Summer school

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As the summer has progressed, so has my riding, despite some intermittent time off here and there for business trips and vacation.

I’ve also been aided by my friends Natalie, Carson, Lauren, and Aubrey. They’ve all been riding Derby while I’ve been away, and Carson even took him out on the trails where he was reported to be a star!

Derby, with Carson up, out on the trails, with Christy and Liam.  Photo by Natalie, who was aboard Eliot at the time.

Derby, with Carson up, out on the trails, with Christy and Liam. Photo by Natalie, who was aboard Eliot at the time.

Between improvements in Derby’s fitness and my own riding, things have been on the upswing.  I’m getting Derby more engaged than ever before, with really solid connection that is passing the “stretch” test – if you give the horse more rein, he should follow it down, maintaining the contact.  I can really feel his back coming up underneath me, and I can get a nice stretchy trot and connected free walk, to boot.

We had a really nice ride early last week, on a night that the horse was coated in mud and my phone was dead.  Despite the fact we had some nice work I’m glad there is no footage. I was running late, and scraped off only as much crud as was necessary to get the saddle on him and away we went. George Morris definitely would not have approved. Despite our deplorable turnout, the ride went really well. Christy said it was the best work we have produced to date, and it felt fantastic. I was able to put the horse together, and really start generating some power from his back legs. His back was up and he was really using himself well.

Those moments when I get it right are breathtaking and addictive. I feel like I’ve got the saddle sitting on top of the Maserati.  And it’s such a cool thing feeling the horse’s come up underneath you and all that power start to come from the back end.

The changes that I’m seeing since this step forward in our work are interesting to observe.   Derby is much more inclined to stretch than heScreen Shot 2014-08-31 at 8.52.44 PM was previously.  When I give him the room to stretch, he eagerly takes advantage of the opportunity.  He’s even changed his way of going on the longe line – I longed him today for a few minutes and he stretched himself out and down of his own volition, nose almost to the ground.  This is an entirely new thing for Derbs.

In addition to his adventure on the trail with Carson, Derby and I also practiced going through puddles when a wayward storm blew a ton of water in through the side door, creating a swamp that lasted several days.   The day of the downpour, Christy and I rode together, weathering a really loud thunderstorm with Derby and Remy, who both kept their composure nicely.  I wasn’t entirely successful at navigating the water – I was able to kick a bug-eyed Derby across it but we didn’t get to the point where we were plowing comfortably through it like Remy was.

As we untacked, I made a stupid comment to Christy, saying something along the lines of “I wish he’d go through the water more confidently,” promptly earning myself an impromptu lecture about riding more confidently, and being unequivocal about going forward.

Of course, she was right.

The next day we got another shot at the puddle.  We started walking around and through it, and the one time he tried to balk, I applied some vigorous encouragement with the whip and through we went.  We traversed the length of the puddle nicely, and then gave trotting it a shot.  Derby thought about ducking inward, but I had the presence of mind to really hold my outside hand,  at the same time closing my legs and sending him forward.  It worked, and we bounced through the goo, and then did it again a few more times for good measure.

Summer school has been in session, and it’s paying off.  I’m eyeballing a schooling show in early October – we’ve done diddly this year, and I’d like to get off the property.   However, we have more work to do before I bust out the white britches.  We’ll see!

 

 

Better Than Ribbons

Establishing connection, getting Derbs to reach out and down to the end of the reins.

Establishing connection, getting Derbs to reach out and down to the end of the reins.

I’m very fortunate to ride with some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Our ages span more than six decades, starting with our youngest riders who are newly turned teenagers. All are supportive and friendly, but not effusive, unless somebody shows up with the divine new saddle pad and then yes, I admit, there might be some excited discussion of coordinating polos and general gushing. But when you ride with Christy, you develop an eye for (and a real appreciation of) correct work, so the compliments we tend to pay each other are genuine, and they are earned.  Which is why Derby I have not been on the receiving end of any over the last few, frustrating months.

That changed over the last couple days, however.  Our most talented young rider commented a couple times on how well Derby was going, and asked what was making the difference.  (Copious credit was given to the saddle.)

Then last night, something happened that has never happened before – another rider stopped and watched the end of the lesson, and a minute later, Christy dashed out of the arena to get her camera.

What was creating the fuss?  On the face of it, not much – it was basic trot work, but with a big difference.  I had finally managed to develop a genuine connection and apparently it looked as good (and dramatically different!) as it felt.

Connection starts with the rider’s leg powering the horse forward (1) and ends when energy is returned to the rider’s hand (8).

By “connection” I’m not referring to roundness or contact.  By “connection” I mean that I was generating power from Derby’s hind legs, which was carried through his top line and into the reins, then returned back to me, allowing me to recycle, store or deploy it as I wished.   It’s an unbelievable feeling of power, not unlike that feeling you get as a plane is taxiing for takeoff, when you can feel the power of the engines propelling and then lifting the jet off the runway.

