Everything Zen

Loving the increasingly pleasant demeanor Fred is showing as his fitness improves

I’ve been reconnecting with my riding lately in a way that I haven’t for a long time. Life has been busy, and full of distraction. Forcing myself to into my own head, into the Zen of being present with the horse, and really riding – managing every stride, keeping shoulders and haunches straight, maintaining tempo – has been extra challenging lately.  There’s a lot of background noise continually threatening my concentration.

Just like with life, it’s easier to simply be a passenger, but when you pick up the reins, put your leg on and take control, you have a better ride.

At the gym in the morning and at the barn at night, I’ve been making a point of really making myself sweat. No more zoning out on the bike, no more checking out mid-ride. I’m paying attention.

More often than not, since Fred isn’t yet up to strenuous work, I focus on myself. That means keeping my core engaged – continually. Or dropping my stirrups and posting, not sitting, keeping leg pressure on, staying balanced, light on his back and not pinching with my knees. I force myself to work, and to pay attention, not letting my leg dangle, or my core relax. And it’s showing in the ride, because Fred is improving by leaps and bounds, despite not being a leaps and downs sort of guy.  The evidence? A line of new muscle along his top line, and a new eagerness to work.  He feels better, and I’m getting there.

“Ride the trot you want, not the trot you have.” Christy is all over my case, not letting me accept “no” from Fred when I ask for more length in his stride. But instead of going to the whip or nagging him with my spur, she’s requiring us to develop a response from my seat.

Ride the trot you want, not the trot you have. It’s a tidy analogy for life, too. On that note, I have news of an upcoming change involving a tough decision. I’m moving, and am moving the horses with me. We’ll still be in the Chicago area, but both Jag and Derby will be relocating in May to a barn about 20 minutes from where I work. At this point in time, I need my life to be a bit more contained. Getting the ponies closer to work will be a huge step in the right direction.

Moving Fred from Uulke and Jag from my friend Jeff’s place is wrenching – both horses are doing so well, and seem so happy. The place I’ve found has lots to love – a field full of elderly pensioners who are glossy and in good weight, lots of different turnout scenarios, stalls that are spacious and airy, gorgeous hay, bridle paths for out-of-ring hacks — lots of comfort for the creatures. However, this will necessitate a change in trainer, and I’m gutted. Christy and I are hatching some other plans, but for my regular work, I’ll be trying out the trainers operating out of the new place. In the meantime, I’m jamming as many lessons into the schedule with Christy as I can. She’s switching gears on me, determined to make me more self-aware and self-correcting, more responsible. It’s hard, requiring vigilance and attention, but once you start to pay attention, your adjustments start to feel instinctive, reflexive, even, and I’m getting more of that trot I want.

Big Red Fred

imageI didn’t think it would happen this quickly, but just a couple weeks after I said goodbye to Derby, I have a new horse.

My heart really wasn’t in it, but I started to make my long and exhaustive list of things I wanted in my next equine partner the weekend I said farewell to Derbs.

Christy has her students go through this process, and it really does help. It’s not unlike buying a house. It helps to put parameters around what you’re looking for and avoid getting distracted by things you really shouldn’t buy. If you wanted a four bedroom house, for example, there’s no sense in looking at a two bedroom condo. No matter how fancy the neighborhood or how great the view, if you need four bedrooms, that two bedroom condo is not going to work long term.

My goals:

Enjoy my horse, learn and develop as a rider, have fun, and be able to go show, go to clinics and ride out on trails with confidence.

The list:

  • Gelding
  • Easygoing temperament. More whoa than Go!
  • TB cross, but not Anglo Arab. Hybrid vigor is important to me. Do not want a pureblood anything.
  • Between 15.3 and 16.1 and stocky
  • Show miles and trail experience both, and by trail experience I don’t mean going out once and running screaming back to the barn sans rider
  • Between the ages of 8-11
  • Something with a bit of a wither, because I want something that will hold a saddle securely
  • Three correct gaits, but not enormous gaits. Rideability is key.
  • No color preference but God, please, not a Paint with lots of white and blue eyes and whatnot because that is NOT how I roll. And not a ton of hair either, though I suppose that is why God made clippers.

