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. ūüėõ

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.)



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¬†(, 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.


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.

Orange you glad

We've worked hard just to get here.

We’ve worked hard just to get here.

It’s been ages since my last update, and I really wish I had more earth-shattering news to share. ¬†The last few months have been frustrating and enlightening, to say the least. ¬†I’ve been struggling a lot in the saddle, overcoming that knee problem and building strength.

By accident I now also have a very specific understanding of and appreciation for saddle balance.

My Albion K2 became uncomfortable for my sore knee, as the knee blocks really put pressure and I think some torque on that leg.  So I switched back to my old Wintec, with no blocks. The flaps are completely flat.   My ouchy leg is happier in that saddle.

However, though it looked OK, the Wintec was too wide for Derby. His disapproval was subtle at first Рhe refused to go forward.  And I was struggling like crazy to organize myself, much less him, in that saddle.

In retrospect, I should have spotted a big red flag when I rode Manny and Tucker in that saddle. ¬†On them, in that saddle, I rode well. ¬†Christy and I have concluded that it was a matter of saddle balance. ¬†We monkeyed with shims and gullets, and the difference is night and day. ¬†I had been feeling like I was fighting every moment to maintain my position while on Derby in the too-wide saddle. ¬†Now that I’ve reinstalled the narrow gullet, it’s much easier for me to just ride.

However, my problems (unfortunately) do not start and end with the saddle.  Far from it.

Christy is working me through some issues with my position – in particular, getting me to stop pinching my knees. ¬†She demonstrated memorably for me a few days ago how a rider’s pinchy knee affects the horse. ¬†She was on Remy, and we were chatting about different aspects of rider position. ¬†She was moving around, demonstrating the different effects her biomechanics had on the horse. ¬†When she pinched her knee, Remy’s back dropped. ¬†He flung his head up and became hollow. ¬†Which is how Derby has been going around, apparently because that’s how I’ve been riding him.

When I mounted up, the first thing I did was to fluff my knees away from the saddle.  Immediately this helped me wrap my calves around the horse, and as soon as I did it, Derby started to stretch and round.  All righty then.  Horse approves.

At the trot it’s still a challenge for me to maintain. ¬†I’m using entirely new muscles. ¬†It feels better and I have a more forward horse. ¬†Now I just need to build my endurance and make this new position my habit. ¬†Unfortunately, this part is a bit of a slog! ¬† But what’s the saying? Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, can’t go around it — gotta go through it. ¬†Or something like that.




Last week I hopped on Manny for couple rides, and admired the way he moved easily off my left leg. I mentioned this to Christy, who noted that my left leg, which is a bit unsteady, ‘nags’ at Derby’s side. ¬†She theorized that he’s dead to my leg on that side as a result.

So responsiveness has been on my mind. ¬†As my strength is coming back, I’m riding the horse more forwardly, and am correcting him when he stalls out and slows down. ¬†I’m getting better gaits out of Derbs, but lateral response can be best described as “meh.”

I also tend to second-guess myself, thinking “I must not have asked correctly” if Derby fails to respond to a request I make. ¬†However, Christy has proven to me repeatedly in the past that for love of all things good and holy, I know how to move a horse off my leg and bend. ¬†Zero response, she reminded me, is not an option. ¬†“He didn’t even swish his tail!” she commented after observing one lame attempt.

austin yield

Christy executes an enviable leg-yield on Austin.

So she set me to work, trotting laps down the long side, and abbreviating the end of the arena by turning deliberately before the end. ¬†She asked told me to start down the long side on the quarter line, and to leg yield to the rail before getting to our turn on the short end. ¬†“Do not turn unless you are on the rail. GET THERE,” she insisted.

The first couple attempts were ugly, and I dropped back to the walk to get my ducks in a row. ¬†After one “listen to me!” correction with the whip, Derby yielded nicely off my left leg. ¬†We picked up the trot, and things were immediately better, and they continued to improve. ¬†Derby became downright responsive, and as I gained better control over the inside hind, his gait quality improved too.

It was a particularly illuminating lesson, and very motivating. ¬†The results – improved responsiveness and better gaits – were pretty immediate, once I got the horse properly motivated. ¬†I’m going to be adding the leg-yield exercises to all of my warm ups. ¬†I now know where those buttons are, and I need to keep fine-tuning them!