We were drilling the new position, getting me out of my hips and into what feels like a less rigid, not forced and more following and balanced seat. When I get there, effect on horse is immediate – his back comes up and carries himself really nicely.

As I drilled the position on a loopy rain, in order to stay out of his face, Christie had me add more power, and more power again, from the back end. Pretty soon Derby had stretched out to the end of those long reins, completing the connection. I think that’s the key part.  The horse has to complete the connection.

It felt amazing.  Derby’s back was up and swinging. His trot felt powerful and springy.  Best of all we maintained it, loop after loop.   That’s when Christy went dashing for her camera.

We gave it a shot but our second attempt wasn’t as good as our previous – both Derbs and I were getting tired by this point.  The video isn’t great but the still pinned to the top of this post shows how differently Derby was moving once I figured out to really invite him to reach into the contact and create that closed loop that generates the power that underpins correct dressage.

It was a great ride, and the extra affirmation from my fellow barn denizens was better than any ribbon.

 

Working on the Weekend

Canter two point. We're both working.

Canter two point. We’re both working.

Preview Changes

After a week out of town for work, during which I was totally overbooked and thus pretty much sedentary, I was eager to get back in the saddle and continue the work we started last week.

We didn’t do anything earth shattering.  I am still struggling to maintain the new position – the progression according to George Morris is “Hard, Easy, Habit, Beautiful” and needless to say, I’m stuck in “Hard.”  So I’m working in two point for some of each ride to help develop a good base of support and stronger lower leg. We’re also trying to put the canter back together, an I’m finding it hard to sit the canter and really plug into the saddle, probably due to the oft-mentioned tightness in my hips.   So I’m hopping up into two point to help us both out.

Yes! Activating the inside hind, and even getting him to lift his front end a bit.

Yes! Activating the inside hind, and even getting him to lift his front end a bit.

Keeping Derby pushing from behind and really using his inside hind is a real priority for me right now. So I worked on shoulder fore, a wee bit of shoulder in, and some leg-yield here and there.   We’re back into lessons full bore starting tomorrow night, so hopefully, I’ll soon have more progress to report!

Warm Up Act

We are growing a neck!

We are growing a neck!

The last two nights’ lessons have been grueling – on Tuesday, my britches and shirt were still damp when I got out of my car at home, more than an hour and a half after the ride’s conclusion.  Gross! I’m not complaining though, because in addition to burning about 1000 calories, the rides have also been was very gratifying.

Work continues on the new position, which is already improving my ability to refine my aids and get better work from Derby.  However, since we’ve switched gears and I’m asking for better quality work from the Derbinator, I was reminded on Tuesday by the Ringmistress that I needed to spend more time warming up.

“Plan on 20 minutes,” Christy told me, laying down the law.  “Start with walking, stretching and then lateral work.  Move him around.  Ten minutes.  Then do the same trotting.”

Christy had us trot and trot, asking me at intervals what  I felt.  As we trotted around, I felt a stiff jog, then a little bit more motion, then finally, some swing and stretching.  Then, and only then was I allowed to pick up the reins.  Point taken, boss.

Honest - to - God connection through the outside rein.

Honest – to – God connection through the outside rein.

We worked on my position and got a good connection, and then it got better and better.  I really felt plugged into the horse.  During a walk break, Christy was reminding me that this effective, plugged-in seat is the foundation for all of the more refined work to which I aspire.   “From there, things like shoulder-in will become easy,” she said.

Just for fun, I picked up the trot, and down the long side, checked to make sure my hips were pointed straight ahead, closed my fingers on my outside rein, and then turning my shoulders to the inside, I moved Derby’s shoulders inward.  Shoulder in.

“Yes. Like that.”  the Ringmistress agreed.   For good measure, I did another one down the other side.  Unfortunately, my phone had croaked, so there’s no video. You’ll have to trust me.  Until we give it another shot on Thursday.

Last night we worked on my position and stilling my lower leg.  Christy made the excellent point that as Derby carries himself, my leg stills.  A large part of the problem, it seems, originates with my nagging when he’s behind my leg.   So we worked on creating and holding a working gait, and making Derby accountable for maintaining it. Then, we focused on helping me develop more clarity with my aids, and improve my assessment of whether or not my aids elicited a response from the horse.   Here’s a video clip, in which I see a lot to like.  My leg looks better – straighter and less involuntary kicking – Derby is moving nicely and we’re doing a decent job of holding ourselves together.

 

 

 

Savage amusement

 

Derby was feeling patriotic this weekend.

Derby was feeling patriotic this weekend.

