If Only I Could Ride My Way Out of a Paper Sack

I have been having some serious issues with my riding lately. I am so frustrated. Intellectually, I know that in order to get Ava’s hind legs to come up under her, then I can’t pull back. What do I do, I pull back.  I grip with my thighs. I can’t keep my feet beneath me. My forearms and wrists are so tight that you can’t possibly expect a horse to be happy with that. I can’t sit the trot, I lean forward, I hunch my shoulders, I.. Aaarrrggghhh!!!!!!

Add onto this that I’m making my poor horse crazy, and she’s developed all kinds of ways to deal with my stupid butt. So, I asked Bern to ride Ava.

Of course, within 10 minutes on Ava, Bern had her going like a champ. I swear Bern only needed 2 minutes, but she spent several minutes explaining what she was doing and why so I’d understand how to ride Ava better.

After Bern got off, I jumped on to see if I could duplicate the results. It was like riding a fluffy marsh mellow. Ava was light, responsive, supple… amazing to feel. And I could really feel the shift in balance toward the rear.

Bern worked with me the rest of the lesson on how I give my aids, and to always keep them light. I tend to ask once, get frustrated, and immediately resort to brute strength. This pisses Ava off, who inverts and resists. I get stronger, she gets more resistant, I get even stronger… Aaarrrggghhhh!

I wish I could have one week of daily lessons, even if they were just 15 minutes each, so I could solidify the right things in my brain. Everything’s fine as long as Bern is there, but the second I’m on my own… it’s like everything she just said flies out the window. I frustrate the crap out of myself!

Yesterday I rode, and… I don’t know.. it seems like Ava is just so tired. I ask, and… nothing. No response. I ask, I ask, I back it up, Ava gets mad. I couldn’t get anything to work right, and Ava just seemed to shut down. So I quit, and we went for a gallop through the field instead.

The Story of Victor

I heard the sharp bang of a hoof against a wooden wall as I walked down the barn aisle. Stalls lined each side of the aisle, their sides paneled with wooden planks that towered above me. The owner of the barn stopped and pointed up as we neared one stall. “That’s him.”, the owner said, then he slipped into the dark stall.

I craned my head back and squinted up at the ceiling. Above the highest board I saw a deep brown muzzle and dark eye staring down at me. I looked at my dad, “How high is that wall?” I asked.

“Six foot, at least”, he replied.
“If he’s that tall, I won’t even reach his knee’s.”, I said.

My friend, knowing I was looking for a 4-H horse, had told us about a gelding she had seen at the barn where she purchased her horse. She had used the words “big, fiery and wild” while describing the four year old half Arab. My dad and I had discussed whether I was ready for a green broke horse, considering I had only been riding for a couple of years, and whether it was wise to even look at this horse. We had already looked at dozens of other horses that summer.  But we both enjoyed the hunt, and figured it couldn’t hurt to look.

A moment later, the owner led a reddish-bay horse out into the aisle. I studied the gelding as the owner walked him over to the cross ties, dropped the lead, and started tacking him up. The gelding’s coat was shaggy with winter hair, his hind stockings streaked with brown. But mostly, I noticed how patiently the horse stood while the owner fiddled with tack and banged and thunked on him. It was then that the owner fitted a twisted wire snaffle into the horse’s mouth. I felt my heart sink into the pit of my stomach.

“Why are you using that bit?” I asked.

The owner looked up from adjusting the throat latch, “I don’t have any other bits”.

I shot a glance at my dad, and saw the panicked look on his face. I wasn’t ready to go home without at least riding the horse, even if my dad was sure I was going to get hurt. I decided to change the subject. “What’s his name again?”, I asked.

“Victor.” The man said without turning toward me. “His registered name is Victor Victoria.”

I watched the owner mount the horse, and swiftly kick it into a trot toward the road. They zoomed down the road at a beak-neck speed. As horse and rider came back toward the barn, I could see the whites of the horse’s eye, his mouth gaping open as the twisted wire bit into his gums. The owner pulled the horse to a stop in front of me and hopped off.   My hands shook as I strapped my helmet on my head. I took the reins that were still over the horses neck, asked for a boost from my father, and slipped into the saddle on the tall gelding.

