A simple but momentous fix

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I have been working hard to get control over (and response from) those hind legs.

 

Wow, it’s been two months since I’ve posted.  October wasn’t much to write home about.  Derbs had another abscess – a dramatic one that caused one of his hind legs to blow up worryingly.  It was slow to resolve, so between that and my travel schedule, riding was spotty though we did continue to make some progress.

However, things have changed dramatically in the last two weeks and for the better due to one important change – hind shoes.

It has been so very difficult for me to put Derby together and really get his hind end engaged.  It’s been a constant struggle for years.  I can get moments of connected work but God, it’s hard and it takes complete vigilance to maintain.   Offhandedly one day, our farrier mentioned to Christy that he thought some of the horses would benefit from hind shoes, which would provide more support for their hocks.

Given that we have a barnful of ex-racehorses, who put more stress on their hind ends breaking from the gate as two year olds than your average riding horse, it makes sense that supporting their hind ends would make them more comfortable.  But honestly, this never occurred to me – Jag only ever wore shoes in front, and Mads was barefoot.

But the difference that shoes in back have made for Derby and others is (in my mind at least) pretty amazing.

I could feel the difference immediately, and in ways I didn’t expect.  Right off the back, the walk was swingier.  Half way around the arena, on our first lap, Derby strrrrrretched down and out to the end of the reins.  He stayed there, stretching all the way through his top line,  in the nicest free walk I’ve ever ridden.  And it got better – I could put the trot together and keep it together.

Over the last few lessons, Christy has ratcheted things up now that I don’t have to struggle to keep Derby on the bit.  Last week’s theme was re-installing all the buttons I had dulled, and in particular, developing responsiveness.  That really means paying attention and issuing corrections and rewards in the moment.    Here’s an interesting snippet from one of these lessons, in which Christy was first and foremost schooling me to recognize a correct response to my aids (or lack there of.)

Last night and tonight, we broke through to a new level, staying smoothly connected, round and engaged for minutes at a time.  Change of bend, leg yields – you name it, it’s easier now.   I’ll get some updated video next week.

I am regretful and feel silly that I didn’t recognize the benefit of hind shoes before this, but better late than never in this case.  The horse is providing unequivocal feedback in the positive, so I know it was the right decision. :)

 

Two-fer

As much as I hate to see the end of Summer (hate! really hate!), days like today are easy to enjoy.  The breeze ruffled the horses’ manes and sent fat clouds with white tops and dark grey bellies scudding across the sky, producing a sun-dappled landscape that was lovely.

jag and palsThough the title of the post is “Two-fer” the day started with a visit to my old boy, Jag.  He’s shed his spectacularly faded “bayskin” summer coat and is a rich dappled dark bay once again.  His winter coat is coming in, and right now he feels plushy, like a Gund teddy bear.   He’s missing an eye, his teeth are falling out and his kissing spines render him unridable but I don’t care. I love my goofy old horse!

After putting him back out to enjoy the day with Sam, Splash, Woody and Presley, I headed to my other barn to ride.  I had to knock quite a bit of mud off Derby, but he cleaned up well and we joined Christy on Liam and Natalie on Chaucer (a really fancy OTTB who moved in recently.)  For the last few days, I’ve really been working on my stamina, as I lost a step when I was away from the barn for a week plus.    I’ve also been trying to get my canter back together, so we put in a few laps of that too.

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A very dapper Derby. The bonnet was totally unnecessary, but was too cute to resist. #BarbieHorse #MyLittlePony

It was uneventful until the very end, when I dropped my stirrups for a little self-imposed torture.  Derbs did a spook-n-scoot that left me in a precarious spot.  I grabbed mane, held on and croaked out a “Whoa!”   He whoa-ed, God love him.   I stuck my feet back in the stirrups tout de suite.

After Derby and Liam went back to their paddock, it was time for round two. For the last few days, I’ve been squeezing in extra rides on Austin, now owned by Lindsay who is temporarily grounded, as she’s expecting.  I’m grateful for the extra rides, and Austin is  much different ride than Derby, giving me a thorough test of my skills.  When I rode him first on Thursday, I has a nice ride and was able to get Austin on the bit and stretching.  Today was a different story.

Austin. He's adorable.

Austin. He’s adorable.

It was getting close to dinner time, and Austin is a bit notorious for being a stinker when he’s hungry.  In the past, he’s exited the arena stage left, heading down the aisle with his rider in tow.)   We rode outside today, and I let my guard down for just a second  — and out the gate we went.  In fairly short order (and with some shouted coaching from Christy,) we turned around and went straight back into the ring and got to work.

I redoubled my attention to my inside leg and outside rein, working on an figure 8, practicing change of bend and working on my connection. Then we went back to the rail, and after a couple more passes by the gate, he quit trying.  Victory!   We then practiced patience, hanging out and watching Natalie canter Darco, Chaucer’s brother and an incredibly fancy ex-GP jumper, around the outdoor.   Austin comported himself like a gentleman and got a pile of carrot chunks sprinkled on top of his hay for a treat.  I’m going to take a lesson on him Tuesday  – after he’s fed!

Magical Muscles

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After a week of business travel that was capped off by a flooded house and a torn up hoof, I think I’m finally going to be able to get back on Derbs tonight.

My wonderful farrier rebuilt Derby’s foot on Monday, after he ripped the shoe off his right front during some paddock hijinks over the weekend.  Derbs was tender on it for a while but last night he looks great longing outside.

In addition to being sound, Derby’s whole way of going has changed.  Instead of going around  braced and inverted on the longe line, he’s using himself really nicely, and is even stretching himself, which I’ve never seen previously.  I don’t think I saw a bulging under-neck once last night.

Seriously. Look at his neck and his top line. (And his bodacious rump. Nice booty, Derbs.)

Christy is reporting similar observations in Remy.

What’s the difference?  Both have been doing vastly improved, more correct work since saddle fit issues were ironed out.  They must be building strong new muscles that support and encourage more correct movement.   The changes are evident physically – they’re adding muscle and their top lines are improving.  But so is their way of going, at liberty and on the longe.

The effect of correct dressage work is truly profound.

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.

 

 

 

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