Episode 193: #1 way to identify if you’re trying to skip the messy middle

Are you struggling to advance with your horse?
Does it feel like you are on a plateau thats ‘ok’…but not what you want it to be?
You might be ready to enter the messy middle.
I could try to dress it up with a better name but instead I’ll share with you:
What the messy middle is.
The #1 symptom when people try to skip it.
And why it really isn’t as messy as it seems.
If you dream about riding a horse on a loose rein with collection, but can’t quite figure out how to get there, this ones for you.


Episode 193-The #1 way to identify if you_re trying to skip the messy middle.mp3
Stacy Westfall: [00:00:00] So this is what causes that plateau a lot of times where people don’t feel like they’re making progress because they’ve got it in their mind that they’re getting from point A to point B and they’re on light contact, therefore, things are working.

Announcer: [00:00:19] Podcasting from a little cabin on a hill. This is the Stacy Westfall podcast. Stacy’s goal is simple: to teach you to understand why horses do what they do, as well as the action steps for creating clear, confident communication with your horses.

Stacy Westfall: [00:00:39] Hi. I’m Stacy Westfall and I help riders become confident, communicate clearly, and get better results with their horses. In this season of the podcast, I’ve been sharing with you some of the concepts that I teach to my students inside my programs. The question I have for you today is, are you struggling to advance with your horse? Does it feel like you’re on a plateau that’s okay, but not what you want it to be? That’s the topic of today’s podcast because I want to talk to you about the messy middle. What it is, how people try to skip it, and why skipping it doesn’t work. Let’s dive in. The messy middle is what I call the place between the beginning and the end. How complicated is that? So the beginning is typically where horses are. If we’re just looking at it from the horse’s training process, the beginning would be the horse learns the basics of walk, trot, and canter under saddle and will generally steer and generally stop and can do basic transitions. Notice I’m not using any fancy words here. They’re not excellent transitions. They’re not amazing stops. The steering isn’t always totally smooth and fluid. It’s just a basic, level understanding. And then when I say the end, at the end of the horse’s training, if we reach the college level because I like to say elementary, high school, college, when we get to the college end of it, a lot of times the horse is being ridden in light contact and it’s a responsive horse. And that horse travels in a collected frame and does it with a lot of self-carriage, which is why we’re able to ride with such light contact. So in between those two is where the messy middle lives. And the messy middle appears to be where things get messy, worse, harder. When you’re training the horse, if I’m training a horse and taking it from beginning, middle, to end, from elementary to high school to college, it does still, even when I’m doing it, feel like things get a little messier in that middle. It does feel to me even that things get a little bit harder and a little bit more confusing. And I’ll explain why it seems like that in just a minute. But first, I want to go to how people try to skip it, because in the how people try to skip it, you’ll be able to see if you’re doing this because the how people try to skip it is very visual and then it will be the red flag, the canary in the coal mine that tells you, Oh, I didn’t know I was trying to skip it but now that I look at this pattern, I can see that I might be trying to skip it.

[00:04:02] Here’s how I see people trying to skip what I call the messy middle. It shows up a lot like this. Let me make up an example. Let’s say that there’s a person that’s been trail riding or just generally riding their horse for the last three years, and now they’ve decided that they want to show in Western dressage. So they go to the Western Dressage website and they print off the intro level tests. So they start riding these intro level tests, they’re walk-trot tests, and they begin practicing the pattern. And they start riding it over and over again to try to figure out where they’re supposed to be. And what they notice when they start riding the pattern over and over again is they start noticing what’s working and what’s not working. Without even knowing it, they’re doing the evaluations that I talked about back in Episode 184. So they’re riding and they are experiencing lots of breakthroughs because they’re riding with a little more focus. So they’re noticing, Oh, that line isn’t quite straight. And I listened to this podcast about forward motion and I’m going to try some of those things. And I’m noticing that I didn’t really ride into that corner so I’m going to ride a little deeper into that corner. And there’s lots of visible progress during this stage. So the challenge comes after the rider has been doing some form of focused practice like this for a little while. Let’s even go as far as saying for two months. So they’ve been doing this and what they’ve been doing is seeing lots of breakthroughs and lots of progress because they’ve been consistent with their riding. Now, here’s how I can tell if the rider starts to become interested in skipping past the messy middle. What will happen is that the rider will go from getting through the pattern and figuring out how to stay on the pattern, and they’ll begin to have this thought: Oh, good. I’m riding the pattern. Let me see if I can ride it with less contact. And the idea is that if they can ride this pattern with less contact, that they must be advancing. So let me say it a different way before I start to explain the next stage. Said another way, the rider is thinking, This is good. I can get from point A to point B much easier than I could two weeks ago, a month ago. So I’ll just keep doing this on lighter and lighter contact and that will be me advancing.