Tentatively, I asked the gelding to walk off. He stepped off with a unhurried walk. I jiggled the reins to test how hard his mouth was, and he jerked to a stop beneath me. I asked softly for him to walk on, and he strode off with a confident stride. After walking for a minute, I screwed down my courage and asked the tall gelding for a trot. He slid into it with slow, easy strides. I felt my fear and tension seep away as I began to enjoy the gelding’s big strides and soft trot. And somewhere in that ring, while we trotted around, I felt something click. This was my horse. The one I had been searching for. The months and months of searching, and dozens of horses looked at… Here he was in the one place I never had any hope of finding him at.

The following week, I handed Victor’s old owner my entire life savings ($1,500) and my dad and I brought Victor home.

That winter, I spent every available hour with Victor. We played games in the pasture, or we’d just hang out as I sat on a bucket in his paddock while he snuffled my hair. When the weather wasn’t too bad, we’d go for long trail rides through the snow covered fields, kicking up quail and deer as we rode past.

** 6 years old **

My dressage trainer looked up at me as I halted Victor at the railing of the warm-up arena.

“Take a deep breath, you’ll do fine.” she said.  I nodded, and took a deep breath and tried to force my muscles to relax. I felt Victor inhale deeply and sigh as he cocked a leg. I looked around the warm-up arena, feeling frightened by the huge warmbloods that packed the tiny area. Navigating the small space while the other riders swiftly changed direction, or veered in front of us, had left both of us feeling like gnats about to be squashed by a giant hand.

I heard our number called to enter the ring, and felt the half eaten bagel attempt to return. I followed my trainer to the arena as the sense of dread threatened to overwhelm me. I closed my eyes for a second and felt the rhythmic sway of Vic’s strong walk beneath me, his steady breathing, the gentle rocking of the reins. It was then that I felt the fear slip away as I let the simplistic joy of being with Vic seep through me.

“A, enter working trot rising”, my trainer called from the side of the dressage arena. I patted Vic, and shook the tension from my shoulders. We trotted boldly over to A and turned down the center line. A big grin covered my face as Victor made a soft halt at X.

** 7 years old **

Victor and I cantered down the two lane road next to King and Jen. I had tried galloping Vic before, but he never quite seemed to figure out where his legs went. So we plodded at our canter next to King, who pulled at Jen to go faster and faster. Jen let her reins slide through her fingers, and King took off like a shot down the lane. I felt Victor pull hard against me, his muscles bunched beneath me as I hovered over his back. I moved my hands toward his head, and felt Victor shoot forward. My breath caught in my throat as the wind tore tears from my eyes. I could feel Vic’s entire body lower as his strides grew longer and faster.  His body oiled and humming with speed as we blew past King and Jen. My heart pounding with the sheer joy of flying with my best friend.

** 8 years old **

“She won’t even place”, I heard Joe say to Cindy as I walked up to the tack stall. The noise of the show grounds a constant hum around us, but the voices inside were clear.

“That poor girl” Cindy said. “She’s a hick. This is the Arab Nationals; she can’t compete against these horses.”

I hesitated before I got to the door, then shrugged and walked into the tack room. Joe and Cindy looked up at me startled before averting their eyes. I plastered a smile on my face, picked up my helmet, and walked out. I needed to get away from people for a while, so I clipped the lead rope to Vic’s halter and led him up to the track above the show grounds. When we got to the entrance, I led Vic up to a rail and hopped on his back. We wandered together, up and down the track. It was a perfect vantage point to see the huge show grounds below us. The constant din of horses and humans was muted up there. I let Victor sniff and wander the track, knowing he would take care to keep me safely on his back.

The next day, I sat astride Victor outside of the ring, his mane neatly braided, his coat glowing red against his black mane and tail. My hands shook and I nearly dropped my whip.  The other riders and their horses milled around us. Expensive, beautiful creatures with professional riders. I was the youngest rider in my class, and it struck me how far out of my league I was. But, I believed in Victor. He was special, and if I could ride well enough to help him show his stuff, then he could win.

Our number was called. Every muscle in my body froze, and Vic’s head jerked up as his ears pricked forward. It was our turn. I saw my trainer start to walk toward the ring, and it struck me… this was hopeless. I wasn’t anywhere near the caliber of the other riders or horses.  No one except my dad and my trainer believed I should be competing in the Arab National Championships. Vic swiveled his head around and sniffed my boot. I touched the lucky star on his forehead and let out the breath I had been holding.

