Constellations and Dressage

centaur constellationSince I was sixteen years old I wanted to learn dressage. I dreamt of  seamless communication with my horse and “invisible aids” so light we would seem like one creature instead of two.  I collected shelves and shelves of dressage books with beautiful pictures of horses moving correctly, enviably, but none of them really explained how to begin the work. They were more like beautiful picture museums of correct movement. I took years of lessons from different trainers, some better than others, one who even had grand prix level horses. But learning to teach a horse about their own body and balance is a completely different skill set than learning the mechanics of riding an already trained horse. It’s endlessly complex work. And as Mary Wanless  points out, “The map is not the territory”. Reading about a skill, having an intellectual understanding of how to slide down the rein or ask for a give of the jaw is not the same thing as having the kinesthetic feel available and familiar to you in your body. Dressage is multiple skill sets that come together to form a whole.

I remember one day in particular taking a dressage lesson on my Friesian cross, Dragon, years ago. We were trying to make a 20 meter circle to the right at the trot and he kept falling in on his right shoulder. My instructor wanted me to lift my right rein to block his shoulder and apply my right leg to “hold him on the circle”. The more I lifted my rein and insisted with my leg the more we spiraled into the circle and the more frustrated both of us became. In his confusion he trotted faster and faster and swished his tail as I provided a heavy right rein to lean against. Recognizing complete disorganization, I asked him to halt. My instructor and I agreed I should get off as he was so upset and the entire situation felt volatile. Of course it wasn’t his fault. He didn’t know how to balance his shoulders more upright from a suggestion on the rein. When he was falling on his inside shoulder he wasn’t actually capable of responding to my leg by altering his balance either. I didn’t even know then exactly what was wrong. I just knew my aids weren’t working and everything felt impossible.

The groundwork I have done with Dragon using Alexandra Kurland’s program has enhanced both my and Dragon’s body awareness immeasurably. To say he is a different horse might be an understatement.  I’m certain he would say I am a different handler. He has learned that he has shoulders and how to balance them upright through the “Why Would You Leave Me?” game. He learned the beginning of lateral work through the same exercise. I learned how to ask for jaw flexions on the ground and he learned how to soften throughout his body and be “on the bit”. He has learned to step under with his hip from a slight lift of my rein and he moves in a lovely, soft bend. All of these things transferred directly from our groundwork to ridden work.
He is quiet, concentrated and soft under saddle. Willing to accompany me into this deep study.
I feel that just now I am starting my journey of being a true rider. I’ve ridden since I was 9 years old but I was just an enamored passenger then. Now I am learning the same fine motor control I am asking of my horse so we can explore the foundation and outer edges of  balance, together. I was riding three to five times a week until the snow came and  during this time I had a major breakthrough in my own kinesthetic feel. Kinesthetic feels or physical skills are right brained and therefore implicitly wordless. But our right brain is visual so descriptions of  feel are possible through metaphor.

riding breakthrough dayI was riding in my tiny indoor arena ten days ago. I usually speak out loud about what I am asking for in each moment since it keeps me focused on actively riding and is a good way to see how well Dragon and I are really working together. There are so many body parts to remain aware of between human and horse and, as I suspect is true for most riders,  as my awareness of one body part grows I often lose track of the rest of my body. It fades away to the background. But this ride was different. As I said to Dragon, ” Soften your jaw to me and bend left” it was as if my hand that slid down the rein to request the bend lit up with awareness. Next I rotated my left thighbone and weighted my right seatbone to ask him to move to the wall and stay beneath me and each of them lit up too, softly glowing. He moved, perfectly bent, utterly soft moving off my thigh and coming under my seatbone to pick me up. Lastly, I organized my outside rein to receive his engagement and my right hand lit up. We moved together down the long side of the arena balanced over and under multiple points of contact and for the first time in my life I held an easy awareness of each point of contact simultaneously. No one point glared in the foreground. Nothing faded away. I was a constellation made of individual glowing stars but forming a whole. We were luminous, a living star chart that could change at any moment to describe a new movement, one seatbone dimming to black as I weighted the other to ask him onto the circle. For the first time in my life I consciously rode the whole horse at once. This is what I dreamed of when I was young. A  language delicate and nuanced as starlight.

