now my 'cowboy' trainer says my pelvis is tilted too far forward. She always tells me to suck my bellybutton into my spine and to tuck my pelvis under me - which it sounds like you felt you were doing too much. So...who's right?!
Ah, the straightness thing....and the pace.... I've been working on those with the boys. It does seem that we have made progress, however! Have fun. It will all come. I think riding at the trainers until you each trust each other is the key.

Alison said...

Francesca--I am just excited that you found the 'man' of your dreams. A little sweat will be worth it! And just to let you know: every spring when I get on my horse after a layoff b/c of weather my armpits hurt, too!