I nudged Vic forward and he calmly walked toward the dressage ring lined with flowers.  I heard the judge ring the bell, and my trainer call out “A, enter working trot”.  I focused on the flow of muscles beneath me, the soft yielding of Vic’s body as I asked him to turn. We entered at A, and trotted smoothly down the center line before halting at X.  We danced as one, my thoughts mirrored in his actions as we flowed from one movement to the next. Before I realized it, we were back at X, and just as I dropped my arm and dipped my helmet to salute the judge, a cacophony of noise burst from the stands.  I looked over and saw people on their feet, their raised hands clapping while some whistled and shouted. I couldn’t contain the grin that spread across my face, and I leaned over and patted Vic’s neck. “That’s for you, Vic”, I said. I dropped the reins and we walked out of the arena to meet our trainer and my dad.

Later that evening, as my trainer and I paced outside the steward’s office, the man came out and posted the results on the board.  “You go look, I can’t.”, I told my trainer.  She pushed through the milling people and disappeared from site. A moment later she returned, her face lit up with a thousand watt smile. “You got third”, she said.  You’ve made the Top Ten.

Stop Wiggling!

I always want to wiggle, push, squeeze, hold, or carry Ava in movements. Yesterday I did several trot lengthens in front of a crowd. The first few I tried really hard to make them the best lengthens ever. They were tense, braced, choppy, and flat. So, I gave up and turned Ava back toward the far end so the other rider could demonstrate a lengthen. I asked her to move out more, just to get out of the way of the other rider. I heard gasps, and people saying, “That was the best one, [my name]”.

Moral of story: I should teach my horse how to respond and the LET her do it. I cause more issues by trying to “help” Ava than I solve.

USDF “L” Program – More Info

Below is information on the USDF “L” Program. I’ve pulled information from various sources, and included it below. Additional links are at the bottom.

USDF developed the “L” program as a way to give aspiring judges a solid, established foundation in the basics of evaluating dressage performance in competition.

The goals are to better prepare future dressage judges, and achieve continuous standards in dressage judging.

By the way, I just figured out that the “L” stands for Learner, as in “Learner Judge”. So, now you know. 😉

USDF “L” program needs about 12 demo riders for each sessions. There are three sessions for the first portion of the program, and three parts to the program. Riders get a chance to have a free lesson with the top US judges. They ride and get critiqued in front of 40+ people, auditors and “L” participants.

USDF “L” Program FAQ

Session A, B, and C comprise Part 1of the “L” Program, also called ‘A Judge’s Perspective.’ This is the educational foundation of the program.

Session A is an introduction to judging and biomechanics.

Session B is about judging criteria for gaits & paces, movements & figures.

Session C is about collective marks, equitation, rider biomechanics and basics.

“L Is For Learning”, a PDF that gives an overview of auditing the program.

USDF “L” Dressage Judging Program Blog

Training DVD “On The Levels”:
Go to USDF Online Store to Buy “On The Levels”

The Saga Continues – Counter Canter

Tuesday was lesson night, and I was telling my trainer my struggles with straightness on Ava. It’s all so easy when Bern’s standing there. I know it’s something I’m doing, because I’m using the same techniques as in the lesson. They work in the lesson. Nothing technically different.

The fix? Sit back. Oh… Duh! Ava can’t tolerate even a smidgen of leaning forward. This sounds so simple, but gosh, I don’t even notice when I’m doing it.


Monday I had tried some counter canter with Ava, but when I can’t get her straight then she leans like a freight train on the right rein. So Tuesday, we jumped right into counter canter (with me sitting back). Bern says, “do 3 loop serpentine the width of the arena”. I’m sure my expression was “Are you crazy!”. I’m freaking out, and if Ava knew English better I’m positive she would’ve freaked out too. It’s the walls…. The walls scare me. Those things come out of no where!! I swear it! We’re just happily cantering around and Wham! a wall pops up and suddenly we have to turn on a dime. Limbs all askew, rider has a death grip on both reins, horse can’t turn because both reins are now two inches long……

I trust Bern explicitly. She wouldn’t suggest it if it was beyond our capabilities. I still freaked out a bit at first though.

So the first few attempts were just horrible. I didn’t steer, I didn’t look where I was going, I tried to drag Ava over by pulling the outside rein way out (threw her off balance), and I was (I bet you can’t guess) leaning forward.

We did get a couple of accidental flying changes. That was kind of cool.

By the end of the lesson though, we had a couple of very smooth, almost elegant looking, three loop canter serpentines! I was so proud of Ava! That little mare is such a trooper.