Aesop’s third ride

Natalie and Aesop in the snowLast week Natalie was able to come out and help me with Aesop a few times, so he had his first two “walk-offs” under a rider. He had a bit of trouble at first bringing his hind legs along with the front of  him but he learned how to organize his body fairly quickly. He even had a training session in the snow last Sunday. It was a little slippery but very beautiful. He was relaxed, too, despite the drastic change in scenery and change in footing. Here’s a short clip of our ride in the snow:

You might notice that we spend just as much time standing still as we do walking. Whatever you reinforce over and over in a session becomes a “hot” behavior or a target behavior for the learner. It’s important  Aesop learns from the very beginning that both walking with a rider and standing quietly with a rider is clickable. To make this easy for him, Natalie asks Aesop for “the grown ups are talking” after each click and treat for quiet, balanced walk-offs. “Grown ups” is one of Alex’s six foundation exercises and something Aesop has known from very early on in his clicker education. This way his training remains balanced and he is not eagerly rushing off without checking in to see what his handler/rider wants. It makes for safe, relaxed horses.

Today we were able to have our third session and in good weather so we worked for longer and refined some of the pieces. Here’s the complete video of our second trial today. Our first one was good, this one is just a bit better:

In this video Aesop is doing a pattern that already familiar to him. He is working “Why would you leave me?” or WWYLM on a cone circle. In WWYLM you ask the horse to walk with you on a circle and to stay bent to you. In the beginning it’s basically loose lead walking for a horse. But it also teaches them about the beginning of bend and how to hold their shoulders upright and eventually, lateral work. Each time he is clicked for walking next to Natalie bent on the circle we stop and she folds her hands to cue him for “grown ups”. We stay in this pattern until the third click for being on the circle at which point Natalie uses her food delivery to turn him around. This way he gets to practice walking in both directions as well as turning under the weight of a rider. Aesop is relaxed and able to offer as good of work under a rider as without which means his training is going at an appropriate pace.

Just because Aesop is doing so well with Natalie at his head and me on doesn’t mean he is ready to be ridden without her. What we are doing right now is essentially habituating him to the feel of a rider while he does familiar work with a ground person. Getting used to the feel of weight. Before we ride off without a header, I still need to transfer the visual cues I have on the ground to tactile cues to be used in the saddle. Most importantly: go forward and stop or whoa. I also need to make sure that Aesop knows how to stretch backward to get food from me when I am on his back. Once I have all of those pieces in place we will be able to ride off without a ground person. Transferring those cues will make up the bulk of our winter lessons and by spring he will have the component pieces of a real riding horse.
I am deeply pleased with how easy this transition has been for him and how operant he has remained throughout this whole process. He’s the kind of horse that feels like a gift from the horse gods – an animal who is calm and relaxed and engaged in all of the puzzles I set out for him.


I’ve learned these spells one by one. Spells for calm, spells for stillness, spells for relaxation. Spells for patience and movement. Then come the spells for balance: how to move softly bending your body like a sapling in a windstorm. Spells for roundness, lightness and, finally, spells to defy gravity. One by one I learn these spells and one by one I teach them to my horses. It’s not a simple magic that joins a woman and a horse into a centaur. It takes the better part of a decade before the true transformation takes place. The enlightenment when the slightest shift of your weight is alphabet and music to your horse.

It takes the time it takes…

When I first re-started Dragon using the clicker all I was focused on was making sure he was relaxed and obedient. I had made some large mistakes in his early clicker training by not understanding what a good foundation was, not understanding proper food delivery and not understanding stimulus control. Once I realized I needed to cover all of those variables and went back in Dragon’s training to help him understand those concepts he became very calm, focused and rideable. I wasn’t concerned with his balance or carriage at that time. I just wanted a safe horse who would stand quietly at the mounting block, listen to the cues his rider offered and be emotionally calm under saddle. It’s a good place to start for any horse and rider, certainly. Here’s a short video of our first Why Would You Leave Me under saddle:

In the video you can see that although he is calm and relaxed, his balance leaves a lot to be desired. He is heavy on his forehand with his head nearly to his knees and his hocks strung way out behind him. On the other hand, he is doing a great job of learning to target my seatbones as a guide and staying between the channel of my legs. When he doesn’t, I slide down the rein and ask him to move back under my seatbones and click! when he stays there on his own. On the day that video was made, I was thrilled with my smart, relaxed horse. Looking at it today, I’m glad I didn’t know as much about balance as I know now. But he needed to learn about using my body for direction before we could talk more in-depth about the way he carries his body.

