Reflect and Reach


Something I often have my classroom students do is a quarterly activity called Reflect & Reach. Simply put, it allows them to reflect on their learning and progress while also pushing them to reach for new goals. Ngugi and I have been with trainer Laura at Shadowood Farm for about 7 weeks now and I thought it would be advantageous for me to assess our progress and goals in a similar fashion.

As I reflect on my learning and progress, I want to revisit the way Ngugi and I looked back in a video from “Peaks and Valleys.” I just studied this video from back in the spring in comparison to these more recent videos:

The first thing I notice is Ngugi’s willingness to partner with me more under saddle. Back in the spring, she was quick to toss her head and brace herself against contact. Often, her body felt inverted. Instead of rounding up, she moved in a hollow frame. I could barely get around a full circle without her resisting something. In the recent videos, I am proud to see her much more accepting of my contact. As Laura says, “She’s looking to you to hold her.” Maybe it’s the change of bit–we did switch her from a 3-piece eggbut to the pelham. I don’t know. She just looks happier in the mouth and less annoyed with me.

With better roundness, she is moving with her head down more and actually using her back. She feels different to me now. It’s hard to describe, but I can really feel her pushing off her hindquarters, stretching up through her back, and then reaching out through her front. I can feel it most on the diagonals when I ask her for a bigger trot through a more assertive post. Whereas six weeks ago the big trot scared me, now I can’t get enough! In fact, I’ve learned that the pokey “western pleasure trot” we were doing so much of may have been what caused the stiffness in her legs early this summer. Thoroughbreds simply aren’t built for that type of work.

Since Ngugi feels different, it’s also worth discussing how she looks different. To me, she looks more like an athlete–a little slender in the body, but muscular. Laura says her topline is developing nicely and her hind end is strengthening. Soon, we’ll even see definition in her abs. Could this transformation happen to my body too please?

Reflecting on my own progress, I recognize my confident demeanor the most. Back in the spring I really looked stiff in the neck and back. I almost look like I’m preparing myself for something horrible to happen. Now, I seem to be sitting taller and finally sitting back to send Ngugi the message that I am the lead mare up there! My elbows are starting to come in more at my sides and I’m learning to sit centered without a death grip around Ngugi’s sides. There are moments in the recent videos where I do look off balanced, but I’m really working on correcting this, especially since I’m back at riding the canter! Yes, that’s right. Last week I felt ready enough to ask her to canter. We were actually outside in the dressage ring trotting over cavaletti when the moment seemed right. I practiced the signal of right leg back to pick up the left lead from a round trot, and off we went. I sat the canter and marveled at how balanced she felt. No longer does the canter mean racing around and leaning in around turns. Her canter feels leveled and light, rhythmic and calm. I don’t have my recent canters recorded yet, but I will this month.

So, on to REACH:
This month, I’d like to write out 5 goals–in and out of the saddle.
1) Keep practicing the trip out to the field to being Ngugi in. Not only is it a good workout up the hills, but it’s so relaxing to visit the herd and see her interact with other horses. Plus, every time I do it, I get less nervous about catching her or her spooking at cows. She seems to like being with me and doesn’t run away anymore.
2) Get those elbows in.
3) Relax those legs–seems easier now with new boots.
4) Work on straightness and centered riding.

And get closer to being able to do this… (this is Laura riding in the field with Ngugi for the 1st time PLUS Ngugi’s first course EVER!)



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Learning is not always linear. If at times it feels like a straight path where approaching lessons come into focus quickly and we can almost anticipate our next step, then we must remember it is fleeting. Soon enough we’ll be thrown in a new direction, perhaps even feeling lost, uncomfortable, and afraid. Sometimes this step in the whole process of learning is a good thing. Maybe we need to be challenged because the straight path we are on isn’t really going anywhere. Maybe spiraling off from what is familiar to us will help us find the knowledge needed to fill gaps in our learning–gaps that we did not know existed. And so we spend time spinning. Spinning. Spinning. Spinning. Not unlike a passenger on Tilt-A-World, we grab a little tighter as we feel surges of new information send our minds in motion. But there’s real movement and implusion to our learning now. We can feel ourselves being lifted to a new level as we make sense of everything that is new and negotiate its placement within schemata of old knowledge. Time in this spiral is necessary–no matter what the lesson. It breds maturity, stamina, and ultimate character.

I am on the Tilt-A-World with Ngugi right now.

Just last week I decided to have her hauled to a farm much closer to me. I felt as though we were on a bit of a straight path lately–kind of stuck and not really making any headway. In Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success, he argues that mastery of a skill takes 10,000 hours of practice. Presuming he is not completely off base, I would never reach my goals with Ngugi riding her only 2-3 times per week. I need more hours in the saddle to feel completely confident with her. She needs more hours with me as her rider to feel completely confident with me.

At Shadowood Farm I can make this happen, plus offer Ngugi this: (At 0:49 I swear she looked back at me and said, “Don’t you ever take this freedom away from me!”)

It certainly wasn’t easy finding a new home for Ngugi. To my friends with kids, I told them it’s like finding the right daycare. I needed to find a farm within 45 minutes of my home to allow me to ride at least 5 times a week, but most importantly, I needed to find a patient trainer experienced in working with difficult horses (and sensitive riders like me). It is only week two at Shadowood, but I know I made the right decision.

In trainer Laura’s program, I take 3-4 lessons per week right now. I say that I am on the Tilt-A-World with Ngugi because switching trainers (especially to one with dressage background) automatically sets you into a spiraling motion. Horse trainers have different ways of explaining things, different philosophies, and, of course, different experiences with horses that help to shape their pedagogy. After a few training rides and an evaluation on Ngugi, Laura’s program will entail extensive work on building Ngugi’s balance. She hasn’t been using her back and hind end properly, which I’ve learned can result in unwanted, but self-created lameness.

So this week’s lessons began with teaching me how to lunge with a purpose. No longer will I be using lunging as a way to let her “get her energy out” because that just perpetuates bad habits in the way she uses her body (i.e. head up, hollow back, feet scrambling below her). Lunging is now done with side-reins to help her learn to accept contact and stretch her head down and out, resulting in a more rounded and powerful back. And transitions, transitions, transitions have been our focus. Then, depending on the day, either Laura gets on first to warm her up and demonstrate techniques for me to practice next, or I get on first so that Laura can end the session pushing Ngugi beyond her comfort zone. Either way, we have focused mostly on walk-trot transitions with Laura trying a bit of the canter.

Here’s a clip from Laura’s 2nd ride after we switched to a three-piece loose ring snaffle bit:

And so I end this 2nd week of training happily on the Tilt-A-World–wide-eyed and grinning like a kid nonetheless. I have a lot of new theories to work out in my mind and then put into practice during my rides, but I’m already seeing major improvements in Ngugi’s acceptance of contact and efforts to round her back. Enjoy the freedoms of the field this weekend, Gugs!

*I am consciously using Ngugi (as opposed to Gugi) more to remind me of why I picked her name in the first place. Maybe somewhere on this straight path I’ve forgotten to listen to Ngugi’s Word. *