The big toe and the collarbone


Even dry arena sand looks good from this point of view.

Within the last week or so my knee has finally stopped hurting. I’ve been in physical therapy for an IT band injury since March, and I’m happy to report it’s finally paying off. ¬†The therapy of late has really focused on hip and core strength. Of course, this is good for my riding or at least I believe will be. However, despite the improvements in my right leg, I still need to work on evening up my strength and flexibility on both sides.¬†During this time of rebuilding and reconditioning myself, the unevenness in my strength has had a pronounced effect on my riding. If I ride in my default, unbalanced position, the horse will stagger off to the left. While this is less pronounced on Derby, when I had a lesson on Christy’s horse Austin, who is much more sensitive, we were drawn to ¬†the middle of the arena as if by a magnet.

Christy is having me remedy this situation a few ways. First and foremost, she is absolutely requiring me to ride the horse forward. Secondly, she’s focusing on having me use what we’re now calling my “everything muscle,” ¬†— which is really another way of saying riding with my body fully engaged. ¬†The checklist I’ve been running through in my head (because this is not yet have it and I have to remind myself continually) goes something like this: ¬†“Head straight, shoulders back, chest lifted, hips even, core engaged, no, core really engaged, hips open, legs long, calf draping and toes up.” ¬†Rinse and repeat.

Remembering to keep my toes up rather than my heels down actually has a profound effect on my leg, we’ve discovered. For me at least, when I’m thinking toes up, I engage my whole leg, especially my quadriceps and hip flexors, which also has the effect of opening my hips. We discovered this one night when rather hilariously Christie asked me what adjustment I made when I managed to improve my position, you done to and I told her I flexed my big toes. Sounds silly, but you try it next time you’re in the saddle. The act of flexing your toes upward, rather than just letting gravity pull your heels down, engages a different range of muscles. This is a happy accident, because for me, these are muscles I needed to engage, and I didn’t realize I was failing to do so.

Tonight, we discovered the connection that exists between my collarbone and my big toes. I have a bad habit of slouching through the waist, especially slumping to one side. It’s really hard to ride with decent contact when your waist is engaged, and my solution to this problem, instead of writing correctly, tends to be too harsh word and pull back with my hands. Christy noticed that recently I’ve been really reverting to this position when I go through turns. So she reminded me to turn from the waist, and basically keep my head, hands and shoulders aligned.

“Put your collarbone in the direction you want to go,” she insisted. “Make side reins out of your hands, and close your fingers, keep your hands in front of you and not pulling!”

As most of you know that this elementary exercise results in the rider using the outside ring correctly and softening the inside rain and generally speaking good things happen. Such was the case for me. However, there was another benefit as well. Christy noticed that my posture kept improving as I worked through the exercises while deliberately holding my rein and leading with my collarbones. Simply put, you cannot turn from the waist, and keep your head, shoulders and hands all aligned if you are slumped through your midsection. Additionally, for whatever reason, probably because I’m focused on the collarbones, I was ¬†keeping my chest open too, which also helped me keep my shoulders back. Another problem solved!

IT band exercises 

I have long promised but failed to deliver to a number of you an outline of the exercises that I’ve been doing physical therapy for my IT band. If you don’t do anything to actively strengthen those important outside muscles, and the things they are attached to, I encourage you to do start doing so forthwith. ¬†An IT band injury is really painful and takes forever to heal ‚Äď I strongly recommend avoiding it at all costs!

Exercises that the physical therapist is having me focus on include:

  • Side planks – Holding for 30 seconds and also going up and down repeatedly in sets of 10
  • Regular planks
  • Clamshells: plan your side bend your knees and align yourself shoulder hips heal. Keeping your feet together open your legs leading with the knee that is on top. For extra resistance put a rubber band around your knees.
  • Sidesteps: Put the rubber resistance band around your ankles. Do a partial squat like you’re in ready position for playing tennis. Keeping your knees bent, move laterally. ¬†This is best done down a long hallway or in your basement where no one is watching. If you’re doing it correctly, in addition to your adductors on the outside of your leading leg, ¬†you’ll also feel your gluteus medius working on that side too. ¬†Do 10-15 steps each direction, and repeat.

Here are some links with additional exercises and details, if you’re interested. (see the 7 exercise routine the author developed – this is very similar to what one of my PT sessions looks like (though I do a bit more core, by adding the planks.)

