Frozen, but not in place

The super-cold temperatures mean that the arena can't be watered as much as we'd like. :P

The super-cold temperatures mean that the arena can’t be watered as much as we’d like. :P

The Polar Vortex III is coming to town.  Most sequels suck, and I don’t expect this one to be any different.  The ground is frozen and everyone is grumpy – Tucker even made a legit attempt at a bite the other night – way out of character for him.  We are all sick, sick, sick of this weather.  However,  God in is good grace made britches out of Wind Pro and underwear out of merino wool and those lovely toe-warmer thingies (which I kid you not I buy by the gross) and so – we ride.   We complain but we show up, and we ride.  Christy even did a post about the determination her crew has displayed this winter.

That said, things aren’t ideal.  There are some nights it’s been too cold to do much, and due to some exceptionally icy conditions, the horses have been stuck inside – a lot.  The muscle has melted off them – even Derby, who carries a lot of muscle for a TB, is now sporting a pencil neck and droopy top line.  Happily for both of us, my riding is continuing to improve as I get stronger in places I never thought possible through my Pilates work.

I’m coming off a three-week travel jag during which I rode very inconsistently (literally and figuratively!)  But I got a real surprise on Saturday when I finally clambered aboard for a ride.

I was fiddling with my position, really trying to feel and engage my lower core muscles, and was working on big trot/little trot, a little exercise we do in which I ask for a

Stop taking my d@mn picture and take me inside already!

Stop taking my d@mn picture and take me inside already!

larger gait down the long side and a smaller one around the short side, while staying connected.  The ‘ask’ comes from half halts, nothing else.    We were heading down the long side at a spanking working trot and it felt great – forward, round, connected, back up, rider balanced – one of those ah-ha moments.  Going into the short side, I half halted, and Derby sat down and halted.  Okay, he took a couple steps but we did come to a stop for which I was not prepared, and subsequently there was grabbing of the horse’s neck required to stay aboard.  There’s no doubt that my half-halts can be stronger, so I spent some time after that incident working on tuning the strength of the half-halt, so I could get a transition within the gait, not a full-halt.

I told this to Christy before my lesson on Monday and she confirmed my continued improvement. The trot work is looking good and our next step is putting the canter back together and wow, it is frightful.

As we plunge back into the sub-zero deep freeze for the next few days, most of my plans are on hold. I’m planning on getting on both Tucker and Derby for mostly walk work – we’ll set up some cavaletti and work on lateral responsiveness.  This weekend it should be a bit warmer (in the teens, oh joy.)  The 10 day forecast isn’t offering much encouragement at the moment but for the love of God, it is almost March.  Mother Nature is bound to end this bender soon, come back to her senses and give us some normal temperatures.  (We hope.)

Finally^2

FINALLY #1

We’ve finally had a break in the hideous cold we’ve been suffering this Winter, after being plunged back into the sub-zero deep freeze again early this week, and I’ve had two consecutive rides on the Derbinator.  God, it is good to be back in the saddle, and things are going pretty well.

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve started taking Pilates, working with a Joanne at Tensile Strength Studio (http://tensilestrengthstudio.com/pilates/), on the apparatus, not the mat.  What started as an exercise to shore up some weak areas, improve my body alignment and build flexibility has also improved my work in the saddle.  Today was my first lesson in forever, and Christy was amazed.

A discovery in a Pilates season last week appears to have done a couple big things for my riding – most notably the curing of my duck butt and freeing up my hips to swing with the horse.   Here’s what happened.

Last week the trainer had me do the Teaser movement (pictured left.) I followed her instruction, and fought through the  series of movements.  The trainer noticed I was struggling and asked what was hard about the movement for me, and I told her that the movement killed my hips.

“Ah,” she said. “You’re grabbing with your hip flexors, and you’re not using your core. Try to let your hips go and instead engage your lower core. Imagine you’re lifting your pelvic floor.”  Now, this is going to be a bit indelicate but she described it as kind of like stopping things when you’re going to the bathroom.  Not exactly, but in that general area.