Stacy Westfall: [00:07:13] And here’s how my stages actually line up with that for a while. When I first start riding that young horse and I’m practicing some kind of a pattern, it might be my four-leaf clover pattern instead of the Western dressage pattern, but here’s how it’s similar. I’m riding a pattern, and I’m mostly interested in getting from point A to point B, and then I continue riding that pattern, and I do want to see the cues getting subtle and lighter. And that is how it lines up that what this person in my make-believe example and me riding the young horse. We both have that common goal. Here’s where it divides and changes. If the person stays on the track of lighter and lighter contact as advancing, what often starts to happen is that they will start to notice that yes, they are getting from point A to point B, but now that they’ve been doing this for three months, six months a year, they’re starting to notice that the horse isn’t really collected. Then maybe it feels a little bit hollow in its back. Maybe the movement in the legs, it’s a little shallow or shuffley and then they’re starting to notice that when they do transitions, the horse’s head is kind of popping up in the upward transitions. And in the downward transitions, it almost feels like the horse is landing a little bit harder on their front end. But many times if the rider doesn’t stop and think about it, they’ll kind of hold on to the original goal, which was getting from point A to point B, getting around that pattern, on a lighter and lighter contact. So this is what causes that plateau a lot of times where people don’t feel like they’re making progress because they’ve got it in their mind that they’re getting from point A to point B and they’re on light contact, therefore, things are working. The red flags that generally send people looking for more information are the things I just mentioned. The head popping up, landing hard on the front end, the movement not being great, or the rider goes from having those issues and just starts trying to do more complicated things. So since I use a dressage example, they go from riding the intro level to the basic level to level one, but they’re not helping that horse because that’s what the messy middle is. So when you reach the plateau where things are working on a loose rein, it’s really tempting to stay there or to try to advance from there. But if you try to stay there or advance from there, one of the things you might have to accept is that your horse is going to have poor posture as a side effect.

Stacy Westfall: [00:10:31] Now let’s talk about what the messy middle really is, why it’s an important stage, and how it probably isn’t as messy as you think. Here’s the answer to why. Most of the time, people think they’re doing it wrong when they head into the messy middle. Counter bend is a great example of this. What happens when people go from primarily riding with an inside rein, to beginning to introduce the idea of counter bend to the horse is that if the horse doesn’t know this from previous training, even if they do, it requires a different level of contact than what you were practicing when you were going for the lighter, lighter, lighter contact. The ability to shape the horse’s body into a counter bend will require you to make contact with your hands, the reins, and your legs in a way that will shape the horse. And what’s interesting is for someone who’s been practicing riding some kind of pattern and being lighter and lighter, they’ve actually set themselves up to be able to feel a lot more. And the interesting thing is that rider has had a taste of what it’s like to be able to steer the horse around and be somewhat successful, getting from point A to point B on a loose rein. So when they feel the level of contact that is needed to help support and shape the horse into something like a counter bend, which is going to be really crucial for teaching the horse shoulder control that leads to advanced neck reining, lead changes, and those things, it can often feel to that rider like they’re doing something wrong because the level of contact is actually heavier than what they just had. So the minute that that rider starts to try that technique, a lot of times, there’s this unconscious thought of like, well, this feels worse. Why would I want to do this worse? There’s almost just an underlying hesitation to leave that which is working.

Stacy Westfall: [00:12:57] What the messy middle really is, is it’s really you moving to the next level of understanding, of communicating with your horse. It’s the part where, whether you’re doing it with your horse or I’m doing it with that younger colt, it’s the part where I start to establish really clear communication with separate areas of my horse. So I go back to that young horse where I was riding it and just wanting to get from point A to point B, and then I was riding it, wanting to get from point A to point B with more subtle cues. And then what happens is, once that horse is understanding those subtle cues, I begin to start to shape the horse and hold more contact, more similar to what it was when I very first started riding them. Or even more than that, because I want to actually shape them and I want them comfortable with my reins, with my legs. When I say shaping them, using the reins and the legs what I want you to imagine is, picture your favorite dressage rider. If you don’t have one go find Charlotte and Valegro. And imagine contact where the horse and the rider look like it’s just a contact for shaping. I’m not talking about harsh corrections here. I’m talking just about the willingness to take hold of contact now that you’ve actually established that you can ride on a loose rein. Do you see the challenge? One thing I find really interesting is that oftentimes when I’m coaching people, there’ll be moments when the horse will do something and the rider knows that to stay safe and to communicate clearly, they will take hold and they will use a nice, firm, smooth, guiding rein. But at the same time, if the horse doesn’t trigger something where it’s necessary, that same person often is unwilling to use that smooth, firm shaping type of contact. I find it fascinating. When I’m coaching people through the messy middle and we’re working on something like just stick with the example of counter bend. When we’re watching the videos together, it’s really common for them to say, It felt worse than it looks when I’m watching the video now. Or they’ll say something like, I thought I was using too much rein, but now I can see that I wasn’t even based on the horse’s response to my rein. I can see that it was nowhere near too much. I think it’s interesting to bring this up because the messy middle is an adjustment period. I love that what I call the messy middle lines up with what I also call high school. Because what’s really going on in that stage is that there are a lot of big changes happening for humans when they go through high school and a lot of big things happening with people riding their horses through this stage.