A Breakthrough



I finished last season a more than a little frustrated with myself. ¬†Despite managing to qualify for my local GMO’s championships, we didn’t make it to the ring – Derbs had a meltdown that I couldn’t manage. ¬† There were some other failures – let’s just go ahead and use this word – too, including my inability to get Derby past a couple culverts on the way to the forest preserve trails near the barn.

There’s a common element in these failures, and it was this – I was abdicating most of the ride to Derby. ¬†I wasn’t riding him forward, round, into contact and on the bit. ¬†I wasn’t using a shoulder-in strategically, I wasn’t keeping control of the inside hind leg.

On paper, I knew all of this but for any combination of reasons I had never executed the theories in a real-life situation.

At the same time, I’ve continued to observe lots of Christy’s rides, and (since she’s the cerebral sort) we’ve talked through these issues as well. ¬†Numerous times I’ve heard her how she can feel when the horse she’s riding is going to spook, and instead of simply riding it, she manages it – and capitalizes it, channeling the energy into even more powerful forward movement.

Tonight – at the end of a ride that I was planning on shortening due to my still painful knee, I had the unexpected (aren’t they always) opportunity to test my learning.

I had given up on really riding and hopped up into two point to get a bit more work into Derby while also working a bit on my lower leg. We were in the outdoor ring, and as we came around the short side closest to the barn, Derby spooked and took off across the arena.  Secure in my two-point, I went right with him, almost effortlessly.

Instead of being discombobulated by the abrupt change of course, I was able to ride it.  I kept him cantering and then put him on a trot circle.

“Wow,” said Christy as we looped around her. ¬† It was a nice trot – he was through and connected. ¬†I pushed him off the circle and headed toward the other end, keeping him connected. ¬† He spooked again, and I caught sight of the source of his willies – a fly sheet left on the ground by another friend who was off hand grazing her horse. ¬† Sheesh.

I kept him at that end of the arena, and put him on another circle, insisting on bend and that he step under himself with his hind leg. Going back around, he tried to spook again but I was able to catch him and manage it. ¬†On the next go-round, he didn’t bat an eye. ¬†on the next go round, we stopped near the offending fly sheet, and Derbs stood nicely as I treated him to all manner of scritches up and down his neck. ¬†Then we walked off, turn around the other way, and I put him into a shoulder-in. ¬†Sure enough, he wanted to give the sheet the hairy eyeball but I was able to keep that inside hind where I wanted it. ¬†We maintained the bend, and walked by with little fuss. ¬†I asked for the trot, and we went by the sheet in an energetic shoulder in. ¬†I was holding him together, and helping him keep his marbles in their bag. ¬†We went by again. ¬†No problem this time. ¬†On the next pass, I stopped him again, and again he stood sensibly, and was the recipient of more scritches.

There was a time when I could ride the spook, ¬†but I wasn’t managing it. ¬†Tonight, finally, I felt effective. ¬†Derby was connected nicely, and I could feel the behavior coming and I could do something other than just let it happen. ¬†Which is kind of the whole point of dressage, when you get down to brass tacks. ¬†Those war horses of old had to gallop headlong into some scary situations.

As we walked a bit, Christy and I chatted. ¬†She said – and I agreed – that this was the best riding I’ve produced in terms of effectiveness. ¬†I was able to use the tools she’s given me, and apply them correctly to the situation. ¬†My instincts – and reactions – were correct.

“Now, we just have to get that kind of riding from you all the time,” Christy said as I dismounted. ¬† Which means she has some ideas brewing…

Core muscles, meet the half-halt

We had another nice ride last night, and another incremental improvement. In my lesson, I worked on getting Derby’s hind legs more active and pushing, rather than pulling himself along on the forehand. To do this, Christy introduced my core to my half-halt, and pretty quickly I was able to get the feel of rebalancing the horse. ¬†It was one of those lightbulb moments in which you consciously do something, and feel the results. ¬†Cause and effect – it’s powerful stuff.

Compare to yesterdsy's effort

Last night



Here’s a still from last night’s ride (pink t-shirt). ¬†There’s a big difference in hind end engagement when compared to my ride the night before (blue saddle pad.)

