Savage amusement

 

Derby was feeling patriotic this weekend.

Derby was feeling patriotic this weekend.

Apologies for the hiatus here on the blog. It’s finally summer, and I have been spending maximum time outside, basking in the sun.  That awful winter still isn’t behind me, and I’ve been grateful for every nice day we’ve had, and have been trying to take advantage of all of them.

Anyway, Derby and I have some news for you, and I won’t kid you, I’m feeling a bit sheepish.  We have a new saddle, and it’s an Isabell.  A Bates this time, versus a Wintec.  But nonetheless, an Isabell.  For those that have lost count, this is Isabell #5.

    • First Wintec Isabell, bought new.  Sold shortly after purchasing, as I thought it didn’t fit Jag.  (Kissing spines were the real problem.)
    • Second Wintec Isabell, bought used.  Kind of ratty.
    • Third Wintec Isabell, bought used, was in pretty good shape. Sold ratty Isabell to another gal in my barn.   Sold third Isabell when I bought the Albion.
    • Fourth Wintec Isabell, kind of ratty, bought for a song.  Still have it, but one of the screws is stripped and the gullet head is starting to crack, so I’m not actively switching the gullets out in this one  It’s got an MW gullet in now and I ride Tucker in it.
    • Fifth Isabell is the new Bates.  And my Lord, it is heavenly.  The seat has some memory foam padding, and the panels are super soft and comfy for the horse, especially as it has the Riser System that enables me to tweak the fit. Derby and I are both loving it. But more on that later.

The Passier I was trying didn’t work, and as I experimented with gullets and shims, it became clear that Derby really wanted a narrow saddle. If you’re looking for some savage amusement, try finding a narrow dressage saddle.  No, custom doesn’t count.  And that would be how I ended up with Isabell #5.

The trot is nicely uphill.  So is the path I must take to work on my position.

The trot is nicely uphill. So is the path I must take to work on my position.

It is difficult to overstate how much things have improved now that I’m not fighting the tack.   Derby is willing to move forward more freely. I’m more balanced so I can be effective.  We’re doing better work, and it’s showing in his top line, especially in his neck.  He has a new line of muscle along the top side of his neck, and I’m doing a better job of keeping him round, so that big bulgy muscle on the underside – the one he uses to brace against me – is getting considerably less work.   We’re headed in the right direction, without question.

Screen Shot 2014-07-06 at 10.55.45 PMOn the downside, it’s really interesting the impact that the last few months of battling with my tack has had on my riding – it’s been deleterious to the point I was so out of whack that I was having trouble trotting on the rail.   Yes.  You know, the same basic skill up-downers struggle with initially.  I was so crooked and imbalanced that in an effort to stay under me, Derby would drift out from the wall. We simply could not travel straight!   I had managed to become even more crooked and one-sided. Going to the right, things were okay.  To the left, they fell entirely apart.  Now, this isn’t a new problem, by any short stretch of the imagination.  But months of being out of whack in the tack have amplified the problem.   And fixing it has offered me more savage amusement.

At least I’m not alone. Christy has spent the last few weeks putting us back together, prescribing two-point and a variety of other exercises to help me regain balance and feel.  She reconnected my non-functioning left leg with the rest of my body, and reminded me (again) to get off my inside rein and instead soften it, followed immediately with some encouragement from the aforementioned inside leg.  Like magic, Derby started to fill up the outside rein.

Christy also noted that Derby’s responsiveness and suppleness both need work – while I was struggling so, I was hardly riding him out into contact or asking for correct bend. In fact, for a while he felt like a green horse, motorcycling around corners and bulging instead of yielding into contact.  So in addition to me, we’ve been working on him simultaneously.  We’ve made rapid progress, aided significantly when Christy managed to get my inside leg working again.

 

We also made a breakthrough on a big problem in my position this weekend.   You can see it in the video and all the pictures in this post – I’m curling my lower leg back, which takes it completely out of the game in terms of effective aids, and it’s also very unsteady (I am not intentionally kicking him with every stride.)   We finally figured out what I was doing wrong when Christy was able to get me to unhook my hip flexors, and use them for lateral aids rather than riding with them “always on.”  I told her it felt like she had unhooked a cable in my legs that was the source of the tension (and curling) and in a way, she had.   So the last few days I’ve been working on maintaining this new position – it still feels very foreign – but it’s definitely solving the problem.   I’m eager for my lesson tonight, and I’m hoping to show a video with a much-improved leg in the near future!

 

 

 

Fit to be tried

 

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It’s been a long and frustrating month. After a few nice rides, Derby told me something was bugging his back, and I felt like I was fighting my saddle. so I switched from my Albion K2 to a fairly new Wintec 500, taking advantage of the riser system to make the saddle better fit Derby’s withers (and fairly meager top line.)