Anyway, back to the Pilates session.  She told me to try to switch the muscles I was using, and I did.  Suddenly Teaser was easy.  My instructor was surprised I could make this switch so quickly, which I attribute to the biomechanics work with Christy that has built the awareness that enabled me to do this.  Pausing, I asked her if I could try something on the studio’s horse, which is essentially a padded barrel.  I mounted up and sat there, feeling the tension in my hips. Concentrating, I engaged my lower core.  My hips relaxed and my legs dropped straight down.  That was a revelation!

Last night, in my first ride in who knows how long, I experimented with my lower core engagement.  Prior to my revelation, “core engagement” was pretty much everything between my collarbones and knee caps.  It took a lot of energy and effort, and I would tense everything up.  My hips would become immobile.  However, isolating and engaging the lower core was an entirely different experience.  I felt plugged into Derby’s walk.  My aids worked better.  The trot work felt great.

Finally #2

Which leads us to tonight’s lesson.  Christy said we were a transformed pair, and that I looked like a different rider.  And it felt different too.  Derby’s trot was forward and I could feel his back swinging.  We’ll try to get some video to share soon.

Light at the end of the tunnel

It’s been hideously, relentlessly, impossibly cold for the last several weeks, but we’re in the final throes of this cripplingly cold weather.   Thought the thermometer reads -8 right now, we’re heading to a high in the low 20′s today, and frankly, that is going to feel GREAT after the sub-zero deep freeze in which we’ve been mired recently.  And it gets better – we’re going to actually be above freezing – as in the mid-30′s this weekend! Hopefully the arena footing – which is frozen solid right now – will thaw and we’ll *really* be able to ride.

Horsicles

Horsicles

My barn-mates and I have been doing all we can to keep the horses comfortable while they’ve been confined this week.  We’ve been doing small-group turnout in the indoor, allowing the horses to play and socialize as long as we can stand the cold.  And we’ve been feeding copious amounts of soaked beet pulp and hay cubes, and filling buckets with warm water, to help keep everyone hydrated.

That said, between the horrific weather and my holiday travel, I’ve only been able to snatch a ride here and there.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the quality of these few rides, especially on Derby.   I’m continuing to ride him on really cold days, without a quarter sheet, and we’re doing well.  There have been no giant, teleporting spooks or other cold-weather induced silliness (**touches wood**) which is probably due in part to the fact that I’m providing leadership from the saddle via improved contact and keeping him on the aids.   I’m not abdicating the ride and the decision-making to the horse.

Ready to root for the Packers

Ready to root for the Packers

I was rewarded on my last ride (eh, let’s see, five days ago) with a very round and pleasant horse.  I was able to keep Derby packaged together and connected for most of the ride.  He’s a lot harder for me to put together than Tucker is, but by paying attention to lateral work – incorporating leg yields in corners and on circles, and yielding down the long sides here and there – and changing his flexion (a little shoulder fore here, counter bend there) I was able to keep him on the aids and compliant.

I’m getting better at recognizing when he’s not responding to my leg, and am doing a better job of issuing corrections. He’s more responsive off my leg than he was a few months ago, so this is progress.

modeling our cute new polos (and other matching gear) - thanks Natalie!

modeling our cute new polos (and other matching gear) – thanks Natalie!

However, I have let him get behind my leg again, so the next thing I really need to focus upon is recognizing when he’s stalling out, and keeping him forward.  Maintaining forward is my biggest problem and this is the next thing I need to fix.

In other news, I’ve been doing work out of the saddle too.  I’ve been taking Pilates classes, using the Reformer and other equipment.  On days when I have a class, riding is difficult, because certain muscles (such as the entire assembly supporting my hips!) are very tired.  In a lesson later in the day after my first Pilates class, Christy was confused by my serious wonkiness in the saddle.  Though I didn’t feel tired in a cardio sense, we figured out that some of my key stability muscles and core were pretty tired.  I’ve changed my Pilates classes to non-riding lesson days, but I’m not letting up.  I can already feel myself getting stronger, and am looking forward to observing the effects in the saddle!