Stacy Westfall: [00:16:23] If you suspect that you might be on that plateau where you’ve been trying to make things better by searching for lighter and lighter contact and you’re watching videos of your horse and you’re noticing that they don’t look very collected and that their transitions are not super smooth and you’re not sure how you can help them, one of the questions you need to ask yourself is, are you willing to shape your horse with contact from your reins, your seat, and your legs? I personally want my finished horses, I want my college-level horses to get from point A to point B with rhythm, relaxation, cadence. I want them to be adjustable. I want them to be collected and I want all of these because it promotes healthy movement and because it creates a horse that can be ridden in light contact or even bridleless in true self-carriage. If you find yourself trying to ride more challenging movements without enough contact or communication to support the horse, what you will end up accidentally doing is setting the horse up for failure. Because if you start trying to ride more complicated movements without the proper support, then what you do is you allow the horse to move incorrectly so you don’t have to. Just believe me, just set up the video camera and watch. Is your horse engaging itself more and more correctly as you ride, or are you on a plateau where you’re getting from point A to point B but you’re not necessarily encouraging that correct collection and movement that your horse could have if you were willing to engage in the messy middle?–Also known as contact and shaping and building collection.

Stacy Westfall: [00:18:48] And I think sometimes when I have a discussion like this, it is tempting to think that this only applies to show horses. And I probably added fuel to that by using the example of taking a horse from trail riding to Western dressage. But I actually think this conversation is really valuable because it still applies to any riding horse. Because when you watch a video of yourself riding your horse, if you notice that the horse is moving in a very uncollected way, again, some of those hallmark signs would be that it–it can’t collect, shorten its stride. It can’t shorten its stride up during the turns. So the turns might feel unbalanced. It might be popping its head up. It might be really landing heavy on its front end when you’re doing downward transitions. Some of these things are telltale signs that the horse isn’t collecting itself. And in the long term, the ability to have a horse that understands how to both lengthen and collect to be adjustable is better for the horse’s joint health. It’s better for the horse’s physical soundness. So whether or not you have show goals, it’s kind of interesting to consider how your horse is moving. So it turns out that the messy middle is really all the stages of collection because collection is about how the horse is carrying themselves as they go from point A to point B, how they are moving, not just that they are moving. The ability to collect is related to your ability to adjust the horse, the speed, the transitions, and the shape of the horse, that ability to bend or counter bend and put the horse into different positions. It’s what develops things like haunches in shoulder in, leg yields, half passes, all of these movements that we associate with showing. But they’re also things that promote the horse’s physical health. All of these things combine to create a horse that is moving more correctly, that is developing a stronger core, that has better balance and a better range of motion. And the side effect of this is that you also get a horse that understands the depth of your communication a lot more. And to me, that’s what starts to make this feel more like you have a dance partner. This is also where the training goes beyond basic and safety level and getting from point A to point B, and it begins to develop the horse physically and mentally.

Stacy Westfall: [00:21:51] One thing I’m really known for is bridleless riding, and I think that oftentimes when people watch one of my bridleledd rides, they see and they focus on the mental side of it. They see that the horse has choices and they see the communication that is between us that seems magical and invisible. What I would also love for you to look at is the way all of my bridleless horses were carrying themselves physically. Because physically they were well balanced. Physically they could collect and extend and do smooth transitions, and that is actually the stuff that we’re working on when we enter into the messy middle. And I promise you, just like you start out getting that young horse just going from point A to point B, and then it can get more and more subtle when you go into high school and you start challenging the horse with being able to move individual body parts and being able to make different combinations of those movements so that you’re able to move the horse laterally and you’re able to support the horse with contact, that helps the horse learn how to use its body more correctly in those upward and downward transitions. Those are the things that are actually leading your horse to understand how to fully use their body. And it doesn’t mean that you can’t go back to very light contact. I’m here to say you absolutely can all the way to bridleless if that’s the direction you’re headed. I think it’s just really important for you to recognize if you are on that plateau because you’re trying to skip the messy middle by going from point A to point B on lighter and lighter contact. Because I assure you there is a way to do the messy middle that really isn’t as messy as you think. The messiness might just be coming from the fact that you haven’t been there before. It’s a process that you’re not used to. You’re introducing things to the horse that they’re not used to. There’s some conversation happening in there. There’s a lot of questions, and there’s a little more contact than what you had maybe in that stage when you were getting lighter and lighter. But more contact doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing something wrong. But if more contact makes you think you’re doing something wrong, you need to go listen to Episode 190. Doing less of a bad thing won’t work.

Stacy Westfall: [00:24:35] If you would like to take this topic to an even deeper level and apply it to your own riding, I’d encourage you to come over and check out my online program. When you join, you’ll have immediate access to all of my riding courses and the opportunity to join me on live calls four times a month. You can ask questions, you can have your video reviewed, and you can watch other students that are working through the messy middle. They’re actually working through all three stages, but you can see the messy middle demonstrated over there too. And it’s all risk-free because it has a 30-day money-back guarantee. If it sounds interesting, check out my website. Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you again in the next episode.

Announcer: [00:25:30] If you enjoy listening to Stacy’s podcast, please visit stacywestfall.com. For articles, videos, and tips to help you and your horse succeed.

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