Apologies for the hiatus here on the blog. It’s finally summer, and I have been spending maximum time outside, basking in the sun.  That awful winter still isn’t behind me, and I’ve been grateful for every nice day we’ve had, and have been trying to take advantage of all of them.

Anyway, Derby and I have some news for you, and I won’t kid you, I’m feeling a bit sheepish.  We have a new saddle, and it’s an Isabell.  A Bates this time, versus a Wintec.  But nonetheless, an Isabell.  For those that have lost count, this is Isabell #5.

    • First Wintec Isabell, bought new.  Sold shortly after purchasing, as I thought it didn’t fit Jag.  (Kissing spines were the real problem.)
    • Second Wintec Isabell, bought used.  Kind of ratty.
    • Third Wintec Isabell, bought used, was in pretty good shape. Sold ratty Isabell to another gal in my barn.   Sold third Isabell when I bought the Albion.
    • Fourth Wintec Isabell, kind of ratty, bought for a song.  Still have it, but one of the screws is stripped and the gullet head is starting to crack, so I’m not actively switching the gullets out in this one  It’s got an MW gullet in now and I ride Tucker in it.
    • Fifth Isabell is the new Bates.  And my Lord, it is heavenly.  The seat has some memory foam padding, and the panels are super soft and comfy for the horse, especially as it has the Riser System that enables me to tweak the fit. Derby and I are both loving it. But more on that later.

The Passier I was trying didn’t work, and as I experimented with gullets and shims, it became clear that Derby really wanted a narrow saddle. If you’re looking for some savage amusement, try finding a narrow dressage saddle.  No, custom doesn’t count.  And that would be how I ended up with Isabell #5.

The trot is nicely uphill.  So is the path I must take to work on my position.

The trot is nicely uphill. So is the path I must take to work on my position.

It is difficult to overstate how much things have improved now that I’m not fighting the tack.   Derby is willing to move forward more freely. I’m more balanced so I can be effective.  We’re doing better work, and it’s showing in his top line, especially in his neck.  He has a new line of muscle along the top side of his neck, and I’m doing a better job of keeping him round, so that big bulgy muscle on the underside – the one he uses to brace against me – is getting considerably less work.   We’re headed in the right direction, without question.

Screen Shot 2014-07-06 at 10.55.45 PMOn the downside, it’s really interesting the impact that the last few months of battling with my tack has had on my riding – it’s been deleterious to the point I was so out of whack that I was having trouble trotting on the rail.   Yes.  You know, the same basic skill up-downers struggle with initially.  I was so crooked and imbalanced that in an effort to stay under me, Derby would drift out from the wall. We simply could not travel straight!   I had managed to become even more crooked and one-sided. Going to the right, things were okay.  To the left, they fell entirely apart.  Now, this isn’t a new problem, by any short stretch of the imagination.  But months of being out of whack in the tack have amplified the problem.   And fixing it has offered me more savage amusement.

At least I’m not alone. Christy has spent the last few weeks putting us back together, prescribing two-point and a variety of other exercises to help me regain balance and feel.  She reconnected my non-functioning left leg with the rest of my body, and reminded me (again) to get off my inside rein and instead soften it, followed immediately with some encouragement from the aforementioned inside leg.  Like magic, Derby started to fill up the outside rein.

Christy also noted that Derby’s responsiveness and suppleness both need work – while I was struggling so, I was hardly riding him out into contact or asking for correct bend. In fact, for a while he felt like a green horse, motorcycling around corners and bulging instead of yielding into contact.  So in addition to me, we’ve been working on him simultaneously.  We’ve made rapid progress, aided significantly when Christy managed to get my inside leg working again.

 

We also made a breakthrough on a big problem in my position this weekend.   You can see it in the video and all the pictures in this post – I’m curling my lower leg back, which takes it completely out of the game in terms of effective aids, and it’s also very unsteady (I am not intentionally kicking him with every stride.)   We finally figured out what I was doing wrong when Christy was able to get me to unhook my hip flexors, and use them for lateral aids rather than riding with them “always on.”  I told her it felt like she had unhooked a cable in my legs that was the source of the tension (and curling) and in a way, she had.   So the last few days I’ve been working on maintaining this new position – it still feels very foreign – but it’s definitely solving the problem.   I’m eager for my lesson tonight, and I’m hoping to show a video with a much-improved leg in the near future!

 

 

 

A fitting end?

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To make a long and uninteresting story short, I’ve continued to be plagued by saddle issues, and finally concluded that my Albion, with it’s deeper seat and decent-sized blocks just doesn’t work for me.   I need smaller blocks and a more open seat. to accommodate my decided preference for the shorter stirrups my tight hips and often sore knees demand.