Four degrees

ImageFour degrees. 

 

Good ride.

 

‘Nuff said! 

Security blanket

Last winter, prior to his surgery, I barely rode Derby.  Our November and December weather here in northern IL is typically marked by wild temperature swings, and he was tough for me to handle. He was spooky and reactive, teleporting across the arena when a door opened and spooking at invisible gremlins.  I loaded him him up with calming supplements, swaddled him in quarter sheets, and muddled my way through the coldest months.

We did a lot of ground work. That’s no way to live.

Fast forward twelve months, to this week.  The temperatures have been crazy – on Wednesday night, it was 55 degrees, and Derby got a bath after our lesson.  Two days later, the lows were hovering near zero.  And we’ve been riding through it all, and it’s been great.

What’s the difference?  My riding, pure and simple.  The frustrating months spent battling my knee and rebuilding my everything appear to have paid off.  I’m keeping Derby connected and through, working over his back and one the aids.  I can’t begin to describe the monumental change this made in my ability to keep Derby focused.  His behavior has been stellar.   And I can put him on the bit right from the get go, and for the most part, I’m keeping him there.

On Thursday, we rode through an old intro test, and I was astounded at how well it rode.   Christy commented that it better than she’d ever see us look.  All of this gives me hope, because I know unequivocally that I wasn’t riding him well last winter, and at shows where we had problems.  He wasn’t on the aids and connected.  He was able to spook and evade and be ridiculous, because I allowed him to do so.  I’m learning to manage the ride, from start to finish.

Today we had another breakthrough.  It was cold – really cold.  As in about 15 degrees.  While I have not been giving Derby calming supps this year, I do use a quarter sheet (and a Back on Track pad) on very cold days.

Derbs was chill at the outset, but then got really behind my leg, and started to hint at some stupidity.   I thought to myself “I need to get off, take off the quarter sheet, and pick up a whip.”

So I did.  Like Linus giving up his security blanket, I was a bit trepidatious as I took the sheet off, but thought “What the hell,” and went back into the arena.  Anything is better than fighting a horse that is behind your leg .

At the first sign of balking, Derby got a crack with the whip, and he gave the right answer, snapping to attention and getting to task.  The second half of our ride was really nice, and we had good energy.

I closed out the ride working on my left leg, which is still persistently unsteady.  It just needs to get stronger, and it is, but not fast enough for my tastes, which is why I’m starting private Pilates lessons next week, and am looking into Feldenkrais work too.

We’re going to have a great winter!

Confluence

The eq isn't great, but I love the filter.

The eq is ghastly, but I love the filter.

My riding – both in lessons, and when I’m left to my own devices, has continued to dramatically improve, and I believe this is due to the confluence of several factors, including:

  • Necessity: If I’m going to ride Derby through the coldest months, I have to be adept at keeping him on the bit and on the aids – those are the foundations of control, and are also important for keeping the horse’s attention on the rider, not on gremlins lurking in muck buckets or behind jump poles.
  • Strength & flexibility: I’ve been working hard (extra rides on Tucker, and off the horse too) on developing the strength and flexibility required to keep my hands independent of my seat and influence the horse accordingly; and finally (and probably most importantly)
Our new friends, Natalie and Pearl The Beautiful

Our new friends, Natalie and Pearl The Beautiful. Derby and I may have an enviable collection of saddle pads, but Natalie and Pearl sport an amazing array of polos.

  • The Natalie Effect:  Here’s my special sauce.  Over the summer, a new boarder, Natalie, and her gorgeous Trakehner mare, Pearl, moved in.  Natalie is a lovely rider, and she’s put herself into a bootcamp of sorts, riding as many horses as she can.  I offered her Derbs during my insane travel schedule this fall, and while she seems to have enjoyed riding him, I’m the one who benefitted, as she has done something I struggled to do myself – she’s reinstalled the Go button. He’s more forward and responsive, and as such, is easier to ride correctly.  Natalie is also a fellow blogger, writing with grace and good humor about her equestrian ventures here: The Best Mare.

