Joy, and Pain

ctbs 1 19 trot

We had our first lesson at the new barn with Christy last night. I’ve ridden Derby exactly once in the last two weeks, and prior to that, we had time off over the holidays, so I really wasn’t sure what we’d be able to do for her.  However,  all the rides we have had in the month since moving have been really nice, so I was optimistic.

Christy was really happy what she saw. She picked at a few things but for the most part we had a solid ride. She did find and fix issue that I had overlooked pretty quickly, however, and it made big difference.  I was allowing my legs to rotate outward from the hip, and not draping them around the horse.  I discovered that I had my feet cocked at an angle in the stirrup, too, placing more weight on the outside edges of my foot.  Focusing on stretching down through my leg, through and out the ball of my foot, solved the problem pretty quickly – my legs were draping and more effective right off the bat. I need to school this because I’ve let it slide over the last month, but it’s something I can work on independely.

Speaking of independent work, I diagnosed and fixed a saddle balance problem all by myself recently.  I’ve been well schooled in saddle balance by Christy, and I noticed a couple weeks ago that things were feeling a bit out of whack, as I was starting to try to climb over the top of the pommel when I posted.  I was on the lookout for changes in saddle fit, as Derby is getting better turnout (larger group, and larger paddock) and much better food.  I applied some of the tests for saddle balance I’ve learned from Christy, including her “stand-stand-sit” test which is a stone-cold truth-teller about how well your saddle was balanced, and yep, it was a struggle — when your saddle is balanced, you can do laps of stand-stand-sit easily, without batting an eye.

I took my saddle home, got a screwdriver and my shim kit (if you’re a new reader, I ride in a newer Bates Isabell with the Riser System) and swapped the 8mm forward shim for the 4mm version.

It’s only a 4 millimeter difference on either side but changing the shim produced a magic effect  – I’m in really good balance now and the horse also approves – he tells me by moving easily and giving me his back.

I’ve seen a big change in Derby since moving to the new barn.  He hasn’t put a foot wrong – no spooks – and seems relaxed and happy.  Our rides are our best ever.  I know the footing at the old barn was bad – it was hard, it would freeze, and the barn owner didn’t groom the ring regularly.  In retrospect, I think it make moving downright painful for the horses.  However, what I didn’t realize is the footing affected more than how the horse moved – it affected my ability to ride in a balanced, connected manner that was safer, too. Anyway, I’ll be apologizing to Derby for not moving him sooner. I’ve only recently realized how I dreaded going to the old place, if only because going to the new barn is a joy.

Playing in the Sandbox

I'm crazy about our giant new sandbox.

I’m crazy about our giant new sandbox.

Yesterday morning I went a spin class for the first time in about a decade.  I survived, and am very happy to report that I made it all the way through the class, kept up with the instructor’s instructions and most importantly I didn’t barf during (or after) the class.

So, yay me, but I won’t kid you – the class fried my legs, and left my hips  really really tight, so I wasn’t sure how much work I was going to able to do in the saddle when I went to the barn last night.

So I tacked up Derby and went for a long walk, taking a “wait and see” approach.

We walked and walked, flexing left and right, doing a little shoulder in here and there, and throwing in some little leg yields.  Eventually I started to really work on his responsiveness to my leg, and we wound up doing  quite a bit of lateral work.  Derby started to really come into my hand, stretched nicely over his top line.

I think it felt good to both of us, as in addition to stretching into the contact, he was staying there and lifting his back.  I was simply enjoying how the walking motion of the horse opens up tight hip flexors and warms up fatigued legs.  After a while, I started to feel kind of decent. After a good 15 to 20 minutes of walk work, I finally decided to go ahead and get a little trot work and try and as expected, my legs were like jelly, and it was clear I was not going to last long at all.

That said, the trot work I got was just lovely – Derby was round, maneuverable and on the aids.  It was another reminder to me that I need to spend more time really doing deliberate warm-up, using that time to train rather than just walking around and getting us both loosened up. I can still achieve that objective while using the time much more productively to test into my buttons and get Derby really working over his back and responding to my aids.

I’m not that into New Year’s resolutions – I think they’re kind of silly and as I think most of us know, they don’t stick.  However, I feel pretty good about resolving to incorporate longer and more productive warm-up time in my rides.

Independent Study

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Derby meets his new herd.

Boomer and Derby eb route to their third barn in one month. Good boys!

Boomer and Derby eb route to their third barn in one month. Good boys!

It’s been an eventful month – I’ve moved to Derby two different times this month, after the care at Silver Fern Stables really took a nosedive. Unfortunately, the second place turned out to be a dud, but the third barn has definitely been the charm.

His new room has a view.

His new room has a view.

It’s a significant upgrade for Derby, with much larger stalls, really good turnout and, most importantly, generous amounts of quality feed. He’s already gaining weight and his entire demeanor suggests that he’s happier and feeling good.

The new barn is also a bit of an upgrade for me, too – the barn is heated! Let the winter winds howl – I am not going to be freezing my tailfeathers off again this year.

Creature comforts aside, it’s been more than a month since I had a lesson with Christy, however, she will be training at the new barn so we will be picking up where we left off very soon. In the meantime, I’ve had some good practice riding in Derby in new environments, and I think that we passed with flying colors.

Barn number two was a small operation with a quiet, enclosed arena. It posed little problem for Derby, and he didn’t put a foot wrong while there.

Barn number three is  a different story. It has the largest indoor arena I’ve ever seen, and has a couple potentially spooky areas. At one end, there’s an open space between the arena rail and the building’s exterior wall where people keep tack trunks and where hay and feed are stored. Because the barn is heated, there are also large plastic flaps on that doorway, as well as the doorway entering the arena that horses need to pass through, to prevent heat loss.

I was determined to not let any of these things become a problem for Derby. I knew that from the get-go these things had to be schooled and accepted with no questions from the horse. Donna and Boomer moved with us, and on the first day, Donna and I took turns schooling the boys in the arena.  While one of us lead our horse around in the arena, the other went in and out of the flappy doors, making a racket, slamming tack trunk lids and making the plastic flap.

Enjoying his much larger stall.

Enjoying his much larger stall.

This little extra bit of schooling paid off, because both boys were on their best behavior on their maiden voyages around the big indoor.

In fact, Derby has not put a foot wrong in the rides that I’ve had subsequently. He’s working really nicely, staying quiet and focused, and moving beautifully, which is testament to his appreciation of the significantly improved footing the new barn offers.

However, I’m going to take a little credit, because I’ve been giving him rides that are as good as I can muster.  We’re focused in our warm ups, starting with loosening his poll and then bending, stretching and incorporating lateral work.  I’m insisting that he stays responsive and on the aids.  We’re working a lot of half-halts and transitions within gaits to keep his attention and to allow me to maintain control over his inside hind.

Between more active riding on my part and the improved footing, we’re getting some very nice work – he’s through and into the bridle, working nicely over his back.  We’ve even been able to produce (and maintain) some lovely connected stretchy trot, for which I was rewarded with flecks of foam around his bit.   We even earned a compliment from one of the other trainers who gives lessons there, which was really nice to hear.

Cloudy Boy and me.

Cloudy Boy and me.

As if all this isn’t enough to love, the new barn has one other bonus.  My friend Liz and her darling gelding Cloud are there.  It’s great to see them again – I missed them when they moved away a couple years ago.  Cloud was happy to see me (or, more realistically, he smelled the peppermints in my pocket) and obliged me in a selfie on our first day. :)

All in all, I’m thrilled with the move and how we’re both handling it.  We’ll get going again with lessons soon. Stay tuned!

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!

 

 

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