I have a Passier Relevant en route for a test ride, and have a fitter coming to the barn on Friday.  However, in the meantime, I’ve been riding with a friend’s old saddle – a brown Passier Grand Gibert.  I like it and even more importantly, Derby approves too.  Gone is the bracing and resistance, and the exhausting exhortations to MOVE FORWARD.  He’s clearly more comfortable, and I am too.

Working a stretch, something other saddles made impossible.

Working a stretch, something other saddles made impossible.

Derby moves forward more freely in the Passier, and is much more willing to stretch, which really puts  my bad (BAD!) habit of pulling back on display.  In my lesson last night, Christy zeroed in on the fact that when I pull, I also collapse my core, which sets up a host of other problems, in addition to discouraging the horse from doing what I want him to do, which is to stretch into contact.  I’ll be drilling stretch stretch stretch for the next few rides.

Anyway.  The Passier GG isn’t perfect – it’s too wide for Derbs and I’m using a Fleeceworks pads with quite a few shims in the front pockets (two Thinline shims and a Fleeceworks memory foam front shim.)  This set up is comfortable for him and balanced for me, allowing me to be more effective.

I  hope to God we’re getting close to the end of the saddle fitting odyssey.  For the time being, I’m not complaining.  Rides are finally more fun than frustrating, for both me and the Derbinator.

 

So happy to be riding outside!

So happy to be riding outside!

Fit to be tried

 

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It’s been a long and frustrating month. After a few nice rides, Derby told me something was bugging his back, and I felt like I was fighting my saddle. so I switched from my Albion K2 to a fairly new Wintec 500, taking advantage of the riser system to make the saddle better fit Derby’s withers (and fairly meager top line.)

We had some okay rides but nothing great.  For the most part, the last few weeks have, at the least, been exhausting and, at worst, have been just monstrously frustrating, marked by a resistant horse that just. won’t. move. forward.

Christy wondered if the saddle wasn’t impinging upon Derby’s shoulder, and indeed, it was.  When he was tacked up, I checked, and she was right – reaching down between his shoulder and the saddle, I could feel the shoulder blade hitting the panel.   We talked it over, and decided that the hollows on either side of Derby’s typical TB withers were the culprit.

 

Warming up.  He was moving out, at last.

Warming up. He was moving out, at last.

The next night, I mustered my entire inventory of saddles (4) (Jesus), pads (2 sheepskin half pads, a Mattes correction pad, a Fleeceworks Perfect balance pad) and shims (two ThinLIne pads that have been cut to fit the Mattes pad, multiple different Fleeceworks options, felt Mattes imports, and for good measure, a yoga mat and box cutter, just in case,) and headed to the barn.

I widened the Wintec gullet, and added shims. Nope.  Derby was still resistant, bracing and twisting his neck, and saying ‘Owwww.’  I tried the Albion with something that didn’t work, can’t remember at this point which pad it was.  Plopped the Wintec on top of my Pro Choice Air Ride western pad, with the built up wither relief pads.  Thank God that didn’t prove to be the miracle, because I won’t kid you, it looked pretty stupid.

Finally I pulled the Albion back out – after all, this is the saddle that was (once) fitted to Derby.   It does have more flocking in the panels that fill the hollows next to the wither.  I plopped it on Derby, with just a saddle pad, no half pad or anything else.  Admittedly skeptical, I got on anyway. Things were better.  When I asked him to go forward, he actually complied, rather than swishing his tail and pinning his ears.

I need to regain my position - the Albion makes me work for it - but the horse is approving.

I need to regain my position – the Albion makes me work for it – but the horse is approving.

I rode for maybe 10 minutes, and Christy agreed that we were heading in the right direction. But after being on and off Derby for better than an hour and a half, I took mercy on my patient horse and called it quits.

The next evening, I saddled up using the Albion with my Fleeceworks Perfect Balance pad, using just the front shims.  We had the best ride we’ve had in a while.  Derby felt more supple and flexible than he has in a while, and I was able to get him forward without begging. We even did a bit of canter work and the transitions were prompt and smooth.

So this is all  great and certainly encouraging, but a new problem has cropped up, and it’s all mine.  I’ve been struggling with (among other things) flexibility in my ankles.  Getting my heels down has been a challenge – I’ve been unable to drop them below stirrup level.  I raised the issue with my Pilates coach, and have been doing extra curricular work, using a standing desk for work and standing on an array of items, such as Foot Wakers and a balance cushion, working on stretching my heels down and improving flexibility in my ankles. I’m making progress – I an now actually drop my heel below my stirrup, enabling me to use my leg more correctly.   But I’m still not solid in my base of support – this is a work in progress. However, if I have the saddle sting started, and can now concentrate a bit more on me, hopefully I’ll be able to build my stability in the saddle, and refinement of my aids.

 

 

 

 

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