Over the last two years Dragon and I have moved from basic foundation exercises to more intermediate work. We’ve done a ton of ground work where he has learned to use my body as a target, tons of work on circles where he has learned to bend and take a bit more weight onto his hind end, and lots of jaw gives which allow him to go onto the bit and start to use his body more correctly. Two years sounds like a long time but learning to use your body in a completely new way and then strengthen those muscles is a process that can’t be rushed. Unlike “modern dressage” we are not doing this work on contact. That means I am asking Dragon for a certain bend or head elevation and I am asking him to hold that posture on his own. He doesn’t have reins to lean on so he has to build his own correct muscle and truly understand the process, not just passively allow himself to be molded. This way I know he is in true self-carriage. I’m learning the process as well, which makes it a touch slower.  Here’s a video of our ride today where we were working on jaw gives and bend while following my seatbones:

My whole life I wanted to learn dressage. I read myriad books, took infinite lessons and still I was left not understanding the whole picture or how to influence my horse so he could learn to carry himself more athletically. It is a difficult discipline even for a supremely talented rider, and often those who do it best are unable to articulate it to others. It is only through following the work in The Click That Teaches by Alexandra Kurland that I finally am learning how to help my horse balance and how to use my own body to teach him. We are finally moving toward the dream of a centaur, not on heavy restrictive contact, but lightly, together.

Stay with an exercise long enough and wonderful things will pop out.

When I first started Alexandra Kurland’s training program with my horse, Dragon, he was an emotional, physically imbalanced gelding. I knew I wanted a better way to teach him. He had stopped responding to the bit at all and was just frustrated and running through my cues. He was so large and his movement was so extravagant that it was close to impossible to help him rebalance, he was too emotional to receive information once he was going faster than a walk. Here’s a short video of how he generally moved at trot :

He did a lot of head shaking, which is often imbalance, and sometimes emotional arousal. He was very heavy on his forehand and his legs were strung out behind him. I don’t think I saw a lot of the imbalance, I just knew he seemed very heavy and that movement was often hard for him. He seemed frustrated and angry a lot.

As we worked our way through the foundation lessons, and then into the “Why Would You Leave Me Game?”, Dragon started to become increasingly centered, attentive and balanced. We did the majority of our work in the walk. The premise of WWYLM is simple – it starts out  just like loose lead walking for dogs. You have your horse in the bridle, on the circle. When they move their nose off the circle and begin to wander off, you slide your hand down the rein and bring their nose back to same point on the circle. It teaches them to use your body as a target the same way they should use your seatbones as a target in the saddle. It teaches them that when you ask them for a certain carriage, they should maintain it on their own until you ask for something else – this is the ever elusive self-carriage. It teaches them to enjoy bending and staying on a circle, voluntarily. And best off all, it gives you the underpinnings for lateral work, the foundation of soundness and dressage. Now, I didn’t know all of this then. I just knew I was supposed to pick an imaginary box, bring my horses nose into that box via the rein and click him when he left it there on his own. Easy enough.

One of Alexandra’s sayings is: Stay with an exercise long enough and wonderful things will pop out. Here’s a video of Dragon’s trot work today, improved completely through ground work during WWYLM.

It’s easy to see he has an even, steady cadence to his trot, elevation of the wither (shifting weight onto his hind end) and is relaxed and quiet emotionally. If you compare his length from head to tail in both videos, you will see his outline is shorter in the second video. This means he has achieved some degree of vertical flexion – a more advanced balance. All of this was available in the trot once he had done enough work in the walk. The old masters used to say, ” The walk is the mother of all gaits,” and this is what they meant!