We had some okay rides but nothing great.  For the most part, the last few weeks have, at the least, been exhausting and, at worst, have been just monstrously frustrating, marked by a resistant horse that just. won’t. move. forward.

Christy wondered if the saddle wasn’t impinging upon Derby’s shoulder, and indeed, it was.  When he was tacked up, I checked, and she was right – reaching down between his shoulder and the saddle, I could feel the shoulder blade hitting the panel.   We talked it over, and decided that the hollows on either side of Derby’s typical TB withers were the culprit.

 

Warming up.  He was moving out, at last.

Warming up. He was moving out, at last.

The next night, I mustered my entire inventory of saddles (4) (Jesus), pads (2 sheepskin half pads, a Mattes correction pad, a Fleeceworks Perfect balance pad) and shims (two ThinLIne pads that have been cut to fit the Mattes pad, multiple different Fleeceworks options, felt Mattes imports, and for good measure, a yoga mat and box cutter, just in case,) and headed to the barn.

I widened the Wintec gullet, and added shims. Nope.  Derby was still resistant, bracing and twisting his neck, and saying ‘Owwww.’  I tried the Albion with something that didn’t work, can’t remember at this point which pad it was.  Plopped the Wintec on top of my Pro Choice Air Ride western pad, with the built up wither relief pads.  Thank God that didn’t prove to be the miracle, because I won’t kid you, it looked pretty stupid.

Finally I pulled the Albion back out – after all, this is the saddle that was (once) fitted to Derby.   It does have more flocking in the panels that fill the hollows next to the wither.  I plopped it on Derby, with just a saddle pad, no half pad or anything else.  Admittedly skeptical, I got on anyway. Things were better.  When I asked him to go forward, he actually complied, rather than swishing his tail and pinning his ears.

I need to regain my position - the Albion makes me work for it - but the horse is approving.

I need to regain my position – the Albion makes me work for it – but the horse is approving.

I rode for maybe 10 minutes, and Christy agreed that we were heading in the right direction. But after being on and off Derby for better than an hour and a half, I took mercy on my patient horse and called it quits.

The next evening, I saddled up using the Albion with my Fleeceworks Perfect Balance pad, using just the front shims.  We had the best ride we’ve had in a while.  Derby felt more supple and flexible than he has in a while, and I was able to get him forward without begging. We even did a bit of canter work and the transitions were prompt and smooth.

So this is all  great and certainly encouraging, but a new problem has cropped up, and it’s all mine.  I’ve been struggling with (among other things) flexibility in my ankles.  Getting my heels down has been a challenge – I’ve been unable to drop them below stirrup level.  I raised the issue with my Pilates coach, and have been doing extra curricular work, using a standing desk for work and standing on an array of items, such as Foot Wakers and a balance cushion, working on stretching my heels down and improving flexibility in my ankles. I’m making progress – I an now actually drop my heel below my stirrup, enabling me to use my leg more correctly.   But I’m still not solid in my base of support – this is a work in progress. However, if I have the saddle sting started, and can now concentrate a bit more on me, hopefully I’ll be able to build my stability in the saddle, and refinement of my aids.

 

 

 

 

Back to work

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We are officially back to work.  I don’t have any travel for the next month, and, well there are some schooling shows coming up …. but I digress.  We’re back to work, and Christy is approving – our work is consistently more correct, and it’s my fervent hope that we’ll see the results in the form of some more muscle on that skinny neck.

I added a lesson, so we worked with Christy four times this week – we have to keep up this momentum. After our nice ride on Monday, I got a little over-motivated and rode Tucker before my ride on Derbs, after a killer Pilates session.  Needless to say, I was almost out of gas by the time my lesson rolled around, but we had a few nice moments before I pooped out.  Then on Wednesday, it was Derby’s turn – the horses were inside due to pouring rain and wind, and after a few more strenuous rides, standing around in his stall did him no favors.  He felt blah and was really underpowered in his hind end, so we worked on some stretchy trot, and then rode the intro tests for variety.

Two point.  Ow ow ow.

Two point. Ow ow ow.

Today we were both back on form for the most part, so we worked on some canter – which at the outset is going to be focused on conditioning and really getting Derby to move out at the trot.  He still wants to duck behind my leg , which we need to fix.   We’ll be addressing

But we’re putting things together.  The pieces feel like they’re starting to come together.  I’m trying not to be too impatient, so Derby will get a day off tomorrow, and I’ll ride Tuck to keep myself going.

 

 

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. 😛

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.

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.

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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 – he 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.

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