Anyway, she’s lovely and gets some beautiful work out of the Derbinator, as you can see here:

Okay. So back to my progress. As I mentioned previously, the pressure was on, due to the impending weather and inevitable frigid temperatures.  So, between the imperative to get my sh*t together and ride, I made getting Derby onto my aids my priority.

Screen Shot 2013-11-25 at 11.50.55 PM

And you know what? That works pretty well.

Keeping Derby on the aids requires me to ride every step and every moment.  I’ve written about that in the past, but I don’t think I’ve ever truly ridden that way, moving from a connected walk to a connected trot and fixing problems as they started to crop up, not when they were full-blown.  I’m actually able to feel changes in the horse, now, and feel when when I have good contact (versus a bulgy under-neck), and best of all, I’m learning to make the quick little adjustments necessary to keep Derby’s attention from straying, and to keep him connected and working over his back.  Here are some of the highlights:

Christy posited – and I tend to agree – that the last few months, while they may have felt like steps backwards, were actually spent filling gaps in my skills.  I’m using my new tools, she says, and am riding more consistently and correctly than she’s ever seen me do.   I’m happy with the progress I seen on the video, but I’m happier still with the feel – and the feedback – I’m getting in the saddle.

Feedback ….

IMG_1614It’s been more than a two months since I’ve updated the blog. Mea culpa!    Life has been busy – busy enough, in fact, that it’s impacted my riding.  And frankly, blogging falls by the wayside before barn time.   So does bed time, for that matter.

My knee is feeling great and overall, I know my strength is more symmetrical, though now that I’m so self aware, I can detect some lingering weaknesses.  Rome wasn’t built in a day, however, and I’ll keep chipping away at building more strength here and flexibility there.  It is, as they say, a process.

We’re entering my least favorite time of the year.  The days grow shorter and shorter, and I hate how the darkness encroaches more and more upon each day. And the temperatures drop, some times varying dramatically day to day.  Derby gets a bit looney during those first couple cold snaps – which means that my seat needs to be SOLID.  Additionally, as Christy has pointed out, I need do be doing a better job of keeping Derby on the bit and on my aids.  “Contact isn’t something you maintain for the sake of maintaining it, ” Christy told me recently. ” Contact is feedback, and you need to listen and respond to it.”

On Monday, it was windy and cold, and I was apprehensive.  Christy had me start my lesson with reins short and legs active, asking me to put Derby on the bit and keep him there.   Now, the fact that I generally *don’t* do this is the root of many of my problems, and I know this.  However, thinking something and doing it are different things.  Howeve, with Christy’s coaching, we had some lovely contact and subsequent walk work, but I struggled putting it all together at the trot.

Doing big trot/little trot with Tuck

Doing big trot/little trot with Tuck

I tried again yesterday, and did a bit better, but the real breakthrough was tonight.  It’s been months since I was able to get Derby to stay round and connected, with good contact, but I got it done tonight.  I have another lesson tomorrow, and will try to get some video.  It felt great, and I want to see how we look!

In addition to Derby, I’ve been working assiduously on my strength and position by grabbing additional rides on Tucker when I can, which is usually about three times a week.  This is working well for me, as Tuck is a very sensitive guy, and gives me indisputable feedback about my position.  If leaning one way or slumping another, he lets me know.  Tucker is helping me improve my own straightness, because he refuses to ignore me when I’m crooked.

Working with my little buddy Tucker

Working with my little buddy Tucker

Christy has also wisely used this rebuilding time to  work on quieting my hands, and her efforts are paying off.  All in all, I’m much quieter in the saddle, and the horses are going better, because (at least I believe) I’m reducing the ambient noise my flapping arms and nagging heels caused.     The work is a bit dull but there’s no question that rides like tonight are a satisfying payoff.

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