Sure enough, despite knowing better and contrary to my list, I started to fall victim to bad judgment. A flashy young KWPN/ASB gelding who

One of the eye catching pictures from Fred's ad.

One of the eye catching pictures from Fred’s ad.

looked hot in the video found his way onto the list. A green Friesian cross followed in short order.

But then one ad stopped me in my tracks. It was for a gorgeous young warmblood. The horse was in my price range. I stopped and looked. And then I read the ad:

“Current owner is a competent and seasoned rider who realizes that this lovely, sensitive and talented horse has too much go and too much power for her. He needs a confident, kind and patient individual to bring him along.”

Talk about the universe sending a message.

I did not want to be that person. I have seen those women, overhorsed past the point of danger. A couple were severely injured. Non were having fun.

I came to my senses and immediately deleted all the fancy youngsters from my list.

Happily, Christy was faring better. She spotted an ad for a horse that sounded perfect in a dressage group on Facebook, and tagged me.

During the test ride.  I felt comfortable right away.  And this canter is really nice.

During the test ride. I felt comfortable right away. And this canter is really nice.

I looked at that ad, and looked again. The pictures looked great and the description sounded spot on. The horse was a hair over budget, and 300 miles away, in Ohio, but if he was for sale in the Chicago area, he’d be out of my range. I contacted the seller.

After a couple email exchanges and a phone call, the horse, a 9 year old 3/4 TB 1/4 Belgian named Remington, was sounding better and better. He had been started slowly by his breeder, raised with a menagerie and hacked all around a 100 acre property. He’d been out to some hunter schooling shows and had also schooled some XC, and had been a star. He was now schooling First/Second. He was a chill dude and tended to be lazy. He was chestnut with a star and a little sock. Pretty much every box on my list was checked.

Another snippet from the test ride.  Fancy.

Another snippet from the test ride. Fancy.

Christy and I made the trip to see Remington the following weekend. I was the first to ride, defying convention a bit, but I wanted to see what he was like, and he was fine. I really enjoyed the ride, and felt like we clicked pretty quickly, which I can’t say for evey horse I get on. I even earned some compliments from the peanut gler watching us. Christy hopped on, pushed some puttons, and agreed that he’d be a good fit for me. I got back on, and finished up with a short hack out around the property – across a meadow, into the woods – on a loose rein and easy peasy.

Four of Remington’s full siblings were also at the barn, and I got to see two working, and they were very nice. The various owners are really happy with them. I made the decision to have him vetted.

From our lesson last night.

From our lesson last night.

He passed with flying colors, and arrived last Friday night. He was a good boy upon arrival – a little wound up but well behaved and polite. He subutted to the indignities of having his temperature taken, and then being dosed with gastrogard and electrolyte paste with good grace.

Our first ride on Saturday was uneventful. Freddie, as I am calling him, a nod to the artist Frederic Remington, got a walk around the property and then a tour of the indoor before I mounted up for our first ride. In the indoor, alone, he was calling for the others, who were in a bit of a uproar due to the arrival of a new mare who had all the girls in a tizzy. I turned him loose for a minute, and marveled at the the dampening effect of the Belgian blood on the TB fire. There were no death-defying vertical bucks or eye-popping bursts of speed. It made me appreciate the athleticism of the TB, and also it affirmed my decision to buy Freddie. Everything I saw looked very, very rideable.

Big Red Fred.

Big Red Fred.

As of this writing, we have three rides under our belt. He’s been great and is fun to ride. His gaits are lovely. Things I need to work on:

– Responsiveness, especially the forward response.

– Riding him out and into contact – he is a horse that will curl on you.

– Fitness overall, and suppless on this right side in particular.

But over all, I am so pleased with this horse. He is also very personable and social. He marched right over to me on Saturday when I went up to the gate of his pasture and called his new name, and he hangs his head out of his stall, watching as I putter around, cleaning our tack and tidying up. He’s never been anybody’s number one, and I think he’s going to love being the center of attention.

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.

A simple but momentous fix

image

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. 🙂

 

Summer school

Screen Shot 2014-08-31 at 9.05.28 PM

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.

 

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.