The differences are subtle but clear visually – Derby is more up, off his forehand in the picture from last night, and he’s pushing more with his hind legs – you can see he’s stepping more forwardly with his hind legs, rather than trailing them behind (as he does when he’s on the forehand.)

The difference in feeling between the trots is more stark.  The connected trot last night feels so powerful.  The less-connected trot from last night just feels fast.

Christy had me work on channeling our forward energy and controlling it with my seat, core and half-halts. ¬†One thing I have to work on is using the half halt correctly – to rebalance – rather than slow down. ¬†I generally allow Derby to lose energy in the half halt. ¬†And I remember what Robert Dover said about half-halts – they’re additive, you gather and coil the energy in the half halt. ¬†Now, to put that into practice and make it a habit.

Screen Shot 2013-05-08 at 11.25.50 PMWith Christy coaching me about every other step of the way, I worked on half-halting with my core and then immediately putting my leg on to say “Go!” while increasing my post to get a bigger (not faster) stride. ¬†And we were able to start to generate more of a trot – one that someday could be suspended and fancy. ¬†We have a long way to go, though, in terms of fitness and muscling of both horse and rider. ¬†Still, it will be fun to put a dressage neck on Derbs – he’s pretty burly as TBs go already and tends to carry heavy muscle. He’s a big handsome critter already but with good dressage muscling, my plain bay will be a standout!

Weak right side


Working the right legs – all three of them

I’ve not had much to report, since I’m continuing to slowly recover from problems with my IT band. ¬†My right knee still hurts but I can feel it growing stronger, and most happily, I’m able to do more than perch desperately in two-point, clutching handfuls of mane and gritting my teeth. In retrospect, this downtime has in fact been a bit of a gift – I’ve been doing work on my seat and engaging my core. ¬†I’m finally able to put things back together on Derby, and am reasonably happy with how things are going.¬†

Through the different tests they put me through at physical therapy to benchmark my progress, I’ve learned that my right side is significantly weaker than my left – probably due to my protecting the leg as the IT band became more and more of a problem over the winter. ¬†Derby’s right side is weaker too -that’s the side the chiro really has to work on, and we know that he has to build up more strength. So working our right legs is very much on the agenda for Derbs and me.¬†

canterleftThe PT I’m doing for the injury is focusing on strengthening my hips and glutes. ¬†Needless to say, my hips especially are working hard, and the muscles are tight. ¬†I’m not even bothering to try sitting the canter – my seat just isn’t following at the moment. ¬†So when I needed to wake Derby up today, I ended up back in two point and let him roll a bit. ¬†We got solid trot work both directions, and I left the lesson a happy camper.¬†

Anyway, it’s not terribly much to report, but for us, at the moment, it’s pretty good, given the weaknesses in our right legs. ¬†


Full body effort

I’m back in the saddle, but as I mentioned earlier, am dealing with a very painful knee that is limiting my riding. ¬†However, I discovered tonight that my Albion saddle, with its thigh blocks, aggravates the knee. ¬†I jumped on Manny in my Isabel after ¬†a meh lesson on Derbs in the Albion. I was much more comfortable in the Isabel. ¬†Derby is going to give that saddle another shot tomorrow night, needless to say.

Anyway, over the weekend we had our first ride outside. It was lovely to get back out in the sunshine, and Derby comported himself like a gentleman.

Tonight in my lesson we did some nice work, but I was focused mostly on continuing to strengthen my position while not killing my knee. ¬†We had a few nice moments but it wasn’t much of a ride, though we did have a bit of a breakthrough, when I was going around on a loopy rein, concentrating on keeping my hands still, and my right leg back a little. ¬†It wants to creep forward on turns which works against my attempts at balance and bend. ¬†I was struggling but finally managed to align myself, and engage my core.

“There it is!” said Christy, who had watched numerous fruitless attempts. ¬†I continued on, bug-eyed from the full body effort of keeping hands still hip open heels down legs draping hips to hands outside ¬†shoulder and leg back where they belong and core engaged.

I finished up by doing a little no stirrup work but everything was uncomfortable and I didn’t give it my all

Things were different on Manny, though. ¬†I was much, much more comfortable in the Isabel with no blocks, and actually could ride him forward. We did four laps of the arena with no stirrups, we cantered around and we did some good trot work. ¬†IT was a much better ride. ¬†So tomorrow we’ll see how Derbs goes in the Isabel, because goodness knows it works better for me.